When I started writing a recent post about cultural beliefs and archetypes related to aging and health issues, I have to confess that I wasn’t quite sure where it would end up. The plan was simply to visualize my inner Crone, ask her what she’d like to say on the subject, and wing it from there. I was pleasantly surprised when she offered to tell me a story.

Closing my eyes for a moment while I sipped my imaginary coffee, I listened. She began the tale with the traditional “Once upon a time,” and then she went on speaking in a smooth, flowing cadence…

——————————

In a far western desert valley, there lived a girl named Rose. The name suited her well because she climbed all over everything, just like the big pink roses on the trellis outside the kitchen window. She climbed pine trees, getting the sticky sap all over her saddle shoes and poodle skirts; and she climbed the high cliffs on both sides of the valley.

Her favorite spot to climb was the steepest part of the cliff, right next to a little stream that flowed out of the rocks and through her family’s small farm. A smooth ledge, almost all the way up, made the perfect place to sit and watch everything that happened in the valley. Sometimes she would lie down on the ledge and look at the clouds drifting by.

When her parents saw her up there, they scolded her about the danger. Rose had no fear of falling, and she imagined that she would keep on climbing to her favorite ledge forever. But eventually she grew up—as we all must—and her days of climbing cliffs became a distant memory. She spent time with friends, but she never married; and when her parents died, she inherited the farm and lived there alone.

She rarely felt lonely because she had a big shaggy dog, Jack, to keep her company. There were days when she felt unsettled, though, as if she had lost track of something that once had meant a lot to her. On a hot summer day, after going for a long walk with Jack, she came back to the house feeling tired and achy. A hawk passing over the farm made her glance up, toward the ledge on the cliff.

“I am starting to get old,” she said to herself, wondering what had become of the little girl who loved to climb. Had it really been that many years? Wanting to get such thoughts out of her mind, Rose impulsively decided that she might as well just go and climb that cliff right now. After all, there was nobody around to tell her to act her age.

She set off toward the cliff, taking long strides across the rocky ground. Jack happily trailed along, though he didn’t look as cheerful when Rose began to climb. She ignored his whine of concern as she pulled herself upward, searching for the handholds that once had been so familiar. It took a lot of effort. Sweat dripped down her face. The ledge still looked far away. Could this be the same climb that had felt so effortless in her younger days?

Nowhere to go but up, Rose told herself. It can’t really be that hard—after all, people say you’re only as old as you think you are.

The sound of splashing water soothed her as she climbed higher. On her right, the stream that sprang out of the cliff was flowing steadily. She placed a foot carefully to avoid a mossy rock that looked slick, and then she reached for the ledge.

Just as she started to pull herself up with aching arms, Rose lost her grip. The ledge hadn’t been as dry as she thought it was. She tried to catch herself, as she always had been able to do before; but she wasn’t nearly as slim or as limber as she once had been. She tumbled all the way down the cliff, breaking several bones in her feet and ankles.

Slowly, nudged on by Jack, she managed to crawl back to the house and reach a phone to call for help. The doctors at the county hospital patched her up as best they could; but even after they told her the bones had healed, putting weight on her feet was still painful. To get around the farm, she took slow, difficult steps, leaning heavily on a walking stick.

Almost every waking minute—which now included much of the night because her aching feet often kept her awake—Rose berated herself for having been such a fool as to think she could still climb that cliff. She also had a lot of anger toward the doctors, at first because they hadn’t completely fixed everything and, later, because they cut off her pain meds out of concern about addiction. Soon after that, she stopped going to town. It was just too hard, and she didn’t want to see anyone’s pitying faces. In fact, she didn’t want to see anyone—period.

Giving up any hope that she might ever be healthy enough to farm again, Rose leased much of her acreage to the power company for wind turbines. She arranged for her groceries and other supplies to be delivered. If there wasn’t anything perishable, she might leave the boxes on the porch for days. Nothing seemed to matter anymore.

