I can’t go home, not yet.
Home is still moving,
When it stops, maybe I’ll rejoin it.
But this moment is real;
I can feel your lips,
and join you with
such easy passion.
I know the heat, the
weight, the wetness of you
In the dark,
or pressed against me
at a dock, oblivious
to jealous eyes,
saying a goodbye,
me what feels right.
Sensing it would not last.
melts in the natural
grace of you.
Stay with me a while, dancer.
For these precious moments.
Let’s walk on the beach,
look in the sands for courage,
We’ll stroll to breakfast
just after dawn,
sit in the temporary
the unworldly turquoise
of the sea
knowing the tide
but, with luck, comes again.
How long the winter has lasted—like a Mahler
symphony, or an hour in the dentist’s chair.
In the fields the grasses are matted
and gray, making me think of June, when hay
and vetch burgeon in the heat, and warm rain
swells the globed buds of the peony.
Ice on the pond breaks into huge planes. One
sticks like a barge gone awry at the neck
of the bridge….The reeds Continue reading “Walking Alone in Late Winter”
Maybe it is time to forgive God
For the hundreds of women
who have rejected me over the years,
Starting in third grade,
(theoretically, of course, whether they knew it or not. And for the one or two who didn’t, but should have).
I’ve reached the point in life
too late where I
Would actually be of some
use to them,
Could gently walk forward with them without harm,
And be remembered, I trust, with generosity and a little fondness.
But I have reached the age
of their fathers,
And so, instead, have become,
And over there on the coasts, maybe it’s time to give hip irony the
last rites and heave-ho,
And just admit that it is as
empty and useless as
Yet another beer or Viagra
Your beauty, nude
not naked on the bed,
is far more a gift
than I ever expected.
I watch languor recline
1n your wise grey eyes
while slate hummingbirds
carved as earrings
dangle from golden hooks.
I quiver in your breath
and the ceiling fan halts
in that instant.
We look at one another
with both eyes open and close.
An intimate wind,
the cause of auroras,
moves north and south,
east and west,
then we swim
into one another.
It’s 4 a.m.
The world is asleep and I’m not.
The dream woke me. Yes, again. I was struggling to breathe, and that always makes for interesting dreams. As usual, I have no idea what it means.
In it, I had returned to a bad neighborhood in a city. Returned. I didn’t know when I had been there, but knew that I had. There was humiliation in the past, something to be faced and overcome.
I returned to a house that was in a faded old neighborhood and where a gang of violent people lived, and from which they preyed on others. The memory surfaced slowly. I had been there before, earlier, and had somehow handed over some money to the worst of them, someone who made me very afraid.
So I was back, and this time I had a big, silver, WWII-style officer’s .45 caliber pistol with me. I didn’t know how to use it, but I went in the house and was just vaguely thinking I had to get my money and property back, and maybe stop the threat. I don’t know.
On a downstairs couch a young man was sleeping, one of the gang. One of the nastier ones, but not the one in charge. I put the gun softly to his head and the cold touch of the cannon woke him up. I told him to give me the money back.
He just laughed and sneered and coughed out threats and scorn and defiance. A gun appeared in his hand from somewhere–a .38, I think. I remember seeing it clearly, seeing the nickel plating and the snubby barrel and the dark walnut handle, and at the same second being amazed that it was there at all.
We struggled. He was screaming curses and so was I. Somehow, the other gun disappeared. But all the noise had awakened the other guy, the leader, upstairs. I heard his footsteps in the hall, and then on the stairs.
He appeared in the doorway. He was skinny and young, but I knew who, and what, he was. The officer’s pistol in my hand seemed so heavy. I felt the fear again, like a wet cat in my chest.
But I raised the weapon anyway, against all of the pull of the earth, and shot him in the heart. The ..45 slug is slow, but massive, and we were just a few feet apart. I couldn’t miss, and didn’t. This sort of gun can do a lot of damage to a man, can open his back up with a hole you could stick your foot in.
The roar ripped the air and the room filled with smoke. His chest bloomed red and he flew backwards a foot or two and went down like a suit of clothes that have been thrown on the floor. The suddeness of death always surprises me; one minute a thing is alive, and the next it simply isn’t.
The underling I’d been struggling with stopped moving, and I put the barrel against his temple. Smoke curled out of it, and I smelled the blood and cordite, and everything seemed to be moving very slowly as it mixed with his light brown hair.
“Where’s my money now,” I said.
Then I woke up.
Two hours before dawn, and I was churned up from the struggle to breathe and the dream.
This time of day has it’s own familiar frame.
The neighbors are all asleep, it seems. The quiet is absolute, and even the drunks are finally off the roads.
I have the usual debate with myself: do I drink some warm milk or take a sleeping pill, or do I just give up and warm up some old coffee that’s still in the pot.
I don’t know yet. I think I’ll go out on the deck and have a cigarette and think about it, and enjoy the still cool morning that I have all to myself.
The air is still. Fall is coming. The crickets are the only noise. There must be some clouds up there, because I can’t see any stars. I light a cigarette and pull the smoke into my lungs, and feel it scraping the tissues inside and put a bitter taste in my mouth. There’s a small, bright light in the sky, and I wonder if it’s a planet. But it moves between the leaves of the redbud tree beside the deck and I realize it must be a satellite.
I think about my wife of 40 years asleep upstairs, and remember how I worked on the bathroom remodeling earlier in the evening and how that must have reassured her. She’s sick again, and she knows I’ve been unhappy. I know how that worries her. I think of my son, and how I must give them both a feeling of calm and safety as much as I can.
We went to bed together just a few hours ago. As we settled in to sleep, she turned toward me and I put my hand between her thighs, and felt the smoothness and warmth of her skin. She sighed and relaxed and put her hand on my side, sliding it up under my shirt and touched my skin. I felt the stir of desire, and in her, too, but we didn’t do anything about it as we were both tired and it was late.
Now I’ve shot a man, so to speak, and can’t sleep. Another day is coming, and I’m all alone in a dark house, on a dark street, in a dark world that will soon be light. The neighbors will start stirring before long.
I know this time of day too well. It is as though I am the only one to see it, and see it too often.
