The Second Escape

With slender fingers the fog first choked the trees before encircling the building.  It was the kind of grey morning that gave no hint at the movements of the sun, that suggested that time was suspended, shadows given pause and highlights wiped away like fingerprints. The fog was a mercy, Dr. Klinger had said the previous evening, eying satellite feeds with a fevered intensity.

Max could see only the tops of pines distantly from the window of his cell.  Below him, in the courtyard outside the back entrance to the compound, voices barked and metal cried as the persons from the lab hastily loaded equipment into vans that purred and fumed.  It was an impromptu moving day that had sent everyone left in Dr. Klinger’s small operation into twenty four hours of perpetual motion.  More than half of the original group had been mown down in the flight from the old campus.

“This time the watch worked,” the doctor said. “This time we didn’t put faith in AI only to discover how easily they could corrupt it.  This time we went back to the beginning. To all beginnings. We rely on human wisdom and loyalty.  The animal in us all can save us all.”

When Klinger started to rave, Max would go still, studying anything he could latch his gaze upon. He would take even breaths and remind himself that if he gored the doctor with his antlers, he would lose the only person in the group that had something like love for him. He had overheard the others speaking before their last flight from the hired guns of the corporation.  He knew that some of them wanted to either give him up or incinerate him themselves.  The idea was to hide all proof of the experiment.  He was a liability.

When he told Dr. Klinger this, he was given assurances.

“I know who you heard saying those things. I always knew they weren’t loyal, Max. And did any of them make it out alive?”

“So am I supposed to relax and believe that karma will take care of everything? If karma were handling this-”

“You can’t believe that a man of science is concerned with karma.”

“If karma were really handling this, I’d like to know what the fuck I ever did to deserve being mutilated? Turned into a freak?”

The doctor struck him then, a quick, catlike blow with the flat of his hand against Max’s cheek.  His eyes were bright with feeling.

“You are not a freak. You are an entire ecosystem. A miracle. The intelligent material of dozens of forms of life, each rewired to cooperate within your body, helping to circumnavigate all of the safeguards that evolution put into place to prevent science from stitching together new life. You are a marvel of biological engineering.”

Max had turned away. This was weeks ago and the first time he had ever felt the urge to kill.  It had never been in his disposition to respond to a blow with a blow. His instinct had always been flight.  It had made his father think of him as weak, peering at him with hazel eyes that were aloof with disgust. Or perhaps simply he was confused by Max.

The day that Klinger struck him, a different response emerged, like a chain buried in the mud that was suddenly pulled from both ends, so that it rose up with a metallic whine. That was when he knew that the doctor’s talk of an ecosystem was not limited to what he could see in himself when he looked in the mirror.  Something was rewriting itself in Max. He was still apt to take flight, but now equally inclined to draw blood.

The doctor had turned away then, knotting his fingers together, his shoulders curving inward toward his chest.  “Anyway, the betrayers weren’t taken down by accident. I scheduled the departures to make them most likely to be in the line of fire.  Karma is a blind justice that primitives believe in.  Any definitive retribution must be thoughtfully orchestrated.”

He turned back to Max then and he could not see the change in him. He must have still imagined him to be a man who cowered in the face of pain, because he placed a hand on his shoulder gently.

“I will always protect you, Max. You mean more to me than you will ever know.”

It was funny to think that this man was saying to him something that would inspire hope and peace were it to come from a parent or a lover.  Issuing from the lips of this man, with his ignored beard and exhausted squint, it felt like a life sentence.

They could not both live, Max thought. One of them had to die.

Klinger studied him closely then.

“If you ever ventured out into the world, they would likely see you as you see yourself. You might be taken into another lab, taken apart, and studied organism by organism. And they’d make sure every trace of you was gone. What muriatic acid couldn’t sluice away would be pulled out of servers on line and taken from yellowing old folders.”

Max didn’t want to listen to Klinger, but he found himself mesmerized.

“Or else they’d shoot you where you stood, aiming for the head. They might bury you and say prayers that you’d never rise again. You would become a legend, something hill folk pass down to keep their children from wandering into the forest.”

 


 

This time when they abandoned their compound, Max studied the order in which the teams climbed into the vans.  The hired guns were nowhere near them yet, according to the last communication with their watch, yet he wondered if Klinger were still hedging his bets, putting his weakest links in harm’s way in some bid to feel that blood was not quite on his own hands.

Max was put into a vehicle with Klinger and two women he knew as Natasha and Inez. He knew they were doctors, but they never wore name tags, and everyone at the institution called each other by their first names except for Klinger.  Natasha was tall with angular features and long, beautiful hands. Her gaze was always quick and inscrutable. Inez was short and compact, wore her hair in a braid that coiled like a snake at the back of her head.  She cracked her knuckles nervously whenever she listened to a briefing from Klinger, but sometimes Max thought she was looking at him with empathy when he happened upon her gaze.

The four of them were in back of the van, with another woman and a man in the front seats.  They didn’t use horns to signal and they didn’t use communication devises.  All phones had been turned off after the last contact with the watch, because once the lab was loaded and ready to go, the last thing to disconnect and load was the scrambling device they had used to prevent detection for the last two months.  If anyone so much as took a selfie, they might in some way open themselves up to another ambush.  The GPS systems in their vehicles had been ripped out and left at the site.

Their departure had been planned from the beginning. In the absence of any modern technology to assist them, they were getting out with old school methods.  Careworn paper travel atlases had been procured and – unless the roads had been changed significantly since the turn of the century – they would get them to their next temporary compound.  Their movements were synchronized with old fashioned timepieces.  A small alarm bleeped one Klinger’s wrist watch and like magic the van in front began to roll forward into the fog.

Hell Fire

In the early autumn of 1981, my Mom and I discovered a new radio song to harmonize over as we drove around town.  It was an Oak Ridge Boys tune called Elvira.  You should go Youtube it and then unfollow me.  I deserve nothing less.  Of all the things I share with Mom, the biggest may be that I’m a big picture dreamer who sometimes needs to focus on the details as to not screw them up.  With that song, we spent about a year singing the lyrics wrong.  Although to this day, I still think ‘My heart’s on fire….hell fire-ah” is a gutsier choice than what the Oak Ridge Boys recorded.

station wagon edit

Those last weeks of August were dreamy, though the threat of school skulked at the edges of my mind.  Still, it was hot enough for shorts and we weren’t yet ready to go shopping for Trapper Keepers and pencils. The station wagon didn’t have air conditioning, so the drives were windy and warm.  Our legs stuck to the seats unless we wiggled around from time to time. The syrupy remains of cola in the console drew flies if you stopped in traffic too long. The music took our minds off the heat and bugs.  We didn’t care who heard us singing.

If you were to catch our passionate duet as we pulled into a parking lot in those days, you would likely be in one of three places in town.  This might be outside the A & P, as grocery shopping was our never ending endeavor.  You could be a tired commuter stopping to grab some low calorie TV dinners on the way home, your double knits really chafing your thighs, your comb over slipping down over your gigantic eyeglasses as you glanced up to see who was making the commotion.

Actually that guy would be my father and if he had smarts he’d disavow any knowledge of our existence in that moment.  He’d hunch down in his gas-guzzling, Flint-built Ford, waiting for us to disembark from the station wagon and make our way inside.  This was a different time, before smart phones, so he would have likely wound his wrist watch, balanced the check book, and people watched while he waited for us to leave.

