The tapping of John’s cane echoed in the cool morning air. Ada threw aside the drape and waved. He paused to nod at her and smile, his full mustache quivering upward. Ada’s heart skipped painfully as her eyes followed his halting steps toward town.
She had been so harsh in her silent criticism of him, so quick to call him weak and faint‑hearted. She bowed her head, resting it against the frosted windowpane. She felt bullied by the current of emotions that ran hot and swift. She had come to understand so much about herself, so much about them all. She thought she might have preferred her ignorance, to have loved them without pain or guilt.
Slowly, as if she herself were crippled, she edged her way into the kitchen and retrieved Rodger’s letter. Her pounding heart finally eased as she settled herself comfortably at her sewing machine. She took a seam ripper and tore the envelope open.
The rain began. The wind picked up the shutters, slamming them against the house. Ada jumped up, spilling pages upon the floor.
She rushed about, grabbing at her coat and overshoes, flinging herself outside into the storm. She struggled to get the ladder between the windows so that she could lean to one side and snatch the flapping shutters and hook them down. Although exasperated, she found an odd sort of pleasure in being outside with the warm rain pelting against her cheeks, streaking down her glasses, and dripping from her fingertips.
She worked her way around the house. Just she finished, the rain stopped and sunlight filled the yard. Ada cautiously eased down the ladder, wrestling it to the ground so that it lay against the house. She paused in a pool of sunlight and peered through her glasses, raindrops catching colors from the light, distorting her vision.
Off a little ways, she saw John coming back from the bank. He inched down the sidewalk until he came to her gate and leaned against it.
Ada greeted him with a cheerful “Hello! I thought it was going to shower all day. But look!” she threw her hands high into the air. “Sunshine and rainbows.”
John’s smile soured. “Isn’t it funny how hard-pressed you can be to get one thing done, and a few minutes later, it doesn’t even matter?”
She shrugged. In spite of his ill-humor, she felt alive and magnanimous. “Won’t you come in for lunch? Maddie took the girls shopping.” She had come to him, the gate between them.
John straightened. “You mustn’t feel obligated to take care of me anymore, Ada,” he replied curtly.
She placed a hand on his forearm. “I’d love the company of a good man. I have a letter from Rodger.”
The wrinkles in his brow unfurled as the tension left his face. He pushed the gate open and followed her with labored steps into the house. She felt the warmth of their friendship spreading over her like a gossamer veil.
“Let’s sit out on the patio, shall we?”
John paused, leaning heavily against his cane. “Perhaps you would share a ripe tomato with me, my fair Eve.”
Ada held the door open for him. “You’d better be mindful of who you go about tempting, my friend. Your ribbing could be costly.”
John grunted. They laughed together as they went through the living room and out the kitchen door to the covered patio. Ada took tarps off the chairs and waited until he seated himself in his own awkward way.
“I’ll get the letter.” She hurried back into the sewing room, flinging off her overshoes and coat, and scooped up the pages.
She sat opposite John. He pointed the top of his cane at the garden.
“Ada, you’ve enough produce for the whole neighborhood.”
She laid the letter in the middle of the white wrought iron table. He turned to examine her.
“You really miss Rodger, don’t you?” He tapped the letter with the cane. “Anymore about those refugees he spoke of sending home?”
Ada licked her dry lips. “Rodger said that two new mechanics arrived, and he finalized the papers. I’ll know in just a few weeks when the arrival date is for Mary Elizabeth and her father, Lin…,” Ada grabbed the letter and scanned it, “LinChing. They should be on the next transport.” Ada looked carefully at John.
He leaned on his elbow across the table, whispering. “Do you really want them to live with you?” His eyebrows knitted together, emphasizing the deeply etched wrinkles. “You’re taking on quite a load. I sure hope you know what you’re doing.” He reached for her hand and held it.
She felt as if his words had hooked her, and he was reeling in the line ever so slowly.
She jerked upright. “Why don’t you like the idea?”
He held fast to her hand. “I’ve just lately realized how involved in our family you’ve become.”
Become! Become! She screamed inwardly. Rodger had sucked her into his life so long ago. She had nurtured him then, and would yet. Her anger dissipated suddenly. She had gotten as much as she had given; perhaps she had been a careless gardener, refusing to prune a prolific bush, letting her involvement with this family grow beyond sensible boundaries.
