(This is fiction for grownups by Kim Norris.)
************* (4) *************
The thunderstorms had finally ended, and above the field, towering cumulus clouds glowed like embers, their immense height reflecting the reddening sun against a backdrop of blue. If only Gail could mix colors like that: rose to peach to red hot red then to orange to gold; behind the sky went from light blue to azure to indigo. Briefly, she had a strong urge to go find a blank canvas and pull out her paints, but the impulse passed, replaced with the ever present weariness that made even the simplest tasks exhausting. She hadn’t painted in months. Not since the accident...
Standing, Gail forced herself to shake off the lethargy. The sun room, which also served as her art studio, radiated the same red glow, softening the hard edges of the empty easel that stood in one corner. Sketchpads filled the adjacent wall-length worktable that also supported some computer equipment and a set of shelves. These were lined with colorfully decorated tubes that referenced the tints within, pots of gesso, black and white paint, clear gel, the secret to the soft glow that kissed the edges of the flowers she painted. According to her art dealer, critics called the technique “transcendent.” She would have to take Yvonne’s word for it; Gail never read reviews.
Yvonne Dalrymple, her art dealer, called just yesterday asking about the status of the two new paintings she requested four months ago to replace the ones her gallery had sold at the beginning of the year. Gail let the call go to voicemail rather than face having to tell the imposing and assertive woman that no progress had been made. She knew how the conversation would go. Yvonne would start out sympathetic, understanding of the grief that kept Gail blocked from doing anything creative. From there, Yvonne would argue that throwing herself in her art could be healing for Gail, and finally she would point out that Gail’s bills wouldn’t pay themselves. On the rare occasion when Gail actually took the call, she didn’t bother to correct Yvonne about that. She had avoided the last three calls. It was only a matter of time before Yvonne showed up on her doorstep to get answers.
Somewhere in the clutter of her sketchpads, Gail had already mapped out the color palette for the first painting, an abstract of a flower garden. She had planned to paint the same concept over the course of four seasons, beginning with summer. Gail started sketches using oil pastels in the spring, nothing more than blocks of color from her imagination. She, Ray and Allie had only just moved in at the end of March before the real flower garden revealed its existence. When the plants first pushed through the earth, she recognized garden phlox right away…it had always grown in her mother’s garden.
Now, looking out across the backyard, the blush of light deepened; she saw the flowers aflame with the sunset. Ebony shadows at ground level gave way to vibrant colors of orange, magenta, and red. The row of zinnias she and Allie had planted too early managed to thrive in spite of the freak frost in early May, and the flowers now stood over two feet tall. Behind them, along the back fence, the taller, perennial garden phlox in shades of white, purple, and hot pink caught the longer golden rays of the setting sun, sharpening every detail. Without thinking about it, Gail grabbed her tablet computer from the worktable and opened the digital camera app. At the sound of her sliding the glass door to the patio, Fluffy and Floppy jumped down from the sofa in the adjoining living room where they had spent the remainder of the storms huddled together, but at least, thank God, not barking.
Gail missed Allie every second of every minute of every day, but she felt especially torn when the dogs barked; Allie could quiet them, even in a crowd. Popular quickly in her new school, Allie made the Junior Varsity cheerleading squad only a week after they moved in. Twice, five girls, “the cool ones,” according to Allie, had come over on a Saturday to jump on the round trampoline that Ray had setup for her on moving day. (“It’ll give her something to do while we unpack,” he had whispered to Gail when she tried to protest the time spent on a child’s toy, but Ray had been right to insist.) The high-pitched shrieks of six pre-teen girls as they jumped up and down was more than even the dogs could compete with. They simply sat quietly at the trampoline’s perimeter looking up, concerned, their sensitive ears twitching occasionally on particularly shrill notes.
Nothing quieted them now. Nothing. Gail had actually looked into having them de-barked, but the veterinarian had talked her out of it. (It’s considered animal cruelty, Mrs. Amissio. You’ll have to find another doctor…)
She let the dogs run out ahead of her and followed them down the stairs onto the ground level patio and across lawn to the back fence. The grass, still wet from the storms, felt cold on her bare feet. The lawn needed cutting; tall stalks soaked the bottoms of her jeans and left seeds clinging to the damp denim.
