It was the beginning of November and Flavia thanked the Lord that Halloween was over. Although there were no youngsters in the cul de sac—other than Eddie, who mowed her lawn—she was certain that hooligans from other parts of town made a special trip to the neighborhood to do mischief. No doubt they assumed they’d escape punishment because no one could identify them. Surely they were not friends of Eddie’s—he was such a good boy, so polite.
In any case, she’d had to pick up all manner of debris from her yard—including the hedge between her house and Oliver’s. Rain had turned the toilet paper to the consistency of oatmeal, and it stuck irretrievably amidst the well-trimmed holly. After fussing over it for nearly an hour, she’d given up in frustration. She had expected to see Oliver out there, as well—even if he had no time or interest for the clean-up project, she imagined he’d have had some choice words for the alleged delinquents.
But Oliver had been as invisible as Frank, lately. Maybe it was only the change in the weather, or perhaps he was writing more political articles than usual. She knew very little about his work, but guessed that journalists’ workloads corresponded to how much was going on in the world. The specifics of his profession were not a topic they’d discussed, which owed mostly to her confession that she was not politically astute. She suspected that Oliver believed she should be more politically aware, and sensed he would be quite willing to serve as her mentor. But since she didn’t share his “passion”—as he described it—she smiled and shifted the conversation to something less controversial, and less complicated, when the subject arose.
It was possible he’d gone on vacation—but no, he always told her if he was going to be away from home overnight. And there was no pile of daily newspapers to give evidence of his absence. She had a niggling fear that something was not alright with Oliver—she hoped he hadn’t had another heart episode, or other serious health issue. Such a quandary: whether or not to knock on his door and risk disturbing him. She was even reluctant to call him on the phone—generally, she waited to chat until they happened to be at the mailbox together, or if he was in his driveway. Now, as she stood on her front step looking over at his silent shadowed house, her fingers fretting with the small silver cross around her neck, she did what she did everyday. She prayed that God would keep His protective hand on her dear neighbor—and that He’d give her Divine and direct guidance as to what He wanted her to do.
While she waited for God to speak, Flavia went about her favorite activity: cooking and baking. The day before, she had made the roux for gumbo. Her heritage was half-Cajun on her reprobate father’s side, and she’d learned some of the special Louisiana recipes from her “sainted” Cousin Theresa. Flavia told anyone who’d listen that when she got to heaven, the banquet table would be overflowing with spicy gumbo, smothered okra, pinto beans and hot cornbread drowning in butter—and banana pudding for dessert. Not all of these dishes were strictly Cajun cuisine, but she expected there’d be a large contingent of southerners talking and eating with her in Paradise. And talk, they surely would—with no more restrictions of earthly clocks. Theresa was fond of teasing her: “Flavia, you could talk a fence post out of the ground!” It was true, and Flavia easily admitted it. She was ever grateful that Frank didn’t seem to mind; he just nodded lovingly and let her go on and on. Even Oliver was pretty tolerant of her chattiness, which was thoughtful of him.
So she stirred the roux into the stock, added the meat she’d cooked previously with spices, and set it to simmering. Having that done, she decided to bake coconut muffins. Oliver really liked them—he’d told her they weren’t too sweet, and that he could enjoy them while writing at his computer. When she’d filled the muffin cups and put them in the oven, she turned to Mr. Van Gogh.
“I’ll bet you’re getting hungry, too,” she warbled to the budgie, and retrieved his bag of seed from a cupboard. “What do you think? Is Oliver okay?” The bird ruffled his feathers and tilted his small head as though considering the question. “Well, we’ll just take him some fresh muffins, won’t we.” Mr. Van Gogh muttered a few quiet notes.
After leaving the muffins to cool on the counter, Flavia donned a sweater and went out to check the mail. She walked slowly, peering at Oliver’s house with prayerful concern. As she lingered in her driveway, taking unnecessary time to sort through the envelopes, she heard Oliver’s door open. When she looked up, she felt compelled to adjusted her glasses. Oh my gracious, she thought.
