A bit ago, I posted a sequence of two installments of a short story titled “Lily,” which were a fun reprieve for me to write and hopefully a bit of a fun escape for you to read. “Lily” chronicles the beginnings of an adventure for a woman living in Seattle who discovers a handsome farmer/chef in a newspaper magazine insert and decides she must meet him. I’ve decided to write a series of short stories related to that story, and here’s the second installment of it, called “Ellen,” also in parts–I will post the second part after I write it. I love fiction for this ability to try everything. This is completely fictitious, bearing no resemblance to my life, and is thus a lovely escape. As before, it’s a rough draft and unedited, so forgive any typos and the inevitably poor grammar. Maybe you could consider it the second chapter or so, as I think it will be a novel written in linked short stories, a form I have always admired but not attempted. I suppose I might call this my pandemic summer of love stories, or something equally romantic, but for now it’s just a second story in August while I wait for the corn to produce ears (what if I grow a cornfield without ears? That would be a sight, and certainly an apropos nod to this strange year).
Ellen watched across the room as the young woman seated herself at the stranger’s table and pulled out her book before they began chatting; from just the cadence of their conversation she could see that something would come of it. She adjusted her collar and looked away, aware of her own rudeness. Just like an old lady, she thought, staring into other people’s business. The restaurant was small and sweet and she was glad she and Richard had decided to venture out to dinner, despite being so tired. She peered at the menu and glanced around at the various starters that were being laid to rest on tabletops—candles were lit; bread was refilled. While she sipped her chardonnay and noted its pear tendencies, she felt memory rise in the back of her mind as she glanced at the young couple, still strangers, laughing suddenly. It was as familiar as the smooth slip of silverware in her hand, that small moment of chance.
As she fished for a piece of bread within the quintessentially cozy red checkered linen-lined basket, she peered at Richard. He was lost in thought, a familiar pose of introspection, his gray hair curling about his face, his thoughts always feeding his hair into the wild wave that it was. Richard’s thoughts were worth noting, and that is why she loved him. His inner world was always winnowing through a knothole of some kind, and he would share a bit of his catch with her as soon as he returned from whatever reverie he had lost himself in. And that, in a nutshell, she nodded quietly, is why I have stayed with him all these years.
They had arrived in New York last night, after a long and appropriately arduous trip from France. They would be seeing their son tomorrow. She was deeply tired, a fatigue borne of the turned-around and upside-down sleepiness of time travel. In France, in their stone kitchen, the clock above the sink would be reading nearly Midnight. It wasn’t so much that the timing was impossible; certainly, she’d found herself in the kitchen rummaging for a snack at this hour, but it was also the airplane travel and the anticipation of what was ahead. She felt herself nearly dreaming, straddling the world between awake and asleep with just barely the lift of her hands to her face as she righted her reading glasses and studied the menu on the blackboard. Pasta and fish. A salad to share. Nothing fancy. She didn’t want a garden martini. Just the simple things for tonight. Tomorrow they would see Joshua and Natalie, and she would hold her first grandchild. Again, the butterflies alighted in her belly and flew up to her chest, fluttering in her throat and begging for freedom just barely long enough for the excited ascent to begin all over again.
She gathered a bit of butter on a knife and caught sight of her hand, its weathered skin and dark spots, her knobby fingers; her hands aged far beyond her 75 years, and instead of seeing the wear with her usual mix of pride and chagrin (she was a worker, her hands showed this), she remembered, quite suddenly and unexpectedly, the marks on her palms. How it wasn’t a chance lover trying to seduce her or a palm reader at a State fair that first noted the stars on there, but instead a book and a cup of tea in a biblioteca deep in the cobblestone alleyways of Rome. She turned over her hands and studied the palms, so wrinkled now that it was difficult to find anything smooth there at all.
“Turn over your hand and study your palm,” the little book had instructed. “Look for x’s, intersections between the head and the heart and the lifelines.” Even as a small child, Ellen had always had wrinkled hands. She had inherited them from her maternal grandma. She was still waiting for the arthritis to set in, but so far it had not, save for a few swollen joints and aches and pains here and there. As she studied her palms there in that small bookstore, sipping dark tea and missing milk and sugar (they only served it with lemon in Italy, unless you asked for the milk, and even then it was too heavy, more of a cream), she became lost in a morass of crosses. It’s like finding Jesus in my hands, she had thought, giggling quietly. So many crosses and stars, so many intersections. “If you have an “x” between your head and your heart line, you are destined to be a leader. You will rise to fame,” it said. Only 3 percent of people presented with x’s there. Stars were lucky. But, it said, many crosses and stars could indicate misfortune and difficulty. Well, then, Ellen had thought, leaning back in her chair, I wonder what life will hold? She had studied her palms, holding them up to her eyes and turning them at every angle, trying to figure out where she was in her lifeline, dividing up the line into quarters and then smaller slivers—was she here, was she there, at this precise moment in time was she ahead or behind this cross, or that star? She remembered shivering with anticipation and the mystery of it all, a momentary glint of seeing, a tiny glimpse into her future that opened and closed just as quickly as she found it.
