Tuesday, September 19, 2017

The Summer Holiday - Part Two

Read Part One here.

We hear the music before we see the estate. Trumpets from the band herald the night’s arrival. A sumptuous night it is, too. Sky thick with stars, the day’s heat still hanging about but tempered by the salted breeze off the ocean. It is end-of-summer splendor.

Our hired driver putters up the driveway, behind and before at least a dozen other cars delivering guests to the soiree. The scene unfolding with each forward movement sheds new light on the preparations Aunt Rita insisted upon in the last several hours: new gowns in the most current style; hair curled and pinned to perfection; polished shoes and glittering, albeit modest, jewels.

I have spent the time trying and failing to ask my aunt not only why the party necessitated such measures, but why we are attending this party at all. Though the name feels intangibly familiar, I am not aware of any personal connection to the Colemans. I am certain Aunt Rita has never mentioned them before. Yet here we are, pulling ever closer to the front steps of their impressive mansion, readying our skirts and shawls to emerge from the car into the glittering crowd milling about the lawn.

Finally, entirely too close to our exiting the vehicle, my aunt rushes to explain.

“The Colemans,” she begins with a clearing of her throat, “reside in California. Their home, Grove Palace, is a vineyard. Their wines are among the most superb wines currently being bottled. This is their vacation home.”

I gaze out of the automobile’s rectangular window. Only two vehicles remain ahead of us. I can see the valets ushering the guests from their cars. The mansion is larger than any I’ve seen in the region. Three stories, a pillared façade, and as wide as the full city block that contains my family’s home in Boston. Candlelit lanterns flicker in every window and line the paved path to the lawn. Guests adorn the courtyard and gardens like sprinkles on a cake.

“Do you know them?” I ask.

When Aunt Rita doesn’t answer, I look her way. She bites her lip. She is lovely tonight - a description I have never applied to my aunt. Her usually stern features are softened by the dusting of powder and rouge, as well as the fetching arrangement of her hair. Looking past me and out the window as we roll forward, she sighs.

“I knew them.”

“When?”

“A lifetime ago.”

We move again and before the wheels are still, a man in a tuxedo opens my door and offers his hand.



We keep to the edge of the activity. I feel like a moth in a butterfly garden. A footman presents a tray of beverages. Aunt Rita chooses a red wine and I pick a crystal glass filled with pink punch. The first sip tells me it is not merely punch. It burns deliciously in my throat.

My eyes roam. Face after face, glowing in the lantern light, beautiful but unfamiliar. I watch for Michael and wonder if I’ll recognize him. His smile is the most lasting impression left from our boardwalk encounter.

Aunt Rita interrupts my search, “Miles and I were to be married.”

“Miles?” My deceased uncle, my mother’s brother, was named Otto.

“Miles Coleman.”

I stutter over this bit of information. “What, what do you mean?”

“We weren’t publicly engaged, but privately.” Aunt Rita purses her lips. Her eyes look wet. “Privately, we were promised to each other.”

I face her, the strangers’ laughter and conversations fading to the background. She has never spoken to me of her younger years. She is still staring into the crowd, or perhaps beyond it. For a moment, my eyes see her as a woman I do not know, another stranger at this party. She is not old, though I think of her as such. Fifty-two, healthy, her body trim and her hair still dark and full. It is her frowns and general air of disenchantment that ages her. And her walking cane. Her use of it is only a habit after requiring it for a year after an injury to her foot. She does not need it, and for the first time, she left it at the hotel tonight.

“I summered here for two years when I was very young, seventeen and eighteen, with my dearest friend and her family. They owned a cottage in Hampton Beach. I met Miles my first week here that first summer, and spent every possible minute with him. I loved him with my whole, naïve heart. For the year in between our two summers together, we wrote letters. Dozens of letters. Before the end of the second summer, he proposed to me. He was twenty at the time. We decided we would wait to announce it, we would wait to marry, until he finished university. He had two years of schooling left before he was to join his family’s business. That was the plan. That was the promise we exchanged.”

