Sunday, September 1, 2013

Peering Through Three Windows: Suburb Stories (In the category of Be Where You Are.) #52Weeks

(This is fiction for grownups by Kim Norris.)

************* (10) *************

Gail painted well into the night. Everything she needed to know about the color and light the camera had captured. Studio quality track lighting ran along the trusses of the sunroom ceiling; dimmers allowed her to control the intensity, and the system could easily mimic daylight. She cranked it last night after sunset, something she hadn’t done in months. Several small, pointillist studies now hung on the corkboard behind her easel. The sketchpad paper had curled slightly on the edges as the paint dried. By midnight, the palette firmly fixed in her mind, she had pulled out a larger canvas, 36” x 24”. She remembered the day that she had double-gesso primed it and six other blank canvases in various sizes – early last spring, right after they moved in, during a freak snowstorm -- while she worked, Ray and Allie played Monopoly and ate popcorn. Happier days.

Even in the brightness of the lit studio, she could see the moonrise. Gail blocked out colors: claret red, tangerine, Ferrari yellow, key lime. Shapes she would fill in tomorrow, but she wanted the base hues in place, a hyper Impressionistic background for the detail that would follow. Gail greatly preferred painting in natural light. Tonight, she felt exposed and vulnerable, starkly lit up in her transparent studio. The light of the 2-days past full moon did nothing to penetrate the darkness of the field. Any manner of creature might be just at the edge peering through the wildflowers, with a clear view into her glass house.

She and the dogs slept in late. The mess she knew she would have to clean up seemed a small price to pay to stay in bed until she actually felt rested. By 10:00 a.m., the ache in her painting arm propelled her into motion to seek ibuprofen. Floppy yawned, stretched, and hopped off the bed to follow her to the bathroom and watched with interest as Gail went through the usual ablutions. Fluffy merely stretched out to claim Gail’s pillow as well as the empty one she usually slept on. Fifteen minutes later, a mug of freshly brewed coffee in her hand, Gail and the dogs walked past the canvas, taking only a moment to enjoy the riot of color she had created in the darkest part of last night.

She opened the sliding glass door and stepped out onto the back deck. The cool air that had blown in behind the storms persisted. Gail pulled a seat cushion from the deck box and placed it on the wet seat of one of the patio chairs. Deeply inhaling the fragrant steam that rose above her coffee mug, Gail sat back to enjoy the play of light across the back flowerbed. Shadows were shorter closer to noontime. The tall phlox provided a colorful view as she sipped and felt the caffeine hit her bloodstream.

Her heart sank as she heard the sound of a gas engine roar to life around the front of the house. She threw her head back and queried the sky, “why now? Why always when I want to sit outside?” True, it was Gail’s first lawn mowing season in this house, but her neighbor’s mania with cutting the grass had manifested early in the rainy season. Gail reckoned her neighbor used the chore to fill the time; she mowed at least twice a week. And without fail, every time Gail settled onto the overpriced deck furniture that Ray had selected (“only the best, baby”) her neighbor fired up the lawn mower and went to it.

Mower Lady made a real meal out of the chore too, in Gail’s opinion, mowing the same section of grass that ran along their property lines, which Gail’s fence clearly demarcated, as she circled the house in one direction rather than turning the mower around. Gail knew next to nothing about any of her neighbors. Ray and Allie had been killed only a month or so after they moved into the house. The housewarming party Ray had wanted to throw never materialized. She could not even begin to imagine what kind of lonely person was willing to spend so much time -- so much precious time -- mowing the fucking lawn.

As the machine and its operator came by for another pass, Gail stood and strode back into the house, leaving the dogs out to chase the lawn mower along the fence line, barking ferociously, snapping and snarling as they pushed their noses through the mesh that kept them from slinking easily through the fence pickets.

