Louise woke up from a stroke-induced coma on September 21st, 1983, one week before she died - her eyelids snapping open with a force characteristic of a sudden realization. Louise’s wooden cuckoo clock had just completed its ninth chime and a steady rain was tapping on the window.
Had Phil Banks, who was sitting a few feet away from her bed reading ‘The Boston Globe,’ been watching her, he would have seen her brown eyes focusing, sharpening, zooming in, not just to her physical surroundings, that is the plastic Ayer Assisted Living Center furniture, the paintings on the wall, both copies -- Van Gogh’ sunflowers, the other Monet’s water lilies -- but also inward to the landscape of her coma that was, at the of moment of her awakening, still a competing reality. He would have heard her lips opening and closing once, twice, three times, making whispery sounds like puffs on a cigar.
But a wind had picked up outside, and the branches of a lilac scratched against the windowpane.
"Key West," Louise said, "is it still under water?"
Phil peeked over the top of the obituary section. "Louise, you’ve come back to us!"
"What are you saying?" He let the newspaper fall to the floor and dragged his chair by its tubular metal arms closer to the bed. Phil took Louise’s hand and patted it as one would a dog’s head.
Louise’s eyelids fluttered, opened wide, drooped shut, and fluttered one last time before closing again. She whispered, "Bayley’s down there." Then her head lowered to the pillow, reclaiming the warm hollow it had occupied for the past two weeks.
"It’s all right, Louise, the water’s receded. Nobody died, " he said.
Since yesterday, Phil had been going through a stack of postcards from Louise’s granddaughter, looking for a telephone number or an address where she could be reached. There were four cards from Florida, two from California and one from Louisiana. He studied the photograph that Bayley had enclosed in the one letter she’d sent. In it she was standing between two elephants, one a baby. Looking from Bayley’s face to Louise’s, he could see the resemblance - the determined jaw line, the fine thin hair.’
Puh, puh, puh, puh. Louise’s lips now pouched together to form what appeared to be a kiss.
Phil enclosed Louise's wrist within the circle of his thumb and forefinger, comparing the childlike size of hers to his own, feeling her pulse. How close we are to being dust, he thought.
A crackling sound at the window made him look up. A spray of leaves and twigs whirled past. At 92 BPM, Louise’s pulse was rapid and feathery, like the heartbeat of the baby robin he’d rescued from a neighbor's cat when he was ten, its blue-veined chest quaking in the palm of his hand just moments before it died. He tucked Louise’s hand under the covers, tiptoed out the door and shut it noiselessly behind him.
At the front desk Jax, the receptionist, was smacking her gum and singing into the telephone, ‘ring my belllllll, ring my bell, I know, dingalingaling…’
"Jax!" he said, still tiptoeing.
"Yes, sir." Jax hung up the receiver and with both hands swatted cheddar crackers in the shape of fish from the front of her dress. "Excuse me, sir." Jax smiled. "Mr. Banks?"
"I jes want to say that you sure are handsome with all that fine-lookin’ white hair. Whole lotta men your age would kill for half a what you got."
Phil patted down the sides and back of his head, feeling for any hairs out of place. Ever since reading an article in ‘GQ’ on hair loss prevention, Phil had been spending fifteen minutes massaging olive oil into his scalp every morning before washing his hair with a plant-based freesia-scented shampoo and then fifteen minutes brushing it.
"Please make sure to come get me if Mrs. Erlandson’s granddaughter calls." He hoped he’d left the message at the right number. A woman with a muffled, sleepy sounding voice had answered. She’d said, ‘who?’ when he’d asked for Bayley.
Jax covered her mouth with both hands. "Is Mrs. Erlandson passed?"
"No, she just woke up."
At the end of August 1982, Bayley’s two friends, James and Christopher, whom she’d met in Provincetown that summer, were driving up the Cape to drop her off in an area of Scituate known as Egypt, on their way to Boston to visit Christopher’s mother. Where Route 3 splits off into Route 3A was the direction they should have taken to get to her grandmother's house, but didn't, a mistake no one noticed until they got to Quincy, twenty miles out of their way.
James, steering the car one-handed, the other supporting both a cup of coffee and a cigarette that was wedged between his second and third fingers, said, "You’re the one who used to live there."
"I never learned the way," Bayley said. "I don’t have a license."