The other place you might find our mother son performance playing out would be the parking lot of the Tastee-Freez.   Musical artists need creamy indulgences – it is our fuel, our reward and our punishment.   My sister Bird would be along for the ride, scowling out the side window, puzzling over a thing she’d heard about on 20/20.  Called emancipation, it was something kids could do to divorce their parents.  Most likely she would have been working out who to hit up for shopping money if she went through with it.  Tinkerbell makeup didn’t buy itself. One thing was for sure: she wasn’t enjoying our singing and she wasn’t joining in.  When we got to the counter, we all united around the theme of helping Mom cheat Weight Watchers, that cult she and Dad had joined earlier in the year.

That had started innocently enough in the late winter.  At our first barbecue of the spring, Mom made a special sauce that had half the calories.  They took the skin off the drumsticks before they grilled them.  We were likely not told that the mayo in the potato salad was low cholesterol because in memory we gobbled it down with all the usual verve.   Our new ways were different, but they were tasty enough, so we had no reason to fear.

But then our grocery shopping began to entail skipping whole sections of the store. There would be no more strawberry Quik, so more Chips Ahoy. Breakfast cereals were edited to only beige and brown as colorful bowls of morning happiness became a thing of the past.  It was as if this Weight Watchers crowd had explicitly said,  “Children should learn nobody promises us rainbows.”

Then came melba toast and cottage cheese.  It was war.

“Mommy, we were good at K-Mart.  Can we go to Tastee Freeze?”

“Now, damn it, kids. No.”

“Please? Please? Please?”

“Goddam it.”

Ever the staunch hold out, she’d make an abrupt u-turn, cutting off a pedestrian with a stroller, and in moments we’d be heading toward sweet, icy bliss.  As we drove around town ten minutes later, licking down our cones while singing Elvira wrong, she’d say, “This will be our little secret. Daddy will be sad that he didn’t get any.”

We’d shrug in agreement and though Bird would still not sing with us, she was happy to lean her face out into the crisp sunlight, letting the wind ruffle her hair and eyelashes like a winsome golden retriever. Up along Main Street, belting ‘hell-fire-ah, hell-fire-ah’ as we passed the movie house, the five and dime, the old ladies gaping at us from the bench outside the furniture store.

The other place you might have been standing as our car pulled in, blaring that song, was the local library.  If it were a light day there, we’d find a spot quickly, happily dashing in to find new books.  On a busy day, Mom circled the parking lot with a seething resentment. She was all too happy to explain who was to blame for our parking troubles.  Lest there be confusion, our family holds the belief that someone is always to blame.

“It’s the transplants.  They come here to live, bringing their snobby Northern Virginia attitudes, telling us there’s nothing to do here. But they love to belly up to the public library.”

Then as a woman approached a car, she’d pause hopefully.  If the woman got in and drove off, we were golden.  If she were merely retrieving a forgotten volume from the car seat, Mom watched her return to the cool, air-conditioned library with a scowl.

“Now she saw me waiting there. She could have waved me on. Typical transplant.”

Perhaps Mom was cranky.  It had been a couple of hours since she perched a slice of canned peaches and a dollop of cottage cheese onto a melba toast wafer and called it lunch.  As she scoped out the next opening with a set jaw, we gazed out into the grasshoppery meadow along side the library, knowing that this too would pass, that the song would catch us up again, carrying us along to the next stop.  Most importantly, if we played our cards right, there would be ice cream.

 

 

Escape

[From a piece about escaping to a childhood home, a theme that recurred a lot in my imagination in my 20s and found its way into my drafts last year.  The idea of a person taking shelter in a forgotten place was comforting to me once; perhaps it turns on the same part of the psyche that makes preppers enthusiastically dig out their bunkers.]


 

It is starting to mist when she asks the driver to stop at a clapboard house with a broken trellis and a faded green door.  He sets her suitcase on the walk while she counts out change from her coin purse.  From the porch, she watches him turn the taxi around and head back from where they came.  His taillights paint a second set of red eyes on the wet street when he brakes lightly at the intersection.  Then the vehicle rolls forward and soon vanishes into the distance.  Taking a breath, she steps onto the sidewalk and heads across the street, turning southward along a wall of shrubbery.  Her steps are quick.  She keeps her head lowered.  Once she hears a car approaching and she presses close to the hedge, holding her breath.  The car turns at the corner and she moves on.

Delaware Farmhouse 1From the house with the faded door, it takes her ten minutes to walk to the place just outside of town where the old main road meets the highway.  She almost misses the mouth of the drive because the honeysuckle has laced the fence posts together, a Jacob’s ladder of vine.  It will be best if she does not disturb their camouflage, so she hunts a while to find an opening she can squeeze through.  When she’s on the other side of the vines, she breaks off a twig of cedar and reaches out to swipe her footprints from the damp soil.

The drive is much as she remembered it, though the view to left and right has changed.  Even in the smoldering twilight she can see arcs of wild poke berry and sumac in the fields.  All the soft wily growth of the countryside has returned.  There was a time when even the dreamy dandelion was kept at bay.  It is better this way; let the scrub grow and grow, blotting out the farm and hiding her from all searching eyes.

 

Pillar

The custard would not thicken and finally, having added this and that without result, she turned off the burner and walked away from it.  There was some ice cream in the freezer and some strawberries in the fridge.  The berries were a little sad-looking, but she’d cut out the bad parts and macerate the rest.  Her mother would never notice.

It was strange to her to be going through normal little rituals like planning for dessert.  In light of everything, she ought to be sitting with friends to either side of her, holding her hands, rubbing her shoulders.  That is what a woman should want when her lover has been murdered.  No one who knew her would deny it to her.

In the back of their cabin, the yard was a narrow strip running along a steep bank, thickly overgrown with scrub cedar and autumn olive.  Below, the thin branch of the North river slipped past, a determined and patient body, head down as it acquiesced to the bends and boulders and to the fallen trees.  It was low just now, silent and safe.

Last year there had been a flood and the river climbed the bank, pushed through the woods and rose up into the cabin.  The furniture lifted off the floor and swam about the rooms. When the water dropped, the dining chairs were ganged in a corner, drunkenly toppled against each other.  The carpet was covered over in mud and silt.

She and Mike had cleaned the place on their own, drawing on the wall in the bedroom closet when they were done, a mark of where the water had been, with the words, “We’ve decided to stay anyway.”  They added the year as an afterthought, hoping it was true this was a hundred year flood plain.

One night when they were cleaning up, they talked about where they might have gone if they hadn’t stayed put.  Mike was cutting out the bottom two feet of the drywall in the living room.  A work lamp, clamped to the ladder, cast his face in shadow, lit his golden hair and arms.  She glanced up now and then as she emptied out the kitchen cabinets, watching the muscles in his back moving under his shirt.

“What was that place Suzanne used to talk about?” she called out. “That town in Vermont where she went to school?”

“I don’t remember,” he said. “But I remember the name of the lunch place she used to talk about.  The Goat Head.  Sounded so good.  Didn’t she bring us hummus from there once?”

“Yep.”

“I could live up north,” he said.

“I could, too.”

She shifted onto her hands and knees and began to scrub the inside of the cabinet with bleach water.  The fumes stung her eyes, but they said it was the only way to prevent mold.  “We used to go to Maryland when I was a little girl.  There was a house on a point on the Chesapeake.  Mom always came alive there. She wasn’t much of a people person.  There she didn’t have to put on any acts.  She could flop around all day, drinking coffee and smoking.  She spent most of the day on the screened porch, reading and watching us down at the water’s edge.  It was peaceful.”

For a moment, his work went still.  She wondered if he was feeling sorry for her, but just as she would have cautioned him not to say anything about her mother, she heard his hammer at work, pulling nails.  She let out her breath, leaning out of the cabinet to breathe.

Outside they heard rain drops falling on the grass.

“Maybe this’ll kill the humidity.”

“That would be nice.”

They were whispering, though they were alone.

