The End of the Drought

In the pale dining room, almost grey and almost purple, where her mother had loved to feed people for fifty years, Rhonda Jones stood staring at a clutter of plates and teacups.  The room smelled like old wood and maybe just a little like mouse.  Her mother would have been horrified that it didn’t still smell of Pledge and Lysol.

“All these dishes,” Rhonda said.

The box she’d brought in from the car would not be big enough.  Some of the dinner sets weren’t too bad; there was one with a band of light aqua blue that would probably go home with her.

“I guess I’ll take most of this to Good Will.”

It was odd to hear her own voice breaking the dead silence of the house. She closed her mouth firmly, set aside her purse, and shook herself out of her coat.  It was tight on the arms. She’d been building muscle at the gym recently.

If it hadn’t been for keeping fit and working hard, this winter would have been unbearable. The election the year before had set her teeth on edge, made her break with a few friends on Facebook, and gotten her to read too many feminist dystopian novels.

In this state of anxiety, her mother had finally succumbed to her cancer, passing away last summer in the middle of a heat wave.  The grass had browned all over town, except for where people snuck out at night to water their lawns even though it was against the ordinance.

Rhonda knew the ordinance well because she had helped draft it.  People liked to think no one who worked for the city really did anything, but they’d be mad as hell if everyone got to green up their lawn and then nothing came out when they went to turn on the shower one day.  There had been some lunchtime jokes at city hall about all the toilets that couldn’t be flushed.

“They’ll get over it,” Rhonda had said. She tapped a button on her keyboard and the email was sent. Her employee would shoot it along the proper channels and the town would know about it by the next morning.

Still, some people felt entitled to look out for themselves, turning on their garden hoses real quiet, padding around their own driveway with the sprayer in hand, their slippers getting wet, head spinning as they peered into the dark around them like thieves.

It was August when her mother finally wilted and left.  How she kept herself together during the funeral with all the family around to drive her nuts, Rhonda would never know. Her cousins would say with Jesus’ love and mercy and Rhonda would nod in agreement, although she’d stopped believing years before. That was an unwinnable debate. Saying you didn’t believe in Jesus in the Jones family was tantamount to trash talking somebody’s grandmother.

Rhonda considered herself good at choosing her battles.  She saw peace and calm as the most cherished state of mind and organized everything in her life to protect it.  How calmly she had decided to get out of her marriage. How still she’d been as they sat next to one another at a lawyer’s desk, her signature a brisk scratch, his a slow and mournful note.

After the funeral, her cousins lost interest in comforting her quickly.

“She doesn’t want that from us,” Charline had said.  She was the leader of their small tribe, the oldest and the biggest, with shoulders and arms that strained to burst from under the triple layers of bra, floral sundress, and ecru cardigan.

Rhonda always looked on at her cousins in amazement. The ring of seven that were the backbone of Mt. Hebron Baptist Church.  They dressed liked their mothers did for church. None of them were over fifty-five yet, but they might have been born the same year as women who were pushing eighty.  She knew it was a tradition and something that made them feel connected to the comforts of lost mothers and fathers. She also knew that it was the proper ceremonial garb for the new queens of the church.

Still, to Rhonda, who always wore the same simple navy dress when at last her excuses ran out and she had to make an appearance in the aisles, the others looked like children playing dress up.  Truth be told, they tired her.

Church tired her and so did tradition.

Yet still she was guarding herself against upsets, against drama, like if anything normal were to blow up, she knew she’d take the shrapnel in the gut.  Maybe that explained why she always passed a hand protectively in front of her stomach whenever the cousins approached her.

“You’re your own worst enemy,” Charline said to her one Sunday last winter. “You don’t have to do it all alone. Besides, you don’t have time to clean that place out and Aunt Edith would be so sad to see her house go to rack and ruin.”

She wanted to say that it was only getting a little dusty, that she kept gas in the tank and the heat set just low enough so no pipes would freeze. She should have said that she paid a man to keep the lawn mowed and that she popped in once a week to double check the window locks and to wave the flashlight around in the basement in case the old water heater started to leak again. It had that once but it had been fixed.

Instead she said, “Thank you, Charline. I’ll think about it.”

