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.

 

The Longing

Slender young woman in a dress white and romantic like an orchid.

She holds herself small, close, despite her long brown sugar limbs.

Her shoes and her purse, her softness and her scent are pricy, but not impossible.

Next to the girls waiting tables, eyes searching to satisfy, hair a sweet frazzle, coming undone,

What is she to the clever food critic watching her leave the room?

Her femininity seems careful, her self still more her own than a warm mother’s soul would be.

Perhaps she seems like all things womanly yet with no obligations.

He closes the cap on his pen with a crisp snap,

Long moments after she has left only her perfume to remind us of her.

His thoughts are his own and only I imagine they are of her.

Still, with a girl who carries her whole life in a big elegant purse on her ribs,

A man must think it would be easy, light.

He’d just move on after, simple, carrying merely his own weight into tomorrow.

The Sandalwood Spell

Mrs. Lowell died today.  She was ninety-one.

We remember her fondly.  There was a time when she taught us lady-like things, spidery handwriting and the proper way to serve tea.  She belonged to another world.  In her little cottage, there were relics of that bygone place and time.  A fan open on a marble table top, carved of wood and bone, with a rose tassel, rotting despite all her clean and careful ways.  In the hall, a collection of walking sticks from all over the world marched along the wall.  One had the fearsome face of a tribal god.  She taught us the name, but it is long forgotten.

Her husband was English, the last of the keepers of the empire, she said.  They married late in life, when his diligence in the name of a young queen was no longer needed, and they came to her home place in America, the cottage on the bend in the road near our house.  Somehow she fit everything they’d ever loved from their life in Africa into those four small rooms.

Once, she gestured to the parlor, saying, “When I was a girl, there was only a stove and a pair of armchairs.  The reverend and mother sat side by side, so many years the velvet wore through, and all of the little ones sat on the floor.  Now there are more seats than people for sitting.”

She didn’t sound lonely too much when she said that.  The colonel, her husband, was long dead by that time.  She was used to her singular existence, one supposes, or as used to that as any child of God can ever be.  We are never alone, if one thinks about it the right way.

Her hands were slender and pale, the nails always pared just so, though they yellowed in the late years.  She tutted over them with a frown, trying to remember something she used to know.  White rice vinegar, she said, but there was something else.  Her gaze moved out the window, to the soft green brightness of the yard.

“Well, it will come to me,” she said at last.  Her eyes were silvered over gently with cataracts. “The vinegar and something else, something hard to get.  He brought it from town for me and surprised me.  Mother Superior soaked her hands in it and they turned as white and soft as a girl’s hands.”

We sat and listened.  The house smelled like old things, old roses.  In the pauses, one heard the wood pop now and again, as if the walls were cracking their knuckles absently.  Mrs. Lowell drew a breath.

“One mustn’t think she was vein, mind you.  Mother Superior.  It was only that her hands itched from the dryness.  It was meant to make them soft.  When it made them young again, it was only a little blessing more.”

On the walk home, we speculated about the other ingredient.  But perhaps it was something African, some exotic oil from a flower unknown to us.  Perhaps she had only imagined the outcome.  If it were possible to find it, we asked ourselves, and there was only enough to fill a small basin, what part of ourselves would we wash?  Our hands were already feeling age, mine more than yours.  You said you’d prefer your feet, because if they felt as they had when we were young, you’d walk out more, long distances away.  Your eyes went a little dreamy.  It sounded nice to me, too, and neither of us said we’d wash our faces in the basin.  Perhaps we would have just a few years before.

It is sad to think that Mrs. Lowell is gone, the last lady of another era.  I never quite learned the knack of her fine calligraphy, but when someone talks of the old British empire, I can think of many relics out of Africa, ones that I touched with my hands.  I know what Indian sandalwood smells like when it’s been captured in a rosewood box for thirty years and is released onto the limpid air of a Virginia summer.

A letter fell out and I bent to pick it up her her.  Mrs. Lowell trembled as she glanced at the words written on the pages.  I recognized the hand, glanced away as one must do.  The sandalwood was a spell between us, though only she knew the words.  Then she said in a voice that sounded richer and rounder and smoother than her age, “We surround ourselves with old romance, but forget we were ever romantic ourselves.  I’m glad you asked to see the box, child.”

I recall we went into the garden then and she told us the names of flowers she’d brought over the ocean, the ones that survived our native soil and even the ones that did not.  Mrs. Lowell described them with glistening eyes and color in her cheeks.  To hear her, there were shades of scarlet and of yellow we had not yet seen in this world.  In these bright spirits, she took us under the oaks and pointed to violets in pots she had nestled among the roots.

