Taking Notice

So often we trust strangers. The normal people similar to us, living black coffee lives, running boring errands like buying milk or paying the electric bill; we trust these people all the time from our safety to our capabilities.

We trust that strangers will stay in their lane when we pass them and not swerve into us. We trust that if we ask a question, we will get a very predictable answer and we answer questions courteously to keep that trust reciprocated. We trust on someone to make space or keep in line. We trust in a glance of acknowledgement if you find yourselves with the same intention of who goes first through a door. And trust in receiving apologies if they pierce your space by accident.

At any moment this trust could be broken, and our days, perhaps even our lives, are in havoc as a result. We keep to our agreement to trust in strangers because at some point, we invented it together.

Books are different. Books are the enticing scent of a savory culinary dish, where a whiff of something can interest you and make your mouth water for it. Whereas strangers, people whom we don’t know a single thing about, are considered the boring sandwiches we slap together and we never consider ourselves pampered for having eaten.

The experts that organize a book store are clever and they are perpetually upgrading things. Sure there are sections and categories, but there is much more beneath the surface. Books have a cover we are allowed to judge. There are displays constructed with books that will give eye contact, make you quirk an eyebrow and take pause to examine further. How often do we stay up late wishing we had read another chapter of an stranger we passed that day?

The desired affect of a new book nudged an elbow into Leah at a non-descriptive book store, crowded with strangers of the most common sort. Which is to say that there wasn’t a sort at all: a rotund mother in sweat pants clucking at her apple cheeked toddler, a balding yet furry templed man in a black business suit with a forgettable tie, a college student in navy sneakers and a too-baggy sweater always reviewing her phone apps. Leah was a stranger with the messy bun and the overlarge purse, who reaches in to pull something out with only a tenth of the same poise as Mary Poppins. Often she is the stranger whom other strangers roll their eyes at.

Curving around the corner to an unoccupied aisle in the literature section, Leah swung her purse in an arc and dropped in on the ground, then quickly squatted over it, skillfully knowing the pocket that held her palm sized notebook that held the title and author she was seeking, locating it in no more than ten seconds. “See? Quick,” she mumbled under her breath in defense of herself, knowing full well the type of stranger she was. Leah lifted the straps, swung the bag over her shoulder and with this move came the chaos.

Several books toppled off the shelves and thumped like a drumroll onto the floor. Paperback covers bent backwards and over each other like hands folded.
Groaning, Leah fell to her knees and tried to reconstruct the art work of the book store shelves using her thoughts to guide the pieces into order.

Here? This works. No, that doesn’t look right. I like this cover with the letter and the wax seal. I loved this book, that should go in front. Wow, this author liked alliteration. Ok, then the rest in order alphabetically.

With this minor accident resolved, Leah once again pursued her goal.
A short moment from then a stranger whispered nearby.

“I noticed.”

Immediately Leah turned to find a man, near in age to herself with a sharp jaw and sanguine eyes. He had on jeans that looked worn, not made to look worn. She tucked in a piece of her tumbleweed bun behind her ear, wondering if she heard right.

“What was that?” Leah methodically replies, having only changed it at the last second from “fine, thanks” which is the number one hands-down correct thing to say to strangers.

As a rule, we primarily trust strangers not to say anything too forward. Since we are all strangers to someone, we have agreed to minimal noticing of something private like a personality trait or flawed like a mistake we’ve made. All of us strangers know this.

Contradictorily, the man tucked a grin in the corner of his mouth and reiterated himself. “From before, I mean, when you knocked over the books.”

Without moving or even blinking, Leah applied an extra layer of make up. Make up is always applied in encounters such as these; we look in a small mirror with the stranger’s reflection peering back and adjust what needs covering up and take the necessary precautions to improve the impression we make. Brush on some confidence, comb in some wit.

“Oh? I am so clumsy,” Leah says, choosing the acceptable course of self disparagement. Leah is frequently cumbersome and used to giving this response.

“Nah, not then. I meant when you put everything back correctly.”

