Sunday, 25 December 2016

A CHARMED LIFE
By Nicole M. Bouchard

          The discovery following his death, though an unsettling one, did not announce itself in the conspicuous, crude fashion that such discoveries typically do. It came more subtly, in fragments: items left behind, remembrances triggering revelations, and most particularly, in the form of all the things that were not there. Indeed, it was what was missing, far more than what was found, that provided the framework of his life’s story. All of the absent moments, hollow spaces of a lifetime that ought to be filled—the words unsaid, roles never assumed, a vacant chair across a table, the photographs never taken and placed upon the mantle. Paired against what little remained, one theme, soft as a whisper at first, started to echo in all of the empty places. Surreptitious in the days immediately after his passing, the graceful figure with long, lean lines like the sketch of a 1920s Vanity Fair cover was no more than a haunting. Gliding through, her slender fingers brushed along the surfaces in abandoned rooms so lightly, that not even the particles of dust, newly gathered without his care, were disturbed.
          She might have gone unnoticed all together in the apartment, what with the relatives talking more regularly with the passage of days—the men discussing furniture, a few legal matters and disposals, along with the occasional baseball score or gadget reference. The veil of solemnity disintegrating faster than the few antiquities left to his name…  
          She probably would have disappeared as the vapor she was if it hadn’t been for one mis-step. It was when she wanted, most impudently, to announce her presence in her grandiose way that for one second, she almost made herself real upon entering the room. And it was that, that prideful sweep of a porcelain arm dripping in furs, which registered a flicker in Allison’s mind. At the corner of her eye, at the crossroads of grief, belief, imagination and want, Allison thought she saw a tiny glimpse of someone she recognized, someone who did not belong—and it troubled her immensely.
          At the news of her uncle’s death, Allison had been the only one to cry, cry with the kind of sobs that shook her body. The world had been deprived of the kindest, most unfettered soul she’d ever known. And no one else seeming to give a damn had the harsh consequence of making his life seem as though it mattered less.
          She was suddenly twelve years old, standing in the rain to pound on her uncle’s door at ten o’clock on a school night. Her father had left the year before and this was the second time her mother had forgotten to pick her up at school and hadn’t come home for over twenty-four hours. No call, just a note in fuchsia lipstick drawn directly onto the kitchen table: Going out xo. The door opened and arms extended in the wake of the porch light. Nothing had to be explained as the rain blended with her tears. A comforting smile and a warmth from eyes that looked just like hers signaled that he understood everything. Frank never disparaged his younger sister, but instead took up the mantle of guiding his niece through her most uncertain years.
          Nights she stayed with him, he gave her his bedroom and slept on his small sofa for which he was much too tall. The image of his legs hanging over its right arm with his large, socked feet in mid-air, reminded her of the king in a storybook who wanted more than anything to be of formidable stature. He tried all manner of tricks, notions, and potions, but his height always remained the same; his daughter, to put an end to his discontent, had builders come in the night to make all the furniture in the palace smaller. The king awoke to find his legs hanging over the bed, and to his joy, viewed himself as substantial in appearance as the princess knew him to be at heart. The thought of the book, one he’d read to her in a series when she was small, always made her smile. In the mornings, following tea and toast, he’d either take the city bus to see her off to school or, if she begged to miss a day, he’d take her to work with him—and to Allison, that became an experience above all others.
          As Head Tour Guide, Franklin, as they called him at the mansion, had access to anything and everything. There was a world of shimmering glamour and charm preserved, suspended in time as a portal she could escape into. The structure reached up its stone walls to demand the acknowledgment of the sky above it as though it had always existed, and was deserving of the status of conduit between heaven and earth. In the French Baroque, Neo-Classical style, it was meant to mirror elements of Château de Saint-Cloud, a palace in France, expanded by Marie Antoinette in the late 1700s.
          It was there that Allison was first introduced to the striking figure that would serve as idol, mentor, and elusive friend for the next seven years of her life. Back then, it never seemed strange to either of them that this central woman they shared was an heiress neither had met, someone whose personage was limited to the pages of history. With her jet black, chin-length bob and red lips, Elaina Flannigan was as alive to Allison as a young aunt who’d just left the room—or who’d gone out for the evening—might have been. The lack of her physical presence made her all the more covetable. It became possible to project into her personality whatever traits Allison wished, choosing to get swept into the embrace of a woman who had the secrets of life and could tell a blossoming girl how to live.
