Photograph

Zara wrenches the key from the lock as she pushes the door open and calls, “Jan, where are you?”

A feeble voice from the bedroom replies, “In here still.”

“How pathetic,” Zara mumbles.  She slams the door shut with her foot and tosses Jan’s spare keys on the countertop.  Six plastic shopping bags, two to an arm and one in each hand, cut into the sleeves of her jacket and across her palms.  She hoists the bags upward with a groan and deposits them beside the splayed keys.  A quick survey of the apartment reveals that Jan hasn’t made much progress in the hour Zara has been gone.

“Oh, hey…you brought food,” Jan says.  “Thanks.”  Her slippered feet scuff the hardwood floor as she shuffles into the living room.  She wears a nappy, pink robe over the faded Superman t-shirt and sleep pants Zara found her in that morning.  A black and white photograph in a silver frame rests against her chest, safely embraced within her arms.

“I thought we agreed you’d start clearing out Jay’s stuff while I was gone,” Zara says.  She shoves perishables on the refrigerator shelves, cans and boxes in the cupboards.  Then she turns her attention to the newspapers and magazines strewn across the coffee table, couch, chairs, and floor.

“You don’t have to do that,” Jan says when Zara scoops up a stack of Jay’s photography magazines.

“Yes, I do.”

“No—you really don’t have to do that.”

Panic and annoyance strain Jan’s voice.  She abandons the photo on an end table to follow Zara to the garbage shoot in the hallway.  A brief wrestling match ends with the magazines scattered across the hallway floor.  Zara plants balled fists on her hips and taps one Christian Louboutin; the red sole is soundless on the sculpted carpet.  Jan cannot look at her best friend when she stands with the magazines clutched to her heart.

“I’m not ready to let this stuff go yet,” she offers as an apology and walks back to her apartment.

Halfhearted attempts at straightening no longer appease Zara, and she knows it’s time to confront Jan.  She lures her friend’s attention by sitting on the couch with legs crossed, arms folded.

“I thought you said we should get busy cleaning,” Jan says.

“It’s past the time for cleaning, Jan.  We need to talk.”

“It’s too soon.”

“No, it’s been three weeks since Jay left you for his assistant, Chrissy, and in those three weeks you’ve allowed your life to—I don’t know—something between fall apart and explode.”

“Are you judging me?  How can you expect me to deal with this right now?  I didn’t think you’d be so cruel.”

“Oh, spare me.  Just because everything in your world is going to hell in a handbasket doesn’t mean it’s affected everyone else.  I haven’t changed, and for that you should be glad.”

Shock etches Jan’s face, drawing her brows downward, and she says, “Damn, I admit I was just trying to buy some time, but you really are being mean and hurtful right now.”

“You need me to play it straight with you,” Zara says, punctuating the air with a condemning finger.

Jan knows this to be true.  She crumples into an armchair, still holding the glossy magazines.  Emotions sting her eyes.  She sniffs hard to keep from sobbing and pulls a wadded tissue from her robe pocket to dab at the wet trails on her cheeks.

“I’m just so embarrassed.  In front of all my friends and family.  My co-workers even.  For something like this to happen.  I mean…no one—no one—saw it coming.  Least of all me.”

Zara remains seated, aware that this little outburst confession is Jan’s way of softening up the other person thereby distracting them from what needs to be dealt with.  It would be so easy to slip into the crowded space of the overstuffed armchair and wrap her best friend in a hug.  But then Jan would never get out of Jay’s old pajamas and on with her life.

Instead, Zara claps her hands with a slow, rhythmic beat.  Twenty claps before Jan bursts out, “Okay—fine!  What the hell do you expect me to do?  You’re so smart?  You have all the answers?  Well, I’m listening.”

“Getting pissed off about this is a start.  At least I know you’re still alive, that there’s a hot-blooded woman in there.  You used to be so strong—”

“I am strong, Zara.  I’m just tired.”

“Yes, well, stewing in your own misery isn’t the answer.”

“Then what is?”

“Tell me something, Jan.”

“What?”

