It was a spring day, and by spring day, I mean it was a nice day, although it wasn’t quite spring. It was the time of year when it wasn’t winter any more, but it wasn’t spring, either. The flowers and shrubs hadn’t yet bloomed, but juicy little weeds began to peek their way up through the rich soil. Snow had left the lower mountains, but high up you could still see the white drifts over the mountain town. The snow that was left remained because of the mountain on top of it, providing shade or, as one might note, making it cold for the lower part of the mountain because it didn’t let any sunlight touch it. It was a day that was mostly hopeful, because it wasn’t supposed to rain and Angie (that’s me) thought she saw a peek of crocus poking through the soil.
Forgive me. But sometimes I can’t distinguish between the now-Angie or the then-Angie. I see in pictures sometimes. Like how a photographer shoots, goes to the dark room, and then produces a nice black-and-white print. I get color shots sometimes.
Her house was plain brown on the outside, almost ginger-bread like. The front porch entrance had a sharp “A” to it, and the little porch had a slight step up where over-sized pots had sat all winter, still full of last fall’s marigold plants: dry, crunchy, spent. The bit of green that popped up probably hoped it could become a full-blown marigold once more. Possible, but not probable. Angie would have to sift through each of these pots soon and determine who went and who stayed. She always felt bad when she did this task, which was about the same time every year. It was if the plants had taken a life on last year and became part of her décor, like a lady might wear a new pair of shoes or gloves. But, sooner or later, possessions wear out and if you keep everything, then it could make one a hoarder. And hoarding was certainly something Angie wouldn’t be accused of. Anyway, to continue. On either side of the front porch were wrap-around flower beds edged with brick, from her brother’s time at this house fifty years back, and to the left was the cellar. It could use paint, Angie knew, especially since she liked keeping everything tidy-like, but every spring she couldn’t yet think of a reason to paint it. The gray, thin boards seemed to be doing OK, and she’d pound a couple of the nails back in place so that it looked good again. In a month or two, she’d put clay pots around the edge of the cellar’s door, and petunias would look really nice in them, or maybe pansies. They’d be for sale at Guspey’s, just down the road and across the river. An easy walk, really, and she’d pull the little wagon that was left one summer, careless, in her yard by an unknown child, or possibly an exasperated parent. She hadn’t figured that one out yet. She had no children of her own, although she had desperately wanted some, but it never happened and Beck died fifteen years ago, but it wouldn’t have mattered then, anyway.
Angie paused for a minute and looked at her fingers. She counted softly to herself.
Tomorrow she would be seventy-nine years old.
Seventy-nine. Just imagine.
And she was all alone.
She hadn’t imagined her life this way. To be alone. But she didn’t think of it as being alone much, (she told herself often) because she was surrounded by mountains and rivers. Birds sprang into her yard to hunt for worms and grubs, and they sang the brightest in the early morning hours, before the sun rose and the light was at its finest. She had to keep her company the pop and crack of the wood burning stove, especially in the winter time, as it laughed and teased as she sat in her rocker sipping sassafras tea and listening to the wind blow. No, she wasn’t all alone. The Smith boy came over every so often in the wintertime, to chop her wood for the wood burning stove. She didn’t have the heart to tell him that her house was heated quite nicely by gas, since she upgraded it twenty years back, but she was afraid to lose the boy. Donny was his name. She liked hearing Donny split the wood, and stack it on her front porch.
Then, every so often, Angie would get the little wagon and pile it high with wood, and bend her way into the back yard and neatly put the wood in a huge pile, joining other logs that had been placed there long ago. And when Donny saw her wood pile was low on the front porch, he’d go chop more wood, from the fallen trees on the back side of Angie’s property, and do it all over again. Angie figured that one of these days there wouldn’t be any more trees left to chop, and then how would she keep Donny around?
