|I. The Park
“Aren’t you going for lunch? It’s a beautiful day today; you’re not going to let it go to waste sitting in that dingy office are you?" Amy asked Teresa.
Teresa looked out the store window. On the calendar it was the end of April, but the weather outside mirrored a perfect mid-summer day. It had been raining for days and she was beyond tired of eating lunch in her office. The bookstore had been uncommonly busy with the recent foul weather driving people to look for the escape of a good book. She scanned the store finding it largely empty and glanced at her watch; 12:30. The lunch rush isn’t happening she thought to herself. Everyone’s outside catching some rays. The idea was a good one.
“Lunch time it is. You’ll be ok?” she asked covering some guilt. Amy was the store's long time clerk, a single mom having been employed in her Aunt Lilly's bookstore for almost 15 years. She loved Amy, and her daughter Sam. Amy was softening Teresa's transition from student to sudden bookstore owner. She was burdened by the guilt of having to rely on Amy for every little thing.
“Absolutely! Go!. I’ll be fine, besides you could use some sun.” Amy smiled with a nod as she turned to wait on a customer. Teresa walked to the back of the store, and entered the stock room. She grabbed her lunch bag from the fridge then raced to her tiny office grabbing her purse. In the past two weeks since inheriting the store, she had spent all of her waking hours handling the transfer of ownership. She was overwhelmed by how much she needed to learn. She raced back to the front of the store waving to Amy.
“Have fun!” She heard Amy say with a wave, following a customer out the door.
She welcomed the warmth of the sun on her skin and found herself squinting in reflex to the blinding glare of the noon day brightness. She opened her purse to fish for her sun-glasses, feeling at one with the many other sun-worshippers. Riverside Park was a popular lunch spot. Her preferred bench over-looked a bay where a number of Swans called home. Teresa was pleased to see the hot-dog cart in its usual location beside the Park entrance and decided to stop to buy an Iced Tea from 'Franco the Friendly'.
“Glorious day isn’t it?” Franco observed with one of his patented friendly smiles.
“Oh yes! Feels like July. This your first day out Franco?”
The old man had been a familiar downtown vendor since her childhood. She was a familiar customer to Franco; usually just a diet soda, but once and a while she would surprise Franco with the purchase of one of his famous Italian sausages. He’d tease her by refusing her order on the grounds she might become addicted.
“No, I've been out a few weeks now, but the weather hasn’t been cooperating. I’m usually out the last week of March, but the stubborn winter put the kibosh to that this year. Here ya go missy.” He handed her the soda. "Where you been? Haven't seen you in a while." Asked Franco.
"I’ve been away at school, in Ottawa. Looks like I'm finished now though. You knew my aunt Lilly? She owned the bookstore there." She pointed towards the store. Franco frowned.
"Oh yeah. I knew her. I heard the sad news. I'm sorry for your loss. She was one funny old lady. She had the sauerkraut in her." Franco said with a wink. Teresa smiled with a nod.
"Thanks Franco. You’re right; she had a spicy side to her alright." Teresa acknowledged. Lilly's reputation usually preceded her.
"What's going to happen to the store? It would be sad to see it disappear, it’s a landmark in this town."
"She left to me. It’s up to me to carry on her legacy. It won't be easy though." Teresa replied as she stared at the building. It was a century old two story red brick structure. Lilly had it subdivided into two separate stores to downsize the bookstore and increase income by renting. The Antique Attic and its owner Edith Findlay had been her tenant ever since.
"Well missy, I think you'll do just fine. Just remember, she's not gone, she's still with you." Franco said with a smile. Teresa met his eyes, and smiled. She wanted to hug him. "What'll it be today?" he asked turning to wait on a customer. Teresa turned for the park.
“You be careful there missy. The ground’s mighty wet in the park; the river’s spilled over!” Franco warned.
“I will. Thanks Franco.”
She walked through the gate into the park noticing puddles here and there. Some trees were budding, the birds were singing and a lone squirrel scurried across her path. She loved the awakening of spring. She normally took a short-cut across the grass to get to the waterfront, but decided to heed Franco’s warning by sticking to the paved path.
She came upon the river. A sign was posted warning of high water levels and dangerous current. The fast moving water was evidenced by large pieces of ice racing down the river. A feeling of disappointment rose within her as it appeared all the waterfront benches were half submerged by the cresting river. She turned to search for another bench. Most were occupied, as the park was the destination of the day, but her eyes landed on one perched on a piece of higher ground blanketed in full sun. Teresa looking at the grass, she took a step to test it for firmness. It seemed solid enough, and she decided to risk it.
