Blog: Point No Point

Pine Street Episode 25

Franny’s nightmare unsettles her; she contrives a reason to visit her friend Marilyn, meets a new man, eats scones, and settles in to talk politics.

Franny awoke the next morning with shreds of a nightmare still clinging to her mind. In the nightmare, she’d been visiting the house of a dear old friend, one she hadn’t seen in real life for too many months. The nightmare contrived a storm that required Franny to spend the night in her old friend’s house, so she stretched out on the couch in her friend’s dream basement. The friend disappeared, to be replaced by a series of strangers who claimed the same space offered to Franny. Although the strangers seemed harmless, they would not let Franny settle anywhere and rest – each place she tried, in an ever-expanding, ever-darkening nightmare basement, she would be usurped by a stranger with a prior claim. Panic clawed its way up Franny’s throat and finally shook her awake.

Franny turned on her bedside radio and propped herself up on her pillows, blinking to chase away the nightmare residue. The hour was still early, but Franny knew sleep had fled for good. Her thoughts drifted back to Marilyn, asleep on her couch, groceries neglected in the kitchen. She determined to work for an hour or two, and then call Marilyn.

When Marilyn’s phone rang unanswered, Franny grabbed a coat to protect her from the early spring wind and walked to Marilyn’s house.

Already, she mumbled to herself as she leaned into that cold wind, I’ve already lost my big-city indifference and I am checking up on friends, unannounced. Perhaps the panic of not being able to find a place to rest in her dream, or the worries about Marilyn’s state of health, or just a general sense of being unsettled drove her on and she prepared herself for the worst: Marilyn passed out, fallen and unable to rise, something broken, or Marilyn away and lost, the subject of a community-wide search.

But Franny’s knock was answered right away, and her worries proved to be as temporary as her nightmare. A tall man, with close-cropped gray hair, fashionable glasses, and a warm smile held the door open for Franny as Marilyn called from her living room.

“Franny! Come in! Meet my good friend Douglas. Please join us – although I warn you, we are talking politics, and we do not tolerate anyone demurring when we talk politics. We shall demand that you share your reasoned opinions and your unwarranted biases, just as we do!”

Douglas shook Franny’s hand as Precious danced at her feet. “Ah, you’re the new girl in town? Marilyn speaks very highly of you.”

“Oh. She does? Well.” Franny was flustered by such a welcome when she’d expected great tragedy or at least minor discomfort. Or was it being called “the new girl” at her age? “Um. I’m sorry to come by without warning, Marilyn – I called but got no answer, and I was out for a walk anyway, and…”

“Darling, if I’d left a friend in my condition yesterday, I’d contrive a reason to drop by the next day too. See, Douglas – this young woman is a delight.” Marilyn’s face was still a bit pale, and it looked as though she had not put on fresh clothes, but her high spirits warmed Franny’s heart. “Take off that coat, and sit down. Douglas, bring Franny a cup of tea and a scone. Douglas made the tea, and he does so remarkably well, but he also baked the scones, and they show his true talent.”

Douglas set a cup of steaming tea and a huge, golden scone on a china plate on the table next to the comfy chair Franny settled in. “I spent some time in England, and of all the things I learned, tea and scones have turned out to be the most useful,” he said with a twinkle in his eye. He pulled up a wooden rocking chair to make their circle complete, as Precious settled herself nearby. “Now, Franny. Before you declare your own political heritage, first you must know that I am an unrepentant liberal, and Marilyn is a determined atheist.”

“Douglas!” Marilyn cried with a laugh. “I am not an atheist.”

“Politically, you are, of course. Don’t deny it. You don’t believe in anything political other than arguing, Marilyn. Franny, if you tell us you are a dyed-in-the-wool Republican we shall have no other choice than to prevent you leaving until we convert you. But we will love you anyway. Friendship always transcends religion and politics. So. Tell us where you stand.”

Pine Street Episode 24

After the cowboy festival, Marilyn comes home from the hospital. Franny continues to help by walking the dog, Precious, and they both smell something amiss.

