She brought her cat, that was the worst thing according to Granddad as he explained an old picture of the three of them–four with the cat–on his study fireplace mantel.
“Has to be a frilly Persian,” he had said to himself, then replaced his distaste with a fake congeniality.
If there had been a dog–a suitably lively and good natured, liquid-eyed beagle, preferably, but even a standard poodle or a husky–things might have felt better from the start. The moment she exited the old black limo his brother drove everywhere, her cat slinked out dragging its sparkly leash. The feline was a rich grey, had a long twitchy, fluffy tail and far too much fur. He could tell this already from the living room window he peeked from behind white sheers draping the picture window. As he waited for the trio to pause on the front porch and ring the doorbell, he considered how he might get rid of the bunch under two hours.
Granddad, otherwise known as Del Chessing, the brother of Tommy Chessing, paused at the door as the chimes peeled. He was relieved lunch would be simple and quick: plates of simple tuna, grape and walnut salad mound heaped upon one large piece of crisp red leaf lettuce. There were blood orange and Granny Smith apple pieces in a glass bowl. Pound cake for dessert with coffee. It was the best he could do; he wasn’t going all out. They could eat and run. Granddad didn’t like to spend money on Tommy when it was Tommy who referred–with good reason–to his money as his ship finally in and docked. So let them eat tuna fish and fruit.
Granddad tucked in his blue striped shirt more neatly and opened the door. Before he could greet his brother with a cursory hug and slap on the back, the cat flew between his feet and invaded his house. Then as Tommy said, “Hello, good to see you, this is Eileen Wells” and she said, “Such a pleasure to meet you at last” the cat stood looking at him as if she was ascertaining whether Del measured up.
“Oh, I hope you don’t mind Miss Adelaide, she’s my travelling companion,” Eileen said in her loud but breathy voice. “Come here, Addy, you don’t want to get underfoot now.” She turned to her host. “No dogs, then, hmm?”
Granddad shook his head and gave her a tight smile. He wished he still had the bull terrier, just for today.
Adelaide was still looking up at Granddad and he registered her two green almond-shaped eyes, fighting off a curled lip response. He felt she was as displeased as he but, like himself, politely refrained from saying so. Her ears wiggled a little, then she licked her right paw with long strokes of a pink tongue. Eileen took the leash in hand, led the furry mass into the living room, then unfettered the creature.
“I told Eileen you’re not so fond of these sorts, told her ‘he might even make Addy wait outdoors’!” Tommy punctuated the sentence with a huff of laughter. “You and me both, bro’, but I’ve gotten to like this one. Sheds like crazy and has a diva appetite but otherwise she passes muster.” He reached over and stroked the cat, who jerked her head away and resumed grooming at her mistress’ feet.
“Well, we’ll make do,” Granddad said, taking the armchair farthest away from Miss Adelaide as he’d decided to call her. He turned his attention to Eileen. “My brother tells me you’ve been a great business partner, an encouraging influence. I found that interesting since he owns billiards parlors, not the easiest place for a woman to be engaged in work.”
Tommy harrumphed as Eileen leaned forward.
“You ever play pool, Del? I may call you Del? We’re all family now that I own 25%, too.” She pushed her chic short hair behind her ears, golden earrings gleaming. “I happen to know you have not. But I have and still do. You see, I grew up playing alongside my dad, ‘Fast’ Wallace Wells, ever hear of him?”
“I’m afraid not, I don’t play as you noted and don’t care to do so. I’m a nature and golf lover. I just know Tommy is good with figures and has a knack for the game, himself. Now he owns five pool halls in three places. I visited them each, once.”
Eileen fell back on a fat beige pillow and Addy jumped onto her lap. “Not pool halls, Del, please! Those are for ordinary types and more so for drunks and sharks, those who like rough, cheap games and never any real finesse.” She frowned at him as she stroked the cat, whose eyes were half-slits now.
“I stand corrected. It’s good you provide another insider’s view of the business. I just like to make sound investments and with my brother at the helm, I knew things would succeed.” Granddad then noticed her eyes were colored curiously like Addy’s. This repelled and fascinated him. “And I know he thanks you for good strategics for the last two openings.”
Tommy patted her arm, causing Addy to look him over. “Yes, indeed. She’s a whiz at the game as well as marketing. You should see her latest ad campaign, too. Bringing ’em in!”
Eileen smoothed Addy’s round back and smiled at them with satisfaction. It did not take away from a basic radiance. Still, Granddad felt her style a bit glitzy, her beauty too conspicuous. He thought he’d like to see what was taking place inside that head.
Granddad nodded at his brother.”Good fortune to you both. And in the long run, myself.”
He nonetheless did notice the golden blond and her skin, papery smooth and pale. He thought of the creamy damask tablecloth he almost put on the dining room table, but thought better of since it was only tuna, no need for china. He should not have agreed to this on a Saturday afternoon–he wanted to be out in the garden not entertaining a woman who Tommy imagined might of interest to him. This was the third one he’d wanted him to meet in as many months. It was accelerating, all this woman finding. His brother still believed Del needed a housemate at the very least, a romantic interest preferably, and this one took the cake, he’d said. Why not finally meet lovely, intrepid Eileen, the one who had helped expand his business the past two years? The one Del said he’d had no interest in meeting as long as his own investment gained traction?
