No Songs in Harmony
My splendid 43-foot Swan will take two more months to put together for my circumnavigation. I am thrilled beyond my wildest dreams. All this has taken a lot longer than anticipated and funds have run low just when I need to make a big outlay. I hope the repairs to the chimney are on the way to being finished. I’ll reimburse you, or you can take it out of the tenants’ rent and send the balance to me.
Wish me luck in my search for a second mate! I am not sure if the last one was insane or if I was insane because of her!
As you remember, she had a way of making me rather angry and intolerant. I hope the next one is civilized!
Sarah remembered the exact day in 1990 that the world shifted for her. She was standing by the bedside table in her Berkeley apartment and had just picked up the phone and dialed. As she crunched the phone between her ear and neck, her pointer finger lightly touched the face of her daughter’s photograph.
It had been months since Helen had left for college. Sarah’s nail file cut into her finger. She reached over and turned the radio dial to her favorite music program, “Beyond the Great Divide.”
“Tony,” she said, clutching the phone to her ear while she scanned her living room.
“What do you do with all your time?”
Her desk was piled with bills, the jumbled bookcases spilled onto the floor, and the walls were covered with her own Impressionist acrylic paintings. The guitar was propped up in the corner with one broken string,languishing and collecting dust.
"Hey, you know I’m a workaholic,” he said. She waited. “And I have to look after my dad.” Sarah was beginning to wonder if it was only his dad he was looking after.
“Well, I’m lonely. Can’t we see each other more often?”
She studied her hang nail and bit down on it.
“Sarah,” he said. “I’m perfectly happy with the way it is.”
“But I’m not.” She pointed her foot
and rotated her ankle.
“My daughter’s gone...”
“I know, but I can’t fill that gap.”
Sarah bit her hangnail off and licked the blood.
That gap. How had that gap become so wide? She remembered her youthful dreams of freedom, of no rent to pay, no job to hold down, and no car to service. She’d danced, smoked pot, and run along nude beaches. The songs of Joan Baez and Dylan had echoed from every radio. She played volleyball fully naked, her bare breasts bouncing.
Now her daughter was at college, dancing dizzily, falling in love, shoving away anything that looked like responsibility.
“Tony, this isn’t working for me anymore.”
“We’ve been through all this before. Sorry, Sarah.”
She slowly hung up the phone without more protesting and ran her hands along her arms.
The dog had died, the squeaking guinea pigs were at the nursery school, her television was broken, and the old radio crackled.
Sarah turned it off in the middle of So Long, It’s Been Good to Know You.
She longed for something, but she couldn’t quite place it.
She stared at her painting. It wasn’t bad. It wasn’t Cezanne. Painting filled in time but left avoid. No matter how she applied the color, mixed it, found the exact place for it on the canvass, it was the same old landscape, or the same old flowers,fruit, wine bottle, wooden salt and pepper shakers in her still life paintings.The rose petals floundered around the foot of the vase on her kitchen table.The water in the vase had turned murky. The paint had dried on her larger brush.
> She walked across the room and tossed it into the garbage can. She wondered about all the great painters. Did they feel this same lack of something, this void? As they felt the sensation of the brush and the oil paint, dabbed their canvasses full of red and yellow, were they fulfilled? Georgia O’Keefe painted big flowers again and again. Sarah knew she was no Georgia O’Keefe. The inside of a flat flower wasn’t what she needed to express.
The deep green leaves of the avocado tree in her back yard fluttered in the breeze. Sarah stared at the blue sky through the window.
She grabbed her bag and left the guitar and the paints, the broken television and the phone, and drove for fifteen minutes down to the Berkeley marina. At the grassy section,she spread out her Scottish blanket and stood facing the San Francisco Bay. She was wearing
a dark blue, wool sweater, black yoga tights and outer warm socks. She tightened the band on her blond ponytail and stared out at the Golden
Gate Bridge. As she stood on her blanket in ‘mountain pose,’ she drew her hands into prayer position.
