It was a day like any other. Days have a sameness. Even new, they offer little beyond weather changes and sudden deaths.
“And how are you today?” Bessie asked, showing a smile that age had not yet dulled. She’d always been cute because of it. Sixty years ago, or more, she was the little girl whose cheeks you pinched, and though she was old now, she still wore her hair in curls; silver gray undulations that framed her face and brought out a blithe desire in others to pinch where her dimples dipped, even to kiss her there unabashedly.
Grey looked up and nodded. “Same,” he said.
The air was damp with April moisture as Bessie Day Hardy wrapped her scarf closer to her neck and shivered. Air that hung heavy like wet clothes caught flapping in the rain made it hard to breathe. The scarf had been a gift in a white, torn box under red Santa Claus wrapping, from the Episcopal Church of Saint John the Apostle Christmas party, just last year. The lime green and caramel-colored wool that she loved to feel against her lips an anonymous kindness from someone who had written: Bless you and have a very Merry Christmas. Someone, she imagined with fresh white skin, pearl teeth, and eyes that sparkled blue in daylight, light as the sea, but darkened with the night, turning cinereal behind the shadows of dusk.
“We ever going to see the sun again?” She sighed. Wind kicked around the corner, and her body felt the chill, enemy winds that carried the threat of sodden attacks to bones too brittle to fight. Later, she would feel the ache and she would rub her muscles more for the distraction than the release of pain.
“If we live long enough,” Grey said.
Bessie chuckled. Living long wasn’t the blessing it used to be. Aging was in the way. Couldn’t leave a person alone, had to show up and make her breath short, expose every damn vein in her body, and give her the unsightly imprint of impending death. Nobody wanted to look at mortality too closely and aging people carry its threat, vulnerably apparent, the weight of its nearness was a monster in the wings where heaven was a nebulous and cracked mirror; don’t look into it, the young whispered; don’t look yet.
But the old were once young. Bessie Day Hardy still carried the traces of adolescent giddiness in the creases of her lips and her middle-aged ardor for Chauncey Hardy still glinted in her eyes at the memory of his smooth hands in hers, and his fine, soft hair against her breast. His step was lively. She could hear it, sometimes, when the house was quiet. Chauncey’s step on the stairs, in the kitchen, on the bedroom floor.
Damn house was quiet now, even her cat walked too softly to hear.
“You’ll catch your death in this weather, Grey,” she said.
Companion winds swept around the corner and blew the pages of yesterday’s Seneca Times from under the bench in front of The Pink Cow ice cream parlor across the street, fiercely sending the pages up as high as Grey’s knees. They wrapped around his legs and flapped like birds captured in the gusty breezes of early spring.
“Yep, reckon so.” He held his hat with one hand, his cheeks ruddy, his nose wet from the cold. All winter long he took his place behind the plate glass window of Caroline’s Café on Main Street. He became more restless each year because each new winter seemed longer and harder than the one before; even if that might not have been the case, it seemed to be so for Grey. He marked the days on his wildlife calendar, counting the thirty-one little boxes until the long awaited first of April appeared and he could flip the page. Big x’s under the photograph of March’s mountain lions, each new day’s beginning anticipated like the end of a toothache, until all the x’s had come and gone.
Past now and into the middle of the month, all of April’s fools had retreated back to La-Z-Boy chairs after screaming “Fire!” or saying “Oh, no, there’s a hole in your pants,” or “Yikes, is that a scorpion on your shoulder?” Now it was time for tables in the sun, not for fools with tired jokes, not for winds that whipped past his ears and hurt deep down where his bones creaked like old doors.
“Hoping for an early summer,” he said.
Bessie gave him that look, the one given to stupid remarks by people who think they’re smarter than they are. There was no such thing as early summer in Chaanakya. There was just winter and summer’s serendipitous surprise visits, impromptu afternoons of sun, teasing heat that flirtatiously bade farewell too soon, and August slipped away too quickly, and the leaves displayed their palette of red and gold, chromatic leaves that snapped and cracked in the cold air and disappeared into backyard flames.
“No such thing as early summer in Chaanakya,” she said.
