Excerpt for Before the Mellowing Year, Book Two, Part II by , available in its entirety at Smashwords




Before the Mellowing Year

Book Two, Part II

by

Jeffrey Anderson



Copyright 2018 by Jeffrey Anderson

Smashwords Edition


This story is a work of fiction.

Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.


Smashwords Edition, License Notes

Though this e-book is being distributed for free, it remains the copyrighted property of the author and may not be reprinted or reproduced without the permission of the author. If you like this book, please encourage your friends to download a copy at Smashwords.







Begin then, Sisters of the sacred well,

That from beneath the seat of Jove doth spring,

Begin, and somewhat loudly sweep the string.


“Lycidas”, vv. 15 – 17

John Milton



Before the Mellowing Year

Book Two, Part II


Williamsburg


Barton guided his Mercedes into the nearly empty gravel parking lot of the Jamestown Settlement under pewter gray skies. They walked briskly across the lot to the warmth of the Visitor Center, paid their admission to a matronly woman in a bonnet and colonial-period dress, and were directed to the small theater where a twenty-minute film on the history of Jamestown would begin in a few minutes. They entered the empty theater and Barton led the way to seats in the exact center. He took off his navy pea coat and laid it on the next seat over. He sat down and opened his shoulder bag and took out a small battery-powered cassette recorder.

“You don’t mind if I record the film and some of our conversations, do you?”

Zach laughed. “Just so long as you don’t catch the groans of the guy in the raincoat in the back row.”

Barton actually turned to look behind him. Seeing no one there, he turned back to Zach. “Don’t get any ideas.”

“I left my raincoat at home.” He held out his fur-necked bomber jacket as proof.

“Knowing you, probably at the dry cleaners.”

“No comment,” Zach said as he sat down.

Barton shook his head and pushed the record button as the lights were lowered and the film began.

They’d driven up along the interstates yesterday under increasing clouds and cooling temperatures. The four-hour drive had been quiet and uneventful and they checked into the Jackson Motor Lodge in Williamsburg just before dusk. After a brief nap on their separate double beds (Barton was a great believer in afternoon naps), they freshened up then walked through the streets of the modern village (a campus town normally teeming with students but empty this weekend with students still on holiday leave) and into the restored colonial village. It too was largely deserted, with only the occasional family or couple encountered along the cobblestone walks lit by gas lanterns. They found their way to Christiana Campbell’s Tavern situated on the main street of the village and were seated promptly for dinner. They ate a good meal of fried chicken, spoonbread, and green beans simmered with fatback, topped off with pecan pie and coffee. The late night walk back to the motel through streets that were now totally empty was welcome exercise after the carbohydrate laden meal. They took turns in the bathroom (Barton first), stripping to their underwear (Barton in his BVD briefs and white V-necked undershirt, Zach in his boxers and long-sleeved red T-shirt) and readying for bed. Zach slid between the sheets and turned off the light just after eleven o’clock.

If Zach had worried about travelling with Barton (and why wouldn’t he?—he’d never travelled with anyone except Allison and, long ago, his family), those concerns were quickly dispelled with Barton’s easy and unpresumptuous manner on the road. Yes, Barton had a schedule and an itinerary that he intended to keep; but as long as Zach adhered to that schedule (which wasn’t difficult, given the frequent reminders) Zach was otherwise free to do as he pleased. For now, that consisted of tagging along behind Barton; but he could foresee occasion when the two of them might go on separate outings, meeting back at the motel or somewhere in the village. This freedom and self-reliance was a welcome change from needing to always be attentive to Allison when they’d travelled.

Perhaps more importantly, despite their frequent jokes about masturbation and other bodily functions, Barton took great care not to push this teasing too far, not to in any way threaten Zach with unwanted touch or proximity or advances. And from his side, Zach took care not to be overly cautious or sensitive to Barton’s every move or comment. Rather quickly, at least in their travel and rooming habits, Zach began to see Barton as a brother, devoid of sexual interest or intimidation. Whether this was in fact true—that Barton had moved past sexual attraction to Zach—was a secret he kept closely guarded. And, of course, Zach didn’t ask.

When the rather tepid film (even by the low standards of tourist documentaries) ended and the lights came up in the room still empty save the two of them, Barton clicked the tape recorder off but kept it by his side for the walk back into the lobby and gift shop. There he engaged—and recorded, with her permission—the woman who had taken their admission in a conversation about an earlier layout of the excavations and settlement. In particular, he wanted to verify the former location of the large Pocahontas statue now placed near the Visitor Center. She confirmed his memory that it had been mounted on a granite pedestal near the old church and moved sometime after the anniversary celebrations in 1957.

With this critical piece of information secured, Barton then deftly interrogated the woman about her own past and family history, discovering that she was raised in the same area of eastern North Carolina where he was born, still had relatives the next town over from his home town of Surry. Zach stood off to one side, nonchalantly leafing through postcards and glossy coffee-table books as he listened closely to the woman’s ready surrender of her life story to Barton’s quiet inquiry, including an allusion to her “former life” before some tragedy sent her packing to Virginia. Barton thanked her for all her help and wished her well, claimed he’d check on her cousins next time he was in Surry. Zach joined him as he walked out the door and headed toward the recreated Indian village.

“How do you do that?” Zach asked in amazement.

“Do what?”

“Get complete strangers to tell you things about themselves they wouldn’t tell their pastor or best friend.”

Barton grinned. “I grew up in the South, boy. How do you think we get all those stories to tell?”

“I don’t know. That’s why I’m asking.”

“We just ask, but in the right way. It also helps to be a stranger—no danger of the stories coming back to haunt you.”

“Until Barton Cosgrove puts you in his next novel.”

“The names are changed, to protect the innocent.”

