Late

Because she was late already, and she was deeply terrified of anything like a fuss, Mrs. Ritter took a seat on the porch and waited for the program to let out.  It was a fine afternoon in late spring, with a breeze driving in a great bank of thunderclouds from the north.  Still the sky was mostly clear yet, and the sun shimmered on leaves in the yard.

It was an undisputed fact that Dorothy Langham kept the best yard on Hawthorn Park.  The layout of the shrubbery and trees had been thoughtfully decided upon by Langham women of earlier times, but Dorothy added flashes of color to the lawn that had been lacking in the past.  An harbor of vivid orange Japanese lantern, not yet blooming, would be by June a triumphal archway to the sparkling new patio of white brick; and higher still than this pinnacle were rows of raised beds, filled with yellow lilies and purple salvia.  The latter waved at Mrs. Ritter cheerfully, perhaps even mockingly, while her eyes roamed the grounds softly.

Because the afternoon was pleasant, the French doors to Dorothy’s parlor were cast open.  Now and again a string of words listed outward, like the hem of the sheer drapery, a flirtatious glimpse of the event Mrs. Ritter was missing.  The room within was an elegant space, sparingly decorated with family oils and an antique Persian rug; a pair of white porcelain cats, rather melted-looking in the modern vein, held court upon the mantle, reminding guests that Dorothy brought panache to the Langham digs.  There would be a plate of dainty cookies next to a punch bowl of lemonade and a crystal vase overflowing with freshly-cropped peonies, dark purple and white vying for notice.  The women would each have made a commotion over the arrangement upon arriving and Dorothy, with a graceful arc of her wrist, would have reminded them that peonies arrange themselves in the right vase.  The women would nod and smile at the observation.

An affair of light and friendly gestures would be over in little time.  Mrs. Ritter couldn’t pretend she minded missing it.  She was at best a reluctant member of the club, and this particular speaker, talking as he was of the importance of art guilds in the contemporary American landscape, had only vaguely interested her when she got the program back in January.

“Another one of Candice’s picks, I should wager,” she had thought, setting the slender leaf of card stock aside.  Then she had thought nothing of it again until her husband asked her last night if her ladies’ meeting wasn’t in fact today.

“Oh, yes, it is,” she had said, trying to wrangle peas with her fork.  Her face was stern and then grimly satisfied when she speared the green herd.  Her husband, glancing up from his plate, mistook her expression for impatience at his inquiry.

“You and your ladies are very secretive at times.”

She gave a short laugh, musical and bright, like a string being plucked on a guitar. “And I can’t remember the last time you shared with me the goings on at the lodge. All very hush-hush. Do the men exchange the numbers of their mistresses?”

And because she went so absolutely far with her jape and because he thought the idea of it was so vulgar and beneath both of them, he bent closer to his supper and commenced to eat in silence.  Studying him for a moment with humor sketching a friendly map upon her moon-round face, she thought not for the first time that he was more the old woman of the house. Shrugging, she pushed aside her plate, an ostentation of peas left untouched, and glanced for a long while into the middle distance, dreaming ahead of the chocolate cake waiting for them in the cooler.

She ought to care more about art guilds, she thought now, as she eased back into Dorothy Langham’s wicker.  If the truth be told, she would have to confess that she found nothing more boring than sitting through speeches, than shaking hands with peers before and after said speeches, than walking home in a clutch of perfumed females, discussing the importance of important things.  If she could schedule her life for pleasure alone – ignoring generations of duty and discipline  –  there would be more of dessert and less of vegetable.

When the ladies at last began to pour out of the house, the sky had darkened more, the clouds growing like an inky spill, and Mrs. Ritter was for a moment struck with the impression she must make upon them, sitting out there alone like a child awaiting a punishment.  Her brows drawing momentarily closer, she launched herself from the seat swiftly, and smoothed her dress. She was smiling by the time the first of the club members approached her.

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