Back out on the gravel road it didn’t take long to go around the bend to Orchard House. On the right stood grape vines wrapped around wooden trellises, and not far ahead on the left sat a row of gazebos and small buildings with a large hand painted sign reading “The Artist’s Village. Open every Friday -Saturday.” Across from that a graveled drive led up a small hill to the house. I made the turn and passed through an opening in the fence, watching as the big white farmhouse came into clearer view. I passed by a large magnolia tree in the front yard and parked beside the house. It was a huge structure painstakingly restored on the outside so it looked like it must have appeared in my parent’s time. The front porch was small; a mere shadow of the house, but one could tell it was full of rooms and history. Getting out of the car, I felt like I had been instantly transported back in time to when large families all lived together, mothers and fathers, their children and their spouses, and their children, all under one roof. The fact that it was surrounded on three sides by the massive fruit orchard gave me a feeling that this house was too big for one person. Probably why the dog came free. And free he was, running free towards me.
I barely had time to prepare myself for Jackson’s excitement over company. He barked hello several times and then parked himself at my feet waiting for me to pet him. “Well hello, you must be Jackson,” I said, rubbing the top of his head, which made his tongue hang out drool and all. I laughed. “I’m going to need a bib just to pet you.”
I stood beside the car with Jackson at my heel and took in a deep breath. Even the air was different here. Gone was the smell of car exhaust, trash tossed along the roadsides, factory smokestacks spewing forth their poison for the cluttered masses. No, in this air I could smell the magnolia tree in the front yard, the peach blossoms and apple trees, the wildflowers that grew around the house. I could even catch the scent of that most glorious smell from my youth, honeysuckle. As a young boy I had traipsed through near meadows of it at my grandparent’s home, and here it was again, that sweet scent on the breeze as if to say, ‘Welcome to your second childhood. We have been waiting. ‘ If only I could have believed such a thing were possible.
I got my bags out of the car and began to lug them around to the back of the house. Here the house could truly be enjoyed in its splendor. A large porch wrapped around the back. On one end a gas grill and one of those old metal porch swings. Not the kind that hung on chains, but that gained its swinging motion from metal runners at its base like a rocking chair. On the other end of the porch sat a pair of metal chairs with a glass end table between them. The glass was painted with roses looping around vines reminding me of church windows. Beside the chairs was the back door, adorned with a wooden plaque with painted apples and peaches on it. On it was painted “Welcome home. Friends enter.” I got the key out and let myself in. Turning back, I looked to see Jackson had stopped and was sitting at the foot of the steps. Probably trained to stay off the porch, I thought.
Setting my bags down, I saw that I had entered into a large room that served as both kitchen and dining room. On the left side was an oak dining table, covered by a tablecloth decorated with images of apples in baskets. Four chairs sat around it, and a fake flower arrangement served as the table’s centerpiece. To the right was the kitchen area tiled with, you guessed it, apple painted linoleum. A modern kitchen bar stood in the center, while along the walls was all the conveniences of a real home: refrigerator, electric range, a washer and dryer stacked on top of each other, sink, and cabinets. Looking out the kitchen window, I could see rows upon rows of peach trees all blossoming pink. A small door led outside into the yard, and as if in trance I followed it out into the orchard. The scent and color took my breath away. The trees blanketed the land, canopies of pink blossoms stretching far into the hills, making me feel as if I had just stepped out into an alien landscape in some other world. “Dorothy, I don’t believe you’re in Kansas anymore,” I whispered to myself.
Back inside the house I inspected the kitchen, pulling out cabinet drawers and seeing what kind of things they kept around. Everything for the perfect kitchen could be found here, from silverware to cooking pots and pans, to steak knives, and pizza cutters, and all manner of cooking utensils. It seemed when they furnished the place they didn’t leave out anything. Hand towels and wash cloths hung neatly by the sink. Everything was cleaned and in its proper place. Off the kitchen an open door led into a small bathroom. It was cramped and in one corner stood a hot water heater. An old fashioned sink sat in another corner, a porcelain basin sitting upon a pedestal. The bathtub was the old style as well. It sat up on clawed legs and made me think of a cowboy in an old western relaxing after a day on the range with a cigar in his mouth and hat still on his head.
I returned to the kitchen and picked up my bags. I walked through the dining room and into a living room area. Here there was a real fireplace, a couch, a couple of chairs, an old TV with a VCR hooked up. I noticed there wasn’t a DVD or blu ray player. This didn’t surprise me. The TV sat in a homemade entertainment center, its top shelf lined with VCR tapes, mostly western movies and old shows. The bottom shelf held old fashioned board games for families to enjoy, checkers, parchesi, backgammon, even an old well worn Candyland. Looking out the living room window I could see the magnolia tree and beyond it the artist village and gravel road. It instantly made me weary from my travels. I sat my bags down on the couch and looked back towards the kitchen. The tour of the house could wait. I needed a bath and I needed it now.
