Most of the Wal-Mart’s I had been in were uniformly designed inside. If you had been in one, you’d been in them all. But not this one. I was completely lost and couldn’t find a thing. We had both started out with separate buggies and she had headed off towards health and beauty. “Girl stuff time,” she explained, leaving me with my buggy to head wherever. I tried to determine which direction the groceries were in but instead found myself passing by the book department, which was an instant hook for a fish like me. I stopped and browsed the paperbacks, wondering if one day I could ever write anything worthy to be on these shelves. The closest I had come was to see one copy of my first book in a Barnes & Noble. Of course, I bought it myself and never saw it in another store.
“You can’t eat a book,” Summer said from beside me. She had bath stuff and feminine products in her cart. “Well I guess you could but it won’t taste as good as fish sticks or a self-rising pizza. Well, okay it might taste better than fish sticks.”
I laughed. “Sorry, I kind of got lost. Couldn’t find the grocery department.”
“Lost? Heck, just follow the good looking guys. Every gal knows the hottest place to meet guys is in groceries.” Before I could inform her I wasn’t ‘every gal’ she went spinning off down the aisle towards where hot guys dwelled. Once I caught up with her in fresh fruit she was in full shopping mode. She would pick something up, put it in her buggy, and then two minutes later take it out and put it back. “We can get this at the fruit stand,” she reasoned out loud. Finally, she settled on one fruit we couldn’t get from the Orchard House store: bananas.
Two guys walked by and flashed her some college boy smiles. Problem was they both were overweight and looked so sweaty I thought there must be football tryouts the next aisle over. “See, hot guys,” she whispered in my ear.
With a giggle she was off again, heading around the corner and into the frozen food section. I had the feeling I was going to need roller skates before too long. Again, she was a whirling dervish, popping stuff into her buggy like the store was going out of business. Me, I ended up having like five things in my buggy to her fifty. We went through the whole grocery section like this, her dodging down each aisle, precariously avoiding running others over with her cart, with me trying to follow behind saying “excuse me” to everyone she nearly collided with. By the time we had navigated each aisle her cart looked as if she was preparing for three weeks instead of three days. When I told her this however her mood shifted. The exuberant little girl going crazy down every aisle vanished and was replaced by a hurt woman who was trying to enjoy life.
“Well, you don’t have to tread on my flag,” she said quietly. “Come on, I want to go.” She pushed her buggy up the main aisle towards the checkout and never said another word until we were back at the house and unloading groceries.
Inside the house, after we had gotten everything in and was putting our bounty in the refrigerator, she broke the silence. “Look, I just wanted to make sure we had enough food. I haven’t had such a fun time shopping in ages and you… well, you kind of ruined it.”
I sat down at the kitchen island that separated it from the dining room. “I’m sorry. I was just making a silly observation on all the things you were buying.”
She turned from the task of putting the eggs and milk up and faced me. “Maybe I’m wanting to stock things up so I’ll have it for the next place I go stay. I can leave in the morning if you like.”
“No, no, Summer. Wait. I didn’t mean to insult or offend you.”
“Well, you did,” she answered so low I barely heard her. She returned to stocking the refrigerator.
I got up and walked over to her. I touched her on her shoulder and when she turned to me, I jerked my hand away, feeling I had done the wrong thing again. “Look, I know this isn’t an excuse, but I haven’t been around girls much. Not to the point of actually interacting. Before you I was around two other women in my lifetime, my mother and Ashley. Other than that I barely said two words to another female except to ‘thank you’ to a waitress or ‘excuse me’ when trying to walk around someone. I don’t know how to say the right things. I didn’t mean to hurt you Summer; I just don’t know what to say to you.”
She sighed. “Just say you had fun today.”
I smiled. “I had more fun today than I have had in ages.”
“I don’t want you to leave tomorrow.”
She nodded and tried to hide a smile. “Thank you. But I will be heading out early to do a few things. I’ll try not to wake you.”