“I bring them inside for the winter.  They’re beautiful but awfully delicate.”

I fetched three folding chairs of bamboo from the house while you stayed with her and we sat in the shade until the sun set and the fireflies came out, sparkling on the dark green field.  The stories she told are forgotten to me, except in bits and pieces, but these are my treasures, crowded in my mind like all the things of her little home on the bend.

Good night, Mrs. Lowell.

Apricot

The hydrangeas were the color of sunshine in crayons.  Wavy sprigs of stock, as purple as a king’s cloak, felt like tissue paper flowers when he pressed his finger against them.  The tulips were a beautiful shade of apricot.  They looked like they might not last the weekend, yet he shrugged off the thought and bought the bouquet anyway.  It would be nice to have a little color in the flat.  When Bryce moved out, he took everything bright and bold with him.

Image

They had only been together a year, yet they had quickly meshed together their lives.  When the rooms were reduced again to only what he had before, Bennett was astonished to discover that on his own he was quite drab.  His friend Alison brought over Thai food and beer the first night and they sat together on the tan sofa, staring at the wall where a collection of paint by numbers had hung the Saturday before.

“It looks like the first, sad half of an allergy commercial,” Bennett said.

Allison said, “It’s like if ‘mid-century morgue’ became a thing.”

They laughed a short bray, something they did to make fun of themselves being funny.

“Well, anyway,” Allison said, digging through her dinner.

“Yep.”

It became a joke among his friends, how dismal his place was without Bryce.  People said it was funny, they didn’t remember it being so colorless before.  Had he given some of his things away?

“I never thought Bryce was that dynamic,” his friend Sharp said as they walked Washington Square one morning. “But it really is like the first five minutes of The Wizard of Oz now.”

Bennett laughed, but the joke had started to wear thin.

Bryce had liked thrift store art in mad shades.  If he found a scrap of ribbon on the sidewalk, he brought it home and tied it around a cabinet knob.  He was a cheer scavenger.  He loved summer bright shoes and coats, so there was always some of that around, too, peaking out from under tables or spilling over the sofa arm.

They had grown apart quickly, once the early magic of sex and common loves was mined.  If he were honest, he would say they had only been sharing home for a couple of months when it stopped feeling right.  By Christmas, they were eating together in near silence, like old couples in diners, without the years to make any sense of it.  It was no shock when Bryce announced he wanted to move out when he got his tax refund.

“Okay,” Bennett said.

“Is that it?”

“I guess so. Is it?”

“Yes,” Bryce said. “I guess.”

They were stiff with each other for a while, then friendly again – one small kindness at a time – until one day they were as happy to see each other as when they were in love.  Except that now they weren’t.

“It’s like we should have just stuck to dating,” Bryce said one night, as they walked home from a movie.

“I know.”

“We really are a lot alike in some ways.”

“It’s true.”

Later Bennett had to smile when he thought about the two of them being a lot alike.  How could it be true, he wondered, when everything that was lively went out the door with Bryce.  If his world was charcoals and Bryce’s was Crayolas, could they be that much alike?

It was hard to fall asleep the first few weeks alone.  He missed the warmth beside him in bed, the brush of elbows or thighs as he rolled over in the middle of the night.  The pillows were no longer to his satisfaction; the streetlight peeking through the blind seemed brighter than before.  Maybe they had changed something about it.  He drank a little heavier to sleep deeper and it worked, though he felt groggy for much of the mornings.

Sundays were drab and lonely, so he made himself get up early to go for long walks.  He took pictures of things with his phone, stopped at cafes to drink coffee for far too long.  He was really quite bored when he wasn’t doing things.  When he was done avoiding the flat, when he could stand being out no more, he made his way back home.  It was usually early afternoon.  He always passed by the flower vendor without a glance until today.

When he put the arrangement on the coffee table, the flowers seemed small, their color swallowed by the vast, beige room.  They had looked so promising down on the sunlit corner, tucked in among the tiger lilies and the irises.  Shrugging, he flipped on the TV and said to the blooms, “Welcome to Kansas.”

There was nothing on worth watching, he decided in seconds, but he flipped through the channels for another fifteen minutes at least.  Finally he turned off the set and closed his eyes, shutting out the sunlight and shadows, the wall where Bryce’s paintings had hung, the pathetic little bouquet in the mason jar.