The lone guide at the Indian village was a black girl whose light-toned skin closely matched the color of her buckskin leggings and tunic. She sat cross-legged on a reed mat on a raised platform inside the village’s centerpiece—a curved roof longhouse of the sort that Zach had seen in comparable recreated native villages in New England. The young woman—barely more than a girl, maybe a student earning spending money during her break—greeted them shyly soon after they’d entered the dim and smoky space (there was a small wood fire burning in the midst of a circle of stones, beneath a hole in the roof meant to draw off the smoke but not working well on the low and damp day). They did a slow circuit of the large room, studying the various exhibits of native tools and weapons and cooking implements.

When Zach ended up near the guide, he asked, “How many people would’ve lived in this longhouse?”

“Probably twenty to twenty-five, most likely all members of a single extended family—three or even four generations, numerous married couples, many children.”

“Sounds like a recipe for disaster—the mother-in-law not only in the same house but in the same room!”

The girl laughed. “We assume they had a different social order.”

Zach laughed. “That, or a big stick.”

“Maybe both,” the girl said, looking away when Zach briefly caught her eye.

Barton came up and asked about the Indian uprisings—there were two major incidents, according to their guide, in 1622 and 1644—and how many native Americans currently lived in the Jamestown area. The girl answered his questions in great detail. Zach listened politely for a few minutes then sauntered back outside.

Barton caught up at the crude granary—an open-sided structure with a woven-reed roof and sheaves of corn hanging like ghosts twisting in the damp breeze from a rough beam across the middle. The short ears dangling from their husks were of the multi-colored variety, what Zach’s family had always called “Indian corn” though its hybrid origins were twentieth century, long after the eradication of these sorts of villages and their inhabitants turning cloddy soil with stone tools.

Barton said, “You might learn more if your curiosity extended beyond females between the ages of eighteen and twenty-four.” He didn’t look up.

Zach laughed. “That might take some radical reprogramming.”

“Mandarin Chinese is a difficult language,” Barton said. “People learn it every day.” He looked to Zach with a neutral stare.

“They read from right to left, don’t they?”

Barton just shook his head, turned and headed for some mounds of dirt along the river, the excavations at what was thought to be the original fort.



2


The next morning dawned clear but cool. After a brisk loop through the colonial village, including a brief stint with Zach in the stocks at the village green—“For the crime of whistling on the Sabbath” Barton announced as he took a photo, using one of the offenses listed on the informational plaque, then whispered as Zach lifted his big form out of the well-worn sockets, “Really, it’s for jerking off too often” and Zach had answered, “Then you’d have been permanently restrained” and Barton had replied “Only if they caught me”—and a speedy round of packing in the motel room (neither had brought much or distributed what few things they’d brought far), they walked to the Sunday Brunch at a nearby restaurant called The Cascades. They ate their fill of eggs (Barton had Eggs Benedict, Zach scrambled) and pancakes and pastries and ham and bacon and sausage (this single meal was intended, by Barton’s planning, to tide them all the way back to Shefford) then hit the road around noon.

They’d decided (Barton decided, Zach offered token agreement) to take the rural back roads home, through the low-country farms and fields and pine woods of Tidewater Virginia and eastern North Carolina. The first leg of this trip included a ferry ride across the broad James River from a spot near the Jamestown Settlement to the Scotland slip on the far side. Barton parked the car in the line waiting for the small ferry bearing down on them to dock and unload its cargo. They climbed out of the car and walked the short distance to a pier where a replica of the Susan Constant, one of the three original Jamestown ships, was docked and open for touring.

They walked together across the small open deck, the boat rocking gently from side to side in the shallow swells sent forth by the approaching ferry. Even safely tied off to this pier on this clear and placid day, the ship seemed vulnerable and frail. It was impossible to imagine it packed with four dozen ill-prepared passengers and their inadequate stores making their way across the dark and often stormy Atlantic.

“How desperate would you have to be?” Zach wondered aloud.

“People risk their lives to save them every day.”

“Crossing the Atlantic in this?”

Barton shrugged. “Worse fates.”

“Shoe-horned in with a bunkmate that hadn’t bathed for a month?”

“Now that might be a bit much,” Barton laughed.

“I’ll take the soft leather seats of the Mercedes, thank you.”

“And its munificent and unfailing captain.”

“Let’s not get carried away,” Zach intoned though they both knew he’d thrown his lot in with that captain long before, counting on that munificence and reliability—which, so far at least, had proven to be good bets.

They returned to the car and boarded at their turn, never left the safe confines of their gold metal ship riding the waves atop the rusty metal ferry beneath them, all the way to the other side.


The drive through the flat fields and intermittent single flashing light small towns held Zach’s attention for the first half hour. They shared the occasional laugh—at Hitler’s Used Cars with its three forlorn vehicles on a sandy lot in the middle of nowhere, at The Realistic Beauty Salon (“Who wants realism at a beauty salon?” Barton asked rhetorically)—and Barton occasionally volunteered nostalgic recall of some incident or person associated with this highway or that town.

But after a while Zach slipped into a lazy and relaxed half-daze, his eyes sometimes open on the fallow fields and muddy tracks, sometimes lightly closed with the bright sun pushing pink through the skin of his lids. Such a trusting stupor was rare for Zach on the road. He was always either driving and alert to all its known and hidden demands, or closely observant as a front seat passenger—watching for upcoming turns or obstacles or threats. But today he gave all those anxieties over to Barton, trusted his driving ability and his planning and his obvious familiarity with the roads and the region.

And, beyond the moment and their immediate surroundings (however deeply they resonated through Barton’s past and spirit), maybe at just this moment Zach began to trust not only the man driving but also his vision of life, his purpose and placement in the world—in 1980 in North Carolina (they’d crossed the state line twenty miles back), and across the globe in all history. Barton honored that history, that world, by first fully engaging it wherever he found himself, whatever the circumstances, then striving to contribute to it, whether through his attentiveness and openness in the moment or through the subliminal processing of those moments to be shared in verbal or written story-telling at some later date. To Zach’s early (and mainly subliminal) assessment, this seemed not only an interesting and bottomless endeavor but also a noble pursuit, a calling every bit as adventurous and challenging (and hopefully less foolhardy) as that driving those souls pointed toward a new destiny on the far side of the vast sea as they boarded the Susan Constant in England over three and a half centuries before. Not that Zach thought all or any of this in so many words. His thoughts, if he had any—really, no words, just feelings—were that he was content and at peace. After a further while, that peace, that lazy torpor, spawned the image of a certain blonde girl, recalled the feel of her pliant skin laid full-length along his complementary body. And at that moment, Zach didn’t see her as a separate calling, knew it as all one and the same.

