Wednesday’s Words/Short Story: Ms. Regina’s House on the Corner

Tanya and her mother read the column in the Obituaries section and they released a gasp in concert. The deceased lived five houses down the block. It was true they hadn’t seen her watering her flowers for months–some hired hand now did that task. They calculated she was 85 when she drew her last breath. Gone from the neighborhood. The entire planet.

Regina Ludlum had been the Headmistress of the Moss Highland Girls’ School for four decades. Tanya’s sister, Melanie, had attended years K-8 but she had not. Her mother came to prefer their good public schools rather than the parochial system, and at last won the argument with their father.

Mel had congratulated her on such good fortune. “You won’t endure the pressures for perfection, or all the knee bending, and the reverence for snotty staff. Though you kinda have to hand it to Ms. Regina,” she said, giving Tanya a “high five.”

Ms. Regina– she wanted to be addressed that way; her family’s origins were Southern, people speculated–was legendary for her intellectual prowess as well as vast organizational skills. She was also a good fund raiser twice a year. Many wondered why she’d ended up in such a small city, but she had the inheritance of her great uncle’s house. Her family heard this had brought her from Italy where she was studying some arcane art like gold leaf restoration in ancient buildings and exquisite crumbling homes.

Regina Ludlum was possessed of a quirky beauty defined by a loping, lanky grace; delicately shaped hands that nevertheless seemed a bit large; and bright eyes crowned by the most dramatically arching eyebrows ever seen. Her dark hair swung at chin length, neatly cut, and it framed her features perfectly, kept the emphasis on high forehead and penetrating gazes. Even when it turned white and her facial lines drooped, it suited her.

Ms. Regina’s presence was quietly imposing. Poised, entirely civil. Her capabilities were never questioned, and her students’ competence reflected her successful methods of direction, their parents said when Mel complained. But it seemed no one knew her well, at least not at school and not in the neighborhood. She remained pleasant but restrained, enough so that a mere “hello” seemed at times too friendly a gesture toward her–she’d give a quick nod and smile wanly. Or, if she was feeling generous, raise a palm in greeting, then keep on.

Tanya waited for news of her house sale, for it was this that had long drawn her. The ancient uncle who had owned it had passed when she was only one so it was just Regina Ludlum’s domain in her mind. When estate sale signs were placed along the sidewalk and at two corners, she was eager to discover all she’d longed to see.

Her mother said there was something inherently disrespectful, even distasteful about such a thing. All that gawking and buying of another’s personal property by an acquisitive public… but Tanya waved off her remarks. Her mother knew she was going to be an artist and was fascinated by houses, the things they held. Plus, she was now eighteen, fully capable of consideration of others’ property. And she wasn’t going to buy one thing.

She also knew her mother would be at her for detailed information when she returned. Even if she was too self-righteous to admit at the family table. They’d go fall shopping, have lunch tomorrow, and she’d give her a full report.

The Ludlow place was a large two story home, easily over a hundred years old, and painted a pale yellow with white trim. It offered a pretty covered veranda with overflowing flowerpots still hanging. Several people were already entering. The heavy carved door with beveled glass opened to a living room with a side staircase, steep and fashioned of polished, worn original wood. Small stained glass windows welcomed autumn light at each landing. There were other stained or leaded glass windows atop or alongside regular ones in the pleasing space. The light was dimmer in these areas; there was a huge chestnut and a big leaf maple out front.

Tanya wandered further into the living room, not unlike their own but much bigger, with a grand fireplace and brick hearth which displayed an array of large figurines. There were really statues, a couple that came up to her knees, some classical in design. Women, of marble or alabaster–one in a flowing Grecian gown, another a glowing white nude; an impressive, rider less brass horse with front leg raised and head up; a ceramic stylized bird that was most likely a blue heron but with an Asian flair. Tanya’s fingertips grazed them each lightly, and as she went on she wondered where they came from. Europe?

Did Ms. Regina travel often? Were there fine mementoes to be found?

There was a smaller study of the main room. A deep brown leather armchair for reading, a long narrow desk with matching desk chair. Bookshelves about empty; book sellers had already come in, cleaned them out. Textbooks were for some reason stacked on the floor along a wall. Several oversized art books still in a book case tempted her but she went on.