Sometimes a picture will ping a part of me, and capture a feeling I didn’t know I had. As I get older, I realize that most of what passed for desire or ambition or striving earlier in life has left little trace. Maybe it was necessary to go through it all, to raise a family, to satisfy whatever seemed to be the urgency of the day, but I can’t remember most of it now. It just seems not to matter. I do remember feeling that it did, once, but some mysterious process of living has worn it all away. It’s like reading a story about a battle in the Boer War. I know it all happened, but I don’t recognize the people and cannot touch their lives any longer.
Now, what seems most important is to find spots like this, in the gathering night with people who matter, and focus on the moment. To listen to the waters bubbling past, savor the way candles glow in the windows, and watch how the flickering light plays over the face of loved ones, leaned in to taste the food, leaned back to sip the wine and laughing. Those moments have an immortality that means more with each passing, precious day. Why did I not see this before?
*When God created woman he was working late on the 6th day…….
An angel came by and asked.” Why spend so much time on her?”
The lord answered. “Have you seen all the specifications I have to meet to shape her?”
She must function on all kinds of situations,
She must be able to embrace several kids at the same time,
Have a hug that can heal anything from a bruised knee to a broken heart,
She must do all this with only two hands,”She cures herself when sick and can work 18 hours a day”
THE ANGEL was impressed “Just two hands…..impossible!
And this is the standard model?”
The Angel came closer and touched the woman
“But you have made her so soft, Lord”.
“She is soft”, said the Lord,
“But I have made her strong. You can’t imagine what she can endure and overcome.”
“Can she think?” The Angel asked…
The Lord answered. “Not only can she think, she can reason and negotiate.”
The Angel touched her cheeks….
“Lord, it seems this creation is leaking! You have put too many burdens on her”
“She is not leaking…it is a tear” The Lord corrected the Angel…
“What’s it for?” Asked the Angel….. .
The Lord said. “Tears are her way of expressing her grief, her doubts, her love, her loneliness, her suffering and her pride.”…
This made a big impression on the Angel,
“Lord, you are a genius. You thought of everything.
A woman is indeed marvellous”
Lord said.”Indeed she is.
She has strength that amazes a man.
She can handle trouble and carry heavy burdens.
She holds happiness, love and opinions.
She smiles when she feels like screaming.
She sings when she feels like crying, cries when happy and laughs when afraid.
She fights for what she believes in.
Her love is unconditional.
Her heart is broken when a next-of-kin or a friend dies but she finds strength to get on with life”
The Angel asked: “So she is a perfect being?”
The lord replied: “No. She has just one drawback
She often forgets what she is worth.”
*As is often the case with the InterWebs, this was posted to Facebook by someone and no author was credited. It’s not my writing, although it is something men ought to tell women more often.
One day you’re thinking about ordinary things,
Groceries, taxes, walking the dog, the upcoming weekend,
Problems a friend is having, plans to celebrate a graduation,
Finances, cleaning out the garage,
And all the plans… trips we wanted to take,
Places to finally see, places we put off seeing
Until the kids were launched, happy, safe.
Then we hear thunder over the horizon,
Like the pounding of many hooves,
And the sky darkens, the air grows cold, the sun loses all warmth.
The pounding, the thunder, the messengers’ announcement
Comes up through your feet, sinks into your bones, and you know what it is.
Fear grips your heart, you clutch each other in silent recognition.
Again. Again. Not again.
Plans change in the instant, one one phone call,
Plans are such feeble things, rattled so easily
And so effortlessly by the sound of thunder,
Thudding hooves coming this way, and there is no escape.
Let me hold you tight, whisper in your ear the words I dreaded
I’d say again: “I’ve got you. I’m here. We have to saddle up again. The thunder is coming.
The hurricane will be upon us soon. There isn’t much time.”
I hope the author won’t mind me sharing this here, especially since I do it because she’s come up with an unexpected and fresh image or two, and that’s a hard thing to do. That last line is a surprise that hides some troubled days in the past, I suspect. There will be plenty of cloying and sweet sentiments flying about, and Hallmark will make a killing, in any case. (I put the link where you can buy her book. There’s that, too. 🙂 )
by Carol Ann Duffy
Not a red rose or a satin heart.
I give you an onion.
It is a moon wrapped in brown paper.
It promises light
like the careful undressing of love.
It will blind you with tears
like a lover.
It will make your reflection
a wobbling photo of grief.
I am trying to be truthful.
Not a cute card or a kissogram.
I give you an onion.
Its fierce kiss will stay on your lips,
possessive and faithful
as we are,
for as long as we are.
Its platinum loops shrink to a wedding-ring,
if you like.
Its scent will cling to your fingers,
cling to your knife.
The horse snuffles in the morning fog,
Feeling the stirrings of his rider,
Smelling the fear and excitement.
The call of battle is on the dawn breezes,
Trumpet and drums in the distance.
The horse’s ears flicker forward and back at phantoms,
At distant whinnying, at visions of danger,
Chuckling deep in his chest, shuddering and blowing
Steaming blasts from quivering nostrils.
I must go soon.
How would you have me speak to you?
I truly no longer know.
Would you have me remain mute, for fear that my words
Bring pain, the knowing that you were once and still, truly loved?
It was just not enough.
Would you have me ask you why?
Would you tell me, this time?
Would you look at me again, with guarded eyes,
Neither regret nor reproach passing through to the outside, to me?
And would you turn away? Again?
Would you have me tell you one last time anyway, listening without reply,
Leaning into the words like a sultan’s captive would,
In the cool shadows, listening—through the
Carved screen of the harem,
Cheek pressed to cold stone and carved rosewood—to whispered words
That pierce with sweetness that makes you bleed?
In the night, from the courtyard below.
Would you want me to speak plainly as a man who wants a woman,
Who speaks of running his hands over willing, swelling flesh,
Rejoices in your voice, perfect and rising,
Touches your lips with his?
Who caresses you with words,
And conjures you open like a rose in the morning dew,
To make you whisper soft things into his ear,
To try to hold him with tears?
Would you have me simply not speak to you at all,
Let the silences stretch forever, so that you would not
Feel so keenly the depth of what you have lost?
The orders have come. We are off, our horses chuffing and stamping
Raising dust and answering some ancient call to battle.
It is too late. I am called. I may not return.
Laugh, and the world laughs with you; Weep, and you weep alone. For the sad old earth must borrow it’s mirth, But has trouble enough of its own. Sing, and the hills will answer; Sigh, it is lost on the air. The echoes bound to a joyful sound, But shrink from voicing care.
