Unwearied in That Service

by Tom DeConna

Unwearied in that service

I could use a staple gun to fasten the angled pieces of the wooden frame because it would be faster. But I don’t mind. I drill elfin holes, one-eighth of an inch, and I bore the holes into the wood, not with an electric drill, but with a manual hand drill, the kind with a crank. This also takes more time; however, I like working with my hands. It’s during these moments when I discover myself by being the farthest away from myself; with windows open to morning air and morning light.

Next, slowly and patiently, I set slim wooden dowels through the holes of one piece and into the holes of the adjoining piece to see that everything fits snugly. Then I separate the pieces. Next, I take the glue bottle and squeeze a tawny, thick stream into a tiny paper cup. Gently, with an artist’s brush, I glaze the pins with glue and attach the four wooden pieces. Corner clamps with just the right pressure ensure that the frame’s joints will stay in place permanently. The shape, size, and design of the salt and pepper shakers—it’s the shakers that will be inside the frame—determine not only the shade of stain that I rub into the wood but also the type of wood I use. So many possibilities: light woods, dark woods, loose grains, tight grains—oak, pine, alder, maple, cherry, or mahogany. Right now I’m working with mahogany.

The salt and pepper shakers are a Christmas gift from my niece. Today is June 21st and I haven’t finished the frame; I’ve been putting it off. My sister Megan and my niece Mary will stop by this afternoon. Mary, age ten, will be disappointed that the shakers are not framed and hanging on the salt-and-pepper wall, but she’ll be excited to see a frame in progress. Besides, if I set her free with watercolor paints, she’ll be too absorbed to fret over the shakers. Yes, Mary has the ability to lose herself, too. I wonder if something in our DNA links us, or if the trait belongs to childhood and it’s something I’ve never outgrown. Of course, watercolor painting is my real passion, and it has made me wealthy, which my agent, Connor O'Grady, frequently reminds me. Early in my career, I barely made ends meet, but ever since the New York Times article, I’ve been doing fine. Connor, who is full of opinions, tells me to spend money: “For God’s sake,” he says, “buy a big house.” As if larger rooms would make a difference.

My sister Megan used to say similar things but thankfully has stopped. Although she and I are siblings, our thoughts can be worlds apart. And yet, Megan is more than tolerant with me. She’s two years older and protective. She must think of her monthly visit, not so much as maintaining bonds, but as a way of checking to see if I’m okay. Megan is so dear to me.

The salt and pepper shakers that will soon be enclosed are little Pilgrims, a man and a woman. Mary wrapped, bowed, and placed them beneath the Christmas tree. My niece likes the plain brown, black, and grey colors of the miniature people opposed to the thick red, blue, and yellow colors painted on Disney toys. Mary is the only child her parents know who does not care for Disney. She sees beyond colors, and she bought the shakers because they reminded her of Megan and me.

“Even though the people don’t look like your mother and me?”

“That doesn’t matter.”

“I suppose not.”

“But, Uncle Norman, why is the woman salt and the man pepper?”

“I can’t think of one good reason.”

Eventually, I’ll hang the frame next to the other salt and pepper shakers that Megan has brought me: a Victorian couple and two pieces shaped like knights from a chessboard.

I leave the mahogany frame to dry and imagine the shakers sealed in glass, secured to the wall, and hanging with the other two sets, and then I think of Mary and how she enjoys being lost in a world of watercolors, so for her I set everything in place: brushes, paints, a Mason jar filled with water, thick bond paper, and a few photographs of animals to use as models. Right now I’m working on a red-tailed fox and should finish it in the next few days. Naturally, I’ve painted red-tailed foxes before, but when I photographed this rascal in its desperate dash across the grassy field, the camera’s angle and the sun’s slant formed a new creation. That is the best part about photographing wildlife: the angles, the actions, the colors, and the lights are forever shifting, forever recreating.

Now, I sit on my canvas-backed chair with artist’s materials surrounding me, select a brush, and feel that familiar, emotional wave wash through me. It might be similar to a swimmer about to plunge into a pool’s deep end. The swimmer holds his breath and braces himself for the dive that will take him from one existence to another. Excitement and anxiety. Questioning whether you can do it one more time. Knowing how deeply your senses will be drained. Exhausted yet enriched. Hesitant, I set the fine-tipped brush down and appreciate once again the room’s expansive windows. They receive light and release thoughts. They allow views of sky and forest while mesh screens allow sounds of birds and brook. I love this little home. A handful of rooms on the main level and a sleeping loft above—all that I need. Checking the antique railway clock on the wall, I feel good knowing that Megan and Mary will not be here for hours. I have time. Time to myself and time to create. I take the paintbrush and dip its bristles into a shallow jar of water when someone knocks—actually bangs a fist—against the front door. It can only be Connor O'Grady. Yes, I appreciate all that he does for me, but what on earth is wrong with him? Always visiting unannounced and banging on the door like a federal agent on a drug raid. He is an oddity and a half.

Through a strip of windows flanking the front door, I see him with his shaggy red hair, narrow grey eyes, three-day stubble, a T-shirt that notifies everyone he has visited Alcatraz, torn jeans, and tattered sandals. Worse, he wears socks. Upwards of fifty, and he dresses like a homeless man. I don’t know how Connor maintains a business, but he does. Reluctantly, I open the door.

***

Visiting Norman Shields is like entering a different century. Like visiting Thoreau.

Actually, I don’t know balloons about Thoreau except that he was a genuine loon. Lived all his life like a hermit and then wrote about it. Riveting. What the hell would he have to say to anyone? And Norman isn’t much better. The guy’s a millionaire thanks to me, and he holes up in a two-bit house in the middle of nowhere. In the woods. And you’d think with his lack of visitors he’d be happy to see me, especially because I always give him my Super Bowl greeting, but he usually looks at me as if I’ve grown a second head. Finally, the door opens a notch.

“Norman! It’s great to see you! How’ve you been?”

He answers in a near whisper: “Connor, I thought you were going to kick the door down.”

“Right. Yeah, well, I didn’t know if you were sleeping.”

“Who sleeps at this time of day?”

“You’d be surprised, but, actually, that’s a good point.”

