The Blitz

 

 

 

 

 


The mountains collect little snow, if any, during the winter. From the library balcony I can see on a cool, drizzly afternoon, a cloud pass through the Cascades and then reveal its peaks, dusted in snow like powdered sugar. Standing against a clear sky for only an hour or two, the white cover melts away and the land's natural gray greeness returns. Awakening oaks, maples, redbuds and alders are filling out nicely; spring needs little encouragement—just a few more minutes of daylight, and the blitz comes running.

The valley greens first. The brush along the creek fills out, promptly reconditioning the path with shadows and colored drops of red maids and polemonium. Crocus, tulips and daffodils around the house seem to pop up over night. Wild herbs and grasses stab through the damp dirt and open up in the sunlight. The mimosa even looks larger, the branches yield new sprouts and reach again for the upstairs window.

Spring colors blossom indoors as well. Tablecloths trade places: yellow and sky blue patterns come out where the standard off-white poly/cotton had lain the day before. In some cases spring-colored sheets and blankets, shower curtains and drapes are brought out. Windows are washed. Spring sunlight illuminates the indoor colors, makes the place look more like an ice-cream parlor than the wintery parlor of the Windsor & Sons' Memorial Chapel.

The house is now ready for its first spring airing. And I am almost motivated to spring clean the house entirely. I'll open all the windows and doors within the house. The throw rugs I'll shake outside and drape over the hood of my car airing out itself in similar fashion on the driveway. I'll do a final load of long-sleeved laundry and box away my winter wardrobe until September when I'll probably toss it into the Goodwill drop box. Tomorrow, for that matter, I'll probably head north to Salem 's shopping malls to buy spring clothes no more tasteful or stylish than the ones now in the Goodwill drop box—just fresher.

All of Valencia does the same in the fresh season. Even pets are finally walked. Terriers I've not seen in months are taken out into the sunlight, no one more pleased than they to be dragging their owners around trees, hedges, parked cars, sign posts, mailboxes and trash cans. Front doors open and winter dust by the broomful sprays into the air. Doors stay open longer, people linger on their porches, remembering last summer, wondering if a new doormat is needed. Clothespins on the backyard twine are replaced and the first load of spun-dried linens appear waving in the backyard breezes.

The library for some reason gets louder. More people come in and the whisper rule goes unobliged, swept out the sliding glass door and onto the balcony. Outside voices come up over the parapet and into the room. People stay for shorter periods of time and turn pages more quickly and more loudly. People at the research counter stretch more, sigh more, clear their throats more, shuffle their feet more, crack more knuckles and drop more books and papers. Only the two lounge chairs remain unchanged. Their magical, sleep-inducing powers are reconfigured for spring weather and folks adapt for quick naps in the fresh air and the natural light. Sometimes people will hum, take a magazine onto the balcony and whistle. The library is filled with a sense that someone soon will be rushing in with fabulously good news. We don't wait for it. We know it will come. But we can feel it already here.

Restaurants in the town square are dressing up tables outside now. They've hired new staffs of high schoolers to mop the awnings, wash the sidewalk furniture and pretty up the tables and ceramic pots with violets and pansies. Townsfolk come first for complimentary deserts, ice-water or tea. They sit in the cool outside sharing opinions about the fresh season and its following summer: Valencia 's money-making season, her alter ego and wild side season. But no one dismisses today. No one rushes the fresh season when everything is new and bright and even the pitchers of ice-water look fresher.

Other businesses are doing the same: taking to shop windows soapy sponges and squeegees and polishing displays for tourists and passers through. Valencia in a matter of days looks as warm, nostalgic and colorful as she does on her postcards—postcards that I keep on the library's bulletin board and the especially picturesque one stuck to my refrigerator with a magnet made from a pine cone.

Valencia is not by traditional definition a "tourist town." Actually, it's just a convenient gassing-up point between the coast and the mountains. But everyone takes advantage of everything in the spring and summer months. We take advantage of our locale just as we do our visitors and our enduring history.