Today she had planned to finally start going through the things, taking the house apart. She had pulled her car all the way up the drive, into the shadows of the wisteria arbor, just in case one of the queens drove by and saw her there. She didn’t want their help, their soft flower perfume and soft flower dresses, their forceful voices, the cluck and close by thunder of their laughter – they laughed exactly alike to a one – and their knowing confidence about how to best wrap up dishes and put away tablecloths so they wouldn’t yellow.

Maybe she didn’t want them to know how much she wasn’t going to keep. If they saw how disposable the past was to her, they’d probably start to figure out why she was the most apt to miss church.  Why she never stayed too long at reunion picnics.  Through a series of self discoveries, Rhonda had become unlike the tribe. And knowing the views of the tribe, she had unhitched herself from them in ways that were always just beneath the surface.

So now to wrapping the dishes in sheets of newspaper, to having the tips of her fingers blacken from stories about wars in other places and games won here at home.  She knew this was going to take a while.  Pulling a few containers of Chinese food she’d picked up to eat later from the box, she went into the kitchen and opened the refrigerator.

It was humid, tepid, and empty.  She had forgot that she’d unplugged it months ago, when she cleared everything in it into a big trash bag and took it to the land fill.  Pickle jar, mayonnaise jar. Ketchup. Mustard. Capers. So many kinds of jelly.  Her mother loved toast and jelly.

It was too much, all the sudden, keeping guard against all the things inside of her that would disrupt her peace and quiet.  There was rage inside of her and there was pain. Rhonda could almost see the former like white light racing out of a tunnel, and she could nearly smell the other.  Old hurts that stank like sour milk and regrets that all blended together to make a drab and familiar odor like a spice cabinet.

Cumin for the time she didn’t come home from college to help her mother make barbecue. She’d shown up the day of instead, driving straight to the park, and letting some of the boy cousins get the food out of her mother’s car.  She’d been talking to a friend she brought from school.

Clove for that winter night years ago when she headed over for chili and, seeing the light on behind the lace curtains, was unable to make herself pull into the drive for a visit. She called over later and said she wasn’t feeling well. Her mother had sounded so disappointed.

Cinnamon for when her mother nursed her through the flu as a child and all she could keep down was little torn pieces of toast. Her mother told her she would have put a little more butter on it, but she wasn’t sure if it was too rich.  In a sick room that she had been in for a few days by then, the sugary warm smell of the cinnamon toast might have brought on her nausea but it didn’t. She was probably already getting better, but it seemed like her mother had made magic happen.

Celery salt and cardamon for the legendary potato salad her mother taught her to make a month before she died and which Rhonda had never made sense because she didn’t want too much starch in her diet.  The recipe, written carefully on a notecard, kept surfacing in her purse like something thrown in the sea that insists on coming back to shore.  That spidery hand of her mothers. No one wrote like that anymore.

It was so close to the surface, her grief, that she felt it would push out through her eyes and ears. Her heart had started to race. She should sit down and try to breath the way her therapist had taught her.  This time she knew it wouldn’t work.

If Charline were there, she’d pull her into her arms and cradle her like a child.

Charline would say, “You have to go through it, Rhonda. There’s no other way.”

Rhonda paced in circles, as if she were escaping the clutch of something, and then she stopped because she felt a little dizzy and like her heart was going to abruptly cease beating. She had to get out of the house, she thought, and her hands trembled as she unlocked the kitchen door and stepped out onto the back porch.

It had started to rain.

It drew her out from under shelter, it brought her to the center of the lawn, not far from the clothes line where her mother used to walk up and down with fistfuls of fabric and pins, her face hidden by a wide straw hat.  She’d always seemed a little turned away from Rhonda, bent over her work, and except for when she absolutely needed her mother, Rhonda had always stayed a little back, watching her movements with a hungry urgency and a mouth set in a straight, mute line.

She ran her fingers along the clothesline, trailing it up to the post and turning and walking it again to where the line ended in another post that had been overtaken by lilacs. Her wet shirt clung to her coldly, her hair dropped beads of water into her open mouth. The tears were close now, and she simply needed to wait for them. The time had finally come and whether or not she could survive the pain was not even a thought her mind could form. She was rendered animal for the moment, all wide eyes and gathered shoulders, moving up and down the clothesline while the rain fulfilled a promise to the grass under her feet.