As she approached her target she was surprised to find a man standing by the bench in front of an easel. Curiosity came over her. She didn’t recall seeing him when she first noticed the bench. She slowed her pace as she approached behind the man who was intently focused on his subject; an old Church across the street from the park. She stopped a few paces behind him and observed his work, comparing it to the subject. The painting appeared complete.
The painter took a few steps backwards to view his finished work from a distance. Teresa had to step aside to prevent him from colliding with her. The man was so engrossed in his work he didn’t notice her standing beside him. Teresa felt she was intruding upon his privacy, and decided to slip away without disturbing him and return to the bookstore. As she took a step back, her foot landed on a twig causing it to snap, breaking the silence. The man glanced at her, gave a little smile, and refocused on his work. Teresa was feeling quite embarrassed having disturbed the painter. She focused on the painting and was instantly engaged by it.
“It’s very good.” She found her compliment inadequate.
Teresa looked at him. He was in deep concentration. He was a young man, no older than thirty she guessed. His hair was long; tied back into a ponytail covered by a black ball cap. He wore a black shirt with matching black denim trousers. His long thin face was adorned with a trimmed beard and goatee. He held a brush in his left hand, and a large paint filled palette in his right. She glanced back at his painting. The piece displayed mature skill. This man has been painting for a long time she thought. She was taken by his masterful use of light and color. She found his style to be familiar to her. After another uncomfortable minute or two of silence, she decided to leave him alone.
“Thank you. You like churches, do you?” He asked, his eyes not moving from his painting.
Teresa, startled upon hearing his voice, dropped her soda. Was that a French accent she detected? She looked at him fighting to recall his question.
“Umm, Churches? Yes. Well, um, I guess. I’m not religious, but I do like art, and your painting; well, it’s very good.” She responded embarrassed by her stammering.
Teresa picked up the drink, and opened it. She was startled as the soda exploded and she instantly dropped it to avoid the spray. The painter tried to step aside, but it was too late. His sandaled feet were wet with diet cola.
"Oh my God! I'm so sorry!" Teresa was feeling more than embarrassment now. She dug in her purse for some tissues, not finding any.
"No worries. I'll live.” replied the man grabbing a rag hanging from the easel.
"I can be such a klutz." She was feeling quite uncomfortable now, and glanced around to map her exit. "I'm leaving you now, before I do any more harm." Teresa jumped again feeling something brush around her ankle. It was a cat.
“That’s Lazarus. I apologize. I have been rude. I tend to get immersed in my painting.” The man said sitting on the bench to attend to his wet sandals and feet.
“No apology needed. I apologize for the interruption. As I said, I was just leaving.”
As Teresa was about to leave the man, her eyes followed the white cat as it jumped onto the bench beside the man. She was attracted to the cat’s colorful collar sparkling in the full sun.
“What a pretty collar.” She said kneeling for a closer look. The cat jumped onto the bench, she took a seat beside the cat to have a better look. The cat jumped onto her lap. The collar was a hollow leather tube containing a number of multi colored stones. The contents of the tube were made visible by holes of different shapes and sizes perforating the leather.
“How unique.” she stated. She looked at the man. "I'm sorry; I'm a sucker for cats. He's beautiful."
“Thank you. He would agree. You like cats.” It was a statement more than a question.
“Yes. Fido is my companion. He's not quite as well dressed as Lazarus here.”
“I’m sure you’re a very loving mother.” the man sincerely stated. “So you’re not very religious. Do you believe in God?
Teresa looked at him, his question disturbed her and she ignored it. She met his eyes for the first time. She was instantly charmed. The words 'Endless Blue' popped into her head, something she had read in a novel somewhere. They were quickly followed by 'A sculpted face with precision beard.' Her thoughts were becoming embarrassing now. Was this attraction? Who was this man?
“Who are you?” The words managed to escape. He smiled at the question.
“Ah yes. I have introduced Lazarus, but not myself. My name is Andalo. And I have the pleasure to be seated beside?”
“Teresa. Teresa Miller. I sometimes come to this park to eat lunch. When the weather’s agreeable that is.” She replied holding up the lunch bag. She had already forgotten his name. Did he say Andy?
