glenlivet

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They came while he was away in the hospital tossing in acramped room, sweating for each breath.  Pneumonia,the doctor told him and he blanched at how deep into old age he’d come.  All that was left to do was break a hip, feelhis mind smooth into dementia, then he’d be gone.  Carol brought him home on her lunch break;his arms were bruised from needles, his nose raw from tubes, his back achedfrom lying in bed.   They were alreadythere, watching some history program on his TV, looking up innocently as thedoor opened and Carol maneuvered him in.

“Hey, there he is. How you feeling Joe?”  This fromDerrick, who had Carol’s wide set eyes and curly black hair.   He’d started calling him Joe when hegraduated from high school.  Too old for“grandpa” anymore, Carol said. 

“I’m a hell of a lot older than him and I’m not too old forit,” he’d said, but Carol just smiled and patted his hand like he was a crankyinfant.

Derrick’s greasy -haired girlfriend waved from the couch buthe didn’t have the energy to look at her. Jessica, or some such thing. Carol led him to the bedroom, got him settled in his recliner, fetchedhim a glass of water and a blanket. 

“Derrick and Jess will be here.  They’ve got my old room, across thehall.   Jess used to work in a nursing home, dad, soshe knows what she’s doing.  You’ll befine.  Remember I’ll be gone for the nexttwo weeks in Arizona, okay?”  He wavedher away.  He’d seen her more this weekthan he had in the last year.  She leanedover and hugged him.

“It worked out so good, didn’t it?  You needing someone to stay here and Derrickand Jess needing somewhere to stay? Definitely a God-thing.”  Shesmiled broadly, pleased with herself. Pleased she didn’t have to take time out of her life to nurse him, heknew.  He lifted the side of his mouthand she accepted it as a smile. 

“Bye dad!  Loveyou!” 

****

It was his femur, not his hip.  He’d been looking for the bottle of Glenlivethe’d stashed in the garage. Predictable.  High shelf, unevenfloor.  He’d lain on the concrete fortwenty minutes until Derrick heard him over the TV.  Now they had him trussed up in his ownbedroom, immobile.  Jess came in everycouple hours to help him shift positions, go to the bathroom.  She was stocky and square, with glasses thatwere always sliding down her nose and blotchy skin.  She smelled of sweat, but so did he.  Far as he knew, her entire vocabularyconsisted of, “That better?” and “All done now, Joe?”  with an occasional, “Mmmmm, dinner!” When sheleft, she always shut the door, even though he asked her to leave it open.  The air was stale, and he was sick of lookingat his own four walls.   In the house heheard doors opening, things shifting, bumps against the wall.  Derrick said they were just doing housework,keeping things up for him.  Derrick hadgrown fat in the months since he’d come. 

Carol called every Saturday from Arizona.  She’d met some guy on a hike at the GrandCanyon, quit her job over the phone and moved into his house.  It would last a few months, then she’d beasking him for money again.  “Just untilI find a job, dad.”   He’d be lucky tohave any money left.  Derrick was alwaysbringing him receipts for groceries, or gas, asking for a few bucks for this orthat on top of what he was paying them to be there. 

****

When he finally made it out of the bedroom a few weekslater, he thought he’d walked into a stranger’s house.  It was dark, all the blinds down. His couchwas gone, the set of armchairs by the window where he liked to read.  They’d been replaced by a brown sectionalthat took up most of the room.  His TVwas gone too, and the narrow, painted cabinet it was stored in.  In its place was a bigger TV, something blackand flat, perched on a plastic stand, vomiting wires and gadgets into theroom.  Derrick was sitting on the couch,playing one of his video games. 

“Hey Joe!  What do youthink?  We’ve been fixing things up foryou!” 

Jess came from the kitchen carrying a Diet Coke and wearinga grin.   She went and stood by Derrick,set one of her hands on his shoulder.  Hefelt disoriented.  Was he supposed tothank them?

“Where’s my furniture?” he asked.  “Where’s the couch?”  Jess’ grin dimmed a little. 

“We stored it for you, Joe. Mom’s got that unit over off Columbia? We thought…you know…maybe this place could be a little cheerier.  Maybe it would help you get well.”  Ever since he was a kid, Derrick had thetrick of looking innocent.  Now he raisedhis eyebrows, gave a hopeful smile.

“I suppose I paid for all this nonsense?”   

“Joe, we asked you, remember?” Derrick said at last.  “After you broke your leg.  Remember?  We thought we should make it easier for you to get around in here.”  Jess nodded her head earnestly, and her glasses slipped down her nose.  They’d done this before, asking his permission for things when he was on pain medications or half asleep.

His leg was aching. He limped back into his room and slammed the door.