The remembrance, the revelation, thickens her voice. One shaking hand she presses to her chest while the other lifts her wine glass tremulously to her lips.

“What happened?”

“Three months after his proposal, he told his parents our plans. They objected. With each month that he insisted on marrying me, their objections grew stronger. Eventually, they demanded he make a marriage that was advantageous to the family. My middleclass roots and my father’s unremarkable financial standing didn’t fit the bill. They pressured. He slowly weakened. We were thousands of miles apart. There was little I could do. Nine months after his proposal, he undid our arrangement. Three months after that, he wrote a final goodbye and informed me of his upcoming marriage to the daughter of a family friend. I have not seen Miles Coleman in thirty-two years, Mary, but I will see him tonight.”

I try to respond. I try to sort out the right thing to say but my tongue is dry and my thoughts are foggy. The pink punch and the revealed secret are a heady combination. “Why now? You take your holiday here every summer. Why see him now?”

“Do you know why I take my holiday here every year?” She doesn’t wait for a reply. “To remember that girl. To remember that version of myself from those memories really existed, and to feel I might still be her. I come here to remember I did love like that once. I need to remember.”

Aunt Rita sips her wine, wine that, I assume, is a Coleman Family vintage. “I never tried to see him though, not once in the sixteen years I’ve come here. So, ‘why now’ is a terribly good question, Mary. Of course, the notion crosses my mind each and every year. To what end, though? That is the question that stops me each year.”

“Except for this year,” I say.

“Yes, except for this year.” She sips again. The glass, as she tips it to her mouth, seems to catch the moonlight itself and sets her visage aglow. Her eyes are dry now, and open wide. “When your acquaintance, who is clearly not your acquaintance,” she smiles a little, “asked if we were attending tonight’s soiree, I decided then and there it is time to meet Miles again. I cannot explain it better than that, I’m afraid.”

“You aren’t asking yourself, ‘to what end’ this time?”

“Oh, I certainly am. I stopped caring about the answer though. Even if it is only to see his face again, or,” she swallows hard, pushes out her next words, “or maybe meet his wife, I need to be here.”

As Aunt Rita falls silent, I see him. I recognize his smile in an instant, then every feature of his handsome face.

“You knew Michael was a stranger?” I ask.

My aunt casts a sideways glance at me. “I was not fooled.”

Michael is only steps away.

“Guard your heart, Mary, but not too tightly.”


To be continued.

Monday, September 4, 2017

Blocked

Let me take a break from pulling my hair out to state the obvious: writer's block sucks. I do not succumb to it often, but the last week has been one of the rare exceptions.

I've tried everything. Staring at a blank notebook for endless minutes; switching between typing and longhand; rereading the previous paragraphs to set off ideas for the remainder of the story; jumping ahead to write later scenes. All to no avail. I've also tried stepping away from it to do anything else before returning to the story: reading, running, yoga, classical music, shopping, TV, sex (Calm down, I'm married with two children. No surprises here.), a hot bath, and more reading.

The words are hibernating somewhere in the recesses of my imagination. I know they exist, but they are avoiding me like an acrophobe avoids the Empire State Building. So, I thought perhaps taking a break to write about writers block might unblock the block. Time will tell.


Sunday, August 27, 2017

The Summer Holiday, Part One


We are here for the day. Had rather be with you.
Mary H.

I scrawl the message in haste and add the stamp to the card. I’ll post it with the hotel clerk when I return there tonight. There is much more to say, but not on a postcard. Ann will understand, assuming she can manage to read my handwriting.

The scene along the seaside boardwalk differs little from the one captured on the postcard: busy, crowded, overdressed. I do not understand why people put on their best to visit the beach. Sand belongs between toes and dusted around damp ankles. Folks in their suits and dresses and high laced shoes can't possibly enjoy the beach the way it deserves. My aunt, much to my dismay (though not my surprise), is one of those folks.