Rejoice, and men will seek you; Grieve, and they turn and go. They want full measure of all your pleasure, But they do not need your woe. Be glad, and your friends are many; Be sad, and you lose them all. There are none to decline your nectared wine, But alone you must drink life’s gall.
Feast, and your halls are crowded; Fast, and the world goes by. Succeed and give, and it helps you live, But no man can help you die. There is room in the halls of pleasure For a long and lordly train, But one by one we must all file on Through the narrow aisles of pain.
What’s happened so far:Ted’s old love, Miriam, is on the run from some seriously bad people and fears she’s been betrayed, as well. She has no where to turn. She decides she can only find Ted and throw herself on his mercy, knowing he probably won’t be happy to see her, given that she abandoned him and ran away without a word. She’s run across the country by train and car, appearing across the street from the old mansion he’s restoring in the middle of a epochal thunderstorm. While deciding whether to knock on his door, having multiple second thoughts about doing this, she’s knocked down by a nearby lightening strike and nearly drowned by the heaviest rain she’s ever experienced. With her last bit of strength, half conscious, she staggers up onto his porch and pounds on his door. He doesn’t recognize her at first, but then does.
She looked like a body that had been dragged along the bottom of a river, hitting sunken debris along the way and had been thrown up onto the porch and then groomed with a blowtorch. Her hair was plastered to her head and the face— which had an angry bruise on her forehead and the right side — was shockingly unrecognizable in the reflection from the glass of the front door. Water collected at her feet and she shook with tremors of shock and cold. She felt light-headed and sick at her stomach. A pool of red, blood diluted by rainwater, was growing at her feet.
After staring at her for what felt like hours—but was only a couple of seconds—his expression changed. He focused on her eyes, and his narrowed. Then, his face shifted from confusion to shock when he realized who it was standing there. His mouth opened and closed like a fish’s. He opened the door, but still couldn’t speak.
“Hi, T-t-ted,” Miriam said through chattering teeth, feeling her legs start to wobble. It sounded like someone else was talking. No food and not much sleep for nearly three days, and now electrocution, shock and hypothermia. She had the odd sensation of floating up near the porch light, watching herself and Ted facing one another. She looked half-dead, and her spirit had almost left her body, in fact. Her knees buckled and her eyes rolled back as she fell forward.
Just before she blacked out, she felt his arms catch her and inhaled the familiar smell of him. The vague ache she’d felt for many months escaped her like an exhalation of stale air held inside for far too long. “Oh, God….” She heard someone say in her voice from far away.
She felt arms catch her, hold her up. Then everything went dark.
Sunlight wormed itself through a gap in wooden shutters and crept across the floor until it found Miriam’s face. Like warm fingers, it traced the outlines of cheek and jaw, caressed the bruised face and lit the fine hairs on her cheek. A light breeze ruffled sheer lace curtains with edges embroidered in silk, and gradually nudged the shutters open. More sun brightened the room, and the spring aromas of warming earth and flowers began to fill the room.
The woman with many names and many secrets lay on her back under a fluffy white down comforter in a large, iron-framed Victorian bed with the head against a wall, in a corner room. On either side were two windows facing the morning sun. A third window in a wall to her left faced west, shade-dappled by a giant maple tree. All had two sets of shutters, top and bottom, all but one were closed. The latch on that one had not been secured tightly and it was through a slowly widening crack that the the sun and spring air pushed in and insistently pulled her from the darkness.
She stirred, images of herself floating up from the depths of a well toward a small circle of light above running through her awakening consciousness like fragments of an old movie. She delayed opening her eyes, her mind momentarily free of thought in that moment suspended between one world and the next. The warmth of the sun on her bruised skin was welcome and healing, and she savored it, content to pause and let her senses return.
Like an engine that had been flooded, her mind turned hesitantly and with effort. It was still muzzy and fitful, too rebellious to focus on any one thing at first. But as the moments passed, it gained strength and she pushed through the last of the water in the well and came back to herself, and knew she was safe.
As she had done as a child waking on a lazy Saturday morning in her mother’s house the kibbutz in the lower Gallilee, she played the waking game, kept her eyes closed and explored with her skin and nose and ears. Flowers bloomed there, too.
She was warm, that registered first. She was covered in something soft and light. She heard birdsong washing in through the window, and sniffed the clean scent of spring. Her ears strained to hear beyond the twittering chorus, and heard a car’s engine and the swish of tires on a street that wasn’t too far away, to her left. A bell in a nearby church sounded nine times. She didn’t consciously count the strikes, but as usual, some part of her brain just took care of that and reported it to her. This filled her with relief; perhaps she would be OK after all.
Her body began to remind her of less pleasant things: a dull ache from her forehead and the side of her head brought back the desperate struggles days before in Henry’s house, 3,000 miles away. The skin on her forehead also felt tight and hot, like a burn. Her right hip and thigh ached. She felt the lump over her eye, wincing at the pain that conjured up. She ran fingers lightly over her temple and felt the swelling and the harsh stubble of scorched hair. Her head was splitting; she remembered the lighting strike. A slight tingle and numbness in her fingertips made her rub them together, and sharp stabs of pain from two fingers told her of damage there.
After cataloguing the injuries, she pushed them away and opened her eyes. She saw a large room with tall windows, wood trim and a pleasant feeling. Turning her head to both sides hurt, but she took in the dimensions of the room. A big wooden door, closed, was directly opposite the foot of the bed. She sensed, rather than saw, the windows behind her. The shuttered window to her left let through the moving shadows of leaves from a large tree. There was a wingback chair and ottoman by the bed on her right, and a wooden antique dresser with a marble top and beveled mirror in a tall frame sat beside the door. The room was probably 15 or 20 feet on a side, and had the look and smell of being recently repainted, or remodeled. Everything looked too smooth and fresh to be as old as the house looked from the outside.
Miriam —that was her actual name, she reminded herself—tried to sit up but the heavy bruise to her hip and thigh had stiffened. She remembered the confusing last few hours in the rain and dark. A fragment of memory of herself at Ted’s door. A shaky image of a drowned and burned woman distorted in beveled glass. An old woman patting her cheek. A train ride. A long drive to get here. Hiding in a closet. A beating. It was all mixed up and confusing.
With a second effort, and grunting against the pain, she pushed herself up to a sitting position. She lifted the white comforter to see that she wore men’s pajamas. Lifting her hips, she slipped the elastic waistband down and saw a wrap around her thigh, the edges of a purple and red bruise peeking out from the edges. Higher up, another bruise from the corner of Henry’s counter top remained, but was darker and hurt less. Still, everything hurt, even her hair. She closed her eyes again, moaned and slumped back against the carved wooden headboard, the comforter falling down to her waist.
