OLWG prompts this week are: Neither have I; An impeccably dressed transvestite; The birds at dawn)
The morning dawned clear and cold the day Helen left. Smoke from the distant wildfires turned the sunrise a lurid magenta and orange. Somewhere a tractor started up, sending a swarm of Starlings high into the sky. They swirled this way and that, circling the farmhouse before heading west, as if to herd her along her way.
Helen sat in her car, staring at the farmhouse where her grandfather and father were born and raised; where she and her sisters were born and raised, and where she gave birth to, and raised her three children. Helen married William in the living room of the farmhouse. Leaving was audacious and terrifying.
The morning sun revealed the place for what it really was. The window trim she painted blue the year her youngest left for college was already peeling. The sign William placed on the stairs to the front porch, warning of rotted wood, had sunk down into the gap between the boards. The cracks in the living room window pane were not as visible from the outside, but Helen could see them. From the inside, the cracks looked as though someone took harsh, angry strokes of black spray paint to the picture-perfect view of the river valley.
The bedroom light came on, jarring Helen out of her melancholy. She started her car’s engine, rammed the stick into reverse, and sped backward down the drive, churning her wheels. As she whipped around and pulled out onto the road, she compulsively glanced in the rear view mirror. William was jogging down the porch stairs. He kept running down the drive, stopping just before Helen cleared the crest of the hill.
…. ….. ….. …..
An impeccably dressed transvestite greeted Helen at the hotel reception counter. “Have you been to Denver before?”
Helen shook her head.
“Neither have I. HA!”
Helen wasn’t sure what to make of the man’s joke.
As he tapped away at the computer, Helen stared at the man’s attire. He had manicured hands and translucent pink polished nails. A tuft of chest hair peeked out from the neck of his pristine white linen blouse. Small solitaire pearl stud earrings dotted his ear lobes. To Helen’s surprise, he had bushy eyebrows and did not wear a wig, but what most fascinated her was the man’s waxed, jet-black mustache with tiny pin curls on each tip. She smoothed her sweater and slacks, and ran her fingers through her uncombed hair.
“It’s none of my business, of course,” the man said as he handed her the key to her room, “but, I work here, right? I would take note of these things.”
Helen didn’t understand what he was trying to get at. She waited for him to continue.
“I noticed you booked an extended stay,” he finally said.
Helen nodded. Before she could reply, he continued, “I can give you a list of relatively inexpensive apartments in Denver, if you like. That is, I mean, I assume. You moving here?”
Helen nodded again. “For school. I’m going back to school.”
“That’s great! Good for you.”
“Yeah. Hard decision to make, but…” she finished with a shrug.
“The Art Institute of Colorado.”
“No shit!? HA! Oh, excuse my language, HA!” the man rolled his eyes and folded his hands neatly in front, then smiled. “No kidding? Really? I teach there. Great place. You’ll love it.”
Helen set her bags back down. “What do you teach? I’m getting my degree in music. I want to teach. I mean, of course, naturally, I want to play, but teaching…that’s the goal. Maybe write music.”
“What’s your instrument?”
“Piano. Some guitar. But, I really want to learn to play the saxophone and the harp.”
“Yes, well. It’s now or never.”
The man held up a finger and walked away. He returned moments later with a business card.
“Here’s how to reach me. When you’re settled, we’ll go to lunch. I’ll tell you everything you need to know. I’ve been teaching there for twenty years. Love it. Really, it’s a great place. I wish it paid the bills, but, well, anyway, HA!” the man waved his hands in the air, “Here I am.”
“What do you teach, you didn’t say,” Helen glanced at the card, “….Jeff.”
“Oh, right! HA! How’dya do! I’m Jeff, the Executive of Everthing! HA! No, no…seriously…I’m in the visual arts program. I teach most of the 101 classes. Hey, so, it’s actually a requisite for most of the programs at the university to take the 101 courses I teach, regardless your major, so you’ll probably end up in one of my classes!”
…. …. …. ….
In failing health and wheelchair bound because of a botched hip replacement, getting ready for a day out and about was an ordeal for Helen. She had to keep her mind focused on a can-do attitude in order to make it through the laborious task of bathing and dressing, something she did not always get around to these days. But on this day she had to rally her strength. The transport assistance van would be by in two hours to pick her up. She did not want to miss Jeff’s memorial service.
When asked if anyone wanted to share a story about Jeff, Helen raised her hand. A nice looking young woman Helen did not recognize handed her a microphone.
“There I was,” she began, a little thrown by the sound of her quavering elderly voice coming out of the speakers. “There I was, every bit the frightened kid away from home for the first time, regardless the fact I was a grown woman my fifties.” She paused, taking a moment to see Jeff in her mind’s eye. “And here was Jeff, in his quintessential pearl earrings, Kate Spade print skirt and Ralph Lauren linen blouse… and his weird sense of humor… and his perfectly coiffed mustache.” Helen mimed twirling the end of a mustache. The room let out a soft, knowing chuckle.
“He saved my life. Jeff saved my life. I don’t know where I would have been, if it weren’t for his unabashed kindness and generous hospitality. The luckiest day of my life was the day I met Jeff.”
Helen paused again, this time to halt the tears. “The past thirty years of my life are all the sweeter for having Jeff to call my nearest and dearest friend.” Helen blew a kiss to Jeff’s family in the front pew.
In her apartment afterward, Helen sat gazing at the painting Jeff made for her years before. It hung in a prominent place over her mantle.
The painting was of that morning Helen left for Denver. Jeff perpetually asked Helen to retell the story of that morning, pressing her to describe what she saw. She did not understand at the time why he wanted her to recall the most bitter-sweet moment of her life, again and again. She remembered growing perturbed at his repeated requests. The memory made her smile.
Each time she looked at Jeff’s painting, it was as if she was there again, too terrified to turn the ignition of her car and put behind her all she had ever known. When that old fear arose, as it almost always did, Helen would turn away from the painting, just as she did that morning backing out of the drive. She’d recall the image of William in her car’s rear view mirror, running down the porch stairs, and have to shake off the memory.
As she let herself become lost in Jeff’s magnificent purples, oranges, pinks and blues; the way he made the the hillsides behind the farmhouse seem as soft as giant pillows, and the warmth he imbued in the glow of the light from the bedroom, Helen noticed the usual memory of fear and trepidation did not arise. This time, the scene was a peaceful, almost welcoming. This time, as William stepped out of the front door and onto the porch, she kept looking. At the house, the sky, the hills, the peeling blue trim, broken stairs and the cracked window. She kept looking, as William jogged down the stairs and onto the drive.
For the first time, Helen saw what she refused to see all those years ago. William, with a resigned, and deeply sad smile, raising his hand to wave good-bye and mouthing the words, “Good luck.”
The prompts threw me for a loop, for whatever reason. “The birds at dawn,” was the only prompt I worked with at first, but I didn’t want to give up.