I step inside before he shuts the door in my face, and I see the place hasn’t changed. Been working with the guy for ten years, and the place is like a museum. Hey, wait, he’s building a new frame. Why the hell does he waste his time with that malarky? “Building a new frame, Norman? It looks terrific!”

“Yes, my niece gave me a salt and pepper set… I’m making a…but really…I’m not sure…”

Norman doesn’t make a peep for fifteen seconds and stares at something—what, I don’t know. I’ve never seen anyone drift into la-la land like this guy. “Not sure about what?”

“Mmm, never mind,” he mumbles and then goes silent for a full minute. Then he says, “I suppose you’re here for business.”

“Yes, Norman, I am. Although it’s always a joy to see you. Could we sit down? Maybe offer me a bottle of water?”

“Oh...sure.”

Anyone else, I would have asked for a beer, or, depending on the time of day, a shot of single malt, but the strongest thing this guy has is Lipton tea, and sure as shoeshine, Norman returns from the kitchen with a bottle of water for me and a glass of iced tea for himself.

After we settle in, I say, “I know it’s only late June, Norman, but the holidays will be here faster than a racehorse can piss, so we need your cards ready for the printers to get them in the stores before Thanksgiving.”

Those deep blue eyes of his give me a blank stare again, and then bingo a lightbulb inside of him snaps. “You’ll be happy to know the cards are ready.”

“Really? Hey, that’s super cool.”

“Except for one, but it’s almost finished.”

No matter how many times I’ve explained to Norman how the business works, he doesn’t get it. I’d have better luck with a deaf Martian. “Norman, we’ve got to get all the watercolors to the printer at the same time. We can’t do this piece-mouthed.”

“Piecemeal.”

“Whatever.” I take a breath and try a different tack. “You don’t realize how popular you are. Your cards, I mean.”

“Mmm.”

I look at this man for the thousandth time and my heart goes out to him because he’s so naive. Not a clue about life. But there’s a gentle innocence to him, and then I take back every bad thought I ever had about him—again. Why should he bother himself with humdrum matters? True artists don’t do that, and Norman Shields is a true artist. I tell him the absolute gospel: “You have a rare talent, Norman. You go into the woods, take pictures of animals, and then paint the most beautiful still lifes anyone has ever seen.”

“Aren’t you exaggerating just a little?”

Norman holds his thumb and index finger an inch apart. Those long, slender fingers. “Maybe,” I say with a laugh, “but when your paintings are turned into cards, they’re awesome. Hey, we’ve come a long way from the Lenni Lenape trading store.”

“We still sell cards there, don’t we?”

“Hey, don’t look like someone just stole your wallet. Of course we do.”

On the other hand, Norman can be incredibly frustrating. How can I move him past first base? In a way, he’s remained stock-still in the Lenni Lenape Preserve. That’s where all of this started, and that’s where it would have stayed if not for me. “Look, Norman, don’t you realize that your cards sell in every high-end boutique from New York to London?”

“Yes, I know.” He sips his tea and I take a swig of water. He brushes blonde hair from his forehead and then presses his fingertips together. Sometimes I wonder what he sees when he looks at me. “The New York Times article,” he says, “certainly didn’t hurt.”

I nod in agreement and think of that Sunday edition about seven years ago that appeared on the front page of the “Style” section. It changed Norman’s life, even though his life didn’t change. And, voila, the article changed my life. Lucky-butt-crazy, however it was. I mean, Maggie Parker, a journalist, was on her way to visit an old college chum, and she’s driving through the Lenni Lenape Preserve. That’s a two-thousand-acre wildlife park in New Jersey—of all places—and her car breaks down. Right outside the park’s main building. She cellphones for help but while she’s waiting for triple-A or some such cavalry, she wanders into the park’s gift shop and sees a box of Norman’s cards. Aren’t these unusual, she says, and so beautiful. The clerk, a high school attendee, says, Yes, ma’m, and then he proceeds to tell her all about Norman’s photography and his watercolors—even his two-bit cabin of a house. So, later that same day good old Maggie drives to Norman’s house, interviews my client without me knowing, and writes a feature article for the almighty New York Times.

Well, that Sunday morning when the article comes out, complete with photographs, my phone won’t stop ringing and my emails are overflowing. After I get past the stunned phase and past the angry phase for knowing nothing about the interview, I recognize an Elvis moment when I see one, and I’m all over it. Soon, people line up for Norman’s cards like they’re waiting to see Michelangelo’s Mona Lisa. The only reason I’m chewing dog biscuits about the whole thing is that I can’t take credit for it.

“Norman, that article did a lot for us,” I say, “but please remember, I’m the guy who picked up the ball and ran with it.” I think of all the promoting I did after that big splash, mostly in person. “I got us to where we are today.”

A red flush comes to Norman’s face and with anybody else it would be anger, but with him it’s embarrassment because the guy is truly humble. Then he smiles softly and says, “I’m grateful for all you’ve done.”

I relax for a minute, drink my water, and think of an incident that I’ve recounted for Norman dozens of times, so once more can’t hurt. With a sigh and a glance to the ceiling, I start: “I remember visiting Priscilla’s in Boston. Priscilla’s—as you know, Norman—is one of the premiere, exclusive shops in the country. And who on that day was actually there?”

“Priscilla.”

“Damn straight-as-an-arrow right. Priscilla in the flesh, and not bad looking flesh either. So, when she learns that I represent Norman Shields, she gushes on and on about how she loves your cards and how her customers love your cards and how they buy boxes of them without even checking the price. And then she asks, ‘Why not include quotes or sayings in the cards?’”

“Indeed.”

“Yes, indeed. So, I say to her, ‘Priscilla, Norman’s still lifes are so beautiful, they don’t need words. They stand alone.’”

Norman looks away as if I’ve hurt his feelings. You know, sometimes I wonder if Norman is aware of anything beyond his pictures. He doesn’t realize the life he could have. He’s a good-looking guy, athletically built, thirty-something, single, and rich.

“Norman,” I say, “do you know that you have enough money to travel the world? To buy just about anything you’d want?”

Again, he doesn’t answer for a full minute; just stares off. Maybe he’s thinking about all the places he could visit like a Spanish seaport or an African jungle or an English estate—or if his drink could use another ice cube. Then he says, “I’ll have that final picture for you mid- week, Connor.”

