He didn’t like to take “no” for an answer if there was any hope, at all, so he went back again. He had passed the house once only and it struck him as a beacon in the dark. It was large, had a good veranda, was painted a stone grey, and he could see a portico at a side entrance. More importantly, in the parallel yard nestled by a back fence was a smaller dwelling painted a Wedgwood blue that needed a touch-up. A hand lettered “For Rent” sign was hung haphazardly by twine on its doorknob. It compelled him to stop and ask about it.
Jim Jameson, as tall as they came in those parts, swung open the door, leaned down to study the stranger to take in Van’s interest in renting the tiny cottage and said, “No. Not for rent right now.”
“But there’s a sign on the door announcing it’s for rent.”
“That was last week. I changed my mind. ”
And with that Mr. Jameson took the steps two at a time, huffed and strode over to the dwelling and yanked off the sign. He put it face down on the ground, scowled at the younger man who’d followed him and barked, “I’ve changed my mind. A man can be of two minds and oscillate, can’t he? Today, it is certainly not for rent. So excuse me, I’ll say good day now and good luck.”
Van wandered after that, thinking things over. He hadn’t been back to Chesterfield since he’d left Chesterfield College his second year. He’d never expected to return. But life did turnabouts in ways that baffled him. His old father died so the family business, Warrington Jewelry, Ltd., met its own untimely end. He’d grudgingly worked for him fifteen years, ever since Walt Warrington was unwell with a worsening heart. There were not more appealing options then and his mother had passed several years earlier, so it was up to him. They had long dealt in vintage items, fine jewelry; they’d managed well enough, or so he thought, keeping a pleasant home and bills paid.
Van had little idea there were old debts stirring up secret dismay and stress in his father. Why had he waited until the end to tell him the truth? And Van worried extra college costs had further jeopardized the business–and to what end? By the time Van got the mess untangled and debts paid off, there was not so much left. Nothing enticing in the hometown, either. He had managed to keep a precious few thousand after all was addressed, so he took a needed break from the misery.
Although one might argue that Chesterfield was nothing much, either, it had two colleges, one for medical degrees (Health Sciences Junior College), the other for liberal arts. Van had attended the liberal arts college on a partial scholarship, thinking of teaching high school kids. He hadn’t quit due to poor grades or lack of interest, it was more complicated than that, enough that he’d given it up and re–entered the family business.
After all had been squared away and sold, even the family house, after two peaceful but lonely weeks camping in state parks he’d had a happier idea. What if he went back to where things were better, before they got worse? Chesterfield had inspired him once; it might again. So he’d driven five hours toward that wavering glimmer of possibility and started looking for a place of his own. And then things got weird.
Van got a cheap room night just three blocks away and decided after his odd encounter about the cottage to inquire about Jim Jameson at the Pub ‘n Grub.
“I was interested in renting the little place he’s got but he flat out turned me away. There was a large ‘For Rent’ sign.”
“Big Jim?” The bartender said, shaking his neat head of dark hair. “He’s something, isn’t he? Teaches economics and world history at Chesterfield College. Married a gal who had just graduated, an artist. We all liked his wife a lot. They came in Friday nights for burgers and fries, a couple beers.” He paused wiping down the counter to check out Van from beneath bushy eyebrows. “You’re new in town, right? Don’t know too many who aren’t anymore, what with yearly expanded college campuses.”
“Well,” Van said, “I am, but not entirely. I used to live here as one of those invading students long ago. Left after two years to work in the family business, though. Now I’m back for awhile, anyway. My father died so I’m looking for work again and a place.”
“Sorry to hear of your loss. The town has changed a bit, no doubt. More people, more work in some areas, less in others. What was the business you owned?”
“It ended with my father…we bought and sold good vintage jewelry.”
The bartender stuck out his hand and Van took it. “I’m Bart Tilley, by the by. Been here since before you came around the first time. Don’t believe I knew you then but now we’re acquainted.” He pushed another beer over. “On me this time, then it’s yours to pay.”
“Thanks, Van Warrington here. I lived in the dorms on the other side of town. Hoped to be a teacher; had a dream back then. So what can you tell me about that rental property situation?”
Bart lifted a finger to indicate Van should hold the thought while he waited on more customers. The place was filling up; it was after eight. Van was suddenly exhausted from the drive, from looking for housing he could afford, from a few surges of muted grief which he could not quite name as such. Only a marrow deep weariness was recognized. He was on the verge of change, he felt it, but nothing good had happened yet.
