Thursday, July 26, 2012

Jan's mind wanders

Each stroke of the pencil changes everything, but the erasure is always an option. Nothing’s indelible yet. She hasn’t yet touched this drawing with a pen. All of her changes can be erased, changed back, like they never happened. Presto! Magico! Gone. Maybe this is what she likes so much about drawing with pencil: the do-overs, the second chances, so rare in real life but an almost constant occurrence when she draws. Her options remain perpetually open.
The tilt of the cat’s ear on the kitchen table is giving her trouble. She hadn’t considered the cat’s ear when she started the drawing, but faced with it now she’s at a bit of an impasse. The bear’s arm was easy, the bear so obviously pontificating. But the cat is trickier. The cat is female, feline, endlessly difficult to read. Should the ear be cocked forward as if listening, or tilted away, tuning out? Or can she somehow infer both? Wouldn’t that be best? The cat, while polite or political or plotting, is no longer listening to the bear, in fact can not stomach the insufferable bear another instant. Yet she is powerless against him. She’s just a pawn after all. She goes where she’s moved and stays put. What choice does she have?
Jan’s mind starts to wander as she sketches the ear lightly both ways. Weird how the mind works. She thinks back to a night in college, a night it’s fair to say she has not thought of since college. There was a party, and as usual she was in a little over her head socially. She knows now that her personality fits a certain stereotype, a little niche in the Myers-Briggs universe. She knows now that she is an introvert. 99%. She didn’t know that then. It was the fall of junior year, and the professor of her honors English seminar was having a little getting-to-know-you shindig with his so-called best students at his gentleman’s farm ten miles outside of town. The professor, she remembers, was gay, which to Jan at the time was fascinating. She knew for sure he was gay because he hung out with all of his gay buddies for happy hour at the tavern where she worked three nights a week. She would often see them getting ready to leave as she was coming in. She’d joke with them in the nursey, settling way she joked with all of the drunks. This she could do because it was her role, and she did it well. Random, institutionalized party chatter was another matter entirely.
On this particular evening at the professor’s house, Dr. Hopewell, his name just coming to her, full of dedicated students brown nosing the English faculty with white wine-lubricated vigor, Jan sat awkward and alone on the two steps leading down the a central recessed living room. In the middle of the room, indeed in the middle of the house – open floor plan, mostly rough-hewn pillars and beams – hung an enormous Turkish bed, ornate and heavily wooden, suspended from the ceiling by thick chains. “Oh, yes, Steven and I procured this amazing bed the last time we were in Turkey,” Dr. Hopewell makes sure to tell all and sundry. Why is it in the middle of the room? Surely she must be mis-remembering the layout of the house. How would one sleep on such a thing? Or, perhaps more to the point, how would one have sex? Does it swing? Is it dangerous? Promiscuous certainly. Right in the middle of the house?
As she sat there another misplaced soul, Davis Ritchie, sidled over next to her and started to talk. She could not have been more stunned. Just the fact that he was in this honors seminar at all was breathtaking to Jan on the first day of class. Davis Ritchie was a campus celebrity. He was cute as a button and had been captain of the men’s soccer team since sophomore year. Is it possible he was also smart? That seemed an unfair allotment of talent for one person. She had never spoken to Davis, rightfully fearful of that A-list girlfriend always at his side shooing away anybody female with her dagger eyes. Unbelievably, the girlfriend was not with Davis that night. He was alone and something of a fish out of water in this crowd. So he sat with Jan as she stared, contemplating the odd bed situation.
“I see you running all the time,” he said. “Why don’t you go out for cross country or track?”
“Teams,” she said, somewhat stunned. “I can’t handle the whole team thing. Woo wah, all of that.”
“Teams are okay. When it all clicks there’s nothing better.” And then he went on to enumerate several recent examples of his soccer team “clicking,” all of which left Jan with nothing.
“What’s going on with this bed?” she asked when he’d quieted down.
Davis just shook his head. “I don’t even want to think about it.” Which for some reason got Jan giggling. It was sheer nerves mostly, but also something about Davis Ritchie’s wagging head and rolling eyes, the whole thing struck her silly.
The laughing broke the ice. Jan remembers that she and Davis sat there companionably chatting for a long time, possibly hours. She can’t remember what they talked about but she can be sure she played it cool. That was her pose back then with boys, uncomplicated and cool. Low maintenance, whatever. Which angle did she take, she wonders now. Misplaced science student in an honors English class? Dreamy runner girl wedded to the outdoors? Party chick out on a bender (unlikely)? It could have been any of these. She didn’t quite know herself back then. Still doesn’t.
Was Davis coming on to her? Was he feeling shy, so he glommed on to the girl sitting by herself? Was he the one that got away? Was she? No telling. The whole thing got broken up by Carl, Jan’s “date” for the evening, her roommate’s boyfriend of three years and with whom she was charged to return safely to his dorm at the end of the evening. Carl had been outside with Dr. Hopewell and had evidently passed out on the deck chair on which he’d been loudly lounging, and from which he’d been putting the moves on Hopewell all evening. Why do people do things like that? Why try to sleep with your gay professor when you are clearly not gay? Dr. Hopewell had come in to find Jan, to tell her that it may be time to take Carl home. Hopewell talked to her, she remembers this clearly, as if she were a responsible person. Perhaps an adult. Maybe it was all those chummy late afternoons at the bar, but Hopewell seemed to think that she could handle the situation. He seemed to like her, even though she wasn’t doing particularly well in his class. Not yet anyway. He’d called her a couple of times to lead the class discussion when he was sick. He trusted her. Perhaps she seemed trustworthy. She had no idea.
Carl, meanwhile, had woken up, or perhaps had been feigning sleep all along. He came bumbling into the house like an oversized bowling ball, grunting, “Where’s the party? Moved in here?”
He went straight for the hanging bed. Indeed it was made to swing. Jan grabbed Davis’ arm and shook her head, big-eyed, right in his face. Carl howled. The kid had no sense of propriety, no sense of the spectacle he was making. Or maybe he didn’t care. Jan was mortified.
She remembers Hopewell and Davis each getting Carl by a meaty arm and steering him into the passenger seat of her car, an ancient Chevy Nova, brown with purple patches where the paint had rusted away. “I love you, man,” Carl was saying to Hopewell as they buckled him in. “I meant everything I said out there.” Hopewell looked at Jan, eyebrows raised. “He’s all yours,” he’d said. Davis, perplexingly, leaned in through the open driver’s side window and kissed her on the cheek. Whatever that meant.
Jan doesn’t remember the drive home with Carl, though she can imagine he blathered on about some damn thing or other, she probably nodded along, agreeing with whatever he said or didn’t say. She brought him back to his dorm. And this she remembers clearly. He started walking away from the car, away from the building, across the street and into the grassy hills yelling, “Sheep! Sheep! Ding, ding, you goddamn sheep!” She didn’t follow him. Alone in the car she realized how annoyed and confused she’d been by Carl, by the whole uncomfortable evening, really. She just wanted some time alone to think it all out. She let Carl go. He wasn’t her responsibility anymore.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Jan drawing

