Her words hung in the air, frozen blue, like a Paul Bunyan winter. They did not reach their target; in fact, they barely made lift-off from her brain, let alone her mouth. It was always the way of things. Every defense in her mind was perfectly honed—made perfect sense. But somewhere between grey matter and blue air, the words muddled dyslexic, padded by emotion and propelled by uncontrolled necessity. And there they hung. Frozen in the air.
Harper’s need to maintain image trumped her desire to win, and so time and again, she swallowed hard and walked away, always with regret for not having defeated her foe with perfect syllogisms. Of course, her faith had a lot to do with that—her lack of will to slice and dice. But there were times she would have given anything for a whip and the will to overthrow a few temple tables.
People thought she was kind. Controlled. A living testimony, even if somewhat misguided. But couldn’t even kind people show a little temper when belittled and betrayed?
Harper pulled down the shades to the shop and struggled as she always did to key the sticky deadbolt into place. The sun had not set, but the deep orographic blanket hanging over the neighboring hills made the valley appear darker than it should have been. She was starting to regret her decision to walk in to work. There was a nip in the air, and it would indeed be dark by the time she got home; but then again, she needed this four-block stew to work out her feelings toward Ava and the confrontation she had just had—or kind of had—over tea and Dostoevsky.
The bookstore was supposed to have been this romantic retirement adventure—somewhere between the ambiance of The Never-Ending Story and Murder She Wrote. Granted the coast was two hours away, and there were no luck dragons that she knew of, so both visions fell short there. But opening a quaint shop in a revitalized downtown was supposed to have been a way to fund a modest retirement, keep her mind stimulated, and fill the need for conversation and community. She was running a deficit; she barely had time to read after ringing sales and doing maintenance on the decaying property; and if community consisted primarily of narcissists, the needy, and Neanderthals, then finding a hermitage or a silent retreat center was beginning to seem a much better solution for her retirement reverie.
She tied her long white hair back in a hair-tie to fight against the wind and pulled her sweater tighter around her as she walked. Shops were closing up, but the cafés and bars were just getting started. Customers appeared almost out of nowhere, like snakes waking from the day’s sleep, anxious for prey. It would be the same old mating rituals of drinking and dancing, shallow laughing and hoping. Harper had tried that charade a few years after Graham had died, but it was a short-lived foray into a very unfamiliar and uncomfortable world. It wasn’t any better at church since folks figured enough time had passed for them to start dropping big romantic hints and doing some accidental matchmaking. She wanted none of it.
She was having enough trouble sorting out doctrinal differences and the meaning of life—and death—let alone warding off Christian Cupids intent on resurrecting her supposed pathetic little life. She had not missed it.
All the twinkle lights in the trees of the boulevard and the music and laughter faded as Harper made the last turn toward her duplex. She had not felt safe off the boulevard in this part of town, but after two years of wearing the paved path toward home, she had come to feel invisible—and comfortable enough to stop cross-examining every bush and alley.
Light fell on the sidewalk long before she approached her door. A motion detector light had seemed a good idea, and it was tonight. But every bird and leaf blowing in the wind also set it off so that her front yard seemed to be one constant light show. She made a mental note to go to Home Depot and see what else might be available.
“I’m home . . . and I have my baseball bat and my 6’6” buff friend with me!”
This had become her entry ritual just in case a bad person was hiding in the closet. At first, it made some kind of sense in her mind. She had been married for thirty-five years to her lover and bodyguard. But when she found herself alone, for the first time in a lifetime, she felt vulnerable. She had, of course, been vulnerable before Graham—as a worldly-wise twenty-something. But she just didn’t know it then.
When she first started living alone, she would come in with her keys in attack position. She would check every room and closet like an FBI agent. Once she had even opened the crawl space to look in the attic. What would have happened had there been an intruder there, she didn’t know. But since she had not been murdered yet, she figured she could act a little less paranoid. Her announcement was probably enough. And of course, there was the dog …
Harper set her purse down on top of the pile of circulars that had arrived by way of the mail slot in the door. Not many folks used that anymore, but nostalgia not only always seemed to get the better of her, but it seemed much more secure than a box perched on the porch, which was still common in this part of town. Not that security was an issue for unsolicited political ads and grocery store circulars. She rarely got anything personal or important any more. She did all her banking and bill paying on-line; and since Facebook, no one sent birthday cards anymore, including her—though she had fought it for a year or so. Occasionally, she got postcards, but they usually ended up being reminders of dental appointments.