Oliver seemed unaware of her as he walked with a labored gait, his head down. Flavia continued to stare, and did not immediately speak. She was accustomed to his casual, even sloppy, appearance. Since he worked from home, he dressed for comfort; there was no need for him to wear anything other than sweats—or shorts in summer—and T-shirts bearing clever puns or satirical political slogans. But Flavia was at a loss for what to think of his current state. His hair, which he normally wore in a long ponytail—like a “hippie”, or maybe to honor the Native Americans—was wildly unkempt, as though he’d writhed and wrestled in bed for weeks, and lost track of his brush. The stubble of beard she was used to seeing on him looked downright mangy. And his clothes—well, he looked as though he’d fully expected to die in them. She could barely make out the words on his T-shirt—both it and his sweat pants were no less than filthy. Although he rarely dressed to impress, Oliver’s typically careless fashion statement was generally laundered, at least. In a word, Flavia’s neighbor appeared dreadful.
Heart fluttering, Flavia took a cautious step toward the hedge in Oliver’s direction. “Oliver?” she said, as he finally glanced her way. Oh my gracious, she thought again—the circles beneath his sunken eyes were dark and deep.
It was as though, upon hearing her speak his name, the motion of his body ceased of its own accord and not by his conscious choice. He merely stood in his driveway, hands dangling emptily at his sides. She might have been a complete stranger, by the vacant gaze with which he greeted her.
“Oliver,” she repeated quietly, and she stretched out her hand part-way before retracting it. “I haven’t seen you for awhile—have you been ill?”
“Oh. Not exactly. I haven’t felt well. But I’m sure it will pass.” The words seemed to require great effort—as though he were physically passing them from his brain to his lips—and it being so strenuous, the muscles in his face and body lacked strength to move hardly at all.
Flavia was not encouraged by his brief speech. “Has something happened, Oliver? Can I help in some way?”
“I don’t think so.” He continued to stand there, almost like a mannequin, as if waiting for her to dismiss him.
“Well—.” Flavia felt the need to be careful, he appeared that fragile—which was not how she’d ever imagined describing him. He was a big man, with a robust character—like a rock. But even a rock can slide if the earth beneath it becomes unstable. Still, he waited—for what, she didn’t know.
“Oliver—I just baked you some coconut muffins, the ones you like so much, they’re fresh from the oven,” she rambled momentarily. “And I have a pot of gumbo cooking. What would you say to coming over for dinner? All I need to do is fix some rice—and Frank won’t be home till late tonight. How ‘bout it?” She had never invited him to have a meal at her table—always before she’d brought him “take-out”.
“Oh.” He looked away (almost as if he wasn’t sure where he was, she felt). “I’d need to take a shower.”
Though she believed it would improve his sense of well-being, she wasn’t sure if she should agree—it might give him opportunity to decline her offer. “Well—dinner won’t be ready for about an hour.”
“Okay.” He turned toward his door, then back. “Thanks,” he said.
“Lord, give me wisdom,” Flavia whispered as she entered her house again. Something was terribly, terribly wrong.
When Oliver arrived, Flavia’s table was set in her signature style of everyday elegance. The kitchen was redolent with garlic and onions, and the mixture of spiced shrimp, chicken and sausage—accompanied by okra and tomatoes and rich brown broth. To the left of her cloth napkins—blue gray to match the flowered print china—she’d placed parfait glasses with cut up fresh fruit, instead of a green salad.
“What would you like to drink, Oliver?” she asked, as she removed the rice from the stove.
“Water’s fine. Thanks,” he said. He gently extended a finger into Van Gogh’s cage to greet him, before taking a chair at the table.
Flavia saw that he was wearing different clothes—wrinkled but probably clean—and his hair was washed and tied back, though he hadn’t shaved. Sitting in Frank’s place, he reminded her of a formidable mountain—solid with the weight of centuries, and equally burdened.
“Hope you like it,” she said softly, as she served him a steaming bowl of rice and gumbo.
“I’ve had it before—didn’t you make it last year?” he asked uncertainly.
“Yes, that’s right—I fix that great big pot full every autumn, and freeze it in quart containers—and it lasts all year. You can’t really make gumbo for two.” She stopped herself from continuing the nervous chatter.
He nodded, and ate the hot food hungrily without offering conversation. When he’d emptied the bowl, she asked if he’d like seconds.
“Maybe in a minute,” he said, wiping his mouth and drinking the goblet of ice water.
“Sure—or you can take some home with you.” Flavia was hardly eating, unaccustomed to company. When Oliver rested his arms on the table and stared at the lace cloth, Flavia put her spoon down and looked directly at him.
“What’s happened, Oliver?” she asked gently. “You’re not yourself.”
