Bill Pieper, who lives and writes in Northern California, is a voyeur and exhibitionist, important attributes for making fiction. He is also a member of the Squaw Valley Community of Writers and has studied both creative writing and philosophy at Sacramento State University.
Stories by Bill have appeared in the Blue Lake Review, Red Fez, Farallon Review, Primal Urge and elsewhere. Links to his 2014 collection Forgive Me, Father and other published work can be found at:http://www.authorsden.com/billpieper
NEVER EVER by Bill Pieper
Fireplace ash. She’d lit the hearth twice already this season, not that it cheered things up, and a fine, gray residue has settled on every surface in range. It would accrete there, too, like the aftermath of a cremation if she let it, but the immediate remedy is her microfiber cloth. Fran dusts the end tables, the lamps and the mantelpiece so carefully you’d think tonight’s big dinner was at her house instead of the Elk’s Lodge downtown.
Except retirement—a code name for being laid off—is something she’ll never get used to. The insult of it, after eighteen years as County Counsel, and then, with her contract up for a standard renewal, forced out on no notice? Economic necessity, the new Board of Supervisors claimed, and since Fran was now sixty-five, they said she’d had a good run. Of course, her male predecessor had worked well past seventy, and she knew the law better than he ever did, and knew when to hold the line. Despite her detractors’ whisper campaign, it wasn’t just personal stubbornness.
Her grown son Caleb has offered to attend the ceremony, but she’d downplayed its importance as not worth the drive. Yet as she lifts and cleans his two graduation photos, she knows that even if he came alone, people would talk behind their hands. Seat of government notwithstanding, Quincy was a small, mountain town, and gossip made a key pastime, no different from the rest of Plumas County or its neighbors in the Northern Sierra.
So at the front table, Fran will probably be paired with testy old Horace Bult, a widower and the current board chair. Almost anyone, leaving out her feckless ex-husband, would be an improvement, but she has no say in the matter—or in anything else, really, and just one last way to fight back.
Dust-cloth in hand, she moves into the hall to wipe the sills on the entryway sidelights. She feels lumpy, her jeans don’t fit like they used to and her knee is stiff. But there, by the steps outside the glass, are her lilac bushes, gone bare-limbed since October and her final week on the job, with a dreary November rolling on in. And bare or not, they hold memories, fifteen years of memories she’s tired of having.
Caleb, already home, opened the front door the instant she reached the porch. “Mom, Mom, I met the most beautiful woman today!”
From him, completely unexpected words, but Fran was still too annoyed at his latest careless episode to take real note. Besides, her feet hurt from the zigzag route she’d had to walk. “Oh?” she said coolly, passing him to kick off her work shoes on the mat.
“Yeah, she found my flute and brought it over.”
“Yay!” Fran said, both surprised and relieved. Equally miraculous, he remembered to re-latch the door without being reminded. “You could’ve called. I wasted forty minutes putting up those fliers.”
“Sor-ry, I forgot...till past five, ’cause I needed to practice again.”
She sighed and stepped into a worn pair of mules, though he was so devoid of guile, the excuse was likely true. All of which flowed from his having agreed to represent the Class of 2000 by performing a solo at his high school graduation two weeks from now, but then, in the run-up to it, he’d unraveled himself with nerves, compounded by yesterday’s disaster. The flute, a good one, and a special gift at Christmas, she’d resigned herself to replacing in a mad rush, with a trip to Reno over the weekend. “Who’s our hero? You thanked her, right?”
“Thanked her?” he said. “I asked her to dinner...a new recipe…can’t you smell?”
She could, in fact, once she’d started along the hall, a sweet, spicy aura from the kitchen. “So she accepted...your beautiful Ms.…Whoever?”
“No.” He sounded wistful. “She has animals to take care of at home. But her name is Ostara...from a Norse goddess or something. Kind of looks like a goddess too.”
“Really?” Zero prior interest in girls and suddenly so smitten by one he’d invited her to dinner? Fran had been thinking graduation might free him to admit he was gay.