He opened his eyes a moment later because his nose picked up a memory smell, something that reminded him of the first place his folks had ever owned.  A ranch house huddled on a windy cul-de-sac, it had brick walls the dull, dark red of old scabs.  It was a little place with big shrubs, shy on sunlight, neighbored with old people.  The floors had dog piss stains in the wood.  His father couldn’t sand them out.

He hadn’t thought of that place in years and the memory smell was not of dog piss nor of wood dust.  It was the odor of fresh paint, which his mother had used everywhere to chase off the gloom of a house his father regretted from the beginning.

“It looked so much better with their stuff in it,” he said on moving day.

“Bullshit,” his mother said. “We’ll make it work.”

He remembered the weeks that followed, the stacks of boxes, half opened.  His father wanted to set everything up and tackle the changes later, but she wouldn’t hear of it.  When Bennett got home from school each afternoon, she had a roller or a brush in her hand. There was always a Virginia Slim hanging out of her mouth and a crease in her brow you could have lost a dime in.  He changed into cutoffs and a tee and took over while she started supper.

“Your father is a pessimist,” she said one day from the kitchen doorway.  “Don’t ever be a pessimist.”

“Okay.”

“I mean it now.”

Bennett sat up and looked around the flat, surprised by the memories.  It was funny that he should smell paint like that, opening up a forgotten afternoon with his mother.  He could even remember what they had for supper.  Salisbury steak, TV dinner.  It had always been his favorite.

“Well, paint,” he said.  “That’s funny.”

Then he glanced at the bouquet again, thinking about color and wondering why he never had before.  Maybe fifteen years of rentals, of wanting to get back deposits, had made him dull.  Was beige a pessimist color?  He shrugged.  It didn’t feel like it fit him very well, in any event, not that he’d ever questioned it until now.  Well, to be bold, he’d have to simply leap without a second guess.

“Apricot,” he said to the room, reaching for his shoes.

 

Bloom

Side by side, they shoveled the snow.  The driveway was short, but the snow was high and heavy.  George took two scoops to clear each patch of ground, dividing the depth by half to lighten the load.  Sid dashed his shovel in here and there, just a little wild, sending his snow the farthest, a broadcast that showered them with sparkling powder.  The icy bits needled their necks but melted quickly along the edges of their collars and hats.

The clouds were still hanging low and now and again the snow began again, but they kept at their work steadily.  “It’s good we’re doing this,” George said. “Even if we get a couple more inches before dark, it’ll be so much less to move tomorrow.”

Sid paused and took his glasses off, tucking them into his coat pocket.

“They’re so beaded over, they’re really not helping,” he said.

George glanced back at the house now and again as they worked.  The low slung roof was lofted with almost two feet of snow, but it didn’t make the house look any prouder on the hill.  Rather, it gave him the impression of an old soul, huddled beneath the burden of too many blankets.  The chimney puffed a thin trail of smoke, a nostalgic perfume that made the afternoon seem cheery despite the storm.

Along the edge of the drive, where the plow had pushed by earlier on, the snow was dense and crusty.  They saved that for last and were finished in another twenty minutes.  Leaning against the shovel handles and breathing, they said nothing, two men glancing back over the results of their work.

“We’ll sleep good tonight,” George said. “That’s for sure.”

Sid smiled at the thought as he started back to the house.  They took their boots off at the threshold.  They beat their gloves and scarves and hats against the stone before stepping inside.  The warm front room was silent and shadowy, with an air about it which suggested it would always wait for them to come home.  The house, George thought again, was an old soul.

____________

The storm had started the night before, the thirteenth of February; they had no conceit that they would make it out for a Valentine’s dinner in a restaurant the next evening.  Eighteen years into a love affair that had begun with shy glances over a sandwich counter, they were not stuck on the idea that the romantic holiday needed roses and chocolates for decoration.

Long before the weather came, Sid had set himself the task of making a new dish for supper and last night had risked coming home late in the snow to procure all the ingredients.  George had roamed the house, worried until Sid’s headlights broached the drive.  Then he was so thankful that he’d made it in without trouble, he decided to simply relax into their snowbound holiday and let go of wanting to hold every cherished thing above calamity.  It was a goal he set for himself often, though it seldom stuck. In the back of his mind, it nagged him that he cared too much.

