It was an odd, fateful accident, all that resulted from that day, and it started with running into George in the middle of the day on Mimosa Pond’s path. She’d been to the bank, going over her woeful balance with a teller. After it was shown to be still in her barest favor, she took time at water’s edge, walking and gawking with deliberate pleasure. There were silken layers of southern floral fragrances in the air that half-spooked her. It didn’t seem quite right although she knew better. Her latest home base in Idaho was under a heap of snow. Tennessee held a different scent altogether.
She needed such moments away from her mother, and to practice experiencing the relief of small pleasures. The past month had not been a choice string of events. Anyone who had lost a job would not fault her for a swear word derailing her thoughts. Even the sweet green light of early spring did little to cheer her. She refused to budge until her mood lightened. Then she might re-enter her mother’s cottage with the evening’s dinner groceries in hand and good news that she was not entirely broke. She endeavored to keep the full and bitter truth from her: it could be a slight month more before her bank balance became a total loss. Unless her art work sold fast.
The footsteps behind her slowed, then stopped. She registered the sound of gravel crunching and the pause of it but was busy examining a duck that looked as if it had mated perhaps with a random crow. Pretty thing. Yet it had a duck’s bill and way of dipping and floating; it had not made a sound yet. It had plenty of company, unlike herself since arriving in town.
A husky voice made murky by duck squawks and a riffling waterfall came through her reverie. She stepped aside as if used to being in the way when others approached. A bad new habit since her humiliation.
She looked up because the person said it right, the “Mari” syllable not mispronounced as “Mary” which strangers inevitably said, but rhyming with “far” as it should be. She was “Mari” to friends–but this man couldn’t be one of the two or three holdovers from twenty years past. Could he? They’d all moved elsewhere, as had she.
Mari blinked; her eyes slid over his face. “I am. And you are?”
“George,” he said, “George Hartsell.”
A frown rippled over his tan face then vanished. Maybe it was a few day’s beard growth that darkened his jaw and cheekbones, an almost swarthy look; he was not recognizable. He looked taken aback that she didn’t know him right off and rocked on his heels a little, studied the ducks, waiting.
But Mari remembered enough. Her second best friend had been chummy with him and so they’d all done things together from time to time. Rita wasn’t serious about him–she was serious about no one. George was always in the background, though, and brought about when she was bored. Mari thought her capricious and a little mean but he didn’t seem to mind. Studious, with a quick wit, he was nice to her–that’s what she recalled. He’d been slight, a tad awkward, and companionable enough.
“Oh, George, sorry! I think we maybe ran into each other at the ten year reunion? Nice that you remembered me, and from a distance. What a surprise!”
“I wasn’t there, sorry– in Italy at the time, I think. It’s okay. But you don’t look so different. Same auburn hair, tall, lanky. A bright presence, overall, still.”
His lively look held her gaze a moment–he had certainly gotten tall somewhere along the line, too– and they smiled at each other with some embarrassment, which she could not decipher.
“Well, so how funny–here we are. I’m back …to tend to my mother. She had a bout of cancer and is on a slow mend. Never thought to find myself back in Tennessee. Just here a short time to make sure she is healing and doesn’t feel too alone. Though she has doting friends and, of course, the church.” She picked up a stick, tossed it into the water where it floated away with no destination. “I don’t know, guess duty called.”
“The same for me,” George said and squatted, long black coat sweeping over dirt and rocks as he studied the water fowl. “My uncle is about on his death bed. He was like a second father to me when I was a kid. Haven’t seen him in well over ten years, so my father called and asked that I come. Of course, I also wanted to see him.” He tossed a rock with some force toward a land mass that mimicked a miniature island. It hit solid ground. He stood and brushed his hands off. “It’s sad, seventy-nine, he’s been very ill. No doubt you and I have other obligations. But, you know, blood family is, first and last, family.”
“Right.” She sighed. “Terribly true despite our best efforts…”
He snickered. They began to follow the path together, despite her desire to be alone before once more being immersed in the hothouse tenor of her mother’s place. But he seemed at loose ends.
“Mind if I tag along? I have nowhere else to be right now.”