At this late angle, the sun’s light had a quality that made the garden practically vibrate with color. The tallest flowers, backlit, stood out in sharp relief against the emerald of the field behind the house. In front, against the darker green foliage, the color of the zinnias intensified as if each bloom was lit from within. She squinted, deliberately blurring her vision in order to perceive the colors without the imposed shapes, and let the range of hues wash over her. It was a trick she had learned years ago that helped her determine the essential color palette. Finally, standing back at first, to get the whole scene, then moving in for close-ups, she began taking pictures.
************** (5) *************
“It’s just that I haven’t seen you or the boys in so long. You’d think we lived across the country from each other and not just across town.” Gloria immediately regretted the words. Caroline did not respond well to being pushed. “I mean...they’re growing up so fast.”
“Maybe next week, Mom. We’re too busy right now.”
“You could come for dinner, you and the boys.”
“But not Dougie?”
Gloria heard the frost in her daughter’s tone. “Well of course he’s welcome, but I thought some mother-daughter-grandson time would be nice.”
“I’ll have to let you know.”
“That’s fine. So are the boys ready to go back to school?”
“I have to go now, Mom. We’ll talk soon.”
“But...” Gloria stared at the phone as the dial tone came through the handset. It wasn’t the first time Caroline had hung up on her, but it hurt all the same.
Gloria blamed her son-in-law, Dougie, for creating the rift that had grown between her only child and herself. If only he would discipline the boys. A seven year old and a nine year old shouldn’t be allowed to mock their grandmother. “Granny Big Fanny” was not a term of endearment. (Plus, it was false. She was in great physical shape for 68, a detail that irked the other senior ladies who volunteered with her at the hospital.) A swift smack on the behind had never done Caroline any harm. But Dougie’s reaction when she, Gloria, had been forced to tell the boys not to call her names and applied a single spank to each bottom...well she might as well have beat them with a billy club, the way Dougie exploded.
Caroline called a week later, and Gloria welcomed the chance to mend fences. But as the conversation progressed, it became to clear that Caroline actually wanted to ask for money. That phone call, too, had ended poorly.
“I should just move away,” she said aloud to no one. "Maybe then, she would miss me.”
Gloria put the phone back in its charger and walked out of the kitchen. The living room, which faced out to the Greenspace, as she had always called it, glowed the same scarlet as the storm clouds that looked like they might just as easily rebuild as scatter. Her husband, Bud, a successful residential builder for his entire career, had dreamed of building his own neighborhood since the days when he courted her with trips to the Starlight Drive-In and Clancy's frozen custard stand. When he finally achieved the means to break ground on the neighborhood -- and the house he wanted to build for her and their daughter, she requested two things: 1) The laundry room needed to be on the same level of the house as the clothes closets; 2) their backyard should have a view of green space rather than someone else’s swing set.
Bud required the architects to design the Greenspace just for her – a field in the center of the development that served as rainwater runoff for the neighborhood in the summer and an excellent sledding hill during the snowy winters of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Bud added to their site plan a twenty-foot buffer between their neighbors’ property lines on either side instead of the town’s required minimum of ten feet—the perks of being the developer’s wife. She missed her husband every second of every minute of every day, but doing so did not bring him back from the dead, and she was lonely in a way she had never dreamed possible.
Often, late at night she failed to sleep, dwelling instead on fantasies of The Writer next door intermingled with thoughts of moving to Clearwater Beach, Florida, Bud’s favorite place to vacation. The words, location, location, location, like a mantra, repeated in her brain – hers was the best house in the thriving modest neighborhood. Housing prices were on the rise…maybe Caroline would miss her then, and the boys would love to visit the Gulf of Mexico. She had been pondering the change just this morning. Only the look of joy she imagined crossing Dougie’s face when she announced she would be moving held her back from acting on the idea.
She shook her thoughts clear and opened the back sliding glass door, anticipating a literal breath of fresh air which should be scrubbed clean after the heavy rain. Motion to her right caught her attention. Noisy Dogs Lady was out by the back fence with something that looked like a fancy dinner menu. The woman moved along the fence line constantly, pausing and punching the notebook in her hand – taking pictures, Gloria guessed. Her sweet Caroline had something similar.