She was only 20, just a baby then. What did she know? Ellen glanced at the young people in the restaurant, chatting animatedly. The woman in the corner was laughing and then she stopped, quite suddenly, and turned pale, and the man leaned forward and apologized. Yes, Ellen thought with satisfaction, they will work out just fine.
“I was just remembering my mother in her heyday,” Richard noted, in his characteristically sudden way, folding his hands together in his lap, and turning to Ellen. “She was quite a charismatic woman.”
“Yes, she was,” Ellen replied, waiting. She was accustomed to these non-sequiturs, these sudden interruptions as he pulled himself from one world to another. A stranger might wonder at his senility, but he had been like this all his life, and of course, he, too, was rambling down memory lane with their return home. It was one of the qualities that she adored about him, the feeling of surprise at any given moment as he peppered their atmosphere with stories and the folding of time.
“She was furious with the neighbors one day. Fuming,” he chuckled. “They were angry with somebody and tugging along some trouble like a tired animal on a leash. Mother had been stewing over it all morning, trying to get things done in the house as she always was, and she had finally just burst out that she couldn’t take it anymore, and she’d marched over and insisted they come to dinner that evening. She invited the opposing party, who at the time lived on the corner of Eagle and Cave, do you remember that house? and they all arrived to dinner that evening angry, and departed as friends. She leveled entire courses at them like delicately wrapped missiles… I remember her whispering like a witch over the contents of her pots and pans, talking to herself about a bit of this and a bit of that, the bitter and the sour and the purslane and parsley and how it would all add up to a bit of humility in the end.”
Richard tore off a chunk of bread inside his giant, weathered hands, so thick with age they dwarfed everything by comparison, and took a long drought of dark wine. “I swear to you to this day that she put something in the well and we all grew up drinking magic from the tap,” he laughed, a deep rumble, a laugh that lived inside his full and hearty belly and his big, square chest, and came from a well-fed heart. There was nothing missing in Richard’s bear of a being. He turned his bluest eyes to her and winked the left one, crinkled and worn, before reaching out and cuffing her gently on her cheek.
And that, Ellen remarked internally with satisfaction, was why she had married Richard.
Eagle and Cave. She could see the start of the path at the edge of the property, just alongside the driveway, a road’s end easement to the river that the neighborhood kids traveled daily to survive the hot New York summers. She knew it well.
Years and years ago, the tug between two men had been a knife twisting in her chest, one man turning it, the other one healing it. She wouldn’t have known it at age 20 in that biblioteca, how could she? Nobody intends to fall in love with two people. And there really isn’t anything romantic about it, nobody prepares you for that, either. At least, not Ellen. She wasn’t built for that kind of thing. It just tore her apart, thread by thread, seam by seam, until she folded herself into a handkerchief and hid away in the cedar house by the sea, just praying. In the end, it was the amber and moss that made the decision for her.
“Do you remember that house?” Richard mused quietly. “That one on the corner of Eagle and Cave?”
“The children in that house all grew up to be successful. Every one of them, no deviants, despite their upbringing. There must have been a wellspring beneath them. It isn’t there anymore, I don’t think. We should drive by, tomorrow, why don’t we?”
“Yes, let’s,” Ellen responded.
“Do you think we can get it all in during this visit?” Richard mused in his usual way, talking through the mundane parts of planning their trip. While they chatted through the little things—was the onesie for Ethan too small by now, as he was already almost a month old; what sort of mother would Natalie be shaping up to be; how would Joshua handle the visit; how could they be helpful and quiet and not overpowering during this time? Ellen remembered being a new mom, the overwhelming exhaustion and the ways she and Richard navigated the constantly changing terrain of a newborn.
As they talked, Ellen noted the jarring sounds around them, the familiar stab of English and its hard edges interrupting the French breathlessness that she was so accustomed to after all their years in Provence. They would visit their old house and check on the family renting it; they had insisted that it be the least troublesome thing in the world for them to just drop by and see how their house was faring; it had been 10 years now since they had walked the property. She remembered holding Joshua in the bedroom late at night, rocking him to sleep at her breast. The property manager was highly capable, they had been told; everything was in working order; they wanted to just see it for themselves for a moment or two, if the occupants didn’t mind.
