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SARAH SHEPHERD WATCHED HER husband come down the stairs. He set his suitcase at the front door, checked his watch with the hall clock, and examined beneath his chin in the mirror. There was one spot he sometimes missed in shaving. He stepped back and examined himself full length, frowning a little. He was getting paunchy and not liking it. That critical of himself, how much more critical of her he might be. But he said nothing either in criticism or compliment, and she remembered, uncomfortably, doing all sorts of stunts to attract his eye: coy things—more becoming a girl than a woman of fifty-five. She did not feel her twelve years over Gerald ... most of the time. Scarcely aware of the movement, she traced the shape of her stomach with her fingertips.
Gerald brought his sample spice kit into the living-room and opened it. The aroma would linger for some time after he was gone. "There's enough wood, dear, if it gets cold tonight," he said. "And I wish you wouldn't haul things from the village. That's what delivery trucks are for ..." He numbered his solicitudes as he did the bottles in the sample case, and with the same noncommittal attention.
As he took the case from the table, she got up and went to the door with him. On the porch he hesitated a moment, flexing his shoulders and breathing deeply. "On a morning like this I almost wish I drove a car."
"You could learn, Gerald. You could reach your accounts in half the time, and ..."
"No, dear. I'm quite content with my paper in the bus, and in a town a car's a nuisance." He stooped and brushed her cheek with his lips. "Hello there!" he called out as he straightened up.
Her eyes followed the direction in which he had called. Their only close neighbor, a vegetable and flower grower, was following a plow behind his horse, his head as high as the horse's was low, the morning wind catching his thatch of gray hair and pointing it like a shock of wheat.
"That old boy has the life," Gerald said. "When I'm his age that's for me."
"He's not so old," she said.
"No. I guess he's not at that," he said. "Well, dear, I must be off. Till tomorrow night, take care of yourself."
His step down the road was almost jaunty. It was strange that he could not abide an automobile. But not having one was rather in the pattern. A car would be a tangible link between his life away and theirs at home. Climbing into it of an evening, she would have a feeling of his travels. The dust would rub off on her. As it was, the most she had of him away was the lingering pungency of a sample spice kit.
When he was out of sight she began her household chores—the breakfast dishes, beds, dusting. She had brought altogether too many things from the city. Her mother had left seventy years accumulation in the old house, and now it was impossible to lay a book on the table without first moving a figurine, a vase, a piece of delft. Really the place was a clutter of bric-a-brac. Small wonder Gerald had changed toward her. It was not marriage that had changed him—it was this house, and herself settling in it like an old buddha with a bowl of incense in his lap.
A queer thing that this should occur to her only now, she thought. But it was not the first time. She was only now finding a word for it. Nor had Gerald always been this remote. Separating a memory of a particular moment in their early days, she caught his eyes searching hers—not numbering her years, as she might think were he to do it now, but measuring his own worth in her esteem.
She lined up several ornaments that might be put away, or better, sold to a junkman. But from the lineup she drew out pieces of which she had grown especially fond. They had become like children to her, as Gerald made children of the books with which he spent his evenings home. Making a basket of her apron she swept the whole tableful of trinkets into it.
Without a downward glance, she hurried them to the ashbox in the backyard. Shed of them, she felt a good deal lighter, and with the May wind in her face and the sun gentle, like an arm across her shoulders, she felt very nearly capersome. Across the fence the jonquils were in bloom and the tulips, nodding like fat little boys. Mr. Joyce had unhitched the horse. He saw her then.
"Fine day this morning," he called. He gave the horse a slap on the rump that sent him into the pasture, and came to the fence.
"I'm admiring the flowers," she said.
"Lazy year for them. Two weeks late they are."
"Is that a fact?" Of course it's a fact, she thought. A silly remark, and another after it: "I've never seen them lovelier, though. What comes out next?"
"Snaps, I guess this year. Late roses, too. The iris don't sell much, so I'm letting 'em come or stay as they like."
"That should bring them out."
"Now isn't that the truth? You can coax and tickle all year and not get a bloom for thanks. Turn your back on 'em and they run you down."
Like love, she thought, and caught her tongue. But a splash of color took to her cheeks.
"Say, you're looking nice, Mrs. Shepherd, if you don't mind my saying it."
"Thank you. A touch of spring, I suppose."
"Don't it just send your blood racing? How would you like an armful of these?"
"I'd be very pleased, Mr. Joyce. But I'd like to pay you for them."
"Indeed not. I won't sell half of them—they come in a heap."
She watched his expert hand nip the blooms. He was already tanned, and he stooped and rose with a fine grace. In all the years he had lived next to them he had never been in the house, nor they in his except the day of his wife's funeral. He hadn't grieved much, she commented to Gerald at the time. And little wonder. The woman was pinched and whining, and there wasn't a sunny day she didn't expect a drizzle before nightfall. Now that Sarah thought of it, Joyce looked younger than he did when Mrs. Joyce was still alive.
