Apricot

The hydrangeas were the color of sunshine in crayons.  Wavy sprigs of stock, as purple as a king’s cloak, felt like tissue paper flowers when he pressed his finger against them.  The tulips were a beautiful shade of apricot.  They looked like they might not last the weekend, yet he shrugged off the thought and bought the bouquet anyway.  It would be nice to have a little color in the flat.  When Bryce moved out, he took everything bright and bold with him.

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They had only been together a year, yet they had quickly meshed together their lives.  When the rooms were reduced again to only what he had before, Bennett was astonished to discover that on his own he was quite drab.  His friend Alison brought over Thai food and beer the first night and they sat together on the tan sofa, staring at the wall where a collection of paint by numbers had hung the Saturday before.

“It looks like the first, sad half of an allergy commercial,” Bennett said.

Allison said, “It’s like if ‘mid-century morgue’ became a thing.”

They laughed a short bray, something they did to make fun of themselves being funny.

“Well, anyway,” Allison said, digging through her dinner.

“Yep.”

It became a joke among his friends, how dismal his place was without Bryce.  People said it was funny, they didn’t remember it being so colorless before.  Had he given some of his things away?

“I never thought Bryce was that dynamic,” his friend Sharp said as they walked Washington Square one morning. “But it really is like the first five minutes of The Wizard of Oz now.”

Bennett laughed, but the joke had started to wear thin.

Bryce had liked thrift store art in mad shades.  If he found a scrap of ribbon on the sidewalk, he brought it home and tied it around a cabinet knob.  He was a cheer scavenger.  He loved summer bright shoes and coats, so there was always some of that around, too, peaking out from under tables or spilling over the sofa arm.

They had grown apart quickly, once the early magic of sex and common loves was mined.  If he were honest, he would say they had only been sharing home for a couple of months when it stopped feeling right.  By Christmas, they were eating together in near silence, like old couples in diners, without the years to make any sense of it.  It was no shock when Bryce announced he wanted to move out when he got his tax refund.

“Okay,” Bennett said.

“Is that it?”

“I guess so. Is it?”

“Yes,” Bryce said. “I guess.”

They were stiff with each other for a while, then friendly again – one small kindness at a time – until one day they were as happy to see each other as when they were in love.  Except that now they weren’t.

“It’s like we should have just stuck to dating,” Bryce said one night, as they walked home from a movie.

“I know.”

“We really are a lot alike in some ways.”

“It’s true.”

Later Bennett had to smile when he thought about the two of them being a lot alike.  How could it be true, he wondered, when everything that was lively went out the door with Bryce.  If his world was charcoals and Bryce’s was Crayolas, could they be that much alike?

It was hard to fall asleep the first few weeks alone.  He missed the warmth beside him in bed, the brush of elbows or thighs as he rolled over in the middle of the night.  The pillows were no longer to his satisfaction; the streetlight peeking through the blind seemed brighter than before.  Maybe they had changed something about it.  He drank a little heavier to sleep deeper and it worked, though he felt groggy for much of the mornings.

Sundays were drab and lonely, so he made himself get up early to go for long walks.  He took pictures of things with his phone, stopped at cafes to drink coffee for far too long.  He was really quite bored when he wasn’t doing things.  When he was done avoiding the flat, when he could stand being out no more, he made his way back home.  It was usually early afternoon.  He always passed by the flower vendor without a glance until today.

When he put the arrangement on the coffee table, the flowers seemed small, their color swallowed by the vast, beige room.  They had looked so promising down on the sunlit corner, tucked in among the tiger lilies and the irises.  Shrugging, he flipped on the TV and said to the blooms, “Welcome to Kansas.”

There was nothing on worth watching, he decided in seconds, but he flipped through the channels for another fifteen minutes at least.  Finally he turned off the set and closed his eyes, shutting out the sunlight and shadows, the wall where Bryce’s paintings had hung, the pathetic little bouquet in the mason jar.

He opened his eyes a moment later because his nose picked up a memory smell, something that reminded him of the first place his folks had ever owned.  A ranch house huddled on a windy cul-de-sac, it had brick walls the dull, dark red of old scabs.  It was a little place with big shrubs, shy on sunlight, neighbored with old people.  The floors had dog piss stains in the wood.  His father couldn’t sand them out.

He hadn’t thought of that place in years and the memory smell was not of dog piss nor of wood dust.  It was the odor of fresh paint, which his mother had used everywhere to chase off the gloom of a house his father regretted from the beginning.

“It looked so much better with their stuff in it,” he said on moving day.

“Bullshit,” his mother said. “We’ll make it work.”

He remembered the weeks that followed, the stacks of boxes, half opened.  His father wanted to set everything up and tackle the changes later, but she wouldn’t hear of it.  When Bennett got home from school each afternoon, she had a roller or a brush in her hand. There was always a Virginia Slim hanging out of her mouth and a crease in her brow you could have lost a dime in.  He changed into cutoffs and a tee and took over while she started supper.

“Your father is a pessimist,” she said one day from the kitchen doorway.  “Don’t ever be a pessimist.”

“Okay.”

“I mean it now.”

