Despite the damp fall weather, he was sitting on his porch. A tattered stocking cap covered his bowed head. The sleeves of his red wool coat barely reached the bands on his fingerless gloves. His skin was wrinkled and his fingers distorted but he carved with the concentration of a master.
He scarcely looked up when I delivered his meal. “Just put it in the refrigerator. I’ll heat it later.” He was polite; but he spoke; it seemed, without seeing me. But as I came back out on to the porch he said, “You’re new aren’t you? Where’s Ann?” Ann normally delivered the meals to the home-bound residents of Angel Port. “Ann is serving meals at the Senior Building today. They were short-handed,” I responded.
Ann had been trying to get me involved with the program ever since my husband’s death. I had always found an excuse. I didn’t know what my purpose in life was now that Don was gone, but I was certain it was not delivery of meals to the aged and infirm. That day she had caught me off guard, so there I was.
Avery was the last delivery on the route, so I stood for a while quietly watching him carve a tiny bird. “Have a seat,” he said pointing to the other weathered, but sturdy, wooden rocker.– I sat.
“My wife used to sit there and watch. I miss her.” He spoke without taking his eyes off of his work. “You’re quiet,” he continued. “My Liza was quiet too.”
I sat there for thirty minutes, maybe more, watching him finish the bird. Then he abruptly tossed it into the bucket of shavings. Startled, I jumped to my feet. “Why did you do that?”
“What?” he asked, looking up with surprise?
“Throw it away?” I couldn’t believe he didn’t know what I meant.
He smiled as he picked up another small piece of wood and began to whittle away. “I just do this because it is something to keep me busy. If I kept all of them you wouldn’t be able to get into the house.”
“Can I have it?” I asked as I picked through the shavings to retrieve it.
“You really want it?” he inquired.
“Of course,” I replied.
Then he told me that I could have it on one condition. I had to help him out to his garage for some sandpaper and come back the next day to get it.
He stood, leaning heavily on his walker, and shuffled to the porch steps. Then he put his frail arm on mine while we took the two steps to the ground below. I was grateful it was not icy. I handed him his walker and stayed close by his side until we reached the garage. He opened the door, entered first and said, “I haven’t been out here since Liza died. That was two years ago.”
I followed him in. There was no car but one side of the garage was covered with cabinets, each door tightly closed. The other side was lined with animal carvings. There were birds and bears, and wolves and eagles, all covered in dust, but proudly displayed along the shelves. He had more than enough talent shown here to brag about it, but he didn’t.
“Do you sell them?” I asked.
He shrugged. “It’s just a hobby. I’ve given a few away, but I’ve never sold any.” He struggled with his balance as he opened one of the cabinet doors.
I wasn’t sure if I should offer to help, but then he asked, “Can you reach that package to the right?”
I pulled down a sandpaper bundle. He sorted through it and removed several piece, rolled them into a tube and slid them into his coat pocket. Then Avery handed me the remaining pieces and I replaced them on the shelf.
“Do you have a key for the garage door?” I asked.
“Yes. It’s in the kitchen drawer. Why?”
I didn’t answer. I turned the lock before I followed him back to the porch. When he was safely reseated I said, “Next time you go to the garage, you will need your key.” Avery said nothing and barely nodded in response.
The next day I volunteered to make the meal deliveries again just to see if he really would let me have the bird. This time he looked up when I arrived. “You came back? I wondered if you would.” Then he held out his hand, “I’m Avery, but you probably already know that from the delivery list.”
“Is that short for Elizabeth?”
“Yes,” I replied.
“My Liza was an Elizabeth too. I miss her.” For just a moment I knew I had lost him to his memories, but then he asked, “Do you have time to sit awhile?”
“Let me put your meal in the refrigerator and then I will.”
Just as before, I sat quietly watching him carve. I wondered what had happened to the bird that he had promised me the day before. I did not ask. I marveled at the intricate details he achieved despite the gnarled condition of his hands. Tiny lines defined the bird’s feathers. Tiny inset sockets outlined slightly rounded eyes.
Suddenly he stopped carving. He put his hand in his pocket and removed a perfectly formed bird. “These always remind me of the blue birds I used to see as a child,” he said. “We don’t see many blue birds here on the coast.”
As he handed me the carving he asked, “Do you think you could paint it to look like a blue bird?”