          Frank gave her select articles and book excerpts that he’d uncovered in his research. At the mansion, his stories were more detailed than the other guides and the extent of his knowledge superior—the lines poured out the door just to get him. Most of all, though, it was the delivery that was the principal distinction. He spoke with fresh conviction each time, each tour. Even the most disinterested tourist, from teenagers with headphones to weekenders snapping only photos of themselves, stood up straighter to listen and put away their distractions. They would leave lit with a flame of wonderment about Elaina and the work she did. Frank was passionate about his vocation and took it upon himself to be the consummate guardian of all concerning the Flannigan heiress.
          Allison took to imagining Elaina as her confidante, someone accessible, yet also a figure to look up to. At home, Allison and her mother had become passing shadows, rarely overlapping spare for unwanted intrusions that served as a reminder of their wintry existence together—a door to memory left open too long to let in the chill. Perhaps it was because she was too much her father’s daughter in little ways that chipped away at her mother’s façade of forgetting. Thus, she let go of one hand to take hold of another. Allison played at the idea of being encouraged to sit down close by on the chaise lounge while Elaina sat at her vanity in a silk gown to apply her rouge, readying herself for the kind of 20s soiree that Allison could only dream of. Elaina would smile in the reflection and hand the thirteen-year-old her red lipstick to try. She wouldn’t treat her like a child but would talk to her like a friend and educate her with the views that a cultured woman of the world would possess.
She’d speak of her work on reform and fighting for women’s rights domestically and abroad—her role as a women’s advocate in the 30s when females able to attain employment during the Depression were perceived as having robbed their male counterparts of available labor and wages, causing them to lose their positions without warning or fair compensation. She would tell her about leadership and taking one’s place. She would speak of friendships, and how to be beloved in the right circles. She’d tell her about love and give advice on what to look for in a man between sips of champagne. Elaina would issue anecdotes and cautions so that Allison would grow to be the kind of lady she ought to want to be.
          By the pool of the grotto, they’d laugh over boys and growing pains as Allison worked hard to try to emulate the inner calm and outward grace that Elaina found effortless. She would dream of her hair being brushed by steady, elegant hands as they conversed about life and she wouldn’t be ignored or forgotten but made to feel as though she was worth something.
          At nineteen, in her sophomore year of college, Allison was running down the steps on the last day before winter break. She was an Art History major by this time and working on a paper concerning one of the mansion’s many paintings. There was a youthful painting of a queen that would later turn a city of celebration into a graveyard overnight. It said nothing of what she would become, the torment she’d undergo in an abusive marriage, or the unspeakable things she herself would do. The image was innocent and hopeful. The painting hung as a fascinating contradiction, making it ideal subject matter to explore in diverse layers. Allison had acquired some of her uncle’s passion for the past.
Allison was also minoring in Women’s Studies, the work of Elaina as inspiration. Her auburn hair was cut into a chic bob, her lips always either bare or some shade of red. Her mind was on getting home, the hour drive she’d speed through to spend the holiday with Frank, when she collided with one of her guy friends on the stairway. He shoved a wrapped package into her arms, his enthusiasm underestimating momentum, nearly knocking her backwards.
          “Hey! Merry Christmas!”  
          Quick, graceful steps avoided a loss of balance. Her expression was one that he recognized too well. The look one might feel compelled to give an affable waiter following a lousy meal. Try as he might, of all the guys that rallied for her attention, it seemed that he was always serving up disappointment. His was a world of numbers and electronic algorithms. To him, art was discretionary, travel a preoccupation for the discontented, wealth (and its accompanying finery, typical decorum) a consequence of a character flaw. But she, despite possessing interests in these less than desirable areas, was an anomaly his awkward heart wanted to incorporate into a working equation.
          “Oh. Hi. Merry Christmas, Allen. For me?” she said holding up the package with a polite smile. “That’s really sweet of you—you didn’t have to get me anything. I’ll look forward to opening it when I get home.”
          His silence, the unblinking stare, his solid stance hindering her way down the stairs, meant she was to open it then and there. The familiar expression crossed her face, but she adjusted the things in her arms to free both hands and unwrap what she could feel was a book.   
          “Have you read this? I know you love all that history stuff at the Flannigan mansion, so I thought you’d want the new, authoritative biography. Went downtown to a signing so you’d have an autographed copy. It’s pretty bizarre. Kind of a nutcase. People were talking about it in the store... Weird little rich bitch, right?”
          The cover showed Elaina leaning against a column at a soiree, appearing scarcely able to stand, the weight of alcohol or unseen despair heavy on the tiny body. Eyes wild, dark circles, a glare daring judgment from the crowd with a champagne glass dangling in her hand.
          Allen was always making a study of Allison’s face with geometric precision; each shape, angle, or shift with a different meaning. This was a look of hers he hadn’t seen. Was it shock? Something that would settle down into being impressed with his ability to hand over truth about her idol? It would be fascinating, right? Heroic of him, even. Yes; yes, he assured himself he’d finally done it.
