June 3, 2016

Fiction by Raymond Greiner: "Finding Level"

Raymond Greiner's writings include short stories and essays published frequently in various literary journals and magazines:  Branches magazine, La Joie Journal, Literary Yard Journal, Nib Magazine, Canary Literary Journal, Bellesprit Magazine, Freedom Journal, Grace Notes Literary Magazine. His latest book, "Queenie; a novella" is available on Amazon. Raymond lives in a remote area of southern Indiana in a cabin far off a lightly traveled road with his two dogs Orion and Venus. 


Finding Level

My name is Howard Woodward.  I have lived in this city for twenty years, have a good paying job, and live in an upscale apartment.  During formative years I dreamed of city life, a 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 has changed character; white flight caused inner city decay as crime escalated.  The air is polluted from the incessant rumble of traffic.  Two blocks from my apartment is a waste incinerator spewing its nightly stench.  After work I visit a popular lounge as a source of mental 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 repetitious ritual attempting to reduce workplace stress.  As the joy juice assimilates the scene’s tone amplifies.  Intoxication prompts brazenness.
I amble to the bar and order a beer, sitting next to me are two beautiful women.  This encounter triggers emotions running a divided path.  I am excited anticipating conversation with these women; yet, despair plagues me.  Has my life become a treadmill 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 this moment as a stepping-stone?  Nonetheless, I am here, mingling in a smoke filled cage of like-minded interactivity.
“Hi, I am Howard, you two look ravishing.”
Response, “Thanks, I am Judy and this is Kathleen, it’s our first time here.  This is a busy place.  Do you work nearby”?
Howard said, “Yes, an accountant with a large firm, two blocks west.  I live in the adjacent apartment building.”
Judy said, “I work close also, in public relations.  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.”
Kathleen said, “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 aren’t boozing.  Judy and I were good friends growing up, were in the same high school class.  She was voted homecoming queen.”
Howard said, ”You must have been first runner up.”
Kathleen responded,  “Far from it.  Judy lived in town with quality 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 lived with my grandmother on her small homestead.  During high school years my appearance was not homecoming queen caliber.”
Judy said, “It’s not true Howard, Kathleen was a living 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.”
Howard said, “So nice to meet you two.  I readily sense character running deeper than this crowd typically offers.  A writer, how fascinating.”
Kathleen said, “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 work of others.  I have a large garden, and sell organic produce at the local food co-op also eggs.  I have twenty 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.”
Judy said, “What about me, Kathleen?  You e-mail me every day.  I love your e mail messages, they lift my spirit.”
Kathleen said, “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 friends since I can remember.”
Howard said, “A place in the country sounds peaceful.  I am feeling intense urban burnout.  This lounge is a catch basin for those 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’s 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 a winter activity.”  
Judy said, “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.  Let’s exchange e-mail addresses, this topic is crying out for discussion.  It may lead someplace.   Meanwhile, we are here to enjoy this time together.  I’ll have another beer.”
Kathleen said, “I’ll pass, only one for me.  Farmers get up too early to contend with hangovers.”  
Judy said, “How about you, Howard”?
Howard said, “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, lifelong friends.         
“Dear new friends:  What a nice feeling talking with you two.  Articulate beautiful women do a much better job relieving an old warhorse’s anxieties than beer.  Too much beer dissolves my memory; and my brain cells are forever grateful when I stop their alcohol bath early.  No hangover this morning.  I’m thinking clearly now, at least, think I am.
“Last month was my forty fifth birthday.  Progression of time changes the tone of this annual event, diminishing desire to celebrate and forming milestones in a pivot toward decline.  Forty-five is a reality check, quietly stepping in cadence with the rhythmic force of time, tipping into a zone of no return.  I was married at thirty.  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 combining luck and circumstance.  Things went well for five years, and then my wife discovered greener grass, cutting me loose causing 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 regarding career choices, took a series of aptitude tests.  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 ability and fitting socially accepted patterns recognized as culturally aligned, and most importantly potential fiscal prosperity.   So, success is synonymous with money, viewing earning power 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 a 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?  Where is fruition actually located?
“Write when time allows.  I look forward to your thoughts.  Your new friend, Howard.”
Kathleen responded, “Howard: Judy left this morning, and will probably read your message later this evening.  My rooster Henry was on time forcing our early rise.  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 is in contrast 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 although in recent years desire for social connections has subsided.  I am also forty-five, and in opposition to your thoughts I praise each day with great joy to be alive.  Others may assess my life as tentative, but it offers many intangible rewards.  Money remains a factor; however, it fails to dominate.  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 emits spiritual feelings.
