Well, nine cent girl fans, here is yet another weekly blog post with the next chapter of my as of yet unpublished novel, Crazy String. If you missed Chapter 1, scroll back to last week to read it, then catch up on this post. David arrives in Vermont, back to his family home, to face the struggle surrounding his mother’s death, and what’s going on with his siblings, and his ailing father. Oh my!!
Right before the turn onto RT. 21A, David pulled into a lookout area, claustrophobic from the lush green surrounding him. Dotted between the small village homes are neat gardens like patchwork across the yards bordered by large-leafed sugar maples. David considered turning the rental car around, rebooking his return flight to Los Angeles, and getting the hell out of Vermont, besides, he reminded himself, he hadn’t formulated a new argument to extract his siblings from their father. Those two were tied up in this crazy string that he feared he could not undo but somehow he found himself driving right into it again.
He removed his glasses to rub the sweat from his eyes, lit a cigarette from the crushed pack in his front pants pocket and stood to get out of the car. Only avoiding mattered, he told himself. Keep it all at arm’s length had been his trusted motto for decades and he reminded himself to remain diligent. RT. 111 into Larson County follows a river that by mid-summer runs shallow over mossy rock and where hidden pools deep with rainbow trout lure fishermen along into the dusk. David followed a well-worn path down to the river’s edge.
A proud career as a lawyer had been David’s mother, Marion’s, idea from the start. She commissioned an astrological chart a week or so after the auspicious birth, and discovered right then and there her firstborn’s higher calling. Had Marion not died the summer David turned twelve he might have had a fighting chance not to live out her wish, but since the revelation had been articulated and gone over endlessly in his cut-short youth, he remained anchored to her prophetic dream.
Aware 21A was the most direct route, through the series of s-curves, past the First Nazarene Church, past the village green with the gazebo and the town hall’s steeple soaring as sentry, but time didn’t matter today. Back in his car, David pulled onto the north bound lane, driving ten miles out of his way to come into town from the opposite direction, to avoid that last s-curve but still cross through the covered bridge and drive up the dirt road he fled down years ago.
Later than expected David turned into the long drive between where two rows of stately maples still stood, although they were now short a few more limbs. Perennial flowerbeds on either side of the house struck a blast of purple and yellow blooms and clusters all abuzz with bumblebees and butterflies, the gardens tessellated by stone paths. He got out of the car, but left his bag in the trunk, just in case he thought.
Standing frozen in the driveway, David pictured his mother coaxing up frail dahlias, knocking beetles off tomatoes plants, working to keep the slugs from devouring her struggling sunflowers. In his dusty memory she seemed always out in the garden beds pulling, scratching, always digging. Her bare hands dirty, her hair whipping about her intent face with something long and floral blowing about, her attention to him wavering too.
Someone else now meticulously attended these gardens; certainly only his sister Beatrice’s creative flair could conceptualize these color combinations and leafy textures in just such a rousing botanical landscape. The color choked David in a way that smoke never did.
Viewing the half-mowed back lawn, David spotted a hammock with weathered wood and frayed rope hanging loosely between two spindly pines over by the edge of the woods; just beyond the sparkle of the reedy pond and over the rolling hill, he saw endless new green growth. All exactly as when he left, all exactly as he remembered, yet more wonderful and more sorrowful than he could hold inside.
The fieldstone chimney centered the story and a half clapboard farmhouse, and even from the driveway he could see the screen door still hung slightly off plumb, making a proper fit impossible. As a teen, home for the mandatory July visit, David endlessly tinkered so the door might sit level neatly inside the frame. Seeing the same rundown exterior irritated him.
The house looked empty, as if whoever lived there did so only partially. Not like there were blinds on the windows or shuttered doors, just something that halted the inhabitants. A faded green Subaru wagon sat in the driveway. The car unmistakable with Beatrice’s stuff: milk crates of spooled wool, bundles of yarn and fabric cut in long strips, all muted shades, an almost blue but at the same time an almost green, always stuff stacked in a haphazard manner throughout her station wagon.
Unable to face anyone just yet, David leaned against the car procrastinating. His eyes took in the small patch of crystal blue sky hemmed by tall trees and monstrous white clouds, and slid another cigarette from his front-pocketed pack. Out here he could occupy himself with supposition and deduction. As he ambled around the wagon, not exactly planning an entrance but half thinking, the family, his family, inside, just might notice the rental car and rush out to greet him.
