By: Raymond Greiner
My name is Howard Woodward. I have lived in this city for twenty years, have a good paying job and live in an up scale apartment. During formative years I dreamed of city life, an ever-busy place with bright lights and ceaseless activity forming a cast of social classes mixing with urban sounds and smells. Those youthful fantasies have since waned. The city changed character; white flight caused inner city decay and crime escalated. The air is polluted from increased traffic and incessant rumble of trucks. Two blocks from my apartment is a waste incinerator spewing nightly stench. After work I visit a popular lounge as a source of tempering. Cities are connected to alcohol with consumption ranging from wandering homeless to perceived gentry.
Entering the lounge the post workday crowd fills the room, uniformly attired, posturing with prattle and exaggerated body language in an effort to conjure happiness; thus, its name “happy hour.” This is a repetitive ritual dampening work place stress. As the joy juice assimilates the scene’s tone amplifies. Intoxication prompts bodacious behavior elevating brazenness.
I amble to the bar and order a beer, sitting next to me are two beautiful women. These surroundings trigger emotions running a divided path. I am excited anticipating conversation with these women; yet, despair plagues me. Has my life become a labyrinth of mediocrity? Are values located here I don’t see or understand? Do I feel happy, or am I attempting to crawl out of a rut using the brevity of the moment as a stepping-stone? Nonetheless, I am here, mingling among a smoke filled cage of interactivity.
“Hi, I am Howard, you both look ravishing.”
“Thanks, I am Judy and this is Kathleen, it’s our first time here. This is a busy place. Do you work nearby?”
“Yes, an accountant with a large firm, two blocks west. I live in the adjacent apartment building.”
“I work close also, for a public relations company. I have known Kathleen since third grade; she seldom comes to the city. I persuaded her to visit, have some fun, dress up and experience urban life. She lives in a remote rural place, miles from the city.”
“Yeah, I’m a real hick from the sticks, nice to meet you Howard. Judy portrays me as living in the jungle, foraging for food. I enjoy a city fix, maybe once a year; it’s enough for me. I am having my annual beer, don’t really like the stuff but feel the need to fit in. People look at you funny if you are not boozing.”
“Judy and I were good friends growing up, were in the same high school class. She was voted homecoming queen.”
”You must have been first runner up.”
“Far from it. Judy lived in town with good parents in a very nice home. I lived in the country taking the bus to school. My parents died when I was very” “young and I stayed with my grandmother on her small homestead. During high school years my appearance was not homecoming queen material.”
“It’s not true Howard, Kathleen was an absolute doll in high school. She was poor, limiting dress choices, unable to participate in the daily fashion show, but her beauty was obvious. Her personality was her greatest beauty and I enjoyed her company the most, it was so fun growing up with her, a laugh a minute. As you can clearly see she remains beautiful and if you know her you love her.”
“Kathleen is a published writer, lives in a one hundred-year-old house inherited from her grandmother. I visit her but it’s not the life for me. Her rooster wakes me up at five AM. It’s still dark.”
“So nice to meet you two. I readily sense character running deeper than this crowd typically offers. A writer, how fascinating.”
“It’s not what you may imagine. I write short stories and essays. Most have been published but the pay is atrociously low and often nonexistent. I started two novels, but could not get them to go where I thought they should and shelved them both. I do gain income from editing the work of others. I have a large garden and sell organic produce at the local food co-op, also eggs. I have 20 layer hens. Defining my life, it’s much work with low pay, although joyful each day. I have two dogs and three cats; they represent my social connections.”
“What about me Kathleen? You e-mail me every day. I love your e mail messages, they lift my spirit.”
“I take you too much for granted, but I would be a much lonelier soul without you in my life. I cannot imagine life without you. We have been connected since I can remember.”
“A place in the country sounds peaceful. I am feeling intense urban burnout. This lounge is a catch basin, seeking escape, numbing brains to cope with haywire lives, work stress, money worries and a laundry list of tensions associated with unrelenting crowds of people going in different directions. It’s beleaguering. An accountant’s work is attached to metropolitan life. I’m stuck in this city.”
The two women were startled at Howard’s testimonial. The conversation stalled. Then Kathleen spoke.
“My place has its own forms of stress. Often it’s difficult to make ends meet. As I awaken each morning questions appear. Can I sell enough produce and eggs this week? Will caterpillars eat my kale plants before I can soak them with organic insect spray? Will the well pump make it through dry months? All summer I cut and stack firewood to relieve time squeeze when fall arrives. I work from dawn to dusk, never really seem to catch up. However, the air is pure and it’s a quiet place, except when Ranger and Jasmine bark. Very little writing in warm months, it’s mostly a winter activity.”