Gloria had not seen her neighbor for a few weeks, only heard the damn dogs. She had seen the write-up in the paper about the accident four months ago. Sad news that had been --imagine losing your only child, your daughter, and your husband, at the same time? Gloria briefly admired her neighbor for being able to breathe, much less photograph flowers…they were beautiful in this light. When Bud died, Gloria had been rendered useless for months. It had taken serious counseling to convince her that the ham salad sandwich she had just served him minutes before he died had not brought on the stroke. Caroline had been no comfort – she and Bud were never close – even before Caroline had caused that ridiculous fuss, accusing her own father…who believed a twelve year old? Gloria never doubted Bud’s version of things for a second.
The scrape of The Writer’s screen door opening drew her focus to the other side of the yard. Noisy Dogs Lady must have waved, because she saw The Writer wave in that direction as he made his way to his back flower garden, scissors in hand and a wicker basket over his forearm. A sudden courage filled Gloria; a delayed rebuttal to Caroline’s earlier rebuke, “I can’t fill your calendar for you…you need to find your own fun.” She turned to the left and peered into the antique mirror that hung above the sofa. Patting the humidity-induced stray curls down flat, she gave herself an encouraging wink and went outside to engage her neighbor.
************* (6) *************
Finally, the thunderstorms had stopped. A cooler but no less humid breeze created a cross-flow of fresh air that rustled the pages of handwritten notes and unanswered letters stacked on his desk. Jerry stood in the doorway between his study and the formal dining room. The wall facing the field was mostly glass, and in this light, with these clouds…well, the imagery wrote itself. Jerry sipped the glass of sauvignon blanc he held. If he squinted just right, all he could see was the colors; the back flower garden, currently filled with purple Echinacea and daisies, his mother’s favorite. Gladiolas toppled across the top of the wrought iron border in every shade from pale peach to hot pink.
The effect of the sunset’s light, a rosy, golden glow, brought the flowers in his garden into bright, sharp focus. A beautiful bouquet, he thought. Maybe two. Mother would love these. He went into the kitchen to find the shears and filled two vases with tap water – his favorite heavy cut lead crystal that Kenny had given him when things were still good between them, and a pretty pink blown glass vase that FTD had delivered with the Valentine’s flowers Sharon had surprised him with…that hadn’t lasted long either, but maybe he should have been completely honest with her…
The wet grass soaked his trousers in just a few steps, but he shrugged off the compulsion to turn around, put on a dry pair, and roll up the pant legs. The flower garden was in full bloom, and the season had experienced just the right amount of rain and sun. It wouldn’t take long to cut two bouquets. He’d put one on his writing desk. Mother would like the pink vase; it would be a pleasing centerpiece at their weekly dinner later tonight. The bench, a reproduction of one that sat beside the Champs-Elysee in Paris, made a good surface to put the basket while he cut flowers. Jerry took a moment to watch a yellow swallowtail butterfly drink nectar from one of his flowers. Briefly, he experienced the warm glow of a nurturer…maybe this is how it felt to have a pet.
“Good evening!” The voice startled him; Gail Amissio waved from her own flower garden two houses down. He had not seen her in weeks, maybe even months. If he had not been aware of her circumstances, he’d have been at her door eager to discuss what she was going to do to shut those dogs the fuck up. Jerry didn’t have time to discuss it tonight, so he waved and turned his attention to the Echinacea. The yellow swallowtail had moved on, but a small white butterfly lingered. He began to harvest the daisies, snipping the stems close to the lowest cluster of leaves, knowing that, in time, two new branches would emerge.
From down the fence line, he heard Gail’s sliding glass door close. He turned his head in the direction of her yard, and was startled by the face of Gloria, the widow next door, who apparently had been trying to get his attention on the other side of the pine trees.
“Yoo hoo!” Gloria waved her hand above her head. “Hi neighbor!”
Jerry straightened up and waved back hoping he did not appear too enthusiastic. “Hello Mrs. Kneadler!” He knew she didn’t know his name. He had tested and proven that theory twice over; he had received enough of her mail erroneously to know hers though. Seven years had passed since Jerry signed the loan papers and took the keys. At least five mail carriers had worked their street since then. Idiots, all of them.
"Call me Gloria, please. Your flowers are lovely, Gary.”
“Sorry.” Gloria blushed deeply and started to turn away. Then she seemed to steel herself. Jerry tried not to smirk as she turned back to face him. It was all so fucking cliché.
