Summer was gone when I got up. Just as she said she would be. I had slept in until nine, a full two hours later than I usually would back in the city. It wasn’t noise, or the lack of it, that finally roused me. It was the sun coming through the sheer blue curtains, lighting across my face, the warmth bringing me up from my rest. Once awake however I was very aware of the lack of noise. In the distance a hound was baying; I could hear what must have been a farm truck far out in the orchard. But that was it. No horns blaring, jackhammers cracking pavement, no police sirens or ear shattering music, no people yelling profanities up and down the street. Any gunshots heard here would be the sound of hunters after a buck, not one punk shooting another over a pair of shoes.
I got up out of bed and dressed for the day. Nothing elaborate, just my favorite jeans, complete with rips in the knees, and a t-shirt advertising a long since passed R.E.M. concert. Looking down at myself as I slipped into my shoes I was amazed at how little I had changed over the years in my fashion. Twenty years ago I would have been wearing the same thing, though my hair would have been much longer. Nowadays it only reached my shoulder; back then it would have been halfway down my back. It’s amazing to think that after all that time, I would have been like others my age, settling into my job of choice, owning my own home, and be far into a marriage that had seen better days. But here I was, still entertaining the notion of being a writer, owning nothing more than my car, and learning that some people in this life are destined to be alone, rather than be married so long they could even begin to tire of it. This morning it hit home just how little I had done with my life. I imagined that even Summer who had to be at least fifteen years my junior had accomplished more than I had.
Shaking this pathetic thought from my head, I stepped out into the hallway and around to the kitchen where I found a note waiting.
“Hey Matt – Gone out. I’ll grab us some hot dogs on the way back in. Laters. “
I laughed. It wasn’t that I found the note funny, it was just that here was a girl I barely knew leaving me a note to say she was going out, and yet the woman I had been set to marry couldn’t leave me a single word, much less a note, to say why she didn’t want to show up for our wedding.
I went to the refrigerator and got out some bread and apple butter. Fixing some toast and pouring myself a large glass of milk, I looked out the back window at the peach blossoms. The morning sun seemed to light the orchard far more than it did yesterday, and I stood there thinking I would probably never see anything lovelier all day than those blossoms blowing in the wind, some falling from the trees to make a skirt around its trunk. With milk still in hand, I opened the back door to get a better view. I jumped back startled as something moved on the porch. It took me just a second to realize I had awakened Jackson from his favorite sleeping spot. He wagged his tail and let out a friendly bark. I couldn’t help but share my toast with him. He ate it right out of my hand and sat up on his haunches anticipating more. Guess he loved apple butter better than dog food.
I downed the last of my milk and decided to take a walk through the orchard down to the store. I felt it right to let them know they had mistakenly rented the house to two separate parties. It’s not that I wanted them to boot one of us out for the other’s benefit; I just didn’t want them seeing both of us leaving the place and thinking I had snuck some young girl in here while they weren’t looking. I’m sure southern tongues would wag then.
I checked to make sure I had the house key and then I closed the door shut behind me. Stepping out into the country sun the scents of the orchard and the wildflowers scattered around the home came to me on a light breeze. I could smell the magnolia and honeysuckle, even the faint scent of honey and hay from somewhere far off. It seemed everything smelled stronger out here. Back home all the scents were covered up by exhaust fumes and factory smoke. To catch the scent of a flower there you had to stick your face right down in it. Here, you could walk by a flower and smell it. The scent practically trailed after you as you passed.
These orchard smells became more prevalent as I headed down a row of low growing trees on my way to the little store I had originally believed to be Orchard House. For a moment I thought this is how Dorothy felt, going down the yellow brick road on her way to Oz. She had come from a drab and dreary existence in dustbowl Kansas and found herself plopped down in the Technicolor world of Munchkinland. I felt just as transported to another world as she was. To top it all off I found myself humming a certain Elton John song that said goodbye to such things too.
