The narrow street below was rife with movement and sounds that kept distracting her from her focus: finding the exact combination of pieces that added up to the whole of what she should wear. Her name was called out in a bellow–Tee, as he paused to stub out his cigarette against the facing wall of her brick townhouse. How many times had she asked him to stop the vandalizing but he was barely seventeen with miserable acne and a penchant for dabbling in electronic music nobody yet appreciated. Her neighbor Mariah’s son, in fact, and even she admitted, hand to head, that he got up to mischief more often than not. He complied with Jill slightly by smashing it near the sidewalk so it looked more like a smudge than a marred spot.
Jill pushed up the window sash to call back, “Hey, Tee, stop harassing my building, get on with your day!”
Two other people glanced up at her–including Mrs. Scallon who never acknowledged anyone– and then hurried on; the black lab, Scotch, barked before squatting as her hungover owner squinted at his phone; and the garbage truck honked loud and long so it could lumber on and squeeze through.
But Tee’s sharp laugh scuttled up the wall as he dashed off, backpack bouncing against his thick back. He kept his music low, but she could still hear it across from the street some week-end nights when he was braver about shoving it into the world. She didn’t think it was bad, maybe some of it was much better than bad, and she told him so. When first she said so, he’d looked down at his feet, just puffed away as she swatted the smoke away. Since then he’d been more civilized in general but his cigarette habits didn’t waver–her exterior wall was not the only one to bear the brunt of it.
“Tee and his own Teendom,” she murmured and tore off the gauzy fuchsia scarf she’d wrapped three times about her neckline. The mirror glared back at her.
It was all about color schemes. Jill thought in color, dreamed in color, solved work problems that held their own colors. Right now it was the dress, literally a color; it was all wrong. A navy chemise meant to be worn to a classical concert, perhaps or gallery opening or important work function–navy meant being orderly and restrained, meant business or even authority. Not a casual meeting with an old friend. She needed more light-infused color, maybe more jewel toned. But not blue, after all.
She glanced through the rest of the berry hue’s incarnations to see if another item jumped out at her. She looked good in this hue. And she needed help. Her hair was just a tad early grey at the temples–she refused to toy with that reality–but worse, her eyes were bloodshot and crinkly about the edges. The smiley eyes that had eased her through many of life’s tight spots looked worn out from the very act of ordinary seeing. It was, in truth, sleep deprivation wrecking havoc. She squirted eye drops in each, than started at the other end of her closet.
A fine panoply of greens and blues, then reds gradually going to rust toward sienna brown and beyond. Jill had them organized, cataloged–she saw them in her mind when drifting off to sleep, a lovely rebuttal to any disquiet that taunted her. Life was a parade of colors and they each had their place. They all meant something different, and found themselves adorning her slim–if hippy and a bit long-waisted–body as required each morning. According to feeling, instinct, her considered dictate. Each day was set by its tone, its matching color.
This morning had become more knitted with tension and that made it murky and in need of repair. Although the sun cast buttery tones across the bedroom floor and tried to soothe her, she felt chilly and tightly drawn, hands fumbling with each item, her neck developing the fuzzy ache that followed a restless night. Her hand went to the boat neck, raspberry sweater, yes, that was it. Today needed a softness that was lively. She needed that kindness, a vibrant warmth like a promise of good fortune. She lay her chemise on the bed to hang later and pulled on the cashmere sweater, light and airy but warding off the new autumn chill in the air. The pants were easy, charcoal grey, a fine wale corduroy that felt and looked like velvet. Her streaky auburn and greying hair was pulled back into a high ponytail and a slick of sugar maple lipstick dashed on. Black ankle boots were tried on; her summered feet settled, ready to stride into fall weather.
To finally take on–no, she didn’t dare let that image enter her kaleidoscopic brain cells–to finally see him face-to-face one last time.
“It wasn’t like that,” she had told Mariah a week earlier as they shared a mammoth pumpkin spice scone over coffee. “We weren’t equals and there was no question, he was an associate professor. Photography was his talent, and I was another student waltzing through an easy class. I knew how to point and shoot, I had a good brain, how hard could it be? Or so I thought. But Carter Tennington’s passion for it hooked me, and I registered for more the next year. Finally was allowed into his upper level filmaking series. I could do more than frame a simple shot. But not much more yet.”