He, the stranger, is breaking the rules now, he’s practically invited himself in the front door. Leah shifts her weight to the other foot and looks in the direction of the where the books had fallen, expecting the shelving to come to her defense.

“You could have just stacked them back up,” he pursues, nonplussed at her chagrin. His tone confuses her instincts. It sounds jesting, such a unlikely possibility from a stranger that it is practically an old athlete who’s glory and time have evaporated and who’s number has been retired. Leah remains silent and smiles shyly.

“But you didn’t.”

“Didn’t put them back right?” She looks again at her work but knows well enough she went through each book’s name and number.

“Didn’t notice that you put them back correctly.”

His hand is still in his pocket and he hasn’t moved closer to her. But it feels as if he has to Leah. She becomes braver.

“Is it correct?” she ventures, considering that the stranger must work in the bookstore which is why he is being so bold. There is no lanyard or name tag though, not even anything on his long sleeved slate gray t-shirt to comment on.
He leans forward on his toes, delivering a secret.

“Looks fascinating,” he says.

He reaches forward, slowly, so Leah doesn’t feel obligated to move back and make space for him, and takes a book Leah had placed with the cover out, the one with the letter and the wax seal. Instead of looking at the book though, he hands it to Leah and she takes it, she is looking only at him. A page yet to be written, a person soon to be read.

In this, books and strangers are alike: there is an unequaled story written within.


Making Room

This was one of Mag’s favorite things. Even more favorite than scooping up a sneaky drip of melting cherry ice cream with her tongue just before it made the cone soggy. Even more favorite than the shooting star sound of her jacket zipper going up fast, and the train track sound of it coming down slow. Mag fiddled with that zipper enough to know the sweet harmony of it. It punctuated her day better than an exclamation mark or semi-colon ever could. “Mag, remember to return your library books at school today? ZIP!” (up, pop!) and “Mag, did you feed Harold? Ziiiiiiimmm,” (down, phew).

But even the dialogue of Mag’s zipper could not compare to the back stairs at her Grandma’s house. They were her absolute favorite thing – Mag knew it was indeed a thing and not a place, those back stairs. She could play with them like she would a toy…up down, up up down, down up! And Mag could keep this thing aside and not share them. Her secret diary. 

It was a secret too! Mag found them one day when she was running from the stale kitchen to the starchy laundry room. There was a back door just there with a screen so tempting because you got to slam through it and hear the creeeeak-snap-crack! of it blinking back at you. It was so tempting in fact that Mag almost would never have found these stairs. Aside from the main wide carpet covered stairs that led to the second landing, the stairs so grand they held the heartbeat of the house on them – the precious grandfather clock that chimed at odd times of the day marking tradition rather than time, the back stairs were the entrance to the housekeeper’s room, which remained and had remained vacant for as long as Mag had known.

Oh, but to have an actual housekeeper’s room! Complete with a tiny kitchen and blue floral wallpaper so that such a person could stand and cook canned soup and flip through that day’s already read paper, Saltine crumbs scattering her flattened uniform when her day’s work was done. Mag pretended that she was that housekeeper every so often, imagining always carrying a silver tray in her hands and an obedient smile on her lips.

Yet it happened, despite the crocodile mouth front stairs with their hand carved pillars and the back laundry room’s bull whip screen door, Mag discovered it! A creeping question leading to wide eyed discovery. A new place in a house where she had been so often, and had already found every small corner to hide in. Something new in something known! One step of blue carpet, followed by another and another. So narrow and short she wouldn’t be able to share it with Harold. No, the only part of Harold that would see this would be his blond fuzzy dog hairs always stuck on her jacket. Without a housekeeper to mash the carpet daily with her hasty footsteps, the space lay undisturbed, a perfect spot for thoughts and dream. And Mag had plenty of those.

Today, Mag had no particular contribution to make, only a donation. Here I am, she thinks. Here! Just me.