“I know, a dog named Precious – it’s pretty silly, isn’t it, dear.” Marilyn had come home from the hospital the day after the cowboy festival, and called Franny to thank her for walking the old dog. Something in Marilyn’s voice on the phone made Franny offer to come over, and Marilyn’s quick acceptance of the offer to bring a few things from the grocery reinforced the impression of frailty.

When Franny came into Marilyn’s house, she put the bag of groceries on the kitchen counter. Marilyn did not get up from her cozy nest on the couch: propped on extravagant pillows, covered in two soft blankets, both in shades of blue, with Precious curled up on the cushion near Marilyn’s feet. Franny noticed the older woman’s skin tone was a dusty gray devoid of its usual rosiness, and her cropped white hair looked limp.

Marilyn’s house smelled of ginger tea, damp dog, and something else: illness, maybe, or pain.  Franny had asked if she should put the groceries away. The older woman had replied with a tsk and told Franny to come join them in the living room. Marilyn reached down to stroke Precious behind one ear, and the old dog squeezed her eyes shut in sheer bliss.

“I rescued her when she was about five years old, or so the vet told me,” Marilyn went on. “Dog years being what they are, I thought it would be too much to ask her to get used to a new name at that age. So we stuck with Precious. Now I’m besotted with the little beast, and she truly is precious to me. I can’t imagine life without her.” She made eye contact with Franny. “I wonder, would you mind taking her for a short walk again today? I’m not completely certain I’m up to it, and she is so much happier and sleeps much better when she’s had her exercise.”

“Of course, I’d love to. Did the doctor say what’s, you know…” Franny’s voice trailed off. She’d been about to say “what’s wrong with you,” but checked herself. Nothing had to be wrong, did it? Maybe Marilyn had only gotten overly tired, or her oil paints had gotten to her. Fainting spells happened.

“Oh, you know how they are. Just told me to rest for a while. Doctors rarely tell you anything useful, as they are, on the whole, the most cautious beings.” Marilyn smiled. It seemed the art professor would conspire with Franny to avoid the subject of a diagnosis of any kind.

Franny retrieved the leash from its usual hook, and Precious met her at the door, plumed tail wagging. “We’ll be back soon,” Franny called, and Marilyn waived them out. After forty-five minutes or so of Precious’s sniffing and snuffling, they returned to find Marilyn asleep. Precious returned to her spot at the woman’s feet on the couch, turning in circles to make a nest before flopping down to join her mistress in a nap.

The grocery bags were still full on the kitchen counter. Franny put the food away and let herself out, trying to shake the sense that fate had something very unpleasant in store.

Pine Street Episode 23

Alison seeks caffeine to help plod through her thesis. It turns out Franny isn’t the only one captivated by Leo’s singing. Or is it Leo himself?

Alison, Franny’s elfin neighbor, had also followed the sound of music outside, away from her muddled work on her master’s thesis. She’d lived in town long enough to know about the cowboy festival, and also to stay away from the larger venues like the furniture store. Alison had heard enough tragic cowboy songs to last a lifetime, but nonetheless she was grateful for a chance to escape her studies. The thesis itself she loved; the writing of pages and pages of summaries of other people’s research Alison found deeply tedious. When, she thought, do I become worthy of inflicting this suffering on other poor graduate students, who have to read my interminable thoughts on my topic? When do my own ideas about it become valid – how much to I have to endure to achieve that status?

Lost in the kind of self-pity familiar to every thesis writer at every university in the world, Alison trudged through the crowded sidewalks, avoiding eye contact. She planned to circle the downtown, end at the coffee shop so she could fuel up on a strong espresso, and use the caffeine-induced energy to return to her reading and writing. The whole excursion would only take about twenty minutes, not enough to create any guilt about the break.

A simple melody on an acoustic guitar somehow rose above the din, causing Alison to look up. She saw Leo perched on a stool in the café, strumming and smiling at the audience. On a whim, Alison went inside. I can get coffee here, too, she told herself, and maybe a treat. But she did not go to the busy counter to order. Instead, she took a seat near the front, where Leo focused his smile on her.