After a while Rose’s old truck rusted out, and brambles grew around it. Weeds filled the yard. A cold snap one winter killed most of the climbing rose on the trellis. Rose didn’t care—she had no interest in looking out the kitchen window because that was the direction of the ledge on the cliff. She kept the curtains drawn and spent most of her days lying on the couch.

Jack, who faithfully kept her company, was by now an old dog. A veterinarian living nearby, whose name was Henry, was kind enough to make house calls. The day came, however, when Jack fell gravely ill, and there was nothing to be done.

When Henry came back with the urn after having Jack’s remains cremated, he also brought—much to Rose’s surprise—a small brown mixed-breed puppy.

“One of my clients was giving away the litter,” he explained in a deep, gruff voice, looking somewhat uncomfortable as he shuffled his big feet on the dusty hardwood floor. “I thought you might want him.”

“Well, you thought wrong,” Rose snapped. “Take him away.”

“Maybe just think about it for a bit, then. I’ve left a bag of puppy food on the porch.” Putting down the puppy, Henry scooted backward and was out the door before Rose realized what he was up to. By the time she struggled up off the couch and got to the door, Henry’s van was roaring away.

Rose’s first impulse was to shout something very nasty after him; but she didn’t want to frighten the puppy, who wasn’t to blame. Instead, she just said, “Oh, for pete’s sake!”

The puppy wagged his little tail happily, in the evident belief that she was talking to him. Rose couldn’t help but to smile at that; and then she told him, “All right, so it looks like we’re stuck here together for now—Petey.”

Although she gave him a name, Rose had every intention of giving him back to Henry at the first opportunity. The last thing she needed, as she saw it, was the nuisance of having a puppy around. She had to take Petey out for walks because he was small enough that he couldn’t be put outside unattended, or he’d be a tasty snack for a hawk or coyote. Leaning on her walking stick, she trudged along painfully on cold winter mornings while Petey, at the end of his leash, gave impatient yips.

As hard as it was, though, she had to admit that by the time Henry finally showed up about a month later, she was doing better. The more she got off the couch and moved around, the easier it seemed. By then, Petey was fairly well housebroken, and she had gotten used to seeing his perky face every day.

“I might keep him,” she allowed grudgingly. “Not making any promises, mind you.”

Henry just grinned.

Winter soon turned into spring, and Rose found that she had enough energy to start cleaning up the house and yard. She whacked weeds, cut back the half-dead rose on the trellis, and got rid of the old truck. Instead of just heating up random food from a can, sometimes she cooked a nice dinner and invited Henry over to eat with her.

Now that she was in better shape, Rose didn’t need to lean on her walking stick like she had before. She still carried it out of habit, though. Her pain, although no longer constant, hadn’t gone away. She still had twinges during the day and bone-deep aches that left her tossing and turning at night, often with her mind troubled by those old angry thoughts.

On a warm evening in midsummer, Rose was throwing a tennis ball for Petey to fetch. He had grown a fair amount but, still, he was a small dog—mostly terrier, she thought. She threw the ball especially far, and Petey dashed eagerly after it. Just then a large coyote bounded over a rise, heading straight for him.

The panicked dog fled toward the nearest cliff and somehow managed to scramble most of the way up. Rose ran toward the coyote, shouting and brandishing her walking stick until it ran away. Shaking in terror, Petey sat huddled on a ledge. It was the same ledge from which Rose had fallen; but, with her thoughts entirely on rescuing her dog, she didn’t even notice that until after she had climbed up. With Petey tucked under her arm, she carefully made her way back down to solid ground.

It wasn’t until Rose got back to the house that she realized she had climbed the cliff without any pain or difficulty. Climbing had felt natural, in fact—just like when she was a young girl. She hadn’t even remembered to pick up her walking stick, which still lay at the base of the cliff where she’d dropped it when the coyote ran off.

Just as soon as those thoughts came into Rose’s mind, the pain came back. But this time, instead of letting herself get overwhelmed by stale feelings of anger and helplessness, she opened the curtains wide and gazed out at a beautiful evening.