Berniece in Three Acts

Act 1: Disappointment

She ruined his birthday cake. It burned in the oven while she sat out on the fire escape, smoking one cigarette after another, trembling because the Spring was cold and late that year in Chicago.  Berniece hadn’t felt the cold much, hadn’t gotten her sweater from the back of the chair in the bedroom, though her hand, arched over her knee, trembled so that long columns of ash would fall on her stocking feet and brake into flakes like dirty snowballs.

Luckily the fire alarm grabbed her from her revery before the whole place burned up. She didn’t like to think what Robert would have said if he came home to a crowd gathered outside the building and a firetruck parked on the street.  It took her hours to get the scorch marks off the front of the stove, vent the smoke out of the apartment, and tidy the kitchen back up. She called down to the baker and asked him to make a birthday cake, white with chocolate icing. When he asked her how embellished she wanted it, she got nervous and said she wanted it plain, just like a normal cake.

“You don’t want me to put ‘Happy Birthday, Tommy’ on it?”

“Tommy,” she repeated.

“Yeah.”

A silence stretched thinly between them.  Over the phone she could hear the baker breathing and the sound of an oven door whining open and clattering closed. Finally he said, “How about candles? What’s that now, nine? Ten? You got those, Mrs. Allen?”

“I have those. Can you have it done by four o’clock?”

“Four o’clock?”

“I know it’s short notice…” Then she came clean all in a rush, and they were both surprised that she was crying as she said she ruined her son’s cake. It wasn’t something for a person to cry about. The baker said that.

“Don’t cry over a birthday cake, Mrs. Allen.” He said, “I’ll rearrange a couple of things and get your cake done by three. If you want to bring me down your own plate, I’ll put it on that before I put in the icing.”

She was laughing through her tears now. “Oh, thank you. Yes, I’ll be down.”

It was too much to try to pull herself together. It was almost one and Tommy would be home just after three and Robert by six.  She threw on a long coat and shoved her feet into a pair of taupe kitten heels that she wore too often because they made her feel instantly pulled together. As her toes sank into the mouth of the shoes, she saw the ash stains being covered over, herself cheaply transformed into a normal wife and mother.

Lipstick. A scarf and – at the last minute – earrings. She rubbed lotion into her hands and found clean gloves.  Berniece didn’t give the apartment a last glance as she stepped out with her purse in one hand and the plate in a brown paper bag under the other arm.  She never glanced back when she left.

 


 

Act 2: The Visitation

It felt like a dream the moment she opened her eyes. She was standing in the hallway of an office building.  At one end of the hallway there were two windows, ganged together, with oak blinds pulled but tilted open. A fiery sunset with a round clementine sun was painted over the shadowy buildings. She was alone in the hallways except for a pair of wilted trees in pots that guarded the elevators.

It was an older building, completely foreign to her, though the type was ubiquitous. Oak trims and doors with textured glass in the top panel.  Plain block lettering in black on the glass. Later she would only recall one of the names.  Knee high columns of metal and faux wood with sand in the tops for putting out cigarettes. Miles of speckled taupe linoleum tile that made her kitten heels seem to disappear when she glanced at her feet.

How had she come to be here?

She crossed to the elevator and tapped the down button, but the light didn’t come on and there was no sound as she waited of a line igniting, the lift rising or dropping from other floors.  She tapped it three times more.

“You’re on the right floor.”

She turned to see a man silhouetted against an office doorway. He was tall and broad, made to look like a tank in his boxy suit.  A highlight along his face revealed blond whiskers and surprisingly small ears.

“No, I’m not supposed to be here. I’m not sure how I got here.”

“I need to speak to you, Mrs. Allen.”

“How do you know-”

“We haven’t time for that now. Come into my office.”

He turned away and she followed him, despite herself, like a moth compelled by a porch light. Although she anticipated no ecstasy. In fact, she moment she passed over the threshold into his office, she wasn’t surprised to see the lighting change, the colors growing dimmer. Why was she not surprised?

It was like they both knew something, yet she’d forgotten.

“You’re missing,” he said without preamble. “And I need your help to find you.” Leaning against his desk with one ankle crossed over the other and his arms folded together at the waist, he was closed off except for his clear brown eyes, studying her intently.

She recognized him then.