It’s about what I’d expect, but suddenly I want to tell him something. Share something with him. Something personal and kind. Words are on the tip of my tongue, but I can’t push them off. It’s like a scratched record that skips and can’t move forward. All I can think to say is, “That’ll be swell, Norman.”

For what seems eternity but is really ten minutes, we sit silently, not a sound, not even drinking our drinks. Then, through the screened windows I hear a bird start to chirp, and I wonder how Norman can tolerate the stillness of his life. And maybe the bird’s song jostles him because he looks right at me now and out of nowhere he says, “Thank you, Connor. You’re a good friend.”

I feel my face going soft. There’s definitely something strange about this guy, but, I swear to God, for him I would dig an acre of bogland with my bare hands. I clear my throat and say, “Norman, working with you is not a job; it’s a pleasure.” And I mean it.

As I drive away, a thought comes to me: Norman is as beautiful and perfect as his paintings.

***

I don’t know much about my father nor do I remember him too well, but one memory often repeats. I’m eight years old, and my father stands by the kitchen sink and drinks the last of his coffee. My mother and Megan have gone to the grocery store. My father doesn’t know I’m watching him. He holds a diner-style mug in his right hand and brings it to his lips. His eyes, like a marksman’s, peer out the double-hung window, which stays shut year-round; the window over the sink, the window that faces the edge of our property, the window that scans the elusive western horizon. My father sets his coffee mug on the counter and sighs. But the sound isn’t a sigh exactly. It’s more of a murmur, more of a soft moan. By watching the sway of his legs and the lean of his body and the slant of his shoulders, it seems to me that everything he wants waits somewhere out there beyond the closed window. Perhaps he seeks a place he knows or a place he imagines. Either way, he could reach that place if only he would open that window.

Now, I’m back in my canvas chair as water melds crimson and umber, causing the precise shade to awaken. The fox’s fur is focused yet blurred; his movement fluid yet frozen; his spirit captured yet free. I work intently as minutes stretch to hours. I am unaware of all man-made dimensions. I live in a world that does not exist but should exist, and it is there that I authentically live.

A gentle knock on the front door. It startles me. I check the clock, an enormous timepiece I purchased at an estate sale, a piece that was rescued years ago from an Irish railway station prior to its demolition, and the clock tells me that time has unaccountably passed and that Megan and Mary have arrived. I feel as if I’ve been pulled from a dream. I open the door. Not having seen them for one month isn’t a reason to be astounded by mother and daughter’s likeness, but I am. Mary appears as Megan in miniature, not a trace of her father, although Brian is a good and handsome man.

***

My brother opens the door with a slightly dazed look as if he’s been sleeping, but I know better. He’s been busy with his brushes. I’ve always known that Norman favors our mother emotionally. Like our mother, it’s difficult for him to pull away from an inner world, and by his existing in two worlds, I sometimes wonder which one feels more real to him. We hug each other briefly but sincerely.

“Hi, Megan.”

“Norman, it’s a beautiful day,” I say in a maternal tone and take stock of his usual wardrobe: a one-pocket T-shirt—today a lemony color—and a pair of rugged cargo shorts—a deep sage color. “Not too warm and not humid,” I tell him. “Have you been outside?”

“Yes, earlier.” He opens the door fully. “You know that I like a morning walk.”

I nod and notice Mary holding back and think how she’s been terribly shy lately. I’m concerned. It could be normal for a ten-year-old, or…

“And who is this little G.F.N.?” Norman teases his niece with a “secret code” between them, but I know the letters mean “Good For Nothing.”

Mary steps inside. “G.F.N. sergeant-major reporting,” she says with a crisp military salute, “to her G.F.N. five-star general.” Laughter bubbles from her lips, and she rushes into Norman’s embrace. He holds her for an instant, releases, and tousles her blonde hair.

“Guess what I’m building.”

Mary’s blue eyes widened and her lips form a perfect “O.” Then she runs to Norman’s studio, finds a picture frame in progress, plucks a stray piece of wood from the table, and holds it close to her face. Is she eyeing it or smelling it? Probably both. “Mahogany,” she pronounces. “Good choice, Uncle Norman.”

“Glad you approve,” he says and motions to the other end of the long, rectangular table. “I have paint and paper waiting for you.”

Mary sets the slim block of wood down exactly where she found it and looks at the clamped picture frame. “When will this be done?”

“Oh, in a few days, I suppose.” Mary frowns without trying to hide her feelings. Norman says, “Homemade cookies and whole milk are waiting for a painter, not a pouter.”

Mary waves away her darkness and like a bird flits to the table’s opposite end and alights upon a stool. She takes a paintbrush, dips the bristles in water, dabs them in a wedge of color, and enlivens the card stock sheet with bold swaths.

“You made cookies?” I ask.

“Chocolate chip.”

“Thought I smelled something besides paint and wood, even with the windows open. And you always add—what is it?”

“A pinch of cinnamon.”

“Right.”

I follow him into the kitchen. Such a simple layout. The room can’t be more than six by eight feet. Two windows, a refrigerator, a sink, no disposal, a dishwasher, no microwave, and cabinets that Lincoln might have known as a boy. At least the four-burner stove is gas, not electric. And the kitchen fits the house. Norman proudly states that the entire interior measures sixteen by twenty feet. Divided lengthwise, on one side is a kitchen and family room; on the other side is a large studio and small bathroom. Above us is a snug-as-a-bug loft where Norman sleeps, which is adjacent to a bathroom barely big enough for a sink and toilet.

In the kitchen, counters are clear of knickknacks or canisters. And everything, including the linoleum floor, is plain-Jane white. A roll of paper towels, also white, encircles an upright wooden dowel that’s notched inside a stand. From the roll, Norman tears a sheet and lays it flat on the white quartz counter. The quartz was my idea. At first my brother was resistant to any change—as usual—but then he succumbed. I think it was the mineral’s beauty that swayed him, or it could have been my tantrum meltdown. Anyway, the previous countertop was begging for retirement.

From an upper cabinet Norman cradles a plate filled with chocolate chip cookies. Of course, he has made them from scratch and, damn, if they aren’t perfect. I’d give a year of Starbuck’s coffee to bake anything that perfect. I pour a glass of whole milk, the type that will never see my refrigerator, and Norman, with head cocked towards me, holds one cookie over the paper towel.