Rose sat down at the kitchen table, with a contented Petey wagging his tail at her feet. She sat with the pain until it faded into the last gleams of sunlight on the cliff, the pale blooms of the rosebush, and the stars coming out across the desert sky; and then she went to bed and slept soundly.

——————————

I put down my empty coffee cup and said to the Crone, “Thank you for the story, and for taking the time to visit with me. Both are very much appreciated!”

The Crone rummaged in her handbag for a dark red lipstick and touched up her lips before she answered. “Any time, dear. I’ve quite enjoyed your company.”

This is Part 22; click here to read Breaking the Ice from the beginning.
 

Ocean waves rolled gently along a virtual beach on an outgoing tide, with seagulls squabbling on the sand and a soundtrack to match. The air had a salty tang, and the thick carpet looked enough like sand that it would have taken a close inspection to tell the difference. If the sole inhabitant of the spaceship’s rec room had gotten out of his lounge chair, he could easily have imagined that he was walking on real sand; the carpet’s texture created an almost perfect illusion.

But as usual, nearly all of Woods’ attention was on the tablet in his hand. Four months had gone by since his accidental discovery that he could communicate via telepathy with an extraterrestrial creature taken from Europa, and he was still trying to work out just how the alien language functioned. With no background in linguistics, he was baffled more often than not. His subconscious mind had taken up a fair amount of the slack, however, converting some of the language’s visual images into what sounded like spoken English in his thoughts.

“The base layer of the language consists almost entirely of mathematical metaphors,” Woods said out loud, summing up the observations that he had been entering in his tablet. There also was a complicated overlay that looked like a graceful, flowing calligraphy, but by now he had given up on ever understanding any of that. It wasn’t for lack of trying. Last month, he had laboriously repeated an image of unbroken ice—which meant zero, the unknown, and probably a few other things too—in connection with parts of the calligraphy, using the ice-image to convey the question “What is this?”

About all he had gleaned from that tedious exercise was that the alien’s name was not in fact Tiny Leaf, as he had thought it to be. Rather, if he’d understood the translations with any degree of accuracy (which was certainly debatable), it was Six and a Half, Added to the Thirty-Second Part of the Whole that is Forty-Nine, Divided by Seven, Added to Three, Divided by Seven, Added to Four.

His overtaxed brain had rebelled at that and just kept on translating the name as Tiny Leaf anyway. Maybe all those numbers signified a genealogy, some kind of tribal identification, or the region where a particular family group lived. That went far beyond Woods’ realm of expertise, and he had no problem with leaving it for the linguists on Earth to sort out.

Assuming, of course, that he could find an effective way besides telepathy for the linguists and other scientists to communicate with Tiny Leaf. She had no eyes and apparently formed images of her surroundings by way of sonar, emitting high-pitched squeaks like a bat navigating through a jungle on a dark night. Although that ruled out teaching her to read by conventional means, surely a communication device suited to her needs could be built.

“Something with raised symbols,” Woods said, thinking out loud again; that would allow Tiny Leaf to identify them by touch. How to get started with such a project? He had no experience designing or building communication devices, but the ship had a capable engineer. Maybe Hioki, despite having shown some reluctance to discuss the telepathic images, could be persuaded to help. Even if he had been intimidated by the captain’s skeptical remarks or was a skeptic himself, Hioki might be willing to look into the matter further.

On the wall screen, the tide had just started to turn when Woods exited the program and left the room. He made his way along the ship’s main corridor and soon found Hioki in his small office just off the main engineering area. Evidently Hioki had spent more time than usual styling his long hair, which stuck out all over in elaborate spikes.

Stepping into the office, Woods got directly to the point, not having thought of any suitable small talk. “I believe it’s possible to communicate with the creatures who live on Europa by simply teaching them to use a waterproof numeric keypad, with both the input and output in raised symbols. Much of their language is made up of arithmetic-based metaphors.”

“Don’t say such things with the door open!” Hioki hissed, as a look of panic flashed across his face. Jumping up from the desk chair so fast that it almost toppled over, he shut the door before Woods even had time to completely process what he had said.

