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A Symphony of Women

copyright © 2003 by Linda Karney All rights reserved.




  • 1. Moonshine and Spilled Water


  • 2. Bea's Dance


  • 3. Keep Away From Children


  • 4. Through Sara's Senses


  • 5. The Painting


  • 6. Confronting Him


  • 7. While He Taught Chaucer


  • 8. Swept Clean


  • 9. Wing Walker


10. Drinking Liquid Amethysts


Moonshine and Spilled Water

The neck of the cello lay back against her, like two lovers cuddling on a porch swing. The fingers of her left

hand skipped up and down the instrument’s neck, frolicking on a familiar path. Her right arm swept back and

forth in graceful yet erratic movements, now with an impish quickness, now deliberately slow. The girl’s fair

face was suffused with rapture. Her eyes were half-closed, no longer taking notice of the narrow bedroom where

she sat on a creaky wooden stool. An old tweed suitcase squatted on the floor nearby like a pet ordered to ‘stay’.

The knocking on the door had been going on for some time before the room’s occupant finally responded to it.

With a frown of regret she carefully disengaged herself from the cello and lay it upon the bed, the headstock

nestling into the soft pillow like a human head. The girl padded to the door and opened it.

“Andie!” cried a beaming girl revealed in the doorway. She had golden hair pulled back in a ponytail that

bounced as she literally jumped up and down a couple of times before attacking her friend with an energetic hug.

The girl she had referred to as Andie accepted the hug with equanimity. “When did you get back from Florida?”

“Just this afternoon. Mother insisted that I had to help unpack and eat dinner before I came over.” The girl

paused as she spotted the suitcase. “You’re really doing it? You’re going?”

“Tomorrow morning on the first train.”

“I still can’t believe it! I mean I was in the school orchestra too, but I never took it seriously. I never thought you

did either, Andie,” the girl remarked, gazing at her friend more earnestly.

“Please call me Andrea,” Andrea replied as graciously as she could. “Andie” just didn’t seem appropriate to her

anymore. “I didn’t take music seriously until this summer. I spent so much time brooding about John moving

away that by the time I looked for a summer job it was too late. John’s father had him working so hard he was

only able to drive down for one visit. And you were away. So I started spending more and more time practicing

my cello. Sometimes I would play until my fingers were so sore I thought they’d bleed. Feel the calluses I’ve

built up on them!” she said proudly, offering her left hand to her friend.

Her friend dutifully rubbed her fingers but made no remark about their condition. “You were bored and needed

something to do. But does that mean the cello should become your life’s work?”

“How can I explain what my music has come to mean to me?” Andrea asked, looking about the cramped room as

if the answer lay somewhere in its physical space. “It’s as if the strings of the cello have become my one true

voice. I can only reveal my inner self through them.”

“That’s wonderful,” her friend replied, as if mollifying a child. “But you’ve been sitting here alone in your room

with no one to hear you. Remember the summer I bought the soundtrack to that musical and we performed it

over and over for ourselves? We thought we were terribly talented and were going to be great actresses!”

“I’ve played for Mr. Rhodes. He thinks I show promise,” Andrea announced, her lips twitching as she tried to

hold back a joyful grin.

“Really?” her friend said, sinking carefully down on the edge of the bed. Her weight caused the cello to tilt

slightly toward Andrea, as if something in the conversation had awoken its interest. “Mr. Rhodes was always so

negative to us all. Did he really say you had promise?”

“Yes,” Andrea replied, her grin expanding. “Not only that he recommended a teacher for me in New York. If I

work hard enough and if I’m very lucky I might eventually be able to make it into Julliard.”

Her friend sat with head bowed, as if she needed to mull over this new information at length. Her eyes suddenly

sought out Andrea’s face. “If you go away, you’ll lose John,” she warned, certain Andrea must not have thought

of this.

“I’ve lost him already,” Andrea replied impassively, gazing out the window. “I called and told him we were

through. I don’t want to leave any loose ends behind me.”

“Just before school ended you told me you thought you’d marry him someday,” her friend replied accusingly, as

if Andrea had lied.

“I still may marry him some day. I love John. But he was away and his absence allowed me to discover the

precious gift I was given. Now I have to follow through with my adventure and see where it leads me,” Andrea

explained, sitting back upon the stool and clasping her hands between her legs in a childlike manner.

Her friend shook her head in disbelief. “What did your mother say, when you told her what you’re doing?”

“She told me she didn’t want me to waste my life on ‘moonshine and spilled water’,” Andrea replied.

“What?” her friend exclaimed, laughing gleefully. “Where did she get that from?”

“Probably one of her books. You know what a reader she is,” Andrea said.

“So what did you say in reply?”

“I told her spilled water is of no consequence,” Andrea said, as she reached over and shut off the only lamp in

the room that sat upon a nightstand near the window. Pallid moonlight seeped through the glass panes, changing

the faded blue bedspread beneath the cello to a radiant whiteness and causing provocative shadows to trail from

almost every mundane object in the small bedroom. Her friend gazed around in wonder at the transformation.

“Moonshine can make life more magical,” Andrea announced. Then she picked up her precious instrument and

settled on the stool to play.

“Ah!” her friend remarked in understanding after she had heard Andrea’s true voice.

Bea’s Dance

Almost as soon as she entered the house she heard it - “Eee, Eee,” - more like the bleating of an animal than a

human voice. The sound both relieved and vexed her. She rarely left her husband alone like this and she was

relieved that he was apparently all right but at the same time she could have used a moment in which to put her

coat and purse away before being summoned. She dumped them hurriedly onto the armchair in the living room

and headed down the hall toting a heavy plastic bag.

Bea had closed the thick curtains before leaving in hopes that her husband would sleep while she was out. If he

had slept he was alert now as she saw when she turned on the bedside lamp. Her husband Marty was in his late

sixties but looked even older due to poor health. His sparse hair had all gone white and his face was emaciated

and oddly devoid of expression. Only his large brown eyes still had a vitality that testified to the fortitude of the

soul within. His gaze darted to the plastic bag in Bea’s hands and lingered there hopefully.

“Yes, I got it,” she announced, seating herself carefully on the edge of the bed. She was a short woman and her

legs dangled above the floor like a young girl’s. “It’s used but they guarantee it will work properly, “ she said

reaching into the bag, pulling out a small handgun and holding it up in a shaky hand for him to see.

“Uh,” he grunted in approval. Since his second stroke Marty hadn’t been able to form words properly. Only Bea

was able to derive meaning from some of the guttural sounds that emanated from his throat.

Bea laid the gun on the bed and pulled a box out of the plastic bag. “The bullets were on sale,” she said,

regrettably choosing to lift the box by the lid. Due to the weight of the bullets the bottom section of the box fell

out and tipped over causing shiny cylinders to tumble over the bedspread.

“Oh, dear!” Bea exclaimed, righting the box and beginning to deliberately collect the scattered bullets one by

one and re-stack them in neat rows.

“Uh-uh. Uh-uh!” Marty grunted. Bea looked up and met his imploring brown eyes with her pale blue ones.

“I guess this isn’t important right now,” she agreed, turning and pushing strenuously with the palms of both

hands against the mattress until she was able to stand. Then taking up the gun and a few bullets she walked

carefully toward the dresser on her arthritic legs. Her method of locomotion was as graceless as that of someone

on stilts as she rarely bent her knees. When she reached the dresser she opened the gun chamber and loaded the

bullets as the shopkeeper had shown her. She pushed the chamber back into place. “It’s amazing how someone

could come up with a contraption like this,” she ruminated as she re-crossed the room. This time she proceeded

to the other side of the bed, the side uncluttered by spare bullets, and settled herself slowly in a sidesaddle

position facing the headboard with one leg hanging over the side. She gazed at the gun in her hand for a long


“You’re sure this is what you want, Marty?” she asked, leaning over so that she could catch her husband’s eye

from her new position.

“Uh-huh, uh-huh!” he replied in his most enthusiastic manner.

“I don’t want you to be so unhappy,” Bea said, bending further to kiss Marty’s cool, gaunt cheek. “We’ve had a

good life. There were some trying moments - I won’t lie to you - but I don’t regret anything. You were a good

husband to me.”

Marty gazed at her so tenderly she almost began to cry. Instead she resolutely raised the gun and placed the

barrel against his left temple. She lowered it again almost immediately. “Did you pray?” she asked.

Marty closed his eyes for a moment. Bea took the opportunity to say a quick prayer herself, asking for

forgiveness and a steady hand.

Marty reopened his eyes. “Eh-e,” he said.

“Close your eyes,” Bea ordered. When he had done so she raised the gun and willed herself to pull the trigger, to

give her dear husband the release he so desperately longed for. But as she gazed at his familiar, beloved face in

apparent repose she could not bring herself to act. She imagined him lying just so in a casket and her blood ran


“Maybe I’d better close my eyes, too,” she muttered, doing so.

With her eyes closed she imagined what a horrid, bloody scene would greet them when they reopened. This

grisly vision caused her hands to tremble, including the hand that was gripping the gun. She feared then that if

she proceeded with her eyes closed like that she was likely to miss altogether and sink a bullet into the

discontinued wallpaper on the opposite wall or perhaps the bullet would only graze her husband and end up

causing him more pain rather than giving him peace. She opened her eyes.

It was hopeless. She had spent her entire married life taking care of Marty, she couldn’t go against those forty-

two years of nurturing to cause him tremendous harm now. She made sure the safety catch was on and placed the

gun on the bedside stand with a heavy thunk. Marty opened his eyes.

“I couldn’t do it. I can’t do it,” Bea said, patting his shoulder. “You’ll just have to wait for God to call you


“Eee. Eee, ees!” Marty begged as Bea struggled to her feet. “Ees!”

“There’s no point in asking me, I can’t do it,” Bea said waving an arm dismissively. “I thought I could. I mean,

I’ve always taken care of things around here. I took the kids to the doctor every time they were sick, I paid the

bills on time all these years, I learned how to unclog the sink with a bent coat hanger. But I can’t do this for you,

Marty. It’s too hard.” She glanced at the gun. “I wonder if the store would take this back. Do you know how

much it cost me? And it’s used!”

She heard a raspy wailing behind her and turned in surprise. Tears were coursing down Marty face and the left

side, the one less affected than the other by the strokes, was contorted in sadness to a noticeable extent. Unused

to seeing any expression there, Bea was dumbfounded by this show of despair.

“Now, stop that Marty. Stop that!” she ordered. “You’re just going to wear yourself out.” But her husband

continued sobbing.

The telephone rang. Bea was torn a moment between her distraught husband and the jangling apparatus on the

dresser. Not certain how to deal with Marty just then she made a hasty decision and headed stiffly but steadily

toward the dresser. She picked up the handset. “Hello? Oh, hello Kevin. How are you, Hon? No, I don’t hear

anything. No, everything’s fine,” she said, sidling into the adjoining bathroom and shutting the door.

She opened the door a few minutes later and stood in the doorway. Marty was still weeping with almost the same

intensity. “That was Kevin,” Bea announced loudly, hoping to distract her husband. “He’s in the neighborhood

and wants to stop in with the boys. I told him it would be okay.”

Marty took some long breaths and to Bea’s delight seemed to be calming down. But his next words testified that

his intentions were unchanged. “Eee. Eee, ees. Uh un. Uh un.”

“Marty, I will not use that gun. Kevin is coming with the boys. That should cheer you up - cheer us both up. I

have to tidy myself up before they get here. Excuse me,” she said, turning back to the bathroom as Marty seemed

to be revving up for more tears.

In the bathroom, Bea faced herself in the mirror. “What am I to do? I can’t stand for him to be so unhappy,” she

lamented to her reflection. “If he goes on like this much longer I’ll be tempted to use that gun on myself!”

Something reflected in the mirror caught her eye. The rose-colored hand towels on the rack behind her were

decorated with lace. She slowly pulled one down and frowned at it a moment. An impish grin flitted across her

face. She unfolded the towel and pinned it to her hair with bobby pins so that it hung down the back like a

Spanish mantilla. Next she pulled a dusty silk daisy from the basket atop the toilet tank and ripped a page from a

glossy magazine which she folded in a back and forth motion on the edge of the sink. Once she had finished with

this, she took a deep breath and began to unbutton her blouse, a suppressed but merry gleam in her eye.