Christopher, seated in the back seat, leaned forward, propped one elbow on James’ seat, one on Bayley’s. "You mean you can’t drive?"
Bayley had heard this tone before. ’You don’t like chocolate? You didn’t go to your prom?’ Bayley shrugged. "My grandmother always drove me everywhere."
"We’ll show you how, won’t we?" Christopher said. He brushed aside James’s wavy auburn hair and kissed him on the neck.
"Yessirree," James said. He squeezed Bayley’s thigh. "With three people driving we’ll make Key West in three days."
An hour later, when James' red Buick convertible chugged up the driveway and a two-toned green Cadillac with fins became visible over the hood of their car, Bayley let out an ‘oh, shit - she’s here.’
"Wow!" James said. "1958, isn’t it?"
"We’ll wait down the street," Christopher said. "Put some Metamucil or something in her coffee then when she goes to the bathroom you can get the jewels".
Bayley looked at the car clock. "She’s usually over at the St. Clair’s playing cards at this time."
"Chickening out?" James narrowed his eyes and took a deep drag on his cigarette.
Bayley laughed. "Oh, cut the Mafia routine, James."
A movement in the living room window caught her eye. She saw the curtains sway and then her grandmother’s face, stark pale and floating, apparition-like, amid late afternoon shadows. Struggling to get out of the car with two plastic grocery bags filled with clothes and other belongings, Bayley kissed James good-bye and said, "If I stay for at least a couple of nights, she’ll give me money, too."
As soon as Bayley got inside, her grandmother said, "Who were those people? They look like they need haircuts, at least if they're men. Are they men?"
"Oh, Nana, of course they're men."
At five thirty, while the roast beef sizzled in the oven, Bayley sat on the floor in front of her grandmother’s bulky upholstered chair. "Nana," Bayley said, "will you stroke my hair?"
Bayley heard the crinkling sound of the crossword puzzle book being stuffed into the drawer which also housed family photographs, a thesaurus, brownie recipes, a supply of butterscotch lifesavers, her grandmother's ledger-sized check book and the two 18-carat gold sections of a broken chain link watch. 'I can get at least six hundred for them, and there’s a gold ring with a huge amber stone surrounded by six little diamonds in her jewelry box that she never wears. A fifty thousand year old insect is trapped inside it,’ she'd told Chris and James in the car.
"I’m moving to an assisted living apartment complex."
"A nursing home?" Bayley welcomed the familiar movement of her grandmother's fingers circling across her scalp, the hypnotic numbing effect of it - but she could not remember ever being able to relax. Slowing down her heart and breathing into a kind of paralysis used by certain species of animals to fool predators into thinking that they are dead was the closest she’d come.
"Yes but the building I'll be living in - at least while I can still get around - people have their own apartments. Mr. St. Clair said he'd sell the house and auction off all the furniture and rugs. If your mother were still alive, I wouldn't have to, but that's how it is when you get old."
Her grandmother's fingers stopped moving. Bayley sensed she was thinking about the accident. Bayley turned her head from side to side, nudging them back into motion. She’d been six years old when her parents flew to St. Thomas for vacation. They were to stay at Bluebeard’s Castle -- Bayley had asked her mother if a man with a blue beard lived there -- as guests of her father’s boss, Bill Prouty, owner of Prouty Real Estate. Had it not been for engine trouble in Mr. Prouty’s Cessna 172, Bayley would have grown up in St. Thomas. Mr. Prouty had hired her father to head up ‘Island sales.’ At the time, certain rich people, like the Rockefellers or the Duponts, her father explained, had begun to take a keen interest in buying islands - especially those that could only be reached by private boat. There’d been a funeral and a stone marker planted in the family plot in Mt. Auburn Cemetery, but the bodies were never found.
"You know Bayley, even after all these years, I still can’t catch my breath. It was so sudden. If your grandfather hadn’t seen to my interests before he died, I don’t know what I would have done with you." Louise sighed.
Bayley and her grandmother looked at one another in the same helpless manner that reminded Bayley of the time she’d been swept off her feet by an undertow. She’d acquiesced to its crushing force, water invading every orifice, claiming her. A lifeguard intervened, yanked her out twenty feet from shore. He carried her up the beach to where her grandmother sat huddled beneath an umbrella, a shell pressed to her ear.
"Just the same. Maybe it's for the best. I mean about Mr. St. Clair selling the house, of course. I don’t like to bother the neighbors because there are always strings attached. Once they’ve shoveled your walk or mowed your lawn, they think they own you."