“Anyway, Mom, it’s chicken curry tonight, with rice and broccoli. I put in coconut milk and everything.” He followed Fran to the table and got out a wineglass. “Sit, he said. “My treat ‘cause I feel so bad about the flute.”
He grandly poured from her open Chardonnay in the fridge. And there were, Fran knew, many worse things than being gay. Schizophrenia, criminality, drug addiction—those really tore families apart. She’d also bet no other mom in a fifty-mile radius was being served Thai food by her teenage son tonight, or anytime soon. “This is lovely, Cay” she said, while he checked the stove. “Where was your flute?”
“The bus stop by the college. A couple of guys were giving me a hard time and I must’ve put it under the bench.”
“Oh, Caleb...” she sighed again, as a sudden flare of late sunlight streamed down First Street through a notch in the mountains into their vintage, two-story saltbox.
“It’s OK, Mom, nothing happened. I just don’t remember putting it there.”
Quincy High School didn’t offer AP classes. Instead, bright kids took some of their work at Feather River College, to the west across Spanish Creek, an initial payoff on her having delayed his kindergarten start years before. “So this Ostara’s a student? We can host her another time, you know.”
“No,” she’s more like your age and has a ranch on Bucks Lake Road.”
“Oh,” Fran said, drawn up short.
“But I still want her to come. If this turns out good, maybe I’ll start cooking more. It’s stupid that mac and cheese is all I used to make.”
Whoever this Ostara was, Fran, with an office in the courthouse, could find out. Voter cards, license applications and building permits were on file, along with court appearances, arrests and more. Disguising her queries, since it was a misuse of government records, she verified within days that Ostara, whom Caleb continued to mention, had been born Debra Ostroff in Greenwich, Connecticut, a very upscale zip code. Moreover, his goddess had an unusual history and wasn’t fifty, like Fran, but five years older.
And with those details known, only one person fit: the town’s ethereal hippie queen, a conspicuous loner and indeed strangely beautiful, with fresh and wrinkle-free skin, often golden tan, depending on the season. More striking yet were her eyes, all-seeing like a yoga-master’s, and her long, long hair, at one time undoubtedly blonde, but already turned silver before Fran’s move from the Bay Area three years ago. On occasion you’d spot her striding along near the post office in flowing, patchwork skirts and lug boots, or with a coffee mug at the Morning Thunder Café, immersed in a days-old New York Times, likely arrived by mail.
She’d also been here for decades. In the early 1970s she and a tribe of cohorts had homesteaded fifteen acres in the sagebrush and jack pine out towards the lake to establish some sort of commune, which eventually resulted in a cluster of barns, dwellings and corrals that still stood. By the mid-80s, though, having already registered Ostara as her legal name, she became the sole occupant and legal owner when the commune failed. Fran assumed an inheritance or trust fund had enabled that, since there was no record of Ostara or the others being arrested or investigated for anything, which largely ruled out drug money.
As for the new name, Caleb’s Norse theory hadn’t been far off. The true derivation was Saxon, a fertility figure personifying dawn, like the Roman Aurora. Still, it didn’t appear that she’d ever had children or been legally married.
Fran, by now on the lookout, thought she saw Ostara way in back at the high school auditorium after Caleb had played his well-received Mozart piece and diplomas were about to be awarded. But maybe not, and regardless, he’d already run into her at the health food shop and arranged a delayed thank-you dinner for the following week. It would be his green curry again, he’d decided, with garbanzos and cauliflower, per some New Age cookbook, because Ostara was vegetarian.
When the chosen day arrived, he got as nervous as he’d been for his solo, and Fran found herself nervous too. Except all she had to do was be sociable, eat a nice meal and accept Caleb’s latest enthusiasms, cooking and Ostara, however long they lasted. The flute, something he’d taken up in ninth grade, had been the only thing so far with staying power.
Fran would avoid, of course, showing any specific knowledge of their guest’s birth name or personal story, but there were plenty of other topics.