Mari shrugged. “Tell me what you ended up doing, then. You were good with numbers and played the…trumpet?”
“Yes, to both. I’m in business, worked for an international company and still travel a lot. And I still play the trumpet for relaxation.”
“Not a big surprise. You were–are–good at all you did.”
“Thanks for that.”
She had forgotten how and where she had heard him play, but she knew Rita, a drummer in a garage band, said he could be a jazz musician one day–he was that natural a musician, so creative. That was one reason she hung out with him, that tie with music. Not that Mari was averse to it. She just had had little satisfaction pursuing piano so quit at twelve.
“You know Rita became a nurse, married a dentist and moved to Atlanta.”
“I didn’t, no. Hope that worked out for both.”
“It did, I suppose,” she said, deciding to not tell him she had no idea what had happened since 2010. Losing track of old friends happened so fast. And now how to tell him the state of her career?
“I am or was part of a large, booming gallery–the director. Boise, of all places. But I have long been an artist. It just didn’t pay my rent.”
“You are or were a gallery director?”
She stole a glance at him but he was staring across the pond so she kept on, uncertain how to answer. His arms were swinging, matching his long stride; they moved in sync when his right arm brushed against her left. Instantly, a mini-shock of warmth, that tingle of one person touching another. George touching her, accidentally. He slowed a little, turned back to her, ready to hear her story.
“I am, but I’m on leave. It’s a long saga. Not too interested in telling it. I am re-evaluating.” A laugh came out too loud and hard, bounced around a thicket of trees.
“We’re never interested in spotlighting tough times, just remarkable ones, right? I’ve had my share. I cannot imagine your not being a fine artist, Mari. You have such talent.”
There, he said the more familiar name. It sounded good to her. “I was sure aspiring to be one. Making work much less these days.” She turned and put hands on hips. “Okay, none in four months.”
They had looped around the entire pond and stood near the parking lot. He took out car keys. His alert grey eyes held hers more than a moment, and there it was. An unmistakable recognition that went a little deeper, barely. A tentative, unexpected connection. o, she was imagining it, wasn’t she?
“I have to get going, but why not join me for coffee tomorrow?”
She wanted to say: what about a wife, maybe I have a partner, too; what about keeping it formal or maybe just keeping the heck away? But she felt that he was alone. They both wore a lean, wan look tempered by surrender to their chronic but comfortable solitary state. They had stopped expecting anything to work out. They were savvy and they had also given up. They were fine like that. Mostly. She was almost broke but that was another issue, more or less.
“Alright, why not? About ten?”
“Jana’s? Where we once sucked up too much bitter black coffee-before it became so terribly gourmet and pricey!”
That brought forward memories of forbidden cigarettes, heavy white mugs of rancid coffee in shadowy back booths. But she already had misgivings. As he found his sporty car she realized he was attractive in a slightly asymmetrical, curious way and carried himself with easy confidence. George had grown right up, become a man of the world, a doer of things. And she was tired of that sort. In fact, she was steamrollered and worn out by all men. And George was just another, albeit one with a fine woolen overcoat and light beard, and an attentive, affable manner.
The door jingled its small tarnished bell just as it had all those years ago. Assuming it was a newer bell, but maybe not. She surveyed the scene. Jana’s Side Street Cafe had new charcoal tiled flooring and rich blue walls but otherwise seemed the same. The booths were still dark red but sported upgraded fabric.
Mari had told her mother she’d be a couple of hours and would bring home her new medicine. Tammy’s breast cancer had responded well to treatment; most of her chest was yet intact but this was the second bout and at sixty-three, she had been forced to retire from the library after so many months lost and too much weakness. Even if she had reported to her desk, it was time to take back the life she had left, she had told her daughter. She’d worked there thirty-four years.
Every time she looked at Mari she was filled with gratitude. This made Mari cringe with shame at the secrets she was keeping from her, and the fact that she found it hard to be there more than a couple weeks. They had not been very close during her youth; they had not become any more intimate with the passage of time. But Tammy was even more the optimist now, oddly, so kept trying to pull her closer, while Mari retreated more. For every kind hour there were those prickly with irritation, the subtle and often mutual criticism they tossed at one another. They had changed in opposite ways, it seemed. It frustrated them yet they never spoke of it, just carried on, each in their proscribed roles. Only now Mari was a caregiver, not the one aided. So far. She wanted to keep it that way. She liked her independence, her lifestyle. Still, her mother was her only mother. She loved her.
