A gay man and a gay woman try ‘playing house’ in Alone Again.
The sailboat powers its way along the Black River to Lake Michigan past the flatulent moan of the lighthouse and out into the foggy deep. Not bad, he thought, flatulent moan. I’ll have to use that in one of my stories. Jeff sipped his latte, closed his eyes to the morning sun, the clanging drawbridge bell and the tourists heading inside for a donut on their way to the beach.
“Hey Mr. Howard, where’s your Jeep at?”
One eye open a slit to identify the passing hecklers, he replied, “Never end a sentence in a preposition.”
“Oh yeah,” one of the boys japed, “How’s this? Where’s your Jeep at, Baldy?”
Jeff fixed the grinning boys with his patented glare. “Don’t you remember anything from my class? And who’s Baldy?”
“You. Everybody called you that.”
“Not to my face, they didn’t.”
“Yeah, but now that you’re retired…”
The boys saluted, chortling as they moved on.
“Hey, Vitale and Henderson. Love you too,” Jeff called sarcastically. He watched them go past the Tourist Information Office where a woman peered at the rental postings. She wore a loose plaid shirt over mid-calf, tight jeans and rubber-toed hiking sandals. Close cut pewter hair put her in her early sixties, perhaps—a contemporary.
Jeff breathed deeply, easing back into his coffee-coma when a woman’s voice startled him. “Friends of yours?” It was the postings lady at an adjoining table. To his questioning look, she rocked her head in the direction the boys had gone.
Jeff chuffed, “Oh, those guys. They’re good kids. I had them for creative writing in tenth grade.”
As soon as the waitress left with her order, the woman began, “So, I take it you’re from around here—if my prepositions don’t get your shorts in a bind.”
Jeff smiled. “You write.”
“I suppose. If you call a hospital newsletter and press releases writing.”
“Bronson, in Kalamazoo.”
“Had my knee done there.”
The conversation stalled for a moment as the waitress returned and they both nibbled and sipped trying to decide which conversational thread to follow. The woman spoke first. “So, if you’re a local, know any good cottages for rent?”
“My cottages are good.”
The woman ducked her chin and raised her eyebrows. “My, my, what a coincidence.”
“No, really,” Jeff offered, on the defensive. “Look, I’m not one of those guys outside a bus station shouting at the tourists, ‘Stay by my brother’s hotel. Is cheap.’”
I was just sitting here having a coffee and…your lucky day…I happen to have a vacancy for the last week of the season.”
The woman studied him for a count of five then pointed back toward the listings next door. “Are you listed?”
“No, actually, I have regular customers and haven’t gotten around to making up a new brochure.” Reading the woman’s skeptical look, Jeff prattled on. “But, I just had a last-minute cancellation…”
“Look, I know this sounds a little…” Jeff stood, took out his wallet and handed her a card. “See…Lakeside Cottages. Check out some other places, but I’d be surprised if you find any vacancies this close to Labor Day. Ask around. People know me.”
The woman glanced at the card. “So, Mr. Howard is Jeff Howard,” she said, offering her hand. “Epiphany Sammut.”
“Epiphany. I love your name…so liturgical.”
The woman’s brow furrowed. “Liturgical?” Then, smiling easily, added, “I go by Epi…Baldy.”
“How do you…? The boys…” Jeff realized. “Okay. Well. Perhaps I’ll see you later. I’m just up from North Beach on Lake Shore Drive.”
Epi drained her cup, grabbed her purse and said, “I’ve got GPS. Nice meeting you.”
That evening, Jeff hitched his hip against the screen door of the main house, a gallon of red wine in one hand, a stack of plastic glasses in the other before pausing to take in the view—yellow cabins with white window boxes and red geraniums stood three to a side, facing each other across the path that opened onto a sandy terrace, the beach and finally the rolling inland sea. God, he never got tired of that view. “Hey, Epi,” he called as he passed the first cottage on his way down, “wine on the terrace. Don’t miss the sunset.”
The other guests were already in groups scattered around the terrace when Epi appeared. Jeff gestured toward an Adirondack chair as he finished pouring.
“This is nice,” Epi said, settling in and reaching for her drink. “Thanks.”
Host duties completed, Jeff sat next to her, crossed his legs and prompted, “So, you don’t think PR writing is very creative.”
“Well, it can be, and sometimes has to be very creative to make a new diagnostic machine sound exciting, but it’s not artistic like poetry and fiction.”
“Artistic…hah! My writing’s more like obsessive navel-gazing put to words. Sometimes I feel like the monks who wove baskets all day and unwove them all night—write, re-write. It’s a never-ending process.”
“Sounds like raising kids.”
“You have children?”
“Just the one. A son. He’s a baseball player.” Epi looked off. “We’re not close. Haven’t been for many years.”
“That’s got to be painful.”
Epi shrugged, “His choice. He moved out as soon as he could, rather than live with me and my partner. Can’t blame him. She was not a ‘kid’ person.”