Alarmed, she pulled it up under her chin wondering if anyone else was there, watching.
She was alone and relaxed, but her eyes fell on the chair next and saw jeans, a sweatshirt, sandals, a bra and some lacy underwear laid out there, apparently for her. With one last suspicious glance around, she slid legs out from under the covers, dropped her feet gingerly to the carpet, limped to the chair and dressed. The things didn’t fit too badly, which made her absently wonder who had picked them out and put them there—and who had undressed her, washed her, dressed her wounds, and put her to bed. She was grateful, in any case.
She limped over to a closet door and peeked in. Nope, no women’s clothes in there, and there was nothing feminine on the dresser. It had the feeling of a guest room, then.
She walked slowly—testing her muscles, wincing at each step—to the western window, unlatched the shutter and looked out. It was one of those exquisite mornings in early spring where the air is soft and shares your relief that winter is finally over. The storm had gone, leaving a scene bright and washed clean like a morning at the beginning of the world. The sun blazed down on flowers bobbing in the breeze around foundations of houses across the street, and the whole scene looked so wholesome she couldn’t take it all in after what she’d been through. She closed her eyes again and leaned on the window sill, breathing deep the clear air and scents of blooms. There was a lilac somewhere near sending its fragrance up on on currents of air.
Turning, she stretched out her stride to loosen up her stiffness more, and made it to the door in seven slow steps. The door, solid, substantial oak like the rest of the room’s wide trim, sported old-style brass hinges and a doorknob with an elaborate filigree pattern pressed into it. She listened at the door for a moment. Hearing nothing but with habitual caution, she opened the door a few inches and saw a wide hallway with doors— to other bedrooms?— another hallway to her right, at right angles to the one she was examining. In the same direction was a set of stairs leading to the floor above. At her end of the hallway, opposite the door, a wide staircase lead down.
This place must go on in all sorts of directions, she mused, intrigued. There was no one in sight, but she smelled coffee—her drug of choice— bacon and other incredible kitchen smells. Her stomach lurched and rumbled, reminding her that she hadn’t eaten for a long time.
Time to go downstairs. After all, she mused, blushing a little at the thought, it was probably Ted who cleaned her up, bound her wounds and put her to bed last night. He’d gotten to meet her then, in a manner of speaking. The thought was not entirely unpleasant.
She walked toward the stairs that lead toward the smells of breakfast, taking in the details. Her near-photographic memory was both a natural gift and part of her training. Very little escaped notice and was filed away automatically. A part of her brain noted details, such as a paint can left in the hall corner, a look of recently finished walls and floors, new oriental carpet runners in every direction–and she could smell fresh paint and plaster. She could tell that this had been a major restoration. There were plaster walls, oak trim everywhere, and a marquetry floor with two or three kinds of wood. The Ted she remembered could never have decorated this on his own, so he had either hired someone pretty good, or there was another woman in the picture.
To her surprise, the latter thought sent a mini-tremor of jealousy through her. She shook her head.
“Hardly have a right to be jealous, do you?” she scolded herself under her breath. “None of your business now.” She clamped down on the emotions that had stirred and started down the stairs, her lips set in a thin line. “We’ll see what’s what, first.” Little red spots remained on her cheeks.
The plush pile of the carpet runner down the center of the stairway silenced her footfalls. She moved deliberately, holding onto the railing next to the wall, unable to reach across the width of the stairs to touch the other railing. It was a long way down—13 steps, she noted automatically. At a glance, she logged the number of spindles in the railing—26—and that one halfway down was slightly turned. She corrected that to match all the others on her way past.
The enticing aroma of coffee got stronger by the time she reached the bottom, but the stiffness in her legs made it slow going. By the time she neared the bottom, though, she was moving more purposefully. She paused on the last step to look around and listen, sniffing the air, then stepped down onto a matching area carpet on more fine wood flooring. Normally unimpressed with wealth, she was becoming aware that this place, while old, had “good bones,” as her father would have said. The place exuded 19th Century quality without shouting about it.
She stood for a moment at the bottom of the steps where a long central hallway widened as it stretched to the right and left. She took a few steps to the right and passed a large room with pocket doors partially opened, and then another larger room in the front of the house. A short hallway led to an outside door on the right. On the left were doors closed on spaces she couldn’t guess the uses of, and then another front room, this one obviously appointed as a library with floor-to-ceiling bookcases and a fireplace with an elaborate carved black marble mantle. Wingback chairs flanked the fireplace, each with a round side table of oak in an older style. A built-in window seat stretched across the front, with more bookshelves built in underneath.
To the left, at the end of the room that would easily hold two of her last apartment, was another set of nine-foot-tall pocket doors. She stepped over to the center and moved them apart with surprisingly small effort, as they were probably 300 pounds of thick old wood each. But the balance was so good that they slid apart easily. She stepped through into a dining room. An antique table of highly polished dark wood stretched half of the length of the room, with ten high-back chairs of matching color and style tucked neatly all around, four on each side and one at each end. A matching sideboard sat in the back corner, and another marble fireplace, slightly smaller that the one in the front room and faced with white, veined marble and bright brass andirons, sat in the middle of the outside wall, flanked by a pair of eight-foot-tall bay windows. Even with no lights burning, the room was ablaze with sunlight.
Stepping to a side door, she opened it and found herself back in the hallway, near the stairs she’d descended a few moments before. She heard the clatter of dishes down the hall to the right, and saw someone move across a doorway.
She took a deep breath and moved toward the sounds and the smell of coffee and food. The coffee would help with the headache and she couldn’t resist the allure of the aroma any longer.
At the threshold, she stopped again and watched Ted’s back as he worked on something at the stove. A kitchen table to the right was set for two, and more sunlight was bursting into the room from another big bay window beside it. A lanky chocolate Lab had caught her scent already, and raised his head and was watching her from his spot under the table. He unfolded himself from the floor and ambled over, tail wagging like he’d known her all his life.
She scratched behind his ears and looked up, realizing Ted hadn’t heard anything yet over the music of a radio he had on.