Drawing for Jan is all about the details, each piece the summation of a thousand decisions, minutiae really, a line, a shade, a gesture. Drawing is the only part of her life that captures her attention this way, the only thing for which she has the energy for this level of detail. She cannot stay at it long, and she cannot be interrupted. It’s an unusual and fragile zone. 45 minutes go by in a flash and then she is spent. Done. Batteries dead. Drawing is slow and difficult work, an endurance event, her specialty. She starts with broad strokes, the easy part, then ever so painstakingly fills in the details. She cannot let anything slide, cannot get sloppy. Once she feels sloppy, she stops.
Today she’s drawing a kitchen. She’s been working on it for two weeks, and it’s starting to take shape. The kitchen is inspired by the Avadecian’s house: two professors, one International Relations, the other Mathematics, and two sons. She’s never seen the kids but guesses from photographs hanging around the house and artwork magneted to the refrigerator, that they’re maybe 2 years apart, 6 and 8, 7 and 9, something like that. Her own kids are in that age ballpark so she knows the signs. Little soccer balls and cleats in the mudroom, Annie’s mac and cheese cases stacked in the pantry, Legos in the bedrooms. These boys are evidently Star Wars fanatics. Just like her own.
She was cleaning the house midmorning a few Saturdays ago, the family gone as she insists, presumably at a soccer game. The light coming in through the kitchen window over the sink stopped her cold. She stopped and stared at the dishes in the drying rack, the white board calendar full to bursting, the stuffed animals on the table, the bookshelf strewn with homework and library books. The light seared through and blessed it all, illuminating the scene and taking her breath away. She didn’t want to clean the room, didn’t want to touch it. It was perfect as it was. Why this obsession with cleanliness and order? Why not let our lives spill out of the frame? She walked away, cleaned the downstairs bathroom and the living room. When she returned to the kitchen the moment had passed. Only then would she disturb the scene to do her work.
She scrubbed the counters and the floor, de-cluttered the table, put the dishes to rights. She sun was well past the window now, the room desolate as an empty church. She had been the only witness to that illumination. She feels it’s worth preserving. Maybe she’ll give the picture to the Avadecians if it turns out well. Let them see their kitchen with fresh eyes.
This morning Jan is drawing the stuffed animals on the kitchen table. The table itself in just a series of lines she’ll fill in later. The table doesn’t matter so much. It’s the animals she’s focused on. The bear’s arm is raised as if he’s making a particularly difficult point to the cat who is turned to the window, oblivious or perhaps pushed beyond patience. Hard to tell with a stuffed cat. A little brown cocker spaniel with floppy ears and curls on top of his head stares forlornly into a bowl of milk, a few bloated Cheerios languishing at the edge.
Jan imagines the boys. These stuffed animals mean the world to them, the kind of made up world only kids seem to have access to. These boys in their family photographs are beautiful. Big dark eyes and dark hair, half Armenian, half …. what? … American? She doesn’t remember seeing them but she must have, swimming lessons, grocery store, surely someplace. It’s not a big town. She imagines the rush to get out of the house that morning, the soccer game or wherever they were off to, the animals quickly abandoned, then waiting in the boys’ room where Jan eventually placed them on the beds. How she’d hated to move them.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Jan's Day: Early morning