My little rendition was interrupted however by a different song on the breeze. Not a tune sung by another wandering individual, but from a radio somewhere. It got louder as I left the shadow of the house and delved deeper into the orchard. Up ahead I saw an old pickup. It was red and seemed to be fighting mad rust disease. Behind it, a group of Mexican men seemed to be digging ditches or perhaps planting more trees. The song was coming from the old truck over an equally old radio. It was a familiar tune, something made popular by The Eagles in the seventies, but here it was being sung in Spanish. The familiarity of the song made it possible to tell when the chorus came in and I found myself singing along in English. As I passed the truck I waved to the workers. Their faces shaded by baseball caps and other hats designed to keep the sun off of them, they nodded and waved, all smiling broadly to acknowledge I was in their midst. Or perhaps they were smiling about something else they shared between them with whispers in their native tongue. The tale of Hotel California faded behind me as I started down the small hill to reach the little fruit stand store. Looking back, I saw the men had returned to their work and farther in the distance Jackson lay in the shade of a gnarled apple tree to await my return.
The bell over the door tinkled as I walked into the store. The matron was behind the counter talking on the phone. She hurried off the phone as I went to the drink cooler pulling a root beer out and bringing it up to her.
“Well hello there,” she said. “I was wondering if the orchard would be leading you in here today.”
“It’s hot out there to be so early in the morning.”
“Oh my. This aint early. 5 am, now that’s early. That’s what time our boys start out there in the fields.”
I figured she meant the migrant workers. “Wow, too early for me. I guess you can tell I’m a city boy.”
“Just a little,” the woman teased. She rung up my root beer and I handed her the money. “So how did you sleep last night? Did the silence keep you awake?”
I laughed. “Almost. But yes, I slept very well. Though I was under the impression I’d have the house to myself.”
She frowned. “What do you mean?”
“You rented it out to someone else.”
“Are you sure? I didn’t…oh wait, maybe Raymond did. He has a habit of not looking at the register sometimes.”
She left the counter and disappeared through a door to go into the back office. I turned around to see if anyone else was in the store. An older couple was at the back looking at the jars of home canned fruit. When I turned back around, Helen was coming back out from the office with an apologetic look on her face. “Yeah, you’re right. I’m sorry; he did rent it to someone after I had already rented it to you. I can refund your money if you like.”
“No, it’s okay. It’s a big house. She and I made arrangements that I think will work.”
She shook her head. “Well, really I should refund someone’s money. The price I charged you was for single or double occupancy. If you add a third, then we charge you extra, but as a couple you’re…”
“Oh no, we’re not a couple.”
She smiled. “Well regardless, someone has overpaid.”
“No one has overpaid, mam. We both are renting the house as two separate individuals. Non couple status.”
She almost couldn’t contain a knowing grin. “If that’s your wish.”
I smiled kindly. “It is.” I opened my root beer and took a drink, as I was getting a bit flustered. I wasn’t expecting this kind of reaction when I informed her the house had been double rented. “Um..can you tell me how long she rented for?”
“She has paid for three days.”
“Okay. Thank you. That still gives me 4 days to myself. I think we’ll be fine with that.”
She nodded with that conspiratorial smile again. “I’m sure,” she agreed. “If you two need anything, just holler.”
“Thanks.” I turned around to go, but what she said next stopped me.
“Summer seems to be a nice girl.”
I turned around. “How did you know her name?”
“It’s on the register.”
I suddenly felt I had been baited to react.
“And she stopped in this morning. She said you would probably show up to tell us about our mistake. She said not to let you buy any lunch.”
I had been baited. She had known since earlier this morning the place had been double rented and was just playing ignorance to see how I felt about the mistake. Even out here the women were out to make me feel stupid. I smiled as graciously as I could and said goodbye. “Tell Twyla I said hello,” I added.
“I will. She will be sorry she missed you. She had school today. But you two stop by later and say hello, won’t you?”
I noticed she said you two, meaning summer and I both. If I was ever going to get any privacy to get my thoughts together I better hurry up before everyone else made plans for me.
The walk back was a leisurely stroll down a country road. Not wanting to return by the orchard I decided to walk back by the road. One car passed by on the way, the driver, a complete stranger, throwing up his hand to wave. Not only would this be alien where I lived, but the cars would be racing down the road nearly pushing bumpers to get where they were going. This slow paced way of living was both refreshing and strange at the same time. Could I ever get used to this lazy pace of life? Not alone I couldn’t. I mean, I knew I stopped here to be alone and get away from my troubles, but after a while the loneliness would get to me I know and I would be wishing for that hectic pace of life again, the people rushing around going nowhere fast, the noise that made you abandon your thoughts and just be like everybody else. How could I ever live like this, walking down a road without a care in the world?