“Well,” Tommy said, “I’m ravenous. What do you have for us, unless there’s a beer handy first?”
“You know I don’t. Mineral water, vegetable juice and sweet iced tea are in the refrigerator. Come on back to the sun room; I have the round cafe table set up there.”
As they got settled and Granddad put out the food and poured drinks, Tommy and Eileen chatted away, catching up on business odds and ends. Granddad glanced at the clock. Addy wandered over to him, not quite touching him as she raised her dainty nose and sniffed out the tuna, eyeing the counter.
He turned to Eileen. “Might Adelaide like some fresh air? I have a good garden space.”
“Too much dirt. She had treats in the car, she’s alright for now. Unless you have a small dish so I could share?’
“Oh, it’s salad. I don’t know about the grapes and nuts… is she going to eat with us?” He was feeling less and less inclined toward that cat.
“I’m on it.” Tommy got up and opened a cupboard, took down a fruit bowl, then spooned some of his tuna in it, picking out grapes and nuts. “Sometimes Addy likes to hop onto the table and we just make room. She’s very clean. She’s always grooming.” He shot a glance at his brother who looked stricken.
“No, not here, we’ll not be impolite, isn’t that right, Miss Addy? Everyone has their rules, mine and his may not match up.” Eileen nearly purred at her pet. But the cat was already scarfing down tuna with relish, petite furry face disappearing into the glass dish, a humming rumble emitted between bites and swallows. At least it was clear the entrée was edible. Tommy let loose a cackling laugh–he liked Addy perhaps more than Eileen he’d confessed to Del. He sat again between the two waiting at the table and tried to gauge how his brother was feeling about both.
Lunch proceeded well enough and the afternoon progressed. Sunlight splashed across the room created for such light. Plants overflowed from corners and warmth enveloped them, a relief after a chilly morning. The gathering was more at ease than when Granddad first let them all in. Tommy was ever affable if he did tend toward unruly language and a too familiar way with others, as if everyone was fine with being transparent and gabby. Though certainly not Tommy; he was the hardest to read. His friendliness was a distraction that kept most at bay.
That Tommy was chummy with Eileen was no surprise; they shared, perhaps, a playful toughness. But he had informed Granddad he wasn’t interested in her after two divorces and a girlfriend who lived a state away, just how they both liked it. Del should be, he’d insisted, Del would be when he took notice. Eileen was smart, self possessed and had such spirit. Del thought he could be describing a fine racehorse but no, Tommy had said, she was honestly the genuine article, a decent person. And if she could be a bit high-handed in manner, that was not the worst thing. Her toughness might be a challenge. Well-educated, she’d give his brother a run for his money. She just loved billiards. Granddad had sighed, bored with his recommendation.
Granddad had been a bachelor all his adult life, twenty-some years of it by then, and it was because he liked it fine. He tired of his brother’s and friends’ interest in matchmaking and told them so, but they kept presenting candidates to him as if they were rare flowers–and he loved flowers and did enjoy some kinds of women, so no harm done, he told himself in an attempt to be open-minded. For the years were passing by faster than before. Some days he’d awaken to watch dust dance across the quilt and settle on the book that had fallen out of his hands in a sleepless night. He’d wonder if old habits were worth changing. If books might be better shared under the coziness of the blankets along with kisses. It was possible; he’d certainly thought so a few times in his halcyon days but then those days got scarce the busier he got.
“I would definitely like to hear more from you, Del–Tommy and I can talk work later. I hear you were a professor and then left under unusual circumstances. Now you just write poetry.” She flicked her tongue over her bottom lip to claim a drip of juice as she finished off a quarter of blood orange. “What’s your version of things?”
He glanced at Tommy; how much had he told her? Tommy had a mouth that wouldn’t quit sometimes. They had less in common than they might, as siblings: a savvy, rough-edged pool hall entrepreneur and a college professor of English. Still, they managed to respect each other and even enjoy one another’s company once every couple of months.
“Not so unusual. Really, it wasn’t so unfair of the university to expect me to be present more. On one hand, it was fortuitous for all that I published pretty regularly. On the other, I had to often go on tour to hawk my books and articles. I turned out to be a competent enough speaker that there were offers to present at conferences and other universities, that sort of thing. So I became a bit derelict in my duties at the university. They had to have someone fill in or cancel classes more and more. Not fair to the students, wouldn’t you agree?”
Eileen picked up Addy and nuzzled her, but her eyes never left his. Seeing the two faces close together unnerved him–hers so smooth and open and the cat’s densely fuzzy and suspicious–he couldn’t help it, he found cats as vaguely menacing, too. The two pairs of bottomless green eyes stopped him. He lost his train of thought.
“I would–I certainly can imagine the problem that brewed,” she encouraged him. Addy purred and stared at him as if wondering what the next bit was, then pawed Eileen’s fingers as she wiggled them.