The morning sun beamed up over the California Mountains and gently warmed her face. She closed her eyes. The air in the San Francisco Bay was briskly cool as Sarah opened her eyes and moved from one posture to another. The seagulls flapped by, the terns dived for their fish breakfast, and the cormorants’ black bodies sleeked along,skimming the water with their hungry-looking eyes. Across the bay the distant hills of Mount Tamalpias rose up into the sky, and Angel Island, a darker green, anchored the scene under the light blue canopy. The Northern California spring seemed to push life into the cells of her body.
Sarah bent over and touched that flat of her hands on the grass and remembered how Helen had waved good-bye to her in the fall and had flown away to New York to become a freshman. Sarah had driven her to the San Francisco airport and had asked if she remembered to bring her brush, her comb,and her hiking boots.
“Hey, Mom, I’m a big girl now. You can retire from motherhood – after you send my boxes!” They both laughed as Sarah paid the bridge toll.
Helen had packed two huge suitcases and had left six large boxes for Sarah to send on as soon as Sarah stopped crying.
Before Helen walked onto the plane, Sarah had hugged her and could hardly let her go. She tried to look again at Helen and smile, but the ears shot out of her eyes like someone else was in charge of them.
“Hey, Mom, I’ll be back. It’s not like forever!” sniffed Helen.
Sarah was relieved that Helen’s father was meeting Helen again at the Kennedy Airport and settling her into her dorm. At least he had offered to make that effort, as she had paid all her life savings towards the balance of Helen’s tuition for the year.
Sarah had watched the silver plane ascend steeply into the blue sky. She could hardly imagine that her little girl was on it and already so far away in the tiny dot disappearing into the fluffy clouds.
The drive home, she remembered, was stony quiet: no chatter in her ears, no songs in harmony, no alphabet games, just an eerie nothingness. Even the traffic seemed silent.
The Dangerous Exploits of Three Girls, a Cat and a Boat
Written and Illustrated by Wendy Bartlett
Dad stood up and put the newspaper down on his chair. Mom and he walked over to where I was reading in my favorite, cozy reading chair. When she put her hand on my shoulder, she startled me, my brain being somewhere in the middle of the ocean. Laying down my book, Island of the Blue Dolphins, I looked around at Dad, then Mom.
“What, Mom?” I asked, partly closing my novel, and squinting up at her face.
“We’re going to the town meeting at the Community Center,” she said. “We won’t be long. You can babysit Amanda for an hour, okay? Here’s the video of The Wizard of Oz you two can watch again.”
“Mom,” I said, looking at the old video, “I’d rather read. Amanda can watch it, I suppose. But can’t we come, too?” After all, I was eleven now! I pulled up my sock, and glanced over at Dad.
“We won’t be long. You two would be very bored at that meeting, so just stay here with Mandy for a little while and we’ll be back soon,” Mom answered, smiling down at my deliberately scrunched-up, pretending-to-whine face.
“Yeah, I would be bored alright,” added my four-year-old sister, Amanda, as she sat on the floor quietly reading to her teddy bear from her book, Little Bear.
I sprang up to go into the kitchen to get a snack.
“Well, okay, Mom, but bring us something special from town, even The Lion King. We’re getting tired of The Wizard of Oz,” I moaned, trying to make my eyes look bored to my mom.
Amanda got up from the floor, walked over to us, and held my hand.
“Okay, Elizabeth, I’ll check and see what’s available,” answered Mom, stroking my hair, her eyes looking straight into my pouting face. She reached over to Amanda and stroked her hair, too, and smiled at her the way she does at both of us.
“Now, you two have a good time together and we’ll be back soon,” she said, checking her cell phone as she kissed our upturned mouths.
“Okay, Mom, we’ll be good,” I said, walking with Mom and Dad across the living room. I punched Dad’s shoulder as they walked past the staircase towards the front door. He swatted my backside. I swirled away from him.
“You’d better be good, you little rascals!” he said, wagging his finger with a smile, and disappearing with Mom through the front door.
“Okay, Mom. Okay, Dad, we’ll be good,” we echoed like we were singing a duet.
The sound of our car grew dimmer and dimmer as they drove through the countryside and faded away into the rainy night like the end of a song drifting towards a distant silence.
