Nora Devereux invested the company payout and the proceeds from the house, but they generated less income than anticipated. She felt pinched by the loss of wages. There was monthly rent to pay, the cost of moving, and legal fees. A budget was in order.
Other adjustments came. The car was no longer at her door but parked in a designated lot. Getting around on foot entailed advance planning, a mental street map, and a pair of sensible shoes. Nora had to learn the names and faces of people in the apartment complex. She invented a quick biography to rattle off when meeting someone new.
“Originally from Maryland, I am a retired accountant and mother of two, now single. I do not belong to a church or a political party. All other topics are on the table.”
A woman in the apartment next door had a parrot that talked, and to which she replied. The conversations that sifted through the wall were maddening, but only by day. The parrot had an early bedtime. Other people had dogs and cats, radios and televisions. Street noise was low in the college neighborhood. Odors wafted in through open windows — spicy cooking and burning incense.
On reflection, Nora decided that this was life. In the circumstances, she ought to embrace it. Should she adopt a cat? She was more of a dog person. Walking the dog might be fun, or it might be a chore. The beast would shed hair and make messes indoors. The apartment was easier to keep than the house. Life was simple. Why complicate it?
Nora settled in. Summer passed in a blur of minor errands, adventures, and experiments. Fall sharpened the sense of a fresh start and trying out things. She rearranged furniture, allowed a new stylist to cut her hair, and sampled nearby restaurants. When a trim young man with sleek black hair, dressed in an expensive sport coat and slacks, offered to share a table one night, Nora accepted with pleasure.
Owen Thomas worked in a bank. He was single, not dating, and baggage-free, he said. Invited up for an after-dinner coffee, he heartily approved of what Nora had done with the apartment. He stayed the night. Without meaning to, Nora acquired a lover.
The affair was convenient for both, little more than a sexual fling. Neither said a word about his or her past, and the future did not exist. Fall turned to winter, but mild weather continued. Dawn revealed frost that melted away in the first hour of sunlight. One such morning, a Sunday, they lazed in bed.
“You remind me of an actress in a French film,” Owen said.
“Which one?” Nora was curious but still sleepy.
“Catherine Deneuve? Delphine Seyrig? Colette … ”
“Colette was a writer, but you’re warm. In her youth, she sang and danced onstage.”
“What did she write?”
“Novels, stories, always about love.” Nora raised herself on one elbow. “Now that I think of it, she wrote about an older woman and her young lover Chéri.”
“Doesn’t chéri mean darling?”
“Yes, darling. It’s all very aristocratic and maudlin.”
“She renounces him. He’s rather spoiled, a beautiful boy.”
“Am I your boy toy?”
“Why does she renounce him?”
“He is engaged to marry an heiress younger than he is, practically a child.”
“It sounds grim.”
“That’s what they do in France.”
“What is this?” From the bedside table, Owen picked up the little stone sculpture.
“From an admirer?”
Nora laughed. The prospect of jealousy struck her as ridiculous.
“An heirloom, then?” Owen examined the little animal.
“More of a raffle prize.”
“There’s a Latin inscription on the bottom.”
“A friend translated it for me:
This gift will bring good fortune for a year,
Then pass it on lest all gain disappear.”
“The lettering reminds me of what you see on the walls of the Catacombs. The sculpture looks like one I saw in a museum, an exhibit of ancient Roman artifacts.”
“It couldn’t be that old.”
“That would be fantastic. The Romans started the rigmarole of gift-giving, you know, at Saturnalia, December twenty-fifth. And they were madly superstitious.”
“No, I don’t believe in magic.”
“What do you believe in?”
“This conversation is spinning out of control. Are you hungry?”
“Then let’s get decent and go to the Italian place. My treat.”
By the end of the year, Nora had lost touch with the company and her ex-coworkers. What should she do with the gift? Repeats from the year before often showed up in Secret Santa, but that option was gone. And the animal wasn’t a white elephant by any stretch of the imagination. A baby rabbit with ears laid back. To the Romans it meant fertility and happiness—unless Owen was making up a story.
For that matter, what had Nora gained in the past year? When you put it that way, the answer was as plain as the nose on your face. Nora thought of Lily, a tear trickling down her snub nose. She would give Lily the strange little sculpture.
Nora Devereux found the telephone number, picked up the receiver, and held it to her ear. Instead of a dial tone, she heard Lily Chase say, “Hello?”