Jan wakes up

It’s never a question of if, but more simply a question of how far? As soon as the alarm goes off, or on very lucky days a minute or so just before, which saves her husband the startling inconvenience of a 4:00 wake-up, before her feet hit the floor, before the last of the wake-up adrenaline has exited her system, well before the sternest and timeliest cock crows even once, Jan’s plotting and planning her route. Call it conditioned response. Borderline lasciviousness. She has three hours to herself starting NOW and she intends to use them.
Sunday was a long run day, twenty-eight trail miles with Lucy, her training partner, her fait accompli. Lucy’s as bad as Jan is. Lucy may well be the only person in this town who truly understands Jan. Running with Lucy is like gliding along beside her own alter ego, a younger, one might correctly say more polished, more “together” version of herself. Lucy’s 23 and she’s got it going on. Jan’s 43 and beginning to wonder where it all went.
Lucy’s everything Jan wishes she could have been at that age. Lucy knows who she is and what she wants. Lucy’s an orphan, which may have hurried the process along. Jan at 23 was still butting up against the unmovable wall of her mother’s iron will. Jan’s mother had been a first wave feminist, a career go-getter from the get-go. Jan’s mom had real obstacles to overcome and came out shining. Jan had nothing but imaginary obstacles, constructed whole cloth from her own addled and perhaps misguided head, and she’s still reeling.
But all that’s neither here nor there at the moment. Jan is planning a run. The whole world can take one giant step back. Mother may I? Yes, you may! Monday was an off day. Jan tries and often fails to take at least one day a week off from running. It’s good for the tendons, she’s told. The delicate muscle bellies, the micro pulls and tears. Whatever. Monday was yesterday and she had two houses to clean and she was tired. She did the smart thing.
Today is Tuesday, conceivably a speed day. Speed work is a new addition to Jan’s bag of tricks. She does it only because suddenly, inexplicably, she enjoys it. It’s fun! Running as fast as she can for relatively short bursts makes her feel young again. Not young like Lucy, but young like her kids. Really young, like ten or eleven. She kicks her feet out behind her, steadies her head and bolts from the hip like a missile sprung from a desert silo. Her hair flies behind her, wind in her face. Never mind that she can’t breathe. She’s okay. She feels great. Stay in the moment; be here now. You don’t need to breathe all the freaking time. Take a break. Forget about it and RUN!
Sometimes she does these speed workouts on the track around the high school football field. Other times she slips them into her everyday runs: one-minute pickups, four minutes rest, GO! This morning, however, as she swings her legs over the side of the bed, a lucky morning – she beat the alarm by 53 seconds – she has a different idea. Today, instead of flat out speed, she’ll run hills. She can feel it in her bones. It makes perfect sense. She hasn’t done a hill workout in a long time. Hills, after all, are speed work in disguise. Strength coupled with one hell of a cardiovascular workout. A middle-aged person’s run. Let’s face it; what is Jan if not middle-aged?

Jan drinks coffee (or doesn't....)

Jan goes back and forth on the coffee issue. Right now she’s off. It feels like a forever decision but who knows? Everything always feels like a forever decision. Like so many things in Jan’s life, the caffeine thing turns out to be a cycle, though she can only see it retrospect. It always starts with decaf. For a while the decaf gives her a little lift in the morning. Nothing jolting or abrupt, just enough to get her eyes open and the ideas flowing. Before she runs she draws, every morning without fail. She once assumed she’d make a living as an artist, but now she’s 43 and that never happened. So it’s a hobby. She’s resigned. It gets the day started and she enjoys it. The tiny caffeine boost from the decaf sharpens her focus, keeps her in the swim so to speak, until it’s time to run. She can only draw in the mornings, super early, well beyond the hope of any interruption.
Of course one thing leads to another. Tiny fractions of regular caffeinated coffee, the kind most humans drink without ill effect but which makes Jan a little nuts, start to seep into the morning mix. 1 7/8 scoops decaf, 1/8 scoop regular. Her focus sharpens further. It’s good! And if a little caffeine is good, more must be … better! And it is. It IS! 1 ¾ scoops decaf, ¼ scoop regular. Her eyes open a little wider; her brain clicks along like a stopwatch. Yuh, baby. Let’s go! The ideas come fast and furious. Her drawing hand cannot keep up and her piece changes. It’s less contemplative on the caffeine, more plainly manic. She isn’t sure she likes it, but she can’t stop. The ink from her pen runs dry. Weeks are passing. She moves on. Half decaf, half regular, one scoop of each. What harm could it do? Ride that high! Ignore the afternoon jitters, the horrible feeling of doom that sets in at dusk, the galumphing heartbeats, the no no no sleep. She’s on a wild ride here. Full caf! Go in whole bore. By now she’s convinced herself that her body craves the stuff. It gets her up and keeps her going. A real cuppa joe. Everybody does it, jesus christ what’s the big deal?
Until she finds herself night after night lying awake, vaguely headachy, kind of dizzy, entertaining an artillery squad of explosive thinking, rat-a-tat-tat, rat-a-tat-tat. Her heart no longer sits still in her chest. There’s something in there rumbling around like a tennis ball in the dryer. She can feel each chamber distinctly fire, kalomph, kalomph. Once the panic attacks start, the out of nowhere grip that zooms her away from her life at alarming speed, she knows the ride is over. And then she goes off the stuff. Cold turkey. Presumably never to return again. She can’t look at the French press without feeling strangely punchy. The smell of coffee makes her sick. She’s never going back.
So for now it’s all Yogi Ginger and Tazo Calm. Herbal tea from here on out. No need to go down that road again.
This morning she’s having ginger tea with honey. This will soothe her stomach before the hill workout to come. No need to go crazy. It’s 4:15 and she’s in her studio, which is really just a corner of the attic next to a south-facing dormer. All of her art supplies are strewn around like pickup sticks. The kids are not allowed up here. She needs a corner of her own. She knows where everything is.
She’s working on a drawing of a kitchen just before breakfast. This is what she does, interiors. Her house cleaning work is the perfect inspiration. One job feeds the other. As she moves from room to room when she’s cleaning she imagines the lives that play out in these spaces. Her drawings are like this. The people are absent but you can imagine them. The details imply habitation, a life lived. She loves the details. Once in a while as she’s cleaning something will catch her fancy, the angle of a tee shirt hanging out of a drawer, a toy on the staircase, the heartbreaking loneliness of an unmade bed. She insists the houses be empty of people when she’s cleaning. The infiltration of reality ruins the effect.
She doesn’t sketch on the job, doesn’t take snapshots even. She simply absorbs the details, however imperfectly remembered, and draws them in the early morning light. She can honestly say that losing herself in these stylized, half-remembered rooms gives her peace. Why else get up at such an ungodly hour of the morning?

Friday, March 16, 2012

Friday 3/16/12 (but it feels like Saturday....)

Jan, working

The house is an old Victorian painted in three shades of brown. It's a gingerbread house straight out of Grimm's. It belongs in the Alps. Or maybe it doesn't. Jan is not familiar with Alpine architecture, but this is a little game she likes to play, placing houses elsewhere. The Alps is a compliment. She likes this house.