“And he would have picked that up. Kids have great radar.”
“Still that must have been quite a transition…going from hetero marriage to same sex.” Jeff caught her appraising glance—was he a bigot, judgmental, about to dump a homophobic screed on her? He smiled, canted his head as if to say, go on, I’m with you.
She focused on the orange ball over the horizon and the sparkling gold carpet it rolled across the water to the beach below. “You’re making a lot of assumptions here.”
Jeff shrugged as if to say, ‘but am I right?’
After three beats, Epi asked, “So, what do you know about transitions?”
“I went through a major one myself…long ago.”
Epi tilted her head—your turn.
“I used to be a priest. I now have a partner, as well.”
“Really.” After an appraising glance, “I can’t imagine all those twists and turns.”
“Predictable ones—family expectations, who am I? questions, guilt, homophobia…”
“Mmm,” Epi murmured, “been there. Done that.” She tracked a cruiser easing toward the channel before adding, “But for you…it’s like you had to come out twice.”
“Interesting,” Jeff replied, “I never thought of it that way.” He reached his glass toward Epi for an acknowledging tap.
So, what do you write about?”
“Transitions,” he answered.
She grinned, “Figures.” After a sip of wine, she continued, “How about this? How about the transition from gramma back to mama with a thirteen–year old granddaughter I haven’t seen since she was five?”
“What’s that about?”
“My son phoned the other day. He finally got his call to the majors and he begged me to watch his daughter so he can get his long-awaited chance with the Yankees…undistracted. As if he hasn’t dumped her on the neighbor lady every other time he had a road trip. Oh, and, by the way, don’t expose her to your same sex relationship…which is what drove him out of the house in the first place. Aargh!”
“Whew!” Jeff exclaimed. “Aren’t there others involved who could watch her? Your husband? Your daughter-in-law?”
“There’s no husband and no daughter-in-law. Artificial insemination for me. High school insemination for my son. And a lot of approach-avoidance…mostly avoidance… from him for the past thirteen years. And now, I don’t even know if I’ll recognize Shea when she gets off the bus tomorrow, let alone what to do with her while she’s here. There’s a writing challenge for you.”
“Boys, I could write about. Girls, I don’t know. I always connected better with boys.”
Epi leveled a suspicious glance.
“Hey, don’t look at me like that,” Jeff said, “I’m clean. Never had anything to do with altar boys and all that mess. I left on my own. I just couldn’t abide an Order that couldn’t abide my orientation.”
“You were in an Order?”
“Yes, the Jesuits.”
“Oh,” she said, making the connection, “teachers, of course. So, what did you teach? Wait. I know…writing.”
“Uh-huh. Years and years of helping kids make sand castles with words.”
“Do you often spout metaphors?” She asked, half teasing.
“After a couple glasses of wine…”
The next morning, Jeff was climbing back from the beach, rake in hand when he spotted Epi pacing in the garden next to her cottage. Cell phone to her ear, she waved her free hand angrily. He took his time leaning the rake against a nearby clematis.
“Damn woman!” Epi swore, sliding her phone into her back pocket. Noticing Jeff, she explained, “Trish! That woman is on my last nerve. She doesn’t take care of her own car, uses mine whenever she wants, and when I ask her to do one little thing like drop it off at our mechanic last week, she forgets.” Epi pushed her fingertips against her temples, lips clamped tight, fuming.
“Is there a problem with your car?”
“Yes. It won’t start. I think the alternator is bad.” Seeing Jeff about to offer to help, she added, “And I don’t want a jump. I’m supposed to pick up Shea at the Kalamazoo bus terminal in an hour and if I turn off the engine I’m not sure it will start again. Then I’ll really be stuck. It’s been doing that lately. I need to have the damned thing fixed…Trish! Eew, I could just strangle her!”
Jeff waited patiently for Epi to calm down before offering, “Look I was planning to run into town…just a quick stop at the bank. I could take you; bring you back.” Epi paused considering. Jeff went on, “As for the car, I’ve got a guy in Douglas who I really trust. When we get back I can give it a jump and follow you there. We can get your granddaughter an ice cream. It’s just ten minutes up the Blue Star.”
“Well, thanks,” Epi said.
On the way to Kalamazoo, Epi began, “Tell me, is your partner as much trouble for you?”
“Todd? I guess not so much. We don’t live together.” Jeff worried a gap in his teeth, sucking softly, as he worked his way through the roundabout on M43. “He has a place in Douglas. Runs an art gallery.”
“That sounds like an open marriage—what my first partner thought we agreed on.”
“Not really. We’re committed to each other. Trust each other.”
“Sure. That’s what we all want.”
Jeff shot her a questioning look.
Arriving in time to watch the Trailways bus pull in from Columbus, they immediately spotted the only teenaged girl getting off the bus. Slender legs, slightly knock-kneed, supported a trim athletic body. Her long chestnut colored hair swung forward as she absently dropped her iPad into her bag. She blinked in the bright sun before regally descending the steps in black Converse high tops, tight black shorts and pink tank top.
