By Lisa Renee
Corinne Frank trundles down the wide wood stairs wrapped in layers of hodgepodge fabrics, just at the sun peeks over the east edge of her hill. Vaguely noting her noisy knee and sore thumbs, she shuffles into the dim flea market kitchen and puts the kettle on. Charlie will be down soon, looking for his coffee, his bag of bread and fruit and whatever else she can scare up. Charlie, with his furrowed brow and clipped manner — morning Charlie, pre-work Charlie. She will greet a very different character later, in the evening.
Worrying her aching hands, mumbling to the animals crowding her feet, she lets the dogs out, feeds the cats, cleans the boxes and refills the water. “Goddamned zoo around here,” she says to no one, feeling immediately sheepish, knowing that she loves every one of them and would trade them for nothing. Still, it’s endless, this tending of animals. Charlie is of the opinion that she has used the animals to replace the kids, as they grew and drifted away (or around, in and out, in some cases). Charlie has many opinions and expresses them vigorously.
As the sun strengthens, the rays slowly blanketing the house, the hill, and the surrounding woods down the slope, Corinne bundles her harried morning husband out the door with food and love, waving at the window as he pulls carefully away in the old wagon. Worrying, he’s always worrying — why can’t that man find a little zen? She gathers the animals, feeds the hungry ones, stooping and cooing to them, her babies, and pours her first coffee of the day. The sun starts to tentatively seep into the rooms of her shabby — or lovely, depending on your perspective — little home as she settles into a dining chair at the broad heavy table, surveying the constellation of papers before her.
November. That busy, chilling month, when a big family ponders the gatherings, nurses hopes for smooth relations, dreads the clashes a bit. When a mother pines for the visits, worries over the food and the bedding, swells with fear and elation all at once. When a woman wrings her hands and plots a symphony, an epic, and wonders if her charges will all willingly play their parts. These four characters, husband Charlie and the three whirling tops that are her children — will they read the scripts faithfully, just this once? Will the dances go according to her careful choreography, will the elements all combine to make this the most spectacular holiday season of them all?
Never mind. She recognizes her flights of fancy, her perfect visions, her need to grasp the controls a bit too aggressively. She knows, they never miss an opportunity to tell her. Sometimes it’s subtle — “Lighten up, Ma,” is a favorite. “Let it go!,” they cry. But sometimes the message is more blunt. “You don’t need your fingers in every pot,” they remind her. “Nothing is ever or will ever be perfect.” This is Curtis’ favorite platitude; it drives her mad. Who says? she wants to know. Why not? Perfection is, in some things anyway, the goal, is it not? Shouldn’t it be? What are we striving for all the time if not perfection? And who is this boy, her only boy, her oldest, to tell her to stop chasing perfection? He’s damned lucky that she muscled her way around the world making a perfect space for him, crafting something that aspired to perfection. Though he is not a boy anymore, she must remember. Thirty-something now (mid-thirties? she’d have to think harder about that), and pretty close to perfect he is. Curtis, her wonderfully bright, tall, kind boy. Man, remember to treat him like the man that he is, Corinne.
She gulps and refills the good strong coffee and sifts through her scraps on the table. They are variously sized and each colored with patchwork scrawls — text marching every which way, lined up like soldiers here, crawling up the sides there, following arrows on backsides and down margins. Lists, dozens of them, items and times and names and odd bits of random words squashed together. She will stitch them up in what may become her signature thanks later in the month, or her traditional Christmas Eve poem or the annual clarion recitation at the break of the new year. There’s plenty of time for all of that. She needs to pluck out the bits with everyone’s schedules — who comes when, with whom and for how long. How many beds will she need and blankets and pillows and — it will be colder by then, where are those old comforters? Who eats what and who won’t eat what and, Jesus Christ in heaven, what happened to everyone just sitting down to a beautiful meal lovingly prepared by skilled hands? Why all the precious menus and the silly demands? Just shut up and eat the food that the wild gods of nature have provided for you! No, don’t go there Corinne, must play the game — everyone else’s game, all the time.
After a bite of breakfast, a reorganization of the lists, and a brisk walk down the hill and back up again, Corinne is refreshed and clear-headed, the animals are weary from the romp and it’s time to get to work. We’ll need batches of cookies in the freezer, she thinks, loaves of bread and tiny tea cakes. Pots of stews and sauces, custards and jams. The cheeses must be ordered (does everyone still eat cheese?), the fishmonger needs to be contacted and we must get ahead of the rush with the butcher. A list will need to be made, what goes home with whom at the close of the first round of visiting. Claire and Ed will want ‘healthy’ treats for the kids, whatever that means, and Chloe is no doubt off on some nutritional tangent these days, must ferret that out. Corinne would just love to know what all these juices and exotic herbs are supposed to accomplish in such a pickled body; doesn’t Chloe see that first she must step away from the bottle? Corinne mulls this thorny subject, hears Charlie’s hushed voice telling her to leave it. She’s a big girl now, she’s heard it all, she’s trying her best. Let her build it without so much judgement, so much well-meaning but vaguely menacing advice. Ahh, Charlie, perhaps you’re right, she thinks. Perhaps.
