A little past five, I stood at the stove. Footsteps sounded on the front porch, a whir of wheels, the rattle of a chain, and the snap of a lock. The front door opened, and someone crossed the living room. Wearing a quilted down vest and a helmet, Laurel stood in the archway.
“Good evening, darling,” I said.
“Nobody is going to steal a bicycle in Hapsburg.”
“Better safe than sorry.”
Laurel shook loose her long brown hair. She leaned over the stove and took a deep breath. “That smells good. What is it?”
“Split pea soup with onion and garlic.”
“What are the orange bits?”
She was flushed and smiling, teasing me.
“It’s traditional,” I said, “like chocolate chips in a cookie. You know me, I’m all about tradition.”
“Except when you’re not.”
Her cheek was so close, I couldn’t resist a peck.
“You’re wearing the new chef’s apron,” she said.
“Since you bought it for me.”
“After you bailed me out. To make amends.”
“There’s nothing to make amends for.”
“Then consider it a token of my appreciation. You didn’t say ‘I told you so.’”
“I’m still not. But I do want to know.”
“In return for my cooperation,” Laurel recited, “the campus police let me off the hook. I gave names and addresses of the other protesters.”
“What else could I do? The college library still fired me. There’s a clause in the employee guidelines about destruction of property.”
I held the spoon so she could taste the soup.
“The apron makes you look so clean and …”
“Like I know what I’m doing?”
“That too. You smell like fresh laundry.”
“Speaking of which …”
“I know, the hamper is full and the laundromat is lonely.”
“Chores. That was our agreement.”
“Anyway, you are a good cook, so enough false modesty.” She stepped back, unzipped her vest, and sat backward in a chair to face me.
“How was the first day at the new job?” I stirred the pot of soup. As we talked, I chopped vegetables and set the skillet over a flame.
“Wonderful! The public library is exactly what you expect in a small town, old and quirky, with lots of windows and natural oak. My boss Hazel Lampwick is a dear! She grew up here, always wanted to be a librarian. I would guess she’s 40-ish.”
“The same age as me. We went to school together.”
“Really and truly?”
“Miss Lampwick asked me to read aloud in the afternoon to the preschoolers. So, in addition to my menial tasks, I’m the new story lady. I started to read a book, but a squirmy little boy interrupted me after the first sentence. ‘We already read that one,’ he said. I tried another book, and he cut me off again.”
“So what did you do? Smack him?”
“No, Wes! I made up a story.” Laurel’s eyes shone.
“Aren’t you supposed to promote the written word?” I finished chopping and was about to sauté the vegetables.
“There’s no job description.”
“Besides, you told me you’re a terrible liar.”
“Telling a story is not the same as lying. It’s an art form.”
“An old Southern tradition.”
“Are people from Missouri allowed to tell stories?”
“Missouri is a border state.”
“Anyway, as I rode home on my bicycle, I passed the courthouse green, and I had to stop. Sunlight was fading, and clouds were turning a dull purple. Small birds flew as a flock around and around.”
“Lights came on in the houses. It was like watching a movie. I watched a man come home from work. I imagined his wife inside cooking dinner, children setting the table. They had to set an extra place for a visitor. Then it hit me — I was going home, too. Except instead of Mrs. Whatsit, you were in the kitchen.”
“And the children stayed at the library.”
“You should write about what you saw.”
“Oh, Wes, the subject is too much like my college poems. I don’t want to write something moody.”
“Then don’t. Paint the picture and tell the story.”
“I don’t even know what the story is.”
“Surprise yourself. Do it tonight, while the experience is fresh.”
“Should I include the bicycle?”
“Beats me. I never rode one.”
“I grew up dirt poor, Laurel. We lived in an old plank house with a rock fireplace. There was one bedroom for grownups. Children slept in the attic.”
“Where was this?”
“Out in the county.”
“Did you at least have indoor plumbing?”
“We fetched water from a spring and used a privy to answer the call of nature.”
“Your childhood home makes Missouri look progressive.”
“To make matters worse, my parents passed away in their 30s. I was the youngest. My sister helped raise me as long as she could. She got married, and then it was every man for himself. I got my first job as a teenager, when I was still in school.”
“Where are your siblings now?”
“Gone or moved away.”
“Are you the last of the Grubbs?”
“Not hardly. There’s always more lurking in the backwoods of Virginia. But you see how we couldn’t afford extras.”
“Like new clothes and fancy toys.”
“And that’s why you never learned to ride.”
“Now it’s too late.”
“Don’t say that! Better late than never. I’ll teach you.”
“You can ride my bicycle.”
“What if I crash and wreck it?”
“Wes, this isn’t like you. After supper, we’ll go outside for your first lesson. I’ll hold the handlebar and run alongside. You’ll see. It’s as easy as …”
“Falling off a log?”
After supper, Laurel dragged me out to the porch, unlocked her bicycle, and lifted it down the steps to the street. The last gasp of daylight was gone by then. A streetlamp flickered from an old utility pole that oozed tar and leaned like it was tired. Perched on the skinny bicycle seat, high above those skinny wheels, I tilted and wobbled.