****

The leg was healing. He could hobble around indoors, sit on the front porch on a sunny day,which was a relief because Derrick insisted the house be shut up and quiet whilehe was recovering.  He was craving sunlight.  He still hadn’t made it down into theyard.  The uneven ground was tootreacherous yet, the doctor said.  Everyweek Derrick came out and made a show of bending over one of the front flowerbeds, pulling up a few green things, moving dirt around as if he knew what hewas doing, but things were starting to look bad.  He couldn’t imagine what the back yard lookedlike.  The rose garden should have beenpruned by now, the grapes.  Janet’stulips must have come and gone already. The doctor said he shouldn’t fret about stuff he couldn’t control, thathis blood pressure was high enough already. He leaned his head back and closed his eyes.  The doctor ought to live with his family forawhile.  Shit-eating grins while theyslowly took over his house, like they were doing him a favor.  All his old things were gone, stored, they said, always managing tolook hurt that he didn’t like their changes. Jess had started a card-making business to “help bring in some money”and now the dining room looked like a paper factory had exploded in it.  She was too tired after all her card-makingto cook anymore, so it was up to Derrick now. Every night it was some frozen dinner in a plastic tray or a greasy bagfrom McDonald’s.  No wonder his pantswere getting tight.   Last week, they’dcelebrated with Chinese take-out after Jess had sold a card to herhairdresser.  A card.  He wondered if the Glenlivet was still in thegarage or if Derrick had found it yet. On her weekly calls, Carol told him he should be grateful, what if hehad been alone?  He settled back andhappily imagined that for awhile.

****

The doorbell rang.  Hewas in the kitchen, trying to find something to eat that didn’t come out of apackage, but no luck.  He could getaround a little better now.  Derrick andJess had gone to the movies. They claimed they needed a break.  Watching TV and sleeping in was hard work, heguessed.  Oh, and there was thecard-making, of course.  He laughed tohimself, hobbled his way to the front door, opened it.  A middle-aged man stood on the porch, blackhair trimmed neatly around the ears and neck, a flannel shirt. 

“Dan Park,” he said, holding out a hand.  “Sorry to bother you, but we bought the housebehind you last year?  We haven’t metyet.”

He balanced in the door, shook the offered hand. “JoeWebster.  You bought Tom’s oldhouse?  Where’d he go?”

“Alaska, I think.  Tolive with his son or something.  I thinkhe was going to fish.”

He nodded.  “That’s agood house.  I helped Tom put in a furnacea few years back.”   He shifted hisweight, steadied himself against the doorframe. “I’ve been laid up this lastyear.  Pneumonia.  Then I broke my damn leg looking for a bottleof whiskey.”

“That’s terrible.  Didyou find the whiskey?”  Dan laughed.  He decided right there he liked this newneighbor.

“Didn’t even get a swig of it.   I’mhoping it’ll still be there when I get back on my feet.”  He eased himself out the front door, offered Dana seat on a dusty porch chair.

“I came over because we were wanting to replace that oldfence between us,” Dan said.  “I wantedto make sure that was okay with you before we started.”  He pulled a piece of paper out of his pocket,showed him the new design.   It was a cedar fence, six feet, with coppercaps on the posts.

“It’ll be an improvement over that chain link.  Must be twenty years since I put that in,” hesaid.

“There’s the maple that will have to be limbed up on yourside, since the new fence will be taller. I could do that for you.”  Danfolded the paper and slipped it back into his jacket pocket.

It was nice to sit out in the sunshine and talk to someonecapable for awhile.  It almost made himforget the ache in his leg. 

“Let’s go back there and take a look,” he said suddenly,feeling daring.  “I might have to use youfor support though.”

“Glad to.” Dan stood and offered his arm and they made theirslow way around the side of the house. It hadn’t rained for a couple of weeks, the ground was beginning to firmup.  

“Haven’t been out here since last year,” he said andstopped.

He saw the old television set first, flung on its side inthe grass.  Dan had started talking abouthis new lawnmower, how he could come over and mow the lawn for him, now that heknew he was laid up.  He didn’trespond.  The couch was up against thefence, sagging and torn.  Books werestrewn across the yard, spines broken, pages sodden.  The armchairs were leaning against the old TVcupboard in the center of the rose garden. Roses were snapped off, one wasuprooted.  Bags of garbage piled upagainst the house. The entire back yard was strewn with his belongings. 

“Mr. Webster? Are you okay?”

“How long has it been like this?” he asked hoarsely.  But he already knew.  Since the couch came, since the TV and itsplastic altar.  Carol probably didn’teven have a storage unit.

“No wonder you want a new fence,” he said.  Dan’s cheeks darkened a little and he coughedinto his hand. 

“Take me back inside,” he said, shaking. 

****

The police officer was kind on the phone, but there wasnothing she could do since he’d invited them in, since they’d been there solong.  She took down his complaint and hehung up.  Derrick and Jess came back,chattering about the movie they’d seen. He faked a headache and went to his room.  While the TV droned on in the living room, hemade a few more phone calls.

