This week, something a little lighter of heart. On the brink of self destruction, Winnie experiences an intervening force (a trio of angels? muses? guides? - you decide) that reroutes her life.
The hoot of a barn owl and her own reflection against the black night on the other side of the sliding glass door startled Winnie. Her hand jerked and Merlot leaped from her goblet onto the carpet where it was absorbed like quicksand by the cream-colored wool.
“Stupid chicken shit!” Winnie hurled at the night sky. The words ricocheted off the glass pane and splattered all over her.
“Get a grip,” she muttered to herself as she uncorked the bottle and refilled her goblet for the fourth time.
Winnie’s armpits itched and a rancid odor wafted up when she lifted her elbow. She yanked a cord and drew the vertical Venetians closed, and then stumbled toward the utility room for spot remover. Her eyes caught the slight movement, a shift in the corner of the darkened room.
Holding her breath, she took a step backward. The wood planks beneath the worn thin carpet creaked under foot and she froze. Winnie ran a hand along the wall until she reached the light switch, dreading, yet compelled to illuminate the bogeyman hiding among the Hoover attachments.
With a shaking finger, she flipped the switch. A glare of white light from the bare 100 watt bulb above her head flooded the room.
“Jesus! You could blind a person,” hollered the bag lady like visage in the corner shielding her eyes with a bony hand. She was older than dirt, dirtier than dirt too, it appeared. She wore a ragged housedress of faded indefinable print and a tattered musty sweater several sizes too large for her scrawny frame.
Her sparse white hair spritzed out in all directions. Her eyebrows, same color as her hair, were like two fat caterpillars napping above rheumy blue eyes that squinted out under heavy lids at Winnie.
“Who the hell are you?” Winnie gasped, holding one hand over her palpitating heart. “And what are you doing in my utility room?”
“Relax, missy, I’ve been sent,” the woman croaked as she stepped out of the corner, over the attachments, and dusted herself off as best she could.
“I’d planned to land on the porch. Guess I’ve lost my night vision. Call me Gwynyth,” she said, extending a liver-spotted hand with dirt encrusted fingernails.
“What do you mean you’ve been sent?” Winnie recoiled. Her nose wrinkled and her mouth tightened with judgment.
“Think of me as your guardian angel,” Gwynyth said. Her crooked smile was missing a few teeth. She dropped her hand to her side, noting that this woman was not the friendly type.
“I don’t need a guardian angel,” Winnie said in a huff. “And, if I did, I certainly wouldn’t choose you!” She pulled herself up to her full 5’5” stature and stared down her nose at the old woman.
“You don’t choose us, dearie, we’re assigned.” She took Winnie’s elbow and spun her around toward the bedroom door. “I musta really pissed off the boss to pull this assignment,” Gwynyth said aside.
“Unhand me!” Winnie cried out. “What do you think you’re doing?”
“You left a mess on the floor in there. Thought I’d sort of show you my credentials,” she said as she ushered Winnie, protesting all the way, back into the bedroom.
Gwynyth pointed at the blur of red wine diffused among the fibers of the carpet. “Spit clean,” she uttered. The spot vanished.
“My god, you’re a witch,” Winnie whimpered.
“Nah, that was another lifetime,” Gwynyth smiled amicably. I’m here to help you clean up the mess you’ve made of your life, help you with your problems, and stuff like that.”
Winnie brushed a stand of her own graying shoulder length hair back from her face. “I’ll have you know my life is NOT a mess, and I have no problems.” This creature was working her last nerve.
“Well, here’s one problem; your bed faces West,” Gwynyth sighed in disgust, shaking her head slowly.
“What’s wrong with West?” Winnie asked in spite of herself.
“Sun rises in the East. Hell, at your age, just to know you made it to the next day when you open your eyes has gotta be worth something,” Gwynyth cackled.
“At my age? I’m only sixty-two,” Winnie hoisted her chin.
“The Golden Hours,” Gwynyth continued, ignoring her, “ that’s what you want to be waking up to: sun rise; new day; fresh start; clean slate; all that crap.”
Gwynyth tugged at the cord and whipped the vertical Venetians open.
“Yikes!” she yelped at her own reflection.
