Pine Street Episode 141

After being away for a few weeks, caring for her mother, Allison found herself shocked as she walked down Pine Street to the coffee shop. 

She was sure that there was at least one more empty storefront than when she left. Or maybe two more? 

All around her town, city economies boomed. They struggled to hold all the people who streamed to their centers for the decent jobs flourishing there. Then those same people realized they could not afford to live close to those decent jobs. Some found roommates and tiny spaces to share with them; others pushed their lives to the periphery of the city, creating the need for cars or buses or trains to ferry them back and forth to work. The bustle of commuting became a kind of second job for these people, adding hours to their time away from the homes they worked so hard to be able to afford. 

Some of those people found their way to Allison’s town, perched on the edge of a barely feasible commuting distance, especially if they could telecommute during the worst of the winters. 

And yet. Despite this growth, despite these additional people, the core of the town seemed to be stripping itself bare. Three or four shops had closed just on this single street. People retired, or relocated, according to the brief notices in the local paper, and no one stepped in to buy the business or replace it with something else. Or, a business simply failed. A good idea, but no lightning in a bottle to keep it alive.

Allison worried. She slowed her pace, reading the For Lease notices, scanning the interiors visible through paper taped to the windows for a glimpse of the life that had been so present in the space just a heartbeat ago. Was this just an ebb in the flow of commerce, a coincidental episode, and the street would thrive again in another year or two? 

Or was Pine Street dying?

The bell over the door of the coffee shop offered its reassuring jingle, and she entered an arena of noisy community: young moms chatting with one another, hair pulled back in practical ponytails; older women planning book club meetings; students settling in for hours of homework, using the wireless for the price of a single drip coffee; and over there, in her usual spot, Franny with her laptop, writing feverishly. 

This corner of Pine Street, was thoroughly alive, at least for now.

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Pine Street Episode 140

“Leo?” Allison tapped the door to her friend’s basement apartment. “Leo? It’s me, Allison, I’m home.” She heard the radio, set to classic rock, turned up loudly. That meant one of two things: either Leo was home and working on a project, or he was out and trying to fool potential burglars into thinking he was home. Either way, it was unlikely that he would hear her tap on the door or her voice, so she turned to head out on a walk. The evening was cool and breezy, with a few clouds visible in the darkening sky. 

“Allison?” The voice reached her a few steps down the sidewalk. “Hey, welcome back!” 

Only it wasn’t Leo. Allison turned and saw David walking her way. 

“Um, hi.” She wasn’t sure about David, ever. 

“How’s your mom?” David asked. Allison felt a chill. It could have been the wind or the way David was pretending to care.

“She’s fine.” 

“Oh, good. That’s such a relief. How’s Leo? I haven’t seen him in a long time, either.” 

“I just got home, actually. I haven’t seen him yet.” Allison immediately questioned her judgement in giving David this information. If she wasn’t so tired from traveling, and care taking, and all of it, she’d be more on her guard.

“Oh, well, sure. I’ll leave you to get reacclimatized, then, Allison. And don’t worry. I’m sure Leo’s fine. Precious, too.” David smiled that disingenuous smile of his and turned to walk the other direction.

Ugh, thought Allison. My recovery walk spoiled right away. Should I be worried about Leo? And Precious? Of course not. David’s just trying to stir up trouble.

And yet. What if? 

This “what if” niggled at Allison as she tried to focus on the summer evening around her, stealing the potential for relaxation, replacing it with visions of all kinds of potential minor disasters. 

“Hey, welcome back!” 

Now that voice was certainly one she wanted to hear. 

“Kassandra!” Allison stepped quickly to give her dear friend a hug that warmed her to her core.

Pine Street Episode 139

Allison took a deep breath. There was no mistaking it: she was back on Pine Street, back home, and summer was right around the corner. The green smell of spring was giving way to a sweeter, dryer, straw-like smell that meant warmer days on the horizon.

After spending a month with her parents, Allison did not even mind the wind that whistled past her, threatening to slam her front screen door into her back as she fumbled with her key to her house. 

Home. 

She lugged her suitcase over the threshold, leaving the wooden door open, letting that wind swirl fresh air into the living room, and sat on her old love seat. Neatly piled on the coffee table, the junk mail that had arrived while she was away sat waiting to be recycled. Leo, she smiled, he’s never tidy with anything but he must have made a special effort. 