“How many should Mary have?”

“No more than two.”

“I’ll give her three.”

My brother smiles that cavalier smile of his, the same that belonged to our father. It’s the only thing those two men have in common. It wasn’t until later in life when I realized that Father’s devil-may-care grin had probably roped in Mother, had probably seduced a string of women along his salesman routes, and may have been responsible for his careening like a roulette ball from one coast to another, never settling in a permanent slot. That’s a pitiful, euphemistic way of saying the bastard walked out on us when we were Mary’s age.

Leaving the kitchen, Norman and I enter the studio, which runs twelve feet long and eight feet wide. One end backs against a spartan bathroom with shower, sink, and toilet. Naturally, white fixtures and white accents, along with a soap tray and towels. But Norman’s art studio is the heart of everything. It swallows most of the house, and a long table swallows most of the room. If used for dining, it could accommodate twenty guests, which makes me laugh silently because I can’t picture my brother hosting a gathering of that size or, for that matter, of any size.

“Cookie break time,” Norman announces. “Union rules.”

Mary’s eyes stay glued to her painting. I’m certain her ears have filtered Norman’s words but her brain has not processed them, and again I think how alike my daughter and brother are. The three of us have blonde hair, blue eyes, and a plash of freckles, so, physically, the lineage is clear; however, temperamentally, it’s Mary and Norman who could be siblings. That unsettles me a bit. Not that Norman has a mean bone in his body; no, it’s his dreamy essence and social detachment that trouble me. And financially, Norman is fine. It’s quite a story, really. A few years after his college graduation, after he tried being a high school art teacher and realized he possessed an artist’s talent but not a teacher’s patience—especially for unwilling pupils—he quit the profession and over the summer applied for a job with the New Jersey Parks and Wildlife Department. After questionnaires and interviews, the administrators assigned him to be a ranger at the Lenni Lenape Preserve, and he loved it. Surrounded by nature and engulfed in solitude, each day was idyllic.

Two years into Norman’s forestry job, the Department, in order to generate revenue, decided to sell some land. Seizing the opportunity, Norman, within the very park where he worked, bought an acre of land along with a cabin-like 1800s house. He began renovations. More importantly, he found time and discovered inspiration to create his own art. During off- days and off-hours Norman photographed native wildlife. Using his photos as models, he painted beautiful watercolors, pictures that I can only describe as magical. Somehow they capture not only each animal’s form but also its soul. Saying that an animal possesses a soul sounds far-fetched, but hundreds of people must see the same thing. One turning point for Norman’s career was the entrance of Connor O’Grady, a graduate of Seton Hall University, the school Brian attended. Through alumni connections, Brian asked Connor to take Norman as a client. After some arm-twisting, Connor agreed. Then, through his business connections, Connor arranged for a company to transfer Norman’s work to papyrus paper, turning his creations into exquisite cards. Thanks to a hustling Connor O’Grady and a newspaper article that appeared later, Norman is a wealthy man today.

Yes, financially Norman is secure; however, life is not a cold pastoral far above all breathing human passion. I’d like to see him settled with someone. But this someone must be many things. She must offer intimacy but freedom, sacrifice but demands, and encouragement but boundaries.

“Mary,” I say sharply because she hasn’t budged. She jumps as if electrically shocked and looks around as if waking from a dream. Certainly, the same expression on Norman’s face when he opened the door. “Uncle Norman baked these cookies just for you.”

“I know,” she says and trudges towards me. Mary sits, snatches a cookie, and dips the soft treat into the milk where the thick liquid spreads through the sugary flour, making the cookie even softer.

“Say thank you.”

“Thanks, Uncle Norman.”

Mary chews absently, for her focus has shifted to the card stock paper and her intimate creations. Glancing at Norman's work table, I try to remember the names of his painting supplies and camera equipment, but for me it’s like trying to understand the Periodic Table. My only certainty is the laptop in which he stores his photos. But the studio is so perfect. Large windows that Norman installed himself wrap around the room. Only during the coldest winter days does he shut them. Now, a summer breeze shimmies through the screens and nuzzles Mary’s bare arms. She wears a polo shirt with wide green and blue horizontal stripes. I touch and tousle her hair as Norman did earlier, even though the gesture might disturb her. Her cut-off jeans look tomboyish, but she’s not a tomboy, exactly, and she’s definitely not a girly girl. I so often wonder what I will do with this little imp.

Norman says to me: “Let’s sit for a while.”

That suits me because, although I’ll be reprimanded, I have something to tell him.

“Would you like anything?” he asks. “Cookies? Milk? Iced tea?”

“Iced tea would be nice.”

He and I move to the family room where you can see the kitchen straightaway, but Norman has positioned two love seats to face each other and away from the kitchen. Bookshelves border the walls until they give way to the windows that flank the fireplace against the narrow north wall. The hearth is rustic. Norman has built this too, using fieldstone from his acre lot. His world is the antithesis of mine. Our four-bedroom, cookie-cutter house sits on a small, scone-shaped lot in a groomed development. And our social lives are different. Being a high school English teacher, I’m actively involved in our local P.T.A. Beyond that, Brian and I host neighborhood cookouts, we sponsor a Girl Scout troop, we oversee the neighborhood flea market every June, and each December we organize the costumed carolers who raise money for our church’s Christmas Fund.

Silently, Norman and I sit in the airy, peaceful room. I undo the top button from my summer jumper. Minutes pass. Then he says, “Mary just keeps growing.”

I laugh. “That trend should continue for the next eight years or so.”

“Fifth grade this September?”

“Hard to believe, isn’t it? Brian and I were talking about that the other day.”

“How is Brian?”

“Fine. Being a tax accountant, the summer is a slow season.”

“Same for you.”

“Yes, time for teachers to rest and recharge.” I think of that difficult freshmen class I had this year. Eighty percent boys—boys who redefined the term “squirrelly.” But, as a balance, my AP Literature classes of seniors were top-notch. “My AP scores came in.”

“And?”

“Ninety-three percent pass rate.”

“Wow! Great job, Sis.”

“Well,” I blush, “the kids were smart and they worked hard.”