“Shea!” Epi called. After a pause for recognition the girl strolled over, shyly hunching her shoulders to give her grandmother a cheek hug. They both stepped back, registering first impressions. Epi smiled broadly. Shea glanced down, non-committal as yet, then looked up at Jeff. “Oh,” Epi said, placing her hand on Jeff’s arm, “this is Jeff. He’s offered us one of his little cottages at his… ‘resort’…” She chuckled deprecatingly, “On Lake Michigan. You and I will be bunking together. Doesn’t that sound like fun?” The girl pursed her lips.
That afternoon, after a round of ice creams at Marco’s of Douglas, Jeff mentioned that he wanted to swing by Todd’s house. Epi and Shea stayed in the car while Jeff went up to the door of a blue-gray house with an old-fashioned porch hung with lacy white woodwork. Jeff knocked at the screen door, turned to smile and swooped his arm to point out the historic filigree. He turned abruptly when a young man wearing spandex shorts and nothing else opened the door, leaned onto the jamb and yawned. Jeff did an about-face. Lips drawn, cheeks colored, he marched down the steps. The young man stared after him, shrugged and languidly went back into the house.
Back in the car, Jeff white-knuckled the steering wheel for a full minute.
“That wasn’t Todd, I take it,” Epi offered.
Jeff shook his head.
Epi whispered, “Sorry.”
“Sorry? Why?” Shea asked from the back seat.
Epi hesitated, looked at Jeff then twisted to face her granddaughter. “All right, first…Jeff and I aren’t…”
“I know. You’re gay. Dad just about told me that. And…” nodding to herself, “okay, Jeff is too. Still, I think it’s fun to have a grampa and gramma for a while.”
Over wine on the terrace that evening, Jeff began, “You know how Shea imagines we’re a couple?”
“Uh-huh,” Epi replied cautiously.
“She might be on to something, there. You and me as a couple.”
“You’re making me a little nervous here, bud.”
“No, really. You don’t sound especially happy with your partner. I sure as hell am done with mine. And at this point in our lives, we’re not exactly on the prowl anymore…”
“Speak for yourself, ageist. Haven’t you heard about the STD epidemics in retirement homes?”
“Okay. Maybe it’s just me.”
Epi softened her tone. “Look, you just had a jolt with Todd and all. You might feel different in a couple days.”
“True. But just think about it for a minute. There are advantages to living together. I mean, I lived with other men when I was a priest. It was all about companionship, friendship. Not all relationships begin and end with hormones…whatever their polarity.”
Epi chuckled. “Polarity. Ha! I wouldn’t have to worry about you jumping my bones.”
“Or you mine.”
She smirked, continued, “So, you’re thinking a little gay marriage of convenience?”
“I guess…not really. We hardly know each other. But the idea’s intriguing. I mean, neither of us has been married, not really, right?”
“Well, maybe that’s what we both could use…a little social security.”
“Man, you can really jump to conclusions. What makes you think I need to have someone?”
Jeff got up to fill his glass and leave the question hanging.
“More please,” Epi said, holding out her glass. After a slow sip, she asked, “Besides, what makes you so sure Trish and I are so messed up?”
“Hmm.” Jeff teased.
“I was only hacked-off because of the car business.” After another sip and prolonged consideration, Epi said, “Okay. You picked up on it. Things are not so great between us. Been that way for a while and I’m not sure what to do about it.”
“Yeah,” Jeff acknowledged, “the in-between stage. One of my priest buddies came to me once. He was trying to decide between staying in the church or marrying a woman he loved. I told him he couldn’t go on with one foot on the dock and one foot in the boat. He needed to jump in, swim around for a while.”
“More metaphors,” Epi grumped.
“Hey, if the flu shits…wear it.”
Epi snorted. “So, you think I’m stuck, afraid to break up, afraid I’d be left alone.”
Jeff shrugged, picked up the wine bottle and said. “Just a thought. See you in the morning.”
Two days later, Shea sprawled on a beach blanket, Epi next to her. A cell phone chimed. Epi reluctantly fumbled in her tote. “Yeah,” she slurred.
“Look, Epi, I don’t know what’s going on with you and your family but there’s a woman here asking for Rick…”
“…very pregnant and very hot. Venezuelan, I think, she said.”
Epi walked across the sand into the lake, gasped, jolted fully awake by the fifty-degree water caused by an overnight inversion. “All right, Tricia. Start over. A pregnant South American woman is at my apartment asking for my son…”
“Yeah. She says he is going to marry her.”
Epi heard a voice, high pitched, determined. “He will marry me. He promised.”
Tricia whispered, “She’s showing me a ring.”
“That hot shot. He never said a word.”
“What’s new? He never talks to you anyway, right? Sounds like war bride stuff…‘yeah, I’ll marry you sweetheart, soon as I get back home’.”
“Stay out of my family business, okay?”
