She was pretty sure he was watching her, the old man sitting across the train station, eating a fish sandwich out of a paper wrapper. He had a soft face, a lumpy nose. The hands that held the lunch to his mouth were spotted brown and red. His gaze fell away each time she caught him looking. The eyebrows shot up almost wistfully.
Digging in her purse, she found her phone and opened up her calendar, checking dates for the week ahead. It was a shame her assistant had put her with the Bryants on Thursday morning; she didn’t meet the wallpaper hanger until Wednesday afternoon and she knew he wouldn’t provide her a quote overnight. If she could move him up, get the labor quote and his estimate of rolls before Thursday, she might walk out of her presentation with a deposit in hand. It would certainly help, but it was already Tuesday night and she hated to press the wallpaper guy. Experience had taught her to go lightly with asking favors.
Noticing that her chest was tightening with nerves, she decided to relax about the mix up with the schedule. Julia was trying very hard and, really, it would all work out in the end. When she glanced up, the old man glanced away again. He’d balled his sandwich wrapper up and it rested in his open hands. He pitched his face toward the floor for a moment, then chanced another look. Their eyes met and held. He surprised her then.
“You Eleanor Parks?”
She narrowed her gaze. “Yes.”
“You helped my wife with a design – years ago.”
She smiled. It was odd to keep calling across the space between them, so she hitched her purse strap on her shoulder and closed the distance. “What was your wife’s name?”
She tilted her head, wishing it rang a bell.
“It was a long time ago. You were just starting out, apprenticing under another designer. My wife always figured you were given the job because it was kind of small potatoes and your boss was too big for it. We lived in Queens, a little bungalow that’s no longer there. You told her to take the drapery down everywhere and get blinds. She painted the kitchen light yellow. We had it painted ten years later, but she used the same color again.”
Eleanor smiled, though the woman still didn’t come to mind.
“But did you and I meet?”
“Only once, passed in the driveway. My wife was talking real fast, trying to kind of push you along because I was in my work clothes and I think it embarrassed her a little bit. Adriana was like that. She wanted things always just so. She always liked what you helped her with.”
It occurred to her she ought to ask how she was now, out of politeness, but thought better of it. If she were dead, it might make the old soul melancholy and make her feel worse for not remembering the former client. Taking a seat beside him, she said, “Was she sad to see the house razed?”
“She never knew. Alzheimers. By the time we had to sell it, she was in a home and most days, she was pretty out of it.”
“I’m sorry to hear that. My mother had Alzheimers, too.”
“Yeah, I know. That’s why you did all that free work a few years ago at the Hirshhorn Clinic, on account of it was the wing for people like my Adriana and your mother. I read an article about it in the Times.”
“I’m surprised you recognized me. I’m not a very distinctive looking person; sometimes my friends don’t realize it’s me until they’re right up on me.”
“The Mrs. used to follow you for years, when you first got published. She told everyone she knew how you once helped us. Kept a scrapbook of your career, bought all your books. I think it was on account of you were the age our daughter would’ve been and she always said, if Chrissy’d lived, she could’ve done a lot worse than to be a fancy interior decorator with antique jewelry and a horse farm in Connecticut.”
It came to her in a flash then, a quick little memory of his wife. It was almost twenty years ago, she and the other woman standing at each other’s shoulders in front of a kitchen sink. They couldn’t afford to pull out all of the cabinets and the room was small. She pointed to a light yellow paint swatch and the woman smiled, saying she always wondered what something like that would be like.
Adriana Leopoldi. The name sounded kind of rich. She wore her makeup perfectly, if a little too heavily, and she smelled like the perfume counter at a shiny department store. When she talked, she worried a string of small but good pearls at her neck, and her smile for Eleanor was always warm, always generous and trusting.
The kitchen had been hot, the whole house a little stuffy. When she recapped her project to her boss, the stout southerner had rolled her eyes. “Well, sugar, you have to suffer through some of the little ones. They all teach a lesson, even if it’s only that nothing greases creativity like cash.”
It had made her feel a little ashamed of her work for Mrs. Leopoldi and then ashamed of that shame, too. She found that she took extra care to make the woman in the little house in Queens feel important enough. When they were done with their work, Mrs. Leopoldi sent her a card. Thin paper, Eleanor’s boss noted, reaching over her shoulder to rub the front flap. But it was after Chagall, the older woman’s favorite artist. She thanked Eleanor for all her help in flowery words, an elegant hand like honeysuckle running.
Eleanor had hated her boss for a moment when she pointed out the thinness of the card, but then tucked it away and cherished it for many years when rummaging through her desk drawers. It went with her twice, once when she left her mentor for a job at a larger firm uptown, and once more, when she opened her own fluffy little boutique in the village. The boutique didn’t last, but her career boomed. The card and the woman who wrote it had lapsed into the realm of forgotten things.
“She was a real fan of yours,” he said. “Said you were a lady.”
Eleanor nodded, but she couldn’t find words.
“Thank you,” she said at last.
“Hey, you okay?”
“I’m just very touched.”
They sat in silence for a moment. At last she asked, “Where are you these days? Do you miss the house in Queens?”
“Oh, no. I’m in Williamsburg now. My grandson’s got a eyeglass factory there; they make everything out of wood. Real old-fashioned kind of stuff, but kind of modern, too. I think his grandma would have liked his work. You might even. He has two apartments over the shop – one for each of us. He’s a good boy. The like you don’t find too much anymore.”
Eleanor imagined the grandson. She bet he wore his hair a little messy, wore all of his clothes ironically. His grandmother wouldn’t quite understand. She’d spend too much money buying him a suit he wouldn’t want to wear. She’d tell him things like that still mattered. And if he were kind, he’d give her a hug and tell her he knew she was right, even if he had his doubts.
“Cashmere,” she said, remembering the color she’d recommended to Mrs. Leopoldi.
He winked at her. “That was it.”