“Surry, the birthplace of Barton Cosgrove,” Barton announced in loud voice.

Zach shook himself awake and sat upright in his seat. He looked to both sides of the road for the sign Barton was reading then realized it was hypothetical, not real. “Some vandals burn down your sign?”

“The town elders are still debating its placement.”

“Not by the landfill, I trust.”

Barton laughed. “There actually was some talk of a sign, after the first novel got so much attention. Mother gently discouraged the idea, though I think she’d hoped they’d not listen to her. Then some of my later work was viewed as ‘too dark’ and the idea got shelved.”

“Are you sorry?”

He gave a sly grin. “I wouldn’t have told them no.”

He guided the car down the empty Main Street and across the railroad tracks, pointed out the former one-room depot, now defunct, that had been the site of many dramatic events in his boyhood. He pointed out the Methodist church then, a block farther on, the Baptist church that had been the polar anchors of a furious tug of war between his parents (his father was Baptist, his mother Methodist) to the point where he spent little time in either building. A few more turns down narrow side streets brought them to a one-story white clapboard house with a rusting tin roof and a shallow porch across the length of its front. The paint had flaked down to bare wood in spots and the yard was spotted with dirt and shivering brown weeds.

Barton stopped the car in the road directly in front of the house. “I was born in the room behind that window.” He pointed past Zach to the window at the left-hand end of the house, blanked white by a lowered roll-up shade.

“Does it feel like home?”

“Yes, and no. We spent only a few years here, before moving on. We came back over the years, but always as expatriates. If it’s home, it’s more in my blood than in my heart.”

“Who owns it now?”

“A distant cousin.”

“Could use a little work.”

“Between tenants, I guess.”

He cranked the car and drove on. Three turns and two minutes later, they were again passing through flat fallow fields. Five minutes later they merged onto the interstate that would take them the rest of the way to Shefford.

Just outside of town, speeding along at sixty-five miles an hour with no other cars near and the sun setting huge and orange straight ahead, Barton asked, “So how’d you like being my research assistant?”

“Are you kidding? All expenses paid travel and food—I loved it.”

Barton nodded. “Me too.”

“I didn’t snore too much?”

“No, but might need to bring some air freshener for the bathroom next time.”

Zach laughed. “Only if you bring some of the same.”

“We’ll share,” Barton said. “In Rome.”

Zach looked at him with a tilt of his head. “Rome?”

“A whole section of the novel takes place there. The sights are crystal clear in my memory, but I haven’t visited for twenty years. Figured I’d go check it out over spring break. I’d like to have you come with me.”

“I don’t know what to say.”

“Say yes, or no.”

“Yes. Yes. Yes. Be crazy not to.”

“My favorite city in the whole world. You’ll love it.”

Zach nodded in silence, still stunned by the invitation, already starting to wonder what it meant for his life.



North Carolina


Classes started the next day. Unlike last semester, when he took five classes, this semester Zach was taking the normal increment of four, three in his English major (including two taught by Barton) and one in German literature (in English translation). He was excited to return to class, looked forward to the give and take of discussions and the externally imposed discipline of assigned reading and papers. But at the same time he felt the swell of nostalgia for the long break just ended, for all the wonderful moments shared and discoveries made in that period that seemed already cut out of time, set off in a special place by itself, to be visited like a holy sanctuary in times of need or longing.

But onward now into the future—no other choice.

Part of that future included Zach’s twenty-third birthday in the middle of that first week. To celebrate the occasion, he was treated to dinner on three successive nights. Allison took him out first, as he picked her up and drove them to the Cornwallis Tavern in Axton for a southern meal served family-style, then to Milt’s for drinks and conversation till 1 AM. Becca took him out the next night, his actual birthday, and drove them to a large and very fancy restaurant outside of town called The Barn for a gluttonous meal of prime beef and abundant trimmings. Finally, Barton took him to a new Chinese restaurant called Hung Dynasty (Barton called it “Well-hung Dynasty”) for a comparatively light meal of moo goo gai pan and an eggroll, followed by a trip to the cinema to see the recently released Luna.

After this full (and filling) social calendar, Zach rested—for a few hours: long enough to realize that he was gorging on more than just diverse cuisines. He was in love with three people. As important, they were apparently all in love with him. He couldn’t have been happier.



2


Entering Barton’s Milton class was like stepping into a drama in progress, except that the drama, the action, wasn’t between teacher and students or students to students but between John Milton himself and this current batch of readers that included Barton Cosgrove. To Barton, Milton was alive in his words and works and the cavernous spaces that lay around those fixed entities. And, by Barton’s reasoning, if a genius of Milton’s caliber stood in your midst, it was not only your opportunity but your obligation to approach and engage, even challenge and debate with him. It was certainly not sufficient according to Barton’s expectations (and grading protocols) to stand in the presence of such a genius and cower in the corner or sit off to one side and quietly observe. You had to get inside the works and wrestle with the author—thus the drama. This monumental tussle was both individual (the reading at home) and corporate (the discussions in class) with Barton as leader, to get the discussions started, and equal participant, wrestling with the living Milton for the thousandth time as if it were his first. In perpetrating and perpetuating this drama, Barton wasn’t so much teaching literature as enacting survival—how to live in the presence of this brilliance and unpack, handle, and use this potent living legacy. That he would try such an approach with this diverse mix of forty or so participants was an act of audacity or faith (maybe both, and reflective of their subject of study and engagement). Whether it would work this time, with this group, remained to be seen.