A recent business license stated that the ranch operated a year-round boarding stable, and offered horses, guides and pack animals for summer rides and high-country camping. Fran’s secretary had also returned from a lunch break and mentioned seeing “that eccentric hippie woman” who kept bees, goats, llamas and peacocks, grew vegetables in cold frames and did animal rescue, primarily mustangs that got rounded up along the Nevada border.
On a June evening when Fran’s lilacs were at their height of bloom and she could leave the windows open despite the 4,000-foot elevation, a battered old Jeep pickup appeared in front of the house. Caleb hunched his string-bean body to peer through the screen and Ostara, her uniformly wavy, waist-length hair gleaming in the angled sun, got out, clad in a denim skirt, an emerald top with the look of raw-silk, and bright-colored socks above some kind of garden clogs. One hand held a market bag loosely woven of twine.
Caleb charged onto the porch, smiling, and Fran, a step or so behind, saw Ostara smile in return. “Hi, Caleb,” she said. “Still got your flute?”
He blushed and Ostara turned to Fran, “Oh...you’re his mom. We see each other around town.” Her voice, alto, centered and calm, matched the gaze of her remarkable eyes, their blue like those luminous photos from inside a glacial crevasse, though beckoningly warm. “Yes,” Fran said, “it’s nice to actually meet.”
Ostara’s bag held an herbed goat cheese, a bottle of Riesling and a bouquet of fresh-picked kale, which she coached Caleb on braising as a side dish. The cheese made a perfect complement to his raw carrot appetizers, and Fran let him have a small sip of wine too. Their guest, she noticed, drank no more than he did and soon switched to water.
“I heard your performance at the school,” Ostara told him, once they’d all settled in the dining room. “Very accomplished.”
“Thanks,” he said, looking more proud than after the event itself, “and for everything else too. Lucky my name and address were in the case...like you told me, Mom.”
And luck was the word, Fran thought. What else could explain that he’d follow through on anything so practical from her? “Add my thanks as well,” she nodded.
“I’d still have found you,” Ostara smiled. “There were fliers all over. The real luck was taking the bus that day, while my truck was in the shop.”
In a similar vein they chatted through the meal, comparing notes on life and work in Plumas County and why they’d settled there. Caleb hung back at first, but Ostara made a point of engaging him. And the dinner, though he deflected all praise, was delicious, his best ever in Fran’s opinion, yet his expanding repertoire now included lasagna and omelets.
Later on, over mango sorbet and decaf, Ostara asked, “What’s Caleb doing next year?” He hesitated, so Fran jumped in, “UOP…on a music scholarship.”
“Yeah,” he added, “I found out in May.” Except his tone, and the shrug that went with it, no longer showed the eagerness Fran had seen at the time.
“Excellent.” Ostara smiled, eyes and all. “It’s a top-rank program.” Her focus shifted entirely to Caleb. “Any kind of summer job lined up beforehand?”
“No,” he said, uneasily, which Fran had been nagging him about, as recently as tonight’s dinner prep.
Ostara smiled again. “Also excellent, because I’d like to hire you at the ranch.”
“Really?” Caleb was agog.
“Yes, of course.”
“But he’s never been around animals in his life!” Fran said.
“Ma-om! I could learn!”
“Don’t worry.” Ostara’s calm had an inner shade of humor. “I didn’t know anything when I started either.”
Nor did Caleb relent. “When should I come?”
“Tomorrow,” she answered, after first glancing at Fran. “Is 7:30 too early?”
“No,” he said, “or 7, maybe?”
“He doesn’t drive, you know,” Fran put in, “but possibly I could run him out there.”
“No, Mom, I’ll ride my bike. It’s not that far.”
“Lots of daylight this time of year,” Ostara agreed.
When their guest had left and Fran helped Caleb with clearing and washing the dishes, he was jubilant. “Wow! Summer job! That’s huge!”
“Hope it works out.” She supposed there were other gay ranch-hands somewhere, even ones who didn’t realize they were gay and got crushes on safe, late-middle-aged women.
