Wednesday, February 17, 2016

As Was Their Habit

From our Aunt Bea's Plymouth Collection

     She shivered––not from the cool of the morning but rather the prospect of her daughter falling and thrashing about in panic out there. Though two decades has passed since her own dunking, the memory of the lake's limitless breadth and darkness endured.
      But, Jennifer possessed maddening confidence about these things. Such bravado her mother had to admire, though she still ranked waterskiing with rock climbing and certainly bungee jumping.
      Jenny stirred the golden water into a gentle meringue, skiing behind the boat of a new friend, a young man she'd met in the library several months ago. This, his first visit to the lake but he seemed confident as when they first met him at the Authors and Chocolates event, confident enough in these unfamiliar waters.
      He carved the broadest sweeps and Jenny trailed behind his craft, flexing in harmony with the chop off the water, her skis her wings. He called to her, using the electronic megaphone he brought with him this morning.
      He insisted on the megaphone as a key safety measure––one their daughter pooh-poohed but relented when her parents appeared so impressed with the precautions taken on her behalf. Thoughtful. Considerate. Responsible.  Good qualities. Approvable.
      "What are you doing?" Her husband sipped the morning coffee with a frown, letting his open newspaper brush the floor.
      "I'm riding with her," she announced, continuing to bend her knees as she stood between the open French doors. "See? I'm bouncing over the waves and the skis are going, 'ka-wumpf, ka-wumpf.' and I'm nearly breathless from the spray––oh!––it is so exhilarating." She sprung up and down, her legs remembering an old warm-up from their days at the rail, Miss Ballinger's ballet class.
      "Hah! I thought you were playing the cello."
      "Are my legs that bowed?"
      "Your legs are more supple than these football knees––creak with every bob she takes out there. "He settled into his favorite wicker chair. "But you, . . ."he folded his newspaper and creased it as was his habit. "You've always feared the water."
      "I prefer gazing at the lake, not swallowing it," she told him. "Learned my limitations, as you say."
      He scowled into his coffee cup."What am I drinking?"
      "It's the new brew I picked up yesterday. It sounded festive––'Caribbean Nights.'"
      He snorted and creased the paper again, to the page where a respected columnist held forth. "It's good," he said of her brew. "Glad it's not 'Sweepings Off the Jungle Floor.'"
      When she took her place across from him, she lifted her own cup and bestowed that "I-want-to-talk-about-something" smile upon him. The boat droned on, growing fainter with each sip. She cradled the mug, as was her habit, and watched him follow the column down until he signaled with a smirk of approval that this week's commentary was worth the effort of both writer and reader.
      Finished, he looked up at her over what he called his "Fessiwigs," the half-framed eyeglasses he now wore with greater frequency. "What?" he asked.
       "What do you mean, 'What?' ?"
“You know what.”
“Why, no, sweetheart.”
“The devil. What are you thinking?”
“You were smiling.”
‘I’ve been thinking.” She set her mug on the white wicker table between then and leaned towards him, cradling her best feature, that delicate chin where the mug had been. This, she knew, her most effective and characteristic “I’ve-been-thinking-and-I-want your-reaction” coquetry.
“All right then, about what?”
“About us . . . and them.”
“Yes, them. Mostly.”
“He’s being careful, just as you would. And I’m struck how . . . right she looks out there. On the water this morning.”
“She’s an athlete on land or sea.”
“And that comes from your side. My people were the painters and poets.”
“Artsy,” he offered.
“If you like. Refined.”
“Told y’ before. We Hanlons––we’re a race of brutes. Big, rough. Even our women were raw-boned––take my mother. Jenny gets her grace from your side.”
“What if I had been lanky and big-boned. Would you have married me?”
“Oh, lord.”
“Why bring that up?” He returned to his newspaper.
“Well? What?” She teased, cocking that eyebrow.
“How you do beguile.”
He flipped the paper out to leaf through its pages of state and national items, his least favorite sections read more out of duty as a decently informed citizen. He scanned the headlines, putting her off, his turn to tease. “Still at it?”
“I’d . . . just like to know.”
“We’ve been over this, dozen different angles.”
“What? Not this exact subject.”
“This, ‘would-you-marry-me-if?’ business.”
“Yes, but a girl likes to hear it.”
“Romance seems to be in the air,” he coughed and set his paper aside, leaned back, stretching until the wicker chair squeaked. “We had to inject some genes that would soften my side. Find a mate to whelp us some decent features . . . nice profiles and good markings.”
“Glory!” she laughed. “And are you through breeding the old bitch? Or do you need another litter?”
“Nah. She’s done her part.”
She picked up her mug, toasted him and he returned the mocking gesture. “It is good, Jack.” 
“What’s good?”
“‘Jungle Floor’.” She rose and took her pleasure from the lake now basking in the warmth of a midsummer’s day. The boat was returning and she followed its progress toward shore through the binoculars they kept close to the porch for bird sighting and deer watching.
“She looks like Angela out there,” she told him while keeping their daughter in focus.
“I’ve said so twenty times, have I not? Those two could be mother-daughter rather than aunt and niece.”
She lowered the big lenses to her chest. “Jenny could have children.”
“Jumpin’ the gun, aren’t y’?”
With the naked eye, one could tell the skiing was over, successfully, safely. And so, she trained the powerful glasses on her daughter first, now neck deep in the quiet water. then to the boat and the young man maneuvering to her side. He pulled her up and over, lifting her, soggy wetsuit and all, into its cushioned interior.
“Well,” the mother in her sighed.
“A relief. She looks  . . . radiant.”
“Quit spying,” he scolded.
“Not spying. Just gaining some . . . insight.”
“And you’re right––Angela is her spitting image these days. You can really see it in the morning light. Come see.”
“Yeah, yeah.” He waved it off, his typical gesture of dismissal.
“You’re being ‘grimcheux papi’ today.
“Just as Angela says. Your granddaughter knows you––”
“––What she knows . . . is all the claptrap the women of this family feed her.”
“Wasn’t that just precious, though, Jack, really? ‘Faux Grumpee’, a granddaughter’s assessment of her granddad’s  demeanor last summer? Oh, she has you figured, you and your veneer.” 
“Figured how to coax and wheedle and finagle, just like all the other females in this clan––”
“––It’s in the genes, dear. Those refined and sensitive traits we’ve supplied for the benefit of you brutish Hanlons.”
“So, now we can sire perceptive, intuitive, finely crafted . . . .”
“Works of art,” he concluded.
“Isn’t it wonderful? Jenny and then Angela and before then her clever mother.”
“Ten-year-old spouting off, trying to speak French. The language of diplomacy and all the more conniving––precocious little show-off.”
“Oh.” She screwed down her most exaggerated pout. “So mean and grumpee papi we are. Remember––?”
“––Chirpy grandchildren, today. What ever happened to ‘Should be seen and not heard.’?”
“That old saw went out with the wringer washer. Remember? ‘Now grandpa, we’re not going to be a grumpy granddad like you see on t. v., are we?’”
“Presumptuous little squirrel, her.” She caught the smirk he couldn’t hide.