Barton’s technique in leading his writing seminar (fifteen students around a long oak table) was very different. Here he was not so much focused on the big picture—the majesty and splendor of literary art—as he was on the nuts and bolts techniques of possibly getting to that end, on the building blocks of good prose. To say that the class was a paint-by-numbers foray into the creation of narrative fiction would strike at the essence of his method but would be an unfair oversimplification. He was more a Home Ec teacher leading and participating in an advanced course on clothing design and creation—this stitch might work best for that seam, this choice of material will produce that feel, this weave of fabric will hold up better at that stress point—where the word to word, phrase to phrase, sentence to sentence connections and interplay not only mattered in themselves but cumulatively determined the overall end result, the success or failure of the story. He was teaching a craft, with emphasis on technique, silently acknowledging from the start that the intangible essence of art was not something that could be taught or learned. However, such a matter-of-fact approach did not preclude his frequent awed (and awesome, in that ponderous bass voice) classroom readings excerpted from the works of masters—Chekov, Porter, his friend Eudora Welty, his former student Anne Tyler—reminders that we, our small band of explorers, were in the midst of a sacred endeavor of far-reaching, if unknown, consequence.

For Zach participating in these two classes, the transition from private friendship and intimacy to public teacher-student hierarchy and protocol was almost seamless. He flinched at the first “Mr. Sandstrom” spoken under Barton’s imperious gaze from behind the desk at the front of the lecture room, and he stumbled and got flustered at the initial “Mr. Cosgrove” salutation and muffed his fairly insightful (he thought) first contribution to class discussion. But he quickly adapted to Barton’s formal demeanor in class, and ditched the awkward “Mr. Cosgrove” and “Dr. Cosgrove” in favor of the more natural “Professor Cosgrove” in his public exchanges. And at no point did either of them let their private acquaintance and extensive personal knowledge and confidence leak into this public domain. To be sure, Zach was an active participant in both classes but no more than in any of his other classes, maybe even a tad less as he consciously avoided (with Barton’s discreet oversight) dominating the discussions, even if it seemed many of his classmates would’ve been happy to let him do so.



3


Zach spotted Becca soon as she got off the bus at the turn circle on Center Quad, across more than a hundred yards of stone sidewalks jammed with students scurrying between classes, and stately willow oaks extending their massive canopies of bare winter branches as if in praise or supplication to the gray winter sky. Becca’s golden hair and perfect fair skin was like a homing beacon to Zach’s eyes—if she were anywhere in sight, regardless the distance or visual distraction, his eyes would find her and, from that moment until she left his sight, see only her. This “Becca-blindness,” as he’d come to refer to this habit (though only to himself and Becca), was becoming a bit of an embarrassment for Zach, as friends and faculty members were ever more frequently admonishing him for failing to return their greetings or waves at passing encounters in public. So be it, he thought; so be it.

He stepped to one side and waited for her to make her way through the scrambling herd, so that they might walk to their German Lit class together. She spotted him waiting when she was about twenty yards away, while passing in front of the Library’s busy entryway. Unlike Zach, in a crowd she saw everyone who was around her, all the time, and made a point of silently greeting anyone who made eye contact (which was pretty much everyone, she was that magnetic) with a nod or smile or wave. This habit—half natural, half learned—would get her in trouble in any large northern city, but it worked wonders on the relatively safe crowds of a southern town or campus.

She smiled fully on seeing him, but then he noticed the briefest whisper of worry wash over those perfect features. No one else would’ve noticed the momentary change of expression, and Zach wondered if he had imagined it.

The shoulder to shoulder crowd carried her toward him till she finally stepped out of line and stood beside him in the alcove in front of the Romance Languages building. Their coat sleeves touched, not their skin. But their eyes touched across the gap of some inches or feet; their eyes always touched when they were close together. They used this form of contact in lieu of more overt, some might say distasteful, displays of physical touch in public.

“Good morning, dearest,” Zach said, leaning close to her ear.

“Hi, Zach. Thanks for waiting for me.” She grimaced slightly and hiked her blue book bag higher on the shoulder of her canvas field coat.

“Let me take that.” He never carried a book bag or briefcase, only a single spiral notebook (for all classes) and whatever texts were needed for that day—in this case, a trade paperback of Kafka’s short stories in English translation. He extended his free hand.

Becca slid the bag off her shoulder and handed it to him.

“You O.K.?” he asked.

She shrugged. “A little bit tired, I guess. A little bit frazzled.”

There was a granite bench behind them, backed by a holly hedge with waxy green leaves and bright red berries. Zach took her cold hand and gestured toward the bench. “We’ve got a few minutes before class.”

She nodded blankly and followed his lead to a seat on the bench. The granite was cold; she shivered the length of her body.

“Frazzled how?”

She took her hand from his, paired it up with her other hand, and put both hands between her knees for warmth. She leaned forward toward her knees and closed her eyes, as if preparing to pray, or to vomit, or to roll herself into a ball and launch that ball away from here. The skin of her face was so pale and taut that vomit seemed the most likely of these three scenarios. Then she took a deep breath, sat straight up, and turned to Zach. Her gaze was steady, calm, and extremely vulnerable—not frightened, not wounded, not angry, just open-hearted vulnerability. “Zach, my period is late. I’m never late.”

Shocked as he was, Zach’s eyes never left Becca’s, never flinched. “I thought you were on the Pill.”

Becca laughed—not ironically or bitterly but light-heartedly, as if hearing some amusing tidbit from the morning news. “Dear Abby says ‘Never assume. Ask.’”

Zach said, “Sorry. I didn’t read that column.” In fact he and Becca had never once mentioned, let alone discussed, birth control despite their frequent sexual sharings these last six weeks.

“I’m not blaming you, Zach. I’m just telling you. I had to tell someone.” She broke from his gaze and stared down at her clogs on the gray stone patio.

Zach’s eyes never left her face. In profile with her gazing down, he again (the millionth time) thought her the most beautiful person, thing, object he had ever seen. There was absolutely nothing he would not do for her. He took a chance, reached out and put his fingers under her chin and turned her face to him. “It’ll be all right. Whatever happens, we’ll make it be all right.”