“Hey, Mike.”

“What?”

“I’m glad we didn’t move up north.”

 

 


 

Her mother was sanskrit before they cracked the code.  She was unreadable, unknowable, a column of femininity with pointy flats at the ground and a smooth dark crown that reached up into the sky.  She was not a tree, because they had boughs that reached out, listed, trembled with life.  Her mother’s arms were always close to her frame, folded against her chest; or else her hands were linked at her back or tucked into pockets.

Her voice was low, slightly less so when she was lying.

“Tell your father we went for a walk today.  All of us together.”

“But we didn’t.”

“I know, but he’s been hounding me.  Just tell him we went down to the point and then back.  Tell him I seemed good.”

Molly peered up at her.  “You did seem good.  Resting in the house.”

“Don’t be like that.  Just tell him I took you guys out for a walk.”

“Okay.”

Her mother hugged her shoulders, turning her head to pull on the cigarette dangling from her long fingers.  “Mmm. Tell him it was nice.”

Molly loved her father and she was almost sure she loved her mother, but it was never joyful to be around them at the same time.  He treated his wife like something delicate, as if he cherished a thing about her no one else could see.  His eyes followed her wistfully; he shifted himself to fit closer to her in all ways.

On his fortieth birthday, her mother fretted over a cake.  It surprised the kids not only because she usually treated the kitchen like the coffee counter at a gas station, but because she never went to any pains for their father.  It just wasn’t how they operated.

The night of the birthday dinner, he was telling them about something that had gone wrong at work, when their mother heaved a sigh and dropped her fork onto her plate.

“This is boring,” she said.

A silence fell in the small dining room.  The children glanced into their father’s stunned face, then studied their laps.  Molly tried to think of something to say so he could finish his story.  Maybe she could act like mother was just joking. She lifted her face to try the lie.

“Anyway,” her mother said.  “You could get to the point a little sooner.”

When she brought out the cake after supper, he made an effort to seem enthused. And despite his hurt over the earlier comment, Molly could see he was touched by the gesture.

“You didn’t have to, Annie,” he murmured.

“I know,” she said.  She looked into his face quickly, then lowered a scowl onto the cake as she cut it.  “Anyway, I hope you like it.”

 

 


 

The man who murdered Mike had known them both since high school.  His name was Julian.  He was lanky and handsome with shadowy brown eyes and curly hair that made him seem boyish.  Sometimes they made runs together, he and Mike, bringing pot across the state line to sell in town.  Mike wasn’t much of a drug dealer.  He knew a couple of guys who’d buy a quarter pound at a time.  It was Julian who had a roster of clients.  He sold his share in little bits to just about anyone: eighths, dimes, and nickels.  He’d sell a junior high kid a single bud, wrapped up in the cellophane of a cigarette pack, rather than turn away a five dollar bill.

She never liked Julian, never trusted him.  He used to look up at her from under his curls, letting a slow and knowing smile bloom on his face.  His lips were red and cherry sweet inside the frame of his dark beard and she could not deny that the smile had an affect.  He could see it in her eyes and they both knew it.   She always looked away.  He never touched her, never came up close or behind her.  He never said a sweet thing to her, told her she looked good in any color.  In truth, Julian didn’t talk much.

Mike told her one night how their drug runs always went down.  They drove up Route 50 into Maryland, then turned onto Greenlick Road just before the old burned out church.  There were two more turns off that road, each new road a little narrower, the last one gravel only.  Julian made him sit in the car while he went in to buy.  He’d play the radio, but low, because the men inside didn’t like noise from outside.

Every time they went there, it ended with three sounds.  The first was the screen door on the little green cabin, whining as it opened, then slapping the frame softly.  Julian tapped on the trunk and Mike hit the latch on the floorboard to open it.  Julian always closed the trunk so softly it made no sound, but then he’d tap his knuckles on the glass of the passenger door and Mike would unlock the car.

“How’d you guys work that out?” she asked, turning something over on the stove.

“We didn’t really,” Mike said.  “It’s just always like that.”

“So you never see the pot until you get back into town and split it up?”

“Nope.”  He pulled his guitar out from behind the sofa and began to tune it.  He wasn’t much of a player, but he handled the thing every day.

“So you don’t even know if its good until you own it?”

“Nope.”

She pulled the pan off the burner and came to sit on the coffee table in front of him.  It was winter that night, snow flying at the windows, the Kodiak stove hot to the touch, heating the little rooms faithfully.  “Listen to me,” she said.

He smiled up at her, knowing she was going to give him advice.  At times like this, she wondered how much he really took her words to heart.

“Molly Harding?” he said.

“What?”

“I’m listening.”

She put a hand over his, stilling the guitar strings.

“If you guys ever get caught, you need to play dumb.  You need to act like you thought he was just buying enough for himself.”

He opened his mouth to speak.

“Julian’s a piece of shit.  He’d throw you under the bus in a heartbeat.  You’ve never seen the seller but you know how to get to the house.  Draw the cops a map. Cooperate. Say you smoke now and again – they’ll test you, so no use lying about it.  Say you drove Julian because he’d been drinking.  Unless they’ve been following you guys a while, they’ll never know the difference.”

“What about my guys?”

“Your guys? Your three college friends who split your share?  They’re the opposite of him; they’d never betray you.  Besides, they’re all model citizens, don’t even really look like potheads.  We’re not in our twenties anymore.  Only people like Julian fit what cops think of as trouble.”

“What do you want me to say?”

“If you ever get caught, you were driving Julian because he’d had a little too much to drink. You knew he was getting some pot, but you thought it was just a little for himself.  And then you draw them a map of how to get to the place.  Julian’s exactly the kind of guy they’d like to send up.  If you get them to the place where he’s buying, that’s all they’ll want from you.”

He’d looked at her for a long while.

“You’re a little cold sometimes, you know that?”

She wanted to smile but couldn’t.  “I know how to take care of my chickens.”

He dropped his gaze.

“Well, I’ll think about it.”

“If you ever get caught, do it exactly like I said.”  She went back to the stove, “Or stop running with him.  I’d prefer that.”

He shook his head at the thought.

In the Spring they had another party, marking the flood from the year before. Everyone was to bring something. They made a makeshift table out on the side yard under two sycamores: two sawhorses from Mike’s shed and a piece of plywood. She spread two cloths over the rough panel and though they didn’t match, it didn’t matter once all the bowls of food covered everything over. She had asked him not to, but Mike invited Julian.

“I didn’t think he’d come.”

She was clipping flowers from the edge of the yard. “There’s free food and booze. Of course he’d come.”

After the sun set, people had started to separate into groups, some down by the river, where a couple of guys were making music.  Julian found her in the kitchen by herself, doing dishes.

“You always keep moving, Molly.”

She didn’t look up from the water.

In the darkening glass of the window over the sink, she could see his curly head outlined by the ceiling light from the living room. It almost seemed he was wearing a halo.  She rolled her eyes at the thought.

“You not speaking to me tonight?” he asked, his drawl never so lazy. “You’re always mean to me, Molly Harding.”

“Don’t call me that,” she said.

He laughed, a rich sound like one from an old wooden violin. No, not that distinguished.  She slowed her breathing, trying to decide what to say but a moment later he stepped away, leaving her alone in the house.  He left his scent with her in the kitchen, spicy and sweaty and warm.  Pulling her lips tight, she switched on the ceiling fan.

In August, they went through a long, rainy period.  The river rose again, rapidly, and people started talking about a second flood.  She and Mike never said their fears aloud.  One night he went on a run with Julian up Route 50 and when he was gone two hours longer than usual, she convinced herself the road had got washed out and they were stuck up country for a while.  They’d probably have to wait for the water to drop and that might take a couple of days.  She tried to imagine how the two men would spend that much time together.  She wondered when Mike would think to call her.