His singing voice, imperfect but strong and soulful, elated Alison. When he finished, another thirty minutes had passed, but no guilt crept up her spine. She watched as he seemed to head for her table, only to have a half-dozen people intercede themselves to talk to him, shake his hand, compliment his music.

She could not understand why this made her embarrassed enough to sneak out while Leo was engaged in conversation. Nor did she understand why she felt relieved to see Franny returning to their building a few steps ahead of herself, entering the next-door apartment and pulling the door closed behind her, alone.

Alison returned to her work, studiously avoiding any glances out the window in the direction of the café.

A day without women

Celebrating international women’s day, honoring all the women whose paid and unpaid work we count on every day.

Here’s what my day would look like without women:

At work, no program director. No one to intake new students, no one to process their application paperwork, no one to register them for classes or post their grades. For my program, all these functions are handled by women.

Around town, no one to serve at my favorite coffee shop – baristas are all women. My public library would be staffed at about 10%. Our historical museum would be closed – all women staff, mostly women volunteers. My favorite grocery would be at about half staff, with no manager on duty.

My home wouldn’t be mine – my loan officer, a woman, and the title processor, a woman.

My finances would be a mess. My financial planner and her assistant, women.

No primary care – provided by a woman ARNP. No dental care – my dentist and her staff, women.

Let me also note: many of these women are immigrants, daughters of immigrants, granddaughters of immigrants.

These women are from many different backgrounds, claim diverse ethnicities, orientations, perspectives as their own.

I can’t begin to list all the women who have mentored, supported, challenged, and taught me over my fifty-two plus years. And I cannot begin to quantify the unpaid work done by women that supports me every day. Cleaning, cooking, childcare done by women so that their partners can go to work or school.

If you look at the call for a women’s strike today and blanch, if you find yourself feeling outrage at the potential disruption it would cause your business, your workplace, your life – that’s the point. Women are woven into our economy in such an essential way, we would all face hardship on a day without women.

For me, today, I will work only to serve students. I will not spend money, except at local small businesses. And, I will wear red.

To honor all the women whose work, paid and unpaid, makes my life so rewarding – and just plain possible.

 

Pine Street Episode 22

Leo’s singing at the cowboy festival: “his heart and soul are in his voice and fingers.” But Franny walks the other way.

Just about the time Franny tried to collect her wits about her on the sidewalk, Leo was setting up his own guitar on his own stool (plain, undecorated, and slightly rickety) at another venue. He did not know any cowboy songs or poems, but he knew how to win this kind of crowd over. He tuned up his favorite black acoustic guitar and launched into “Folsom Prison Blues.”

Johhny Cash to open, Elvis in the middle, and Waylon or Willie to close. In between, he could fill his fifty minute set with his own originals, the songs that mattered to him. His own tunes played in the territory somewhere between folk and rock and blues, and told stories of lost love, of course, but also of found dogs, and happy days, and good friends.

The audience in front of Leo consisted mostly of retirement-age ex ranchers and their wives, and one or two young families with small kids in tow. They were busy with their conversations and their children, but every once in a while, for a single moment, they all paused to listen.

These were magic moments for Leo, when he could make eye contact with a retired rancher, an old woman, a young mom, a grade-schooler. He would sing the next line just for her, directly to him, and adapt it if he could so the mom or rancher or kid would know the song was meant for them.

On pauses from singing, while playing simple but lovely patterns on the guitar, he’d encourage the little ones to dance. And the old ones, too. He’d make jokes about football or politics. Most of the time, his jokes went over the audience’s head. Or maybe they just ignored him. It didn’t matter.

Leo’s heart and soul were in his voice and fingers, and his guitar connected his voice and fingers to one another, and to the audience. Nothing felt better than sharing his heart and soul with a few friendly people.

If Franny had stopped by the cafe where Leo performed, she would have noticed that his audience was the smallest of all. Most people in town for the festival wanted the tragic cowboys and twangy guitars.

And if she’d asked Leo if that bothered him, he’d laugh and twinkle his eyes at her, and say he’d rather play for three people than three hundred, as long as they were the right three people.