She pulled, grunted and groaned until the rounded brass foot of the bed was aimed squarely at the sliding glass door where the earliest rays of tomorrow’s sunrise could not be missed.
Gwynyth wiped her hands briskly on her faded dress, surveyed the room. She lifted the ceramic goblet from the bedside table, slid open the glass door and heaved the contents out into the night.
“That was a perfectly good glass of Merlot you just wasted,” Winnie complained.
“Stunt your growth,” Gwynyth retorted.
“I’m sixty-two—there’s not a lot of growing I’m likely to do,” Winnie groused.
“‘Sup to you,” said Gwynyth. “A friend of mine said ‘whether you believe you can or believe you can’t, you’re right’. I’m here to convince you you’re not done yet.”
“A moment ago, you had me on the very brink of death,” muttered Winnie. She yawned and sat down heavily on the bent wood rocker next to the bed. This had been a very tiring evening.
“I was just messin’ with you,” Gwynyth said as she bent down to remove Winnie’s slippers. She turned down the blankets on the bed, fluffed the pillow and reached out a hand to Winnie.
“Beddie-bye time,” she said.
Too tired to resist, Winnie allowed herself to be pulled to her feet, and guided into bed where the covers were tucked up under her chin. As her eyes closed with the heaviness of sandbags, she decided this had all been a wine-induced hallucination. Things would look better in the morning. Across the room, the light clicked off softly and the last sound she heard was the shuffle of feet leaving the room.
Somewhere in the neighborhood, a rooster crowed. Winnie twitched the muscles of one eyelid, then allowed a crack of vision. A blaze of peach, melon, and mauve lit the morning sky. Before she could clamp down on it, a smile played at the corners of her mouth.
“Stunning, ain’t it?” Gwynyth’s voice crackled next to the bed.
Winnie jolted upright, groaned, rubbed her temples then collapsed back against a just-fluffed pillow propped against the head of the bed.
“Quick—what do you hate most?” Gwynyth demanded.
“Living a meaningless life,” Winnie said. Startled by her own vulnerability, she yanked at the flannel sheet and swiped angrily at the tears rolling down her cheeks. “Not fair,” she hissed.
“When you first wake up your defenses are down. That’s when I can get an honest answer out of you. By the time you leave the house, you’ve already got your armor on,” Gwynyth explained.
“Why are you still here?” Winnie groaned.
“Told you. We have work to do. Fresh start, new day. Today’s the first day of...”
“Don’t say it,” Winnie warned.
Gwynyth produced a bamboo tray laden with English muffins topped with cream cheese and marmalade, three crisp strips of bacon, orange juice, coffee and a multivitamin. A colorful cloth napkin was folded into something resembling a giant bird that stood watch over the food. The smell of hot coffee made Winnie’ stomach rumble.
“Eat up. The others should be here soon,” she said.
“Others? What others? You can’t just invite people into my home. My god, the sun’s not even all the way up yet,” Winnie sputtered.
At just that moment, a rumpled heap landed with a thwump on the deck just beyond the sliding glass door.
“Musta lost her landing gear,” Gwynyth mumbled as she opened the slider.
She watched as AfroDidee chortled, pulled herself to her feet, rearranged her face into a big smile and hollered, “Gwynnie!”
The two old women fell all over themselves in a clumsy, bear like embrace.
“Ya don’t look a century older than the last time we worked a gig together,” AfroDidee wheezed. “Creation sends her regards,” she reported to Gwynyth. “She got busted in a Save-the-Redwoods rally in San Francisco.”
“That girl always has a cause,” Gwynyth nodded respectfully.
Winnie, sitting propped up against the headboard, watched wide-eyed as Gwynyth and her friend entered the bedroom.
“Winnie, this is AfroDidee, Goddess of Luv,” she said, making a grand sweeping gesture toward the old woman whose steel gray hair looked like an electrocuted Brillo pad. She was dressed in a Go Raiders sweatshirt, and adult diaper covered with colorful Valentine’s Day stickers, and red sneakers.
Her walnut-colored eyes twinkled in her leathery face as she dipped a quick curtsey and said, “Hi-dee.”
“No—It’s Winnie,” Winnie corrected. “She’s wearing diapers,” Winnie stage whispered to Gwynyth.