“Feet on the pedals, look straight ahead.”
“I feel like a bear in a circus.”
“Once you get moving, it’s easier to balance.”
“It’s too dark to see where we’re going.”
“There’s no traffic in the street at this hour. We’ll be fine.” She panted as she ran.
Laurel lost her grip, and I spurted ahead. I struck a pothole, went down, and landed on my left elbow.
“No!” Laurel wailed as she scrambled to where I lay. “Are you hurt?”
“It’s a good thing I’m right-handed.”
“This is all my fault!”
“Give me a hand up. Ouch!” The agony was beginning.
“Your sleeve is ripped.”
“What about the bicycle?”
“It looks okay. Maybe a scratch on the paint.”
“How bad is my elbow?”
“Something white is showing. I think the bone is exposed.”
“What about blood?”
“Not too much.”
“That’s good, because I can’t stand the sight of blood. Especially when it’s mine. Can you look in the medicine cabinet?”
“I don’t know anything about first aid.”
“Maybe there’s some iodine or hydrogen peroxide.”
“Should I call a doctor? Boil some water?”
“Sharpen a knife for the amputation …”
“Just kidding, Laurel.”
“How can you make jokes at a time like this? What should I do?”
“If you want to do me a favor, darling, you can drive me to the emergency room.”
“Where is it?”
“The next town over. Here’s the key to my truck. I’ll give you directions.”
By the time we reached the regional medical center, my arm was throbbing and my mind was fuzzy. A plump young woman in a nurse outfit made wary eye contact with Laurel. She took my blood pressure, pulse, and so on.
“Dr. Zahiri will be with you in a moment.”
A dark, wiry young man with a black mustache poked me in the ribs and looked in my ears. He told me to breathe, listened through a stethoscope, checked my vision, and stuck a wooden paddle in my mouth.
“What brings you here upon this dreary midnight hour?”
“Oh, that.” He prodded my elbow until I screamed with pain.
“My dear sir, what is a little discomfort in the pursuit of medical science? You would not wish me to think you are a baby.”
“Yes, I would!”
“Notwithstanding! A summary physical examination having been concluded, let us proceed to a preliminary diagnosis. You have hurt your arm. The left one, to be precise. And how did this unfortunate turn of events come about?”
“I fell off a bicycle in the street.”
“Allow me to express my condolences.”
“How bad is it?” Laurel asked.
“Oh, not so bad, as these things go. No bones are broken, but if my train of thought is leading to a correct destination, the elbow is banged up pretty good. We must now proceed to a course of medical treatment. May I?”
“Appropriate touching only.”
“I shall prescribe two drugs, antibiotic and analgesic.” He talked nonstop as he cleaned and dressed the wound. “The arm will swell over the next several hours to a red balloon. This sling will allow the circulation of the blood. It must stay on for a week. During that week, there must be no driving under the influence and no heavy lifting.”
“I work in a warehouse.”
“My dear sir, for the next seven days, you will do nothing of the kind! I absolutely forbid it! Allow the injured arm to heal.”
“Now that we have disposed of the immediate complaint, it is my unpleasant duty to inform you that you are a very sick man. Undoubtedly, you suffer from high blood pressure, irregular heartbeat, and enlargement of the thorax.”
“What?” Laurel was alarmed.
“Hard living has taken its toll. After untold years of abuse and neglect, your heart may give way at any moment. You must immediately abandon the use of alcohol, tobacco, psychotropic drugs, and every vice that gives the illusion of pleasure.”
“I already did that.”
“Then there is no hope for you.”
“I want a second opinion.”
“Ah, Mr. Grubb, you are in denial.” He patted my shoulder affectionately. “It is perfectly natural, a defense by the mind against the stark reality of the body. Young lady, you must persuade your father to rest.”
“But he’s not …”
“Try to make his last moments on earth as peaceful as possible. One week!”
Normally, I leave the house each morning before Laurel is awake, but I had a bad night. By dawn I knew I wasn’t going anywhere. I lolled in bed, as Laurel got ready for work. She paused bedside and fretted.
“Can I fix breakfast for you?”
“Don’t bother. I couldn’t eat anything right now.”
“I could at least make coffee. Where do you keep the coffee maker?”
“It’s okay, darling.”
“What about your pain medicine?”
“That I could swallow. Where is that little bottle?”
“I hate leaving you here alone. I could stay and …
“There’s nothing you can do, sweetheart. I’m going to lie here all day and gaze out the window and moan something pitiful.”
“I feel sorry for you.”
“I feel sorry enough for two, so there’s no point in hanging over me. You go on to the library. By the time you get home, I’ll either be cussing or dead.”
“Don’t say that! Wait, did you believe what Dr. Zahiri said?”
“He was exercising his vocabulary. Notwithstanding! Now, shoo, or you’ll be late for work.”
I took a painkiller, turned on the TV, and collapsed on the futon. My forearm was swollen like Popeye the Sailor. Dr. Zahiri was right about the swelling. Did that mean he was right about my heart?
