Issue 138 — 

Paula Goldman (ArLiJo#138)
Mitch Grabois (ArLiJo#138)
Bob Holman (ArLiJo#138)
Chris Keto Part I (ArLiJo#138)
Chris Keto Part II (ArLiJo#138)
Jason Waddle (ArLiJo#138)
P.J. Warren Part I (ArLiJo#138)
P.J. Warren Part II (ArLiJo#138)
Paula Goldman

Featured in ArLiJo Issue No. 138

Work from Late Love




If Dickinson Had a Husband

I give you my poems to mail—
Dear Husband.
Later, you call to say
how sorry you are, throwing
in your briefcase first, leaving
the poems on top of the car
before driving off.

I walk to the kitchen window,
unraveling the phone cord
when I see them in the wind—

winged white sheets,
they sail from the brown envelope,
splitting apart like a milkweed pod—
the seeds flying far, far
over the avenue.

People jog,
push baby carriages,
walk their dogs—
stop and pick them up.
They read sestinas, villanelles, sonnets—
everyone ready my poems.

“Of course,” I say and hang up.


Copyright © 2020 by Paula Goldman. From the collection Late Love published by permission of Kelsay Books, Inc.




Evolution

You come home from you Marathon
like a soldier limping from a wound—
your Achilles’ heel smarts. Your disc
worn out. You put down your shield,
your spear, your helmet still hanging
from your tanned arm. I take you
in my arms and we begin
the day to day battle, the terrible
grinding of years, taxes to Caesar, tuition
bondage, roof repairs, in care of . . . .
I still love you, What are days for?


Copyright © 2020 by Paula Goldman. From the collection Late Love published by permission of Kelsay Books, Inc.



You Drew a Blank

When the muse leaves, she goes
through the front door, drops
her key on the tabletop,

takes her traveling laptop,
keeping your desktop
closed and neat, next to her coffee

mug. She admires
your steadfastness, but, of course,
wants more, for you

to leave myths of goddesses
behind the everyday
world and for you to spread outdoors.

She critiques (incommunicably)
your attempts and writes
continual clichés

to replace your work. Admit
you like your own work;
her poems are a bore.

There’s a blank in your heart
where bank tellers
were before, giving out

large bill, no signature
required. The dollars spread like pelicans
over the shore, whatever

they fetched you felt surely
there’d be more. Then
you wrote feverishly:

you loved the way she adored
holding your coffee, the best
she ever tasted.


Copyright © 2020 by Paula Goldman. From the collection Late Love published by permission of Kelsay Books, Inc.



Van Gogh’s Prayer
   after Wheatfields with Crows, 1890

Let the crows fly from my heart
dreams of destruction, exclusion, dreams
of inevitability, fantasies of power
and unreason. They feed of fear
and the feed of the desire
for a certainty, a frame, a skeleton
that fixes all things in the world.
the crows co-exist with heaven, hovering
around me a lifetime, harbingers
of gloom and death. Their eyes are black
as their feathers, bright black.
They fly over sickled wheat fields
with roads going nowhere.
Of the three roads I have painted,
give me the one that leads to the sky
where I have stood unstintingly,
whence comes the peace I find
when I am working. Let the dark blue
heaven have the crows, at once
my relief and resurrection.

From life, no road affords me peace,
only pain, the pain and the search
for peace. Loneliness was my creed
except for my brother, Theo, in whose arms
I shall die. So close, his belief in me. Yes,
I wanted people, turning myself
like a windmill gone haywire, cutting
my ear, swallowing paint, drinking absinthe.

Leave my heart, black crows,
let me be free, or are they coming,
their cawing call, to rescue me?


Copyright © 2020 by Paula Goldman. From Late Love published by permission of Kelsay Books, Inc.


About the Author
Paula Goldman’s book, The Great Canopy, won the Gival Press Poetry Award and received an honorable mention for the Independent Booksellers’ Award. Her work has appeared in Oyez Review, Slant, Calyx, Passager, Ekphrasis, Rattle, Prairie Schooner, Manhattanville Review, Cream City Review, Comstock Review, Harvard Review, The North American Review, Poet Lore, Poet Miscellany, Hawaii Pacific Review, Caesura, among other magazines. She was the first prize winner in Inkwell’s (Manhattanville College) poetry competition and the Louisiana Literature Award for poetry. She holds an MFA in writing from Vermont College.
 

 
Mitch Grabois

Featured in ArLiJo Issue No. 138

Snow Globe

My soul is stuck in a snow globe
punishment for excesses of ego and cruelty

There are two hula dancers in here with me
They jeer at the snow and the cold
and at me
They sway their full hips

There is snow on the Maua Loa volcano
There are wild pigs with ice crystals
in their hoary brush

There’s an Englishman lost near the peak
His family is in Hilo
waiting for him to find
his way home

Copyright © 2019 by Mitchell Grabois. From The Arrest of Mr. Kissy Face published by permission of Pski’s Porch Publishing.


Eel Wrapped in Seaweed

I come back from my gay cure class
with unidentified yearnings

In bed, alone
I chip away at my stony inner darkness
try to break through the walls

Then, restless, I walk for hours
all the light poles phalluses
all the telephone poles
my mouth to your telephone

There’s a reason God littered the world
with so many poles

I stop at an all-night sushi stand
and eat eel and octopus
wrapped in seaweed

The food floats weightless in the subterranean night
as if I were an astronaut in a space shuttle

but the shuttle program is over
my gay days coming to a close
I’m certain

I know it’s irreverent but
I like to imagine Jesus cruising the gay bars of Nazareth
then stopping and saying:
No, I can’t do this

I’m the son of God


Like Jesus, I must cure myself
because no one else can


Copyright © 2019 by Mitchell Grabois. From The Arrest of Mr. Kissy Face published by permission of Pski’s Porch Publishing.


About the Author
Work by Mitchell Krockmalnik Grabois appears in magazines worldwide. Nominated for numerous prizes, he was awarded the 2017 Booranga Centre (Australia) Fiction Prize. His novel, Two-Headed Dog, based on his work in a state hospital, is available as a Kindle and print edition. His poetry collection, The Arrest of Mr. Kissy Face, was published in March 2019 (Pski’s Porch Publishing). Visit his website: www.wordsbymitch.com.
 

 
Bob Holman

Featured in ArLiJo Issue No. 138



Village

I live in the Village
Not just any Village
Not just every Village
Where the City
Become a Village
That’s my Village
Where the intercontinental
Becomes the neighborly experiential
That’s my Village
Uptown Downtown Lowdown Notown
That’s the place that’s Home Sweet Home Town
The Village is where I live

Jane Jacobs is my patron saint
She lived it with her apron paint
Stuff she saw she made you see
The definition of reality
A mix, a mess, a mishegoss
Trees in cement, mental floss
Ideas drip from a faucet
Grew up in a bedroom closet

Circumambulate these concrete paths
Tantric trails evanesce the globe
Centered on this Village energy rocket
Simple pulse of living here
All lands and all peoples living here
Behind blinking windows of stacked buildings
Population froths in undulating syncopation
Utopic and grand, elegantly funked and plastered
Mighty Squat Humanness
The Village where I live


Copyright © 2019 by Bob Holman. From Bob Holman and the Unspoken Word Movement published by permission of YBK Publishers.




On Mars


The other day Hal mentioned
We were living on Mars
“We’ve been here all along,” he said
Bijou was pulling us along,
And Minter was nowhere to be seen
“Well, what’s the difference between
Earth and Mars, then?” Hal said,
Bending over to use the plastic bag
“It’s just that on Earth, Bijou can’ talk”
“Right-o,” said Bijou
Minter dropped in
On her flying saucer then
“Bagels all around!” she said.


Copyright © 2019 by Bob Holman. From Bob Holman and the Unspoken Word Movement published by permission of YBK Publishers.



Poetry Reading in the Jungle
After Popo Dada

Not sure what I’m doing here in tropical forest in this canoe
I seem to be moving in tiny increments, all around
trees sounds and flights, rustles screeches and blips . . .
The fact is I’m asleep. The truth is I’m lost.
My memory full of last night’s poems right here
amidst crackles howls trills and banshee wails.
Like the one about the crocodiles that were living in an underwater house
where we were drinking rum, some of the guys
smoking to frighten the mosquitoes,
and believe me it’s hard to smoke underwater.
So then they started in on poems,
poems of distant lands, countries at war, green
as Ireland, cold as Argentina, hot as Baghdada,
as Cairo, “It’s quite warm here,” the Irish poet noted.
“In fact the heat makes it impossible to move, thus
(poets actually say ‘thus’) I drink the day away
in this chair.” “ That’s not so much,” the Cuban poet
was heard to mutter. And nobody knows what happened later,
where the poets went. All I do is sit in this canoe as it swishes
round in darkness at 3 a.m. . . . No one is paddling.
I have no paddle. Maybe I’m part of the poem
the Irish guy is still writing, having a beer,
trying to bear up in the topical sun.
A poem that he will read to us very soon,
a poem he does not stop writing.



Copyright © 2019 by Bob Holman. From Bob Holman and the Unspoken Word Movement published by permission of YBK Publishers.



About the Author
Featured in a Henry Louis Gates, Jr. profile in The New Yorker, crowned Ringmaster of the Spoken Word by the New York Daily News, Bob Holman has performed his poems with a punk band in Kiev, a griot in Timbuktu, a ballet company in San Francisco. As the original Slam Master of the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, creator of the world’s first spoken word record label, Mouth Almighty/Mercury, and the founder of the Bowery Poetry Club, Holman has played a central role in the spoken word and slam poetry movements of the last several decades. He is the author of 17 poetry collections, most recently simultaneous publication of Life Poem and The Unspoken, written fifty years apart (YBK/Bowery), and has taught at Princeton, Columbia, NYU, Bard, and The New School. A co-founder of the Endangered Language Alliance, Holman’s study of hip-hop and West African oral traditions led to his current work with endangered languages. He is the producer/host of films including The United States of Poetry and Language Matters with Bob Holman, both nationally broadcast on PBS.
 

 
Chris Keto

Featured in ArLiJo Issue No. 138


The Love We Keep


The cafeteria leaked a sickening scent of soup stew. A watered down beefy smell with a boiled potato chaser. Yuck, whatever that is, it will taste like it smells, thought Eleanor. Some days the odor held more of a canned tomato pungency, a stark contrast to the slow simmered hearty stew she made when Lana was in school and Ed was still alive. Ed and Lana used to savor that smell waiting for dinner. Back then there was talk of people and places, disappointments, hopes and dreams. Talk of life and living. She let her head hang, plucking at the thin cotton blanket that covered her scrawny frame as she lay propped up in her bed.

Eleanor Lydon was now a Trenton Nursing Home resident. How could Lana have put me here? she asked herself for the hundredth time. No one gets well here. I’m old. My creaking, sagging body is breaking down. I have constant reminders of pain and pills.

She wore a nightgown all hours of the day as if there were no life left to prepare for. The sign at the foot of her bed told the story. FALL RISK in bold red letters. I don’t remember falling but apparently, I did. I seem to remember less and less. My memory comes and goes. I feel like I’m learning about my life for the first time, some days.

Talk wafted in from the hall. A plea from another patient interrupting her thoughts. The non-stop chatter competed with a clank of metal against metal. Orderlies were delivering that foul-smelling stuff. Lying in her bed, Eleanor couldn’t see out the window except for gray sky. The weather did nothing to improve her room or her outlook. She lived in a prison. Her crime was growing old.

An aide ambled into the room, shoes squeaking and the uniform pants making rubbing sounds as she moved. Ignoring Eleanor, she went directly to a closet and began rummaging for supplies.

Turning from the window, Eleanor ranted to the aide’s back, “the ones who don’t know where they are—they’re the lucky ones. The lights are always on. My door is always open. People come in and out all the time. How am I supposed to rest? You should figure out how to help people. I’m so tired. I want to go home.“ With this last plea, she broke down, small sobs escaping. She moved her hands to her face shutting out the view of her cell.

The aide turned, “Try to rest, Mrs. Lydon.“ Eleanor dropped her hands in exasperation.

Raising her head, she continued, “With me out of the way, Lana can spend more time with her new boyfriend.“ Eleanor’s gaze moved back to the window as her voice became softer and trailed off — “I’ve not even met him, but she seems quite taken with him —. We used to be so close. But, now that I’m here ... I miss what’s going on in her life. She says she comes when she can, but I think she’s more interested in what’s-his-name.“ Eleanor turned back to face the aide. She was gone. When had she left? She was talking to no one. No matter. That gal wasn’t going to do anything anyway, but it felt good to say it out loud. Eleanor moved her hands back to her face and covered her eyes and cheeks. Her hands caught the tears she cried for herself and for Lana’s life moving on without her.

“I want Lana to be happy, of course,“ she said to no one but herself. With a mournful sigh she lay her head back again and closed her eyes. She let her thoughts drift to the events that brought her here and the words that sealed her fate.

****
“Lana, I can rest in bed at home just as well as here, can’t I?“

“Mom, I have to work, I can’t worry about you forgetting the stove or falling. You need regular meds. I can’t rely on you to administer them to yourself any longer. We talked about this.“

The evening after Eleanor fell, Lana came to the hospital to see her mother. They discussed what Dr. Mansfield said. “I know we were both dreading this day, Mom, but we both knew it would come.“ Lana was tearful, sort of pleading. “The doctor has been talking about it for a couple months and we’ve put it off as long as we can. Please.“ Lana laid her hand on Eleanor’s shoulder.

Eleanor grasped her daughter’s hand and looked into Lana’s eyes.

“We’re at that point Mom. I’m sorry. I’m afraid I must be firm about this for both of us. Dr. Mansfield said you need more care than I can give you. This is so hard! I can’t sleep or work for the fear of what might happen to you.“ Eleanor wondered when she’d grown to become the one in charge.

She had tried in vain to change Lana’s mind. But she was already here. This was how it was going to be now. With that last thought, she drifted off to sleep despite the place.

******
“Mom, I’m home,“ Lana yelled, bounding through the front door. “Boy, that smells good. I’m like starving!“

“In here honey,“ Eleanor called from the kitchen. “How was your day?“

“I stayed after to help with prom planning. Carly’s stopping by later. We’re going to plan what we’re wearing and stuff.“

Lana’s chestnut hair bounced on her shoulders as she plopped herself onto a kitchen chair. Eleanor gazed at her daughter, half listening. She still marveled at Lana. Not exactly beautiful, but her creamy skin and lustrous hair made people look twice. There was a shy streak in her too. Eleanor was okay with that. She wasn’t ready to let go just yet. She enjoyed motherhood still. The teen years as much as those precious toddler years. Lana would graduate high school in a week and seemed to step into new experiences with greater ease.

Grabbing an apple from the bowl in the center of the table, Lana rubbed it on her sleeve and took a first cracking bite. Eleanor continued to watch her daughter with a light smile on her lips.

“I will be so glad to move on from high school!“ Lana exclaimed. “I just can’t wait for my real life to start.“

A mix of pride and fear enveloped Eleanor, not for the first time. She saw Lana’s determination to meet the world head on, developing curves and confidence in equal measure. An only child, Lana came late in life to Eleanor and Ed Lydon. She confided to friends more than once how lucky she felt to have a daughter. Women with sons seemed to lose communication with their children during the adult years but daughters were more sensitive and committed to a mother’s needs. The topic came up often and wore well during book club. She liked to report that she could count on her Lana.

“These years are as real as any others, Lana. I don’t understand your need to move on. Eleanor raised two fingers on each hand to indicate quotes.

“I don’t want to talk about it Mom.“

“Okay. Your dad’s going to be late. He called about a meeting for some big client and said to go ahead and eat without him.“

“Then I’ll eat now if it’s ready,“ Lana said, happy to change the subject.

Carly arrived, knocking on the front door.

Lana jumped up from the table and ran to greet her friend.

“Hi Mrs. Lydon, Carly waved.

“Hi Carly.“ Eleanor watched the girls run up the stairs.

Carly asked excitedly, “Hey, did you decide if you’ll wear your hair up or down?“ The voices faded into the bedroom. The door closed.

“I’ll probably just put in a few extra curls, Lana replied,“ plopping on her bed.

Carly joined her. “It won’t matter what you do, Lana. Your hair looks great soaking wet. I on the other hand, need a magic wand.“

“You’ll look fine, Carly. Did you decide on the pink dress? I thought it hugged your shape and looks good on you.“

“Probably. It layers a bit and doesn’t draw attention to a few extra pounds,“ she moaned.

The girls both sat on the twin bed with the pink comforter. Lana’s mother had made it from fabric swatches, hand sewn when she was in the third grade. The piece had taken months. It was heavy and cumbersome to work with, but worth the effort. Eleanor saw it as a true labor of love. Lana traced her fingers unconsciously over the little puffed flowers, feeling the softness of them.

Scanning the bureau top Carly spotted the eye lash curler. Reaching for it, she turned to Lana and pleaded, “Can I borrow this on Saturday? I want to be able to use it right before we make our entrance.

“I’ll put it in my purse now, so I can’t forget.“ Lana rose, grabbing the small draw string satchel that would be her purse for Saturday night.

Plopping back on the bed she asked, “Did you get a decent grade on the Psych exam? I think Ms. Adams completely abandoned the curve. I’m hearing everyone was disappointed with their score. It doesn’t seem fair. I’m hoping it doesn’t hurt my GPA.

“I know! My dad had a fit because I got a C- and it’s going to bring down my final grade.

Lana pulled two fun size Snickers out of her vanity drawer and tossed one to Carly.

“I made an appointment to meet with a career counselor at the Community College next week. I’m hoping to get some ideas for a major and career ideas. I’m good at artistic things, but I can’t see building a career with that. What are you thinking about? Do your folks want you to go to State?“ Lana asked tentatively.

“I’d rather do what you’re doing. I don’t want to go to State. But, my dad is adamant. He says a Business major is the only way to go. I guess it’s what I’ll end up doing.“ Looking dejected, Carly continued, “The thought of college dorms scares me. What if I’m stuck with some drama queen with cheerleader looks? She’d be a constant comparison to me. I couldn’t stand it.“

“It’s a scary thought,“ Lana lied. “Mom said she wants me to stay closer to home. She’s worried about my dad’s health. Says he always seems tired and is slowing down. She doesn’t want to be alone if something were to happen to him. He’s just 64, but he still works a lot and doesn’t get any exercise. Anyway, I’m sure he’s fine, but I agreed.“ Lana didn’t want to talk about her desire to move away and be independent or the regret she felt when her mom talked against it. Being an only child could feel a bit stifling at times. Her shyness wasn’t standing in her way, her parents were. She loved them, of course, but going away to college was the whole idea. It would have been a welcome departure. But, she couldn’t very well tell them, no.