He looked different around the edges, but the same at the center: A little thinner, perhaps, but with some grey at the temples that hadn’t been there a year ago. The hair was shorter. He was humming along tunelessly like she remembered, something that sounded like a mixture of an old Stones tune and a little Count Basie, and completely unrelated to the song that was playing. She smiled. Typical. He wore a short-sleeved yellow polo shirt and khaki slacks, well-worn moccasins and no socks.
His arms were tanned and looked better muscled than she remembered, as did the shoulders that looked broader and solid under the shirt’s fabric. The back of his neck was ruddy from the sun. Overall, he was in better shape and had lost the flabby, disheveled, half-crazed look of his life in New York. There, he’d lived mainly on adrenaline, beer, coffee, cold pizza and vending machine food and more beer. Whatever else had happened, moving here seemed to have been good for him. She approved.
A bright red cardinal landed on a branch of a small tree just outside the window, looked sharply around a few times with a combative manner, and sounded the penetrating clear call notes that warned any competitors that he was master of this territory now.
She heard the powerful song from outside and watched him, comb flashing angrily, and felt the pride and challenge of his brash music of survival go through her. She did not realize Ted had turned at the cardinal’s call, as well, and had caught sight of her from the corner of his eye. He put a skillet down and turned the gas flame off. He switched off the radio and turned and stood, waiting. His face was not unfriendly, but impassive.
She turned her head as the music stopped and looked into his eyes for the first time in more than a year. She opened her mouth once, then closed it.
The silence stretched.
“Hungry?,” he said, turning back to the stove.
All she could do was nod once, suddenly shy and tongue-tied, then realized he couldn’t see her. The lab bumped her hand with his head, wanting her to pet him some more. When she didn’t, he sniffed her fingertips and touched them with just the tip of his tongue.
Ted pointed to the table with his hand and arm outstretched, without turning. “Why don’t you sit down. I’ll get things together. And—“ He paused, turning from the waist up and looking at her a long second “— we’ll eat.”
As he dialed up the gas flame under the skillet, he started whistling that tuneless tune again.
She nodded to his back, felt foolish, then walked over to the table and sat at the end so she could watch him. The dog escorted her, side pressed against her legs slightly.
Ted put eggs and bacon on a platter, poured juice and two coffees, put it all on a big tray and carried it to the table. He put a glass of orange juice in front of her and the platter in the middle of the table. Abandoning any pretense or etiquette in sudden, ravenous hunger, she pulled the empty plate in front of her, grabbed the platter and scooped eggs and meat onto it, then slices of toast while he poured her coffee. He moved to the other end of the table and pulled the platter to his side and helped himself. He put the pot of coffee halfway between them.
Miriam made the food disappear with efficiency. He watched in fascination as so much food went into such a small person so quickly. She ate one helping without looking at him, chewing. He pushed the platter back to her and she loaded her plate up again. She drank the juice and coffee gratefully, then poured another of each. Ted ate without a word passing between them, finished and sat back, sipped coffee and looked out the window while she ate. His thoughts were tripping over themselves.
He had seen her the night before, of course, but she looked more like the accident victim she was than the remarkably restored woman at his table. He hadn’t been affected by her nakedness in the ways he would have been at almost any other time. Besides, Rose had been there and helped clean Miriam up, bandage her wounds and get her into bed. Rose had picked out the clothes.
He reflected on that scene, wondering if he’d have been as composed and business-like if Rose’s ex-husband had dropped in out of the deluge, babbling incoherently, the way Miriam had talked in her delirium as they worked on her together.
Not bloody likely, he knew. He’d have been more likely to stop the yammering of the man by putting a pillow over his face and holding it there.
But not Rose. She was full of surprises, that one.
But the woman he’d once loved to the point of insanity, the woman who had run away without a word, was sitting at his table.
He felt equal parts anger, intense relief, and an odd flutter of the heart.
I’m not terribly religious, at least in the usual sense. I almost never quote Bible verses. But this one has stuck in my head from my childhood, like a point of pure light that helps when the path is dark, when the casual evil in others gets to be too much. The past few days have been difficult. The details aren’t important; just the usual crap everyone has. But the week is over and this verse came to mind unbidden. That must mean something.
Love suffers long and is kind;
love does not envy;
love does not parade itself, is not puffed up;
does not behave rudely, does not seek its own,
is not provoked, thinks no evil;
does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth;
bears all things, believes all things,
hopes all things, endures all things.
Love never fails.
Last installment for a while. I’m working on later chapters, and am realizing these earlier ones need some editing, which I don’t have the time to do now. I’ve posted this before, but made a few tweaks today and decided to repost. -H
Her name was Rose Tyler, like the 10th Dr. Who’s traveling companion.
This Rose was from New Jersey, though, and was part owner of a bar and restaurant in the old mill. She moved to Mossy Creek from a working-class neighborhood after a bad marriage ended. She’d worked as a translator at the UN. No one could learn more than that. Several had tried.
She had the air of someone who had been let down too many times. While she was friendly and exchanged sometimes vulgar banter with regulars, her eyes were always a little watchful and wary behind the smile.
Ted read her that life had not been one that lent itself to easy fantasies. More than one half-drunk male customer had learned some choice New Jersey words, too, if he laid a hand on her.
He met her the first day he was in town, listened to her conversation and quickly placed her origins and attitude. He kept his distance at first, but found that he ended up there a few nights a week after working on the house. He didn’t share much of himself, either, and resisted enough of the ways the locals had of prying without being rude. He and Rose had both been let down too many times, and each had learned to value their privacy. They circled one another, closer and closer, without words.
After a week of almost daily visits and neutral pleasantries, though, he hurried to lunch more than he used to, and she looked up and smiled when he came in, a little more than was really required. That made him happy.
On a sleepy late April afternoon, he was later than usual, held up by an argument with a painter about an estimate that had ballooned out of control. By the time he got to the Mill, he was hungry and grumpy.
The parking lot was empty, as was the bar. Rose had her back to the door and was cleaning glasses, listening to music on a stereo and obviously lost in some private thoughts. Ted recognized the song she had on, one of his favorites, “Suite Judy Blue Eyes,” by Crosby, Stills and Nash. The lyrics at the beginning were wafting around the dark corners of the old room:
It’s getting to the point Where I’m no fun anymore I am sorry Sometimes it hurts so badly I must cry out loud I am lonely I am yours, you are mine You are what you are You make it hard….
She was somewhere in her early 40s, but was fit and curvy, and her partner in the business was the chef. Ted discovered eventually, and to his delight, that Ronald already was involved with Elliot. Elliot lived in Pittsburgh where he was a TV producer, and commuted on weekends.