Bennett sat up and looked around the flat, surprised by the memories.  It was funny that he should smell paint like that, opening up a forgotten afternoon with his mother.  He could even remember what they had for supper.  Salisbury steak, TV dinner.  It had always been his favorite.

“Well, paint,” he said.  “That’s funny.”

Then he glanced at the bouquet again, thinking about color and wondering why he never had before.  Maybe fifteen years of rentals, of wanting to get back deposits, had made him dull.  Was beige a pessimist color?  He shrugged.  It didn’t feel like it fit him very well, in any event, not that he’d ever questioned it until now.  Well, to be bold, he’d have to simply leap without a second guess.

“Apricot,” he said to the room, reaching for his shoes.

 

Picture Window

When he drew out the plans for the new cabin, a charcoal square on a brown paper bag, she watched with only mild interest from over her coffee mug.  He marked a slanted line at the front and said, “There’s your front door.”

Then he drew another slanted line at the back, near the corner, and he said, “That’s the back one.”

She smiled at the way he said it.  He seemed to think the front door was hers alone, because it was there for the things only she cared about: Sunday calls and parlor chairs; clean tea towels and soda bread sliced fine.  The back door was for both of them, because through it they would each come and go, sunrise and sunset, hauling and dragging the weight of their chores, now and then stepping light because the chickens were laying again or because the summer rain had been kind.

Over his head, while he drew, she watched the twilight turn the glass on their wedding sampler pink and gold.  Behind the pastel glare, their names were joined in needlepoint.  William R. Hale and Cecily Myers Hale.  There were flowers at each corner, orange and yellow and blue.  After her mother had grown thin and pale, near to the end, she leaned against her pillows, night on night, and pulled the letters and the blooms up through the cloth, floss by floss, until it was as perfect and bright as her own sampler had been years ago.  They moved up the wedding to be sure she could see it.  Leaning against her cane, as bent and drawn as a woman twice her age, she carried a joyful light in her eyes when the vowels were spoken.

After the wedding supper, when the young ones were dancing to fiddles, Cecily’s mother sat under an oak tree with a line of laurel at her back, and she watched the dresses whirling out over the grass.  The laurel was not yet blooming and the tree had hardly any leaves, save a few stubborn brown ones that clung over the winter.  When Cecily went to sit at her feet, she leaned down and said into her ear, “You’d have liked it later, dear heart, when all the flowers were out.”

“You’re the only bloom I had to have today,” Cecily said.  She leaned her cheek against her mother’s knee and soon the cool fingers came to gently brush her hair off her face.

“Well, you’re sweet to say it,” her mother said.

They rested there a long while, listening to the strings, the hoots and laughter.

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Will drew in a square inside the square, near the middle, and he said, “That’s the hearth. They’ll be a fireplace in front for your parlor and a flue for the stove around the back.”

“So that corner is the kitchen.”

He nodded at her gravely, his ginger brown eyes sweet and clever.  Her hand found his shoulder as she leaned in closer to watch his work.  “Will there be other windows?”

“Two on the back,” he said.  He scratched in a thick line for each, then he added a few more lines inside the cabin.  “So this is our room, off the kitchen, looking back on the shed and the back hill.”

“A nice big room,” she said.

He blushed and glanced away, “Well, it looks bigger here.”

“It looks bigger on that little brown bag?” she asked, laughing.

He shook his head, “I mean, the whole place won’t be too big.”

She nodded.

“But we can add on to the back later,” he said.

She sat down beside him and found his other hand, resting on his lap.  “Well, I’m happy to grow the house as we grow the family.  One thing at a time.”

He leaned his head against hers.  “Anything else you want?”

She thought of the little corner of the farm where he wanted to build the house, the way it sat close to the road, with a view out over Buck Mountain.  The patch of yard would be small, but she’d fill it with flowers, all the sweet old-fashioned one’s her mother loved.

Her mouth pulled a little frown, thinking about the view and the flowers and how they’d come and go by that back corner door all their days, only opening the front when company came.  She gave his hand a squeeze, “I want a picture window in front, so we can see everything.”

He might have thought about how much a big piece of glass cost or reminded her that drifters coming down the road could glance in at them at night.  Instead he picked up the pencil and made a thick, long mark along the front, to the left of the slanted line of the door.  In the soft light, shoulders together, making lines on the brown paper, they built the dream together, heedless of what the crops, the weather or the bank would let them make.

Blind to Her Own Faults

The house the Hurley’s built was named Primrose.  Folks called it ironic because the Hurley girls were neither demure or pretty.  Alice was broad across the back, her mouth an angry pen stroke under a nose that begged a full pair of lips.  The older sister, Tansy, was as grey and crooked as a melting snowman.  Even in youth, when her grey was brown, she’d never had a bloom.  She had a laugh like a cat who lost its breath and she found things funny when no one else did.  They were inseparable, the Hurley girls, not that anyone had ever wanted to break the set.

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Tansy kept up the house while Alice earned their living looking after an estate up the road.  It was a job she fell into nice and easy.  The Washingtonian lawyer who owned the place was rarely out except a few weekends a year.  He got to talking to Alice one Sunday in the pub where she was manager.  The tall homely woman wasted no words and she asked good questions.  He’d been impressed with her manner for years, since she came on as a barmaid.  People said she was given the run of the pub because no one could stomach fish and chips from a woman with a pie hole that sour, but if they’d been fair, they’d have admitted she kept the place tight.

