“William, I need you to go to Morton’s Cafe and Country Store and meet with Sarah Demple for me. She was due at ten but she’s late–can she think this is a good start to things?–and now I have a meeting with city council.”
She waited in his doorway and filled part of it with her well dressed and compact girth.
Willie looked up from his desk. The long, narrow window before him was filled with a blooming magnolia tree; he appreciated that it blocked out all the rest below. He acknowledged her with a sigh. It wasn’t that he hadn’t managed such tasks for her before. They’d had housekeepers come and go–his aunt had high expectations. Still he frowned a bit. “I have this project. Couldn’t she come here and just wait a couple of hours for you? I’ll serve her tea and cookies and be nice.”
“Absolutely not. Meet with her, determine if she is reasonably appropriate, smart and pleasant enough for the housekeeping opening and if so, bring her back then for a more incisive interview when I return. If not, buy her lunch if she requires it, then send her on her way.”
It wasn’t the first time he had dropped everything to do something for his aunt; it would not be the last. She directed him to do her bidding with a tone of voice and a look that could only be described as executive-insistent but short of dictatorial. She didn’t look the part. She was short, wider than she had intended as a young woman, her wavy hair pressed into a neat cap above light brown eyes. Eyes partly obscured by wire framed glasses. They rode down her long nose as the day progressed. It may have been the heat that took them to the precipitous tip but more likely because she didn’t bother to get them fixed after their dog, Big Cat, sat on them. Yes, Big Cat, their lumbering, overly furred creature, that small-eared, big-footed gentle canine who had kept them company twelve years. She had longed for a real feline but was seriously allergic. He couldn’t bear his aunt’s eccentric naming, so called the dog “BC.”
Willie was not very willing to be anyone’s errand boy but he often felt like one living with Aunt Fran–even as he exited boyhood for a rather abridged–so far–manhood. He should have moved on long ago, left the town, even. And yet he stayed, immobilized more with the passage of each year. He’d finished college in a city four hours away, felt like he’d accidentally returned and now was held captive by inertia, a leaning toward shyness and a quite decent living situation.
He was only seven when his parents boarded a train to Tallahassee about a new job prospect for his father. Maybe that was why he was loathe to leave. That trip ended in a disastrous crash and Aunt Fran (his father’s sister) was the one best equipped to care for him, he was told at the funeral. He’d even then wondered what that meant. The fact that she was early widowed, left with money? That she was childless? That she was employed by the bank’s loan department and had a solid reputation in town? What Willie longed for then was a good night story and someone with whom to toss a baseball around plus random warm hugs. The trusted providers of those had been taken from him on the way to Florida, of all places. Aunt Fran had later sat across from him in her empty kitchen, poured him a cup of strong black tea, and placed her hands on her knees. She stared at him with sad eyes and he stared back, eyes dried out from too much crying in private.
“Well, William,” she said. The grandfather clock chimed six times. “Here we are, left to our own devices. Let’s do the best we can. Just get on with it, shall we? You know your Aunt Fran cares about you.”
He’d looked at the sodden napkin in his hands and twisted it so that it started to shred and a few sweet cookie crumbs fell into his lap. Willie nodded slowly. He heard the last after-funeral visitors leaving, footsteps resounding as they departed via the wide front steps leading from his aunt’s grand porch. His, too, he then realized. And she softly patted his back and got him settled upstairs in his airy blue and white room at one end of a long hallway. As he lay down on his bed, pillow clutched to his skinny body, a slow-building moan of a train whistle unstopped a fresh spillage of tears.
He still resented, at times deeply loathed, train whistles. Even after twenty years. But Aunt Fran’s house was built on a hill above a historical train station. Each opening of day and closing of night was pierced by its sudden voice, its weary sighs. He had to endure it like the constant threat of illness so he protected himself by ignoring the auditory intrusions as much as possible. By listening to other things. He never knew when it might send him into a frenzy of pacing, hands pressed against his ears, BC circling and barking like a lunatic. Yet most of the time Willie failed to overtly respond. It was, after all, just one annoying sound among many, another signal of time passing like the gentile slide tick slide tick of the old grandfather clock’s pendulum down in the foyer. He could hear that finely gauged sound, too, from his room if the door was open. He thought perhaps even when shut.
