Elinor listened to the comforting sound of the car door latch sealing her in. Carpenter's tools hung neatly arranged along the side wall, and shelves beside her held plastic bins marked “Robert's Trophies.” His clay-clogged boots sat at the foot of the steps leading to the kitchen. The garage door rumbled and clattered behind her. She turned the key and the engine of the BMW thrummed. Backing out, she let the garage, the house, the diagonal-cut lawn slip away.
Her list of “Dumb Things I Gotta Do” sat on the seat next to her purse. She patted her cheek gently, glancing in the mirror to check her make-up. The bruise was almost invisible. She had always said that the first time would be the last, but she had never thought about what exactly she would do if it came to that first blow.
He had pushed back the bedroom door, banging it against the doorstop. She dropped her book, and the reading light tumbled to the floor. Robert said nothing, didn't even look her way. Stumbling toward the bathroom, he grabbed at the doorjamb as he staggered in and closed the door. She could hear him vomiting and moaning. Picking up the lamp, she clipped it on the book and scooted back on the pillows, pulling her knees to her chin. She had never seen him so drunk. He must have lost a lot in the poker game.
With a whoosh, the bathroom door swung back, and Robert stood in his white terrycloth robe with steam swirling around him. He tightened the sash.
“Who is Dennis?”
“The guy who does our yard.”
“You sure do call him a lot.” He slumped against the door frame.
“He's bad about answering his phone.” Elinor tugged her nightgown down to her ankles. He had been checking her phone again. Nausea fluttered through her stomach.
“He's good-looking, isn't he?”
Elinor looked down.
Then words with a bite and hiss: “Isn't he?”
“I guess some people would think . . .”
“What do you think?”
“He's okay, I guess.”
“Okay,” Robert said, his voice a whiny caricature.
“Robert, it doesn't matter. Nothing is going on.”
“It doesn't matter. You're right. It doesn't matter. His looks don't matter.” Robert tightened the sash of his robe and held the ends taut. “What matters is that he's good in bed.”
“He is, isn't he?”
“I have no idea. I've hardly spoken to him.”
“You don't need words to have good sex.”
She got off the bed. “I'm not listening to any more of this.”
“Yes you are!” He pulled the sash loose. “And you're going to tell me all about it! What you two do to each other in that bed.” His robe fell open.
“Get out of here, Robert! Get out of my room!”
“It's my room. My bed. And you are my wife.” He took an unsteady step toward her, gritting his teeth.
“Stop! Right there. Don't come near me!”
He lunged, his hand raised. Elinor ran for the door. As Robert fell forward, his hand struck the side of her head. She stumbled into the hall as she heard him hit the floor. She slammed and locked the door to the guest room, fell on the bed, and broke into tears. The side of her head was sore and tender to the touch. Rolling on her side and curling up, she waited for the inevitable: Robert's assault on the door. In his state, he could easily break it down. And when he did? She could not imagine. She could not imagine. He had never let loose with such rage, such violence. Her breath was quivery, her pulse beat against her temple. Pulling the comforter over her, she closed her eyes and listened for sounds that he was coming down the hall. Nothing.
In the morning she woke to the grumbling of his truck as he pulled away from the house. The mirror in the bathroom showed the damage: the bruise was a purple crescent framing her eye. He had barely missed her temple.
On the beltway she stayed in the right lane so she could move along at her own speed. In the distance the city skyline lay shrouded in smog, slabs of glass and steel glazed with gray. Cars came up behind her, then swerved left to sail by her in a time warp of the morning rush to work. Traffic slid away in front of her, as though her car was slipping slowly backward.
High above the interstate, in the cab of her father's trailer truck, she had been able to look down on the roofs of the cars as they passed them and sped into the curve or over the hill in front of them. Her father had promised that when she turned twelve, he would take her on a road trip. They drove from Albany to San Francisco and back, taking interstates and some old highways so she could see the farms and small towns.
“The next town has the best ice cream in the Midwest,” he said. He reached over and tousled her hair. “Having fun, Ellie?”
“Best fun ever,” she said.
“Me too.” He lifted the bill of his cap and winked. She had never seen him so happy and relaxed as he had been on that trip. She hadn't realized her daddy had so many thoughts about so many things.
