Poems - Bio - Prose
published We Will Have Ghosts, a chapbook, in 2012. In Baltimore for a year's residence, she shares her observations
on the city and its people on her website in Fell Street Footnotes. She has recently completed her first novel, The Architecture of Retreat, a story about Abbey Livingstone, a landscape architect whose interest
in labyrinths and retreats mirrors her labyrinthine past and her challenge to emerge from its shadows.
Poems - Bio - Prose
The Architecture of Retreat
Nelson County, Kentucky
From the pergola at her home near Bardstown, Kentucky. Abbey listened for the bells from St. Benny’s
right on the accustomed hour, heard a muffled call to terce, third prayer of the day, 9:00 a.m. She twirled her pencil,
pressed on with the redesign of a landscape plan for the Robbins’ estate just outside Lexington. The wind whipped the
corners of the draft sheet. She reached absently for a couple of the rocks she kept in a bowl to anchor her work.
The couple she had been designing a landscape for would be returning from Europe any day now, and if the e-mails they
had bombarded the firm with were any indication, Marlene Robbins had lost her mind. She and Phil had bought reproductions
of Roman garden statues, and now Marlene wanted an allée, à la Versailles, defining the three sides of the land
behind the house, so that guests could enjoy grandeur while they sunned by the pool. A perfectly bucolic meadow stretching
to the river had given way to this extravaganza of château and be-fountained esplanade.
firm Abbey worked for was in in a stew. The entire back elevation of the house had to be redesigned to accommodate the
couple’s new Baroque vision—indeed rebuilt, since the house’s shell was already coming to completion. Thank
goodness she was working from home and could avoid the atmospheric contagion of an office in turmoil. She did better in silence,
managing only her own reactions to crisis.
Eight years earlier, Abbey had forged a consultancy with
Conlan Associates, Architects, despite her misgivings about the firm’s president, Frank Conlan. Conlan had been the
only studio in central Kentucky who had been interested in hiring her, with her scant experience in landscape design, a degree
she’d earned in her thirties. With two children to support, she’d been desperate for work. She had branded herself
a sell-out for working for Frank Conlan, but the bitterness she’d hung onto for years had subsided and then dissolved
over time. She liked the interesting designs Conlan brought to fruition, and she had grown with the challenges he gave her.
At last an exclusive arrangement had been formalized, and, although she could take on a smattering of independent projects,
Conlan was the only architectural firm she worked with. Her actual contact with the president had proved minimal and all business.
He was not discourteous. In fact, he showed her a great deal of professional respect, but if he seemed to study her sometimes,
if he seemed to look at her intently and a second longer than normal on occasion, he essentially remained distant. She wasn’t
sorry. Specs usually came from him through junior associates. Meetings were focused and tight. An ugly old history hung in
the air, but she mostly shrugged it away. Work. The only remedy.
For now, she set aside the real crisis
in her life, the one a phone call had announced around this time yesterday, for this professional inconvenience. The
last person Abbey had expected when she answered her mobile was her second husband’s second former wife. Etienne Sévier
was dead, the woman said. Already Abbey doubted this hysterical, garbled news about a man she had learned never to trust.
It’s likely she’d been right to doubt.
For now, she was concentrating on figuring out
how to incorporate an outdoor “creative” play area, just out of sight. The conundrum of the moment: creative for
the children, or creative in order to keep the area hidden? Might she satisfy both?
work had drawn the Robbins’ attention initially because of the small, inviting spaces she had designed for two city
parks, a large industrial complex, and a number of churches in Central Kentucky. Her perception of the paradox of cities and
work spaces built for humans yet dehumanized, and churches that housed the many but neglected space for the individual led
her to a consuming interest for what she came to call “retreat design.” She liked to imagine people being led,
in spite of their busy and purposeful selves, along a path that quieted their minds, then gave them a small opening where
they might sit or walk, where their unconscious might allow rest or even lead them to ideas they could use to solve the issues
of their day.
A way in that offered a new way to go gradually out became her prevailing
St. Benny’s lessons had ingrained themselves deeply on her contemplative life but also
as an ideal for how to live in the world. Retreat. Everyone needs a retreat of some sort. If I find subtle ways to impose
that notion, won’t it make a difference in lives carried out in so much noise?
had liked the idea of pathways, benches, and fountains that would surprise their guests, and Abbey had enjoyed creating a
pleasing plan using aspects of their beautiful property to gaze at from the house and to enjoy up close. She had retained
the wooded feel with pebble paths, tree-seats, a mossy picnic bower, a little children’s playground with a goldfish
pond, and a stone love seat at the end of a hidden stretch of lawn. Beyond, as one exited the pathways, appeared a view beyond
compare of valley and river below the bluff. She fell in love with the property and the plan, certainly grander than anything
she would likely own, but alive in her idea of the marriage of earth and home.
