Chelly was counting the flies: 17 since she’d begun her shift. They careened about the storefront like daredevil mini- planes, dipping and buzzing their tiny energized bodies as if on a mission. Their wings folded a few seconds as they landed on the still-sticky counter. A damp towel was frequently rolled up and snapped at their whizzing bodies but she usually missed. Newspaper made a better weapon but the body count was still unimpressive. She wiped the whole place down all the time–she had a high regard for acceptable hygiene. And no appreciation for stealth bombers.
It was a rare, hour-long respite between clots of customers seeking sugary gratification at Hettie’s Ice Cream Parlor. What a corny name, as if cast and cemented in the early twentieth century, not budging a bit. The tacky nostalgic decor mimicked the name, white wrought iron chairs and tables, baby pink, sea green, peachy cream accents. Pastel prints lined the walls with old-fashioned park scenes, families daintily eating treats. A striped, scalloped awning. Chelly would change it to Hettie’s Icy Sweets or First Stop Ice Cream, make it black and white decor with splashes of red. If anyone asked her. No one did, of course. And the public flocked to the place.
She got the job when the weather had taken a zigzag and heated up faster than usual in April: more business sprang up. So, one more worker. People had pressed their noses against the window, tongues hanging out even when the line was out the door and it’d be fifteen minutes before they’d get in. That’s how it was with ice cream, the chilliness overtaking the toasty, the icy soothing the sweatiness: it was a hunger, sure, and eagerness for a fresh batch of happiness. Like in people’s lives, Chelly thought, looking for relief and pleasure.
She checked the big ice cream tubs and found a couple too low so informed Mike, the ancient store manager, and went to the freezer room.
Once the heavy door was pulled open, she let it close against the daylight and tepid sweet air. It felt like a strong, frigid safe for treasure on the good days. And a prison of doom on bad ones, one that could kill if you overstayed your visit. However long that might be, she hadn’t asked. Today it was a nice place to linger. It calmed her yet woke her right up. She didn’t much love the work though she pretended. Smiled as she stacked another mountain of sugary delight into a cone for reaching hands. It was hard labor, that’s what it was, made her arms and shoulders ache to scoop frozen dessert for hours. Her back whinge. It made her fingers numb sometimes. But she stayed on.
She tapped on each cellophaned, weighty container with gloved hands, counting as if counting was needed, saying aloud each flavor’s name as if she might forget.
“Minty cocoa, peach cobbler, salty-sweet seaweed, mango madness, espresso with sweet cream, vanilla bean harmony, blueberry blast, orange peel fireburst, sesame coconut….” She spoke them with flair, as if showing dessert offerings at a fancy restaurant her parents owned. Until: “Lastly, our great vintage creation… caramel-pecan-chocolate pie.”
She spoke that flavor slowly, words fluttering from her lips, her pulse increasing. Then she counted to seven with each breath in and out until the squirmy feeling passed. Chelly grabbed minty cocoa and blueberry blast, exited and shoved the door hard, pressed shut with her hip.
Three customers had come in. After she switched near-empties for full ones, she started serving. It was weird how some weeks certain flavors ruled, some lagged. Lately it was dark chocolate and blueberry. The week before, bubble gum and Key lime sherbet. Tomorrow, tropical banana with carob sprinkles. Passersby studied the menu on the door.
But Jay…he’d laugh like crazy when she listed how many sherbets there were. He thought sherbert had no business in a real ice cream line up. But she liked it; others did, too.
“Hey, what’s up?” Mike gently elbowed her. She spaced out sometimes.
Chelly blinked at him, put muscle into her scooping motion of the new batch of blueberry blast and plopped two perfect mounds into a waffle cone. Smiled at and checked out the customer. The shop went quiet again, excepting Mike and the new guy, Terrance, talking with another patron, and the overhead fan slowly rotating. Catching at a fly now and then, she imagined, only to fling it into another trajectory.