“It will, Mom, I know.” He handed her a serving platter to dry. “And I’ve made another decision.”
“Oh?” Fran finished the platter and put it down.
“About UOP,” he said. “I’m not going now. Later, maybe, but why not two years at the local college? They have a pretty good orchestra and band, I get requirements out of the way, and won’t need a scholarship. Could be she’ll let me work part-time after August too. And,” he paused for emphasis, “somebody has to take care of this place,” he gestured at the room with a soapy hand, “and of you.”
“Oh, Cay, that’s a terrible idea, really. I’ll be all right.”
“You’ll be more all right if I’m closer. My mind’s made up.”
He was over eighteen, so Fran had limited leverage, and he resisted all arguments, yet this new turn might, she supposed, help him gain maturity. She just prayed he wouldn’t get stuck here, undereducated, under-employed and bored, like the young sawmill workers or loggers drifting around town with wads of Skoal in their cheeks.
But that first summer Caleb put on ten pounds of muscle, his shoulders were broader, his skin glowed like bottled sunshine and he passed his driver’s test, meaning he could run errands in Ostara’s stick-shift truck without a second thought. And come fall, he took college in stride, earned top grades and did stay on part-time at the ranch, when the rest of the crew left. Yet none of it kept him from helping Fran with meals, putting up her storm sashes and periodically raking the yard. As winter set in, however, the pattern changed.
He didn’t always make it home at night, choosing Ostara’s semi-weatherized bunkhouse when heavy rain or snow made biking impossible and driving too risky. The ranch was closer to campus in the morning than if he started from town, anyway. Up till then, Fran had made daytime visits almost every week to assess the situation and admire his new skills, but these bad weather absences could stretch to three or four days and left a void she hadn’t been ready for. She even missed his flute practice, which earlier used to drive her nuts. But at UOP, he wouldn’t have been around for months on end, so she could hardly complain, though she’d long planned to move wherever he settled after that.
One evening, following an extended lapse, he had brought the truck, done the dishes and was studying in the living room while Fran read the paper. They’d stoked the fire, and the house had a furnace and good insulation, so everything stayed cozy, even with snowdrifts piled to the windowsills and a twenty-degree forecast.
“Must be cold in that place,” she said over her glasses. “How do you study?”
He looked up, hair tousled from running his fingers through it. “Before bed I’m in the main house, homework or not.”
“What do you do? There’s no TV, right?”
“Oh, read. She has tons of books, but a lot of times we play music.”
“Yeah, Ostara went to Curtis Institute.”
“In Philadelphia,” he said. “A big deal, like Julliard. She’s a fantastic violinist and great on the harp.”
“Harp? One of those big gold frames?” Fran couldn’t hide her astonishment.
“Well, it’s a Celtic harp, smaller and plain wood. There’s a piano, too, in the music room. I guess you didn’t get the full tour.”
“She never said anything.”
“She’s very private. Too much gossip around here. I didn’t know at first myself.”
“Can I hear you sometime?” But just by having to ask, she’d become an outsider.
“Yeah, probably. I’ll check.”
Bi-weekly music nights, dinner included, soon became part of Fran’s routine, and the interplay between the performers, lyrical and sweet on everything from chamber pieces to reels, was extraordinary. But with spring, those invitations fell off and music took a back seat to ranch activities; the goats were foaling and the horses needed exercise. Caleb, accepting those distractions as normal, revised his major at Feather River so his AA would include both music and animal husbandry, the only such pairing the dean could remember.
For her part, Fran got swept up in a revision of the County General Plan that went on for months, involving meetings and controversy galore. The same period also marked Caleb’s second summer at the ranch, and by its end he’d added ten more pounds, another inch in height, developed truly broad shoulders, could handle horses and ride as though he’d been born to it, and ran a chainsaw and splitter with the best of the crew. Fran couldn’t help being impressed, or fail to note that Ostara’s equestrian feats rivaled her musicianship, with her posture in the saddle seeming perfect, even regal.