“Kitten, where did you get the idea you want to be a funeral director?”
“I don't know. That TV show, I guess.”
“You'll spend your life with dead people.” He smiled.
“That's fine. They don't talk back.”
He laughed. “You're sure right about that, sugar.” The semi rumbled and bounced along. “It's hard to dodge potholes in these little towns,” he said. “Hey, there it is!”
They found space to park the rig in a lot around the corner, and she ran ahead of him to the “Polar Bear Ice Creamery.”
They had stayed over in Chicago both coming and going. The Field Museum. The Planetarium. The Aquarium. But best of all, she loved the diners and truck stops, the smell of burgers and bacon, the sound of boots coming in the door, the hearty laughter of the drivers and construction workers.
The car leaned hard to the right in the tight circle of the exit ramp, pressing her shoulder into the door. Her to-do list slipped to the floor of the car. She didn't feel like errands anyway. Robert had given her most of them. She wasn't in the mood to run around for him. Run around. Robert had been running around for years. Seven years ago, the note from Stephanie, a girl he had dated in high school, fell out of the hunting and fishing magazine while Elinor was cleaning the bathroom. Stephanie. She'd never forget that name. Not the first of his collection of girls, just the first Elinor had discovered.
A few months before, when their chocolate lab Cocoa was hit by a truck on the main road, Elinor had gone to Robert's construction site to tell him. A skinny girl was shacked up in the back room of his on-site trailer-office. She sat cross-legged on a mattress on the floor in black tights and a loose pink sweater. She looked up at Elinor, startled.
Elinor stared down at her. “Who the hell are you?”
“Vickie. . . . I see.” Elinor glanced at the small refrigerator in the corner with a microwave on top of it. “And where is Robert?”
“You don't even know his name? Robert Morgan.”
“You're . . . Oh . . . You're Ellie?”
Vickie glanced at the door as though she were thinking of making a dash for it. “Pleased to meet you . . . Mrs. Morgan.” She held up her hand, then let it drop. “I’m Mr. Morgan's secretary.”
Elinor frowned. “His secretary.”
“Well, yes.” She pulled her sweater down trying to cover her legs.
“I think you need to leave.”
“You heard me. Get out of here.”
Vickie grabbed a jacket on the mattress and bolted out the door.
Elinor never told Robert about her encounter with his latest girlfriend. Vickie probably told him and made Elinor out to be the bitch in the drama. Robert never said a word either.
The sign read, “Mona's Truck Stop. Best Eats on I-68.” Exactly the kind of place she was looking for. She sat in the back-corner booth. The place was filled with drivers, construction workers, and a cluster of older men at a large table by the front window. Her clothes were out of place here – Oxford cloth blouse, khaki skirt, matching purse and flats – but she felt at home, as though she had been eating breakfast there for years.
The gray-haired woman working the grill must be Mona – short and trim, Italian nose, dark eyes. And her every move spoke of speed and efficiency. As soon as Elinor sat down and opened her newspaper, a waitress was at her side.
“Hi. How're you doing this morning?” the woman said with an easy smile. Over her purple tank top and blue jeans she wore a sky-blue apron with “Mona's” across the chest, her name tag, “Gwendy,” pinned to one of the straps.
“Just fine,” Elinor said. “How about you?”
“I was out late last night, but I feel pretty chipper.”
Elinor laughed. “I haven't heard that word in a long time. My mother used it all the time.”
“It's nice having a happy mom,” Gwendy said. “I was lucky that way, too. Did you see the special on the board when you came in?”
“Yes, the special will be fine.”
Gwendy scribbled on her pad. “We'll have it right out.” She smiled and turned, barely missing a collision with a busboy. “Oops! Sorry, Leo. I need to watch where I'm going.”
Elinor spread out her paper. The gaggle of men up front were laughing at another joke. She started reading an article about a church secretary who embezzled a hundred and twenty-six thousand dollars from church funds over a ten-year period.
“Here you go,” Gwendy said, as she set down Elinor's biscuit. She reached into her apron pocket and put a CD on the table.
“Our CD. I like to give it to people I think would like it.”
“And you thought I would?”
“Well, thank you. I'm sure I will.”
“Holler if you need me,” she said over her shoulder.