The bathroom door opened. Bea emerged. She purposefully avoided looking at her husband but made sure to

move to the area where he would be able to see her best. Once positioned she began strutting about in a grand

manner, one hand flicking her homemade fan while the other hand clutched the fake daisy. “Lady of Spain I

adore you…” she sang, in a voice loud and full like an opera star. But unlike most sopranos she was topless, her

aged breasts hanging like two massive shriveled fruits.

After singing as much of the song as she remembered, she tossed the fan away and placed the stem of the flower

between her teeth. Raising her hands as high as she was able she pretended to play the castanets and proceeded

to dance. She was anything but graceful, with her stiff joints and slow gait, but she threw in a small kick here

and there as an added flourish. It wasn’t until she was thoroughly winded that she dared to look in Marty’s


Those damned tears still streaked his face, but then they would until someone else wiped them away or they

evaporated. He was still making noises, honking noises, but for the life of her Bea couldn’t make out what mood

he was in for the longest moment. Then she realized that the left side of his face was pulled into what could only

be construed as a weak smile.

“Marty, are you laughing?” Bea asked breathlessly.

“Uh-huh, uh-huh,” he admitted. The honking sounds emanating from his throat continued while his smile

remained steady and his eyes gleamed.

Bea plopped down on the bed next to him and gave him a hug that was more boisterous than usual. “You see? If

you can still laugh you’re not ready to go anywhere, it’s not your time yet! You can still enjoy life,” she

pronounced, joining her full-hearted laughter with his. “When Kevin gets here maybe we can move you. We can

move you out into the living room where you’re not so isolated and you can be more involved in things…”

As she spoke, the buzz of the front doorbell met their ears. Bea struggled to disentangle herself from Marty and

rose. “It’s Kevin! What would he think if he saw us like this? Me like this, and the bullets everywhere, and the

gun! Marty, we’re crazy, we’re crazy,” she chided as she scurried toward the bathroom. The noises Marty had

been making gradually subsided, replaced by soft humming. If anyone had been listening they would have

recognized the faltering strains of “Lady of Spain”.

Keep Away From Children

The benches in the station reminded me of the wooden pews in our church and were just as unaccommodating to

the human form. Perhaps they didn’t want anyone to become indolent and forget that this was a place for

transportation, for movement, for exits and entrances.

There was motion occurring around me in fits and spurts. A train would arrive and a stream of passengers would

parade by on their way to the exits. A people watcher by nature, such activity would normally have provided

some interesting entertainment.

I made it a point to always be early and true to form I rose from my seat on the bench a good ten minutes before

the train was due and went to stand near the track. I gazed down its infinite length in hopes of spying a light

from the approaching train and was gratified to see the merest glimmer of light in the far distance. I glanced at

my watch and presumed due to this early spotting that the train would be arriving early at the station but by the

time the glimmer evolved into a full-sized headlight and the train came to rest beside me enough time had passed

that it was actually just on schedule.

My mother had always had an affinity for flowered shirts and dresses but the purple irises on her shirt that day

were particularly gaudy. In addition she wore a large straw hat and sunglasses, looking like a tourist destined for

some tropical resort who had accidentally disembarked in the midst of a city. I came forward to help her with her


As it turned out she only had two small bags besides the garment bag she carried. “I didn’t want to take any

chances on them loosing my luggage,” she explained.

“It’s not an airline, mother,” I remarked, picking up the two bags and heading toward the station.

“I know. But my friend Clarice went to Florida and they lost her luggage. It happened when she switched buses

in Tennessee.”

  • I was about to point out that Clarice’s situation was different and that in any case she had never switched trains,

but I let it pass. I always seemed to contradict my mother when we spoke, which made me resent us both.

We were stopped in traffic in my car when she unzipped the garment bag and shoved a teal-sequined sleeve at

me. “This is what I brought for the wedding. Isn’t it lovely?”

  • I thought of my own pale blue gown, austere in comparison. “It’s very nice,” I said.

“I brought a pantsuit for the rehearsal dinner. Am I invited to the rehearsal dinner?” she asked, ingenuously.

“Of course,” I replied. Frankly I hadn’t even thought about it before but I could see it would be rude not to

include her when she was staying at our house.

“Bob and I weren’t sure what Margaret and her intended could use, so we’re giving them a check,” mother


invitation very closely. “How is Bob?” I asked, since she had broached this touchy subject.

“He’s good. He’s doing really well,” she replied in a strained voice. I didn’t know if this was because she knew I

really didn’t care or whether something was wrong and she didn’t want me to know about it.

“Margaret is glad you could come for the wedding,” I remarked when the conversation lagged.

“She’s always been my favorite grandchild. Probably because she was the first,” my mother said, grimacing at

the mirror on the passenger-side visor and touching up her lipstick.

I couldn’t help but laugh at this. “Your favorite? You’ve spent her whole life on the east coast. You don’t know

her at all.”

My mother pushed the visor up and sighed. “When Bob’s company transferred him out east I had to go with him.

You know, I don’t think my moving would have bothered you so much if Bob had been your father.”

This was something that had never occurred to me before. I immediately recognized the merits of this notion, but

I was too stubborn to admit it. Instead I muttered “Keep Away From Children.”

“Pardon?” she asked, politely.

“When I was little there was a box of wooden matches in the pantry,” I explained. “On the side it said ‘Keep

Away From Children’ in big red letters. You read it to me often and told me it was good advice.”

“I was just joking!” my mother exclaimed. “I was trying to raise you and your three brothers while your father

was away on the road. It was overwhelming.” She paused, before continuing less defensively. “So you think I’ve

purposefully avoided you and my grandchildren? I’ve visited you as often as I could. And Margaret and I have

been corresponding for over a year now.”

“You’ve written to Margaret?” I repeated, amazed at this revelation.

“Yes, I wrote her at her dorm. I know all about Don and how deep his eyes are and how he wanted to be a pitcher

but hurt his shoulder his freshman year. I know Margaret dreams of living in Quebec someday but for now

they’re going to live in an apartment in Peoria. And I know how nervous she is about the wedding. She’s afraid

she’ll faint at the alter or forget the words when she takes her vows.”

I was speechless. Margaret had never mentioned these fears to me. Why had she chosen to confide in her

grandmother rather than me? It was true that I had been very busy lately. In fact I couldn’t remember the last

time I had gotten together with Margaret and talked about anything other than the wedding. It occurred to me

then that distance was only one measure of closeness.

“Are you sure Don can’t make it to the wedding?” I asked, surprising us both. “I, for one, wouldn’t mind if he


Through Sara’s Senses

A light came on causing a red glow to appear through her closed eyelids. It was followed by the sounds of fabric

rubbing against fabric and a disjointed chorus of hesitant footsteps.

“I think she’s asleep,” her mother’s voice said.

“She sleeps too much. She needs to get up and do something,” her father complained.

“I think she’s asleep,” her mother reiterated. “We’d better leave her alone.”

The light went out and the sounds retreated. Further interior noises were muffled by the solid bedroom door,

exterior ones were repelled by the thick windowpanes of the old house. She was safely ensconced in her personal

cocoon, away from everything. It was the way she wanted things to be and she was satisfied.

Later her mother returned with her medicine. Sara knew this time she would not just go away.

“Come on, sweetheart,” her mother cajoled, running a hand over her thick brunette hair as if she were a child, or

a pet. “Just take your medicine and you can rest some more.”

Sara hated the pills. They were meant to help her but all they did was further dilute her sense of reality. She

sometimes swallowed the pills obediently when her mother brought them but other times she hid them in her

cheeks. They were large and difficult to obscure, but she had learned to rotate them with her tongue so that they

sat vertically. Then she could hide them back towards her jaw line and her mother wouldn’t notice.

Her mother held out a glass of water. Her mother’s hands were adorned with the ridiculous long red nails she

bought from the Chinese woman at the mall. They were weapons. Her mother tried to use them to caress but

Sara had been pinched by them more than once.

After her mother left, Sara spit the pills into her palm in the darkness. There was a bitterness in her mouth - the

pills had begun to dissolve in her cheeks. But she hadn’t ingested enough for the medicine to affect her. She

shoved the pills underneath the mattress on the side near the wall, her hand coming in contact with other pills she

had banished earlier. It was a good thing her mother wasn’t the type to flip mattresses over.

Sara’s eyes adjusted quickly to the darkness and soon she could make out some familiar shapes. Light that

penetrated the thin window curtains from the streetlight outside extended up onto the ceiling a few feet back

from the window to form a sort of large, tilted box. Sara imagined it to be a box when her medication took full

effect - a magical, glowing place where she could hide and find sanctuary. But she had never gotten up to

examine it more closely. The medicine made her woozy. Besides, she never left her bed.

She could smell the contents of the bedpan underneath the bed. It reminded her of the times they had visited her

grandmother in the nursing home when she was little and of the hopelessness she had sensed there. Her mother

hadn’t gone to bed and forgotten to empty it, had she? Sara listened breathlessly until she detected sounds of

china clinking together in the kitchen. Her mother was doing the dishes, then. She could picture her own full

dinner plate wrapped neatly in plastic sitting in the refrigerator next to her uneaten sandwich from lunch. She ran

her hands over her flat stomach, across her modest breasts and down her taut thighs. She liked the way her body

felt, so minimal and lean, the physical manifestation of her withdrawal from the world.

Her thoughts became disjointed as she gradually succumbed to sleep. When she opened her eyes again she was

aware that time had passed by some vague uneasiness of her inner clock. The room was still just as dark and still

but now she sensed that someone was in the room with her. Their silence unnerved her and she was finally

moved to speak.


“It’s me,” her father’s voice responded. Sara had not spoken to her father since she had taken to her bed and she

felt betrayed by the darkness. “Your mother was very upset and I sent her to bed,” he continued. “She was

crying. I told her I’d check on you. Is there anything you need?”

Sara wouldn’t ask him to empty the bedpan. She would tolerate the sweet, acrid smell and her aching bladder all

night rather than ask him to do that. He would never think of it himself. He was largely unaware of what went on

in Sara’s room.

A shape emerged from the darkness near the doorway that she knew must be her father. The shape quickly drew

closer, becoming more distinctly human but never fully identifiable.

“Do you need anything, Sara?” he repeated. “Is there anything I can do?”

Sara wanted to ignore him but she felt uneasy alone with him in the darkness and she believed that words would

remove him more quickly than silence.

“No,” she replied, with an effort.

Her father lingered. “Sara, just before this happened we had that talk about your school. I’ve been wondering -

that didn’t have anything to do with this, did it?”

Sara couldn’t bring herself to speak to him again.

“I mean, I had a right to be concerned. That school costs a lot of money - a hell of a lot of money - and are you

going to be able to make a living when you’re through? It’s just not practical to study art. You might as well

study philosophy or theater for all the good it will do you. I work hard for my money, damn hard! I hate to throw

it away on some childish whim.” Her father’s voice grew as heated as it had that other time he had spoken to her

about her school. Being unable to see him clearly it was almost as if someone else had crept into Sara’s room

and were sadistically playing a recording of her father’s words from the original conversation.

Do you love me? Sara thought, unwilling to take the risk of saying the words out loud.

“What you need is to get up out of that bed and get involved in something,” her father continued more calmly.

“You’ve got to pull yourself together.”

Do you love me?

“You need to get out of that bed,” her father repeated. “If you want to study art, fine. Go to your school

tomorrow and arrange to get back to your studies. I didn’t tell you to stop – I never told you to stop,” he repeated

with sudden conviction. “I was just concerned.”

The silence that followed seemed heightened in the darkness. Her father remained in the room a few minutes

longer as if waiting for some sign from Sara but she felt void and empty and had nothing to offer him.

Eventually his figure retreated toward the door and merged back into the darkness. “Good night.” he said heavily

before shutting Sara in alone.