George waved at her from a sunny side booth; the favored back ones were filled with college students from the Baptist college. You could tell from the studied neatness and serious gleams in the eyes.
“Hey there,” she said and slid into her side. “You look more normal today, I have to say–and rested.”
Henodded. “I was getting over jet lag. Came from Columbia, then the Bahamas.”
“I see, tough life.”
That was an actual tan, then. He was clean shaven, wore a green T-shirt under a jacket with lots of pockets, safari-style. He smelled unusual, like cedar or the sea or a mix. Mari felt overdressed in tailored black slacks, high heeled boots and a teal cashmere sweater. She had met with a gift store manager earlier, giving her a sales pitch.
“I had business, forgive my cultivated look. I tried to push my nature prints at Nance’s Art and Knickknacks. I am trying not to cringe as I say that… hard to explain.” She felt her face flush so signaled a waitress.
George said nothing; he appraised her with eyebrows raised as cups were filled and cream brought.
“It is just that I have to keep making money on the side. I don’t know how long will be here and the job–it won’t tolerate my absence for long, and I have bills still coming in and–“
“Any good success at Nance’s or did you hightail it out of there?”
The vowels had relaxed already, just as hers had; the south was creeping in enough that they’d have to watch it or get sucked in to old habits of speech and behavior.
“Yeah, actually, she took four prints on trial. I hope they sell. I sell online, too, if you ever want to see what I do.” She played with her spoon, poured a heap of sugar into it, dumped it in, stirred. Her heat rate bumped up; she felt breathless. She just could not fake it to someone she had enjoyed and respected once.
“Hey, George, enough bull, alright? I was fired. I had an affair with the owner’s son and that was considered not acceptable as Joseph–the son–oversaw all accounts when his father was out of state. Which was at times for weeks, months. Charles Meier considered it overt favoritism and double dipping on both our parts when Joseph pushed my work at customers. I wasn’t even showing there, of course. Although business happened outside our gallery walls. And Joseph saw to it I got paid quite a bit and he got a nice commission and…well, not okay to Mr. Meier. So I was finally flat-out fired.”
“I see, you were both hustling.” George put an index finger to upper lip and pressed the indentation. He tried to not smile. “I guess it was a sort of ethics issue. Why didn’t he recommend you to another gallery or someone who could help without entanglements?”
“I don’t know. Laziness? He may have loved me?”
“Ah. Did you love him? Wait– that’s too frank a question, sorry. But I get it, he believed you deserved success. Plus he was smitten.”
Mari was stopped by smitten, how old fashioned it was and Southern it felt. “No. I mean, perhaps I was, but in the end it was more about the art…I didn’t separate the two very well. Love, art, men, business, work, art, love, life. It gets jumbled at times. It is not easy out there in the great art world, believe me. My prints and paintings are very good but so are plenty of others.” She lowered her face to the steaming mug and then looked up from under her eyebrows. “I took advantage of his contacts and interest, I admit it.”
He leaned back with mug grasped in both hands. “I understand some of this. I buy art.”
Her head jerked up. “What? Well, you make good money at your work, I can see that, so it must be great art you hang. What do you do? Your turn, George.”
“I’m an entrepreneur. I started out as an investor and did well fast, worked further in international banking and made a lot more money. Some years ago I got sick of working for others. I took my money and invested it in cutting edge tech industries of various sorts. Now I invest in others’ projects, businesses. “
Her mouth had dropped open enough that she made herself close it casually, sipped more coffee as she gathered her composure.
“Well, George Hartsell, we all thought you’d make it but more like an Ivy League mathematics professor or a ground breaking environmentalist, perhaps. I guess an entrepreneur is okay, too.” She let out a snort. “I mean, if you love it, why not?”