At first his question startled me. Before my husband’s death I had sculpted and painted clay flowers for jewelry, but I had never created birds or animals. After he assured me that my acrylic paints would work just fine, I told him I would try
That evening I went home and checked my art books and bird sites on the internet looking for blue birds. I analyzed eye detail and color variations. I compared the feather detail to the carving. The sculpture was perfect. Early the next morning I painted the bird. When I made the meal deliveries that afternoon I took the carving with me. I couldn’t believe that at sixty-five I was still seeking approval, but I was.
That day the wind blew violently and there was a temporary power outage. It was later than usual when I arrived at Avery’s house. He wasn’t on the porch. I knocked and yelled, “Avery, its Beth.”
When he responded, “Come in,” I slowly opened the door, making certain that he wasn’t standing in the way. I entered and found him in the kitchen putting a kettle on the stove for tea.
“Would you like a cup of tea?” he asked. “Liza and I used to have tea together at this time every day. I miss that.”
I agreed to tea provided that he allow me to prepare it. He finally agreed, directed me to the teapot was and explained exactly how much tea to put in the strainer. He shuffled to a chair and sat quietly at the chrome dinette. This time I could feel him watching me. I poured the tea and seated myself on the other side of the table. “Well?” he asked. I pretended not to know what he was asking. “Well,” he asked again, “did you paint it?”
I didn’t say a word. I wondered what if he hates it? What if he thinks I have destroyed his work of art? Slowly I opened my purse, all the time regretting that I had agreed to paint the bird. I pulled out the tissue parcel and removed the wrapping. I placed the carving on the table and waited.
I watched his face color as he lifted the bird and turned it around and around in his hands. I was unable to read his face. And then his eyes moistened. His chin quivered. In a voice more scratchy and choked than normal he blurted out, “Liza always wanted me to paint one of these damn birds blue.” At first I wasn’t sure if that meant it was okay, but then he said, “If I give you another one, can I have this one back?”
I took the second carving home, painted it blue and placed it on my window sill. There I could see it first thing in the morning when I opened my drapes. I called it my blue bird of happiness. That evening I painted a blue bird on a card and wrote Avery a thank you note.
That was the beginning of our secret blue bird project. Avery carved birds. I painted and delivered them. Soon every shut-in on the meals delivery route had a blue bird of happiness from “someone who cares,” along with a hand painted blue bird card so they could write a “thank you” if they chose.
I shuttled blue birds and thank yous back and forth for weeks without telling a soul where they came from. By early December we had delivered blue birds to everyone on the meals program, to several sick children and even to a few new mothers.
I saw Avery nearly every day that fall. As autumn turned to winter he grew more and more frail. We never talked a lot, but it was obvious how much he missed his dear Liza. On December 31st he gave me two birds. He seemed extremely calm as he told me that these were the last two birds. When I asked him “Why?” he responded with a “just because, Beth, just because.” That day as I left, I don’t know why, but I hugged him just before I walked out the door. That was the last time I saw Avery. Late that night he went to join his beloved Liza.
I was shocked when the minister at his memorial service talked about Avery’s blue bird project. It had been our secret. We had both promised that we would never reveal the source of the blue birds. Later that week I discovered that Avery had saved all of the thank you notes. They were tied in a ribbon with a note that read, “My purpose in life, in memory of my beloved Liza.”
The last two carvings have never been painted. They sit on a shelf in my studio. I use them as models for the clay blue birds I now sculpt and deliver. Every time I receive a thank you I place it in a wooden box along with the note I have written that reads, “My purpose in life, in memory of Avery.”
(A short fiction piece for Three word Wednesday: brag, icy, polite.)
I have been playing with character development for a short story. I decided to use the three words today as part of the introduction to the characters. The three words are: false, sallow and illustrate.
The media portrays the city council of Angel Port as an elite group. The mayor, Dan Defru, is a retired attorney from a large Seattle firm that served as a state senator in his youth. He moved to Angel Port to enjoy his retirement years. According to all media accounts he ran for city council from a desire to serve his new community and use his mediation skills to make this resort town an elite destination spot. He is an imposing figure that stands six feet two and has just enough gray hair to look distinguished. His custom tailored suits and Oliver Sweeney Wingtips add the finishing touches. His speeches are emotional and convincing.
Molly Rindly has served longer than any other council member. She is on her third term. Prior to moving to Angel Port she was a news commentator on a Seattle TV news program. Although nearly 70, she still has the appearance of a TV personality. Her long blonde hair is highlighted and styled weekly. She wears Channel suits and knee-high boots all winter long. In the summer months her stylish dresses are often the talk of the town. Her false eyelashes give her the look of a big-eyed doe. She is a staunch environmentalist and often charges the council meetings with her forceful rhetoric. She is loved by the media and always available for a photo-op.