Allison wanted to pop down to see Leo, to thank him for watching the house and taking in the mail, to see Precious and receive some sloppy dog kisses. 

But not quite yet. 

She had two things to do first. She had to call Kassandra, to let her know she’d arrived back safely, to thank her for the texts, brief conversations, excuses to step out she’d provided over the last few weeks. 

Before that, even, Allison knew, she needed to deal with the pent-up emotions that would bubble up and over any second now, now that she was safe.

Home.

Allison took another deep breath. She conjured her mother’s face and felt it, weirdly, cover her own. This sensation of taking on her mother’s face had occurred surprisingly often while she’d been caring for her mom. It would be a brief and welcome surprise to catch a glimpse of herself in the mirror, and realize that her own face had not disappeared completely.

“I am not my mother,” Allison whispered. She brought her hands to cover her face, touching the skin that seemed not to belong to her at the moment, and let herself dissolve. She wept for a time; the sky outside, still bright blue when she’d opened her front door, was dusky when she stood and shook the tears away.

Allison washed her face, her very own face again, and scooped the junk mail into the recycling bin without opening a single envelope.

Pine Street Episode 137

Call me when you need a break.

Allison read the text from Kassandra once, twice, three times. The first time, she read in astonishment; the second and third times, she read with deepening gratitude. 

As she waited for the soup she’d made for her parents’ lunch to heat up, Allison called. 

“Are you at work?” she asked Kassandra.

“Just stepped out for my 15 minute break, so your timing is perfect,” Kassandra answered. Allison allowed herself to suspect that this was a white lie, that the young artist-barista had called to her work mate and said, hey, I’m taking my break now, when she saw Allison’s name on her phone. 

She is just that much more kind than the rest of us, Allison thought.

“How’s your mom?” Kassandra asked.

“Fine, you know, as much as can be expected,” Allison said. She prepared herself to launch into the story of her mom’s diagnosis, surgery, prognosis, but Kassandra spoke again.

“Good. And you? How are you?” 

Perhaps it was the unexpectedness of the question, or even the way Kassandra had reached out. Or perhaps it was the build up of all the worry over her mother’s condition. Maybe, it was the accumulated frustration of being cast as both child and caregiver. 

Allison began to cry. She stepped to the other side of the kitchen door, closed it behind her, huddled under the little overhang on the back stoop. And cried. 

“I thought so,” Kassandra said, softly. 

When Allison could choke out a few words, they were an apology. “I’m sorry,” she said. 

“Nothing to apologize for. You need to let it out. It’s okay. It’s necessary. I don’t mind. I can listen to you cry as long as you need to.”

This made Allison giggle. The image of Kassandra, on Pine Street, holding her phone close enough to listen to a friend sob, while squinting into the sun or trying to find a place out of the spring wind, seemed terribly funny.

Soon, they were both laughing. Young women, each facing very different challenges, had found a moment to laugh together, across the miles between them. 

“I’d better get back inside. My parents need their lunch.” After a few more shared giggles, Allison hung up and returned to her parents. 

Friendship, Allison pondered, is such a gift. 

Pine Street Episode 136

Allison sat on the front steps of her parents’ house, holding a mug of coffee in her hands, and staring into the middle distance between their front fence and the street.

She understood why people took up smoking. At least it gave them an excuse to step outside every hour or so for a few minutes. And when you are staying with your mother, watching her struggle to recover from surgery, with all your past swirling around, the future uncertain, and the present full of pain, you need to step outside.

Or, get up super early, as Allison had, bundle up against the morning chill, and take your first cup of coffee out on the porch. So if Mom wakes up, she won’t see me and start the day’s conversation, Allison pondered.

The thought immediately triggered a pang of guilt that threatened to interfere with her ability to swallow her coffee. I should be grateful Mom’s home for her recovery, and well enough to talk, she thought, not annoyed by her need to comment on everything about me and my life. Even when she says she supports me, it comes across as micromanagement.

There was something else, too, underneath the moderate annoyance at her mother’s ongoing critiques of her educational, vocational, and relationship choices. 

Allison was stunned by the vision of her mother as physically frail. She had always known her mom’s emotional ups and downs, had memorized them as a kind of road map of hazard areas to avoid. But seeing her mother in her nightgown, face dreadfully pale, thin hair mussed from too much time on a pillow, weaving unsteadily on her feet as she rejected the walker the hospital had sent home with her, this was new territory.