“Hey, I’m the one with a strange woman standing in my front room.”
“Your front room? It’s my apartment, Trish—the whole place is mine.”
“Uhm, where have you been, anyhow?” Tricia enquired, her voice growing husky, “I missed you.”
“You’re just now noticing I haven’t been around for a while?” Epi asked grabbing her towel and climbing the stairs to the cottages. She stopped at the terrace, took a deep breath and began, “Okay. Let’s see. What are we going to do with this woman…by the way, what’s her name?” There was a pause. Voices.
“Belinda. Belinda Caron, she says.”
“All right. All right. Let me think a minute. Look, make sure she’s comfortable, all right? Make her lunch…”
“Hey, there’s nothing in the fridge.”
“Whose fault is that? Buy her lunch, then, Tricia. I’ll call you back in a bit.”
Epi stormed to her cabin, showered and changed while thoughts scattered like the box of blueberries that jumped out of the refrigerator when she reached for a beer. Twisting off the cap, she leaned against the sink, finger-combed her wet hair then snapped an angry slug from the frosty bottle. She dialed Rick’s number. Voice mail, of course. Her son was presumably answering the call of forty thousand cheering fans somewhere. She banged the bottle on the counter and shouted, “Damn! Damn! Damn!”
Jeff happening by asked through the screen door, “What’s up?”
Epi shook her head, “Leave me alone.”
A few minutes later, Epi stood with hands on her hips, venting, while Jeff pruned an overgrown rose bush. “And, then Trish…she…I’m about done with her.”
“You’re upset,” Jeff consoled.
“Profound observation,” Epi remarked, “but really, I don’t know what I should do next. I don’t want to move Belinda into my apartment with Trish and Shea. That’s got disaster written all over it.”
“Have Tricia bring Belinda here.”
“And where would she stay? Shea and I can barely move in your dinky little hut.”
Jeff snipped a rose hip and tossed it into a bucket before replying, “I have a guest room at the main house. Private bath. She could stay there. Or for that matter, so could you.”
“So, we’re back to me and you playing house, are we?”
“You asked. I’m offering options. Give yourself a little time. The Yankees could be eliminated from the playoffs by the end of the week. I checked. Your son could come back. Belinda and he and Shea can work out whatever they can work out and you’re back to status quo ante, if that’s what you want.”
Epi stared through Jeff, thinking. Then, she firmed her mouth and gave a resolute huff through her nostrils, “I’m not going back to Trish. We’re done. Finito.” Whipping her cell phone from her back pocket, she dialed her partner and outlined the plan for Tricia to bring Belinda and her future grandchild out to the cottages by 3:00.
When Tricia’s twelve-year old Buick eased into the parking lot beside the cottages, Epi waved and slowly walked forward as it snugged into a space. She watched a woman in a white and coral striped dress clumsily struggle out of the front seat. Standing beside the open door her black hair, pulled into a tight ponytail, barely reached the top of the half-open window. Chin high, eyes askance, hands protectively cradling her six-month pregnant belly, she seemed to be saying, ‘Here I am—your move.’
Epi took in the spraddled stance, the slightly swollen ankles, chipped scarlet polish on the right big toe that clashed with her dress and wondered whatever possessed the woman to wear horizontal stripes that made her look even more rotund.
“Another month,” Tricia broke in, “and they won’t let her get on a plane.”
Epi caught Belinda’s clenched eyes. So vulnerable. So familiar. Her own pregnancy with Rick. Both women held eye contact until Epi offered a warm smile. Belinda lowered her chin into a slow nod. Epi held out her hand, palm up that ended in a prolonged abrazo.
Tricia, hip hunched on the front fender, remarked, “That was fast. You don’t even know if it’s your son’s.”
Both women pulled apart and glared at Tricia till she stood, brushed her haunch, and whined, “Okay. Okay. I’ve done my part. I’m outta here.”
Epi stepped forward. “Trish, honey. I hate to say it, but I’ve decided. You and me. We’re done.”
“Huh? Now c’mon, Ep. What’s this all about? I didn’t clean the bathtub…what?””
While Epi took Belinda’s suitcase from the back seat, Tricia put her hand on Epi’s arm and gently turned her, pleading, “Hey, Ep. This is me, Tricia.” Pointing to Belinda, she added, “And this is some knocked-up chicquita who shows up saying your son promised to marry her. I mean…ball player. Winter ball. Venezuela. There’s marriage and then there’s marriage…huh? Geeze!”
Epi paused, held her partner’s eyes in a sad gaze and said softly, “I’m sorry it has to end like this. But, really, it’s time.” She pointed to Belinda. “Her and Shea…I need to take care of them.”
“That’s just an excuse. You’re using them to dump me. You don’t care if she’s carrying your son’s baby. You just need to be supermom and I’m in the way. You’ll see. When they’re gone, you’ll come crawling back. I know you. You don’t like to be alone. In fact, that’s why you’re glomming onto both of them. But that will change.”