It was the middle of the night before the phone rang, waking her from a light slumber that had stole over her despite her efforts to stay awake.  She answered with a dry voice.  An operator asked if she would take a collect call from the county jail. Her heart sinking, she said she’d take the call.

“Mike?”

“I decided to take your advice,” he said.

 


 

When her mother got to the house that evening, she was sporting a new haircut. Over dinner she told Molly about the trouble she’d had finding a good stylist.  She only let men touch her hair.

“I don’t trust a woman to tell me what looks good on me.”

Molly didn’t ask why, mostly because she didn’t care.  She moved the food around on her plate.  Her mother pulled a leather cigarette case out of her purse, which always rested on the floor near her feet, even at dinner – and no matter the house.

“You mind?” she asked.

Molly rose and opened a couple of windows.

“Okay, I’ll be quick,” her mother said.  “It’s cold out there.”

The two women sat without words, the one eating her dinner half-heartedly, the other burning down her smoke like it was being timed.  At last her mother broke the silence.

“You gonna find a renter for this place?”

Molly’s eyes widened; it had only been ten days.

“What?”

“I mean, you can’t sell it. It’s in a flood plain. I tried to tell you guys that before.”

“It isn’t even on my mind right now.”

Molly pushed her food away.

“Okay. Suit yourself.”

“Mom!”

Her mother shrugged, rising to put her cigarette out under the kitchen faucet. Dropping the butt into the trash, she moved to close the windows.

“Not yet,” Molly said.  “It still stinks in here.”

Her mother folded her arms.  “You can’t stay here.  Those bastards may still be out there.”

“They’re not coming for me.  It wasn’t my fight.”

“You don’t know.”

Molly dropped her face into her hands, rubbed her eyes until she thought she’d rub them out, the two dark stains that had been condemning her from the bathroom mirror since the night of the shooting.  Eyes that said she’d brought this on him.

Her mother sighed.  “Can I close the windows now?”

“If you want to.”

They closed softly.  Molly looked up and caught her mother gazing at herself in the glass, her expression wistful or else nothing at all but tired.  This woman had taught her how to lie good and she had schooled Mike to do the same.  She frowned down at her hands, folded on the table.  It wasn’t fair to string things together that way.

It wasn’t the whole story.

Time had taught her why her Mother asked her to tell stories to her father.  She’d had reasons that were not without compassion.

“I want to buy you some blinds for the windows if you’re not leaving,” her mother said.  “Although I think when the shock wears off, you’ll want to start over again, somewhere else.”

Molly nodded wearily.  She was either too defeated to argue the point or not entirely sure the other woman was wrong.  Perhaps in time she would need to move on, to put these years in their place, and strike a fresh mark on a new page. If she had her mother’s strength or something like it.

 

Sweetness

[Another fragment of an incomplete idea.  After Poe or Rice, I suppose. – PM]

It is a lost island now, abandoned by people over a century ago, scrubbed clean by storms that came from the southern seas in later years.  Nestled a mile off the coast in the Carolinas, it was never meant for human feet, with its rocky meadows and thin woods, woven through with hateful sumac.  Now and then local youths take a boat out to it, though it is not easy to approach, and they build a fire on the narrow beach, leave crushed beer cans behind to glitter like silver in the sand and scrub grass.

At the heart of the overgrown mass, a pair of chimneys rise higher than the trees, wrapped to the top in woolly vines, surmounted by great nests for great birds who keep watch there.  In the autumn, when the winds sweep low and come up through the old flues, the air carries the ghostly perfume of wood smoke. These twin homes are made of many things, with bone and driftwood shards thrusting outward as if to escape or to project a warning.  The birds have collected an intriguing inventory: the leg of a doll, with lacquered pink toe nails; strands of a silk ribbon, French blue; pull tabs from cans; a lost gold cross, cheap little thing turning green where the shoulders of Christ would have pressed. The hairs of a hundred heads, a pearly run of eight track tape.

The chimneys belonged to a house that was broken by a fire in the nineteenth century and washed away by a  hurricane a hundred and twenty years later. Before it was ruined, it was a majestic house, the pride of an architect, the boast of a gentleman.  The brutal reflection of the ocean once glanced off the pale blue porch ceilings, wrinkles of light above the slaves bringing and taking, caring for their family with loathing at a smolder beneath every mandatory kindness.  The breezes carried the scent of Carolina pines into the rooms, set lacy shadows  dancing over mahogany chests,  and caused the fringes on the drapery to move like fingers coming out of sleep.

A soldier once came upon the island in the midst of the Civil War and his account of the place then would have chilled hearts in northern parlors, had he made it home to Pennsylvania.  He washed ashore from an overturned vessel into a chilly March twilight and washed out again on a warm June evening, his nude body curiously elegant as it whirled in waves and moonlight.  The tide carried his arms out from him, parted his legs, drew them together again, spun him down and lifted him up. Wet black curls shrouded his face from god and heaven and from the demon that watched him from the water’s edge. His mother had always loved his curls; he had kept them short most of his life.

His name was Joshua.  He’d been born on a farm, raised in a house on a ridge, where one tall oak shaded them in summer. He worked all his youth alongside his father and he dug the old man a grave when he fell in the rows, leaving behind whatever of grace and pain this world had given him.  During a long winter, Joshua remained beside his mother, their hearth bright but hearts heavy, limbs weary.  They shared their grief until spring, when he returned to the fields and the sunlight and new baby leaves reminded him that life, like the earth, must recover itself.

Mother could not find bloom.  Her face, when he came to the door at sunset, was a grey stone lifted to his worried glance.  He found himself studying the floor or his lap while they ate, rent by guilt that he was no longer filled with so much of the sorrow she could not escape.  When the war began, he enlisted with relief, arranging for an aunt in Philadelphia and her two young boys to come work the farm.  The last time he saw her, his mother was tucking a loaf of bread into his bag.  She pretended to think he was going on an adventure and that it would be good for him in the end.  He felt her standing on the porch, waving as he walked down the lane, but he couldn’t bare to turn and look.  There was a breeze rustling the wheat field, making the leaves near the crowns wave a final goodbye.

He had been on a schooner patrolling the Carolina coast for blockade runners, when the storm dropped, bedeviling the waves and rocking them faster and faster toward doom. There were no cries rising into the gloom when at last his shoulder washed firm into the grains of sand.  The tide bathed him again and again as he began to realize he had not perished, but had survived the sinking of the vessel.

He rose on clumsy, childish limbs, seeing the roof of the great island mansion ahead of him, rearing against the dusk, with a light in a window near the eaves. The sky just beyond the roof was a rich, dark lavender, like a bruise he’d seen once on his mother’s jaw.  He headed toward it, his ears still filled with water and the sound of water.  He thought he smelled wood smoke, but later he decided it must have been only a memory.

They used to line the walk to the house in crushed shell, the family that had taken to the island, so that he was able to follow the thin pale stream of it from the water’s edge to the verandah.  His boots, though worn through and wet, seemed unduly loud on the steps as he approached.  When no one came to answer his knocks – such polite sounds – he pushed open the door and entered the dim foyer.

In this time, though he could not have seen it in the gloom of dusk, the island still had about it the remnants of wealthy graces.  The hawthorn was vaguely the shape it had been when tended weekly by brown, calloused hands.  The stucco of the walls bore the ivory hue of a lime wash.  In the kitchen gardens, the fine plantings had not been choked yet by the native weeds, so that on a rainy morning, one smelled rosemary and sage along with the pine and sea salt.  Likewise, the great entrance into which he stumbled wetly had about it the vestiges of refinement.  The gilded frames of the mirrors held soft, warm highlights from the setting sun.  In the chilling air, the perfume of lemon oil had not closed itself yet, so that the fragrance of the furniture was carried on the air itself, despite the dust that had settled of late upon the rooms within.

