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.
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