"Oh, they invite you for lunch, want you to drop by for cocktails, play cards, and with you moving to Florida…You promise to come visit me?" her grandmother said.
"Yes, Nana," Bayley said, thinking that she should wait until she got to New York to pawn the watch pieces and the amber and diamond ring.
"How old are you now, Bayley?
"Nineteen." Bayley turned her head to catch a glimpse of her grandmother’s face. Somebody in the Boston pawnshops might recognize her. "Why?"
"You have one more year to go before some part of you throws in the towel. When you turn twenty, there’ll be one molecule in your kneecap or maybe in your liver or earlobe that’ll suddenly plop down and say, ‘That’s it, twenty years, I’m done.’ Louise took a deep breath. "And when you get to be my age, four fifths of the molecules that were jumping around, all excited as you please to be alive when you were born, are lying around, too, watching the last fifth knock themselves out before the big finale."
Tears amassed behind Bayley’s eyes. She could feel the pressure building there, her face a swollen mask. She wanted to take refuge in other good-byes they’d spoken - the-kiss-on-the-cheek immortality of them - to stave off what seemed to her would be the finality of this one.
The Weather Channel began broadcasting in 1982 and that same year, after she’d moved to the Ayer Assisted Living Center, Louise Erlandson, at the age of 83, pledged the final year of her life to it, turning on the television every day of the week when she sat down at 8 a.m. in her upholstered chair - one of two pieces of furniture she’d been allowed to bring with her, the other being her side table - and shutting it off fourteen hours later, when she went to bed.
Hurricanes were her favorite weather event - "nature's tantrum," as she referred to them that first late summer-early fall season. She’d say to anyone who came to her door - the newspaper boy, the plaid-suited young Seventh Day Adventists, the A&P delivery man - 'how about that Debby off the coast of Aruba? Isn’t she the spitfire!’ And, ‘Have you seen Alberto on the news? He’s just a terror - one minute on the rampage at 90 mph and the next minute lying down like a lamb.'
Phil hadn’t had much to do with Louise, not since the time he’d brought her some onions from the senior center’s community garden. She had recently moved to the Center and accepted them with a cascade of cheerful finishing school ‘thankyou’s’ and ‘aren’t you thoughtfuls.’ That night, she’d tossed the onions up onto his balcony. He could not forget the sound of them - the four thuds on his wood floor balcony. He had been assembling a Vermont autumn foliage puzzle - the first of two white steeples was in place - when he’d heard it. He’d gone to the balcony door, jerked open the blinds and seen his four prize-winning Red Barons lying there bruised.
A month after the onion incident, Phil, who lived a floor above Louise, and who also fulfilled the role of manager, heard crashing noises coming from her apartment. Phil listened to the noises for several minutes, trying to identify what they might be before going downstairs. When he heard something that sounded like a hammer clanking against metal, he decided it was time to investigate. He knocked twice when he got to Louise’s apartment but didn’t get an answer.
"Louise?" he called. "Louise? It’s Phil," he yelled now through the door. There was no response. ‘It’s the Onion Man,’ he whispered. He heard creaking sounds in the hallway to his left and right, and, turning, he caught the silhouettes of Alice Chamber’s sail-shaped nose and Nora Blackburn’s bumpy one poking out of their doors. "I’m just checking to see if she’s all right," he announced in a loud, I’m-not-guilty-tone of voice and unlocked Louise’s door with his master key.
The first thing he saw was Louise seated on the edge of the couch. She wore a pair of rubbers and a raincoat.
"It’s just terrible, Phil, I didn’t know what to do. I tried to fix it but I think I only made things worse."
When Phil stepped in, his corduroy slippers sank into the rug with a squishy oozing sound. Tracking a hissing noise that was coming from the kitchen, he encountered there a film of brownish water covering the linoleum floor. The two cabinet doors beneath the sink had been flung back, their metal handles having dented the wood veneer of the cabinet doors on either side of them. Leaking bottles of cleaning fluids, frothy Brillo pads, flannel pink-flowered rags, and a whiskbroom were stacked in a bluish soggy heap. Behind him, The Weather Channel broadcasted live footage of a flooded town -- tin rowboats loaded down with Red Cross personnel in yellow rain slickers, a dog standing on the roof of a car, and a person, chest deep in water, propelling himself out the front door of his house, a statue of the Virgin Mary in his arms.