“I never married, but had a few 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 and we 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 became 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 an urbanite but feels compelled to maintain our unique relationship and the beauty and quietness of this place offers refreshing renewal.  These visits are comforting for us both.  The most ardent isolationist needs human contact.  Many thought Thoreau was 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.  This is a pleasant place, Kathleen.”
E mail message from Judy, “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.  Aren’t we all?
“Call me 346-1181, we can plan a visit.  I will drive and we can talk more about 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.  Does this sound right for you”?
Howard said, “Sure, it’s exciting, an escape.  Give me a time and I’ll be ready.  My apartment is adjacent to the lounge, ring 410 and I’ll buzz you in.”
Judy said, “I’ll be at your apartment at seven, we can stop at my usual place for breakfast.  I will verify things with Kathleen.  She’ll be delighted.”
Howard said, “I’ll be ready.  Lots to talk about.  A break from our routines, see you Saturday.”
Judy was on time and rang Howard’s number.  The buzzer unlocked the door.  This is truly a luxury apartment building, in the heart of the city.  Much like Judy’s townhouse.  
Howard greeted her, “Welcome, come in.  Coffee is ready.  Just one cup and then we can hit the road.”
As she looked around Judy said, “This is a magnificent apartment.”
Howard said, “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 Howard were comfortable with each other, both attached to city life.
Judy said, “It’s about an hour’s drive, once we clear the city limits.”
Howard asked, “Are you married”?
Judy answered, “No, although 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 difficult.  Kathleen has been my 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 this praise and attention; later realizing beauty is a double-edged sword of power and influence.  It can be a curse, but also a handy if used properly.  Opportunity linked to my beauty has diminished as aging closes in.”
Howard said, “You are still very beautiful.  You and Kathleen both remain beautiful.  This prompted me to talk with you both at the ‘Catch Basin’”.        
Judy said, “We enjoyed listening to you.  I think we all feel degrees of despair and anxiety within life’s structure.  You showed sensitivity; with good expression, it was enjoyable listening to you open up.  This seldom happens to either of us.  We are both a bit extreme with our independent personalities, have a desire to find our own way, contrary to many women who commonly view males as elements of support.”
Howard’s response, “It sure made my day”
Judy said, “Let’s eat now, we are about half way to Kathleen’s house.”
After breakfast Judy and Howard were back on the road.
Judy said, “I am eager for you to see Kathleen’s farm.  I think it will mellow your urban anxiety.”  
They turned off the highway onto a secondary paved road drove several miles then becoming a gravel road.  This was a winding road through a wooded section.  They came to a rural mailbox with the name Kathleen Turner, adjacent to a single lane dirt road.  As they approached Kathleen’s house two dogs came bounding toward us 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.  Howard was overcome and felt grateful to have arrived.
Kathleen smiled and said, “Nice to see you, real humans, what a treat.”
Kathleen hugged them both.  Her dark eyes exposed her soul.  One cannot help feeling this woman’s grace and beauty.  It is overwhelming and obvious.  Kathleen then said, “Come in, I want to show Howard my old house.”
The house was 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.  
Kathleen continued, “This is home base for daily functions.  Weekly I go to town to deliver produce and eggs.  As you observe my dress choice places function above fashion.  If I dressed in the city as I do daily I would be viewed with suspicion, or perhaps a homeless person.  It’s a tough life out here, but it fits me.  I am so happy for your visit.  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.  Her bib overalls did nothing to diminish her beauty.  She was magnificent, causing him awkwardness, 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.  I feel energized; the beauty of the place and the quiet solitude is refreshing compared to city noise and clutter.  This place has abstract splendor, an entirely different world, I am so glad you invited us.  It’s difficult to explain, but feels good.”
Kathleen said, “I have opinions and reasons delivering me to this life.  I can share these thoughts with you later.”
Kathleen then extended the house tour showing special pride for her writing place.  This was her grandmother’s office also, attaching memories from 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 above her computer desk.  This is where Kathleen spends winter hours.  Her writing fertilizes her mind, opening creative thoughts traveling to paper.
The three walked the property as Kathleen described her garden.  Its variety of crops and immense size seemed difficult to manage for a single gardener.  Her layer hens were wandering about pecking for insects.  A chicken house with wire fencing was their nocturnal space.  Ranger and Jasmine slept nearby in their doghouse watching over the hens.  Cats darted around, keeping their distance, unsure about this stranger.  
Kathleen prepared a wonderful meal with brown rice, chopped almonds and steamed kale with sweet onions and morel mushrooms, reconstituting dehydrated peppers and tomatoes in the steamer.  Topped with freshly grated ginger and crushed garlic.  Seasonings included turmeric powder, fresh ground pepper and Himalayan salt with mixed organic spices.  Howard had never experienced such a meal mixing healthy foods creating wonderful flavor.  The wine brought it all to perfection.  