Willie was unusually sound sensitive, always had been, a person who heard things others did not until it was audible at last to them but almost blaring to him. At times the auditory messages blew up enough that it drove him to packed-tight ear plugs. It might be psychological, the doctor had said when he was still a green stick of a boy, but Willie and his aunt thought not. He could hear things like the resident mouse sneaking down s tiny tunnel under the stairs. And that was when the kettle was boiling, his aunt talking a mile a minute on the phone. Sometimes even Big Cat seemed a beat behind which scared Willie though he never suggested it aloud. It was possible BC was being lazy–like when he scratched at the door to be let out to do his duty a little late, as if he found it a bother.
Sounds could hurt Willie’s ears and they often diverted his attention. They informed him of everything from slow-moving storms to an unknown car visiting down the street, each year, make and model of which he learned to identify by thirteen. He heard what others blissfully could not. Sometimes the knowledge meant more to him than it should, as if surrounding himself with sound was akin to a comforter. It was his secret world but it made him feel childish, too.
He knew things about people that he would rather not; he could hear them trading confidences down the block as if they were speaking right at him. So Willie finally adopted a demeanor when around others that was mistaken as disinterested or fully self-absorbed, his pleasing, chiseled face often going blank. People didn’t quite know what to think, so beyond niceties that came from respect for his family name–Blalocks had owned many acres and properties (and once a canning business) for three generations; his aunt was on the council and various committees–they skirted around him more often than not. Willie finally could work from home as a computer programmer alone, rarely complaining of it.
Despite all this, Aunt Fran insisted he run errands for her and interact with even strangers as if it was nothing much to ask in exchange for room and board. He supposed he did need to offer something in return for her generosity, the awkward shows of genuine–he admitted he felt it in return–affection. Willie found her steady and trustworthy if also unnecessarily directive, even intimidating. But after all the years her attitude was annoying at worst, with her voice grating on his ears when it could be at its best even calming. But the rest of the time he knew her to be a sterling human being, generous to have taken him in so long ago.
Willie closed his laptop and left his desk. He could walk to the cafe but preferred to ride his bike so hopped on and sped away. In the distance he could see heat lightning slice through the hazy sky, hear its faint sizzling of dense moist air, the breeze signing. If it rained, it rained, but he felt it would not or not seriously.
“You here on business or pleasure, son?”
Willie saw Harry at the counter and greeted him with a small salute. “Meeting someone for Aunt Fran, Harry.”
“Ah, as I heard from her own lips last week. I think you’ll find the person near the stairs. That’s a newcomer by the window.”
Willie hesitated. Her back was to the room as she peered out the tall window. Her hair was burnished gold in the light and hung loose about her shoulders. She was tall, as tall as he was, and thin. He couldn’t imagine her slogging from one room to another with a mop and bucket or scrubbing the insides of a refrigerator much less carrying laundry to the basement and hoisting a basket of fresh, folded clothing to their rooms. It seemed a ruse. She might be doing research on something?
He came toward her from the side so she could see him approach.
She turned in a movement both efficient and graceful, pleated skirt rustling, hair swishing. She held out her hand with a question in her eyes which were wide and unruffled as a summer horizon.
“You are…? Where’s Miss Traynor?”
They were close to melodic, those five small words, notes to a measure opening to a larger piece that would be revealed, light and sure, tinged with sweetness yet edged with humor that caught Willie off guard. He took her hand briefly, offered his name.
“William Blalock, Frances Traynor’s nephew.”
He led the way toward a corner table but she looked up the stairs to the landing so he changed course. It was out of the way, perhaps better for an interview.
Before sitting down, Sarah Demple glanced at a sign on the wall. “You are a stranger here but once!” she read aloud. “Quaint. Is that a good thing, I wonder?” And she smiled at Willie with a mixture of devilish humor and serious inquiry. “Such good light here. We can watch the street as we talk.”
“Yes, it will do,” he agreed, noting her lilting, self-assured voice and wondering if she ever did reader’s theatre. Or if she sang. Wouldn’t that be something?
Once they had settled in and sweet iced tea was brought to the table, their young waitress studying the young woman closely, he began.
“My aunt sends her apologies but since you were late she had to attend another meeting. She’s a busy woman, as I assume you are, too.”