“Rodger and I always had our own kind of understanding, something that made our friendship special.” Maybe it was John’s candor and the warmth of his touch that made her rush on. “He was so much different from Stevie or Dan, so I don’t think it could have been a means of replacing anyone.” Ada stopped short. It was as if Madeline stood between them, judging them by their words.
“I honestly believe, Ada, Madeline wouldn’t have been able to cope with my weeks of recuperation without you.” He squeezed her hand. “Neither would I.”
Ada silently studied John’s long, sensitive hand upon her own.
“You’re so…,” he wavered, considering her for a moment, “generous.”
He went on as though he were discussing a fine point of an abstract. “Maddie’s hidden inside of herself, more layered.”
Like an onion, thought Ada.
Picturing Madeline as an onion made Ada chuckle. Then in trying to suppress it, she burst out in loud gasps of laughter. John sat shaking his head. He was so serious, making it all the funnier. Ada laughed until the tears spilled from her eyes. She wiped them away with the back of her hands, sobering up. John had turned away to stare at the upturned rows of weeded tomatoes and overgrown cornstalks.
Ada jumped up and walked briskly to the corn, plucking the top ears from five of the first row. She pulled up her apron, cradling the ears, and walked back to John.
“I’ll put these in a sack for you.” She leaned inside the door and took a bag. “You ought to pull your chair out into the sunshine and enjoy it.”
“I think I’ll go home and take a nap.” John shuffled towards back gate. He held the sack a little ways from his body, rocking on his cane. “Won’t you join us for supper?” Ada would have liked to reach out and steady him, but she must always pretend he was no different than the man he used to be. As he righted himself, he grimaced. Ada stepped away from him. She, too, grieved for him, for what could have been for them.
“No, thanks, John. I have the house to spring clean for my guests.”
She stood still, only turned her head sideways to watch him inch along the fence until he reached his own gate. Her phone began ringing, but she made no move to answer it until she saw Madeline’s car pull into the driveway and the girls tumble out, clamoring for their father.
She didn’t hurry as she usually would have done. When she finally picked up the receiver and heard Kyle’s voice, rivulets of shock coursed throughout her body.
He paused. There was an embarrassing long moment before she could answer him. Chicago would be a whole day’s venture.
“I’d love to go. I’ll be ready.”
She hung up the phone and paced the kitchen. Then she went to the bedroom and flung the closet doors wide, pulling out dresses and shaking them. “No, this one will never do,” she scolded.
In the midst of the culling, she stopped. She was committed to spending tomorrow with John and the girls!
Crumpling her favorite dress against her, a gauzy, voile floral in red and brown tones, she sat upon the bed pondering her dilemma. She shouldn’t worry about Madeline’s reaction.
It was John she would hurt. And for a moment that was more than she could imagine doing.
“I should have said no, damn it!” The sound of her own voice echoing down the hall, disrupting the silence, disconcerted her. The clock pealed five.
With sudden firm resolve, Ada raced to the kitchen phone and dialed Madeline.
“Maddie, how are you? I have to let you know that I’ve had a change of…”
“Oh, Ada, I’m so glad you called! We’ve gotten the cabin on the lake for a long weekend. John, the girls, and I are leaving after supper. I hope you don’t mind?”
Ada could barely contain her delight. “No! I think that’s wonderful!” She wondered if Kyle had arranged that. “Do you need extra bedding?”
“Oh, heavens, no! You’re always so kind!” Madeline’s words rushed out. “So much to do, I really must run. Thanks ever so much, Ada.”
Ada replaced the receiver and clapped her hands. “Voilà!” she sang out loud, tripping lightly across the floor into her sewing room. “What this lady needs is a new dress!”
She rummaged through her fabrics until she came upon a bolt of unused lavender chintz printed with violet and crimson swirls. She took to her bedroom and held it up to examine her reflection in the full‑length mirror. She touched her cheek. With a bit of rouge and a touch of lipstick, it would go well with her graying hair.
She laid out the cloth, began cutting, methodically working until midnight tolled. She was done. Satisfied and happy with herself, she slid between the sheets and immediately fell asleep.