As it happened, Franny walked by the cafe, heard the opening guitar chords for “Blue Eyes Cryin’ in the Rain,” and thought she’d spare herself another sad song. She didn’t see Leo’s eyes light up as he saw her, and she didn’t see the light in them fade just a bit when she passed without turning his way.

Pine Street Episode 21

Why are there so many tragic songs about cowboys, and their beautiful strong horses? Franny sheds her city-bred cynicism on a late winter day on Pine Street.

One Saturday afternoon, strains of music reached up to Franny’s window, open an inch or so on the unseasonably warm late February day. The sound created a welcome distraction from the student papers she was trying to finish grading, forty-odd essays all grinding through the same assigned topic, and Franny closed her laptop to listen.

A thin baritone voice crooned over a twangy guitar. “It’s only three miles to Mary Ann…” Although the voice stretched noticeably off key on the high notes, somehow it resonated into a full, sweetly sad tone on a minor chord. The song told the story of a cowboy who died on his way home in a terrible blizzard, buried by snow just a few yards from his sweetheart, Mary Ann. Years of living in the big city had layered a cynical skin on Franny, so the sensation of a tear sliding down her cheek surprised her.

Crying over an old cowboy song. What has this town done to me? Franny tried to go back to the student papers, but could not concentrate. Black squiggles instead of letters and words floated in maddeningly indecipherable patterns on her screen. Frustrated, Franny put on her jacket and headed out to find the source of the sad tunes. As if she could regain her cynicism by facing down whatever old cowboy was out there singing songs that made her cry.

As it turned out, Franny walked into the middle of a large cowboy song and poetry festival. The streets filled with sturdy men wearing clean cowboy hats and dirty boots, and sturdier women with long braids hanging down between their shoulder blades and sparkly sequins on the back pockets of their jeans. Franny took a free flyer from a volunteer on the corner. Shops hosted performers, singers and poets, all free warm-up acts for the big (and pricey) hoedown scheduled for that evening.

The thin baritone and twangy guitar floated out of the furniture store just up the street from Franny’s building. She edged her way into the crowd inside to listen. A tidy cowboy about sixty years of age perched on a stool decorated with horseshoes, strumming his guitar and gazing at the audience from under a big black Stetson.

Franny could not repair her cynical skin, not when every damn song ended in the death of a cowboy or, worse, a horse. Why are they all so tragic? Franny wondered. Why are cowboys so morbid? Is there nothing to think about on the wide open range other than untimely death? And how is it possible that these cheesy tunes turn me into a complete and utter puddle?

Franny pushed the glass door of the furniture store open and retreated to the sidewalk, drinking the fresh outside air in big gulps. She wanted to go back inside and shout a request for “Free Bird.” Or expound on the brutal extermination of the indigenous people by those tragically heroic cowboys starring in the songs and poems. Or decry the inhumanity of the cattle industry, its money made from slaughter.

Instead, she wept for dead white men wearing dirty hats and boots, and the beautiful, strong horses who carried them to their doom.

Pine Street Episode 20

While Leo enjoys some guy time, and Marilyn rests in the hospital, Franny remembers the joy of seeing the world through the eyes of a dog.

A clear Sunday morning as January prepared to turn itself into February lured Franny to the window. She opened it a crack and smelled spring in the air. Although it was cold, hovering around freezing, the sun shone brightly in a pale blue sky, melting snow where its beams landed. The sky seemed taken over by birds, big hawks circling high, small songbirds darting from shrub to tree eating whatever the melting snow revealed.

She was pulling on her boots to protect her feet before heading out for a walk in the slush when her phone buzzed.

“Hello, Franny dear.” It was Marilyn. “I wonder if I could ask you a very large favor.”

“Hi, Marilyn – what do you need?” Franny tried to keep her slight irritation at the interruption out of her voice, and was glad of making the effort when Marilyn explained.

“Well, I seem to have got myself into the hospital for a bit. Nothing serious, dear, before you worry. Just a touch of dizziness that made me faint, and Penelope brought me here to be on the safe side. They want to watch me overnight tonight, so I need someone to walk my dog.”

