Part 8: Hotel California
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, 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 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, much less 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 woke up 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 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 woman 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, 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. Hell, the scent practically trailed after you as you passed.
These smells of the orchard 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 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.
My little rendition was interrupted 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 ancient 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 find 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, waved, all smiling broadly to acknowledge I was in their midst. Or perhaps they were smiling about something else they only shared between themselves 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 line 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.”
“Hot out there to be so early in the morning.”
“Oh my. This ain’t early. Five AM, now that’s early. That’s what time our boys start out there in the fields.”
I figured she meant the Mexican 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, 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. “Um..can you tell me how long she rented for?”
“She has paid for three days.”
“Okay. Thank you. That still gives me four 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 gracious 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.
“Orchard House & The Heart Of Everything” 2016 Paul D Aronson.