The morning hours vanished. Ada re-pinned her topknot and applied a little more Raspberry Kissproof Indelible Lipstick ™ just as she heard Kyle’s two short raps on the front screen door. As she greeted him, she quelled the nervousness in her voice.
“Did you order this beautiful morning, Colonel Mansard?”
Kyle stood holding open the screen door. “It would seem if anyone could command this, you might, Ada.”
In a moment of horrible silence, they stared at each other. Ada had a chance to study his face for the first time and take in just how well-proportioned his features were, without blemish or scar, and how his gray-streaked hair lay short and neat. His crystal-blue eyes were highlighted by his walnut‑hued tan.
Immediately self‑conscious, Ada looked down at the floor, unable to stifle a giggle. She felt as though she had sidestepped her real self to become Cinderella. Kyle touched her arm and they moved off together toward the car.
“You look lovely, Ada. I better tell you that while I’m thinking of it. I’m much better at commanding than I am complimenting.”
It was a strange admission, leaving Ada without any rejoinder. One beat off, she managed, “Thank you.”
Time slowed, but as Ada watched the snapping images of countryside flash past, she felt serene. Idle thoughts drifted through her consciousness. Kyle said little on the way to Chicago, which suited her. She enjoyed being in the company of this self-possessed man, who reminded her of Rodger in so many ways.
He pulled out into the main stream of traffic. “Would you like to go to the Art Institute? I checked and they have a limited collection for viewing.”
The hours they spent wending through the corridors went too quickly. Ada didn’t feel any need for small talk, just a comment or two, a few vague generalizations about the Impressionists as they toured. She tried to watch him through sidelong glances, wondering if his long, intense look meant a judgment upon her.
As they were leaving through the doors, they were momentarily separated, Ada pushed off to the side while Kyle pressed onward with the crowd. She spotted him by one of the bronze lions. His head twisted from side to side, and the alarmed expression on his face pleased her. When he caught her eyes, he motioned her to come to him. Waiting for a break between the huddled mass of people, Ada exhaled deeply and willed herself to relax.
“God! for a moment I thought I’d lost you to some avant‑garde painter in there!”
“Well, to tell you the truth, I think I belong in Rubens’ era.”
He twined her arm over his, bent close to her face. “Don’t you find something alive in the turn‑of‑the‑century artists? Like an expression of dissatisfaction with the status‑quo?”
She sucked in a deep breath, vainly searching for an answer. She could only reply with the truth. “I’m afraid that you have gone beyond my simple understanding of art. I liked maybe two of those hundreds of paintings.”
That seemed to have pleased him as he hugged her arm to him. “Well, my dear, perhaps you are the discriminating sort of connoisseur.”
They were strolling along the sidewalk, arm in arm. His arm felt solid and strong beneath his uniform.
They passed by the Hutchinson Wing. Kyle stopped. “Shall we eat lunch at the garden restaurant?”
The sun shone brightly; there were smiling faces all around. “That would be lovely.” Ada smiled and upon being seated, discreetly slipped out of her shoes.
Kyle wiped his face with the linen napkin and set it beside his plate. “Would you like to walk up Burnham Park?”
Ada raised her index finger. The moments were slipping by too fast. “One more cup of coffee, please.”
The waiter appeared at her elbow. He poured coffee and cleared away the plates.
“We’d better take the car.” Kyle had evidently spied her shoes off. “I must remember we’re not on a company hike.”
Ada worked her shoes around so that she could stuff her swollen feet into them. She was glad to get back to the car and savored the respite before they started walking up 56th Street. They were drifting together in their silence.
Kyle halted, easing her hand into his. “Look, Ada, the park has rowboats. Are you game for a short glide upon the lake?”
Laughing, she nodded, picking up the tempo of their walk. As she stood aside while Kyle arranged for the small, wooden boat, shivers raced up her spine. She frowned down at her new dress. She would have to step carefully and seat herself prudently.
She caught the strains of someone lowly humming “In the Good Ole Summertime,” and looked to see it was Kyle. He had extended his arm for her. Grinning, she exaggerated her movements, throwing her head high as if adorned with a wide‑brimmed hat and arranging her make‑believe parasol.
Wordlessly they positioned themselves. Ada found herself charmed by this man. But, perhaps she had made this outing into something more promising than it actually was.