Phil sighed. From a jagged crack in the drainpipe issued forth a steady spray of water that had, Phil expected, ruined the electric range and the wall behind it. Patches of paint had flaked off. Previous layers showed through - Eggshell Blue, Pale Lavender and Canary Yellow.
"Why, Louise, I believe you have indeed accomplished that - made things worse." Phil knelt down, reached under the sink and turned one of two oval knobs to the left. The flooding ceased. "But there - voila! It’s all over now."
"So what else do you grow in your garden plot," Louise asked, turning down the volume on the flood coverage, "besides onions?"
Phil laughed. "Shallots, garlic and leeks. Good for keeping high cholesterol at bay. Where's your mop? Gotta get this floor dried before the linoleum curls."
"Good for keeping people at bay, too. In that closet." Louise pointed to a door on the other side of the stove.
"I b'lieve you'd say the same if I grew carrots or cabbage," he said, taking out the mop and a plastic bucket.
Louise stared at him, ventured a hint of a smile. "Maybe so," she said, "but I've got my reasons. After my husband left me for another woman, I took up rose gardening; friends told me it'd take my mind off of things. I went and bought all the different roses, hybrids -- whatever new-fangled species the American Rose Society was trying to inbreed -- but they all succumbed to the beetles, every last one. No matter how much I took care of them - and, believe you me, I was out there every day, May to September, getting pricked by the damned thorns.
"Brown thumb, Louise. It happens."
Louise continued. "So I said to the roses, 'okay, I'm finished with you. Hear that?’"
The Weather Channel had switched from flood coverage to a forecast for New Orleans.
"Sunny and Seventy. Getting warm," Louise said, unbuttoning her raincoat.
Phil began mopping the floor. "I bet you never kissed a one of ‘em, though. My sister-in-law, Polly -- she’s dead now - kissed whatever she was trying to grow. ‘Think how hard it is starting out in unfamiliar surroundings,’ she told me. ‘A kiss on a regular basis can make a difference of several inches, an extra sweetness or a fuller bloom.’ "
"I don’t believe that kissing is the answer to everything, Mr. Banks."
In Key Largo, Florida, Christopher, James and Bayley stopped to eat at a place called ‘Eve’s Ribs’. The boys weren’t speaking to Bayley because she hadn’t helped with the driving. Three days earlier, before getting on the New Jersey turnpike, they’d stopped in a town called Linden where James had given her driving lessons. For a couple of hours she drove up and down residential streets, keeping to twenty-five miles an hour.
Once on the turnpike entrance ramp, with James urging her, ‘okay now speed up to fifty,’ she started ducking down, as though to dodge bullets. ‘This is murder,’ she screamed when a wave of insect bodies splattered across the windshield. Bayley veered over into the break down lane and stopped the car. Her face flushed and perspiration dampened into a "v" shape on the front of her pale blue tee shirt. Bayley sat for a few moments before getting out of the driver’s seat and moving to the back, where she stayed for the remainder of the trip.
Now sitting at the opposite end of the picnic table from Bayley, James and Christopher, huddled over their Daiquiris, engaged in a duel with alligator-shaped swizzle sticks. From time to time, they looked her way and whispered something. A young woman dressed in a turquoise tank top that complemented a reddish tan approached Bayley’s end of the table. Blue-black hair flowed over each breast, reaching to her waist.
"Hi, I’m Patrice. What can I get for you?"
Bayley noticed Patrice's arms, the muscles smooth and long -- like a swimmer’s, she thought. "I’d like the roast chicken with Cole slaw and fries, please."
Patrice wrote something down on a pad of paper. "Those guys with you?"
Bayley glanced at Chris and James and was annoyed to see them both looking back at her. James stuck his tongue out.
"No, and I want an iced tea with a slice of lemon."
Patrice’s face brightened. "Right-oh." She snapped off the page with Bayley’s order. "The food’ll be a few minutes. We don’t get much call for chicken here. Mostly it’s ribs, ribs, ribs, like your boyfriend over there ordered."
