Chapter One: In All Fairness
A few words on compost from the gardening journal of Sarah DeThomas
If you dig deep enough in this garden, you're likely to come across my red cowboy boots. I wore the soles out, dancing with no-good men on sawdust-covered floors, and regret not a moment. Likewise you'll find the alligator flats for which I could never find a suitable replacement, and the smart black pumps I wore when I married Kenny. Those shoes turned out to be far more intelligent than I was, I'm forced to admit, but one must always have black pumps handy -- weddings, funerals, at my age these occasions all blur together.
The reason I buried my shoes, you see, is that I never understood the point in throwing away leather when it could be used as mulching material. The same holds true for nylon stockings, which make grand supports for wobbly stalks or fledgling trees.
Therefore, I believe I can honestly state with ecological impunity that I am present in this land now and always. It's your land, for a while at least, my dear. Consider its future well. Build ticky-tacky houses on it if you like and make a neat profit, or subdivide and sell it to rich people. You may on a lark opt to grow flowers again, for which this journal may come in handy, or you may choose to simply allow the dirt to rest. Allow me to offer up one final cautionary, my darling girl. This patch of earth will never be free of me. In all ways, I remain --
Your loving aunt,
P.S. In case you're wondering, the flower I most hate to leave behind is Buddleia globosa, or summer lilac, commonly known as butterfly bush. Originally an import from Peru, it first blooms in spring but will with care continue throughout the summer. Oh, it's lovely, and rather like opening a singles' bar for butterflies. At times they feed so thickly you'd swear the flowers are animated. Intoxicating scent -- something between wild raspberries and good red wine. If the afterlife smells anything like that, I'm sure I won't mind dying.
So ends page one of the ledger Malcolm Colburn, Sadie's attorney, hands to me just before he must take his urgent phone call. Next to me, my brother James frowns over his own pages. I have to close my book because I don't want to cry in front of Stinky. Hanging tough's been a point of honor with me all my life. If someone says a mean word to me, James'll beat the tar out of him, but if I shed one tear, he teases me endlessly.
"Well, what did yours say?" he finally asks me.
James and I have been on the outs lately. The reasons vary, but one thing I know for certain is that I didn't help matters by staying on at the farm after Sadie died. She insisted I give up my apartment six months ago since I was spending all my nights at her place anyway. Mr. Colburn requested that for security reasons I stay "on the premises until he got the estate settled," and now I understand why. What's the point of moving out when I'd only be coming right back?
"Something about her favorite shoes," I tell James, leaving out the news that Sadie has apparently left me the farm, a revelation that is making me a little breathless, although with my compromised heart I never know what exactly makes it skip. "How about yours?"
He flips the pages and shakes his head. "It's her financial investment journal. Every penny accounted for, can you believe it?"
ardMy brother, James, AKA Stinky, has the angled face of a Kennedy, more JFK than poor doomed John-John had. He's a little darker in complexion than they were, but he gives off that same good-breeding pheromone. Women look at James and immediately want to have his babies. Then they find out he isn't as rich as a Kennedy and go back on the Pill. "Really?" I say, waiting to hear about the dollar amount, but if indeed he got any, James doesn't crow over his riches.
"Yeah. Some kind of lesson for me, I suppose. I guess this means we split the cash and you go shoe shopping, huh?"
Before I can answer, Malcolm hangs up the phone and smiles the way lawyers do when they know they're billing by the hour. "Just so you understand, Sadie asked that the ledgers be in your hands when I explained the terms of your inheritance." He chuckles. "I can't tell you how many times I was forced to oblige that woman's bizarre sense of humor. I'll miss her. James, you're the recipient of Sadie's liquid assets and investments. Phoebe, you're the new owner of the farm."
I'm shocked. I always assumed Sadie would leave everything to some pet cause, and during her lifetime she had many.
"But that's not fair," James says, and Mr. Colburn peers over his tortoiseshell reading glasses and sighs.
"It's what she always wanted," the lawyer says patiently. "Once a year your aunt met with me to update her will. Over the thirty years we knew one another so many of her wishes changed I often suggested we write this document in pencil. She directed certain paintings to particular museums, then, when she got her dander up over the way some curator spoke to her at a party, she aimed them elsewhere...."