She met him at the top of the stairs, the mistress of the house, a slender form in a long grey gown, her face covered over thickly in lace veils.  Her voice was leaden, as one entranced.  “You’ve come a long ways, I’ll wager, stranger friend. I saw you rise up out of the waves.”

He was startled to hear a voice.  The place had come to feel bewitched to him in his journey from water to marble hall.  Until she spoke, he’d wondered blearily if he were approaching the mystic realms beyond life as he had known it.  “I knocked…” he began.

She laughed at him. “The doors of this house are a jest.  Our ocean is the only portal that matters.  She never brings us enemies, though she often carries them away.”

He latched onto those words, despite his bewilderment.  The words became a puzzle, as tidy a handful as any parts to a small, but complex puzzle that a man might work through long, sleepless evenings.  They remained with him through the weeks that followed, when the encroaching tangle of the island began to thicken around the house, choking the vistas of the shores.

“I am not an enemy,” he said.  He wished he could see her face.

“That is a kindness,” she said. She lowered her head as she came to rest at the base of the steps.  They were now only a few feet from one another.

“I’m Joshua Pembroke,” he said. “I admit freely I am a Northern man, but tonight I am only a singular soul, a surviver of the ocean, through some curious benevolence, and not an enemy of you or your people.  I mean to say, I’ve not come as an enemy.  May I find succor on this place?”

She laughed.  “North and south are of little meaning here.  My people have always belonged to other lands, other islands.  I’ve no quarrel with you, stranger. And I am pleased to know your name, Joshua, although I am unable to return you the courtesy.”

“You will not give me yours?”

“I was never given a name,” she said. “Although they often called me Sweetness.”

“May I?”

“The name and I have never made friends, but nonetheless, I’ll answer to it, Joshua.”

He licked his lips, conscious of a sudden that his human needs were recovering from the torment of his ocean tumble.  He felt instantly a number of animal needs: he was hungry, he was curious, and he felt both sad and worried.  He decided that the worry was mostly for the woman whose face was hidden by the veil.

“I would call you Sweetness,” he said. “And I will do any service to repay your hospitality. I confess I am weary and hungered by my privations.”

A sound came from behind the lace, a liquid and light laughter. “Of course you are welcome as a guest.  It will dispel the loneliness.”

“Is it only ourselves here?”

“We are alone.”

As she spoke it, the last of the sunset faded from the sky outside, and the foyer and the great staircase dimmed.  Geese were flying over the island, their coarse calls sounding both lonely and hopeful.  They would be heading north, as Joshua had dreamed of doing the last two years.

He followed her to a room on the second floor, where she lit a lamp without saying another word.  He watched her in the lamp light as she opened a door to an armoire where gentlemanly garb hung.  She left him to undress, but within moments there was a light tap at his door.  When he swung it open, a basin of warm water was placed in the carpeted hall, along with a cake of soap on a flowered china dish and a stack of clothes, each smelling like the island of herbs and sea brine.

The only suit amongst the garments in the armoire that fitted his long, slender frame was curiously the finest of the clothes.  He felt unlike himself in ivory linen, although he would have lied if he denied the light clothing felt soft to his skin.  A silk cravat, though he knew not the mastery of it, made a warm knot over his chest against the cool dew of the evening.  He came down the stairs slowly, made new by his clothes, rendered a lord to the lost splendor of the house.  She met him at the base of the steps, herself changed int a gown of faded gold brocade, though still her head was shrouded in lace.

“You are quite handsome,” she said. “The tailor makes lords of clumsy men.”

“These garments are not tailored to me,” he said.

She lowered her head but said no more.

He followed her into the dining room of the great house, where the walls were painted with scenes of rural life, though nothing that spoke to the island upon which the house rested.  Here were the dark forests of distant Germany, with now and again a sunny glade that bespoke gentlemanly tours of Italy’s abundant gardens.  Larks were painted into drooping boughs of elm, the small eyes of auburn foxes glittered in the shadows of boxwood gardens.  In the distance, there was a soft light, neither dawn nor dusk, yet each altogether, making the room one in which both beginnings and endings were denied dominion over the other. A single candelabra was fully lit at the center of the table, casting light over a platter loaded with glistening pheasant, mounds of Carolina rice, jeweled with fig and almond, scented in cardamon. Joshua found his mouth watering as he took a seat at the head of the table, where she guided him with a lilting gesture.

“How do you come to be here alone?” he asked, loading his plate self-consciously.  He studied the folds of lace covering her from him.  There were stories he’d once been told by a young teacher, wherein monsters hid their faces from men, and souls were lost to temptation.  Memories of these tales crowded close to him as his mouth closed hungrily over his first forkful of the savory repast.

“I will not deceive you,” she said. “I am not the mistress of this this place.”

He poured himself wine from a decanter at his fingertips.  She had not moved to place any portion of the feast onto her own plate.  Rather, she pushed back into her chair, splaying white gloved fingers on the table before her.  “I was brought here to be hidden and hidden I have remained.”

The meal was rich, tasting like more than any ingredient his eyes could spy in the dishes.  The flavor was like every meal he’d ever had, but also like each gorgeous morning, rich with promises.  His mouth ran with watering over the scent and taste.  He became speechless as he ate.  She filled the silence with her story.

“I was born on another island, far away where it is always balmy, always friendly.  When they brought me here, I was only a child.  It never felt like home here and from the beginning, the lady of this place said I was bedeviled. Maybe she knew best.  Yet I do not think I was truly bedeviled until I was a young girl, when they brought the devil himself here to this rock.”

A part of him could hear her words, knew that her words were strange and that they ought to frighten him.  Still, the meal held him seduced, and the scent of the place and of her, and the light on her brocade dress.  He ought to have been thankful that he was alive, determined to find a way off the island, but he found that resolve too late.  The first night, her magic possessed him.  He ate in silence while she told her tale.

“The devil was my uncle, I came to discover later.  He was a clever beast with a wolfish beard, a white grin.  He would call me Sweetness until everyone did the same.  He could make the others come out of their cabins into the moonlight, dance in step as though he pulled their elbows and their knees by a single string.  Making them dance for him was his greatest delight.  He was careful for a while, until one night he could not resist a dare, and in the dim light of a half moon, he plied his mind to it and made the master and his women march out onto the lawn and jig along the dew-silvered grass until the sun rose. How their eyes flashed the next day, as they struggled to find a reason for their sense that something was amiss, as they wondered at the weariness of their arms and legs after a night of sleep.  The devil tucked himself into his work all the day, but under his lowered head, he grinned from ear to ear.”

Her words began to cut through the spell of the feast and, as he decided she spoke the truth, the food in his mouth began to taste of ashes.  He glanced down at the platter before him, but the plump bird of before was now a scrawny gull, not roasted, but torn open at the breast, the wings still covered in feathers. And the mounded tureen of rice and figs was a mess of crude things gathered from the island: worm, grass and hard little winter berries.  He cried out, rising from his chair, but his legs gave beneath him.  As he fell, his hand knocked the goblet, and it toppled with him, spilling blood milk and not wine.  It rinsed his eyes and the last blurry sight he remembered was tainted red.  She leaned over him, lifting the veil, but he was under before he could see her face.

 

Character Study: Marion Morrow

[Likely an excerpt from an idea for a novel, I found this in my drafts – incomplete – and liked the tone of the main character.  A good dragoon is hard to find.]