Epi sighed. “Sorry, Trish. Please have your stuff outta my place by tomorrow night.”
As Epi turned away, arm around Belinda’s shoulder, Jeff walked over to Tricia who muttered, “What the hell got into her?”
“Probably something that’s been building up for a long time,” Jeff offered.
“Who asked you?” Tricia snapped. “Who are you anyway, butting into the middle of…us?”
Jeff took a deep breath. “Is this like one of those speed dating deals where I spout my resume in thirty seconds? Is that what you want?”
Tricia looked away.
“Okay. Here goes. I was a priest for twenty-four years. Taught writing to high school boys and then I left the bosom of Mother Church for a bosom buddy.”
Tricia slowly turned her head, appraising for three breaths.
“And now I write. Mostly fiction.”
Tricia chuffed, “So, I’ve got a fellow non-breeder used to sitting on his church steeple watching the rest of us scurrying around like ants, offering advice and forgiveness when needed and then putting all this down on paper. Nice. Hey, life is non-fiction, man. And you got no skin in this game. We’ve got history, me and Ep.”
“Yes. Yes, you do. Sorry. Didn’t mean to intrude.” Jeff half-waved, turned and walked away catching a last glimpse of Trish, butt against the grill of her car, chin high, chest out like a figurehead fronting a powerful headwind.
Approaching their cottage, Epi wondered if Belinda knew that Rick had a daughter and if not, how to introduce Shea. Before she could put thoughts to words, Belinda spoke. “I saw online that Rick was called up. What’s happening with his daughter?”
Epi closed her eyes for a moment, sighed with relief. “She’s staying here in this cottage…for now.” That seemed to satisfy Belinda who, fascinated by the view of the lake trundled down to the terrace, unloosed her hair, and, eyes closed, faced the Southwest breeze coursing along the shore. When Epi stood beside her, she said, “This is so beautiful. It reminds of when my parents took us to the ocean for vacation.”
“Tell me about your family.”
“They are sad that I got pregnant.”
“But that is not what you asked. Exactly. My father is a banker. My mother takes care of the home and the four of us kids. I’m the oldest.”
“You speak excellent English.”
“My father insisted that I go to the American school. That is why he is disappointed in me. My mother cries.”
“Does my son know you are here?”
“He said he would bring me here after the season ends. But, I had to come when I did. They won’t let you fly if you are more than seven months.”
“So, Rick doesn’t know you’re expecting his child?”
Belinda held Epi’s eye for a long count, realizing there were two questions in one. “Yes and yes. He left before we knew. And yes, it is his. And I appreciate that you believe me.”
Epi grasped Belinda’s hand.
“So, tell me about Rick’s daughter,” Belinda asked, “what is she like?”
“That’s her on the beach. And you can get to know her as fast and as well as you want because you have a choice. You can share the cabin with her, or you can sleep in the main house in a spare bedroom. Your call.”
Belinda stared at the girl. “She is the same age as my littlest sister. I want to stay with her and get to know her.” Belinda looked at Epi nodding for approval of her decision.
“That’s fine. Shea!” Epi called “Shea!” she called louder. Finally, with the exaggerated slowness meant to show annoyance, the teenager took out her ear buds and petulantly answered, “What?” without turning around.
“Come here, I want you to meet someone.”
It was too far to hear the sigh but Shea’s body shouted it as she uncurled and finally scuffed her feet in the sand all the way to the terrace. When she finally stood in front of them she ducked her chin and glowered through lowered brows. “Yeah?”
Before Epi could speak, Belinda jumped in. “I am Belinda Caron. Pleased to meet you.”
Shea looked a question at her grandmother—and?
“Your father and I are planning to get married.” Shea finally stood straight, eyes wide. Belinda cupped her belly. “And this is your brother…half brother.”
“How do I know?” Shea snapped.
“I had an ultrasound back in Venezuela.”
“No, I meant…”
“Shea!” Epi admonished.
“Well…how do I know?” she mumbled.
Belinda stepped in, eyes sparking, “It’s his. Ours. Yours too.”
“Omigod!” Shea shrieked and ran to her cottage.
Epi colored, biting down first embarrassment then anger. “Well, that didn’t go very well.”
“No. No, it didn’t. I changed my mind. I want to sleep in the big house.”
Epi paused to dredge up her take-charge voice. “Not gonna happen. I’ve changed my mind too. You’re in the cottage with her. Shea’s not your little sister and you’re not her mother. You need to figure out how you’re going to get along.”
Belinda bit her lip and faced the roiling waves.
Mid-morning the next day, Jeff and Epi were enjoying a second cup of coffee on the landing over the beach. “They both must be pretty tired,” Jeff allowed. “The lights in their cabin were still on when I went to bed at 12:30. Bonding time?”
“I hope so.”
A screen door clapped behind them and soon Belinda and Shea came shuffling onto the terrace. Shea yawned and shivered her tousled pillow hair. “Can I have a sip?” she asked her grandmother, grabbing the cup before Epi could answer.