“It’s nearly five o’clock. I better run. I don’t want to get my dad worked up before Saturday. You know how he gets.“ Carly got up from the bed and put on her shoes. “Bye Mrs. Lydon!“ Carly waved as she hustled through the living room and out the front door.

Alone again in her room, Lana recalled the row she and her mother had had about where she would go.

“Mom, I want to go to State. All the kids with real potential go there.“

Putting down her dishtowel Eleanor had tried to reason. “Lana,“ It’s just for a while. Save some money, live at home, transfer your credits. Just give your dad and I a chance to figure out what’s what.“

Lana raised her voice, “Mom, you’ve known I wanted to go to state since my freshman year. How can you ask me to back out now?“

In the end, it was settled. Two years wasn’t that much time. She couldn’t turn her back on them. They had always given her everything.

As Carly ran out the front door, the garage door went up. She saw Lana’s father, Ed, as he drove into the garage. She waved as she headed for home.

Eleanor greeted her husband. He looked tired. She kissed him.

“Hard day?“

“They all seem to be lately.“

“Well, sit down, I’ll make you a plate.“

“Mmm, smells wonderful hon, I’m starved.“ As he laid his coat on a chair, he pecked her cheek and sat to enjoy his first moments of the long day. “How’s our girl? Did I see Carly heading out as I was coming in?“

Eleanor laid a steaming plate of her famous stew in front of Ed. “Yes, big doings with prom on Saturday. I’m glad things have changed. Kids go in groups without dates. The pressure to get a date can be cruel!“

“You never worried, Elle.“

“No, but I remember hearing stories of anguished girls who were left on the shelf.“

“I was the lucky one, Elle.“ He cocked his head to catch her eye and gave her a wink. Using a piece of bread, he dipped it into the bowl to get all the stew juices. Savoring every bite, he looked at his wife with appreciation visible on his worn face.

Ed’s smile still managed to warm her heart. His hair was gray now, what little there was of it, but he still looked handsome. Time had flown. There were anxious years, of course, waiting for a child that didn’t come. Then, in their 40’s, as if by a miracle, it happened. A beautiful healthy daughter came into their lives. It was as if a whole new life began for them both. The baby years, the elementary years, the adolescence, the teens and now they were on the threshold of adulthood with Lana. Could that really have been eighteen years ago already?

“Ed, you don’t think Lana is going to Glendale just to please us, do you? I mean, it makes good sense to spend less money, living at home and taking advantage of free meals and your own room, right?“ Eleanor’s hand moved to her throat as if to ward off the fear of those words. She wanted Lana at home a little longer. Was that so bad?

“I don’t know, hon. She didn’t seem to put up too much fuss about it. I wouldn’t worry about it. Kids are supposed to want to move out. Parents are supposed to be excited for them. But there’s plenty of time for her to move on.“

Eleanor wasn’t sure she could ever be excited about Lana’s moving on. “Yes, I’m sure you’re right.“



******

On Saturday Carly picked Lana up as planned and drove them to the prom. They spent most of the time standing close to each other, looking around, making nervous conversation. Carly in pink with the modified sweetheart top and Lana in a lavender sheath with beaded netting and capped sleeves. Both chose tan pumps. The music reverberated off the gym walls, disguising the lyrics. The decorations produced a festive flair with paper murals along the walls creating an island atmosphere as much as possible in a gym with low mercury lights. A few kids passed them, laughing and offering best wishes for life after high school. “Best of luck to you too.“ The new greeting seemed rehearsed. They were sending good wishes to people they didn’t even like and receiving the same. Everyone was dressed up, kids and teachers alike. The girls people-watched taking in the sight. Were these really the same people they saw each day?

“Good evening, girls,“ said Mr. Wolter, a favorite history teacher.

“Hi Mr. Wolter. I like your bowtie,“ said Carly.

“Thanks, you girls are looking lovely this evening. Have a great time.“

The girls smiled back. He nodded to them and moved on to a small group of kids nearby, trying to greet everyone by name.

Carly leaned closer to Lana, “Here comes Rick Cotter. I think he’s going to ask you to dance.“

Lana turned to see Rick as he headed right toward her. He looked uncomfortable in a black suit with a pastel tie and black shoes.

“Nice gig, hey?“

“Yeah, real nice,“ Lana replied. They had spoken a few times, but she never got the impression he was interested. Besides, Rick never came to any school events, he was always working with his lawnmower business. But tonight, anything was possible.

Lon Cortez came to ask Carly to dance and the pressure seemed to push Rick into action. Lana was relieved not to leave Carly standing alone.

“Shall we?“ he asked.

Lana took Rick’s hand and they moved out toward the center of the dance floor. It was a song everyone liked, but an awkward dance tune, not slow not fast. Nerves made Lana’s limbs feel stilted. Rick struggled too, as if dancing were unnatural. His palms were sweaty. He held her tighter than necessary. Holding her breath, head back to look at him, she managed, “What are you going to do? After high school, I mean.“

“I think I’ve finally convinced my dad to let me try my own landscaping business. I’ve got some ideas and college isn’t my thing. He’s agreed to invest a portion of what he put aside for college into my business.“

“That sounds exciting. What independence!“ Lana replied with envy.

“We’ll see.“ I love working with plants. I don’t need college to do that.“

“I wish you luck. I’m staying in the area too. I’ll attend the Community College for at least the first two years.

“Oh, so you won’t be leaving.“ It wasn’t a question.

They got through the song, both feeling it was better than standing on the sideline. Smiling at each other as they parted, Lana wondered if they would see each other again.

“Thanks, Lana.“

“I’ll call you. Maybe we can see a movie or something,“ Rick offered.

“Yeah, sure, that would be great.“ Lana replied, smiling as she fanned herself.

Carly returned from the dance floor. Lana picked up her punch glass. “That was nice, but I thought he was going with someone.“

“No, she broke that off weeks ago, I heard.

“Oh, I . . . “ Lana was blushing “hadn’t heard.“. She remembered their bodies pressed together during the dance. Was he interested in her? Lana found she was still thinking about him.

After another hour, kids began to leave. Many had other places to go, much longer nights, Lana knew. The girls decided to make their exit. The fewer people there, the more they’d look like wallflowers.

In the car, they rode in silence. The dark New Jersey back roads reflected the mood in the car.

“We were pretty much ignored“ Carly blurted.

“I know, we danced a few dances and smiled a lot, but we were definitely excluded by the clique of people who matter. I felt invisible most of the time.“

“Is high school a prediction of the real world? Carly asked in a rhetorical tone. Some girls get to pick and choose who to spend time with. It isn’t fair.
“I know, I’m glad it’s over,“ Lana confessed. “Truth is, I can’t wait to move out and be independent. I want to change my life and forget about high school. Another week and we won’t need to see any of those people again. I can’t say I’ll miss them.“

Carly laughed humorlessly, turning the car into Lana’s driveway. “Not even Rick?“

“Well, we’ll see.“ Lana swung her legs out and hopped out, keeping her dress free from touching the door. She turned and paused at the passenger window. “Thanks for going with me, Carly. We would NOT have felt better staying home.“

“Guess you’re right. See you Monday. Good night.“

“Night.“ Lana scurried toward the door. The porch light glowed. She inserted her key and entered the cozy house. Eleanor was waiting for her in the kitchen, a cup of tea in her hands.

Lana looked at her mother and frowned. You needn’t have waited up.

“I know, How was it? Want some tea?“

“Sure, thanks. It was okay. You know how cliquey high school is. Kids weren’t all that social. I danced with Rick Cotter, we got some snarky looks. I don’t know why I thought it would be different. Carly and I are glad we went, but it didn’t turn out as we dreamed.“ She laughed, making light of it, covering up her disappointment. She did not want to talk about this topic any longer. And, not with her mother.

“Don’t worry darling. High school is nothing like the real world. You’ll find love and happiness, I’m sure of it. Don’t be in such a rush, you’ve got plenty of time.“ She gave her daughter a hug and a kiss. She turned to take the stairs to bed, feeling close to Lana and hopeful for the future.

Lana drank her tea and followed, turning off lights as she went. In her room, she removed her dress and hung it in the closet toward the back where it would not be a constant reminder of the night’s disappointment. She scrubbed her face, brushed her teeth and put on her nightgown, happy to seek the comfort of her bed and sleep. As she settled in, she recalled her mother’s words. Even more reason to move on, she thought. Better days ahead. Rick’s face came into view.


******

On Tuesday morning, Lana woke up early, excited to dress for her college interview. Coming downstairs she caught site of her mother, dressed for going out.

“Are you going somewhere? I thought I was taking the car for my appointment at ten.“

“Well, what if you need a check or something Lana? Would it be so bad if I went along? I’m sure I won’t be the first parent they’ve seen there.“

“Oh, all right. But please let me do the talking.“ With her good mood dampened, she moved past her mother to get some breakfast.

“You look nice, Lana. You’ll do just fine.“

On the drive to Glendale Community College Lana gazed out the car window. In a tentative voice she said, “I really hope to come away with a career direction. I don’t want to go to school just for the sake of going to school. You know what I mean? It should be helpful towards getting me a job sooner rather than later.“

“Well, I’m sure whatever they offer, the credits will transfer to the bigger school when you’re ready. Eleanor replied.

Lana did not respond that she was ready now. No sense dragging that up again.

***
“Lana, Mrs. Lydon, welcome. Thank you for coming today. How can I help you?“ Mrs. Alton sat prim at her desk, smiling, looking academic and helpful. She directed her attention at Lana. Taut nerves made Lana’s tummy feel unsettled. Her hands were wet with sweat.

“Well, I’m not positive what I want to do yet for a career. I don’t want to spend time taking credits that won’t help me with my final major choice, and, I mean, I’m sure it’s expensive, and, I’m probably not the only one who thinks this, and, how do you think I should approach this?“ She drew a breath, feeling as though she rambled on like a middle schooler. Yikes, this woman must think I’m a dolt.

Mrs. Alton waited, nodding her understanding and encouraged Lana with a look of understanding and sympathy. Still smiling, and looking at Lana’s eyes, she reached for a program brochure. She pulled out a sort of electronic scoring sheet and a separate brochure she said might be helpful in narrowing down the search.

“Take a look at this information. It’s a good start and helps new students make decisions with a bit more confidence. The second brochure is a copy of an aptitude test to identify some strength areas that may not yet have come to mind. For instance, you may excel in Geography in high school, but it may not be the strength that identifies a best-fit career for you. Complete the questionnaire on-line and we can set up a second appointment next week to discuss the results of the test. It’s a good starting point for deciding college programs.“

Mrs. Alton consulted her computer calendar and asked, “Does the 18th work for you? Say 9:00 o’clock?

“I’m sure it does. Thank you, Mrs. Alton,“ Lana said, extending her hand in her best professional manner. Eleanor smiled, watching her daughter work through yet another step toward adulthood. She extended her own hand and the two turned to leave. Lana gathered up the forms and they left, walking through the college hallway toward the parking lot, shoes clicking on the gleaming tile floor. Lana leaned toward her mother and beamed, “This was so helpful! I feel better already.“

“I agree honey; I think they’ve done this before, don’t you?“ They both laughed as they made their way to the old Bonneville with the Proud Parent bumper sticker.

On the drive home, Lana was still smiling, feeling independence nearing. She could hardly contain her enthusiasm.

“Maybe Glendale can be a great start, Mom; I can’t wait for my real life to start one day. School, my own apartment, a job —.“

Eleanor looked over at her daughter, her smile fading. “Yes, very exciting, dear.“ She turned her eyes back to the road . .the smile had gone.

***
Lana did her best to indicate her first response as the instructions implied, not over-thinking the questionnaire. Some of the preference questions were difficult because she wasn’t sure which she preferred. Things like, “If you spend time alone, would it be best to a) go to a movie, b) play music, c) read a book, or d) take a nap.“ Who knows? It depends on the day! She could omit “d“ because she rarely napped unless she was sick, but the rest of the choices seemed a toss-up. She chose “c“ because after thinking about it, that was the most likely. She wouldn’t go to a movie “alone,“ and she’d been reading textbooks for years.

On the morning of the 18th, Lana came into the kitchen. Eleanor was at the stove, stirring oatmeal. “I figured I’d get a good breakfast ready for you.“

“Oh Mom, I’m too excited for breakfast.“ This big step seemed magnified. Finding direction and starting a future.

“At least have some toast, Lana, we won’t be back here till lunch. You don’t want to have your stomach growling at the meeting with Mrs. Alton.

Lana didn’t want Eleanor to go back to Glendale with her. “Mom, you don’t have to come with me this time. I can do this. I want to show Mrs. Alton I’m an adult.“

Lana accepted the plate of toast and said no more. It was not the time to get into a fight with her mother now.

“All right. I’ll be anxious to hear how it went, of course. If they need any payment, you’ll have to make another trip.“

“That’s fine.“ She took her plate to the sink, guzzled a small juice glass and headed out the door.

“Don’t forget to turn off your phone, Lana.“

“Yes, yes, you told me. I know what I’m doing.“

***
Mrs. Alton was ready for Lana when she arrived. Lana fidgeted, feeling tense. What if her scoring exposed her as unqualified for anything? Would Mrs. Alton find too many shortcomings to welcome her to Glendale?

As if Mrs. Alton recognized her trepidation she offered, “Remember, there are no right and wrong answers on this test, Lana. It’s strictly a tool to help you decide. You can consider it or reject it. It’s up to you.“ Did this woman read minds too? Lana smiled, appreciative for the words of comfort. The printer seemed to take forever to spit out the most important documents of her life. Finally, the noise stopped and Mrs. Alton stood to retrieve her results. She returned to her seat, smiling, with a confident stride, and took her chair opposite Lana. Lana hoped the report didn’t say nothing to recommend.

“Let’s take a look, shall we? You have some creative flair, Lana, with an aptitude for structure and concept organization.“ She paused a moment to let that sink in. I’ll give you a copy of this to take with you, of course, but I’m wondering if you’ve ever considered a career in computer graphics. Your high school transcript shows strength in the computer field, good English composition, and with these other clues, I’m wondering if that might hold any interest for you.“

Mrs. Alton smiled at Lana’s look of surprise. “No, I hadn’t considered it, of course, but it sounds exciting.“

“This is a growing field and could hold a promising career. Would you like to spend a day in one of our on-going classes to sort of touch and feel what’s going on in that or any of our other areas?“

“Y-Yes, I think I would. I didn’t even know that was possible. I’ll talk this over with my parents, but I can say I’m definitely interested.“

“Good, if it’s convenient, come in next Tuesday at 9:00 am for a couple hours and observe Mr. Klein’s class. The students love him, and he does a wonderful job preparing them for careers in graphic arts.“

“I’ll be there.“

Lana arrived home and found her mother waiting anxiously at the kitchen table. For a moment Lana wondered if she’d moved at all from earlier this morning.

“Well?“

“Well, she had a great idea. My report suggested I might try Computer Graphics. Mrs. Alton invited me to spend a couple hours in an on-going class to get a feel for it. Lana sat down heavily on the kitchen chair.

“Oh, when is that?“

“Next Tuesday.“ Lana smiled savoring new feelings of independence sprouting.



******

In two short years, Lana was ready to receive her Associate Degree in Graphic Arts. The June flowers were in full bloom and that fresh air scent permeated the house now that screen doors could do their job. Lana had excelled in the field. Her instructors were all complimentary encouraging her to further her education. She felt ready for real job opportunities. Every month something new was introduced. Print options, software programs, color techniques, new substrate alternatives for products, it was head-spinning. The marketing world demanded more and more of advertising and packaging options and Lana felt she was on the ground floor of a huge opportunity. She was lining up interviews for real work consideration. There were three companies the college helped to uncover, and her portfolio was ready to show what she knew.

“Lana, not too casual, now, I know it’s a casual industry, as you say, but an interview is an interview. You can always dress down later once you find out what others wear to work. Wear the black skirt with the cream blouse and black jacket. Don’t you think that would work well?“ Eleanor was at the bottom of the stairs, calling up to her daughter. Lana heard her but did not really welcome all of this “advice.“ She wanted to feel grown up enough to make her own wardrobe selection. Really, sometimes her mother could be just stifling!

“Yeah, that’s a good choice,“ she offered back down the stairs. It is a good choice, but couldn’t it just be my choice?

With a last look in the mirror, Lana smiled at herself to share her excitement. Half running down the stairs, she saw her mother standing near the landing waiting to wish Lana well. Not wanting to be mothered, she walked past her mother and out the door.

“Break a leg“ Eleanor called.

“Thanks, Mom,“ she managed to call back.

Eleanor had been a third-grade teacher long ago and received awards for the job she loved. But she quit when she found she was pregnant with Lana, taking no chances during a high-risk pregnancy. She had married Ed when they were both young and they had enjoyed their independence. Why did this seem so different now that it was Lana’s turn?

Lana pulled into the Pen Cue parking lot and took in the appearance of the place. A manicured lawn with pruned trees and bushes left a neat, professional appearance. The sign directing visitors pointed the way to an office door. Lana walked toward the door being careful not to put her heels into any of the sidewalk cracks. She was a little unsteady. Beside Prom, she’d really only worn these shoes to one wedding and one funeral. She sent a silent prayer that it wasn’t noticeable. The receptionist greeted her and asked if she had an appointment.

“Yes, I’m here to see Mrs. Dougherty in Human Resources. She’s expecting me.“ The receptionist smiled and turned to her large phone with lots of blinking lights. She pressed a button and announced Lana Lydon was here. A few minutes later, Mrs. Dougherty arrived in the lobby and looked at Lana seated primly, awaiting her interview.

“Lana, thank you for meeting with me today.“ She extended her hand and Lana rose to greet her. “Follow me; we’ll talk in my office.“ Mrs. Dougherty took a seat behind her desk and waved a hand to indicate a seat for Lana. Mrs. Dougherty had Lana’s application in front of her. She was accustomed to putting newbies at ease and spent a couple minutes chatting about last week’s rain and the quick transition to summer. She invited Lana to display her portfolio and scanned the pages of illustrated work with interest. Mrs. Dougherty raised her eyes to meet Lana’s. “You have much to show for a two-year degree, Lana. Do you have plans to continue your education and pursue a four-year degree?“ The question set Lana back. The job didn’t require a four-year degree and she felt prepared to start her career now. She wanted independence from her mother and father now and the job seemed the perfect avenue and the right time to get it. The question threatened all of her progress. She worked to compose her face and not appear shocked. Was this a normal question they would have asked of anyone?