 

Valencia 's downtown is still several miles from the coast. Mare's Point and Tower Hill attract a great deal of attention in the outdoor months. Valencia herself as a result becomes more popular from year to year. Wealthy expatriates from Portland and even San Francisco have been settling just beyond the valley. They are beginning to build summer homes along the beaches and into the mountains. Local building codes and zoning laws preclude building structures outside of Valencia 's obvious architectural genre. Over eighty percent of the buildings in the valley are historical landmarks. And although they are nostalgic sights in themselves, it seems clear that wealthy out-of-towners prefer building more conventional houses in the outlying areas. Valencia 's character is perceived by some as trendy and even pass�. One might compare Valencia to a catchy melody or phrase de la temp that eventually becomes noisome, that won't go away, that plays itself around every corner, up every street, in every building including the hospital and the drive-thru car wash. It can be like a lover who has worn his welcome, who refuses to change, to become something new and different. It can be like a friend whose clothes are always out of style, whose hair is never differently worn, whose expression never varies.

If unaccustomed to its forbidding nostalgia and unwilling to live within its archaic personality, one might become easily restless here. There's no cable TV, night club or structured entertainment at all. Entertainment is a personal responsibility that every resident must be willing to accept. There is, however, a reading group that meets at the library—if you consider reading groups entertaining that is. There's also a kind-of co-ed little league for school kids in the summer. The students and members of the community put on a musical every spring and The Christmas Carol every December. The church has a very active choir whose conductor owns the local gas station and video store with none of the latest hits ever seen there. But there is nature here and antiquity. And that is enough for me and the shopkeepers downtown. But in the fresh season when everything seems to change just enough, just a little, people around town become eager for the exuberance of outsiders coming through the mountains. They are coming for the sea and to pick up souvenirs and mementos of the ghost town said to be just barely living.Yet in the fresh season and in the summer, Valencia comes alive. The inquisitive nature of outsiders makes us more self-conscious than we normally are, it disrupts us just enough to let us feel our pulse, to feel the electricity that comes to the countryside with the earth's awakening strength and zeal. For an instant, we are all youthful and progressive. We feel the struggle of change and convention, the pull of ambition and the ambivalence of all our choices that made Valencia our home. But come July or August, the noisy heat of the summer and its touristy falsetto makes us eager for the quiet again, eager for the loneliness, the hibernation, the cool rain that sets us free, lightens our responsibilities, allows our image to become truthful again and lets our little ghost town rest.

 

In the summer, Valencia 's town square becomes less provincial and more Neapolitan in function and character. Mediterranean bistros seem to pop up like spring tulips. Balconies and landings appear in places I've never before noticed. They are swept clean. Door frames are dry brushed in bright colors and textured in bold patterns—exotic flavors not routinely tasted in the other months. Lattice is hung beneath giant fans. Sweet pea is planted in boxes and strung up on colored threads that glisten in the red, orange and yellow candlelight.

Often, I'll have lunch at one of several town-square restaurants. They feed locals at half price and much better meals than I could ever prepare for myself. I'll bring a separate lunch back to the library for Mangan's Sister, often a scoop of tuna or some cheese and pieces of chicken. At some restaurants I don't even have to ask, they treat her as an extension of myself, like a dependent or a co-worker minding the library in my absence. I do not doubt that by virtue of her name some uninformed restaurant workers might think of her as someone's human sister. This is especially clear when I return to the library, open the bag and find a basket of onion rings and a pickle. They probably think I'm terribly insensitive to never give her a lunch break and to never call her by her proper name. But some locals have been assuming this for years, I can't possibly at this point admit to them that Mangan's Sister is a cat. By now it is beyond my responsibility to provide for them the truth especially since jokes like these are played on newcomers by established citizens. I wouldn't be at all surprised if they were telling the summer hires about the strange cleric who keeps a young girl trapped in the library above the mission. My sanctuary has humorously acquired a reputation like the tower of London . But until the summer comes, we work. The preparation continues until a new routine takes over and our work becomes nothing more than another necessary habit.