Once he had gone, Sara’s listless body came to life. She scooted toward the wall and shoved her arm beneath the

mattress, groping with difficulty as her own weight hampered her efforts. She began pulling out pills until she

had amassed as many as she could locate from her hiding place. She reached for the plastic pitcher her mother

always kept on the bed stand and drank directly from it, indiscriminately dousing herself and the mattress,

pausing between gulps to insert pills into her mouth. When there were no pills left she replaced the pitcher,

wiped her mouth with a bony hand and lay back upon the bed.

It wasn’t long before the pills began to take affect. She experienced the familiar lightheadedness, the retreating

from reality. But this time the drugs didn’t stop there. They continued to force her farther and farther in,

threatening to overwhelm her into nothingness.

I didn’t mean it! I didn’t mean it! her mind screamed. But her tongue seemed heavy and unmanageable and she

was unable to use it to produce any meaningful sound. Panic flowed through her like a sudden surge of

electricity. She sat up and swung her legs around so that they hung over the side of the bed. She slid forward

until her bare heels rested on the braided rug next to her bed. Slowly and carefully she rose to her full height and

began progressing unsteadily across the floor, as awkward as a foal trying its legs for the first time. There was a

buzzing in her head and patches of blackness danced before her eyes. She had to make it across the room, to save

herself before it was too late. A beatific smile broke out upon Sara’s face as the tips of her outstretched fingers

became illuminated by the light coming in through the window. If she could only find the entrance to the box,

she would be safe yet.

The Painting

“The walls in here should be powder blue.”

Powder blue? Like eye shadow or something?” the man asked, harshly.

The woman sighed at his literal interpretation. “It’s similar to the color of Bobby’s room now. It would go with

the stripes on the furniture and with the curtains.”

Their voices echoed in the empty house. Janice’s low-heeled pumps thumped on the wooden floor dramatically

as she crossed the room. They’d have to put down some carpeting to deaden the noise or the sound of the

children scampering across the floor would drive Dave wild.

When she turned about, he had wandered out of the boxy living room. She found him standing in the foyer.

“What color do you want out here?” he asked.

“I like it the way it is now, creamy white. Otherwise Nonnie’s painting will look odd,” Janice said.

The painting she referred to did not hang upon any of the walls of the house. It had been painted directly on the

wall of the landing, clearly visible from the lower-level foyer. The painting was in a style reminiscent of early

Americana. It depicted a woman beating a colorful rug suspended from a clothesline while several children

nearby followed their various pursuits. One child was bent at the waist watching a yellow butterfly on a bush.

One child in a white blouse and flowered jumper was skipping rope. Another child, a boy in overalls, read a

book under the shade of a lush tree. Three other children were playing ‘Ring Around the Rosie’. It took some

careful searching to spy the seventh child, a boy whose round face was barely visible peeping around the edge of

a tree in the background.

The painting was whimsical and cheerful but in sad condition. The paint itself had cracked in many places. In

addition the wall had been subjected to the dirty hands of small children over the years. The formerly creamy

white wall could hardly be called any sort of white in several particularly dirty spots. An amateur artist or two

had taken their crayons to the artwork as well, not improving its appearance in any respect.

Dave looked up at the artwork with a sour expression. “You know we have to paint over that, don’t you? It’s one

of the first things people will see when they come in.”

“But my grandmother painted it. It’s a depiction of herself and her children,” Janice retorted, moving closer to

the stairway.

She still remembered the summer she and her mother had come to visit and had ended up staying at her

grandmother’s almost a month. Her grandmother had been ill and her mother had been preoccupied in caring for

her. Janice had soon tired of the few toys she had been allowed to bring with her. She had taken to spending long

periods of time seated on a step of the upper stairway, studying the woman on the wall and her children. She had

named each of them after friends back home or characters in her favorite books and had made up stories about

what they were doing in the painting and what would happen next.

One day when her grandmother had been feeling better, Janice had gone into her bedroom, plopped down on the

edge of the bed and declared “You’re a great painter, Nonnie.”

Nonnie had laughed. “Your mother told me you were fascinated by that picture on the landing! I’m no artist,

child. I never tried to draw or paint anything besides that one picture. I just wanted a painting of my children and

we couldn’t afford one by a real artist. So I decided to make my own sort of picture.”

She had drawn Janice to her with arms still shaky from illness and with one arm around her narrow shoulders

had explained the true identity of the children on the wall. Janice’s mother was the sweet child in the painting

studying the butterfly. Uncle Peter, who had died in the Korean War and whom Janice had never seen, was the

boy peeping shyly out from behind the tree. Aunt Elyse, sensitive about a strawberry-shaped birthmark on her

cheek, had insisted in tears that she didn’t want to appear in the painting at all. She was the ‘Ring Around the

Rosie’ participant with her back to the viewer. The other two forming the circle were the diminutive twins, Patty

and Hattie. Fully grown neither of them had ever topped five feet. The boy reading beneath the tree was Uncle

Stephen, who had grown up to be a doctor in New Jersey. And the girl skipping rope was Aunt Jane who lived

near Janice’s family and was the only one of her mother’s siblings she was well-acquainted with. Thus the

artwork, which had at first been the catalyst for her flights of fancy, had become a link to her own roots.

“We have to keep it, somehow,” Janice muttered, ascending a few steps up the wooden stairs as if to protect the

artwork physically.

“Look, I’ll bring my camera over and take a nice clear photo of it,” Dave offered. “We can have it enlarged to

poster-size if you want and you can hang it somewhere less central in the house. But the landing will have to be


Janice knew he had a valid complaint, that the painting was truly in sad repair. But the light coming in through

the landing window hit the painting just as it had when she had been a bored young girl so many years ago,

highlighting the fascinating panorama of people at work and play. She turned to her husband, her eyes pleading.

“Don’t you understand? I spent so much time looking at this painting and thinking about these people when I

was a girl. It’s like a favorite dog-eared old book only in this case there’s just this one copy. I can’t bring myself

to bury it under a coat of paint.”

Dave sighed and shifted his weight uncomfortably. For someone who had been an athlete in high school he

moved awkwardly now, his once lithe frame hampered by excess weight. “Janice, you know I don’t like antiques

and old-fashioned stuff. The only reason I’m willing to move here at all is because my office moved and it will

cut twenty-five minutes off of my commute. And because you promised we could modernize the interior if we

moved in.”

“I can’t let this painting be destroyed, Dave,” she repeated. “Maybe I can clean it up, make it look better.”

Dave moved over to the staircase and rested one hand on the modest newel post. “How can you clean that up?

The crayon marks go right over the paint in spots.”

“Just let me try. Let me try to fix it up. Then we can decide what to do.” Janice beseeched him.

“I guess you can try,” Dave conceded reluctantly. “But come Monday morning we have to arrange for the

painters or they won’t finish in time for us to move in.”

“I’ll come back tomorrow and work on it,” Janice promised.

She returned the next day with a box containing all her cleaning supplies and an optimistic heart. She attacked

the crayon marks with a toothbrush dipped in an orange cleaner and was gratified to see them begin to fade. But

when she tried to clean the hand marks she was appalled to find that the paint itself began to peel off the walls.

She stopped scrubbing immediately. She tried working on another area, more gingerly, but the paint there began

to peel as well. She dropped the sponge into the bucket and gazed up at the artwork from her new vantage point,

crouched on the landing floor. From that angle the painting looked indistinct and faded. She sat down upon the

landing, gazed up at the familiar scene, and burst into tears. “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry,” she murmured aloud,

feeling as if she had failed her grandmother, her mother, her aunts and uncles.

She sat there cross-legged on the landing for a long time, crying at first for the loss of the painting but then

proceeding to mourn the loss of her mother all over again, the loss of her grandmother and finally the loss of her

youth. She would never again be the innocent young girl who had sat upon that step and used the painting as a

springboard into her own imaginary world. Those times were lost to her forever.

When she returned home, her husband was in the kitchen making a sandwich. She deposited the box of cleaning

supplies on the table as if it were a heavy burden. Her husband continued with his task, not even acknowledging

her presence even though he must have heard her. She didn’t understand his aloofness at times. Maybe he was

just preoccupied about work, as he often claimed to be. But she tended to take his silence personally.

“You can paint the foyer any color you want,” she remarked brusquely, moving past him to deposit her keys on

the appropriate hook on the wall.

“What happened?” he asked, turning toward her with a thick sandwich in one hand. “Couldn’t you get it clean?”

“No, I couldn’t,” she snapped. “I give up.”

“Do you want me to take some photographs of it for you before the painters come?” he asked. Photography was

Dave’s hobby although he had been too busy to take many photos lately.

Janice remembered the condition of the painting when she had left it. “No. The paint started peeling off of the

wall when I was scrubbing. It looks awful now,” she said, her eyes beginning to fill with fresh tears. She

impatiently wiped them away. She had already had a good cry and it was pointless to shed more tears over the


Dave came up to her, placed an arm around her shoulder and patted it. “The foyer will look great with a new coat

of paint. We can go out shopping together and find something nice to hang on the wall. Something modern.” He

raised his right hand and took another bite out of his sandwich.

Janice knew he was trying to comfort her, but it reminded her of the time when she was nine and her parakeet

had died. The very same day her dad had suggested that they go to the pet store and buy a new one, as if

something beloved could be so easily replaced. “Excuse me,” she muttered, pulling away from Dave’s embrace

and leaving the kitchen.

It was easier not to think about the fate of Nonnie’s painting during the week, busy as she was working full time

and doing things with the children. Dave had promised to arrange for the painters himself and she had no doubt

he would take care of it in his efficient way. They had gone over the colors one last time Sunday night and she

was confident that the results would be close enough to what she wanted. She preferred that the work be done

without her direct involvement. That way she could just go there the following weekend and it would all be over.

She could imagine what the landing wall would look like with a fresh new coat of paint – flat and vacuous. They

had chosen to paint it a medium green instead of white to help minimize the effect of their own children’s hands

upon the walls as they passed between the first and second floors.

One day that week at lunch Janice sat by herself and wrote out a description of Nonnie’s painting. She detailed

as best she could the colors and locations of each item, even making a stick-figure representation, the simplicity

of which had caused a rare smile to flicker across her face. She noted who each child had been in real life and

what had become of them. She feared that once the painting was no more she would forget some element or

aspect and it all seemed too important to forget. She wouldn’t be able to share the painting with her own children

but she could at least sit with them and describe it and tell them about those warm summer days she had spent

daydreaming on the stairs. She was doubtful they would appreciate such a simple pleasure, occupied as they

usually were with electronic games and computers. But maybe her recollection would make some impression on


By the end of the week she had become resigned to the loss of the painting. She was prepared to move forward

and start from scratch in making Nonnie’s house their own. She wasn’t ready to hang anything else on the

landing wall just yet, but overall she looked forward to going to the house that Friday night and seeing the

freshly painted rooms.

So as not to make it a wasted trip they packed their car full of items that they could do without until the move,

things like throw pillows, silk plants, linens. Each of the children brought a couple of their favorite items to put

in their new bedrooms, to help mark them as their own.

Dave pulled the car to the back of the driveway and they headed for the back door that led to the kitchen. To

Janice’s surprise, when they clicked on the light the kitchen walls were the same pale yellow they had been the

last time she had been in the house. The children quickly scampered off to put their things in their new rooms as

Janice deposited the items she carried on the counter.

“Well, they didn’t paint this room,” she commented, turning on the overhead light. There were still some lighter

circles visible next to the stove where the former tenant’s china plates had hung and vacated nail holes in several

places where pictures had been.

“Everything’s not done yet, but you’ll like what they’ve finished,” Dave said with a mirthful grin. Janice couldn’t imagine why he seemed so merry. When she thought about it, he had been unusually cheerful since he’d gotten home from work.

They moved into the living room and it had also obviously not been painted. “Just who did you hire to do the work?” Janice asked skeptically. Dave’s only response was that grin.

She couldn’t imagine what was going on. Dave was usually on top of things better than this. She had expected to find everything finished to specification. Instead there was still much work to be done and it would now have to be accomplished after they had moved in which would cause them a great deal of inconvenience. And yet Dave seemed positively happy about the situation. It was puzzling.