In the expansive dining room there was the usual, if one’s usual included bone china, crystal stemware, a silver set snug in a velvet-lined case, pale green and blue glass vases of elegant design, serving dishes of sliver. And then pitchers–five total, three of which were more rustic pottery. Tanya wondered if those were for iced tea, while two clear lovely glass ones for fresh lemonade or chilled water. Or vice versa. And with whom did Ms. Regina use all these items? It was so big you could well seat fourteen at the massive–was it mahogany?– table.

The large spaces were empty of much feeling; she wasn’t sure what she expected. Maybe lingering energy of laughter, high spirited conversations… Did she have many visitors? It was possible, of course; no one had a daily eye on her house. Maybe she got tired of dealing with so many kids and teachers at the end of school days; it was a tiring job, she suspected. When she retired, she might have craved solitude. Yet as Tanya thought about the possibility it made her feel lighter: Ms. Regina chatting away on a ton of topics, her smart comments filling the air. And they’d enjoy cold drinks and pastries on the fancy veranda.

She had never seen or heard Ms. Regina with a large outdoor gathering over the years. Not that she should have. Tanya was busy with her own life, not too mindful of the woman. She had read glowing newspaper articles, had seen her on television, heard the stories from kids who had attended Moss Highland. Oh, she’d seen her come and go to work or a store, but only a glimpse was caught as she parked her shiny black Buick in a double garage at the end of the curving drive. Then she entered the side door, Tanya had noted. There was a gigantic back yard, however; the house and its plot took up a third of the block.

Now the kitchen doorway swung open so she moved on. It had been updated with high end appliances, two rectangular skylights, a huge quartz-topped island with matching counters and refinished wood cupboards. Tanya moved to the side. More bodies crowded in and examined everything, exclaiming over this and that brand and culinary tool. Two sets of everyday dinnerware of pretty hue and decoration were stacked up. There was a shelf on the wall with more than a dozen cookbooks featuring recipes from around the world. It was clear Ms. Regina knew how to cook with skill and flair. There was so much light there it was friendlier than the rest of the house, so far. At the back wall which overlooked the expansive yard was banquette seating, with cushions adorned by a fabric design of copious green vines upon rich ivory.

There was a pantry, too, and she poked her head in to note half-full counters–a heavy duty mixer, an espresso machine and other kitchen aids–and many cupboards each side of the work and storage space. Had there been a cook, even a butler, once upon a time?

Tanya extricated herself from the crowd that had started to bunch inside the kitchen–it was popular. She stepped down into the deep, wide yard. Cypress trees–were those Italian? -she’d ask her father– lined back and side boundaries. The lawn expanse was so green and flowery she felt stunned by its beauty. Birds twittered, blooms bobbed their heads as bees darted about. There also flourished a small patch of vegetables to the right–pumpkins grew fat and jolly–by the garage. There was a darkened mossy stone bench at each side (an old man was half-slumped on one, peering into sun dappled shadow, a hat in hand). And a teal-colored metal café table with floral umbrella and four chairs in a corner–and was that an arched trellis covered in twisty vines? A two-level fountain burbled just beyond the trellis. Tanya found herself pausing there, looking back toward the stately house, entranced.

This had to have been where Ms. Regina spent much of her time. Who wouldn’t? It felt a special place. Her family’s own back yard was much smaller with an aging trampoline in one corner and a charred fire pit in another; their flagstone patio was outfitted with worn outdoor furniture and a big gas grill–that was all. But this–this was lovely, expertly tended yet welcoming, a perfect combination. Attention had been lavished on it; the array of forms and colors, the deft touches were what the senses longed to claim. Serenity. Ms. Regina outside on her knees, trowel in hand, wide brimmed sunhat a canopy for her attractive face–this must have been her joy and relaxation for many years. It suited Tanya’s idea of her–the gentlewoman tending her plants considerately and with wisdom, as she had tended her school. But, she imagined, too often alone. It felt so…private, despite the cheery aura.

