His body settled into the red Adirondack chair as though it was created just for him. J. spent an hour each morning with his coffee from Suze’s Soothers. It was a perfect spot, sheltered from the clutter of houses and shops along the shore and the people who clustered about them. Afterwards, it was a good walk back to his house. Then he got to work on his music at the old Steinway by the bay windows; he could see Puget Sound as he composed.
He smoothed the dampish newspaper on his lap and gazed out over the water, family azure eyes squinting into the early morning light. The mist approached and captured the harbor like an elegant thief, just the way he liked it. Rich, sweet scents slipped in each breath. Waves rushed the rocks, then fell away in a soothing rhythm. J. came out of habit and because he could find music here. But when the sun took to the upper reaches of the sky and spread itself over the town in buttery tones, he retreated. Everyone else discharged themselves from their habitats then, scurried into the streets, followed by tourists with their unbearably loud pleasure-seeking. For now, peace. J. would wait for the first inkling of a melody to creep up, one that might be worth keeping. It had been a long, barren winter.
The other chair rested empty, its vivid redness an affront at first, then a comfort as always. It had taken some time to get used to it. For four years there had been Levi, and before that, Margot, his wife. Suze kept suggesting a dog, as though that would take care of everything. But what would a dog do with a chair like that? It wasn’t a sleeping chair. The thing would rustle around and whimper. It was better this way. No one dared sit in it. Six months ago J. had put a sign on the back when he came in the morning: “Occupied.” Never mind that it was not taken; the sign was official, no one was welcome. Sometimes customers complained but Suze diverted them to the back deck where they had the whole sweep of the town and water, the looming mountains. This was all J. wanted for a little while—the space between the coffee shop and Margot’s Miniatures (it retained her name though she was long gone, taken by cancer). Enough for two chairs and two people. Or one, as it turned out since Levi disappeared ten months ago after they’d had coffee at this very spot.
Suze told him: “Face it, he used you and left. He was your best friend, I know, but he stayed for free—years in your great hill house. Some people just take.”
J. could see her now through the window with her big hairdo—all those chestnut curls piled up—and her mouth going a mile a minute, pen whipping back and forth between two fingers as she waited for the order. But she didn’t know Levi. It was like a bad accident, his leave taking. They had had words. J. said few of them but sometimes they came out fierce and stuck there, like an arrow on a bull’s eye. He had gotten surlier the last few years but doubted it was Levi’s fault. J. hadn’t sweetened up much since he’d left.
He shook his head. The coffee smelled good, Roman Gold, she called it, and it struck him that people had fancy names for things with humble beginnings. Margot would have laughed at that. She had simple tastes, like him. And she loved his music no matter whether it was played in symphony halls or for the two of them.
“Margot,” he breathed, and the sound flooded him with bright sparks of pleasure just as they had all those years before. “Maybe I need a dog, after all,” J. muttered, “just to keep from talking to myself.”
“I’ve got one. A mutt. She’s fun even though she’s messy. ”
J. startled. A small girl of about six or seven was standing beside the empty chair, a rose-covered purse in one hand, green dress and matching sweater brightening her fair coloring. She smiled at him briefly, then plopped into the chair.
“That’s occupied. Taken.” J. sighed as his solitude vanished.
“I can read. It looks empty.” She pulled her sweater close in the chill. “It’s pretty here. My grandmother is getting tea for us.”
“Well, you’ll have to take the metal chairs behind me. Sorry, but I’m busy right now.”
She looked at him coolly, at the unopened paper, coffee mug in his large hands. Her lips pulled to the side and her eyebrows shot up, a look of disbelief, then sat back. “I know. Everyone is busy. Except grandmother. She says she has too much time now.”
J. followed the girl’s gaze; seagulls circled and sailed above them. Moments passed in quiet, waves shushing, the mist rising in sunlight. The girl crossed her legs and emptied the purse contents on her lap. J. watched from the corner of his eye: a pack of gum, a bracelet with sparkly beads, five dollar bill, a wad of tissue, and a snapshot of someone with the mutt, he presumed. She suddenly kissed the photo and put everything back inside, snapping the purse latch as though she was locking it for good.
He cleared his throat. “I had a dog once. He was a looker, a Samoyed, do you know what that is? Admiral was fluffy-white but he was a very smart and strong dog. He knew what I needed without me saying it. We went everywhere, sailed with me, even.” He caught himself feeling nostalgic, which he disliked in himself. He glanced at the child to see if she’d been listening.
She gazed at him steadily, her large hazel eyes empty of sadness or worry, eyes that hadn’t been here long enough to see too much, he thought. But he suspected she missed nothing.
“Well?” she asked. “What happened to him?”
“He got old and died.”
She uncrossed her legs and stretched them out, sandals falling off. “Get another one.”
J. was shocked at the idea. “Another Admiral? Not possible.”
“No, a brand new one. A Sam—Sammy-ed? A sailing dog. You’d be happy.”
“Arianna? Arianna, where—oh there you are! You are not to take off like that.”
Arianna and J. turned around in their chairs.
“I’m fine, grandmother. We’re talking about dogs. He needs a new one.”
J. stood up, grabbed a metal chair and brought it in line with the Adirondacks. “Have a seat.” He nodded at her. “J. Arthur Capresa,” he added, holding out his hand.
“Mariette Faling.” She shook his hand and grinned. “It looks like Arianna took the second seat despite the sign. Just makes herself at home wherever she is. I hope she isn’t interfering.” She put the cardboard tray with two hot teas at her feet and took the cups out, offering one to Arianna. As she eased her slight figure into the chair it seemed as though she had some pain but thought little of it. She sat erect, her head tilted at her granddaughter, silver hair in a loose chignon.
J. said nothing. He sipped his coffee as the other two chattered about Port Riser, the ribbons of light upon the calming waves, the hours ahead. He put the paper away and watched as the last gauzy fingers of fog were swept away by a fragrant breeze. When he glanced at the two, the sun gathered itself and fell upon Mariette and Arianna with their heads close together. They were splendid to behold. A tune came to him that set his mind racing. He followed it as it wound through him, heard the woodwinds pipe in, then the cellos and violins, a French horn bolstering the line, and then the percussion. He closed his eyes and listened, travelled far away.
“Don’t bother him, Arianna. I know his name; I think he’s a well-known composer. And he’s sleeping.”
Arianna tiptoed over to J. and whispered very distinctly in his ear. “Get. Your. Dog. Promise.”
J. kept his eyes shut; the violas were swooping in now. “Okay,” he whispered back and smiled, then into his mind swept Margot, calling him back to work at the grand piano. “I will.”