A week ago, I came up from Boston to accompany Aunt Rita to Hampton Beach. It is her annual summer holiday. The one about which we receive a four-page letter at the close of the summer, detailing every morning, noon, and night of her two weeks there. My mother insists on reading the letter in its entirety to the family. I have the same thought every year: Lord, if I ever can manage to take an annual seaside holiday, please don't let it be as a dreary as Aunt Rita's.

Now, here I stand, staring at the crowds and motor cars on the boardwalk, waiting for Aunt Rita to finish perusing yet another shop in which she will buy nothing and critique everything. The breeze is light today; too light. The humidity and heat of the unobstructed sunshine make me wish for my swimming costume and a dip in the water. My straight, auburn hair slips repeatedly from its pins. Pieces stick to my damp neck and cheeks. I wipe my forehead with a handkerchief and shade my eyes against the sun. It can be lovely here, under the right conditions. These are not quite the right conditions.

When Aunt Rita exits the shop, I supply a bright smile. I know she doesn’t want me here, so the least I can do is be cheerful. She has openly loved her independence since her husband’s death sixteen years ago. (Amazing how the possession of money renders such independence an enviable blessing, whereas my own state in life evokes only pity.) When her children insisted that this year she allow someone to accompany her to the seaside, Aunt Rita reluctantly agreed. At twenty-six and unmarried, I was the naturally chosen companion.

This is why the terribly short note on the postcard to my lifelong, dearest friend Ann will speak volumes. She knows. I don’t need to explain.

“They need to dust their shelves every day,” Aunt Rita says when she rejoins me and we step back onto the boardwalk. “Everything in there was gray with dust.”

“Mmmhmm.”

“Don’t mumble.”

My eyes flit between the blue water to my left and the two men in front of us on the walkway. They stroll at a pace too leisurely for Aunt Rita. She supplies a series of supposedly inconspicuous huffs and sighs as we slow our own steps behind the men. I tune my ears to the foamy waves instead.

Within a few yards, her less than subtle hints must be heard by the men, for they step aside and tip their hats as we pass. Yet, once we take the lead and regain Aunt Rita’s standard march, the men do likewise. I turn my head enough to be sure it is them so close behind us. The man behind Aunt Rita winks before I face forward again, and I cringe, imagining the lecture on rudeness that Aunt Rita will likely deliver if she realizes these young men are amusing themselves in such a manner. I walk a tad faster.

She taps her walking cane against the boards. “Mary! Whatever is your hurry?”

“Yes, Mary,” says the winking man. “How can you enjoy the views at such a speed?”

There is a sparkle of fun in his brown eyes. His smile is wide and unashamed.

“Do we know you, gentlemen?” Aunt Rita demands.

A blush spreads over my already hot cheeks.

“We’re friends of Mary.” Another wink comes my way.

A thrill with which I’m unacquainted possesses me and I play along. “Of course,” I say with barely managed confidence. “This is Mister…” I let my voice fade and he jumps in.

“Gable. Michael Gable.” He bows toward Aunt Rita. “This here is Thomas Lafferty, my colleague.”

“Pleased to meet you, ma’am. Lovely to see you again, Mary.” Thomas plays along too, though with less ease than Michael.

I nod. “Yes, it is lovely. It has been a long time since we last met. This is my aunt Rita.” There is no accounting for how widely I am smiling. I imagine describing it all for Ann in a proper letter.

The introductions complete, I am left wondering where we can possibly go from here. Michael continues the ruse without hesitation.

“Was it in New York that we last saw you?”

“No, no,” I say, aware that my aunt knows I haven’t been to New York in many years. “It was in Boston.”

“Christmastime, last year?”

“I believe you’re right.”

Michael frowns, though it is an expression in danger of reverting to a smile at any moment. “How is your mother?”

“She is well. It is kind of you to ask.” I mirror his seriousness.

Aunt Rita watches with her wrinkled mouth agape.

“How fortunate that we would see you here!” Michael says. “We must catch up properly. There is a soiree at the Coleman estate tonight. Will you ladies be attending?”

