far too much writing, far too many photos

Excerpt #5 from a novel in progress (© 2002, 2006 by runswithscissors):

When we finally left the room, the clock radio read 1:46. I searched myself for the directions on the way out, found them in a pants pocket before pulling the door shut behind me. Colin walked toward the elevator, the light from the vending machines casting a television-like glow. As I followed, I searched further in pocket. My hand encountered the rabbit’s foot and closed around it, fur soft against my skin, until the elevator arrived.

If anything, the day outside had become more raw, the November sky more solidly gray.

“I’m freezing,” Colin said.

“We just got out here.”

“It’s windy.”

I’d been thinking about walking the few blocks to Edith Ohls’ place, but decided making Colin more miserable wouldn’t be worth whatever small gain I’d get from a hike in bracing air. We were quickly into the car with the engine on, me fiddling with the heater controls.

About two minutes later, we turned from West College Street onto Cedar, heading toward Edith Ohls’ residence. As we reached the intersection before her block, I slowed and surveyed the sitch. A few cars sat parked along that length of the avenue — on impulse, I stopped and backed up to park by a long, car-free length of curb on the previous block. We got out and made our way ahead, following the house numbers until we found ourselves in front of 78, a neat, nicely-kept black and white affair near the end of the street. Less than half a block in from the terminating cross-street, which gave off onto green land — grass, trees, and a stone tower of some sort, a big one. I checked it out, trying to figure what it was for, what it might be doing there. Connected with the town’s water maybe, filtration or pumping? Or some eccentric, monied anglophile’s medieval fantasy? Life is swimming with mysteries.

We made our way to the front stoop of no. 78 where I let Colin press the doorbell, resulting in a faint bing-bong. Fifteen or twenty seconds later, the door opened inward, revealing a slim elderly woman of medium height, in neat brown slacks, a tan blouse and bowling shoes. Faded blue eyes regarded us through wire-framed glasses.

“Mrs. Ohls?” I said, my breath turning to mist as I spoke.

“Yes,” she said, opening the storm door. “Please call me Edith. You must be Dennis and….”

“Colin,” I supplied.

“Colin.” She studied him, smiling. “You look cold. Why don’t you come in.” We entered, Mrs. Ohls backing away to allow us passage.

We found ourselves in a narrow foyer, a small, nicely appointed dining room off to the left, what looked like a living room to our right, stairs ahead leading up to a second floor landing. Dark wood flooring showed around old oriental-type rugs. Food odors emanated from somewhere, along with a faint stink of long-dead cigars and unidentifiable aromas I associate with old age.

“Can I take your coat?” Mrs. Ohls said to Colin. He slipped it off, she hung it on a wall rack to the rear of the foyer where it joined a couple of larger coats.

As she did that, standing with one heel slightly raised from the rug, I noticed her bowling shoes were two-tones, the outside half of each one red, the inside green. The rear end of each bore a big white 6. Then I noticed a couple of group photos up on the wall, framed. Taken in a bowling alley, looked like. Hmm.

“So,” I said, pulling my coat off, “you’re sure we’re not intruding?”

“Oh, not at all, no. It’s nice to have company right now, especially younger folk.”

“She means you,” I said to Colin, hanging my coat up.

“I meant both of you,” she said.

Colin looked from her to me to her. “Dad’s not younger folk,” he said. What a guy.

“It probably doesn’t seem that way to you. He’s still a young man, though.” Colin glanced at me doubtfully. I tried to appear youthful and vigorous. Didn’t look like he was buying it.

I stole a glance into the dining room where bay windows let in gray light. Three place settings had been laid out on a dark wood dining table. To the rear of the space a door led to another room, the kitchen apparently. I heard someone moving around back there, noises of food prep. My nostrils picked up the rich aroma of soup.

Mrs. Ohls noticed me noticing and addressed Colin, who looked a little lost and uncomfortable. “Are you hungry?” A tentative nod from him. “Why don’t you make yourselves comfortable in here,” she said, leading us into the living room. “I’ll see if the food is ready.”

I bleated a polite thank-you, she wafted off, leaving us to check the place out. And the living room itself was fine, nice, comfy. Kind of New-Englandy, with tall double-hung windows looking out on gray afternoon and bare trees, more hardwood floor peeking around an oriental-style rug that showed its age gracefully. And mementos. The space fairly frothed over with mementos, put just about everywhere a place could be found for them — framed photos on the walls, on the many shelves, on side tables. Citations interspersed among the photos on the walls. And trophies. Bowling trophies, a bunch of them, some modest, some extravagant, some small, some tall, all topped by a little metal guy caught in mid-bowl. And a bowling clock, also featuring a man in mid-bowl, in plastic bas-reliefed full-body profile, his arm swinging back and forth as the pendulum.