“We need something to scare off the invasion of flies in here!” she reminded him for the hundredth time. As if he hadn’t waged the war for years.
“A fly strip would scare off the customers. We don’t even have a screen door to keep some at bay. Any new ideas? I personally open the back door now and again to let them go out the back way.” Mike chuckled at this absurdity.
“Maybe an electronic zapper outside by the door–ever try that?”
“Also unappealing-it stuns every flying thing and scatters them by the doorway. We use citronella candles in summer, you know. People put up with this, they want their ice cream.”
Their words halted as she mopped up sticky drips. Then she stared out the window, at taller and wider folks scurrying by, the darker and lighter and young and aging human beings going up and down the sidewalks with easy intention. As if it was another fine day, life a fun parade, and the greatest worry on earth was if enough sunscreen was slathered on to fight off the onslaught of UV rays.
She scrubbed harder. Chelly avoided sunbathing, saw it as irresponsible of her friends. Though she always went with them to the lake. Maybe this year she’d miss out, now she was working. It made her a little sad. But the lake would still be there.
“You do a nice job, Chelly, but what’s up, why are you here? Pocket change?”
Chelly’s spun around and her mouth was about to say something she’d regret but she caught herself in time and shrugged.
“Yeah, pocket change, Terrance, why are you here?”
He smirked. “I actually need pocket change, unlike you.”
“What’s it to you?”
“Your aunt owns this shop, right? I know you could do better stuff at your family’s other places. Didn’t think I’d see you here.”
She wanted to demand why did he think of her at all–and did it matter to her what he imagined? If his tone had been stupidly accusatory or snide with an edge of cruelty she might have smacked him. But she knew Terrance a little. He was 16, a year behind her. He’d arrived in Newton five months ago. He often stayed to himself but somehow had to find her appealing. He was great at math like she was, maybe better. But he apparently lived with dark blinders on and earplugs in his large ears 24/7– because he’d not ask her that if he had any info or good sense.
“Terrance.” Mike said sternly with a sharp motion of his head at Terrance to get back to work.
“Never mind, Mike,” Chelly said, “he’s still a stranger here– he’s just, you know, speculating, got the wrong scenario started.”
MIke shook his head, returned to his desk in back. Terrance glanced at her with cautious anticipation while he straightened chairs.
But she was taken with a woman who hesitated by the door, a little boy tugging at her hand to persuade her to go in despite it being close to dinnertime. Chelly’s face relaxed; her hazel eyes widened at the boy. He half-banged on the door with his balled up fist but just once. She gestured a welcome to him with a smile. Dinnertime be damned. He was a little kid and needed ice cream. She’d get him in if that woman didn’t. Then she was going to give him a huge extra scoop to take home–she’d pay if Mike complained.
She peered at Terrance, noting a flush staining his pallid cheeks. “So Jay, my brother, was an ice cream nut. We made ice cream at home and he wanted to work here when he grew up. Invent one hundred more flavors. But he didn’t get to grow up. He died before you got here, before the ripe old age of ten. So I’m working for him.”
“Oh, I’m sorry…” He hung his head, shuffled off.
“Yeah, now you know something real,” she said and gazed out the window again.
Four more people appeared and got in line behind the stalled duet. The bell on the door rang as mother and son entered, and the kid raced to ogle the beautiful ice cream tubs, eyes glossed with sunshine, shaggy hair stuck this way and that, hands pressed to his round cheeks as he pondered mind boggling choices.
“What can I get you today, boss?” Chelly asked and readied her scoop.
“Oh, I suppose it seemed the theater of the absurd at times. It was the start of their high life, alright. Mom got most everything she wanted and too little of what she deserved,” Maggie said, watching the fire grow with a sudden catch of the dry tinder, then flicked over the logs.
A sudden wave of snowflakes gusted sideways. The cardinal she always looked for had come and gone and not returned but it had instincts and she had to be patient. The scene beyond was a swath of whiteness poked through with bits of green–the branches of surrounding evergreens.