Those were the fears and thoughts of the thirteenth, gone on the breeze today like the snow Sid’s shovel had sent flying.  As the afternoon waned, George built up the fire and Sid began making dinner.  The recipe was more than he had reckoned on and soon there were heavy sighs coming from the kitchen and the percussion of bowls and measuring cups became somewhat frantic.  More than once, Sid popped his head through the door to ask for help converting measurements. His hair was askew and his cheeks were just a little red.  A moment later, George heard the kitchen window opening.

“You hot in there?” he called.

“A little.”

George found himself tightening up, absorbing his husband’s tension.  It seemed that goulash or sandwiches would have been much easier to pull off.  But he bit his lip and held his silence, not that they were above disagreement.  The house had witnessed many arguments and would witness more.  It seemed inevitable.  Today George was mindful of being a pest; it would be hellish to spend the holiday sulking.

Finally Sid seemed to get ahead of himself in the kitchen.  George came in and helped stir things in pots.  He caught up some of the dishes.  When he saw that Sid had pulled out special china, the plates with the gold edging and the turquoise band all around, he glanced down at his pajamas and thought maybe he ought to look a little more dressed for dinner.  He found a red sweater lying over the ironing board in the laundry room and put it on.  At least he’d look respectable sitting at the table.

Sid always told him he looked beautiful in red, though he felt a little more like himself in grey or blue.  When he returned to the kitchen, Sid glanced up from the stove.

“You cold?”

“No, just wanted to look nice for supper.”

He wished they had flowers.  When they were younger – when they had so much less – he always made an effort to keep fresh flowers in the house.  Now they came and went according to whim.  He eased around Sid, their kitchen being so small it made working side by side into something of a choreographed dance, and took the scissors out of the dish on the counter.  When he got to the front room, he couldn’t remember where he’d left his shoes, so he stepped out onto the front stoop bare footed. Leaning far out over the stoop, he snipped some of the withered hydrangea blooms they had not deadheaded back in the fall.  Careful to cradle them so they’d shed none of their snowy beards, he held them close to his chest as he eased back into the house.

Three bowls held the blooms nicely.  He put tea candles all around them, hoping the snow would sparkle in the light.  Sid seemed delighted with them as he put their plates down.  The dinner was wonderful, worth the late drive through the snow and the hour of high tension in the kitchen. George was mindful to give thanks, lest his earlier hesitations had registered.

He watched the white beards melting off the hydrangea as they ate, knowing that their sweet union, their years together were not unlike the snow.  No hour could be seized and held forever, just as warmth pulls water from ice.  His life would melt away, like the sparkles on the winsome bouquets of their Valentine dinner.

He glanced up at Sid, who was studying him softly.

“Just think,” Sid said. “In a few months, they’ll come back again.  Remember how bright they were last summer?”

George smiled back, reminded happily of the blooms that follow the melts, months chasing months, each with a lesson blessedly forgotten from season to season.

London and Other Old Loves

When he thinks of London, he remembers a girl with henna red hair and eyes like exotic oceans. Water he’s yet to dip his toes into.  They were best friends for a year and lovers for a scant few weeks.  That began in a rented room over Baker Street, where the window looked out on roofs for chimney sweep dancers. It surprised them both, that their laughter and wrestling sport would lead to urgent kisses, sliding hands and tongues, a shattering and quieting bliss.  He held her until she fell asleep, wondering what it meant.  Had he changed or been mistaken in himself all along?

Later he stood out on those roofs, listening to the noise of the city, feeling the humidity of the summer night.  He smoked back then and he remembers watching grey plumes drifting away from him into the shadows.  In his recollection, he didn’t want to turn and study her through the window.  He felt a mixture of anger and curiosity.  They had opened something between them that could not help but feel bold and mysterious.  Yet he was sure it only complicated everything.  The weeks to come would prove him right.

He walked to where the building ended over the street and sat on the dirty ledge.  He thought of home, the small nest of their town in Virginia, and he cried when his thoughts drifted to the boy he was sure he loved. In later years, this summer of youth would amuse him a little.  If the man he became could stand near the boy he was, watching him swiping at his tears and lighting another cigarette, he would be hard pressed not to turn away with a smile of both kindness and contempt.  Would he drop a hand onto the boy’s shoulder, give it a comforting squeeze?

His father used to do that, when he was alive, and that young man always squirmed away from the touch.  The young have no notion of how cruel they are, carving out their space, keeping their old keepers at arms length while they mine the world for gems they can only find on their own.  He hopes he would save the gesture. Perhaps he’d do the thing the boy hadn’t the courage to – after all, things would sort themselves out eventually – and instead he might turn and give the young woman his consideration.  Knowing where the years would take her, surely she needed the love more than his callow, slender, boyish self.