"He’s not my boyfriend," Bayley said in a loud voice. When James had hooked up with Christopher at the end of the summer, she’d told him ‘there’s no way I’m staying with you. I don’t share.’ She might have been willing to, had she been attracted to Christopher. He had a bulky cement column body and a lazy left eye. When she first met him, his right eye looked into hers as though keeping her occupied while his left wandered, gaining backdoor access to sensitive areas. Bayley glanced at Christopher now, his smirking ‘Biggie Rat’ gangster smile, his lewd lazy eye. She wondered what it was that James was so turned on by.
Patrice came by the table and set down her iced tea. "I’ll show you the elephants while you’re waiting, if you like."
"Yep. The owners run a small circus." Patrice pointed toward a door next to the kitchen. "We can go out that way."
Following a few yards behind, Bayley took in Patrice’s easy languorous gait -- catlike in the way she seemed to glide over the flagstone steps that led up a small hill to the corral. Fifty feet away from it, a swarm of black flies surrounded Bayley. The sun was high and bright overhead. The combined smells of mud, elephant waste and wet hay nauseated her. Breathless and dizzy, for a moment she wanted to run back inside but did not, intrigued by Patrice’s bold manner and challenged by the fact that she’d gotten Bayley to admit that James was not her boyfriend.
Patrice turned the faucet on, picked up the hose and aimed it at the two waiting pachyderms, one a baby. "It took me two weeks to get where I didn’t gag when I came up here."
Clots of mud and hay sailed off their skin. The elephants nosed their trunks toward the stream, taking sips with two finger-like appendages. "It’s one way they relax…me, too." Patrice shifted the spray at Bayley.
"Ooooh!" A tickling sensation eddied across Bayley’s arms and face. She shivered, excited by Patrice’s smile -- the stunning white-tooth flash of it -- as much as by the cool shower. "I can see why," she said.
"This is Rose and her daughter, Delilah. And you know my name. What’s yours?" Patrice said.
Both elephants - Rose first, and then Delilah, imitating her mother extended their trunks toward Bayley. They opened and closed their finger-like appendages several times and then inserted them into their mouths.
"What’re they doing?"
"Smelling -- their way of getting to know you. Where you from?"
"New York," Bayley said, thinking of the week she’d just spent there trying to pawn the watch pieces and amber ring. She’d gone back to James’ apartment every night with a different excuse as to why she hadn’t been able to: ‘the assholes only offered three hundred a piece,’ ‘they said I had to show a driver’s license,’ there’s a police check for goods worth over five hundred dollars. But none had been the real excuse - the fact that she couldn’t part with them.’ "How about you?"
Delilah took a few steps closer, stretching her trunk through the fence toward Bayley’s pants.
"Ohio originally. You got a carrot in your pocket?" Patrice grinned.
Both said, "Sounds like a Mae West line," at the same time, shot each other a look and laughed.
The night Bayley, James and Christopher stopped in Emporia, Virginia; Bayley had overheard their conversation in the shower - Christopher suggested to James that they steal the amber ring. She decided to keep it and the watch pieces with her at all times -- in the pillowcase at night and in her pocket during the day. She touched them now, reassured.
"Have you worked here long?"
"A couple of months. I’m trying to get enough money to continue traveling," Patrice said.
Rose, making scratchy sounds that reminded Bayley of television static, lifted her trunk and, using the finger-like appendages, stroked her daughter’s head, smoothing here, prodding there.
"She’s comforting her, " Bayley said.
"Sweet, isn’t it?" Patrice said.
One Sunday morning, two weeks after Phil had finished with the painting and repairs in Louise’s kitchen and hired a cleaning company to blow dry her rug, he opened his front door and found a potted Ficus tree sitting on his ‘Welcome’ mat. Its ten or eleven leaves, their tips shriveled to crisp brown, clung to branches that had been pruned to conform to a lollipop shape. He stood in his doorway for a few moments, as though waiting for someone. When one of the leaves fluttered to the floor -- the casualty of an unexpected gust of cool breeze -- he picked up the tree and rushed inside.
A rose-colored gift card fell out when he set the tree on top of his television set. Phil read it aloud, ‘If you think this plant would improve with a kiss, then please, by all means. Louise.’
Phil bought professional gardeners’ brands of plant food, bulbs that imitate sunlight, and embarked upon a feeding, watering and kissing - every leaf - regimen for the next month. He modified an old lampshade -- removed the spokes, cut a slit down the side -- and fit it around the base of the tree to prevent Maxine, Phil’s aged Siamese, from using the potted plant as a litter box.