“There’s more inside,” Jeff said. “Help yourself, Belinda.”
“No, I don’t drink coffee while I’m pregnant. It’s not good for the baby.”
“Really? Just because you’re pregnant you can’t drink coffee?” Shea asked.
“Or alcohol or cigarettes,” Epi added. “Comes with the territory, sweetie.”
Shea made a face and nipped at a nail that Epi noticed, now bore polish. A quick glance confirmed matching polish on Belinda’s fingernails. When the two of them plopped on the porch swing, bent over Belinda’s phone, Epi noticed twenty matching toes sliding back and forth in the loose sand. Progress.
“Have either of you heard from Rick?” she asked.
“Yeah, we got on FaceTime last night. He got a chance to pinch run but got erased in a double play.”
“I was asking about the mother of his child.”
Belinda looked up, brow furrowed. “He was surprised to know I was here and with you.”
Epi rolled her hands—c’mon out with it.
“She didn’t tell him she was pregnant,” Shea volunteered. “She kept the camera on her face.”
Belinda lowered her eyes. “I don’t want to distract him. This is his big chance and he needs to concentrate. The Yankees have a chance to make the wild card into the playoffs.”
“Big deal,” Epi said.
“It’s his job,” Jeff offered. “That’s kind of important now that he’s a father.”
“For the second time,” Epi reminded. “I’ve got to talk to that boy. I think I’m going to send him an email.”
“Be gentle,” Jeff called after Epi who was striding determinedly up to the big house to use his desktop computer.
I know we haven’t always communicated very well or very much over the years. But I feel it’s very important to communicate with you now. I know you talked with Belinda and Shea last night. (BTW, they seem to be getting along famously) But just in case you didn’t notice, I think it’s my duty to inform you that Belinda is pregnant, six months pregnant. It’s a boy. She says it’s yours and I have no reason to doubt her. If you have doubts or feel like this was all just a big mistake that you wish would go away, let me know. I wouldn’t want you to marry or take on another parenting challenge because you feel trapped.
Let me put it this way. I like this lady. She’s a lovely person. And I like the idea of a grandson who’ll have a big sister to look up to (once she gets past her teens). So, however you choose to play it, this kid is going to have a home. My home. We’re a team. You’re welcome to join.
The next evening, Jeff invited the three women to dinner on his deck. When they were all seated around his glass top table exclaiming over his matching fuchsia placemats and napkins, white dishes and purple hydrangea centerpiece, he whipped the lid off his Weber grill to display a chicken perched indignantly on a beer can. “This is the first time I tried this recipe, but it’s supposed to be really good.”
“Okaay…” Epi replied skeptically. “The sweet corn looks great,” she added.
“It’s from Earl’s. And so is the blueberry pie, for dessert. With Sherman’s ice cream. Vanilla.”
When Shea asked for another ear of corn and smiled gratefully at him, Jeff sighed deeply and whispered to Epi, “This is great. A family meal. All of us together.”
“Uhm, okay,” Epi demurred. “Nice dinner, thanks.” When Shea and Belinda had gathered the dinnerware and gone inside, Epi puffed her lips resignedly then began, “Jeff. I just have to say this. I know we talked about loneliness and partners and all that. But you can’t just pop into other people’s lives. Maybe being a priest fooled you into thinking you were you part of a family just because they invited you to dinner once or twice. I…we…appreciate all that you’ve done for us lately. But fitting into a family is not that easy or quick.”
“You’re mixing metaphors and using bad clichés”
“Stop it. You know what I’m saying. If the shoe fits wear it.”
Two days later, Epi leaned in the door of cottage #6. “You guys, I’m going to run into town for some groceries. Is there anything you want me to pick up?”
“Twizzlers, gramma,” Shea called from the bathroom.
“Nothing for me,” Belinda replied.
Twenty minutes later, Shea burst out of the cottage shouting for Jeff. He met her at the door of the main house. “What’s wrong?”
“Belinda is feeling dizzy. She almost fell over and is kind of sweaty.”
Jeff found Belinda lying on the bed, a wet washcloth across her forehead. “I’m no doctor, but I don’t like this. Not at all. Tell you what. I’m going to drive you to the emergency room. Can you get up?”
“Take your time. Here let me help you. Shea get on the other side of her and once we’re in the car, call your grandmother and tell her to join us at the emergency room.”
An hour later Belinda was back in bed in the cottage when Epi called from the walkway, “Shea! Download. Help with the groceries.”
Inside, she dumped her armload on the kitchen table and noticed Jeff, arms across his chest leaning against the sink. “What? What’s going on?”
Shea spoke first from Belinda’s bedroom doorway. “I tried to call you but…”
“It’s Belinda. What’s wrong?” she demanded.
“Nothing serious,” Jeff explained. “She was dizzy so I took her to ER and all they found was elevated blood pressure. They said to bring her back in six hours to check again.”