Rose wore a simple black skirt that flattered her hips and legs, and a starched white blouse. Her sandy-blond hair was tied up in a bun and held with a carved wooden pin, but some hair escaped confinement in a borderline wild way that he thought was charming. As she turned to put the wine glasses into the overhead rack, she turned slightly and her breasts strained against the fabric in a way that he approved of completely. He noticed she wore a plain gold chain necklace with a small cross that rested in some cleavage that was showing. He noticed that more this day because the second button was undone more than usual. He smiled to himself. Not that he hadn’t noticed her before, but that day he realized that his interest in her was something that needed to be admitted. He realized that he had stopped just inside the bar’s door and was staring, just as she caught him out of the corner of her eye, saw how he was looking at her and slowly lowered her arm smiled.
At that moment, the song slid into the next to the last stanza —
What have you got to lose? Chestnut brown canary Ruby throated sparrow Sing the song, don’t be long Thrill me to the marrow Voices of the angels, ring around the moonlight Asking me, said she so free How can you catch the sparrow? Lacy, lilting, leery, losing love, lamenting Change my life, make it right Be my lady
They both laughed at the same time. And then did what two people do at times like that: they pretended the moment hadn’t happened.
“Hey there,” she said, a little too brightly, “I was wondering if you were going to be in today. The usual? ”
Ted tried to move, but only managed to bump into one of the chairs at a table near the door, nearly knocking it over. He fumbled it back upright, feeling as clumsy as a teenager at his first prom. Rose seemed amused.
“Um, yes. Let’s start with an Ayinger. And could you ask Ronald to whip up a corned beef platter?”
“Of course,” she said, slight color tinging her cheeks, fumbling a bit herself as she put the order through on the computer to the kitchen and filled a frosted glass with the Bavarian wheat beer.
She slid the beer across the counter and leaned in against the inside edge with both hands.
He caught a whiff of her perfume and noticed a strand of hair dangling by one ear. It suddenly got a little harder to breathe.
“How’s the work on the house going? Still fighting with Harold about the painting bill?”
Nothing was secret in this town, especially if you were a barber or bartender.
“Harold’s been sniffing paint fumes too long,” Ted said with a wry smile, gratefully sipping the ice-cold liquid and wiping the foam from his lip with the napkin she’d put by the glass. “But I think we’ve finally got it settled. That’s what I was just finishing up. He says he’ll be done with the upstairs bedrooms in a couple of days, and that’s about all there is to do. He’d better be, too. The decorators are coming Monday to hang curtains, put the carpets down and make it all pretty and such.”
“I’ve been waiting to get an invitation to see the place, and I’m tired of waiting,” Rose said. “When can I come over and see if I approve?”
He was very aware of her proximity, and his hands felt like he was wearing boxing gloves. Picking that sandwich up was going to be a problem.
“Harold just had his deadline moved up. Give me two days. How does Thursday night sound, around 7 for a dinner? I’ve learned to be a pretty good chef since living alone.”
“I’d love that. But it’ll have to be a little later, after nine. Ronald closes up Thursdays for me anyway. Would that work? I’ll bring the wine. We just got a very nice Sirrah in from California, and I’ve been wanting to try it out.”
They talked for a bit about a wine and cheese tasting in the restaurant later in the week, and about the house. The feeling between then had subtly shifted, and both were aware of it and felt comfortable, and excited, although neither said it out loud.
Other customers came in and they broke off the conversation while she took their orders. He ate his sandwich. The dim, aged stone and wood atmosphere of the bar was comforting. It had been absorbing such moments for nearly 200 years.
Another old song was playing, a quiet instrumental he couldn’t quite place. He was tired, but found he was thinking about Thursday night with anticipation. He leaned on the bar and watched the bubbles rise in the liquid in his glass, bits of foam clinging to the sides. He took another sip.
He felt Rose’s presence return from the other side of the bar, which was in a “U” shape around a central wooden support beam and cash register. His awareness of her was of a rustling sound of cotton, a sensation of heat and a fragrance both subtle and disturbing. Rose was looking at him with an expression he hadn’t seen in a while. A nice one, one that hit him right in the male part of his brain. She was resting her hands on the bar, and moved one hand with a bar towel in a slow, back and forth motion. The surface was already spotless.
Her fingers drew his eyes for some reason. Part of his brain registered mild surprise at that. His heart beat a tune he hadn’t heard in a while. There were many things about Rose that he liked looking at, but what he looked at just then were her fingers. He was a connoisseur of such things.
It’s just like you can never mistake a girl’s knees for a woman’s. Young girls might have perfect skin and no signs of wear and tear, but experience in life is underrated when it comes to beauty. For one thing, there’s the confidence. That’s a real plus. That and no giggling.
And their knees aren’t as nice as a woman’s. These things matter to a man after a while, if he’s paying attention.
Rose’s fingers…. were not pudgy, young-girl fingers, but …womanly. The kind that comes after living a little. The kind that know what to touch, when to touch, and how long to touch; when to grab and hold on, and when to let go. Long and slender, with well-trimmed nails with a clear coating. Languid, graceful, with the beginnings of a few wrinkles. Hands that had seen hard work, but would just as naturally cradle a baby or slide beer across a bar.
All of this flashed through his fatigue and beer-mellowed mind in less than two seconds. Her fingers absolutely mesmerized him.
God, the raunchy truth of it was that he loved women and women’s bodies. The whole and the parts. They fascinated him. And it had been a long time since he’d thought much about that. Too long.
He reached out without thinking about it and took her hands up in his, and held them.
“You have lovely hands,” he said.
Wow, he thought. How original.
She appreciated the impulse, if not the dumb delivery. She laughed and flushed. That was a good sign, wasn’t it?
She stammered a little and managed an “oh, they’re so dry”. But she didn’t pull away. After a second’s hesitation, she rubbed her fingertips on the palm of his hand and moved her hands inside his, and then clasped his hands with an intensity that surprised him and stole any words he might have uttered.
“I’m feeling warm,” she said with a nervous laugh, and looked a little unsure. But in a flash, her body was still and her large, dark brown eyes looked right into his with a serious, but twinkly look. He had the giddy feeling that he was falling into them.
“I wonder why?,” she said.
“I’m feeling pretty warm myself.”