Laurel got home a little past five. She rushed to the kitchen with her helmet still on.
“Good evening, darling.”
“Hi, Wes. You already started supper?”
“Warmed-up split pea soup with the cornbread I made. It never goes stale.”
“Cornbread starts out dry and crumbly and stays that way. It’s traditional.”
“I could have stopped on my way home for take-out at Forbidden Garden.”
“We need to use up leftovers.”
“Were you able to get around?”
“I’m not crippled, just discombobulated.”
“You do look tired.”
“I was busy being miserable. I may lose my job, I can’t play guitar with my arm in a sling, and the pain is … a pain.
“Poor thing! Even with pills, it’s still there?”
“Like a dull thud. How was your day?”
“Too much down time. I thought about you. To distract myself, I wrote this.” She handed me a sheet of lined notebook paper.
“You wrote a poem?”
“About the courthouse green. You suggested it.”
“So I did. In the commotion, I forgot.”
“Tell me what you think.”
“Should I be brutally honest?”
“I might cry. Either way.”
I held the paper in my good hand. Laurel’s handwriting was clear. The title was “Evening.”
Swallows circle the courthouse green,
Black speckles in a sky of mauve,
While light drains from the air unseen,
And stillness rules the grove.
Now that the molten sun has set,
Gables and chimneys and the crown
Of trees merge in a silhouette,
An emblem of the town.
Windows are lit, the kitchen hums,
A glass is poured to cheer the guest.
The table waits, the supper comes,
The family is blessed.
“The end is a surprise,” I said.
“The family seated at the table.”
“It’s not my family.” She grimaced.
“You don’t like your parents.”
“Virginia is a healthy distance from Missouri, and I aim to keep it that way. It’s a generic family, an ideal.”
“Can it be more? Maybe it’s the painkiller talking, but I want to know. Can it be us?”
“I don’t see myself as a mother.”
“You like children.”
“So long as they’re somebody else’s. And I’m not much of a housekeeper.”
“That makes two of us. Do you want a younger man?”
“You’re asking hard questions, Wes.”
“Look, Laurel. We had a hot night last summer, and you moved in. We never talked much. Maybe this is as good a time as any.”
“When I was your age, I wanted to get married. Over the years, I had girlfriends. Once or twice we got close to making it official. But they always left.”
“Because of your drinking?”
“That’s why I quit.”
“Was that the only reason?”
“I made mistakes. Alcohol makes the mistakes occur more often. I’m still in favor of food and sex and good times.”
“So I noticed.”
“We’re having ourselves a good old time, Laurel. Is that all it will ever be?” I dropped to one knee. “Or will you marry me?”
“Oh, no! Are you having a heart attack?”
“I’m proposing to you. Can you help me up, darling?”
Laurel helped me off the floor, and we both sat. She was quiet for a while.
“Wes, you’ve been good to me. I can’t leave you in the lurch after what happened.”
“I didn’t ask for a nurse.”
“And I wasn’t volunteering.”
“So the accident doesn’t change a thing.”
“I wouldn’t say that.”
“Then what would you say?”
“I didn’t date boys in high school, because I wasn’t ready. I chose a women’s college because I still wasn’t ready. Listening to other girls talk about what they did with boys made me cringe. I graduated, academic life was over, and I had to move from the apartment. I had to face real life. Ready or not, here I come!”
“So one fine night, you went to the café …”
“… and there you were. As real as anything.”
“But we are an unconventional couple.”
“You’re the chief cook and bottle washer. What am I? A plaything? A young career woman on track to a future in library science? The next Miss Lampwick? All I know is I’m not making plans the way my parents do. They forever plot and plan, and where does it get them? I’m living day to day. I’m 21 years old, half your age. I have time to decide.”
“You said you’re the youngest, the only one left from your family. If you want to start a family, which involves planning …”
“I’m slipping past the age for that.”
“Aren’t children expected?”
“Not by me. A marriage isn’t what your parents did.”
Laurel was about to grant this point, when something rattled and hissed on the stove. The soup pot was boiling over. I jumped up to turn down the flame.
“So much for seize the moment,” I said. “What else can go wrong? When it comes to women, I never win.”
As I fussed at the stove, Laurel sneaked up behind me and wrapped her arms around me. She whispered in my ear.
“This time you win.”
I jumped again.
“Sorry? Did I squeeze your arm too hard?”
“It’s okay. I’ll live.” I revolved in her arms.
“Do we have to get married in the Methodist church where you sing in the choir?”
“Only if you want.”
“To be brutally honest, no.”
“Then we’ll go to City Hall.”
“A civil ceremony?”
“You pick the day.”
“Do we need rings and a bouquet? Do we have to dress up?”
“A minute ago, you said you’re not into making plans.”
“True, but this is a wedding.”
“A wedding is when you invite relatives and friends and hire a caterer and a band and put on a big show. Is that what you want?”
“No. I don’t care about impressing anyone. If my parents object, we can throw a party for them later. Or let them plan the party. Tell me what you want.”
“It’s real simple, darling. All I want is you.”