“Yes, but a great teacher makes a great difference. Another teacher wouldn’t get the same results.”

“Thanks,” I say and brush imaginary lint from my chambray jumper because I’m out of cagey conversation. I think of Susie Hall and can barely believe what I’ve concocted. I avoid Norman’s eyes and look out the window. I must admit the adjoining woods are beautiful and Norman cherishes his solitude, but is it healthy for a person to be steeped in solitude? I think of our mother and how withdrawn she became and how muddled her mind turned. True, most of her decline occurred after our father left us, but years prior to that, Mother showed signs of a deep, terrible change. So, I must say what I’ve come to say.

“It’s funny you should mention another teacher.” I wince with the ridiculous transition. “Another gal taught AP for the first time this year.” Words now tumble out of me. “She’s a bit younger than we are. Came to teaching later because of a career change. She’s smart, pretty, and single.”

Norman frowns. “I suppose you’re not building up to her AP scores?”

“No.” I catch my breath and slow my speech to a human pace. “Norman, you’re my only sibling and I love you.”

“I know that.”

“You’re thirty-seven years old.”

“I’m aware of my age.”

“It hurts me to see you alone.”

I’m not hurting.”

“Maybe. But maybe you don’t know the long-term effect.” While he scowls, an image pops into my brain. I say, “Lawns need water in order to grow, but if shady spots get too much water, well, I’ve seen horrid toadstools appear overnight. One day they’re not there and the next day: presto!”

“What in the world are you talking about?”

I can’t stop myself. I nearly shriek, “We saw what happened to Mother!”

Norman and I look away from each other. I’m shaking a little. I look at Mary and see that she has returned to her painting and is lost in her own hemisphere, unaware of our conversation. After a moment Norman says calmly, “Perhaps you worry too much, Sis.”

He might be right. Maybe this is the life he needs. And I’ll be damned if he doesn’t look like a puzzle piece in its right place. The white walls, open windows, soft light, hushed bookshelves, sturdy fireplace. I look at his bare legs from his knees down with their sparse, curly blonde hair mingled with freckles that are identical to mine. And because we have shared many of life’s miserable moments, I understand his feelings. But I can’t let go of my fear.

“I’m not asking you to marry Susie. Just meet her. How damaging can one date be?”

“Megan, you know I’m not crazy about blind dates.”

“How would you know? You’ve never had one.”

Silence. He taps his knee to the beat of a rapid metronome. “I don’t know anything about her.”

“That’s what a date is for.”

Norman glares at me and then looks away. I’m losing him, so I try not to sound urgent. “Susie is ten years younger than you. Never been married. Attractive. And after working with her this school year, I can tell you that she loves British literature, and I don’t think there’s anyone I’ve met who is more honest or sincere.”

Norman’s eyes, like a rabbit’s that’s caught in a cage, dart fearfully. He, after a moment in which I see him processing every possible objection he may have and probing every possible rebuttal I may have, takes a deep breath. “All right,” he says and exhales as if the danger has passed. “A date—at some point.”

“Wonderful.”

He relaxes and looks wistfully beyond a window. I sip my iced tea and then raise, flutter, and settle my cotton dress over my knees. “Norman.”

“Yes?”

“Actually, I told Susie you would see her tonight.”

Disbelief—no, shock—devours him. I have a small opening here, so I plunge forward. “Susie and her sister vacation every summer and next week they’re off to Italy for fourteen days, so I thought tonight would be the perfect time for you two to meet.”

“Megan, how could you do this?”

“For goodness’ sakes, Norman, you sound like I just drowned a puppy. It’s only a date. It’s you eating dinner—with a woman.”

“But it’s so sudden.”

“Well, that’s how ‘sudden’ works.”

“But how can I be ready for a date tonight?”

“How can you not be ready? Must you break a speaking engagement? Perform surgery? Cancel a trip to China?”

“Megan!”

I cut the sarcasm and see that he’s truly upset. My tone turns part big sister, part psychologist. “Norman, I know you must feel like your world has just unhinged, but let’s look at this objectively. There’s no pressure. I made reservations for six o’clock at the Mountain House, a restaurant ten minutes from your home. A place you know and like. And you don’t need to pick Susie up or take her home. She’ll meet you there.” I’m certain his teeth have clenched and unclenched a half dozen times. “And, Norman, Susie loves your work. You’re sort of a hero to her.”

After a long, long silence, he says, “Six o’clock?”

“Yes.”

“The Mountain House?”

“Yes. Casual dress, of course.”

He frowns again, but then his face forms a Gary Cooper resolution. “All right.”

“Thank you, Norman.”

Ten wordless minutes pass. Clandestinely, I check my watch and even without checking, I know it’s time to leave because Mary’s swim lesson starts soon. I suppose children should learn to swim even though no one swims in lakes these days, and even in pools kids just splash around or float on tubes. And it’s certain Mary will never seek an Olympic medal, but it’s time to go. I look for a way out without causing more of a ripple or seeming as if my sole reason for being here today was to coax Norman into a date with Susie, which it was.

***

Mommy worries about me. She whispers secrets to Daddy. I like how the paint smells and how the brush spreads color. The brush looks like a horse’s tail. A tiny, tiny horse. Maybe one that flies. Most people can’t smell the paint, but I can. Mom thinks I’m different from other children. She thinks Uncle Norman is different. I asked her why we see Uncle Norman once a month and she says that we need to keep an eye on him, but that doesn’t make sense because he never goes anywhere or does anything like other people. I want to paint a horse. The brush is a tail. I can’t paint what I see inside of me. When I close my eyes, I can see it but when I open my eyes I can’t see it so I have to paint it blurry. If the horse is running, it can be blurry. The horse has to run. It has to run free and it has to run in a big, big field. I won’t get Uncle Norman anymore salt and pepper shakers. He has enough. The light brown paint drips into the paper. It rolls off my brush and it’s alive. It almost makes the picture I see. Maybe Mommy will like my picture and then she won’t think I’m different. I’m not. Not from everyone.

***

“Is there anything better,” I ask rhetorically, “than a summer’s day after a night rain and after the humidity breaks?”

“Better? No,” Norman says, “but I like a cold winter’s evening with my fireplace blazing or a spring morning after the sun melts a late snow and green buds push through the earth or an autumn afternoon when skies look bluer than sapphires and fields look richer than gold.”

