Thursday, August 25, 2011

A Coastal Drive (5/8)

Part II
The first of September.  For Maryanne, this day always marked the beginning of autumn, hands down her favorite season, and it came on Thursday to boot, her day off.  She understood that fall was, technically speaking, three weeks away, but once September got its start, even if only one day in, it’s as if the atmosphere changed.  Autumn was quietly announcing its arrival, and the pleasantly wistful mood that inevitably took possession of a blondish freckled girl growing up in Ohio still had its effect on a middle-aged woman living on the Pacific coast.

Just seeing the word September on her calendar or laptop screen conjured up images of cinnamon sticks and apples on a cutting board in a crowded kitchen; a mug of pumpkin spice latte on a brisk morning; cornhusk dolls lying pell-mell on the windowsill; chrysanthemums and asters in gardens past; and her grandma’s delicious bramboraks sizzling in the pan.  These wonderful things filled her mind like a cornucopia, and some of them—sadly, not her grandma’s potato pancakes—would once again come to fruition in the course of the season.

September was the month of Kirsten’s birthday too, and what with their moderately renewed relationship since the “accident” nearly two months ago, Maryanne wanted to do something special with her daughter.  (Moderately, for what it’s worth, was Maryanne’s own phrasing of the situation in a conversation with her friend Cal.)  If she could get the time off work before Kirsten’s classes got intense, perhaps they could spend a weekend of retail therapy together in Vancouver, a beloved vacation spot in happier family times when Kirsten and Scott were children.

If you were to sneak a peak at the whiteboard calendar on Maryanne’s fridge, you would see the words Margaret’s @ noon playfully written on this day in three colored pens and punctuated with a smiley face.  Margaret Brenton and her husband Neil operated Madame Roland’s Bed and Breakfast Inn in a remodeled Victorian house Margaret had inherited from her mother.

The septuagenarian couple had opened it up in what is now downtown Flaherty, conveniently located at the fork of two main business streets.  They had it refurbished in the late Nineties when select downtown businesses, awarded grants from an ambitious urban renewal committee (Margaret’s deceased parents being the chief benefactors thereof), went through a “makeover” to attract tourists and their money.

Attached to the Inn was a quaint little restaurant and antique shop, where Maryanne and her old lady friends, as well as Maryanne and Maryanne’s friend Carla, a forty-something divorcĂ©e who also moved to Oregon from the Midwest, would talk the latest gossip.

“You’re looking so well, Maryanne,” Margaret said in her trademark hostess voice as she brought a pint of half and half from the kitchen.

A friend of Margaret’s, Paula, a widower pushing 73 and living with her daughter, agreed.  “Yes, sweet thing.  It’s pleasant to see you with us, and looking so healthy today.  We’ve missed your company.”  Maryanne hadn’t attended Margaret’s “salon” since her accident.  In fact, she hadn't visited the ladies at the Inn for nearly six months due to work and John not wanting her to hang out with gossipy ladies.

“Thank you, everyone.  I think I'm doing fine these days.”

Sipping coffee and listening to pleasant chitchat was a source of great comfort for Maryanne after her trials and tribulations.  They sat at the table next to a large bay window with a view of Main Street.  Paula went a bit long on her grandchildren in Georgia, a subject of pride that usually ended on a sour note: her son's busy schedule and no visit to grandma in years.  Maryanne and Carla would usually sneak a funny face to each other when Paula went on and on.

The fifth regular member of the kaffeeklatsch, Cheryl, was a high school librarian in her fifties whose husband encouraged her to spend time with “the gals” and thereby leave him alone at home, guilt-free of  an impossible honeydew list and with plenty of cold ones stacked by the couch.  Not especially gifted in social tact, she seemed intent on violating an unspoken rule in such social settings: when one of your friends returns to the group after having overcome a few setbacks in life—a car accident, surgery, and the demise of a serious relationship—you don’t bring these matters up, unless the friend brings them up herself.  Cheryl could have easily stuck to the two topics that she and Maryanne have in common, namely flower gardening, marigolds above all, and raising a difficult son, though Cheryl’s Cody is six years older than Scott.

“Have you spoken to John since his visit to the hospital?” she asked.  Her question was awkward enough, as it didn’t blend organically into the tabletop conversation, but additionally so since Cheryl was usually rather tacit, apart from weighing in with Maryanne now and then on the aforementioned topics.

“No,” responded Maryanne.  “I just don’t think…”

“I’m sorry for prying.”

