Time flies

Evan sat on a tree stump in the back yard, watching the earth revolve. He balanced a laptop on his knees as the linear shadow fell across the face of the sundial, a short crawl past IV.

“Hello, there.”

Evan looked up. “Hi, Felder,” he said.

“Thought I might find your mother out here,” Felder said.

“You just missed her,” Evan said. “She was late for something.”

“Well, I’ll catch her later,” Felder said, turning toward home. “Just wanted to steal some parsley.”

Pam Wells/The Pullets

“Wait—have you ever heard this?” Evan leaned over the sundial. A phrase was cast into the top surface: “Time is a river without banks,” he read.

Felder gave it a moment to jangle. “Nope, don’t think so. Sounds like something you could find in Bartlett’s, though.”

Evan shook his head. “I googled it and the only thing I could find was the name of a painting.”

“Hhm. Well, I don’t know much about that. Something for school, I take it.”

“Yeah. We have to write about time, and I thought this’d be easy. But the more I think about it, the less sense it makes. I mean, time as a river is cool, I guess, but a river without banks? That’s a flood.”

“Time as a flood… nope, doesn’t work for me, either. Hang on, now, you said something about a painting.”

“Yeah, it’s by Marc Chagall,” Evan said. He clicked a window on his computer and a painting filled the screen: A huge flying fish carried a clock and a violin over a river, and two lovers lay on the bank. The title matched the words cast in the sundial.

“Pretty wacky, huh?” Evan said.

“Oh, the mind of an artist, it’s a wacky place to go,” Felder said. “Wasn’t he French?”

“French and Russian. And Jewish.”

Felder raised his bushy brows. “Jewish isn’t a nationality, but that’s all right. I was just thinking… now, what I was going to say… oh, the title. Do you suppose he wrote the title in English?”

“Probably not. Probably wrote it in French.”

“Aha. Yes. So it’s possible the translation might be a little… well, a little—”

“Stupid.” Evan was finally enjoying the process. He translated the English title into French, played around with some alternate words and finally was able to locate the painting under its original French title, Le temps n’a point de rives.

“Which means, ‘Time does not have banks,’” Evan said.

“I wish you’d stop talking about banks,” Felder said.

“Shores, then. And Chagall didn’t even make it up. It’s from a poem: ‘Man does not have a harbor, time does not have shores; it flows and we pass!’”

Felder’s eyes sparkled. “You’ve done all that sitting on a stump in your back yard. How times have changed.” His eyes fell on the sundial. If it was right, it was half-past V. “It’s been fun!” he yelled, and flew home to check on his baked halibut.

©2010 Pam Wells


Here, but not remembered

Audrey had a sudden taste for murder.

“Who do I go to?” she asked quietly.

The woman was pierced from ear to ear. “How heinous do you want it?”

“Heinous. Grisly. Quick, but not too quick.”

The pierced woman scribbled a few names. “They’re all professionals,” she said.

Audrey scanned the short list. She pointed to a name.

“You won’t be disappointed,” the pierced woman said.

• • • • •

But for the footsteps, the house was dead quiet. Carl walked into Evan’s room, expecting to see him finishing homework or playing a video game. Instead he was flopped on a beanbag chair, reading After Dark. Joe was lying on Evan’s bed with Ties That Bind. Both paperbacks were by Phillip Margolin.

Pam Wells/The Pullets

“Your mother is missing a book,” Carl said.

“Which one?” Joe asked.

“She can’t remember.”

“Not helpful, dad,” Evan said.

“I know. You guys into murder, too?”

“Murder one,” Evan said.

Joe laughed. “Yeah, mom turned us onto it. She found out this author lives in Portland. He’s really a criminal defense lawyer, so it’s all totally realistic. And mom’s got murder on the brain since she tried to kill Aunt Jeannie.”

“She did not try to kill Aunt Jeannie,” Evan said. “Not very hard, anyway.”

• • • • •

Audrey was curled on the couch around The Last Innocent Man. More than a dozen books by Phil Margolin were stacked on the end table.

The Margolin marathon would last for several days, until Evan complained that all the murders were blurring together. So many books, so much crime. Carl couldn’t keep the lawyers and judges and detectives straight. Joe had been reading them in order and could more easily follow some of the continuing characters. Audrey was determined to read all of them and was sure she could find the missing book, called Gone, But Not Forgotten.

“It’s around here somewhere,” she said.

©2010 Pam Wells

The takedown

Years later, Evan and Joe would recall fondly The Day Mom Took Jeannie Down.