****

He waited.  From hisbedroom he could hear the sounds of construction going on behind him, Danbeginning the new fence.  He kept quietabout it, waited until they were distracted to peer through the blinds in thedining room, watch the slow progress. They went out more now that he was improving.  Afternoons at the movies, dinners out, theoccasional trip to the mall.  Heencouraged it, became loose with his gratitude. For Derrick’s birthday, he gave them a weekend away.

“A well-deserved break,” he said and they beamed.  They drove off on a Friday morning.  Derrick honked the horn twice as theyleft.  He waved goodbye from the livingroom window.

The locksmith arrived an hour later. That afternoon threeyoung men drove up in a beat-up van, pulling a utility trailer.  He showed them the house and the back yard,told them what to do.   He stood insideand watched them, the young men going back and forth, their quick muscles, theeasy grace of their effort.  When theywere finished he gave them each an extra 20 dollars and told them to have adrink on him.

He walked carefully to the backyard, saw the checkerboard offlattened yellow grass, the neglected roses, and he felt a little hollow, butalso relieved.  Dan’s new fence was partwayconstructed now.  He could see into hisbackyard, the neat flowerbeds, the patio furniture with its greenumbrella.  He went back inside the stillhouse and lay on his bed, satisfied.

Sunday morning he woke early.  It was a beautiful day, blue sky and picturebook clouds.  Outside he could already hearpeople coming and going, a low hum of voices. He made a cup of instant coffee and limped to the window.  

The TV was gone, as well as the brown couch.  People were milling around, looking through thebox of movies and video games.  Herecognized one of his neighbors hauling away a fake potted plant.  She caught his eye and he raised his coffeecup in greeting.  He watched a car driveup, an elderly woman examine the “FREE! Yes, all of it!” sign by the mailbox. By noon everything was gone but the bin of paper goods and a coupleboxes of clothes.  He’d kept those back,along with a box of personal items. No one had ever said he was an unreasonableman.

He called Carol, told her he’d changed the locks, listenedto her startled panic until she was done. Derrick and Jess returned just before dark, knocked on the door and rangthe bell until his head hurt.  He’d lefta note with their things on the porch. Dan thought he’d be better off not talking to them today.  Give them time to cool down, he said.   Thatwas fine with him.  When they’d finallyslunk off for the night he called Dan, invited him over. 

The emptiness of the house cheered him.  Beside his bedroom, the only furniture leftwas the dining room table, which they hadn’t bothered to replace.  When Dan arrived he offered him a seat, tookout two glasses.

“Found that bottle of Glenlivet,” he said.  He’d left the lights off and pulled the blinds open.  When Dan held up his glass to drink, the light from the streetlamp filtered softly through it, turned the liquid inside from amber to gold.  He was exhausted, and his leg was aching, but he hadn’t felt this good in a very long time.

***************

There’s a nice littlehouse down the road, yellow with white trim, a neatly fenced yard that used to containan old black lab.  Something happened onenight.  When we drove by in the morning,the contents of the house had appeared on the lawn.  Bookcases, chairs, boxes, Rubbermaidcontainers, a lamp, a dresser.  We drovepast for a week wondering what the people inside were dealing with:  a plumbing leak?  A hole in the roof?  Another week went by and it began torain.  The contents of the yard took on asodden and abandoned look.  Someone put outa couple of limp tarps, but it was all haphazard: the plastic tubs under thetarp, the rocking chair left unprotected.

That was three years ago.  One summer, someone carved a circle in the center of the detritus and set up some plastic Adirondack chairs, a little retreat, as it were, in the center of the chaos.  I’ve never seen an actual person in the chairs.  I’ve never seen an actual person outside at all.  But if you drive by in the evening, you can see inside the house.  There’s a big tv, the occasional silhouette of a head on a couch, the lights glimmering friendly, as if the rotting world on the lawn doesn’t exist at all.

That was the inspiration for this story, a possible answer to the question: why?!

lepidoptera

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In her hand lay the remains of a moth.   She'd found it on the bedroom floor as she shuffled past in the baby blue slippers Devon had bought her last month.  It was in the doorway, orange and brown, one wing tilted, the other torn, its legs bent tightly into its abdomen.  Or was it thorax?  She'd look it up in the field guide: moth anatomy.

Retrieving it from the floor took some time.  She had to take off the slippers, give herself some traction.  Her bare feet, purple-veined and thick-nailed, gripped the floor as she bent over.  Time was, she could angle from the waist and reach the ground without a thought.  Now she had to hitch her nightgown above her knees and bend.  The small of her back cracked, she wavered an inch or two above her destination.  Bend the knees more.  Ridiculous.  One hand held the door frame defensively, the other scrabbled at the floor.  There.