Grumbling down the long driveway tearing up bits of dirt and rock came a pick-up with some sweet-faced girl sitting close to the driver in the cab. The truck roared at him with more horsepower than necessary. As it pulled in, brakes slammed inches from the rental’s rear bumper, and boots flew out seemingly before the truck stopped.
Sure David had seen photographs. Beatrice mailed them from time to time. But nothing prepared him for his flesh and blood kid brother turned man. David hardened. Whose face was this? Features he knew he recognized, but somehow now made anew, larger perhaps. Peter’s smile widened broad and toothy. Still a charmer, David thought. As a kid Peter was a sanguine soul, the reason to visit, and from the earliest memory admirers quickly became fast friends always surrounding him.
Without hesitation strong bare arms grabbed David and pulled him close to his brother’s slightly sweaty compact body.
“Hey, bro, cool, wow, it’s really you,” he didn’t let go.
David gave him a few hard pats and straightened his back, “Peter, been a long time.” David moved back to shake hands and establish distance.
“Peter? Fuck bro, I’ve been PK since, shit, forever. Don’t start with the Peter crap.”
They were brothers but hadn’t spent time together once men. Although both inherited their mother’s curly chestnut hair, Peter’s unruly and creeping from under his Mets cap, David’s barely touched the collar of his button-down shirt. Their similarities stopped right there. David’s six straight years of higher education exacerbated the stigmatism that demanded glasses, while regular intake of caffeine and nicotine only added to his wiry physique, and his early years resentful completed his choleric temperament. Peter’s dense build came from constantly doing everything that needed doing, like hauling wood or clearing brush, and his hands-on-lifestyle kept him solidly in the present moment. In an instant David noticed those fists of Peter’s had glimpsed some trouble and knew the brothers shared a temper.
“Been inside? Seen Pops? What the hell bro, you’re here.” His chatter streamed as he grabbed hold of David again, yet all David saw was decades ago with Peter’s small face looking out the bay window of their grandparents’ house on the cul-de-sac when he wanted to be home in this place, with what bits of family they still had left. For a broken second all that kept David away these past years fell meaningless like last night’s confetti stamped underfoot. PK pulled tight once more.
David’s eyes went to the sweet-faced girl in low-slung cut-off jean shorts and a halter-top who slid out of the truck with PK, now digging her sneaker into the driveway, pushing back the thin gravel while waiting for an introduction. In large strides Peter directed David to the front porch and without breaking pace shot up the two steps, hand on the still off-plumb screen door, shouting in, “Pops, Bebee, Pops, the fucker’s here, finally here.” He placed his hat on one of the four wooden pegs along the front wall, continuing his non-stop vocals. Peter stood large under the low farmhouse ceiling, surveying, like this place housed kings and queens and just royalty all around, his arm still resting across his brother’s shoulders. There was no resentment in Peter’s approachable smile.
David marveled over how so little changed. The maple plank table with painted legs hadn’t been shifted an inch since the blue light night. The same mismatched wooden chairs, with the same cushions their mother had sewn using old tablecloths. He could imagine Marion at her stove sautéing tomato and garlic and onion, filling the farmhouse with pungent aromas, reaching up for oregano from her garage-sale spice rack and grabbing a bowl from her orange crockery. Her floral apron still hung on the hook by the sink and the framed watercolors of her gardens graced the wall.
David still called Marion ‘momma’ when the kitchen was the center of their life: Momma at the stove making jam, Momma with Beatrice underfoot pretending with pots and pans and plastic containers, Momma close by PK penned in with his wooden tractor somewhere, Momma while Pops wrote on his yellow legal pad at the maple kitchen table, and Momma when David sat on the counter stool listening to all they said.
Peter, strong and beefy in a worn ‘Save the Whales’ t-shirt and faded Levis, still didn’t introduce the girl now standing in the doorway. Peter called again for Bebee and Pops but elicited no response.
“Well, they’re here. They’re always here. Bebee is probably weaving in the barn. Hey, we can get there through the pantry now. Remember Pop’s dream about connecting the house to the barn? Well, finally did it. Had a few of the old guys and, shit, some of my gang up one weekend, a couple of twelve-packs, sledgehammers all going, opened the passage right up. Come check it out.”