“How is it that you can wear his pajamas and sulk around this apartment all day, holding photographs that he took in Hawaii and act as if Jay’s not the reason you’re so miserable?  I mean, he up and left you in a single, freakin’ day!  Who does that?”

“Obviously Jay does.”

Zara startles when Jan bursts out in maniacal laughter.  She uncrosses her arms and leans forward, ready to catch her friend if she starts running and shrieking hysterically, which is exactly what Zara expects from her friend right now.

“Oh, oh my god…how did I fall to such depths?” Jan asks through laughter and tears.  “And don’t even think of saying this isn’t my fault.”

“It’s not your fault.”

“Yeah, well, maybe Jay leaving me isn’t, but allowing myself to get like this is.”  Jan indicates her unwashed, disheveled appearance with both hands.  The magazines fall from her lap as she stands, spilling into the piles at her feet.  “You know what’s been on my mind today?”

“What, honey?”

“Will that bitch show up at Jay’s funeral or will she be granted calling hours of her own?  You know, like when feuding families host separate baby showers or something?”

“Oh, Jan…”

“Now that his body washed up on shore, it’ll be sent back to me.  The wife.”

“Do you need me to go with you to identify it?”

“No, his brother flew down to Cozumel to do that.  Then there was a bunch of paperwork, and the authorities acting all superior because Jay’s brother is American, and finally they cleared the body for shipping.  So much for their Caribbean vacation.”  A derisive snort is on the cusp of more crazed laughter, but Jan reigns in her emotions.  “The body.  Because that’s all Jay is anymore.”

“I guess what I don’t understand is why you aren’t furious with him for what he did.”

“You want me to hate him, I know you do, but I can’t, Zara.  There wasn’t enough time for me to become angry with Jay as the cheating husband.  He left me on Friday and died on Monday when his boat capsized in a storm.  For me, he was still the man I loved, the man I married.  Does that make sense?”

“I suppose so.  No, not really.”

“If he hadn’t drowned in that storm, if he and Chrissy were still touring the world and taking gorgeous, award-winning photographs for prestigious magazines a year from now, then yeah…I’d be looking at this from a whole different perspective.”

Zara sighs and tosses her head from side to side.  She still cannot comprehend Jan’s passivity, but she hopes to give the appearance of understanding.

“All right, then.  The order of the day is to find a new perspective for you,” Zara says.  “One for you, about you.  Okay?”

“What does that mean?  I’m still not quite ready for any major changes.”

“The only thing you need to do right now is get out of those smelly pajamas and into a hot shower.”

“That’s it.”

“One thing at a time, Jan.”

“Then what?”

“Then we’ll see about getting some orange juice—”

“The orange juice turned.”

“How the hell does orange juice go bad?”

“I don’t know, but the last time I tasted it, it was fizzy.”

“That’s disgusting.  Okay, shower first then tea and toast afterward.  One little thing at a time.”

“That’s your big answer for fixing my life?  A shower, tea, and toast?”

“I don’t have the answers for your life, Jan.  You do.  I’m just here to help you unearth them.”

Neighbors

It starts with a funeral.  Why does it take great tragedy to bring people together, Cathy Higgins wonders as she stands in line with her husband, Jake, waiting to hug Mr. Robertson’s son, Dan.  The line of mourners trails all the way from the casket, around the sanctuary, and out the door of the church.  Cathy pulls at the front of her blouse trying to puff some air into the collar sticking to her neck.  She wishes they could inch a few steps forward into the shade of the roof overhang.

A week ago, Jake asked Cathy if she’d seen Mr. Robertson mowing his yard or pottering around the outbuildings on his property.  She hadn’t, and as luck would have it, when Jake left for work that evening, he saw Dan mowing with his father’s tractor.  He pulled into the driveway, shouted and waved to get Dan’s attention.

“Hey, we haven’t seen your dad around for a couple of weeks, and we’re wondering if he’s okay.”

Dan shook his head; his crooked smile told the story.  Jake called Cathy on his cell as he drove on to work to report back the sad news.  For some reason, Cathy called her family to tell them, not that any of them really knew Mr. Robertson beyond the fact that he was the neighbor.