At once I remember the incident with the Historical Society. Sadie had a huge collection of Cannery Wharf photos; turn-of-the-century stuff, documenting the town when the roads were dirt and everyone rode horses. When the Society biddies deemed the pictures "unimportant," Sadie gave them to a local photographer who now sells their reprints and as a result has become a millionaire. My aunt -- she wrote scathing letters to the newspaper, volunteered at the library, rode a horse in the Valley Fourth of July parade dressed as Lady Godiva (flesh-colored leotard, long blond wig, sunglasses). One thing was for certain, the Bayborough gossip columns could always count on Sadie for material.
"James," Mr. Colburn says, "there's only one issue that ever remained the same, and that is what I just read to you." He takes a sip of water from a clear glass and sets it down on his blotter. "Now, other questions? Or may I continue?"
James sits back hard in the oak chair and I can hear it creak under his weight. My only and older brother has put on a few pounds hanging out with the wine-and-cheese crowd over at Bay Links. Poor James. His life is all about investments, and not just financial. He wants so badly to fit in with the money people he must attend a soiree every night of the week. Not that I have a great deal of experience with parties, mind you, but I imagine that's tough on a guy in his forties. Tiring. And in a way, I sympathize. He's only thinking what I'm thinking. Sadie was supposed to leave him her land to develop, and then he could get super-rich. She'd leave me her money because of my "special circumstances," and I wouldn't have to suffer the indignities I had in the past. What am I going to do with a farm?
I place my hands on the push rims of my wheelchair and turn so I am facing the window instead of Mr. Colburn and his wall of multihued law books. There's a pocket garden outside. A forked eucalyptus tree with jigsaw bark planted between artfully arranged river rocks and sweet alyssum. When the breeze blows around Bayborough-by-the-Sea, all you can smell is purple-and-white alyssum. People here are mad for it. They stuff it in window boxes, grow it in hanging baskets. I don't know. To me that smell's kind of like dimestore bubble bath or spilled honey. So many other flowers have nicer scents, and are prettier besides. White roses, for instance, can't be beat for perfume, and to me that once-a-year treat when tulips bloom -- it's as if the fields are covered in the tongues of angels. Even if some parts of me don't work so great, I know I have excellent floral taste.
With all my compromised heart I love Sadie's farm. Shortly before she went into the hospital for the last time, we sat on her front porch drinking sun tea and watching the crows dive-bomb the sunflowers that grew along the fence line. Every year she made Florencio plant a row especially for the birds, saying "One for the rook, one for the crow, one to die, and one to grow."
"Isn't that just an old wives' tale?" I asked her.
I remember she answered, "Not at all. Crows are smart little buggers with foxy minds and very few morals. Not unlike Kenny," she said, smiling faintly at the mention of her first husband, out of whom she had wrestled this forty-acre farm. The property had been in his family for at least a couple of generations. She said he owed her big time for the heartache he'd caused her, what with the other women and the drinking and on more than one occasion, raising his hand to her. I've never been married, not even come close, but Sadie was, twice. The second guy, Howard, was a lot older than she was, and when he died Sadie kind of hung up her interest in long-term relationships. She was never idle, though. Aunt Sadie accomplished so much in her lifetime that I couldn't really feel too sad when she passed away. Imagine if your résumé included climbing to the base camp of Everest. She knew all kinds of famous people. When I was a kid, she let me read the letters over and over, didn't even care if I got jelly stains on Eleanor Roosevelt's stationery. At various times in her life, not counting America, my aunt lived in three different countries. Sure, there were financial ups and downs, but never once did she let go of this property. Now it's mine. How am I going to afford the upkeep?
My mind reels with the notion of paying workers' wages, rotating crop cycles, harvesting the flowers she sold up and down the California coast, in short, being a businessperson, which really is more up James's alley than mine.
"What about the cars?" James is saying now. "The Jag and the Benz. Who did she leave those to?"
Mr. Colburn ruffles his papers. "Well, I suppose vehicles fall under the description of the ranch equipment since they're on the premises...."
"Get out," James says, slapping the edge of the desk in disbelief. "What in the Sam Hill is my sister going to do with a luxury car? With two of them?"