“You’re that detective that Robert hired last year when Sheldon asked him to go into business with him and Robert was worried. You found all those lawsuits, the shell corporation. Robert was so pleased with your work.”

Suddenly she felt like a normal wife again, like when she put on red lipstick or washed the smoke off her hands. This was what wives did, making men who did business with their husbands feel valuable. Her mother had always been good at just that; she could make a dinner party far better than their small kitchen should have allowed. And she kept the wine flowing and later the cigars and brandy.  The men all insisted she stay when she demurred and insisted on leaving them to their own vices. Berniece’s family never had parties with wives – or it didn’t seem like that in her memories – only men, lining the tables, wearing fat ties, crimp marks in their hair where their hat brims had rested too many hours of the day, beating the streets to sell things to women who stood in doorways, trying to loosen their apron strings, glancing back over their shoulders now and again in to deep and shadowed front halls.

“We ain’t got money for nothing.”

Berniece could never make a dinner party come off.  Robert preferred to meet his colleagues at restaurants.  He said neutral territory was better. It was more modern. She was pretty sure it was on account of her peculiarities. That’s the word Robert liked to use, his eyes slipping away from her gaze, a kindness that smarted like a paper cut.

The man leaning on his desk shook his head.

“He said you drifted away like this all the time.”

“He said? Who said?”

Now she was back in the office with the detective.

“Oh,” she said.

The detective crossed toward her and beckoned her to take a seat.

“We need to talk about Friday.”

“Today is Friday.”

“No, ma’am. Today is Monday. And no one’s seen you for three days.”

She squinted into the colorless corners of his office.

“That can’t be true. I’m right here. I just left the apartment to go to the-” She broke off, glancing down at her hands. Only the purse, still clutched in her right glove.

“Oh, good. I must have dropped off the plate.”

“Yes, you did. The baker confirmed it. That was at a quarter passed one on Friday. Then someone remembered seeing you crossing through the park. The one near your apartment house.”

She remembered that as soon as he said it.

“Yes, that’s right. I went to the park. I cut across it diagonally so I could walk past the fountain. The old one, not the new one. I like the old one better.”

“Did you meet anyone there.”

“Of course not.”

She opened her purse to find her cigarettes, but her hand fished around only in emptiness, the glove whispering against the stained red satin lining.

“Oh, my. I must have been robbed.” She held the purse out to him.

“Anyone suspicious follow you?”

She stood, leaving the purse on the chair like a mouth hanging open, and she began to pace the floor.  “There was a man. We passed one another just as I stepped into the park. He glanced at me and he held my gaze for just a moment too long. You understand? It made me feel uncomfortable. Undressed. I walked a little faster then. And I wanted to look back to make sure he was still heading away.”

Berniece paused and looked into the detective’s eyes.

“But then I was scared that if I turned back, we’d make eye contact again and he’d be encouraged. So I cut through a little path that wends its way through boxwoods and hollies.”

“Did he follow you?”

She frowned. “I don’t remember.”

“What did he look like?”

“He was thin. He wore a grey suit, a little shiny at the elbows, like a man who’s down on his luck.  A square sort of face. Pale grey eyes or maybe that was just the light glinting off his spectacles. I’m not sure about that.”

“Did he smile? Did he seem friendly or threatening?”

She shivered, recalling. “He seemed hungry.”

He crossed to her and placed his hands on her shoulders. He became her father then in a sense, with a troubled and kind expression, holding her before him to ask more questions.  Only when her father did it, she could smell his floral pomade, his cigars, and his aftershave, something like spices and woodsmoke. It had always been too much to take in, especially when meeting his eye was already so tumultuous.

The detective said, “This is important, Mrs. Allen. Did you see him again?”

She nodded, wanting to shrug his hands away. Instead she stepped back and he lifted his arms before his fingers would have slipped down over her breasts.  Taking up her purse and resuming her seat, she stared into the corners of the room again.

“I did see him again. But it wasn’t in the park. It was in a room. He was standing above me with a window at his back. And his shirt was stained then. And his hands, too.”

She frowned, her lips feeling a little thick as she spoke the words, “Blood, I think.” Funny that it didn’t frighten her in the least.

He drew a sharp breath.  “And do you know where this room was?”

“I didn’t recognize it. It was seedy. Old. Victorian. With faded wallpaper. Little flowers, all in blue.”