He tried to focus on her but looked out at the traffic. It announced its rushing and pausing with a rumble and a hush, punctuated by muted honks that struck his eardrums like stones thrown upon taut leather. Willie wondered if they both could be easily seen by passersby and resisted squirming. He’d thought of the spot as a kind of decoration. People sat up there only if the place was packed, a lunchtime occurrence. It was like being on stage. Few were in the cafe. He was terribly conscious of their reflection in the wall sized mirror so turned his head away.
He didn’t see her study him. Sarah liked the way his eyes opened wider to acutely observe, as if he was taking copious mental notes with the tiny cameras of his eyes.
She offered a smile bounded by pale lips. “Not so busy. There was no problem, my train was just late from Hampstead. I called but got her voice mail. I expected to have to wait. Are you my interviewer, then, William?”
Her voice was a series of bright swoops and gentle sweeps in the air and he found himself chuckling. “I’m the first set of doors to get through, I suppose, and possibly your employer’s right hand. ” He blushed. It was a stupid thing to say but it was done so he settled himself, sat up tall and began again. “Why not tell me about your experience. I know you submitted a resume but what positions have you had and what brings you here?”
She spoke of working with a well-known cleaning service a year before college and then two years part-time during school and how she’d had a family crisis with an ill mother and had to drop out of classes last year. Now she needed to return to work.
“I loved English Lit. I like to write. But I don’t know what I’ll study when I return, if I return… I need a career that carries me forward, I suppose. And my mother is better but not fully healed. She has a nurse twice a week and, of course, my father. But I need at least one good year of employment to save money.”
“I see. Sorry to hear of your mother’s illness. It seems you do have experience. You have ambitions, too, so I guess you’d be moving on again.”
But Willie was lingering over her sentences–the depth of vowels, clean endings of consonants, an emphatic delivery as she described most ordinary things–long after she had stopped speaking. Sarah waited calmly. His gaze wasn’t intrusive, just calmly appraising. Sarah found this oddly moving, as well as the tilt of his dark-haired head as he looked at her, then beyond her. When he said nothing and drank the rest of his tea, she noted how sunshine of late morning brightened a swirl of dust. She saw that in a distant bank of clouds there was a squiggle of lightning, a wild scrawl of energy. She found nature beguiling and wished more than anything she could find a job outdoors but this would have to do. When she looked back at William, he appeared ready to leave, one leg and foot cast out from the table.
“I think you should meet my aunt; she’ll be home shortly. I only have my bike but we could walk. It’s just three blocks away, up that hill.” He pointed at the house. “The white one at the top.
“I pass the first round then?” she asked with a hopeful laugh and studied the house where she might be living and working soon. Her breath caught in her chest a moment, then let go with relief.
They got up to go and he paid the small bill. Harry waved them out the door.
“Yes, it’s a very small town, but one made of decent people. You just have to accept the good with the bad as you do anywhere. I have lived here a long time.” He cast her a glance.”I live with my Aunt Fran.”
Sarah stopped and was about to ask him something, anything–did he like living with her and why did he? Did he work, was he gone to work every day? Who was he, really?– as he took up his bike, then they along walked together without more talk.
The darkening sky gathered its clouds like drifting skeins of wool, making a large mound or two, and the afternoon’s sultriness rose and wrapped about them. First raindrops fell as if tossed from above, lazy in summer’s heat. Sarah seemed unperturbed and so was he, their steps a little faster. But their silence split open with laughter as drops fell to earth as tiny crystalline tears through shards of sunlight. By the time they got up the hill, he could see that the valley was slicked with rain. It was going to catch them but it didn’t matter. He felt ready for a proper August storm.
“I have a good feeling about this,” Sarah said, and ran ahead of Willie as the sky let loose a drenching.
“I’m sorry you’re getting all wet but I think we’ll make it between lightning strikes!”
“Who cares–I’ll race you to the door!”
He scrambled after her, exhilarated by what he thought was just another electric storm.
The fire is snapping and sizzling in the hearth, keeping winter’s chill at bay. Willie has brought a book of Pablo Neruda’s poems for Sarah and he is filled with anticipation. The one he has chosen tonight and hopes she will agree to read is “Keeping Quiet.” It is somber but it asks for hope and strength; it is something he understands from a lifetime of trying to make peace with melancholy. He wants to talk about it with her, see what she thinks. He reads the opening lines to himself as she pauses at the library’s doorway, feels his intelligence and his heart.