Air conditioning blasts from the open double doors of the church.  Cathy can feel it now that she and Jake are within range of the building.  They really should shut the doors in between people, she thinks.  It would stay cooler inside and not waste electricity and money.  Her laughter escapes as breath expelled from her nose at the weird thought.  She’s always thinking odd stuff like this; probably the result of growing up and hearing such admonitions regarding the closing of doors when the air is on and refrigerators when they are running.

Jake waves to someone ahead of them in the line.  He taps Cathy on the shoulder and gently takes her by the arm.  She scowls for a moment when she understands they are jumping line to join whomever Jake spied.  It is Fran Mencer whose backyard is perpendicular to the Higgins’s.  Her home faces the side street as does Mr. Robertson’s who lived next door to Jake and Cathy.

“Hi,” Fran says in that long drawn out way that conveys I’m so glad to see you, but I hate that it’s under these circumstances.  The light in her eyes is at odds with the grim smile on her face.

She and Cathy hug, and the line jumping is forgotten.  At least by Cathy who is relieved to run into someone she knows.  She went to school with Dan Robertson, but they traveled in different circles, and neither she nor Jake ever met his sister and brother.  The Higginses don’t even know if there are spouses to be consoled.

“Can you believe this?” Fran says.

“Was he sick?” Cathy asks.  “We hadn’t seen him out in the yard for a couple weeks, so we thought maybe he’d gone on vacation.”

Fran shook her head.

“He’d been in the hospital for a while.  Declined rapidly.  His old heart finally gave out.”

“Oh, boy.  I wish I’d known.”

“I tried to call you a couple of times, but your line was disconnected.”

Cathy’s eyebrows knit for a moment, and then she says, “Oh, we let our landline go several months ago.”

A thought flickers through Cathy’s head:  the yards aren’t so big that one couldn’t walk to a neighbor’s house with important news.  In the next second, her eyes widen and a knife stabs her heart.

“When I lost Buddy this past spring right after Pop passed, I pretty much went to bed for the summer.”

Oh dear Lord…how did we not know that Buddy and Pop died this spring, Cathy thinks.  Her husband and father in the same yearPlay it off or admit we didn’t know?

“Oh, Fran, I’m so sorry,” Cathy says, trying to cover all her bases.

How many times had she meant to walk across the yards and visit Fran?  Tea and a chat was always the invitation.  Cathy cannot discern what Jake is feeling beneath the shock on his face, but her stomach is heavy with the lead of guilt.

After talking with Dan Robertson, reminiscing about his dad, hearing how things are not going well in the absence of a will, and offering final condolences and goodbyes, Jake and Cathy leave hand in hand.  They look at the blacktop sprinkled with curled leaves dried from end-of-summer heat, falling before the autumn frosts have even arrived.  Neither speaks on the short trip home.

They change out of their dress clothes and wander outside to sit in lawn chairs, instinctively looking toward Mr. Robertson’s home.  Funny that we never called him by his first name, Cathy thinks.  Maybe because he was the oldest in our little neighborhood.  She and Jake always thought of themselves, Fran and Buddy, and Mr. Robertson as the neighborhood.

Their neighborhood:  not a sidewalk in sight, no fences between the yards, homes built on old farmland.  Deer still migrate through the yards as they hopscotch from cornfield to cornfield, foxes sneak through on their dainty paws, and hawks wheel in the endless skies above.  Fancy allotments with two and three thousand-square foot homes are popping up peripherally.

The Matulevich family lives across the street from Cathy and Jake.  Not a lot of contact past the occasional friendly wave, but Mr. Matulevich’s brother lives three doors down on the same side as the Higginses, and he is quite friendly.  He used to till the garden for Cathy every summer with his Bobcat until she gave up gardening for watercolor painting.

Across from Mr. Robertson are Clarice and Al Robertson, no relation, in the triplexes lining the side street.  They were there long before the Higginses built, permanent renters, and Cathy usually runs into one or both of them at garage sales every summer.