She stood, straightened her jeans, and walked slowly along the covered walk that extended her simple house on her own
land. The house and garden sat on the wooded hill above her childhood farm and home, now occupied by another family. Beyond,
her view stretched to rolling hills, now a pointillism of greening, and to dots of houses and curves of roads appearing, then
sliding away. Here, she could think, finger over ideas and concerns, find a circle of peace. The pavement under the pergola
was slate, the columns, sturdy square-cut cedar posts. Above, openings vied with cross-vine and honeysuckle so that light
dappled the walk, sometimes more, sometimes less.
She started each day with this walk, sometimes
returned to it, like this afternoon, when redbuds showered their blossoms on young grass and dogwood buds strained toward
birth. On the terraced level below, she had devised a labyrinth, a sand path delineated with inlaid stones from the river.
Just another form of hopscotch, she thought with amusement, recalling her daughters’ childhood name for all
the labyrinths they had visited and walked on their expeditions. But the labyrinth meant much more, of course. It literally
grounded her, and in its center she found her own center. She found comfort in the order she had built at last. The girls
both lived in Lexington, Claire with her young family and Gen with her husband and her work as a family lawyer.
The phone rang. She’d forgotten, again, to silence it, Now every time her cell phone broke the silence
with its cheerful little jazz riff, she lurched with dread. She shook her head, got her mind into gear for speaking French.
That will be Hugo with arrival information.
Yesterday, that ring had interrupted
her muttering following the Robbins’ call explaining their new vision. “Give me just one small break,” she’d
whispered as she’d picked up the phone. When she thought about it later, over and over again, everything moved in her
memory like a movie sequence: she’d turned her chair, picked up a pen and notepad, and answered.
A wailing on the line had stunned her. The sound of weeping, then the wet voice Abbey half-recognized. “Ab…Abbey,”
her name garbled with tears. “Ten’s dead!” Her mind had raced to identify the voice, one she hadn’t
heard often, but one she certainly knew. After a few moments, she had it: Judith, Ten’s second wife.
Abbey had been thrown back into Etienne Sévier’s life after his divorce from Judith. He’d called out of
the blue and asked if he could come to her house to talk. He needed a favor only she could provide. He had wanted Abbey to
be contacted in case of an accident, or worse, and for her to inform his sister, Hélène, in Paris.
Judith didn’t speak French and had never met Ten’s family. He had returned to Paris every year or so, but Judith
never accompanied him. She was terrified of flying.
Abbey had agreed to his odd request, so many years
after their stormy parting. But time tends to erase unpleasant memories and saves the bright ones, and she’d felt half-nostalgic
about reconnecting with his sister and the nephew, André, who’d spent two summers with them. But not like this,
not this kind of connection.
“Hush now, Judith,” Abbey had pleaded. She could hear her
own voice, like an echo. It didn’t sound like her voice. It floated underwater, and everything blurred before her eyes—the
garden, the house, the valley below, where she and Ten had lived. Beautiful and compelling Ten. Impossible Ten.
Finally, Abbey had gathered herself. “Listen. I need to understand you, Judith. What happened?”
“He goddam shot himself. That’s what they think. Those guns. He’s dead, Abbey.
I know he’s dead, even if they can’t find him.”
“Judith, stop,” Abbey
said. “What? This makes no sense. Who told you this?”
“One of those guys he hung
out with called me. They worked on their cars and so on. Friends of Ed Hollimon.” She choked up again and seemed unable
to go on.
Abbey urged her to continue. “Who’s Ed Hollimon?”
“He’s the one who owns the house where Ten lived.”
“So that’s who called
“No, no. Bruce…Bruce Mason. He’s the one. He told me Ed invited Ten
to hunt turkeys with his usual group. It was the first time he’d done that, since Ten really wasn’t a hunter.
He just liked guns. You know how he was.” She wept again. Abbey paced. She waited. This is like water-drip torture.
At last, Judith got hold of herself again.
“The man said they’d
gone out to somebody’s farm up north of here.” By here, Abbey figured, she meant Lexington. “Bruce
said Ten went somewhere off by himself, down a fence line out of sight, and then, maybe twenty minutes later, he and the others
heard a shot from that direction.”
Judith stopped again, as though that were all.
“Judith? Is that all?”
“It’s just that…” The woman paused, firmed
her voice, and forged on. “Bruce went down there to see if Ten had gotten a turkey, and Ten’s guns and hunting
vest were there, and there was blood on the ground and everything, but Ten wasn’t there. I know he shot himself. I just
Abbey couldn’t speak. No body? None of it made any sense.
“Judith, how can you be so sure he killed himself if there’s no body. That doesn’t add up, does it?”
“Bruce found a note in his vest pocket. It said It’s enough. I’m gone. Then
there was a quote in it. I didn’t quite get it. I just think he was lonely.”
So many images
raced through her mind—all the guns he’d collected, the gun shows he used to go to, buying more guns than anyone
could ever use. All those times he talked about suicide. A bullet in the mouth, the cleanest end, he’d called
it. “I hated those guns,” she thought, but found she’d said it out loud. Judith heard her.