This is Martha Bookman’s second term. She retired from the local library shortly before the last election. She had worked for nearly thirty years as a researcher for the community. She prides herself on being able to find any piece of information that is requested. The community believes that her ability to be objective is an undeniable asset to the council. Martha isn’t a fashion icon, but she has a classic style that melds well with the appearance of Dan and Molly. The local newspaper said that “her willingness to learn all aspects of city operation illustrates her devotion to the community.”
Patsy Allen is the newest member of the group. She started her term six months ago. She is a bit of a misfit for the group. She raised six children. All have left the safety of home, and now Patsy is trying to figure out who she is and what is important to her. Her sallow skin and naturally graying hair further separate her from the rest of the council. She was encouraged to run by a faction of the community that wanted change.
Dan is good friends with the newspaper editor. The paper nearly always puts a positive spin on anything published about the city council. The City Staff however refer to the Council as “Dapper Dan and his Merry Maidens.”
Today I am using the Three Word Wednesday prompt to practice writing dialogue. The three words this week are: error, jingle and vindicate.
A Grandmother’s Advice
Dave shifted from one foot to the other. He stuck his hand into his pocket and tried not to jingle his keys. He knew the charges were in error, but he wasn’t sure he’d be vindicated.
Judge Bean, a scowl on his face, sat rigidly in front of the courtroom. “David Johnston,” he began, “You are charged with attempting to drive a vehicle while intoxicated. How do you plead?”
“Not guilty, Your Honor, and I would like to explain.”
The judges eyes softened, but only slightly. His voice did not. “Were you intoxicated?”
“Were you behind the wheel of the car, and were the keys in the ignition?”
“Yes Sir, but….”
“It sounds to me like you were trying to drive while intoxicated.”
“But Your Honor….”
The judge frowned at Dave’s interruption, but said, “Your story better be good lad. Let’s hear it.”
“Your Honor,” Dave began, “I left the tavern a little after midnight. I knew I was too drunk to drive. I planned to crawl into my car and sleep it off.”
Eyes stern and unwavering the judge demanded “Then why were your keys in the ignition?”
“Y-y-your Honor,” At this point Dave realized he had pulled his keys from his pocket and the entire courtroom had heard them jingle.” Dave could feel the heat as his face turned red, but he started again. “Your, Honor, out of habit I stuck my key in the ignition. I did not start the car. I just grabbed my quillo, covered up and fell asleep.”
The judge continued to stare, “What the heck’s a quillo?” he asked?
“It’s this little quilt my grandmother made,” Dave replied. “It’s sort of a blanket that folds up into a pillow.”
Eyes wide with disbelief, the judge almost smiled. “You’re kidding?” he asked.
“No Sir. I just covered up with the quillo and fell asleep. Gram gave it to me when I started driving.” Dave raced on, “She told me it was to remind me to not drink and drive. I’d always have this blanket to cover up with. That way, even if it was cold, I would have no excuse for drinking and driving.”
At this point the judge turned his head away. Covered his mouth and tried not to laugh. “How old are you Dave?” he asked.
Judge Bean shook his head and glanced out at the courtroom. Everyone was smiling or worse yet laughing. “Young man,” he said, “My advice to you is to drink less. And David, if your grandmother is still alive, do something nice for her today—Charges dismissed. Next case….”
Dave shoved his keys into his pocket. Relieved to be vindicated he vowed to never make that mistake again.
The scent of warm cinnamon cookies assaulted Jamie’s senses. A picture of cookies and milk floated through his head. He knew he shouldn’t allow himself such thoughts. It only made the reminder of the watery rice soup he would have for supper that evening, that much more depressing but nonetheless, he thought he would do almost anything to have one of those cookies.
The thing that was weird, he thought, was that those wonderful smells came from the witch’s house. Most of the kids made a habit of running past as if the witch would pop out of the front door and grab them. In reality all any of them had ever seen was the housekeeper and she was a young woman who was as big around as she was tall. She couldn’t run if she tried.
The house itself was like something out of a Halloween movie. It’s curved windows were bubbled and its oversized turrets were badly in need of repair. The railing on the front porch had fallen off and the decorative columns had been replaced with plain, unpainted posts. Overall it was a wreck.