The path was clear and well-marked on reflection, but at the time, no one was reading the signs. Audrey was trying desperately to disengage. She’d bitten her tongue a number of times during dinner: once while avoiding a fish bone, the rest while listening to Jeannie prattle on about about the price of Bordeaux in Bordeaux and the state of German opera and that tiresome volcano gumming up European airports—

Abra-cadabra-yoo-hoo, that’s what we say on the continent. Not that it matters to you in your padded little corner of America. How do you keep yourselves occupied?”

Audrey kept her mouth full.

“Work,” Carl said.

“I meant the children. What about you, Evan?”

“School,” Evan said.

Pam Wells/The Pullets

“Public high school, I presume? Well, it might not be too late for you if you go to university abroad. You’ll find the U.S.A. is not the center of the universe we Americans think it is.”

“Ow! Oh, now, the earth isn’t even the center of the universe,” Carl said. He rubbed his leg where Audrey’s fingernails dug into him. “What do you think, Matt? Are we contracting or expanding?”

Matt leaned back in his chair. “If you mean gettin’ shorter or wider, ah’d say both,” he said. The guys laughed at the only light remark of the evening.

Jeannie turned to Joe. “And what about you? What’s your field of study?”

“I’m a writer.”

Jeannie frowned. “What sort of writer?”

“Screenwriter. I’m writing screenplays.”

“Screenplays? For Hollywood? Well, talk about a foreign country. Good thing you don’t have any responsibilities. My second husband was a writer. Technical manuals or something equally dull. I told him he should murder someone and write about that.”

Audrey took a big gulp of wine.

“I guess he didn’t take your advice,” Carl said.

“And what about Tom? I suppose he dropped out of school, too?”

Audrey tried to swallow but her throat was dry as paper.

“You mean Todd?” Carl asked.

“Oh, I knew it started with a T. That’s how I remember them, J-E-T, the jet set. Which is perfectly ridiculous—”

Audrey shot to her feet, knocking over her chair. “You pompous bag of Botox! Dinner is over.”

“Well! Mother always said you were a bitchy little hothead.”

Audrey leaped.

Dishes, forks and raspberry cheesecake went flying as Audrey took Jeannie to the floor. She went for the woman’s throat but sudden thoughts of prison food caused her to grab the clavicles instead. She clamped down and shook as Jeannie chortled, “Sto-o-o-o-p!!!”

Carl had a heck of a time pulling his wife off her half-sister. Matt was useless trying to calm his screeching spouse, so he poured himself another glass of the house red. Evan and Joe whipped out their camera-phones to document the festivities and sent it all to their brother in Japan.

The Pullets pointed the visitors toward Vancouver and shut the door.

©2010 Pam Wells

Dressing on the side

Evan’s eyes couldn’t get any wider. Joe tried to look cool and worldly, but he was equally awestruck at the mostly naked girls on the French Riviera.

Les francais,” Jeannie said, “ils sontcomment dit-on-–” She struggled to overcome her hopeless American accent. “That’s funny, I can’t remember how to say ‘au naturelle’ in French.”

Audrey lifted her head out of her hands. “It’s already French,” she said.

“Of course, there you go. I must be thinking en francais,” Jeannie said. “That’s what happens when you immerse yourself in another culture, isn’t it, Matt?”

Matt was lodged in the slideshow. “Isn’t what?”

“Oh, I agree,” Audrey said. “I catch myself speaking Oregonian all the time. Anybody want a beer?”

“Got it covered,” Carl said. He came into the family room with a selection of craft brews, then saw the photos. “Whoa-la-la.”

• • • • •

Pam Wells/The Pullets

The boys added leaves to the table. One would’ve been enough, but “I’d rather spread out,” Audrey said. “We’re not eating family-style.”

“So how exactly is she our aunt?” Evan asked. The question always came up when they got a postcard from Jeannie and her current husband from somewhere in the world.

“My mother remarried and had Jeannie when I was eight. They moved a lot… so we didn’t know about each other until your grandmother died. She’s my half-sister.” This was how Audrey explained it.

“Dude, mom’s mother ran off with some other dude when mom was little, and she had another kid.” This was how Joe explained it. “To us she’s an aunt. To mom she’s a half-baked sister totally removed.”

Their shared genes were invisible. Audrey was on the petite side, fair and not the least interested in fashion whims. Jeannie was an angular five-nine, olive-skinned and what Audrey described as a “fashion electromagnet. Flip a switch and her clothes fall off.”

Audrey appreciated the irony if not the humor of the Mother’s Day visit, the result of some mistaken booking.

“Saw that Vancouver on the Olympics and just had to see it for ourselves,” Matt had said. “Would you buh-leeve there’s two Vancouvers? All looks the same from the air.” Evan couldn’t wait to tell Danni about that.