Mariah smiled at that. Jill Manwell had pictures in galleries now. Mariah had a gorgeous view of the city and mountains hanging on her wall.
“He was–what, thirty, thirty-five?” she asked, pressing crumbs onto her fingers, then licking them off.
“I guess so, yes, to my twenty. And I found him too serious, shy, and though the adventurous girls tried to shake him up, he wasn’t having it from what I saw. Carter Tennington wasn’t apparently married or gay; he just was not available. Which was fine. By then I was so enthused about photography and film that I changed my degree program from mechanical engineering to fine arts. We worked on some things together, a documentary on student debt, a short feature that I wrote, projects with others. There was one exploring the cycle of seasons at a local nature preserve, how the seasons were impacted by human abuses–that one got an award at a national college film fest. Over that last year I got to know him a little more but could not cross any lines. He got me, he saw me, yet he was too decent or I was too young. I was scared of something like that. I went to grad school, got a decent job with a marketing company. A start if not my favorite.” I shrugged and grabbed the last bite of scone. “And that was that.”
Mariah studied her, that sharp gaze cutting though historical narrative. “But you had a thing for him.”
“I might have if encouraged but it faded. I didn’t date the last year or so, anyway–it was all about meeting my goals.”
“Then you got married, though, to Nelson, the big shot.”
“Well.” I opened my mouth, closed it. She didn’t know the whole story about that. I tried to forget. “And divorced five years later, and have stayed single, as you know, mostly.”
“The ‘now’ is a simple catch up of old student and teacher, Mariah. Now he is a pretty big producer of independent films. I’m flattered that he remembered me, at all. If it wasn’t for Lucy at work, we’d never have connected.”
“Right, the husband’s acquaintance. Then why is he meeting you at the market, not at a more businesslike dinner?”
“He does his shopping there? Who knows, anonymity?”
“When he’s at a hotel, on a business trip?”
“He said bring along my camera.”
“Well,” she said, laughing, “that’s a weird thing…vegetables, fruits!”
Tee poked his head in the dining nook. “Hey, got some new music, Jilly, wanna hear it before I blast it out there?”
“Theodore, don’t use that name–“
“It’s okay, pretty harmless after five years. Let’s hear it, if I must.
I followed him into his chaotic room–coats, socks and sneakers piled on the bed, vinyl records on the floor, books in piles that teetered, prints and posters of various, vivid sorts on the walls. It wasn’t the first time she’d entered his den to hear his creations, but she stepped lightly, the last time there were grapes under foot.
When he first played the three minute recording she found it too dissonant, no cohesive center. Then he played it two more times, and she discovered lead lines, then unusual harmonies, got caught up by the beat more. She had grown up with music–her parents owned two jazz clubs and another small venue–and she knew a little. This was not bad, at all. She had confidence in his abilities.
“It’s good raw sound, it could use refinement of melody but it has a nice groove. I like the middle part and last few seconds best, they stir things up, then tie it up. Grab us more with the start, make me need to listen from the start. Play with the harmonies more.”
“Yeah, okay, we’ll see about that.” Tee nodded sagely, put on his ear phones. Jill edged her way out the door and waved at Mariah as she exited the apartment.
Tee stared after her, shook his head. She was alright, Jilly, she was smart, had respect. He thought her sweater and all looked good. But she was kinda old for his music genre and way too conservative for his personal interest. Not to say, again, way too old.
She grabbed her Nikon from its shelf and left, a few minutes behind schedule after changing her boots to lace-up burgundy ones. The colorful ones were energetic, bold; her feet felt happier, so she felt better. No jacket–the late morning had heated up even though the breeze had an edge, nipping gently at cheeks and hands as she rushed to the plaza.
Jill knew what Cater Tennington looked like because he was in social media, in magazines now that he was getting known. She had followed his progress and noted he got fuller bodied, developed a bronzey-ruddy look that reflected world travels, she’d imagined. He had the same full head of unruly hair, a small smile.