Epi shook head. “High blood pressure late in a pregnancy can be serious,” she remarked on her way into the bedroom. Jeff and Shea leaned in the doorway as Epi talked to Belinda. “How’re you doing, honey?”
“Okay. I’m not dizzy anymore. Maybe it was just…something…and I got everyone all upset for nothing.”
Epi slowly shook her head. “This is nothing to joke about.” Catching Jeff’s puzzled look, she explained, “I did a piece about our high-risk services at Bronson. Eclampsia’s a very serious condition for women in their third trimester and it starts with high blood pressure.”
Belinda gasped. “My mother had this with my little sister but the doctor took care of her.” Wringing the bedspread at her chin, she cried, “I want to be home.”
“And, well you should be,” Epi allowed, cupping her face with both hands for a long moment’s thought. “Okay, here’s the plan.” Looking at Belinda, she said, “I’m going to take you and Shea back to my place in Kalamazoo. Trish should be gone. I’ll feel more comfortable with you near the hospital where I work. Oh, and, I know, I’ll call my OB friend Carrie for your second blood pressure check. She can do follow-up until we get you on a plane home. We’re going to do this right. In the meantime, Shea, pack up your things and Belinda’s. I’ll do the same and try to get ahold of Rick.”
Epi shouldered past Jeff and left him alone in the kitchen in her wake. After a while, he gathered the four plastic grocery bags and walked them back to Epi’s car. Shea appeared shortly with hers and Belinda’s luggage which he helped load into the trunk. “Shea, get Belinda,” Epi called as she dragged her suitcase toward the car.
“Jeff,” she said, startled, as if noticing him for the first time. “Thanks for picking up on Belinda…and everything. What do I owe you for the cottages?”
“Oh…just forget it. I was glad to be a part…to be able to help.”
“How much do I owe?”
“Call me later. Let me know how things went. I mean, you are more than just customers to me.”
Epi opened her mouth just as Shea called, “What did Dad say?”
“He said that he plans to fly to Venezuela as soon as the season ends.”
Belinda sighed and smiled.
“What about me?” Shea whined. “What am I supposed to do? I don’t want to go back to his crummy apartment in Columbus. And what about school? I’m supposed to start high school, you know.”
“One thing at a time, okay?” Epi said, exasperated.
With the others in the car, Epi pulled Jeff aside; held both his hands. “Really. Thanks so much.” She paused, frowned, gathering thoughts. “I’ll…we’ll keep in touch.”
Jeff nodded in acknowledgement. Then in a low voice added, “Kalamazoo has two good high schools. I think Shea would like living with you.”
“Hey, how come no one is asking what I want in all this?” Epi grumped.
I know the feeling, Jeff thought as he watched them drive away.
The next morning, Jeff sat outside McBride’s, laptop on the table next to his latte and bun. He punched in a few words, stopped, pondering.
Vitale and Henderson sauntered by. “Hey, Mr. Howard, who’s the lady you’re hanging with?” Vitale razzed.
“Never end a sentence in a preposition, young man,” the woman scolded as Jeff caught a glimpse of pink and orange flowered dress and a floppy white straw hat over tightly permed blue curls.
“Hey, did she take your class too?” Henderson chimed in. “I knew you were old…but not that old, man.”
“Get outta here.” Jeff called.
The woman took a delicate sip of coffee, patted her scarlet red lips with a napkin and remarked, “Those kids like you.”
“Yes. You must have done a good job with them.”
“Do I know you?”
“I saw you in the emergency room yesterday. I volunteer Tuesdays and Thursdays. How did it turn out with the pregnant young woman?”
“Aren’t you constrained by something like privacy rules?”
“Oh, c’mon. I’ll never see her again. And from the looks of you this morning…neither will you.”
Jeff looked off, brow beetled.
“You know, we’re all ambulance drivers…picking up people, dropping them off. Can’t get too involved. Unless like with those boys. You paid some dues with them. I could tell.”
Jeff pecked a couple words on his laptop.
The woman persisted, “So, you taught them writing. I’m guessing you write as well. What do you write about?”
Perfunctory, with a flat affect, Jeff answered, “Transitions.”
“TRADITION! TRADITION!” the woman sang. “Do you know Tevye from The Fiddler on the Roof?”
“Yes,” Jeff replied, cautiously.
“Can you imagine if he was a writer and he sang, TRANSITION! TRANSITION! Monty Python would have such a good time with that…or better yet Mel Brooks—a whole new musical, Scribbler on the Roof.”
Jeff raised his chin, not deigning to respond.
“Oh, touchy are we?” the woman observed. “Come now, you shouldn’t take yourself so seriously. Writing is just another form of white noise…something we do to keep our creative juices flowing.”
Jeff slammed his laptop shut, took another slug of coffee looking off across the street.
“Have you ever heard of the monks who wove baskets all day only to…”
“Yes, I have,” Jeff replied, abruptly, “thank you very much.”