“It’s not a dirty word, is it? ” He smiled but his bright clear eyes narrowed. “It wasn’t a plan to take over the world or anything mad. I just had this knack. I took serious risks.” He looked out the window. “You know, most people don’t recognize me in my old hometown. I get the urge to extend my hand but they look me up and down, pass by quickly. It is the smell of money, I suspect, and a foreignness I seem to carry now. It’s a weird feeling. My parents are glad to see me, of course, and had a dinner with a few of their friends last night. But no one seems to know what to make of me. I want to say, ‘I’m just George–I love numbers and innovation, that’s all! It also made me money!'”
“No one knows me, either, George. Or, rather, they know me but aren’t interested. I think they all know I lost my biggest job, anyway. And I make art, after all. Most of it is not the sort they’d hang on their walls. The nature prints are one thing–and I love doing those, too– but the rest…I mean, what is art to this town?”
“Maybe a primitive painting of a farm scene? Not that that is not worthwhile.”
“Yes, likely so and I agree. And the quilts my mother and her friends make are beautiful. But I am not a success in the typical way, not like you. And now I don’t know quite what I will do next.”
“Make more art, Mari.”
She checked his expression to see if he was teasing or being downright snide, but he seemed serious. His demeanor was even gentle.
Kayla the waitress– no one they knew– brought more coffee but they had had their fill and grew restless. The sun streamed in; they were drawn outdoors.
“Let’s go to the park,” he said and guided her out by her elbow like a gentleman well raised.
“Here’s the thing,” he said, “you do need to create so you can’t stop now. I need to create, too, just with different materials, using different avenues. I love the way the human mind can imagine and devise an vast assortment of ideas. I had my own dreams as a kid. I’m holding onto them as long as I can work it right. You can do the same. Should do it.”
They’d walked around the shimmering pond. He’d mentioned he was divorced for over five years and she’d said good for him, he was brave–she’d never even tried a marriage. He’d told her he was tired of travelling and had two houses, one in Wisconsin on a lake and one in L.A. and “a modest apartment in New York” and he’d like to stay put awhile. She wondered how simple or small ‘modest’ meant but just having three homes seemed entirely excessive. A bit interesting. They’d talked about art a little, what he had bought and who she admired and what her next project might be.
“I know. I’m not giving up. I just am taking a break and really have to make money soon.”
“Okay, you know what? I can likely help with that. Now, don’t start being negative or suspicious until we talk over some things. I have a week to hang around; we’ll come up with ideas, think it over well.”
He leaned against a tree and reached out to push a stray lock of burnished gold hair from her eyes. She found the act lovely and natural. They both sensed there was something more underneath it all. They weren’t just two buddies passing the time of day to stave off boredom, catching up on old times, swapping stories to impress or garner attention. It was happening fast, but that didn’t negate the existence of something more stirring between them.
They liked each other’s company, had begun to click, even started to understand the direction and content of their thoughts before all the words were said. It was as if they had always known they might trust each other–when they were seventeen, more captivated by Rita’s boisterous energy?– but had put it aside and so now they resurrected the actual possibility.
Mari took a step backwards, then came forward once more as he carefully opened his arms. They stood there in the warm breeze, hip to hip and chest to chest, minds clarified, their hopefulness magnetic. Like they’d been needing such a moment a long while, and now they were meant to fit.
“Hey there! My gosh! Are you for real? Is that Marietta Masters and George Hartsell from the good ole, bad ole days? I can’t believe this–twenty-five years later!”
Mari said into George’s ear, “Good grief, that’s Tommy Jenkins, isn’t it! Balding and slouchy but no mistaking him!”
“Oh, no, not today if ever. Let’s get out of here, lady.”
George grabbed her hand and they ran around the bend of Mimosa pond until they came to his car, a vintage green MG. “Let’s head out to the country, what do you say?”
They had managed to leave the town a few miles behind when George shouted into the wind, grinning like a madman at Mari, “By the way, I already own six of your prints and two paintings!”
Mari smacked his arm as her eyes teared up. She wasn’t sure if it was the heady Tennessee spring wind that got to her or the sudden start up of actual happiness. But she did know her mother would forgive her for not sharing the whole truth. She would even cheer her on, then hug the breath right out of her and say, “Told you that all good things come to those who are just willing to hang on and wait, darlin’.”