“I can take ‘em off...” AfroDidee offered, but was interrupted.
“Oh, god no—please!” Winnie covered her eyes with shaking hands.
“I meant the stickers,” AfroDidee explained to Gwynyth, her voice apologetic. “You know, for different seasons.”
Gwynyth patted her arm. “It’s okay, she’s just a little jumpy,” she reassured her friend. They both regarded Winnie who was now squinting through her fanned fingers as if watching a horror show.
A rap on the glass slider startled the trio.
“Hey, hey, whatta ya say...” a voice boomed on the other side of the door. “...Open up or I’ll go away.”
“Fate!” both Gwynyth and AfroDidee called out.
Gwynyth slid the door open and pulled a stout old woman in a large straw hat into the bedroom. She wore a flowered muumuu and rubber flip-flops. Her skin was the color of hickory and her hair was died deep auburn like the last rays of sunset.
“Did I miss anything?” she asked, a righting the hat that had been knocked askew by the doorjamb.
“This here’s Winnie,” AfroDidee pointed to the woman who had pulled the quilt up under chin and held it there with a death grip.
“Fate’s the name, intervention’s the game,” she said by way of introduction. She turned to Gwynyth and said, “What’s wrong with her?” She crooked her head to once side then the other, studying Winnie from different angles.
“Nothing’s wrong with me except I have a room full of lunatics and I haven’t even had breakfast,” Winnie squawked.
Fate munched thoughtfully on a marmalade-spread muffin.
“I think we need a game plan,” she said. “Did she come with instructions?”
“Why me?” Winnie moaned. “Why not Mrs. Rosenblatz down the block?”
“Mrs. Rosenblatz doesn’t hate her work and drink herself silly at night or spend her weekends watching bad television all by herself with the blinds pulled,” Gwynyth explained in a reasonable voice.
“Can I help it if I’m trapped in a crappy job? I don’t have a college degree and I couldn’t run a computer if my life depended on it. My lousy ex-husband left me penniless, the bum. If I had any money, I’d retire. If I had any sense, I’d kill myself,” Winnie ranted. “So I drink a little bit at night to brace myself for the next day. So what?” she challenged.
“Hey, you are the weaver, you are the web,” AfroDidee offered.
“What on earth is that supposed to mean?” Winnie asked.
“We create our own reality by the choices we make, and then we’re stuck with it until we make new choices,” Gwynyth answered.
“All roads lead to Mecca,” added Fate.
“Or, you might say,” Gwynyth explained, “there is a master plan, but how you get to the outcome is through a series of making one choice after the next.”
“Each choice has its own consequence,” Fate added.
“It’s like when you married Harold back in the 60ies. Remember? You wanted to be a librarian but you couldn’t afford to finish college because he couldn’t keep a job,” Gwynyth tsked.
“Harold was a toad,” Fate muttered. “A mere stumbling block on your path, but you gave up on yourself.”
“You mean I’m responsible for the way my life looks?”
“‘Fraid so, kiddo,” chirped AfroDidee.
“If you had your druthers, what would life look like?” Fate inquired.
“My druthers?” Winnie sneered. “Well, I’d be lounging on a South Seas island with my wealthy husband, sipping one of those drinks with the umbrella in them. Why?”
“And that would be a meaningful life?” Fate asked.
“Look, you’re Fate. You already know the future. Why not just cut to the chase?” Winnie asked in a pique.
“Well, I’m not really supposed to do this, but you are one pathetic case. Maybe just this time.” Fate pulled up a chair opposite Winnie. “Remember, how you get there is up to you.”
Winnie sat up straighter in bed. She had to admit; it wasn’t every day that Fate just laid it on the line for you.
“Okay, you’re not so far off. I do see you on a South Seas island with your husband. He seems to be a native there.” Fate squinted her eyes and peered into the distance. “You’re finally doing what you were meant to do. You have a fair amount of notoriety on the island,” she finished. “Whew! Plumb wears me out,” she muttered.
Just then, the phone on the nightstand trilled. AfroDidee lifted the receiver. “Winifred’s residence, AfroDidee, Goddess of Luv speaking. How may I help you?”
A pause while AfroDidee nodded her wiry hair.