She straightened, heard the bones in her back creak and pop, felt a wave of dizziness from the sudden departure of blood in her head.  She caught sight of herself in the long closet mirror.  White hair standing on end, her face a bluster, satin nightgown hitched above her knees - the legs, once smooth and muscled, sagged and spotted, a curdle of veins in a knot along her thigh - her breasts swinging, two long-necked squash beneath the peach fabric. 

"It will make you feel pretty," Devon had said when they went shopping for the nightgown.  Pretty.  What could the girl be thinking?  She straightened, let the nightgown descend, fumbled her feet into the slippers.  With her left hand she clawed at the recalcitrant hair; her right hand protected the moth.

She shuffled to the living room bookcase.  Field guides, middle shelf:  North American Butterflies and Moths.  She carried the guide to the couch, shook the stiff insect body from her palm onto the coffee table.  It landed softly, wings down.  "...three pairs of jointed legs on the thorax."  That was it then, thorax.  Forewings, she read.  Compound eyes, probiscus, antennae, abdomen, hindwings, legs.  Straightforward.  A no nonsense creature, this.  She pinched the tilted wing between her shaking fingers and lifted it from the table.  Death had flattened the features of the head, she couldn't tell the antennae from the probiscus, couldn't even distinguish the compound eyes.  Or perhaps it was her own eyes that had flattened, made detail impossible.  She blinked and a viscous fluid slid over her eyeball, blurring the moth even further.  She dabbled at her eyelid with her free hand.  The world had fewer edges now, but it wasn't softer.

She let the moth body fall into the palm of her hand again.  It was spotted, the wings papery and translucent on the tips as if it had been dead for a long time, enough time for the scales to unhinge and drop away.  She imagined the moth crawling beneath the bed unseen, crumpling in on itself, time eroding the once lovely body.  It had stormed last night, perhaps a gust of east wind through the window had dislodged the corpse, sent it skittering to the doorway.  She tilted the moth into her lap, opened her hands.  Time would erode her to translucence as well; it was not far now.  Her own skin would darken and shrink around the bones, tear away into dust.  She accepted this without fear.  When she was younger she had feared death for its potential pain.  She could die underwater, or trapped in a cave; there could be a mudslide, earth in her mouth and throat; a car crash, the piercing of metal.  But she no longer feared such things.  She would die, she was nearly certain, in the same bedroom as the moth.  In a year perhaps, in a month.

The phone rang.  Devon, no doubt, calling to make sure she was awake and ready for her appointment today.  She rolled her eyes.  The girl was too efficient, bustling around with her oversized behind, clicking her long, decorated nails on everything she touched. 

"You want to keep your hair up Nana, it will make you feel better,"  she'd said when she made the appointment for her, as if a girl of twenty-five could know what would make her feel better.  Well, she was young, and she cared.  Martha Drubky had rotted away in a nursing home with no one to annoy her at all.  At least she wouldn't go like that.   She scooted to the edge of the couch and hauled herself up.  The moth fluttered from her lap onto the bare floor.  The phone was on its third ring.  By the time she reached it, the machine came on.  Devon's chirpy recorded voice, telling herself to leave a message after the tone.

"I'm on my way over, Nana.  Hope you're up and around.  It's salon day!"

She sighed and shuffled back to the couch.  If she was forty again, she'd cancel the appointment, braid her hair, put on that yellow sundress she'd bought in Carmel and hike up Paulson's Butte, watch the butterflies flirt with the meadow flowers.  She'd done that once, skipped work, left a note for Don, spent the day under the sun alone.  Marvelous day.  She leaned her head back against the couch, felt the remembered sun on her skin.  She must have dozed.  When she woke, Devon was standing over her, face shining vaguely with sweat, lipsticked mouth frozen in a patient smile.  She was supposed to be dressed by now.  Devon tilted her arm to look at her watch.

"Ten minutes," she said.  "Let's get you dressed."

She nodded, offered her arm for the hauling up.  When they were upright, she remembered the moth.  It was there on the floor, wings frozen open, a wild tilt to the left, hovering almost at the shadow of the couch.  Devon's foot in its strapped sandal came down heavily, just missing it, the disturbed air pushing the moth under the edge.  It slid out of view.  She almost cheered.  She imagined it in the darkness, resting on its tissue wings.  Devon led her to the bedroom, began the indignity of suggesting the wrong clothes, watching her wobble her ruined body into pants, a knit shirt, the sensible shoes. Lepidoptera, she thought, the same Order as butterflies.  Life span: one week to eight or nine months.  She was of the nine month variety, she supposed.  Somewhere under the couch now, the little brown and orange moth lay with its eyes fixed on the horizon of the floor and the wall trim.  She imagined its wings flexing, the eyes focusing, the threadlike legs straightening and bending.  Any time now it could take off again, bank toward some softly suggested light, follow the cant of some unseen road.

neighbor

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The neighbor had his gun.  Alice watched him put it into the glove compartment of his minivan while his wife was helping the children into their seats.  He carried it with them whenever they left the city – for protection, he’d said one afternoon last summer when she’d been walking past and he’d come out of the house carrying it.