“Come this way, Hon,” Dave said, leading her to the foyer. The area was largely in shadows, the only light being that which came in through the landing window from the streetlight outside. But even in the

dim light Janice could tell the walls here had not been painted either and that Nonnie’s painting was still resident on the landing wall. She had come to terms with the loss of the painting - to find out that it still existed was like reopening a healing wound. Janice turned to Dave to berate him for letting the contractor be so lax and for allowing this to happen when he grabbed her hand and pulled her forward. She didn’t realize he held something in his other hand until he held it forth and a light suddenly blazed. It was their heavy-duty emergency lantern.

He kept on moving across the floor and up the stairs, tugging her firmly along with him. He stopped just a step below the landing and aimed the lantern on the wall before them.

It was magical, like a trip back through time. The background wall was a pristine white. The figures and other objects looked crisp and newly painted as if Nonnie had just laid down her brush and gone off to make biscuits. The colors were bright and bold, not the faded tints Janice had known. The muted blues and pinks of the rug were now vibrant teal, royal blue and fuchsia. The green leaves seemed newly sprouted from the long dormant trees and bushes. The children seemed to frolic more joyously, decked out in new clothes. But the painting was the same for all it’s freshness, the very same that had spurred her imagination so long ago.

“How did you do this?” Janice asked breathlessly, turning to Dave with a look of wonder.

Dave was grinning more broadly than he had in ages. “I hired a woman who restores paintings for a living. She had never worked with wall paint before. The figures were done in oil, though. She scraped the paint and discovered the true colors had been much brighter originally so this is what it looked like when your grandmother first painted it. The woman put a clear coat over it to protect it. If it gets dirty, you should be able to wash it right off.”

“Why did you do this when you don’t even like the painting?” Janice asked.

“I knew what it meant to you,” Dave replied almost sheepishly. “And I wouldn’t say I don’t like it. I mean, it looks pretty nice now. I guess when you have an old house it’s appropriate to have some old things. The restoration cost so much we’ll have to do the rest of the painting ourselves, though.”

Janice threw her arms around Dave and kissed him. To her surprise he held her quite tightly for a moment and returned her kiss more fervently than she had expected. Then they stood with their arms around each other and gazed appreciatively at Nonnie’s painting, the silence punctured by delighted squeals from above and the pounding of small feet as their son and daughter frolicked through the empty rooms upstairs playing a spontaneous game of hide and seek.

Confronting Him

A can of shaving cream, a disposable razor and a worn red toothbrush were sprawled on the bathroom sink, the toothbrush a mere two inches from the toothbrush holder where it should have sat tidily next to hers. There was a sprinkling of minute dark hairs in the sink like overspray from a can of paint, despite evidence that an attempt had been made to wipe them away with the hand towel.

Clare proceeded into the living room. The poster-sized black and white photograph of a 1950’s Paris street presiding over the sofa looked particularly austere at the prospect of continuing to share the living room with the large color poster of Neil Young in concert displayed kitty-corner to it. She had no personal dislike of Neil Young - she enjoyed some of his music herself. But juxtaposed to her quaint European scene his presence was visually jarring.

Ben had hung the poster of the musician the night before without any prior discussion. Afterward he had looked at her triumphantly as if he had done something marvelous, and she had been unable to protest. After all, he had just finished moving in the rest of his things and they would have to share the space.

But she hadn’t really considered the impact the decision to let him move in would have on her senses. She hadn’t realized how badly his red painted bedstand and dresser would clash with her pastel-colored bedroom and French Provincial furniture, how his cheap and sagging bookcase would clutter up the kitchen (the only space available for it), how his extensive record collection would look stacked in metal crates next to her living room wall.

Worse than his inanimate possessions was his dog, Otis. Clare used to think she liked Otis. When she

had visited Ben’s apartment Otis had always come up to her excitedly wagging his tail and she had patted his broad head and said “Hi, Otis! Hi, boy.”. Then Ben had pointed to the other side of the room and ordered Otis to sit and he had obliged, rarely moving throughout the evening except to scootch forward while chewing a cowhide treat or to stand occasionally and peer out the window when he heard something passing. Clare had not given a second thought about the prospect of Otis moving into her condominium.

When Ben was home, Otis wasn’t much of a problem. If he became too insistent for her attention, Ben would give him an order and he would immediately back off. But when Ben wasn’t home, Clare couldn’t sit down without Otis coming up and putting his front legs and virtually his front half into her lap. No matter how she tried to imitate Ben, pointing and issuing orders, Otis would not mind her. She had quickly learnt she must leave the bathroom door shut in the mornings while applying her makeup as well, even though it was still steamy from her shower and the mirror was apt to fog up. If she left the door open Otis would invariably come in and stick his nose up her skirt. It was like living with a lecherous old uncle.

Clare opened the walk-in closet and sighed. Blocked by Ben’s on-end coffee table and massive weights she could barely reach her clothes and could only touch a limited selection of them at that. Something had to change.

“Why don’t you get a bigger place?” Jenny asked later that day at work. “Ben makes decent money, doesn’t he?”

Clare pictured the sagging bookcase, the red furniture, the poster and metal crates.“It’s not just that we’re cramped,” Clare replied. “It’s his belongings. They’re all makeshift - cheap, and ugly. I just don’t

want them in the house.”

“You don’t want them in the house, or Ben?” Jenny asked thoughtfully.

“I don’t know,” Clare admitted. “I thought it was a great idea for Ben to move in, everything seemed to be going so well between us. But I can’t stand the way the apartment is now. I feel as if my home has been taken over by an invader. Two invaders,” she corrected, “Ben and his dog.”

That night when Clare got home, Ben was in the shower. Otis came to greet her at the door, accepting her pat on the head before nudging his nose up under her skirt. “Down, Otis! Down!” Clare ordered, to no avail. She pushed past the dog and strode purposefully into the bedroom. The dog’s brown eyes gazed at her mournfully as she shut the door firmly between them.

Ben’s work clothes lay on the floor on his side of the bed except for one lone sock rolled into a ball that was perched atop the bed. The closet door had been left open and light spilled out around it. Clare sighed and sat down on the edge of the bed, uncertain whether she should pick up after Ben or whether she should make him do it himself. She imagined these were the kinds of decisions a parent had to make when raising a child.

The background hiss of the shower came abruptly to a halt. Clare remained seated on the bed. She felt she had to say something to Ben about his sloppiness and about Otis’s rude behavior. Waiting for him to come into the bedroom she felt frustrated and nervous at the same time. She had never been comfortable with confrontations.

Ben came into the room moments later, his hair casually disarrayed. He wore jeans and a sweater that

Clare had given him for his birthday. His dark hair was damp and tousled accentuating his boyish features. His hazel eyes seemed to brighten when he saw her sitting there. “Hi, sweetheart,” he said, bending to give her a warm kiss and quick hug.

“Hi,” Clare echoed softly, disconcerted by the way he looked and smelled - a botanical/medicinal combination of shampoo and deodorant.

“I thought I’d take you to dinner after your tough day at work,” he said, picking up the dirty clothes from the floor. He missed the errant sock that had nestled next to Clare’s derriere when she had sat down.

“How do you know I had a tough day?” Clare asked curiously.

“I called you twice. The first time Jenny told me you were on the phone with IS trying to get your computer working and the second time she said you were searching for a missing file. I figured you’d be a little frazzled after all that. Oh, by the way, did you notice my coffee table is gone? John came and picked it up after work.”

“I thought you didn’t want to get rid of it,” Clare remarked walking to the closet and peering inside. Now only the weights blocked her access and Ben had shifted them so that they were less obtrusive.

“I figured I might as well give it away. We only need one coffee table,” Ben replied. When he opened the bedroom door Otis was blocking the doorway, his mouth open in a pseudo-smile while his backend wagged enthusiastically. “Move!” Ben ordered, pointing toward his left. Otis closed his mouth and seemed to give Ben a sullen look as he slunk out of the way.

“I’m glad I ordered the barbeque chicken. It was terrific,” Clare remarked as they re-entered the

apartment later, a styrofoam box clutched in her hands.

“You didn’t eat very much,” Ben replied.

“I get full quickly. Besides, this way I have a good lunch for tomorrow.” She turned toward Ben with a

spontaneous smile.

“What?” he asked, smiling in response.

“Thank you for taking me out tonight. I was - out of sorts earlier, but I feel better now.”

Ben leaned forward and they kissed. He held her closer and the styrofoam container she held creaked in


“Oops! I better put this away before we’re covered in barbeque sauce,” Clare remarked, pulling away.

She walked into the kitchen. As she placed the container in the refrigerator she heard the






of Otis’s nails on the kitchen floor. When she shut the door he was standing beside

her with that same phony smile on his face, begging to be petted. She reached over and patted the

coarse hairs atop his head for a moment trying to appease him. Then he ducked his head and thrust his

cold nose beneath her skirt. Clare strode purposefully to the kitchen table and snatched up the

newspaper. She rolled it into a tight cylinder and turned toward the dog with a scowl. Otis eyed the

weapon in her hand and, correctly judging her mood, scurried from the kitchen.

When Clare returned to the living room, Ben had turned on the television and was seated on the sofa. “I

thought I’d check up on the news,” he remarked. “Are you going to read the paper now?” he asked,

spotting the object in her hand.

“No,” she replied, coming to sit beside him. “It’s for tomorrow morning when I’m putting on my


While He Taught Chaucer

The ramrod straight figure of a young woman stood on the suspension bridge twenty feet above the river, the

wind whipping her long blonde hair back from her face. Her prominent chin and narrowed blue eyes gave her a

look of determination. She slowly raised a square white envelope in both hands. After gazing at it lingeringly

with that mixture of sadness and despair usually reserved for funerals, the young woman squatted down, reached

between the upright railing posts, and released it.

At the precise moment she let go the capricious wind changed direction. The letter that had been intended for a

watery fate instead sailed peacefully over the river and became caught up in some brush on the far side.

At first this turn of events seemed inconsequential. The important thing had been writing the letter, it hardly

mattered how she disposed of it. But as she started walking back toward the side of the bridge where her car was

parked she began thinking. The envelope had been addressed simply to ‘Palmer”, but the name was unusual and

this was a college town. Palmer Reiss had been teaching at the college for many years. A book of his poems had

just been published. All things considered it seemed possible that anyone finding the letter might realize for

whom it was intended.

Worse, she had signed the heartfelt missive ‘Mari’ - an odd spelling - short for Marielle. If someone gave the

letter to Mr. Reiss, he might well make the connection. Especially since the letter included one of her original

poems. He was familiar with her style.

There was nothing to be done but to fetch the letter back. Rather than head in the opposite direction to get her car

she decided to walk there and back across the long bridge.

He’s teaching Chaucer now. Marielle thought. She had signed up for the class, but had dropped it that first day

after someone had come into the classroom and announced that there would be no class that day because the

teacher was away on his honeymoon. Mr. Reiss, on his honeymoon! Marielle had tried to look impassive at the

news, but she had suffered tremendously inside.

She had become smitten by Mr. Reiss’ confident manner and droll English humor in the poetry class she had

taken. After she had discovered that Mr. Reiss habituated the cafeteria mid mornings she had dropped a class to

do likewise. To her disappointment she had not been the only student to frequent Mr. Reiss’ table. There had

been generally four or five of them, mostly young women.

Where are those girls now? Marielle thought bitterly as she tramped the remaining yards to the end of the bridge.

They didn’t feel it necessary to purge themselves writing rash letters.

She walked along the top of the bank. The slope to the water seemed treacherously steep. She kept one eye on

the trees to her left, trying to pinpoint the forked one that had been just above the envelope as she had viewed it

from the bridge. When she found it she stopped. She descended the bank, walking backwards as if down a

ladder. Eventually the spiny branches of the bushes tore at her legs, causing a network of brown scars to form on

her pantyhose.

Marielle finally spotted the letter. She crab-walked toward it until she was able to snatch it up with the tips of her

fingers. Her first thought was to tear it up, but since she was in such a precarious position she shoved it into the

back pocket of her skirt. She stood up straighter and abruptly tumbled backwards, grabbing at the bushes but too

late. Before she realized what had happened she was submerged in icy water below the river’s surface.