She flips through the keys in her big ring. The key for this house is blue, though it really should be brown. She already had a brown one when she picked up this house. For the most part the keys correlate in some way to the houses. The key ring was built up so gradually over the past couple of years that she knows each key. A few of her clients never lock their doors. These are typically the messiest houses. This one today is kept pretty well.

Jan actually prefers messy houses. These are her people, the ones who really need her. She feels a certain fondness for the little hand streaks on the refrigerators, the toys all over the bedroom floors, the books and papers cluttering every surface. Her theory is that people who are truly engaged in their lives, the people who spend most of their time focused on the important stuff, rarely clean.

Jan pushes into today's house with her bucket and mop. She’s hit by the smell of cumin, maybe curry. They must have cooked Indian last night. They are, in fact, Indian, so it stands to reason. She goes back to the car to get the other bucket and vacuum cleaner. She prefers using her own stuff. It's impossibly warm today, maybe low 60s, which is rare this early in April. She’ll open the windows while she’s here. Air the place out.

Jan’s grateful for these empty houses with all their signs of life. In theory, she likes most people, though she enjoys their absence more than their presence in most cases. Small doses. She creates characters as she moves through the empty houses, little stories for the messes. It’s funny how she doesn’t get tired of this job. It feeds her imagination. She never expected that.

As with all the houses she cleans, Jan starts in the kitchen. This one’s old with vintage appliances, mostly because it has been a rented for so many years. The rental market in this town is huge, driven by the comings and goings of the university people. Jan had considered getting her real estate license, but now she’s glad she didn’t. All of that human interaction, the make-up, the uncertainty. That would have been too much for her. She doesn’t sell things well. Obviously. The cleaning turned out to be just as lucrative anyway. Who would have thought?

She doesn’t do this for the money. They don’t really need tons of extra money. It’s more for the idea of earning money. All those years at home with little kids, earning nothing, that didn’t sit well with her. Always vaguely arty, she never really caught on to a career. Nothing opened up before her. Nothing was obvious. She lacked mentors, truth be told. She sees that now. She must not let that happen to her own kids. She’s working hard to get them to understand the importance of asking for help. People are generally happy to help. That became clear too late for Jan. She missed the boat.

She moves through the kitchen putting things in piles so she can wipe down the countertop and the table. She whisks all the crumbs onto the floor, quicker to get later with the vacuum.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Thursday, 3/15/12

Lucy with Jan’s kids

Lucy has Jan’s kids for the afternoon. She babysits most Tuesday and Thursday afternoons, Jan’s late days. Jan pays her well, but honestly at this point Luce would do it for free.

It’s one of those early Spring charmers. It has been two weeks since time sprang forward and most people (not Jan, of course) are still reveling in the extra light. Lucy gets the kids off the schoolbus and gives them a quick snack, Luna bars, strawberries, toast. The kids pull on shorts, a novelty for April, and everyone wants to go to the lake.

They walk. The lake is surrounded by woods and hills. You can’t see the whole thing from the beach.

“This is where I met your mom, you know,” Jan says dropping towels and a bag of extra clothes (Taylor’s idea) on the sand, “running these trails.”

Taylor, the 9-year-old, chews her lip and says, “Tell me the truth. Does mom run here to get away from us?”

The 5- and 7-year olds, Henry and Oslo, are already knee deep in water, well on their way to their first change of clothes.

“Guys, it’s not really warm enough for swimming!” Lucy calls down to the boys. She is ignored.

“Forget it,” says Taylor. “Those boys don’t feel cold. You know how Henry hasn’t worn a jacket all winter.”

Lucy sits in the sand and looks at Taylor. “I think Jan runs here mostly because she thinks it makes her a better parent. When you get a little older you’ll probably understand this. I’m just starting to understand it myself. She needs a little alone time. That's all. She runs to collect her head.”

“I know what you’re saying,” says Taylor. “I get that, actually.”

And then Taylor is down, knee deep in the water, just as wet as her brothers, yelling and laughing herself breathless. Lucy wonders if she was that together at 9, if she could straddle both worlds, adult and little kid, with the same grace that Taylor manages. She doubts it.

Lucy is not a big fan of kids, but in the past few months she has grown to love these three. They’re different, she suspects. Or maybe they’re not. Maybe all kids are impossible and delightful all at the same time. You just have to get to know them.

Come to think of it, Lucy only sees real life kids in their worst places: restaurants, the Laundromat and the Food Coop. Food and laundry are firmly in the adult world. Kids cannot possibly understand the bone jarring necessity of food and laundry. Lucy hasn’t been long in that reality herself. No wonder the kids she sees are always so cranky.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Tuesday 3/13/2012

Lucy meets Jan

The trail around the lake is 8 miles, and Lucy's on her third loop. She's been running behind the same woman for about 45 minutes. She can't pass her without looking like an asshole, because she knows she can't sustain a faster pace. They're going the same speed. She doesn't want to turn this run into a pissing contest, too much work for the third lap. So she keeps her distance and zones out to this woman's pace.

She's seen her around town, this runner in front of her, mostly in the coffee shop and the public library. She's older than Lucy, much older, but she's sharp in a specific, sporty kind of way. Her hair is long and going grey and she wears running clothes everywhere. But she layers them or something, Jan can't quite put her finger on the look. It's like she just stepped out of a Title 9 catalogue. Comfortable, but well put together.

It was dark when Lucy started this run. She loves to watch the sun come up over the lake. She has spent most of the run working out a 5-page paper for her Existentialism seminar. It's not due for another week, but she likes to stay ahead of the game. She also has a biology lab to write up and two tests this week. She's ready for the tests, and the lab just needs to be typed up. So the paper is the only thing hanging over her head at the moment.

This is how she talks to the other students at school. It's all in terms of what's done and what needs to be done. Her conversations don't go much deeper than that. They don't have to. She wonders what people find to talk about in the real world these days.