Colin stood by a small table, looking through the various photos arranged there. I joined him. In each picture, a younger Edith Ohls smiled at the camera in the company of an older man — pleasant-looking, an inch or two taller than her, torso not slim, not heavy, thinning white hair, bushy white eyebrows, the skin on his face beginning to sag and pouch — and other supporting characters. One or two at weddings, one or two at bowling fiestas of some sort, always in the company of the older guy.

Colin looked around as if not understanding how this room had materialized around him. I rested a hand on one of his small shoulders, he glanced back at me before looking quickly away to stare at the environs.

As I stood there by my boy, my free hand delved into my pocket, finding the rabbit’s foot. “Hey,” I said, pulling it from my pocket, keys and all, “see this?” Colin looked around. “This is something else Edith sent me.” I held it out to him, he looked at it.

“What is it?”

“It’s a rabbit’s foot.”

He stared at it, then at me. “What’s it for?”

“Some people think they bring good luck.” A squint up at me from Himself at that, with no comment. He extended a finger to touch the charm, then stroked it a single cautious time.

“It’s blue.”

“They used to dye them colors like this, I think.”

“How come?”

A shrug from me. “Good question. A silly marketing thing, probably. Maybe someone thought the natural color wouldn’t be eye-catching enough.”

“What are those keys for?”

“Another good question.”

Edith Ohls appeared to our rear, opening a door that led to the kitchen, the glow of fluorescent lighting visible behind her.

“I recognize that rabbit’s foot,” she said.

“We were just wondering what the keys went to.” She stepped closer, I handed her the ring.

“These,” she said, indicating the two standard-shaped keys, “might have been the door keys to Philip’s last apartment. This one,” she continued, separating out the flat key, “well…. I can’t say for sure, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it went with a safe deposit box.”

I stared at the flat, squared-off piece. “A safe deposit box?”

“Could be,” she said, handing the ring back. “Looks like that kind of key.”

“But where? L.A. somewhere?”

She appraised me with a small, kind smile. “It’s possible. I couldn’t say for sure.”

“I know. Sorry, I’m just wondering aloud.”

“I’d be doing the same if I were in your position.” She noticed my boy looking adrift. “How are you doing?” she asked him. “Are you still hungry?” An affirmative nod in response. “Well then, we can eat if you’d like,” she said, moving toward the door from which she’d come.

Colin immediately sailed off after her. I followed, ending up in a large, clean room several times the size of my kitchen, walls sporting numerous further photos from a long, happy marriage. A pretty blonde woman near my age put a cover into place on a tureen containing what I assumed to be our lunch.

“I hope you like split pea soup,” she said to Colin. He looked at her, uncertain how to answer yet another stranger.

“This is my niece,” Edith Ohls said to me, “Emily. She’s been helping me out these last few weeks.” We exchanged hellos. Nice smile. Nice wedding band. “This is Dennis,” Edith continued, “and that’s Colin.”

“You’ve come a long way for lunch,” Emily said. “From New York?”

“A long way,” I agreed, skipping the details. Colin fidgeted. Edith moved into the dining room, turning on the overhead light and closing the curtains, sheer white jobbies that let in gray light while providing some privacy. Emily hefted the tureen and followed, going to the table to deposit her load where it looked like a white ceramic centerpiece. Colin and I trailed after.

“Are you sure you don’t want to join us?” Edith asked her niece.

“Nope, thanks. I’ve got things to do. I’ll stop by again this evening.” She moved into the hallway to pull her coat from the rack. “Nice to meet you,” she said to Colin, giving him a friendly smile. He said a quiet “‘Bye” in response. “Nice to meet you, too,” she said to me.

“Likewise,” I said.

She zipped up, calling a last “‘Bye,” and exited via the front door. Edith moved to the side of the table opposite Colin and me, gesturing to the place settings in front of us. “Why don’t you sit,” she said. I put a hand on Colin’s back, gently moving him toward the seat across from Edith. When he’d pulled the chair out and arranged himself in it, I sat next to him, picking up a napkin, spreading it over my lap. Colin saw that and picked up his, pushing one corner of it inside his collar.