And it was territory that Allison disliked intensely. Any moment, watching her mom, panic would creep up her spine, or clutch at her bowels. This panic was beyond word or thought. It was, Allison began to understand, the simple, blank terror of confronting a vision of one’s own future. 

“Allison? Honey?” Her mother’s voice came through the front door. “Where are you?”

Taking a deep breath, Allison downed the dregs of her coffee, and stood. She took a long look around her, and started her inner clock, counting down to when she could, legitimately, take her next break to step outside. 

She opened the door.

“I’m here, Mom. Right here.”

Pine Street Episode 135

On the day everyone set their clocks ahead, to “spring forward,” Kassandra woke early and sprang out of bed. One gift of youth is that the change in time is absorbed quickly, with very little lingering resentment in the body. 

Sundays were typically her days to work in the studio that Douglas had set up for her, but this morning she’d offered to fill in for a coworker at the coffee shop. The coworker volunteered at the cold weather shelter, staying overnight at the church which opened its doors to anyone who needed a warm place to sleep, no questions asked. Kassandra had done this once or twice herself, and knew what it was like to try to adjust after having virtually no sleep. So she was happy to step in and let her coworker go home and rest.

Plus, it gave her a chance to see some of her regulars one more time. Kassandra loved the few moments she got to connect with each customer while she took their orders, made their drinks, corralled their sweet treats, and tidied up the tables. Regular or stranger, Kassandra felt each person brought something special to her day, each interaction created an opportunity to make their day a bit better.

This spring-forward Sunday, she was delighted to see Allison walk through the door. Kassandra greeted her friend heartily, and offered her usual dose of caffeine. “Ready to go to work at your store, Allison, and keep this community in printer paper and art supplies?” Kassandra smiled.

“I wish,” Allison answered. Kassandra noted the flatness of her friend’s voice, and trouble that lurked behind her eyes.

“Why, what’s up?” Kassandra asked.

“It’s my mom,” Allison said, taking the first sip from her mug of steaming, strong espresso. “She needs surgery, and my dad’s still not well enough to care for her. So I’ve got to go stay with her for a while.” 

Kassandra imagined this situation in her own life: having to give up, even temporarily, all the routines she’d built to care for the mother who was never truly satisfied with Kassandra’s choices anyway. It made her stomach ache a little.

“Oh, I’m so sorry,” she said genuinely. “I hope your mom will be okay.”

“Me too,” Allison said. Her expression was so bleak, Kassandra pulled a cinnamon roll from her pastry case and put it on a plate.

“Here, it’s on the house,” Kassandra said, and was rewarded with a brief smile from her friend.

Pine Street Episode 134

Spring on the “other” side of the mountains, far from Pine Street, closer to the moderating effect of the ocean, was a very different experience. Although the strange late-winter snow had buried the entire state, for a while, the other side soon found itself back in its usual pattern of gradual lightening of the grey that blanketed each day. Once in a while, a brisk wind would blow the clouds away, revealing blue sky and sending seagulls and starlings swirling on its drafts. The denizens of this “other” side would be drawn out of doors, only to be chilled to the bone by the wind. 

On the whole, they much preferred the incremental change of seasons, becoming connoisseurs of various shades of grey.

This included Sasha. Deeply tempting though it was to show up on David’s doorstep, to disrupt his small-town idyll, to win him back, the climate helped hold her to home. She could not quite imagine living year-round in such extremes of cold and heat. 

No, reunion with David depended on luring him back to the city, back to the lifestyle Sasha loved and she knew David would love, too, much as he would learn to love her again. 

She’d grown so much since they were together, and she longed for the chance to demonstrate to him her new depth of understanding, her revised character. 

In the meantime, she waited, as spring waited for its chance to be revealed in all its other-side glory.

That day arrived in early April. The wind arrived, but this time it did not bring a bone-curdling chill. This time, it carried the lightness and warmth of the sun to every corner of the city. The thick grey overcast dissipated, leaving puffs of white clouds sailing in its wake. Baby crows stretched their immature wings, cawing out their desire to try flight for the first time.

Sasha stepped outside, ready to walk to her favorite coffee shop, and watched as the sky turned the shade of blue that only sky over water can achieve.  

She snapped a quick selfie, coffee mug in hand, blue sky in the background, and texted it to David, with no words to accompany it. Her message was clear: 

Wish you were here.