I walked up the drive to Orchard House. The scent of the magnolia tree was powerful here, and if I was trying to avoid Jackson in the back yard it didn’t work. He must have heard my footsteps on the gravel because he came running around the house, tail wagging. He ran to me and immediately lay at my feet, rolling over on his back, as if he had a sign painted on his belly, saying ‘rub me.’ I pet him a few minutes and then headed into the house.
You don’t realize how quiet things are until you live in the city. There even inside your home you can hear everything your neighbors are doing. Someone is fighting next door, kids are playing with a basketball in the street, and another neighbor is working on his car. But walking inside the empty house here in the country the silence was almost maddening. I guess after you get used to noises all the time, peace and quiet can seem deafening itself.
In the kitchen a radio sat on top of the frig and I pulled it down, setting it on the kitchen bar. It wasn’t a large radio, just a little AM/FM with a speaker no bigger than my hand. I turned it on to kill the silence and another Elton john song came on, this time sung by Tim McGraw it sounded like. I left the radio playing in the kitchen and walked around to my bedroom. I opened a suitcase and dug around in the bottom looking for something. My cellphone. I hadn’t turned it on since leaving home. I didn’t want to hear anybody asking where I was. But now I turned it on. Of course nothing happened, the phone was dead. I got out the charger and plugged it up. If I wanted to hear if anybody missed me I was going to have to wait.
I stepped out of the room and into the hallway. I was tempted to go take a look upstairs. I hadn’t even been up there to see what the place looked like. All I knew was there was two bedrooms up there, one of which Summer had taken as her own. I started up the staircase. As long as I didn’t go into the one she had claimed I would be okay. At the top there was a door on my left. It was closed shut. To the right the landing went around to another door diagonally across from the closed one. It was open. I went around the landing to the open door. Just as I assumed it was unoccupied. Stepping inside I noticed it was almost a carbon copy of my own which lay directly under it on the first floor, except instead of blue roses, here they were pink. I imagined this to be a room for families that stayed here with children because instead of a desk in one corner, another bed was set up in its place allowing multiple people to sleep here. The bedspreads were both adorned with pink roses on green vines. Two lamps, one by each bed, had pink shades, the window curtains were a light pink, and even the carpet had a light floral pattern. On one of the beds sat a doll, an old porcelain thing whose face was cracked by time. It was obvious it was old, just the kind of thing young girls would have had maybe back in the great depression. It immediately made me think of my mother and her own porcelain doll collection. She had a doll very similar to the one I was looking at. It was a cherished heirloom, the one doll she swore she would never part with. Until Ashley came along. Pleased that I had found someone she offered it to her as a gift. But Ashley hated dolls and she refused it. My mother never let me forget that afterwards. In fact, she often would say to me in confidence, “I don’t like that girl. She’s not right for you.” It’s funny how mothers seem to know these things.
On this memory I left the room and returned to the stair case. I hesitated beside the door to Summer’s room. I was curious about it, wondering how she may have fixed it up for her brief stay. Was everything still packed in her duffel bags or had she arranged everything neatly in drawers? Perhaps she had just strewn her clothes about the floor or on the bed. Had she taken a picture of her guy and placed it on the dresser to remind her what was waiting for her after her business here was done? Maybe she had her own happy couple picture taken during a trip to the beach or just goofing around in the house she shared with him. I shook my head and went down the stairs. Why did I care if she had someone to call her own or not? Her business was her own, and her love life certainly not of interest to me.
Back in the kitchen I noticed the music had stopped on the radio. Instead a commercial for a local farmer’s festival two months away was playing. It advertised good fun, food, and dancing to local musicians, and then proceeded to rattle off a list of sponsors. I turned off the radio. I wouldn’t be here long enough to even know what they did for fun around here.
I walked into the living room and plopped down on the couch. I was bored out of my skull. On the coffee table beside me a couple magazines lay: National Geographic, Better Homes and Garden, Outdoor Living. Nothing at all to pique my interest. Looking over to the end table on the other side of the couch I saw a couple of travel magazines. On top lay a folded up piece of paper. I slid across the couch and picked it up. Unfolding it I saw it was a list of names, all beginning with Earl. There was Earl James, Earl Jackson, Earl Jessup, and an Earl Jones. Beside each one was a notation: Not Him. The writing on the paper was definitely feminine and so I guessed that maybe Summer had sat here this morning looking over this list. But why? Who were these guys? Did this have something to do with her business here?