She was a good swimmer and reached the shore in a few strokes but its steepness made it impossible for her to

get a purchase. She scanned the shore. It appeared that the slope became gentler upstream. After much effort she

finally came ashore twenty yards from the place where she’d gone under.

This frigid dunking succeeded in killing the last vestiges of her love for Mr. Reiss. She blamed him for all her

misfortunes and current discomforts and only hoped she’d never see him again. The combination of wind and

wet made her as miserably cold as she could be. She trudged disgustedly toward the bridge - much farther away

after her swim - fantasizing about a warm bath and some hot chocolate.

When she reached the road a horn honked, startling her. “Can I give you a lift?” the panel truck driver asked. He

looked harmless, like one of the college boys she took classes with.

“How did you happen to fall in?” the driver asked, after she was seated in the passenger seat.

“I dropped something important,” Marielle replied, suddenly reaching into her back pocket. She pulled out the

soggy envelope and tossed it onto the dashboard, relieved it was still in her possession.

When they arrived back at her car, the driver commented, “It looks like your troubles aren’t over.” Marielle

peered out the window. The left front tire of her car was totally flat. While the truck driver kindly changed the

tire Marielle stood numbly by, ignoring his orders to return to the warmth of the truck.

After she drove away, the young man returned to the truck. He picked up the envelope addressed to “Palmer”

from the dashboard. He had never learned the young woman’s name so there was no way to return it to her. She

had said the letter was important. He was on his way to deliver some books to the college bookstore for a signing

by Palmer Reiss. Maybe she’d planned to give this letter to him at the signing. She had looked like a college

student. He decided to bring the letter along and see that it got to Mr. Reiss.

Swept Clean

The broom straws made a lulling “shh, shh,” sound against the wooden floor of the porch. The woman

plying the broomstick was peering off into the distance. As it was pitch dark out she couldn’t hope to

witness the fruits of her labor. She was just able to discern a small difference in tone between the pitch-

black, moonless sky and the consummate darkness of the trees covering the ridge in the distance. The

summer air was alive with the hum of a populous insect choir, reminiscent of the sound of leaking gas.

A light suddenly went on next to the front door of the cabin. The woman blinked and quickly shaded

her eyes with one hand. She was tall and thin, her face just beginning to show the haggardness of age.

The front door swung open and a man leaned out. His hair was dark for the most part but becoming

sparse at the temples. His stomach, protruding beyond the edge of the screen door upon which he

leaned, was far more ample than it had been in his youth. “What are you doing out here?” he

complained, swatting at the insects that had already begun to collect.

“Turn off that light,” the woman ordered, turning her head away and resuming her sweeping.

The man did as she wished and the porch was once more cloaked in blackness. She heard a metallic

creaking as the storm door closed and then moaning floorboards. Still, she nearly jumped when the man

spoke again at her very shoulder.

“What are you doing?”

“You should be in bed, asleep,” she countered.

“I was worried about you. There are animals out here, you know,” the man replied, slapping his arm. A

mosquito had found him.

“Animals won’t bother me on the porch. Besides, I’m armed,” the woman replied, swatting him

playfully with the broom.

“Did we spill something out here earlier that I don’t recall?” the man asked as she resumed her task.

“I was just thinking. Somehow when I sweep I’m able to think more clearly.”

The man swatted himself here and there in a maneuver the woman would have found humorous if she

could have seen it.

“There’s a can of bug spray on the kitchen counter,” she advised. “Do you want to know what I’ve been


“You’ve probably been missing the brat,” the man replied lightly.

“Don’t call her that! She’s a good kid,” the woman admonished.

“Well, I miss her too. I thought we’d come up here and have a wild time; two parents suddenly on the

loose. But there’s this emptiness she used to fill.”

“I know,” the woman replied, sweeping with renewed vigor.

“Why did she have to move to Denver? There had to be a good job somewhere closer to home,” the

man complained, making the mistake of stooping down to rub both legs and getting whapped on the

chin by the top of the broomstick. “Ouch!”

“What happened?” the woman asked, mystified.

“I bent down and hit your broomstick with my face,” the man replied in a muffled voice.

“Sorry, Hon. Did it ruin your good looks?” the woman asked, pausing just long enough to locate and

pat her husband’s face.

“Not as much as the mosquito-bite welts on my arms and legs. Can’t we talk inside?” the man implored


“In a minute. I want to tell you what I’ve decided out here because this is where I made up my mind.”

“About what?” the man asked warily.

“I want to move up here with you. Permanently,” the woman announced, gazing contentedly off into

the darkness again.

“There are no jobs up here. Where would we work?” the man asked.

“We could find something to do. Maybe we could start a cottage industry of some kind! It wouldn’t be

as expensive living up here and we’d have the equity from the house to back us up.”

“Do you know how cold it gets up here in the winter? That little heater in there wouldn’t be able to

handle it. We’d need to have a regular furnace installed. And we don’t have enough room to store

supplies - we’d need to add a pantry onto the cabin. We couldn’t possibly get it ready in time for this

winter,” the man advised.

“We might, if we got things in motion right away. We could go home in the morning and put the house

on the market,” the woman said.



“It would be beautiful up here in the winter with all that pure, white snow. And it’s so peaceful! We

could take Polar Bear swims in the lake. We could go on hikes and breathe the clean, fresh air. We

could get away from our boring lives and get back to nature, live life the way it was meant to be lived!”

Anna exclaimed, wielding the broom so zealously that it rose to almost waist height on the upswings.

Her husband reached around her from behind and grasped the broomstick firmly, bringing the

pendulum to a halt with an effort. “Why do you really want to move up here?” he asked softly, his

voice hovering next to her ear in the darkness like the persistent hum of an insect. “Is it that with all

these other changes going on you think you won’t notice that Jenna is gone?”

His words jolted her like the priming of a pump and her eyes suddenly overflowed with tears. She

turned toward her husband and he held her, the broom a hard, foreign presence between them. When

she had eventually cried herself out he took the broom and banished it to a spot against the railing. The

first rays of dawn came unexpectedly revealing their tired, cheerless faces.

“What say we act like two wild parents on the loose?” the man suggested, stroking his wife’s cheek and

giving her a lingering kiss.

“Let’s act like two gluttons first. I’ll make breakfast,” she replied with a loving smile.

Wing Walker

It was a grainy black and white photograph on stiff paper, almost as thick as cardboard. The main

object, an old bi-plane, was not quite centered. A man stood atop the upper wing above the plane’s twin

cockpits. The man wore dark baggy trousers and a stark white shirt with long sleeves. His arms were

spread wide, his hands extended gracefully as if he were taking a bow. His right leg was crossed

casually over his left as if he were leaning against his fencepost at home, carrying on a conversation

with a neighbor. Although almost hidden by the vertical line of his body there did appear to be some

kind of upright pole behind him barely visible between his legs. The man’s face, while not handsome,

was pleasing, at least partly due to the gleeful expression on his otherwise non-remarkable features.

“Is this grandpa or his brother?” the dark-haired woman asked, holding out the photo toward an elderly

woman seated in a worn Victorian armchair to her left. The woman took the photograph gingerly in her

thin, arthritic fingers and moved it further away from her as she squinted at it with her still remarkable

blue eyes.

“Oh, that was Osgood, absolutely. See the way he holds himself? Ralph never had that king of flair,

that aplomb. But Osgood was graceful, a natural. This photo was taken around the time I met him. It

was the only close-up ever taken of him performing.”

“You’ll definitely want to take this with you,” the dark-haired woman said, taking the photograph back

with the care such a treasure deserved.

“Oh no dear, I have so many photos I’m taking already.There will never be enough room for them all.

Why don’t you take that one? Osgood would want it to be passed down in the family.”

The dark-haired woman studied the photograph a moment. She didn’t remember her grandfather at all,

although there was a photograph in her parent’s album of him holding her when she was just a baby. In

that picture he displayed the same merry smile in spite of the cancer that had already decimated his

frame and had caused his face to become thin and pale. He had passed away before her first birthday.

“He must have really been something,” she remarked, hoping this would spark her grandmother into

reciting the familiar litany about her grandfather’s achievements.

“He was a remarkable man,” the elderly woman averred. “He learned how to fly a plane in World War I

but before that, when he was only thirteen, he worked in the circus as a tightrope walker. They even

shot him out of a cannon a few times! He always said the gunfire during the war didn’t keep him

awake. When he heard the big guns booming out he thought he was back with the circus and slept like

a baby. After the army he and his brother bought the Clarissa, named after their mother. They used her

for barnstorming and when that went out of vogue they converted her for crop-dusting. I met them for

the first time at the local county fair. Osgood was a fascinating man. So fascinating that I fell for him

when he was all of 29 and I was the tender age of 18. He’d never been married before, he’d just never

taken the time to settle down. I knew I only had a week to make an impression on him, because that

was how long the fair lasted. I showed up at the fairground every morning and brought him treats,

things like homemade preserves and fresh strawberry tarts. I hung around for hours chattering like a

magpie, chasing away any other girls that wanted to monopolize his time. I made him take me on

numerous flights even though it made me nauseous, and he made me pay for the privilege, thank you

very much! I never knew how he felt about me until I arrived the last day of the fair and he commanded

me to close my eyes. He led me outside and I could smell a strong scent in the air, like sour milk.

Before I could guess what it was he told me to open my eyes. There was the Clarissa with a new coat of

paint and the name “Emmeline” emblazoned across the side! I knew how much that plane meant to

him, and after that I knew where I stood. We got married two weeks later, between engagements.”

“Are you very sorry to be leaving this house, grandma?” the dark-haired woman asked, gazing about at

the cluttered room. The customarily neat space was now filled with a hodgepodge of antiques and

newer items, brought out into the open for their owner to sort through.

“I don’t regret leaving the house, as such. I can’t keep up with it anymore. I just wish I didn’t have to

sell it to some stranger. If only one of my children could have used it! But they were all adventuresome

like their father, and moved hither and yon when they were grown. They have all, including your

parents, invited me to live with them at one time or another. But I lived in this town with Osgood and I

don’t want to move far away. I’m just glad you’re close enough to visit me, Skye,” Emmeline

concluded, drawing her granddaughter to her with a weak wave of her hand for a quick hug.

Even though she was nearly thirty, a hug from her grandmother always made Skye feel like a little girl

again. “I’ll visit you at the new place, grandmother,” Skye promised, appalled at how frail and thin the

old woman’s body felt. “As often as I can.”

She left her grandmother’s house with a boxful of things her grandmother had wanted to “pass on” to

her. When she got home she hung the photograph of her grandfather atop the biplane and one of her

grandmother taken at about the same time in a prominent place in her living room and placed the box

with the rest of its contents in the corner of the bedroom. Skye found she liked the photographs so

much she had copies made and displayed them in her office at work. It wasn’t long before a co-worker

noticed them.

“Where did you get these?” Amanda asked, studying the pictures intently. As Skye had placed them on

top of the bookcase across from her desk she was thus accosted by a closer than desirable view of

Amanda’s ample derriere when she looked up to see what the woman was referring to.

“Those are my grandparents,” Skye informed her tapping her pen against a thick pad of paper, her

impatience muffled by the deadening quality of the pad.

“Really?” Amanda replied with surprise. “Your grandmother looks like one of those silent movie

actresses with her bobbed hair and big eyes. She was very pretty.”

“She’s still a beautiful woman,” Skye remarked, somewhat mollified by Amanda’s complement.

“How old is she now?” Amanda asked.

“In her early nineties,” Skye replied. “I just helped her move into an assisted-living apartment. She just

isn’t capable of taking care of a house anymore.”

Amanda continued scrutinizing the photographs. “Is your grandfather still alive, too?”

“No. He passed away when I was just a baby. He had worked with a lot of strong pesticides when he

was a crop-duster and they think that’s what caused the cancer that killed him.”

“That’s why they named you Skye, isn’t it?” Amanda exclaimed, turning suddenly toward her as if

struck with divine inspiration. “Because of your grandfather’s aerial stunts?”