“They’re lovely,” she started again. The colors…”
“It’s the light,” Jerry said authoritatively. Sunset gives a queer quality to the light, especially with all this green.” He gestured to the shared field behind their houses
“The Greenspace,” Gloria said without thinking. “Would you like to come for dinner tomorrow night?
That was unexpected; he dropped his scissors. He noticed the color rise in her cheeks. Long standing curiosity took over and he nodded before he could find his voice to say yes.
“Wonderful!” Gloria clapped her hands in delight. “Come over at six?”
Jerry nodded again, bent to retrieve the scissors and turned back to the purple coneflowers. He tried not to laugh until he was sure she had gone back inside. But he knew all too well there was no guarantee she wasn’t still watching. He had seen her again last night, peeping from her window. He took an extra long time to finish…he liked to think they both enjoyed the time and care he took to get there…
He hadn’t been on a date with a woman for some time, but Mother would enjoy this latest development in his “love life.” Women were okay, though he had more trouble trusting them. Men were manipulative too, Jerry knew that, but he understood better how a man thought. Women on the other hand – he learned years ago – he was fifty-seven, with another birthday just around the corner – and he had learned years ago that if he couldn’t invent the woman’s thoughts himself, he didn’t stand a chance of comprehending them. But his mother still clung to the belief that Jerry would give her grandbabies. Kenny was a name she, Doris Nunley, had never heard in connection with her son. She asked about Sharon frequently, though. He tried not to lie…
He was keenly aware that his neighbor had just made “a move.” Hopefully, she wouldn’t be offended if he brought both the wine and the dessert. He rarely trusted anyone to correctly supply those two most important parts of any meal. It might be amusing to see what distance she would venture in order to seduce him. Briefly, Jerry wondered if Gloria fantasized about him, but he found the notion repulsive, which surprised him, as Gloria was not an unattractive woman. She kept herself well; she was in far better physical shape than he was (admittedly, that could be said of many people).
He felt no sexual attraction though. No, he wanted to see the house. It was the largest in the neighborhood. Jerry had researched his property thoroughly before buying it, and he knew that Gloria’s husband built all of the houses in the neighborhood, twenty years ago, choosing to make his family home there as well. Gloria's backyard boasted a large patio with outdoor kitchen that Jerry coveted and seating under a wooden pergola. But, except for the two massive white pine trees on the property line, her yard was absent of any other foliage beyond a lush green lawn. No flowers, no shrubs, no deciduous trees, not even a pot of geraniums. He wondered whether she had indoor plants and then pictured rooms containing urns of silk flowers and satin trees.
Unconsciously, the character of the Lonely Widow began to write her tale in his mind. Dinner with Gloria would provide excellent research for the story. Perhaps he would consider fucking her just to get some first hand knowledge of the appetites of older women. Jerry would have to taste her cooking first, before making that call. But even if he played the gentleman, watching her try to get him in the sack would be interesting in its own right. Every romance writer knew -- the devil was in the details. An evening with Gloria could prove a treasure trove of material.
He clipped a few more gladiolas, topping off the basket that bulged with color. Whistling as he returned to the kitchen, he was careful to leave his wet loafers outside the door. Carrying the basket into the kitchen, he began to trim the flowers and arrange them in the two vases. Mother will love these, he thought as he worked. She would be cooking fish, as she did every Friday, the lovely brook trout he had brought her yesterday, fresh caught from a stream that belonged to his new friend, Drew. Drew loved to fish, so he regularly stocked the stream behind his farmhouse at his own expense and with the blessings of the game wardens. Jerry loved to watch Drew fish.
Mother, of course, did not know exactly where or how Jerry caught the fish, but she seemed pleased with it. He hoped she would prepare the fish simply, with lemon and olive oil. Usually Doris served some variation of fried fish and chips. Drew had complained (mostly playfully) that Jerry was “chubby,” so Jerry was trying to slim down. Hopefully Drew wouldn’t be upset about this “date” with Gloria. Research only, Jerry would assure him. Should sex arise, Jerry would just keep that detail to himself. Dedication to his craft trumped all relationships, but he also appreciated the concept of “need to know.” Instinct told him that Drew would be less understanding if Jerry let Gloria touch his dick. Should her cooking warrant the intimacy, Jerry would stay quiet about it. It wouldn’t be the only secret he kept.