“Uh, yes, sure, some day, but I wanted to blend some application experience in with my training and pursue the four-year degree a little later on.“ She admitted, “My dad isn’t well, and I need to get a job.“ Why had she blurted all of that out? This woman didn’t care if her dad was sick. And, she sure didn’t care if Lana had financial concerns or struggled for independence. This was strictly a job interview.

Mrs. Dougherty smiled, “Perfectly understandable. Everyone pursues education at their own pace. Life gets in the way at times. I understand your decision. I hope you will continue your pursuit at some point. Your grades reflect a serious student.“

Lana closed her mouth. She didn’t recall opening it. The woman understood, and she encouraged her. “Thank you,“ she muttered.

***
Two days later, the phone on the kitchen wall rang and Lana ran for it, stopping as she reached it to collect herself and breathe. “Hello, Lana? This is Mrs. Dougherty from Pen Cue. We’d like to offer you the entry level Graphic Artist position if you are still interested.“

“Yes, I am, when do you want me to start?“

“How about a week from today. If you arrive at 9, we can get preliminary things accomplished, introduce you to the rest of the staff and get you going. This position reports to Jane Crew at the salary we discussed. You’ll have two weeks’ vacation, and when you’re ready, you can take advantage of our education reimbursement program after six months.“

“That sounds great, Mrs. Dougherty, I don’t know how to thank you . . I’m so pleased . . . “ Don’t start crying for God’s sake, you thanked her, now hang up. “Good bye, Mrs. Dougherty, see you next week.“

“Great, bye, Lana.“

“Mom, I got the job!“ Lana bounded into the kitchen, hugged her mother, and burst into happy tears. Eleanor hugged her daughter.

“I knew they would love you. Of course you got the job!“

“Oh Mom,“ sighed Lana. “Don’t start.“ But Eleanor’s eyes glistened too.



******

“What do you mean, you’re moving out? What brought that on? Don’t you want to save your money and eat here for free? I just don’t understand, Lana.“

“I know, mom. Please, don’t take this personally. I only want to have some independence. Don’t you think that’s normal too? Lana put her hands in the air as if to find the answer. “I’ll still see you and Dad on a regular basis, I’m sure. And, I can’t get stew like yours anywhere else. I promise I’ll visit, but I just want to see what it’s like to be on my own. It’s part of adulthood and independence.“ Lana needed to escape the gloom of her mother’s pleading. She would not be steered away from moving out.

“Well, you’ve only been working there a few months. I know you’ve been saving, but I just feel like you’re wasting an opportunity to put some real money aside.“ Eleanor was cutting into a fresh apple pie. She turned from the counter. Lana was no longer there. Eleanor sat at the table, shaking her head. Independence, what does she need that for? Ed’s health was failing, more certain now. He’d applied for disability. Dr. Gruber said his emphysema was treatable, but not curable and he would have to change his activities to fit his body’s revised capability. His last day of work was tearful for everyone and he accepted it like a man going to the gallows after receiving last rites. There was no more to be done. He knew it was scary and depressing for both the women in his life and there was no way to spare them. Eleanor’s demeanor reflected her constant worry. Her life was changing, and he was only in part to blame. She spent her life caretaking her husband and daughter and now it seemed both were leaving her.

Ed Lydon understood his daughter’s need for independence better than his wife. He once relished it himself. He had taken a bold step with a new wife long ago but no one mourned his departure. It had been one less mouth to feed when there was scarce money for food.

Lana scanned her list. Phone, electric rental deposit. Check. Check. Check. The apartment was furnished, and the pieces were acceptable, but she was taking her own bed. It would be comforting. Carly and Rick would help her move. Rick said his pick-up truck would be ample for the job. She and Rick had seen each other a few times, but nothing had come of it when he took up with his old girlfriend again. Now she was out of the picture again? Strange.

On Friday night, Lana’s elation at moving-out remained tempered by Eleanor’s dread. “Mom, please! just be happy for me.“

“I am, darling, really I am. Above all else, I want you to be happy.“

“Thanks, Mom. Is there any pie left?“ I know I won’t eat as well on my own as I do here,“ she laughed. Her laugh bewildered Eleanor. What was funny about not eating well? Lana moved to the sink with her pie plate. She gave Eleanor a hug and squeeze and said, “I’m turning in early, Rick is coming at eight o’clock tomorrow morning to pick up the bedroom stuff. I’ll be back here on Thursday for dinner, you know. I’m still planning on peeling potatoes and making the salad.“ She went to her room, exhilarated but tired at the same time. How would she even sleep a wink? Tomorrow was finally going to be the big day.

The move was exhausting. The bed, the clothes and a childhood of essentials filled the truck and Lana’s car. “Rick, thank you so much. This was a huge favor. I mean it. I don’t know what I would have done without your help.“ Rick hung back a bit. Carly was already in her car, smiling and waving. Everyone was exhausted.

“No problem. Glad to help. Hey, you want to see a movie or something sometime?“

“Yeah, that’d be great.“ Did he mean like a date? “What about Gina?“

“Oh, that’s over,“ he said with no remorse. How about Friday? I’ll pick you up about 6? We can grab a 7:00 o’clock movie.“

“I’ll be ready, and uh, thanks again!“

Her independence felt in full swing. A job, an apartment, a date. Life was good. She walked back into her new apartment taking it all in. Standing in the doorway, she saw the coziness of it all and imagined herself watching TV, doing her own dishes at her own pace and sleeping late on week-ends. The bedroom was visible with the pink quilt. It might be a little young, but it was a favorite thing and made the place feel familiar. She would hang a pink picture or something to try and tie the room together. Another grown-up thing to do.


******

Lana put her hand on her tummy. It fluttered when she thought about Rick. Looking out the window of her apartment, she thought of his hard work turning yards and flower beds into the beautiful scapes they could be. He said he loved unleashing the beauty of their potential. He smiled when he’d said it hinting at more than the growth in the ground.

Her cell phone startled her from her thoughts and she grappled with her purse to find the thing before it went to voicemail.

Carly’s caller ID was visible as she pressed Answer. “Hey girlfriend, what’s up? Carly was home for the few summer weeks left.

“Just thought I’d try to catch up with you before I head out to my parents. Jude and I went to that concert I told you about last night. It was great fun. Lots of people there but not too rowdy. I like him. We have a lot in common.“

“Well that is news. I’m so glad for you.“ Lana registered a genuine smile for Carly’s find. Carly met Jude at State the first month she was there.

“And how goes it with Rick? You two have been keeping real company for a while now.“

“Yes, I like him a lot. I’ve obviously known him for a long time. And, we do have fun together.“

“To see you two together, it sure looks that way. He can’t keep his eyes off you,“ Carly laughed. “Any hesitation?“

“No, our relationship is picking up speed, if you know what I mean.“
“I do. Say, gotta run, have a great night, you two. I’ll talk to you soon.“

“You too Carly. Thanks.“

Hanging up her phone and tossing it back in her purse, Lana thought about their budding romance.

At first there was no pressure for “more.“ It was an easy friendship that they both enjoyed. Movies, burgers, and no promises. Carefree and adult. Rick was good at steeling kisses. It seemed romantic and harmless. Lana enjoyed Rick’s attention and it was nice to have someone to go places with. Each time they were together, the kisses lasted a bit longer and doing it seemed inevitable. They both wanted a physical relationship and it hadn’t taken long for Lana to rationalize it as a natural next step. Rick expected to come in after taking her home and liked to spend time making out on the couch. She liked it too. He made plenty of compliments about her hair and made funny groveling sounds when he looked at her ample breasts. She got a prescription for the pill, adding to her feel of grown-up independence.

Lana showered and fixed her hair, down, the way he liked it. As she fussed, she found herself imagining him as a husband, a home and children of their own someday. She liked the earthy scent of Rick. The fresh air smell seemed to stay with him. It was intoxicating, actually. He would be by soon, taking her out for the usual. She had a feeling this was the day they would give way to their mutual desires.

With his arm around Lana, he nuzzled her ear and suggested they go back to her place. She could feel the heat rising on her cheeks as she agreed. They may have been giving off sparks. She wasn’t sure, but she could definitely feel the charge between them. On the sofa in her apartment, Rick put his arm around Lana. When she turned to say something to him, his kiss silenced her. Her senses flooded. She forgot what she meant to say. They were both breathing fast. They both knew. Rick pulled her close and all her defenses fell away. His hands seemed to find every place she wanted him to touch. The setting sun lent an intimate shadow to the apartment. Ten minutes later, the bedroom took on a magical glow with moonlight finding slits in the blind. With clothes scattered on the floor, Lana was gasping with her own desire as they consumed each other in a final rasp. Intimacy stayed as they reluctantly let each other go, putting on clothes and cleaning up a bit.

“Wow, that was so awesome. You’re fantastic.“ Rick slipped one more kiss on her.

“You don’t have to leave, you know. No one will know you’re here.

“No, I should go. I’ll call you tomorrow. Thanks for a great night. A really great night.“ His smile was adorable, and she couldn’t help but grin herself, as she closed the door behind him and turned the lock.

Lana was reeling. Yes, it was fantastic. Now she knew what all the fuss was about. But why did he think he should leave already? Was that normal? She made her way to her bedroom, taking her clothes back off and tossing them in the hamper at the bottom of her closet. She took a shower and brushed her teeth. Exhaustion was setting in and she hit the pillow and fell sound asleep.

The next morning Lana went to her parents’ house as promised. “Hi Mom, where’s dad?“
“He’s still in bed, dear. He doesn’t sleep well these days. He has to prop himself up and say’s sleeping like that isn’t natural.“ As Lana leaned in to give her mom a hug, Eleanor looked at her.

“What?“ Lana asked a bit startled.

“You just seem so grown up, that’s all.“ Eleanor raised her hand to her neck, an involuntary response to her thoughts.

“I feel grown up, Mom, it’s progress.“

“Of course, dear, I just miss you being here.

“I’m here now, Mom.“ Why was this feeling like the start of an argument?

“I’m glad for your help today. This bowl of potato salad for the Women’s Auxiliary becomes a bigger chore every year. I think next year I’ll tell them to ask some of the younger women to do it.

“You did your share, Mom. No one could argue.“

“How’s the job going?“

“Great, I got kudos for the way I helped a client last week. My boss say’s I’m an asset to the department.“ Eleanor looked again at Lana.

“Isn’t that wonderful? And how’s things with Rick? You seem to like him.“

“I do. We’re officially dating now. I like being with him.“

“Oh? what does officially dating mean?“

Lana blushed. The pause told Eleanor what she surmised. “Oh, I see.“ Eleanor looked down at the potatoes in the bowl. “Well, be careful dear. You know . . . “

“Yes, Mom, I know.“ Lana blew out a breath of relief she didn’t know she was holding.

“Did you already dice celery?“

“No, get it out of the fridge. The cutting board is clean in the dish drain.“

“Got it.“

Ed Lydon shuffled into the kitchen and headed to the coffee pot. His stooped shoulders made looking up more difficult these days. His physical decline seemed evident in so many ways now.

“Morning, girls.“

“Morning, Dad.“ Lana took in her dad’s appearance. Can I help you there, Dad?“

“No, No, I’m fine. Thanks. You two look like you’re doing tasty things in here. Ed smiled at his wife. “Eleanor, I’m sure your potato salad will be all the rave once again.“

“This will be my last year doing it, Ed. I’ll share the recipe if anyone asks, but I think it’s time I let the younger set do this. I used to whip this out without any trouble. Now, I do it all sitting down. It’s more of an effort than it used to be.“

“Well, be sure and make enough to leave some here for us to enjoy, hmm?“

“I’ll take some home with me too, Mom. I’ll make burgers for Rick and me. He’ll love it too, I’m sure.“

Ed and Eleanor exchanged quick glances. “Tell Rick we said ’hello,’ won’t you? His landscape business seems to be flourishing. I’ve seen his truck in a number of places around town.“

“Yeah, things are going well for him, Dad.“

“He’s a lucky guy, Lana.“ Ed gave Lana a kiss on the cheek and took his coffee to the living room.

Lana returned Rick’s call when she got back to her apartment. She didn’t answer his ring at her parents’. She didn’t want to feel all glowy in front of them. She was sure there would be some mention of last night’s lovemaking.

She got his voicemail. “Hi Rick, it’s me. I didn’t want to answer your call at my folks’ house. You know. I was helping my mom with potato salad for the Auxiliary Bazaar. Give me a call when you get this. Bye.“

“Hi Babe, got your message. I was finishing up Carne’s garden scape when you called. They wanted it done before today’s family event. Long day. What’s up?“

“What’s up?“ It’s five o’clock already. I thought you’d want to come over.“

“I would, but I’m beat. This job really took it out of us today. I’m gonna catch a quick beer with my helpers and shower, then hit the sack. I’ll call you next week.“

“Oh, well, okay, I guess. I’ll just settle in for the night and talk to you next week.“

“Sounds good. Bye.“

“Bye.“ Bye? Next week? Still staring at her phone, she realized he didn’t even mention last night. But it was so special. Tears sprung in her eyes. She laid down on the couch, staring at TV she didn’t see. At eleven, she took herself off to bed, still thinking she fixed her hair and put on make-up for him. Yet he hadn’t come. Was this love? What was she dealing with? How did a girl know?

Rick called on Tuesday. “Hi babe, we’ll be working late on Friday. Saturday we should knock off at around 3. How about I come over around 4:30. Shall I bring something?“

“Oh. Okay, you bring beer. I’ve been saving my mom’s potato salad. I’ll make burgers. You’re favorite.“

“That’s my girl. See you then. Bye.“

“Bye.“ His girl? What did that mean? Well, he was coming on Saturday. It would be fun. Very grown up. His job made different demands than hers. It couldn’t be helped, right?


******

Autumn was spending its last gasp in the maples and oaks surrounding Lana’s apartment. In the early evening, the colors were awash with light showing nature’s best effort. As Lana lingered at the window, she worried about the relationship she was in with Rick. Love-making always ended the same. Somehow, the commitment of staying over was too much, but making love was natural and okay. Lana felt abandoned and thought Rick should stay, sort of completing their romantic involvement by sleeping together. It felt wrong for him to leave each time they made love. Even if Rick drifted off for a few minutes, he always got up to leave. Lana was struggling emotionally, unsure how to handle it. She wanted him and loved their intimacy, but always felt robbed when he left.

Later that evening, Lana watched him as he returned to the bedroom having washed up. It was always the same. He put on his clothes and gave her a peck on the forehead before heading for the door. “Rick, I don’t understand. We have such a fun time together. Neither of us is seeing anyone else and yet you won’t sleep over...“ She hadn’t meant to bring it up again, but she was struggling to understand. She felt raw. “We’re missing out on the best part of intimacy. I want to wake up with you.“

“Babe, not again. We’ve talked about this. I just don’t feel right about sleeping over. It’s like moving-in. I’m not ready for that kind of commitment. You know I love being with you.“

It was like getting slapped. Love being with you was not at all the same as I love you. She gave herself to him for the better part of a year and could see he loved being loved. Not the same as being in love. She felt used. Suddenly she could see the relationship for what it was. A physical romp between two willing adults. It was no more than that. She was a fool for thinking it was.

She dressed while he was in the bathroom and rose to face him. “I think I do understand now, Rick. How silly of me to have expected more from you. It was all a dream in my head. But I’m awake now and see this thing more clearly. She was trying hard not to cry. She wanted him to just leave. Rick was standing there; his face reflected the change in her and he realized this wasn’t going to end well. He reached out to touch her, but she stepped back. He pursed his lips and turned to go. She followed him to the door. As soon as he was past the threshold, she closed the door and bolted it. She knew he was still standing on the other side with his hands out in bewilderment. She went to bed knowing her world had just tilted dramatically. She wasn’t a love-struck girl any longer. She was independent, but independence held a downside. Funny, she had only thought about the positive side of being grown her whole life. Breaking into a sob, she threw herself on her bed. In the morning, Rick was out of her life.


******

Eleanor was in Ed’s room at the Rehabilitation Center. He needed more care than she could provide at home. His oxygen and wheelchair and the house stairs were more than they could manage. He wasn’t really rehabilitating, but it was a place where he could get the support he needed, and it wasn’t yet hospice. She walked into his room, straightening her posture, and trying to put on a positive face. “Hi dear, are you giving the nurses any trouble?“ Her hand straightened the bedspread covering his thin frame.

“I miss your cooking more than you know, Elle.“ His shallow breath made conversation difficult. He was hard to hear. Eleanor bit her lip to stave off facial emotion.

“Maybe I should get a job here cooking for everyone. If folks tasted better food, maybe they would rehabilitate faster,“ she joked.

“How’s our girl?“ Ed managed to ask. His face held no color and the mask was now a constant aid.

“She’s doing great, I talked with her this morning. She got another promotion at work, and she’s looking for a bigger place now. She says the studio is a little too cramped and she would like a little bigger kitchen. She and Rick had some sort of falling out. She won’t talk about it, but I trust she knows what she’s doing. She said to tell you she will see you tomorrow. I think she wants to tell you about her promotion herself, so be surprised. I shouldn’t have spilled the beans.“ Eleanor busied herself at the table under the window, picking the dead buds from the plant Ed’s former employer sent. She turned to look at him. “Ed, I . . . “ he had fallen asleep. The meds that kept him comfortable also took him away. She trailed off finishing her sentence . . . “was thinking about asking her to move back home.“

“Can’t Carly, I’m going to see my dad today.“ Lana held her cell phone between her shoulder and her ear while she stuffed essentials in her purse. “It’s true, Rick and I broke up. I don’t want to talk about it. I’m moving on, end of story. My dad isn’t doing well. Mom said I need to spend more time with him. Yeah, he’s hanging in there, but I don’t think he’s doing any better. I guess he’s doing worse, actually. Thank you. I don’t know how my mom is handling it. She doesn’t seem to be able to be alone. I visit her twice a week now since they put him over at Rest View, but honestly, she only leaves the house to go and see him and goes home worse than when she arrived. I know. It’s tough. I’ll see how he’s doing and perhaps I can join you on Sunday. I’ll call you. Thanks.“ Lana hung up the phone just in time. Whether her lost relationship with Rick or the picture she saw in her mind of her parents, the tears were right there. She did not want to shed them just now. She knew Carly called to ask about the break-up and she did not want to talk about it. The news about her dad put off Carly’s questions. She put on her fleece jacket and headed out the door.