Once we were settled, Edith asked for Colin’s bowl, he picked it up and extended it toward her. She took it, and while she ladled soup I glanced around. A wicker basket next to the tureen held warm rolls, wrapped in a large white linen napkin. A butter dish waited nearby.

Three or four photos were arrayed around the room, nicely framed and hung, these featuring Edith and the now familiar male, along with two children. Dishes and crystal could be seen through the doors of a china cabinet, along with a scattering of ceramic figures. No trophies anywhere. An austere space compared to the other two rooms.

I realized Edith was waiting for me to hand over my bowl, which I did. When she’d filled it and then her own, she took a roll from the basket and broke it open. Its odor got my saliva oozing and I grabbed a roll of my own, making myself pull it open and spread butter on it slowly, like a sane, well-mannered human, before cramming it into my mouth. Colin followed my example.

“How is everything?” Edith asked. I made happy noises and gestures around a mouthful of split-pea bliss. She watched Colin for a moment, wearing a half-smile, her eyes soft, then dipped her spoon into the soup and brought it to her mouth. After a quiet moment, she said to the munchkin, “How do you like traveling with your father?”

Colin looked up at her, then cut a quick glance over at me before looking down at his soup. “Okay,” he said.

“Must have been a long drive.”

“Pretty long,” he said, dipping his spoon in and out of his soup, one leg swinging nervously.

“Is this your first time in Ohio?”

“Uh-huh.”

“It’s his first time outside of Massachusetts,” I added.

“Is that right?” she said. “And how do you like it so far?”

“I don’t know.”

I interceded, trying to take the onus for supplying information off Colin. “This trip was pretty much thrust upon him. He didn’t come along because he wanted to.”

Edith studied me for a moment. “I see,” she said. Then, to Colin, “That’s no fun, is it?”

“No.”

Edith said a sympathetic, “Mm,” then asked, “What would you rather be doing?”

Colin paused to look at his soup before answering, his spoon sliding back and forth along the rim of his bowl. “I’d rather be home.”

Edith gazed at him for a moment. “It’s nice to be able to go home, isn’t it?” she said. Colin nodded, dipping his spoon into soup. “When you think of home, what do you think of?”

Colin looked down at his bowl for a moment, making a soft popping sound with his lips, finally saying, “Watching TV with Dad.”

“Do you do that a lot?”

A shrug. “Sometimes.”

“Does he let you use the remote?”

He looked up at her, surprised, then nodded. “Does your father ever read to you?” Another nod. “What books do you like?”

He pondered for a moment, moving his spoon around in the soup like a motorboat, then said, “I like the Zebra family. And I like ‘Elmo Goes to France.’” Elmo, the Canadian moose.

“I like that one, too. Elmo finds Knobby and takes him home, right?”

“Uh-huh.” He appraised her with more interest, starting to forget his shyness. Knobby: a long-lost nephew of Elmo’s. Elmo discovers Knobby’s being kept in a French zoo and springs him, they return to Elmo’s home in the extreme northern suburbs of Montreal. Happiness reigns.

“I think my grandson has all the Elmo books. Maybe his family will stop by while you’re in Oberlin and you can meet him.”

Colin looked as if he’d like that and said, “Okay.” He let his spoon fill with soup then lifted it to his mouth where it disappeared between his lips.

“I noticed,” Edith said to Colin, “you were looking at some of the photographs in the living room.”

“Uh-huh.” His napkin had started to come out of his collar, I reached over as unobtrusively as I could manage and tucked it in. Colin leaned back and allowed me to fuss, his feet swinging in time to some rhythm he had going inside that little head.

“I have an awful lot of photos, don’t I?” A big nod in the affirmative from Himself.

“I showed Colin the photo you sent me,” I said.

“The shot of your father and mother?”

“That’s the one.”

“So you saw the photograph of your grandparents?” she said to Colin, more of a statement than a question. He nodded once more, putting a little bit of roll into his mouth. “You see the man with me in that picture?” She pointed to a photo hung on the wall to our left, by the door to the foyer. “That man and your grandfather were best friends.” Colin studied the picture of Edith and Bernie Ohls intently. “Do you know any of your grandparents?” Edith asked. Colin shook his head no, his eyes moving to meet hers.

“They all died before he was born,” I supplied. Not exactly true, but close enough.

“You know what it means that the man in the photo your father showed you was your grandfather, don’t you?”

“Uh-huh,” said Colin. “He was my dad’s daddy.”