“It shouldn’t be all that hard to do,” Woods continued, without any clue as to what might explain Hioki’s odd reaction. “The technology exists, surely. We could…”

We,” Hioki was quick to interrupt, putting strong emphasis on the word, “are not going to do anything. And if you have the least bit of sense, you’ll forget that you ever thought about it.”

Harsh fluorescent light glinted off the knives in the lunch line of the university cafeteria. Mark turned away, trying only to focus on squeezing the ketchup onto his cheeseburger… [This is Part 21. Continue reading this installment, or read the story from the beginning.]

Going through his mail at the start of the workday, Woods skimmed the fan-letter summary… [This is Part 20. Continue reading this installment, or read the story from the beginning.]

“Hello,” said Tiny Leaf, her voice low and pleasant, a rich contralto that harmonized beautifully with the distant jingling of sleigh bells in the library program’s soundtrack… [This is Part 19. Continue reading this installment, or read the story from the beginning.]

Many thanks to Elesia Ashkenazy for kindly giving me a prompt for this story — a bluebird, a construction worker, and a fresh-baked pie.
 

Bluebird perched on a branch.

(Creative Commons image via flickr)
 

“Can you imagine anybody ever really buying a car as a Christmas present? Those holiday car commercials are totally ridiculous.”

Scowling at the TV, Marcy picked up another slice of pepperoni and sausage pizza from the box on the coffee table. She leaned back into the sagging old couch, trying to find a spot that was at least halfway comfortable. The coffee table wasn’t in much better shape, full of scratches and dings. That luxury car with its gift bows and ribbons looked as much of an alien scene as if it had been beamed from the moon.

“It’s just advertising,” Joe said calmly, sitting to her right. Not much ever bothered Joe; he was a construction worker who took one day at a time. Whenever Marcy got annoyed about something, he would point out that by next year she probably would have forgotten all about it.

And in truth, Marcy knew they had a lot to be thankful for. Now that the recession was over and the economy was looking up, Joe had steady work again, and Marcy finally had gotten a pay raise after going for years without one. Although they had gone through all their savings just to keep the bills paid, at least they’d had enough savings to get through those years without the house being foreclosed. Not all of their friends had been as lucky.

Take it one day at a time, Marcy reminded herself. Still, she was glad the commercial was over. It was never any fun to see things that made her feel poor.
 

construction

(Creative Commons image via flickr)
 

After work the next day, Joe went straight from the construction site to a nearby auto dealership and picked out a new midsize sedan to replace Marcy’s ancient clunker. Blue, of course. That was Marcy’s favorite color. Looking at the state Motor Vehicles website on his mobile phone, he found that the personalized license plate BLUBRD was available. And by donating a small extra fee to support the state park system, he could get a license plate that came with a picture of a bluebird in the corner. Just perfect for Marcy’s Christmas present.

He had told her several times already that the clunker needed replacing; it had stranded her at work not long ago, and he’d been out there in the parking lot replacing the starter motor in the dark while she held the flashlight. But Marcy didn’t feel comfortable with buying a new car after so many years of worrying about money. Whenever Joe mentioned it, her answer always was something like, “First we need to build our savings back up, and then we can think about it.”

Although he couldn’t blame Marcy for being cautious about spending, it just wasn’t healthy to go through life always feeling poor and deprived. So, he had made up his mind that this would be the year Marcy got a new car for Christmas, complete with holiday bows and ribbons just like in the commercials. The monthly payments would be manageable, even without putting any money down. He could live with watching TV on the old couch for a while longer.
 

Cherry pie with lattice top crust.

(Creative Commons image via flickr)
 

Marcy carried a fresh-baked cherry pie to the new coffee table on Christmas Eve and set the pie down carefully on a towel; it was still hot. She’d taken a vacation day and had the table delivered from the furniture store, as part of a fashionable matched set with a new couch and an end table, while Joe was at work. Although Joe had told her the worn-out old couch didn’t bother him at all, Marcy knew better; she had seen him taking ibuprofen for a sore back on mornings after he fell asleep on the couch watching sports. This would be the perfect Christmas gift for him.