I sigh, not sure if it is sound of wonder or a sound of resignation, and I shamelessly check the time. “Oh my. Mary’s swim lesson starts in thirty minutes. Mary. Mary!” My daughter looks up. Again I recognize her expression, but this time it mirrors mine. Yes, the expression I have when I’m pulled away from reading an old novel and I’ve drifted into a world that does not exist but should exist. Now, I sink my upper teeth into my lower lip pensively and wonder why I tried to alter the universe.

In a moment Norman and I bookend Mary, and I see her finished painting with brushstrokes that have shaped an indefinite image of a single horse galloping across a field. Norman sees the same creation. “Mary,” he exclaims, “that is absolutely wonderful.”

“For a G.F.N.?” she asks with a smile.

“Especially for a special G.F.N.”

Mary looks at me. “Do you like it?”

“Yes, dear. It’s beautiful.” I grasp her shoulders. “You have a talent that I’ll never know.”

Mary’s freckles meld into a blush as she plucks one last cookie off the paper towel and then all of us gather at the door. “Thank your Uncle Norman again, Mary, and please wait in the car.” My daughter hugs my brother as only a child can, so tightly that her eyes shut intensely. Then she pulls away, gasping for breath, as if emerging from water or from romping across a meadow.

“Thanks for the cookies,” Mary says, “and finish the frame whenever you want, Uncle Norman. It doesn’t matter.” Like a forest sprite she whirls and skips to our oversized Suburban.

When Mary is beyond earshot, I say, “Will you be all right, Norman?”

“Of course.”

A protective impulse flows through me. I open my handbag, find a pen, and scribble on the blank side of a Starbuck’s receipt. “Here’s Susie’s phone number. Just in case you feel pneumonia coming on or you get trapped by a freak summer snowstorm and have to call off the dinner date.” I touch his cheek. “Forgive me?”

Norman gently takes my hand in both of his. “Don’t be late for Mary’s swim lesson, Sis.”

***

The translucent paint stains the paper. Watery hues lap and overlap. One mark. Another. Then another. A shape emerges. As I paint the picture, a moment comes when I no longer control it; it controls me. The creation, like a vortex, reels me into its center. The world around me turns to indecipherable shadows. Existence barely breathes.

Then within the corridors of my brain an uninvited image appears. It might be a swath of wallpaper or a piece of clothing that causes the vision to revive. Sometimes a stray scent might engender the memory. I force the image aside, but the more I try not to think of something, the more I think of it. So, I capitulate. I keep painting but realize that now my mind has separated into three parts: conscious, subconscious, and memory.

I am a boy. My father is on the road; my sister visits a friend. Mother and I are alone in the house and I feel a desperate need to be with her, but I can’t find her. I search the house and call her name; she doesn’t appear; she doesn’t answer. I’m frightened. I’ve looked outside; I’ve searched downstairs; upstairs I’ve checked all the rooms—all except my parents’ room. It is, although never stated as such, a forbidden place. But there’s nowhere else she can be, so I must enter. Cautiously, I push the door open. A blended odor of old furniture and unwashed linen stifles my senses. “Mom?” I say softly.

Because all the curtains are closed, no light enters. Shadows upon shadows. The silent shapes tell me that everything is in place: the dressers, the night table, the bed. Actually, nothing in the house is ever out of place because Mother never alters anything. She no longer cooks. She wears the same clothes day after day. Megan and I do, too. Mother no longer plays the radio or watches the television. She doesn’t leave the house. In fact, she gives money to our neighbor Helen once a week to buy groceries for us on the day Helen shops.

I pass through the bedroom and into the bathroom. Here, a window is open, which allows grey light to seep inside. Toothbrushes and towels are in place. The counter is bare. Except for the dust. Because I’m never in this room, I’m suddenly aware of the thick film that coats everything. I wonder if the bedroom is the same and think it must be. I know that the rooms beyond this one are free of dust because Mother pays Megan and me silver coins to clean the house weekly. Sometimes she forgets to pay us.

Now, the only place left is the walk-in closet. My legs tremble. “Mom,” I whisper. My heart pounds too hard. What if something has happened to her? I hold the brass-plated knob and pull the door open. On a cushioned chair my mother sits in total darkness. A smell, unlike any other I’ve known since, emanates from that closet. Yes, the aroma of old clothes, the trace of dried sweat, and the scent of worn shoes are recognizable, but another scent overwhelms me. Call it despair.

Mother wears her beige housedress, and with hands folded on her lap does absolutely nothing except stare into a space that does not exist. “Mom,” I say the word louder this time. She flinches.

“Yes, Norman.”

“I looked all over for you.” My voice cracks.

“Yes, Norman.”

“Are you all right?”

“Of course.”

After a moment I say, “What are you doing?”

“Sitting.”

“I know, but...why here?”

Mother forces a sad smile. “One day you’ll know exactly why.”

I back away. I don’t remember leaving the closet or the bathroom or the bedroom. I just remember being afraid of touching anything.

***

I’ve never been to the Mountain House, but, from its name, the inside is exactly what anyone would expect it to be. A lot of honey-stained knotty pine, exposed beams, and square wooden tables. I like it.

I arrive thirty minutes early and feel like a school girl. I reprimand myself: For goodness’ sake, Susie, you’ve had dates before; hell, you’ve had men before. But I know that Norman Shields is different. He must be different.

I wear a pink oxford blouse that reflects a glint of life into my face. I have such pale skin, and my dark brown hair and brown eyes can make me look even more pale, so the pink color offsets things. My navy denim skirt, lightweight for the summer, touches my calves. I wear tan walking shoes that could handle an easy trail but are stylish enough for dinner, especially for the Mountain House. True, I lack a shapely figure, but I have an athletic, trim build. Underneath the blouse and skirt is Victoria’s Secret—white, lacy things—but I don’t think we’ll get that far. My hair lies flat and uncurled. I could have worked a wave into it but thought that Norman would prefer a natural look. Honestly, every detail about me tonight has that preference in mind. Minimal make-up. A touch of lipstick. A dab of scent behind the ears. That should do for the first date. The only date?