I look down at my legs, wanting to apologize to them for his insensitivity. They still work, after a fashion, just not well enough to mambo. My legs and I have learned to appreciate this chair. It opened the door out of Shriners' Hospital into the real world. My birth was "traumatic," and my spine took the brunt of it. The larger problem's my heart. Among other childhood illnesses, I had rheumatic fever, which caused me to spend a year in bed. I'm small as a result of all of that, and my heart's as worn out as an old lady's who deserves a good rest. I buy my khaki slacks in the girls' department. Likewise my purple high-top sneakers, which rest against the chrome foot plates quite symmetrically. So what if a thirty-eight-year-old woman wears tennis shoes everywhere? The "differently abled" deserve a little style, and the soles of my shoes never wear out.
"Maybe I'll get the cars converted to hand controls, James," I inform my greedy brother. "Drive the Jag on even days, the Benz on odd ones."
Color rises in his cheeks like a fever. Like Father, James has the same quick-to-Irish temper. Me, I take after Mother, who has dark eyes, even darker straight hair, and this stoic exterior not even a pickax can penetrate. She's a puzzle to me, often upset to the point of hand-wringing, but deep inside, where nobody can see, I suspect she has an Irish peat fire of a heart.
"Oh, really?" James says. "What do you plan to use for money, Pheebs?"
"How about I roll myself out onto Ocean Avenue and hook for it?"
We look at each other for a few moments, exchanging the bald-eyed challenge of a good old-fashioned sibling stare-down. When we were kids, I'd stare at James until my eyes dried up like prunes.
Mr. Colburn rubs his face. "I thought that when Sadie died days like this were behind me for good. You're excused, the both of you. Stop at Kathryn's desk and sign the papers she has waiting for you. Then go somewhere and have lunch and settle this everlasting argument before you send me to the grave next to your aunt's."
Which would be difficult since we scattered Sadie's ashes at sea. "James will have to pay for lunch," I say, "seeing as how he has all the money."
"No problem," James quickly replies. "You can drive."
A person spends over thirty years in a wheelchair, she learns the perks and makes no bones about working them in her better interests. The River Grill, just across the road from Mr. Colburn's law office, is packed with tourists as usual, implying a long wait. All I do is park my chair at an angle in front of the hostess and look famished, and what do you know, suddenly there's this great table for two available immediately.
"I hate it when you do that," James says under his breath as the waitperson rushes to bring us bread and butter.
"Do what?" I ask, fanning myself with the menu.
"James, James, James," I say. "I've just inherited a forty-acre farm, not to mention two luxury automobiles. I'd hardly call that crippled."
He gives me a dirty look and holds the menu up in front of his face like one of those sun reflectors that give you maximum tanning rays. I check out the restaurant. The River Grill's okay, but I prefer diners, like Katy's in the Valley. River Grill serves "California cuisine." Basically that means there's sure to be two not terribly spicy Mexican dishes, Caesar salad plain or with chicken, and five kinds of fatty, grease-sodden hamburgers. I scan the menu and decide James will order the bleu cheese burger with fries and a side order of ranch dressing. Though it's like playing Russian roulette with your arteries, he's addicted to the brief rush saturated fats deliver. The Caesar salad looks good to me, that and a Thirsty Lizard, one part grapefruit juice to two parts ginger ale. When the server returns, James gestures to me -- ladies first -- and I tell her what my brother wants, leaving off the ranch dressing.
"You two must know each other very well," she says. "And for her?"
"Caesar salad," James says.
"Will that be all?"
"Oh, if it isn't too much trouble, could you bring me a side of ranch dressing for those fries?" James adds.
"I don't know what you're so damn happy about," he says as we work our way through our lunches. "You're the one who stands to lose. Have you ever heard the term land-poor? Why don't you let me sell the farm for you? Real estate prices around here are astronomical. With the kind of money you'd get, you could move yourself into a first-rate ground-level beachfront condo on the Links, Pheebs. We could hire a contractor, have him install ramps; downsize the kitchen counters so you can cook all that healthy crap you love. With a few carefully considered investments you'd be set for life. You wouldn't even have to make those little clay people anymore." He sips his coffee, makes a face, and adds more cream.
"I like making those little clay people, James. People like them, too, at least enough to buy five dozen or so every month. Sculpting's what I do, James."
"Fine, we'll get you a house with a separate outbuilding to use as an art studio." He starts drawing a blueprint on a napkin, as if some wiggly pen marks will convince me to part with Sadie's farm.