But so many other families come and go from these homes that Cathy and Jake gave up trying to learn who they were.  Still, unfamiliarity doesn’t prevent waves, smiles, and pulling cars out of snowdrifts when necessary.  That’s just how it is in this part of town that is somewhere between the suburbs and rural living.

img_20161030_173746250_hdrA month or more passes with Jake and Cathy falling back into the routine of work and lawn care for him and tending the house inside and out for her.  Always so much to do and never enough time to do it.  And then Jake comes in the house one day after putting his tractor away for the season.

“Fran is out back push mowing the yard.”

Cathy lays down the laundry she is folding and follows her husband outside.  They walk across the length of their backyard and two-thirds of Fran’s before finally reaching her.  These plots really are quite spacious, Cathy thinks.

“What are you doing?” Jake asks with laughter and gentle reprimand in his voice.

“I know, but I took some pain pills before I started and thought I’d work in patches,” Fran laughs in reply.

Jake offers to cut the yard however many times are needed until the November rains come.  The trio chats a bit; they end up inside Fran’s house with coffee, and they chat some more.

This time, Cathy thinks, we will be good neighbors.

Poison by Susan Fromberg Schaeffer

PoisonSusan Fromberg Schaeffer’s novel, Poison, is a brilliant work of fiction; it is how all novels should be written. Poison explores the themes of love, greed, desire, human strengths and weaknesses, peoples’ perceptions of each other, and how we are molded by these perceptions. The author allows us inside the heads of a wide cast of characters and gives the reader the opportunity to decide who is good or bad, right or wrong. You’ll find yourself comparing the characters to your own friends and family all the while claiming, “I would never act like that.” The stream of consciousness style gives the reader the delicious, wicked sensation of reading someone’s private correspondence or diary. The letters between several characters heightens the experience.

Ms. Schaeffer employs the scenario of a death and a will like a bomb to set off a series of explosive events. It’s a situation many readers will find familiar. Like watching a slow-motion train wreck, one cannot turn away from reading the disastrous accounts of the characters’ lives. Your allegiances will shift throughout the book.

Poison is not a beach read. It is not for readers who want to plow through a book or those who want to be told everything up front with lots of action and a singular POV. But if you are willing to allow the story to unfold, the characters to develop and evolve, Poison will prove to be incredibly satisfying. I truly believe the novel will appeal to the intelligent reader whose mind can juggle multiple POVs, information given out of chronological order, and backstory appearing right up to the conclusion. It may sound like utter chaos, but I found Poison to be remarkably well-structured, one of the best works of literary fiction I’ve ever read.

Simply Walking

Blue-white diamond sunlight filters through the meager canopy of branches. Wet leaves dampen the sound of Rachel’s footfalls and cling to her bare feet. Her arms embrace each other, hands rubbing away her shivers and prickled flesh. The salt trails of her tears dry on her face leaving her skin taut.

5077bd7e-718c-42b8-b79a-0092083d321eStars littered the sky when she walked away from the house full of grief-stricken people; so many family members and friends sitting shiva for her parents. Her little brother, Bartholomew, huddled in an overstuffed armchair in the corner of her grandparents’ living room. His wide eyes searched the room for the hugs and kisses that never came. Eventually, he fell asleep.

The forest stands in stark contrast to the house she left. In the stillness of the woods she can hear her own heartbeat, her own breathing, and the rhythmic sounds soothe her. If she had brought Bartholomew, he would have peppered her with the endless questions of a five year-old. “Are Mom and Dad in Heaven? Who will we live with? What color was the truck that hit them? Was our car wrecked? Why aren’t you wearing any shoes, Rachel?”

And like she has done for the past five days since her parents were killed en route to the pediatrics conference in Florida, she would say, “Yes, Bartholomew, they are in Heaven. We will stay with Nana and Papa. It wasn’t a truck; it was an RV. We’ll get a new car in two years when I’m old enough to drive.”

As for the last question, she would have encouraged him to remove his socks and dress shoes, to feel the cool earth beneath his tender feet if only to distract him from his sadness. But he isn’t with her, and her sorrow hangs heavy in the dewy morning air.

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