Winter had died softly, without one single lingering storm that fell, deftly bidding farewell to snowmen in the yard and salt-sprayed roads. Spring was slow to rise up and languish in the green backyards and pristine porches of Chaanakya’s Tilden Avenue Victorians, where, in summer, a cacophony of flowers filled hanging baskets of blooms, their petals soon to reach like arms to the ground below, their overflowing colors a call to each passersby, a friendly parade of greetings from petunias, lobelias, fuchsias, and campanula carpatica—meant to make the observer sniff the air and admire the views of pastel opulence, and utter, “Oh my, how pretty.”
Bessie Day Hardy didn’t live in one of the Victorians on Tilden Avenue and neither did Grey Otis, but they used to live just two houses apart and went back fifty years. The way Bessie remembered it, Roland used to tolerate Grey, but always said he was a bore. Funny how much she thought about Roland these days. What was it about getting old that made her remember the color of his shoes the day he kissed her under the willows on her sixteenth birthday? Brown like chocolate, with laces knotted and torn and holes up front like tiny puncture marks. Why, she couldn’t even remember if she’d paid the phone bill for the month and whose birthday was it that was just around the corner. But Roland had a cackle to his laugh and he wore Indian belts with blue and green beads. Yes, that she remembered.
“Didn’t you hear what I said, Bessie?”
“I never give up hope.”
For a moment, she didn’t know what he was talking about. Hope about what? Then she recalled her comment about there being no such thing as early summers in Chaanakya.
“I heard on the news we’re going to have a good week, maybe high as sixty-five,” he said and was clearly pleased to say it; it proved the power of hope, particularly his.
Grey took a sip of his coffee, both hands clasped around the paper cup. She could see the thick red fingers, black hairs on his hands looked coarse. The steam rising from the coffee was something she could feel, as he did: soothing heat. She knew it wasn’t good, Caroline’s coffee, but she wanted to drink it down anyway, feel herself warmed by the hot, anemic liquid in her belly settling like a waning fire.
Grey defiantly sat on the Only for Customers bench in front of Caroline’s Café the moment the last snow fell, daring its return. He’d look for the sun and put his face up to it. He’d sit for an hour or so watching Main Street, thinking about God knows what, barely talked unless he was talked to. Bessie wondered how Maggie put up with him.
“I’m picking up some chocolate chips for Davy’s cookies,” she said. “Last batch was peanut butter, but I think he really prefers my chocolate chips.”
Back in high school, Maggie used to say that Grey was the living end. “The living end of what?” Roland used to tease. “The living end of the Neanderthal man?” he’d say. Bessie got a kick out of that, not that she didn’t like Grey, but he acted so stupid most of the time, and he was pimply and gangly and smelled like old socks and Clearasil. Then she’d feel badly about noticing his bad smell, and she’d tell Roland not to tease unkindly. Roland with his fiery hair, straight and long, falling into his pale eyes and lush against his copper skin, like a fox’s fur. Roland was handsome, movie-star perfect, and he moved knowing it, his head held high and his whistle cutting through the wind; he briskly walked to the lively tune of his own song.
She looked at Grey, gruff and ruddy, a big, tall man with large hands and feet as big as canoe paddles, probably a hundred and fifty pounds heavier than he was in high school, his acne scars now visible as craters. Why do some men die before the crow’s feet form around their eyes and the boredom of daily living sets in their smile like granite spokes? Not that she wished it were otherwise. It would have been a sin to wish for a shift in God’s plan, but as a young woman she’d wanted it, that shift, that turn of fate, she’d wanted it so badly that the unfathomable repercussions of her unthinkable prayer got twisted and gnarled around her heart until her very breath was a tiresome chore.
“How’s Maggie?” she asked.
He nodded his head. She assumed that meant fine.
“Best be getting what I came for,” she said. “I’m freezing out here; only way to stay warm is to keep moving.”
“Yup.” He went back to his coffee cup, put his head back, and slurped it down. “Aaah,” he said. “That woke me up.”
“Having a reverence for the past? What’s that mean to have a reverence for the past?”
Bessie leaned over the counter and stared at Lilly. She’d overheard them speaking, two young women at the table by the window, obvious tourists in Chaanakya, who couldn’t get enough of the chandeliers or the old-fashioned countertop, with names engraved in old wood. Two young, twenty-something women with bodies the size of pretzel sticks and voices that whined out words, unbecoming and barely English.