I don't need a separate outbuilding to make my art. All it takes is a flat surface, your basic oven, and Fimo clay. In my hands, when the clay takes shape, I feel whole and useful. No one sees my chrome wheels, pretends I'm not there, or shushes their children when they stare at the unusually small woman who doesn't walk. They simply admire my work, don't care who made it, and are willing to part with money for it to be theirs. The bulk of my line is mobiles of naked women. Lest it sound like I'm prurient, these women are in no way pornographic. Nosiree. They're mythic, like goddesses, and not some New Age-y crap, either, but strong women, with outstretched arms ready to embrace whatever joy life hands them. In the light of a window, they fly untethered above the pull of the earth. Depending on my mood, I add red curly hair, gray pubic thatch, a big toothy smile, or earth-mama breasts. From the hips down, the clay's less defined because to me legs are not important. My ladies are amusing to buyers, I guess, because I continue to get orders. I string the clay women on fishing line and hang them off two intertwined wire arms. When the mobile is properly hung, all you have to do is blow a puff of breath their way. My ladies are happy to twirl all day in circles. To me, each one is a pilot. You won't find a flight attendant among them.
James drives me back to the farm and unloads my wheels. I get out of the car and into my chair without any help and wheel myself up onto the porch. We sit there a moment, each of us figuratively running our hands over the space between us. Yes, it's less awkward now than it was in Colburn's office, but it still needs major smoothing.
"Aren't you going to invite me in? I promise I won't steal anything."
"Another time, James," I say, without turning to look at him in the doorway. "Nothing personal, I just have a lot to think about and I'd appreciate some privacy."
"Well, take care, Phoebe," he says. "You know I love you, right?"
Yes, I know, I think to myself. And I also know how much you'd like to manage my life along with your investment portfolio. "Same here, James."
"I'll call you tomorrow."
And the day after that, and the next, I think, until you wear me down and this place is a land developer's dream come true and I'm stuck in some stupid condo with rules as to how much distance there needs to be between each tree I plant. "Fine," I say, thinking there's no rule I have to answer the phone.
He drives away in his Jeep Grand Cherokee. It's white with those tacky gold wheel rims -- a dead giveaway that he's trying too hard to better his station. Every Friday he has it "detailed." Nobody outside California has heard of that term. If I say, "Oh, you got your car washed," it annoys James to no end. But what am I supposed to say? "You got your car hand-washed, hand-vacuumed, and, lest we forget, professionally scented in your choice of aroma for five times what they charge at the drive-through?" Unfailingly, James chooses new-car scent.
Suddenly I'm tired. Florencio, Sadie's farm manager -- he's mine now, I guess -- walks up to the porch. "That car of your brother's? The numero uno most frequently towed car in California."
"Is that right?"
"Si, I hear this on Car Talk. Good show, Car Talk. I learn much, even though the brothers have difficult accent." Florencio heads off to the barn and I'm left alone on the porch hearing ghostly echoes of Sadie's gardening advice. Hang mothballs in peach trees. Roses love graywater. Crush the cloves of garlic a little before you plant them...or was that onion? Why me? I have to wonder. What is an eighty-five pound woman going to do with a flower farm? Maybe it's true that pondering the end of her life, even the wisest woman goes a little dotty.
I tidy up the kitchen as best I can, swiping the tile counters and washing the spoon and bowl left over from my breakfast oatmeal. Then I roll myself into the living room and look at the oil portrait of my late aunt where it hangs above the river rock fireplace. It was painted when Sadie was in her thirties, probably around the age I am now. The major difference is I will never look like anyone but myself, whereas Sadie, in this incarnation, closely resembles Lauren Bacall. Her silvery blond hair is styled in a short pageboy. A turquoise comb holds one side to keep it from falling in her sultry, follow-you-everywhere eyes. She's dressed in a black turtleneck sweater and sporting a single strand of pearls. Her smile could mean a number of things: she's been flirting with the artist, or just cracked an off-color joke, or pulled a prank on someone -- like she did on James and myself.
"Sadie, there are so many questions I want to ask you," I say, and my voice trembles because I would give this farm to James in a heartbeat if it meant I got my aunt back.
There are no answers except the echoes that move about this room with the cathedral ceiling and first edition books and good art and old leather furniture. Every stick speaks her name, and I'm all ready to settle down to an old-fashioned pity party, to wallow in my predicament until I'm good and soggy, when a knock at the door ruins everything.