But where was the woman beyond all the gardening? There had to have been more of her. Everything reflected abundance. Tanya had heard there had been a baby grand piano but it was gone if so, carted off by some gifted child’s family. She’d expected to see more of something…. There were were paintings leaned against walls, some Tanya liked and some she didn’t with others turned away from view. She had hoped to find more clues than pretty objects, greenery.

Tanya left the resting gentleman in the garden and others trickling out, and once inside she climbed the steps to the second floor. Four huge bedrooms, three smallish bathrooms. The first two were empty except for expensive and heavy bed frames and dressers for sale, one frame leaned against the wall. Most had “SOLD” stickers already.

The next room had a shelf with several bells of brass or crystal on it. A sturdy desk had six fine music boxes with inlaid or carved lids; Tanya gently opened each one to classical melodies. They looked very pricey. There were small prints of birds, butterflies and plants, like botanical illustrations–and bed linens folded in zippered plastic cubes on the high bed. A footstool was at its side. A gorgeous pen and ink drawing of the very house in a tarnished silver frame that pulled her in. But no portraits of family of others–they might have been collected for relatives, wherever they were. There also was a rich worn Persian wool rug, a closet with three woolen jackets and a couple of rain coats that looked well kept.

She then noted stacks of poetry books on a side table, and it made her inexplicably clap her hands. Yeats, Whitman, Lorca, a Russian poet she couldn’t pronounce even in her head, a few women of contemporary times (Muriel Rukeyser, Anne Sexton), and several more.

This must have been her room, Tanya thought, and sat on the deep rose colored quilt that covered the bed. She was suddenly filled with the hugeness of the house, life lived there quietly, smartly. Alone. Melancholy pressed into her as she took in the room, then she left it to glance in the sparkling bathrooms with heavy claw foot tubs and high windows, then stopped at the last bedroom across the hall.

And she pressed her fingers to lips.

What greeted her from the door was a wedding dress with its long veil. The lace and satin were yellowing–she was afraid to touch it. Meticulous bead work adorned the bodice. There sat a limp cloth rose above the neck. The scalloped hem was stiff with fancy lacework. A leaf-and pearl-decorated veil was topped by a headpiece that seemed like a small hat which mimicked a crown.

Ornate, flowing and sumptuous. A wedding dress for someone who expected her wedding to be long remembered. Someone who had to be clothed in such finery to lavishly emphasize all-encompassing love.

She held the fabric to her nose a moment, breathed it all in, smelled a faint waft of cedar that must have helped protect it inside a hidden bag in the dark corner of a closet. It smelled of that time and it filled her with an ache, a warmth, barest echoes of fervent, lost words. It held deep commitment, a promise of a future of joy.

And loss of both. Somehow.

Tanya began to back out of the room, slowly. She wanted to close the door and secret the dress away, but she guessed dress and veil were also for sale; she didn’t look. It felt a betrayal to let them hang there, be touched by so many, then bought as just another vintage thing. She thought for a moment that she needed to own it to keep it safe, but even that felt wrong. It was Ms. Regina’s, she was sure of that; it had been meant to stay hers. All that pride, expectancy, excitement–then perhaps great sadness. But it was not for Tanya to say, and Ms. Regina was long gone. As she turned, her vision blurred and she dabbed wetness away. Anyone would think she had lost her wits in the old house, full of items gotten and treasured then so easily let go. Sold off as if exquisite nothings.

Gawkers, as he mother had called them, were filling the stairwell now and Tanya began to understand the pronouncement. Was she one of them?

As Tanya rounded the landings and pushed her way downstairs, the shoppers gathered with purchases at the table set up for business. She looked about then. Was there not one thing she should keep of Ms. Regina’s? But all she felt was a pressing need to leave.

She walked around the three-quarter veranda and there he was, the old man. He wore a perfectly fitted, grey three-piece suit, his hat now set upon his sparse thatch of white hair. He reclined on a rattan and cushioned armchair. She approached him, leaned against the banister. He looked up, bloodshot eyes blinking, and offered a slight, crooked smile. She smiled in return and took in a breath of cool air.

“You knew…” she began.

“Yes, I knew her,” he said, gravelly voice low and well enunciated. “Did you find anything of interest?”

She hesitated. “Well, I found a wedding dress.”