“No, it’s okay, I…”

“Very well, then,” interjected Margaret the hostess, seemingly chipper as ever.  “Let’s try my new boysenberry scones, and I won’t take No for answer, that includes you, Carla. “ Carla, thin as a rail, was always watching her weight.  “You will be my guinea pigs, as I’ll be adding these scones to the breakfast menu.”

Everyone knew what Margaret was doing, and she had made this Very well then comment once before, with the requisite tone of enthusiasm somehow mixed with maternal authority, during an ill-fated discussion on religion a few months ago. At the time Paula’s daughter Connie was in attendance; unbeknownst to everyone except her mom she was an atheist, and not exactly timid about it.  Carla, a Sunday school teacher, perceived an attack on her faith, rightly or wrongly.  Margaret, seeing her pleasant tea time about to take a sour turn, applied the brakes with an invitation to sample her strawberry crepes.

Margaret had her husband Neil bring in the scones on a silver tray while she shifted the conversation to one of its default topics: Margaret’s mother and her exploits during the 1930s and 1940s.

Maryanne admired the relationship between the Brentons, Margaret and Neil.  While she saw them bicker about almost anything under the sun, she envied the equality and mutual respect they enjoyed, something that had eluded Maryanne all these years.  But she enjoyed above all listening to Margaret talk about her amazing mother, Mary Jeanette, who became known as “Madame Roland,” after the famed heroine of the French Revolution.  Like her spiritual forebear, Mary Jeanette hosted a salon where literati and powerbrokers of Oregon came to drink cordials and discuss issues of the day, in the very same room overlooking Main Street Flaherty where Margaret, Maryanne, and friends got together for discussion and the latest gossip.

Maryanne knew the story well, and the enigmatic photo of Margaret’s parents in a framed photo on the wall behind Margaret’s seat served as further fuel for her imagination.  The photo dates from the late 1920s, about the time that Maryanne’s grandparents immigrated to the United States from Czechoslovakia.  Margaret’s father, Jesper Lemark Jr., a lumber magnate and the richest man in southern Oregon at the time, is looking into the camera with a slight smile and his arms akimbo, sporting a dark suit and a straw hat, while Mary Jeanette is wearing a long, flowing dress more typical of Victorian days than the Roaring Twenties.  Yet, she was no traditional wife, for one of the many unconventional views she defended, and defended rather ardently, was the rounding up of Japanese Americans in Oregon and sending them off to detention camps during the War.

As Margaret went on about life in Flaherty in the days of yore, and while everyone was oohing and awing over the scones, Maryanne looked out the bay window at the light rain and mist that had appeared.  It was a fine “autumn” day in the Northwest, she thought to herself, and it would only get better in the evening.  She was looking forward to Kristine and her friend from the university visiting for the weekend.

“I’m sure I’ve told you about the time when my mother and the local police locked horns over the Japanese-American fishers.  That was just after Pearl Harbor…”

From her vantage point, Maryanne watched through the window as a car pulled up to the curb.   She always sat in the cushioned chair that faces the street to take in the nice view.  The Brentons had always kept their place well landscaped.  They had a bonsai garden near the front door, and in another week or so Margaret’s chrysanthemums would be in full bloom.

Margaret continued to regal everyone with stories of her family, while Maryanne saw a man in a baseball cap get out of the car.  She recognized him instantly: It was Mark Denison.  For some reason she kept watching him silently, not letting on to her friends at the table that the man who saved her life was outside in the street.

Evidently Mark was searching for something, Maryanne thought to herself, even as she nodded to something either Margaret or Paula had just said, half conscious of the conversation that she was ostensibly engaged in.  Was he looking for her?

Mark pulled out his cell phone and glanced at it.  He walked across the street in the opposite direction of the Inn toward the sandwich and soup shop but stopped midway and turned back to his car looking puzzled.

“Excuse me a moment,” said Maryanne, nudging her friend Carla and nodding toward the window.  Carla was the only one there who knew something about Mark, though she had never seen him before.  Maryanne described him to Carla “a nice man with a certain dark intensity about him.”  (About the same time she described him to Cal as “a strange guy with a good heart.”)

“Okay, dear,” responded Margaret.

The women followed Maryanne with their eyes as she exited the Inn, then turned toward the window to see what was going on.  Who’s that man?  Does Maryanne know him? Is she okay? Suffice to say, Margaret’s mother and her boysenberry scones were no longer the topics du jour.

“That’s the man who Maryanne hit at the vista,” explained Carla, putting two and two together.


Maryanne walked gingerly down the wet stone path toward the street.  The rain was light, and the sun was returning.  Mark spotted her instantly.


“Mark?  What are you doing here?”

A large yard of grass and judiciously planted shrubs and flowers separate Margaret’s Bed and Breakfast from the street, so the women couldn’t hear what they were saying.  What they observed, however, was rather curious.