He sighed heavily. “Well,” he began, “my father died.”
As she made sympathetic sounds and facial expressions, he talked as he had never done with her before—at length, and mournfully, about the difficult relationship he and his dad had endured over most of five decades. The abuse young Oliver had suffered was both chronic and cyclical, and encompassed physical beatings, and ego-crushing verbal curses and derisive contempt. It persisted until at age 13, Oliver ran away from home. From somewhere deep inside, a strength and sense of self-preservation blossomed. He was intelligent and cunning, and he found creative ways to survive—on the streets, and even traveling across the country. By no means did he always operate within the law, but since he was a juvenile the penalty amounted to harsh “education”—being scared is often an excellent teacher. Through a confluence of events which would prove pivotal, he was miraculously spared from a sentence of seriously hard time in an adult facility. In a new spirit of sober and respectful maturity, he accepted the gift—and determined that it was time to go home and live a more settled, responsible life. He married a young woman with a 14-month-old daughter, and for almost twenty years they enjoyed an existence most folks would consider fairly normal. He worked hard, played hard, raised the child he loved as his own—and restricted contact with his father to a minimum.
We all grow older, and some of us get better. In the last seven years—following a seminar which brought him a fresh, alternative spirituality and tools for living a healthier, more successful life—he had reached out to his dad with olive branch in hand, and forgiven him. Whether or not his father was capable of starting over, Oliver had come to a new place with a clean slate. By then, both men were divorced—his mom had ceased her co-dependent enabling of his dad; and Oliver’s wife had been unable, or unwilling, to make complimentary lifestyle changes which might have served their marriage. So Oliver and his father stayed in touch—mostly by phone, though Oliver visited him several times a year. On the last occasion, Oliver could see the old man was suffering from myriad health problems—pill bottles stood like a regiment of soldiers across the kitchen counter. Nonetheless, some people have a knack for hanging around a long time despite the statistical odds.
Thus, it shouldn’t have been a shock, perhaps, when Oliver got the phone call on Halloween Eve. It went quick, for his dad—a massive heart attack; for Oliver, it had nevertheless gone rough. So many memories; wishes that things could have been different; the “if only’s”. And the sharp, bone-deep pain of a child who never gets so old that he doesn’t ache for a father’s love—no matter how much counseling and “enlightenment” training he racks up.
Flavia pressed her napkin to her tear-dampened cheeks as Oliver finished his story. No doubt he’d already wept himself dry. For now, he released only heavy sighs and lengthy pauses between the details he shared with her.
Raising his bruised eyes to her face, he smiled tiredly. “I didn’t mean to bring you down, Flavia. Maybe I shouldn’t have come.”
“Nonsense, Oliver—it means a lot to me that you did. I’d begun to worry about you—I thought maybe you were sick, and I didn’t know whether to check on you myself, or call River. And I know you said I mustn’t call her unless it’s an emergency—so I was fretting, I guess. And praying, too, of course. I didn’t know what to think.”
“I wish I’d known sooner—about your father. I can see it’s been devastating for you.”
“Well, I’m not really ‘devastated’—just had kind of a dark couple weeks; didn’t want to do anything productive—not even write about politics, can you believe it?” He laughed briefly. “So I wouldn’t have felt like seeing you—but I appreciate you thinking of me.”
“Of course. You’re not just my neighbor, Oliver—you’re my friend,” she said softly.
“Yep. We’re probably the only ones in the cul de sac who are friends,” he added sincerely, and as though it had just occurred to him. “The rest of these people—I don’t know—seems like they’re living in the fast lane even when they’re inside their houses. Do you ever see them socializing together? I haven’t.”
“I guess I don’t pay much attention—you know what a homebody I am.” She tucked her chin, and pressed a crease into her napkin with her fingernail.
“Yeah. So how’s the bird—Van Gogh? Is he good company for you?”
“Oh, yes—he’s wonderful. I’m very glad I got him.”
Oliver mused quietly before he asked, “how does Frank like him?”
“Oh—.” She shrugged and smiled, and turned her water glass in slow circles. “He’s happy I have something more to occupy myself with, when he’s away.”
Oliver nodded again. “That’s good.”
“You know, Oliver—there’s something I’ve been thinking about, something I wanted your advice on.” She waited for his response—maybe this wasn’t the time to bother him with questions.