Lana arrived at Rest View and walked past the staff, offering a smile and hello to those she recognized. She was entering her father’s room, and saw he was sleeping. Her mother was in the corner of the room looking a little dazed. “Mom?“ Eleanor didn’t seem to hear her. She moved closer. “Mom? Are you ok? How long have you been here? You look very tired. Have you eaten today?“ Eleanor looked at her daughter, taking time to understand her words and think of a response. “I’ll be right back, she said, I’m finding a nurse.“

“Nurse!“ She caught Nurse Rita in the hall and knew a familiar friendly face. “Hi, say, my mom doesn’t look too good. Do you know how long she’s been here? Can you take a look at her?“

Rita turned to follow Lana back to her father’s room. “I’m sorry; I don’t know when she arrived. My shift just started. “Let’s have a look.“

“Mrs. Lydon, it’s Rita. How are you feeling?“ Eleanor turned to Rita, but again seemed to struggle to answer. “Oh dear. I fear she may have had a stroke. I’m calling an ambulance.“

Continued
 

 
Continuation, Part II

After leaving the ER with instructions for returning Eleanor to her home, it was obvious Lana needed to move back home to be in charge. With her father failing and her mother’s new health concerns, it was the only way. She called her landlord, gave notice and called Devon, a co-worker to ask if he would move the bed and belongings back to her old room. Devon was always friendly and once asked if she was free to go out sometime. She was seeing Rick then, but that was old news now. Devon was glad she thought to call him for help and agreed to come by with a borrowed van on the weekend.

Lana filled the prescriptions Dr. Mansfield gave her and wrote down all of the dosages along with the other do’s and don’ts to care for her mother. Eleanor would return home on Tuesday. Lana told her employer she needed some FMLA time, perhaps a week, to get everything settled. Mrs. Dougherty gave her the paperwork to give to Dr. Mansfield. All was in order except her life. Her independence was too short lived; her love life was a disaster, and her dream of a bigger apartment would have to wait. But how long?

“Dr Mansfield, will she recover?“ Lana was searching his face for confirmation that her own life could resume.

“Well, yes, meaning she will regain her speech and some memory, but I’m afraid that some of these effects are permanent.“ We’ll have to wait and see how well she does. She has recovered more than some already.“

Her mother needed therapy and assistance. It was too soon to determine how she would respond to medication and therapy. Lana was determined not to dwell on her own fears and misery right now. She never felt so alone. Resigned to her own fate, chastising herself for selfish concerns, she arranged the return to her old room.

Devon was sympathetic and thoughtful. He looked at her when she spoke and seemed genuinely concerned about her. She made them some lemonade after moving her things back into the house and thanked him. He didn’t ask why her boyfriend wasn’t available for this task but seemed to know instinctively something had changed.

At the door, he gave her a hug and made her promise to call him if she needed anything else. He was barely out the door before the tears came. Get a grip, Lana. This isn’t forever. You’re just emotional because Rick is gone, and Mom and Dad aren’t well. It’s just too much at once. But the tears kept coming. Tomorrow I’ll start again, she vowed.

Lana took up cooking duty. Her mother wasn’t bouncing back with strength or know-how to create the meals Lana grew up with. Between cooking, laundry and chauffeuring to Rest View to visit Ed, Lana’s life felt one of constant servitude. She left her mother ready-made meals for lunch, made sure she was showered and could find the TV remote and the phone before leaving for work each day. She came right home to be sure her mother hadn’t fallen or forgotten to eat.
“Lana, what was the program that I watched yesterday? I can’t remember. I’m trying to find something to watch on this TV.“

“Mom yesterday was Saturday. You didn’t watch TV yesterday. Do you mean something from Friday that you want to see again?“ I can go over the channel guide with you. Maybe we can figure it out,“ Lana sighed.

On a cold gray Saturday in January, the landline phone in the kitchen rang. Eleanor didn’t answer the phone any longer. People didn’t call to speak to her. They called her daughter, instead. Dr. Gruber helped to get Lana set-up with power of attorney and it was well known Lana was the responsible party now. It was Rest View, calling to speak to Lana Lydon, the nurse announced.

“This is she.“ Lana’s heart started to race.

“We’re so sorry to tell you your father passed away this morning, Lana. Of course, you and your mother will want to come and spend some final minutes with him before the Coroner arrives. Can you come soon? We’ll need you to sign some papers and make arrangements.“ Her dad’s death wasn’t unexpected, but still a shock. Dr. Gruber spoke to them just a couple days ago at Rest View to prepare them for the worst. Eleanor had cried, taking it all in with the finality it implied. When she stopped she started speaking to Ed as if he were merely resting, having forgotten what they told her. Dr. Gruber looked to Lana with understanding and compassion.

“Yes, I’ll get my mother ready and we will come up. Y ... Yes, thank you. Yes, I’m sure he’s in a better place now. Thank you for calling.“

Lana hung up the phone. She walked toward the living room feeling as though she were walking through a heavy current. She still needed a shower and had planned to collapse today and catch up before resuming work tomorrow. As she walked through the kitchen doorway, she paused, wishing she didn’t have to do this. Eleanor looked up as she walked toward her. “Mom, I have something to tell you.“ Lana moved to the chair where Eleanor sat with the TV remote in her hand, still bewildered. Eleanor saw the tears and should have been able to make the connection without words, but she did not. “Mom, that was the nurse from Rest View. Dad died a short time ago. Lana crouched on the floor in front of her mother’s chair and reached for her hands.

Eleanor’s lips were quivering, realizing what Lana was saying. “Ed? Ed is gone?“ But just as quickly, her expression changed. “Where did he go? Is he at the doctor?“ Lana sobbed on her mother’s arm, stealing her own solace from the news. She felt her mother’s hand on her head, stroking her hair the way she did when Lana was small. In a few minutes, she sat up, blew her nose and looked at her mom.

“Let’s go change, Mom. We need to go up to the Nursing Home to collect Dad’s things and sign some papers and we can see him one more time.“ Lana helped Eleanor up and together they went to freshen up and change. Eleanor’s hair needed brushing and Lana did her best to put a bit of style to it. They both put on a dress with a sweater. It took a full hour before Lana was able to get them both into the car and set out for Rest View. As they pulled up to the building, Lana did not miss the fact that her mother was confused about where they were. Things were not going well. The strain of this news seemed to have a negative effect on Eleanor’s fragile grasp of reality. How much longer could she care for her mother in the state she was in? In and out, she never knew when her mother was in the present or when she was somewhere else.

Most of the arrangements had already been made. There were phone calls to make to the funeral home, the cemetery, the pastor, social security and insurance agents. Lana spent most of Monday on the phone while Eleanor was confused sitting in the living room, listening, but removed from the tasks or the gravity of the situation. At times, when her mind returned, Lana heard her crying, aware of the pain and the loss.

***
At the funeral, Eleanor sat in the front row where Lana placed her. She didn’t rise to greet people or to look at Ed. She seemed sad and defeated. She waited patiently for someone to take her somewhere next. As family and friends filed past, they spoke to Eleanor. She looked at them but did not reply. It was evident she was not fully aware, and they quickly moved on having made the obligatory stop.

Lana was exhausted. The funeral had been tough. All of her dad’s former co-workers came. She knew most of them as long as she could remember. Carly and her family had come too to pay their respects. They gave hugs and offers of help of any sort from food to spending time with Eleanor, so Lana could take care of any of her own needs. She was grateful for the understanding and attentions but knew she wouldn’t call upon them. When Rick brought up the rear, he paused, uncomfortable with what to say. He hadn’t seen her since their break-up. She had not taken his calls. He also had not changed his mind about commitment. He knew this wasn’t the time to tell her he had started seeing someone from the gym he’d joined. He was her friend, but what did that mean now? He was moving on. Was he really a friend? An ex-boyfriend? He wasn’t sure. He wasn’t sure what she thought he was either. So, instead, he gave a partial hug and words of condolence and moved along with the rest. It was clear to Lana he had also said good-bye.

Devon stopped by toward the end of the viewing, paying respects and giving a hug and asking if she needed anything. She looked at him and saw a confident man, sure of himself with genuine concern for her.

“Thank you for coming, Devon. It was very kind of you.“ Her tears started anew and she reached in her pocket for fresh tissue.

Devon gave her a slow and comforting hug. “Take care, get some rest, Lana. I’ll be in touch soon.“

She hugged back and through the tears thanked him again. She held his hands in her own and smiled.

“Call me if you need anything. I mean it.“

“Okay, thank you.“


******

The funeral seemed to have taken a bigger toll on Eleanor’s health. She deteriorated further and was becoming a bigger concern for her daughter. In May, Lana came home from work and found her mother trying to make tea. She put the water in the micro-wave, but when she reached for it, the boiling water splattered onto her hand. She dropped the cup which shattered all over. It wasn’t serious, but when Lana reached her she was still in her wet robe and holding her hand where it burned. “Mom, oh my gosh! What happened?“ Eleanor wasn’t sure. But Lana could easily put the pieces together. Lana decided she needed more help. She was determined to find someone to stop in and provide some assistance to her mother while she was at work. But, who? Someone who she could trust; someone who would provide care for her mother. The task seemed impossible.

Lana ran an ad seeking some help for a several hours per day. She didn’t have much money to pay as Ed’s insurance went toward paying the household and medical bills. Eleanor received her husband’s social security check, but her own care was expensive too. The income seemed to just cover their expenses.

While Lana was doing well at work, she didn’t possess the education to advance her career and Mrs. Dougherty’s advice rang in her ears whenever she thought about their finances. The four-year degree would make her eligible for the department head position. It would mean a substantial increase, but there was no way she could fit classes into her current life. It would mean leaving her mother alone even more, not possible.

When Janie Dunne answered the ad for adult care, winter was in full swing. The cold seemed to only exacerbate challenges of coming and going with a near invalid. Janie arrived at the agreed time to interview for the position. Lana answered the doorbell, hopeful and cautious. She was thrilled to meet this woman who seemed physically capable with experience and references. She lived about five miles away, so travel wasn’t a big deal. She was a widow who just wanted to do something important for someone else. She owned a small dog, but otherwise, her life seemed to be made up of helping others. As a retired nurse, Janie had cared for her husband until he passed away. She wanted to continue to provide care. It was what she knew, but she didn’t want to work full time.

After the initial introductions, Janie walked over to greet Eleanor where she sat in her chair.

“Hello, Mrs. Lydon. I’m Janie.“ How are you feeling?“

Eleanor looked at the stranger and smiled. “I’m fine, dearie, how are you?“

“I’m just wonderful. Thanks for asking.“ Lana felt Janie’s attention to her mother was genuine. Not many people looked at her mother any longer. “May I call you Eleanor?“

“Oh of course, dear. It’s my name.“

“Alright,“ Janie chuckled, “and please, call me Janie.“

“I’d like to check the references provided. Can I get back to you within a couple days? Lana asked?

“Of course, I’ll wait for your call then.“ Janie thanked her and left.

Lana completed her due diligence with ease that afternoon and called Janie back the same night to offer her the position. When Janie answered the phone, Lana thanked her for taking the interest. She was prepared to beg her to take the job. “I’d like to have you start as soon as possible, Janie. Will you accept?“

“I will. I look forward to being involved in someone’s care once again. Your mother will be in good hands, Lana. Don’t worry. I’ll call you immediately if anything is amiss.“

“Can you start tomorrow?“ Lana nearly shouted.

“I can.“ Thanks for calling. I’ll see you tomorrow morning, Lana. Okay if I bring Oscar? He’s a dear. I think your mom will enjoy his company.“

“Great idea. Thanks. See you then.“ She hung up the phone. Whew! What a relief. Now to go tell Mom.

***
Lana concentrated on her job and in September she enrolled in the Glendale College for her four-year degree. Pen Cue would reimburse her. She hired Janie for six hours per day and Janie was able to get her mother settled for the night by the time Lana got home from school.

The classes were challenging and relevant to her work. Applying her new knowledge on the job did not go unnoticed. In the morning, and on the weekend, Lana spent time with her mother and talked about work mostly. Eleanor was responding well to Janie’s care, but not improving her physical capacity. Janie helped Eleanor to walk a bit outside when the weather was nice, to get the mail, or to take Oscar, the small terrier, out to the yard to do his business. Eleanor seemed to enjoy these little treks, and Lana was glad Janie could handle it. Janie made some meals and left them for the next day, did some laundry loads and watched TV with Eleanor. It all seemed to fit somehow.

“Mom, there’s this nice man from work. His name is Devon. He’s a couple years older than I am, and he lost his dad too. He helped me move my things back home. He was his dad’s caregiver before he died.“ Eleanor listened, nodding. Lana wasn’t sure how much she retained. But it felt good to talk to her mother. “I think he may ask me out. I hope he does. We had coffee a few times, but not really a date.“ As Lana watched her mother doze in the chair, she wondered if she would tell her the exact same thing tomorrow morning. Would it be news? Dr. Mansfield told Lana to talk to her mother as if she were normal. It was becoming difficult to do.


******

In February, Lana’s office phone rang, “Lana Lydon, Art Department,“ she greeted. Her new position still gave her a tingle when she reported herself as the department head in person or on the phone.
“Lana, it’s Janie.“ I’ve called an ambulance. Your mother fell in the bathroom. She hit her head on the sink. She’s okay, but the doctor wanted her seen. I’ll be going with her to the hospital, but you should meet us there. Yes, Trenton Community Hospital. Ok, see you there. Bye.“

Lana told Gene, her boss, she was called to the hospital, and he understood, having heard the story over the year of Eleanor’s demise and Lana’s increasing responsibility for her ailing mother.

She drove to the hospital, praying her mother was comfortable and would pull out of this. She still had lucid times each day, but you never knew when they would happen. And, truth be told, there were fewer of them it seemed as the weeks passed. Lana felt her mother leaving her and between sobs prayed as she drove. “Dear God, please not yet—. I’m not ready.“

“Hello, I’m Lana Lydon. You’ve admitted my mother brought in by ambulance a little while ago,“ she was breathless from rushing and nerves. The ER Nurse looked up from the desk.

“Lana, I’m here—“ she turned her head to Janie’s voice. “Oh, thank heavens, Janie, so glad you were there.“ The two embraced, aware how close they had become. Lana now thought of her like an Aunt Janie who stepped in to help a loved one.

“Miss Lydon, if we could just have you sign some of these papers, we’ll get you in to see your mother right away.“

“Thank you, yes,“ She was grateful for something practical to do. In a few minutes, she was led to her mother’s unit where Dr. Mansfield was checking her over. “Lana, your mom is doing okay ... Janie called when she heard your mother fall and got help quickly. Always a good thing.“ He turned back to Eleanor, shining a light into her eyes and grasping her hands to determine strength and focus.

“She’ll recover from this minor bump, but it may be best to have her moved where she’ll receive care on a full-time basis. This will happen more often, I’m afraid, and with the dementia, any time alone will be risky now.“

“You mean a place like Rest View?“

“No, I’m thinking of the Trenton Nursing Home, where they care for dementia patients. Your father’s needs were more physical, and Rest View has a different patient focus.

“Oh.“ Lana felt she should have known these distinctions between the two facilities. But her mother made the arrangements for her dad at Rest View. She never asked if they had a specialty focus.

“I’ll make a call, but you’ll need to sign the papers to have her transferred there. I really think it’s best. You bought her a lot of time at home with Janie’s help, but I think we’ve reached that point. Lana felt herself weaving and moved to the chair to sit. She put her hands on her forehead to stifle the tears forcing their way. “I thought we were doing well. I can’t believe we’ve reached this point already. I’ve tried my best—“ she was sobbing now.

“Of course, you have Lana. You’ve done a wonderful job caring for your mother. She wouldn’t have been able to be at home all of this time without that dedication.“ Dr. Mansfield put his hand on Lana’s shoulder. “Get some rest. I’ve given your mom a sedative. Come back tomorrow and we’ll get this straightened out.“

Lana rose to leave, feeling a bit bewildered. She heard Dr. Mansfield, but she guessed she had thought everything would just go on the way it was. That seemed foolish and wishful now. She recalled the saying, “life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans.“ This happened to her. To them. Again.

Janie was in the doorway. She heard the Doctor’s comments but didn’t want to intrude. Lana looked into her eyes. They too were wet. Lana kissed her mother, took her hand, and said “Mom, sleep well, I’ll be back in the morning.“ Lana and Janie walked out together toward the parking lot, embracing once more as they went to their cars.

Lana was exhausted as she entered the house. She put down her purse and climbed the stairs to her room and threw herself on her bed. Grabbing the quilt to her face, she let the tears come again. She skipped eating, too distraught for food. That night she struggled to sleep; the house seemed large and empty for the first time. Funny, she thought, when I had my own apartment it never seemed empty.

The next morning, Lana rose, made some coffee, showered and called her office. At Pen Cue the receptionist answered. Lana asked for Linda Dougherty. She explained what happened and told her she would need a couple days to take care of the transfer and get her mother settled. “Take care of your mother, Lana; we’ll see you on Monday. I’ll let Gene know your update.“

“Thank you.“ She always felt a bit indebted to Linda Dougherty, for the job, for the counsel, for the understanding, and the kindness.

She was finishing her coffee when her cellphone rang. “Lana? It’s Devon. How are you? How’s your mother? I called your office but they told me you were called to the ER for your mom.“

“Devon, hello, so good of you to call . . . I, I don’t know for sure. The doctor said she would recover from the fall but said it’s time to transfer her to Trenton Nursing Home. He said she can’t be alone now.

“I’m so sorry, Lana. I know what it’s like. You feel as though you’ve turned a page you didn’t want to turn. It’s inevitable, but still so sad. The same thing happened to my dad.“

“Yes, that’s what it’s like. It’s just so sad. I have to go to the hospital to get the transfer underway today. More paperwork and stuff. I’m very emotional about it, I’m afraid.“

“Understandable, I won’t keep you, just wanted to let you know I’m thinking about you and I’ll see you soon.“

“Thank you, Devon. It means a great deal that you thought to call. Really. Yes, I’ll see you soon.“ As she hung up the phone, she felt the flush rising to her cheeks. The warmth of his call seemed to come straight through the phone and into her. They saw each other a few times, but unlike Rick, he seemed grown up, less childish. His maturity demonstrated a sort of control that calmed her, making her feel at ease and capable. Last Saturday they went to see a matinee. He looked into her eyes when they spoke. He complimented her hair and clothes. He&mash;. Get a grip, Lana, she scolded herself. Time to get ready to go see Mom.

“Mom, hi, how are you feeling today?“ Lana moved toward her mother’s hospital bed.

“Lana, they told me I fell. I don’t remember falling.“ Is Janie here?