Sunny, eleven-and-a-half, stood in front of her tiny father at the school gate. Not every kid had a squirt of a hunchback for a dad. Her hand rested upon his horrible curved spine as she kissed him good-bye. The bones of his back bothered her hand as she hugged him and peered beyond his ear to two girls watching and whispering. Why couldn’t he just stay in the car? Couldn’t he just sit there and wave or something? No, he had to get out, which was a lot of trouble, and hobble around to her side, and have that look of expectancy Sunny so hated. Sunny saw Danielle’s mother hugging her. How tall she stood, even as she bent down to hug and kiss Danielle. And her father was even taller and athletic, bouncing out of the car every morning to greet her. Sunny ran into school and pretended all day long that she came from a ‘normal’ family. Nobody could see how smart her dad was. All they could see was his body!
At home after school that evening, Dad and Sunny moved like they were in a dance around the kitchen, her dad following her as she prepared their dinner, his withered hand accidentally brushing her back and her side. She frowned and moved away.
“What shall we have for dinner tonight?” he asked her.
“I think you can make it yourself, Dad. I am not your servant,” Sunny huffed. “Randy can make it – he’s old enough. I’m going out on the porch.” Sunny tucked in her blouse, exited by the front door, slamming it behind her.
“Hot dogs?” said their dad, ignoring her bad mood. Randy, Sunny’s brother, one year younger, nodded silently, got up and went to the refrigerator to take them out.
Sunny found the fresh air gave her deep breaths she didn’t experience that much around her father. She walked over to the porch swing and sat down. She pondered her father and his polio story; his stunted growth at age ten, his immobile hands except two fingers, his weak legs that held him up best when he wore braces and that sometimes wouldn't hold him up well enough when he wheeled himself around in a wheelchair.
Even though Sunny loved him and knew he had good qualities, she thought he was also a big jerk. The idea of forgiveness was just plain inconceivable to her. He touched her body in ways that made her feel very uncomfortable and his history of polio and sad rejections all his life could not justify one moment of his intrusive behavior. She was a kid and he was old - old and ugly - always jabbering on and wallowing in his stupid egocentric sadness. He expected her to just smile and forgive him for a lifetime, her lifetime, of touching her in rude ways. She clasped her hands around the front of her knees and curled up into the corner of the porch swing.
Later that evening in the living room his begging eyes glared right at her and she squirmed and looked away. His pathetic appeal was a lost cause.
Six months passed and one day right out of the blue when Sunny was twelve her dad announced that they had to move to Seattle because he had a job transfer. It was late spring, almost summer. What a stupid time to move! School was nearly out, but what a huge hassle to move now! On the other hand, maybe things would change in a new place. Maybe he would start coming home at dinnertime more often. Of course, she still hated him, but he was the only parent she had at home! Love and hate! Love and hate!
Once her dad had made up his mind, there was no turning back. It all happened in a weekend. The movers were there, packing their stuff and almost ready to drive their huge van through California, Oregon and Washington!
“Dig, Randy, dig!” yelled Sunny as the movers went in and out of their house laden with large cardboard boxes, while they were digging a hole in the back yard.
“More?” asked Randy, sweating while leaning on his small shovel.
“Yes, more, stupid! The box has to fit into it and get buried!” Sunny and Randy had grabbed a selection of treasures from their childhood and put them in a tin box.
“Right. Here’s the map. Memorize it in case we loose it.” One foot in front of the other, Sunny paced off the distance from the box to the house, finished drawing a map of the hole and stuffed the map into her jeans pocket.
“Now, let’s bury it!” Randy said, grabbing the box, putting it into the soil and shoving the dirt on top of it. When all the dirt was back in place, they both stamped on the soil to smooth it down.
They ran out to the car where Dad was sitting, honking.
“Where were you kids? The movers are all done with all the book boxes even, and I’ve already locked the door.”
“We were just saying good-bye to the back yard,” Randy said. Sunny winked at him, her brown eyes twinkling.
They jumped into the car, Sunny in front and Randy in back with his magazines and robots. Sunny was instructed to be her father’s eyes. Her job was to poke him if he looked sleepy. She poked him about twenty times during the three days of their long drive north.