“I am like you Howard, professionally attached to the city. Public relations firms rely on population density. I have never felt urban burnout; I enjoy the hustle, bustle atmosphere and the variety of human contacts each day. Continuous urban activity wears more on some. Lets exchange e-mail addresses, this topic is crying out for more discussion. It may lead someplace. Meanwhile, we are here to enjoy this time together. I’ll have another beer.”
“I’ll pass, only one for me. Farmers get up too early to contend with hangovers.”
“How about you Howard?”
“I’ll take another. I’m buying, I usually have two, sometimes three.”
It felt good talking with these women, continuing through a second beer and then parting ways exchanging e-mail addresses to expand thoughts later. Tomorrow is Saturday and Judy said she would drive Kathleen back to her farm planning to spend the night. Judy and Kathleen are true friends, forming a lifetime bond.
“Dear new friends: What a good feeling talking with you last night. Articulate beautiful women do a much better job relieving an old warhorse’s anxieties than beer. Too much beer dissolves my memory; and brain cells are forever grateful when I stop their alcohol bath early. No hangover this morning. I’m thinking clearly, at least I think I am.”
“Last month was my forty fifth birthday. Progression of time changes the tone of this annual event, diminishing celebration, forming milestones pivoting toward aging. Forty-five is a reality check, quietly stepping in cadence with timeline rhythms tipping into a zone of no return. I got married at 30. Friends and associates were giving me a suspicious eye wondering about my late entry into matrimony. I never questioned it. I’ve always been a slow mover socially, and meeting someone with proper chemistry and compatibility is a consequence of luck and circumstance. Things went well for five years, and then my wife discovered greener grass cutting me loose, a difficult adjustment. It was back to work and I have been in my present routine since.”
“During high school I was in a quandary about career choices, took a series of aptitude tests and accounting kept surfacing as an appropriate direction. It is fascinating how society judges us in accordance to career choices. It’s as if our lives were outlined early on structuring education and ambitions toward what is socially acceptable, centering on earning money and fitting into a pattern recognized as culturally aligned, and most importantly prosperous. So, success is synonymous with money, viewing earning potential as a pathway to status, melding with conformity. This all began for me during aptitude testing in high school. Now I earn in excess of one hundred thousand dollars a year leading me to where I am. I juggle numbers all day, a boring routine, then hit the lounge, suck down a few beers, and live in a high-end apartment. Is this all there is to discovering a good life?”
“Write when time allows. I look forward to your thoughts. Your new friend, Howard.”
“Howard: Judy left this morning, and will probably read your message later this evening. My rooster Henry was on time forcing early rising. I marvel at his propensity for regiment. A biological alarm clock.”
“Last night and also at breakfast Judy and I discussed meeting you. My life contrasts to yours and Judy’s. My friendship with Judy is cemented by longevity and similar philosophical views. It’s an unusual bond, sharing support, offering a sense of love and self worth. The main distinction is Judy enjoys social mingling. I like it in small doses and in recent years desire for social connection subsided. I am also forty-five, and in opposition to your thoughts I praise each day with great joy to be alive and though others may view my life as tentative it offers intangible rewards. Money remains a factor; however, it fails to dominate, as it often tends to do. It’s fun living out here. I find myself looking at the sky each day praising the sun and the life it creates. Planting kale seeds in early spring and seeing them break the soil revealing new life is difficult to describe, a personal, spiritual event.”
“I never married, but had near misses, not quite getting there for a variety of reasons. My grandmother was an extraordinary woman. She taught me self-reliance, connecting with the soil, gaining sustenance and independence, living frugally, which is an accomplishment in itself. Work blends naturally manifesting from osmosis of circumstance and need. My life is untypical compared to standard employment characterization.”
“My interest in literature and writing evolved from my grandmother. She was intensely literary. Read and discussed all the classic authors inspiring my writing pursuit. Also a few teachers were influential. Writing fills a void during winter months. I become impassioned with writing, softening lonely times. Winter’s isolation stimulates creative thought.”
“You are invited to visit any time. I suggest you accompany Judy on her next trip. She comes often; it’s such joy to have her. Judy is cosmopolitan but feels need to embrace our unique relationship and it is apparent the beauty and quietness of this place allows renewal. These visits are comforting for us both. The most ardent isolationist needs human contact. Many consider Thoreau a hermit. This is far from truth; his life was filled with quality human connections. His cabin had three chairs and each chair was labeled with a name. Solitude, Friendship and Society.”