At ten minutes to six Norman enters the restaurant, speaks to the hostess, and follows her outstretched hand as it points towards my table. He walks over. A blue denim shirt—summer weight—is tucked into tan trousers. He wears hiking shoes that I recognize from an L.L. Bean catalogue. Of course he looks like those photos on Megan’s phone, but seeing his blonde hair, smack of freckles, and pale blue eyes in person steals my breath. As he reaches the table, his expression suggests that we knew each other long ago and have unexpectedly reunited.

“You must be Susie,” he says with an extended hand. I accept it eagerly. “I’m Norman.”

My impulse is to stand and greet him as if this were an interview, but I remind myself that it’s just a date. I stand anyway.

“I’m early,” he says and smiles warmly, “but I see that I’m not early enough.” He releases my hand, but I still feel his touch: rough, firm, yet gentle.

“I asked for the best table in the place,” I tell him with a smile.

“Ah. And did you get it?”

“Yes.” We both sit. “I’m sure of it.”

This is peculiar, because the way Megan described her brother, taciturn and introverted, I thought Norman would be as skittish as a corralled mustang; however, he seems relaxed and poised. In fact, he puts me at ease.

“Did you have trouble finding the place?” he asks.

“Not at all; GPS to the rescue.”

He smiles but then shows a slight, pained expression. “I apologize for my sister’s boldness. I hope you didn’t have other plans.”

“No worries.” I should check my own boldness but throw caution to the wind. “And if I had other plans, I would have canceled them. Did you have other plans?”

“I canceled them,” he says with a deadpan face and then laughs. “None whatsoever.”

The waitress brings menus and says something, but I’m not focusing on her, only on him. He’s a strange blend of rugged softness, and the quality in his voice stirs me reaches within me. I can’t explain it.

“They have a varied selection,” he says, “but I always order the same thing: shepherd’s pie. It’s tasty, even if they use ground beef instead of lamb.”

Why did I think he’d be a vegetarian, or worse, a vegan? Quickly, I scan the menu and say, “I’ll try the fish and chips.”

“Good choice.”

“Have you had it before?”

“Not exactly.” He chuckles. “An old high school friend and I ate here once, and he ordered it. I helped him finish the platter.”

The waitress returns, serves us both iced tea, and takes our orders. After she leaves I fear any silent gap that might set in. I want to ask him about his work, but I don’t want to invade private ground or sound like an interviewer. Just when I’m making an insincere pretense of examining the cutlery, Norman says, “Fish and chips sounds so British. I’d love to visit England someday. Have you been there?”

“Yes. My sister Jenny and I traveled through England two summers ago.”

“Really? Tell me, what did you see?”

“Oh, so many places. Do you really want to hear?”

“Absolutely.”

“Well, we spent three days in London, which is a remarkable city because of its history, architecture, shops, hustle and bustle...” I talk more than I had planned. I tell him about Westminster Abbey and Cotswolds cottages, about Bath and Chawton, about Stonehenge and the Lake District. Why do I go on? Because his eyes fix me. It seems that he wants to hear what I have to say. I fiddle with my hair and set locks of it behind my ears and wonder if he likes the way that looks. I talk and then pause, and he prods with a question that leads me to more descriptions. I’m emptying myself but I’m brimming.

The waitress sets our food down. Before starting, we both take that sensuous moment to absorb the look and smell of warm, hearty food. Then we eat with soft, intermittent sounds of satisfaction. Partway through the meal, Norman gestures his fork towards me. “Megan mentioned that you taught A.P. Lit. this year.”

“Yes, my first time.”

“That had to be quite a challenge.”

“Overwhelming. So much material to cover.” I’ve reflected on the class before and I’ve confided in Megan but sitting across from this man—this artist—I feel completely free to talk about it. “I worked through the novels and plays all right, but I stumbled with the poetry. Novels and plays are like movies, but a poem is like a photograph. The writer compresses so much into a single moment. I love poetry, but kids have a tough time with it. Honestly, I struggled to find a way to help them understand it.”

“Right.” He nods reflectively. “Poetry can be a puzzle because of the syntax and the leaps it takes between thoughts.”

“That’s right. You know, kids don’t read much poetry anymore, and by the time they’re seniors in high school they think it’s a foreign code.”

Norman says sympathetically, “And you must explain how to crack the code, but there’s no available code book.”

I laugh and agree. “Some students never get there, but most do. Well, I guess they get closer from where they started. Small victories.”

“Megan has talked about that. She says if each student can leave her class at the end of the year and take one poem with him or her, then she has succeeded. In a small way that person’s life will be enriched.”

“I believe it, too,” I say and hope he doesn’t see my blushing. “That’s why I became a teacher. I left the business world because it was so cutthroat. People race ahead of each other and don’t care about creating something valuable.”

“Susie, I had that same thought earlier today.” Norman sets his fork down. “My agent stopped by and at one point talked about ‘moving up.’ Well, when he said that I thought of drivers who aggressively push ahead of a few cars, even though they’re snarled in traffic. You know?”

“Yes, they’re dangerous and annoying.”

“Right. And where are they going? To a red light. So, why do we push to ‘get ahead’ when the ultimate red light waits for all of us?”

“That’s how I feel.” I unbind my hair from my ears and shake the tresses free.

Norman grasps his fork again and says, “Possessions are meaningless; only creations count.”

We eat quietly now and the silence is fine. I finish my fish and chips, which were very good. Norman folds a cloth napkin over the small remains of his shepherd’s pie with a deft movement that causes black and white images to shutter through my mind. Images of old movies where leading men possess grace, charm, and manners. They knew how to be men. Today young men try shortcuts to manhood that bewilder me. They leave shirts untucked. They go three days without shaving, and I wonder if they’re just too lazy to grow a beard. Tattoos adorn their arms until their skin looks like a rolled-up Ouija board. Those tricks don’t work.

Norman moves his plate aside and says, “My sister tells me that you like British literature best. True?”

“True.”

“Do you have a favorite poet or poetry age?”

“Yes, the Romantic Age, and for poets, it would be Wordsworth. Oh, he has his share of bad verses, but brush those aside and you have greatness.”

The waitress comes by and gathers our plates; she asks if we would like dessert. Norman and I look at each other. I don’t want anything but hesitate.

“Could you leave the dessert menu?” he asks.