“That’s right. And my husband was best friends with your dad’s father.”

Colin was doing pretty well with all this, but I’m not sure he got the full import of the connection Edith was trying to get across.

“Bernie must have been a bit older than you,” I said to Edith.

“Yes, he was. He was the same age as Philip.” Far as I could tell, that meant he was around 87 when he checked out. “And 12 years older than me.”

“How come he was so much older?” Colin asked. Going by his expression, a 12-year span like that might as well have been the gap between the Pleistocene Era and the Age of Enlightenment.

“Well, I don’t know. I met him when I was 19. We liked each other.” She shrugged. “It just happened that way.” No comment from Colin.

“In the little I’ve seen of my father’s memoirs,” I said, “he and Bernie didn’t come off as buddies.”

“They weren’t back then. It’s something that developed as they got older.”

“What was my father like?” I found myself feeling oddly nervous at what she might come out with in response to that question.

“Oh,” she said softly, deliberating briefly, eyes staring down at her soup, “he was a very interesting person. Touching, exasperating. Sad. Such a sad, lost man.”

“Lost?” I asked, startled.

“That’s how he always seemed to me. I’m sorry, is hearing that unpleasant?”

“No,” I said uncertainly, “just strange.”

“Do you want me to go on?”

I found her steady gaze on me, the faded blue eyes slightly magnified by her glasses. “If you want to.”

She slipped a spoonful of soup into her mouth and looked toward the room’s side window for a moment before speaking. “I didn’t meet your father,” she said, “until he and Bernie had known each other for a number of years. They dealt with each other now and then in the course of their work, but tended not to travel in the same circles apart from that.

“Bernie and I were eating dinner in a restaurant the first time I met Philip. He’d had a meal by himself and stopped by our table on his way out. I didn’t see him approach, so that he seemed to materialize next to us. He said something like, ‘Hey, Bernie, how’s life?’ He had a nice voice. Resonant. I remember looking up at him and thinking What an attractive man, at the same time getting the distinct feeling that he could be trouble.”

“Trouble?”

She smiled. “Not that he was looking for trouble or seemed threatening in any way. When Bernie introduced me, Philip removed his hat and took my hand to shake it. Very well-mannered, almost chivalrous. And yet….” A pause here as she gazed at a photo that hung on the wall behind Colin, her eyebrows knit with thought. “There was an air about him. You could sense that this was not a simple person. Quite the opposite. He had an active mind — insistently active. Which was an asset for his work. But if he didn’t have something to aim it at, to distract him — a case, a book, a game of chess — he’d start picking away at the state of his life.”

She paused to smile at Colin, who was dipping part of a roll in his soup. When the talk stopped, he looked up guiltily, then back down at his food, uncertain whether he’d committed an offense or not. I put a hand on the back of his neck and squeezed gently. He looked over at me, I smiled at him.

“Do you see much of my father in him?” I asked Edith.

“There’s a little of Philip in his eyes, I think. And maybe his mouth.”

Colin returned her gaze, putting a bit of roll in that mouth and chewing. I studied his profile, not sure I saw any resemblance to the old man there. Looking back at Edith, I said, “How come he never communicated with me?” I tried to make it sound casual, not freighted with feeling. It came out flat, stiff.

“I don’t know. I think he kept track of where you were, and there were times when he considered contacting you. He would agonize for a while, do nothing and stop talking about it.” She paused and for a moment we were quiet. Sad, restless thoughts squirmed around in my head. “Do you like the soup?” Edith finally asked Colin, whose bowl lay nearly empty.

“Mm-hm,” he replied, nodding, then remembered to tack on a “thank you.”

“Would you like more?”

“Yes, please.” No hesitation there. Edith took his bowl and ladled it two-thirds full with soup. Colin took it carefully back, set it down, picked up what was left of his roll and tore a tiny piece from it, put that in his mouth.

“You know,” Edith said softly — I glanced over and found her addressing me — “your father took your mother’s death very hard.” I didn’t know what to say to that and remained silent. Colin looked from her to me, then back again. “I believe he loved her very much.” Her eyes remained on me.

“So why did he leave?”

She nodded. “That’s the question, isn’t it?” I said nothing. She seemed to deliberate before she spoke again. “I think I’m not going to apologize for your father. He was a good man.” Her eyes looked into mine, their slight magnification making them appear owlishly penetrating. “Sometime after Philip returned from Europe, he ran into Bernie. They went out for a drink. Afterwards, Bernie realized with some surprise that he’d had a good time. He also seemed a little concerned about Philip. They got together another time, then another time after that. I think it was after that that Philip joined Bernie and me for dinner for the first time. Just him, no date.”