“No, Mom, Dr. Mansfield wants you to transfer to Trenton Nursing Home. He said you’re at too much risk being at home now. He says you need more care than Janie and I can give you.“

“Oh nonsense. I’m fine. I can be at home still.“ Janie looks after everything while you’re at work and at school.“

“I know, mom, but even if I quit school, it still leaves you alone too long. Janie spends thirty hours a week with you, but you need 24-hour care now.“ I have to work, and I can’t prevent falls even if I was there day and night. I’m sorry, I know this is hard. I wish there was another way. I wish things could be like they were before . . . ;“ Lana laid her head on her mother’s bed and began to sob. Eleanor’s hand found the top of her head and stroked her beautiful hair.

“Shh, it’s not time to cry, dear, when I get better, then I’ll come back home. Deal?“

“Yes, deal,“ Lana said, raising her head to look at her mother, reaching for tissues. She knew it couldn’t happen, but they both needed the lie right now.

***

Two days later they were at the Trenton Nursing Home. The hospital nurse helped Lana get her mother into the car and an orderly at the Home wheeled her in. Eleanor’s hop pained her, but she could still move short distances with some help. They were seated in the waiting room looking at the surroundings. The lobby area was comfortable and pleasant. Fresh flowers on corner tables brightened the otherwise pale decorations. Two in-take coordinators sat in booths taking turns with those waiting to be admitted.

“Eleanor Lydon,“ called the lady from across the room.

Lana looked up, “here,“ she answered. The woman motioned them to come over and Lana looked at her mother and rose to move behind the wheelchair. She removed the brake and leaned down to say, “here we go, mom.“

Approaching the booth, Lana read the nameplate on the desk. Ms. Anna Lars. When they were both seated Ms. Lars looked at Lana and said, “you are the daughter?“

“Yes, I’m Lana Lydon. My mom needs more care than I can give her. Dr. Mansfield put in the orders for her to come here.“ Lana reached in her purse for a tissue. That choking feeling in her throat was threatening to halt her ability to speak. “This is very hard for both of us.“ Lana turned to look at her mother. Slumped in the wheelchair, she thought Eleanor looked broken and sad.

Lana’s tearful gaze took in her mother’s appearance. She quickly looked away to avoid being caught. It wouldn’t do to have an emotional scene here.

“Ms. Lydon, I just have a few forms here for you to sign. The hospital faxed over a copy of the power-of-attorney for your mother.“

Eleanor looked up at Ms. Lars. The woman was speaking directly to Lana instead of to her. Did they believe she didn’t even know her own mind? Sometimes that was true, of course, but she could still think.

“Excuse me, Ms. Lars,“ Eleanor interrupted, “We talked about my leaving here when I’ve recovered.“

“We do all we can for all of our residents, Mrs. Lydon.“

The lack of a direct answer hadn’t been reassuring. There was no help here, just the continued decline of a life.


******

“Devon, will you come with me tomorrow to visit my Mom. She’ll love to meet you and it’s important to me. I know she’s wondering about you, and I don’t want to lose my connection to her. When she was home we talked about ordinary life. Now, I have to save up my highs and lows and tell her when I visit.“

Lana was standing in the kitchen doorway and held Devon’s attention. He was so good at reading her expressions. Only a couple weeks ago she couldn’t even talk about it without having to change the subject or leave the room. They were dating steady now for over a month and discovering in each other an attractive, caring person. Lana was aware she was getting through all of this because of Devon. He held her, listened to her, cared about her, and he understood. During the month following the transfer to Trenton Nursing Home, Lana saw her mother after work and on the weekends, but Saturday nights were date nights with Devon. They went to movies and after, romantic dinners. They enjoyed lingering hugs.

“Devon, it means so much to me that you know what I’m going through.“

“I do. It was very hard for me to place dad a few years back. I’d love to meet her. Does she seem any happier yet? The right place can make such a difference in the quality of a person’s remaining time.“

Devon was so thoughtful. She couldn’t imagine any other boyfriend caring two hoots about her mother’s well-being in the nursing home. Devon’s connection to family was one of the first things that endeared him to Lana. She missed having her mother at home, but the medical needs and the risks were just too great. She made the change for her own good. Her mother didn’t make it any easier always complaining. The doctor cautioned Lana what to watch for as things deteriorated. Dr. Mansfield spoke to her as if he was a family member. He had been her mother’s doctor since Lana was a baby. It worried Lana that her mom argued the inevitable steps they agreed would come. The doctor told her to expect that and to “be strong.“

“I can’t say she seems happier, but I do think she’s accepting it a bit more.“ As Lana looked at the chair where Eleanor always sat, she composed herself and went on. “Mom used to say, “don’t worry dearie, it’s not time to cry yet. When the doctors say I can’t stay at home anymore, then it’s time to cry.“ “I wonder if she remembers saying that,“ Lana mused as much to herself as to Devon’s questions. “You know, she doesn’t like the food. She complains about the lights. She misses so many things of her old life. Every week it’s new demands. I have to remember to pick up Oreo cookies. Anything to help ease her stay there.“

Sunday morning, Devon arrived early so they could grab a bite before heading over to the Trenton Nursing Home. The ride over was enjoyable, sort of like a date. A thirty-minute ride in the car, holding hands, thinking their thoughts, feeling together on a mission. It was an exciting day because Eleanor would meet Devon who would be part of Lana’s life. The connection would be made, and Eleanor wouldn’t be left out. She would share in Lana’s plans until the Lord called her to Him, even if she didn’t remember.

Lana wore her blue tweed skirt with the cream-colored blouse made out of a kind of liquid fabric that just seemed to settle on her body and show it off. She knew it flattered her and she caught Devon’s admiring gaze linger more than once. Lana looked at Devon’s profile as he navigated the SUV. He was handsome but having someone in your life who you care about who returns the affection was just a melty kind of feeling. Devon’s tan suit showed off his athletic physique as well as his good taste in clothes. His blue shirt seemed to match his blue eyes and the effect was startling. The fact he dressed for the occasion was extra points if anyone was counting.

The ride gave Lana time to reflect on the rapid changes in her life. Her father’s death, her mother’s decline after the fall, and the call for help to move to the nursing home. Then there was Devon, who appeared so naturally, even undetected at first. Suddenly, he was there. Asking her out. It felt like a whirlwind. They discovered so much shared interest. Books about historical fiction, the same movies, music—fun things. Irresistible things, like Dunkin Doughnuts glazed rounds with coffee. They laughed and agreed it was a perfect first date place, because if the date didn’t go well, at least the aroma and taste of their favorite things would erase it. She couldn’t believe he was in her life and brought so much happiness at her lowest ebb. She turned from the view of the countryside and caught him doing the same. The slight smile they gave each other felt like an understanding, a promise there was more to come. The grown up feeling she possessed was never stronger.

They pulled up at the Nursing Home and walked in together. They passed the Registration Desk and moved down the hall to Room 315. The food smell was evident as soon as they entered, and they knew it could ruin an appetite. Eleanor was right about that. They passed the lady sitting in her doorway asking for help. The first time here, Lana ran in search of a nurse to assist the woman. “Oh, she doesn’t need anything, she just keeps asking for help, but she can’t think of what she might want. Don’t let her concern you.“ Stammering her apologies, Lana backed away in search of her mother’s room. Now, she knew better than to listen too closely to what went on in other rooms. She chatted with Devon to drown out the everyday sounds of a place no longer registering them. Devon was a veteran of these facilities. He seemed more at ease than she was, trespassing through people’s lives down these halls. She held his arm more tightly as they walked into the room.

Eleanor was seated in a chair, out of bed. “Mom, hi, did you remember we were coming today? It’s Sunday.“

“Hello dear,“ I’m glad you’re here.“ Lana noticed her mother wore a dress today, likely with some help. Today she looked less like a patient and more like a resident. The two moved closer so Eleanor could get a better look at them.

“You look well, Lana,“ I like that suit on you. It makes you look special, all grown up.“ Eleanor reached out her hand to take Lana’s and hold it tight.

“Mom, this is Devon.“ she interrupted her before she could start gushing. With her other hand, Lana made a sweeping motion toward Devon as if to present him to her mother, taking his hand as he came near. “I told you I would be bringing him to meet you today. He and I have been dating for a few weeks now.“

“Hello Mrs. Lydon. I’m so happy to meet you. Lana has told me so much about you.“ Eleanor’s eyes turned to Devon to take him in. She noticed his bright eyes, smiling and warm. She thought they seemed truthful somehow. “Lana has really been struggling with having moved you here and I think it makes her feel better to talk about you. It sort of brings you back to her.“ Eleanor was hearing and still looking at those eyes.

“I learned what a wonderful teacher you were, the awards and all. Lana is very proud of you. And she told me what a wonderful cook you are and how she misses those wonderful pot roasts you used to make on Sundays, wasn’t it? After church?“ Eleanor’s eyes moved away from Devon and over to rest on her daughter’s. Lana’s eyes were filled with tears as both women said so much to each other with a look. Lana grabbed her mother’s other hand and reached down to kiss her cheek.

“Oh mom, I miss having you at home. It’s not the same without you.“ Lana backed away a bit to take in her mother’s face. I’m so sorry you have to be here. Please tell me you understand.“

Eleanor’s tears were falling, and her lips trembled.

“Hey, ladies, Did I say something wrong? I seem to have made both of you cry. I’ve probably said too much . . . I brought Oreos . . . .“

Eleanor smiled at Devon, and managed, “It’s ok, dear, it’s time to cry.“

The nurse walked in and offered to help Eleanor into a wheelchair so the three could move about the grounds and visit outside of the room. Her badge said Becky, LPN. The three welcomed her suggestion and with Lana and Devon moving out of the way, Nurse Becky helped Eleanor to the chair. The three thanked her for her help. Becky was excited to tell them a more private room was opening up in the south wing and Eleanor would be moved there tomorrow. “It will be quieter, and those rooms feel more like bedrooms than hospital rooms.

“It will be a more fitting place to relax,“ said Becky. “Our residents are happier there.“

Eleanor was overcome with gratitude. “Thank you, Becky, that’s wonderful news,“ Eleanor sighed.“ She turned to Lana.

“I do understand needing to be here, Lana, and I’m sorry it’s been so difficult for you. I’m not happy about it but perhaps with a few more comforts I can feel more content. And it sounds as if they’ve actually heard me. I thought I was just old and babbling.“

“Come on mom, let’s go explore the south wing.“ “

“Devon, break open those Oreos. We’re celebrating.“


Copyright © 2020 by Chris Keto.



About the Author
Chris Keto is a retired Human Resources Director who still does some HR consulting at times., She loves to golf and write. She has a BA degree in Business Administration and Communication from Concordia University, along with several writing courses. This publication is her publication debut.
 

 

Jason Waddle

Featured in ArLiJo Issue No. 138

Nature stirring

A tree stirs its tip
into the sphere’s lip—
above a huge
upside down cup
holding wind as the
tree continues to spin.
Though sturdy ground
from the tip
all the way down,
has found little sway
in nature’s habit today.
The wind now put down:
Drink fairly without sound
from your tree’s tip,
sip to the root’s ground.


Copyright © 2020 by Jason Waddle.



Backgrounds

Aiming aimlessly
hitting the mark as
sky is to sunlight
perched as a lark while
wondering weariness. The
background grows dark and
in this space nothing; nothing
flies away, not ever.
going up and going up
down you go
there you stay in
parades of loneliness
cheering the light away.


Copyright © 2020 by Jason Waddle.


Stay a Kid

How hard it is to be a kid
They tell me what to do
And How
Even though
I try
In keeping with my parent’s request
It ends in a fight
For unknown reasons to me
I can never get it quite right
Yet they say my job is easy—
At times
My shoulders weigh heavy
Confusion a faithful friend
And before I knew it
My childhood became corrupt
For I had grown up
Now a parent
Frustrated with my own son
Not able to keep it hid
The truth about adults is
we’ve forgotten what it’s like to be a kid.


Copyright © 2020 by Jason Waddle.

About the Author
Jason Waddle’s first book Awake In Dreams Sleeping Death Away was published in February of 2020. He is currently finishing up a collection of short stories that are dark in theme. Some of the stories have ghostly/supernatural elements to them. He holds a B.A. in English Literature from McMaster University.
 

 
P. J. Warren

Featured in ArLiJo Issue No. 138

Rare Earths


Just past noon, in a law firm steadily whirring because far-flung time zones didn’t déjeuner, Lauren, one of 103 associates in the DC office alone, was riffling desk clutter. If she wasn’t seeking anything in particular, the new associates’ roster, its pale-green cover flipped at the top—alas, alack, as her supervising partner used to say—frankly jolted her. While hanging out recently in her office, her colleague Stan had printed the roster, then scanned its contents, which probably meant she should too. Gingerly she held the pages in midair, glimpsing bright photos captioned with multiple degrees, honors, judicial clerkships; each bejeweled résumé startled more than the last. And they all surpassed hers. With anxieties flitting to and fro, then roundabout in her brain like the pigeons trapped in the downstairs garage, she slipped the roster inside a drawer. Yet one caveat remained: What if, in favor of those exquisite creatures, the partners eased her out of the firm?

Raised to be cheerful, or at least stoic if circumstances warranted, she didn’t go all désolée. Instead she beheld the atrium’s nebulous space smattered with faux trees, her office view she consulted when uneasy. Plus a quick mental inventory conjured favorite aspects of the firm—its history, pro bono cases, her paycheck; maybe especially the Persian rugs?

Charmed by her impromptu list, she collected her laptop and proceeded into the hallway, where the rugs evoked not only her Granny Stockton’s living room but also the teeming world beyond. Or whatever it was? She wasn’t sure, but the threadbare patterns, swirls of color, woven, fringed with tassels, splayed end to end over dark oak floors, delighted her as she wound through the hushed levels, tracing the firm’s majestic history, its venerable reputation, all of which unsettled her too.

As Stan occasionally hinted, she hadn’t clerked, hadn’t attended a tippy-top law school, had to work harder. And she had, indeed, until barely a month ago when the aforementioned supervising partner, Ian, suffered a heart attack and died. Without his banter the place seemed taciturn. Thankfully, however, the library offered solace. Whether because of Marty, the tiny librarian who ran the place like a golden municipality tucked inside a quasi-fascist state, or the sterling light illuminating old volumes fading into disuse wasn’t clear. For whatever reason, she simply relaxed, yanking her hair back with a spare rubber band, until she noticed a partner observing from a conference table, eyes glinting, mouth half concealed by a fist. It was the sort of demeanor that prompted Lauren, a slender figure with observant, flickering eyes and quick movements, to prickle self-consciously, even irritably, before slipping behind a newel post to establish her own little duchy.

Except the duchy was more like a nook. Rather cozily, she settled in as a branch dangled shadows through Plexiglas followed by the sun’s dazzle, which ravished her skirt, silk blouse, even her memo before chasing the shadows onto the floor. Hadn’t a physics professor—in her one college science course—said the light went on forever? Either way, scooting toward the shade and idling her calves over the armrest of an adjacent chair, she began slashing her memo, first languidly, then energetically until the sky grew opaque and another partner appeared from nowhere.

Instantly, Lauren swung her calves toward the floor, trying to be discreet, while Mona, like a bumblebee in yellow and black, nestled behind a conference table. “You pretty much lifted your memo from Akiha’s,“ she said.

That would be the Ramco oil spill memo, not the one Lauren was marking up. To peer into her eyes interview-style, Lauren dragged her gaze upward as Mona, her short haircut accentuating a sardonic expression and tight neck, mostly gave the impression of time-effectiveness. “Pardon?“ Lauren asked, sincerely confused.

“Your work resembles Akiha’s memo.“ Akiha was a fellow associate, and an especially congenial one at that.

“But—you told me to use Akiha’s work. She gave me her notes. You said, ’Don’t reinvent the wheel.’“ Hopefully, her response wasn’t too cheeky. Obviously she wanted Mona and Russell, her new partners, who were more conventional than Ian, to think well of her. Not that she was some generic corporate climber who cared only for evaluations.

“You need to revise,“ Mona snapped while her face registered someone else and rearranged itself from a Picasso into a Renoir. “David!“ she said with sudden exuberance, lunging toward one of the firm’s most high-profile partners.

Which was unnerving because associates usually weren’t privy to such lavish greetings nor to the conversational vigor the two eminences enjoyed as they heralded a third, and Lauren’s nook proved to be no nook at all. Nonetheless, resuming work on her memo, she addressed various intellectual property issues pertaining to XYZCO’s phone shapes and emojis. Only the grain in the table evoked memories of her great-grandfather’s lumber company, a producer of things rather than emojis until the state’s longleaf pines were eviscerated. So that story’s essential meaning was unclear.

Except that nostalgia wasn’t a solution? If her colleague Stan were here, he’d pose a different quandary: Should she nod at the partners on her way out? Pass with insouciance? Basically all she wanted was to head outside and jog down the Mall toward Lincoln, then hopefully Jefferson, the bicycle boats, and the 14th Street Bridge, before rain arrived.

Past two paralegals, enviably young, one saying, “Dude, wanna get a beer?“ she hurried without implementing either strategy. Her heels whispered over the rugs, then clicked marble beyond the security doors. As the elevator plummeted, the earth spun, and the brass mirrors rendered her physique convex, then concave, the firm seemed like a funhouse. And what about the two kids pictured on Ian’s desk, a girl in striped tights and a boy carrying a dump truck?

She hadn’t spotted them at the funeral sitting with his ex-wife. She’d sat near the back with Stan, who whispered that Lauren was in a bind, her decision to replace Ian with Mona and Russell “unfortunate.“ Pretty soon, associate evaluations would be scheduled; Mona and Russell would be asked to assess her work.

“But they’re the available partners,“ she’d hissed back.

“Well, why do you think,“ he said, gazing up at the cross, leaving her to scrutinize the church, which, like so many buildings in Washington, DC, resembled the Justice Department inside.

Newer DC buildings, in contrast, often featured an atrium like the one her office overlooked, where she was landing now, with a slight bounce. Unfortunately, upon disembarking, she spotted an approaching thundercloud, its gauzy texture dramatizing the atrium’s high windows. Many things, her father, an avid outdoorsman, used to say, weren’t as important as they seemed; lightning was. Yet if she wouldn’t be running outside today, she could call Akiha, who might know why she’d been accused of something she didn’t do (i.e., plagiarize) instead of something she did (i.e., procrastinate). Although more worrisome than a false charge was her waning ability to cobble facts and law together with enough speed to satisfy her new partners.

Lately, in fact, her years of toiling in part-time jobs—selling hiking boots, macaroons, frozen yogurt all to help pay for law school—had begun to seem absurd. As did performing tedious, piecemeal tasks on behalf of humongous, multiheaded clients while, per Stan’s advice, curtseying for the opportunity. Yet she wasn’t Camus; she was from North Carolina! She’d never cared much for absurdity.