           Allison didn’t answer, but broke her gaze, turning the book over in her hands and read the back cover that toted the biography as the first tell-all about the “real” Elaina Flannigan—a violent-tempered diva who struggled with alcoholism and divorced eight times before dying alone at sixty-five. She was undiscovered for two days because the servants were told never to disturb her and they feared incurring a torrent of her verbal abuse. Allison’s hands shook. She kept flipping the book over as though she expected to read something different.
          “It’s…it’s just a book-length gossip column. I would’ve heard about these things before. Most of this probably isn’t even true—just some perspectives of people with an axe to grind trying to get their fifteen minutes of fame.”
          “I don’t think so. I read the review in The New York Times. Did you know she threw stuff at her servants? Really, it’s true. She tried to hit a guy in the head with a Chinese vase; I bet they don’t mention that on the tour.” Pride swelled. He opened his mouth to give more helpful facts, but without glancing up, she murmured, “Thanks, Allen,” in a tone that couldn’t be misinterpreted.
          Though the exact reasons wouldn’t appear on any chart or graph he could plot, it was known to be beyond recovery. Accepting defeat, it would be the last time he’d try. She brushed past him as the shadow she could become when she wanted to disappear, nearly brushing right through him.
          In her dorm with the door shut, she fought back tears as she read. She dug deeper and pulled up old articles, ones that her uncle had never mentioned. It was crazy, she thought, to be heartbroken that someone she’d built in her imagination didn’t live up to the image. She couldn’t make sense of why she was angry or why it seemed she’d been deceived. A foundation had been ripped from underneath her. She felt a good part of who she was had been molded on a figure that didn’t exist. Her own identity, still vulnerable in its youth, felt at attack. The image of that vulnerable twelve-year-old not knowing where her mother had gone, burned in her mind. Would reality take Elaina from her too? The wanting-to-believe was replaced with a defiant need to tear down all the facades. Elaina was human, yes, and the good was true, but Allison couldn’t reconcile how the bad could also be true. She needed more, better from her, selfish though it may have been.
          She gathered up the articles, the book and stuffed them into her backpack. She would go to her uncle and he would have to address this. Did he know? Had he been deceived? Could he find some way to explain it away and make it alright? She drove to her uncle’s home in a fever, looking for answers about what could have just been a tempting illusion all those years. Finding the place empty as he’d left early for his shift, she left her car there not wanting the hassle of parking at the mansion and took a cab.
          Flushed and furious, she burst in and found him in the private office. He got up and suddenly looked much older than she’d noticed before. Older than perhaps she’d allowed herself to notice before. An unseen weight on his lean frame. Standing in front of her, leaning on the desk with both hands, he gave her the same smile he’d given that rainy night she’d shown up at his door. Without words, he looked inside of her mind and understood. They both knew it went back to then, a different kind of loss, but a loss just the same that was written all over her features. Confused about whether he did or didn’t know, she wondered at that moment if maybe he needed to believe. She didn’t want to shove his face into the facts and upset the only person who’d ever loved her.
          She caught a ride to leave the mansion early that day and as she left, it started to snow. Allison could almost imagine the shape of Elaina standing in the drive as she pulled away, looking through the back window. The face was shaded with a deep sadness and Allison continued to watch it shrink in the distance, not turning around toward the front until the mansion was out of sight. Allison thought she’d have to make excuses about not visiting the mansion any longer, about finishing her paper absent from the company of the painting, but they were never necessary. Her uncle ceased any mention of Elaina during their discussions and didn’t once ask why she didn’t go with him to work like she used to. They continued their close relationship, neither mentioning the abandoned world between them or the figure that inhabited it.
          As Frank aged, Allison watched his stature diminish, his shoulders stooping as his back curved slightly, and she worried about those secret weights he carried. She wanted him to retire but knew through talk passed along from decades of staff that he’d never missed a day of work since he started at the mansion in the mid to late 60s, not too many years after it was opened to the public. Cane or no cane, he was going up and down the endless staircases because he chose to. Spare for nights, weekends and holidays, that was where he lived for well over forty years. She often wondered whether he regarded that as his real home, never moving out of the apartment into a house of his own, hardly having more than the most basic furnishings to suggest the idea of living there. The apartment started to remind her of a set in a play more than a place that he could have felt was real to him.
          When a neighbor of his called to tell her that he’d left the stove on for the second time and someone had to break the lock to get in, she told him that he had to retire. He could move in with her. It wasn’t the only instance where he was starting to forget important things. He lovingly but firmly refused, consenting only to cut his hours. He asked if she would come with her children to see him do a tour at the mansion; the subject hadn’t been broached for nearly twenty years and she knew he’d never ask if it wasn’t important.