Marion Morrow was displeased that the train only ran to Bantry because she didn’t like riding in buses.  It wasn’t entirely the people, although she was happiest when she was the only person about; her stomach didn’t agree with rough engines.  It had been proven to her late in life, as she was already well past forty before even the smallest motors began to litter the streets. As she followed the porter up the platform, she fished around in her purse for coins to give him, all the while turning over options in her mind.

“It does seem a shame,” she said aloud, although not to the porter necessarily, “as I’m only another twenty odd miles to my destination.”

If he heard her, he didn’t indicate it by slowing step or a turn of the head.

The comment had not been for his benefit, she thought again, yet she repeated it once more, slightly louder.

As they were coming to the door into the modest Bantry station, he paused and turned to face her.  He had heavy eyelids that gave him a look of boredom or superiority.  She had often worn that expression in life.  Straightening her spine, she donned it now.

“Is there someone I could hire to drive me to Pendlebrook?”

He shook his head.  “No hacks in this town, ma’am.  If you took the train back down to Burlington, you could find drivers there. They got everything there in Burlington.”

Behind the charcoal glass of her round spectacles, she rolled her eyes heavenward.  “I have a hard time believing there isn’t a soul in this town clever enough to put an old woman beside himself on his wagon and drive her up to Pendlebrook.  The day is fair.  It’s early yet, so the drive back would only half be in the dark.”

He shrugged and turned to open the door into the station.

At the ticket window, she asked the same question a moment later.

It was a thin woman staring back at her there, with copper hair scoured into a bun at the back of her head.  Her own spectacles caught the light, making it impossible to read her eyes as she confirmed what the porter had said.  Marion Morrow was leaning in to argue, possibly to deliver a treatise on the national social illness of do-nothingness, when there was a discreet cough at her rear.  Assuming it was a person impatient with the queue,  she turned with a frown.

The very elder man who smiled back at her, immaculately dressed in light colors and fine fabrics, startled her out of her ire for a moment.  He took advantage of the moment to fill the silence.

“I am driving toward Pendlebrook, madam.  I’d be happy to bring you along with me, if you’d care for the kindness.”

Marion quickly agreed, although with an awkward lack of the proper words.  As the porter and the old man lead her from the station office, she glanced back to see if the copper-haired woman in the ticket window was watching them.  The woman was staring back intently, holding a sandwich up in front of her mouth.  The early afternoon light was still frosting her lenses, whiting her eyes.

In the lot outside the station, she was mildly irked to see that the good samaritan would be conveying her to Pendlebrook in a motor car, although she took some comfort in noticing it was as fine as the clothes he wore.  Who was the old man, she wondered, and she decided he was a monied eccentric.  She didn’t care much for the peculiar, especially when fancy was given opportunity for wild expression by means of wealth.  It was her opinion that outlandishness was par for the course among the poor, possibly a byproduct of degradation, but that among people with means, it was unseemly.

Imperfect

It began with the car ride home, the leaden silence that clung to them, unshakable, through the weekend.  They had disagreed before. This was different. It was as if each knew they were implacable, opposed to the stance of the other in some meaningful way.

In the past, one or the other of them found themselves petty, licked their lips, took a breath, and began the stilted process of talking them back from the brink. Together.

This was not the way of it that weekend.

If George had wanted to make it right, he could have done so.  His charm was winning.  He was gifted with words.

And Sam had simple candor that was likely better than charisma or gilded phrases.  He might have said, with his dark brandy eyes focused on the road, “I was wrong. This is your decision. I’m sorry.”

That would have put the thaw on them.

George would have come at it more cautiously, as was his wont, edging at the thing with words that made neither of them at fault. Perhaps he might have even cast himself in the golden and violet shades of the noble and misunderstood.  He was good at that; a revisionist of his own immediate history.  Although he was not without humility, sincerity. He would have come around at the end, sighing in disgust with himself.

“You know what? It doesn’t matter. I was an ass not to ask you yesterday, when I might have done. Maybe we can stay for part of the week, if we call them up tonight and let them know.”

But neither of them followed the usual path of reconciliation this time.  George did not disrobe his truth slowly, crown and cloak giving way, layer by layer, to thin socks with holes in the toes. Sam did not set the ice to melting with his guileless warmth.

They sat side by side in the car as it carried them out of the mountains, the naked forests of winter to left and right casting spider web reflections on the glass.  Once Sam reached out as if to find music on the dash, but his hand dropped back into his lap.

When they got home, they carried in the luggage, turning on lights as they moved from front to back.  They were not giving each other the silent treatment. They were simply opting not to discuss the disagreement.

“Did you want me to throw away the rest of that cake? You said it was no good.”

“You can.”

“I won’t if you don’t think I should. Or I can offer it to Mrs. Jaffee.”

And later, as they crawled warily into bed, Sam said, “It’ll be good to sleep.”

George said, “Yes.”

They kissed good night.

It was not like their pattern to let a quarrel go unexplored. They had always picked them apart carefully, leaving no meat on the bones of malcontent.  It brought tears like a hateful onion, opened up forgotten hurts; then gently they brought it round to what it was, reducing the thing until it was sweeter, understandable.  And it ended with them lying in each others arms, still like after their first orgasm together, a long ago afternoon in a park, staring up into a white sky, listening to birds calling out with hearts bursting.

They didn’t like to argue.  Raised each in houses where emotions either paralyzed or polarized, where the eruptions were volcanic and corrosive, they had a distaste for conflict.  Yet in the face of this new thing – this passive, dispassionate response to one another – it seemed that they had either lost something or gained something.

Had the years given them the gift of allowing or had it numbed them to caring passionately?  And wasn’t caring passionately often so wrapped up in ego and prejudice? How often had they competed to be simply right? How often had that slow, cumbersome journey back to peace proven that to them?  Perhaps finally the thing had been found – a blessed acceptance of profound opposition.

Yet on Monday morning, as they hustled to be ready for work, Sam said, “If you want to leave on Thursday instead, we can call and have them move the reservation.”

And George heaved a sigh. “It isn’t really about when we leave, but more about the fact that you might have said last week, before I put the room on my card.”

It wasn’t exactly a relief to find themselves getting heated on the ride into town, yet it felt a little more like home than the silence.

“We are imperfect,” Sam said.

And George nodded.  “That we are.”

 

After Chagall

She was pretty sure he was watching her, the old man sitting across the train station, eating a fish sandwich out of a paper wrapper.  He had a soft face, a lumpy nose.   The hands that held the lunch to his mouth were spotted brown and red.  His gaze fell away each time she caught him looking.  The eyebrows shot up almost wistfully.

chagallDigging in her purse, she found her phone and opened up her calendar, checking dates for the week ahead.  It was a shame her assistant had put her with the Bryants on Thursday morning; she didn’t meet the wallpaper hanger until Wednesday afternoon and she knew he wouldn’t provide her a quote overnight.  If she could move him up, get the labor quote and his estimate of rolls before Thursday, she might walk out of her presentation with a deposit in hand.  It would certainly help, but it was already Tuesday night and she hated to press the wallpaper guy.  Experience had taught her to go lightly with asking favors.

Noticing that her chest was tightening with nerves, she decided to relax about the mix up with the schedule.  Julia was trying very hard and, really, it would all work out in the end. When she glanced up, the old man glanced away again.  He’d balled his sandwich wrapper up and it rested in his open hands.  He pitched his face toward the floor for a moment, then chanced another look.  Their eyes met and held.  He surprised her then.

“You Eleanor Parks?”

She narrowed her gaze. “Yes.”

“You helped my wife with a design – years ago.”

She smiled.  It was odd to keep calling across the space between them, so she hitched her purse strap on her shoulder and closed the distance.  “What was your wife’s name?”