If, once upon a time, she’d plotted to escape menial jobs, now she admired a barista in the coffee shop wearing Elton John glasses, humoring customers, her spiky hair glimmering blue haze as she pirouetted between cash register and toaster oven. Her work was tangible, a public service: In a fractious world, who didn’t wish to clutch a hot drink brewed and sold upon the premise of global tranquility? Although during her years at take-out windows, handing soiled dollars to mute, outstretched palms, Lauren had dreamt not of global tranquility but soirées featuring brilliant interlocutors.

As it turned out, most interlocutors she’d met at her firm were job focused. Focused on their salaries or becoming partner if not Secretary of State. Moreover, should she ever encounter any true philosophes, would they wish to discuss Camus with a fledgling lawyer who herself was no existentialist? Besieged by such hypotheticals she ducked behind the elevator into a cubbyhole, a marmoreal maze that led from the atrium to the garage (the fume incubator, according to Ian just weeks ago) but otherwise a fine place to make calls. Resting her shoulder against the marble façade, an expensive chill shimmying up her rib cage, she tapped Akiha’s numbers.

“Akiha?“

“Yo!“

Lauren smiled. Akiha’s voice was keen, clear, and sharp as Granny Stockton’s crystal goblets.

“Do you remember your Ramco memo and, um, whether I plagiarized it?“

“What?“

“Do you remember—“

“Oh. Yeah!“

She imagined Akiha’s shiny hair swinging as she paced in her office, wire-rim glasses magnifying perspicacious eyes.

“Yes? I plagiarized?“

“No! But yeah, I remember the memo. I even recall Mona telling me to forward the dang thing. But Mona plays tricks.“

“Tricks?“

“On associates.“

“Why?“

“To see how you react. She thinks ’younger women’ have it easier than she did.“

Mollified by Aki’s lack of disingenuousness but suddenly shy, Lauren was relieved when Aki’s supervising partner buzzed her. If chatting was fun, she was still a colleague, not a BFF. Besides, any minute Jasper would be calling about their regular Thursday dinner. No matter how many months had passed since Lauren had broken their engagement, he was still the person with whom she felt most comfortable. When the phone rang, she didn’t check numbers; Jasper was always punctual. “Bonjour,“ she trilled, her customary greeting ever since their trip to Paris three years ago.

But this evening he was uncharacteristically terse. Without much preamble he said, “Nina isn’t comfortable with our wedding gifts scattered around the condo.“ It took a moment to parse his words: Nina was a woman he’d been dating, the gifts several flustered invitees had assured them needn’t be returned. “I guess we should divvy.“

“Okay, but I’m—behind at work.“

“Lauren, people won’t respect you if you’re not doing your work.“

“Well—that’s petulant. Shall I drop by with a pickup? Haul that pesky candelabra away?“

Unfortunately, awkward joviality didn’t soften him. Perhaps her inflections were more intimate than was warranted now? “The partner I worked for died; remember?“

“Mm-hmm. Maybe we can drop it—“

We? You’re a ’we’ now?“

“Maybe Nina and I can drop your half at storage. Lauren.“ (In the way he uttered her name, did she detect his old chivalry reemerging?)

“Yes??“

“I have a meeting. Can’t always be there for you anymore.“

“’Be there’? Like it’s a chore? On a list?“ (Evidently, no chivalry after all.)

Dolefully she considered prying his photo from her bulletin board upstairs. Rather than a meeting-obsessed pedant, he was a grad student then, quoting Yeats about “glad grace“ as he scrawled equations into his dissertation, gazing up dreamily, a few tendrils of boyish, curly hair grazing his collar. Only he no longer looked like that. A pair of horn-rim glasses, a firmer resolve, a new workout routine all had thickened him, and not just physically. Perhaps he was no longer the Jasper she loved but somebody else’s notion of him.

“You’re the one who wanted to settle here,“ she said, reviving an ancient quarrel, or trying to.

Actually they had settled across the Potomac in his hometown, and she’d been overwhelmed by prospective in-laws nearby or Jasper abandoning math to work for the Federal Reserve. Maybe she’d read a novel or two, imagined she felt ennui. Once she moved alone into the District, however, life felt flimsy: Unsolved theorems seemed to lurk everywhere. Suddenly Old Town’s cobblestone streets, the tiny lights crisscrossing above them, and the river’s shiftiness beckoned like a proof that finally made sense.

Over caprese salads just weeks ago, she’d been ready to say so. Then later that night, crossing Memorial Bridge, marveling at its symmetry, wondering why she hadn’t, she’d recalled Nina’s name surfacing and resurfacing that evening, like koi fish in a pond. Quickly she’d glanced at the illuminated specks, probably from the Kennedy Center, zigzagging over the dark river. An oncoming white Toyota swerved, and she barely missed a crash.

Not until this very moment, however, did she comprehend the sum of Jasper’s intimations. His fleeting good-bye. When they rang off, the city felt eerie. Outside, rain pelted the firm’s mighty edifice, a squad car pulsated, and a lone soul, draping a coat over his head, splashed gamely across the street.

In lieu of crisscrossing bridges, she’d be relegated to the firm’s basement health club, a venue teeming with coworkers who, through no fault of their own except ultra-competence, highlighted her recent lassitude. And yet, not long before his death, Ian had nominated her for an unusual-sounding stint editing a Congressional report on rare earth minerals. After the funeral, too shocked to think, she’d forgotten the whole episode, although, with her permission, Ian already had forwarded her résumé— to the legislative assistant. Maybe Stan could advise? Instantly the elevator obliged.

Snapping shut, then open again, the doors practically hurled her toward an array of steel contraptions facing a bank of televisions. Resigned to the miasma, she headed for the gray embrace of the closest contraption. Mass images flickered; simulacra in some cases beguiled. With no buffer, no quaint eighteenth-century town to return to, this was her world now. As the contraption chilled her palms, actors blown dry into insensibility lured her pupils, which begrudgingly ogled multiple screens. Becoming inured to the spectacle, she hoisted herself up and thrashed air with her legs. It was kind of fun!

Up ahead Stan ran frantically but perused the women on TV laconically. Manicured, lacquered, possessing a wardrobe assembled by a biblical number of stylists, they all—a lawyer, doctor, and government agent—looked Hollywood literal, unlike the humans struggling beneath them, except for Barrie, who arrived downstairs in search of her supervising partner. Barrie was Lauren’s age, around thirty, but had joined the firm a year earlier. Often she could be heard at lunch seminars citing aphorisms she’d picked up clerking for a federal judge.

Presently, however, she was chatting with Tom, the partner Lauren had noticed earlier in the library. “Killer brief, Barrie,“ he said, draping a towel around his glistening neck. Which made Barrie glisten too, like the women on TV.

Unlike Lauren, neither Barrie nor the TV women were flailing at their jobs. So once the elevator signaled Barrie upstairs, Lauren studied them for cues, as did Stan, his calves shifting mightily now. From what she could discern, their characters solved unambiguous problems, employing dull-witted but emphatic dialogue, or simply a gun in the case of the agent, while dating men who weren’t quite right until Mr. Darcy appeared at the end of the show, or the season, uttering romantic, if hackneyed, lines.

Ah, Lauren gasped, still thrashing, considering her own Mr. Darcy. Maybe she could find another raison d’être, like this new job! But every few seconds a truck exploded on TV.

“Three miles to go,“ Stan said when he finished jogging and assessed her in a cursory fashion like he assessed the women onscreen.

“Outside?“

Just past his elbow, thick raindrops slammed a cluster of yellow impatiens against a windowpane before slithering to the ground. “Yep,“ said Stan, obviously undeterred.

“What’s that show?“ She gestured at the TV.

Federal Fury. Men think the women on it are hot,“ he added sadly, putting finger quotations around the word “hot“ to convey his sensitivity compared with other men. “Tonight I’ll run home, review briefs, answer emails, then order number twelve with spicy cabbage.“

For a moment, not that liturgical about her own schedule, she demurred, although as usual recovered in time to be polite, if not circumspect. “How’s your Supreme Court case going?“ Compared to that, of course, her job nomination was a trifle, not to mention a mere possibility.

“Reasonably well. Picked up advice from two former Court clerks. Seems I’m becoming a member of the club,“ he added in a faux bored tone, though he didn’t sound bored at all. What club, Lauren almost asked, but bantered instead.

“Stan?“

“Lauren?“

“Do you sleep?“

“Four hours a night.“

“Just checking.“

They both chuckled like the office gang on Federal Fury when the perpetrator was locked up and everyone else reveled in their camaraderie.

Once upon a time Stan had interviewed her for this job to provide “an associate’s perspective,“ according to the scheduler, after she’d been interviewed by a series of partners. “At Harrington we go home for dinner,“ the most urbane partner had explained, which turned out to be his reality, not Lauren’s, during her eighteen months at the firm thus far. Although she’d been thrilled to fasten Harrington’s surnames like so many pearls onto her r—sum—, most of her waking hours, as it turned out, had been exchanged for this privilege.

“Don’t be afraid of success, Lauren,“ said Tom after Stan left before she’d had a chance to broach the job nomination. “Look at Vince Baxter—no one thought he’d succeed, and now he’s partner.“ Leaning on a button, he increased his speed. “As I told an interviewee today, who incidentally said I’m,“ he made air quotations with his fingers, “’dynamic,’ it takes heft. Intellectual heft. Not everyone brings that ability, inter alia, to the table.“ Wherever extant, his hair shivered, his still-athletic shoulders heaved toward the machine, and his eyes gaped as if he believed his every supercilious word.

“Yes, of course.“ Happily, the gurgling treadmill precluded a more nuanced reply. Just above his head, moreover, a Weather Channel lady tossed her fairy-tale hair and bestowed upon the multitudes permission to run outside, allowing Lauren to wave and exit without fanfare.

But her newfound solitude didn’t last. Not long after the metal door clanged shut, her phone played (You Say It Better) “When You Say Nothing At All,“ which signaled a call from her neighbor Kevin, who set the ringtone, because the song reminded her of Wittgenstein.

“Save me,“ Kevin said as sunlight rocketed from damp surfaces everywhere.

“How’re you?“

“She’s a blood-sucking vampire.“

“If I were your fianccute;e, you’d say that about me.“

“Oh, come on, there were moments when you and I might’ve—“

“You mean those nights when we ate curly fries at Drake’s, and you pined for that socialite you were dating?“

“Oh, come on.“ City noise crackled on both ends, like a band that never stopped. “What are you doing?“

“Presently I’m headed toward our mutual neighborhood and am riveted by the hubbub on Louisiana Avenue.“

“I love it when you talk affected.“

“You mean in complete sentences?“

“Is that why you don’t answer my texts?“

“I’m troubled.“

“Troubled?“ A trace of concern simmered in his voice; he didn’t care for female remonstrance. Such concern she didn’t mind accommodating.

“By the demise of—candelabras.“ She didn’t mind, because wherever she stepped, shards of her lost connections—with Jasper, Granny Stockton, Ian—crackled beneath her feet like broken glass. Vapid chirpiness was a respite.

As were candelabras, which for her represented civilization, a veneer over life’s slings and arrows, an escape from broken glass. It was a sensibility Kevin shared, only he served his principles not by mock pompousness but by social climbing. As he prattled on about grandees he hoped to meet, clubs he hoped to join, various objects bobbed in front of her while others dwindled into vanishing points. Minivans, maples, pedestrians, and the Securities and Exchange Commission all swirled with refracted light. Notwithstanding candelabras, the world glittered like an infinite reflection, as if it lacked a premise.

Presently, however, Kevin was quoting from a website, something about “taking control of one’s life.“ Which made her sigh.

“What’s so funny?“ he asked.

“That quote.“

“No, sweetheart! That’s profound.“

“Don’t you have somewhere to go?“

“Dinner with Gina and her dad, Congressman—“

“Well, bon appétit!“

After meandering around several puddles, she walked uneventfully. At one corner, she was about to press “walk“ when a boy gamboled over to push the button for his mom, and as if across a chasm, their equanimity, their matching green Smithsonian bags, calmed and bewildered too. Everywhere, droplets evaporated, daylight fled, and café- patrons, a congregation of necks bowed over tiny screens, trickled outside, reveling in a DC-style, half-sedate urban street scene.

At first she took the diners for the source of an odor, an elixir of beer and Coke. But, turning around, she spotted a neighbor, Blake, helping another neighbor—who always said she was moving to the Virgin Islands—recycle her cans. In contrast with the others, Blake lived in the neighborhood’s last cheap rental. His enterprise was tiny. As he turned a bag upside down, a car flashing diagonally rotating lights illuminated his wrinkly T-shirt, and with atonal music, a heap of aluminum clattered into the cab of his pickup. Almost unbidden, a Greek statue—a museum memory—enlivened her as she clambered up her front steps.

Not that her “unit“ offered any aesthetic; as she cracked her door, the quotidian wafted toward her like a hideous disclosure. Shoved against the front wall, a bookcase stood beside the landlord’s gray sofa, while centered haphazardly above them was a picture of a 1920s flapper whose stylized face she never examined. Most indelible was her first morning shelving books there, right after she’d left Jasper, when a curtain embroidered with golden beads appeared to flutter through the windows like unanswerable questions or time passing through translucent golden shadows the beads cast onto the floor.

Dropping her satchel before those windows now, she spotted her lanky neighbor, Kyle, who’d worked on Capitol Hill forever, long ago for Senator Glass, still famous for refusing campaign contributions, then his present senator, a “laminated fake,“ to use Kyle’s words. Which gave her an idea: Didn’t Kyle’s salty take on the world convey savoir faire? With him it might be truly worthwhile to share her news: that before he died, Ian had nominated her to edit Senator McKay’s report on rare earth metals—whatever those were—and the green economy. Maybe he could divulge the Hill’s modus operandi. Or put in a word? (Although didn’t she deplore such opportunism?)

Pulling leftover curry from the fridge, listening to Kyle’s microphone voice bounce off the cobblestone path and mingle with someone else’s, she pulled the container top back and barricaded water droplets slithering toward the rice. With the microwave humming, the voices of the two men, comfortable in their shared references, grew fainter. While removing the dish and inhaling its aroma, moreover, she leaned over to peek outside, splattering droplets everywhere. By the time she’d wiped off her computer, devoured the curry, and edited her XYZCO memo into a quagmire, the windows were dark rectangles and the voices long gone.

Behind her the next morning, however, just as she was plunking her trash can on the curb, Kyle opened his door and trundled down the steps. “They chew you up and spit you out,“ he said, motioning toward the Capitol, his suit rippling like a flag on a pole.

“Morning,“ she answered, pulling her trench coat around her jammies.

Emitting an allergic snort in the early autumn chill, he twirled around. “When are we having drinks again? Remember those loggers? And the prayer advocates.“

Vaguely she recalled the eyes and mouths of the loggers and advocates, visiting from Idaho and Indiana respectively, and the vivid problems they shared, too vivid for her or Kyle to solve. They’d been at a pub, where Kyle was debating whether to leave his girlfriend with the disabled daughter for another with a home in San Francisco. When Woman #1 said he compartmentalized her, he’d recounted quipping, eyebrows dancing, “But that compartment is all yours.“

Aside from discussing campaign finance reform, which he favored, as did she, they in other words discussed mostly non-work matters. Perhaps he’d resent entreaties from a neophyte, she surmised, climbing back up the steps. Not to mention her résumé—, unlike his, exposed a pattern of dithering before law school, and unlike his, the law school wasn’t Harvard.

Yet her place in the caste system was discernable, she mused, grabbing a skirt and shoes while emailing revisions to Russell. According to her alma mater, which disseminated its ranking annually, they’d stagnated at number eight, and yet notwithstanding the craven emails, Lauren adored the place: There she’d fallen in love with Shakespeare—especially Hamlet, metaphysical poets, the seventeenth century, and natural philosophy. Granted, the era featured its share of senseless killing, but as she rushed outside on a beautiful day past a handsome brownstone transformed into an embassy, why belabor that? Given the roof of her soul rupturing lately as modernity poured in, she might as well ignore another century’s less savory aspects, so as to be comfortable somewhere.

If only she was offered the new job before the present one imploded! Then no unsightly gap would blemish her résumé. She’d be just another soul navigating the crowd, and modernity would seem palatable. Benevolently surveying faces as if she already had the job, she trekked the quarter mile to her building, and in the coffee line Googled “rare earths.“ But the crush of warm bodies—in handsome suits, then a fabulous pink bag that nudged her knees whenever its owner took a step—distracted her, as did a homeless man on the other side of the window, his possessions mashed in a cart, boxing air and smiling. Had his hands not been inveigling so gracefully, she wouldn’t have needed to read twice: about “seventeen elements used in hard drives, iPhones, batteries, wind turbines, robotics, televisions, hybrid and electric cars, and much much more!“ All very clear, but the man’s eyes full of dazed wonder belied the futuristic prose. Perhaps upstairs, drinking a latte, she’d focus better?

Within the hour, however, her phone-shape memo—last night’s quagmire—landed upon her desk with a slap. “This is dramatically inaccurate,“ said Russell, squirting hand sanitizer into his left palm.

“Okaaay,“ she said.

“Try revising.“

“Okay.“

“That’s your explanation?“

“You didn’t ask.“

“Well?“ He sat down.

“Wanted to write a lyrical legal memo?“

She’d been reading “On the Road Home,“ but Russell wouldn’t fancy a Wallace Stevens poem, whereas Ian would’ve. Though a fine lawyer, Ian often fell into trance-like monologues about unrelated matters, culled from random YouTube lectures, for example, or his senior thesis on W.H. Auden.

“There is one good professor at Duke,“ Russell said. Because of his receding hairline, his face often looked scrubbed, his expression intent, but today he appeared positively waxen. Plus, the hand sanitizer reeked. “Jim Wexler, Yale ’77, Rhodes Scholar. Ever take him?“

“Federal Courts.“ And FYI, the majority opinion in Plessy v. Ferguson was written by a Yale and Harvard grad, she might’ve added. But those were Russell’s almae matres. So maybe not. Indeed, coming east after growing up in Michigan, Russell had followed an impeccable path, earning a clerkship with the DC Circuit, and now working with biotech start-ups. He wasn’t likely to satirize his own achievements.

Consequently, as he leaned forward, fingernails bitten into slivers, his pupils steel balls, all she could do was put on her listening face. “Okay, here’s the thing: Legal terminology isn’t lyrical. You have to convey authority. Not this—downward spiral you’re in,“ he was saying.