Becca shook her head and looked again at the ground. “I don’t want to have an abortion. I don’t think I could do that.”

Zach dropped his hand. “No abortion. If you’re pregnant, we’ll have the baby.”

Becca faced him suddenly, her eyes flared wide and angry. “Zach, are you crazy? You’re still married. We’re both still in school. My parents are already helping raise one surprise grandchild. I can’t do that to them, or to you, or to me. I can’t; I won’t.” Her anger had faded during the outburst, and her eyes were vulnerable again. She turned away.

For the first time since sitting, Zach looked away from Becca. People were still hurrying past on the sidewalk five feet away, but far fewer than before. He looked at his watch. Class had just begun. He was never late for class. He sighed inwardly at the realization, the loss, but also knew he’d wait with Becca here, long as it took.

She stood suddenly and looked down at him. “Let’s go. We’re late for class.”

He noted the fresh color in her cheeks, the fire in her eyes, just before she turned and rushed off toward the doors to Romance Languages, leaving him to follow, carrying her book bag, in her wake.


Exactly two days later, Zach was already seated in the back row of their German Lit class (well in advance of the start) when Becca came in just as their professor was sitting down to begin. She slid into the seat beside him then leaned over and whispered in his ear, “My monthly friend just arrived.” The smile she steered his way was both forgiveness and promise.



4


Allison stopped the car in front of his apartment and honked the horn. Though the Honda’s horn sounded like one of those squeeze-bulb horns they mounted on their bicycle handlebars as kids, it had the desired effect and brought Zach to the breezeway railing. He looked down on her sitting in the driver’s seat with no instructor present and clapped three times. She leaned out the open window into the cool night and did an awkward sideways bow then shouted, “Come on down. I’ll give you a ride.” He grabbed his coat and keys and headed down. He spied several of his neighbors peeking out around drawn curtains and waved to them as he passed. Last summer Tess would’ve been one of those neighbors peeking (and would’ve gladly joined them for a ride); but she’d moved out in the fall after her divorce from Chad and a young black couple that argued all the time, the words sometimes accompanied with the sound of broken glass and more ominous thumps against the walls, had moved in before Thanksgiving, their intermittent epic battles often waking him in the middle of the night.

Zach folded his long limbs tight to his torso and squeezed into the passenger seat. Allison proudly displayed her license in the car’s pale dome light. Her wan face in the left-hand corner looked like that of a stunned pet, but the official signature and North Carolina state seal at the edges of the photo verified the card’s authenticity: Allison was now a legally licensed driver.

“Looks real to me,” Zach said then nodded proudly. “Congratulations. You earned it.”

“I’ll say,” she agreed as she slid the license into her wallet.

A car pulled up behind them and honked its horn, which was much louder than a bicycle horn. Allison grew flustered and stalled the car as she shifted it into drive. She tried to start it but the engine made no response (because the car was still in gear). The car behind them honked again. “What should I do, Zach?” she shouted.

Zach rolled down his window and waved for the car to pass. A gigantic black Olds looking bigger than a Sherman tank (compared to the Honda, it was) roared past, the unshaven factory worker glaring at them from behind bloodshot eyes.

“Maybe we shouldn’t go for a ride,” Allison said dejectedly.

Zach covered her trembling hand on the shift knob with his and used their two hands to slide the knob into park. He then guided her hand to the ignition and turned the key. The engine jumped to its low-purring life. “Don’t worry about them, Allison. Just take care of yourself.”

She looked at him doubtfully.

“Now how about that ride?”

She managed a thin smile. “Your life insurance paid up?”

“To the penny.” (They both knew he had none.)

“Am I the beneficiary?”

“Next of kin!”

“O.K. then.” She put the car in drive and raced ahead—at five miles per hour.

After a very slow loop around the apartment complex, with Allison leaning forward over the wheel and peering intently into the grainy dark, she parked next to his building—around back, in a space with empty spots on either side, and well short of the curb—and they walked together up to the apartment.

Their date had been planned since last week, when Zach had invited her to dinner at the end of her birthday treat to him. But when she’d called earlier in the evening and said he didn’t have to pick her up, the casual meal gained the sheen, the fuzzy warm glow, of a quiet celebration. Zach had prepared a couple of old Boston standbys—the one-dish meal of chicken cacciatore simmered with rice for the entrée and cottage pudding (not a pudding at all but a dry yellow sheet cake with your choice of warm chocolate or clear vanilla sauce toppings) for dessert—and they sat down to eat at the tall butcher-block bar table they’d bought in Boston.

Though their shared history permeated virtually everything around and before them—not only the food and the table, but the plates and stainless and pictures on the wall and cassette player on the counter (though the Bach concertos playing quietly in the background were new, Barton’s Christmas gift to Zach)—they each saw in the other’s gaze someone almost totally new. They now had full lives and experiences outside their long relationship. More importantly, they each were imbued with fresh mystery and its allure—Allison with her oblique references to new “friends” and Zach with Becca, the looming “other woman”: never denied but never overtly mentioned. And this mystery infused their new relationship with life, as they walked the tightrope between curiosity and jealousy, trust and betrayal, and felt the thrill of risk.

Since the apartment was devoid of any form of communal entertainment—no TV or stereo, let alone one of those new video cassette recorders that Barton had just bought, and not even the cats (now permanently at Allison’s) to entertain them—Zach had proposed the evening as a home-cooked meal followed by a trip out to a movie. So as they were scraping their plates clean of the simple but scrumptious dessert, he asked, “What do you want to see?”

She said, “I’ve been dying to see The Rose. Everybody says it’s a stunning performance by Bette Midler.” Bette Midler was one of her favorite performers, a version of her ideal of an independent, smart, and savvy woman (not to mention a great singer, comedian, and now, apparently, screen star).

Zach nodded. “She’s amazing.”

Allison frowned. “You’ve seen it?”

“When it first came out.”

She hesitated just a second then asked, “Want to see it again?”

“Love to.”