“It’s Nora. I was about to phone you.”
“And I dialed your number a second ago.”
“We must have thought of each other at the same moment.”
“Do you suppose it’s a psychic connection?”
“Oh, Lily, these things happen all the time.”
“To you, maybe.”
“Yes. I wanted to ask if you would like to meet for lunch.”
“That’s exactly what I was going to say!”
“Good. And since we’re at the end of the year, I have a little something to give you.”
“A gift? But I didn’t … ”
“You may recognize it from the company party last year.”
“In that case, I can reciprocate.”
“Is Tuesday free?”
“Yes. The Silver Spoon?”
“You read my mind, Lily.”
“This is so exciting!”
Every small town in the South has a restaurant on Main Street that dates from the early 1900s and serves traditional food like barbecue sandwiches, fried chicken, home-made pie, and hot black coffee. In Hapsburg, it was the Silver Spoon, with stools at a counter and booths along the side wall, diner-style. The chrome and vinyl were a little too smart, though. The Silver Spoon was only a few years old. Tourists took the replica for the real thing, ordered the Hapsburger Plate, and sipped their iced tea with an air of discovery. Residents forgot what used to be there and adopted it as the place to grab a bite and meet a friend.
Nora and Lily arrived before noon to avoid the rush. Even so, all the booths but one were taken. They made a beeline for it, settled in, and studied the chalk board for the day’s specials.
“Have you decided what to order?” Nora asked.
“Yes. Have you?”
“Yes, but I’m not going to tell you. It will be a test of your powers. Speaking of which … ” Nora dug into her bag and handed Lily a small object wrapped in tissue paper.
“I know what this is,” Lily said.
“Before you unwrap it?”
“It’s the magic bunny!” Lily freed the marble sculpture from the tissue and placed it on the table, beside the salt and pepper shakers.
“There’s no point in trying to keep a secret from you.”
They laughed pleasantly. They had worked in the same office for a year but knew very little about each other. The difference in age was thirty years.
“The bunny is supposed to bring good fortune,” Lily said, “but you lost your job and your house.”
“That is not quite accurate. I chose early retirement, and I sold the house to scale back.”
“What did you gain, then?”
“Peace of mind. Now, as you remember, the inscription says to pass it on at the new year or lose what you gained. So, what might seem like a gesture of goodwill and generosity is pure self-interest.”
Lily did not know what to make of irony. She would never catch up to Nora’s generation, she felt, nor did she want to. If that meant she was simple, so be it. She drew a small wrapped package from her bag.
“The foundry closed during the year, so there is no more annual holiday party and no more Secret Santa. Like your gift, this is left over from last year.”
“And probably from many years before that.”
“A fair exchange.”
“A foundry mug!” Nora hoisted a thick ceramic mug painted with a crucible and the legend “Hapsburg Iron Works.” She was delighted.
“There won’t be any more, so it’s a collectible.”
“You’re much too young to retire, Lily. Did you find another job?”
“Oh, yes. I’m an office management assistant at the investment firm of Xavier Young & Zwieback.”
“What is an office management assistant?”
“A glorified secretary. In the age of computers, nobody needs a girl to type, file letters, and answer the telephone. They do need someone to welcome visitors.”
“And look attractive while sitting at a polished desk with nothing on it.”
“I’m very good at that! The waiting area is beautiful, professionally decorated. In my spare time, I keep accounts for the firm. I’m not allowed to tell clients anything more than ‘Mr. Xavier will be with you in a moment.’”
“We all need something to pay the bills. A job is a job.”
“To tell you the truth, I’ve never been focused on a career. Promise you won’t tell, but what I want in life is to get married, have children, and be a doting wife and mother.”
“A daring admission.”
“You did all those things, Nora.”
“They bring satisfaction, I won’t deny it. If a husband is what you want . . .”
“And the house, and the children.”
“The family package, then, you should follow your dream.”
“Will the bunny deliver?” She patted the little sculpture.
“It did for me.”
A server came to the booth, a young man with unruly black hair and a bounce in his step. A tattooed forearm held a steaming pot of coffee. He and Lily exchanged a glance, a split second of erotic interest. Young people, Nora thought, as he filled her foundry mug.
“Ladies, are you ready?”
“I know what I want,” Lily said. She paused and tried to look enigmatic.
Pencil at the ready, the server turned to Nora.
“I’ll have the same.”