“No,” Skye informed her, regretfully. As pompous as the woman was, she hated to disappoint her. “My

mother’s favorite book when I was born was ‘Skye Cameron’ by Phyllis A. Whitney. I was named after

the main character.”

“Never heard of it,” Amanda replied dismissively, turning back toward the pictures. She suddenly

started to laugh. “It is ironic you know, your grandfather being a daredevil. What with your thing about


Skye had often regretted that it had been Amanda who had answered the phone that day and that she

hadn’t been able to come up with some tall tale about why she couldn’t return to work that afternoon.

She remembered the incident as distinctly as if it had happened that very day. Up until the incident she

had always walked to work from the train station, a half-mile trek that involved crossing a massive iron

bridge on foot to get to the north side of the river. It was a walk she enjoyed most mornings,

invigorating her for the day ahead. In the early afternoon she had crossed the bridge from north to south

to meet a former co-worker for lunch.

It was at some point during that lunch that Mia had remarked “I don’t know how you can stand

crossing that bridge every day. That was one of the reasons I was so glad when this job opened up, so I

could work on this side of the river.” She tapped her index finger down upon the table for emphasis.

At the time Skye had thought her friend’s remark was ridiculous. “What’s so bad about crossing the

river? The bridge is sturdy. It’s perfectly safe.”

“So it would seem. But they do raise that bridge you know, to let boats go under, so just how sturdy

can it be? And there’s all that traffic whizzing by just a few feet away! It used to scare me witless. I’d

hate to admit how many times I gave in to panic and bolted across,” Mia explained, tearing a roll to

pieces with both hands as she talked.

At the time Skye had dismissed it all as nonsense. Mia was obviously too highly strung. But when she

had stepped upon the bridge on her way back to work she had suddenly noticed how much the metal

beneath her feet vibrated as traffic moved past her. She had paused near the railing to look down and

had realized for the first time what a long drop it was to the water’s surface. A tall woman, she had

noted that the iron railing did not in fact even come up to her waist. If someone came by and

accidentally bumped into her as she stood near it, she could easily tumble over!

She was suddenly rooted to the spot, staring at the undulating surface of the water below her. Unable to

proceed, she felt as if the water was beckoning to her, as if it were her inexorable fate to fall from the

bridge to her death below. For someone unused to suicidal thoughts, this insistent and inexplicable

feeling, almost a yearning, was terrifying to her and a rush of adrenaline suddenly flooded her body. It

was this that finally gave her the impetus to move. Turning in panic she dashed back the few yards to

safety, to a concrete sidewalk that was solid and sturdy and didn’t move at the whim of passing

vehicles. Shaken by her experience and unable to think rationally she had wandered to the nearest fast

food place and called work to tell them she couldn’t return that day and had regretably not hesitated to

tell Amanda why.

Since then she had taken to riding the bus across the bridge, gripping the top of the seat in front of her

and turning her head to avoid the view out the window as they proceeded across, her heart pounding in

tempo to her fear, until they were safely over. Every time she rode across she felt foolish and weak and

berated herself for giving in to her phobia. She had avoided Mia ever since that damnable lunch date,

blaming her for causing the whole thing. She was certain that without Mia’s suggestion it would never

have occurred to her to feel unsafe upon the bridge.

Eventually Skye finally started going through the memorabilia in the box she had brought home from

her grandmother’s house. She carefully put aside her mother’s baby shoes and a small ponytail from

her first haircut. She sorted through numerous photographs of her mother and aunts and uncles growing

up in what had at that time been an almost rural setting. She put aside matching table lamps and an

oriental print.

She finally pulled a severely yellowed newspaper clipping from the bottom of the box. There was a

landbound photograph of the Emmeline on the front page with grandfather Osgood and his brother

Ralph posing in the foreground. Beneath the photo the caption read “The Scott Brothers flew away

with the Kingston County Fair”. Skye settled into her favorite chair and read the article.

As she lay in bed that night she recalled Amanda’s remark about the irony of her grandfather being a

daredevil in light of her fear of bridges. Didn’t blood stand for anything? Of course she realized that a

person’s make-up is determined by more than mere genetics, but hadn’t she inherited any of her

grandfather’s adventuresome spirit at all?

She called her grandmother the following day. “Grandma, there’s something I would like to know

about grandpa.”

“What is it, honey?”

“How did he do it? The wing walking, I mean. How did he feel safe enough to stand up there while the

plane flew upside down? How did he stand on his head and know he wouldn’t lose his balance? How

did he handle it all?” Skye asked, then listened intently for her grandmother’s reply.

“Ah, it wasn’t all bravery, you know,” her grandmother replied. “Part of it was science - centrifugal

force. When the plane moved forward at a certain rate of speed the resulting air pressure pinned him to

that pole on the upper wing. In fact, Ralph used to have to drop the plane suddenly to relieve the force

enough for Osgood to get up from those headstands.”

“Centrifugal force,” Skye muttered. This could hardly be the key she was searching for to cope with

her own problems. Her disappointment must have been revealed in her voice, for her grandmother

picked up the subject again.

“Centrifugal force helped in the particular stunts you mentioned. But there were others that involved

hanging from the wing by a hand, by his legs, or by a rope. Then he was in real danger of falling. I

remember when he was going to do a maneuver for the first time he would become – not frightened,

but nervous. It was the only time he could best me at chattering. He would tell me over and over how

he had thought it out and how the stunt should work. It was one thing to practice it on the ground but

things were always different when he actually attempted it up in the air. Once he had successfully

pulled off a stunt for the first time, he never worried about it again. To him it would have been a waste

of time to give it another moment’s thought.”

That fall the bus drivers went on strike. Skye arranged to drive to work with a coworker who normally

drove to work every day. But the coworker called that morning and advised Skye that her car would not

start. Not knowing what else to do, Skye drove to the train station as usual and caught her regular train

for the commute downtown. She decided she would just have to take a taxi to work from the station.

But this proved to be impossible. Few cabs roaming the street in front of the train station were empty

and those that were were quickly commandeered by those who happened to be standing in the right

place at the right time. Skye began walking northward toward work, toward the bridge, hoping that

something would happen on the way to aid her in crossing the river. But before long she stood helpless

facing the metal giant that separated her from work. How could she possibly get to the other side? She

could already feel fear rising within her.

It was the wind that first brought her grandfather to mind. The wind was gusty that day as it often was

in the city and it accosted her with considerable force. She could almost imagine what it would be like,

standing atop a biplane with the wind buffeting her body, pressing her back securely against the support

pole, in effect connecting her to the plane.

She remembered her grandmother telling her that once her grandfather had performed a new stunt he

never worried about it again. How many times had she crossed this very bridge before? She had

worked on the other side of the river for over three years before her fear developed, something like a

thousand days of work, crossing the bridge at least twice each day. Her grandfather would have thought

her foolish, worrying over something she had proven to herself that she could do so many times.

She stepped out onto the bridge. Although the walkway vibrated from the passing vehicles Skye could

still imagine she felt the biplane pole against her back, impelling her along with dignity. She thought of

the newspaper article she had now read several times, about her grandfather performing at the Kingston

County Fair. She followed his feats in her mind’s eye, her steadily moving feet almost breaking into a

jig as he did, smiling softly when the biplane turned upside down and the crowd was, as one, struck

with awe. The walkway of the bridge was not unlike a plane’s wing, long and narrow. But all she was

required to do was walk. Compared to her grandfather’s maneuvers it proved ridiculously easy.

Once she gained the other side she felt jubilant, just as she imagined her grandfather had felt after a

successful performance. There was no crowd to cheer her, but she pictured her grandfather’s gleeful

smile, the one from the old photographs, and claimed it as her reward.

Drinking Liquid Amethysts

It could be inconvenient living in apartment number 6.

It was one of the nicer apartments in the building. The previous tenant had paid out of his own pocket to have the

fireplace restored and the bathroom had at some point been completely gutted and modernized. If you looked in

the right direction out of the living room window on a sunny day you could catch a glint of sunlight reflecting

off of Lake Michigan. The apartment was situated only two blocks from the hospital where Matt worked. In

some ways the circumstances were ideal.

The real problem with living in apartment number 6 had to do with apartment number 7. No one could ever find


The door to apartment number 7 was at the top of a small flight of stairs at the end of the third floor hallway. The

only light at that end of the hallway at night was a pale glow that seeped through the textured hall window from

the streetlight outside. It was impossible for those unfamiliar with the building to tell that there was anything

there at all.

Anyone searching for the attic apartment invariably inquired of the occupant of apartment number 6. This had

not been much of a problem when Matt had moved into the building as the previous tenant of the attic apartment

had had few visitors. But now there was rarely a week that passed in which Matt was not required to direct

numerous purveyors of aromatic brown bags to the door of apartment number 7.

It was not so much that Matt minded doing this as that it made him increasingly curious about the person living

above him. When the delivery people came to his door they would ask for his neighbor by name - only Matt

couldn’t tell what they were trying to say. Typical was one older gentleman who had stood mesmerized by the

green receipt stapled to the bag in his hands repeating “Stone… Stone… Stone…” as if it were his mantra.

It was an odd thing about the tenant’s mailbox, too. All the others were labeled in one fashion or another, but the

one for the attic apartment had only the number 7 on it. In a city the size of Chicago, it seemed foolish not to

label a mailbox, almost as if the occupant didn’t care if their mail went astray or not.

Sure enough, one day when Matt came home from work he found misdirected mail in his mailbox that he

realized must belong to his upstairs neighbor. It was addressed to Frankie Stonecipher, the name and address

written in a tight, restricted hand that seemed perfectly legible but was nonetheless difficult to make out.

Matt was about to prop the envelope up on the ledge above the mailboxes when he decided to be bolder and

bring it upstairs himself. After all, he lived only a short flight of steps away from the addressee.

When Matt reached the third floor he passed his own apartment door and continued on. As he neared the far end

of the hall he began to feel like a trespasser. He stopped at the foot of the stairs and looked up toward the thick,

walnut-stained door of number 7. The rest of the hallway was public; everyone had a right to pass through it. But

the only reason to ascend these stairs was to go to this one apartment - the stairs were unquestionably part of the

territory of the tenant living above. They were even covered with a different color and type of carpeting, an

impractical beige velour, as if to emphasize the proprietary change. Matt took a deep breath and proceeded

gingerly up the steps.

He was both excited and nervous, like a child in the process of pulling a prank. Once he had reached the landing

in front of the door he experienced a moment of indecision. It seemed intrusive to knock for such a small thing

and in any event there were no sounds emanating from the apartment to indicate that the occupant was home. He

decided it would be best to slip the letter under the door and leave.

The gap between the door and the carpeting was wide. He knelt and placed the envelope face up under the edge

of the door and tapped it sharply. It scooted easily underneath and was soon properly inside the apartment. Once

he had accomplished his goal, Matt stood and turned to go.

And that was when the tempest hit.

He still had both feet on the landing when the door behind him burst open and a loud voice demanded “What in

the hell do you think you’re doing? How dare you show up here like this?” Matt was so startled that he almost

lost his balance, preparing as he had been to begin down the steps, and he grabbed at the railing for support.

When he had regained his equilibrium he turned to face his accuser.

If he had been startled by the words hurled after him, the appearance of the voice’s owner astonished him. In the

doorway, puffed with anger, stood a tall woman with blazing eyes. Her hair was thick and short, in fact it looked

as if it had been randomly hacked off instead of cut. It reminded Matt of his niece’s Barbie doll after she had

given it an over-enthusiastic trim. As ragged as the Barbie’s hair had looked, she’d at least had the advantage of

sporting hair all one color. This woman’s hair was chestnut brown from the roots to about three-quarters down

and honey blonde from there on down to its erratic edges.

Her attire appeared to have been taken from someone else’s closet. She wore an unseasonable blue plaid shirt

that was so oversized it completely hid her figure. Under the shirt’s untucked tails appeared coral sweatpants that

had loose folds like an elephant’s skin. Her feet were bare and seemed childlike and vulnerable astride the beige

carpet that continued on into the apartment.