If he could go back as he was now, with just a hint of ache in his joints, a skiff of white wintering his dark hair, he might stand at the glass and think she was a bit of Venus in the shadows of that old room.  In sleep she would seem angelic, her claws tucked away.  For the year of their friendship, she was safe and never needed to use them.  Except perhaps a bit at the end – but those little cat scratches were all but forgotten.  He would trace his finger along the glass, the silhouette of her cheek against the pillow.

The Algebra Novel

Every morning in seventh grade math class, I opened my blue Trapper Keeper and sat the tip of my pencil to a fresh sheet of paper.  When the teacher began the class, I mentally checked out, returning to the novel I was writing in my head.

It was good stuff, too, all about two southern bell sisters trying to keep the plantation from falling apart.  These poor girls had a lot on their plate.  Between dodging deserters and remaking old ball gowns, it was pretty amazing they still had time to fall in love with sturdy bucks like tight-lipped, sun-bronzed Rafe Hyatt.  And don’t get me started on their older, wicked lady neighbor, the raven-haired Rebecca de Chastaine.  Pretending to be their friend even as she plotted to ensnare their lovers, make no mistake, she was nothing but trouble. With this heady stuff to tend to between 9:55 and 10:55 each school day, it is no wonder I had to repeat math in summer school that year.

Writing this novel in math class was the highlight of my day and what helped me not to miss quite as much school that year.  Never mind the occasional humiliation of being called on by our teacher, Mr. Shaylock, and having no clue where we were in class.  With his short sleeve button ups and messy 70s weatherman hair, he was a gentle nerd who barely maintained his class, so perhaps he didn’t mind the plump daydreamer doodling Marie Antoinette wigs on the margins of his notebook.  At least I wasn’t one of the trouble-makers, pinching girls’ asses through the cutouts in the orange plastic chairs. That man put up with a lot, but I doubt he went home and poured himself a Scotch on my account.

I was a committed craftsman back then, never missing a date on my inkless writing.  I got good at winding up a chapter an hour and I got excited on the bus each morning, deciding where I’d begin again.  I also did the hard research, checking out books on historic costume from the library and faithfully teaching myself to draw them.  I could tell the era of a redingote at a glance, and was not above sniffing in disapproval when a movie of the week placed a ball gown on Jane Seymour when clearly she would have worn a modest day dress.  Returning those much loved volumes of renderings to the library again and again that year, I’m sure the one clearly homosexual volunteer behind the desk was smirking knowingly under his handlebar mustache.  Yet all my work could not save me from my report cards. I blame it on the Reagan era that I wasn’t tested on the anatomy of pantaloons instead of converting fractions.  The arts must always suffer.

At that time my biggest writing influences were Gone With the Wind and my sister’s library of smutty historic novels.  I always saw the past through a misty red veil, never stopping to think about all the pots of shit-water under the beds.  Instead, I was taken with the clothes, see above, and by the time I got to middle-school I liked the sex scenes, too.  The women who wrote novels such as ‘Destiny’s Seduction’ or ‘Island Rapture’ were giants in their field. As with all great literature, I was taken with the power of even their simplest phrases.  Describe our hero’s thighs as both hot and strong and I was right there with him in the crashing waves, deflowered but defiant as over his gleaming shoulders my ancestral mansion was burned by pirates.  Oh, the places you will go in a really fine work of fiction.

By mid-year I was bold enough to tinker with the sexual foibles of my own characters.  I knew before I knew that I was not a fit for the hetero world of those novels. Neither a swarthy English hunk raised by Arabs nor a voluptuous preacher’s daughter sold into sex slavery on the high seas, I hewed my burgeoning sexuality to the wicked, older lady neighbor.  With her as my proxy, I could place myself in that world – and experience the catty thrill of being the only woman in the county still rich enough to nail my dress at the Christmas ball.  Dove grey silk with cherry red piping – don’t get me started.

Of course, I abhor violence and any form of chicanery, but through this towering beauty, Rebecca de Chastaine, I wielded a terrible power.  When we set our cap for the rugged Yankee captain the McClure sisters were hiding in their smoke house, it took only a snap of her fingers to have him brought to us.  Of course, the problem was that once she’d tied him down and laid out her plans for him in a flowery monologue, it was me who had to stand up with a boner when the bell rang.  Thank heaven for that Trapper Keeper.