Echoes from the nearby kitchen sweep upward to Mag, smoking syllables into her ears like smoke up through the sticks of a teepee. Her mother and grandmother were talking to each other, skipping humming sounds telling Mag that the conversation is of a story telling nature, (“and then!” “ah huh, really?”), so she is free to continue her rituals. First, she runs all the way up the stairs as fast as her legs will let her, each time gaining a small second for her record. Next, she scoots down, letting her dress trail and flip behind, her wagging cloth tail.

And then up again but only half way, to the stair where the square in the wall is located. If she sits atop that particular stair, the square on the wall is like a window Mag can look through but it was more like a framed picture without a face. It is the only secret unanswered here, that square. Something is behind it. Mag knows this because she has a square like that in the ceiling at home where her Dad puts old magazines and broken lamps he can’t bare to throw away.
This square is much smaller, but it is the same. What is there? Mag considers this for at least one hour, or however long it takes for her to sing all the verses of The Rainbow Connection her mother taught her. The square box remains locked, Mag’s imagination remains unlocked.

The voices downstairs have stopped skipping. They are rolling on the floor now, deeper longer sounds as if there is more to cover. Mag scoots down another two steps, folding her knees into a ledge for her chin.

“I don’t know, Megan? Why would I know?” her grandmother’s voice announces.

“Because you do. Just like I know about Mag,” her mother calmly counters.

Upon hearing her name among the conversation, Mag teeters forward slightly, poking her tiny nose out farther as if she could smell the motherly drift. “Well I don’t. I don’t know unless you tell me,” came the wilted sky high sound of her grandmother. A pause. And then came the warm fresh folding sound of her mother.

“Mag tells me, and I tell you.”

“I mean in words.”

“I mean in anything but words.”

To this, Mag hadn’t a clean understanding of what it was that her mother knew about her and this was at once both calming and nerve-racking, like taking your first sip of steamy hot chocolate before knowing it won’t burn your tongue. Often, Mag thought of her mother as she thought of her Favorite Thing; all at once devoted to her, belonging to her and knowing her, except there is also a mystery unsolved and an answer not yet a formed question and a cooling sigh of what happened before and what will come next. Mag wished it was her mother she carried on her instead of Harold’s dog hair. If she could carry her mother with her as easy, Mag could carry golden certainty.

As the kitchen had grown silent, Mag flipped over and bear crawled upward, staring through the light blue carpet ropes eastward that contrasted against the dark blue ropes moving westward and she ran an open palm over them, back and forth manipulating their direction, pretending to have magic that could sweep the grasses of the earth. Mag felt the presence of the square window above her, she considered her private questions and lifted her magical hand toward it. Closing her eyes, in prayer or possible spell she placed the palm on the square.

And it moved.

Mag took one slow breath and opened her eyes. It had moved! She pushed harder, gentler, barely allowing herself to blink. Just like in her ceiling at home, the patch was coming away, moving in and falling down and away. She moved her fingertips along the side, shoving the panel to the side and feeling her mouth move into a slow open “O!” of amazement.

Inside, a small olive green book lay, grown grayish from the sheet wall crumbles. Delicately lifting and inspecting the book, it fit along her flatted hand, but no longer than that. It had a black indentation of an iris. As one would blow the empty pestles of a dandelion weed, Mag opened the front binding.
MEGAN, it read in faded red crayon. But each letter square and wobbly and unpracticed so it wasn’t her mother’s, couldn’t be. Or could it?

“Mag!” Megan called from the kitchen. “You coming with us on the walk right? You love the path this time of day.”

“Coming mama!”

Mag put the book back in the square and shimmied the cover up tight, carrying with her what she needed already. Rolling down the steps like a rubber ball, Mag vaguely wondered how her mother knew where to find her inside her secrets.

The Story of Each of Us

There are certain places where you can hear the air. Air, not the wind for that is certainly different. Wind makes a sound of conviction, the ocean does this too, consistently reminding you that it is at work. The work and the movement of wind – whether it be the roll of foam and light upon water or upon a field of grass or wheat – it is mesmerizing; a comb pulled through hair, a single breath rising and falling, stirring the senses in deafening abundance.