He checked the movie page of the paper. If they hurried, they could still catch the early show. They set their plates in the sink and headed for the door, with Zach offering to drive and Allison gladly accepting.

The film was of course the same—fine writing, nearly flawless acting and directing—though Zach did note some nuances and one significant plot twist he’d missed the first time. But Zach and everything else about this moment was hugely different from his first viewing. The self-destructive implosion enacted on the screen did not resonate to his core this time but seemed like what it actually was—a sad tale about someone else’s life. And the girl sitting next to him in the nearly empty theater did not hold the key to a better future but rather the essence of his past, both lofty and low times. He was in control of this moment and his life, not adrift on the whim of fate and at the mercy of the actions and feelings of a beautiful and graceful angel he barely knew but to whom he had surrendered his heart. He knew his place and purpose in the world now, and was working feverishly to secure those gains. Part of that future included this emerging woman seated beside him, required getting to know her again and caring for her as best for her. He laid his hand over hers on the common armrest.

Allison was troubled by the movie, but more because she didn’t grasp the inner demons haunting the main character and therefore couldn’t understand the grim outcome. “How come she didn’t just walk away?” she asked Zach as he drove to the apartment through empty residential streets.

“It’s a powerful addiction.”

“Alcoholism?”

“Self-loathing.”

She was silent a minute then said, “I’ve had some tough days and more than a few awful nights; but the next morning I get out of bed and get on with life—don’t know any other way.”

“You’re lucky. It doesn’t come that easy for everyone.”

“Nothing easy about it.”

It was still fairly early (not yet ten o’clock) and besides Allison had left her wallet and keys on the kitchen counter, so he led her back upstairs and brewed two cups of herbal tea that they drank while seated in the living room in their normal arrangement—she on the couch, he in the matching chair.

“Do you ever wish you could do it over?” she asked.

“What?”

“I don’t know—high school, marriage, jobs, where we lived, any of it, all of it.”

“I guess I don’t think that’s possible, or refuse to grant that possibility.”

“You think it’s all predestined?”

“I guess—not every choice but all the big outcomes.”

“But if you change one little thing, it changes everything.”

“Does it?”

“Sure. If Jane hadn’t been pretending to be having a secret affair with you, I would’ve never been brave enough to talk to you and we would’ve never gone out and you wouldn’t be here at Avery, or at least not with me.”

Zach smiled. “I would’ve found you anyway.”

“A punk freshman? No way.”

“The only match for me in the whole school.” He knew the words were true, however unexpected—one of those truths he’d stumbled on since their separation.

She blushed. “The girls were lined up for you.”

“But I only picked one.”

“You said it was destiny did the choosing.”

He smiled—the professor had caught him in an inconsistency. “In collaboration with my heart.”

She shrugged. “I think it could’ve all been different,” she said then added quickly, “But I don’t ever wish it was.”

“Ever?”

“Well, maybe one or two nights I would just as soon have skipped; but I’ve chosen to forget those.”

“Have to let that hurt go.”

“I know that now.”

They finished their tea in silence—not the taut silence of estrangement or betrayal but the relaxed quiet of a common history and a shared present, brought to this moment not by obligation but by choice.

Allison set her empty cup on the coffee table and checked her watch. It was getting late and a weeknight—work tomorrow for her, classes for Zach. “I don’t want to go home,” she groaned.

“You don’t have to,” he said in the tone of a simple suggestion that was anything but simple.

She met his eyes for the briefest of instants before saying, “O.K.” She collected her cup and saucer and carried them into the kitchen. On her way to the bedroom, she poked her head around the corner and whispered, “Zach?”

He looked over his shoulder, his empty cup still clutched in his hand.

“Just this once,” she said.

He nodded. “I know.”


She was lying on her back with her head on the pillow and the covers pulled tight to her chin when he entered the bedroom. The desk light was on and her eyes were wide open, a broad smile on her lips. Her clothes were draped carefully across the back of the chair.

“You found pajamas?”

She laughed. “Sort of.” She pulled the covers back far enough for him to see the lime-green tank top and teal-blue summer shorts that served as pajamas for this night. “My summer clothes in the back of the closet.”

“Come in handy.”

She yanked the covers back to her chin. “Yes, but I’m freezing.”

Zach took care of that soon enough, covering her with all his warmth in the new dark though his hands never went below her waist, her shorts and panties and tank top never dislodged. It was enough for them both for him to shower her with kisses all over her face and hair and neck (including the “Eskimo” and “butterfly” varieties resurrected from a long ago past)—honoring her, thanking her, for a lifetime of care and patience: in the past, the future, and most emphatically right now. The few tears she shed, quickly lapped up by him, were of joy mixed with loss.


She rose before dawn to drive back to her apartment and change for work. She paused in the bedroom doorway with him awake but still in bed.

“Thank you,” she said out of the gray dimness.

“Thank you.”

Then she laughed. “We need to get you a real bed.”

“Why? This one works just fine.”

“If you say so. See you later.”

“I’m counting on it.”

She disappeared into the dark. He marked her exit by the sound of her footsteps through the living room, along the breezeway, down the steps, out into the new day.



5


Zach ran into Megan at Dante’s Camera and Print while stopping there to pick up the passport photos to clip to his application. Aside from specializing in male bonding, Megan was an avid and quite capable photographer, with some of her moody candids finding their way into campus publications. She was talking to one of the salesmen about a faulty lens when Zach approached the counter.

She looked up when the salesman took the lens into the backroom for their repairman to look at. “Zach!” she said. “Just who I wanted to see.” She sidled up very close to him, the sleeve of her white nylon coat brushing against his bomber jacket.

Her delicate but enticing scent—was it her shampoo? perfume? after shower splash? the “after shower” image was especially riveting—seemed to encase him. He’d not expected this treat when he’d stopped here on his way to the grocery. “And why did you want to see me?” he asked.

She donned a little pout and leaned her leg against his. “Do I need a reason? Maybe I was just thinking about you.” She looked up at him and her pout was replaced by a sly grin. “Thinking about those powerful arms and strong hands.” Her finger lightly traced its way over the back of one of those hands splayed out on the glass countertop.