Grateful again for the soundproof nature of the sunroom, Gail relished the sudden absence of the noise of the lawn mower and the dogs.  She finished the first mug and went to the kitchen to pour a second. Returning to her art studio, she began pulling tubes of paint from the shelves and arranging them in order of the spectrum: reds then oranges, yellows – most of the shades fell at that end. Green, indigo and violet, black and white, colorless yet opalescent acrylic gel finished the selection. Next she turned to brushes. It was a large canvas with bold colors. Heavy brush strokes of varying thicknesses would serve the vibrant color palette well. She grabbed a handful of short and long bristled brushes that ranged from six hairs thin to one half inch wide.  These she arranged beneath the tubes of paint by brush width.

She grabbed three one-quart mason jars from the shelves and took them to the kitchen where she half-filled them with water. These she placed on the worktable directly behind her easel. Arranging the easel so that the canvas caught the best of the late morning light, Gail stepped back and squinted at the blocks of color she had applied to the canvas the night before. Shapes emerged as her brush rose and fell, into the paints on her old wood palette, onto the canvas.

In her concentration, Gail never heard the glass door slide open, and she screamed loudly when Yvonne’s thin angular face and messy blond bun popped up over the edge of the easel.

“Cheers!” Yvonne said in the British accent she affected on a regular basis. “I’d have rung the bell, but I figured you would hide in a closet until I left. No hiding in this room, though, is there?”

Gail wiped the splatters of red paint that had landed on her cheek, a byproduct of nearly dropping the freshly loaded brush and catching it hastily. “Did the dogs molest you? You shut the gate, didn’t you?”

“Of course. They were thrilled to see me, but the lure of barking at your neighbor’s lawn mower won out.” Yvonne looked around the sunroom, depositing a large magenta Kate Spade tote on the worktable only inches from the laden palette of paint. “Nice to see you finally working.” She stood in front of the easel and looked with a critical eye at the canvas. “Brilliant,” she said finally.

Yvonne turned around and looked at Gail. Then she lifted her nose slightly, as if catching a scent. “Coffee? I’d love some.”

Gail suppressed a chuckle as she went to the kitchen and poured the last of the coffee into a mug.

“Black!” Yvonne called from the sunroom, but she need not have bothered. Gail and Yvonne shared much in common, including a certain laziness that lead to drinking black coffee.

“Sorry I haven’t returned your calls,” Gail said as she passed Yvonne a mug of coffee.

“Liar,” said Yvonne.

“But as you can see…” Gail gestured to the easel and canvas.

“I’m glad to see it, hon. Really. You were starting to worry me.”

“Don’t schedule the showing yet,” Gail cautioned. “Who knows how long the motivation will last?”

The tall art dealer turned back to the canvas. “The colors are amazing. Very contemporary. I’ve never seen red marigolds”

“They’re zinnias.”

“That explains it.” Yvonne sipped more coffee. “Well, dear, I can’t stay. I’m relieved to not find you on the floor or hanging in a closet.”

Gail laughed out loud before she could stop herself. “Me too.”

Handing her coffee cup to Gail, Yvonne hugged her briefly. “I’ll just show myself out the front door then. Lunch next week?” She grabbed her purse and left before Gail could answer her.

“We’ll see,” said Gail to the shutting door.

After Yvonne’s Mercedes pulled out of the driveway, Gail returned to her easel, grabbing her palette from the table. She retrieved a brush from one of the mason jars and loaded it with a color she had mixed that she was calling “pollen.” Motion in the corner of the yard distracted her, and to her horror, she realized what she was seeing.

Clearly, Yvonne had not shut the gate properly. Floppy and Fluffy had not only escaped, but they were chasing her neighbor who stubbornly refused to quit mowing and was pushing the contraption too quickly to cut a straight line, looking down repeatedly as one or the other of the dogs nipped at her heels and the wheels of the lawn mower. The woman’s face was bright red, and she seemed to be cursing. Gail dropped everything, ripped open the sliding glass door, and bolted down the deck stairs towards the commotion yelling, “Floppy! Fluffy! No! Come back!” She took off through the gate and around the fence line, screaming for the dogs, knowing they would never listen to her.

************* (11) *************

Gloria was running late. Jerry was due to ring the bell in less than an hour, she still wore curlers in her hair, she was only half dressed, and the table wasn’t set yet. The fucking dogs…. She had never seen them coming that morning.