David, still in the doorway, turned and extended his hand to the girl, “Hello, I’m David,” with a warmhearted smile she took his hand in both of hers.
Peter slung his brawny arm around her, “Shit yeah, sorry, this is Kate. Kate knows you’re David.”
Kate rushed to add, “Heard all about your career and everything, I’m practically livin’ here. Sort of family, actually. We’re workin on settin a date.”
One look at Peter’s blush and David saw this announcement wasn’t common knowledge. Peter recovered with a hasty, “Hey babe, let David settle in and all,” ending the introduction Peter avoided any more scrutiny as he and Kate headed through this new doorway he spoke about. “Dude, how long are you here for?” he shot back.
“Well, Peter…” David slipped his hand into his khaki’s front pocket to find the three quarters he kept when he needed something solid to feel.
“Peter? I never heard anyone call you Peter. Hasn’t it always been PK?” Kate pointed out exactly his point. Marion gave Peter that nickname, but their Gram used his Christian name. David felt the hairs on the back of his neck bristle over the reminder, but so be it for now. He’d have bigger battles ahead getting Peter untangled from all of this.
He followed them through the kitchen into the pantry, stopping to touch the shelves that once held Marion’s jam and catch his breath before stepping into the old barn, wondering how to answer Peter’s question. He hadn’t taken his bag out of the car yet and the thought of spending even one night in the farmhouse swept him into a hard place.
Peter and Kate stepped through the new opening into the barn and at once David recognized the makeshift carpentry and shoddy makeover as unmistakably their father’s. The center of the structure rose thirty feet high, straight up to the tin now covered over with rolled insulation. The silver lining converted the place to a mock spaceship. In the middle of the large space stood a well-used ping-pong table.
Over in the far corner, her back curved over the floor loom, shuttle in one hand, the top bar in the other, headphones blocking out their entry, Beatrice sat weaving. The bang of her loom and the rhythm of her shuttle back and forth, its steady drive mirroring her kaleidoscope of colors. Peter and his Kate both wielded paddles and the back and forth of the ball steadily clicked as David placed one hand lightly on his sister’s shoulder.
Beatrice did not startle. She too stopped reacting a long time ago. She simply shifted her eyes upward to David’s, let go of the top bar and tugged the ear buds out of place. “You! Why’d you sneak in here like this? Where’s Pops? Hey PK, where’s Pops?” Two arms instantly circled round his neck, “I thought you’d be here hours ago then I gave up waitin’ for you. No Isabella?” Her eyes darted beyond David to survey the room.
“No Beatrice, you knew Isabella wasn’t coming.” David looked at his shoes.
She added, “What time is it anyway?” Always patching, Beatrice kept a hand on her weaving. “What took you so long?”
The cloth in her loom looked just like the watercolors Marion painted, muted secondary shades woven into hills and valleys stretched out at least three feet in front of her. But there in the center was a strip of blue: a bolt of color David hadn’t seen in twenty years, now woven right through Beatrice’s loom. How could anyone keep track of time in this place?
Home for under an hour and David felt his throat raw. Only avoiding matters, he reminded himself. His fingers clutched the three coins and he calmed enough to flatter, “This is nice—very fine craftsmanship. Gram would be proud.”
A slight smile lifted her face, “Have you seen Pops yet? Hey PK, where’s Pops? David, have you seen him? He’s changed, well, yeah that’s why you’re here. You’ll see,” she tied up strings, working like Silas Marner himself, with accuracy and ease of movement, in her phlegmatic steady manner. “He’s changed,” and as she voiced this a second time she lowered her voice as if her maternal instincts to protect their younger brother, about to turn 25, still governed her.
David did what any good lawyer did, shuffled a bit to the left and articulated only the slightest audible drone, while his practiced impassive countenance returned to a false grin. As they stood silent for a bit he feared the trip to Vermont already a disaster. Maybe bringing Isabella would have been a smart move. No, he told himself, in the end he had to cut that tie too.