Clutch raised himself in a slow, painful greeting from his rug in front of the couch. At the age of twelve, he was not exactly a watchdog anymore. He could have slept through anything from earthquakes to social unrest. When they had rescued this Australian shepherd and lab mix, he looked about five in dog years with the wisdom of about sixty human years. He seemed to have a built-in ability to understand his master-servants’ moods and what they needed. He had been abused, but immediately recognized that with Harper and Graham, he had found a real home. Harper had wanted to call him Macbeth, but Graham insisted that they avoid psychotic, Shakespearean villains for something more standard. Not one to give in so easily, Harper decided Clutch sounded wonky enough to fit the bill. Though he was the “family dog,” from that day on, he had really belonged to her.
She scratched behind his ears. “You are such a good ole boy!” The scratch was followed by a vigorous rub down, and then a full-bodied lean on Clutch’s part. This was the ritual and then back to the rug to await preparation of mushy dog food, laced with green beans and sweet potato, warmed to perfection in the microwave. It was a charmed life—well deserved after years of faithful companionship.
Harper warmed up a pan of golden milk—organic soy milk heavy on the turmeric—and poured herself a mug. She untied her hair and shook her curls loose, then plopped into the plaid overstuffed chair that was sadly losing its stuffing and watched Clutch eat as she sipped the soothing liquid. Turmeric was supposed to be anti-inflammatory; but so far, she was not seeing any change in the aching that crept joint by joint through her body. When she had mentioned the aches in passing to a customer about her same age, the lady had said, “Ah, this too shall pass.” Problem: That pithy little maxim only applies to the things that do—pass, that is—and not the myriad things that don’t. The spandex and fitness club tee shirt should have been a dead giveaway that the lady may have loved books, but she obviously had no sympathy for bibliophiles who were sedentary non-Paleos.
Harper intentionally opened up her left hand, which so often stayed clenched these days; her body started to relax a bit, and her mind wandered. The diagnosis was quick; the death quicker. She had not wanted a plot burial with the embalming and all of that. The plastic face and pink lips. The perfect hair. She had wanted a simple service with cremation. An engraved, wooden urn to be kept in the closet, close but out of sight. It was what Graham would have wanted, too, she felt sure, though they had never really talked about it. Family pressure and politics being what they were, she had caved to the wishes of his mom and siblings. She also had caved to the transporting of his body back to Iowa to be buried alongside a whole patchwork of dead Carvilles, marble headstone upon marble headstone, row upon row. He was now laid close to his dad’s plot, and that is probably as close as they ever had been or wanted to be in this world. Perhaps heaven and grace would solve their many differences; but in this world, belief in predestination and limited atonement had been make or break issues for his dad. Since their views were a bit more fluid, they were considered close to heretics to his family, right up there with TV evangelists who sold prayer cloths and holy water. Graham told him they were still working things out, but that was akin to heretical or Pelagian or some other label. And then there was the voting Libertarian thing.
She had not been back to the graveside since the funeral. And that was a black mark against her. A very long tally. She couldn’t afford it, number one; but number two, it would be impossible to sneak into town without alerting the whole clan that she was there. Harper was not up for the criticism, the patronizing, the emotional roller coaster. Their questions would have peppered her like a Gatling gun, so it was easy to stay away and send “heartfelt” Christmas cards or make the occasional brief phone call to catch up. His mom had never come right out and blamed her for his death, but her worship of doctors and criticisms of Harper’s alternative medicine and juicing practices constantly underscored what she knew her mother-in-law believed: that had Harper not propagandized her boy with her natural cures and quasi research, he could have beat the cancer and lived. It did not seem to matter that Graham was the first one to suggest cleaner eating and homeopathy. It only mattered that her precious son was dead, and sadly she was not.