Bart slid back and inclined his head close to Van’s. “She died, his wife, ovarian cancer. Big Jim has not been himself for awhile now. Gotten surly. He often decides to rent the place and then just as fast to un-rent it. You may as well look elsewhere. You seem like a good guy. I’ll ask around. But it was her studio, she was a potter. Good stuff. Sad story. Hey, by the way, there’s a new, hip jeweler taking over Dundee’s Diamonds and Gold downtown. In the big green building, just stop by, see if they need your expertise.”
Bart left him with that news as he got too busy to return. But he looked over his shoulder and frowned, rubbed his bristly jaw when Van was looking across the bar, mulling his own thoughts over.
Well, Van thought, that poor guy, no wonder. He went to his motel room. As he lay with hands tucked behind his head late into the noisy night, he mused, Jewelry appraisal, buying, selling–is that what I’ll have to do again? And then: Bart is alright, he seems solid, I’ll go back sometime and see what he’s heard–if he meant it.
But the next morning he returned to Big Jim’s house. He loved that part of town and imagined the rent more than workable for such a small abode.
Big Jim opened the door, looked Van up and down, shook his head sadly then closed it. Van remained on the veranda, turned toward the wide tree-lined street and looked over graceful lawns upon which stood old, well kept two-story houses. They had called this “Professor Row” in contrast to “Student Row” streets. He had sometimes ridden over on his bike, gawked at the pretty houses and dreamed of making it there, himself, in ten years. Ten years that had slipped away.
The door partly opened once more. “Why are you still here? I have a class in a half hour, I don’t have time to shoo you away every five minutes.” He hunched his thin shoulders as if he was too defeated to stand up and appear otherwise. “I don’t think I can rent it, it’s that simple. So for now, no deal.”
“Yes, I get it, Bart told me it was your…wife’s studio. I’m sorry she passed.” Big Jim only looked over Van’s head into the distance a wistful moment. “I love its appearance. I like this street. I need a place that is affordable and have money in the bank and can find work as a jeweler. Or something.”
“Right, a jeweler, that’s what I need here. If you’d said landscape maintenance person I might consider it a moment.” He gestured around the overgrown yard, flowers blooming out of control, rows of hedges in grave need of pruning. “But I don’t plan to lease it just yet. As already noted.”
“So you know, I can do that, too. My father had an imposing yard in Pineville and worsening ill health. I helped at home, the business he had. He died last fall.”
“I see.” Big Jim came outside, let the screen door bang, its whiny hinges scraping the still air.
Am I playing on his sympathies? Van wondered. But what I say is true. He was surprised when Big Jim gestured toward two dark blue painted wicker chairs nearby. He took a seat after his host did.
“Thanks for taking time to talk. I sure would appreciate this place, I have to get settled somewhere soon.”
“It’s not a proper house but part getaway and more a serious potter’s studio…a kitchenette, a tiny alcove for a couch or mattress…” He deflated more as his voice trailed off.
“I get that–not wanting others to live in it. Must be hard to see it there every day.”
“It was her refuge as well as work space, you see. I think she was happiest there. Married thirteen years, all we had. She got sick four years ago, died two years later. I just ignored the studio until recently.” He stopped himself, sat up and turned toward the congenial, pleasant looking man, perhaps the earlier end of middle age. “Well. And your name again?”
“Van Warrington. I studied education at Chesterfield College for a couple years, fifteen years ago. Then had to leave. But I understand that you don’t want to let anyone use the cottage, so I may as well move on and–”
“Cottage. That’s what she called it, her Potter’s Cottage, all six hundred twenty-four square feet of it. Look, Van Warrington, I have to go teach a blasted class now but stop by tomorrow and we’ll talk a bit more if you like.”
They said a hasty farewell and each went his own way. Van felt a stirring of hope. He wondered what sort of pottery she had made. He still wondered if the cottage might be rented in good time, and for how much. He went back to the motel, sat on his bed for awhile, trying to shake off drowsiness. He picked up his camera, put a few resumes in his backpack, then walked toward Stone River so he might follow its meander through soothing greens and floral cheer of Chesterfield. Maybe he’d stop by that jewelry store. Maybe not.
Jim Jameson found his way to the studio as he did each morning sleep eluded him before dawn arrived. He glanced at the kiln outdoors, then unlocked the door and pocketed the key for safety , patted it inside the fabric as if it were an amulet. There was the still clay-coated potter’s wheel to right of the door. She liked to keep windows and door propped wide open in good weather as she worked, to encourage a fresh breeze. To move and out to think and use the kiln. There was the salvaged farmer’s double sink with cracked muddy splotches, and bags of clay lined up along the west wall. Cupboards hung above containing supplies of various sorts–he knew so little of it. On the east side were many shelves with last finished pieces crowding each other, bowls, mugs, plates, trays– and small free form sculptures not meant to resemble anything so much as a sensuous curve of a hill or a waterfall in mountains. It was the glazes that set them off, glossy or matte vibrant autumnal tones she loved, and natural textures she created.