“I sense you will benefit from visiting for a day. It’s nice here. Kathleen.”
“Howard: As predicted our discussion at the ‘catch basin’ stirred thoughts. Kathleen shared her message to you. Kathleen is right; her place does penetrate me, a profoundly alive place. I feel a certain balance when I visit, a cleansing. No question in my mind you are in need of cleansing.”
“Call me 346-1181, we can plan a visit. I will drive and we can talk more on the trip to Kathleen’s place. Don’t attempt to evaluate her; she is the most eloquent and fascinating person you will ever meet. Talk to you soon. Judy.”
“Hello Judy? This is Howard.”
“Hi Howard. Glad you called. I am thinking this coming weekend would be a good time to visit Kathleen. It’s late spring and she has finished planting leaving time for us. I can drive. Does this sound right for you?”
“Sure, it’s exciting, an escape. Give me a time and I will be ready. My apartment is adjacent to the lounge, ring 410 and I will buzz you in.”
“I will be at your apartment at 7AM, we can stop at my usual place for breakfast. I will verify things with Kathleen. She will be delighted.”
“I will be ready. Lots to talk about. A break from our routines, see you Saturday.”
Judy was on time ringing Howard’s number. The buzzer opened the door. This is truly a luxury apartment building, in the heart of the city. Much like Judy’s townhouse.
“Welcome, come in. Coffee is ready. Just one cup and then we can hit the road.”
“This is a magnificent apartment.”
“It’s my sanctuary, where I recharge for the next day.”
After coffee they were on the road to Kathleen’s. A sunny, warm late spring day and Judy and Harold were comfortable with each other, both cosmopolitan and attached to city life.
“It’s about an hour’s drive once we clear the city limits.”
“Are you married?”
“No, I have pretty much run the gamut regarding partnering. Never formally married but multiple relationships. Everything ranging from alcoholics to control freaks and some plagued with extreme insecurity. I tried to adjust, but as a female tending a career it was far too much to endure. Kathleen has been a stalwart supporter and friend. My life always falls back to Kathleen.”
“Since high school people have told me I am beautiful. Early on I bathed in the praise and attention, later realizing physical attraction is a double-edged sword of power and influence. At this stage of life I have learned beauty can be as destructive as it is constructive. It can be a curse, but also a handy device if used correctly. Doors of opportunity often open based upon one’s appearance. Opportunities attached to beauty have diminished in recent years, as aging begins to take its toll.”
“You are still very beautiful. You and Kathleen remain beautiful. This stimulated me to talk with you both at the ‘Catch Basin’”.
“We enjoyed listening to you. I think we all feel degrees of despair and anxieties within the structure of our lives. You displayed sensitivity with good expression. This caused a sense of attachment. This seldom happens to either of us. We are both a bit extreme with independent personalities, have an inner drive to find our own way, contrary to many women who commonly view males as elements of support.”
“It sure made my day.”
“Let’s eat now, we are about half way to Kathleen’s house.”
After breakfast Judy and Howard were back on the road.
“I am eager for you to see Kathleen’s farm. I think it will mellow your anxiety.”
They turned off the highway onto a secondary paved road driving several miles then turning again onto a gravel road. This was a winding road through a wooded section. They came to a mailbox with the name Kathleen Turner entering a one-lane dirt road. As they approached Kathleen’s house two dogs came running sounding greeting barks with tails wagging. Kathleen appeared at the doorway smiling then walked into the yard to meet her friends. The dogs quieted as human petting settled them but tails continued speaking in high voice. Harold was overcome and felt grateful to have arrived.
“So glad you two came. Real people, what a treat.”
Kathleen hugged them both. Her dark eyes depict her soul. One cannot help feeling this woman’s grace and beauty. It is truly overwhelming and obvious.
“Come in, I want to show Howard my old house.”
The house is a spacious two-story farmhouse. Built in 1910, wood siding and two chimneys. Everything was in perfect order. One corner of the large kitchen was organized to weigh and package vegetables to be sold at the local food co-op.