By the end of the month - it was early December - the Ficus had sprouted twenty new leaves and several branches had grown a quarter of an inch. At first -- his sister-in-law Polly’s heartfelt gardening advice notwithstanding -- Phil had felt silly kissing the leaves. It wasn’t until he added the image of Louise’s face to the equation that the prospect of the tree’s recovery took on proper meaning. Phil brought the tree downstairs to show Jax.
"What do you think about afternoon tea?"
"Are you asking me on a date, Mr. Banks?"
"I been wondering when you were going to get around to it. Ever since you took that plant into your care, Mrs. Erlandson look awful happy. A few days ago, she gave the A&P deliveryman a tip! Imagine that!"
A smile flickered across his face - on and off and then on again, like lights during a storm, the power source unsure. Phil smoothed his hair with both hands.
While Bayley negotiated with James and Christopher (‘what do you want in exchange for letting her come with us?’), Patrice removed seventy-five dollars from the till at Eve’s Ribs. Then she told Mickey, the cook, that she was taking a break. She went up to the corral to say good-bye to Rose and Delilah and then to the room that she rented from the owners. She stuffed her tent, sleeping bag and clothing into a green yard waste-size garbage bag. ‘It’s how much salary they owed me anyway,’ she told James and Christopher after they agreed to give her a ride if she filled the gas tank and bought them dinner.
The drive from Eve’s Ribs to Key West took them three hours. By nightfall -- after wandering the streets, taking a ride on the ‘Conch Train,’ and going to the pier to watch the sunset -- they’d found out about the abandoned two-story house on Angela Street. Twenty-two people occupied it. There was electricity, running water and a working telephone line. Bikers resided on the first floor, on the second floor, hippies.
The first floor was strewn with leather saddlebags, chrome motorcycle parts, beer cans, army surplus bedrolls, the second with candles, gondola-shaped wooden incense burners, wine bottles and an assortment of buckets and pans that collected rain when the roof leaked. In the first floor hallway stood a camouflage-colored pup tent owned by a biker named Fudge, an ex-marine in charge of screening new tenants and collecting money for the food kitty. Nobody knew who had been the first person to break into the house or whether or not the owners were coming back.
‘Really? It’s free?’ James had asked the young guy they met by the pier at sunset that first evening in Key West. He was wearing an eye patch and a black bandanna.
"Just say the ‘innkeeper’ sent you."
"That’s the password. Fudge won’t let you in if you don’t say it. The bikers are really picky, but the only thing you have to do is contribute toward the food. Some people work at the fish plant and they score free fish. Other people share their food stamps. Here." He removed a stub of a pencil and stick of gum from his pants pocket. He popped the gum into his mouth, scratched the address into a layer of powdered sugar that adhered to the inside of the wrapper and handed it to James. "Go four blocks down Duval, then right two blocks on Angela."
"I can’t believe it," James said. "There’s got to be a catch."
A gentle breeze stirred. The dark silhouettes of palm trees stood out against a deepening magenta sky.
"Wasn’t the sunset incredible?" Patrice took Bayley’s hand. They passed James and Chris who were occupied with looking for Ernest Hemingway’s house. She took a deep breath. "Mmmmm -- Night Blooming Jasmine -- smells so good."
Even though they’d gotten to know each other quite well in the car (James had spent a lot of time watching them in the rearview mirror -- ‘hey, save some for later,’ he’d said, timing one of their longer kisses), Bayley longed for her grandmother’s touch.
"What if they don’t let us stay?" Bayley said.
"Don’t worry, there’s always the beach and I’ve got a tent!"
Bayley held tighter to Patrice’s hand.
The first thing they saw on Angela Street was a row of Harley Davidson motorcycles or ‘hogs,’ all painted different colors -- orange, aqua, yellow, lavender, white -- lined up on the street in front of the house. Bayley was amazed by the orderliness -- a foot to a foot and a half of space between each one, every front wheel cocked to the right at precisely the same angle. All the chrome parts -- wheel spokes, handlebars, seat trim, engine - displayed an eye-piercing gleam under the street lamps that were just now coming on.
James repeated the password and the four of them were ushered upstairs to the second floor.
"Welcome." A young woman dressed in a brown and rusty orange sarong approached them. "I am Naomi." She dipped a little, as though she was going to faint but then revived suddenly. "Please make yourselves at home. There’s plenty of space for everyone," Naomi said.