Franny’s irritation eased immediately. Precious was a sweet old dog. Well, perhaps not sweet. Perhaps Precious was a little crotchety, but as an old girl, she’d earned her chance to be a diva. And Franny had fallen in love with her when she met the dog at Marilyn’s house, after they’d walked around looking at her giant squid paintings. Precious was about knee-high, a Heinz-57 mutt as Marilyn described her, with coarse grey short fur turning white around her muzzle, and an incongruously graceful tail with a white tassel of fur at the end.

“Of course. Shall I swing by the hospital and get the key?” Franny asked.

“No, I’ll tell you where my hide-a-key is, and you can let yourself in.” Marilyn told Franny where the key was hidden, a place Franny thought any would-be burglar would find in about five minutes. Marilyn went on to explain where the dog food was, and how much to feed Precious, and Franny wrote herself a note to be sure she’d remember. Franny took dog-sitting very seriously, knowing how, well, precious dogs were to their owners. Family members. Franny had felt the same about her own dogs over the years. Someday, perhaps, she’d be ready to invest her heart in another dog. Not yet.

“Are you sure you’ll be all right? Is there anything else you need?” Franny asked.

“Oh, I’m fine. You know how these doctors are. Like little old women. I’ll be in touch in the morning to let you know when I’m coming home.” Franny thought Marilyn’s voice sounded suddenly tired, so she wished her well and rung off.

She put a bit of cheese in her pocket in case Precious needed a treat to ease Franny’s passage into her house. But she needn’t have worried about her reception; Precious met her at the door, tail plume wagging. Franny gave the old dog the cheese anyway, just to cement her place in Precious’s heart.

They walked the trail near the professor’s house for nearly an hour, not covering a lot of ground, but covering the ground they traced very thoroughly. Precious sniffed every shrub, rock, and stick that poked out of the slush, picking her way around the deeper piles with delicate precision, occasionally sticking her entire graying snout into a pile of snow left by a plow or shovel. Franny didn’t get the vigorous exercise she’d planned, but found she achieved something much nicer: the peace that, in her experience, only came from seeing the world through the eyes of a dog.

And the smell of spring lingered in her nostrils after she took Precious home and tucked her inside with a blanket and fresh bowl of water.

“Love is a skill”

…it’s a life’s work that can sustain us.

We take a break from the budding love stories on Pine Street (Franny and Leo? Leo and Alison? Franny and coffee?) to wish everyone a day full of love on February 14.

The title of this post is borrowed from author Alain de Botton in a recent On Being interview.

The notion that love is a skill, an art we can practice, a life’s work that can sustain us, heartens me.

For all the lovers out there – let’s keep practicing.

Happy Valentine’s Day

 

Pine Street Episode 19

“A college town has its share of bars and taverns.” Leo stands at the tavern door, wondering whether to answer Franny’s message.

A college town has its share of bars and taverns. Leo found himself at the door of the one that sat at the crossroads of the older highway that formed the entrance to the town before the interstate bullied its way through. It was housed in a small building, smaller than most of the new houses being built in the developments on the town’s edges. The bar hunkered in its spot next to an auto body shop, with only a small sign noting its purpose there. “Beer,” the sign said plainly, in faded red letters on a faded yellow plank. Its interior would be equally small and dark, filled with odors of nicotine and spilled beer and sweat, the floor always a bit sticky, the windows painted shut.

Leo’d been invited here by an old friend to share a beer and conversation. Well, he considered, friend might be too strong a word. James called when one of two conditions was in place: his latest girlfriend had dumped him, or he needed help on a project. Still, Leo was up for a beer and male companionship. After his band had played at the birthday party, he took Franny home, and, like the gentleman he truly was, he left her tucked safely inside, although he’d longed to stay and hold her until daylight.

In the cold afternoon, Leo felt the threat of being overwhelmed by her feminine wiles. That is, he could not stop thinking about what might have happened, what he hoped would have happened, if his scruples hadn’t sent him back out in the cold that night. Franny’d had a lot to drink, and Leo never took advantage of a woman. Never had, never would. It sickened him to hear other guys talk about those kinds of events as opportunities. For Leo, coercion or violence of any kind left him limp and disgusted, not aroused. But a thoroughly willing woman? What could be more thrilling?