“Used to create,” he said in the dusty stillness, and took all in as long as he could stand it, not going near the day bed where she used to sometimes fall asleep and remain all night. More often than he’d wished. The worn coverlet with vines on rusty colored and quilted fabric was where it was when she died, the pillow scrunched up as she’d liked it.
But would she want it this way forever? Like a memorial to a life she once led but left behind? And without any serious complaint, he had to agree.
Jim blinked bloodshot eyes to dispel their dampness, shut the door softly, locked it and went into his house to make coffee. He took a stack of papers to grade into his study as he waited for Van Warrington to arrive.
When Van came and accepted the offer to enter the house, it was as if he remembered something, but he didn’t know what it might be. There was a familiarity about it but then, many of the houses were like this one and he had been in quite a few over those two years. Parties, a few suppers with profs’, study sessions at profs’, visiting friends who had snagged a shabbier version of such a house to share with five others. It could be the evocation of a time he lived, is all.
He followed Big Jim into the study. The walls were made of books and the scatter rug was a large old Persian. The light was dim, the room warm. It was early and too humid. The clouds outside regrouped, gathered more steam for rain.
They sat on the velvety burgundy sofa. On the coffee table was just that–a carafe of coffee next to cream and sugar in cut glass bowl and pitcher. Jim poured one mug then a second for Van.
“So, I’m wondering just why I’m here,” Van said when silence settled between them a moment. He could hear a grandfather clock ticking, looked for but saw none.
“I thought I’d tell you more before you further considered how much you may desire to live there.”
“Alright. I guess.” The cottage was partly visible from the side bay window. Van wanted to see the inside but willed himself to be patient then drank the strong coffee.
“We built it right soon after we married because she decided to make art, not teach it–though she did teach a few workshops each year. It was easy to agree to anything she wanted. She was younger than I by nine years and had a laugh like gently falling water… and a smile that snared everyone who saw her. She had the kind of beauty that caught you off guard not because it was dazzling but because it was quietly unassuming, natural but unmistakable. Sweet and a tad zany at once.”
Van drank more, uncrossed his ankles. He felt embarrassed by the details shared. Was the professor going to wax on and on about his deceased wife? He should be kinder; Van was sure the woman was lovely and very talented. But he wasn’t a grief counselor, not even this man’s friend. He had his own sadness to sort out. Was this woman’s essence never going to let go of the man? It hovered about him, a cloak of sweet sorrow.
Van understood how that could feel. But Van didn’t speak of it, at least not to strangers.
Big Jim went on. “She had such a knack for pottery–she fully discovered it after she got her B.A.– that it was only a matter of time before she sold them at art fairs, then galleries were interested. She began to make money at it. But mostly she loved what she did. I was never creative. I’m a man of strict numbers and political pondering, neither of which interested her much. I don’t create a thing but decent meals.” He scanned his bookshelves as of there was something there he must recall. “But she was so vibrant, she shook me up. I wasn’t a fool; I knew she needed the security I offered her so she could be a potter. I didn’t care. Just to be near her, to know she was out there every day, would be here most of the time when I returned from work….” He covered his eyes with a large hand. “I will not marry again.”
Van felt a sharp twinge. He knew some of what Jim spoke about. But he had to move on, learn about the cottage availability.
“It must be wonderful to have such a marriage, Jim. And I’m truly sorry she got sick/ And died. I suspect you’re right–this is not the right time for you to rent it out. I appreciate your telling me how important it is to keep as it was. I couldn’t live there. honestly, knowing how you feel. I hope you’ll excuse my bothering you.”
He was feeling short of breath, as if the room was hotter and smaller than it was and he was taking up too much air and room by by sitting there. It was a little creepy listening to such longing, as if he was overhearing a confession of something more intimate or complicated but he didn’t know what. He began to stand up.
“Still, she’s want me to share her cottage with the right person. I feel Lily would like you.”
Van sank to the chair. Tiny hairs on the back of Van’s neck stood up. He felt vaguely nauseous. “What did you say her name was?”
Big Jim unfolded his clasped hands and gestured toward the cottage as if she was out there waiting for them to decide what was next. “Lily. Lily Hunter Jameson.” He stood and looked out the window. “My dear wife for far too short a time.”