It took me awhile to get used to the tub. After all, for the past several years all I had taken were showers. Life had been so hectic I was always in a rush, and I barely had time to stand still, let alone sit still in a bathtub. But here at Orchard House there was no shower. Just this big claw foot bathtub. I almost had to force myself to stay in the tub, draping my arms over the high sides, and letting the warmth take me away. There was a half empty bottle of Bubble bath, so in this rare moment I poured nearly a fourth of it under the hot running water. I have to admit that it was relaxing laying there in the luxurious warmth and bubbled splendor. I felt like I could nod right off. And that’s just what I did. Or at least I think I did.
A loud noise brought me up from my bathtub nap. It sounded like a slamming door, then something getting slung down hard on the kitchen floor. I heard a whistle. Not the sound of a kettle boiling or a train coming down the track, but the whistle that represents awe and exclamation when someone finds something beyond their expectations. Then the whistle turned into a happy sounding tune. I recognized it instantly. Lynyrd Skynyrd. Call me the breeze. It was at that point I finally realized someone else was in the house.
I climbed from the tub and threw my legs over the high sides, snatching a towel from a shelf on the wall. I bumped the sink as I wrapped it around my waist. I heard a low voice whisper, “Oh hell,” as I rushed out into the kitchen area. Standing between the dining room and the fireplace that separated it from the living room was a young woman. She had been looking at my luggage there on the couch and realizing she wasn’t alone. With my rush out of the bathroom she spun towards me. Surprise turned to shock, which quickly turned to embarrassment.
“Oh my God, I’m so sorry,” she apologized. She put her hand to her mouth, then corrected herself and covered her eyes instead. I looked down quickly to make sure nothing was showing and clutched the towel tighter to me. “I’m sorry,” she repeated and turned her back to me.
“What are you doing here?” I asked.
She dared a glance back at me. She took her hand and pushed a strand of long dark hair out of her eyes. “I just rented the place. I didn’t think anyone else was here. They didn’t say anything about other guests.”
“Well, I just rented it no more than half an hour ago. They must have a short memory.” I reached for the phone on the wall. The number to the fruit stand was posted beside it and I started dialing.
She turned to face me again. “What are you doing?”
“I’m calling them to find out what’s going on.” Then my towel fell off.
She let out a squeal and quickly turned away. “Maybe you should dress first,” she suggested with a nervous giggle. I don’t know who was more red – she, I, or the apples out in the orchard.
As a child I had a recurring nightmare. It’s the first day of school and I’m walking the halls. It’s nice to be there and I’m happy to be reunited with my friends after the summer and maybe meet a nice girl to boot. I’m alone in the hall lost in thought when the bell rings. The classrooms dispel their students and they come rushing out in the hallway to go to their next class, their lockers, or quite possibly the smoking block. As everyone is scurrying around me I suddenly realize I’m naked. And within seconds everyone else does too. They laugh and point and I’m so embarrassed I’m trying to find an empty classroom to escape to. That’s what it felt like with this stranger in Orchard House, and I, just like in the dream, ran for it. Dashing back into the bathroom I slammed the door behind me and began to hurriedly dress. Getting my pants and shirt back on I looked in the mirror. If I was trying to gain courage from my reflection it wasn’t happening. I took a deep breath and stepped back out into the kitchen to confront the woman. Unfortunately I didn’t know what to say. I never was much good with the ladies, and especially not ones who just showed up inside your house. It didn’t help matters that she was beautiful. She had long dark hair that framed a face that carried a slight trace of Native American heritage. She wasn’t dark skinned, but her high cheekbones and shape of her face gave it away. She had deep brown eyes and light freckles painted her face, which bore no trace of makeup. She was wearing long jeans, brown at the knees as if she spent most of her time on her knees in a garden, and a brightly colored t-shirt that happily exclaimed “I love nerds” on the front. For a moment I almost wished for a pocket protector and black framed glasses.
Finally finding my voice I asked her, “So what’s your name?”
She held out her hand. “I’m Summer.”
I took it and her hand shake was pretty firm. “Matthew.” I sighed and picked the phone off the wall again. “Well, let’s get this thing straightened out I suppose.” I dialed the number on the wall and it began to ring. I looked at the woman who had now sat down at the kitchen table to wait the outcome. She was watching me with her dark eyes, brown like the rich earth, and I had to look away because I wasn’t used to it. It’s not that I found her gaze intrusive, it’s just eye contact has always been an alien thing to me. When no one picked up the phone on the other end I dared to look at her again. She sadly smiled.