He actually blushed, probably for the first time since he bumped into Linda Vogel’s new boobs in the sixth grade. But he wasn’t in the sixth grade any longer, he knew what he wanted to do and, what’s more, that Rose wanted the same thing. The realization sent an electric shock clear down to his toes. She smiled a little at the corners of her mouth and tilted her head to the side a little, watching him.
Without quite realizing he was doing it, he found his fingertip gliding over the fine hair of her forearm, on the way to other things. He didn’t care who else was in the bar, even though they were alone. The feeling of her was electric to his fingers and he was aware of every detail. She leaned closer, her eyes closing a little.
Then the phone rang. Her eyes opened slowly, regretfully and she gave a little shrug that said ‘what are you going to do?’.
No more for now.
But soon. Soon.
They smiled at each other knowingly as she answered the phone, which was right behind the bar next to the cash register. He softly kissed the back of her free hand, which he still held, gathered his things and stood to go. Her throat flushed and her eyes darkened and softened. She stopped listening to whoever was on the phone.
At the door, he paused, half-turned and looked back, and pantomimed that he would call. She nodded and her smile lit up her face. Her eyes lingered on him, shining, but a little troubled, too. Then they cleared. Her lips mouthed the word “Yes.”
Outside, he felt like a schoolboy again, lighter than air. The sun was a little brighter and the birds were singing. He could feel the stock market rise, except it wasn’t the stock market.
Ah, life, he thought, giddy as a 17-year-old after his first kiss. What a grand thing it is.
Diving into a difficult part of Running Girl this morning, and as I sometimes do, I get warmed up by reading better writers. This is one of those, and it fits the tone of today’s chapter. Hamlet is musing about why we put up with all of life’s pains and disappointments, if not simply for the fear of what we’ll face on the other side of life, in that great “undiscovered country” from which no one ever returns.
To be, or not to be, that is the question— Whether ’tis Nobler in the mind to suffer The Slings and Arrows of outrageous Fortune, Or to take Arms against a Sea of troubles, And by opposing end them? To die, to sleep— No more; and by a sleep, to say we end The Heart-ache, and the thousand Natural shocks That Flesh is heir to? ‘Tis a consummation Devoutly to be wished. To die, to sleep, To sleep, perchance to Dream; Aye, there’s the rub, For in that sleep of death, what dreams may come, When we have shuffled off this mortal coil, Must give us pause. There’s the respect That makes Calamity of so long life: For who would bear the Whips and Scorns of time, The Oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s Contumely, The pangs of despised Love, the Law’s delay, The insolence of Office, and the Spurns That patient merit of the unworthy takes, When he himself might his Quietus make With a bare Bodkin? Who would Fardels bear, To grunt and sweat under a weary life, But that the dread of something after death, The undiscovered Country, from whose bourn No Traveler returns, Puzzles the will, And makes us rather bear those ills we have, Than fly to others that we know not of. Thus Conscience does make Cowards of us all, And thus the Native hue of Resolution Is sicklied o’er, with the pale cast of Thought, And enterprises of great pitch and moment, With this regard their Currents turn awry, And lose the name of Action. Soft you now, The fair Ophelia? Nymph, in thy Orisons Be all my sins remembered
How do people stay true to each other? When I think of my parents all those years in the unmade bed of their marriage, not ever longing for anything else—or: no, they must have longed; there must have been flickerings, stray desires, nights she turned from him, sleepless, and wept, nights he rose silently, smoked in the dark, nights that nest of breath and tangled limbs must have seemed not enough. But it was. Or they just held on. A gift, perhaps, I’ve tossed out, having been always too willing to fly to the next love, the next and the next, certain nothing was really mine, certain nothing would ever last. So faith hits me late, if at all; faith that this latest love won’t end, or ends in the shapeless sleep of death. But faith is hard. When he turns his back to me now, I think: disappear. I think: not what I want. I think of my mother lying awake in those arms that could crush her. That could have. Did not.
“We observed a steady regime around the baseline before the day the relationship status changes,” the Facebook Data Science team wrote on their blog (a Facebook page) on Saturday, “followed by a discontinuity on that day with a more than 225 percent increase of the average volume of interactions.”
“This points towards people receiving support from their friends in times where they need it,” they conclude, “whether it comes in the form of private messages, timeline posts or comments.”
This past weekend we took a little family vacation and went dog sledding with our son, Wyatt. We had a great time and it is a family memory we will have forever. As we create new family memories with our son, we do so without the fourth member of our family. Olivia, our beautiful daughter, is an angel in Heaven. She is forever 20 months and 3 days old.
As we experience life with Wyatt we know that these new memories don’t include his twin sister. She is always in our hearts and our thoughts but it’s not the same. As we were pulled through the trail by the pack of beautiful dogs I kept thinking we are missing one. Olivia would absolutely love this! She would have thought it was hysterical to see the dogs playing and how excited they were. She would have thought the cold was funny…
Note: This was written a while ago, in the depths. Since this one, last June there was a fourth (3 were breast cancers). Like all the other times, she came through it OK.
Three cancers, different each time.
I watched you climb the stairs, two steps,
Then a pause, a rest, then on up like that.
Your stubborn courage gave me courage.
If you could do it, so could I.
We were so innocent, once, you and I,
Young and Beautiful. But since then
Death has taken a seat at the table,
Waiting to be fed.
We learned to ignore him, mock him,
But he doesn’t care. He gets us all in the end.
Hard lesson: accept that, but never surrender.
Can I keep going,
Keep plugging along, keep a happy thought?
I am so tired.
It just wears a person down, and I’m not even the sick one.
My burden is hidden to everyone but me.
At times like this, I just want someone to turn back the clock
And let me be a child again, scampering off to play
And jump in rain puddles until I’m called into supper.
I’ll just have a glass of wine and write a few words.
It’s all I have, all I can do.
There’s always tomorrow.
We just have to make it through the nights. The nights…
Do women dream differently than men? Researchers from the University of Montreal plunged into the gendered unconscious in a new study forthcoming from the journal Sleep. Their focus: nightmares, defined as dreams intense and disturbing enough to wake you up. (An unpleasant reverie that doesn’t rouse you is simply a bad dream.) The study uncovered a trove of captivating facts about nightmares in general—that they prove “more bizarre” and “less rational” than regular dreams, that they don’t necessarily provoke fear. (About one-third of these nocturnal ordeals instead breed sadness, confusion, guilt, or disgust.) But of special interest to me was the discovery that nightmare themes often vary by gender.