Caleb’s sophomore year went as successfully as his first, though he spent less time with Fran and more at the ranch. She responded by trying to let go and by doing what she could to re-establish old Bay Area friendships, sometimes being hosted down there and other times returning the favor in Quincy. In addition she attended several weekend law seminars in Sacramento. A solid and enjoyable life, she told herself, a respite from her all-engaging duties as a single parent.
When Caleb’s next graduation arrived, he was scheduled to perform another flute solo and showed none of his prior nervousness. Fran and Ostara sat together near the front, the place was packed and Fran felt an upwelling pride in his accomplishments. She realized, of course, that he was also her basic link with her seatmate, but the two women by now had achieved a cordial, if careful, relationship. And as they continued to converse, Fran sensed that the carefulness between them was easing, and the idea of Ostara as the older sister she’d once wished for might really be feasible.
“It’s such a joy to see him,” Fran said, “strong and confident...ready to face the world. For a lot of that, we have you to thank.”
Ostara smiled, from deep in her bottomless eyes. “Perhaps,” she answered. “But it was all there and would have taken wing somehow.”
Before Fran could reply, Pomp and Circumstance sounded and the graduates filed in. Everyone appeared to take things seriously, the speeches about fresh pages and new chapters were suitably inspiring and Caleb brought down the house. At Ostara’s suggestion, he’d selected something modern and jazzy by a composer named Ralph Bolling, worlds away from his former Mozart. In further contrast with high school, he was popular among the kids, both girls and boys, and as soon as the degrees were awarded they swarmed him for high-fives. Afterward, he went out with a gang of them too, while Fran drove home under a graphite smear of sky vivid with stars. He’d reapplied to UOP and been admitted again, so she could virtually see his arc up there, high and bright against the Milky Way.
Fran hadn’t meant today’s cleanse-a-thon before the dinner to be quite this ambitious, although step-by-step it feels right. For now the house is still hers to treat as she likes, and has become her fortress, her redoubt. But after tonight, her one remaining external obligation, Fran’s calendar is barren and represents a new kind of aloneness, further impetus for her plan.
Wiping the refrigerator, she gives the handles special attention, and looks inside to remove congealed drips from the bottom shelf. Nestled in the door is a jumble of ethnic condiments that Caleb has brought on his decreasingly frequent visits, and she rearranges the bottles, jars and baggies as a reproach he’s bound to notice.
She rinses the cleaning rag, a one-time pajama leg, and hangs it to dry in the utility room. The wall clock chimes, reminding her to check for mail, so she goes onto the porch, but in the box, only junk, accompanied by a swirling breeze and masses of dark clouds. Back inside, thinking to browse the morning paper, she heads for the couch and the long-removed stain she always sees there anyway.
Caleb had been home off and on since his graduation, seemingly with nothing on his mind, but one Saturday in early July he rode his bike up the front walk, eager and excited, waving Fran into the living room. Quincy’s prolonged mountain spring had at lat last become summer, and the scent of lilac clusters drifted in from outside.
“Mom, sit down. I have amazing news!”
“If it’s a UOP scholarship,” she said, laughing, “I’ll jump back up.”
“No, really...sit!” But he continued before she actually reached the couch. “Forget UOP, I’m getting married!”
“You’re what!” Her knees gave way and she hit the cushions slantwise. “To one of the girls I saw on stage that night?”
“Of course not...to Ostara. Why would you have to ask?”
For Fran, this was a gut punch. Never had she felt so stupid or so betrayed, and she did jump up, yelling. “And throw away your future! That’s insane!”
“We truly, deeply love each other,” he said. “How can it be insane?”
“Because you’re barely twenty-two and she’s almost your grandmother!”
“That means nothing!”
But it did, and worse. On certain of the music nights she remembered having smiled at how Caleb’s neatly made bed in the bunkhouse mirrored his personality compared to the chaos of sheets and quilts on Ostara’s, seen from the hall in the main building. Now the reason was obvious—and disgusting. “You’re having sex, of course,” she blurted.
