Just finished this short story and thought I would share it in the blogisphere. Happy Reading! E.L.
The Queen of West Inlet Road
A story by E. L. Kaminsky
She paints, not with oil on a canvas, but with words on a page
Joe’s face appeared, framed by the screen door. “Hey kid – can I come in? I need to talk to you for a minute.”
“Sure Joe – sorry I can’t get up.” We laugh. It’s been ten days since they removed the tumor the size of Montana. We don’t know yet what the tumor is made from – spare body parts, sofa change, cancer… I’m hoping for sofa change, myself.
Joe sits gently on the arm of the sofa. He grabs my toe. “So, how’s my favorite turtle today?”
I groan with a smile this time. It hurts when I laugh. The stitches still tug in every direction. He calls me “turtle” because most of the day I lie on my back, like a turtle that has been flipped over on its shell. My arms and legs flail, but there’s not much else I can do. I tell him I’m not bad for a big reptile. Now he’s the one who laughs.
“Kid – I don’t know any other way to tell you this so I’m just gonna come right out and say it – Peg and I sold the house and will be moving next week.”
The silence hangs between us. Joe isn’t looking at me; he’s staring out the screen door, searching for the rest of his words.
“You know Peg’s been getting worse. Jane and Bill found us a really nice assisted living place where we can be together and I’ll finally have some help.”
I smile, halfheartedly, trying to make it seem like more. “Joe, I’m so glad you are going to have some help, really I am. Little Orphan Annie here will be OK.”
Now he’s the one who is silent. I try to reach up to touch him but I can’t. At first he doesn’t see the effort. When he raises his head to speak, he sees my outstretched hand and takes it.
“Kid, we’ll only be a half hour away.” He squeezes my hand and I squeeze back. We both know what’s really going to happen. “Besides, I’ve hand picked my replacement.” The biggest grin crawls across his face. For a moment, it looks like a teenager took over Joe’s 80-year-old face. “You’re going to LOVE her, even more than you love me, kid.”
I squeeze his hand again. I can’t get the words past the ball of tears in my throat. We’re interrupted by the sound of Peg calling out, frightened. She’s forgotten most of who she is. The teenager leaves Joe’s face and the solemn caregiver returns, smiling bravely at me. Joe rises and moves to the end of the couch supporting my turtlehead. He steadies himself and leans in, kissing me upside down on my forehead. “You’re gonna be fine, kid, old Joe’s made sure of it.”
Joe and I know that’s his way of saying he loves me. I say it in return, but he’s already gone.
* * *
The neatly folded brown paper bags started arriving every day at 3, exactly one hour before I’d opened the inner door for the Sandy, the mail carrier. “You have some sort of package here,” Sandy said, on the first day. After that, she just opened the door and came in, placing the mail on the coffee table. She’d peek into the bag and announce the contents. “Looks like soup today, or chocolate chip cookies…” If I wasn’t hungry, she’d stash the bag accordingly for me to eat later. Sandy’s kindness goes far beyond the rain, sleet or hail mantra. The post office should give her a raise.
A full week more and my strength was coming back. Must have been the news from the doctor that the Montana-sized freeloader he’d removed from my belly was benign. My turtle-self was upright and moving, albeit slowly, on her own. The extra half-ounce of energy got me to the front door a few minutes early, just soon enough to see the mystery gift-giver disappearing into Joe’s house, her house. As the door closed, it exhaled golden light. I took that as a good sign. I still needed to catch her in the act to thank her.
In three more days, my turtle-self ventured into the back yard. I lumbered over to the rabbit hutch to see my little beloved who’d been banished to the outside while I recovered. As I billed and cooed at him, I heard a voice call to me from over the fence.
“Hellooo my dear. It is good to see you outside.” I moved from the hutch toward the voice. It was musical, accented from a part of Europe I had yet to visit.
“Um, hi there…” my American mouth said, weakly. “It’s really nice out here today.” I watched her rise from her lounge chair, short-cropped hair, tanned, glowing skin, stunning blue eyes.