Audrey had fished salmon steaks out of the freezer, made a dill sauce and saffron rice. She finished building a green salad and began to whisk the olive oil, lemon juice, salt and pepper.

“Now, you’re not going to toss that, are you?” Jeannie asked. She swished her wine and stuck her nose in the glass.

Audrey pushed up her sleeves. “Heavens, no. Dressing’s always optional around here.”

“Not in this weather, I’m sure. It’s dreadfully gray. Does it rain all the time?”

“Oh, sure, but we prefer a liquid diet. What are you drinking?”

“Your husband poured the house red.”

“Well, that’s lucky. He usually pours the house brown. Why don’t park yourself at the table, Jeannie, and I’ll round up the menfolk.”

Audrey seized the excuse to go outside. She did in fact find Carl and Matt in the garage and sent them in. She then collected a large number of dandelion greens lest Jeannie complain, without the benefit of dressing, that the salad didn’t have enough bite.

©2010 Pam Wells


Aphids

Joe and Evan watched their mother through the kitchen window.

“Sucks to be us,” Joe said.

“Dude, sucks worse to be them.”

• • • • •

Audrey was in kill mode. She stood in front of her favorite ‘Buff Beauty’ rose, grasping a small towel in her gloved hand. Aphids swarmed over the buds.

“Die, bloodsucking scum, die.” She plunged the rag into a bucket of suds, grasped the fat rosebuds in her left hand and scrubbed each one. She repeated the process all over the bush, letting out a few wincing screams whenever she got hooked on a thorn. Now she picked up the hose with the high-intensity nozzle, blasting the bushes clean. A few buds were decapitated in the process. Next came ‘Anne Boleyn.’

Pam Wells/The Pullets

• • • • •

“She gonna stay out there until Monday?”

“I don’t know, dude. We’re gonna have to warn dad when he gets home.”

“I called him.”

“Good.”

• • • • •

Audrey was getting almost as wet as the roses but she didn’t care. She was working her way around the yard when Carl drove in. His arms were full of stuff—travel mug, wadded-up sweatshirt, a roll of plans—so he just waved to her and headed into the house.

• • • • •

“Thanks for the heads up,” he said inside. “Where is it?”

“Here,” Evan said, and handed his dad a postcard of the British countryside. “It’s a little smeared. I cleaned off the coffee grounds and tuna gunk.”

Laboring somewhat over the handwriting, Carl read aloud: “Went to see family candle—castle. Lard and lady—Lord and Lady Carew, that’s what we are. Took the grand tour. Tell you all about it when we see you on the ninth, love Jeannie and—” He put down the postcard. “What does she mean, ‘when we see you on the ninth.’ Ninth of what? May? Like, Mother’s Day?”

Joe and Evan shrugged.

“Oh, this is bad,” Carl said.

• • • • •

Audrey paused in her aphid-purge to stretch. She folded over and let her arms hang loosely, feet apart. From this position she could see up the driveway as Danni came rolling down.

“Hi,” Audrey said, straightening up. “Evan’s in the house, if you—”

“I didn’t come to see Evan,” Danni said. “I came to see you. How are you doing?”

Audrey found it easy to answer. “I’m blowing off steam, if you really want to know.”

“Looks like you’re blowing off aphids.”

“Yeah. It’s that time of year.”

Danni seemed to understand. She rolled her wheelchair close to Rosa rugosa and studied the brown and green insects latched onto the tender new growth.

“Aphids are born pregnant,” Danni said.

“Aphids are—what?”

“Born pregnant. It’s called parthenogenesis. They’re almost all female, and they give birth to females who already have embryos growing in their bodies. Grandmother, mother, daughter.”

Audrey aimed the spray at ‘Lucia di Lammermoor.’ “You mean I’m erasing three generations of crazy women all in one shot?”

Danni smiled and manned the hose. Audrey seized the towel for the next round.

The guys came out of the house with a plan but decided this was not the time to implement it.

©2010 Pam Wells

Thursday in the park with George

It was Audrey’s idea: a picnic in the park. She boxed up sandwiches, bread-and-butter pickles, red grapes and oatmeal cookies. Found the old checked tablecloth in the back of the linen drawer.

Never mind that it was 50 degrees and raining with wind gusts to 20mph. Carl and Audrey wore parkas. Joe and Evan had warmer things to do.

“It’s okay,” Audrey said. “It’s not a birthday party.”

“No, it’s the Mariners and the Rays,” Carl said. “Which I can easily record and watch later. Let’s go.”

• • • • •

The Ferris wheel stood empty over the carnival area, closed for the night. Audrey and Carl sat in the truck. The windshield wipers swished every few seconds.

Pam Wells/The Pullets

“How’re you doing?” he asked.