The room measured about twelve by sixteen feet, Bayley guessed. Two windows showcased a determined sky holding onto the final rays of sunset -- violet with yellow gray streaks. A Chinese lantern covered the one light bulb that dangled from the ceiling in the center of the room. Sheets, blankets and two green tarps hung from clotheslines that crisscrossed the room partitioning it into eight sections. Sighs and moans came from behind one of the green tarp sections. Patrice nudged Bayley. They exchanged glances and told Naomi in unison, "We’ve got a tent."
The day of the afternoon tea, Phil awoke at 6 a.m., heated up an apricot Danish and a cup of coffee, and read the chapter on ‘Getting The Table Ready’ in Margaret Lynne Dare’s latest book, Festive Settings. At eight, when he heard the Weather Channel go on in Louise’s apartment, he mopped his kitchen floor, vacuumed the living room rug, scoured the toilet and finally, at eleven-thirty, set out Louise’s favorite kind of tea and desserts on the coffee table in the living room. The phone rang at one-fifteen. It was Jax.
"Everything will be jes fine, Mr. Banks," she said.
"I don’t know. The heart at my age is a dangerous thing - a good piece of pecan pie is about all the excitement it can stand."
At two o’clock, Phil knocked on Louise’s door.
"Where’s my tree?" she said. "I thought you said it was ready to go home."
"It is. But I wanted to show you where I kept it -- the lighting and the temperature and the -- "
"I can’t leave my house just now, there’s a tornado watch." Louise pursed her lips.
"How about I put on my television?"
"Deal." Louise wrapped her raincoat tighter around her body and followed Phil up the stairs.
Once inside, Phil made a beeline for the living room, switched on the TV to the Weather Channel and gave the Ficus branches a plumping. He offered to take her coat.
"No thank you," Louise said. "I don’t want you getting any funny ideas about why I agreed to come up to your place."
"The Ficus is in here," Phil called to her.
"Oh, you sly devil you," Louise said when she saw the box of Lipton’s Select Black tea, the bowl of sugar cubes, a pitcher of cream, the slices of Sarah Lee Coffee cake and Stuckey’s pecan pie on two plates.
An advertisement for an upcoming program, ‘The World’s Most Venomous Snakes,’ came on.
"My husband was one of those - most men are," she said. "Maybe not you, of course. You brought my tree back to life. Bayley gave me the thing - it was dying on her too."
"Just needed love," Phil said.
"Oh come now."
"I’ve won three blue ribbons this year alone."
"Ribbons for what - Onions?"
"Eggplant, too, and Best Kisser --"
"That a new strain of Squash?" Louise grinned.
"At the County Fair," Phil said. He stared at her mouth. Her lips seemed fuller, a deeper red.
"Beach Rose. Don’t you remember? The same color as the walls in my kitchen?" Louise moved a few steps closer to him.
"How could I forget?" Phil said. He noticed that Louise’s face appeared flushed, her brown eyes suddenly a comfortable place to stroll into, sit down and relax.
She planted her hands on her hips. "How much for a turn?"
"Louise, has anyone ever told you -- ?"
"Not since I was -- "
Phil put his arms around Louise the way one might a china doll or some other very fragile thing and pressed his mouth to hers. The Weather channel had switched back to the tornado watch. The announcer spoke faster and faster. ‘It ‘s moving north…northeast…yes, it’s aimed straight for us, breaking all kinds of records!’
"Finally," she said, her face a few inches from Phil’s, "we’re going to get some relief from this low pressure system that’s been hanging around here lately."
Six months later, Patrice was tending bar three afternoons a week, during ‘Happy Hour,’ at ‘Sloppy Joe’s. Bayley, having discovered that she had a knack for getting more than just a likeness, that she could capture a glimpse of a person’s soul, charged five dollars apiece for fifteen-minute eight by ten-inch pastel portraits. She had paid a five-dollar license fee to set out two folding beach chairs on the sidewalk in Mallory Square. When she worked, she averaged thirty dollars a day -- enough to afford champagne brunches for her and Patrice at The Blue Parrot and still have five dollars left over for the food kitty. The twenty-two housemates had expanded to twenty-seven -- five new hippie residents -- and the line for the bathroom was longer than ever because most everyone, including James and Christopher, had jobs cleaning fish at the plant. Bayley and Patrice had begun taking baths together.