The house was comfortable and small. But it swallowed her up sometimes, especially late at night, when she had her thoughts all to herself and the house got quiet. Quiet, because the day was over and people weren’t riding bicycles past her home, and mail trucks had long left. Her thoughts would drift to when she was ten, and she sat in this very spot at her kitchen table. Daddy drank a glass of whiskey every night and Mama drank sassafras tea, and Angie and Tanner would be sandwiched between the two, drinking milk and eating a cookie or two. Tanner was a good five years older than Angie, and combine that with his towering height and intellectual talk, Angie felt invisible sometimes. Plus, he was going to be a doctor and that’s all Daddy ever talked about, how his son was going to be a doctor when he grew up and how proud he was of him. Mama would wring her hands when talk of Tanner going to college came up, because of the money, but Daddy kept talking and bragging. Every so often Mama told me my job was to find a good man and marry him, have kids, and be thankful the good Lord is taking care of me, along with my husband. Something didn’t sound quite right when she said it at times, but I chocked it up as what I needed to do, and bit into another chocolate chip cookie and swallowed down the milk. Cookies and milk are still a habit I do every day, even at my age, and I will say I inherited Mama’s skinny genes or I’d be as big as the cow that gave the milk.
Sometimes the four of us would laugh, but we mostly laughed when Aunt Lou came to visit Mama. She could make me laugh and it took the solemnness away, and with five of us sitting around the table at night, it made for good conversation. Daddy seemed to take a particular liking to Aunt Lou and Aunt Lou would bring Daddy special cigars from Denver. Her husband owned a store where cigars were sold, and she’d always manage to get Daddy a good supply of them. He always welcomed her visits.
So this house had memories, lots of them.
The least favorite memory was when everyone came over after Tanner’s funeral. I never knew so many people could be sandwiched into the walls like they were. Relatives were spread from the kitchen to the living room to the hallway bathroom and into the two bedrooms, and because it was deep summer, they even seeped onto the porch. It was raining, hard, so the little front porch held everyone snug. The house smelled like rain, pine cones, and bacon.
Someone brought their guitar and sang lonesome songs, until some of the ladies started singing, and then some of the men suddenly got happy and started dancing and the whole mood changed. I was crammed into a corner behind a magazine stand, watching everyone dance and laugh and sometimes cry, but the music kept coming. I cried and smiled at the same time, because I lost my best friend, but he was free now. I didn’t care what the preacher said up on the pulpit about sins and where people go when they do bad things, because I knew Tanner and I knew his heart and how he died was awful but I knew his heart, and God knew his heart, and everyone else could believe anything they wanted to. I knew Tanner was free, and that was all that mattered.
I had other memories, too.
One memory was the time Mama made me a birthday cake, the first one in a long time since Tanner died. It had twenty candles on it, with pink icing. And Mama was smiling, and had bought me a gift. I can’t remember what the gift was. Guess it didn’t matter, but what counted was it was a gift and I felt kind of lost since Tanner left but the gift meant that Mama was at least thinking about me a little bit.
I wondered if, maybe, I wasn’t such a bad kid after all.
A brash, throaty caw pierced the air early the next morning. I sat straight up in bed, not quite sure where I was, but then I remembered what today was: The sixteenth of March. My birthday.
I hadn’t closed the curtains completely the night before like I usually did, and daylight found its way in. It was the pre-early morning light, the kind that comes before dawn. I padded over to the curtain and pulled it open. The bird I assumed bid his caw was sitting beneath the half-dead lilac bush, pruning his black-purple coat and puffing his feathers up just so. He had something in his beak and he dropped it. His head darted left and then right, as if looking for something. Then the crow flew off, probably to search for worms or grubs somewhere else.
The rest of the house became brighter as I pushed the curtains in the living room and kitchen aside, letting in a beacon of light. The coffee was started and I opened my front door, to fetch the morning paper. The Hatter Girls (there were five of them, in various sizes) always made sure to toss the paper onto the porch.
This morning, there was a paper, only it sat on the wicker chair and next to it, a pie.
Strange. Exhilarating. Someone left this for my birthday? I looked toward the street, wondering who it could have been. Yes, it made perfect sense that a Hatter girl left it. I would call over to their house later, and ask Mrs. Hatter to thank the girls for the gift.
I hadn’t done it in ages, but I found a candle and stuck it in the middle of the pie, and lit it. I poured myself coffee, with plenty of cream, and got out a plate my mama used to use. Then I cut into the pie.
Cherry. My favorite.
By the time I finished my birthday breakfast, it was only seven-thirty.