“One moment please,” she said grinning hugely, “I’ll connect you.” She handed the phone to Winnie, gave a palms-up shrug and said, “Looks like my job is over.”
“No fair,” Fate mumbled. “You didn’t even break a sweat.”
On the phone, Winnie was saying, “Palo? Yes, of course I remember you. Well, how very nice of you. Tomorrow night? Oh, my. Let me check my calendar and get right back to you.”
They exchanged a few more pleasantries, before Winnie hung up. She sat in stunned silence.
“Are you going to leave us here dying of curiosity?” Gwynyth asked.
“How strange is that?” Winnie said. “I thought he moved back to Fiji. The man I met at my aunt’s funeral three years ago just asked me out to dinner.”
* * * *
Remnants of breakfast remained on the tray. Gwynyth finished the cup of coffee. Fate wiped a bit of bacon from her lower lip. AfroDidee set the juice glass down carefully. Winnie swallowed the last of her muffin.
Gwynyth leaned against the pillow at the head of the bed, her sweater draped over her shoulders. Fate propped herself against the foot with her straw hat perched on bent knees. AfroDidee rocked in the wooden rocker, a blanket snuggled over her lap, her red sneakers resting near the nightstand. It looked like a pajama party for the demented.
Winnie perched on the edge of her bed, holding her robe closed with one hand, and gestured wildly as she spoke.
“I can’t just have dinner with a man I barely remember,” she said, with an openhanded smack to her forehead. “I’m sixty-two, I’m fat, I’m wrinkled, I’m gray....”
“I’m waiting to hear something that matters,” AfroDidee offered.
“What was it he saw in you three years ago that would lead him to call you out of the blue?” Gwynyth asked.
“He said he like my droll humor,” Winnie smiled in spite of herself. “And we talked about poetry, right there at the graveyard, waiting for my poor aunt to be planted in the ground,” she shook her head in wonder.
“Sounds like he was looking at the inside of you while you seem determined to focus on the outside,” Fate offered. “Which, by the way, there’s nothing wrong with the outside of you,” she added.
“Go ahead; choose happiness just once for yourself. Step outside the box and take a little risk,” Gwynyth urged.
With a trembling hand, Winnie lifted the phone and dialed, amidst smiles and winks all around her.
* * * *
The three old women sat slumped around a wrought iron table on the plaza, lulled by the noonday sun, the trickling waters of a nearby fountain, and an icy pitcher of Margaritas, which sweated an ever spreading circle on the checkered tablecloth. A multicolored umbrella turned lazily overhead.
Gwynyth smiled and refilled her own glass before passing the pitcher on. Fate, sporting an Easter bonnet covered in bright Azaleas, fanned herself with an envelope while Gwynyth unfolded a letter, hand written on cream colored stationery. AfroDidee laid two glossy photos on the table. One was of a clump of children, Winnie, and Palo in front of a small wooden building with a brightly hand-painted sign that read LIBRARY just above the door. The other was of Winnie and Palo sitting on beach chairs at the water’s edge, smiling at the camera, each holding a tropical drink with a tiny umbrella.
Gwynyth took a gulp of her Margarita before reading the letter.
Dear Ones, she began. “Ah, she called us dear ones.” Gwynyth stopped, sniffed, and blotted a tear that trickled down her cheek. Fate moved the pitcher of Margaritas to the other side of the table. AfroDidee poured herself another glass.
Greetings from the South Seas where Palo and I have opened a small library on the island, with guess-who as Head Librarian? I’m also teaching English as a Second Language to the children. I couldn’t be happier...”
“Ah, she couldn’t be happier,” Gwynyth dabbed at a tear and blew her nose.
“That’s our girl,” Fate said.
“She looks kinda blissful, doesn’t she?” AfroDidee observed.
I’ve truly found my bliss, Gwynyth continued. She raised her eyebrow at AfroDidee.
“Hey, it didn’t hurt that you pulled Palo out of thin air just when you did,” Fate addressed AfroDidee.
“I thought you did that,” AfroDidee looked at Fate.
“What’s that little word on the bottom of the picture?” Fate squinted.
“Over,” said AfroDidee, flipping the photograph.
Here’s to better choices. Love, Winnie p.s. those are virgin Mai Tais.
“I’ll drink to that!” smiled Gwynyth.