Was that Joe’s pickup truck she heard just now? Marcy wasn’t sure. She had already shut the curtains because it was getting dark. She listened for a moment, but the garage door didn’t go up. Probably not Joe; he’d sent a text message a few minutes ago telling her that instead of coming directly home, he was going to do a bit of gift-wrapping with their friends Carol and Kent. Although Marcy wouldn’t have expected that their well-organized friends would still have wrapping to finish on Christmas Eve, she didn’t think much about it; after all, in the holiday rush, anyone could get behind on things.

So it was as much of a surprise as Joe could have wanted, when he came through the door grinning and told Marcy, “Take a look out the window.”

Pulling back the curtains, Marcy saw her new car in the twilight. It was decorated with shiny bright bows and ribbons in all colors, and even a pair of reindeer antlers made of cardboard and tinsel. Joe’s truck was parked on the street, just in front of Carol and Kent’s big SUV. Evidently they’d helped Joe to get the new car and his truck both home. Standing in the driveway next to the new car, they waved cheerfully when they saw Marcy through the window.

“But, but,” Marcy stammered, gesturing toward the furniture set, “I just spent most of the money in our savings account so you’d be comfortable on the couch! What if…”

Joe took a step toward Marcy and put a finger across her lips.

“No more what-ifs! We’re about to start a new year, and everything is going well. It’s time to feel confident about life again. The new furniture looks great, Marcy, and there’s no need to worry about it. Building those savings back up won’t take long at all.” Wrapping her up in a big hug with his strong arms, he went on to say, “Just a few years ago, we believed many things were possible. Such as, the family we were going to start before the recession hit. I want to get back to making those plans again, Marcy. We can’t keep on living in fear of the future.”

The delicious smell of the cherry pie rose from the coffee table, reminding Marcy of those simpler days when happiness had come so easily to her. Then, all at once, many things did indeed seem possible again; and for the first time in a very long time, thinking of the future made her smile.

Thanks to Carolyn at Nuggets of Gold for contributing a story prompt: hurricane, chameleon, and jellybeans.
 

Jellybeans of different colors in a green plastic bowl.

(Creative Commons image via flickr)
 

Ronda struggled to latch the storm shutters as the gusty winds came close to ripping them from her hands. Shut inside the cabin, her cocker spaniel Trevor barked once, a nervous yelp. “Just one more window to go, and then we’re done,” Ronda said loudly, to reassure herself as much as the dog. Fat drops of rain, just beginning to fall, spattered the hood of her nylon jacket. Sunset was still an hour away; but with a hurricane blowing in from the Gulf Coast, already it had gotten so dark that it looked like night.

Spending the winter in Florida had been her husband’s idea. Nolan was a traveling salesman, and Ronda had a small online business, so they didn’t have to stay in their little Indiana hometown but were free to live anywhere they wanted. Getting away from the snow and enjoying the sunny days and lovely wildlife of Florida had seemed like a great idea. But as it turned out, there hadn’t been much sun—three strong storms already, and it was only December.

Getting the last shutter fastened, Ronda hurried inside just ahead of a colossal downpour, hoping she hadn’t let any of that lovely Florida wildlife into the cabin with her. She didn’t mind the birds so much because they really were pretty, even though they often kept her awake late at night with their nonstop chirping and squawking. But all those scaly, beady-eyed reptiles, ew! Lizards and snakes everywhere, and the occasional alligator by the roadside—they gave her the creeps.

“We’ll be okay if the power goes out,” she said to Trevor, who wagged his tail as if he could understand her. “There’s plenty of fuel in the generator, food in the pantry, and a flashlight on the kitchen table.”

She took a quick glance in that direction while hanging up her jacket. Yup, there was the flashlight, next to a green plastic bowl full of jellybeans. All of a sudden, Trevor launched himself toward the table, barking furiously! Jellybeans flew everywhere, and the bowl hit the floor. Fortunately Ronda already had eaten most of her favorite flavors, and many of the spilled jellybeans were lime green, which she disliked.