The fresh season is not always the most honest season nor the most level headed. It is the smile season. And the smile can be the season's most deceptive personification. Lovers claim the spring. Even the wallflower spreads its petals and opens to the pep and optimism that a fresh start artfully professes. It is the impetuous season, the rash season, the excuse for playing season: the winter was too long; the air is too crisp; the sunlight is too yellow; the shadows are too seductive; the motion is too alluring. Springtime moderation is too unreasonable. When April comes, the winter fever leaves whispering his last tempestuous demands at the doorstep where it is trodden underfoot by the new doormat announcing nothing but welcome...welcome.

 

 

Last night I fell asleep with the window open and was just too comfortable to get up and close it once the alarm sounded early this morning. Mangan's Sister usually wakes me around sun up, but this morning she refused to move. It's Sunday and I had planned on going to church, something I'll only commit to in the fresh season when the chapel is crowded and I can sit in the back in case I have to leave early. Perhaps I'll make it next week when the townsfolk will greet me as though I've never missed a Sunday service, as if I were Quasimodo of the old mission. For most of the day I lounged around in my bed clothes. Around ten o'clock, I settled down by the bay window, sipping cranberry juice from its quart-sized carton and gazing through the window at the street and at the mailbox I just remembered hadn't been emptied all week. Wild daisies fanned out everywhere along the road. The wind was calm. The glass was cool against my forearm but the room was dry, airy and more comfortable than it had been in months. The road was quiet; my neighbors must have made it to church, so when I saw two women approaching my house, I sat up closer to the window, trying to get a better look, to recognize them by the way they walked and moved.

Both strangers were probably retired or at least advanced in years enough for me to think so. They reached the end of my driveway and stood near the mailbox as though they were neighbors and stopped by the roadside to chat. It also looked as though they were walking home from Mass or somewhere they had been together. They just stood there talking for what seemed to be ages. I almost expected them to open my mailbox and bring me my coupons or whatever litter they might have found inside.

One of them pointed to the dying chinkapin and then towards the roof. She then motioned to other parts of the property, behaving for her companion's benefit like a tour guide. They chatted for a long time pacing across the street never wandering far enough for me to change windows in order to see them. Both women were handsomely dressed. Not like your average tourist, these women were dressed in casual business attire. Were it not for their ten�nis shoes and cameras, I'd have thought a real estate agent was showing my house to a prospective buyer. I got the impression that the taller, more attractive lady was somehow familiar with the place, describing or explaining certain features of the property—how everything has changed, how the town and the house used to be before I moved in and the artist was still alive. The tall one then touched the mailbox more fondly than one would usually expect. They stopped talking and the small one crept around the side of the house, trying it seemed to sneak a glimpse of the backyard and maybe the creek beyond. The tall one seemed not to notice her. Caught up in her own thoughts, she stood alone caressing the mailbox with her fingers as though it were the cheek of a sick child or friend.

A squirrel scurried across a power line just above her. She looked up but seemed unimpressed with the rodent's acrobatics. It must have been awkwardly distracting, like someone coughing at a funeral, a growling stomach or an anxious foot scuffing the floor during a moment of silence, during that personal time we take in public hoping for some unknown phenomenon to take away the feelings of loss when a loved one dies. The feelings are no different than when a part of us dies or changes making us strangers to ourselves. It is the same phenomenon we pray for when our alter ego disappears and we become unbalanced and uncertified like a one- sided coin. But the fresh season in Valencia has a way of restoring us and reminding us of our past, of a former self that gave our personality dimension.

The house has a secret history and part of its mystery belongs to the stranger beside my mailbox. I doubted that she returned to visit an old house, a town or a former friend or sister who may have lived here. Yet I believe she came to revive a history that for her may have been fading. She was a strong woman; I could tell by her resolve to face a memory that will never again be real. She respected her memories, she reverenced them and prevented them from dying no matter how punishing their echoes resounded. Just watching her made me remember my own past, made me regret not knowing the artist who once lived here. Before the stranger came, the artist was my fantasy companion. She was my secret history that existed only because I imagined it, because I conjured it up in a bunch of vignettes to make Valencia 's unpassable boundaries more beautiful and more friendly than perhaps they truly are.