After a morning of planning, gathering, ordering and listing, Corinne turns her attentions to the house. She sees everything with fresh eyes, visitors’ eyes, now with the mad rush coming. She’ll need to sweep out the summer, the dirt and the leaves and the dead bugs. The rugs could use a shake and everything must be dusted. Piles everywhere — papers and books and fabrics and shoes — the detritus of scattered minds, busy spinning hands. The leavings of the life that’s left to these two, this aging couple and their little ship. She must tidy it all, make it seem more ordered and perhaps more interesting to the prying eyes of her family. These grown children seem to look at her with a hint of pity these days, as if they see a blank space around her that she is failing to fill. They don’t know about her knitting projects, her nearly finished poetry collection, her time on the library board. Or, they don’t seem to know even though she tells them. They are all too wrapped up in their own lives, their own grand schemes and missions. That’s fine, Corinne remembers the young and busy days, the days of striving, the days of feigned self-importance. It’s their turn now, she’s content to peck away at her own endeavors quietly in the corner. And speaking of corners, how do we accumulate these drifts of animal hair so quickly?
Corinne Frank has never been one to settle, to alight on a branch and camp calmly. She burns with the desire, the need, to create. When the children were young, the house was always alive with projects — art, food, music, gardens — whatever caught her fancy grabbed her by the tail and flung her around wildly until the next distraction. And so her home and her life were pictures of chaos — paints and pots, aquariums and terrariums, fabrics and scissors and templates and pages and pages of instructions to this and that, all jumbled amidst the stacks and stacks of books. One day it’s Mandarin, the next it’s bridge building. It wouldn’t be unusual for her to make paté in the morning, lay pieces of the never finished slate patio mid-day, whip up a Korean feast for dinner and cap the day with a few poems. A tiny round hurricane she was back when they were young, though age is slowing her a bit. She thinks they don’t notice, but they do. The way she kneads her hands, trudges up the hill a bit less briskly; the way the house is quieter, less cluttered. She feels it, too, and allows herself to sink into long delicious reads with a wine glass perched next to her on the sofa. It’s been a very full life well-lived and there’s a lot more to come, so she’s listening to her bones and slowing a bit.
The mind, however, never slows. It chatters away at her about all there is to do, to see, to taste, to build. She’s filled to brimming with magnificent ideas and nothing irritates her more than the faces they give her when she excitedly lays out her new plans. She knows that they find her slightly ridiculous and it maddens her. She’ll show them.
As the day lengthens and stretches its legs, Corinne decides it’s time for a break. A good strong cup of tea and some gathering of thoughts, lists, and stray ideas is always helpful after hours of frantic activity. She can survey her work and ponder the coming weeks knowing that she is in control. In the kitchen, while the kettle works on its boil, she continues to tidy and list, mind and aching hands working, always working. I’ll wash some greens for tonight’s dinner, she thinks, and perhaps I should run out for a nice crisp white, good with the chicken. She stands at the sink, hands in a cold pot of water and greens, absentmindedly working the grit away, and gazes out the window at her realm.
The afternoon light is working its magic, blanketing Charlie’s carefully tended sloping lawn, feeding the gardens, flowing down the hill to the woods where she can see — what’s that? — movement. A deer, perhaps? No, it’s different, this movement in the trees. For thirtysome years she’s been looking down the hill at those woods and whatever skulks there now is not a deer, but it’s larger than any of the other wildlife she finds here. Her eyes are not as sharp as they once were, but she trains them on the flickering light at the edge of the woods, hands suspended in the cold watery greens. Something is definitely moving down there, but it’s too far to tell — no, wait. It’s human. The silhouette of a person is slowly taking shape, like an apparition, a body emerging slowly from a deep fog. Yes, clearer by the minute, it is a man. A man — a strange and unfamiliar man — is unhurriedly but deliberately plodding up her hill! Corinne has never in all these years seen such a thing, the only men who have ever appeared out of those woods at the bottom of the hill are Charlie and Curtis. We’re alone here, this is my hill — she feels a chill blooming and her heart starts galloping and she must call Charlie or someone but here this man, this stranger, comes, one foot in front of the other, up the hill, trailing a great filthy coat, clutching what looks like a cap. The kettle screams behind her.
Didn’t she put this in a poem once?
To read Part 2 of this story cycle, see Frank’s Folly.
Here’s my hat if you’d like to support the artist. I’m practicing the art of asking.