“Protection from what?” she asked, a little stunned to see it in his hand like that.

“Don’t you watch the news?” he said and turned his back on her.

Ever since, she’d kept her eyes on them.   They were a strange couple, private, reclusive.  The children were a little strange too, pale, dark-haired creatures that barely ever saw the light of day.  If they did come out into the yard, the mother came too, sitting on the porch with a book in her hand, talking to them in her soft voice while they organized piles of trading cards or picked dandelions apart with their fingers.  The oldest one, a boy, had received a bike for Christmas and sometimes he rode it in a wobbly circle around the perimeter of the yard.  Alice watched from her living room as he learned to ride it, assuming he’d take off down the block when he had it mastered, but he never did.  He just came out occasionally and made the circuit of the yard, unable to get enough momentum going for a smooth ride, walking the bike back to the garage after a few minutes effort.

Today the children were waiting in the van while their parents traveled back and forth from the house to the car with blankets, a cooler, the badminton set.  Alice put a leash on Daisy and went out for a walk.   When she got to the street, her neighbor was putting plastic bags of food into the back of the van.

“Nice day for a picnic,” she said loudly.  He turned and gave her a nod.  She let Daisy wander into their yard, so she could have an excuse to talk to him.

“Going somewhere fun?” she asked.

“Just out to Hopper,” he said, slamming the back hatch. “My brother’s kid is having a birthday party at the park out there.”  He was a big man, with a full beard and thick arms.  He crossed them over his chest while they stood together which made him appear even bigger.  The bulk of him was intimidating and she couldn’t help thinking he liked to make people aware of it.

“Hopper’s a nice little town,” she said, pushing the button to reel Daisy’s leash back in.   “It’s good to get out of the city sometimes.”

He scowled.  “Bunch of idiots out there.  Place is getting taken over.”

She’d heard this from him before.  His work at the water plant was being taken over by females.  The school his kids attended was being taken over by illegals.   She didn’t know what was going on in Hopper, but she understood the idea.

“Well, the park should be fun anyway,” she said, waving to his wife as she came and stood beside them and scratched Daisy’s head. Natalie was pretty, long-haired and delicate with grey-green eyes.  She looked like she could be in a Waterhouse painting, crimson-robed, draping her long, smooth arm into a lilypad pool.  Alice smiled at her.  

“It will be nice for the kids to be able to have space to run and play.”

Natalie nodded and smiled politely and Alice took that as her cue to say goodbye.  She‘d walk down to the park, let Daisy chase squirrels for a few minutes.  She’d almost reached it when she saw the minivan go by.  What was it like for those children with parents who were so defensive about the rest of the world?  Her own kids had grown up in the neighborhood and had the run of it, riding their bikes up and down the streets until the sun set, playing ball in this very park.  She thought of the boy on his wobbling bike and felt a wave of compassion for him

.Later that week, when the neighbor was gone to work, she went across and asked Natalie if the children could come over and help pick her grapes.

  “I’ll be with them,” she said, when Natalie stood up to come along.  “You could get a little alone time.”  Natalie hesitated, but after giving the children some low-voiced instructions, she agreed.

Annake and Beth, the younger girls, and the boy, Aiden, followed her across the street and into the house, hesitating inside to look at her things with solemn eyes, taking in the art work, the baskets of yarn, the drawing table.   She offered them cookies and cups of milk to help them relax and then showed them the backyard garden and the grape arbor she’d had built.  She told them to go ahead and go under the canopy, which they did hesitantly, the girls clinging to each other’s hands.  She stood outside and listened as their whispers turned to happy chatter.  It was cool and dark in there, a space that longed for children.  When they had come back out again, grape leaves clinging to their clothes and hair, fingers sticky with the grapes they’d eaten, she showed them how to choose the ripest bunches and cut through the stems, lay them neatly in the basket she’d brought from the house.

After they finished picking enough grapes, she brought them back inside and they made juice, pulling the fat grapes off their stems and cooking them down in a big pot.  Annake poured in the sugar and Aiden stirred it with a wooden spoon while she and Beth wiped the counters clean.  They were eager learners, quiet and attentive, willing to work.  After a couple of hours, Natalie came to check on them.  Alice gave her a bowl of grapes and poured some of the hot juice into a bottle for her to take home, told her that the children had been a great help and she meant it.  Standing side by side, she saw how Aiden and Natalie had the same frail air, the long limbs, the unusual beauty.

“There will be more grapes in a few days,” she said, surprising herself.  “Would you all like to come back?” And they did, picking the grapes until they were gone, then the figs, then helping her tidy up the garden, harvest what was left of the late summer produce.  Natalie often came with them, sitting on the back steps with her book in hand while the children talked and worked with Alice.