"There. For goodness' sakes, Mr. Joyce. That's plenty."
"I'd give you the field of them this morning," he said, piling her arms with the flowers.
"I've got half of it now."
"And what a picture you are with them."
"Well, I must hurry them into water," she said. "Thank you."
She hastened toward the house, flying like a young flirt from her first conquest, and aware of the pleased eye following her. The whole morning glowed in the company she kept with the flowers. She snapped off the radio: no tears for Miss Julia today. At noon she heard Mr. Joyce's wagon roll out of the yard as he started to his highway stand. She watched at the window. He looked up and lifted his hat.
At odd moments during the day, she thought of him. He had given her a fine sense of herself and she was grateful. She began to wish that Gerald was returning that night. Take your time, Sarah, she told herself. You don't put away old habits and the years like bric-abrac. She had softened up, no doubt of it. Not a fat woman, maybe, but plump. Plump. She repeated the word aloud. It had the sound of a potato falling into a tub of water.
But the afternoon sun was warm and the old laziness came over her. Only when Mr. Joyce came home, his voice in a song ahead of him, did she pull herself up. She hurried a chicken out of the refrigerator and then called to him from the porch.
"Mr. Joyce, would you like to have supper with me? Gerald won't be home, and I do hate cooking for just myself."
"Oh, that'd be grand. I've nothing in the house but a shank of ham that a dog wouldn't bark for. What can I bring?"
"Just come along when you're ready."
Sarah, she told herself, setting the table, you're an old bat trying your wings in daylight. A half-hour later she glanced out of the window in time to see Mr. Joyce skipping over the fence like a stiff-legged colt. He was dressed in his Sunday suit and brandishing a bottle as he cleared the barbed wire. Sarah choked down a lump of apprehension. For all that she planned a little fun for herself, she was not up to galloping through the house with an old Don Juan on her heels. Mr. Joyce, however, was a well-mannered guest. The bottle was May wine. He drank sparingly and was lavish in his praise of the dinner.
"You've no idea the way I envy you folks, Mrs. Shepherd. Your husband especially. How can he bear the times he spends away?"
He bears it all too well, she thought. "It's his work. He's a salesman. He sells spices."
Mr. Joyce showed a fine set of teeth in his smile—his own teeth, she marveled, tracing her bridgework with the tip of her tongue while he spoke. "Then he's got sugar and spice and everything nice, as they say."
What a one he must have been with the girls, she thought, and to marry a quince as he had. It was done in a hurry no doubt, and maybe at the end of a big stick.
"It must be very lonesome for you since Mrs. Joyce passed away," she said more lugubriously than she intended. After all the woman was gone three years.
"No more than when she was with me." His voice matched hers in seriousness. "It's a hard thing to say of the dead, but if she hasn't improved her disposition since, we're all in for a damp eternity." He stuffed the bowl of his pipe. "Do you mind?"
"No, I like the smell of tobacco around the house."
"Does your husband smoke?"
"Yes," she said in some surprise at the question.
"He didn't look the kind to follow a pipe," he said, pulling noisily at his. "No, dear lady," he added when the smoke was shooting from it, "you're blessed in not knowing the plague of a silent house."
It occurred to her then that he was exploring the situation. She would give him small satisfaction. "Yes, I count that among my blessings."
There was a kind of amusement in his eyes. You're as lonesome as me, old girl, they seemed to say, and their frankness bade her to add: "But I do wish Gerald was home more of the time."
"Ah, well, he's at the age when most men look to a last trot around the paddock," he said, squinting at her through the smoke.
"Gerald is only forty-three," she said, losing the words before she knew it.
"There's some take it at forty, and others among us leaping after it from the rocking chair."
The conversation had taken a turn she certainly had not intended, and she found herself threshing around in it. Beating a fire with a feather duster. "There's the moon," she said, charging to the window as though to wave to an old friend.
"Aye," he said, "there's the moon. Are you up to a trot in it?"
"What did you say, Mr. Joyce?"
"I'd better say what I was thinking first. If I hitch Micky to the old rig, would you take a turn with me on the Mill Pond Road?"
She saw his reflection in the window, a smug, daring little grin on his face. In sixteen years of settling she had forgotten her way with men. But it was something you never really forgot. Like riding a bicycle, you picked it up again after a few turns. "I would," she said.
The horse ahead of the rig was a different animal from the one on the plow that morning. Mr. Joyce had no more than thrown the reins over his rump than he took a turn that almost tumbled Sarah into the sun frames. But Mr. Joyce leaped to the seat and pulled Micky up on his hind legs with one hand and Sarah down to her cushion with the other, and they were off in the wake of the moon....
The sun was full in her face when Sarah awoke the next morning. As usual, she looked to see if Gerald were in his bed by way of acclimating herself to the day and its routine. With the first turn of her body she decided that a gallop in a rusty-springed rig was not the way to assert a stay of youth. She lay a few moments thinking about it and then got up to an aching sense of folly. It remained with her through the day, giving way at times to a nostalgia for her bric-a-brac. She had never realized how much of her life was spent in the care of it.