“Not your business!” he shot back.
“Well, you won’t be having children!” Fran said.
“We’ve talked that over, and she’s probably more goosey about the age thing than you are, but neither of us wants kids.”
“Maybe now you don’t. What about in ten years? Fifteen years?”
“If we change our minds, we’ll adopt.”
“A mother that old? Not in Plumas County.”
“Look, Mom, we don’t need your permission...but we would like your blessing.”
“Hah,” Fran snorted. “And her too scared to even come with you?”
“She wanted to. I vetoed it, because I was afraid you’d act this way. But I know what makes me happy, and no one gets to block my path.”
“Naturally, she proposed first. How sweet.”
“No, she never brought it up. I did. None of this is what you think.”
Fran stood, glaring at him, and Caleb backed away. “Arguing doesn’t help,” he said. “I need you to calm down, but the wedding’s at the ranch, 7 p.m. near the end of August. We tell people the date’s already in their calendar, ’cause it’s a full moon.”
He continued backing toward the entryway. “Please, Mom, we really, really want you to be there. We’re also inviting my dad, just to let you know, but I doubt he’ll come.” Easing the door closed till it clicked, he left.
Fran was devastated, and it lasted and lasted. She could hardly bear to see Caleb, yet couldn’t bear not to. He apparently felt the same, since a few weeks later he spent a night at home, though he barred any discussion and they edged stiffly around each other. At either his urging, or by her own design, Ostara—the betrayer—stayed away, and just as well. Fran had been fantasizing about headlines in the Plumas Beacon like “Local Attorney Shoots Rancher, Then Self,” which was far-fetched but not impossible. Recently she’d bought a small .38 and taken the training, in response to rumored threats from a burly road department employee, whose firing for theft she had shepherded through.
Then there was her ex, Caleb’s father, the computer scientist who had abandoned his son at age five by going to Taiwan for a tech job at some unknown start-up, hitting it big, and never coming back. Nor answering even half of Caleb’s letters and calls. Just an impersonal flow of child support checks, that was it. How did he rate an invitation?
Caleb continued to call and drop by, imploring that Fran attend, and she’d rallied herself to do it, but when the day came and she started down the front hall dressed in what she felt would be casual enough, she simply couldn’t. The door’s weight was immovable in her hand, and she lay on the couch weeping until her mascara bled into the fabric.
The ceremony, per the local grapevine, had involved multiple obeisances to the moon, flaming whisks of sage incense, abundant red wine, and Celtic dance music, partly featuring Ostara on her harp and Caleb on panpipes, with a small audience of Caleb’s college friends and a cadre of aging hippies from places like Chico and Berkeley, one of whom, a Unitarian minister, took care of the legalities. Most locals clucked and tutted over all of it, though some approved of Fran’s refusing to go while others faulted her for not being there.
And maddeningly, as if he was giving her the finger, her ex actually had flown in from Taipei, fawned over the two celebrants and danced with the bride. As a mom, the odds were always that you’d lose your son to another—younger—woman, so the challenge when he grew up would be to widen your nest to incorporate a quasi daughter that you could also mother, and widening it further when the grandchildren she used to dream of came along.
Or even if he had been gay, there were constructive models to follow. For what Fran now faced, there weren’t any, at least none she could envision. But this marriage couldn’t succeed. It couldn’t. She’d simply wait them out and soon enough have him back for a new start.
Caleb took months to resume visiting in the wake of Fran’s no-show, but eventually a wary truce set in. That Ostara still wouldn’t be welcome didn’t need saying. Nor did Caleb press the matter and Fran preferred not to discuss it. So with no explicit plan, at least on her part, his solo visits became a weekly pattern, broken only by inadvertent telephone contact with Ostara, who never made the slightest acknowledgement of having wrongfully entrapped Fran’s son, or by unavoidable encounters with her in town, during which Fran was cool but correct.