Van had to leave the room. He wanted to crawl out on hands and knees, he felt weak and unable to stop the spinning of his mind, the unreal sense of everything there. Lily Hunter! The bright young woman he had fallen in love with the moment he had met her in freshman composition. The woman he’d wanted to be with the rest of his natural born days. The woman who loved him right back with her stirring spirit and searching mind, her resonant body like an instrument made of fantastic music–as if she had waited only and ever for him and could never let him go.
Except she did. Back in college she in fact was falling for someone else, she confessed so one spring day after they picnicked in the riverside park. Someone more established and secure in life. She had to be an artist–he surely could understand that, couldn’t he? And the man knew exactly what she needed whereas Van, truth be told, sometimes needed too much, gave more than she could easily handle. She need energy left to create.
He never knew who it was but now he was staring at the back of a very tall, thin man, an accomplished, kindly man who so loved her still. A man more secure and well off. A man who adored her from afar as long as she had lived.
Van left the room as swiftly as he could, as if he was being run out, without a backward glance, tripping down the steps of the lovely veranda, past the cottage he would never look at again. He started up his car and drove to Stone River, then got out. Such an ache that dug into his center. How could this have happened? Was she not done hurting him, chasing him after death, mocking him after all these years? Or had Big Jim Jameson figured out who he was? No, that would be too uncanny and cruel…
“Get a hold of yourself, Van!” he said aloud as the river swept by. Let it go.
“”Yeah, man, come on, it’s just a place to rent that you need,” Bart said as he lightly punched him on the shoulder.
“Hey Bart–what are you doing here?” Van threw a rock into the muddy current.
“You look pale as a…oh, wait, you’ve been talking to Big Jim about his haunted cottage. Listen, I tried to tell you–nice guy, but kinda nuts these days. Pay him no mind. I have a place for you, it’ll be fine.”
“What? Just like that?”
“I’ve lived here fifty eight years. I know things.” his glance slid over Van. “Like who you are.”
Van felt a strong need to move away from Bart or to push him. This town–he had thought this could be a good move.
“Wait, Van, I knew Lily a long time, too. She used to come into the bar and cry on my shoulder. Everyone does, right? It’s my job. But, yeah, she came in after she married Big Jim and drank a little much and finally told me how she’d ended up with the wrong man but it was too late for her and Van…how much she loved you, that she lost you. But I don’t think her husband ever knew the truth. She had to carry on with her life, didn’t she? A really good potter, a finer woman. My friend, glad to say. I miss her–she was a lively gal when she wasn’t swimming in regrets.”
Van gave Bart a hard look then turned away. He was ready to wake up from the unnerving dream he was stuck in. All he had to do was concentrate on the three dimensional world. He took in the trees’ lush greenery, the polished picnic table, three children laughing at river’s edge with their father. He listened to his heartbeat against his ribs, just beyond his shirt, ba-duh, ba-duh, ba-duh.
“I mean: Van. Your name is one you don’t forget! Old fashioned, kinda like Lily’s. I thought it was you when we met…and I had to say she did love you, buddy. She made a kind of mistake that couldn’t be undone easily so she was in it for life, she said, with Big Jim Jameson, a decent man. It just turned out it wasn’t for that long.”
As he steadied himself on a picnic table–newer, cleaner than the one he and Lily had used years ago–he slowly sat on the bench. Felt the strength leave him and run into the sky, river, ground.
Bart grabbed his arm. “Hey, take some slow deep breaths. It’s a lot, no need to rush into understanding it all. It’s a tough story.”
Van straightened up. Sucked fresh oxygen into his lungs. He felt better in a few minutes. But he felt half-undone. He jutted his chin into storm-prescient air. He was a man who knew how to make the best of things, wasn’t he?
“Yeah, a lot to take in. To think about later. It happened. But it’s over, done. The past can’t hurt us unless we invite it to do damage.” He felt Bart nodding agreement beside him. “Okay. I heard you say you have a room? If I stay, that is?”
“Oh, stay awhile. It’s a small bungalow on the west side. If you have cash and get yourself a job soon, it’s yours in two weeks. I own it so that’s a solid.”
Van felt like he had been taken too far back to make a victorious step forward. But hearing Bart give him new information made him recall his life was just a life like any other. There had been good breaks and bad, quirks and bad timing. Deeper pangs. But he believed better times were possible. It was his way and it was what made the best sense to him right now. That, and Lily loving him all along even as she cared for Big Jim. She was some woman.