Chapter 1: The Rock Candy Fish - Part 3.

The arranging and moving of stuff hits a stopping point when the pizza delivery girl arrives.  Stacey, Donald, Jane and Hans assemble my two-person glider while the rest of us set up plastic deck chairs on the back concrete-slab patio.

Dan interrupts the happy diners. “A toast to Jackie’s new beginnings! To paraphrase the early 19th century English novelist Robert Smith Surtees: To your good health, our friend; may you live for a thousand years, and we be there to count them." Laughter, clapping, and the random "hear hear" follows as everyone reaches around to clink mismatched coffee mugs of beer and wine.

My friends head home and Megan and I unpack the day’s last box.  Megan hands me two anthologies of essays and stories, and I fit them into a bookshelf. “That’s enough for tonight.” I stretch my back muscles. “I'll finish these others tomorrow … or when I need to find something I’ve lost.”

“Knowing you, Mom, it'll be the second one,” Megan teases, breaks down the box and walks to the kitchen.

We meet in the living room. Megan hands me a coffee cup of wine and settles on the couch with a cup of tea and her knees drawn up into a ball. “So Mom, do you think this will ever feel like home for you?”

“Eventually.  Maybe when I fill the medicine cabinet with my Geritol and Polident.” I sip my wine.  “Or maybe I just need to make some brownies and fill the air with the smell of chocolate.”  

We sit quietly, the long day's work taking over.  John Coltrane’s “Too Young to Date” comes on. “I love Coltrane,” Megan murmurs with her eyes closed.

“Me too. Especially the beginning notes of this song. They always make me think of one anniversary when your dad and I went to Ithaca.” My voice trails off as Megan and I listen together.

For that anniversary, John and I had splurged on a fireplace-and-hot-tub room in a little hotel between Ithaca and Trumansburg. I had Coltrane for Lovers playing, candles lit and a new pair of string bikini panties that complimented my tummy rolls.  I tried looking seductive lying on the pillows, but as I flung out my arm to pose, I knocked over the candles next to the bed.  In our hurry to keep the blankets from catching on fire, I fell out of bed and John had to dance wildly to avoid stepping on me.  We laughed so hard.  Still, by the time we got ourselves untangled, we only kissed and fell asleep instead of making love. We never did use the hot tub or the fireplace.    

Suddenly heavy bass music booms in the window from the apartments next door, overwhelming Coltrane and jolting me back into the present.  Megan nearly spills her tea.  “That’s what you get for being a Vestal virgin renter!” she laughs.

“A what?”

“That’s what the college students call townies who are first-time renters near the university.  They're virgins when it comes to student neighbors – completely oblivious to the insanity they will have to endure. And that is a good sign I have to go.  I have my own music to listen to driving the hour and a half home.” She takes her cup to the kitchen and comes back with her keys. “I’ll call you tomorrow evening, ok?”

“Ok, hon. Thanks for coming today.  You were a big help!”

“No problem, Mom,” Megan hugs me and kisses my cheek. “Sleep well,” she sings mockingly as I walk to the door with her. 

I wave at Megan backing out of the driveway and watch students walking to parties at the apartments.  It’s already setting up to be a noisy night. Well, at least it’s not the sound from Jane's bedroom, and when the night ends I'll sleep in my own bed.  I pour myself one last glass of wine and go out back. With everyone finally gone, I start thinking about people leaving. 

I had had many random memories surface during the August before Kim and Ben went off to college, but the one of the first day of kindergarten stuck.  The twins' different natures really showed that day in front of the school. Though both 5 years old, Kim was already focused on her best friend while Ben kept looking back to see if John and I were still there.  He finally turned and marched resolutely into the building, leaving John and me with tears in our eyes.

When Kim and Ben did leave for college, each drove off with friends and neither looked back.  Kim headed across town to Binghamton University, Ben was four hours away in Buffalo, Megan was at Ithaca College, and at least for that day I had a bad case of empty nest syndrome. John walked out later that winter.

“Stop it, Jackie,” I mutter. “This isn't helping anything.”  The riot next door distracted me, and I settled on the glider. I might as well enjoy the show.