“Good.” She looked straight ahead at the trees.

“Are you gonna look at it?”

“Maybe.”

“You don’t have to.”

“I know.”

The sky was brightening, clouds were tumbling pink. Audrey drummed her fingers on her leg, then took a quick peek at the Ferris wheel. She took another peek, this time a bit longer. She looked at Carl and back at the wheel.

“Well?” Carl asked.

“Nothing,” she said. “I think I’m okay. I don’t know what was going on yesterday, but I’m fine.”

“That’s great, hon. Maybe it was just something you ate, or an allergic—” as Audrey jumped out the door “—reaction. Audrey?”

He caught up with her halfway to the giant wheel. Rain pelted their faces. “Hon, come on over here,” he said, and pulled her by the hand to the picnic shelter. She couldn’t take her eyes off the carnival ride.

“It’s actually very beautiful,” she said. “George Ferris would be proud.”

“Ferris was a guy?”

“Yes, Ferris was a guy. A civil engineer. He was only thirty-two when he designed his big wheel and convinced them to build it for the 1893 World Columbian Exposition in Chicago. It was two hundred and sixty-four feet tall. What does this one hold, maybe a hundred people? His held over two thousand people. I mean, it was an incredible achievement, and some people thought it outclassed the Eiffel Tower. Of course, the Eiffel Tower is still standing and his wheel was demolished. Luckily he died before that happened, bankrupt and alone at the age of thirty-seven.”

“Oh, yeah, lucky. You spent all day on Wikipedia, didn’t you?”

“Uh-huh.”

“Did you look up Ferris wheel phobia?”

“I tried, but apparently there is no such thing.”

“Huh. So maybe… maybe you got a concussion from the typewriter.”

“It hit my leg, not my head. No, nothing happened at all. I ran into Evan with his new girlfriend. I mean, she’s lovely… you should hear her play… I don’t know, maybe it was the typewriter, because that’s why I went out and saw Evan and saw Danni and saw the Ferris wheel… do you think George Ferris ever took the day off and rode his own invention?”

Carl hugged her. He suggested they continue their talk in the truck and eat sandwiches. Once back in the truck, he suggested they go on home so they could eat sandwiches with a beer. Once nestled into the couch with sandwiches and a beer, and after watching Seattle fall again to Tampa Bay, Carl suggested that perhaps Audrey had transferred her post-parental anxiety onto the giant wheel of fortune which had appeared surreptitiously at the park.

“Post-parental anxiety?” she asked.

“I made it up. But it means—” He stretched.

“What?”

“It means you did a good job, dear, and now it’s time to pass the cookies. Thanks.”

©2010 Pam Wells


What goes around

Audrey stood motionless in the park. She had frozen there almost five minutes ago, looking up at the giant wheel. Evan fanned her with his hat as Danni rolled over with a cup of water.

“Mom, you’re overanalyzing,” Evan said. “Have some water.”

“Take my pulse! Am I breathing? What’s wrong with me?”

“I think you’re paralyzed with fear.”

“I know that! But why?”

“Okay, maybe, maybe you had a traumatic experience as a child. Did you ever hang upside-down a hundred feet in the air?”

Pam Wells/The Pullets

“No! I don’t think so—I—I think it’s rolling!”

“Mrs. Pullet—”

“Audrey.”

“Audrey, we’re going for a walk now.”

Danni took Audrey’s hand. She met some resistance at first, but held on as Evan pushed her wheelchair, leading Audrey away from the giant wheel. As soon as Audrey focused on the ground in front of her, she began to relax. She walked a few more steps, then realized she was holding hands with her son’s girlfriend. Her son’s girlfriend! Who knew Evan had a girlfriend? Wait—Carl had said something about seeing Evan at the grocery store. And Joe—what had Joe said?

“Boy, I don’t know,” Audrey said, blushing. She mocked herself: “Hi, I’m Evan’s mom. Pardon me while I make an idiot of myself.”

“Happens all the time,” Danni said. “I’m very intimidating.” She glanced at Evan. “He tripped over me the first time we met.”

“Oh, well, it runs in the family,” Audrey said.

She observed the smile on her son’s face, the first one she’d seen on him since she’d happened on them in the thrift shop. The moment Danni had finished playing the old upright piano—her playing was beautiful, wonderful—Evan had looked around to see who was clapping. Poor kid. The look on his face when he’d seen his mom…

After that, she’d offered them a ride back to the park, half a mile away. Suddenly, the Ferris wheel had appeared. Where had it come from? And when?

“Comes every year, mom,” Evan said. “Just like always.”

“No, not like always,” Audrey said. “This is new.”

©2010 Pam Wells