“That’s—harsh.“

“Then how would you characterize it?“

Tentatively, she glanced at his face, which had relaxed just a bit. Maybe explaining would be unwise. Nonetheless, slightly encouraged, she emitted a few, tentative phrases. “I—don’t understand what we do here. Litigating phone emojis. For conglomerates that zap money everywhere, move operations around to wherever there’s cheap labor. Even back here now, right? And everyone piling up waste, even electronic waste.“ That last tidbit, which she’d picked up from her rare earths article, made her feel savvy: perhaps awfully intelligent?

“Oh, jeez.“

“Pardon?“

“You think you’re a fraud. Our services are valuable because—‘voilà,’ as you might say, the market says they are.“

“The market—“

“Young women in Thailand, China, are happy to escape the farm, their families—“

“To toil in a factory?“

“Sure! And if it wasn’t for globalism, you wouldn’t have the leisure to dwell on it. You might not exist. If that deflates your ego, well—“

“That’s—facile.“

He snorted. “Look, there’s no daddy in a law firm who’s gonna take care of you, know what I mean?“

“Isn’t it funny how people in this epoch replace subtlety and nuance with psychobabble and ad hominem attacks?“ she sputtered, pouring her latte into a Wedgwood cup Akiha had given her once to “ward off the Visigoths.“ Not wishing to trade in her father’s memory for a rejoinder, Lauren didn’t mention that her father died four years ago. So technically Russell was right: no daddy.

“You think life was nicer in some other ’epoch’? Just—be aggressive, or—taller!“ he said before scooting out.

A low humming noise from the atrium rolled its way across the faux treetops and into Lauren’s eardrums. Apparently, her measly opinion meant nothing. Russell had twisted her language, characterized her as a little girl, and discredited her unease. Perhaps he yearned to be like his famous brother, a political appointee at the State Department? Either way, a welter of painful thoughts throbbed in her ears. Imagining an audience drolly amused by her vertigo, she recoiled and, looking up, spotted Stan in the doorway.

“Well, THAT was rough,“ he said.

“I don’t want to pretend I know everything!“ But the term “rough“ sounded baleful, even prurient, and a spiral of half logic coiled through Lauren’s mind. What was Stan like, anyway? Standing there eavesdropping.

“I heard about your nomination—for the rare earths report.“

“Yep. Haven’t heard anything.“ She wondered if he had. He knew people who knew people, even boasted about their appreciating his “good judgment.“ In various anecdotes he’d attributed that judgment—his compassion, his superiority to guys who joined teams back in high school—to being fat and sensitive as a child. “Got an email saying Ian sent the materials. But that’s it.“

“That’s usually how things go.“

“Said not to call.“

“I’ll bet.“

“Just to wait.“

“Hope you get it,“ he said, his mouth an implacable line, and for a moment she wondered if he did. “Better than that oil spill memo: If I wrote that I’d worry about returning as a dolphin in my next life.“ Flamboyant compassion spread over his visage; he crossed his long legs. Rather easily, she shrugged off her qualms. They were amigos! Right? Besides, the way he touched the bridge on his glasses was endearing, his concern for dolphins inspiring.

“Umm, I need cashmere socks for my Supreme Court argument. Think you could pick some out? Kind of impossible for Amazon to get past security. Plus my shrink thinks your choosing them would improve my self-esteem.“

“Okay,“ she said rather dully, not really listening. Instead she considered Stan’s background, the stories he’d relayed about his parents never taking him to the dentist. Maybe that’s why he smiled with his mouth closed. “Maybe tomorrow.“

“And about the job,“ he said, his soft-spoken sincerity trickling through her brain like a narcotic.

“What?“

“You haven’t garnered support from anyone—living.“

His secretary appeared in the doorway; he didn’t explain. Was he offering a quid pro quo for the socks? There was no time to sift this. An administrative partner’s firm-wide email requested her time sheets, a task akin to slicing water, something any normal person would recognize, only partners didn’t always behave like persons. (Though given her treatment of Jasper and now dolphins, how was she doing as a person?)

Conceivably, now that Jasper was otherwise engaged, she could return to North Carolina. Ever since an old friend left a message recently, she’d entertained that notion. Best part about her hometown was the beach, an hour away yet palpable, given the wafting salty air, the January surfers in wetsuits populating the town and her heart. But there were problems too: no National Gallery, cliquishness, the man who screamed when her little cousin accidentally nicked his BMW in a parking lot. Yet there was her grandfather, with dementia now, once a convivial doctor who treated everyone without regard to ability to pay. And others. After dinner that evening, she thus returned Margo’s FaceTime call only to be greeted by her newish husband, who said she was picking up Burmese food.

“There’s a Burmese restaurant?“

“Two of ’em. Hey, aren’t you a corporate shill? At a think tank?“

“Law firm.“ Bewildered by his clichés, wondering if his T shirt might provide a conversational segue, she studied its ban sign marring Ronald Reagan’s face, searching her mind for a snappy remark. But he beat her to it.

“Still single, right?“

“Mm-hmm,“ she said, abandoning the segue, dismissing his jab about her unmarried status because it wasn’t on her mind, even when others saw it stamped on her forehead.

“Lauren.“

“Yes.“

“No man is an island.“

“You like John Donne?“

“Maybe if you weren’t living in Sodom and Gomorrah, you’d meet someone. Hey, Margo’s sister is here,“ he said, striking his drums when Margo’s older sister passed by.

“Hi, sweetie,“ Kelly said, palm looming before she navigated her preschoolers into the den.

“Now that she’s a mom, my friend’s sister calls me ’sweetie,’“ Lauren confided to Akiha the following day. “I don’t fit in there either. To them, depending on their politics, I’m either a tragic spinster, corporate sycophant, or both.“

“So what? I mean, just erase whatever they say.“ Akiha ran an imaginary eraser over her face. “It ain’t true.“ Like a gymnast completing a dismount, she flipped her hands at a colleague wandering by. “Well?“

Raising her hand, the colleague wiggled her iridescent third finger. “I told him we aren’t living together till I have a ring.“

Akiha turned back wistfully. “Lately I’ve been compiling a list of men I’ve dated to determine whether I’ve overlooked any possibilities.“

“Aki!“

“Yes.“

“Maybe you’re the possibility.“

“You don’t—worry?“

“Maybe about getting stuck. Like my parents before their divorce. Wanna grab lunch?“

“Already ate hummus.“

“Oh. It’s two thirty.“

“My regular habits are tedious.“

“No, you’re just gracious.“

How to tell Akiha that her lanky, starry self was unique? Akiha played cello in a community orchestra. She was nice. Also sane and intelligent. Probably more so than most pedestrians approaching Café Purdeur, where Lauren slid onto a stool and savored the rise and fall of ambient chatter, the haven that strangers offered.

“Our database can refresh your information every day, every hour, every minute,“ a man said to his lunch companion.

Hope instantly swarmed into Lauren’s brain, as did affection for her fellow humans, even their databases. Would she get the interview? If the world managed to conjure a utopia with rare earths, what then? Would a jigsaw puzzle be complete? Would George Eliot be one of the pieces? Chopin? Might she earn a living without extracting natural resources? How about seven billion people? The 9,231 souls in her hometown? Or would everyone be a commodity in the future, perpetually moving from place to place? Perhaps she was born at the wrong time, and future beings would thrive in a sun-powered, intellectually consistent idyll. In lieu of blaming her parents for their ill timing, she perused the crowd, seeking a philosopher geologist who could explain. But how to study geology if everyone had a portable résumé with no ties anywhere? Possibly ready to answer, her waiter appeared with a stubby pencil.

“Guess what I got at Goodwill?“ he asked after flapping her order to the cook, his loose-fitting shirt trembling as he moved to the grill and back.

“Weren’t you looking for a sofa?“

“Painting of Hendrix—classic velvet.“

He straightened his shoulders as his boss nudged him with a bag, which he handed to a woman whose tag said HOMELAND SECURITY. Lauren’s bag was next, smelling like fenugreek and leaking a tantalizing, un-American sauce she licked from her fingers while dodging passersby, until she and a screen-gaper bumped into each other. Presently they were so close, she saw his workaday expression duplicated on an ID tag strung round his neck like an amulet against unemployment.

Yikes! Lest she end up sans ID tag, she nibbled daal back at her desk and perused her oil spill memo. As the spicy haze subsided, a method suddenly presented itself: Demolish the other side without appearing unreasonable and insinuate that, regrettably, another entity was responsible, not her client. By the time Stan appeared at dusk, she’d executed a flawless memo indeed. To do so, had she lopped off parts of her brain that could savor a Matisse, a Chopin prelude? Hastened the demise of dolphins?

“Can you get long ones?“ Stan asked. “My favorites, after a fashion.“

“You mean the socks?“

“Yes. Should I accompany?“

“No. But okay, long ones, fine.“

On her way to Nordstrom, then circling rows of automobiles in the lot, she couldn’t help but ponder why a colleague, even one scheduled to appear before the Supremes, would ask her to fetch socks. Even as she approached the store blazing with chandeliers, no light was shed. By the time she reached the sock department, where a gallant saleslady from Cambodia ruminated about her hometown’s impoverishment, the question no longer seemed to matter.

With more nobility than she’d witnessed in anyone for a while, including herself, the woman folded, piled, and shrouded three pairs of cashmere socks in silvery tissue. After impugning a recently published article decrying working conditions in overseas factories, an article Lauren and everyone she knew had admired, she hurled her hundred-pound physique at a stack of colorful bags. “People want factory jobs, want opportunity,“ she declared. “Me? I love my job.“ She pressed her business card like a jewel in the tissue, then tucked the package inside a silvery blue, glossy bag.

Enchanted, Lauren considered the lady’s remarks as she wound through a maze of escalators, haughty mannequins, and shoe displays. In a sense the package swaying at her side posited a global riddle beyond anyone’s fathoming, including hers or the lady’s. Would consumerism make the globe pop or no? For some, yes; for others, maybe not. Charmed by her own profundity, her sense of paradox, she swayed with the rhythms of the store’s piped-in music until a boy in Costume Jewelry shattered her conceit.

“Dad, how come girls wear T-shirts with sequin hearts on the front?“ he asked the suited man loping in front of him. Almost overturning a column of pearl necklaces, Lauren fled outside, breathing cool air and, driving back, barely tolerated the stoplights. Only once did she dither, skimming an email from Stan about rare earths mines contaminating the soil in Guangxi and Giuyu, China, where kids recycled the toxic metals. (It sounded worse than her hometown, facing its own decline, the sort newscasters mentioned in breezy post-election wrap-ups, highlighting so-called obscure towns on a shiny USA map.) Careening around the office’s dimly lit corners after hours, wondering if her interest in philosophical glitter could be reduced to girly filigree, wondering if she was a mere consumer, not a big legal thinker like Stan, she blasted into his office. At least she was assisting someone else with important work. Except Barrie was there, not Stan.

“Oh,“ Lauren said, holding the shiny bag in the air.

Admiring Barrie’s suit, still immaculate at day’s end, she touched her own curls cascading around her head. How organized Barrie looked! Sort of like the file cabinet behind her.

“HA—the way you’re clutching that bag. Reminds me of an article I read yesterday: about women who secretly fear becoming bag ladies,“ Barrie said.

So she and Stan were convivial? Bewildered, Lauren recalled that Barrie had worked briefly on the Hill with the committee preparing the rare earths report. Reconsidering Stan’s comment that Harrington’s reference might be tepid, she froze, taking in the possibilities.

“Thanks bunches,“ said Stan, who was half hidden behind the door, sitting in another chair, smiling his compassionate smile. Barrie tapped a red pen on the desk and smiled too.

* * *

More agreeably, later at home, Kevin was sliding something white and immaculate beneath her scuffled doormat. “You never call; you never write,“ he said. “I put this invitation in your box two weeks ago, and,“ his phone glimmered as he gestured, “no reply.“

“Another benefit?“ Still queasy from the sock debacle, straining to be polite, Lauren pried open the envelope and scanned the hosts’ names—Winston, McKay, Townsend—until Kevin’s appeared in full: “Kevin Arthur McCarthy.“

“Congratulations!“ she said, caressing the raised script, knowing he loved that sort of thing. It was as far as he could get from his bumptious relatives, whom she’d met last Fourth of July. Obviously gratified, his hair combed neatly, impenetrable eyes calm, he paused. Then, skipping down the steps in his suit and flip-flops, turning around, he perused her running shirt and said, “Wear your best party dress.“

Laughing at his dubiousness, she planned on simple black and pearls and, the next Saturday, turning the brass handle on a Georgetown mansion’s cumbersome old doors encountered fairyland: young women in ivory sparkles, chartreuse straplesses, black satin shifts, even gold lamé weaving through dark jackets until the sine qua non appeared. Dazzling in a turquoise taffeta that hugged her sinews and flared at the hips, the woman crashed into partygoers like a wave, hailing them with gin-laced greetings that vibrated through the crowd like echolocations.

Not until the woman approached the refreshments did she halt and pivot, away from an evening-jacketed White House staffer blithely stabbing prosciutto and chatting with a smallish, dinner-suited woman many years his junior. Lemon mayonnaise matched the woman’s hair and trembled on the silver platter, sending dappled light everywhere, and wasn’t she Kevin’s old girlfriend? The socialite?

Kevin appeared, glancing with stale pain at the woman and her dashing interlocutor, then his fiancée. “Having fun?“

“It’s nice.“

“You need to attend more soirées. Be an ornament.“ He traced her furrowed brow as if thirty was unseemly. “How’s work?“

Lauren batted his arm away. “I might be fired soon. How’re you?“

“Splendid. Building a hydroelectric plant in Laos.“

“Last memo I wrote defended Ramco’s oil spill. I said bacteria would take care of it.“

“Maybe it will. Bacteria’s everywhere, even in your gut. Lauren, honeybunch,“ he leaned close, “you gotta stay in the game. Don’t be so sensitive.“ He glanced at the two women again as if they were chess pieces.

“But there’s only so much bacteria can do,“ she said as his present fiancée summoned him. Watching him retreat, Lauren assessed his sensibility. Maybe she should dally more with existence, attend black-tie functions? Swirling overhead, encircling her frame, a borrowed insouciance settled around her like a new dress in a store.

Accordingly she met a younger man, tall and photogenic as a newscaster, who drove her home in his red convertible. Over the nighttime din they sang Sinatra and shared life details: He, for example, having grown up in Oregon with hippies for parents, was now a lobbyist. What he didn’t share was nonetheless obvious: his infatuation with Kevin’s ex-girlfriend, who, living in Kalorama, was no hippie. But happily several other beaux, to use Granny Stockton’s term, texted subsequently.

In the ensuing days she thus had coffee with a band member from the party who adored his sax; dated a man whose SUV was covered with UVA decals, who built his own Monticello and kissed her passionately and miserably when she arrived for dinner; then an older venture capitalist so rich he displayed medieval triptychs in his Georgetown parlor. But the helicopter beds for his twins’ biannual visits propelled her into melancholy. When she quoted Hamlet, he offered Mother Teresa’s bio, recommending precepts he didn’t follow himself. Consequently, when an astronomer who had flown to Chile for stargazing right after the party called from a mountaintop, she was thrilled.

Pursuant to their earlier discussion, he explained how dung beetles used the Milky Way for navigation.

“They do?“ As she’d just finished revising her phone-shape memo, she was happy to chat. Pressing the cold phone against her jaw, she wandered outside just as the moon’s haze was brightening the city sky with a diffuse glow spreading toward the heavens.

“But really I’m interested in—“

“What?“

“Well, my favorite class in college was Dr. Blakeslee’s— on Freud.“

Though disappointed (how could Freud outdo stars?), she responded with ease. “Because of Freud or Blakeslee?“

“Mostly Freud,“ he said gravely.

“Ah, fin de siècle Vienna; what about Musil? Or Klimt? And Robert Johnson.“

Who?“

“Mississippi guitarist. Died a year before Freud. Nothing to do with Vienna. I just ran out of Viennese names.“

Maybe these were non sequiturs, but wasn’t this otherwise the dialogue she’d been seeking? Until he began grumbling about his fellow astronomers, the one who snored and another bragging about his son getting into Stanford.

“Do astronomers read Galileo’s Starry Messenger?“ she asked, trying to distract him.

“Holy cow, astronomy is mostly equations now.“

“Or maybe ’liking’ equations.“

But he didn’t laugh; it was a vacuous joke. Instead he complained about his ex-wife and his parents à la Freud. Also his lab’s funding issues. Meanwhile an email from the rare earths committee appeared on her screen, offering neither an interview nor a job. It was succinct: She hadn’t made the cut; competition was stiff, innumerable applicants, blah blah. Instantly she ceased imagining stars. She ceased dating too and slipped inside yellow sheets early on a Thursday night.

When daylight rolled in, her disheveled sheets, tufts of bedclothes, and book titles all looked ludicrous. A desolate glare settled over everything and, like an unwanted guest, refused to leave. Had only twelve days passed since Kevin’s party? It seemed like eons.

Now that she lived alone, her living room windows sometimes resembled two eyes on a face, like a mercurial lover shifting his mood arbitrarily. But today a mover had leaned a mattress wrapped in blue plastic against the outside railing, bouncing the color inside, scattering blue light everywhere, as if a stained-glass garment of Mary’s had shattered into abstraction. Reminded of ineffable mysteries, if only for a skeptical moment, she padded into the kitchen for a croissant and sat on the sofa eating, as two bulky arms removed the mattress. Suddenly her place felt bereft, and she resolved to fly away for the long weekend.

While her destination, a Georgia beach resort, was familiar—she’d visited as a child, with her father—she’d never visited the barn. Brown rather than classic red, it was nestled inside a cluster of live oaks, whose shagginess, and goats underfoot, contrasted with the formal gardens, the Mediterranean elegance, of the main part of the resort. And, eureka! Hardly had she swung her right leg around a buckskin bay horse and gazed into his almond eyes than he lurched into the ring, so she learned to guide gently with the reins rather than grasp. Learned to balance, to look ahead, to shorten the reins when she wished to trot, and steady her legs if he startled. No longer just “the horse“ to her, he was Toby. A sport she’d thought was about domination and submission, like law firms or families, wasn’t necessarily.

Besides, with flies hovering around Toby’s ears, there was no time to consider the firm. After swatting gently, she bent over to embrace Toby’s taut, soft neck. Then dismounted only with reluctance and searched her pockets. From a cracked bowl in the musty saddle room, she’d gathered three peppermints, which she placed one at a time between his flashing tongue and formidable teeth, practically swooning when he wiggled his jaw.

Next day she awakened at dawn but stepping on the chilly floor felt the insides of her thighs tense up. Alerted to the fact of obscure muscles, she ordered room service, then nibbling eggs and toast, almost dropped back into the pillows. Dragging herself to the paddock instead, she hoisted herself upward, caught an aroma of dung wafting from the barn, and slid nervous toes into stirrups.