The two of them seemed cordial and friendly at first.  What are they saying?  Suddenly Maryanne become upset, only to return to an amiable demeanor.

“Maryanne told me he’s a nice person.”

“I should think so,” Paula opined, “if you’re going to risk your life for someone else.”

“He looks nice,” said Cheryl, “but I wouldn’t want to meet him in a dark alley.”

“Why would you say that?” asked Carla.

“I’m sure he’s a wonderful person.  I’m referring only to his physical appearance.  He seems…imposing.”

“Yeah?  I don’t get that,” said Carla.  Had they been able to hear the conversation outside, they would have discovered the secret buried in Maryanne’s heart.

“Mark?” Maryanne approached Mark.  For some inexplicable reason, he looked to her like an abandoned animal seeking shelter.  She shook off that notion when she heard his voice, a voice she could imagine leading men into battle.

“Maryanne,” he responded.

“Are you looking for me?”

“Yes.  Your daughter said you’d be here.”

“Is there something wrong?”

He hesitated.  “I need to ask you…”

“Ask me what?”

“I know this sounds crazy…”

“What do you mean?”

“Are you okay?  I mean, you’re not still thinking about killing yourself, right?”

“What?  Is that why you’re here?  To ask me that, again?”

“Sorry to be so blunt, Maryanne, but I can’t let this go.”

“You can’t let what go?”
“I…”  Mark searched for words.

“Listen, I don’t know what you think you heard me say, but you’re mistaken…”


“I wasn’t trying to kill myself that day….And even if I was, why is that your business?”

“I can’t explain…”

“I think you’ll need to, Mark.  I mean, you can’t just ask me a question like that, right?”

“It’s a spiritual thing, sort of…”

“What do you mean by that?”  Maryanne looked back at her friends staring at them through the window and up at a beclouded sky.  “We can’t talk her, like this.”

“You’re right.  I should have phoned you, but I didn’t want to ask you on the phone.”

“Listen, you saved my life.  I think that means I owe you a coffee.”  Maryanne chuckled.  “Are you available on Monday after I get off work, around 5:30pm?”


“Will you be in the area?”

“I can be.”

“The coffeehouse here in Flaherty at 5:3o then.  I’ll have some questions of my own, Mr. Denison!”

“Okay,” came Mark’s laconic reply, as water dripped from the visor of his Seattle Seahawks cap.

As Mark returned to his car, Maryanne thought about the changes in her life since the last time she saw him.  Her relationship with Kirsten and even Scott had been good.  Whatever lingering affection she had for John, the erstwhile man of her dreams, had subsided, a development within that she could not have fathomed before the accident.  And with encouragement from Carla and Cal, she decided to take the position as trauma coordinator after working in the Emergency Department at Siebeck for nearly a decade.  Her boss had been advocating Maryanne for the position for years.  Such a career move would entail a conference in Portland every month, much more responsibility, and more involvement with the politics of hospital administrators.  Jenny cautioned her sister about taking on such so soon, but Maryanne was determined to put the past behind her.

She no longer knew why she almost drove off the cliff on that fateful summer day only two months ago.  Clearly the meds had put her off-balance.  She used the term “accident” without any question in her mind.  Then Mark came into her life again.

When she returned to the kaffeeklatsch, Cheryl asked: “So, is everything alright?  Mr. Denison seems like a nice man, no?”

“Cheryl!” scolded Carla.

“I’m just asking.”

Maryanne smiled at both Cheryl’s nosy nature and Carla’s smack-down response on her best friend’s behalf.

Margaret didn’t miss a beat in restoring the casual atmosphere.  “Neil, bring us some more tea, would you dear?  Well, I was just telling them about the time when mother told the mayor he was a racist...”


Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Living the Dream

I’ve been on military orders these past two weeks to conduct a 100% Change of Command inventory as the incoming commander of a headquarters detachment.  I’ve been staying at a La Quinta about 10 minutes away from the Army Reserve Center.  I sit in an office throughout the day until the supply sergeant has located and laid out pieces of equipment for me to inspect and check off the property book.  We’re not making the progress I would have liked but I’m still ahead of the game.  I’m allotted a certain amount of time to complete the inventory and so far we’re ahead of schedule.  In the late afternoon I go running at a park near the hotel.  Then I retreat to the hotel with some food, take a shower, eat, check in with my online class, watch the news on TV and a murder mystery on the internet, and try hard to fall asleep.  I’ve been struggling with insomnia lately.  It’s been a bit of Groundhog Day here.  Lather, rinse, repeat.