I had a whole day in front of me, completely empty. For the first time in a long time, I started to feel lonely.
Then I heard the crow call again.
I decided to follow him, so I went outside.
He was sitting on the front fence, with something dangling from his beak. Then he swooped down onto the sidewalk, dropping it smack-dab in the middle of the walk way. He hopped to the side, almost like he was waiting for me to approach him. Strange, really. I was curious as to what it was he dropped.
The crow hopped to the side, flapping his feathers a bit, curious.
I bent down, and picked up his treasure.
It appeared to have a diamond pendant on it, surrounded by three rubies.
I squinted toward the bird, then to the road, and back to the bird. The crow stole this. It had to have stolen it. Crows liked shiny things. I wondered who in town was missing this.
I held the necklace up so it caught the light just so. A birthday gift. From a bird, of all things.
I went back into the house, and closed the door.
After a couple hours, I decided to try the necklace on, just to see what it would look like. It looked nice. Almost perfect. So I got my purse, laced up my shoes, and fetched the wagon. I’d head to Guspey’s, to see if they had garden supplies in, although it was a little early in the year. There was nothing like a surprise gift on one’s birthday to inspire one to doll up their yard.
For a Friday about noon, the store wasn’t very busy. I hadn’t been to Guspey’s in over two weeks, and was disappointed that there weren’t any plants at the front of the store. I walked the aisles of the little store, the wood creaking a little bit. It was very quiet, really. Until I heard the earth-shattering caw of a crow.
I turned around, startled.
There was Mr. Guspey, with that big, fat crow on his arm. At least it looked like the same crow I saw earlier.
“Happy Birthday, Angie,” Mr. Guspey said, smiling. His teeth were perfectly straight. Always had been, ever since I first met him years ago. “I see you’re wearing Benjamin’s gift.”
“Benjamin?” I shook my head. “That’s the name of your crow? Well…” I walked closer to Benjamin, who seemed calm and tame upon his master’s arm. “Thank you very much,” I said to the crow. “It is the most beautiful trinket I have ever laid eyes on, and it I love it.”
I almost expected the crow to talk. Instead, Mr. Guspey spoke.
“One of my specialties is pie-baking. I am also a very good cook. After a long day at the store, I enjoy baking a dish or two. I’m afraid Benjamin doesn’t appreciate my efforts as much as you might. Would you join me for dinner tonight? I’d love to cook for you.”
My heart did a flutter.
I couldn’t think up an excuse to say no.
“I think I might be able to arrange it,” I replied.
“Call me Lewis. You remember. You used to call me Lewis all the time.” Mr. Guspey’s blue eyes sparked.
“You’re a bit bold now, aren’t you, Lewis?”
“I’m not getting any younger. I was never able to get your attention years ago. I had to try a different approach. Did it work?”
My stomach fluttered. I looked at Benjamin, black and shining and dubious.
“Is it true you do taxidermy?” Lewis offered his bird a perch on the other arm. “There was talk around town that you once were pretty good at it.”
“Haven’t done it in ages. We sold our store, you know.”
“I know.” Lewis smiled, flashing me his nice teeth, and I felt a smile deep inside me. “Would tonight at six work? For dinner?” He gave me a wink.
I nodded. Six would work just fine.
When one gets to be my age, opportunities don’t always come along like they used to. I spent the afternoon getting my hair fixed, and I even bought a new dress.
I hadn’t been on a date in years. But I had known Lewis for years. It would be nice to have dinner with him. And how special, having a man cook. The day had been full of unexpected things, all good.
For the first time in a long time, I would have someone to laugh with tonight. There would be years to catch up on. He’d ask a lot of questions. I would answer him, and ask him even more. He would tell me about his children. I would ask him when his plants would arrive for the spring. Then our talk might turn to Benjamin, and I might learn how to tame a crow.
Maybe my future would be filled with Lewis and the laughter of a strange bird.
My heart swelled with happiness, with a feeling of completeness, a feeling of gratitude, a feeling of plenty. My cornucopia was full and over-flowing.
I could hardly believe I was having dinner with Lewis.
And his bird.
Happy, happy birthday to me. It was going to be a splendid evening. I could tell.
And what was more? I met Benjamin.