“Hey look, you were here first,” she said. Her duffle bags had been sitting in the kitchen floor and so she stood up reaching for them. Hefting one in each arm she started for the door. “I’ll just go back to the store and ask for my money back.”
I hung up the phone as she came around me and opened up the door. I didn’t know what to say.
“I’m sorry to have intruded, Mr. Matthew. I truly thought the place was empty.” She held out her hand and I took it. Her palm was now soft and warm and it made me realize her handshake earlier was the first time a woman had touched me since Ashley. Not a thing to be thinking of at all when this woman is walking out the door. But it was just a handshake after all. Business, not pleasure.
She stepped out on the back porch and went down the steps without looking back. She was proud. She wouldn’t show me a look of sympathy, nor regret. She wouldn’t look at me from beneath her dark locks, or stare at me from deep eyes to say she didn’t want to go. Instead, she disappeared around the corner of the house and I heard her fumble for her keys to open her car door. I stood there in the doorway, just staring out at the orchard. I had come here to be alone, to find what was next for me if anything. I didn’t want company; I just wanted my sad world to stop spinning enough to gather my thoughts.
The closing of her car door brought me out of my thoughts of aloneness. “Hell,” I muttered, and pushed open the screen door. I ran down the steps and around the corner. She had put the car in reverse and was getting ready to back down the long drive. I threw up my hand. “Hey wait!” I came around to her window. She was looking at me curiously.
“Did I forget something?” she asked.
“No, it’s not that. Look, the house is huge. It has rooms upstairs and downstairs. It should be enough space for us both to live in without running over top each other. If you don’t mind sharing the house with a stranger, I guess I don’t mind either.”
She seemed to think about it, staring down into her own lap silently before looking up at me. “I’ll tell you what. I have business here in the area. It may take me three days to finish up. Once it’s done I’ll get out of your hair. I won’t be a bother in the meantime.”
I smiled. “Neither will I. and I promise not to flash you anymore.”
She laughed. “Okay. Deal.”
I stepped back and let her get out the car. “You want ground floor or upstairs?” I asked.
She reached into her back seat to grab her duffel bags. “I’m used to apartment living. I’ll take upstairs if you don’t mind.”
“That’s fine, here let me help you.” I reached for one of her bags but she wouldn’t let me take it. Miss independence. “Well, I’m going to go and finish settling in. Just make yourself at home, Summer.” I left her to carry her bags as she wished and returned to the house. Back in the kitchen I had to ask myself what I was doing, staying in a farmhouse in the middle of nowhere with a woman who had to be twenty years my junior. In the city the neighbors would have been wagging their tongues for sure. I stepped into the bathroom and looked at the discarded towel in the floor. I had to laugh at my embarrassing moment upon meeting Summer. It was the stuff of sitcoms and comedy movies, not real life. It was also the kind of things you tell your kids when they grow up. Now where did that thought come from? Maybe once I had thought of children, but never more. One woman can kill everything for you.
I had taken my bath things out and set them on the sink before my bath. I looked down at a razor sitting on the edge. Picking it up I stared at it, wondering if I would ever be so brave to show Ashley just what she had done. I ran some warm water and sprayed shaving cream into my hands. Rubbing the cream on my face, I took the razor more firmly and shaved the three days growth off my face. I watched myself in the mirror with red rimmed eyes but I refused to cry.
I took the ground floor bedroom as I had said I would. It lay at the front of the house. One step out of the room and you would be out in the hallway. Another step and you’d be out the front door. A staircase descended to meet the ground floor here in the hallway. Following the hallway in the opposite direction and you would wind around a corner into the living room. From there it was just another right into the dining room and kitchen. It may have seemed something of a maze in this farmhouse, but it was perfect in making one feel that they weren’t sharing it with someone else. I could hear Summer upstairs, opening dresser doors and closets it sounded like. I set about putting my things up as well.
I set my luggage up on the bed, and looked around the room. While it was designed to look like home, it certainly didn’t look like any home I had ever lived in. The room was done up in blue. The bedspread was blue and white roses, and everything seemed to match it. On the bed the pillowcases were light blue. A lamp of the same color sat on a nightstand. Fake blue flowers sat on a dresser and were reflected in the mirror behind them. The valances above the windows were done in blue patchwork, and hanging on the wall was a framed reprint of ‘The Blue Boy’, the famous oil painting by Thomas Gainsborough. I thought it appropriate that I had set out on this road trip because of my blues, and now here I was in a room done completely in blue.