Just then, the power flickered and went out. It came back on a second later, before Ronda reached the table. And that was a very good thing, because when the lights came on again they revealed a lime-green chameleon perched on the flashlight handle, right where Ronda had been about to reach—staring at her with its big bulging eyes.
 

Front view of a mostly green chameleon.

(Creative Commons image via flickr)
 

Trevor growled, Ronda shrieked, and the terrified chameleon leaped off the table and ran for its life! Opening the front door to shoo the chameleon out, Ronda grabbed Trevor by his collar so he wouldn’t go tearing after it. Rain splattered all over the hardwood floor before she could get the door closed, which was okay because the floor needed mopping anyway.

“You can’t have candy, it’s not good for doggies. But you were a brave guard dog, so you can get a treat!” Ronda gave Trevor one of his favorite Bacon Cheddar Biscuits to console him for not being able to eat the spilled jellybeans as she started sweeping them up in a dustpan.

She fervently hoped the chameleon hadn’t been hiding at the bottom of the bowl when she ate jellybeans earlier! And what was it doing here anyway—chameleons weren’t native to Florida, were they? Oh, well, people said all kinds of escaped exotic pets were breeding in the Florida swamps, and Ronda was definitely ready to believe it. Some harmless Indiana snow would be just the thing right about now, she thought, as a huge thunderclap shook the cabin.

“There’s no place like home!” she declared. Trevor wagged his tail agreeably.

Carolyn at Nuggets of Gold kindly provided me with a story prompt: Candy Corn, French Vanilla Coffee and a rainstorm.
 

Cornfield with candy corn decorations.

(Creative Commons image via flickr)
 

A chilly October rain clattered against the windows when Irene woke up. She had been dreaming about work, hurrying to finish a project while evil giant corn stalks sprouted from an overturned bowl of candy corn in the break room. At first she thought she’d overslept; but no, it was Saturday, and she didn’t have to go anywhere! Even if the rain turned to snow, she would be nice and cozy here at home with the heat on. She could stay in bed all morning if she wanted.

But then she remembered the new romance novel she’d been wanting to read. This would be a perfect morning to curl up on the couch with her Kindle and a cup of French Vanilla coffee. Quiet and peaceful, with no distractions. Just what she needed after a hectic week. She imagined she could smell the coffee already.

As soon as she opened the bedroom door, the coffee smell got stronger. Not French Vanilla, though it seemed familiar. And what was all that noise coming from the living room? She turned the corner and found her husband Rick sprawled on the couch in his shorts, watching mixed martial arts.

Every inch of the coffee table was totally covered with donuts, crumbs, candy bar wrappers, the morning newspaper, and a cup of that weirdly familiar coffee. The aroma left her thinking of Halloween parties, and something else—what was it that she had been dreaming about earlier? On the TV, some big tattooed guy was choking his opponent into unconsciousness on a bloody mat while the crowd cheered.

“Yeah! Awesome guillotine choke!” Rick grinned cheerfully and scratched his unshaven chin as the referee stopped the match. He moved over to make space on the couch. “Irene, you’re going to love this coffee! The supermarket was out of your favorite French Vanilla when I got the groceries yesterday, so I bought the latest seasonal K-cup variety instead—Candy Corn flavor!”

The rain and wind rattled the windowpanes even more, as if it might indeed be about to change over to snow, or at least freezing rain.

“Actually, I don’t feel much like drinking coffee today. I’m just going back to bed.” Irene pulled her robe more tightly around herself; she had been standing near the window where it was drafty. “And this afternoon, I plan to clean out all the junk that’s been piling up in the spare room. After that I’m going to paint the walls and buy some new furniture so that I can use it as a sitting area. A couch with a nice floral pattern would be just the thing, wouldn’t you say?”

Rick scratched his chin again, looking quite baffled. “Okay,” he mumbled after a while, turning his attention back to the TV as the next fight started.

This story’s prompt, contributed by Noelle Vignola, is from the poem Emerald Spider Between Rose Thorns by Dean Young: “Imagine, not even or really ever tasting a peach until well over 50, not once…”
 

Peach on a leafy, sunlit tree.