 

The squirrel reached another rooftop. The stranger put on her sunglasses and walked cautiously around the side of the house to my backyard, perhaps, I thought, on her way to the creek. Like the squirrel, I immediately scurried to another window at the back of the house. My sudden burst startled Mangan's Sister who woke abruptly from a nap beneath the telephone stand. She stood quickly and jumped up a few steps toward the artist's studio. I knew I could see better from the upstairs window but worried that the stranger might catch me spying at her through the sparse branches of the mimosa. It was easy for me to imagine her and the artist planting the tiny tree more than a decade ago.

From the edge of the kitchen window I watched the pair undoubtedly discussing the life of my old house and the life of their friend who once possessed it. As I suspected the taller of the two paid special attention to the mimosa, perhaps the only mimosa in the entire state strangely able to tolerate Valencia 's soil and climate. But the tree has a spirit. About its very aspect, an energy absorbs it making it blossom every summer, persuading it to knock at the artist's window, calling for Mangan's Sister or myself to come upstairs and notice it.

The tall one pointed at the tree and the upstairs window from the far edge of the backyard. She made other larger gestures for the sake of her story and companion and spoke rapidly, it appeared, while swinging her arms and hips like she was downhill skiing or dancing the twist. They both laughed riotously and I wondered if something equally humorous had happened here a long time ago when they planted the mimosa and maybe the mailbox and the daffodils out front. Their laughter made me smile. Mangan's Sister must have noticed and jumped up on the kitchen counter. Purring, she rubbed against my elbow, arched her back and then stared out the window with me. She too was interested in the strangers.

The shorter one took a picture of the tree and the back of the house. The other just stood there, remembering the house and the tree before the mysterious event that distanced her from Valencia . I wanted to approach her but couldn't see my own significance in the bigger picture, the bigger picture that didn't include me, at least not until now when both women seemed as unfamiliar to me as I am to them. From nearly fifty yards away, the taller woman's expression was only as I could imagine it; so I imagined it peaceful and warm. She turned away from the back of the house without looking over her shoulder and then followed her companion onto the trail and then south toward the mission and Valencia 's town square.

 

The spring blitz brings a recognition or remembrance of things out of the ordinary, of things raw and exciting, of things likely to happen only once or never at all outside of fantasy or imagination. The blitz comes attacking the hibernating self, creating dreamlike persona that refaces itself every spring. Without the spring blitz, I would be forever trapped here, living without a complete personality, waiting for something dramatic to happen just enough to complete me, to finish defining who I am supposed to be. But secretly I feared becoming a ghost like the artist haunting a familiar place, unable to leave because I am not yet whole and not yet completely dead. Like the artist, I feared just waiting here in my living room or my kitchen or my bedroom or in my hallways and the room upstairs for something that would never happen or for someone who would never come. I feared waiting forever for something alive to die, to somewhere make room for me to live again.

I watched the women leave through the sprouting brush along the creekside and wondered with Sister if other parts of my personality and character would rediscover me before finding another Valencia to live in, another Valencia that is whole, that is real and always alive.

I've no idea what they talked about on their way back to the town square. But I'm certain they noticed the redbuds and the alders thickening along the creekside. They may have stopped to pick a few wild blackberries or to photograph a colorful patch of primrose or baneberry or to admire a muskrat or a colorful jay or finch. The fresh season is especially generous to travelers unused to our indigenous wildlife; its very complexion is Valencia 's primary summer entertainment other than our town-square restaurants and gift shops. I bet the strangers will have lunch on a patio before leaving the valley for good. And then tomorrow, I bet I'll hear another rumor while eating another half-price lunch at a sidewalk caf�. I bet it will be scandalous—it makes the free desert so much sweeter.