Judy said, “Now you know why I love coming here.  Have you ever eaten a meal like this?”
Howard’s response, “Not in my entire life.  This is an unforgettable experience, combining the company of two beautiful and enjoyable women.  I think I may be in nirvana.”
Kathleen beamed with pride, “I am happy to share this meal with you two.  It’s lonely here at times, and I am grateful for the company.  Food is the essence of life; it can enhance life or destroy it.  Agriculture has moved in a troubling direction, becoming industrialized, relying on trickery of hybrid crops and chemicals gaining higher, faster yields, infusing lower labor and requiring less field time.  Modern food production causes widespread health issues, and agriculture is nothing like it was during earlier times.  Bees are dying by the thousands, killed from ingesting chemicals attempting to pollinate.  Food processing and fast food companies employ taste engineers designing foods with excessive salt, chemical taste enhancers and preservatives subtracting nutritional values.  I obtain 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 to keep it thriving.  Humanity has drifted far from early human unity and balance.  I feel as though I am a child of the Earth, living my dream.”
Judy knew all of this, and her main intention for this visit was to expose Howard to Kathleen’s alternative life.  His dismay may fade, witnessing her personal philosophy and living design.  
Kathleen said, “When I was young I envisioned city life.  Cities seemed exciting, offering social encounters, the arts, libraries and exposing enhancements toward social betterment.  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 their time together.  The fine meal and conversations formed cohesiveness.  The hominess of Kathleen’s house and kitchen enhanced the mood of their fellowship.        
Breakfast was oatmeal, chopped walnuts with cinnamon and honey, fresh eggs and biscuits, surely made by God.  As Judy and Howard prepared to depart all three felt an intense bonding.  Howard could not escape the power of Kathleen’s beauty and her overall manner; her eyes sparkled as she spoke, her movements were like a ballet as she gracefully moved about her kitchen.  He could not recall such feelings.  Shortly after they departed Judy asked Howard.
“Well, Howard, what are your thoughts”?
Howard said, “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 development quite above anyone I have ever known.”
Judy responded, “As I told you.”
Howard’s mind kept flashing images of Kathleen in her bib overalls darting from place to place.  It was as if a spirit penetrated him.  He thought about her simplistic, independent life, her garden, animals, and writing.  These thoughts lingered forming a haunting but pleasing emotion.  He must now go back to the noise and clutter of the city, with polluted air, returning 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 drip with strong antibiotics, but the doctors are worried the infection may spread into her bloodstream.  This is a very serious condition.  Kathleen is distraught worrying about her animals.  I am calling you from California, I am over my head with client meeting, and I can’t get there quickly.  I am hoping you can help out.”
“Give me Kathleen’s number.  I’ll 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.”
Kathleen said, “Bless you, Howard.  I am so worried.  They have access to water, automatically flowing into a tank.  The food is in the storage shed.  Feed the chickens at night, one bowl each day for the cats and dogs.  It’s very simple.  The house is not locked and there is plenty of food.  We can talk daily 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.”
Howard said, “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 needed.”
Judy said, “Thank God, I am so grateful and relieved.  I will come as soon as I can.  I am praying Kathleen can recover quickly.”
In one week Kathleen’s leg swelling reduced, 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, and said, “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.
Howard said, “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 she prepared food.  Howard sat staring at her as she worked.  The meal was divine and they relished this time together.  Kathleen began cleanup, putting dishes in the sink.
Howard said, “Kathleen, your place is a paradise.  I suffer living in the city, imprisoned, and the past week here at your place I felt as if 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.  My entire 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 here 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 as she calculated response.  
Then said, “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 weeds and pick tomatoes?  This house is a bit cold in mid winter.”
Howard said, “To be with you I could endure anything.”  
Kathleen said, “When I write I crave solitude.”
Howard said, “I want to write too.  Often thought about writing.  We can compliment each other.”
Kathleen said, “I feel love for you too, Howard.  At this juncture of our lives partnering could offer unique and fulfilling opportunity.  I feel joyful 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 and the symbiosis of it is entrancing and beautiful, like combining ingredients preparing a flavorful meal, a permeation occurs, fusing with nature in its many forms.  The morning rattle of the woodpecker, the haunting voice of sandhill cranes in their annual migration, the ever-loquacious crows mixing with the natural fragrance of clean, fresh air.  This place touches perfection, opening a gateway of living 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 her car.  
Judy sensed something was brewing, “Alright, you two.  I’m reading something on your faces, but unsure what I am reading.
Kathleen spoke, “We have good news.”
The three friends smiled and walked together toward the house.  A blissful day indeed.   
     ~Raymond Greiner

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