She pulls it from her apron and tells us to take our time; she’ll be back.

Norman sets the menu down. “What especially do you like about Wordsworth?”

“I like how he links man and nature.” As Norman leans towards me, he has a way of pulling me in. It’s a gentle way, a knowing way, yet a vulnerable way. Because of that, I’m willing to confide. “You know, your work reminds me of his poetry. Wordsworth uses common language and often writes in blank verse so his poetry sounds natural. The beauty of his writing lies in its simplicity, but its meaning transcends simplicity.”

The restaurant’s lights suddenly dim. I suppose they’re set to a timer. I check my watch and, good lord, I’ve lost track of time. But it doesn’t matter. I don’t want to leave.

With a shy smile, Norman says, “You may not believe this, but during my senior year in high school I had a wonderful English teacher, Miss Hooper. She was an Anglophile who loved the Romantic poets. In fact, she made all us memorize a sonnet or a short passage that she selected and we had to recite it to the class. She gave me the final lines of ‘Tintern Abbey.’ Maybe she thought because Wordsworth directed it to his sister Dorothy that I would connect it to my sister Megan.” He sighs. “I practiced for weeks. It paid off, though, because I recited it without a glitch.”

“Do you remember the lines?”

“They probably belong to the deep dark past.”

“Not so deep and not so dark.” Now I lean in. “You said the poem’s final lines?”

“Yes.”

What do I have to lose? Either he’ll think I’m a complete nerd or he’ll be impressed. I take a deep breath. “‘Wilt thou then forget that on the banks of this delightful stream we stood together.’”

“That’s it!” His face lights up.

“Your turn,” I say. He looks up and away, thinking, straining for the words, but he can’t find them so I try to help: “‘and that I...’”

“Wait! ‘so long a worshipper of Nature, hither come unwearied in that service.’”

“Very good,” I offer my best teacher’s voice.

“But there’s more.”

“It doesn’t matter. The words are there, but we don’t need them now.”

Norman smiles. I smile. However, the bright moment fades too soon. He notices the dessert menu, takes it from the table, but sets it back again. “Would you like dessert?”

“No, thanks. But if you’re in the mood for something, please get it.”

He taps the black vinyl menu. “I only asked for this to stall for time.”

For that, I could kiss him. “Thank you.”

“I should thank you for bringing Wordsworth back to life.”

“Well, I often wonder if Wordsworth and others like him—Thoreau, for example—will survive. Their thoughts about nature might be praised but not followed.”

“I know what you mean.”

I feel the ice thinning beneath my skates, but I push off anyway and glide farther out because the empathy Norman radiates supports me. “Megan must have told you how much I admire your work.” Embarrassed, his eyes drop as he fumbles for words. “Please,” I say and hold my hands out. “Your art is transcendental. It captures the spirit of nature, and that’s what people see in it.”

“I hope so, but I’m not sure.”

“You don’t need to be sure, and that’s not where I’m going with this. I wanted to say it.” Against the dim light his face looks as luminous as my classroom’s white board, his hair is a golden crown, and his eyes are cool blue gems. “Do you ever fear that nature will vanish without guardians like you?”

“Sometimes. But I know that I’ll vanish and nature will endure.” His voice is calm and his face so tranquil, I want to hold his hands. More than that, I want him to touch me, but his voice and words caress me instead. He says, “A few people will carry on. Your literature and my art may inspire others.” He stops and I imagine that a new thought comes to him. “Perhaps nature will endure without us. Perhaps nature needs no one.”

I ponder his words and wonder if Norman is speaking not only for nature but for himself, and I realize the moment’s transience. Now, I touch his hands and say, “‘Nor wilt thou forget, that after many wanderings, many years of absence, these steep and lofty cliffs, and this green pastoral landscape, were to me more dear, both for themselves and thy sake.’”

Norman struggles to find the right response, but in this case there isn’t one. He manages to say, “It’s a beautiful poem.”

I release his hands, fold my napkin, and set it upon the table. “Shall we go?”

We walk through the parking lot canopied under cloudless stars. He says, “Susie, I hope you and Jenny have a great time in Italy.”

“Thanks.” We stop walking and face each other. “I’ll be back soon. You have my phone number?”

“Yes.”

We squirm like adolescents. I want Norman to kiss me but I know he won’t, so I kiss his cheek. His skin is smooth. Dutifully, he returns a kiss to my cheek. Now, we walk in opposite directions towards our cars, but after a few steps I look back. Norman’s solitary strides are purposeful and natural.

After starting my car, I find the right gear and the right road, and then I disappear into a perfect summer’s night.

***

Building a frame this way is a slow process, but I don’t mind. Besides, I like feeling the wood from its rough start to its sanded finish. I like cutting the pieces to perfect lengths, making the bridle joint and shaping the snug, permanent fit. Yes, I enjoy making the frames that display the salt and pepper shakers, but this is the last one I will make.

Megan was right about the subsequent beauty after a restoring rain, after the humidity breaks and the skies are endlessly blue. With all the windows open, the wind whispers, “Summer.” The verdant, thick, and rich season enters on a breeze. Surrounding me are my familiars: brushes, paints, jars, canvas, paper, and camera. Soon, I will finish the red-tailed fox. In profile, the fox is frozen as it races towards freedom. He is in his element. I will grasp a fine- tipped brush that feels better in my hand than a costly fountain pen. I will add exquisite, narrow black lines to force the fox’s tawny shades to surface. Contrast. As with many things, the dark will awaken the light.

But now, morning streams through the windows; it slants over my work surface; it illuminates the mahogany, the sawdust, and the memory of last night. Susie is a fine person: intelligent, warm-hearted, and pretty. She possesses attributes that I lack and most likely would be the light to my shadow. She would join disparate pieces. But after I finish this frame and set all the pieces in place, I will take my morning walk, I will paint, I will expect Connor to stop by unannounced someday, and I will ache until Megan and Mary visit again. But those are secondary moments. My real life breathes within my solitary thoughts and austere actions. Within my work. Within the unwearied service.

About the Author

Tom DeConna

I taught English for thirty-nine years and am now focused on writing fiction. I have a story published in the final issue of The Long Story, one in Mobius, and one will appear in an upcoming issue of Wild Violet.