With that I realized that Edith might have known my father with other women, a thought that I think I’d shied away from before then. At that moment, a little calico cat walked into the room from the kitchen, moving lightly past Colin to pause by the end of the table where she aimed a high, lilting meow at Edith.

“Hello there,” Edith said, looking down at her. Colin had already slithered out of his seat and crouched by the intruder, patting its lower back, which elevated in response.

“Colin,” I said, “don’t overdo it. Go easy on the kitty.” No sign that he’d heard me, though he did seem to be attempting contact with more finesse than his usual mauling. And the calico seemed to appreciate the attention.

“What’s her name?” Colin asked, hand still patting away.

“That’s Minka,” Edith answered. “She’s the queen of this chicken coop.”

Colin peered up at her, trying to figure how literally she meant that, then returned his attention to the cat. “Hi, Minka,” he said softly.

“I think she likes you,” Edith observed. Colin stood up, wiping his hands together, which resulted in some cat hair flying. Minka aimed another meow at Edith, this one more plaintive. “I know,” Edith said, “we’re eating and you’re not. It’s not fair, is it?” Minka walked a few slow steps in a half-circle, tail up in the air, looking back at Edith, then around the room as if she’d heard something none of us humans had.

Colin slowly resumed his seat, Minka parked her rear on the rug and began licking the fur way up on her inner thighs. Way up there in the nether region. Just what I like to see when I’m trying to eat.

“How come cats wash themselves so much?” Colin asked.

“Well,” said Edith, “imagine that you were covered with hair like she is. So much hair that you couldn’t see your skin anywhere on your body. Do you think that might get uncomfortable?”

“I don’t know,” Colin answered, thinking hard.

“Do you have to wash your hair every day?”

“Uh-huh,” Colin said. I thought I heard an editorial tone of complaint there at the unreasonable demands imposed by certain parental units.

“Think how often you’d have to wash if you had hair everywhere.” No answer from Colin. He looked back at Minka, who remained intently focused on groinal hygiene.

“Do you have any pets?” Edith asked Colin.

“Uh-uh,” he said, shaking his head.

“That’s too bad.”

“Yeah,” said my boy, additional editorial tone in his voice. “Dad can’t have any in his apartment.”

“Building regulations,” I assured Edith.

“You live there by yourself?” Edith asked.

“On the days Colin’s not with me, yes.”

“You’re divorced?”

“Oh, yes.”

“I see.” Edith noticed Colin’s bowl was empty. “Would you like more soup?” she asked him.

“Yes, please.” A quick flicker of the eyes in my direction to see if that was okay.

“Have as much as you want, bub.” You take advantage when your progeny actually wants to eat something healthy. Outside a car drifted by, slowing for the stop sign at the end of the block. It’s been a while since I lived anywhere that looked out on passing traffic — there was something nice about sitting at this table with my boy and this elderly woman who provided connection with a part of my life long unknown. The occasional vehicle moving past outside, the November afternoon drifting slowly by. Life going on all around.

Edith finished pouring more soup in Colin’s bowl, he carefully took it from her and set it on his place mat. He picked up his spoon, then his attention returned to Minka, still deeply into a disturbing display of self-care. At that moment alternately licking and biting at one patch of groin fur. Very attractive.

I tried to get my attention off of unwholesome visuals, turning back to my meal. Another car drifted by, slowing down. This one stopped before moving completely out of view, began backing up. Through the sheer curtains I could make out two figures in the car, looking to be scrutinizing Edith’s house, the one in the passenger’s seat appearing large and male. My inner early warning system began sounding off. They backed up more, apparently trying to find a spot to park. I reached out and grabbed Colin by the arm.

“I think we have to go,” I said.

“So soon?” said Edith, surprised.

“You’re about to have visitors,” I told her. She stared at me, not understanding, then turned to the window.

“That’s no reason for you to leave,” she said.

“In this case,” I said, grabbing my coat and Colin’s from their perch in the hallway, “it is.” I hurried back into the room to herd Colin out to the kitchen. “Come on, buddy,” I said, trying to make it sound more like a request than the urgent instruction it actually was.

[See entries of 5/24/02, 6/15/02, 8/13/02 and 8/22/02 for further excerpts, or use the links in this page's right-hand column.]

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