Fears. We all have ’em. But bravery or courage — which to me means doing the right thing despite being afraid, even terrified to the point of near-paralysis– that’s much more rare. According to this article, we’ve changed the definition to being the simple act of accepting our fears. That’s kind of a warmfuzzything, not bad; but doesn’t that mean we’re lowering the bar too much, and not asking enough of ourselves? A sort of suburban version of the battle with nature, bloody in tooth and claw? Maybe we’re getting too soft?
I’m working on a story where the people must decide, over and over, how to act in spite of fears. It’s made me realize that it is a process that is never finished. Courage can be seen in ordinary people facing extraordinary challenges — cancer comes to mind, for instance. It isn’t always looking down the barrel of a gun. But as a culture, and as the roles of men seem to be changing without good alternatives being offered, the way we value, or devalue, bravery in traditional or new ways is a troubling issue…
I’d like to hear from others on how you define bravery, and what you think of the article.
He knew her— or rather, his body did —instantly and dramatically. The familiar softness of her skin, bare hip and breast, her lush warmth against the length of him, leg thrown over his thighs, possessive and provocative and wanton. Every nerve ending seemed to be on fire where she touched him, and the flame spread.
He tried to say her name with lips that would not move, to raise an arm to pull her into him. The heat and smoothness of the perfect skin of her perfect, bare leg was the sweetest feeling he could remember. He wanted it to last forever. He wanted to feel the rest of her, surround her, fill her and make love to her forever. The sudden rage of lust consumed him.
Her eyes were large and dark, simultaneously calculating, teasing, sad and amused. He fell into them. Head tilted back, she parted her lips slightly. She rolled halfway onto him and kissed him with lips and tongue. Then the kiss changed, became slower and more tender, and a look of sadness crossed her face. Her eyes closed, then opened slowly, her hand softly on his cheek. She pulled away, face back in the shadows. And then she was gone. A feeling of loss and panic overwhelmed him.
“Miriam….No!” At least, that was what he wanted to say, but it came out a strangled cry.
The big Lab sleeping on blankets in the room raised his head at the sound.
Ted smelled faint perfume, her perfume, fading fast.
He sat in the half-light, fighting to come out of the dreamworld, and looked around, legs tangled in sweaty sheets, heart pounding.
Bluish-white moonlight cast distorted shapes from the bay windows onto the marquetry floor. A wing back chair, his clothes draped over the back and heaped on the floor beside it, lurked along another wall. An old armoire and matching dresser huddled darkly on the third. His bed was in the middle of the wall opposite the big, solid mahogany door, now slightly ajar.
Chest bursting, he leapt, naked, to the floor and spun around. She was nowhere in the room. He ran to the hallway, down the house’s formal center stairs and out onto the lawn. The grass was cool on his bare feet.
Nothing moved in the late-night silence. The air was still, cold and silent. A sound escaped his throat, something between a grunt and a cry.
Nothing was there. Loneliness and grief were cold fingers around his heart. A dog barked in the distance, the sound echoing between the walls of old houses.
Ted Brown became aware of the sound of someone sobbing and then slowly realized it was himself. His cheeks were wet with tears, and he touched them with one finger. The lawn was damp with dew. He shivered, becoming gradually aware that he was outside on his lawn, au naturel. The eastern sky was just lightening but the streetlights in the next block were still on.
Shocked awake and self-conscious, he hurried on bare feet up the stone stairs to the open front door, hoping no one saw him. Sleepwalking during the nightmares meant his grieving was anything but over. It was embarrassing. He glanced around and saw that the windows of all the nearby houses were still dark in the pre-dawn. He hoped his new neighbors hadn’t seen him on another of his nocturnal episodes, but couldn’t count on it. Small-town people tended to be observant — most would say nosy— and he could imagine someone tossing out a snarky question at the coffee shop, to general chuckles. Some would just look at him and shake their heads, if he happened to be there. Others would exchange knowing glances and smile to themselves, tapping their finger to temple. As a newcomer to the community, he was automatically assumed to be a bit odd; he didn’t want to add to the impression. But incidents like this weren’t helping.
He slumped up the big central staircase of the old mansion he was restoring, turned down the hall and hurried past buckets and drop-cloths, step ladders and stacks of paint cans and re-entered the bedroom. The musty but pleasing smell of fresh plaster was fading after a month. Soon, the painters would come and work on the next phase of the restoration.
The lanky old chocolate Labrador rose stiffly from his jumbled bed of foam and well-worn blankets near the chimney wall and padded over, toenails clicking on the hardwood to meet Ted at the door. He touched a cold nose to Ted’s hand and flicked a tongue tip to his fingers in greeting.
Brown absently scratched behind the big ears and stroked the wide head. Happy to get some response, the big dog glanced up with raised ears and inquisitive eyes to see if there was any chance of an early breakfast. Ted looked down at the silent pleading and smiled, then shook his head.
“You’ll have to wait,” he said sleepily, trying but failing to sound stern.
Ted flopped back into bed, the damp sheets cold and clammy. He didn’t shift them around, welcoming the cold as a kind of reality that seemed to never be far from his life. Hearing the “wait” word he hated, the big animal realized there was no chance of food yet and moved back to his own bed. He collapsed with a disappointed grumble but held his eyes on Brown for a few seconds, unblinking. His eyes drooped and he plopped his big head down, tucked his nose behind curled paws and was asleep in seconds.
“Wish I could do that,” Brown said, glaring at the dog and then stared back up at the fine cracks in the horsehair plaster overhead. He knew it would be some time before he could do the same. Seeing the cracks depressed him, a reminder that the long process of restoring the house was not finished.
The red LED display of the clock radio said 4:47 a.m. He rolled out of bed, slipped into a T-shirt, robe and sweatpants, stuck his feet into a pair of slippers, and wandered out into the hall again and down the wide flight of stairs to the kitchen. A window taller than he was let more moonlight in to bathe the hall in blue and grey. There was enough light to see by.
As he descended, he remembered the dream and the memory of the woman. There was seldom a day that he didn’t think of her, or wonder where she was, whether she was safe and whether she ever thought of him.
He sighed once, put the tea kettle on the stove and sat at the kitchen table without turning on a light. The moon lit the room through the tall Victorian window, and he stared up at it, sadness settling in his gut.
The tea was ready. He poured and sipped it with no cream or sugar.