Lucy didn't start college straight out of high school. She had straight A's and got into lots of good colleges, but she suspected, perhaps rightly, that she wasn't ready. By the time she started her freshman year, two years later, she had missed the boat socially. These people do not interest her. She knows she's too efficient for a college student. She's missing out on fraternity parties and pulling all-nighters. She is not making friends for life the way you're supposed to in college. She's biding her time, alone in the crowd.

This gives a certain emotional wallpaper to her existentialism seminar. She jives perfectly with the professor, a kindly older man who loves her work. It's rare in Lucy's experience to strike such a perfect chord with a teacher, especially with her personality, her inwardness. This is the only class she speaks up in. She actually asks and answers questions. She practically tiptoes to the man's office hours, as if seeking holy wisdom.

Why existential philosophy? Why now? Why did this have to turn out to be her "thing?" And so late in the game. She graduates in a year. Is it just the teacher? Existential philosophy, Jesus. There are no jobs in that field. She's doomed.

Lucy looks up just in time to see the woman in front of her go down. She hits something with her foot, a rock or a root, almost catches herself, then falls. It looks like her knee hit first.

"Oh, my god," says Lucy, pulling up to the woman heaped on the trail, "are you okay?"

The woman rolls and sits up. Her knee is bleeding and she's covered in pine needles and trail dust. "I'm okay."

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Saturday 3/10/12

Night Run

It's two hours past closing and he's still here. It's like this every night. They break down the bar, hose the mats, do the register, count tips, then sit like idiots drinking beer until the sun comes up. Free beer is the one and only perk to this job. That and the girls. But the girls are too young now. It's so easy to be a hero in a college town. He graduated six years ago, and he's still here bartending in the place he used to bus tables when he was in school. Back then the bartenders seemed so cool, above the fray. That wore off a couple of years ago. Now he's just stuck.

The one girl in town he likes thinks he's pathetic. She runs with her dog and studies hard. He sees her from his canoe circling the lake with the dog. She's not long for this town.

He is pathetic. He sleeps all day, fishes, then comes into work at 9. By then the place is starting to fill up, and by 11 it's packed. Every single night. Life in a college town. It's hard to resist that role: the kind and sexy purveyor of alcohol. "Whaddya need tonight?" Little smile. That's all it takes. These kids love him, these future bankers of America, future bankers' wives. They're all assholes.

Tonight he's had enough. It's time for something different. It's four a.m. and he's had several semi-clean water glasses full of Guiness. He's going for a run. He stashed his stuff in the staff bathroom when he got to work last Tuesday, but this is the night he's really going out. He pushes himself up from the four-top at the back of the bar and sluffs back to change.

"Night, Marty. Night, Kate," he says to the other bartenders who sit with their feet up flipping through the channels on the sports TV.

Marty looks up, takes in the running shoes and shorts. "Where you going?"

"I'm going for a run, dickwad. Obviously."

"Jesus Christ. It's the middle of the fucking night."

"Yeah. I'm awake. No traffic."

"Have fun, Danny," Kate says, stumping out a cigarette. "I think it's great." Kate's about 40, a living breathing example of everything Dan is starting to fear. She's like a mother to these kids. A mother who mixes killer drinks.

He steps down to the sidewalk. The moon is falling behind the football stadium and the dorm across the street is dark. He has the night to himself.

Friday, March 9, 2012

(I wrote this during the kids' swim practice. I'm trying to develop Jan a bit.....)

This coffee shop is their place, Jan's and her mother Penny's. They have been meeting here on Wednsdays ever since it opened three years ago, just after Timmy started first grade. Penny has no late classes on Wednesdays and it's Jan's day off. This is a college town coffee shop. Barristas, liberal arts majors clearly, covered in tattoos. Jan loves it. It's the kind of college experience she always wished she'd had.

Jan studied biology with the vague idea of medical school. She never went to coffee shops, barely left the lab, just long enough to get herself knocked up the fall of sophomore year. She had the baby over the summer and was back in school by fall, a mother at 20. Jan and Penny have been through a lot.

They order at the counter, black coffee for Penny, decaf chai latte for Jan, and take a seat by the window. The place is all old brick, wood and glass. It used to be a textile factory; now it sells coffee. With the sound of the espresso maker backlit by chatter and the drone of traffic you can almost imagine treadling of the looms, the women in shirtwaist dresses, the thump of sewing machines.

"I picked up a new house," Jan says. She loves to impose her chosen profession on her mother. Force her to face it head on.

"Jesus Christ," says Penny. "Have you been drawing?"

"It's an old colonial out past the Admissions Building. It's gorgeous. Four bedrooms. There's just a middle-aged couple living there, two dogs, no kids."

"Are you trying to kill me?"

Jan's housecleaning is the most lucrative job she's ever had by far. She cannot believe how much money she makes cleaning other people's houses, all under the table. She's not deliberately avoiding the taxman. She simply has no idea where to begin, which forms to procure and fill out. There's so much of the adult world she doesn't understand and chooses to ignore. Somehow she gets away with it.

"Mom, I'm cleaning an essentially clean house once a week. 150 bucks a shot."

"These are strange times. Are you drawing?"

"Yes, actually, since you ask. I'm working on a new series based on rooms in people's houses."

"You're drawing the rooms you clean?"

"More or less. I add stuff, take stuff out. It's all very whimsical. It's fun. I'm kind of excited about it."

"Good. I can't wait to see them."

"Not yet. I'll show then to you in a couple of months. I'm not ready for you yet.

They walk in together and order at the counter

Friday, March 2, 2012

Friday 3/2/12

Jim can't seem to settle on a project. Two weeks into summer and already he's started six or seven things: mending the deck, collecting beer bottles to brew, scavenging pipe for an outdoor shower, stuff like that. He waits all year for these precious 10 weeks of summer. His wife, Cherrie, doesn't like to travel, so they make a vacation of being together at home. It is enough.