At one point Ostara did send a handwritten card saying Fran was always welcome at the ranch and that she hoped her own absence at Fran’s was forgiven, since she didn’t want to intrude on Caleb’s family time. But even accepting this as an ongoing norm, Fran had some measure of youth advantage, and could simply outlive the woman. Fran’s place as County Counsel was secure and she remained in good health. Then, with Ostara out of the way, Caleb would inherit the ranch, and Fran easily imagined moving there to be with him.
Having cobbled together lunch from two nights of leftovers, she dusts the dining room, changes the place mats then goes upstairs to audition tonight’s wardrobe. What outfit, Fran wonders, will be least frumpy? Until recently, she’d aged fairly well, but her feet don’t tolerate heels anymore and primping herself in the mirror has become a challenge.
She glances at the ceiling and the access panel to the attic, which the pest control service will use during the inspection she’s scheduled for tomorrow. On the bed, she lays out a full-length tartan skirt, cream blouse and a blazer that’s a decent fit. Good, no ironing required, and with those selections made, finding the right purse and flats is easy. Her job may be gone, but her image, especially at this last official event, is important. And while she knows that the Native American Health Center and environmental groups need volunteer lawyers, they should’ve asked by now, not expected her to beg.
As she checks her sock drawer for the reassuring sheen of the still-hidden .38, the light outside shifts and the sudden brightness pulls her to the dormer window. Clearing, just as forecast, the clouds roiled apart now, and with the gold of the aspens gone for the season, the high ridges south and west of town are so blackly piney-green they’re a preview of oblivion.
In those years after Caleb’s marriage very little aside from his visits, which went on for most of a decade, served to punctuate Fran’s life. She was too mortified by what had happened to keep pursuing her few friendships, either locally or elsewhere. And her sustaining mode—with him, with Ostara, and at work—contained so much anguish that everything seemed to clump together, month by month, including the interminable recession that collapsed the county budget and brought nonstop board hearings about layoffs and service cuts.
Caleb and Ostara, during that same period, began using the off seasons at the ranch for travel to Europe and Asia. Glad as she was to have him exposed to the world, the photos he brought home merely stoked her resentment—Ostara posed in this or that native costume, like she thought she was glamorous, or the happy couple acting as though everything was normal. All Fran could see was that her son had increasingly become a kept man.
Downstairs again, Fran makes herself tea from a collection of varieties originally begun by Caleb, who never had a taste for coffee. She then carries the last of the mug with her and gets out the vacuum for a go at the rugs, a job that’s almost meditational if you’re careful to overlap the swaths, moving back and forth on each, and don’t just veer around for visible crumbs or lint.
She picks up quite a harvest, too, because it’s been a while since anyone vacuumed, but with the clouds lifted for the moment, the light is good and the activity has loosened her knee for tonight’s mix of standing and sitting. Yet this, she realizes, is what her future days were bound to be like—inventing things to fill them—which she can’t conceive of doing.
In 2013, on an evening in early spring, Caleb had called to say he was coming over, and with no warning, brought Ostara. Caught off guard, Fran scrambled to serve an oolong that he’d always liked, but Caleb fidgeted nervously at the kitchen table and barely touched his cup. “This is kind of hard, Mom, and we wanted you to hear it from both of us.” He and Ostara exchanged glances.
Divorce? Fran thought. It’s what their faces implied, and she felt a keen vindication. Or was it some dread disease? Ostara’s agelessness had finally eroded—her stride less confident, her hair now gray rather than silver, and coarser, her eyes less shiny, and deepening crow’s feet lined her face. “Oh, my,” Fran said, “sounds serious.”
“Well,” Ostara answered, in a voice Fran could almost take as kind, “we’re moving.”
“Yeah, Mom, selling the ranch and buying in Sonoma County. We made an offer on ten acres in the hills between Occidental and Graton.”
“It has a creek and everything,” Ostara added.
“I can’t believe it,” Fran said, and she truly couldn’t. “The ranch…all your ties here?” Tears of despair welled up, but she determinedly held them back, hoping that no one would see, no one in this audience.