The children were back in school by this time and they chatted to Alice about what they were studying, their classmates, the elaborate rules of the playground.  Aiden was lonely, she could tell, but Beth and Annake seemed to fit in fine.  Only once did they complain about a teacher – that was Beth, who had begun second grade and was dismayed at the amount of writing the teacher, Mr. Lasko, expected from her.  Annake, who was in the fourth grade, and the most outspoken of the three, said matter of factly,

“It’s because he’s a Jew.”

Alice was so taken back she nearly dropped the bowl of beans they’d been picking.

“What does that have to do with it?” she asked, a little sharply.  Annake’s face took on a sullen look.  She was most like her father, Alice realized, intelligent, but quick to blame, quick to be defensive.  She was about to say something more when Natalie left the porch and joined them.

“Beth,” she said gently, “tell me something about Mr. Lasko that you do like.”  She began to help Annake with the beans.

“He doesn’t yell,” said Beth after a while.  “And he doesn’t let Nathan Banner take cuts in the lunch line like Mrs. Perry did.”

“Does he still have the prize jar if you finish your homework during the week?” asked Aiden.  He was deadheading the flower border and there was the peppery smell of marigolds in the air.

Beth nodded.  “It’s mostly just stickers and candy though.”  She twined a bean tendril around her finger and pulled it out to examine the spiral she’d made.

“I like Mr. Lasko,” said Natalie, and she smiled at Annake before looking at Alice.  Not frail, Alice realized, there was strength there.

After that, she began to notice all the ways Natalie worked with the children, redirecting their conversations, listening to what lie behind the words, bringing them to the conclusions she wanted them to have.  It was done so neatly that the children barely realized they were being guided.  For the first time she considered what Natalie was up against every day, and how she resisted it.  The children were remarkable, really, when she came to think of it.  She thought of Aiden and his bike. He was carrying the bowl of beans into the house and she watched him with a surge of affection.  There was persistence in them, a kind of defiance she hadn’t known to look for.

She stood and wiped her hands on her jeans, said, “This looks good.  Shall we be done for the afternoon?” They gathered up the tools and put them away, coiled up the hose, locked the garden gate.  About this time of day their father came home, and the children were always anxious to greet him.  He was not unkind to them, she’d learned that much at least through their conversations.  They washed their hands at the spigot, trailed out through the backyard gate and across to their own house.   Natalie followed behind, turning at the edge of the yard to say “thank you” as she did every time she came.    Did she realize what Alice had thought of her and the children all this time? Probably, she decided with some dread.  She thought of the first afternoon she’d invited the children over and imagined what Natalie had said in that low-voiced conversation:  

“Mrs. Inman is very kind.  What a nice neighbor to invite you all over.”   Alice’s cheeks grew hot.

“Thank you,” she said quickly, pushing the gate closed.  “It’s been so nice.  Really.”

Natalie stopped and asked, “Would you like to come to dinner sometime?”

Alice hesitated, imagining eating dinner in their house, her neighbor’s heavy presence across the table, the inevitable discussions that would make her burn and have to bite her tongue, and she began to make an excuse, find some way of permanently delaying it, but then she caught Natalie’s gaze and she understood what was being offered, what was being asked.

“Yes,” she said, gladly. And she meant it.  

a good deal

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The house was ten miles out of town, a hollow clearing inside a shelter of trees that thickened into deep woodland as it neared the river.  Mr. Brook, the property owner, said it was small, a succession of rooms that faced the wrong way, shunning the sun.  It had been built by the foreman of the old copper mine - another dark cave for his retirement.   There were gardens though, haphazard as they were, following the path of the sun around the yard.  Jay stepped gingerly around the remains of a bed sprawling with bolted lettuces, kale stalks thick and bending under their own weight.  She pulled off a leaf, turned it over to find clusters of silver aphids huddled in the crevices.  Everything would need to be pulled out, buried under layers of straw and leaves for a year.  They could get rabbits, spread their droppings over the mulch.  In a couple of years they’d have meat and vegetables.  More than enough.   They could build a coop under that elm tree, have some chickens, too, eggs.  She watched Charlie and Mr. Brook examining the pump for the well.  Charlie primed the pump, worked the handle a few times, the muscles in his thin brown arm straining against rust and disuse.  After a few minutes a gush of water spurted from the opening and he put a cupped hand down to catch some.  When he’d brought it up to his mouth he looked at her and grinned, his black eyes disappearing behind the folds of his cheeks, the space where he’d lost a tooth showing darkly against his otherwise white smile.  He raised a fist in mock victory.  It hadn’t been easy finding a place to buy, even though they had the money in hand.  No one in town would even consider selling to them, but Mr. Brook’s son had been in the war with Charlie.