She laughed nervously then.  “I should be the detective.”

“Ma’am?”

“Outside the window over his shoulder there was a water tower in the distance. It said Trubin City. That’s about twenty minutes north of here.  A horrible little town. Robert and I got stuck there once, years ago, waiting for a mechanic to patch our tire.”

“I know of it.”

“Well, I can tell you one thing. There aren’t many Victorian houses in Trubin City. Mostly little places with pointed roofs like they were building back in the twenties. And newer ones, tiny brick boxes with flat roofs. And lots of long, low-slung cinder block shops with plate glass fronts. Dime stores with things that make everything seem just a little meaner. Like plastic flowers you put on graves.”

She dug around in her purse again, wanting to smoke and forgetting.

“I was going to study architecture. I used to want…”

Shrugging, she glanced at the detective.

He was thrusting his arms into his trench coat.

“There isn’t much time,” he said. “I’m off to Trubin City.”

She should have stood and followed him to the elevators. Instead she sat there and stared at the things on his desk. Bills and memoranda all with cluttered black ink that said nothing she recognized.  An ashtray overflowing and a coffee mug that probably hadn’t been washed since Eisenhower was president.  Behind her she heard the bell for the elevator and the whoosh of the doors opening.  Then it closed again and she could hear the motor as the car dropped away and away.

 


 

Act 3: Revelation

When she opened her eyes again, Berniece knew at once that it was not a dream. It felt nothing like it. There was nothing surreal about the hospital room: the muddy green blue paint on the bottom half of the walls, the crimped metal blinds at the square windows, the band around her wrist with words she understood plainly.

The detective was there, but this was not like before.

In noon sunlight as pale as a white onion, he sat in the visitor chair, his head slumped forward, his whispers shimmering like gold dust.  He started awake, rubbed his eyes, looked into her face as if he were meeting her eye for the first time.

“You’re awake,” he said. “I should call the nurse.”

“No, don’t,” she said.  She wanted to ask him if he remembered their last meeting. Instead she waited to hear what he had to say.

“How are you feeling?” A familiar question, she’d heard a lot in her life, always with a note of hesitation, the asker braced for disappointment.

“My throat is sore. And my stomach.”

“They had to pump it to get the pills out.”

She frowned. “I was sure I’d been stabbed.”

He leaned forward too quickly, his eyes narrowed, his chin pushing forward.

“What’s that?” he asked.

“There was so much blood. You remember.”

He frowned. “How much do you remember?”

“Just what I told you before.”

“Ma’am, we haven’t spoken before.”

It seemed pointless to argue. Even she had felt it was a dream, all the while.

“So he poisoned me?”

He leaned back and folded his hands on his lap carefully.

“The way he tells it, after you stabbed him, you took the pills yourself.”

“I stabbed him? But that’s nonsense.”

“He says you went berserk and stabbed him over and over with a steak knife that got brought up with the dinner tray. He’s got the wounds and we’ve got the knife. That much checks out.”

After a silence, he added, “He said you tapped him on the shoulder in the park, asked him if he wanted to go for a ride. To get out of the city. He said he thought you were some sort of crazy rich lady out looking for a lark.”

She thought about the loose springs in the sofa. “My husband wishes we were rich, but we’re always missing the boat.”

“He said you wound up in Trubin City at that bed and breakfast Friday night. You spent the next two days racking up a bill for wine and steaks.  You sent him out to buy liquor Saturday night before the store closed and the two of you spent most of the weekend in bed together.”

She brought her hands out from under the sheet, wanting to hold them together because she felt cold. Her nail polish was chipped and there were scratches on the backs of her hands.  Her wedding ring was still there, and the engagement ring with its little shaving of diamond.

“I don’t understand. I’m a mother. I’m not a monster.”

He leveled his eyes on her face and he didn’t seem to have anything to say just yet.

“I pass this man in the park and then I wake up here and you tell me I tried to kill him.”

“And then yourself.”

She felt the muscles around her mouth twist as she thought of protesting.  Then her features went flat again. It felt true, the things he was telling her, although she still couldn’t remember.  A cloud must have passed over the sun because the room grew darker.