Ostara shrugged. “I’m a little stunned myself. We’re terribly sorry to leave you like this, but the winters are too much anymore.”
“It’s her arthritis,” Caleb said, his eyes resting on Ostara. “We need a warmer climate, and fewer extremes. I’m not near done going riding with my wife.” He lightly trailed his fingers down her arm.
“That’s sweet,” she smiled at him, “except we won’t be breaking mustangs anymore.”
Since real estate had at last begun to rebound, the ranch sold quickly—to the proxy of a developer, as far as Fran could tell—so by late fall Caleb and Ostara were gone. There had been ardent goodbyes, of course, at least with Caleb, and assurances that his visits home would continue. Still, Fran knew how to keep score. Ostara must think that she’d won, and it certainly seemed she had.
Well into the following spring Fran felt like an ambulatory wooden replica of who she’d been. She tried to put energy into her job, yet found herself demanding deference from co-workers and barking at those with opposing views. Yes, that summer, she did go to Sonoma, but only once. Without her own house for refuge and trapped on the couch in what seemed like a Hobbit dwelling amid ferns and towering trees, the blatant presence—the sheer physicality—of their cohabitation had pressed in on her like a bout of asthma. Then came the closed session for contract negotiations and the Board of Supervisors stabbed her in the back.
Dressed and on her way out the door at five-fifteen, she stops to lock it and steel herself for what’s to come. Speeches, a framed proclamation, handshakes, random congratulations and hugs, followed by no more job, even on paper, and no real place in the scheme of things. She looks forward to the familiar walk, though, the route toward Main Street so much a part of her life here, it deserves a proper goodbye.
And somehow, she navigates through all the formalities, is passably polite to Horace Bult, doesn’t drink more than is wise, and still has a functioning right hand despite the enthusiastic pumping it’s gotten from ranchers and developers more than happy to see her go. The new counsel, a young whelp at a local firm who’s slated to work on retainer part-time, will be no match for them.
Afterward, declining offers of a ride, she walks home through the dark, empty streets. But on this trip, with the staccato jake-brake of a lumber truck in the distance and pine smell dominating the chill air, the familiarity seems more oppressive than charming, a feeling that mounts with each stride.
The phone rings when she enters the living room to turn off the light, and it’s Caleb. “Hi, Mom, how’d the dinner go? I can’t believe you retired. You always said you never would.”
“Turning sixty-five changed my mind,” she says, sticking with what she’s already told him. “But it went OK. A small observance, just a few staff and the board.”
“You know I love you, right?” he answers.
“I do, Cay, of course.” Plus all that she doesn’t say and can’t say and hasn’t said to this person she’s always loved, always, more than anything or anyone.
“Ostara and I want you to come and live with us. I’m building a pretty deluxe cabin along the creek...no snow, lots of privacy and closer to your old friends. It’s yours whenever you want.”
Her whole living room—the floor lamp, the Persian rug, the empty fireplace—swirls in the swirl of her emotions. “I’m...well...that’s very special, Caleb, but with everything going on here, I just don’t see how I could.”
“Yes you could, Mom,” his steady, earnest voice says. “We know you probably won’t… but you could.”
When they sign off, she’s glad he called, glad that a deliberately enigmatic call to him hasn’t been necessary. Because now, with everything settled and the house nicely clean, her trip up the stairs to her sock drawer will end exactly as planned. There won’t be a note, either. They’ll all understand better without one, though she feels a bit sorry for the pest control guy, who knows where her hide-a-key is and is used to letting himself in.
Yet halfway up, the stairwell dissolves into pearlescent light, and a piano wire, taut and sharply struck, sounds in the core of her spine. She stops, breathing suddenly in audible gasps, and returns to the phone, waiting to recompose herself before dialing. No, she will go to Sonoma after all, live in the place Caleb described and find a way to win, not merely by the force of guilt over her demise, but this time by actually getting him back. As before, age inevitably had to take Ostara down, and who would he turn to then?