As she walked rapidly toward the fountain, she wondered for the hundredth time what this was about. All the text had said was he had a morning free, could they meet after fifteen years, have a chat. There was nothing to get anxious about though her stomach had refused breakfast. And, after all, Jill had done fine, too, was Creative Director of VIP Marketing. And had published or shown several of her photographs. Maybe he was just pleased she’d done well; when she graduated, he’d wished her the best.
Her eyes scanned heads and faces as she neared the market and central fountain. Shoppers hoisted cloth bags of fresh produce, gathered and parted, then crowded about yellow tables with lunches from food stalls. They tied up their salivating dogs, offering them tidbits. Everything was about eating. She hoped Carter wouldn’t suggest lunch; she was not relaxed enough to enjoy it.
Nowhere did she see anyone who resembled the man she only knew from media. She stopped by boxes of early apples and tasted a sample slice and found it went down fine so took another.
At the fountain, she put camera to eye and snapped away. It was a happy scene with families and friends enjoying each other, and the moving, impressionistic swaths of colors buoyed her further. If he didn’t show, the visit there was always worth it.
He had spotted her first. She swung around as Carter hesitated a few feet away, then took steps forward, as did she. She noted his jeans, a comfortable tweedy, camel-colored sweater, and a worn straw fedora. It all gave off a mellowness: slightly rumpled, old fashioned but classic. The prof.
“How’d you recognize me? Your face is much more familiar these days!”
They reached out a hand and shook each other’s, then he motioned to a low wall they could sit on under a shade tree.
“Well, not so hard to manage. Tim Spalding, Lucy’s husband, mentioned your company and job, so I looked you up a few weeks ago.”
My eyebrows rose in surprise as I tried to still feign poise. “That was easy, then…I know you from the media, of course.”
“And here we are, Jill. It’s fifteen years, right? When I heard you were living here, I had to see how you’d fared. Congratulations on a stellar career.”
“I can sure say the same for you, Carter, though I can’t find the best admiring words to encompass what you’ve accomplished. Wow! I guess that says it.”
“Yeah, well.” He looked at his open palms, rubbed them together, then folded them in his lap. “It happened faster than I imagined and yet it was all the right timing. I taught two more years after you left, after I showed my film, ‘Erasing Melancholia’.”
“Ah.” Jill hadn’t heard of it; she hadn’t heard of anything until “Zero at the Start” over ten years ago.
“Don’t be embarrassed, no one knew of it but the right person saw it, a small door swung open. Off I went.” His shoulder touched hers briefly and he pulled right back. “The thing is, we worked together off and on for two, three years, right? And I thought you had such talent. I’d hoped you would do something with it. I hear you have sold photos; that’s good. But marketing, though it is a good career, no doubt–is that what you wanted?”
“Well.” She leaned into the big maple’s shadows, pushed her bangs out of her eyes. Should she be offended or flattered? What did it matter? Here she was sitting by Carter Tennington! Her stomach fluttered. She took a deep breath. “Lots happened after I got my Masters. I got married to a guy who knew all about that world, I had some bad jobs, then I got divorced, I got better jobs–I had to take care of myself and I was not shy about my ambition. And I like much of what I do.”
“He fired you because you were so good at the work and he couldn’t abide it, he was not a good guy,” he said quietly. “Not that anyone could prove he did so because of that.”
She stood up and crossed her arms. “Well, you’re sure not shy like you were before. I don’t know how you’re getting my personal info but it’s off-putting, this is just a casual meet-up, right? I didn’t comb the news for your flops or mishaps.”
He stood, too, reached for her forearm, withdrew his hand. “Quite right, forgive me. It was Tim– Lucy told him your story. He and I had drinks last night…I apologize, Jill. He was only preparing me for today, I suppose.” He took off his hat then, ran a hand over his perspiring forehead and through the thicket of hair. “Let’s move on. Can we start over with a cold drink and a stroll?”
She took my camera in hand and positioned it so she caught images of the cheery crowd milling about, the fountain erupting and cascading, then shot Carter starting to walk with one hand outstretched toward me, his hat being secured with the other. Without sunglasses, people would know his face. If she ever edited it, printed and matted, then showed it. Which she would not.
“Fair enough,” he said, hands held up. And suddenly he laughed.
She snapped another of his congenial smile, then we got raspberry iced teas and kept on. They were surrounded by vibrantly beautiful produce. He bought two peaches and she, a bag of plums.