Gloria loved to mow the lawn. Bud had never understood it all the years they were married. They had argued more than once, especially as they both began to grow older. They could afford a weekly service, but Gloria loved to mow the lawn. She loved the pride of ownership as she walked every single inch of her property, gauging the ratio of clover to fescue, catching startups of the invasive wild strawberry before it could take over. She didn’t like landscaping because it got in the way. Flowerbeds, shrubbery, ornamentals, birdbaths – they all broke up the perfect smoothness of the lawn – obstacles in an otherwise unbroken path. For Gloria, mowing was zen, a way to relax, focus, meditate.

She relished the chore this morning. Sleep had eluded her last night. Every worst-case scenario that could happen on this date ran through her mind. At one point in the night she threw off the covers and got up to see if Jerry was writing, but his study window was dark. She managed to drift off as the moon was setting and had overslept as a result.

She decided to mow the lawn first thing. The grass really didn’t need to be trimmed yet, but she needed the drone of it, the repetitious pattern of walking around and around her house. In addition, the task made for an excellent one-hour workout. Parts of the yard were steep enough to get her heart rate up; she deliberately mowed at angles that maximized the uphill. The damn dogs barked as they always did when she mowed the fence line, but today they had attacked! One moment she was lost in the white noise of the mower and the next, sharp little teeth scratched her ankles, grabbed the leather of her shoes and attacked the mower as well. She had tried to run, but in the end, she had resorted to kicking at them.

When her neighbor had come running, the dogs bolted. Gloria had accepted Gail’s apologies and assertions that the monsters were fully vaccinated and she would not need to endure treatment for rabies. Gail went off in pursuit of her pets, Gloria finished mowing and came back in to shower, but she was shaken, and she dawdled over a glass of cranberry juice that she had spruced up with just a touch of vodka before heading to the master bathroom. Writing a grocery list in her head as she lathered and shaved, Gloria realized she still had a good bit to do even with the casserole prepared and in the refrigerator.

The soap stung her ankles where the little fuckers had bitten her. Their mouths were not large enough to do any real damage; luckily they had missed her Achilles tendon, but their little razor-like teeth had left scratches that burned as the hot water touched them. The area throbbed, and she could feel the skin begin to tighten, a sure sign of swelling. Her shower, the toweling off, and getting dressed all took longer than usual. She downed two aspirin and limped out to her car.

Her “quick” trip to the grocery store set her schedule back an additional forty-five minutes. The deli had no pita bread on the shelf, so she waited ten minutes while a harried looking clerk dug through boxes of product until he found the whole wheat pita pockets. She grabbed lemon, fresh garlic, and a bunch of cilantro before heading to the wine aisle. Unsure of her date’s preference, she grabbed one each of red and white. Chicken usually went better with white wine, but her divan stood up well to a red zinfandel or a Cabernet – the mushroom cream sauce provided an earthiness that accented nicely a full bodied red. Raspberry sorbet and Pepperidge Farm Milano cookies completed her list. The cash register line she selected ran out of receipt tape as she unloaded her basket. Neither the cashier nor her manager seemed to know how to replace it. A young bagger finally stepped in and after a few maneuvers, the roll of tape slid into place, and the line resumed.

Apparently her neighbor had failed to round up her dogs. Gloria saw one of them as she drove home harassing Mr. Body from down the street as he sat on his front porch. He threatened it with his walking cane as he sat on his porch swing. The dog stayed just out of reach bobbing and weaving and barking with all its might. She considered calling animal control, but she really didn’t have the time. At least she knew that if Mr. Body got bitten, he need not fear a rabies infection. Her own ankle throbbed sympathetically.

She ignored a call from Caroline as she preheated the oven and put the groceries away. She started a saucepan of salted water to boil and measured out the correct amount of frozen shelled edamame. While she waited for the water to boil, she pulled the casserole from the refrigerator. It would cook more evenly if it warmed up a few degrees before going into the oven.  She zested the lemon and then sliced it in half and juiced it. She sliced half-moons of pita bread into triangles, tossed them in olive oil, salt and pepper, and slid them in the oven to bake. As the soybeans boiled, she measured out the tahini, chopped cilantro, and chewed the inside of her cheek as she contemplated the evening to come.