As Matt took in her eclectic appearance, the expression on the woman’s face turned from anger to surprise and

finally to contrition. “Oh, I’m sorry. I saw the handwriting on the envelope and I thought


I’m sorry,” she

repeated, running the fingers of one hand through her thick hair as if this might improve her disheveled


Some words finally formed in Matt’s confused mind and he offered them up for her consumption. “That letter

was in with my mail. I live in number 6 just downstairs so I thought I would drop it by.”

“Thank you,” the woman said, with a sudden quirky smile. It occurred to Matt that in spite of the surrounding

chaos her face was really rather pleasing with luminous hazel eyes, prominent cheekbones, and a strong chin.

For the first time Matt noted the strong smell of cigarettes emanating from the apartment. He couldn’t really see

into the apartment as the woman effectively blocked most of the doorway. He could just spy a painting propped

up on an artist’s easel, an abstract in dark muted tones. Any of the abstract art he had ever seen had been

rendered in bright colors; white, red, yellow. He had always thought of abstract art as cheerful, if manic. But

viewing the painting in the woman’s apartment was like looking at a mud puddle on a dismal, rainy day.

“I’d better get going. I was about to make dinner,” the woman remarked, preparing to shut the door.

“No take out tonight?” Matt asked, immediately regretting it.

The woman looked at him with renewed surprise. “What?” she asked, tilting her head in an almost birdlike


“When the delivery men come with your food they sometimes have trouble finding this apartment and they

knock on my door. I don’t mind it or anything,” he added quickly, “I just couldn’t help noticing that you have

take out food often.”

“Oh. I never thought about that,” she replied, thoughtfully.

“So your name is Frankie,” he remarked.

“Francesca, actually,” she said. “Isn’t that a pretentious name to burden a child with?”

“I don’t know, I think it’s pretty,” Matt replied, feeling foolish as soon as he’d said it.

“But there are certain expectations attached to it,” Frankie replied. “People expect a Francesca to be beautiful,

elegant, exotic in a European sort of way. It’s a hard name to live up to. That’s why I go by Frankie. I can get up

in the morning, look in the mirror at the bleary eyes and the wild hair and say ‘yep, that’s Frankie’”. She said this

with bravado, but her expressive eyes belied her unhappiness.

Matt looked away, uncertain how to respond. After a strained silence, he remarked, “My name is Matthew, but

most people call me Matt.”

“Matt,” she repeated, appraising him as she might an example of another artist’s work. “Yes, I think it suits you.

Uncomplicated, down to earth, practical.”

Matt realized he’d never really thought about the appropriateness of his name before. He had always taken it for

granted, like his brown eyes and hair. The notion that this odd woman might be more intuitive than he was

disturbed him vaguely. Avoiding her inquisitive gaze he glanced beyond her and his eyes paused once more on

the murky canvas inside the apartment.

Frankie noticed the shift in his attention. “Do you like it?” she asked, moving to allow him a better view. “It’s

not quite finished yet.”

Matt didn’t trust himself to praise the dour painting convincingly. “You’re an artist?” he asked, instead.

“Yes. Well, I’m not commercially successful yet. I’m living off of my alimony. Would you like to come in and

see my other paintings?” she asked, hopefully.

“No. I’m sorry, I can’t right now,” Matt said quickly, thinking how uncomfortable he would feel if she pressed

him for his true opinion of her work. “I have to start preparing a presentation. We’re having a seminar on

nutritional supplements next month. I work at the hospital,” he explained.

“That must be awful,” Frankie remarked, frowning. “Getting up in front of all those people with them judging

everything you do or say. Audiences can be really cruel sometimes.”

“Well, I’d better be going,” Matt replied, disconcerted by her unexpected pessimism.

“Thanks for bringing up the letter,” Frankie said with one last off-beat smile before closing the door.

Matt thought about his meeting with his odd neighbor off and on that evening but as usual when he went to bed

that night he thought only about Michelle.

He could easily conjure up images of the room where Michelle lay sleeping. She still lived in the condominium

they had shared in Oak Park and if he closed his eyes he could imagine he was there beside her with his watch

on the cherry oak night stand to his right and his loose change and wallet atop the matching dresser against the

wall to his left, on Michelle’s side of the room. His feet pointed toward the closet where his crisp shirts and

slacks hung on the right and Michelle’s more colorful but tasteful coordinates hung on the left. Her wicker

rocking chair crouched next to her side of the closet, rarely used. One of them - probably Michelle - had hinted

that the chair would come in useful for calming cranky infants some day.

Somehow when he closed his eyes tight and imagined himself in his customary place in the condominium bed,

Matt felt safer. Not safer in the sense that he feared his city apartment would be broken into; in the two years he

had lived there no one had been bothered by intruders to his knowledge and he felt the chances of it happening

were slim. What he felt vulnerable to in his one bedroom walk-up was loneliness.

The next evening there was a knock on the door. Matt expected it to be another fast-food delivery person, but

this time it was a man in a gray suit looking rather annoyed.

“Can I help you?” Matt asked.

“I’ve been wandering these halls for ages,” the man complained. “Where in the world is apartment 7?” He was

taller than Matt, with close-cropped blonde hair and piercing eyes. He was reasonably attractive except for a

slightly misshapen nose and a dour expression. Matt couldn’t help wondering about the nature of the association

between the brusque businessman and his unconventional neighbor upstairs.

Matt stepped forward into the hallway. “You go to the end of the hall and make a left, up a flight of stairs,” he

explained, pointing toward the softly glowing window.

“There should be a sign or something. How do they expect anyone to find it? Do you know if she’s home?” the

man asked, abruptly. “I mean, have you heard anyone walking around up there tonight?”

“No, I haven’t really noticed,” Matt replied, taken aback. “Didn’t she buzz you into the building?”

“Thanks,” the man snapped, ignoring Matt’s question. He turned and strode purposefully toward the window end

of the hallway.

Matt forgot about his neighbor’s visitor as he read his newspaper. But the matter was forced back upon him

when he suddenly heard noises from upstairs, first raised voices and then banging and clanging sounds. At first

Matt found himself hoping wryly that the arrogant man in the gray suit was getting the worst of the exchange but

as the sounds continued he began to worry about the welfare of his neighbor. Just when he had decided he had

better run upstairs and check on her he heard a door slam followed shortly by footsteps that passed his door

rapidly on their way to the main stairs.

Matt had settled down to watch a documentary on television when someone knocked on his door. He walked to

the door and peered through the peephole. It was Frankie. She was looking downwards, apparently at something

in her hands. She knocked again.

“Matt, are you there?” she called. Her voice had a childishly wistful tone and she sounded nothing like the

termagant she had appeared to be when they had first met. It suddenly occurred to Matt that he was perhaps the

only person she had to talk to. He reluctantly opened the door.

She gave him one of her odd, sporadic smiles. She was holding a bottle of wine that she waved in his direction.

“I thought you might want to share some Vin Blanc! Or we could add some color and make it Vin Rouge, Vin

Bleu, Vin Jaune ...

” Matt thought she was joking, but sure enough she was holding up a small box of food

coloring in her other hand.

He couldn’t help smiling in spite of himself. “Come on in,” he said, opening the door wider.

“Wow, flat walls!” she said, looking around her. “My walls are slanted you know; well two of the four. The

longest two. What are you up to?”

“I was watching a documentary about Medieval times,” Matt explained.

“What’s happening now?” Frankie asked, as a woman in period clothing on the television screen suddenly

swooned and collapsed.

“They’re talking about the Bubonic Plague,” Matt replied, sheepishly.

“What a horrible way to spend a Saturday evening!” Frankie exclaimed, turning away from the grim reenactment

of the Black Death as it claimed more victims. “What kind of music do you like to listen to?” she asked,

wandering toward the stereo on the far side of the room.

“Michelle, my ex-wife, liked music; I used to listen to whatever she had on. Now I don’t listen to it at all,” Matt


“I’ve never heard of anyone getting custody of music,” Frankie remarked. “Why don’t you turn off the TV? I’ll

let you listen to some of my music.”

Matt obliged. Frankie placed the wine bottle and accessories on the coffee table and squatted down before the

stereo with the simple grace of a native. Matt came over and turned it on for her and she quickly tuned in the

station she desired. Soft jazz insinuated itself into the room. Matt was surprised, expecting more turbulent music

to strike the fancy of such a mercurial character.

“There,” she said. “Now we can uncork the bottle, or untwist the cap, or do whatever is required to get the wine


Matt got two wine glasses from the kitchen and wiped them out. They were almost as dusty as his stereo.

When he brought the glasses to the table, he found that Frankie had opened the box of food coloring and set out

four little teardrop-shaped bottles. “We have to pick out our colors first. I think it will mix better if you put the

coloring in the glass before the wine, don’t you?” she asked.

“I suppose,” Matt agreed, removing the wrapping from the top of the wine bottle. There was a cork blocking its

graceful neck and he retrieved a corkscrew from the kitchen to attend to it.

Frankie picked up the bottle of blue food coloring and squeezed it gingerly, releasing a few drops of liquid into

her glass. She did the same with red.

Matt filled her glass, watching as the colors mixed and spread and became incorporated with the wine. The

contents of the glass became a vivid purple, brighter than the tints Frankie seemed wont to use in her painting.

“This will be like drinking liquid amethysts!” she said gleefully. “Now what color will you choose?”

Matt considered the possibilities. He remembered when he was a child his mother had mixed green food

coloring into his milk on St. Patrick’s Day and it had been difficult for him to drink it. He’d had similar

experiences with blue. Red would be unimaginative. “I guess I’ll choose yellow,” he said.

Frankie shook her head in disapproval. “Yellow alone would look like cheap lemonade, or flat beer,” she

admonished. “Why don’t we start out the same?” She proceeded to squeeze red and blue drops into the other

glass like an ancient alchemist at work. Matt filled it with wine and it became precisely the same color as the

liquid in Frankie’s glass.

Frankie quickly finished her glass of wine and flipped the cap off of the little green and yellow bottles. She

dispensed all four colors into her glass. When Matt filled it with wine the result was a disappointing muddy

color. “Isn’t that just like life? Mix all the bright and happy things together and you end up with sludge,” Frankie


Matt wouldn’t have admitted it, but the dismal color in her glass reminded him of Frankie’s artwork.

“I imagine you heard some loud noises earlier,” Frankie said. “The walls of this old place couldn’t be sturdy

enough to have blocked them out.” Frankie gazed steadily into her wine glass as if there were something vital in

its murky depths.

“Yes, I did hear noises. Are you all right?” Matt asked, his conscience reproaching him for not having gone to

check on her during the ruckus.

“Sure,” she said, shrugging. “My ex-husband came for a surprise visit. He just wanted to remind me that I’ve

been neglecting our daughter. He was so smug I got upset and threw everything handy in his general direction.”

Matt couldn’t imagine Frankie and the man in the gray suit getting along - she was like fine imported olive oil

while he was insubstantial, like tap water.

“It’s not that I don’t want to see Christina. I’ve ached for her every moment since I moved out,” Frankie paused,

still mesmerized by the contents of her wine glass. When she looked up at Matt a moment later her hazel eyes

were glistening with unshed tears. “Do you know what my daughter said to me, the last time I saw her?” she


“What?” he asked.

“’You’re not my mommy. My mommy is beautiful.’”

As Matt stood gazing into Frankie’s grief-stricken face he realized that even with her mutilated two-toned hair

and baggy, shapeless clothes, she was absolutely striking. Her eyes were almost unbelievably large and brilliant.

“How old is Christina?” Matt asked softly.

“She turned four, last March,” Frankie said.

“You can’t take seriously what she said, Frankie. She probably just felt awkward at first,” Matt said. “Whenever

I see my niece it takes a while for her to warm up to me again.”

“No, no, it’s not that,” Frankie said, shaking her head emphatically. “It’s all Martin’s fault. Don’t you see? He

shows Christina old pictures of me, from when I was modeling. He keeps one of them in a frame next to

Christina’s bed. There I am with pouty rose-colored lips and kohl eye shadow up to my brows wearing some

silver sequined thing. Martin tells her ‘That’s your mommy, honey.’ And then she sees me as I really am, as I am

now, and she rejects me. Just like he rejected me, when I wasn’t willing to live up to his expectations anymore.”