“So it was suggested I teach part-time and then they’d hire someone fresh out of grad school for much less than it took to keep me there. Or I might move on.”
He pulled up sturdy shoulders and left them there a bit until they fell with a quick release of breath. Tommy looked like he had taken leave of the table already, his eyes trained on the garden which did have good blooms bursting open. But Granddad persisted in his story.
“I might have stayed half-time but really, once I had loved teaching enough that it took over my days and nights. The students became as much or more a part of my life as the lectures and grading, the curriculum and researching and so on. And then the passion for it waned more each month until…well, I was busy writing. I neglected things, I admit, was not any longer the employee I had promised to be. I had dived right into another, more all-consuming… love affair. Poetry and its effects and demands. Its magic wove a spell that nothing else could match, certainly not teaching. So I left three years ago. I manage well enough. And have found the source of the true love of my life right here.” He touched his chest, then his head. “The place of poetry where language transforms, at least, me.”
He smiled briefly but felt foolish even if it was the truth. She probably thought him a pompous ass, and perhaps he was, but there you had it. He was a poet making ends meet and he was happy, mostly, hardly the tortured type.
Granddad blinked at Eileen because she had blinked at him. The cat’s eyes were closed; she had leapt off the small lap and now lay curled in a chosen spot of sun-drenched floor. Eileen sat very still with the sort of quiet that his students or audiences displayed, he realized. He liked talking about such things. He knew that he could reach and impact people, with the deep voice and clear enunciation. He could voice words, ideas that might seem common when uttered by others. Granddad had, in fact, wanted to be an actor as a youth but that eluded his grasp and English–and writing–seemed an easier route.
It got harder but he did finish poems and published collections of them, then gave readings so had the best of both. He would not have it any other way.
“Well, there you go,” Tommy inserted, “Del’s story in a nutshell, although I can tell you it was much hairier than that, his calls full of anxiety and nights shredded by dithering over whether or not one thing or the other was the right thing when really–” he patted Del’s arm like the big brother he was–“it was just how he was meant to end up.” He turned to Eileen. “We’re as different as you can get but it has worked out for us both, and thank heavens for that.”
“That is about as philosophical as our Tommy gets”, Granddad added with swallowed laugh.
Eileen stood up and walked over to Granddad’s chair. She took his square-jawed, bewhiskered face into her strong, soft, manicured hands. “That was lovely. I could hear you tell me that all over again. And you made a very smart move. I bet your poetry is marvelous. You may share one or two with me sometime. Now excuse me while I use the powder room…”
“It’s upstairs!” Tommy called as she vanished through the doorway. Addy got up and hesitated, eyeing first one and then the other, then ran up the steps with her mistress. “I think you got her,” he told his brother, shaking his head. “And Addy likes you, too.”
Granddad put his hand to his face to stifle a small shudder, then looked out over the blooming garden, befuddled but feeling something new.
“And that’s it, that’s how it all started?” I asked. “It seems corny, and too easy. Did Addy live a long time?”
“I know, it probably was both, but not all good things are full of roadblocks and false starts. We weren’t perfectly made for each other but we weren’t especially made for anyone else and so there we were, okay alone but quite intrigued with each other.” He chuckled as he yanked at a weed in the garden. “Miss Addy lived longer than I’d hoped but we got to be friends in the end. Hand me that trowel if you’re done, Jeannie.”
We had been working side-by-side. I handed him the trowel, looked at my pile of spindly weeds, then at Granddad’s soft mountain of cast-offs. I wasn’t so cut out for this. I was tired. My hands were stained with earth and greenness. A small cramp in the small of my back felt like a belt of tight rubber bands. But I wanted to hang out with him. Grandma was at the store, getting steaks and green beans and potatoes and salad fixings. She had already baked a cake, Black Forest chocolate, my favorite.
“You know, you’re like her in some ways, more than your mother. Now that you’re about grown up, I think you should know you got the best of both. You even play a little pool and Grandma feels you could be good.”
“Yeah, sure. But I think that’s only a little of me.”
Granddad tossed another gnarled root of something, then brought it closer for a second look. “Isn’t that wonderful, the shape and smartness of it, what it does, how it sucks up nutrients and creates something altogether different above the dirt? My goodness.” He put it on the pile and turned to me. His high forehead was beaded with sweat and streaks of grime.
I sat down and crossed my legs, hung my head low and raised my shoulders to stretch some stiffness out. Then I looked up and saw shining in his eyes, that thing Grandma said always drew her in. How much he loved being alive, the beauty of surprises, the oddness of it all.
Shyly I whispered to him and the garden, “I want to be a poet, Granddad, that’s the other part, the biggest thing in me so far.”
He put his arms about me, pulled me close. The garden held its breath with me; I could hear it watching and waiting.
“I do know that, honey, your heart just can’t help it. It’s right and good. I’m glad you know it, too.” He gave me an extra squeeze, then stood up to survey his flower kingdom, a hand swiping at his eyes.
All this was what Granddad had to share today, my twelfth birthday, after I asked about that picture of him, Grandma and Great-uncle Tommy with Miss Addy. I’m sure glad they got together.