“I’m sure my arms and hands are always uppermost in your mind.” He didn’t move his hand from the counter.

“How do you know what’s uppermost in my mind?” she asked, her grin replaced now by a frank and challenging stare.

The salesman returned from the backroom. “I think we got it fixed,” he said as he walked up. “He used compressed air to blow some grit out of the focusing gear. Can’t go taking your camera on the beach blanket with you,” he joked.

Megan didn’t laugh. She took the lens and checked it over. She shrugged and slid it into its protective case and dropped the case into her woven wool shoulder bag.

“Let us know if you have any more problems,” he said then turned to Zach.

Zach handed him his claim check.

“Be right back,” he said and disappeared.

Megan was still smiling beside him though she’d put a few inches between her body and his. “A bunch of us are going to New Orleans for Mardi Gras over spring break. I’d really really like for you to join us.”

Zach smiled back at her. She was unrelenting, and he loved it. “I’d really really like to go,” he said. Part of him genuinely meant the words. “But I’m going to Rome for spring break. These photos are for my passport.”

“Rome? As in Georgia?”

Zach laughed. You had to love Megan. “As in Italy.”

“Then I guess I might as well not try to change your mind.”

Zach shrugged. “You could try.”

She looked at him with a glimmer of hope.

He smiled and backed off his teasing dare. “Thanks for thinking of me, Megan. I’ve always wanted to attend Mardi Gras, but not this year.”

The salesman returned with the envelope containing his photos. He checked them out and nodded thanks. (He’d paid for them when the pictures were taken earlier in the week.)

Megan was waiting by the door. “You don’t have to go to Mardi Gras to come see me,” she said as he opened the door for her. She slid past then paused with her supple body pressing lightly against his.

He could’ve sworn he felt her skin through all those layers of winter clothes. He sighed. “Thanks for the open invitation. I’ll let you know if I’m free.”

She rolled her head back against his shoulder and looked up at him. “They’d have loved you at Mardi Gras.” She turned and headed down the sidewalk without a glance back.

He let the door—a large plate glass door with the store’s hours of business stamped on the inside in bold white letters and numbers—fall shut behind him.



6


Becca knocked on the door to Zach’s apartment at 7:30 on Friday evening. Zach opened the door after a pause with the collar to his white dress shirt still open and his rust-colored silk tie looped around his neck but still unknotted. He grinned at Becca and shook his head. “Why’d I give you a key if you’ll never use it?”

“This is your place, Zach. I can’t just come barging in.”

“Barge away. I want you to barge.” He turned to head back to the bathroom’s mirror to finish tying his tie.

“Sometimes I worry that your wife will be here.”

Zach froze in mid-stride then turned to face Becca. “Allison doesn’t live here anymore. She hasn’t lived here for three months.”

“But she still comes over.”

“If she needs to come here to pick something up or meet with me, she calls first. She won’t show up unannounced, and I’ll be sure you don’t walk in on her.”

Becca nodded from the doorway. “I know. Sorry.”

Zach stepped forward, put his hands on either side of her lovely face, stared directly into her eyes, and said, “You are welcome in my apartment anytime, under any circumstances. O.K.?”

Becca smiled sheepishly. “O.K.”

He leaned forward and kissed her forehead, then turned back toward the bathroom and its mirror. Their reservations were in twenty-five minutes.

Behind him, Becca said, “But I’ll still knock.” She pushed the front door closed, took off her coat, and sat on his couch.

Zach and Becca loved to get dressed up and go out to nice restaurants. Neither had a lot of money, but what money they did have was spent mainly in nice restaurants. This evening they were trying for the first time a restaurant that had recently opened on the south side of town called Stan’s. It had received good reviews in the local paper and from some of Zach’s faculty friends (none of their student friends spent the time or money to go to nice restaurants).

Zach returned to the living room with his collar buttoned, his tie neatly knotted, and a gold collar clasp under the knot. He pulled on the coat to his gray suit. Becca stood in her azure and cream print dress with short sleeves and a scoop neck. She had on a simple pearl necklace. She slipped into her calf-length camelhair coat that was open in the front and had no belt.

She looked Zach up and down. “You look stunningly handsome, Mr. Sandstrom.”

“Hardly good enough for my beautiful date.”

“More than good enough.”

“I can only hope.”

The restaurant was actually better than expected, and they’d expected a lot. The contemporary décor was simple and elegant, the low-ceilinged room cozy but not claustrophobic, the lighting bright but not glaring. The tables and chairs were painted wood in a modern design, the chairs with comfortable natural linen upholstery, the tables with crisply ironed white linen table cloths. The silverware was all neatly and properly placed, and there was a single red rose in a white china bud vase beside a votive candle in scarlet glass holder. The receptionist was pleasant and professional; the waiters were all middle-aged men who served with a European formality and reserve.

And the food was exceptional—delicately seasoned contemporary American fare with provincial French and Italian touches. Zach had a smoked salmon appetizer with the paper-thin sliced salmon arranged in the middle of the plate and surrounded by small portions of finely chopped red onion, marinated capers, thin sliced hard-boiled quail eggs, dill-seasoned crème fraiche, and toasted baguette rounds. Becca had a duck confit and leek terrine served on a bed of red endive and accompanied by a boule of crusty country wheat bread. For their entrees, Zach had veal piccata that was perfectly cooked and seasoned and served with buttered house-made egg noodles and a simple broccoli and pearl onion stir-fry; and Becca had grilled swordfish with a honey-mustard and soy sauce glaze, saffron rice, and a cauliflower gratinee. For dessert, Zach had crème caramel and Becca had a bittersweet chocolate and hazelnut mousse. Throughout their meal, they shared a bottle of a fine Riesling recommended to them by the wine steward who was also the owner, a short stocky man with curly raven black hair, a burgundy ascot, a difficult to place accent, and a Bohemian flare. Zach was especially impressed to see their wine glasses always full though he never noticed them being refilled.