(Creative Commons image via flickr)
 

Young people in Texas are supposed to be adventurous, so I wasn’t at all surprised when my brother Davey grew up to be an oil worker. I never had a clue what got into him three years ago, though, when he moved to Alaska to work in the oilfields of the Arctic Circle. He had plenty to say about the beauty of the midnight sun, the aurora borealis, and the caribou herds thundering across the tundra; but as for me, well, I wouldn’t take all that in trade for one perfect peach from Gran’s backyard tree.

Davey got married last year. He met his bride Rosa, an Alaskan Native who grew up in a small village, when she started working for the oil company as an industrial nurse. Just before the Fourth of July, he brought Rosa and her mom Celeste here to Amarillo for a week’s visit. Both mother and daughter smiled a lot and were short and plump; they had lovely smooth complexions and big, dark, alert eyes. Celeste hadn’t ever traveled outside Alaska before. When I gave her a fresh-picked peach, she closed her eyes in delight after the first bite, with the juice running down her chin unnoticed.

The week went by all too fast. After we took our visitors (and how strange to think of Davey as a visitor!) to the airport for the return flight, Gran shook her head in pity as we started walking back across the parking lot. Her steel-gray curls drooped in the waves of heat rising from the asphalt.

“Just imagine, Lori Beth—imagine, not even or really ever tasting a peach until well over 50, not once. Oh, I suppose they must have grocery stores in Alaska, but really,” and Gran waved a hand dismissively, making clear that she wouldn’t count rock-hard peaches in grocery stores as real fruit or anything close to it.

I was just about to agree with her, and then I started thinking about when I’d first come here. Davey and I were born in San Diego. The first time we ever saw snow was when Mom brought us to Amarillo for what she said was a Christmas visit, just as a ferocious winter storm blew in off the prairie. We gleefully ran around building snowmen and snow castles, never thinking about why Mom crammed the old Ford’s trunk full of all our clothes if we were only staying for Christmas. Every time one of us asked when we’d go home, Gran just said, “Well, bless your heart, child,” and sent us out to play. We had no idea what was going on until some kids at our new school explained what a divorce was.

“I never saw snow till I was five,” I said, watching a plane’s takeoff as it circled around to the west, its long curved trail streaking into the setting sun.

Davey had told me that Rosa and Celeste’s ancestral language had dozens of words for different kinds of snow. Heavy and wet, powdery and light, a soft fresh snowfall on bare ground, old snow half-melted and then refrozen smooth as glass—when I thought about it, I saw how there could be so many words. But living in Texas, I’d never had occasion to think about it before.

Following my gaze toward the departing jet, Gran shook her head again. This was a different motion—a quick, impatient tossing of her curls as if to shoo away unwanted thoughts, like a mare plagued by flies.

“Well,” Gran finally said,” bless your heart.”

This is the final story in a series of three. Click here to read the first.
 

One tiny dot at a time, the daylilies are taking shape on the sun-splashed canvas, their yellow and orange trumpets vivid against the green-shadowed background. Serra can almost imagine herself in the long-ago tranquility of Monet’s garden—that is, if she ignores the skyscrapers on all sides, the rumbling traffic, the chattering pedestrians, and the buzzing of an edger as one of the park’s groundskeepers comes nearer.

After she finishes the painting, she’ll walk back to the tiny apartment she has reluctantly called home since her divorce three years ago. Serra never cared much for city life, but it’s not as if she has much of a choice now. After losing her middle-management job in the recession, she ended up stuck in long-term unemployment hell, and that was when her husband left her. No kids, thankfully. By now she has given up her car, her jewelry, and her collection of antique jewelry boxes, while trying to convince herself (without much success) that a minimalist lifestyle suits her better anyway.

Last week she’d had a particularly awful interview for an office assistant job that was far below her qualifications. The hiring manager, an older man with deep creases around his mouth that gave the look of a perpetual smile, hadn’t even gone through the usual checklist of questions before stopping mid-sentence to ask her, not unkindly, “Do you really want this job?”