“So she wasn’t happier later? That’d be a shame, all the work she put in.” The soles of Lynn’s feet were held closer to dancing flames.
Maggie pulled the crocheted blanket more tightly about her. “Well, Al was alright. He took care of her in most ways. I mean, they were living the sublime California dream, he a fledgling writer and new producer, she an actress with unstoppable optimism. All those auditions, she was off and running every day. At least she got some calls, acted here and there, finally got a pay off.”
Lynn slipped off her chair onto the frayed Persian rug, eased closer to the fireplace. “Hmm, she looked like Rita Hayworth. She had such ambition, so there’s no explaining things, how they worked out.”
Maggie felt the usual ripple of discomfort in her stomach. This was where she tended to stop talking. Since Maggie had moved to Boise months earlier, Lynn either tiptoed around the topic of her mother or tried to barge right in. Maggie didn’t want to have to manage any psychic fallout. Her mother had already died and too soon. Still, it was just Lynn; they went back forty years.
“There is always an explanation. But that story is long and at points, twisted.” She turned her head to meet Lynn’s eyes; they were curious but warm, like when they were growing up. “You remember enough.”
Lynn tipped her chin to study two golden candles on the mantel and sighed. “I recall that your knock-out mother was friendly. Often laughing. Your stepfather was sort of stern–compared to my father–and corny, and good looking in a quirky way. But they were also just busy adults; we were kids, had our own world.”
“Kids live in two worlds–their own bubble existence and then dips into odd goings- on outside of it. Ours was possibly more fun; theirs, more dramatic. Complicated–how it is when you grow up. But, honestly, it was like they strove to live out their movie-land fantasies right under my nose, not just at work. By the time I was on the an adolescent, we both heard and saw plenty.”
“I guess you’re right. It was just so fantastic, too…I never met anyone else like them.”
Maggie yawned, re-positioned in the armchair, hunkered down–it got so cold here– in the worn green and brown afghan. The only thing her mother had ever made by hand. The wine bottle was close by so she poured a second glass and offered a refill to Lynn. It was dismissed with a wave of her strong yet elegant hand, the hand of a massage therapist. Her surprised eyebrow raised a tad, as well. Maggie never drank as a teen though Lynn did; it was peculiar to see this almost reversed, and she hoped it didn’t get to slurred words. She hadn’t seen it yet but there had been snatches of that at times during her years of odd, inconvenient phone calls. But Maggie was supposedly “over” liquor, at least. And she seemed clear of mind. Well, they all had there challenges.
Lynn had once lived two houses down from the Thornbills’ place in suburban L.A. When Maggie Thornbill moved there at age eight, Lynn was thrilled to have a new playmate who was brave but not reckless, smart but not snotty. They hit it off with their dolls then roller skating, foot and bike races at the subdivision’s park, marathon gabs and games when they had sleepovers every other week-end. The Thornbills’ house was much like theirs, a large, newer mid-century modern house, its light-and shadow-filled rooms made more spacious with high ceilings and big windows. Plus there was the good sized pool. They loved to swim; they switched pools each time. Unless Mrs. Thornbill was paddling around in Maggie’s during daylight with a few friends. But her friend’s mother often swam at night and into early morning, that’s what she heard from her parents.
But they didn’t have to note that, she was partly visible from Lynn’s bedroom window and she unabashedly spied sometimes. Everyone nearby would hear her at some point. The woman could be a real pistol or a riot after her first drink, everyone agreed. Lynn thought that was true of everyone who drank but it turned into a different thing. Lisa Thornbill became more of everything: ravishingly pretty, boisterous, unstoppable, daring. If she got in the pool with her drinks at hand, Al at poolside and watchful, her very own father would walk over by 1 a.m. and firmly ask Mr. Thornbill to please her rein in, other people had to get some shut eye even if they didn’t. The next day Maggie said nothing of the whole thing and neither did Lynn. Of course Maggie knew what went on, she lived there. But the two families were congenial and besides, it was just the way things were, old news very soon.