Now, with less than an hour to go, her hair still in curlers, the table unset, she stared at the row of blouses in her closet without seeing any of them. Did the choice really make a difference? Red seemed forward, turquoise indifferent. Green was pushy, yellow was… well, yellow, and not her best color. Pink was too young, black too dour. All the patterned choices felt busy. Showing up at the front door in her bra and panties would certainly get straight to the point, but she didn’t seriously contemplate it. She went with silk – the royal purple sleeveless blouse with a matching camisole underneath.

She placed the last fork down at its setting on the table as the door bell rang. A thrill of dread surged through her, and for a moment, she considered escaping out the back door. She checked the casserole, which had not yet begun to bubble, as she made her way to the front door. She had managed to dress salad greens and bake a few freezer dinner rolls in spite of running late.

Jerry and Gloria made eye contact as the front door opened. He could tell she was nervous – a flush of red had begun to move up her throat. He knew he should have felt flattered, but he had dreaded this all day. After a magical night with Drew (he had called as Jerry was pulling out of Mother’s driveway) this date with Gloria felt like cheating. He reminded himself again that it was research…research.

He had picked out a cheap wine, his favorite actually, a pinot grigio that tasted far richer than its price tag and screw cap suggested. For dessert, he badgered his mother into baking a fresh cherry and peach pie that morning. He had even brought a pint of whipping cream, but surely that was a pantry item…

The wine was thoughtful, but the pie took Gloria by surprise. Who brought pie on a first date?

“It’s lovely,” she said brightly, as she accepted the dessert. “And still warm.”

“My mother is an amazing baker,” Jerry said. “She lives in the county not far from here. When I told her about your invitation, she insisted,” Jerry lied.

“Well I…she...I..thank you,” she finally managed.

“My pleasure.” Jerry looked around as he followed her into the kitchen and the dining room that overlooked the Greenspace.

“We have a similar floor plan,” he commented. Her rooms were better proportioned, but the general layout was nearly identical to his.

“Yes,” Gloria said. Bud only built three different models, and this floor plan was his favorite. The Dog Lady has a completely different house.

Jerry laughed at Gloria’s moniker for Gail Amissio. “She’s an artist, you know?” he said.

“No. Really? How did you know?”

“I recognized her name in the newspaper when they ran the article about her husband and daughter getting killed. Gail Amissio. I own two of her paintings.”

“Tragedy, that,” Gloria said. Briefly, she missed Bud with a fierceness that surprised her.

“Tragedy the damn dogs survived. Pardon my French.”

Gloria silently agreed and glanced down at her ankle. The swelling had subsided, so she guessed she would avoid getting an infection. She handed Jerry a corkscrew and retrieved two wine glasses. He gave her a quizzical look, set the corkscrew down and twisted off the metal cap.

“It’s a superior form of corkage, you know? Any sommelier will tell you.”

“Lovely,” said Gloria as she watched Jerry fill the glasses. She sniffed before putting the glass to her lips, but the flavor pleasantly surprised her. “This is delicious,” she told him sincerely.

She lead him to the sitting room off the kitchen. The edamame hummus and baked pita chips occupied the coffee table. She had lit candles around the room, the full affect of which would be more apparent as the evening wore on. Gloria offered Jerry a seat on the sofa and sat beside him. She noticed him staring, mouth agape, at the bookshelf that lined the wall directly across from them.

“It’s my Belinda Lovewright collection.” When Jerry didn’t speak Gloria continued, “She’s a romance novelist. My favorite writer.” Gloria felt herself blushing as she said that.

“How many do you have?” But he already knew the answer. She had every one of them, first edition hard covers all, including a couple of titles he himself had lost and could not find in any used bookstore.

“It’s a complete set. None of them signed,” she said wistfully.