Through the screen I spy a tall black woman, maybe mid-thirties. The sun is at her back, which makes her skin appear so dark I can hardly make out her features. The farm doesn't get much in the way of door-to-door salespeople. Anyone who shows up here is either asking for work, looking to buy flowers, or turns out to be a real estate agent. "Yes?" I say, in what I hope sounds like an authoritative tone.
I have to give the woman credit. She doesn't shy at my chair, or bend down on one knee as if she's speaking to a child, the way most people do. She just tilts her chin and states her business. "I was wondering if this ranch boarded horses, and if so, what the rates are, and if you think the owners would possibly consider some work in trade for payment."
I get the impression this sentence has been rehearsed, tried out at a few places before landing on my doorstep, and has yet to work in her favor. "Um, it's not a ranch, it's a flower farm, and it's mine."
She sighs and looks away. Only then do I see her profile, strong and dignified. There's a slight overbite to her mouth that makes me wish I had skipped orthodontia. Her mouth is her face's one imperfection, totally charming, and somehow it makes me immediately warm to her, even though the rest of her, especially the tiny braids that cover her head, looks like supermodel material. "Thanks for your time," she says, and turns to go.
As she steps off the porch, I see a beautiful black horse tied to the fence rail. "Hold on a minute," I call out, pushing open the screen door and wheeling myself to the porch via the ramps Sadie installed when I was a teenager. "I know a lot of people in this valley. Tell me what you're looking for; maybe I can help. Wow, the day really warmed up, didn't it? You want a glass of water? How about lemonade? My name's Phoebe," I say, and thrust out my hand.
"Well," she says as her dark fingers close around mine, "my horse could sure use a drink."
An hour later, Ness Butler and I have drained the ice tea pitcher and each been to the bathroom. We've covered her early years, growing up in Oakland, then moving to San Jose; touched on me at Shriners', and are rapidly approaching present day circumstances. "Where were you boarding the horse before now?" I ask.
She looks across the fields of sunflowers, heads heavy and bending toward the earth. The blackbirds are absolutely ransacking them. "Until a couple of weeks ago, I was a farrier on the Patrini Ranch. It's a racehorse training facility and working ranch year round."
"I'm sorry, but what's a farrier?"
"You know, like blacksmiths used to do, shoeing horses."
"Really? Are there a lot of women horse farriers?"
"Oh, honey. It just might be the last bastion of the old boy network. Not to mention the race issue! There are a handful of us."
"Why did you leave?" I know I'm prying, but I'm curious why she'd leave a job she worked so hard to get.
Ness sets her empty glass down on the porch. "Believe me, it was time to get the hell out of Dodge, me and old Leroy Rogers there. And before you ask, no, I didn't name him."
"I was just about to. Where are you living now?"
She laughs a slight, flinty laugh. "You'd be surprised how many places a girl and horse can find to camp this time of year. Down by Bad Girl Creek's nice. Fresh water, lots of birds to watch, and the stars make for great company. I have a nice camp set up."
"Oh, my goodness," I say. "Are you telling me you're homeless?"
She gets that elegant, proud look on her face again. "This book I've been reading says I should tell folks 'I'm in a transitional phase.' "
"In other words, homeless."
"Hey, it's not like I can't afford to rent a room. I have money to tide me over until I find my next job. The problem is Leroy. His needs reach a little beyond a carport, you know?"
We both look at the horse that by now Florencio has eating out of his hand. Using an old brush he found in the barn, he's burnished the gelding to a satiny gleam, given him all the carrots I had in the fridge, and fetched him a bucket of water, probably the bottled stuff, not the tap. As if on cue, Leroy lifts his tail and does his business. "Not exactly box-trained," I say and we both laugh.
I picture in my mind how the Valley highway stretches east forty miles until it hooks up with U.S. 101. All along its edges there are houses, farms, and acres of grassy rolling hills turned golden under the summer sun. As you move north, sprawling green fields of agricultural farms unfold where all manner of California produce is grown and harvested. Trucks rattle by full to the brim with gleaming tomatoes, and if you roll down your window, it smells like freshly made bruschetta. There are entire fields devoted to the artichoke, and in July, a festival for garlic. A hobo wouldn't starve to death traveling this route, but Ness Butler isn't a transient, she's looking for a place where someone will allow her to send down a single root. It's difficult to imagine there isn't one barn in the Valley that won't board her horse. "Did you try Vista del Oro?"
She nods. "No room at the inn."
"The Gables? They have a huge barn."