Jamie stopped in front of the house and inhaled. It smelled wonderful. The house itself didn’t scare him much. He delivered the newspaper there every afternoon. That thought reminded Jamie that he had better hurry on home. The papers were probably there waiting for him to start his delivery route.
Jamie’s life hadn’t always been so tough. It all started one night two years ago when his father did not return home from his job at the lumber yard. Mr. Allison had gone to work as usual, worked all day, but he never arrived at home. No one had heard from him or seen him since.
Jamie and his Mom had been forced to move out of their home. They had moved five more times since. Now they lived in what used to be a garage. It was really just one large room with a refrigerator and stove at one end and a closet sized bathroom in one corner.
Mrs. Allison had worked as a waitress for a while, but depression soon prevented her from working. Now she spent most days in bed.
When Jamie arrived home his mother was asleep, so he quietly folded the papers, slung the paper bag over his shoulders and began his route.
Today was collection day. The first customer on his route was always a problem. It usually took him at least three stops to collect from her. He walked up to the front door of the first house in the development. The houses all looked the same. They were built in the late 1970’s. Most of them were split entry homes with the outside of a fireplace flanking one side of the entry.
Jamie rang the bell and waited. An older man opened the door. His rolled up sleeves revealed a large snake running up his arm. Jamie took one large step backwards and meekly said, “Collecting for the Daily News.”
“Collection boy,” called out the stranger. And then, much to Jamie’s amazement, the stranger put his hand into his pocket, pulled out his money clip and yelled again at the homeowner, “Forget it Kara. I’ll pay him and you can repay me.”
Jamie couldn’t believe his good fortune. He grabbed the money, handed the stranger the current day’s newspaper and quickly retreated before the stranger could change his mind.
Jamie worked his way up and down the street of the development, collecting from some, not from others. After he had finished delivering and collecting in the development he turned right onto Main Street. Only the first three houses on this block were part of his route. The first two houses were not subscribers and the third house belonged to the Witch.
Nervously he walked up to the front door and rang the doorbell. He waited to see if the housekeeper would come out flinging her broom, as if to sweep him off the porch, like she had the last time.
Sure enough, she opened the door with broom in hand. But this time she recognized him and smiled. The smile, he though, was almost scarier, because it revealed her missing teeth.
“Collecting for the Daily News,” he repeated for the umpteenth time that day.
“One moment,” she said. Leaving the front door open she walked back into the house. Jamie peaked in. He didn’t mean to stare, but what he saw wasn’t what he expected. A little old woman sat in a wheel chair. She smiled at him. It wasn’t a scary smile at all. Actually her smile was quite pleasant. She wore thick glasses, but her hair was pulled back into what the girls at school called a pony-tail. Her cheeks were blushed and she wore bright red lipstick that matched the jogging suit she wore.
The housekeeper walked back into the room and handed a purse to the witch. Jamie couldn’t hear the conversation, but he could tell that some kind of animated conversation was taking place. When the housekeeper returned to the door Jamie’s heart sank. He could tell she didn’t have any money in her hand.
“Miss Walker would like for you to come in and join her for tea.” It was at that exact moment that Jamie saw the plate of cookies sitting on a low table near Miss Walker.
Jamie hesitated and then said, “No thank you, Ma’am. I don’t drink tea.”
“Well, you eat cookies don’t you?”
“No thank you, Ma’am,” Jamie repeated. He was almost sure that he had heard his stomach growl when he said it the second time.
The housekeeper said, “Wait here,” and once again left the door. Another animated discussion took place between Miss Walker and the housekeeper. Finally the housekeeper shrugged her shoulders and wheeled Miss Walker to the door.
Miss Walker smiled at Jamie and said, “I see you have been taught not to go into stranger’s houses.”
“Yes, Ma’am,” he replied.
“Will you have cookies and tea with me if you can stay on the porch?”
“Yes, Ma’am,” he replied.
“Bring the table Shirley,” she ordered. “And get a chair from the kitchen for this young man.”
The housekeeper complied and soon Jamie was sitting on the porch, the table and a plate full of cinnamon cookies sitting in front of him. His chair held the screen door open.
Miss Walker was still sitting in her wheel chair. Now it was positioned just inside the door but directly across from Jamie. “Perhaps you would prefer a glass of milk?” Miss Walker asked.
Jamie could feel the corners of his mouth turn up as he answered, “Yes, Ma’am.”
“Your name is Jamie Allison, right?”
“Well Jamie, I don’t get much company and I don’t get out much. Tell me about your day.”
Jamie began, “It has been a very good day….”