“This is where I live and work each day. Weekly I go to town to deliver my produce and eggs. As you see, my dress choice places function above fashion. If I dressed in the city as I do daily I would be viewed with suspicion or a homeless person. It’s a tough life out here, but it fits for me. I am so happy to see you two. I enjoy cooking and now I can prepare us a fine meal. I found a large bed of morel mushrooms and will combine them with dehydrated vegetables plus I started kale in late winter using my cold frame, it’s ready to harvest and also have a bottle of wine.”
Howard was enthralled and kept staring at Kathleen. Her hair was up, with no make up. He felt powerful emotions looking at her in her bib overalls. She was magnificent, causing him to feel awkward, thought he might stammer and stutter if he spoke. Then said.
“I love your house. Judy explained a few things but seeing it offers clarity. I have never known anyone living in such a manner or capable of what you do.” “It impresses me. I feel energized; the beauty of the place and the quiet solitude is refreshing compared to city clutter, noise and pollution. It displays abstract, natural splendor, an entirely different world. I am so glad you invited us to visit. It’s difficult to explain, but feels good.”
“I have opinions and reasons that delivered me to this life. I can share those thoughts later.”
Kathleen then extended the house tour showing special pride for her writing studio. This was her grandmother’s office also, producing memories of Kathleen’s youth. Shelves filled with books on various subjects, many gardening manuals. Her desk was orderly with published essays and short stories posted on the bulletin board mounted above her computer desk. This was Kathleen’s place of joy spending many winter hours. Her writing offers fertility to her mind, as thoughts are created traveling to paper and read by many.
The three walked the property as Kathleen explained her garden. It’s variety of crops and immense size seemed difficult to manage for one gardener. Her layer hens were wandering about pecking for insects. A chicken house with wire fence was their nocturnal space. Ranger and Jasmine slept near in their doghouse watching over the hens. Cats darted around keeping their distance, unsure about these strangers.
Kathleen prepared a wonderful meal with brown rice, chopped walnuts and almonds, steaming kale with sweet onions and morels, reconstituting dehydrated peppers and tomatoes in the steamer. Topping all of this with freshly grated ginger and crushed garlic. Seasoning included turmeric powder, fresh ground pepper and Himalayan salt with mixed organic spices. Harold had never experienced such a meal mixing healthy foods creating wonderful flavor. The wine added to the perfection.
“Now you know why I love coming here. Have you ever had a meal like this?”
“Not in my entire life. This is an unforgettable experience, combining the company of two beautiful and enjoyable women. I think I may now be in heaven.”
“I am happy to share this meal with you two. It’s lonely here at times, and good company is tonic for the soul. Food is the essence of life; it can enhance life or destroy it. Agriculture has moved in a troubling direction. It has become industrialized relying on trickery of hybrid crops and chemicals gaining higher, faster yields using lower labor and requiring less field time. It has become about money above all else. Foods during these modern times are causing widespread health issues, and agriculture is nothing like it was in earlier times. Bees are dying by the thousands, killed from ingesting chemicals attempting to pollinate as they have done since ancient times. Food processing and fast food companies have taste engineers designing foods with excess salt, chemical taste enhancers and preservatives subtracting nutritional values. I gain great joy living as I do. I love being connected to the Earth. When large farms dwindle from drought and crops fail, my garden is saved because I can manage it. I hand water during dry times, enough water” “to keep it thriving and alive. Humanity has drifted far from early human balance. I feel as though I am a child of the Earth, living a dream.”
Judy knew all of this, and her main intension for bringing Harold here was to expose him to an alternative life. His dismay may fade gaining understanding of Kathleen’s philosophy of life.
“When I was young I envisioned an urban life. Cities seemed exciting, offering social encounters, the arts, libraries and a drift of values toward human development. I enjoy brief visits to the city. My place offers a feeling of belonging, a comfort zone. I mutated to this place. The soil, the closeness to nature and blissful quiet not found in cities.”
Judy, Howard and Kathleen savored this time together. The fine meal and conversations offered cohesiveness. The hominess of Kathleen’s house and kitchen added an indefinable quality.
Breakfast was oatmeal, chopped walnuts with cinnamon and honey, fresh eggs and biscuits surely made by God. As Judy and Howard departed all three felt a higher bond. Howard could not escape the power of Kathleen’s beauty and overall demeanor. He could not recall such feelings. Shortly after they departed Judy asked Howard.
“What are your thoughts?”
“I can’t describe them. Kathleen is captivating. Her physical beauty adds to her magnetism but is a minor player to her overall being. She displays personal evolution quite above anyone I have ever known.”
“As I told you.”