“Let’s take ’em out to the ocean and let ’em RIP!“ said a man perched on the horse next to hers. Frowning nearby, a mother in sunglasses implored her daughter to be careful while the daughter nodded and stared ahead. After adjusting everyone’s stirrups, the taciturn guide, Janet, mounted her own horse and said she liked to go fast.

Once the horses began walking, the daughter sat up elegantly after her mother drove off in a Volvo. At just the right angle, the balls of the daughter’s feet rested in the stirrups. Feeling decrepit in the presence of her teenage grace (shouldn’t she have life figured out by now?), Lauren forgot to duck under a branch, which scratched her helmet noisily. Apparently, this wasn’t the time to bemoan her loose ends.

Conversation was tentative, like the beginning of a symphony. Someone remarked about the egrets, another the marsh. Everyone inspected the fiddler crabs that ingested sand and spat it out as shapely balls. Eventually they cloppety-clopped onto the beach, where a breeze replaced talk until a dolphin leapt over a wave. It was just like she’d imagined, composing her oil spill memo.

“Are they playing or searching for food?“ someone asked.

“They’re making vibrations in their nasal cavities—talking,“ the daughter said.

“Ready to trot?“ Janet asked, pivoting effortlessly in her saddle.

All at once, they gathered their reins; Toby’s hooves tapped quickly, rhythmically, as sand spun beneath them. Nature, Lauren almost announced, is the answer! Together she and Toby were a duet. As he trotted, her thoughts became joy. Until, that is, the other horses began cantering, and Toby heaved with an almighty force. For a half hour, wind and fear often supplanted the preceding moment’s reverie.

In fact, not until the walk back that evening after a picnic and swim, when the sky vaulted and flapped open, reigning like a purple-and-ink monarch butterfly high above them all, did sangfroid return. Anticipating oats and molasses, the horses plodded quietly, an expanse of beach spiraling around them. Pleasantly dazed, Lauren halted when Janet pulled her reins and dismounted. Faint scratching was audible as she crouched over the sand, until bluish-purpley sparkles popped in the semi-darkness, eliciting oohs and aahs from everyone.

“That’s bioluminescence,“ Janet said in her frank way, which by now was quite endearing, what with dots illuminating her forehead and brows. But no sooner had she explained than the dots vanished into nighttime, and the riders, often befuddled by low visibility, meandered back toward the barn, serenaded by tidal susurrus.

* * *
Continued
 

 
Continuation, Part II


* * *

“I want it dry. With soy, NOT skim,“ said a man whose outstretched hand swatted Lauren’s shoulder en route to grasping a caramel macchiato. As soon as a green tea warmed her own fingers, she’d head up to work. First stop was Tom’s office. Not since her gym visit over a fortnight ago had they spoken, but he’d buzzed while she was away.

Through the atrium’s glass she beheld a cluster of white oaks and the sky as a manageable blue crystal. “Nature“ felt more elusive than ever, and not only from this angle. Over two centuries since William Bartram’s southeastern peregrinations, the nature she’d just enjoyed, aside from the bioluminescence, often seemed more like upholstery than maritime forest. Even the sand came from elsewhere, a bellman had said. Plus a community turning gated had barred him from fishing in a favorite spot.

Apparently, even at a beach resort, life wasn’t always a resort. Besides, maybe she’d misunderstood the partners; maybe, as daily associates, they were preferable to mosquitoes and ticks? Possibly her conflicts here were trivial, an article on her phone about Yemen reminded her: detailing a story involving gold, oil, Iranian sanctions, Sudanese mercenaries, and the Saudi-owned company whose equipment she’d blamed in her oil spill memo.

Through Google and happenstance, fidgety in line, she’d found the article after a pro bono client slurping coffee nearby told Aki’s paralegal she was from Sudan. “Thousands of people? Dead. Here in the US? Trees stay upright because no one needs to cut them down,“ she trilled, her tone spanning an octave, her cheekbones glowing with something more enigmatic than makeup.

With the atrium swooning before her, Lauren headed for the elevator. Checking its mirror, she straightened her paisley dress. If trees were felled in developing countries, if nature wasn’t necessarily an idyll there, perhaps life was sadder, richer, more complex than she’d suspected. How lucky, mademoiselle, to work here at all, she scolded herself while striding over rugs consecrated by Secretaries of State and Treasury, even a presidential candidate who’d won. Like a TV heroine she strode into Tom’s office.

Ensconced in his swivel chair, he glanced up placidly. Almost crowning him, a red protest banner from his college days, to which he referred when he addressed the new associates each year as proof that he hadn’t “sold out,“ hung behind his desk. (But hadn’t that group set off bombs in the sixties? She wasn’t quite sure.) Litigation trophies, each one encased in glass, plus an abstract painting of a Toyota etched with Japanese characters, preened on his bookshelves. Although in a digital photo he was squinting on a sailboat with his incandescent family, whose white polo shirts matched, he appeared most comfortable scrolling through emails, sitting behind his desk.

“You were out yesterday? I buzzed you.“

“Took a long weekend.“

“Fresh perspective?“ he asked, still scrolling, as if he couldn’t care less.

“Yes.“

“Akiha’s pro bono client was here—Ms. Urdu. They said you might join the case.“

“Actually I just saw Ms. Urdu downstairs. With Gus, Aki’s paralegal.“

“Mm.“ Tom eyeballed her. “No doubt.“

“Pardon?“

“One thing I’ve observed is, some women need to be loved so badly, they’ll be used by every man they meet.“

In the course of speaking, his lips twisted like that day in the library. Apparently he was making a bizarre assumption about Ms. Urdu. But also he was trying to diagnose her, imagining he could squeeze her into a cheap plot line and bestow an epiphany. In college, in crappy jobs, she’d encountered such vanities; she hadn’t realized those with prize résumés would manifest them too. (“Our nation’s capital,“ Ian often had chortled. How easily she’d missed the irony, digesting too thoroughly the fiction that said capital had invented humans who transcended human nature.) Her chest pulsating, she glimpsed another photo of Tom looking rapturous standing beside three famous men.

If she felt voided, like she always did when someone portrayed her—or anyone—as a cartoon, perhaps she could spring away from his “bad faith“ to borrow a concept from her oil spill memo, plus the handsprings she’d punctuated with splits and Russian jumps in high school. Alternatively, if she accepted the characterization, she’d remain employed, but eventually find herself twisting language corkscrew-style to jab someone else, apparently one type of grown-up game. Why hadn’t she seen this before?

Not until she passed the firm’s most senior, emeritus partner in the hallway—he’d just won a lifetime pro bono award, his wife grew snap peas in their backyard, and wasn’t that his 1960s Chevrolet in the garage?—did her heart splinter. Rather nervously, she perused the rugs. How she admired the man’s modesty and old-fashioned thriftiness!

Only her future wouldn’t resemble his. She had her own wagers to consider: either wrap her brain 24-7 with the aforementioned kudzu-like professional jargon or wander headlong into a forest of ambiguities, starting with remnants from her beloved seventeenth century, where the tall trees of metaphysics and empiricism might provide temporary shelter but eventually land her in penury, not to mention, if she pursued four centuries of logic and history, a razed forest or smelly e-waste dump staffed by child laborers charged with reclamation.

Neither option appealed. Besides, how some puny wager of hers might matter one bit was woefully unclear. For the remainder of the day, she therefore ducked all quandaries, settling on gratitude—for plain old existence, food, safety—and, strolling outside, relished her own precious speck of it until she collided into a tie.

“I was just coming to find you,“ Kevin said.

“How’re—you?“ she asked, glancing at the new, sleek way he parted his hair, probably inspired by that old Gatsby movie he watched periodically. Like a stylish twenties couple, they headed over to Drake’s bar.

Onto the floor he dropped his briefcase, its bulbous pouch sliding into a dusty corner, monogram facing upward. Pulling a bowl of popcorn close, he munched philosophically, describing a woman he’d met on a work trip. “My engagement is—postponed,“ he added, reaching for his briefcase, pulling out a book. “You left this at the party.“

“Saraswati?“ Lauren read from a postcard tucked inside. “’Hindu goddess of wisdom.’ Somebody I went out with months ago sent this from India,“ she breathed. (Compared to the heedless recipient she’d been, she imagined herself jaded, almost wizened now.)

Kevin shrugged, his fingers dangling sensuously over the popcorn bowl. “You still in your unexamined-life-isn’t-worth-living phase?“

“Are you still a chronic economics major? I—recently didn’t get a job, report on rare earth minerals.“

“Why would you want that?“

“It was—something to hang onto,“ she said, contemplating Saraswati’s four arms.

“Aren’t rare earths used to make TVs, which blast those shows you’re always mocking?“

“Sure. They’re in most things. Hybrid car batteries, your phone.“ She nodded at his, which was ever-present. “Mostly I was just tired of feeling precarious at this job, tired of trying to seem impermeable, like the partners expect. Tired of trying to prove I’m not a—woman who wears T-shirts emblazoned with sequin hearts on the front.“

What?“

“I heard a kid say that at the mall. And I do like sparkles, even the faded ones in Harrington’s rugs. Or Klimt’s Tree of Life, where the sparkly universe collapses onto one big—“

“Why don’t you switch firms?“

“I’m considering my options.“

“You have any?“

“Nope. Did you know that dung beetles navigate using the Milky Way? Whereas artificial light misleads them?“ For better or worse, she was on a roll, saying a few things she actually thought.

“Are you even looking around?“ Kevin asked, leaning forward, smelling of offices, eco-dry cleaners, and beer.

“Similarly,“ she declared, charmed by the aroma, but ignoring his skepticism, “professional expertise and TV, computer screens, are limited. They’re derivative, like artificial light. And dung beetles,“ she said, watching passersby outside, “taught me that.“ Defiantly, she looked back at Kevin. “To watch for real light,“ she added, over the increasing din.

“Geez, Lauren. Usually I just try to keep other blokes from pissing on me. I don’t know what dung beetles are up to.“

“I mean, no one’s impermeable,“ she said, sounding tipsy although she was just drinking juice. “They just appear to be, on screens, on résumés—“

“Where you gonna apply?“

“Not sure.“

“Have you ever seen a rare earths mine?“

“No-o-o.“

“They’re a mess. An environmental mess. But we need them for our gadgets, so other countries, bigger firms, won’t piss on us.“ Quickly, he gulped the last of his drink, as if he’d settled things.

“Well, part of the report pertained to new recycling methods, using wastewater—“ she began as they paid and walked out. Down floated the Saraswati postcard, which she retrieved from the dust.

“Let’s go to a documentary on environmental disaster,“ Kevin teased before they parted.

“I need a job, not a documentary,“ she said, back in her flippant mode.

But the wind swelled, muzzling his response, and didn’t relent until she spotted an ancient lady collecting her bag with her mouth (her mouth?) through a grocery window.

Aghast, she peered a bit longer before nodding as the woman parted the electric doors. Extending a free arm, Lauren looped the handle, wet with saliva, around her wrist. As the woman bent over to move forward, bald patches dispersed among clumps of wispy white hair signified time quickening, other phenomena. Halting together, they let a car pass. Then wordlessly they strolled and hobbled together until she deposited the sack into the lady’s trunk and glimpsed her bloodshot eyes, red as the streetlight, as Russell’s numbers filled her screen. Because it was the most meaningful contact she’d had all week, she didn’t wipe the saliva from her wrist.

And certainly watching the lady, eyes luminous, gaping at something that probably happened eons ago, chug through the noisy parking lot was preferable to hearing Russell on “speaker.“

“Just giving you heads-up: finished my evaluation. I’ll be honest. This might not be the best place for you,“ his message blared. “Your revisions were fine but took forever. Plus XYZCO has expressed concern about possible antitrust investigations, so we’re reassigning the case. We’ll provide references, naturally.“ (Given her fellow Washingtonians’ proximity, was it necessary to bellow that telltale phrase, “not the best place for you?“)

When she was younger, she’d discerned an implicit web looping all creatures into one mystical whole. That’s how Granny Stockton behaved, and when she died, Lauren obliged herself never to forget. On the other hand, Kevin had a point about not being pissed upon. Then there was Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who deemed US culture too legalistic. “Want to live in a world without due process?“ she could just hear Kevin or Russell gibing. And admittedly, in law school, common law’s earthiness, its long, mulchy effort to create order through stare decisis, ancient cases’ faint messages from generations past intertwining rationality with local customs, had beguiled and even remade her mind.

Yet up and down the avenue, a line of squat but imposing buildings suggested one by one the varieties of human aspiration, and how aspiration sometimes went askew. In a muddle, she drove back to her townhouse, where she unloaded accumulated items—books, towels, desiccated apples, et cetera—then crumpled on the sofa until a riot of lights illuminated the windows and impelled her to leap up. Headlights ablaze, her neighbors’ cars were maneuvering reproachfully around an obstacle, and the obstacle was her car. She’d forgotten to move into her designated space.

And, quel dommage, her front tire was flat. Scooting outside, popping her trunk, she rolled a temporary spare out until it wobbled away. Flummoxed, she scanned her block and spotted Blake—prince of the recyclables—and two men from the embassy, representing a country she’d barely heard of, heading her way.

And hallelujah: They carried jacks as they bolted across the street. After Blake caught the wobbly tire, the last fellow hopped onto the curb, and they all heaved and groaned. Six legs transformed her red car into a ladybug crawling through the parking lot before they kneeled like church supplicants. Nimbly, fluently, their fingers worked until the lug nuts were tightened and the tire secure.

Feeling ridiculous, she hopped into her car and moved into her space, wondering what to say, fumbling in her wallet for cash. “Thank you,“ she breathed, popping out again. “Can I—pay you?“ Tentatively, she held up a soft wad of dollars.

Autumn leaves fluttered, drifted to the ground, and settled around Blake like an upside-down halo.

“No.“

“No?“

“I don’t want your money.“

Already the others were floating back across the street. “Where are they from?“ She stuffed the dollars in her pocket.

“Morocco.“

“Almost like Camus.“ She beamed. He snorted. She felt way too ethereal.

“Guess I should learn to change a tire,“ she said, hoping to impress him, then thought of his truck. “Are you from North Carolina? Your license plate—“

“Durham, but I didn’t go to Duke.“ He laughed, nodding at the row of parking stickers disintegrating on her bumper.

“You like it here?“ Quietly she awaited his answer. Or maybe she enjoyed his breath, his chest rising and falling close by.

“Sure. My mom carried me up when I was a teenager.“ He gestured toward the part of town where occasionally the firm sent associates to do pro bono cases. Only now, certain blocks were gentrifying. “She had a job at HUD. Mostly she wanted me away from my grandpa’s juke joint. But I still go back and sit on his porch. He’s dead now.“

“I love porches!“

Watching him dwindle on the sidewalk minutes later, she wished she’d thought of a more compelling rejoinder, or at least condolences for the grandpa. Maybe she’d holler after his shadow that philosophy, culture, nature were a continuum; they weren’t housed in any particular school. Towns, even air, were richer than she’d fathomed. But he’d probably just nod politely.

Mulling a possible gift for him and the others to honor their precious decency, she changed clothes and ran toward the Mall, passing the Botanic Garden, then the National Gallery. Come spring, lilacs would blossom in front of the Gallery like a still life missing its frame; not to mention Matisse’s Open Window was inside.

So transfixed by electronic images generated via rare earths, by roles she was expected to play, in places where the powerful congregated, she’d forgotten quieter spots. Forgotten to pay attention to those with the non-ephemeral in their voices or taken them as her due. (Maybe trying to forget her losses? From deaths, a breakup, or connections that weren’t unbroken to begin with.) Hence her banal reasoning: If she didn’t defend an oil spill, someone else would. It was the sort of axiom that not only precluded introspection in favor of screen clichés fostered by the crowd, but also reduced the earth and just about everybody into warring clichés. Or in her own case, shut off feeling for a while.

Always present, however, were subtler clues, that rippled from the past and blew up from the soil. A boy leapt onto a railing, then over the Natural History steps. Up above, a plane’s ruby wing lights blinked, revealing its faint outline. A group of women spoke Vietnamese into the wind, tunics fluttering, while a pair of bald cypresses flanked them like two gallants. Beneath the trees, fungi, lichen, polyphenols invigorated the air. Not unlike Saraswati’s four arms, transcending the literal, things blew around, through the soil, across the ocean, and meshed into a glittering, nonliteral whole. If the world was a voracious maw, it was an intricate web with all manner of creatures and processes accomplishing far more than she’d heretofore troubled herself to comprehend. Rare earths had first formed during supernova explosions when the universe began, she’d read recently. “There are more things on heaven and earth than are dreamt of on your résumé,“ Jasper had quipped once, paraphrasing Hamlet after meeting one of her more pompous colleagues at a party.

But presently, a quiet night lay ahead. Later she’d respond to an email from Margo, just arrived that afternoon. Apparently, the forest Granny Stockton’s family once owned, and sold after the timber company closed, was being mined by a conglomerate for wood chips, which in turn were shipped to power plants all over the world. Because the power plants had once been coal plants, the technique was counted as “green energy.“ “You’re a lawyer. Care to explain?“ Margo had queried, describing the mess left behind, trees surreptitiously cut down. She could just hear Margo talking in her funny, slanted accent. But all Lauren could say was she didn’t know. Her last time home the forest had appeared quiet and still. Maybe she’d looked carelessly, forgetting that looking required more. More subtlety, nuance? Arguably, should an omniscient mathematician appear who could tally all of life’s incongruities, its subtleties and nuances, even those answers might err if derived from a computer whose parts had contaminated someone else’s soil. Which meant she and everyone else were pretty much awash in life’s je ne sais quoi.

Softly, rhythmically, her heels hit the ground as she and other souls traversing the Mall shared gravity’s kiss. For now her limbs were weary, too weary for paradoxes or even the mundane question of how to eat after her evaluation. Hopefully, sans defending oil spills? Whether it mattered or no, she found herself making a wager, as the harvest moon, stars, rose over the city, bedazzling monuments, lawyers, dung beetles, elms, visitors from far away, and the entire masquerade.

THE END

Copyright © 2020 by Tricia Warren.


About the Author
Formerly a lawyer in Washington, D.C., Tricia Warren now lives in Atlanta, Georgia, where she tries to stay out of her car. Her work has appeared in The Furious Gazelle, Umbrella Factory Magazine, SNReview, Eunoia Review, The Tower Journal, Litbreak Magazine, and Alaska Law Review.

For the penultimate paragraph of Rare Earths, she consulted the work of Dr. Mary S. Booth on the ecological consequences of transforming biomass into fuel.