It was the dawn of a new life for her. Maybe things would change: a new school, a new house, new friends. Maybe Dad would get a life and find someone to date and keep his hands to himself.
“I’ve read the Memoirs of Benvenuto Cellini, as sure as you’re looking at me now, and in Italian, what’s more! That chap, a pretty bright spark, taught me to imitate Providence, which kills us all at random, and to love beauty wherever it may be found.”
Spoken by the criminal in Honore De Balzac’s novel, Pere Goriot
On the south coast of England, four miles east of Brighton, stands an old village, long settled into the earth over hundreds of years: the smuggler’s village of Rottingdean. Tunnels under the streets are evidence of secret sailing hauls from times long past.
On a November afternoon in 1956 in this coastal village, it seemed like a perfectly ordinary day. Intermittent white clouds lingered southwest before a blue sky and distant seagulls swarmed over the languishing sea.
As Catherine stood down in the village greengrocer’s queue, she glanced up to see David’s and her house up on the hill, the last one at the top of Neale Street. She didn’t see his car coming back down the road to pick her up, but the walk back would do her good. It was part of their agreement.
Catherine looked through the pages of The Daily Mail as she waited for her turn, skipping the bold headlines about the news in Hungary and the Suez Canal, and instead, turning the pages of her newspaper and glancing at her horoscope: November 3, 1956: “Sudden events will change the course of your life.”
Catherine smiled to herself. Life was so tranquil at the English seaside. Nothing unexpected or sudden ever happened there. She didn’t believe in horoscopes anyway. She folded the paper and stuffed it into her woven shopping bag. She ordered two large onions, a little flower of broccoli, and a bunch of carrots, complete with the green, wispy stocks and held her cloth bag open for the greengrocer who put them in carefully next to the newspaper. She laid two shillings into the palm of his stubby hand.
After the bustle of London, Catherine felt relieved to live in their lovely house by the sea. For her it was a perch where she could observe the slanted rain, the rolling, thunderous clouds, and sometimes, on a walk, the thrashing waves against Brighton’s pier; where she could tuck herself into her favorite armchair while witnessing the daily drama of pastel colors churning across the lively sky. She felt calm and serene just now, remembering how David had finally said the night before that he was ready to have a child.
The endless waves in the distance gave a rhythm to Catherine’s life. A black cloud lurked at the edge of the horizon. Two seagulls above Catherine banked against the wind and squealed their harsh notes. The cloud crawled across the sky rapidly, transforming the whole village in minutes from sunlight to darkness. Villagers scurried for shelter as the rain splattered onto their red noses.
The hood of Catherine’s duffle coat covered her forehead; a bag of groceries cradled each arm. She glanced up and nodded at their local ‘bobby’ as he hunkered down with his slight smile and splashed by on his bicycle. She hoisted the bulging shopping bags higher as she began to trudge back up the hill. Her American leather loafers shielded her from the gravel and mud. A young boy rattled down past her at top speed on his shiny, black, thick-wheeled bicycle. A blind man with only one leg hobbled across her path on crutches. Of course he said, “Sorry,” crossing in front of her, but she felt she should have been sorry. After all, wasn’t he the one who fought in the war? A jumble of seagulls ahead of her on the ground scuttled away from the breadcrumbs the blind man had just finished tossing to them.
The war was really over even if the holes around the bombed buildings in the East End and Fleet Street were still there. Buildings all around the newspaper offices and local pubs had been burned and collapsed leaving huge, gaping stories of death and misery. Catherine shuddered when airplanes flew over. Sometimes, even though she had not lived in England until after the war, it was all she could do not to run and duck under a wall, a tree, or a house.
It was not an easy stretch from the shops up the hill to their house. But still, she couldn’t wait for David. He must have been held up for some reason. They always agreed she should start up anyway if he was late. Strange, though, with this sudden downpour, that he wasn’t there yet.
Catherine climbed up past the few quiet, neighboring red brick houses with pointed roofs. The wind hummed roughly past her ears, almost like it was lurking behind the hills, ready to whisk itself and the leaning, long grass into a swirl of frenzy. Their neighbors had pulled their shades; seemed to be gone for the day.