If wind is movement, air is sound; as if there is another person next to you. A person made up of buzzing insects and humidity, of a wheel turning round again and again.

She sat at the old cherry wood desk, scarred and rubbed lighter in certain places, sorting through photographs from the past. The walls were painted blue but covered so frequently with framed memories and trinkets and the occasional calendar. She kept hearing the air outside and wondered if she was alone or not. The faces in the pictures made her breathe more frantically. She swallowed once more, though she wasn’t thirsty. Nor was she upset, though no one would likely blame her if she became so.

There were pictures of a chestnut haired beauty, sharp in the chin and in the brow in most of pictures before her. There were scribbles on the back or bottom, each containing dates or places, ages and names. Some she recognized, others were a mystery. But she had resolved herself to that a long time ago, the mystery that one person is. If the particular chestnut beauty in the pictures were one thing, she thought, well, mysterious would suffice as a way to describe the chestnut beauty but there is no way this particular beauty was just one thing. Not this lady.

Yes, chin, hair, brow but it wasn’t any of those things that was so striking about the woman in the pictures. What was it? she thought as she shifted in the chair, rubbing her elbows along one of the lighter portions of the cherrywood desk. The eyes distracted her, true. There was thought there, ideas, opinions. Yes, there were vast amounts of opinions. No. It was none of that, she decided. A lifetime of gumption and backbone, of stubbornness and tenacity revealed itself only in the delicate thin setting of her mouth, were anywhere else it was carefully hidden.

Some pictures held color, dating themselves without assistance from the cursive pen markings, most were black and white. She stopped and stared at some while others she tried to memorize, and others still she shuffled through deliberately quickly. The picture of an unknown gentleman whose eyes were wide and lips unsmiling gave her particular pause. His uniform identified him as a soldier, his metals identified him as a hero, the handwriting identified him as the brother of a friend. But the eyes identified him as traumatized – as if he was still seeing things beyond comprehension instead of the camera lens in front of him.

She swallowed again, hearing a small choking sound escape her, recognizing the stinging in her eyes. A deep breath and with a shaking hand, she rotated the soldier delicately into the pile. Still tight in the chest, she wasn’t expecting to see the photograph that came next. Her mouth parted slightly, the boisterous air outside still turning. She felt still.

The blue walls disappeared around her and the cherrywood desk became invisible. Only the air remained, as the couple in the photograph took life and shape and began moving. The voices came softly at first, then became louder. Ignoring the pounding in her chest and the need to blink, she watched the figures take life.

“Come on you two!” shouted the female behind the camera.

“Just look over here!” “I’ve already told you!” the handsome gentleman in the pressed suit and tie shouted back. A young gentleman he was too, thin in the chest and stomach. “I can’t take my eyes off her!”

“Stop!” the chestnut beauty beside him scolded through her smile.

“Stop!” the female echoed from behind the camera.

“Sorry!” the young man said, not looking or sounding the least bit regretful. The beauty had a suit on as well, a fresh carnation attached to the jacket. Only one heel touched the ground at a time, one swept upward in a graceful arc, balancing the grip from the young suitor around her waist.

“You’re not going anywhere unless you look over here for one moment,” the photographer bargained.

“Fine with me! I could stay here.”

“She’ll starve!”

Apparently reminded of this beauty’s needs, he gave an exasperated sigh. The beauty shook her hair expertly, fluffing the perfectly pinned chestnut curls. She smiled at the lens, radiating something mysterious. The handsome young man, (likewise radiating, though it being from enchantment other than mystery), using the black Oldsmobile behind them for leverage in order to keep tightly in his arms, peeled his eyes from the woman.