Elinor picked up the CD. An abstract design of curving purple and blue lines, with “The Sisters of Amber” flowing across the cover in a loose sky-blue script. The title, “Moss and Stone,” tumbled along the bottom in ragged brown and green letters. On the back, Gwendy lay on the floor of a forest of oaks and maples trees, covered with fallen leaves. In the four corners, headshots of women, each with face paint in various shades of yellow and orange, framed Gwendy's photo.
Gwendy came back to the table and leaned her hip against the end of the bench, her hand resting on the back. Her perfume reminded Elinor of the cathedral on Christmas Eve. Frankincense.
“Are you the lead singer?”
“A big harp?”
“I play everything from lap to concert.”
“How unusual. They are so ethereal.”
“Our songs are earthy, but yes, ethereal too, hovering above the earth. I have a fabulous band. My drummer is in love with the tambourine. She can make it talk.”
The BMW took the tight circle of the ramp like a sports car as she headed home. The speaker system shook with “Cave Wind Goddess.” Gwendy was right. It did feel grounded. The subwoofer in back thumped with the beat of drums and the moaning of long, deep cello notes.
The garage door jerked, then rose slowly. She sat listening to a dreamy track, “Star Trails.” The music spun slowly, revisiting the same melody over and over in different keys and variations. In the background she could hear a metallic whispering. She turned up the volume. Tambourine.
After she cleaned up Robert's breakfast mess, Elinor went upstairs, made up his bed, then hers in the guest room. I am such a good wife, she thought. Too damned good. In his bathroom she pulled the towels onto the floor.
From the little stereo in the guest room, Gwendy's voice sailed, high and pure, on a lyrical melody, then fell into a guttural chant, with deep drums penetrating her warm voice. Steam rose from Elinor's bath, rich in bubbles, carrying the scent of lavender into her hair.
The same summer of the adventure with her father, her family had gone camping with the Westons over Labor Day weekend. She and her friend Kaylie, the Weston's youngest, shared a pup tent as they did every summer. They had pitched it at the edge of the stream so they could hear the chattering water, the frogs, the owls in the sycamores on the far bank. As soon as they got the tent up, they pulled down the flaps on windows and door and quickly stripped to put on their suits for their first dip in the water.
Elinor could still recall the scent of lavender soap as Kaylie leaned toward her and grabbed Elinor's two-piece and held it behind her.
“Not so fast,” Kaylie said. “Let me see! It's been a year.”
Elinor slipped further down into the bath. It was still warm, but a chill swept over her. As she pushed the bubbly foam down her body in gentle waves, her elbow knocked her wedding rings off the edge of the tub into the water. She started to search for them, then leaned back and closed her eyes and thought back through the morning. She hadn’t noticed if Gwendy wore a wedding band.
“Fresh,” Gwendy said. She set a mug of coffee beside the CD. Elinor noticed. No ring.
“This is fabulous,” Elinor said. “I fell in love with it.”
“I'm so glad. Do you have a favorite track?”
“I like them all. What variety. And your voice, Gwendy. You have an incredible range. And such wonderful control.”
“I knew you were musician.” Gwendy rested her knee on the bench across from Elinor.
“If you were, you still are.” Gwendy smiled. “So your compliment means a lot to me.”
Elinor noticed a scar running down the side of Gwendy's knee. “What happened?” she asked before she could catch herself.
Gwendy rubbed the scar. “Oh that. A skiing accident.” She laughed. “You should see my feet. Eight years of serious ballet.” Gwendy glanced at the pass-through. “Hold your thoughts right there. Are you having the special again?”
“I'll be right back.” Gwendy headed for the kitchen.
Of course she's a dancer, Elinor thought. She's tall and willowy and moves so gracefully. And how did I miss the toe-out?
It was almost eleven, the morning lull. The men in the coffee club had left. Most of the tables sat empty.
Gwendy set down Elinor's breakfast. “Is your coffee okay?”
“Mind if I sit a minute?” Gwendy asked.
“Of course not.”
“So you're a singer, I bet.”
“Yes. I was a voice major.”
“Classically trained singers are rare in my business.”
“Well, you’re one of them.” Elinor picked up the CD. “What you're doing here takes a lot of training. Where did you study?”