“Are we good, then?”
“Peachy as an orchard,” she replied. “Now what are you going to fix us for dinner?”
“I hear it’s more appetizing than books.”
She smiled and sat down at the kitchen island while the ten minute chef put the pizza in the oven. When I turned around, she was still looking at me. It made me a little nervous.
“What?” I asked.
“Oh my, now that’s a long story.”
“I have three days.”
I turned back to the oven, wishing all of a sudden to crawl inside it. “Let’s talk about her another day,” I suggested.
“Sounds good,” she replied. After that, the pizza cooked in silence and once again things were awkward. It’s strange how one sentence, one question can make a person shut down emotionally. We ate our pizza sitting across from one another. She downed hers with tea, mine with soda. After three pieces she said, “Okay I’m done. You can have the rest. “She got up and walked to the window looking out on the orchard. “I think I’ll take a walk.”
She didn’t ask me if I wanted to go with her this time. She just went out the door. Maybe she realized that we both needed time alone, or perhaps she wanted me to take the initiative and follow her. Either way, I just sat there staring down at the pizza berating myself for being so pigheaded about Ashley. Once again, that woman had spoiled a nice thing.
I was sitting in the metal porch swing on the back porch when Summer returned. I had seen her several times from my vantage point, walking down the rows of apple trees, but as it got dark I lost sight of her figure and instead focused on the stars lighting the night sky. In the city you see scattered stars here and there but out here in the country the sky was full of them. It reminded me of a blanket that you could stitch going from star to star with needle and thread. It was beautiful. Not just the stars and how they lit up everything, but the night itself even looked different. The darkness was a more vibrant shade and I lay my head back just taking in this whole other world spread out across the sky. I was marveling at this when I heard the crunch of her feet on the gravel drive.
“I thought you were sleeping there for a minute,” she said, sitting down on the porch steps.
“No, just admiring the night.”
“Beautiful isn’t it?”
“Yes it is. In the city the night sky seems a bit stifling, as if it’s closing in on you. Here it’s wide open as if it just wants to free you.”
“Yes exactly. I forgot just how liberating the country sky can be.”
“Forgot? I kind of took you for a country girl.”
“Well I was born in Kentucky, lived all over the Carolinas and Virginias, but the past several years I have been in Baltimore Maryland. Trying to be a fool for the city. But I think I’m done there.”
“I can understand. I thought I was a city boy too. Born and bred in the urban squall.”
She smiled. “I knew you were a city boy the moment I saw you.”
She smirked as if I just said the dumbest thing. “Your car out there. It’s a city car. Your haircut. Definitely city.”
I feigned offense. “What’s wrong with my hair?”
“Nothing. It’s just neat, not wind blown. Live in the country long enough and your hair starts to get a certain look, like you threw your comb out the window or something.”
“And you got city hands too.”
“Yeah. Flip your hands over.” I turned my hands so the palms were up. “Calluses on your hands. They are small, like you have been holding a pencil too long. If you was country they would be bigger from gripping a shovel or hoe.”
“You’re very observant,” I reasoned.
She grinned. “You have no idea.”
“Okay, so what else is city about me?”
“Your accent of course. No twang to your voice. You say fighting, country says fightin. You don’t have a country boy build either. Country guys are a little more beefed up and tanned from working outside all the time.”
“You like that, do you?”
She laughed. “Heck no, I’m into nerds. Didn’t you read my shirt?” Reaching in her back pocket she pulled out a pack of cigarettes. She lit one up and inhaled deeply. “One of my few vices,” she explained when she saw me looking at her.
“So this your first time in the country, Matthew?”
“No, my grandparents lived in the country. I used to spend summers there as a child. I just thought I would try and revisit that feeling before getting back to real life.”
“Did your grandparents live around here?” she asked, looking up from her perch on the steps.