The other inescapable facts were that Mrs. Thornbill was fairly talented and gorgeous yet so were a few thousand others. She was lucky to get a smaller but recurrent role in a popular soap for ten years. Her husband’s promotions in the industry didn’t help speed up her career. But you’d think she was famous just to see her walk across the street, “natural grace lit with a preternatural fire”, her own mother had murmured once to a friend. Lynn had to look up the last adjective but she didn’t get it for years. When she did, the idea seemed right.
At sixteen, Lynn was forced to move to Illinois when her father got a transfer with bigger bucks in the advertising business. Her own life went downhill until she married and left home at nineteen, though she went on to college a bit late. Not like Maggie, off and running from the start and now at least regionally famous and her reputation spreading. She might be in Boise that long.
That was so long ago, Lynn mused, three children and five jobs and two husbands ago. It was fortuitous, she so wanted to feel, that Maggie had recently moved to Boise, Idaho where Lynn had lived the past half decade, single and with only one teen left at home. They’d lost touch but there they were, catching up. Lynn watched the leaping flames and shook herself a little.
“You know, Mom called me almost every day after I graduated from Mills College and started teaching music,” Maggie said. “She had to admit she was proud of me, finally. She wanted to know everything–gosh, questions never ceased! I finally had to stop answering her calls much. She got the hint, always good at intuiting things if at times rather late. Her health by then had developed glitches–a bleeding ulcer, days long migraines, signs of early arthritis–but otherwise she seemed better than I imagined she’d be at forty-five. You would never know she lived through so much… still seemed nearly perfect. Looks can sure lie.” Maggie lowered her eyes as she gave a short laugh, sipped her wine then licked her lips as if satisfied. “Almost our age, weird, huh…” Her lips curved into a careful smile, eyes still dark with escaped anger. Then came a welling of relief. “But she could not endure more disaster.” She glanced at her friend. “I’ve outlived her, haven’t I,” and she smiled again.
It was unnerving to see that smile juxtaposed with the statement, as Lisa Thornbill had drowned during a boat trip in South America with her third husband. It was not likely an accident and her spouse was not to blame; he’d tried in vain to revive her.
Maggie’s face opened up as the edges of her anger softening, becoming satisfaction laced with mischief. And there it was: Mrs. Thornbill’s lively, charming presence stirring within Maggie. She finally saw that even Maggie’s features held many attributes of her mother. Or, perhaps, the mother’s own hopes had more fully come to bear fruition in her daughter.
Lynn plunged onward. “I remember the last Christmas we were still there, do you? We were busy packing and cleaning; we were to leave the day after New Year’s. Remember how I came over and cried on your shoulder for hours because we didn’t even get a Christmas, it cost too much, was a hassle and Dad had left for Chicago already? I thought that was heartless, it felt so cruel.”
“Well, it was, Lynn. But our parents often forgot we were still kids who actually needed them.”
Lynn wasn’t sure she wanted to fall into the pit of sadness that underlay Maggie’s words. They couldn’t tiptoe around it as they did as kids; everyone knew soon that Mrs. Thornbill was an alcoholic. It caused all manner of pain even then though she was–as when she was sober– most often a vivacious drunk, the hostess whose list everyone wanted to be on even if they knew something might go spectacularly wrong (“untoward”, her mother said) by the end of the event. Likely that was why some came.
As for Al Thornbill, he was a man with sublime equanimity and manifest ego. He was neither fazed by his wife’s antics nor her daughter’s snappish intelligence or growing sulkiness. He possessed a decisive manner, taking charge of any situation. Lynn wondered by the time she was a teen if he took charge a bit too much, unlike her own father who proudly proclaimed equality for all and seemed overall unperturbed which Lynn thought at times cowardly, also neglectful. For example, he scolded her for drinking up his scotch and made her pay him back for it but he never forbade her or monitored his bottles or her week-end drinking with friends, leaving hard experience as the teacher, too many times. She had to make up her own rules and she was still struggled to find what worked the best. But alcohol had lost its spell for the most part.