I opened my suitcases and went about putting my clothes away in the dresser. Might as well make it like home since I had paid for a week. I was happy to see a small desk in one corner with a blue stone paperweight on its top keeping in theme with the rest of the room. The desk looked perfect for writing on and so I unpacked all my writing gear into its empty drawers. Paper, pencils, pens, erasers, an electronic dictionary and thesaurus, as well as all my various notebooks filled with half finished writing on an array of subjects, all of which I had lost interest in. Also on this desk I set a framed photo of two people in happy times. They were standing outside a movie theater, its neon marquee declaring “FOX” in big capital letters. The man in the picture looked a lot like me though his smile was beaming much prouder than mine these days. On his arm was a beautiful woman, and she had her head leaning on his shoulder obviously so in love and happy to be standing there in front of The Fabulous Fox Theater in Atlanta. I remembered the picture well. It captured a moment in time that I would always associate with my idea of the perfect couple. I had been just a boy in those days but as I stood there taking their picture with a camera nearly as big as my face I knew I wanted to grow up to be just as happy in love as my parents.
A knock on the door frame brought me out of my reverie. I turned to see Summer leaning against the doorjamb. She had changed clothes. Now instead of brown kneed jeans she had switched to more comfortable capris, yet her t-shirt still declared her love of nerds. She had also switched from shoes to open toed sandals. A small denim purse was draped over her shoulder and she had pinned her hair back in a ponytail, much like I used to wear my hair when I had a head full of it.
“I think I’m going to Bedford for a food run. There’s nothing in the frig here. You want to come?”
In my current reflective mood I really just wanted to be alone. I didn’t want to be reminded of what it was like to go shopping with a companion, or even riding side by side down the road. I didn’t want to be reminded of all the little domestic things couples do. And even though Summer and I were never going to be a couple I still didn’t want a feeling that such a thing were even possible. With anyone.
“Sure, why not, “ I replied.
“Great!” she said. “Meet you at the car.” I heard her skip happily around the corner and I shook my head hoping she wouldn’t skip like that through the local Wal-Mart.
Summer’s car seemed to be nearly as old as she was. It was remarkably well taken care of and she informed me it was the only decent thing that came from an ex. I didn’t ask if she meant boyfriend or husband. None of my business. It was a nice car though. Pontiac Sunbird, complete with sunroof. Not the automatic kind of sunroof, but the ones where you had to slide it open by hand. It made me think of a little heard song from the early 90’s. ‘Power Windows’ by Billy Falcon. I nearly interviewed him once when I was a young intern for Southern Sound magazine. One of the many near interviews I had when I was training to be a failed music critic.
When I got in the car the music comparison changed. Summer wasn’t ‘Power Windows’. No, she was more ‘Life Is A Highway.’ As she started the car and the old rock song came blaring from both speakers I knew this was going to be one fast ride to Bedford.
“Love this song,” she said, as if to rationalize turning up the radio until the speakers started to vibrate and rumble. “But it can’t be the Rascall Flats one. Got to be the original. I hate covers.”
“Tom Cochrane,” I informed her. “Canadian. Used to be in the band Red Rider. “
She raised an eyebrow and pointed to her shirt. “Nerd,“ she grinned, but I wasn’t sure if she meant him or me. She seemed to know my thoughts. “I’m talking about you,” she said, and turned the volume up another notch as we spun out onto the gravel road.
We sped past the store, windows down, and neither of us thought to stop and complain about renting the house out to both of us. As if to send this point home she let out a whooping rebel yell out her side as we passed the Latino men working in the fields. In the city they might have looked at her as if she was crazy but here they just answered right back as we sped off down the road.
When we left the gravel for pavement she turned it up again. “Last notch,” she said, as if to be proud of blowing out her speakers. My thought at this was to wish she would turn it down a little; that it was much too high. But then I laughed. I was sounding like my parents had when I blared out Kiss or Led Zeppelin down in the basement when I was a teenager.
“Too loud?” she shouted.
“Nope,” I yelled back, and in a long suppressed act of rebellion I hung my head out the window and screamed “turn it up!”
By the time we reached the Wal-Mart in Bedford my voice was hoarse from our shouting duet out the car window, finally ending with a mad yelling version of the 70’s radio rock classic “I’m on Fire” by the Dwight Twilley band. I had that record back in ’75 when I was a kid, and it was very appropriate now because on this whole ride I felt just like one of those again. Wild, free, and definitely on fire.
“Orchard House & The Heart Of Everything by Paul D. Aronson. 2014.”