The cherrywood desk reappeared and the blue walls resurfaced. The hands that held the stack of photographs trembled slightly, the air moved the nearby tree’s branches against the windowpanes like an erratic heartbeat. Her cheeks were cold in vertical lines, her throat swollen into a rubber ball. One simple picture; one among several others leading to other stories be they merry or sad, angry, winsome, ambiguous, abrupt. One simple picture, creating from it so many afterward.

It was sometime before she felt safe in releasing the pictures from her eyes, afraid that the people would move again within them and that she would miss the story of the next part of each memory. But as she did move, shifting the squeaky chair beneath her, she put the small stack back in the original place they had been stored for decades, where they had been fingered innumerably and recalled abundantly. She closed the thin soft bible around the faces, smelling faint traces of her grandmother’s perfume and – though unexplainable – her garden.

Outside, the air continued moving, turning like a wheel.

Arms Or Branches

Dedicated to anyone who searches for improving themselves, and to anyone who finds comfort in strange places. -SHP

Something unusual happened to Grace on day eighty-seven.

The buckeye tree was in the same place, waiting, which had been the routine for eighty-six days. It had been in the same place then and hadn’t decided to pick up its roots and leave her alone now. But Grace was later than usual today and was worried, yet early or late, either way, it remained.

You’re there.

As usual, Grace noticed that it became more silent the closer she got to it, save the soft rushing from her purse as it brushed against her winter coat. This sort of silence was part of the magic, Grace decided. No where else in the day was there this kind of quiet; from the foaming sound the passing cars made outside her apartment that awoke her daily to the sizzle of electric failure in the outdoor porch light, there was noise all around her.

Thank you.

As a rule, Grace never threw salt over her shoulder if she tipped the jar over on the table. She didn’t hold her breath in a tunnel and make a wish. And she didn’t put any stock into the idea that colors held significance. She was never particularly well with her judgement as her astrological sign predicted, nor was she great about setting about with any particular purpose in the new year.

Except for this. In this, all her rules were broken. Step on a crack and you’ll break your…blah blah, foolishness. This was real. If she didn’t walk down this path, didn’t lay eyes on this buckeye tree, (which she had been to everyday for eighty-seven days), well…something along the equivalent of missing her train and being stuck far from home would happen. The buckeye seemed to smile at her as she thought of that comparison.

You understand. 

Of course it didn’t start this way. On the first day, she nearly walked right past the buckeye tree, muttering to herself what utter nonsense it was to put stock into something so singular. Belief was something you weren’t ever supposed to see. That was a requirement. Someone had mentioned to Grace, in childish whispers and forgotten memories that in order to find wisdom, find someplace still. That when you surrender to not knowing the answers, you understand the remedies. As Grace passed the buckeye tree that first day, she found herself tripping over the pavement getting lost in the branches above her.

By the end of the second week, thirteen days straight of visiting the buckeye, (for she was now, through vigorous google searches, fairly certain that was what the tree was), she had reinvented her idea of belief in the tangible objects. But on day eighty-seven, something different happened, something that hadn’t happened before. Someone else was at the tree first.

Grace approached cautiously, thinking that she was better off just passing straight by and circling back. That way she could prolong the enchantment, like waiting until the end of the day to read the next chapter in a good book.

Please go away. 

The man, wearing a tan trench coat and reminding her of Carmen San Diego, showed no signs of retreat. He stood reviewing the branches and making slight movements, representing his own form of intrigue. He wasn’t exactly still, but something about the slight change of foot or the shifting of his neck made it clear he was paying homage to her tree. Her tree. Grace decided to slow her pace and wait him out.

Any moment now, she told herself, he would realize that if this stranger wanted to collect his thoughts or meet up with someone, he could damn well find a different tree because this one was taken. She would find her peace she so loyally was here to collect, it was day eighty seven after all.

Any moment now.

“Not going to happen,” the man stated gruffly.

At first, Grace wondered if he was even talking to her, he wasn’t looking in her direction but he had responded to her as if he could read her thoughts. She frowned and looked around, making sure there was no one else around. No one was there except a small brown and white terrier in the distance, whose little paws appeared to be doing a better job of jogging than its owner.