          She felt like an intruder, an ungrateful infiltrator in her old stomping grounds. Everything felt different, except Frank. His tour was exactly the same—the same clarity, passion, and almost youthful zeal, that gave him a lightness that she hadn’t seen in a very long time. To Allison’s amazement, her daughter had turned off her iPod without being told to. He still had it.
            The day before he died, he’d been giving holiday tours for Christmas.
            Allison was alone with her thoughts. Her mother hadn’t returned for the services. She was out West—where she had been since the day Allison went to college—away from rain, cold, death, memory, and the kind of love that takes hold deeply enough to be painful. Though her immediate family, her husband and children, were supportive, there was no one who could quite understand this. No one who’d understood Frank as she had, so consequently, no one to truly empathize with the stranglehold of grief.
          Allison couldn’t shake the phantom glimpse out of her mind. How dare she? To appear then. Had this specter of an obsession robbed him of a full life where he could have had a family of his own? Had she taken a promising man and used him for her own glory? Where was the evidence of his life? Where were his memories, his travels, other passions and possessions…great loves, an adoring spouse? A yellowed scrapbook of the articles he’d chosen to keep about Elaina was one of the few things Allison found in his desk. This woman, highly superstitious, had charms for love scattered throughout the mansion in hidden places. She’d never found what she was looking for. Had Elaina ensnared someone beyond her time?
          Unable to sleep, Allison drove to the apartment. She let herself in and sat at the desk. Opening the scrapbook, she found an old note addressed to her that she’d never been given:
It takes both eyes open to see an image clearly. I trust that you will find this one day and won’t discard something that gave you hope and helped bring us together.
          She stayed to read the scrapbook, articles she hadn’t seen before, and started to put together the image of a woman who had suffered, triumphed and lost herself in her later years. She thought of her uncle and the way that his loyalty and devotion was all that Elaina Flannigan had ever wanted. For him, the purpose of reaching people through history, whether or not the figure was flawed, was his way of inspiring the best in others. His stories, his life and the way he’d saved Allison herself, were his legacy.
          Laying her head down by the note, she closed her eyes and started to see a pathway that she’d walked thousands of times in her youth. This time, she walked it as the grown woman she’d always wanted to be and could see a figure with a jet black bob extending her hand in the distance.     
            She’d take it.
Outside, it started to snow.      
 * * * * *

Nicole M. Bouchard has spent a decade as a writer and editor of various mediums in both literary and journalistic sectors. She has shared her experiences and expertise in interviews, essays, and contributions to professional anthologies. Following an early mentorship and advanced English coursework, she chose to take a road “less traveled by,” and combined independent study with extensive hands-on experience. Her freelance journalism career sprouted partly from a seed of counter-motivation. Having written to a famed male journalist for advice, she was informed that breaking into the field at her age was nearly impossible, particularly for a female. The rest of the advice, however politely put, had an opposite effect, fueling her to land a feature story a year later at nineteen in a regional publication where she'd then be referred to entertainment journalism, interviewing a visiting Broadway actress, a Hollywood producer with regional roots, and singer/songwriter Jewel prior to a New England event. She also served in an editorial capacity for numerous magazine issues. Through further journalistic experience, she penned various cover stories and features.
As her literary work started to receive notice and the advent of electronic publishing was creating shifts that were opening doors for online publications, she saw an opportunity to form a publication that would be an embracing community of writers and artists, personalized in its approach. In 2008, at twenty-one, she founded The Write Place at the Write Time literary journal which has interviewed a number of NYT best-selling authors and featured contributors ranging from newly published to having written for The New Yorker,  Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal, Time magazine, Glimmer Train, Georgetown Review, Simon & Schuster and Random House. The eighth anniversary of the magazine also celebrated a reach to eighty countries as of 2015. Her chapter "Founding Female Editors: Your Voice, Your Vision and How to Make it a Reality" was featured in Women, Work, and the Web: How the Web Creates Entrepreneurial Opportunities, Encourages Women's Studies (Rowman & Littlefield 2015).
She served as a speaker on the Small Press Panel: How Online Journals and Social Media Transform Poetics at the Fourth Massachusetts Poetry Festival. She has been a Letters member of the National League of American Pen Women since 2009. She was profiled on the television program, Creative Women Today. She also serves as a content editor for manuscripts and as a coach through a separate website with writer resources and testimonials. At thirty, she is most grateful for the incredible people in her life: her family, her friends, and the literary family of writers, readers, and artists she has the privilege of knowing.