Flying into Albany had been like slowly zipping a dress before an anticipated evening. As the airplane doors opened and she and Richard had begun their tired gait to baggage claim, she had felt the familiar climate of rural New York rush at her, a childhood and a lifetime in a compression of tiny air molecules; and in that brief step through the doorway, she had been visited by the strangest, unexpected flash: Her own uncertain footsteps on the forest floor alongside Quinn as he reached out his hand between the leaves and pulled her through to that wide meadow. Even now, settled among the living, with the candlelight glowing within its quilted canning jar exterior just beyond her marked hand and Richard’s bear paw tapping its index finger to a monologue inside his magnificent brain, she remembered what it was to be transfixed by the Godly reverence of a man like Quinn. There was something about the young couple in the corner that reminded her of the night when Richard had told her a story that finally sealed her away into the comfortable embrace of their life together, finalizing the goodbye for her, leaving Quinn by the river where he fished his way into the arms of his life with Margaret and their own buckets of babies. Margaret, she mused, was similar to Richard, solid and unassuming, built of a kind of weather-less mass that stayed stalwart as a lamppost in the dark.
It was all as it should be. Still, that time. Still. That time. It had branded her and nearly torched her to charred remains like that storied old-growth forest that burned down in minutes from the careless hands of a little boy in the neighborhood who couldn’t abide by the rules to stop playing with matches. She didn’t see that same fire in Margaret. Both she and Quinn had folded themselves into separate destinies that were far more suited to the living, more solidly built and square, attainable and comfortable rather than fought over and crumpled and ironed out and sent haphazardly who-knows-where like a little paper airplane to wherever they would have landed, if at all. More likely they would have always been in flight. The life they would have carved together would have been fraught with fighting and disagreements, storms and too-tight fits within too-wide destinations, angry and wild eruptions with talons outstretched falling fast, followed by chagrin and apologetic rebuilding, a patterned braiding and unraveling that would have quick-stepped them forward and backward so many times she would have been so busy catching up she never would have breathed fully. A lifetime of waiting to exhale carved by a big knife with inexperienced hands, cut haphazardly. At least, that’s what she had decided back then.
When she had first seen Quinn, she had recognized him immediately. She hadn’t known at the time that they were cut from the same cloth, so similar in heart and mind that they pulled and repelled each other, like two halves of the moon; one waxing, one waning, always completing, one phase always overtaking the other in a fast embrace. He kept her so angry that she never cried until it was too late.
Tomorrow, they would drive by that old path to the meadow, and she would remember. And, truth be told, she couldn’t wait to see the entrance to that distant and unforgotten possible life. Because, isn’t that how it always is with life and memory? She watched the young couple, she saw how the woman eyed the restaurant owner briefly before turning to her companion and their books. She saw it all and recognized it, as one does from the distant remove of memory that can be touched briefly and brought back to life as instantly as the shock of hot liquid to the tongue or, conversely, the sinking of one’s heart when you see how far in you’ve fallen and how difficult it will be to claw your way out.
While the restaurateur banged about softly in the kitchen, murmuring small refrains, she held Richard’s thigh beneath her hand and considered the days ahead. Meanwhile, the table of girls nearby laughed and chatted, and she glanced up just in time to see the look in the eyes of one of them. Painful memory washed in a flash across the girl’s face. She thought quickly of a cold wind whooshing through a forgotten door, and she shivered.
When she met Quinn, it was with the surprise of rising from the depths of that quiet river pool and seeing him there. She had been staring at the sky, paddling along there, just back from Italy, just twenty-two, thinking about her interview in Chicago, what sort of entry-level journalist she would be if she got the job (street beat? Real estate? Obituaries?) and she had rolled to her side and lifted her face, and there he was. He was just turning the bend around the path from the dark woods (how did he know about this place?) and he was as surprised as she was. She hadn’t cut her hair in Italy; it was down to her lower back and fanned in a massive, wet circle around her face, making her feel as if she were carrying a heavy skirt about her head. She imagined she looked like a bedraggled sea creature and didn’t blame him for his staring before he looked away. She knew everyone in her small town. This man wasn’t one of them and she couldn’t bother being frightened because he radiated familiarity. And in that one intake of breath she learned what it was like to want everything and to regret it all and to wish for flight and to hold tightly with a closed fist, all at once.
To be continued.