Just then, I heard Jackson barking. It wasn’t a warning signal, but more a happy sound. The sound of tires coming up the drive alerted me to the fact Summer was back. I folded the paper back up the best I could and set it down where I found it. Getting up, I went down the hallway to my bedroom and sat down at the desk. I got a pen and some paper out the drawer and pretended to be writing a letter home. I made it through a cheery ‘Hello everyone’ when I heard the kitchen door open and close, followed by Summer’s voice, “Hey matt, you home?”
I acted like I didn’t hear her and kept writing my letter to no one. I had maybe made it through a sentence when I heard her in the bedroom doorway.
“Hey there, guy,” she said. “I brought us some hot dogs. Hope you like chili.”
“Yeah chili is..”, I turned to face her and was stunned by the sight. “Fine,” I finished in a mumble that must have told her I thought she looked fine herself. She was wearing form fitting slacks that seemed to hug her frame like a second skin. A silky black tank top lightly covered by a stylish sweater completed her outfit. The tank top revealed her figure in a way I had not seen until now, yet hiding enough of her with the sweater to make a guy wonder just where the curves started or ended.
She smiled as if she knew all this already. Maybe I had that certain look on my face guys get when they are realizing peach trees in bloom are not the most beautiful things they will see all day. “Well come on, dogs are getting cold then,” she said, and left my doorway for the kitchen. I felt embarrassed for letting her catch me off guard like that. I was prepared for her coming back to Orchard House, but I guess I just thought she was all blue jeans and an ‘I love nerds’ t-shirt.
She was sitting at the kitchen table already biting into a hot dog when I got there. “I waited like one starving fool waits for another,” she giggled.
“That’s okay. You’ve probably been up much longer than I have. Thanks for the food.” I took one of the hot dogs and bit into it. “Where did you get these?”
“Little store on the main road. Same place I got the peach ice cream.”
“Peach ice cream?”
“Yep. I put it in the freezer already. Figured we might want some later. Nothing like ice cream on a warm night. Heard on the news the humidity is going to be terrible this evening.”
“We have an air conditioner in some of the rooms I think.”
She smiled. “What fun is that? Sweating is good for you, gets all the impurities off your skin.”
I didn’t want to tell her it would make me uncomfortable to see her sweating, impurities or not.
“So what did you do today?” she asked.
“Nothing really. Just walked through the orchard down to the store.”
She looked up at me. “Yeah I stopped there on the way out. They were just opening. Helen’s a nice lady.”
“Yeah, she said you were too.”
“I knew you’d go down there and tell them,” she said.
“And how did you know that?”
“You’ve got an honest face. I knew you’d want them to know. Did you ask for your money back?”
I looked at her and shook my head. “No I did not.”
“Good. Neither did I.” She finished up her hot dog, and grabbed another. “I’m going to be fat one day.”
I laughed. “I can’t see that happening.”
“Oh it will one day. My fat clock is ticking.”
“Mine must have already tocked,” I confessed, and patted my t-shirt covered belly.
She leaned up off her stool and peered over the kitchen bar. “Oh that’s not too bad. Fat looks better on guys than it does on girls anyway.”
“Speaking of fat, how much I owe you for the hot dogs?”
“I don’t know. That sounds kind of steep.”
She smirked. “Don’t make me come over there and poke you, fatty.”
I laughed so hard it took me some time to stop. Seeing me laugh like that must have been infectious because she soon found herself laughing right along.
“What’s the radio for?” she asked, after we stopped laughing. She meant the little one I had set on the counter earlier. “It wasn’t here this morning.”
“Yeah I got it from the top of the frig. I was listening to a little music after my walk.”
She raised an eyebrow. “Do you dance?”
“Um, no, I can’t dance.”
“I bet you can.”
“Yeah,” I said, getting nervous as to where this conversation was leading.
“Let me guess, it was a rock song.”
“I’m not sure.”
She nodded knowingly. “Yeah buddy, it was a rock song. I can tell. But if you have a great country song you don’t even have to try to dance. Your body will do all the work. Here I’ll show you.””
She reached for the radio and turned it on. Kenny Chesney came through the speakers, singing something about no shirt and no shoes. She grinned broadly. “Now that’s what I’m talkin about.” She got up and kicked her open toed shoes across the floor. “No shoes,” she said.
“Hey wait,” I started to argue, and then she took off her sweater and set it across one of the dining room chairs.