Jerry suppressed a smirk. Readings and book signings by Belinda Lovewright were out of the question. He’d have to hire an actress to play the part, which he was unwilling to do. They could never know the full body of work the way he did – they would answer fan questions wrong, and the fictional nature of the world’s best-selling living romance novelist would be revealed.

“Have you written her publisher to see if she’ll sign books through the mail? I’ve read that some authors will do that.” He had read that. He himself would never bother though.

“But then I would have to mail the book,” she pointed out, horrified at the idea. “It could get lost in the mail.”

A sound like an oven timer escaped from the kitchen along with a tantalizing scent. Gloria excused herself. Jerry stayed on the sofa and stared at the books. They were not, he realized, arranged by publication date. The titles weren’t even alphabetical. As he squinted his eyes slightly, he realized she had arranged them by color of book jacket. What’s more, they were arranged by the spectrum. The rainbow effect pleased him and he wondered if the cover artists at his publisher had done it on purpose.

“Dinner’s ready!”

Jerry stood up and made his way to the dining room, which he could see from where he sat. Gloria placed a large steaming casserole dish next to a bowl of salad greens and a basket of dinner rolls. The open wine bottle had been placed in a ceramic wine chiller on the table. Jerry held her chair as she sat before taking a seat at the other place setting.

“It smells delicious,” he remarked.

“It’s just chicken divan.”

“A timeless classic.” He spooned a portion onto his plate. Steam rose copiously above the mixture. It was entirely too hot to eat. He added a pile of salad greens and two dinner rolls to his plate and waited as Gloria served herself. He lifted his refilled wine glass, and said, “I propose a toast, to neighbors.”

“And friends,” Gloria added.

The doorbell rang as they sipped. Gloria looked surprised as she said, “excuse me,” and got up to answer it.

Jerry heard Gail’s voice. She sounded frantic. Gloria’s voice, on the other hand, was cold. Jerry got up and joined them in the front hall. Gail stopped speaking at the sight of him.

“I’m sorry,” she said finally. “You have company. I shouldn’t have barged in.”

“Is something the matter Mrs. Amissio?” Jerry asked as he held out his hand for her to shake. 

“We were eating dinner,” Gloria said flatly.

“You seem upset,” Jerry guided Gail as if he owned the house, through the hallway and into the sitting room. The hummus remained on the table.

“I was just asking Gloria if she had seen Floppy? They both got out of the yard this morning. Fluffy came home a few hours ago, but Floppy is nowhere, and it’s getting dark outside.”

“How long has the dog been missing?”

“Since it bit me this morning,” Gloria said, pointing to her ankle.

“I’m truly sorry about that,” Gail said, sounding defensive.

“You should check with Mr. Boyd up the street.” Gloria pointed in the correct direction. I saw one of them on his front porch earlier this afternoon barking at him.”

“Why didn’t you let me know?”

“I was busy,” Gloria answered.

“If you see him again, then please…”

“We will,” Jerry assured her. Gloria wanted to belt him.

“Do you mind if I go out the back?” Gail asked. She spotted the bookshelf and paused. “I love Belinda Lovewright,” she told Gloria enthusiastically. You have some titles here I have never seen.”

Gloria seemed to soften slightly. Jerry felt his palms go sweaty, it was really too much, both of these women were fans, benefactors even. He suddenly felt very uncomfortable. Gloria turned on the back porch to illuminate the small deck. The last thing she needed was her neighbor to trip and fall on her property.

Gloria and Jerry reseated themselves at the dining room table. The casserole had gone from steaming to stone cold. “I could warm our plates…” Gloria suggested.

“Let’s just have pie,” said Jerry.

“I have raspberry sorbet…”

“Just pie. Could you whip some cream?”

“Cream?” Gloria blinked stupidly. Her dinner had somehow gotten away from her. What had happened? She moved into the kitchen automatically, blindly putting together the cream and a dash of sugar in a glass bowl. The soft peaks formed quickly with the electric hand mixer. She was careful not to make the irreversible transition from whipped cream to butter.