To this, I can make no reply, for Aunt Rita is the guardian of the daily schedule. When I chance a look at her though, it is clear Michael has peaked her interest. We all wait for her to speak, a collective suspense in the humid air.

“Coleman, you said?” Aunt Rita asks.

“Indeed.”

“The Grove Palace Colemans?”

“The same,” Michael confirms.

Aunt Rita smooths her skirt. “Yes, Mary and I plan to attend.”

“We do?” I ask.

“Yes, we do.”

“We do.” I repeat.

“That’s splendid.” Michael claps his hands together. “We will arrive by nine o’clock. I shall keep an eye out for you.”

I only nod, equal parts delighted and stunned by the exchange.

Michael lifts and kisses Aunt Rita’s hand. He takes mine next. His fingertips press into my palm while his thumb massages in a circle below my knuckles. He plants a soft kiss on the same spot. When he stands straight again, he tucks a loose piece of hair behind my ear. Aunt Rita clears hear throat.

“Until tonight, Mary.”

The men enter a shop after another tip of their hats.

Aunt Rita fires forward on the boardwalk, her cane tapping out her cadence. “Oh, we must hurry, Mary. There is much to be done.” I hear her whisper into the August heat, “A soiree at the Colemans. Surely, he’ll be there. Finally.”

To be continued.

Read Part Two here.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

A to Z Flash Fiction: Catharsis

C: Catharsis

I walk two blocks west from my hotel and spot the wooden sign for The Griffin. When I asked the front desk attendant for a recommendation of both the best Reuben sandwich and the best whiskey old fashioned, this was his immediate answer.

As I push open the door, I loosen my tie and undo the top button of my white oxford shirt. I scan the
room. It’s large. Dark, polished wood, red accents, and brass hardware under dim, golden light create a weighty ambiance. There are about a dozen patrons inside, each silent or conversing in their lowest voices. The mahogany bar runs the full width of the front of the room. I pick a stool near no one and order my first round from an indifferent bartender. He keeps his eyes on a muted flat screen television on the adjacent wall. It’s a re-broadcast of this afternoon’s Dodgers-Giants game. While I sip my drink and peruse the kitchen’s menu, a man sits on the stool to my left.

The bartender immediately hands him a Budweiser without a word from either of them. He’s about my age, I discern from a sideways glance. His hands look older. Their calluses and knobby knuckles remind me of my father’s hands. My father was a union man in an iron foundry for forty-two years. I wonder briefly what this man does for a living, but the curiosity passes. There’s only one thing that occupies my mind tonight. One person.

My food order taken, the bartender brings me a second cocktail. I turn the glass in my hand. The slick condensation transfers from the glass to my fingers.

“Ricky?”

My neighbor on the next stool is peering at me with bloodshot eyes.

“Ricky! What’s it been?” he slurs. “A few years, I’d say. How you been, man?”

“I’m not Ricky, sir.”

His raspy laugh turns into a cough. “What are you going on about, Ricky? I’d know you anywhere.”

“My name is David. I’m not Ricky.”

“Aw, don’t be like that, man. It’s good to see you.” He swats my shoulder and almost slips off his stool.

I decide to ignore him. My brain returns to the same questions plaguing me since I flew to this city on Monday. It’s Thursday now. How’s it going to be when I get home? More of this? What do I want it to be like when I get home? That last question is the one I know I need to answer.

“You heard what happened, I’ll bet.” The man is teetering on that thin line between thoroughly intoxicated and sloppy drunk.

I stare into my glass after taking another swig.

“Yeah, of course you heard what happened to my Jenny.”

He doesn’t seem to care that I’m not responding. I look toward the bartender for aid but his eyes are on the already played ballgame.

“Can I confess the truth?” The man leans in as if he’s whispering, though he is not. “Sure, sure, I can. You’re an old friend. You won’t tell.”

I shake my head, wishing I’d stayed in and order overpriced room service.

