In 1936, 26-year old Ellie McGovern found herself in a precarious position.
Caretaker to an ailing father – three years, exactly. For every turn of the planet he languishes, her spirit loses two.
If asked about her situation – how father was faring – the response would leave most scratching their heads until they just stopped asking.
Mrs. Abernathy next door. The first and last time around six months ago.
How’s your father doing, dear?
Response: He’s still here, if that’s what you’re asking.
Ellie keeps to herself, mostly. Correction: She keeps to herself always. For now, father is the convenient excuse for self-enforced solitary.
The daily rituals – Lift a body, a wet sack of cement from the bed, support a feeble frame to toilet, and every day, permit a frail soul the grace to crumble into a cracked leather chaise by an expansive picture window.
An empty soul, seemingly. He sits. He watches the outside darkness surrender to light when ironically his fate lies in the entirely opposite direction.
For three years of care for an only parent, Ellie as doting daughter placed her young, vibrant life on hold.
Ell’s life has been ‘on hold’ for as long as she can remember. She calls it ‘still.’
Sounds less debilitating with a hint of enlightenment.
Like she knows something more than anybody else in this sleepy yet occasionally pretentious place.
In high school – a loner. No, it wasn’t her looks. Quite the contrary. She was a striking girl. When most of her brethren suffered through awkwardness of pocked skin, Ellie’s alabaster complexion didn’t relent.
When others were dealing with hair that never looked right, hers jet-black and straight never required much effort to sheen and fall.
Her eyes, pools of olive. In the light – emerald. In them, many lives witnessed. Lost in thought, there is always something going on behind the irises.
No, indeed not her looks. It was who she was. Inside and out. It was how she sought things to be. An invisible wall thick as lead nonetheless, kept others far until the point the girls, even the boys decided to just leave her be.
No. Never bullied. Perhaps it was an overall sadness about her. It draped her like an old ghoul for naught to depart a crypt. As if she had nothing to lose and one day just explode and take others down with her.
Whatever it was, overall, it was best to leave her be. And left she was, to take care of a withering parent who barely recognized a daughter.
His eyes could never meet hers for long.
In the enclave known for Eastman-Kodak, her existence a mere frame, frozen in time, locked in the lens with focus on the slow demise of another.
In a modest Rochester home with failing white clapboard, at the corner of Andrews and Paul, Michael McGovern, Mikey for short, embraces early mornings by a large living-room pane and reflects a toothless smile as sun claws into another day.
Redbirds gather outside. A young poplar’s limbs serve as respite, the gatherers stare ahead to reciprocate with the shell of a human in the window. As so it appears to Ellie, who observes.
The birds as accustomed to this habit as her father; she thinks it must be strange magic. A bit of nature’s message how senior McGovern will perhaps sprout wings and join them soon.
For Ellie, she forsees father’s return as more a dark serpent who slithers into Mrs. Abernathy’s chicken coup only to lose his head to the sharp edge of a hoe.
The thought shamelessly lightens her face. Not much makes her smile these days. Well, there are the sunflowers in the expansive backyard. In peak summer, they tower.
Unopened disc florets meet her eye-to-open eye. The wind bows them to her presence in yellow ribbons. She curtsies and dances among long stems.
Lost in the seductive rhythm of nature.
As the petals die or relent to forces greater than their delicacy, she does a bit too…
To Ellie, life’s snapshots are far from vivid. Trauma. One she never discusses. At ten years-old, she lost the ability to process color. Colorblind overnight. In every sense of the word, her world went to variations of gray. Yet the best of doctors could never find anything physically wrong that would cause such a dilemma.
Every morning except weekends around 7:30, for three precious hours her father sleeps uninterrupted – a combination of medication and onset of brain disease yet to be determined – made him restless often.
Ellie high-heel steps a short walk to Main Street. Before reaching the destination at the corner of Elm and Main, Ell’s olfactory senses ignite; prominent since the colored world abandoned her.
An especially beautiful morning for spring. A season when winter bows away, and a new enters gracefully as to not upset the balance of things puny minds of men can’t comprehend; the cold gentles to cool, then eases to warmth – slow like a warm blanket out of a dryer or a quilt hanging on a clothesline in June.
The air smells peppery – sharp, demanding, full of life. She inhales deep, hoping the razor fresh inspires her.
New sun yellows storefronts that grace her short journey. The baked artistry deep in the space of Wilson’s Bakery already showcased in glass upfront, ready for the day’s workers and anxious mothers who use sugar treats as pacifers or rewards for chores and school work completed.
Even with door closed, heavenly smells of fresh blueberry scones and six-inch thick cinnamon rolls – pregnant with thick white icing that glob-rolls and stills at the sides, penetrate brick and glass to overwhelm this petite, soulful girl.
She imagines how Benjamin Wilson’s artistry in swirly sugar and paste can ignite her sense of smell. She wants to believe his baking skills can magically flip a mental switch that turns her eyes to process colors again.
How she misses the hues of existence, the ones others take for granted. This black and white world belongs within the locked confines of aged film noir, not her life.