She extended her hand. “I am Elizabeth,” she said.
I held her hand, feeling the energy pass between us, and said, “Me, too.”
* * *
“Good morning, Tia.” Her voice rings out across the yard. I wear the term of endearment she’s given me like a warm shawl, swaddling me with tenderness. I echo her words. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Then, back to the sassy American I truly am, I say “Nice outfit.”
She laughs heartily. “I wore it just for you.” The twinkle in her cornflower blue eyes eclipses the morning sun. She twirls. The sweatshirt dress she’s wearing is a patchwork of suntan oil and potting soil. I whistle at her and she laughs again, returning to her garden.
That was the day our friendly competition began, the one in which each tries to outdo the other with the unabashed frumpiness of tattered clothing. She may win with the outfits, I concede. But try as she might, her radiance will not be contained. As if those blue eyes could be anything but beautiful.
* * *
We are quickly and willingly swept into her world, Rabbit and I. She kidnaps him for hours at a time while I am at work. I return, not to find him pining for me at the door, but cradled in her arms, purring. I’d choose that, too, given the chance. Her way of collecting people is so much like my mother’s. They would have loved each other, Tia and Mom. I let my brain wander to eavesdrop on that imaginary conversation, the two of them sitting at the picnic table out back, laughing their hearty laughs in harmonic pitches. They are two gorgeous, formidable dames proudly ignoring the chinks in their bodily armor. “Screw the doctors – this thing isn’t going to stop me” is what each one says without saying. I admire their strength, their nobility, their courage. Royalty is like that.
One day, over coffee, I am drawn in further, allowed to orbit closer to the sun. Tia hands me a portrait of a bride. I utter an ambiguous “wow” or something equally as naïve. Then I fall silent, realizing that this portrait is not a piece of art she bought at auction. It is a piece of her, as art. The auction is implied. I study it for a long time, trying to take in all of its parts; the headpiece, the flowers, the satin dress hanging perfectly on her lovely frame. It is everything a portrait of a bride should be, except for the eyes. The blue eyes do not twinkle with excitement. Behind her strong and noble countenance, the blue eyes are blue. My heart immediately wants to comfort them, cradle them like you would a scared rabbit. I shut my brown eyes and silently wish for the chance to be that comfort someday.
* * *
Life moves forward. The good parts resemble a party from a Peter Sellers movie. Characters abound, each one more eccentric and loveable than the next. They are all of the colors. They are paisley mixed with plaid and polka dot and weathered canvas. It is a beautiful world filled with unlikely combinations. It is a family, chosen and choosing. It is home. It is family.
I love this family. It is the one I have been searching for, ever since the one from my childhood fell apart. I feel safe here, among the colorful. My quirks seem commonplace – celebrated, even. It’s delightful. My creative spirit tugs at the pant legs of the great artists who now surround me. What an amazing gift Tia has given me by including me in her world.
This world, this wonderful world, expands blissfully. Tia is the first one I tell when the love of my life drops in from the sky. She understands, for she has known great love. She rejoices with me doubly, having seen me through the phony love of an unworthy man. Her joy helps me know that this love, this man, is worthy of me, and I of him. It’s right. And we all know it. The champagne we sip to toast the future tastes extra sweet. And, we dance. We dance at backyard parties where the fireflies’ lights beat in tune to the music. We dance at weddings, for shiny new loves just starting their way in the world, and for seasoned loves who have found each other again after half a lifetime apart. We dance at wakes, to ease the mourning and to celebrate the lives of those who have slipped from our grasp but live on in our hearts.
Pages turn and seasons pass. The venue changes, but the feelings do not. They grow stronger and more indelible with every leaf that falls from the family tree. There is great comfort in knowing that love has enough room for all of us, at any time, in any condition, without question or pause. The door is always open, the coffee pot is brewing. The wineglass is overflowing, and so is this writer’s grateful heart.