Mona called out from the kitchen. “Help!”
Gwendy started to get up. “In a sec, Mama.”
“She's your mom?” Elinor asked.
“She acts like it sometimes. Be back shortly. I have a question for you.”
Elinor turned the CD over. She had looked at the photo a number of times but hadn't noticed that Gwendy was nude under all those leaves. She could see a patch of hip, her navel, the underside curve of a breast.
Gwendy was back with the coffee pot. “So. Come sing with us.”
“Oh, no. I couldn't. I only sing classical.”
“That's why I'd like you to join us. I already have an idea for us. Do you know the 'Flower Song?' In the opera Lakme?”
“Yes. I've never sung it, though.”
“No matter. I have the music. Find it on YouTube to refresh your memory. Are you free tomorrow night?”
“I think so.”
“Good. We're rehearsing and recording. Details tomorrow. I have to run for an appointment at noon.”
Gwendy turned away, giving a wave behind her. “See you tomorrow.”
Elinor listened to several different renditions of “The Flower Song.” Roza Bulat was her favorite, with the lovely, mesmerizing flow of paintings of women. And Roza’s luminescent voice inspired her. In the afternoon she warmed up with arpeggios and scales. In the piano bench she found some Puccini arias and worked on them. She was surprised at how quickly she regained a sense of control over her voice.
As she ate her sandwich in the alcove, Robert came in the kitchen door and her stomach tightened. He pretended not to see her and headed straight to his office. She wrote a note telling him there were leftovers for dinner and that she was going out with some friends. For the past few days they had managed to avoid each other. She had stayed in the guest room, waking when he came in around 4:00 or 5:00. Out at the site with Vickie, no doubt. This is the beginning of the end, she thought. Please let it be.
It had been years since she had worn jeans. She tugged herself into them, and the struggle felt satisfying. Thoughts of her mother's lavender soap flashed through her mind as she dabbed on her lavender cologne. Coming down the stairs, she felt as though her hips had taken on a new shape. Taking a deep breath and pulling her shoulders back, she knocked on Robert's office door.
“What!” Gruff and raspy.
She peeked in. Robert was leaning over his desk.
“I left you a note. Supper's in the 'fridge. I won't be late.”
He didn't move. She closed the door and took in another deep breath as she crossed the kitchen to the garage.
“Elinor! Perfect timing.” Gwendy led Elinor across the room. “Hey, everybody, this is the famous soprano Elinor Pastafugiello.”
The women all waved and said in a chorus, “Hi, Elinor!”
“Say, what is your last name, Ellie?”
“Elinor Morgan, everybody. And here’s the band. Lee on percussion, Asher on keyboards and back-up vocals. She is so good on the harmonium, Ellie. On bass flute and a bunch of winds, Miss Kitty. And by no means the least, Becca on cello and bowed saw. Welcome to the Sisters of Amber!”
Elinor gave a slight bow. “I’m . . . I’m honored.”
“Oh, yes, our engineer Terry in the control booth.” Gwendy waved, and behind the darkened window a hand waved back.
Gwendy gave Elinor a sideways hug and kissed her on the cheek.
Without thinking Elinor said, “Are you wearing a new cologne?”
“It’s all over the room.” Gwendy laughed. “We’ve been anointing each other.”
Asher held up a bottle. “It’s our scent,” she said. “Amber, of course. Kitty made it for us.”
Gwendy took the bottle. Here, we’ll initiate you.” With her fingers she combed Elinor’s hair back behind her ear and dabbed the scent on her neck. “Now you are a Sister of Amber.”
The others broke out in cheers and clapping.
“Ellie, we worked on my arrangement for ‘The Flower Song’ before you got here. Here’s your part. I know an Oberlin grad can sight-read this.”
“How’d you know I went . . .”
“Your sweatshirt. All decked out with a crimson and gold O C.”
Gwendy set music on a stand next to the harp and held her hands against the strings. “We are ready. How about you?”
“I think so.” Elinor took a deep breath and tightened her diaphragm, calming nervous quavers. Gwendy nodded her head, and they came in perfectly together on the first note, “Under the thick dome of white jasmines, over the river current.” Their voices blended as though they had sung together many times.