One evening, a half hour before the usual household dinner of fish, rice and salad or fish, rice and okra, there was a knock on the bathroom door.
"Bayley?" It was Fudge.
Bayley and Patrice looked at one another. The bikers never came up to the second floor and the hippies never trespassed downstairs, except to go in and out the front door.
"Somebody called for you a little while ago. ‘Phil,’ I think his name was. Couldn’t hear him very well - storm season, lots of static. "He said your grandmother’s in a coma."
Ever since Bayley had first met Fudge, she’d thought his voice sounded like someone talking under water -- garbled baritone. He once told her that he’d gone to a conservatory in Chicago to study opera. Bayley couldn’t imagine him in any other role than ‘hog’ owner. (Fudge’s ‘hog’ was the yellow one.) But now his voice seemed shored up tight, closer to tenor. Bayley made a little choking sound. "Thanks, Fudge." She glanced at Patrice.
Patrice held out her hands as though ready to catch something.
"You’re welcome. It’s okay if you need to take more time in there," he said.
Bayley and Patrice heard him say, ‘back off’ followed by a commotion of shuffling feet and people mumbling. After a few seconds, all was quiet.
Bayley took her grandmother’s ring and gold watch bracelet out of her pants pocket, held them in the palm of her hand. She had continued to carry them with her wherever she went. Now she sat on the edge of the tub and stared at the insect -- crooked proboscis, stick legs crumpled, body twisted as though death, like life, had proved a struggle. Her heart began to flutter - a hot dry sensation, a moth beating its wings against light, a rustling of brittle leaves on pavement.
"You know the story of "Dorian Gray?" she said.
"The portrait that ages instead of its subject?" Patrice said.
"And his soul is in stasis, trapped inside some kind of limbo." Between thumb and forefinger, Bayley held the ring up for Patrice to see. The diamonds cast exquisite rays of light into the murky brown-yellow mass. " My soul is stuck in there like that insect; I’m paralyzed. I scream but no sound comes out. The diamonds tease me, illuminate the dark place from which there is no escape."
Patrice sat down beside her and turned on the hot water faucet. "That’s a bit dramatic. Come on; let’s take a bath. You’ll feel better."
"When he destroyed the portrait, he got his soul back." The ring slipped from her hand, landing with a clatter on the floor. They both looked down. The amber had broken loose from its setting, cracked open. One of the two grape-sized halves still encased the insect but Bayley noticed a peculiar smell, a burst of some ancient elixir -- frankincense, myrrh, nutmeg, cinnamon -- she couldn’t be sure. Droplets of moisture beaded on her face. Steam swirled up from the rushing water, swathing her in a fine blinding mist. "I can’t breathe." Suddenly she felt Patrice’s fingers stroking, gentle warm streams cascading across her skull; her body didn’t offer its usual resistance. In her veins she felt a stirring of new life.
Phil was there when Louise died. She had spent the last week of her life slipping in and out of consciousness. He stayed with her from eight in the morning until dusk and then returned to his apartment to sleep. On the day of her passing, he brought with him a 5 x 8" manila envelope that had arrived for Louise in the morning. There was no return address but its cancellation stamp read, 'Key West, Florida.' Phil sat down in the chair beside her bed, placed the envelope on the nightstand and touched her shoulder.
"Good Morning, Louise," he said.
She mumbled something that he didn’t understand.
"What?" He leaned over, his face close to hers.
"Open it," she said, her voice.
Phil slid his forefinger under the flap, pulled out a lump of tissue paper that had been taped shut. He unwrapped it and arranged its contents, two halves of an amber stone, a gold ring setting with six diamonds and what appeared to be two sections of a gold chain link bracelet, on the bed next to her pillow. "Broken," he said.
Louise picked up the piece of amber that contained the insect, turning it this way and that. "I'm happy just to get it back," she said.
"What do you mean?"
"We have this insect to thank for our lives. If it hadn’t emerged from the primordial soup, taken the next step in evolution, we wouldn’t be here. If Bayley has achieved the same -- found love -- she won’t need to steal anymore." Louise sighed.
Suddenly her face seemed to let go of all expression; the lines circumscribing her mouth and eyes softened. Her skin took on a pearl-like translucence -- tiny points of light sparkling through mist.
"Stay with me," she said, squeezing his hand.
They held one another's gaze until darkness intervened, sparing each the pain of having to be the first to look away.
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