This afternoon Jim's in the garden. The peas have come and gone, the tomatoes are in flower. Green beans and broccoli are ready to be picked and there are enough cukes to start a batch of pickles. Jim just scratches his head.

It has been a difficult year. His dad died in April. He almost made it to spring. Spring in northern New Hampshire doesn't really start until May. Maybe early June. His dad lived for his garden. He helped Jim put this one in when they bought this place twenty years ago. He'd love the look of this broccoli. He'd know what to do with all the beans.

Jim's kids run wild. He and Cherrie are comfortable in chaos. One comes out onto the porch, dreadlocks half way down his back, tattoos up and down his arms. Jim remembers this boy at three, naked with a toolbelt slung low on his hips. He spent a whole summer like that. Helping. Jim loves his kids.

Two of his teenage daughters sit at the kitchen table. He can see their heads bent toward each other, maybe playing cards, maybe talking. He wonders what they're saying. There's four teenagers in the house, though technically Crater's 21. The kid with the dreads. The "creative" one. He wonders if they'll all stay friends when they're grown and gone. Not far off now. Homeschooled through high school, he suspects they're closer than many siblings. But that's all Cherrie's doing. He's there to gather the pieces every evening. To laugh and shake his head.

Jim's dad so enjoyed these grandkids of his. His mom never met them. "Let 'em be kids," his dad always said. Jim and Cherrie have definitely done that.

The kids all spoke at their granddad's memorial. Jim was glad about that. His dad's friends were mostly dead, so it was a small group. Lively, but small. They scattered the old man in the duckpond out behind his place in New Hampshire. His dad would have loved that night. They all sat around a big fire and told stories.

Jim's grateful for his kids. They're his friends now. His only friends really. The most interesting people he knows.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Thursday, 3/1/12

Her own house is a mess, always has been. When her mother found out she was cleaning houses, she literally could not stop laughing. Jan couldn't tell if it was nervous laughter or insane. Who cares. When she told her mother how much money she made in a week, that stopped her cold.

"Really? That's serious money."

Jan is in high demand, so she can charge a bundle. And she does. She's a highly educated white woman, drives a 3-year-old Subaru, cannot abide being late. She would not dream of not showing up. Even she is surprised that she likes it.

Of course she's not a house cleaner. Not really. Her Facebook page says "freelance writer," but that dried up a while ago. She goes back and forth on adding "cleaner." It could add some blue collar cache, but is that what she wants? She does have two totally unrelated master's degrees.

It's so satisfying walking into a mess and leaving it all clean. And then there's the money. Why must it all come back to money? With the kids in school she thought she'd use the extra time to finally write a novel, but instead of writing she found herself organizing the basement, cleaning closets. The kitchen floor never looked so good. Might as well make a few bucks with this newfound obsession. Let her own house rot, it always had before. Hire someone else to clean it. Another good laugh for her mother.

Cleaning other people's messes is a whole different story. She isn't there to get indignant as her hard work goes all to hell.

It's shockingly good material. She only cleans for people she doesn't know, and only if they're out of the house. She doesn't trust herself to clean friends' houses. Besides potentially fucking up the relationship (class struggle and all of that), she'd get too much dirt. She doesn't trust herself not to spread it all around. Best not to know, because she dearly loves to tell a good story.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Wednesday, 2/29/12

Leap Day comes once every four years and Kendra accepts it as extra. On this one day nothing is lost because everything is a gift. It's an outlier day on the calendar, a day in which she takes everything as freely given.

Kendra wishes she could view every day in this light: a gift of time. Pure. But it's difficult to maintain that high level of optimism on a daily basis. She'd have to drop a few IQ points. Once every four years will have to do.

Kendra sits at the kitchen table and stirs soy milk into her coffee. It's four in the morning and everyone in the neighborhood is asleep. This is her second Leap Day as a parent, the first in which her kids are old enough to get it.

Isn't this how kids see every day? A gift of time from the vast universe, no end in sight. She probably said something like this herself before having kids of her own. Now she understands that this is nothing but bumper sticker bullshit. No one gives kids any credit. They're not blind. They have bad days.

She used to cry when she was a kid at the thought of growing up. She thought she'd never have whole empty days again, never have a minute to herself. It turns out she was more or less correct, but it's not as bad being grown up as she thought it would be. That's what her mother told her at the time, and her mother was right. "It happens gradually," she said. "You get used to it."

"Never!" Kendra thought back then. But it's true. You do.

Kendra vows to really listen today. She's working a half day seeing patients, and then the rest of the day at home. The house is a mess, but so be it. She will not clean on Leap Day. Or maybe that's exactly what she should do. The kids will be in school, Joe's gone this week to a meeting in Denver. She'll pour all of her energy into cleaning the house. It'll be like a workout. She'll do it with ankle weights.

This is how a life passes, she thinks, staring at her reflection in the big, black kitchen window. Leap Day to Leap Day, forever cleaning the house, forever trying to get out of it.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Monday, 2/27/12

It almost got to the point where she was afraid to run, every little twinge magnified and amplified forboding weeks of layoff or worse. You just never knew. Sometimes the little aches simply went away, sometimes they turned ugly. No telling. She was afraid to do the thing she loved for fear of losing the thing she loved. This was a psychologically dangerous game.

Other people's bodies recovered easily, or they didn't. No big deal. Others seemed more tolerant of bodily imperfection. She honestly doesn't understand this. She'd never have great abs or a high, tight ass. These things were out of the question and she accepted that. No one with six naturally born children could expect toned abdominals. Why was she so competitive? Six kids, high toned abs? What was she thinking? Why did she care?

As it was, she'd taken to swimming while all of her running overuse injuries healed. Her four older kids swam on various swimteams. The younger two were more into team sports. Soccer, baseball, lots of standing around. She'd let her guard down with those last two. Soft.