“Adriana Leopoldi.”

She tilted her head, wishing it rang a bell.

“It was a long time ago.  You were just starting out, apprenticing under another designer. My wife always figured you were given the job because it was kind of small potatoes and your boss was too big for it.  We lived in Queens, a little bungalow that’s no longer there. You told her to take the drapery down everywhere and get blinds.  She painted the kitchen light yellow.  We had it painted ten years later, but she used the same color again.”

Eleanor smiled, though the woman still didn’t come to mind.

“But did you and I meet?”

“Only once, passed in the driveway.  My wife was talking real fast, trying to kind of push you along because I was in my work clothes and I think it embarrassed her a little bit. Adriana was like that. She wanted things always just so.  She always liked what you helped her with.”

It occurred to her she ought to ask how she was now, out of politeness, but thought better of it. If she were dead, it might make the old soul melancholy and make her feel worse for not remembering the former client.  Taking a seat beside him, she said, “Was she sad to see the house razed?”

“She never knew. Alzheimers. By the time we had to sell it, she was in a home and most days, she was pretty out of it.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.  My mother had Alzheimers, too.”

“Yeah, I know.  That’s why you did all that free work a few years ago at the Hirshhorn Clinic, on account of it was the wing for people like my Adriana and your mother.  I read an article about it in the Times.”

“I’m surprised you recognized me.  I’m not a very distinctive looking person; sometimes my friends don’t realize it’s me until they’re right up on me.”

“The Mrs. used to follow you for years, when you first got published.  She told everyone she knew how you once helped us.  Kept a scrapbook of your career, bought all your books. I think it was on account of you were the age our daughter would’ve been and she always said, if Chrissy’d lived, she could’ve done a lot worse than to be a fancy interior decorator with antique jewelry and a horse farm in Connecticut.”

It came to her in a flash then, a quick little memory of his wife.  It was almost twenty years ago, she and the other woman standing at each other’s shoulders in front of a kitchen sink.  They couldn’t afford to pull out all of the cabinets and the room was small.  She pointed to a light yellow paint swatch and the woman smiled, saying she always wondered what something like that would be like.

Adriana Leopoldi.  The name sounded kind of rich.  She wore her makeup perfectly, if a little too heavily, and she smelled like the perfume counter at a shiny department store. When she talked, she worried a string of small but good pearls at her neck, and her smile for Eleanor was always warm, always generous and trusting.

The kitchen had been hot, the whole house a little stuffy.  When she recapped her project to her boss, the stout southerner had rolled her eyes.  “Well, sugar, you have to suffer through some of the little ones. They all teach a lesson, even if it’s only that nothing greases creativity like cash.”

It had made her feel a little ashamed of her work for Mrs. Leopoldi and then ashamed of that shame, too.  She found that she took extra care to make the woman in the little house in Queens feel important enough.  When they were done with their work, Mrs. Leopoldi sent her a card.  Thin paper, Eleanor’s boss noted, reaching over her shoulder to rub the front flap.  But it was after Chagall, the older woman’s favorite artist.  She thanked Eleanor for all her help in flowery words, an elegant hand like honeysuckle running.

Eleanor had hated her boss for a moment when she pointed out the thinness of the card, but then tucked it away and cherished it for many years when rummaging through her desk drawers.  It went with her twice, once when she left her mentor for a job at a larger firm uptown, and once more, when she opened her own fluffy little boutique in the village. The boutique didn’t last, but her career boomed.  The card and the woman who wrote it had lapsed into the realm of forgotten things.

“She was a real fan of yours,” he said.  “Said you were a lady.”

Eleanor nodded, but she couldn’t find words.

“Thank you,” she said at last.

“Hey, you okay?”

“I’m just very touched.”

They sat in silence for a moment.  At last she asked, “Where are you these days? Do you miss the house in Queens?”

“Oh, no.  I’m in Williamsburg now.  My grandson’s got a eyeglass factory there; they make everything out of wood.  Real old-fashioned kind of stuff, but kind of modern, too.  I think his grandma would have liked his work.  You might even.  He has two apartments over the shop – one for each of us.  He’s a good boy.  The like you don’t find too much anymore.”

Eleanor imagined the grandson.  She bet he wore his hair a little messy, wore all of his clothes ironically.  His grandmother wouldn’t quite understand.  She’d spend too much money buying him a suit he wouldn’t want to wear.  She’d tell him things like that still mattered. And if he were kind, he’d give her a hug and tell her he knew she was right, even if he had his doubts.

“Cashmere,” she said, remembering the color she’d recommended to Mrs. Leopoldi.

He winked at her.  “That was it.”

Switzerland

If he could reverse the order of the day, taking them back to the morning – to the moment before the argument – it would look something like this: the sun would lower among the peaks and the mist would thicken; the tourists would pick their way backward along the icy overlook; the ride back to Murren would seem nothing out of the ordinary, as the gondola belies no face nor a rear; then on lower ground they would all walk backward again, the group spreading apart in twos and threes as each returned to their lodgings.

Trent would step into the shower and the water would fly up off his skin and syphon itself back into the pin pricks in the shower head. He would peel himself into his pajamas again and step out on the terrace, where Henry would be sucking smoke clouds out of the thin mountain air, his cigarette growing longer, while Trent spat chocolate slowly into a teacup until it was full again and quite hot. Then and only then would they have reversed time enough to avoid the argument.

schilthorn coffee

They would be a blessed moment ahead of misunderstanding.  He could have imagined going back further, trains backing into tunnels, the plane recklessly hurtling itself over the Atlantic, tail first, seeming to gobble up its own jet stream. And again the sun would have drawn shadows in reverse, skin growing just a day younger, dew drops returning to the ethos.  But at that moment on the terrace overlooking Murren, there was still a chance that would have sufficed.

It was just after they talked about taking the lift to Schilthorn and a moment before Trent asked if Henry had gotten any texts from George Hargrove.  The chill settled closer about them when that was spoken.  Henry stiffened.

“I’m surprised you’d ask.”

“I’m sorry.”

Henry shrugged.  It was between them in the icy air, poised above the street, above the station so ideally close to the guest house.  Yesterday had brought the first snow of the season, causing the yellow leaves of autumn to fall, a sumptuous golden confetti under sugar drifts.  There had been jokes at check-in about them bringing winter with them.

Trent tried to move past it then.  “It really is like stepping straight into winter, isn’t it? In Milan it was still rather summery.  Chilly at night, of course. Remember you had to go back and get your sweater. That’s when I saw that man. I wish you’d seen it. So odd.”

The man with the huge hands.  They’d looked like something out of those old pictures from freak shows.  It was curious, because he was handsome – tall and manly enough – yet the size of his hands had given him a sinister edge.  One didn’t look at those hands and think of how they might caress a person; rather they seemed made for wringing a neck or for covering over a whole face, nose and mouth. They were smothering hands.

“I didn’t get a text until this morning,” Henry said calmly.  “He just asked how our trip was going.”

Trent forgot about the man in Milan instantly.  He felt his stomach turn over.  A flush set his cheeks afire like razor burn.  “That’s rich,” he said.  He didn’t recognize his voice.  It was stilted, forced.

“He’s trying,” Henry said.

“I know he’s trying. But it’s not what you think.”

Then Henry ground out his cigarette.  “Well, it’s more than you’ve done.  He’s not got it so easy, if you think of it.  He has the job of shutting down how he feels for me, of drowning it, putting it away.  You on the other hand have me – and you treat it like a house plant.”

“Not that analogy again, Henry.”

“Familiar little house plant.  You know how much to water it and where it likes to sit to take the sun.  It doesn’t require much.  Perhaps you’ll talk to it now and again. You’ve heard that helps. Read it somewhere, didn’t you?  Maybe you’ll tell it about the man with the big, funny hands.”