“Go ahead—shoot,” he said mildly.
“Well—I’ve been thinking about getting a computer. I started writing a novel years ago—right now I’ve got the loose typed pages in a box—and I thought maybe I’d be inspired to get back to it, if I had a computer to make it easier.”
“Yeah, that would be great.”
Flavia thought his voice sounded fatigued, but she was so pleased he’d come for dinner—even though the conversation had been laden with grief—that she went on. “I don’t have the first idea of what I need to buy—I was hoping you could tell me, and then go with me to purchase it. If that wouldn’t be too much of an imposition,” she added.
He smiled at her. “It’s not an imposition, Flavia. What you get depends on how much you plan to do with it. Do you just want a word processor—or do you want Internet access and all the bells and whistles?”
He’d lost her already. The Internet was a brave new world she had almost no desire—or courage—to enter. She was woefully ignorant, and fearful, when it came to anything high-tech. She’d put off learning how to set her answering machine so that it told her the correct day and time she received phone calls. But she couldn’t tell Oliver that. (She didn’t even have a microwave oven—although that was because heating up frozen burritos could scarcely be referred to as “cooking”.)
“I’m not sure,” she said hesitantly. “I guess what I had in mind is more like a sophisticated typewriter. For any research I need to do—I can always go to the library.”
He was still smiling, though wanly. “But if you had the Internet hooked up, you wouldn’t have to use the library—you’d have all the information in the world at the click of a mouse.”
“Yes-s-s-s,” she said, trying to subdue the vertigo she felt whenever she was overwhelmed by unfamiliar knowledge.
“You know what a mouse is, right?” Oliver asked amiably.
“Hmm? Yes, I do—but I don’t like them particularly. Mice seem to get out of control so easily and I end up chasing them all over the desk.”
Oliver laughed loudly—and she didn’t get offended, because it was no mystery that he had far more expertise on the topic than she; and because she doubted he’d felt amusement since his father’s death, so she was pleased to be the cause.
He reached his hand within an inch of hers—as though he might have patted it, but changed his mind. “I’m not laughing at you—okay? You’ll get the hang of using a mouse before you know it—really,” he said confidently.
She made a wry twist of her mouth, unconvinced. “Well—when you’re feeling better, and have some free time, perhaps we could go computer shopping.”
“Sounds like a plan,” he said, getting up. Then he thanked her for dinner, and for listening to him.
“Anytime at all, Oliver—I’m always here,” she said, and began to fill a plastic container with gumbo for him to take home. As she handed it to him—and also a bag of coconut muffins—she asked what his plans were for Thanksgiving. “Will you be joining River and Asher?”
“No—they’ll be at her mom’s for part of the day, and then probably go to River’s boyfriend’s. I usually do a turkey and all the fixings for myself.”
When she frowned at him in response, he explained that by doing so, he didn’t need to cook for at least a week.
“Oh, I see.” She looked at her wall calendar and tapped an index finger against her chin. “I was just thinking that Frank’s going to be out of town then—and if you were feeling like you wanted to come here, I’m sure I could fix a respectable turkey dinner.”
“Frank has to work out of town on Thanksgiving?” he asked, his brow crinkling.
“Mm, yes,” she replied, smoothing a lock of brown hair behind her ear. “Some—I don’t know, some thing—I’ve forgotten what he told me. But it’s alright; we’ll just combine it with Christmas.”
“Oh, okay. Well, maybe. Can I let you know in a few days?”
“Sure, sure,” she said breezily, and patted his forearm as she ushered him to the door. “Thanks for coming, Oliver—and you try to get some sleep, now. Just think pleasant thoughts, and rest—you need to get rid of those flight bags beneath your eyes.”
He chuckled. “Thanks for everything—it did me good to talk. See you later.”
“Mercy,” she said when he’d left. Stroking Mr. Van Gogh’s head for a moment, she pondered aloud, “you just never know about people do you, Vincent? Who’d have thought our Oliver had such a tough growing-up—hmm? Makes you wonder about—well, it just makes you wonder.” She closed her eyes and prayed: “Lord, God—please comfort Oliver’s heart and show Him that You are his loving Father today, and forever. And thank you, Jesus, for sending good neighbors who’ll become the best of friends.”
Mr. Van Gogh moved his head away from Flavia’s finger and spoke up: “where’s Frank? Where’s Frank?”