“I don’t know what to say. I have to believe it’s true, although I can’t imagine why I’d do it. I never do anything to make a fuss. I never fight. I never kick or scream. I’m as meek as a mouse. I always try to be good. I never get things right. I never have.”

“Mrs. Allen?”

“The cake,” she said, scratching blood out of her cuticles with her thumb. “I wanted to make it myself.”

Then, thrusting her hands back under the sheets again, she asked, “Is it still Monday?”

“Tuesday.”

“That’s Tommy’s real birthday. But we always have birthdays on Saturdays. It’s so much easier, isn’t it?”

 

 

Landau

We’re pleased to have you for a visit, Mr. Landau.  It’s not often we have a man of letters in these parts.  I hear your stories are quite popular in some sets, though I’m not much of a reader, I’ll admit.  You look tired, though. I hope the train ride wasn’t too long? Now, mind that step, bless you.

These stairs are narrow and a mite crooked, but I’m sure you’ll get the hang of them soon enough. Now, what is this?  I’m sure I told that girl to sweep up here. Well, old houses, you know. Now, this is the garret, as you can see, but we’ve given it a lovely sprucing up.  You like the color? Mother was worried that it was too green, but I said it made the place seem quite sunny, though I don’t suppose the rug goes very well now that I look at it.

The windows stick now and again, if we’ve had rain – which you know is often out in these parts – but if you give the casing a good whack, they’ll come open fine.  This one has the best view. Oh dear, mind your head, Mr. Landau.  It’ll take you a while to get accustomed to the ceilings, like as not. You are a tall one, I’ll say that, and willowy.

See out there? Isn’t that nice? Just below is the lake, which I’ll grant you looks a bit bleak just now, but in a few weeks, it’ll be surrounded with flowers – purple and blue and little ones of yellow that you only see when you’re down walking through them.

Now that, out there, is Grandy Mountain, which’ll wear that bonnet of snow all the year, even in July, when we’re all broiling like pigs over a spit down here.  There’s paths up, but some safer than others, so you’ll need to ask around before you set off on any exploring.  But then, I suppose you might not be the sporting type.

Now, here I’ve been gabbing away and not telling you where to put down your trunk. Oh, but then so you have and over there, too, in that spot. Oh dear. Well, I don’t see why not. I suppose if it crimps the edge of mother’s rug, we can somehow smooth it out. Maybe over the kettle.

Oh and so you’re moving it, are you? Well, it might be for the best. I’d recommend putting it there, in the front gable.  That way you can walk straight up to it as you need and not bump your head.  Is it as heavy as all that, sir? You do look a mite strained, Mr. Landau.

In Dr. Dransfield’s letter, he said you were sick from exhaustion, so I imagine you’ll be needing plenty of rest. Well, as you can imagine, sir, we have a surplus of quiet out here in our little corner of the world. Mother has the preacher – and sometimes Anna, that is Ms. Galvistan – out for Sunday supper every week, but generally it’s just the two of us, so you shan’t have to worry about the noise of comings and goings.

Now, I’ve put this table here for your typewriter. It’s mother’s sewing table, but the contraption’s been on the fritz, so we sent it to London to have it looked at.  It’s quite a sturdy little table, though not very big.  You could open the top to make it a little bigger, but then there’d be the hole and what good would that do you, I ask?  I’d only request that you leave this bit of oil cloth in place, so as not to scratch the wood.  Mother thinks it’s walnut and very fine, though I suspect it’s only the finish.  Still, she’d be so heart-broken if it were gauged by your typewriter.

You look so fagged, poor Mr. Landau. I shall get out of your hair in just a moment, but first I ought to point out one or two more things, so as you’ll feel absolutely comfortable and need me no more to feel right at home.

I will admit to knowing a little something about you besides that you’re a writer, Mr. Landau.  A little something which has made mother and me very sympathetic to your plight.  It was Mrs. Whitticombe, who does over our bonnets, who told us about it. She’s a terrible gossip and that son of hers, Jimmy – the one who up and went off to work in the theatre – well, he’s the one who told her.  She says that Jimmy’s getting very important in London, but Mrs. Whitticombe likes to put on airs, so there’s no telling the truth of that.  She tried to sell me feathers for my autumn bonnet once; said they were ring tail pheasant, but I could tell she’d marked plain ones in with paint. It didn’t look natural, at all.  Still, out here in the provinces, when there is only one woman who’s any good with hats, you have to make do and put up with the prattle.  Isn’t that right, Mr. Landau?