Lee’s bass drum grounded them with a tight beat, and Kitty’s flute wavered along, steady as a river. Gwendy softened and let Elinor rise above her with the line, “One hand reaches, reaches for the bank . . .” Asher threaded a pianissimo low counter-melody into the fabric as the duet ended, “Under the thick dome of white jasmine. Ah! Calling us together.”
Gwendy damped the strings, held her hands still for a few moments, then let them fall into her lap. “Oh, oh. Lovely. Where have you been all my life?”
The band clapped and cheered.
“Roll it, Terry,” Gwendy said.
They all listened then sat in silence. Elinor sat looking down, cold chills running down her back.
“What do you think, Ellie?” Gwendy asked. With her fingers Elinor flicked tears from her cheeks. Gwendy put her hand on Elinor’s shoulder. “That’s what I think, too.” Gwendy looked up. “That’s going on the next album, don’t you think, gang?’
“Amen,” Asher said, and the others joined in.
Terry came out of the booth smiling, his sunglasses on top of his head. “And that may be the wrap, babe. But we’ll do a few more and see.” He turned to Elinor. “Very nice.”
Terry pulled Gwendy to him. “Gorgeous, Gwenivere.” He kissed her cheek. She kissed him back. Elinor looked down, the warmth of her blush rising in her cheeks. She glanced at Gwendy, then Terry. He smiled. Wild, ragged black hair, intense blue eyes. Of course, she thought. Of course. Who wouldn’t?
Elinor stepped out of the bathroom, her long peignoir open, light on her shoulders. She stretched out on the bed slowly, as though she were afraid she might break. The room went dark at the touch of her hand on the bedside lamp. Pushing the down comforter aside, she let it fall to the floor in a muffled sigh. She lifted a strand of her hair to her face hoping for amber but finding the water had washed it away. Hugging a pillow, she pressed it against her breasts with her arm. When was the last time? When Robert had caught her, shamed her, insisted on showing her how to do it right. Trailing along her ribs, her fingers lingered along her hipbones and the plain between them, then slid into the tangle of hair. And she began the stuttering duet with herself.
“I talked with the band after you left, Elle.” Gwendy set down the mug of coffee. “We want you to join us.”
“For another session?” Elinor leaned back.
“Oh, Gwendy, I don't know.”
“We do. You're a perfect fit.”
“I'd love to, but my husband . . .”
Gwendy waved her hand, like brushing away a fly. “No rush. Think about it.”
“Be back shortly. Got to go take care of my guys up front.”
To hell with Robert, Elinor thought. I'm finally done with him. And his little bimbos. She felt a little dizzy, easy and light in her body, as if a heavy coat had just fallen from her shoulders. Gwendy came back with her breakfast.
Elinor put her hand on Gwendy's arm. “I've thought about it,” she said. “Yes, I'd love to. I haven't felt so much at ease with people since school.”
Gwendy held out her fist. Elinor looked up, confused. “Bump me, girl.”
”Oh. Yes.” Elinor bumped her.
On the way home Elinor sang “The Flower Song.” She could still hear their two voices entwined. She hoped she could live this new thread of her life without ruffling Robert’s feathers. Could she manage to keep it a secret from him? If only he’d stay wrapped up in Vickie and keep ignoring his dutiful, well-behaved wife.
In the kitchen, she looked around at the disarray, dishes in the sink, towels on the floor, Jillian’s bowl empty. I have to be the good wife, to keep him at bay. As she turned to check the lavatory, a piece of yellow paper on the stove caught her eye. A note from Robert: Off on a business trip to New Orleans. We may get a contract down there. Back in a week. Sure. He means, “I’m going off to New Orleans to be with my secretary for a week.”
In college she had kept a scrapbook full of movie tickets, football programs, invitations, playbills, little notes from Robert on notebook paper. “Meet me in the commons after school.” Twelve years ago. He had loved her then, she was sure. They were kids. Loving is easy when you know only the present, with no past to complicate your lives. Her thirtieth was only a few weeks away. She had just begun to think of the next decade. All these years the scrapbook had been in the chest drawer under her pajamas and nightgowns. She folded Robert's note and stuck it in the scrapbook so she could put it on the last page.