“Hateful bastard.”

“And if it grows too much for its container, you can always clip it.”

“How the fuck am I clipping you?”

Henry went silent.

Below them some other guests pushed out onto the street, drawing their hoods up, pulling on gloves.  And there was laughter as they chatted and made their way toward the gondola across the village.  Someone was talking about breakfast and another about lunch. Curls of vapor escaped their happy mouths.

“My god,” Trent said.  “You want to be with him, don’t you? That’s how you think I’m clipping you.  Monogamy.  It’s cutting you back.  It’s not what you want.”

Henry stared at him stonily.

“Go take your shower,” he said. “Let’s not do this today.”

“Tell me I’m wrong.”

“What I’ll tell you is that we both worked very hard to get here.  The last thing I want to do on holiday is audit my marriage.  Is that what you want?”

Henry always had a knack for cutting to the heart of the matter. Of course it wasn’t the time.  He should never have asked if Hargrove texted.  Then again Trent had always been one to peel away bandages and to pick at scabs.  He took in all the silver Swiss air he could draw and held it for a long moment.  Henry had turned to look out over the village by the time Trent stepped back into the room and removed his pajamas.

Shortly after they walked through the village, people joining the procession in twos and threes, until they came to the lift office.  And they climbed into the gondola and they rose up and lilted outward over the valley floor, little leaps as they crested the supports, butterflies bounding in their guts, gasps of surprise and shared laughter.  When they landed on Schilthorn, they followed along in a line until they came out onto the overlooks. There were still patches of ice because the day was  yet new; the sun would melt them later, after their group had returned to lower climbs.

The ice made them cling to one another; mothers to fathers; children to mothers; lovers to each other.  Until they came to the rails, where some of the group broke off and stood alone, taking pictures, or merely gazing out.  The view was rapturous: in every direction one saw charcoal peaks floating in pewter mist.  Here and there, as the sun plucked through, a ben-ben captured rock and ice, glittering like fragments of gold.

How had they come here?  Before there were lifts how had people the tenacity to keep climbing into this unknown?  Was is summer and green? Did they come to make a home when it was warm and easy, only to find themselves marooned later, unsure of how to descend when every deer path was but a series of bone shattering missteps?

The mountains were giving up no answers. Trent stood by himself for a long while, and it seemed that the other world – the world of their real lives – was small and clumsy and a little embarrassing up here in the divinity of Swiss highlands.  The testy exchanges when the internet wasn’t working right; the spot on the bathroom vanity one couldn’t help noticing when one sat on the toilet; the mind-numbing tasks at work, tackling the same problems from slightly altered angles.   Home and work.  Ice and accidents.  What we earn to keep and what we lose without knowing.

Once he’d been in New York, dashing across the West Side Highway.  His scarf had come loose but he didn’t realize it then.  Only when he got back to his hotel did he find it was gone.  Sometimes he wondered if it had looked romantic to the people waiting in traffic, the length of the scarf coming loose, whirling upward off his shoulders and floating down. Then he imagined the tires rolling nonchalantly forward, grinding it into the grey detritus of the street.  As each car crushed it, the scarf was less and less a thing of use and beauty and more and more it became merely city filth.

Henry came to stand at the rail beside him.  A moment later, they took each other’s hands and they found the restaurant and shared firstly a salad and then coffee with schnapps.  It was difficult to fathom the way forward. Trent would need to discover what Henry wanted and Henry would need the same.  Once they got back from holiday, it was hard to know what would remain of that distant life.

Still they made an effort to chatter about the trip and somehow or other when Trent got back around to the subject of the man in Milan with huge hands, it came out fresh and funny and made Henry laugh.  That felt good.  The dining room revolved slowly so that they saw the world below them from every angle as the sun came out to burn away the mist.

Late

Because she was late already, and she was deeply terrified of anything like a fuss, Mrs. Ritter took a seat on the porch and waited for the program to let out.  It was a fine afternoon in late spring, with a breeze driving in a great bank of thunderclouds from the north.  Still the sky was mostly clear yet, and the sun shimmered on leaves in the yard.

It was an undisputed fact that Dorothy Langham kept the best yard on Hawthorn Park.  The layout of the shrubbery and trees had been thoughtfully decided upon by Langham women of earlier times, but Dorothy added flashes of color to the lawn that had been lacking in the past.  An harbor of vivid orange Japanese lantern, not yet blooming, would be by June a triumphal archway to the sparkling new patio of white brick; and higher still than this pinnacle were rows of raised beds, filled with yellow lilies and purple salvia.  The latter waved at Mrs. Ritter cheerfully, perhaps even mockingly, while her eyes roamed the grounds softly.

Because the afternoon was pleasant, the French doors to Dorothy’s parlor were cast open.  Now and again a string of words listed outward, like the hem of the sheer drapery, a flirtatious glimpse of the event Mrs. Ritter was missing.  The room within was an elegant space, sparingly decorated with family oils and an antique Persian rug; a pair of white porcelain cats, rather melted-looking in the modern vein, held court upon the mantle, reminding guests that Dorothy brought panache to the Langham digs.  There would be a plate of dainty cookies next to a punch bowl of lemonade and a crystal vase overflowing with freshly-cropped peonies, dark purple and white vying for notice.  The women would each have made a commotion over the arrangement upon arriving and Dorothy, with a graceful arc of her wrist, would have reminded them that peonies arrange themselves in the right vase.  The women would nod and smile at the observation.

An affair of light and friendly gestures would be over in little time.  Mrs. Ritter couldn’t pretend she minded missing it.  She was at best a reluctant member of the club, and this particular speaker, talking as he was of the importance of art guilds in the contemporary American landscape, had only vaguely interested her when she got the program back in January.

“Another one of Candice’s picks, I should wager,” she had thought, setting the slender leaf of card stock aside.  Then she had thought nothing of it again until her husband asked her last night if her ladies’ meeting wasn’t in fact today.

“Oh, yes, it is,” she had said, trying to wrangle peas with her fork.  Her face was stern and then grimly satisfied when she speared the green herd.  Her husband, glancing up from his plate, mistook her expression for impatience at his inquiry.

“You and your ladies are very secretive at times.”

She gave a short laugh, musical and bright, like a string being plucked on a guitar. “And I can’t remember the last time you shared with me the goings on at the lodge. All very hush-hush. Do the men exchange the numbers of their mistresses?”

And because she went so absolutely far with her jape and because he thought the idea of it was so vulgar and beneath both of them, he bent closer to his supper and commenced to eat in silence.  Studying him for a moment with humor sketching a friendly map upon her moon-round face, she thought not for the first time that he was more the old woman of the house. Shrugging, she pushed aside her plate, an ostentation of peas left untouched, and glanced for a long while into the middle distance, dreaming ahead of the chocolate cake waiting for them in the cooler.

She ought to care more about art guilds, she thought now, as she eased back into Dorothy Langham’s wicker.  If the truth be told, she would have to confess that she found nothing more boring than sitting through speeches, than shaking hands with peers before and after said speeches, than walking home in a clutch of perfumed females, discussing the importance of important things.  If she could schedule her life for pleasure alone – ignoring generations of duty and discipline  –  there would be more of dessert and less of vegetable.

When the ladies at last began to pour out of the house, the sky had darkened more, the clouds growing like an inky spill, and Mrs. Ritter was for a moment struck with the impression she must make upon them, sitting out there alone like a child awaiting a punishment.  Her brows drawing momentarily closer, she launched herself from the seat swiftly, and smoothed her dress. She was smiling by the time the first of the club members approached her.