Saturday, July 26, 2014

Saturday Musings, 26 July 2014

Good morning,

The little box at the top of my tablet says that it is eighty degrees, and the box has turned from its customary blue to red.  I assume that warns me of more degrees to come, but at present, I feel the movement of the air as I sit on the deck, a cup of coffee to one side and the morning paper to the other.  I'm not much of an outdoor woman, but I do love the morning air on the porch here in Brookside.

My mind drifts back to another summer, another early morning.  Newton County, Arkansas, in the mountains above Jasper.  We've come for early coffee, my then-husband and I, to a compound owned by friends he has known since their hippie days.  He's at the kitchen table pontificating along with the homeowner, his quiet wife, and a couple of others who still nurse hangovers from their Friday evening.

I walk the grounds.  A long stretch of chain link fence surrounds the place where they have their breeding dogs, who live in sturdy houses built of hack berry and tar paper.  I see a couple of them snuffling at the far side of the fence, perhaps catching the lingering scent of a nocturnal visitor -- a deer or a little mountain cat.  I stand and let the sun warm my face, my arms.  I shift my thin legs to balance myself when the breeze rises.

A noise behind me causes me to startle.  I turn.  The window of the little guest house has been raised.  I see a face peering at me through the space; the French exchange student.  I wonder how she fares, at this place where she sleeps in a structure built for lazing about smoking dope, back when the landowner was twenty and lying around in a wooden dollhouse high on homegrown marijuana appealed to him.  A couple of decades ago; a couple of light years ago.  I wave to Tiphaine and turn to walk towards her, across the gravel driveway, into the yard of the compound and up the rise on which the guesthouse sits.

The tiny structure has electricity but no running water.  There's an outhouse nearby; or she can go into the main house to use the chemical toilet.  She emerges from the charming little building and greets me, in her flawless, accented English.  "Just one moment, please excuse," she says, and moves beyond me, headed for the outhouse.  I sit down in one of the two lawn chairs on the little terrace beside the guesthouse and wait for her to return.

She's eighteen, this French exchange student, and from Versailles.  I don't know what she expected when she came to Newton County, Arkansas. Perhaps a working farm; perhaps a village. What she found was a dying town with five hundred sixty-three residents (six hundred three on the water line) and this place, a dozen or so acres where drop-outs came to live communally in the sixties, to grow pot and escape adult responsibilities.  They had children; they partnered; the marriages splintered.  Only T.J. and Jeanne remained, with Jeanne being his second wife, not much older than the children of his first.  His children and their mother lived in other houses, across Thomas Creek.  One spent his days building a house while living in a mud-insulated school bus.  The extremes through which they went to avoid being on T.J.'s land puzzled me.

Tiphaine returns from her morning visit to the rough facilities, wiping her hands on a wet-nap which she tucks into the pocket of her capris.  I try to put sympathy in my smile as she sits in the second chair.  She's tall, maybe five-nine, with dark hair and a smattering of  freckles sprinkled across her nose and the oval of her face.  Her answering smile tells me little except that her parents have raised her well; she hides any chagrin at the way she's forced to live during her week at Thomas Creek.

"Good morning, Corinne," she says, softly, perhaps out of respect for anyone who might still be sleeping in the mainhouse.  I return her greeting.  I think back fourteen years, to being age eighteen.  I almost went to France as an exchange student; I wouldn't have expected to use an outhouse had I done so.

"How are you getting on, here, Tiphaine?"  I relax my body against the back of my chair, hoping she will see that she can reply honestly.  But she shifts her gaze to the trees beyond the dog kennels and acknowledges, with an expressionless tone, that T.J. and Jeanne are being very good to her.  We both know it's not an answer to my question; we both also know that she won't give me one.

I ask her another question, an easier one, about her family.  A radiance breaks across her countenance and she talks about her parents, the apartment on rue Albert Joly in Versailles, and the school which she attends.  I can see she misses them, something else we won't mention.  Her words wash over me, rising and falling in an unfamiliar but intriguing cadence.  As she warms to her topic, her English becomes less clear, and peppered with a fragment of French here and there.  I miss some of the details but the essence is clear:  Versailles is nothing like Jasper; it is a city; it is old; it is beautiful; and she is homesick.

Her voice stops, finally.  The sun has risen above the ridge.  The long, low house, squat against the hillside, emits noises, signalling that everyone now stirs and gathers for the morning meal.  Tiphaine and I linger, on the porch of the quaint little guesthouse where she has slept a night in which she dreamed of home.  She lets a small sob escape from between her tightly closed lips and I place a hand on her arm.  I'm homesick, too; for Kansas City; for my job as a prosecutor which I have left a bit hastily; for late-night music in Westport and the throngs on the sidewalk after last call.  I am not as many miles from home, but my home seems just as unreachable as hers, and I do, really, understand how she feels.

After a few minutes, Tiphaine rolls her shoulders and rises from her chair.  "I want a coffee, don't you, my dear Corinne?"  She strides ahead of me, with her long, strong legs and her swinging arms.  I follow.  The ghosts stay behind, to haunt us, perhaps tomorrow, in the sweet air of another Ozark mountain morning.

Nearly forty years later, I sit beneath a hazy sky and wonder what has become of Tiphaine.  She visited Chester and me one year; and me and my child a few years later, that time just as an adult, not an exchange student.  I took her to Kansas City and we ate at a French cafe.  She crumbled the tender pastry of a brioche and rolled her eyes at the pleasure of dipping its flakiness into her strong cream-tinged coffee.  We walked the cobbled hills of Eureka Springs and listened to jazz in the little bandstand there, where I had seen my son's father play just  a year before her summer visit.  She held my infant son and sang to him in French, sitting on a park bench, in Eureka Springs, such a long time ago.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

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The Missouri Mugwump™

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I've been many things in my life: A child, a daughter, a friend; a wife, a mother, a lawyer and a pet-owner. I've given my best to many things and my worst to a few. I live in Brookside, in an airplane bungalow. I'm an eternal optimist and a sometime-poet. If I ever got a poem published in The New Yorker, I would die a happy woman. I'm a proud supporter of the Arts in Kansas City. I vote Democrat, fly the American flag, cry at Hallmark commercials, and recycle.