With dread, her daily commute requires she pass an empty shell of a dead business. Most days she crosses the street to avoid it. When she can leave the house earlier than usual, Ellie invites a longer sojourn that takes her way off a direct path to her destination.
For three generations this business thrived. Over the last couple of years, in Ellie’s opinion, it was fittingly left to die.
Today is different. Once a sinister, dark siren, the plank wood is gone from the front window. Lights on, door open. The large pane that faces the street of the the former Mikey’s Hardware and Paint, sparkles clean and inviting.
Ellie peeks in. A flurry of men in overalls work feverishly. She finds her breath labored, her heart pounds loud in her ears. She fights for air in large gulps; she’s forgotten how her lungs operate.
She wants to pass and ignore this place. She wishes often for it to burn to the foundation but she also doesn’t want anybody to get hurt.
Ellie doesn’t fancy what Ms. Barilla will do if she’s late for secretarial school. For some reason, it doesn’t matter today. Her feet with a mind of their own, lift above the single concrete step of the entrance.
Willingly, her body gives in to the mouth of the beast.
She moves with guarded cadence. Her heels delicate, stem to toe, manuever as if she walks a mine field. Nobody pays her any mind. The distinct, sour smell of hardware, embedded in the walls for over 50 years, a shade of its former self. The pungency of fresh paint enough to destroy it.
Drab battleship-gray no more. Bright, or white to Ellie, makes the interior seem less ominous. Narrow aisles once filled with non-descript stuff such as nails and hammers used to make other stuff, are gone. The space is wide, no longer threatening.
At the longest wall, a worker in overalls. On second to the top rung of a towering ladder his back to her, he paints. Much like a surgeon works a scalpel, this young dark man small brush in hand, forms a petal. One of a giant sunflower.
As one tingles when eyes are upon them, he stops to turn his head. He was the prettiest man she’s ever seen. Their eyes meet, she can’t turn away, she cannot blink…
“Can I help you?”
Her mouth agape, all she manages is a squeak, such as the last gasp of a dying mouse.
Ellie takes off, flees for the exit!
Fred Johnson, the artist on the ladder leaps from his perch. In a single jump, even before his work boots hit the floor, he gives chase. It’s as if he first fled on air before gravity brought his soles to earth.
He halts on the sidewalk out front. Already, pedestrians walk. Fred looks around. The girl who captivated him now gone.
A couple pass. A hitch in their gait as they shoot Fred dirty looks for blocking the sidewalk. The two observe a young woman as she cowers in the doorway of Manna’s Shoes two doors down.
“Well, this place is certainly getting strange,” the woman laments to her flat-lipped husband.
Ellie figuring her day interrupted, skips class. She crosses the street to Beckman’s, the diner a neighborhood fixture for 32 years, and takes an oval red-leather seat at the counter. She spins herself once. Angela Beckman there to meet her after one revolution around the diner.
“You want to order Ellie or are you just here for a spin?”
The girl chuckles. Her clear skin only rivaled by the whiteness of her smile. Ellie feels naughty but warm inside. An unfamiliar feeling.
“Coffee please. Cream, sugar… Oh, and one of those,” Ellie points.
Under the heavy glass of a circular counter pastry display, a muffin. The blueberries erupt from the top, crystal-sugar fractals the overhead lights.
Angela with a skeptical look on her face, commands a square of wax paper lifts the lid and pulls the breakfast delicacy.
“You’re gonna eat this all by yourself, huh?”
Angela’s eyes pour over Ellies’ tiny figure.
“Where you putting it?”
The muffin is shown no mercy. A ravenous pastry tiger, Ellie rips it apart and takes in carbo-chunks in large bites.
An elderly man at the next seat, stops his breakfast to watch her. Ellie notices and slows. She wipes clean her hands, her cheek bulges like a squirrel late to gather nuts.
“I’m… I’m sorry. That wasn’t very lady like.”
“Oh no, no. Nice to see a young girl… Relish her food. Don’t I know you? You’re Ellie. Ellie McGovern.”
“Bill Larson. I worked for your father at the hardware store. My lord, look at you. All grown up. Heard your pa was ailing. How is he?”
Ellie digs through the innards of her purse, pulls a couple of dollars, tosses them on the counter.
“Sorry I need to go.” She’s off the seat. Bill notices it still spins long after she’s out the door.
Angela now where Ellie WAS.
“What’s up with her?”
“No idea, all I did was ask about her father.”
Angela gathers the two bucks.
“She paid for a dozen muffins. I haven’t seen that girl in ages.”
Ellie scurries home, key to the front door in hand but she doesn’t need it.
The door is open.
Her eyes dart. To the trees in the front yard. Next, the bushes. On to the poplar by the front glass. Through the window, she believes she sees her father in his familiar spot. But that can’t be. How would he get there? Ellie enters, her step deliberate, ready for anything.
Indeed her father is there. Eyes closed, mouth open. In his chaise. All around him, the redbirds. On his shoulders, top of his head. In his lap.
She cries aloud and collapses.
Nature has freed her from the unnatural…