“No shirt,” she teased. Her silky tank top clung to her in all the right places, and with horror I suddenly realized what was coming off next: me from the chair. She grabbed my hands and pulled me up despite my protests. “Come on, it won’t kill ya.”
“It might,” I said nervously. She was swaying to the music, a slow country rhythm with a bit of the beach thrown in. She was moving my hands and arms to try and get me to move, but my dancing was like someone tapping their foot and shifting their weight from one hip to the other.
“Come on, just loosen up a little. Let the music move you.”
I couldn’t loosen up. Not like her. She was moving like I hadn’t seen anyone move for a very long time. I thought to myself this must be how a celibate priest feels when they accidentally walk into a honky-tonk bar on ladies’ night.
“You are stiff as a board, Matthew. Just relax. Here, let me help…” She put both her hands on my hips and began to move them in time with her own.
It freaked me out a little. I wasn’t used to having my own personal space invaded. “Uh summer, can we please stop?”
She stopped dancing as suddenly as if someone had reached up and punched Chesney in the mouth.
“I make you uncomfortable don’t I?”
“No, it’s not like that, I…”
“I made you uncomfortable in Wal-Mart, made you uncomfortable asking about Ashley last night, and now I’ve made you uncomfortable dancing in the kitchen and being dressed a little more girly than usual. I think I would make you uncomfortable if I was wearing a burlap sack and sitting in a corner.”
“I’m sorry, Summer. I’m not comfortable around people. Ok, girls. You’re young and pretty and we’re staying in the same house, and this is the most contact I have had with a female since Ashley.”
A sad look came over her. “Oh my, Matthew. What did that girl do to you?”
I hung my head. I wanted to cry, but didn’t want her see me do it. She was right after all, Ashley had ruined me. I couldn’t even look at another girl without feeling she wanted to get away from me too. Or would, one day.
“Look, I don’t mean to make you uncomfortable,” she said. “If you wish I’ll put on something different, or not look at you when I talk, but it’s not going to fix what she’s done.”
She picked up her sweater and slipped it back on. Then she walked around the bar, picked up her food and threw it in the trash. Turning from the trash can and walking past me she said, “I’m going to go now.”
I didn’t turn to watch her go, but I heard her pick up her sandals and put them back on. Her footsteps seemed to echo across the kitchen linoleum.
“She left me on our wedding day,” I said. “I loved her like I loved no one. I’d known her since childhood. We dated in school, lived together in college, played house for years after that. Then one day I decided it wasn’t enough. I had to know she was completely devoted to me, committed to our relationship. So I asked her to marry me and she said yes. Looking back I realize she didn’t cry happily or beam proudly, she just said yes. I should have known then. She was about excited over our wedding as you are about sitting down and having a hot dog with me.”
She walked back to the kitchen bar and sat across from me. “I am very excited about sitting down and having a hot dog with you.”
I couldn’t look at Summer. I stared down at the bar wishing I could be saying these things from another room. “She never showed up. Do you know what it’s like to be sitting there and waiting and waiting and waiting for someone you love to show up and say ‘hey I just got scared. Forgive me’. But she couldn’t even do that.”
“I do know what its like,” she confided. “I waited for someone too.”
I looked up. “Really?”
“Yeah really. I waited for someone I loved to show up and say those very same things to me. And they never did. Years passed and I never saw their face again. I got beyond caring after a while but I still think about it sometimes. One day I hope I will forget it completely, but I know I won’t without some kind of closure. And neither will you.”
I nodded. Suddenly I didn’t feel like my problem was the biggest one. Sitting across from Summer I wasn’t half as alone as I thought I was. I had a friend. One who understood, or at least wanted to understand, how I felt. I was still uncomfortable around her; I wouldn’t be looking in her eyes anytime soon, but if the proverbial ice had been broken, she melted it with her next words.
“Sometimes Matthew, people just get scared. Some of us hide it behind a happy smile.” She smiled to show me she meant herself. “Some of us let the fear show in our every word.” She nodded in my direction. ”I think you’re scared to move forward because you think nothing’s out there now. “ She reached across the table and patted my hand gently. “I’m scared that way too.”
She squeezed my hand briefly, and then let it go. Outside the world went on, while inside we were frozen in time, caught up in our own separate sadness, yet still feeling someone understood. Maybe that was a start in the right direction. Perhaps that’s how you move on, getting someone else to understand how you feel.
“Orchard House & The Heart Of Everything” 2014 Paul D. Aronson