She'd picked up enough at all of those swim meets to put together a decent set of strokes. She could do them all: freestyle, backstroke, breaststroke, even butterfly. She senses that swimming may have been her real calling, not running. She has a swimmer's body, the kind of body that can go the way of the spider if you're not careful. Long and lean with a bit of a middle. Anything extra goes right to the middle.

She bought five or six books and figured out how to change her running stride. She switched from a heel striker to a forefoot striker, as is all the rage, and her injuries disappeared. It was difficult to change 45 years of bone and muscle structure, but she did it. She has hamstrings now. The hamstrings are new.

There's no beating time. It will all go soft in the end. At some level she realizes this, but she's vigilant. Her children's bodies are perfect, every one of them. They're all vegetarian, intense yet quiet people, not an extrovert in the bunch, though those last two may turn on her. They might go over to the other side. She's worried they could grow up to be Republicans. What with the Little League and the Pop Warner it's becoming increasingly likely.

This will ruin Thanksgiving for the rest of time, she thinks. Ten years from now if she wants everyone home for the holiday she'll have to cook a real turkey. Jesus. At least they all might go for a run together afterwards. At least they'll all be in decent shape. At least she'll have that.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Friday, 2/24/12

Mollie has finally settled. She's older now, approaching 50 at alarming speed, 50 being something of a barrier. Her mother died at 50, no warning, nothing to be done. Her heart gave out, simple as that.

After several successful years on the racing circuit, where her height and those thighs finally payed off, and several more coaching, speaking and giving 2- and 4-day clinics all over the country, after almost 30 years of living out of a Winnebago, Mollie has bought a house. This is it, she thinks. This is the place I will die.

She bought a little house on the river six months ago. The old couple who had lived there for 65 years finally succumbed. They couldn't keep the place up, moved across town to a nursing home. Mollie visits from time to time, talks about the house. The man can sometimes follow what she's saying, give advice. The woman is too far gone. She thinks Mollie is her daughter's friend and always looks happy to see her. Mollie doesn't think they get many visitors. Which strikes her as odd. Isn't that why people stay in one place so long? So lots of people will visit them in the nursing homes, fill the church for their funerals? It doesn't pay to outlive your friends.

Mollie's mother's funeral was packed to the gills. The family alone filled a quarter of St. Anne's, then all of her friends, her five children's friends. Her husband's patients and workmates. The crowd had spilled out to the street.

Mollie has done a lot to the house. Besides riding her bike every day for long hours, force of habit she guesses, most of her time and energy go into the house. She's starting from scratch, but she's not afraid to learn. She learned that Winnebago engine inside and out. The guys at the hardware store know her name. They don't talk down to her mainly because she's so tall. Clearly she's capable.

The first thing she did was take down the high picket fence fronting the road. That alone brought in more light than she knew what to do with. She whitewashed walls and cleaned the windows, added a little porch out back to sit and look at the river. It's a tiny house, all she's going to need.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Monday 2/22/12

The road is slick with slushy, spotily salted snow. Despite the hype, even the Subaru is having trouble. Why didn't she just stay home? The world of chemistry would survive a day without her. Doesn't Ken tell her that all the time?

Except she doesn't believe him. Not for a second. Her students will fuck everything up. They'll trudge across campus through the snow, hungover from Thursday night, to check on the tubes in the centrifuge machine that runs all night, and then let them defrost on the lab bench. They'll mess with her laser settings. They have no respect, no notion of how hard she works to keep it all going.

She tightens her fists on the steering wheel and navigates the hill. The car is dead quiet on the road. How did this happen? Life was so much easier before she agreed to get married, move out to the suburbs. When she lived across the street from campus, she could stay in the lab all night if she wanted, no one else the wiser.

What if she were six months pregnant, as Ken so wishes her to be? She wouldn't be out driving in this, that's for sure. The thought of staying home, of turning back, of missing all that will happen in the lab today, is impossible. Unthinkable, really. She's not six months pregnant.

But what if she were? Sometimes she tries to imagine it: giving birth, raising a child. If Ken was so keen on having kids, why did he marry her? He's probably thinking the same thing.

Her phone buzzes and chirps in her pocket. She puts him on speakerphone, secretly loving that he's checking up on her.

"Sarah, hey, did you make it?"

"I'm on Chucky's hill. It's really slow going."

"Okay, I won't keep you on the phone. I love you. Call me when you get there."

"Will do. Love you, too."

And she does. Against all odds, she'll call him when she gets there. He takes care of her, and she let's him. It's a new behavior. This visiting writing professor who turned out to be Ken actually swept her off her feet. No one at the time could believe it. The whole chemistry department walks on eggshells around her, and this guy waltzes in and marries her? Unbelievable.

She can't believe it herself.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Tuesday, 2/21/12

"Okay, pick up your pencils."

Why had she gotten high for this? She doesn't want to go to law school, clearly. She's taking the test for her mother, she thinks. Her mother is a high power attorney who thinks her daughter "has what it takes." Why she thinks that, Maybelle will never know.

May had gotten high for all of the LSAT prep classes. It was the only way to make them bearable. Taught by a jockish blond law student who obviously didn't give a shit about any of them, the class was held at night in the English building. So much different by night. The fluorescent lights gave her headaches when she wasn't stoned.

Her friend Dennis had told her to take the test high. He spoke with such authority, being Number One in the business school. "If you studied high, man, then you need to get into the same frame of mind. You need that instant access."

She wishes there were Twinkies available. The only time she really eats is when she's high. And then she runs a remorseful ten or even twenty miles the next day, whether she has classes or not. You can't let that shit get ahead of you. Freshman fifteen is for losers. May lost fifteen pounds in college. Depending on how you look at it, she probably didn't have fifteen pounds to lose.