Well, I only wanted to say, mother and I are very sympathetic, dear man.  I blessedly have never had the misfortune of falling in love – indeed, I think I’m missing the part that fancies men very much.  Not that I mean to say… Well, I mean, I think love is a rather foolish thing.  That is all.

I think people like you must take it all the harder, isn’t that right, Mr. Landau? I mean, artist, they say, are quite sensitive people really. Mother says they take things harder than other folks. So, we’ve made a pact – mother and I have – to be sure you’re not bothered by a soul while you’re up here. You shall have as much peace and quiet as you need and before you know it, sir, you’ll be right as rain.

Now, enough of that, Mr. Landau. I can see you’re getting all the more strained by the minute. I know I shouldn’t have brought it up, but I just thought you’d like to know you have our sympathies. It’s always the delicate ones who the girls throw over for men with charm and swagger.  We’re terrible, fickle creatures, mother always says, and not to be trusted. Oh, dear, you have got a look about you, sir. Quite pale, you’ve gotten.

But to business, sir. I’ve cleared out this wardrobe for your things.  It smelled of mouse, I worried, so I hung some lavender in it.  Then mother said gentlemen didn’t like to smell of sachets, so I had the girl take the lavender down and scrub it good with lemon oil.  It turned out quite nice, if a bit pungent.  I hope it’ll do.  Oh, I see you’ve found the bed. My goodness, you’re a quiet one, aren’t you?

Well, I had wanted to point out that mother volunteered her favorite coverlet because it’s so pretty, but she did ask that I show you the lace along the edge, so that you’d be extra careful of it while you stayed.  No, no, sir. Not that edge. It’s here, under your boot. Oh heavens, and it’s so delicate.  I think it was rather extravagant of mother, poor dear.  I don’t think you’ll be able to relax at all, knowing that lace will be ripped to shreds by the time your stay is over. I have a nice wool blanket, plain but sturdy, that I shall bring up before supper.  Never fear, sir. We’ll have everything sorted soon enough.

I did want to tell you about dinner, because mother is very strict about sitting down, only because she’s rather cross if the cabbage goes cold.  When you hear the bell, it means five minutes until we sit down.  If you prefer to take dinner in your room, you may let me know earlier in the day.  I don’t suppose you’re much of an eater, but I hope our chilly air will enliven your stomach.  Hot meals are the best way to keep the bones warm.

Oh sir, I hate to see you getting up if you’re so tired. I told you I would tend to the coverlet later.  You are a dear.  Mother was given that coverlet by a very fine lady who stayed here many years ago.  A shy enough creature, delicate like yourself, who cut her summer short quite out of the blue.  She sent us a letter, weeks later along with the coverlet, apologizing for her hasty departure.  I think she was the type who enjoys the city more than the countryside.  It seemed her nerves only got worse the longer she stayed with us.  Poor dear.

Now, if you open the window today, Mr. Landau, it may get a bit chilly by sunset.  The draft is the devil.  Oh, my! What a whack you’ve got on you, but as I said, that is the only way to get it open.  That is rather a lot to open it, dear sir.  It may stick if you open it so far. I had wanted to have the girl take some beeswax along the case, but you know she said she needed to get home for supper and I thought perhaps that was a hint that she thought we ought to offer her some of ours and I hadn’t made very much that day.  Well, and the girl is a rather large creature with a big appetite. I think her people are Welsh and you know how they eat, sir.

Well, and so you’re putting your trunk on the sill.  Sir, is that wise? Well – oh my! There it goes! If I didn’t know better, Mr. Landau, I would have thought you sent that out on purpose. Mr. Landau, what in heavens name are you up to? Do you need air?  My goodness, you’re far too long legged to try to fold yourself through that opening.  My goodness, it’s like watching a spider coming out of the drain. Mr. Landau, have you quite lost your senses? Oh!

What madness!  I hope he hasn’t fallen on mother’s hydrangea.  She is terribly particular about them and they barely came back last year, what with all them mites and then the mildew.  Mr. Landau? Mr. Landau, what were you thinking?  Oh my, and now he’s up and over the hedge.  How peculiar.

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.