by Clarinda Harriss.
“Hi, I write haiku. Would you like me to recite a few?” The stranger greets Claudia as she enters the cinnamon-redolent breakfast room. He beams at her over a well-marmaladed chunk of fresh whole grain bread.
This is not really happening, Claudia thinks. Not today, 8:20 AM, July the something, in the highly touted, brass-sign labeled BREAKFAST ROOM of a village inn in Maine. I have fallen between the hundred year old oak planks into a rabbit hole. I have landed in a New Yorker cartoon.
“Writing haiku and playing the dulcimer are my professions. My wife and I play out every weekend. She illustrated my latest haiku collection with her charcoal sketches.”
Claudia feels her smile freezing against her teeth. She is glad her husband Todd is not here to hear her murmur something to the effect of Wow, that’s great and—god forgive her lying mouth—sure, let’s hear some. Todd may be fairly advanced in his Alzheimer’s, but his sense of humor hasn’t totally left, plus he can always sense when she’s doing the social-lying thing. He knows she can’t help herself. He might snicker. Not that he’s all that opposed to social lying. He knows to provide his name and proffer a hand when, during an introduction, she’s the one who can’t remember the introducee’s name.
“This one’s for you,” says Haiku Man.
She can’t tell whether he means “this haiku” or “this book.” The book (“They’re all originals”) is open beside his orange juice glass, but he is not reading from it. He is reading off the back of his closed eyes. He sways slightly as he intones. To her surprise, the three haiku he recites are, in fact, original. Even good. Her mouth relaxes. No friggin chrysanthemums, she marvels. Ice in the grass likened to discarded syringes, not to nature’s fucking jewels. Social lying aloud makes her use bad language in her head.
When he opens his eyes, he hands her the book. The drawings are good too. On the back cover is a hazy self-portrait of his wife. “If you want us to sign your copy, I can go wake up my wife when I take her her coffee. She never gets up before ten.”
“Oh, we’d love you to sign it, but please don’t wake her,” Claudia says, half-strangling on her sudden discovery of what he, and by extension his wife, remind her of: that Saturday Night Live oh-so-earnest couple who performed their original folk songs using strange instruments on a fictional local-cable channel.
Now Todd is visible pacing back and forth on the rocking-chaired porch, passing the open door to the breakfast room without looking in. Claudia spills her coffee as she leaps up to intercept him. Haiku Man smiles sweetly and wipes up the spill before exiting with his wife’s steaming mug.
Todd’s relief at seeing Claudia is so huge she feels her eyes go moist. What was she thinking, leaving him alone in their room for a full quarter hour? She shows him the book and tells him how she came by it. He admires the drawings. She starts explaining what a haiku is. He tells her he knows what a haiku is. She tells him about the recitation. He stares at her. She can’t tell if he’s dumfounded she let it happen or just doesn’t have a clue. He selects a muffin, butters it, makes her take a bite. Between them they get crumbs all over the place. Luckily there’s nobody else in the breakfast room for the moment.
Suddenly a preternaturally beautiful pale-blond girlchild, probably around seven or eight, pirouettes into the breakfast room.
“Do you want to know my name? My name is Annabella.” She continues twirling. She holds out a velveteen rabbit. (Yes, a velveteen rabbit.) “Do you want to know my rabbit’s name? My rabbit’s name is Chewy.” The pink tulle flounces of her tutu spin so her slightly dirty shorts, labeled Camp Something-or-Other, show. Despite her very real legs, with skinned knees and a couple of mosquito bites, she seems like a sprite. An Ariel. Or is she Alice? She has the right hair.
A tall, dark (as in Black), handsome man enters. “Not so sure this room’s big enough for all that spinning around,” he tells Annabella. “Besides you’re going to get dizzy.”
Annabella switches to a handstand. Her upside down eyes—pale green—barely glance at the tall Black man. They flicker over to a tall, genial-looking white mesomorph who has just entered to join the other man for coffee. Then her eyes dismiss both men. Claudia has already decided that the guys are Annabella’s two daddies. Considering that this little town seems to have at least as many same-sex couples as different-sex couples, these fine thirty-somethings appear to have the makings of a perfect marriage. Especially since they have Annabella.
Except that they apparently they don’t. They take their coffee mugs and their hunks of blueberry buckle and leave without her.
“Where are your parents?” says Claudia, disconcerted.
Annabella raises one slender forefinger and points upward. Claudia hopes she means upstairs, not heaven. Because by now Annabella has fully glommed onto her. She sits nestled against Claudia’s side, leaving the rest of the little couch empty. She hops Chewy around on Claudia’s thighs.
“I have to go now, my boyfriend is looking for me.” Claudia is flashing back to a child who pretended to come to her house some thirty years ago to play with her six-year-old daughter, The child ignored her daughter but spent all day shadowing Claudia. The child, who later acquired a neighborhood reputation for hugging kittens to death, insisted on calling Claudia “Aunt Claudie.” The momentary memory is enough to awaken an old earworm, that lugubrious folksong “Go Tell Aunt Rhodie/ the old gray goose is dead.” This morning Claudia feels like an old gray goose.