Bessie wanted to tell them it wasn’t so, that Caroline’s Café didn’t look a damn thing like it did forty years ago, or even fifty years ago. It wasn’t even called Caroline’s Café, it was Buddy’s and it had a jukebox, red leather booths, and an ice cream bar. The face-lift was false, meant to beguile its history with fabrication and fantasy. Buddy’s served burgers and fries and chocolate malts, not scones with berries or yogurt and granola.
“Isn’t it just so quaint?” they said. “So quaint.”
Nobody could understand the past except the people from it. Nothing quaint about what was new, obvious. Seeing it and walking through it was the only way to know that it didn’t think of itself as quaint, didn’t take on any airs of being worth more because it was impervious to its appeal.
“What’s that, Bessie?” Lilly asked, leaning in on one elbow.
Bessie looked back at the girls. She could see herself at that age, her powder blue cardigan sweater opened three buttons down, indifferent to the value of her saddle shoes.
“You think this place is quaint?” Bessie asked.
“This place, or you mean Chaanakya in general?” Lilly stared back at her. It might have been the fourth question away from Who Wants to be a Millionaire? she pondered it so intently. Maybe Chaanakya was quaint, she might have been thinking; after all, so many farmhouses on the winding roads of Chaanakya Valley were being sold to city folk who sought “quaint” and were willing to pay huge sums of money for it.
Bessie looked around; nothing resembled itself. This present did not fit the memory of her youth; it had not been recreated. Its reality was truly dead; the detail had been erased. There had been no names engraved into old wooden tables. There had just been her heartbeat and his as he trailed her leg surreptitiously in a corner of this room, just where they were seated, she could not remember. But the sensation of his fingers on her bare leg held a vibrancy recalled and embraced more readily than its initial presence, its initial surprise intrusion into what was then her desire for him to boldly fondle her leg.
“This place,” Bessie said. “You remember it, don’t you, the way it was?”
Lilly looked around, as if trying to envision it the way it was, but not really capturing the image. A place has to have significance to be remembered, then, miraculously, smells and the contours of touch return because they’ve been embedded in a precious time. Bessie doubted if Lilly had any attachment to this room, not the way she had. Lilly had had so many opportunities to be touched. Roland used to say she loved every boy she kissed, and she kissed every boy from Chaanakya to Syracuse. Bessie assumed that Roland knew, as she did, that subtlety was where love was first recognized, and if you couldn’t see what separates one man from the next, then everyone was the same, and it would never matter who you loved.
“You need anything aside from these chocolate chips, Bessie?”
Caroline’s Café sold sweet fruit preserves in glass bottles wrapped with faded brown paper and pink string, made to look…what? Old? Vintage?
“Just the chips, Lilly. Davy prefers my chocolate-chip cookies to the peanut butter.”
She probably could have gotten her chocolate chips at the big market where everything was cheaper, but she liked to drop in on Lilly, hardly saw her since Mitch took ill. When friends stopped coming by, the days were upset by it, the redundancy of routine, once altered, needed to find new distractions, like puzzle pieces that need connection in order to form a whole.
“Been missing you, Lilly,” Bessie said.
Lilly covered her hand with her own, so brown spotted now that her white skin looked consumed by the onslaught. The prettiest girl in Chaanakya lacked all trace of her title, except in her hips, which still wiggled, and her Cupid’s bow lips, still pink. Lilly wasn’t always Bessie’s best friend. She didn’t start gravitating toward her until way after Bessie’s marriage to Chauncey, because back when they were girls, Lilly was the “easy” girl from Highland Hamlet, boy-crazy, gum-chewing, tight sweater-wearing loose girl who let the boys grow up under her skirts.
Lilly shook her head. “Don’t know,” she said. “I’ll try and come by though, you know, if he’s sitting up by Monday or Tuesday.”
“I’ll save some cookies and come over there, if you like.”
“Oh, he won’t be comfortable with that. You know men, don’t like women seeing them in a weakened state.”
Lilly’s job at Caroline’s had to be the only thing keeping her sane. Taking care of Mitch was a curse. Before he got sick, he was constantly being locked up for drunk driving, spousal abuse, or possession of marijuana, take your pick, could be any one of the three. Lilly had had four husbands before Mitch, progressively worse they became as she struggled under the weight of disappointment; she became old but never hardened. Each new man was an opportunity to repent, turn around old habits, and discover in what bad man’s heart the good one was hiding.
“Well, you just come on by if and when you can. You never need an invitation, Lilly. Monday for lunch, if you like.”