By the time they reached the end of the market, they chatted away like old friends. And perhaps more now than before. The years had not deleted a basic comraderie they’d shared, if only in passing. They stood silent at last, and looked out over the sunlit lagoon, the water almost turquoise, then deep blue green as fat clouds passed overhead.
“The point of my seeing you today is twofold.” His vice was lowered and he looked at her steadily with clear eyes. “One is to admit that I hadn’t stopped thinking of you after fifteen years. You were special, as a budding photographer. As a person. I’d hoped to know you better sometime. It was just…it was a hard time back then. I had cancer then, you see. I was having chemo all that time. It was a very rough patch.” He shook his head to stay my words. “And then I went into remission and you were gone, my film work was put out there. Things changed faster than expected. I’ve stayed well, surprisingly. My whole life was turned around. But I fell for you once,you see, and never quite fell away–at least from the possibility.” He loked away. “And I heard you’re single…”
When he looked back at her, he lay his hands lightly on her shoulders and she shivered. “What do you think of all that?”
“Okay, then…not too sure right now.” That was all she say. It was too much to take in. If she’d known he was ill, would that have changed one thing? Maybe not; she was young, unsure of herself, far more than he was. Her mind swirled with colorful memories and newer feelings.
“The other reason I’m here is that I’d like you to consider being an associate producer for my next film. I know you have the vision, and now you have formidable organizational skills, no doubt, and confidence. And likely the needed creative insight. But it’s Chicago, not here. Maybe you can think about it, at least? We can talk money, details– if you even want to go the next–“
“Yes. I do want to work alongside you. And what on earth took you so long, Carter?”
We held each other so long I thought we’d meld into one out there in public, where anyone could see us, even recognize Carter Tennington and break the spell. But no one did–or dared to come closer.
“By the way, I love you in raspberry and charcoal–and what are those boots, pomegranate?” he whispered into my hair.
“Burgundy, is all. And I do love you in an old straw hat and camel sweater,” and then I hugged him closer as he slipped an amethyst dahlia blossom into my hair.
Much later, after a boat trip on the lagoon, after dinner, after a long walk and more talk, then their first truthful kiss, she returned to her townhouse. He had to fly out early. Jill had to catch her breath, then figure out how to quit her job and join his team. Commence to fashion a new life.
As she turned out the bedside lamp and crawled into bed to contemplate it all, she heard a familiar swell, crackle, then a drone and meander; it slipped and rippled through the air. The little song that could, the tune that traveled well beyond its simplistic origins and merged with something finer, richer. Tee’s tune.
He turned it up louder, shoving higher the glass window.
“Hey Jilly! Listen!”
“Tee, no, quiet down!” She pressed her face against the screen. “It’s past midnight, no one wants to hear shouting– or your music, for that matter!”
“If not now, when? It sounds good, right? I messed with it!”
She listened after she gestured to him to lower the volume.
“Yeah, alright–it has energy, interwoven melodies and harmonies, great rhythms. Spark.”
“You know, mojo.” He shook his head. “Well, it has….some magic in there.”
He did it–he whistled his train whistle, he was so excited by the progress. She never did know why her opinion mattered. Tee just said and did odd things, being a rather brilliant young man. But even though it was Saturday night and the neighbors knew Tee, a piercing noise like that was not tolerated. Right then dogs started to bark; two doors opened wide for people to check things out; one guy yelled from his balcony, “shut up, you nutcase!”; a woman yanked her companion into a dark corner and did not emerge.
She settled back as Mariah entered her son’s room, blond hair a flash in the overhead light. She came to the window, looked toward Jill, then added her voice to the mix.
“What’re you two thinking? Turn it all down! Where do you think you live, the desolate prairie? Some cheap-o street?”
Mariah said something else, maybe she asked if Jill was doing okay after Carter. But Jill wasn’t telling anyone anything a few days. She sank back into her pillows and pulled up the sky blue and rich cream floral quilt. The perfect colors and pattern for tranquility. For comfort. For a new-old love to bloom along the horizon. But she’d miss this familiar kind of fireworks night, too. She’d miss Tee’s music emerging and expanding, the notes each a different color, gliding and diving through space.