He took his hat off to smooth back fine hair, then placed it on his lap just so. His gaze stayed on the hat. “Yes, that dress…”

“It was of course for her…oh, now wait, was it by any chance your…”

He looked up, sought her eyes with pale blue ones. “Yes. Back when we were fresh, full of the dickens and love. Right out of too much university we were, raring to go.”

Tanya half-sat on the banister as anxiety rippled her stomach. She didn’t want him to feel badly–maybe fall apart–as he rested in the breezy September morning. The barest scent of winter chased after autumn leaves in the side yard so that they knew more change was coming. They would each leave, soon. What could she say to him now, how could she comfort him? She was eighteen; he had been alive so long. When she didn’t speak, he continued.

“You don’t mind me telling you, do you? I saw you in the garden–maybe you knew her, too.”

She nodded. “Yes. I mean no, it’s okay. I sort of did, and admired her.”

“We were married for eight years, that was in Boston. Then I got a job offer in Los Angeles–I was a lawyer, got a big opportunity.” He pressed his forehead with the heel of a palm, studied the floorboards. “She was an art historian then…and didn’t want to leave her work. She taught , worked in a museum. See, it was the east coast and smaller and nicer than L.A. She said, ‘A fast lifestyle, glitzy people! Must it be your work, first and last?’ That’s what she said to me over and over. I said, ‘But think what I can do for us both, think of other options for you!’ On it went until we had heard it all enough…”

The wind gusted; a flurry of dry leaves rose and fell. People were coming out, going in the front door as they hid there, speaking of more personal matters. Tanya wanted to reach out, touch his hand but refrained.

He re-creased the top of his hat, patted it as if with affection. “So that was that, miss. It was tough. Unusual those days, people leaving a marriage was almost unheard of, at least in our group. In point of fact, she was ostracized for not going with me, not being the dutiful wife. But we left each other for things we deeply believed in. Still, I often have asked myself: for what?”

He brought his gaze to Tanya; so much was there that she looked away. The man stood, held out his arms to the seen and unseen world with a weariness, then dropped them with a slap against thin thighs. Tanya felt as if she was listening to a confession; it made her a little embarrassed, but his honesty was touching. She felt more sadness for him than anything. She took a step closer but not too close so her concern might make him think she found him some dotty old guy. Because she knew he wasn’t.

“Time slipped by so fast. My career was a great one; hers changed but it was fulfilling, too. It happened that we later wrote one another. After a long time we no longer did. On my sixty-fifth birthday, she sent a last card. And now…”

He leaned with one hand on the banister, the other held up to the sky but she could see his legs were weakening so she grasped a forearm.

“I remarried, a nice gal, but only for a minute–it was nothing, nothing much, at all. ”

Tanya feared he might be weeping but he wasn’t. He had closed his eyes and squeezed them tight. Then he stood tall, placed the hat on his old lion’s head with a sharp pat.

He held out a hand to her with a genuine smile that opened his wrinkly face. “That’s the story, at least partly. And I am Martin Ludlow–please excuse my manners.”

Her jaw dropped a bit, then she got hold of herself. She felt the warmth in his hard, lined palm. All the life lived and still left there.

“Tanya Oppenheimer. I live right down the block.”

“A student of Regina’s?”

“No, an admirer from afar. She… inspired me though I didn’t know her much at all.”

“Like me, then, inspired long from afar,” he said. “A pleasure to meet you–thank you for listening to my revelation. Best wishes for a good, long life, Miss Oppenheimer.”

Then he bent over to grab a small bag by the chair and handed it to her. With a turn on his heel, he took his leave. He clomped down the stairs and strode off, a bit hunched over but head held up. When he reached his silvery car, a driver popped out and rushed to his side, then opened a back door. Martin Ludlow stooped just enough to get in and the door was closed.

He was once and for all gone.

Tanya lingered a bit before going home, wondering over things. Regina Ludlow. She had kept his name. They had both kept each other in their deepest hearts. Two aging persons still in love. Maybe they got what they needed, and maybe not, she surmised as she dawdled along. But she was relieved she had finally gotten access to the home.

It was only when she no longer could see the lot with its house that she thought to open the bag. It was the pen and ink drawing: Ms. Regina’s on the corner.

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