Catherine turned onto the dirt pathway leading from the wooden gate across the yard to their front door, walked up to it and was surprised to find that it was ajar. She couldn’t remember exactly, but she felt sure she had closed it firmly. They never locked it; nobody did around there. It was strange: David’s old car was parked there in the yard. As she pushed the front door further, her coat’s sleeve caught on the doorknob; she backed up and slid it off the handle, walked in and kicked the door closed with her foot. It banged hollowly and she stiffened as she noticed a musty, unfamiliar smell in the hallway.
“Hello, dear,” she called. He was home from the usual Saturday London-to-Brighton train. He had most likely dozed off by the gas fire in the kitchen. He obviously hadn’t awoken in time to pick her up at the shops. She rested the groceries on the long hallway table and unbuttoned her coat. A strange, eerie silence, heavy and dark, greeted her. She stood immobile and cocked her head.
“Hello dear!” she tried again, a little more forcefully. The grandfather clock ticked and the ocean hummed like a hissing snake far in the distance. Their cat, Alexander, brushed her leg, purring. She hung her duffle coat up on the coat rack, slung her scarf over it, and picked up the groceries from the table.
“Darling, I’m home.”
Catherine walked through the long hallway towards the little kitchen at the back of their house. The kitchen door was also slightly ajar. She knew she’d closed it to keep the precious heat inside. Maybe David had just gone in and left it open for a moment. She stood awhile, hesitating. She listened. The cat’s purring continued. She pushed the door open a little more with her foot.
More heat was escaping into the rest of the house. Catherine pushed the door further and edged in. Just as she was about to set her groceries on the table she saw a fleshy hand, lifeless on the floor.
Catherine’s whole being was pulled down like gravity gone mad. She felt like she was drowning, her vision suddenly watery, her hearing muted. Her chest exploded and caved in, the first of many reactions to come: a burning, breathless anguish taking over her entire body. David was lying there on his side in a pool of blood.
“David!” The bag dropped onto the floor from her arms, the oranges and tomatoes rolling away like guilty balls of energy. She fell onto her knees and turned him over.
“David!” she cried, brushing the back of her hand across his short, cropped, parted fair hair that draped along his marble white forehead and above his frozen eyes. As she drew the back of her hand across the sandpaper stubble on his cheek, she saw the dark red blood that had soaked through his gray tweed jacket. His bloody fingers on his left hand, clenched like iron jaws around the knife, protruding from his bloody, cotton shirt. Instinctively, she reached over and peeled his fingers from the knife, pulling it from his body, and let it clatter across the floor amongst the scattered groceries.
“David?” she said hoarsely, her tears blurring the reality of the wet, red floor, and the stiffening, cold body before her. Her mouth hung wide as she realized that he would never hear her say his name again.
“When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” Sherlock Holmes
Storms at night brought young Peter out of the house. He had stepped outside to think about his mysterious father, from a dark, murky past where his mother, Angela Evans, hid her secrets. He always went out the back door and over the hills in the direction of distant Brighton. The rain tapped against his umbrella as he leaned down and pushed on. It was muddy, but with his tall wellies, it was just fine; it was adventure; it was freedom; it was a boy against the elements. Like a hawk in search of prey, his blue eyes penetrated the white beach cliffs of Rottingdean and the distant sea.
As he trudged up along his familiar path, he yearned for a father he could only just imagine. He didn’t require much: a hint even, a detail, the color of his hair and eyes; how he smiled or if he had a temper. He was a ghost Peter had hunted for without knowing it. Peter tripped and fell, then sprung up and carried on. His father was a spark in the grocer’s eyes that hit a pit of Peter’s stomach and knocked him sideways. It was the swagger of a dockhand, then the straightening of a pair of glasses on a proud nose, and perhaps a suit of a businessman, rushing to catch the bus into Brighton.