But Maggie seemed to have been born with a set of directives propelling her, many that didn’t match her parents’. Her friend should have been a composer, perhaps–she thought up wonderful tunes as a kid, learned to write them down as a teen– not just a music teacher, a good thing but limiting, she thought. But Maggie had become a musical theater company director.
Maggie reached for the near-empty wine bottle, then pulled her hand back. “It was the holiday no one forgot in Belmont Estates.” She swept her dark, silver threaded hair into a long ponytail and slipped it in an elastic scrunchie. Her flecked amber eyes glowed in the firelight. “Of course, it was the tree that started it, the fact that dad didn’t want to wrestle with a real one again and Mom wanted a gold metallic and I was trying to convince them that only a real one would do, it was a tradition, they couldn’t change tradition. We didn’t have all that many, this one I needed.”
“I know, who among us wouldn’t need a tree? But us girls, especially, it was a tough teen-aged year. And I came over and we sneaked into the hallway to hear that argument your parents had.”
“We did? Well, Mom had begun an early cocktail hour by then, no doubt. But Al–Dad–ended up siding with me, well, maybe he just wanted to oppose Mom. The next day the two of us went out and found a scrawny tree that cost so much he almost took it back when it tried to fall off the car roof, but we got it home and into the yard. And Mom said, ‘What do you intend to do with that? It’s far and away too ugly to deposit in my living room, it must go!’, her manicured finger pointing somewhere into the distance. But he later wrestled it in, set it up with your dad’s help. Then Mom kicked it.” She looked at Lynn incredulously, shaking her head.
“Yes, I remember, she kicked it twice, a high heel was scraped and her big toe hurt. She hobbled off to their bedroom but we decorated it ’til late, stringing popcorn all of which we ate and I stayed over. I remember her high heels because they had pointed toes, spike heels and oh, that chartreuse green! I coveted them…”
“Yeah, heels were a serious need of hers. Then the next day we woke up and Mom was at it again, saying real trees dropped needles and looked such a mess, it was the ugly tree of the year and no one would be allowed into their house for their annual holiday party if it stayed there! She wanted gold! I was disgusted by the whole thing and told them I’d go get my own tree for my room, they should sort it out.”
“And your dad, usually so unruffled by her told us to go play at my house.”
Maggie unwrapped the blanket and got up to resposition falling chunks of embers, sparks jumping and spitting, wood sizzling. She turned to check out the snowfall beyond the picture window. “This endless snow. I still miss California sometimes.”
“Not me. I miss nothing but those good times we had. I’m so glad you called before you moved again, I never expected to be neighbors at this age. But you know I never wanted to leave, then.”
“It about defeated me to see you go, Lynn. But that day–a few days before Christmas and the usual party–was a fantastic way to wrap up things, right? We got up late and had our peanut butter slathered pancakes, I think…then I decided to check out Mom and Dad, see what they’d done. And what I saw as I rounded the corner of the house…”
“You ran back to get me and when we came up to the swimming pool, we went bonkers, just screamed!”
“My incredible, crazy mother! There she lay on the floating raft in all her glory and at the end of the pool bobbed our tree! Our decorations messed up, but still standing tall. I don’t recall how he rigged that up but it was the most wonderful thing I’d ever seen. Those cheery bulbs bobbing in the warm blue water. Good grief!”
“I thought your mother was amazing, lying there in the buff, and that tree sparkling in the hot sun.”
“Was not naked! She had on her pinkish underwear –those impulses can still make me cringe–but at the same time it was sure something. The whole tableau, in some terrible, awesome way.” Maggie was surprised her throat constricted around the last words.