She suddenly drained her glass of the bleak wine as if she were gulping down her distasteful memories.

At first the declaration that she had been a model surprised Matt because of her lack of care regarding her

appearance. But then he realized that her current disheveled appearance must be the backlash from her previous

experiences with her ex-husband and with her former career.

“I didn’t mean to bring my problems down here with me,” she remarked, in a subdued voice. “Perhaps you’d

have been better off with the plague. May I have some more wine please? Just straight, no color.”

Matt poured her a glass, but said “It’s not good to just drink wine all evening. How about ordering a pizza? My


“All right,” Frankie replied, some of her enthusiasm reviving. “Only why don’t we go out an pick it up instead of

having them deliver it? I haven’t been out in days and I’m dying for some fresh air.”

The air outside was pleasantly cooler than the muggy atmosphere inside the apartment building. Frankie’s mood

had become more lackadaisical once they’d reached street level and she sauntered rather than walked down the

sidewalk. Matt had to adjust his stride accordingly. He was used to walking purposefully; on his way to work or

to the Gothic church where he had begun attending services, or to jog along the lakefront. It was difficult for him

to move slowly without feeling as if he were wasting time.

Frankie appeared more lighthearted out-of-doors. “I never go out during the day,” she remarked. “There are just

too many people in the city and I hate being jostled or stared at. I go out to do my laundry at last load time, nine

p.m. And I usually wait until 2 a.m. or so to do my grocery shopping. The store on Addison is open all night.”

“Don’t you think that’s a dangerous time to be out alone? I wouldn’t feel safe going shopping in the city at 2:00

a.m.,” Matt cautioned her.

“You wouldn’t do a lot of things, I imagine,” Frankie remarked wryly.

“What do you mean?” Matt asked.

“I mean if this were the Middle Ages you’d be hiding in a corner somewhere, washing your hands every two

minutes for fear of the plague,” she accused playfully.

Matt thought about her remark for a moment. “So am I too cautious, or a coward?” he eventually asked.

“I don’t know. Maybe both,” she replied, ingenuously.

Her criticism stung and Matt lapsed into silence.

Frankie delved one of her hands under the tail of her capacious shirt and it eventually reappeared clutching a

crumpled cigarette pack from some hidden pocket. She had to practically tear it to shreds to extract the one

remaining cigarette.

The match light flickered over her fine features as she inhaled deeply causing the end of the cigarette to glow

orange. She extinguished the match with a flick of her hand and tossed it to the ground, pausing to grind it into

the sidewalk with the toe of her worn sneaker.

“I hope you don’t mind me smoking out here,” Frankie remarked.

“Not at all.” Matt really didn’t mind it. He’d never been a smoker and as a worker in the health field he didn’t

condone the habit, but his parents had both smoked during his childhood and the smell of cigarettes always

brought them to mind. To him it was almost a pleasing odor, reminiscent of home and security.

“I’m not what you think I am,” Frankie announced suddenly.

“What?” Matt asked, taken aback by her abruptness.

“I know what you think about me. You think I’m weak, using cigarettes and alcohol as crutches. It’s not true -

I’m not addicted to either of them. I’m just playing, toying with the idea of abusing them. That’s not my real

nature. One day I’ll just give them up, both of them. I could do it anytime,” Frankie insisted.

“Frankie, I’ve met so many people who said they could quit …” Matt began quietly.

“Well I’m not like those people!” she interrupted him. “I’m not just talking. I’m quitting.” And with that she

tossed the cigarette to the sidewalk and ground it underfoot as she had the match, except longer and harder as if

in revenge for some wrong it had done her. “That’s that,” she said, moving on with a previously lacking sense of

purpose. Matt had to sprint a few steps to catch up.

He was beginning to feel tired, not so much physically as emotionally. Frankie’s intensity could be trying. “So

where did you order the pizza from?” he asked.

“Just one more block down and one over,” Frankie replied. “It’s called ‘Nicky’s’.”

“I think I’ve seen it,” Matt said.

“You’ve probably talked to at least one of their deliverymen. I order food from there a lot. They have great bread


“So, why do you eat so much take out food? You just don’t like to cook?” Matt asked as they made their turn

moments later.

“It’s not that so much. It just seems like such a treat to be able to have anything I want for dinner, as if I were

rich or something. I don’t eat much during the day - maybe a couple of pieces of fruit - so it’s not really such a

splurge money-wise,” Frankie said.

Matt had to restrain himself from going into a lecture about nutrition. He knew she would certainly take offense

if he did.

The atmosphere on LaSalle was markedly different from the residential side streets they had been walking along.

There was an almost constant stream of vehicles coming from either direction and the wide street was lined with

businesses of all kinds. There were pockets of other pedestrians as well, and it wasn’t long before Matt noticed

the attention they were paying to his companion. Her efforts to downplay her looks had the opposite effect to the

one he felt she intended, and people gazed at her with an almost rude intensity. But Frankie either didn’t notice

or pretended not to.

Nicky’s was a typical establishment for the area, narrow and deep and unremarkable in appearance. The tables

were arranged with only a narrow aisle between them to allow the maximum use of space and as Matt followed

Frankie toward the counter at the far end he had to keep a sharp lookout to avoid bumping his thighs against

tables that had been nudged out of place by patrons, of which there were still quite a few.

The man behind the counter greeted them with a minimum of courtesy. “Yes?” he barked, wiping continually at

the counter with a rag as if the success of the business depended on his constant industry. His face was a network

of fine lines, his upper lip the weak type that would have looked better adorned by a mustache. Matt wondered if

he had neglected to grow one simply because it would have been cliché, for a pizza maker.

“We’re here to pick up a pizza. The last name is Hale,” Frankie informed him. She had insisted on using Matt’s

last name when ordering, as it was so much easier to spell than her own.

The man turned and yelled into the kitchen area behind him, “Pizza for Hale!” Matt couldn’t help thinking he

sounded like a street vendor calling “Pizza for Sale!”

Someone in the bustling kitchen heeded his call and a flat brown box was quickly passed out to him. The man

shoved the pizza toward them so energetically that it might have fallen over the edge of the counter if Frankie

hadn’t stopped it with her hand.

“That’ll be $15.11,” The man said flatly.

As Matt counted out the money, Frankie asked the man “Are you Nicky?”

“Yeah,” he replied, shortly.

“Your son makes some of your deliveries, doesn’t he? He’s a nice boy,” Frankie remarked.

“Yeah, he’s Nicky too,” the man said, his voice softening a bit.

“I gave him a small painting. I don’t know if he showed it to you,” Frankie said.

“Yeah? You’re the painter?” Nicky asked, warming up to her. There was a spark to his brown eyes that had been

missing before. “Look, we put it on the wall right over there, near the restrooms.” He pointed to their right.

Frankie walked hesitantly in the direction he had indicated as Matt tried to hand Nicky the money for the pizza.

“Nah, never mind,” Nicky said, waving it away. “We owe her, you know, for the painting.”

Matt picked up the pizza box and walked over to Frankie. She had stopped several feet away from the wall and

was gazing at a small gray-toned painting hung at about eye’s height. She had a beatific look on her face, as if

the experience of seeing her painting hanging in a pizzeria was intensely meaningful to her.

“It’s a seagull, right?” came Nicky’s booming voice. Matt was startled; he hadn’t realized Nicky had followed


The painting had a dark gray background with a lighter gray shape in the foreground that vaguely resembled

that of a sea bird. “It’s whatever you see in it,” Frankie replied cryptically, still hypnotized by the painting.

“It looks good there, doesn’t it?” Nicky asked, of no one in particular. Matt found himself answering, “Yes, it

does.” It did look good. The gray color was neutral and didn’t clash with the whimsical wallpaper behind it of

chef’s hats and rolling pins. But Matt couldn’t understand Nicky’s excitement about the painting or Frankie’s

reverence. To him it wasn’t particularly significant or well done. It looked like she’d spent maybe a half hour of

effort on it altogether. And they had placed it in a cheap boxy frame and hung it in an out-of-the-way place

where it was for the most part in the shadow of a coat rack.

“I’ll tell Nicky you were here, Mrs. Hale,” Nicky said, turning to go return to the counter.

Frankie didn’t seem to hear him. “Just tell him you saw Frankie,” Matt called after him.

Matt stood behind Frankie grasping the pizza box for several minutes. A woman came by and had difficulty

squeezing past them to get to the washroom. Matt felt foolish. “Don’t you think we’d better get going?” he

asked. “The pizza will get cold.”

“Oh. Okay,” Frankie said, turning reluctantly away from her creation on the wall.

She seemed energized as they left the pizzeria and set a fast pace toward home. “What an experience! It’s almost

like I had an exhibit somewhere. Didn’t it look great on that wall? Lots of people will see it! People I’ll never

know or even see will be looking at my artwork and maybe wondering about the artist, just a little. What a

feeling!” She spun around gleefully, with the exuberance of a child.

Matt couldn’t help finding this side of her nature eminently likable. If only her moods weren’t so erratic.

On the way home Frankie breathed in the pizza aroma with flourish. “It’s too bad they can’t liquefy pizza. I’d

like to drink it right now!” she exclaimed.

“That would ruin half the fun of eating it!” Matt rebuked lightly. “The chewiness of the crust, the firmness of the

vegetables, the squishiness of the sauce – it’s the variety of textures that makes pizza wonderful.”

“You’re starting to lighten up a little,” Frankie remarked with a delightful grin visible in the glow of the

streetlight. “I like it.”

They ate in Matt’s apartment. Although Frankie had made Matt turn off the television almost immediately when

she had arrived at his apartment earlier, this time she wanted to see what was on. “I don’t have a television

upstairs,” she explained. “Not that I have anything against them, but if I had one it would be too tempting to turn

it on and waste my time instead of working on my art. I’m incredibly lazy at heart.”

They watched the ends of two fairly recent movies before Frankie decided to go home. “It’s time for me to get to

work,” she remarked as Matt saw her to the door.

“You mean you’re going to paint now?” Matt asked in surprise.

“I work best at night,” Frankie said. In spite of the wine she had imbibed earlier and the late hour she showed no

signs of weariness. Matt had to admire her for that, as exhausted as he felt.

“I’m going to be out most of the day tomorrow,” he said. He somehow felt obliged to tell her. “I’m going to visit

my grandmother. She lives in Milwaukee.”

“Okay. Well, I’ll see you around. Thanks for the pizza.” Frankie gave him a little wave and a lopsided, pixie’s

grin before heading down the hallway clutching the box of food coloring, like a young girl going home with her


The next evening when Matt got home he found a painting propped against his door. Tired from the long drive to

Milwaukee and back he barely glanced at it, just tapped it with one finger make sure it was dry and moved it out

of the way so he could unlock and open the door. He got a tenuous grip on the wood frame behind the canvas

with one hand and carried the painting inside. After retrieving a bottle of water from the refrigerator and taking a

long drink he returned to the painting and propped it up on one of the dining room chairs. It was a fairly large

canvas, easily two feet tall by nearly a yard wide.

The periphery of the picture was a dark bluish-black, the color of a moonless night in an isolated place. A

succession of progressively lighter shades proceeded as the eye moved in toward the center of the painting where

an indistinct but definitely human shape gradually emerged. The edges of this figure were a vibrant red that

faded to pink and finally evolved into pure white at the core.

Matt stood and stared at the painting for a long time. While Frankie’s other paintings had seemed to him nothing

more than dismal colors and enigmatic shapes, this one slowly opened up to him. The figure in the center of the

canvas was Frankie herself - genuine, fully exposed, pure at heart. For the first time he realized what courage it

took for her to pursue her art, how susceptible it made her to criticism and heartbreak. He also realized what a

shallow life he had been living - afraid of taking risks, afraid of revealing too much of himself to others.

For the first time since the divorce Matt didn’t picture himself in Michelle’s room in Oak Park when he went to

bed that night. Instead he stayed firmly rooted in his own bed in his own apartment, reviewing with his mind’s

eye the painting that now hung on his living room wall and thinking about the amazing woman who had created


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