By the time Gerald came home she was almost the person he had left the day before. She had held out against the ornaments, however. Only the flowers decorated the living-room. It was not until supper was over and Gerald had settled with his book that he commented
"Sarah, what happened to the old Chinese philosopher?"
"I put him away. Didn't you notice? I took all the clutter out of here."
He looked about him vacantly as though trying to recall some of it. "So you did. I'll miss that old boy. He gave me something to think about."
"Oh, I don't know. Confucius says ... that sort of thing."
"He wasn't a philosopher at all," she said, having no notion what he was. "He was a farmer."
"Was he? Well, there's small difference." He opened the book.
"Aren't the flowers nice, Gerald?"
"Mr. Joyce gave them to me, fresh out of his garden."
"Must you read every night, Gerald? I'm here all day with no one to talk to, and when you get home you stick your nose into a book ..." When the words were half out she regretted them. "I didn't tell you, Gerald. I had Mr. Joyce to dinner last night."
"That was very decent of you, dear. The old gentleman must find it lonesome."
"I don't think so. It was a relief to him when his wife died."
Gerald looked up. "Did he say that?"
"Not in so many words, but practically."
"He must be a strange sort. What did she die of?"
"I don't remember. A heart condition, I think."
"Interesting." He returned to his book.
"After dinner he took me for a ride in the horse and buggy. All the way to Cos Corner and back."
"Ha!" was his only comment.
"Gerald, you're getting fat."
He looked up. "I don't think so. I'm about my usual weight. A couple of pounds maybe."
"Then you're carrying it in your stomach. I noticed you've cut the elastic out of your shorts."
"These new fabrics," he said testily.
"They're preshrunken," she said. "It's your stomach. And haven't you noticed how you pull at your collar all the time?"
"I meant to mention that, Sarah. You put too much starch in them."
"I ran out of starch last week and forgot to order it. You can take a size fifteen-and-a-half now."
"Good Lord, Sarah, you're going to tell me next I should wear a horse collar." He let the book slide closed between his thighs. "I get home only three or four nights a week. I'm tired. I wish you wouldn't aggravate me, dear."
She went to his chair and sat on the arm of it. "Did you know that I was beginning to wonder if you'd respond to the poke of a hat-pin?"
He looked directly up at her for the first time in what had seemed like years. His eyes fell away. "I've been working very hard, dear."
"I don't care what you've been doing, Gerald. I'm just glad to find out that you're still human."
He slid his arm around her and tightened it.
"Aren't spring flowers lovely?" she said.
"Yes," he said, "and so is spring."
She leaned across him and took a flower from the vase. She lingered there a moment. He touched his hand to her. "And you're lovely, too."
This is simple, she thought, getting upright again. If the rabbit had sat on a thistle he'd have won the race.
"The three most beautiful things in the world," Gerald said thoughtfully, "a white bird flying, a field of wheat, and a woman's body."
"Is that your own, Gerald?"
"I don't know. I think it is."
"It's been a long time since you wrote any poetry. You did nice things once."
"That's how I got you," he said quietly.
"And I got you with an old house. I remember the day my mother's will was probated. The truth, Gerald—wasn't it then you made up your mind?"
He didn't speak for a moment, and then it was a continuance of some thought of his own, a subtle twist of association. "Do you remember the piece I wrote on the house?"
"I read it the other day. I often read them again."
"Do you, Sarah? And never a mention of it."
It was almost all the reading she did these days. His devotion to books had turned her from them. "Remember how you used to let me read them to you. Gerald? You thought that I was the only one besides yourself who could do them justice."
"Or was that flattery?"
He smiled. "It was courtship, I'm afraid. No one ever thinks anybody else can do his poetry justice. But Sarah, do you know—I'd listen tonight if you'd read some of them. Just for old time's sake."
For old time's sake, she thought, getting the folder from the cabinet and settling opposite him. He was slouched in his chair, pulling at his pipe, his eyes half-closed. Long ago this same contemplativeness in him had softened the first shock of the difference in their ages.
"I've always liked this one best—The Morning of My Days."
"Well you might," he murmured. "It was written for you."
She read one piece after another, wondering now and then what pictures he was conjuring up of the moment he had written them. He would suck on his pipe at times. The sound was like a baby pulling at an empty bottle. She was reading them well, she thought, giving them a mellow vibrancy, an old love's tenderness. Surely there was a moment coming when he would rise from the chair and come to her. Still he sat, his eyes almost closed, the pipe now in hand on the chair's arm. A huskiness crept into her voice, so rarely used to this length any more, and she thought of the nightingale's singing, the thorn against its breast. A slit of pain in her own throat pressed her to greater effort, for the poems were almost done.
Excerpted from Tales for a Stormy Night by Dorothy Salisbury Davis. Copyright © 1983 Dorothy Salisbury Davis. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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