“David, don’t look too hard. I know the place is falling apart, for real,” Beatrice said, “The roof leaks, the main house’s foundation is undermined. There is plenty to sort out about Pops, like I told you on the phone. But we can still make a go of it and keep the place going. Anyway, family meeting later, we’ll talk it out, but, in the meantime,” and here she raised her voice so all in the room were now part of the conversations, “You met Kate? Can you believe PK? Crap he was still on a bike the last time you saw him. Was it my high school graduation?” Beatrice looked as confused over time as David did. How quickly they stumbled into sticky memory, “Oh wait, you and Isabella came for his, yeah, that’s right.”
Beatrice’s words ran into a brick wall with this line, remembering that heated argument over PK’s hasty enlistment, turning down his university scholarship that she had worked relentlessly to help him achieve. Beatrice never left home after her own high school graduation, making sure PK sat at the kitchen table nights doing algebra problems and chemistry labs.
Despite his better judgment David did make the trip from coast to coast for PK’s big day. For Beatrice’s proud moment, the one where Peter walked across the auditorium stage and received not only the multitude of All-State Athletic awards, but also the solid plaque signifying high school graduation, he and Isabella made the trip. Beatrice never let on to David their father’s fading competence in these pursuits.
“And, well, PK and Kate,” Beatrice raised her voice even louder, “they’re both working on their university application, right you two?”
David didn’t mention the ‘setting a date’ comment he heard in the kitchen doorway and he just hoped Kate was talking long term. David felt positive, the last thing PK needed was to be hoodwinked into staying in this shit town forever, all the while their ping-pong never missed a beat.
Beatrice continued her monologue about garden delights and weather patterns and for once since he arrived David looked at her face, full on, just looked at her face. Despite her youthful and calm countenance, her earnest brown eyes resembled those of a resigned older person. In high school she made soccer All-States with quick footwork and a mean shot and despite her being on the artist track, she loved being physical. Even while David attended college he followed her high school sports career with pride. She set a new standard for the family, since all David thought about in high school was the debate team, Beatrice brought sports enthusiasm to PK.
She shook her mane of unkempt hair and twisted it up and like all knots she made it magically stayed put. Her voice dropped down, “Pop’s been talking to her all week. His doctor says expect flare-ups when he gets stressed, but I just can’t keep remembering like he does.” Beatrice remained pretty, especially as the filtered afternoon light crept in through the recycled funky windows randomly framed into the once solid southern wall of the barn. Resigned yes, but still a looker, a girl who under any circumstances would snag a boyfriend. Yet, David surmised, the family burden she wore prevented her from even bringing a guy around long enough to get a relationship off the ground.
David could not abide his siblings moving back home in the first place. He never wanted to return after his grandparents gained custody and he too certainly did not want to remember. Remembering led to the end of Marion and remembering led right into their father’s unforgivable incompetence.
He wondered about those panic attacks that began after the blue light night and continued throughout Beatrice’s adolescence, but decided against that touchy topic in front of the ping-pong couple. He did, however, want to take advantage of their almost privacy to get to his agenda. “Beatrice you know we’ve discussed this, really, it’s time for you to leave. Stephen will be fine here. I’m sure he is fine now that he’s seeing his doctor.”
Glancing over at Peter whacking the ping-pong ball back and forth with this girl, looking like staying or leaving was one and the same didn’t deter him. David concluded with self-assured authority, “You don’t have to play caretaker to Stephen. He’ll be fine. Peter needs to get out of here too. Beatrice, those MFA programs I sent you the brochures about, have you looked over any?”
David’s pleas were a broken record she tuned out. Beatrice continuing to wind spools and tie off string, but softly said, “What do you know, you haven’t even seen Pops yet.”
David was getting nowhere with Beatrice lost in her loom.
Along the far wall of the barn a mishmash of furniture clustered around a small woodstove and a few scattered braided rugs rested under a large old door propped up as a coffee table. More signature Stephen décor, David winced.
He yelled back to PK, “Decorating with side-of-the-road freebies?” His years away hadn’t included living with someone else’s trash, and just seeing the shabby décor added to his growing disappointment.
Just then, Stephen Ueland stumbled into the barn. Well, that’s not true, David corrected his internal judgment, he walked comfortably, but like he didn’t know his surroundings. Like he could be anywhere. Under his arm he carried a wad of papers and at one glance David knew this to be his ‘work,’ poetry he scrawled since years younger than PK. David unconsciously folded his arms and wondered if he had the strength to greet this old man, his father, whose eyes, still frightened, still running, looked fleetingly in his direction.