The boaters were approaching the dock, and he glanced toward their arrival through the spokes of the deck railing. He sighed: how to react, how to regard this young man now in their Jenny's life?
“She could have children. Hmmm.” she said wistfully.
“It would be hard, love. Be a struggle for the both of them.”
“Yes, but she’d have us. She’s lucky we’re so close by.”
“And, . . .” he had returned to his paper, rustling it vigorously, “we’re lucky to have her.”
“What do you think?”
“What? Think what? Don’t get dreamy over there.” He could read her smile through simply hearing the undertone. No need to look up.
“They could get married, why not?”
“Dunno. He’d be taking on quite a load.”
“Well, it’s not like she’s dependent. She’s become self-sufficient basically. They could . . . thrive. We’d help.”
“Bridle that enthusiasm, girl.”
“There are hurdles, certainly. But they can be conquered. My goodness, look at all she’s done with herself. Out there today, waterskiing, for heaven’s sake. I can’t do that . . . but she can.”
He felt her reading him, luring him into some comment beyond a quick brush-off, some commitment which if not profound or enduring, would at least be important and positive enough for the both of them.
“You’re hopeful for her, aren’t you?” she asked.
“Of course. She’s as deserving as anyone, moreso than most. But there’s one thing we cannot give her, and that’s happiness with some good man.”
She scooted to him, wrenched the wicker chair around, and perched on its edge so their knees touched. Then she grabbed up their mugs of cold coffee, handed him his, and they clinked them together.
“Over the gums!” she piped
“Look out stomach,” he growled, voicing the line he was assigned. “Gol, you do get the bee in your bonnet,” and he swirled the mug’s contents, then swigged it all the way.
She jumped from her chair and ran to the deck’s railing. “Come on out! Come out to the sun,” she called.
“Yes,” he said and sighed flatly.
That she had returned to the French doors and waited for his compliance was fully expected. And he knew she would say nothing. She’d stand there, arms folded, leaning against the doorjamb, perhaps tapping a toe faintly. No escaping it.
“Now quit that spying.” He peered over his “Fezziwigs,” projecting he thought, his sternest expression.
She placed her hands behind her and leaned squarely against the door, that chin tucked under those soulful eyes. This gray-haired girl, he decided, remains as fully distracting as that night in the student union so many years ago.
He rose, tossed the sports section on the wicker divan for later and padded out behind her to greet the couple coming up the dock.
“He’ll have to get used to Ralph and Ralph to him,” he told her as they watched the young pair approach wth the big tawny dog at her side.
“Oh, that will happen. And Ralph loves boating, you proved that. I think they’re friends already.”
“Umm, not likely, pet. He’s devoted to one person and one alone. It’s their training.” He knew Ralph, her dog, could be offish, not threatening of course, but indifferent when others were around. His loyalty encompassed only Jenny, his mistress, not other members of the family.
And as Jack watched the trio climb the hill to the house, suddenly his throat grew tight and eyes welled.
How good and true was their daughter’s helper and friend! How deep its devotion and how inseparable they had grown over the years. And how observant of those ancient breeders to call his kind, “The Shepherd.”
For such was Ralph’s lot, guiding her up and down the steps of life, gentle yet firm and strong, her daughter’s constant companion. How willing to sacrifice a dozen, perhaps a hundred, more carefree dog lives than the one chosen by man for him. How easily he accepted the harness, the task hourly, daily, and how tirelessly he rose to her command.
My God, what fool could dare say animals have no souls?
He knew the wife at his side caught the tear glistening on that bright Sunday morning––he did not care––and when their daughter waved up at them, it seemed as if she could see again.
“How did she know to wave?” he asked, wiping his eye.
“She felt him wave.”
“He told her to.”
“No. She felt it. It’s instinctive.”
“Kind of a woman’s thing, I guess.”
“Yes, perhaps. Being blind helps.”
The young couple and the dog disappeared around the blue willow hedge that embraced the deck there. He told her: “Thank you.”
“For what?”
He didn’t answer.
“For what, hon?”
“I’d rather not discuss it right now.”

(When Aunt Bea and I called on the Hanlons one morning, they were leaving for a trip to visit Jenny and her new husband. This short story was developed from that brief encounter.
The dog pictured above could have been Ralph.) 

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