“Oh please, by all means. Please nourish yourself, don’t let me interrupt your meal. I must be packing up.” He stood up and moved towards the easel. Teresa pulled a sandwich out of her lunch bag, and noticed her empty soda can still lying on the sidewalk.
"You need a drink? He asked offering her bottled water.
"No thank you, I'm ok. I should just head back to work." She stood and picked up the empty can. The painter placed the bottle on the bench.
"Here it’s yours. Please. Sit. Don't waste the sunlight. Look, Lazarus is waiting." Teresa looked at the cat sitting on the bench looking at her, his tail deliberately wagging as if to beckon her. Teresa sat. Lazarus welcomed her with a rub of his head against her shoulder. She opened the water and took a gulp.
"You are French?” She asked knowing the answer.
"Oui! Born and raised."
“How long have you been painting?” she asked taking a bite of her boring ham and cheese sandwich.
“I’ve always been a painter.” He took the canvas off the easel and propped it on the bench beside Teresa.
”You paint?” he inquired, sounding once again like a statement rather than a question.
“Me? No. Well, not since High School.”
“Why?” he asked.
Teresa had to think about it. She loved art, and was an art-history major, until her aunt died leaving her the bookstore.
“I’m not sure. I enjoy pencil sketching more than painting. I'm not very good at it.”
“Someone has told you this?” Teresa looked at him meeting his eyes. She sensed his sincere interest. His demeanor exhibited genuine peace and warmth. Her discomfort toward him was softening. She thought about the answer to his question.
“No. Not that I recall. People usually tell me I’m talented and should consider pursuing it. I once won an award for one of my sketches.”
She was feeling a sense of pride from reliving her accomplishment. She looked at his painting, and found herself wishing she could paint like that.
“I could never do that. I could never capture what you have in your painting. Your interpretation is…” She stood up to view the painting with its subject behind. “Its like... you captured more than what is seen. Maybe it's the glory of the building when it was new. Your style, its almost...” the man interrupted her thought.
“The award you won, what was the subject?” She looked at him, her train of thought lost.
“It was Fido, my cat. It drew it just after my aunty had given him to me. It was a gift for her birthday.” A smile came over her face as she relived the moment. “That seems so long ago now.” She stated reliving the loss of Lilly.
“Cats make wonderful subjects, don’t they?” The man stated. He grabbed the painting and seated himself.
"Yes they are. Challenging to capture unless there sleeping though." She smiled reliving the experience.
Teresa swallowed the last bite of her sandwich and sat beside him. Lazarus was purring between them. As she viewed his painting she discovered a new detail; a lone cat walking on the grass beside the Church.
“Don’t you think there’s something about cats?” She asked him as she gently massaged Lazarus. His purring expressed his pleasure.
“How do you mean?"
“I don’t know. It’s hard to explain. I sometimes feel Fido knows more about what’s going on than I do. It’s like he sees something I don’t.” She looked at the man and shrugged her shoulders. “I know it sounds silly.” She stated thinking it was a childish thing to say.
“No. Not at all. Cats are remarkable creatures. They have what could be called a spiritual wisdom about them.”
“Yes. That’s one way to put it I guess.” Teresa acknowledged. She looked at her watch and thought about Amy back at the bookstore. “I really must be getting back to work. It was very nice to meet you. I apologize for being a distraction, and spilling soda on you." Teresa stood up. "Goodbye Lazarus." She looked at the painter. "Sorry, I seemed to have forgotten your name."
“No apologies needed Teresa. My name is Andalo. It’s uncommon. My friends prefer to call me Painter.
"Well it was nice to meet you too Andalo."
”The pleasure was all mine Teresa."
He stood up and picked up his duffel swinging it across his shoulder, and put out his hand to shake Teresa’s. She stood and he took her hand and kissed it. Teresa, taken by surprise, looked to see if anyone was watching.
“May our paths cross once again.” He stated with a smile. “Come Lazarus.”
Teresa watched as he walked out of the park and across the street towards the church. His bag over his shoulder, and the painting balanced between his hand and shoulder. Lazarus following him a few steps behind. Teresa sensed she would in fact cross paths with this man again. As the cat stepped from the shade into the sunshine it turned to her. The collar of gems caught the sun exploding into a rainbow of radiant color. "Until we meet again Teresa." She was startled as the words popped into her head. She looked around for him, as she was sure it was his voice. She glanced back to Lazarus. The cat and the man were out of sight.