Lily Chase phoned to meet Nora Devereux for lunch again at the Silver Spoon.
“I have important news,” she said.
Four months had elapsed since they last talked, Nora realized. Time slipped away when you had no obligations and few expectations. The carefree life of retirement!
As the two made their way through the diner, Nora did not recognize anyone. During the years of child-raising and office work, she had not socialized much, and now she was almost a recluse. Lily beamed at friends and acquaintances. She bent to kiss one lightly on the cheek in passing.
“That was Kate, from our old office,” she said in Nora’s ear. “Don’t you remember her?”
“Sorry.” Nora wondered why Lily had chosen her from among so many to confide in. The fact that she could keep a secret? The young woman glowed with excitement. They settled into the booth, and Nora saw that Lily, in her mid-twenties, with the delicate frame and round face like a cameo, was beautiful.
“Here we are!” Lily said. Her eyes sparkled, and she could scarcely breathe.
“Lily, before you burst into flame, you had better tell me your important news.”
“Can’t you guess?”
“You’re in love.”
“Yes! I met a man named John, and he’s wonderful!”
“Of course, he is. What more can you tell me?”
“He’s a cabinetmaker, a woodworker with his own shop. He went to college, Virginia Tech. He has a degree in mechanical engineering. He worked briefly at the foundry until it closed, so we were there at the same time, but since he was in design and I was in accounting, we never crossed paths. He was also married briefly, now divorced. But we’re the same age, born in the same month!”
“That sounds auspicious.”
“John grew up here. He went to Hapsburg High School. His father owns the hardware store on Main Street, Shakewell Hardware. He worked there as a boy, he said. With a family business, you don’t have any choice. The woodworking started as a way to fill time when he was laid off at the foundry, and then he couldn’t find another job in engineering.”
“He sounds like a resourceful young man.”
“He’s practical. That’s how he describes himself. Also, loyal, brave, trustworthy, and clean.”
“Was he a Boy Scout? Never mind.”
“He lives in town in the sweetest cottage, with a stone chimney and green shutters at the windows and a gable that swoops down to make a front porch. I saw it from the street.”
“Does he live alone?”
“With a beagle, Snap. We shook paws.”
“Well, then, it’s all settled.”
“It happened because you gave me the magic bunny!” Lily reached across the table and took Nora’s hands in hers.
Nora wanted to protest. The rabbit was only a carved stone with a Latin inscription. But Lily’s touch transmitted a strange current. It shot up to her neck and made her spine tingle. Her brain reeled. She stared beyond the young woman at empty space and had a vision.
“What’s wrong?” Lily asked.
“I see you both in morning sunlight, you and John in the front yard of the cottage.”
“Are we married?”
“Oh, yes, a few years before. There’s a little boy sitting in the grass. He’s holding up a yellow dandelion he picked and wants you to praise. A little girl is on a tricycle.”
“No, three. You are standing on the front porch with a baby in your arms. The baby wants to nurse, and you are full of milk. You are talking to John, who has paused at the gate in the picket fence. He is dressed for the hardware store, not for woodworking. He says he will email you the month’s receipts and walk home for lunch as always.”
“We took over the business?”
“Apparently. He latches the gate behind him because the little girl wants to follow.”
“And the beagle?”
Nora came out of her trance and felt drained. “That’s all I saw.”
“Are you all right? You’re weeping.”
Nora felt tears trickle down her cheeks. She squeezed Lily’s hands and let them go.
“Oh, Lily, you will be happy! You and John will live in that cottage to the end of your days. John will be a good husband and a loving father. He will carry the children on his shoulders. He will make wooden toys for them, with moving parts.”
There was more to the vision, not all of it so rosy, and some of it inexplicable — an argument over money, a shady buyer of old store fixtures. Nora decided to edit.
“You will never be rich, and there will be hard times. The hardware store may fail. But you will have each other, and that will be enough.”
They sat in silence for a moment. Neither was sure what had just happened.
“Thank you, Nora.”
“Has he proposed?”
“Not yet, but I think it’s coming. That’s why I had to talk to you.”
“John said he already has a diamond ring, the one his first wife returned. He said he was bitter for a year, and now he’s ready to move on.”
“Why?” Abruptly, Lily was offended.
“First love is never forgotten, not in a year and not in a lifetime. Keep that in mind, and don’t become jealous of the past, no matter how perfect it seems. You are his future, his one true love.”
Featured image: Shutterstock
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