Lynn stood up then and put her arm around her friend’s shoulders. “What a party they threw. And no one was very embarrassing. You and I had fun, too, and your mom was great. She came up to me as we left and told me that she’d forever be grateful you and I got to be friends, that it was heaven-sent when you found a best girlfriend and to not let it slip away. Did you know that? It gives me goosebumps thinking of it, as here we are now.”
Maggie patted her hand and peered deeper into the fire. She felt so much younger and older that she did at the start of the evening, as if she was caught in an accordion of time and hadn’t established her own spot in this new story, this new musical line yet.
“I think she was lonely, for all the so-called friends she made. Your own mother was much more domestic than she was, worked at the phone company part time; they didn’t have much in common. She didn’t easily let people in, it just looked that way I realized later, and when she did, they were taken with the physical beauty, not who she was. A woman who was a romantic at heart, a little lost, I think. Even scared. It was a time and place that made it so hard on women if you didn’t play the game. She wanted so much more, to be on the stage, not television. This is what she admitted during later talks we had. By then she was more sick than she let on but I didn’t want to call Dad… that is, my stepdad, but he was good to me. He had long joined the ranks of Hollywood’s big fish.” She sighed. “We catch up every few months but, no,” she said to intercept more questions from Lynn like, was he finally rich now…”I don’t go visit him, anymore. It’s too much razzle dazzle mess for me. He told me he’s proud of my work. That’s enough. He can come visit me, if he likes.”
They sat down in their respective chairs, each lost in the past moving with its phantoms in and out of firelight. The silence had deepened as snowfall had thickened and begun begun to pile up
“Are you not going to get a tree?” Lynn asked.
Maggie chuckled. “I’d thought of it, then I didn’t get around to it, the current rehearsal schedule is killing me and then there are eight performances in one week. I’m alright with not having one. I mean, I’m alone here, who’d I share all the trimmings of Christmas with?”
“Me, of course, Maggie, who else? My son might even come if we whipped up a nice meal. I have no big plans for Christmas this year, just my usual New Years’ Eve party which you’re attending.”
“Well. A tree…sounds like some more work.” She stretched luxuriously, back arching, shoulders up to her ears, hands clasped together over her head, then she let it all drop into a slump. “But I’d do it. I do have a few acres out there.” She gestured out to a dim, snow-blinded view, nodded her head. “You two want to cut down a little tree with me tomorrow morning if we can slog through the drifts? I have the requisite snowshoes.” They hung on a back wall of her well-aged cabin and she got up to show them off to Maggie. “I’ve used them twice–got a small distance but I’ll get the hang of it.”
“Yeah, you’re a quick learner. I like that idea. Let’s do it!”
“Good. A Christmas tree is good.”
Once more they fell into quietness, a deeper cushion of comfort, the ease of an old familiarity resumed. They could hear snow being blown up, down and around by frigid winds, dashing against windows. Maggie wondered about her cardinal, if it would show up when the weather was spent of some of its power, when the snow lay sparkling like a stole upon sleeping earth. Somehow, that small red bird’s meanders among the proud trees, his stops at her bird feeder and his zigzag flybys past her big window meant more than she could say. Without those flashes of poppy red wings, she wouldn’t feel very at home in this frozen place; it was another stop on the road to a bigger career moving fast. The cardinal and often a mate had been there from the start and greeted her daily.
“Come, red bird,” she said after Lynn left. “Don’t disappear.”
Maggie stood in the open doorway, arms pressed to chest, her hand then rising to cup a few snowflakes. As the wind shushed, a brilliant flash materialized from beneath trees to sweep through darkening and pristine air, his strong wings just missing her fingertips.
“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 slidetick 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.
An imperturbable demeanor comes from perfect patience. Quiet minds cannot be perplexed or frightened, but go on in fortune and misfortune at their own private pace like a clock during a thunderstorm.—Robert Louis Stevenson