"Full up. And Happy Valley has been sold to a winemaker. Horses on their way out, grapes on the way in."
"Yeah, I heard something about that. If the grape crops are lousy they'll make gourmet vinegar."
Meanwhile, Florencio walks the gelding around the fields left fallow these past few years when Sadie was ill. He's all puffed up, like he just found something worthwhile to do, and I suppose he has, since I haven't asked him to work on anything. There's something about a black horse that brings out -- in certain men -- a conquistador spirit. Florencio, in his straw hat and white shirt, is muttering to Leroy so close to his muzzle he might be telling him a secret. I point. "Check that out. And people go on about the bond between women and horses."
Ness looks down at her lap, where her hands lie neatly folded on her blue jeans. "Phoebe?"
"You seem to love horses."
I touch the armrests of my chair; feel the comfortable leather, worn to familiar softness. "Oh, I do. From a distance, anyway. I've never actually ridden one, but they're like art, aren't they? Have you ever seen DaVinci's drawings of horses? No? Oh my gosh, incredible. My aunt has this book -- "
"If I was to sign Leroy over to you, would you promise me not to sell him to the dog-food people?"
My heart breaks. Slowly, deliberately, like I'm Leroy moving toward the carrot Florencio holds out, I come to the conclusion that there must be enough insurance on this farm to cover one horse and any possible accidents. I look over at the flowers bending in the afternoon wind. At Leroy's tail swishing as Florencio walks him across this farm. At my few pieces of large statuary in the flower bed, gathering a fine sheen of moss. "Ness, tell you what. Leroy can stay here until you get things figured out. But you'll have to buy some hay. All we have around here is fertilizer and straw, you know, for mulching the flowers." Suddenly the thought occurs to me that perhaps mulching is what happens at this time of year, and that if I'm going to stay here, I had better read Sadie's gardening journal.
Ness stands up and comes over to me. As if she belongs on Sadie's land more than I do, she smells like some kind of tart flower. Her arms encircle my shoulders and chair, and her skin is smooth and warm. "Bless you, Phoebe."
I guess she has me right then, because I am a sucker for anyone who hugs my chair.
Living careful is something I've done my entire life. I can't afford to catch things like pneumonia, so I stay out of drafts. I eat healthy so that my heart, bless its hardworking faulty chambers, will stay as strong as it can. When I was at Shriners', and the therapists were urging me toward an electric wheelchair, I held firm on the self-propelled kind. There were people who needed that motorized kind of help and there were people like me, who could lift weights and work hard at staying strong, even if they don't do so well at walking. Even if it meant getting stuck sometimes, even if it meant the occasional humiliating fall, I wanted to be the one propelling myself. Sadie would approve of what I've done. She'd have broken out a bottle of champagne. James, however, will grill me. How much do you know about this person? Did you check her references? Can you describe the nature of her character? "I turned thirty-eight three weeks ago," I say, but I don't tell her my birthday was the day after my aunt died. "How old are you?"
"Thirty-five last December."
"Do you mind if I ask you what Ness stands for?"
She puts her hand over her mouth. "Oh, please. Anything but that."
"Why not? Is it Elliot Ness? Did your mother have a crush on that guy in The Untouchables?"
She laughs. "Not that I know of. My granny named me Preciousness. Which I never was by the way, and with a name like that, you find a nickname as soon as humanly possible. That's my deepest secret, and it had better stay that way, you hear? I can't afford to have folks find out that a female horse shoer looking for new clients is named -- oh, don't make me say it twice."
"I understand. What about poor Leroy? Who named him?"
"Some racist idiot I thought I loved. Leroy and I've been friends twelve years now. I don't even know of a single marriage that's lasted that long, do you?"
The only one that comes to mind is my parents'. They were together long enough to have two children, a mortgage, and good insurance. When my father died, my mother completely switched personalities and left us kids baffled. Occasionally that bafflement turns to misery, because she deals with her problems in one of two ways: traveling or meddling. Sometimes I wish she'd get married again, just so it would take the heat off me, but widowhood suits her -- there are cruises to take, causes to fight for, and best of all, so much free time to tell me how little she approves of my life. "Not really," I say.
"That's right," Ness continues. "My feeling is a man will let you down, but a horse, now there's a true partnership."
I try to think what questions I could ask her that are important yet not too probing, something in the way of what a landlord might ask a prospective tenant. But I'm not any good at that, and as usual, I lead with my heart. "Does that mean there's currently no man in your life?"