Taken by surprise, Serra had been about to stammer a response when the manager had told her, even more gently, “You should have said yes already.”

Now as she’s standing at her easel, the hot sun on her face reminds her of the shame she had felt, stumbling out to the bus stop with her briefcase full of useless resumes. Of course she didn’t really want that crummy job, but the rent wasn’t going to pay itself, was it? She tries to focus her attention back on the painting, but there’s no hope for this latest effort at mindfulness: Monet’s imagined garden is long gone.

The nearby edger whines like an overgrown mosquito, loud and annoying. Serra turns her head to locate the sound, flipping a long braid back over her shoulder as she does so. She’d prefer to get her hair done in almost any other style, having been raised by a single mom named Rainbow who grew up on a commune and always had braids hanging down to her jeans pockets; but going to the salon every few weeks is another luxury Serra has given up.

A spot of white in her peripheral vision resolves into a man’s shirt. Serra realizes in annoyance that some guy she doesn’t know has been standing behind her, quietly watching her paint. He looks harmless enough in a business suit, and he’s kind of cute, with dark curly hair and a Latin complexion. She has no intention of letting some random guy waste her time, though. They always vanish when they find out how long she has been without a job, and she certainly doesn’t need any more of that.

She’s about to scowl and tell the guy to shove off; but then she notices the young woman with the edger, cheerfully waving hello to her. Before Serra knows it she’s smiling in response, feeling mysteriously lighter, as if she just put down something much weightier than the paintbrush she’d been holding. Two robins sitting in a purple plum tree chirp smugly, like they were in on the secret all along.

The man standing behind her smiles, too, a flash of bright white in a smooth bronze face. In a pleasant baritone, he introduces himself as Ricardo and says he’s the second-shift manager at the coffee shop across the street. This morning he’s been meeting with bankers about a loan to finance buying out the shop’s owner, who recently decided to change careers.

Serra knows he doesn’t mean to put her on the defensive. It’s just the usual conversation of people who have a place in the world—a category that doesn’t include her anymore. She feels the familiar tension creeping back into her jaw and shoulders as she gives her name. What else is there to say? But this time, something feels different; the stress doesn’t quite take hold. There is still a bit of a smile on her lips, a touch of the moment’s lightness.

“Serra is a nickname, it’s short for Serendipity,” she finds herself explaining, without the usual self-consciousness about having a silly hippie name. Ricardo compliments her on its uniqueness—he’s being sincere, as far as she can tell. When he follows up by asking if she is a professional artist, she figures that’s got to be nothing but flattery. Still, there doesn’t seem to be a reason to let this conversation bother her; so she goes ahead and tells Ricardo that she paints as a hobby and doesn’t have a job at present.

She expects he’ll make himself scarce quickly enough after hearing that. Instead, he asks what sort of work she does. Then, much to her surprise, she finds herself telling him the whole miserable story, which she generally never mentions at all. She has kept it bottled up all these years because the last thing she wants is anyone’s pity. Once it starts spilling out, though, Serra just can’t manage to put the lid back on.

Ricardo listens calmly. After a while he asks, “Have you ever waited tables? One of the servers at the coffee shop just quit.”

“Yes, when I was in college,” Serra says. She thinks back to those days, not all that long ago, when life was still an adventure full of shiny new possibilities. Somewhere along the way—she still doesn’t quite know how it happened—life turned into a restricted-access highway fenced in all around by plans and expectations, with ever-narrowing lanes and traffic moving so fast there was no way to slow down.

She never had time for painting after she got so busy. As much as she told herself she’d find a few hours on the weekend, there was always something else to do. The notion of spending a gorgeous summer day at the park, contemplating a bed of daylilies and slowly bringing them to life by way of tiny dots in the pointillist style, wouldn’t even have crossed her mind.

Maybe it was not her choice to travel the side roads and the detours, but Serra realizes she has learned something from them. As with the dots on her canvas, every moment of experience has its place in the picture. She finds to her surprise, when she tells Ricardo she’d be interested in the job at the coffee shop, this time she really means it.