As he made his way over the hill and through the tall grass, he remembered searching the faces of neighbors, especially the fair-haired ones with curly beards. Perhaps his father was that bus driver or that policeman. Just last week he had smiled at Peter so nicely and held up the cars with the palm of his hand while Mrs. Evans and Peter, who held her hand firmly, walked at a reasonable pace across the road. The sparse traffic was hardly worth the cost of a policeman, his mother had said, but the Rottingdean town council had voted the money for him after little Milton got run over and smashed his arm so badly. Milton, dark haired Milton with the glistening eyes, only seven and even his sharp eyes didn’t detect the car approaching. He was running and laughing and the car had swerved and kept on going. Milton was lucky; he lived. But it was enough for the townsfolk. Too many possibilities: zigzagging scooters, bikes, cars; trucks across a path all pedestrians naturally used. Peter was glad to be away from the traffic just now. The ground was wet but not muddy. He made his way energetically as he mused to himself.
His mother’s silence over questions about his father informed Peter that he should not ask them. Peter turned back as the rain grew heavier and his umbrella blew inside out, and he pushed down towards the house, his face, dripping wet.
Back at home from his blustery adventure, he lay on his bed listening to the crashing rain against the windowpane, and made up his own answers. His yearning to find out about his father seemed only to deepen in the void that surrounded the subject. He turned over and fell into a deep sleep.
- - - - -
At seven-years-old, not long after his mother and he had moved to Rottingdean in 1957, Peter went to Brighton with his new school friend, John, and John’s father, Terry. Peter liked to hear Terry’s deep, masculine voice, and he liked his wispy, fair moustache. Terry had a car and while Brighton was only four miles southwest, at twenty-five miles per hour, it took long enough in their narrow seaside road to feel like a whole trip to London on the train.
Brighton was full of white buildings and noisy streets and people busy shopping. The war was now a distant past. The coupons were gone. They shopped with real money now, and finally there might be a little to spare. Mrs. Evans had given Peter enough to buy a book in Waterston’s bookstore.
They wandered into the store and the saleslady showed them the children’s section. Peter’s eyes scanned the titles and pictures.
A man was quietly reading to some younger children in a corner and Peter walked over to listen. He watched the reading man and wondered if he were his father. But no, his father would be old by now, probably in his thirties. Peter watched the man’s lips and his eyebrows and how he made his eyes so wide and how he threw his head backwards and pretended to laugh. Peter smiled softly; he liked this man. It was nice to go away and find new people to think about. He would pretend this man was his father later on in his bedroom.
Peter bought a thin, inexpensive book of Sherlock Holmes mysteries. They left the store and walked up the hill toward the train station. Peter saw a man who looked just like he thought his father would look. Even through his shy self he couldn’t help it. He wanted to ask. It was silly, he said to himself, but he had to ask.
“Pardon me, sir. May I ask you a question?” he stammered.
“Of course, young man: what would you like to ask me?”
“Is there a bookstore near here?” he asked, hating his cowardice.
“Just down the street, can’t miss it,” he said, gesturing slightly and then he smiled and turned back to his bicycle.
“Can I ask another question, please, sir?”
The man turned around to look at Peter. His eyes were as blue as Peter’s. Peter stared at them, looked into their past and present and then he asked, “Are you my father?”
“I don’t think so, young man. I’ve never seen you before.” The man smiled again in a fine way. Peter’s face turned red and he dashed ahead to catch up with John and Terry.
- - - - -
Peter visited John’s house very often when he was eight and nine. It wasn’t that he liked John so very much. John was always chewing on sweets and his teeth looked brown and crooked. But his fair-haired father, Terry, had a night job and Peter liked to see how he sat in his big armchair and ordered afternoon tea from his wife. In she came with her apron and her rosy cheeks and an obedient air that Peter realized his own mother seemed to lack.
Peter had tried to order milk from his mother with the same flare one day when he got home from school for tea. His mother just sent him to his room with a, “who do you think you are, young man?” comment loud enough to make him feel like he was three again.
There was no indication that his father was alive, yet Peter searched behind strange stores, counters, peering into passing cars, checking firemen’s faces, or faces on photographs of people Wanted. He hardly knew what to look for. He’d started with his own blue eyes and fair hair. His mother said that his father had just disappeared. People don’t just disappear! He must be somewhere!