“No. I ended up here quite by chance. Just passing through you could say. On a whim I rented the place. Looked like the right spot to gather my thoughts and decide what to do.”
“No, that’s been decided I believe.” I looked away from Summer and peered into the heavens again.
“Look, I’m sorry about earlier.”
I raised an eyebrow. “What do you mean?”
“Asking you about Ashley.”
Looking up at the stars was easier then looking at her. “It’s okay.’
“No it’s not. But I did want to say I am sorry. I know I can come off a bit nosy sometimes.”
“I don’t think that.”
“Liar. I know I can be in people’s faces a little too much. Just something I’ve learned to live with. Nobody else can though. I tend to scare people.”
“I’m not scared.”
She smiled. “Sure you are. But it’s okay. I’ll try not to be so intrusive.”
“Summer, there’s nothing wrong with you.”
She laughed and stubbed out her cigarette on the porch step. “If you say so. Hey I’m going to get some soda.” She got up and headed for the door. “Want anything?”
“No, that’s okay. I’m going to turn in soon.”
“I kind of figured you would,” she said, and I could hear the air of disappointment in her voice. The screen door closed behind her and I wondered if I would ever be able to say the right thing around this girl.
When I finally came indoors the first thing I heard was the water running in the bathroom. The door was closed and I figured she was taking her bath. I locked the back door and went around checking all the others. Old habit from the city. You never leave a door unlocked anywhere for any length of time where I came from. After making sure the house was secure I retired to my room where I shut the door. Kicking off my shoes I sat down at the writing desk and took out a pen and piece of paper. I wanted to write and tell my brother where I had gone. Eric might not have wanted to know, since the last time we talked it was a very heated discussion, but I was thinking he should know the path I chose if I didn’t return. How do you tell your brother how you’re feeling though if you don’t even know yourself? It wasn’t a secret between us that the passing of our parents hit me hard. That on top of Ashley ditching me at the altar was enough to crush and devastate me. He knew what Ashley meant to me and I suspected he knew where she had taken off to, which led to our last and final argument. It hurts even more when you feel your brother is still talking to your bride to be and you’re not. I don’t believe he had designs on her or anything but just knowing they were friends enough to share information on how much Matt hurts was enough for me to give him a big ‘to hell with you’ and leave all that drama behind.
I put the pen to paper and began:
I don’t expect you to understand what has happened to me inside. You never really got me when mom and dad were alive, and feel you still don’t. The fact that you told me you knew how to get in touch with Ashley tends to make me believe you have taken her side in the deterioration of our romance. I wish I had it in me to never speak to you again, but I don’t. I fear I don’t even have it in me to never speak to her because I know if she was here right now I would want to. I would want to know why she did what she did. And I’m afraid in my weakness I would believe anything she had to say.
I threw the pen across the room. I looked down at what I wrote and shook my head, disgusted at myself. Crumbling up the paper I threw it in the floor. For good measure I got up from my chair and started stomping the offending letter I’d started. A knock came at the bedroom door.
“Are you alright in there?” Summer asked from the other side.
“Yeah, I’m okay.” I reached down and picked up both pen and paper.
There was a hesitation at the door. I imagined her standing on the opposite side wondering what was going on in my bedroom. For a brief moment I wanted to ask her if she had ever had someone leave her and never tell her why. I almost reached for the handle and opened the door. But then I heard her footsteps going up the stairs.
“Alrighty. Well, I’m going to bed. See you on the morrow.” I heard a door at the top of the stairs open and close.
“Good night,” I whispered to no one. Outside the night was still. None of the noises of the city had followed me out here. Only the shadow of Ashley dared to trail behind me. I got undressed and crawled into bed pulling the blue roses over top of me. Sleep took a while to come but when it did I was thankful it wasn’t filled with dreams of Ashley. Instead it was nightmares of empty wedding altars and the ring I would never slip on her finger.
“Orchard House & The Heart Of Everything” 2014 Paul D. Aronson