Jay left the two men discussing the well and followed the faint sound of water into the woods.  There was a stream somewhere, Mr. Brook had said, though the beavers had dammed most of it further up, and not much water got down this far any more.  She pushed through fern and salal, a forest of mahonia, its sharp-edged leaves scratching at her bare ankles, until she found a thin trail – a deer path, probably – and the first sight of the stream.  From there it was easy to follow the water all the way to the beaver dam, a large conical structure of cut branches and debris massed against a tree stump.  Jay got as close as she could to it, kneeling on the bank, waiting for any movement.  She heard a splash near the opposite bank, but saw nothing. She imagined coming down here in the winter with Charlie, bundled up, watching for warm beaver’s breath to come through the vent in the top of the dam.  Mr. Brook said the property ended at the river and went to the rail line on the western side, so all this would be theirs -forest, trees, mahonia, stream, beavers.  She found herself hoping the privy was workable, the roof sturdy enough for Charlie to say yes.

She returned to the house.  She could hear Mr. Brook’s voice coming from around the back, near the privy, so she pushed open the front door, sneezed under the sudden assault of bird waste and dust.  A mourning dove startled and rose in the air, making an elegant escape out a window to her left.  Mr. Brook must have opened it before they’d arrived in hopes of airing the place out.   She was standing in the main room, a large space, divided into the kitchen and living area.  The kitchen consisted of a sink and a wood stove, a single set of shelves along the far wall.  At least there was a window above the sink so she could look out over the garden while she worked.  Charlie could build a counter so she’d have more space.  The living area had another window, a fireplace, room for a couch, a couple of chairs.  And they could put bookshelves in the corner.  She went through to the back and found two more rooms, a bedroom and what seemed to be a large storage closet.  It was the only room that held any clutter – a metal folding stool, a pair of well-worn boots, the tire from a small tractor, a pile of fabric – a shirt, perhaps - covered in mouse droppings.  Mr. Brook had said the miner was a pack rat and there’d been a lot to get rid of after he died.  He’d been lonely here, she suddenly knew.

When she came back into the front room, Mr. Brook was saying he’d give them some time to think about it, they could stop by his place on the way home and let him know.  Charlie was standing in the middle of the room, staring at a dark spot on the wall.  She hadn’t noticed it earlier.  There were more spots, smaller, traveling up the wall and onto the ceiling.  Mr. Brook cleared his throat, said he knew it was a hard decision.  Jay watched him, his big face going red, his eyes blinking.  He nodded, touched the brim of his cowboy hat, ducked his head to back out of the door.  She looked at Charlie, so slight in comparison, his denim shirt bagging, the sleeves rolled up over his forearms, the cracked leather belt cinched tight to hold up the khaki pants he favored.

“How did he die?” she said when Mr. Brook’s white truck had pulled away.  “The miner.”

Charlie turned to look at her.  He had an expressive face though he had long ago learned to hide that around others. She could read the story there, as well as his reluctance to tell her.

“The house is good, Jay,” he said.  “The roof, the well, the foundation.  He built it strong.”

“Was it here?” she asked.  How had she not noticed the stain at first?  It was so prominent against the pale wood.  She went to touch the edges of it with her finger.

“We’ll paint,” Charlie said.  He wasn’t trying to convince her.  They both knew this was more than they had dared hope for - their own house, land to grow vegetables, raise animals.  She nodded.

“Mr. Brook is a good man,” Charlie said.  “He’s giving us a good deal.”

“Because no one else is desperate enough to buy it,” said Jay sharply and looked away.  They were silent then.

After awhile, when they had taken it in and accepted it, and the quiet had begun to fall over their hearts again she said, “I saw the beaver dam. And there is a lot of mahonia in the woods.  I can make jelly this summer, tea for the winter.”  An image came to her mind of white walls, herbs hanging in the kitchen, rows of canned goods lined up along the shelves next to the wooden bowls her mother had brought over from Japan, Charlie in the garden tying up beans.

They walked through the rooms once more, made a list of things to buy at the hardware store, closed the windows and locked them.  At the door, Charlie turned back and made a deep bow to the interior of the house.  Jay could feel the gratitude he was offering flowing through the rooms like a cool breeze.  This humility was how he had survived, how he had made a life for them.  She reached for his hand and bowed herself, sending out her courage, her willingness. Home. Happiness began to rise in her like a dove.   

a shard of orange light

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At first it was only flashes of color, a light show behind the eyelids.  Sky-blue when the woman spoke, green when it was the man, a tumble of browns and yellows when the other woman came near.  She touched his hand sometimes, whispered to him, and this was orange, a bright shard of it.

Green was the doctor, he learned later, when he could open his eyes and make sense of the images.  The first time he’d opened them had been a shock – a flood of bright white, a flurry of shapes moving faster than he could track, shadows and flickers, a stab of black, then dark red.  He’d closed them again just to keep from throwing up.  The sky-blue woman had leaned across him to adjust his pillow.  She smelled of chemicals, sweat, a brush of floral when her hair swept across his cheek.  The nurse.  Eventually he learned there was a succession of nurses, all of them sky-blue, some of them male, all quick and gentle, sweat, antiseptic, floral.