Howard’s mind repetitively flashed images of Kathleen in her bib overalls darting around the kitchen, stirring and chopping things. It was like a ballet. He thought about her simplistic, independent life, her garden, animals, and writing. These thoughts lingered forming a haunting but loving and pleasing emotion. He must now return to the noisy clutter of the city with polluted air, pulling him back into despair.
“Howard, this is Judy. Kathleen called she is in the hospital. She was using the chainsaw cutting a small log on the ground and a large stick under the leaves was thrown back hitting her on the lower shin. It swelled badly, she didn’t go for treatment immediately and the leg became infected. They put her on an IV with strong antibiotics but the doctors are worried the infection may spread into her bloodstream. This is a very serious condition. Kathleen is very distraught worrying about her animals. I am calling you from California, I am over my head with client meetings and I can’t get there quickly. I am hoping you can help out.”
“Give me Kathleen’s number. I will call her. She can give me instructions and I will feed and care for her animals. I will stay at her place until she recovers. I have over a month’s vacation time coming.”
“Her cell number is 714-866-9214. Thank you so much Howard. Call me as soon as you get there.”
“Kathleen, this is Howard. Judy called and told me of your crisis. I am leaving now for your place. I will feed your animals and watch over things until you return home. Give me instructions.”
“Bless you Howard. I am so worried. They have access to water, automatically flowing into a tank. The foods are in the storage shed. Feed the chickens at night, one bowl for each day for the cats and dogs. It’s quite simple. The house is not locked and there is plenty of food. We can talk each day until I get out of this place. The doctors are really worried, but my body is strong and I am betting on myself to recover.”
“Don’t worry, I can handle it. Judy is in California or she would be here, you know that.”
“Hello Judy? This is Howard, I am at Kathleen’s and she gave me instructions to feed her animals. I will remain here as long as I am needed.”
“Thank God. I am so grateful and relieved. I will come as soon as I can. I am so hoping Kathleen can recover quickly.”
In one week Kathleen’s leg swelling reduced greatly and the doctor’s released her prescribing oral antibiotics to continue treatment for another week. She drove her old pick-up truck home. Howard was sitting on the porch with Ranger, Jasmine and two cats on the steps. Tears formed in Kathleen’s eyes. She was completely overcome with emotion.
“Howard, how can I ever thank you enough? I am going to prepare you the best meal you have ever eaten. It’s impossible for me to describe the joy I felt when you offered to watch over things during my recovery.”
She hugged Howard, squeezing him tight.
“I enjoyed being here at your place. It’s so wonderful, addictive.”
Kathleen made coffee and continued talking about her nightmare experience at the hospital while preparing food. Howard sat staring at her as she gracefully moved about the kitchen. The meal was divine as the two relished this time together. Kathleen began cleanup, putting dishes in the sink.
“Kathleen, your place is a paradise. I suffer living in the city, imprisoned, and the past week I felt I escaped prison. You are the most magnificent woman I have ever known. I feel a depth of love for you I thought did not exist. All my life I have felt off center, out of balance. While watching over your place it was as if my blurred life came into focus. When I am with you at this peaceful place I feel as if I have found level. I want to live with you. What do you think?”
Kathleen dropped her big stirring spoon on the floor. Picked it up quickly putting it in the sink. She was silent, with one hand on the counter, staring intently at Howard with her dark, penetrating eyes. The silence was uncomfortably long, calculating response.
“I never thought of it like ‘finding level’, it’s a wonderful simile. Are you sure you want to give up your high paying job to hoe corn and pick tomatoes? This house is a bit cold in mid winter.”
“To be with you I could endure anything.”
“When I write I crave solitude.”
“I want to write too. Often thought about writing. We can compliment each other.”
“I feel love for you also. At this juncture of our lives partnering could offer unique opportunity. I feel joy thinking of how it could be. Bonding with this place requires a particular mentality; living remotely attaching to physical work, but rewards appears in unsuspecting places. It’s like combining ingredients preparing a flavorful meal, a permeation occurs, resulting in a conglomerate, fusing with nature in its many forms. The morning rattle of the woodpecker, the haunting call of the sand hill cranes in their annual migration, the ever loquacious crows mixing with the natural smell of clean, fresh air. This place touches perfection, opening a gateway to life unfamiliar to many. Let’s give it a try. Find level together. Level is good.”
As Judy arrived at Kathleen’s house Howard and Kathleen greeted her as she exited the car.
“OK, you two. I’m reading something on your faces, but unsure what I am reading.”
Kathleen spoke: “We have good news.”
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