The lawyer offered her five dollars more a week than she was getting and she took the job at once.  When she hung up her long apron for the last time and walked down the pub garden to the street, someone said the dead lilac outside the kitchen bloomed again for the first time in twelve years. The folks in town loved ugly jokes about the Hurley sisters.

The favorite one was about the new preacher, who went to have tea at Primrose before he found out they wanted no god over or under their roof.  He said they served him out in the back yard under a battered sycamore that held up one end of the clothes line.  While they were sipping, the older one suddenly grabbed her arm and said, “Oh, Alice, a snake bit me.”

And the preacher said Miss Alice cried out, “Why, Tansy, he’s got me, too.”

The preacher looked down and saw the snake writhing on the ground.  He never had to sully his pious mouth with the punchline.  Instead he’d pause for affect and let someone else beat him to it. “You know them Hurley girls is mean enough to kill a snake.”

Alice hadn’t much to do out at that estate.  She toured the grounds each Monday to make sure the gardener did his work.  Every Wednesday, she walked the house through.  If it smelled like piss, she set mouse traps.  If it smelled like mold, she had a plumber check the pipes.  If the lawyer wired he was coming out, she hired in a few girls from Front Royal.   She liked the black girls best.  They worked the afternoons straight through and they were cheap enough she could skim some of the allowance.

They took all the dust covers off the furniture and the chandeliers, gave everything a good rub with beeswax, and sprinkled the rugs with lemon water after vacuuming them.  She never had Tansy out to help, though her sister was good at house work.  Just once, at the beginning, she let Tansy walk the house with her.  That decided it.

Alice knew they might quarrel about it, so she waited until Tansy made her supper before she broached it.  They were listening to jazz records and killing a bottle of moonshine on the back porch when she said it plain.  “I can’t have you in that lawyer’s house. You’re too embarrassing.”

“Oh, hang you.”

“Always picking things up and wondering how much they cost.  You ain’t got no pride, Tans, no pride at all.  You think he’d have offered me that job if I was always mooning over him out at the pub? Batting my eyelashes like an ignorant Smoot, saying I bet his sports car rides smooth?”

Tansy blinked at her sister, then got up to change the record.  Leaning on the side of the house to take the pressure off her longer leg, she rifled through the box of albums.  “What the hell are you on about, Al?”

“I’m just saying that man gave me the keys to his house because he knows I don’t give a rat’s ass about all that fancy old furniture.  You walking through there today, picking stuff up and saying things like, ‘Oh, I bet that’s from England.’ No, ma’am. I don’t need that around me, making me nervous.  Besides, you’re supposed to play it cool.”

Tansy rolled her eyes, dropped the needle.

“Who cares?” she asked the porch ceiling.  The chipped boards were silent. “The problem with you, Al, is you care too much about folks.  Whether they think you care, that’s what you’re always going on about.  ‘Don’t make so much noise about how much the cabbage costs, Tans! You want them to think we can’t afford it?’  Stuff like that.  Who cares?”

Alice got so mad she almost threw her drink in Tansy’s face.  Instead, she clamped her jaw closed for a moment, mulling over revenge.  At last she let out a little laugh, delighted with herself over the tack she’d chosen.  “Well, maybe you care some, too.  I see you putting on lipstick before the iceman comes.”

Tansy just threw her face heavenward and hissed out a good laugh.  She was hard to figure, the crooked thing, her hide thicker than her skull.  Alice ought to have known better.  When she recovered, Tansy gave her sister a leering glance, said, “Well, what you think, Alice? Ain’t you seen the arms on that man?”

Alice cast her eyes out over the yard, tempted to spit her booze on Tansy’s begonias.  Instead, she swallowed the lightning and burned on its fumes for a silent minute.  Her sister was laughing again.

Tansy caught her breath, picked up the topic again.

“The way that man walks, manly like, you know he’s in charge of his woman.”

“Tries to be, more like,” Alice said. “He’s not that manly.  You seen that wife of his?  Sickly little thing with a flat ass. Looks like the runt of the litter. But she’s got them big sad eyes, too.  I bet she’s got your man all trussed up; gives him those weepy cow eyes whenever he steps out of line.”

That made Tansy laugh some more.  “Well, you’re probably right, Al.  Still, I could look at that man all day long.”

Alice shook her head.  It crossed her mind to say, plain honest, that Tansy ought to throw out the lipstick and save herself the trouble.  She knew they weren’t the beauty queen types, but not Tansy.  Even when they overheard comments – and they’d overheard plenty  – Tansy shrugged them off.  It was like she was blind to her own faults.  Times aplenty Alice wanted to make her sister see things straight.  She always bit her tongue in the end.  Maybe they were all broken, herself and the whole world, too.  Maybe being handsome was something to do with being simple and happy with yourself.  Besides, as much as Tansy deserved it now and then, Alice would never side with the rest of them by holding up a mirror and trying to make her sister crack it.