Most of this hovered around the edges of his consciousness. What stayed foremost in his awareness was the power of the attraction he felt for Franny. His history with women, gentlemanliness notwithstanding, held story after story of failure. Almost always, the heart most deeply broken was his own. And yet he rebounded quickly, ready to believe in a remarkably short time that the next woman was, finally, his true love.

This attraction felt different. Before, Leo would pursue the object of his affection in a way he might describe as reckless. But Franny… if he were to be brutally honest with himself, Leo would confess to being afraid of her.

So a beer and conversation with a buddy, overflowing with testosterone and carelessness, seemed just the right antidote to that fear. Leo decided to turn off his cell phone. He saw on the screen that there was a voice mail waiting for him, and a missed call from Franny’s number.

He blew warm air into his fist and dithered about calling her. Maybe he should, just to let her know he wouldn’t be available for a while. Beer and conversation with James meant several beers and more conversation, probably at several bars, and it was bound to be a late night. Leo loved late nights and had no regrets about spending one with James, but maybe it would be okay to just let Franny know. So she wouldn’t worry, or think he was upset, or something like that.

“Leo!” A slap on his shoulder roused Leo from his considerations, as James reached to open the door to the bar. “Good, you’re just getting here too. Thought I was late. Come on, buddy, first round’s on you.” James’s raucous laugh annoyed Leo, but he snapped his phone shut, turned it off, and followed him into the darkness of the bar.

Pine Street Episode 18

Kassandra the barista muses about her customers, including the grumpy ones, and hopes Marilyn enjoys her new friend.

Kassandra was glad to see the art professor, Marilyn, in the coffee shop with a new friend. The professor had seemed a bit different lately, to Kassandra’s practiced barista eye. A little off. Sometimes, not often, but once in a while, Kassandra would have to prompt Marilyn with her usual order. Or remind her to add the cream that she’d left room for when pouring the rich Americano liquid into the extra-large to-go cup. Because Kassandra was so very young, still in her early twenties, to her Marilyn inhabited a territory of “older” that stretched from about age forty-five to somewhere north of eighty. Even so, Kassandra thought it awfully early for Marilyn to show signs of memory loss, and hoped it was just the stress of life getting to her, rather than that terrible Alzheimer’s disease.

Kassandra watched Marilyn and her new friend – Franny? Was that the name Marilyn had used? – gather up their to-go cups and leave for a walk, looking softly happy, setting out into the chilly winter afternoon. She smiled. Friends were good, hers always helped her feel less stressed, and she wished the same for Marilyn.

The next customer repeated her order in a rather grumpy tone, Kassandra thought, but she didn’t mention it. She simply smiled more broadly and apologized for her momentary lack of attention, and hastened to ring up the drink’s cost. Grumpy customers rarely got to Kassandra, especially this type. The customer wasn’t quite in that “older” territory, probably still in her thirties, trying for all the world to look like a cross between a soccer mom and a Barbie doll. Her hair, skin, and teeth were all unnaturally altered in color – hair too blond, with dark roots; skin too tan, with an orange tint; and teeth far too white. The type of customer, Kassandra reflected, who would complain about a drink taking more than two minutes even if the apocalypse was happening around them.

The kind of customer who could complain about the coffee shop being dark when the whole downtown was out of power, or who would moan about having to wait to sip her non-fat soy vanilla latte with extra artificial sugar, ordered extra-hot, because the drink was delivered to her “extra-extra” hot.

Kassandra smiled through it all, because those customers were in the distinct minority. Most of the people who came through her line were friendly, patient, funny, and kind, and especially generous with their tips when they knew Kassandra was in college. Most of her customers were more like Marilyn, the regulars becoming like a family, almost.

So Kassandra could tune out the grumpy artificial hair-artificial sugar types, and smile at them without ever really taking in their grumpiness. Little did she know this made them even more grumpy. For what is a good entitlement tantrum with no appreciative audience?