A sudden burst of loud party goers swarms out of a first-floor apartment and into the building’s back yard.  The group laughs and shouts at a pair of young men wearing togas and high heels and sloshing beer out of plastic cups.

One guy strides to the front. “OK, everyone! We've got a challenger to the throne of the Emperor of Kegs.”  The group cheers and two more young men roll a couple kegs each onto the grass. They set up a staggered line, the crowd along one side of the obstacle course. 

“You know the rules right Frank?  Joe?” the master of ceremonies asks loud enough to be heard over the whoops and whistles.

The two contestants in togas can hardly stand. “Long live the Emperor of Kegs!” one yells enthusiastically, raises a fist in the air and nearly falls down.  The other kid stumbles to some lawn chairs indicating the end of the course.  The two line up side by side, the MC yells “GO!” and the contestants weave wildly across the yard. They jockey for position at each keg to run in a circle, drink a shot handed to them, and then take off to the next keg.

This race takes longer than it should as the boys stumble and fall off their high heels. Pretty soon, they're barely holding up the togas and the shoes are lost in the grass.  One of the racers pulls the other one down as he passes, and the next thing I know, two naked young men streak across my lawn.  The two guys who rolled out the kegs chase after them with toga sheets and shouts of abuse.  Somewhere in my other neighbor’s yard, the retrievers tackle the naked pair and return back across my yard with the two wrapped together, all to the party-goers’ cheers. 

I shake my head, stand up and go inside. I don't think I'm a Vestal virgin any longer.

On Sunday evening, I give up searching for the garlic press, my favorite tablecloth, and other essentials buried in the wrong places, and go for a walk through my new neighborhood.  The September sky turns yellow then pink then deep blue, the sun sinks behind the trees, and the air has a late summer coolness signaling change.  This twilight time of night always makes me think of the word “gloaming” and I murmur it to myself.  Like in most of the Chenango Valley towns settled in the river valley that cuts through the Catskills, these streets wind and curve and climb along the hills. The World War II vintage houses and new apartment complexes give way to mid-century then late 20th century houses as I walk.  Lights dot the shadows. Parents’ calls to come inside punctuate backyards of kids' voices.

I come to a neighborhood park with 8 year olds floundering after a soccer ball and families in lawn chairs watching from sidelines.  A single player breaks away with the ball, the goalie trying gainfully to protect the net. I watch as the ball flies over the goal, the teams yell out groans or cheers, and the goalie falls down from his effort to stop the ball. It’s been a long time since I was one of those parents enthusiastically cheering both the kids’ successes and failures.  

I turn the next corner.  Over the evening noises, someone calls my name. “Jackie!”

It’s the guy from the diner walking a black standard poodle. 

I wait for them to catch up. “David, right? What a great dog.”

“This is Sophie.  She’s my girlfriend’s.” Sophie turns her head when she hears David’s voice as he leans over to adjust her collar. “So, did you end up renting that house?”

“Yep, I did. I moved in yesterday.  So do you walk your girlfriend’s dog often?” I hope I don't sound overly nosy or disappointed.

“Fairly often; Tracy’s off on a trip for a week. She travels a lot.”  David clucks at Sophie, who reluctantly leaves something she found in the grass, and together we walk down the hill.  “Tracey’s a rep for Rockwell Collins and ends up seeing the world while I’m here holding down the fort.”

“Well that doesn't sound like a bad gig. Is it?”

“No.  I get some time to focus on my painting. I also usually work in the evenings.  I co-manage the Art-Z Theater downtown.” David glances at me. “What do you do?”

“I do freelance writing: articles for different publications and The River Fork Times, as well as occasional pamphlets and stuff.” 

“Hmm, sounds interesting.” David stops at the corner. “Well, I'm on the next block over. Welcome to the neighborhood.” He clucks to Sophie, and they cross the street. I wonder how often I'll run into them. Then I pass the apartments on my way to my house, and I wonder which one is Ryan’s.

Posted by Jackie Connolly.

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