“I mean it,” he reiterated.

“Excuse me?” Grace asked hesitantly, wondering why she already felt so defensive.

“I’m not going to leave, so you can just find another place to stop to check your Facebook or whatever it is you were wanting to do,” he said, turning his head only slightly. Grace noticed his hands were in his pockets but he still continued to gesticulate with them making his jacket wave at her like an Italian mother agreeing with her son.

“I’m not here for that,” Grace replied meekly.

“Well I look forward to this time everyday and there are other trees.”

Grace choked quietly at this unexpected disservice, feeling warmth spread out in her cheeks despite the wind. As she tried to think of a response, he turned and looked at her straight on. She noticed his eyes, which were – to be fair – not anywhere near as hostile as his words; such a bright blue they made his hair, which was brown, look gray in comparison. When she failed to comment, he raised in eyebrows in silent question?

What should I say?

“I can’t just find another tree,” Grace confessed, surprising herself at her choice of honest retort.

The eyebrows lowered on Grace’s intruder, his lips tightened as if trying not to smile and turned back to look at the branches of the buckeye tree. He seemed to focus, to her annoyance, on the long black branch that twisted and curved down so low it reminded Grace of an arm outstretched over a lake, dipping its fingertips down to brush the surface of the water.

“I see,” he said to the branch. “Well I can’t either.”

Grace almost stomped her foot in indignation. What was this person doing here of all places?! He clearly didn’t have something to find, not like she did. At least, this person didn’t look like someone seeking wisdom or refuge.

Do I?

Certainly it started out feeling foolish, but this moment in her day was anything but flighty. Deciding to make one thing a daily occurrence is easily understood when it’s drinking more water or learning a new word because it’s your health, your mind. But what if its your spirit that needs repetition? Eighty seven days ago Grace passed through this street and stopped by this tree. She found herself peering first at the lovely teal veins running through each shiny leaf or the chapped black bark, then later the yellow nuts that hung like Christmas tree bulbs or the rough like tiny scissor cuts. Most trees sounded like rain, not unpleasant but this one seemed to put a finger to its mouth and hush those nearby so all that was left was a stillness inside of her. She was downright renewed.

I’m seeking something.

To Grace’s utter astonishment, she found it completely logical to find a place once a day where she could be untroubled; for her, the buckeye tree succored this. Everything else was achievable if this moment happened. She was addicted. And there was no way Grace was going to back down to someone.

I’ve found something.

“I’ll wait,” Grace decided.

“Well I don’t want you too,” he shot back. But he seemed to be disappointed with himself and grumbled, “I mean, I’m just not in the mood for company.”

Grace took a step forward. Very shyly she said, “look, I’m here for a reason. I know how it sounds, but it needs to be here.”

The man turned and scrutinized her differently. He brought a hand over his face and paused it over his wide mouth and said something into his palm. As if something had occurred to him, he asked, “is this about someone?”

“Excuse me?”

“You know, who’s passed?”

“No!” Grace announced, horrified at the thought and embarrassed at the prospect of it being this strange person’s reason.

He shrugged it off, dropping his hands to his sides, signaling that whatever his reasons were, that wasn’t it for him either.He appeared to make up his mind about something and moved forward toward her, making Grace swallow involuntarily and squeeze her hands into balls. He approached slowly enough, sensing her apprehension.

“Justin,” he announced. His hand was cold from the wind, but dry and soft like flour on a marble cutting board. He smiled at her quick eagerness. The blue crinkled in the corners, he must’ve smiled so often it made it difficult to approximate his age.

After recognizing their mutual attachment, an hour passed quietly, evaporating as quickly as each smokey tailed breath. The spell prevailed, releasing Grace with a promise to be there again for her tomorrow. Justin left before her, having gotten to the tree earlier. As he walked away he recognized the familiar blinking of his wristwatch. The repetitive clicking sounded like it had suddenly walked nearer, both sound and comfort joining him like a friend as he walked further from the buckeye tree.