“Dark thoughts crease the brow of my lady.” Kyle set the oars so that the boat flowed effortlessly in the water along a straight path.
“I was thinking of Rodger. Sometimes I feel like I’ve lost him, that I only know the boy and not the man.” Had she said too much? Perhaps she assumed that he knew Rodger better than he did.
Kyle looked at her intently. “I thought it awfully curious that he would ask you to take in those foreigners. It seems a bit much. Or is it?”
He had gotten to the core of her concern.
“No, not entirely. Rodger can trust me. He knows that I will love that Chinese man and his daughter simply because he does. I don’t know if I’m flattered or what.” She burst out suddenly, “But I know that I am confused.”
She had said too much. Kyle looked long and with knitted eyebrows at her.
“I don’t what it is, but I can’t make myself clean up the bedrooms.”
“Are you jealous?” Kyle arched an eyebrow. “You haven’t had to share so much of Rodger’s affection before.”
Ada looked at him, horrified. How would he know so much about her relationship with Rodger except through Madeline?
Kyle leaned forward, his eyebrows knitted together. “I didn’t mean to be presumptuous, Ada. Rodger told me you were more a mother to him in a lot of ways than Madeline.” He picked up the oars and began to row. “I’m not making a judgment on Maddie, but there is no love lost between the two of them.”
The three of them. The thought flashed through Ada’s head, along with instantaneous guilt. She blushed. Tears welled up in her eyes, so that she averted her face from Kyle, looking toward the shoreline where the children played.
She struggled to keep the tears out of her voice. “Maddie had her hands full with the babies. She found Rodger a difficult child.” She gestured to the mothers and children on shore. “It was lucky for us all that I lived next door.”
“Lucky indeed for Rodger. It is too bad that he and John had a falling out. John thinks it’s over that incident with the Cajun man, Big Red.”
Ada was taken aback. These little facts so innocently spoken were like great waves upending her. Maybe Fate sandwiched messages in chance meetings.
She forced herself to meet Kyle’s penetrating stare. Coolly, she managed, “I’m sure it isn’t about that.” Kyle shrugged, waiting for her to continue. “Perhaps it has more to do with John’s guilt than Rodger’s indifference.”
Ada brushed her hand across her lap, wanting to get past this. “Rodger still writes home often enough. He’s trying to get leave to come home. I’ll drop a hint or two in my next letter that he might write more often to John.”
“Soon Ada.” Kyle heaved the oars, as if to emphasize his warning. “I don’t think John has time on his side.”
Anger rose in Ada, retorts tumbling one over the other. The doctors had been optimistic about John’s recovery. Everyone said he had begun to look like his old self. How could Kyle be so arrogant as to think he knew so much more than anyone else? But with a jolt, she realized Kyle had verbalized her innermost fear.
The sun, nesting behind a twilight cloud, burst forth, dazzling Ada. She placed a hand to shield her eyes, to no avail. It brought to mind Tiresis, the blind Greek soothsayer, the reluctant teller of truth. She leaned forward as Kyle steered the boat toward the shore.
“Have you noticed the gorgeous sunset?”
“Yes, but it’s merely landscape to compliment you.”
Ada blushed, conscious of his stare. She closed her eyes, imagining the pastel sky overhead. Ever so low came Kyle’s humming again. She could play his lady, if only for the night. It would be easy, should they lay the truth to one side and bare only their naked bodies. What would there be for them but a night walk through a graveyard of half‑dead desires?
She feared he was more than a man who sought gratification of his lust; he extracted something from those around him, though they be willing or not. Knowing this, she need not be his victim. But should he want more from her, oh! if he asked her a Tiresisian question! She would be bound to tell him the truth, ripping away the façade. Right now she could at least have this man, though he would not stay. It wasn’t that she didn’t need more from him, but she wouldn’t ask. Desire gnawed at her and, in his presence, grew to an overwhelming passion to have him.
She would fulfill a fantasy and be nothing more. For too many years she had used her memories to pad the sharp edges of reality. Indulging in memories was like sitting down before a banquet of waxed foods—so appetizing, yet unable to satisfy one’s hunger. It might be a sin to indulge her carnal appetite, but right or wrong, she was starving.
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