Lilly winked one of her large blue eyes. “Caroline gives me the leftover apple tarts. I’ll bring ’em.”
Caroline’s Café also sold cuddly, little teddy bears and local maple syrup, fancy chocolate all the way from Sweden, and tins of peppermint, but there weren’t any gumballs, very unauthentic. No rolls of button candy in a jar, no little wax six-packs of cherry juice either.
“How’s Grey doing?” Lilly asked, looking outside onto Main Street where Grey sat with his back to her, broad checkerboard shoulders of old wool, brown and black checks, collar up high to his neck, touching lightly onto his red-tipped ears, mostly hidden and hugged by his hat.
“He’s doing, I guess. You know Grey, doesn’t talk much.”
It wasn’t always that way. Oh no, when they were young, Grey never shut up. There he’d be, yakking in the backseat of Roland’s old Olds and throwing popcorn down her back till he got Roland so mad he took the bag away. “Stop being such an idiot, Grey,” Roland would call out.
Smooching Maggie must have made Grey nervous, laughing at things that weren’t funny, the way he did. But he wouldn’t stop being a big mouth, showing off to Maggie, not caring how loud Roland had to turn up the speakers at the old drive-in movie in order to hear what was being said up on the screen.
Roland said Grey was hatched from a cuckoo’s egg. Must have been; his grades never made it past average.
“I could have been a contender,” he slurred. “See, didn’t think I was watching the movie, did you?” Grey stood there before her homeroom class one morning, leaning against a scratched door of blond wood and beveled glass, Room 320 painted in black numbers right at the top, over his head. “On the Waterfront, best film I’ve ever seen, but Brando puts cotton in his mouth,” he said. “Takes no talent to put cotton in your mouth.”
Bessie remembered flipping back her hair; Grey was such a jerk. If she and Maggie weren’t best friends, she’d treat him like the invisible man. But Maggie thought he was Rock Hudson dreamy, despite his acne, which Maggie said gave him character, so every double date included him and his intolerable immaturity: Pink bubble gum bubbles snapped into Bessie’s ear, crackerjacks and popcorn down her back, even the quiet, careful removal of her bobby pins, so her hair would fall, and he could snicker and tell her she looked more like Leslie Caron with her hair down, and when it was up in that stupid French twist, she looked like his little brother, Scotty.
“Where’d you two go after you dropped us, lover’s lane, Bessie?” Grey sniggered, his two large front teeth lay on his lower lip before he closed his mouth, his horny fantasies showing up in the spittle that lingered.
Yes, it had been lover’s lane, and she’d let Roland go farther than ever before. His sweet taste on her tongue and his hands squeezing her breasts like knobs or dough. He smelled young, like perspiration, and he was eager, with a young man’s energy, quick, hot breaths in her ear, hair left wet by their heat, hands on her body not really knowing how much he could touch till she pushed him off, if she would…But maybe that would be the night she wouldn’t, and every choice he made with his hands had that hope inside them.
“Shut up, Grey,” she said and pushed him back. “We just looked at the moon.”
She had wanted to, but didn’t, on lover’s lane. Years later she’d be sorry she’d never had him, all of him, the tender consumption of her first love, Roland Miller.
Grey had been tall and gangly back then, and his Adam’s apple was always twitching, his lanky legs moving down a hall of combination locks swinging off green metal lockers that rattled from his skips and turns and laughter. “That’s not what I heard,” he called back, and banged on one of the lockers loudly, and the sound echoed back in the empty hall. Bessie had stood there blushing all the way down to her toes, blushing and wondering: Roland didn’t lie to Grey? Did he?
“Dumbest boy I ever knew,” Bessie said, turning back to Lilly.
“What’s that, Bessie?” Lilly handed her eighteen cents change.
“Grey Otis, dumbest boy I ever knew.”
Bessie passed the young women on her way out, cell phones stuck in their ears, iPod wires on the table between the lattes and the peach muffins.
“It’s so authentic,” one said, still engrossed in the lie of antiquity. “Look at the old-fashioned bench outside; it scrolls.”
“Never existed,” Bessie said as she passed, and they looked up but didn’t hear whatever it was that she had said and would not have listened if they had.
“Authenticity is in the eye of the beholder,” Bessie whispered as she turned left onto Main Street and walked the genuinely, historically correct mile home.
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