“Your boyfriend? That’s silly.” Annabella touches Claudia’s gray ponytail. Claudia stays put for a full five minutes, casting about for a way to extricate herself.
“Well, I guess I’d better go get my boyfriend, I mean my friend, so we can take a swim off the dock.”
“Is your boyfriend too little to go swimming in the pond by himself? I’m not too little to go swimming in the pond by myself.”
“He’s not little. He just likes me to go with him. There he is now!”
Todd now stands in the Breakfast Room doorway. Claudia seizes the opportunity, grabs Todd’s seersucker-jacketed arm. Todd has forgotten that they were going for a swim right after breakfast. He has forgotten breakfast, forgotten where they are and why. Claudia squeezes reassurance.
Back in their room, Claudia notices Todd’s wheeled overnight bag standing just inside the door, its handle pulled up ready for departure.
“Todd, honey, we’re not leaving today. We just got here last night. We’re meeting the Hedricks here. They’ve taken a room next door. We’ll all be here all weekend.”
“Ah, the Hedricks,” Todd muses.
“You know, our old neighbors.”
“Where do we live now? Here?”
“No, this is an inn. We live in Baltimore. The Hedricks lived next door before they went into Monkton Manor. The assisted living place.”
“Ah, the Hedricks. Do we like them?”
Claudia starts to explain the Hedricks, then notices the smile flickering around his lips. The almost-laughing look that made her fall in love with him 50 years ago. She tucks away the burst of helpless rage she felt welling up when she discovered that Todd’s overnight case is filled with a mix of the clothing she’d laid out for herself to wear later this afternoon and all his own dirty laundry. She unpacks and sorts. She’ll take her Paxil when she takes Todd to the breakfast room for another muffin. His hunger for sweets is insatiable.
An early-middle aged woman comes in for coffee, looking rumpled, wearing a look of which Claudia’s mother would’ve said Huh, seems like her nose is out of joint. This is exactly how Claudia has been picturing Mrs. Haiku Man the Illustrator.
“Are you the artist?” Claudia asks.
The woman grunts and leaves as another woman, equally disgruntled looking, enters. Claudia repeats the question. Gets a similar grunt. She repeats the question again, this time to a fortyish woman who more distinctly resembles the sketch on the back of the book.
“Nope,” this one replies, managing a smile.
Claudia realizes she is eager to meet Mrs. Haiku Man. She feels that she knows just how Mrs. Haiku Man must feel. Claudia would stay in bed half the day if she could. Morning is a reality check, with a whole Todd-heavy day stretching out. The only time-off from Todd she gets is when they’re asleep. In sleep he is warm and cuddly.
He has not forgotten Claudia. Soon he is watching her float on the surface of the tiny lake. Does he know what she’s thinking? she wonders. For a few moments she thinks how good it is not to think at all.
Then she hears a shrill “Hey.” A little face peers from the lupine and bee balm growing densely along the bank. For a minute Claudia has the lovely sensation of looking inside a painting by le Douanier Rousseau. Annabella springs up and makes her way to the dock. Her agile legs are a very pale gold. Above them, pacing back and forth along the bank, is Todd, who seems out of sorts. He does not like water. He does not like Claudia to be separated from him by water.
“Where are your mom and dad?” Claudia asks, then, just in case, “Your parents?”
“Up there.” Claudia tells herself the child must mean “up at the Inn.”
“They must be worried about you, down here at the water all by yourself.”
“Huh uh.” The child is now standing in the water, waist-deep. “Chewy doesn’t know how to swim.” She moves the rabbit’s forelegs in an air-crawl. “Do you think I know how to swim? Here, hold Chewy.”
To Claudia’s horror Annabella splashes into the water shoulder deep, then disappears under the surface. A long moment later Annabella’s head bobs up. Wet, her hair looks almost green. She doggy-paddles around Claudia’s arms. “I know how to swim.”
Todd has wandered up the bank. A short slope away is the town’s busy Main Street. Claudia lunges out of the water and chases him.
“Hey, come back!” calls Annabella.
Claudia imagines Todd wandering into Main Street’s chaotic traffic. She imagines Annabella dipping under and not bobbing up. She imagines herself running past Todd, grabbing her overnight bag and purse, and standing on Main Street with her thumb out.
She grabs Todd’s arm. Looking over her shoulder she sees Annabella, shivering, scolding a sodden Chewy.
“Bad Chewy!” says Annabella.
“Bad Annabella!” says Claudia. “Go upstairs to you room this minute and get a towel.”
Haiku Man has propped his book outside the door to Todd’s and Claudia’s room. In it, marking the fly leaf where both his signature and his wife’s appear, is a note:
Don’t worry we always travel with a suitcase full of my books.
My wife was fine with waking up and
signing this copy as long as she didn’t
have to talk to anybody.
Hugs from [a fancy unreadable initial]
P.S. I do calligraphy too
Claudia enjoys a mini-fantasy: she and Mrs. Haiku Man hand in hand, haiku-less suitcases bumping against their hips as they pound down Main Street toward the bus station.