“Now we will count to twelve and we will all keep still
for once on the face of the earth, let’s not speak in any language,
let’s stop for a second, and not move our arms too much.”
He closes his eyes as Sarah sits in the easy chair beside him. She has wanted to tell him something since she marked her six months of employment. Since they admitted to more than simple mutual appreciation. It has been a time of transition for them, threaded with all the color and sound and feeling of a different life explored. There has been such complexity evolving from the interactions and intentions. Even perhaps for old BC all has changed, she thinks wryly, as he shares all the attention with her now and seems gumpy. Even for Aunt Fran, who is more at ease. And what will come next?
She reads the poem aloud, and marvels over Neruda’s words, the language with meanings that reach deep, far beyond their lives, the poem’s intensity and grace as vivid as strewn stars. Perhaps they will be guided tonight by this. Willie leans toward her now although he looks into firelight and finds renewal even as wood is burned to ash.
“Willie, I’ve wanted to tell you something. Something I think you should know.”
He looks up, one thick eyebrow rising. There is the halo of her hair as it shimmers in light-and-shadowed room. He wants to reach out and touch it but restrains himself as he often does. Happiness runs up his spine, skids into his brain. He aches to touch her more than the occasional brush of hand on upper back or forearm against arm. But she is employed by his aunt. He waits and waits.
“Yes? What is it?”
“Do you remember when your aunt sent you to meet me? How you thought you were interviewing me for the housekeeper job?”
Willie pauses, trying to see where this is going. Her voice has gotten tighter, higher. “Of course, how can I forget that?”
But fear sneaks in, charges his innards with anxiety. He holds his breath.
“Aunt Fran knows my mother.”
He releases the air, looks at her blankly.
“They were friends during their youth when Mom lived here for ten years….and Aunt Fran knew she had cancer, that I had left school and went home to help her. I didn’t know she realized I desperately needed work then. So she already knew I could do the job as Mom promised I was qualified.”
His eyes widen and narrow, hand goes to chin and he rubs whiskered skin. “So I was sent on a fool’s errand–she already was going to hire you? What a scammer my aunt can be!”
Sarah reaches for him, fingers lightly splayed against the top of his hand and they both feel desire stir. Her fingers tremble, so unlike her.
“There’s more, though… She wanted to know if you found me, well, of any interest or I, you. She told my mother she felt we might be, uh, a good match, you know, and they were both wondering…”
Willie involuntarily presses hard into the oak rocking chair and it begins to rock. He stops the motion, turns to Sarah with mouth agape.
“Wait–what? She engineered this for her own personal reasons? How like her–she can’t help herself, can she? My very life! Well, I can certainly move out if that is the problem.”
“I swear I didn’t know this until I talked to Mom. But apparently your Aunt Fran was worried about you.” She pulls her hand away. “She worried, I guess, that you were stuck in a rut. Lonely. Like I was, Willie, alone and tired and drifting.” Her eyes trace his fine head and tense shoulders, hands gripping the rocker’s arms. “Oh, I should never have told you. Not yet, not now! How stupid to think it might amuse you as it does me…that you’d appreciate the romance of it but no, I was wrong.”
“Amuse you? Are you amused by me, then? Find this charade a pleasant little diversion?”
Willie gets up and paces before the fire, hands covering then rubbing his eyes.
“I can’t believe my own family, what does she think I am, a mere child, a virtual idiot? Well, maybe she was right.”
He stands before the fire, back turned against the woman he thought he might be falling in love with, the one who is tickled by the planned arrangement, who surely will be gone soon. William Blalock, certified numskull, the last laugh is on him again.
But she stands up behind him, places her arms nearly around his chest. He is pulled to her muscle and bone and softness, to her dazzling heartbeat.
“Listen, I was surprised, too, and angry. But I need to say it was such good fortune we’ve met. What happiness it’s brought me!” She lays her head against his still back. “All due to our families suggesting we might be good for one another. Because you came to meet me at the funny old cafe. And then we ran through summer rain, up a lush green hill. William Blalock, turn around…please!”
Willie turns and they are face to face. He kisses her and she tastes of winter’s silvery cool and the smoke of fire and a hint of bright rain. The room thrums with a musical mix of BC’s lackadaisical howling, the slow burning wood and a circuitous farewell of the train as it leaves town. Willie doesn’t hear that ghost-filled metallic wail. He hears Sarah’s feathery breath meeting his.