“So don’t fall in love with your words. Pay attention to those boys. That’s what’s going to last—some affection, some attention, some noticing and appreciating. Your writing? Meh! Enjoy the moment.”
Jeff huffed, “Who appointed you the guru of Phoenix Street?”
“Guru. That’s nice. I write too,” the woman spread her hand deprecatingly. “Notice, I said, ‘I write?’ Not ‘I’m a writer.’ It’s something I do. I notice, then I write. I saw you yesterday. You can only connect so much at any one time in other people’s lives…then they’re gone.”
“Like you’re going to do with me…I hope.”
“I was just about to follow my own advice,” the woman concurred, standing and gathering her purse and cane.
I never asked her name, Jeff thought as he watched her rickety walk toward the path down the pier to the lighthouse.
A month later Jeff huffed on his fingers to warm them before attaching a hose to the water heater outlet in cottage 6. Waiting for the tank to drain, he looked at his bright yellow cabins, geraniums now leafless sticks in the window boxes. He hated winterizing. It was usually chilly and overcast, no suntanned guests, quiet. The off-season—all about shutting down, closing up. Depressing.
From the terrace, he watched October cloud-boulders tug an angry black squall line out of the North. He ran through his checklist: water heaters drained, anti-freeze in the traps and toilets, deck chairs stashed. He sighed. Nothing but a long lonely winter ahead of me.
He closed his eyes. It’s time to center. Should be able to get in a beach walk before that storm hits. Meditation in action. All those years in training—waking at six, shuffling down to chapel, cold, sleep-grogged, forced to sit still and meditate. More like muzzy, forced ramblings on the gospel. Stacking fodder for future homilies. Or not. ‘Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.’ Zing. ‘MOTHER!’
Ah, a perfect skipping stone—flat, round, just enough weight. Now the second baseman sidearm toss to first: 1—2—3–4-5678. Not bad. This is how meditation should work. You slide along an autumn beach and let thoughts and feelings skip and skim, slow at first, then faster and faster till you finally run out of busyness and sink into thoughtless present in front of the giant mural of water and sky and purling waves.
There’s someone up ahead. So far away I can’t tell if it’s a man or a woman or whether they’re—oops, bad grammar—whether he or she is coming toward me or going away. Us beach people. Not the summer fudgies who come for a day or a week to get away from it all. When you live here, this is it. It’s different for us. We live with the wide-open space. The solitude. The trust. The nakedness. That person coming toward me. If it’s a woman she might worry for a second. But then, she would relax. I mean we’re on a beach, right? There’s an automatic patency. How can you hide a gun or a knife in your bathing suit? You can frisk someone with your eyes, for crying out loud. Well, not now when it’s cold and we’re all bundled up, but still, it’s the idea. Beach people.
Green, peeking out of the mounded gravel, sand scrubbed, pillowed beach glass. But what the hell is it doing out in the Lake in the first place. Who throws bottles into the lake? Do we get thrown into life to get ground down and smoothed in tiny pieces? If I put them in a jar do I encourage littering? How about my customer who broke a bunch of bottles, put them in a paper sack and sunk them a mile offshore so he could find lake-polished jewels in the sand next year.
Shea liked to collect beach glass, had a jar-full when she left. I wonder if I should save some for her in case they come back next summer. Ha! They. Who would they be? Rick and Belinda and Shea…and a baby? Epi and Trish? All of them? None of them? Epi never called and I promised myself to not call her.
Running a cottage is so much like being a priest. People come and go in your life. You’re close in a certain way, for a short time, but not deeply. ‘Hear my confession’, ‘give me communion’, ‘give me a blessing’. But then they’re gone and so are you—the sheen rubbed off and edges rounded by push-pull waves.
Deer tracks. A large doe and a yearling. Maybe two. Shadows in the dawn. Ghosting along the shoreline. What did that old woman say to me about sliding into people’s lives? You can’t just slip in and out. You have to pay your dues of time and attention. Choose your investments and stay with them like golden anniversaries in the newspaper. Funny. The only place that records couples staying together for years and years is the newspaper. Newspapers. How long have they got?
That old lady. Who was she? I never did get her name and I’ve never seen her around town. Maybe she was an angel. Huh! Never have believed in them. Not even in that final exam when old Alzeghy asked me to explain his thesis on angels. When I said I didn’t believe in angels, he said, ‘Nevertheless, you’ll tell me what I wrote about them.’ That’s theology for you. Busy mind work. Is that what my teaching is? Write correctly: spelling, grammar, story arc, flow. Rules and regulations to get ideas out of your head and down on paper or computer or online—some kind of way to communicate clearly, cogently.
Maybe I ought to teach again. Part time at a community college. They can’t be much different from my high school students. Just something to get up in the morning for. Prepositions. Who made that damn rule?
Vitale. College would be good for him.
Should talk to him.
Hunker in the sand.
Close one eye
To see the wall
of water and sky.
In the falling rain.