“Your special, dear. Fresh from the grill.” Gwendy set down scrambled eggs, bacon, cathead biscuits. “I’ll be right back. Don’t you dare move.”
“Oh, I won’t.” Elinor smiled. “I have something to tell you.”
“Good. I can’t wait.”
Elinor knocked some catsup onto the hash browns. She’d never forgotten the morning after their wedding night in that little B & B in Franconia Notch. Robert had fussed at her about putting catsup on her scrambled eggs. What a hypocrite. He was a redneck through and through.
In a few minutes, Gwendy slid into the bench across from Elinor and leaned across the table. “So what’s happening?”
“I’m seeing a lawyer Monday.”
“Well, after what you’ve told me, I should say congratulations! You’re free of a lousy marriage.”
“We aren’t high school sweethearts anymore. We’re bitter enemies. Enough is enough.”
“You’ve taken a big step. Good for you. How do you feel?”
“So light. I just feel light and airy.”
“Like a bird set free from her cage.”
Gwendy put her hand on Elinor’s. “I’m so glad for you.”
“In the meantime, I have Friday night to look forward to,” Elinor said.
“Me too. I bet you’ll sing with even more passion now.”
Gwendy left to make rounds, and Elinor put catsup on her scrambled eggs, thinking about those other truck stops, about her dad and the highways they owned that summer.
Elinor lifted the car door handle. Nothing happened.
“Pull up hard,” Gwendy said from the driver's seat. “Now pull out. That's it.”
The split in the leather seat pinched Elinor's leg as she settled into the seat. She wiggled over and pulled the door hard two times before she heard it latch.
“Pardon my rattletrap. I've loved her for sixteen years.”
“I hate that you had to come all the way out here.”
“Mine just wouldn't start. Probably the battery.”
They headed up Baker Road, then onto the beltway.
“Hey, I've written a new piece,” Gwendy said. “I'm excited about it. This is for you and Asher. And Becca will be bowing the saw, too.”
“I've never heard that.”
“It shivers me. Eerie and melancholy. The sound is perfect for this sad love song. And I've got two songs for us in the hopper. You are a wonderful muse.”
They worked on ‘”Lenticular Clouds” almost the whole session. Gwendy had set it in Elinor’s upper range so she would spin the lyrics in an obbligato over Asher’s husky voice with Becca’s saw spinning a haunting cry of longing above them. “Our whispering hearts rise into the halo cloud, as they search for noon stars.”
“What a beautiful marriage of voices. I’m already thinking of a trio for us,” Gwendy said.
In Elinor's driveway Gwendy turned off the headlights, and the house went dark. Gwendy sat staring ahead, her hands resting on the steering wheel. “Some place,” she said.
“Who knows what will happen to it. I guess we'll split it, along with everything else. And I'd better start looking for a job.”
“You may be looking at some rough times, Elle. I'm here.”
“I know. I'm so glad.”
“And you have some great new friends to help you through this.”
Elinor tried to look at Gwendy, but her heart was rising into her throat. “You . . . you all mean so much to me already.” Elinor's voice was scarcely above a whisper. Gwendy took her hand. Suddenly, Elinor wanted her to see the tears. She turned and looked into Gwendy's eyes.
“Oh, Elle.” She squeezed Elinor's hand. “Wait a second.” She got out of the car, went around to Elinor's door, and tugged it open.
Elinor stood up beside the car and melted into Gwendy, pressing her face against her.
“Let it go, sweet girl,” Gwendy whispered.
They walked into the shadows around the front door. Elinor got her keys out of her purse and turned toward the door. Gwendy took Elinor's hand, silencing the keys.
“This feels like high school.” Elinor laughed.
“It does. May I have this dance?” Gwendy held her hands out in ballroom position, with keys dangling, and Elinor put her hand on Gwendy's shoulder, then let it slide to the small of her back.
Gwendy kissed Elinor's cheek, the corner of her mouth. Resting her head on Gwendy's shoulder, Elinor breathed in lavender, frankincense, and amber, as Gwendy swayed them side to side, dancing in slow motion.
Then Gwendy began to sing softly, “On the river bank with flowers laughing in the morning, let us descend together.” Elinor joined her as they let the Lakme duet rise into the oak trees, into the clouds covering the moon.