“Me, too,” Judith said. “We used to fight about them all the time. I didn’t want those guns around
my little boy, but Ten took him out and taught him how to shoot. It’s one reason…”
“No need to go there, Judith,” Abbey said. Judith had left Ten and married a race-horse owner in Versailles a
month later. It was evident there was more than one reason their marriage came to end.
Judith she’d call her after she’d spoken with Bruce Mason and, if possible, Hollimon. She was going to have to
call Ten’s family in Paris. She’d made a promise, but she’d never predicted anything like this.
Ten had swept Judith off her feet when she was barely thirty, with a young son. Abbey knew what it was
like to be enticed by a Frenchman’s accent and a showy savoir-faire. She also understood Judith’s desire for a
father for her child. Ten had been too old for Judith and had been too…well, everything Abbey knew he’d been,
knew firsthand. That marriage had seen far more tumult than the one Abbey had suffered with him, but it seemed to have been
simpler, just straightforward fighting between two volatile people, according to Abbey’s daughters who had gladly accepted
the couple’s invitations to dinner during their college years. On these outings, Claire and Gen would intervene and
cajole them to peace or make fun of them until they stopped. It hadn’t been a good match, to put it mildly.
Abbey started to tell herself that theirs hadn’t been a good match, either, but she wasn’t so sure of that. She’d
been in love with him, or…he’d insisted that they were in love, and he’d been attentive and romantic and,
she supposed, convincing. Maybe she could have done more back then to fix what had been wrong once they were married. She
should have had the character to take a stand against his tyrannical—not too strong a term—behavior.
He’d been more like an actor than a real person. Ten had posed. Ten acted as if he possessed inside knowledge that made
him an expert in every corner of life, as if being European, especially French, gave him insight and wisdom unattainable in
young, crass America. How to cook, how to drive a car, how to dress—what didn’t Ten know? He had an opinion on
everything, often glaringly wrong, but he’d dismiss her arguments with a flourish of hand and a crude suggestion and
leave the room. Friends appeared to enjoy the energy he brought to dinner parties, but she remembered their raised eyebrows,
too, their minds factoring away his grandstanding.
Okay. He’d been smart and charming
and wickedly handsome--and spoiled and self-serving. Often, he’d been dear to her, telling her that she was his “great
romance,” the one they wrote books and plays about. Never mind that those “great romances” were mostly tragedies.
With the girls, he could be funny and spontaneous and attentive. They still remembered the silly
French songs and tongue-twisters he taught them, and she hadn’t forgotten that he’d paid for Claire’s piano
lessons and Gen’s art camp. On the other hand, they hadn’t quite filed away his unreasonable outbursts and punishments
over small infractions. It had taken years for Abbey to realize how her efforts to keep peace in the household had whittled
away her energy. Over time, her daughters edged further and further away from him, never knowing which Ten would
She thought, too, that he’d been frightened in his “borrowed country.”
Abbey remembered how much she had felt the need to establish a firm identity when she lived in France. One wants people to
know one has a past, a full life history somewhere, an arsenal of culture. That’s one reason she’d stayed with
him so long, always excusing him. What had kept him here? Her, for one. Then Judith. And pride.
couldn’t help but think that she could have done more in the past few months, as well. She’d sensed that he’d
been at loose ends. After he had made that contact with her after eleven years, he began to phone her every few weeks. He
bragged to her about the married woman he was having an affair with. Carol. A woman with three small children.
“You should let that go,” Abbey had urged Ten, but he’d seemed obnoxiously cavalier about her. Later, however,
he told Abbey that the affair had ended, and he’d seemed sincerely sad to lose her.
Abbey had gone out to dinner with him one night, and it had been pleasant to talk with him and to hear about his relatives,
his trips to Paris. He’d been so fond of his nephew, the lovely André who had visited them, and his godson, Hugo,
whom Abbey hadn’t met. Ten had been proud of both boys. He’d loved indulging them, giving them lavish gifts and,
undoubtedly, his brand of wisdom as though they were his own sons—Hugo, especially, after Hugo’s father died.
She had scolded herself, once home, once the recollections had faded. He’d kissed her cheek,
had put his arm on her shoulder when he’d brought her home. She’d shivered perceptibly, and he’d laughed,
misinterpreting her reaction. Then he’d called, and when he asked her out again, she refused. She couldn’t think
of anything less appropriate, she’d told him, than starting up again. This time his laughter had carried a tinge of
Then he’d called just three weeks ago and left a message on her machine, but she
hadn’t called back. His voice had sounded flat, maybe sad. But she’d figured she couldn’t be the one to
take care of him. He had his friends. He had his family in France. He had a new job he’d said he liked. He would be
And maybe he was, she thought. If he shot himself, what happened to his
body? Where the heck was he? The questions roiled and tumbled and found no sustainable purchase. Either way, she still
had phone calls to make.
What, Abbey wondered, have I gotten myself into?
Poems - Bio - Prose