Becca slid her mousse toward Zach before taking a bite. He used his clean teaspoon to take a generous scoop of the dark pudding with its fluffy cream topping. “Hey,” Becca cried, “Leave me some.”

Zach made a quick reach for more even as Becca pulled the dish back to her side of the table. The mousse was amazingly smooth and rich and decadent. Zach made a mental note that if he ever really needed to dazzle a girl, to bring her to Stan’s and treat her to the bittersweet chocolate and hazelnut mousse. Then he looked to Becca swooning over that dessert and hoped he’d never again have cause to try to impress another girl. “What do you think?” he asked.

“About the mousse? That I’ve died and gone to Heaven.”

“I don’t know if they’ll let you in Heaven with that whipped cream on your lip.”

She flicked the cream away with her tongue.

“No, I mean about the restaurant.”

“It’s wonderful. Don’t you think so?”

“I do. Better than I’d hoped.”

“Do you think they’ll make it?”

He looked around the small but full dining room and recalled the line of people without reservations waiting in the foyer. “Looks like an auspicious start.”

“But it’s the long haul you have to wonder about. Kind of an upscale place for a blue-collar town.”

“The town’s changing, and liquor-by-the-drink will pay for a lot of mistakes and experimentation.” The county had recently legalized the sale of beer, wine, and spirits in restaurants, creating a new and sizable source of revenue for restaurants and prompting the opening of a number of upscale restaurant-bars.

Becca finally set her mousse bowl aside after running her spoon around its rim several times. “They’d better stay open. My taste buds will go into mourning if they stop making that mousse.”

“Maybe I’ll slip Stan a twenty for the recipe.”

Becca laughed. “Best investment you’ll ever make.”

“Good as done.”

They lingered for another fifteen minutes over hot tea—Earl Grey for Zach, lemon zinger for Becca—and never felt pushed to leave despite the full restaurant and the line at the door. For Zach and Becca both, this type of evening in this type of setting was as good as their relationship got in public—fine food, attentive service, elegant setting, no rush to be anywhere, free to relax and enjoy each other.

But even they could stretch out such an occasion only so far. Zach called for the check and paid in cash, leaving a generous tip.

Becca tried to hand him enough money to cover her half of the meal, but Zach slid the bills back to her. “Zach!” she protested.

Zach raised his hands. “My scholarship check came yesterday.”

“That’s for school.”

“No, school’s paid for. This check was for living expenses.”

“But not places like this.”

“Hey—that’s none of their business. I’m living”—he cast his arm out towards the whole restaurant—“and it’s expensive.”

Becca shook her head. “My treat next time.”

“Deal,” he said.

He stood and took Becca’s hand to help her up. He was always proud to be seen with her, proud to show her off. They walked the length of the dining room with her hand tucked into his elbow. She brought so much grace and charm to him, he brought so much attention and dignity to her. In the alcove between the crowded bar-foyer and the orderly dining room, Zach gave the coat-check girl his ticket, tipped her when she returned with Becca’s coat, then helped Becca put on her coat. Zach’s every motion, every solicitous gesture toward Becca, was done with measured care, knowing that almost every eye in the restaurant was watching them, or at least aware of their presence and movements. He reveled in their attention and witness—not of him or of Becca or even of the two of them together, but of their love, as if believing that if enough people saw them at their shining best then it could never be taken away: that that many witnesses couldn’t be mistaken; God wouldn’t allow it.

They stepped outside into the cold, damp February night. The poorly lit gravel parking lot and the neon-signed gas station and convenience store across the highway made this exterior feel as cheap and tawdry as the interior had felt elegant and dignified. They almost ran across the lot to Becca’s car and jumped inside.

Once inside, Becca turned to him. “Where to, navigator?”

“Badencourt’s having a floor party. Arnie invited us, if you’re up for it.” Badencourt was the dorm where most of Zach’s intramural basketball team lived. These guys revered Zach both on and off the court, saw him as a sort of transcendent outlander with a sweet jump shot, near unlimited knowledge, and a gorgeous girlfriend who came to all his games and cheered them on.

Becca burst out laughing. “A dorm party? In these clothes? At this hour?”

Her gleeful incredulity was utterly charming. If Zach weren’t already completely in love with her, he would be now. Then he thought—what the hell—and let himself fall in love with her all over again. “The night’s young, and they’ll love the clothes. Trust me, they’ll love the clothes.”

“Don’t you ever sleep?”

“You know the best time for sleep, don’t you?”

“Yes, I know,” she said, having heard the question from Zach many times before. They said in unison, “Later.” She started the car and pointed it toward Badencourt dorm.


The Badencourt commons room was empty and eerily lonely as they crossed through it on their way to the stairs. The table lamps were all lit, the plush chairs and couches and pillows inviting, the oriental rugs warm and soft, the dark paneling rich and elegant, the bookshelves full, their books waiting use. There was even a gas-log fire in the painted brick fireplace. But with no people, the Victorian parlor seemed as cold and dead as a tomb, a sumptuous metaphor of loss. Zach and Becca hurried through without pausing. The fire-code stairwell, with its bare painted block walls, broom-finished concrete steps, and welded steel railings offered its own modernist definition of loneliness, but seemed less threatening than the empty parlor. And they could hear the pulsing beat of rock music and the blurred chatter of voices descending from above—there was promise of company within this modernist catacomb.

Through the fire doors’ reinforced-glass windows, Zach could see Arnie seated behind a table to the side of the hall. On the table in front of him were a six-pack of beer, a bottle of Jamaican rum, two unopened wine coolers and a baseball glove. He was surveying the table’s contents with a glassy-eyed stare when Zach and Becca opened the doors and walked into the hallway. The blaring music struck them like a gale-force wind.

Arnie glanced up in surprise. “Holy shit! Look who’s here.” He extended a hand to Zach across the table, then took Becca’s hand and kissed it lightly. “What’s up with the threads?” he shouted. “You two just get married?”

“That’s right, Arnie. We’re here for the honeymoon suite.”


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