“I think I killed her.”

My fingers stop tracing the rim of my glass. I turn my head a little and meet his eyes. They’re wide and bleary. He waits and I find my voice. “Listen, sir. I’m not Ricky. Maybe you need to have a water, or a soda, and sober up a little.”

It’s as if I didn’t even speak. “Geez, it feels good to admit that. Really good. I mean, don’t call the cops or nothing. I didn’t kill her.”

I raise my eyebrows.

“But still, I think I killed her.”

He goes silent for more than a minute and I hope it’s over. It’s not.

The man downs the last of his beer. “She only took drives like that when I made her mad. Fast. Old roads. Curves and hills.” His voice fades out. There are fat tears on his cheeks. I doubt he even knows they’re there. “‘You’ll kill yourself, driving like that, woman!’ That’s what I used to tell her. ‘Good,’ she’d say. ‘I have a way to do it then when you make me want to.’”

I shudder at the darkness of this exchange he had, more than once, with Jenny, whom I assume was his wife. It sounds outrageous. Even as I think this, I am flashing back to the bitter words that filled the air of our living room Sunday night, and the cold indifference Josie and I maintained on Monday morning until I left for the airport. No calls, no texts. None, this whole week, and tomorrow I fly home.

“I made her so mad that night. Madder than I’d ever seen.” He pounds on the bar and the bartender looks our way. “Another, ya’ lazy barkeep!” he chortles.

The bartender shakes his head. “No can do, McNeil. I already called your cab. I warned you that bottle was your last for tonight.”

McNeil scowls. Then his expression clears and his focus is back on me. “Do you think she meant to do it, Ricky?”

My mouth is dry. My drink is empty.

“Do you think she meant to hit that tree? Maybe, man, maybe. Either way, it’s on me. I knew what I was doing to her. I knew. I killed her.”

“Cab’s here,” the bartender interrupts.

“I could’ve stopped her, Ricky. I could’ve made it good.”

He stands and wobbles in his steel-toed boots. I see the grief, the self-loathing, in the lines of his face and the drop of his broad shoulders. He’s a large, muscular man, but he walks like a weaker, older version of himself.


After I watch him go, I rest my elbows on the bar and my head in my hands. Josie’s face fills my vision. The bartender slides my plate in front of me, but I stand up and mumble that I’ll be back in a minute. I reach for the phone in my pocket. “I have to call my wife.”


*****
Let's get back to basics, my friends. Specifically, the alphabet. I'll be writing a series of flash fiction pieces off of one word prompts, from A to Z. Enjoy! And if a word comes to mind for any upcoming letter, please make your suggestion and I'll consider it for a prompt.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Because the Saints Said So: Find a Friend (St. Thomas Aquinas)


Friendship is the source of the greatest pleasures, and without friends even the most agreeable pursuits become tedious. (St. Thomas Aquinas)

"Even the most agreeable pursuits become tedious." Isn't that the truth? What is your agreeable, tedious pursuit? That aspect of life that is rich with worth, a source of joy, yet as days pass there is an element of the mundane. For me, it is motherhood and writing. Both endeavors are reservoirs of goodness in my life, but, boy oh boy, can they become tedious. The nitty gritty becomes a nuisance. The repetitive details become boring. The depth to which I must dig to find my motivation becomes deeper.

With friends, though, what a difference there can be.

Friendship is indeed a source of great pleasure. Genuine friendship is life-giving. It builds up. It highlights and enhances your strengths, while meeting you in your weaknesses. Friendship finds common ground in the agreeable, yet tedious bits of life. Besides that, friendship is just plain fun! It offers laughter, smiles, mutually loved activities. Friends are shoulders for leaning, hands for holding, minds for collaborating. "Iron sharpens iron; one man sharpens another" (Proverbs 27:17).

I don't think I need to expound on this much further. It rings too true for us all to require a lot of explanation. I'll only add, say thank you to a friend today. Or two, or three. Love them, and be grateful.