Her pencil feels bendy in her hand. She thinks of her two roommates, also high, laying out on the quad right now in rolled down boxers and tye-dyed running bras. What she wouldn't give to be out there.

May looks at the test, concentrates. She answers a few questions and finds her groove.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Friday, 2/17

She wakes, as she does every morning even at the height of summer, in total darkness. No matter what time she goes to bed, she can't sleep past four unless she takes something, which she is loathe to do. No pills. The pills will kill you in the end. She prides herself on this, though she shares it with no one. She's seventy three years old and swallows no pills. This is how she defines herself. To herself.

She takes a brief survey of her body before resigning to the day. Left knee a little twingy, too bent up in the sheets. She slept on her sore shoulder and now it hurts. Her hands are drawn up into claws. It will take a warm shower to unclench them. She won't admit to arthritis or anything else. She hasn't had a pap smear since the Johnson administration, just after her last child was born.

Bert beside her sleeps on, ambien dreams and benedryl haze. He has no problem taking pills. To her its like admitting weakness. He's had his success in life. He's finished with all of that. She's still working. She feels her triumph is yet to come.

When she goes to the doctors' offices she readily accepts the prescriptions and fills them. Pain pills, sleeping pills, heart pills. But the moment she gets home she does not hesitate; she flushes them. It's the first thing she does when she gets in the door. She will not let these doctors control her body. She's gluten free! She'll live forever!

Today is Thursday, a running morning. She likes to get out before dawn on her running mornings: Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday. The 3 day schedule is her only concession to age. It keeps the tendinitis and the plantar fasciitis at bay. She doesn't necessarily want anyone outside of the neighborhood early-morning regulars to see her run. They are her tribe, the early morning people. Introverts mostly on strict "good morning" terms only. These are arguably the most important people in her daily life and she doesn't even know their names, wouldn't recognize them in regular clothes in daylight.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Thursday, 2/16

Stuart is trying to wean himself off the blogs. He has a list of sixty regulars he checks every day. And that sixty generally leads to at least sixty more. Sidebar distractions, friends, relatives and co-hobbyists with his original group.

Stuart doesn't know these people, the bloggers. He came across them by accident when he started his own little blog three years ago. Stuart's thing is birding. Or it used to be before his thing (increasingly) became keeping up with sixty or more blogs every day.

Stuart lives in coastal Texas on the Gulf of Mexico, a birder's paradise. He moved here six years ago after his wife left him. Born and bred in Minneapolis, he needed something different. Warm winters and gulf waters seemed at the time to fit the bill. Now he's not so sure.

Despite everything, Stuart is drop-dead handsome. Women come easily to him, which turned out to be a problem for his wife. He loved his wife, still does, but she could never quite believe that. Or perhaps she couldn't make it matter to her. Geek love. He never cheated on her, wouldn't know how to begin. He's a nerd's nerd with moviestar good looks. His wife was geeky and humorless as well. Minus the looks. "Watcha doing with her?" all the gorgeous women used to whisper to him. In restaurants, the mall, Christ even in church. His wife must have wondered this too. She couldn't take the pressure. Borderline Aspergers, she was. She didn't have too much trouble making the break.

Stuart lacks charisma, but his heart nonetheless was broken. Stuart has a good heart. This is becoming the bane of his existence. It doesn't go with his face.

He started blogging a couple of years after he started birding, a natural extension of his morning walk. He takes exquisite photographs of migrating species seldom seen in most part's of the birders' universe and posts them on is site. "Birds Here" he calls it. He was surprised by the attention the photographs received, not quite comprehending the serendipity of his current location and new hobby. He certainly hadn't moved here for the birds. Hadn't even considered it.

None of his blogging "friends" know what Stuart looks like. He posts no photographs of himself. He gets enough attention as it is on his birdwalks. Women with binoculars meander in droves along his more frequent routes. He has taken to alternating trails and times to throw them off, but they're still out there. Have they nothing better to do?

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Thursday 2/15

Anne bends into the coop to check for eggs. The days are getting shorter and the girls are not laying as much. Her own days are getting shorter too. Time. That free expanse, her friend for so many years, is turning on her now. It's time to get started, she thinks. Her life is rolling by, all prep work and nothing to show for herself.

The last of the kids left a couple of years ago. It took months to resign herself to all of that. Time passes. The rooster bellies up to the edge of the run, stomps his feet and throws his head in the air. He crows. He's loud. He's in full possession of his life. No question about what he has to do today.

Everywhere she looks she sees mountains and low hills turning yellow and orange and red. Every year she paints this, but she's never gotten it right. She signs good morning to the beauty all around her. Her hands speak more freely than her voice. She sometimes wishes that she were born deaf. Less would be expected of her. This she knows well enough. She's been interpreting for deaf kids since high school, back when everyone thought it was either weird or cool.

She's thin and the air has a snap. She draws her sweater around her middle and watches the chickens. She hears her husband Bill come out onto the front porch with his coffee and a thick book. He's a reader, a photographer, the kindest man she has ever known. He doesn't share her angst. He's made of his life what he wanted. No complications there.

Anne walks to him slowly, her back to the mountains, her sweater pockets full of eggs. He smiles, eyes huge behind his reading glasses, and hands her her tea. The book, she now sees, is The Brothers Karamazov. Bill is in a Russian phase. His friend Millicent at the university where he teaches photography allows him to sit in on her classes. Her taste is eclectic. Russians this year, Romantics last year. Bill will read anything. He reads the coffee can every morning.

This is the house Bill grew up in. Or at least the spot where is childhood house used to be. Not much more than a shack when they moved in 30 years ago, the house has improved. Anne did all of that. Bill would have been perfectly happy in the shack, kids and all. Bill doesn't need much, but he does seem to need her. Photographs of her at every stage of adult life fill the rooms. Beautiful photographs, but a constant reminder of time passing. Time moving on.