Her eyes glitter, and I can tell I've touched a hurt that's barely scabbed over. "No man for me. How about you?"
"Ha." I'm flattered she'd think there was one, impossible as it is with me in the chair. "Well, you want my humble opinion," I say. "Except for Florencio, most men suck. Wait until you meet my brother Stinky. Let's just say he's aptly named."
She grins and stretches her arms above her head. I envy the long, ropy muscles that flex and uncoil. She can lift any feed sack a man can, or my chair with me in it. She's smart and laughs at my jokes. "Did you always want to be a farrier?"
"Heck, no. I had my sights set on a large animal veterinarian practice. Never could scrape the money together for school. But I'm good at what I do. I like it. What about you?"
"I'm doing it," I tell her, pointing to the mobiles hanging in my aunt's windows. "I make these clay ladies. Little People, the shop off Ocean Avenue across the highway? They sell them."
She runs her fingers over the naked women hanging from the mobile. "Interesting in a weird sort of way, Phoebe," she says. "What else have you done?"
I point out the clay flower women in the garden. Imagine cabbages, but instead of leaves, women's faces emerging. Ness smiles politely. Then we go indoors and I show her my other work. "This is a mask I did a few years ago," I say. It's the most realistic thing I've ever attempted, and most people remark on it, but what Ness Butler lingers over is the mermaids. A year ago I was on an oceanic kick, and outfitted this whole season of clay ladies with swirling scaly green tails, even glue-gunned their behinds to various shells Sadie had collected in her travels. When my aunt's pain got too bad and the morphine wasn't kicking in quickly enough, the mermaids amused her. I remember making this one, curling it around her index finger like a ring. Sadie would shut her eyes, doze for a while, then wake with a start, and before the pain could grab hold of her and squeeze too tightly, she'd focus on the mermaid. That's me before too long, Phoebe, she'd say, and I knew she was referring to her funeral wishes, cremation and ashes scattered off the coast.
"This is some kind of palace," Ness says, looking up at the wooden ceiling crisscrossed with massive old beams. "Reminds me of that hotel in Yosemite. Ever been there?"
I shake my head no. "Not a lot of national parks with wheelchair ramps. But I've seen pictures of El Capitan and Bridal Veil Falls."
"You could see a whole lot more on horseback," Ness says offhandedly, as she wanders through the living room looking at Sadie's paintings. "Nice art you have here," she is saying. "If a body could get up mornings and look at paintings while she drank her coffee, the whole day might go better, huh?"
So I know a lot more about Ness (Preciousness!) than James would give me credit for. She works hard, is resourceful, and loves her grandma. She appreciates art, but if she doesn't like something, has enough backbone to say so. Yes, she's homeless, but that's a temporary thing, and she's proud of herself and
desperate enough to give Leroy to a good home before she'd
We're approaching the kitchen when I ask, "Ness, do you like to cook? It's one of my passions."
"Just point me to the pots and pans. I can cook vegetarian lasagne and squash casseroles and breads so full of whole grains they sand the plaque right off of your teeth. I don't eat red meat 'cause all it does is support the cattle industry, which is wrecking the planet." She quickly claps a hand over her mouth. "But I don't judge people who want to eat it."
"It's okay," I say. "I hear you on that score. I only have one more question. How much rent do you think you can realistically afford to pay?"
"Three-fifty, until I get me some new clients," she says. "Are you asking me what I think you're asking me?"
She looks away and says softly, "Oh, Phoebe."
And so in the space of a month I find myself having
scattered my beloved aunt's ashes at sea and having received an embarrassment of riches, including a forty-acre farm, two luxury automobiles, a horse to keep my farm manager happy, my first ever roommate, and who knows, maybe a friend.
"I need to see about the hay situation for Leroy," she says excitedly. "You think Florencio would mind if we borrowed the truck?"
"I have a car," I tell her. "In fact, I have two of them." She follows me out to the garage, where the black Jag and the yellow Mercedes sit gassed up and ready to rumble. Sadie sold the farm pickup to Florencio when she got sick, but every day he starts her cars up like any minute she'll be back. "You think the Jag's trunk will hold a bale of hay?"
"Damn, girl," is all Ness can say when I throw her the keys.
Copyright © 2001 by Jo-Ann Mapson