The night was ruined; she could reach no other conclusion. He would bolt down his slice of pie, she would toy with hers. Then he would make some excuse to leave, and she, in all honesty, would have nothing to counter offer. Dinner lay in ruins, cold congealed casserole, wilted warm salad greens. Only the wine remained as it should be. There had been no time for banter or flirting. She hadn’t even had the chance to ask him what he did for a living. Never mind getting laid…

Jerry, as he waited for Gloria to return with pie, contemplated the excuses he had at his disposal. He decided to feign concern for the missing dog. He would say he felt compelled to go out and look for it. He would invite her to join him then “remember” the bitten ankle and “understandably” let her off the hook. The approach had a number of advantages: he appeared concerned and willing to help a neighbor, he (hopefully) didn’t come off too anxious to be rid of Gloria’s company, and he could get the hell out of there now (as time was of the essence if the little dog was to be found safe).

But they both knew as they said goodnight to each other a few minutes later, pie dishes still on the table, that he wasn’t going to look for the dog.

************* (12) *************

Jerry made his way home, whistling as though for a dog as he walked, but he saw nothing. The street was quiet, a good night to write. His stomach rumbled though. In many ways, Gail’s ill-timed ring of the doorbell at Gloria’s house had saved Jerry a night of discomfort: Broccoli had never been his friend, and mushrooms aggravated his gout. He let himself in through the front door, relieved to have not seen the dog, and headed to the kitchen by way of his study. He stopped to turn on the desk light and glanced over to Gloria’s window. It was dark. After a brief pause, he headed to the kitchen to make a sandwich and pour a glass of wine.

He opened the back glass door to the night air and moved into the front room to open a window on the other side of the house, creating a cross breeze of coolness that wafted just past his computer monitor, rustling a stack of unopened fan mail that sat on a corner of his desk. He brought the wine and the sandwich plate to his desk, sat heavily, and switched on the monitor. The story that had been plaguing him for days sat unchanged where he had left it…the fiction fairies had not come. Janet and Dirk were still screwing in the basement, Magdalena, armed and angry, was still at the door. He closed the file and crammed half of the sandwich into his mouth. He started a new file with one hand, wiping his chin with the other and grabbing the wine to wash down the too-large bite of ham, swiss, and rye.

Jerry swallowed and wiped his hands on his pant legs. He took a deep breath; he loved this moment of each new story, all potential and no mistakes, no dead-end plot lines, the digital equivalent of an unused notebook and freshly uncapped pen. The lonely widow clamored to be put into words – all of her passion, her unfulfilled dreams, her need. Give her a dog, the only source of company in the large mansion her wealthy husband left to her. He began to write.

Through the front window, Jerry heard the clear sound of a dog barking directly in front of his house. He cursed loudly and pushed away from the computer. Striding to the front window, he stood in the dark room and peered out of the window. A small white dog, presumably the missing Floppy, stood in the middle of the street barking at God knew what. Someone carrying a flashlight, Gail, he guessed, ran towards the dog whistling and shouting, “Stay.” It seemed to be working. Finally, a gray streak from the direction where the dog barked moved enough for Jerry to recognize a cat. It bolted across the road before the dog realized it had even moved. Gail had reached the dog, which actually sat still while she bent over to scoop it up.

Jerry grimaced as he headed back to his desk. The goddamn dogs, but at least she would keep this one in for the rest of the night. He’d have a word with her tomorrow about the fucking barking. From the front window, he heard a squeal of tires as a car rounded the corner too fast. Suddenly he heard a horn blare, a woman’s scream, and a dull thud. Moments later, a dog began to bark. Jerry knew he should get up and look, check to see if he had actually heard what he thought he heard. Instead, he sat back at the computer and typed as the lonely widow dressed herself in royal purple. He stayed up writing long after the sound of the wailing ambulance died away.


1 comment:



    This was a devilish story. There's poetry in its symmetry. But you didn't cop out and pretend like nasty people like Jerry ever get their full comeuppance, I respect that. I want to take a look at over the next several weeks for editing purposes. In the meantime, I think this would be an excellent submission for writer's circles and critique communities. The format served it well! Will keep an eye for the next project.