He slept most of the time.  When he was awake there was a throbbing at the front of his skull.  He imagined his brain shrinking and expanding, pushing up against bone, retreating again.  If it was quiet in the room he could travel inside the rhythm, let himself be buoyed by it, a wave, whoosh, whoosh, whoosh, until he fell asleep again.

Often, he was woken by the burst of orange light.  This was always the first sense, then the smell of lemons, soap, something stale.  After that he would register the touch.  Her hand on his arm, or a brush across his forehead, delicate, tentative.  Sometimes a movement across his groin, down his leg, slower, more sure.

Some days he would feign sleep until she left.  Others, when the throbbing in his head was not so bad, he would peel his eyes open slowly, see the rounded, soft shape of her and will himself to focus, but she never crystallized.   Once, while he stared at her, she rose up and loomed over him, all soft brown and yellow, touched her mouth to his.  He could smell coffee on her breath.

After a few days he understood she was saying his name. “Eric.  Eric.”  A low voice, nearly a whisper.  That was all.  He didn’t respond.

When his eyes began to work again, when the blurred shapes became people, faces, he sorted out the brown ponytail, the pale mouth, the glasses with their lenses that reflected the overhead lamps, making it seem she had lights instead of eyes.  She came close, rubbed her thumb briskly across the side of his face, as if he’d been crying, as if there were tears she had to wipe away.

One day he woke and she was standing with her back to him, her shoulders hunched up, holding something to her ear. 

“Well, he needs me now,” he heard her say and a memory flashed before him of her standing in a room – their room, he suddenly realized – her body turned away, her hair bound into a pony tail by a black elastic band, wearing a yellow sweater, just as she was now.

“Jody,” he tried to say, but his voice would not work.  She hadn’t heard him, didn’t turn around. The nurse arrived, and his eyes closed.  He fell asleep.

Other people came.  His father, bearded, grayed, who stood at the bedside with his coat on and cried when he asked, “Where’s mom?” His sister, who looked strangely aged.  She talked with the nurses and gestured a lot and when Jody was in the room, spoke with a loud cheerfulness that even he understood was a lie.  Gradually he came to understand he’d lost time, maybe as much as a decade.  The things before were there – he remembered his childhood, his siblings, high school, the year off to travel the country, coming back home, the job with Uncle Dennis, finding he was good at construction and that he liked the work, meeting Jody at the church he’d visited once or twice.   She looked the same then, hair always neatly brushed and pulled back, the calm gaze, the smile that took her from pretty enough to noticeable.   He remembered their wedding, the apartments they rented while they saved enough for a house, dinners around the thrift store table they’d bought, cooking together after work, the succession of burnt, dry, tasteless meals they managed until they learned how to cook.  He remembered that.

Gone was everything after.  His mother.  She’d died of breast cancer, his sister said, eight years before. But he was sure he’d seen her recently, that she’d been at the apartment.  She’d been wearing that silly baseball cap, the one they got at Joshua Tree, a gray top, white stripes. He remembered pouring her a cup of coffee, sitting across the table.  Last week, maybe?  The week before?  His head ached and he retreated behind his eyelids again until the lights dimmed and the room went quiet.  They’d come again the next day with more of their memories, feel they were doing something helpful by telling him everything he’d lost.

When the doctor came the next morning on his rounds, he feigned a migraine, asked for darkness, silence.  The nurses turned them all away.  Except Jody.  She came in noiselessly, carried the room’s only chair into the corner and sat there, just outside his peripheral vision.  He never turned his head towards her, she never spoke, he didn’t understand why.  It was worse, almost, to remember only the falling into love, unable to remember the falling out.

Later, after he’d been discharged, gone back to make a life in the strange house they owned, he would wonder when she’d become this way, if the calm and poise he’d taken as contentment and self-possession, had really been lassitude, a disinterest in the world.  The only things she seemed to take pleasure in now were the hardships he was causing her – the time off from work to take him to therapy several times a week, buying him new shirts because he’d stained the old ones with his clumsy hands which were still unable to bring food, or a coffee cup, to his mouth without trembling, the extra cleaning because the nurse would be coming by the house.  She recited these burdens to him in detail whenever he asked how she was, becoming suddenly loquacious, voluble.  He would have to close his eyes then, and this too she collected.  He imagined her preening over his offenses while she worked, polishing their edges, gathering them up to be presented to him each night the way other wives brought home armfuls of groceries, a bouquet of flowers.  He grew to dread the sound of her tread on the porch that signaled her return from work.  It was autumn now.  When she opened the door, the sun would be beginning to set and he would see her as he’d seen her first in the hospital, shadowed, dim, soft.  Behind her the sky would be changing its clothes, a flash of purple and pink, the underside of clouds rimmed in yellow, where the sun was sinking, a bright shard of orange light.