A newcomer to Florida and her friendship with an alligator
|"Whoever you are, I fear you are walking the |
walks of dreams"
My hands shook as I unlocked the car door and stepped out. Here I was, at last, gasping with enthusiasm like a teenager on her first date. But I was no stirred-up teenager. Not by any means. One could hardly call a forty-nine year-old divorcée with crow's feet at the corners of her eyes a teenager. A lump danced in my throat and tears blurred my sight, flooding my cheeks with the joy of ownership. I was excited because, right there in front of me, the welcoming pink stucco façade of my newly-bought two-story house beamed under the Florida sun.
The movers' van hadn't arrived yet. I carried a few items from the car and piled them up in one corner of the living room. The van would be bringing my bed and a few other pieces of furniture from the condo which I deemed to be only suitable for the porch. I skipped to the front door to check again if the van was anywhere in sight. It wasn't. But my Honda's door was ajar. While closing it, I noticed on the back seat two Publix bags of groceries I had forgotten to bring in. I took the bags to the side of the house where the kitchen door was. Just then I caught sight of the van down the street. I dropped the bags on the grass and rushed to the front door.
'Such a big house, Ma'am," the movers' bowlegged foreman remarked. "You have your job cut out for you. It will take you months to fill this place up."
"I'm not that particular," I shrugged, signing the bill. "I think I can pull it off since I like to keep the place light and airy. That shouldn't be too difficult."
"Thank you, Ma'am!"
The foreman shared the tip with the two other sweaty movers.
The foreman had a point. It was a big house, maybe too big for one woman intending to live by herself in search of something. What was that something? Independence? Identity? Both were "I" words and I was determined to find or unlock whatever that "I" was.
Puttering around and arranging things, I recalled the day when I first met my house.
The real estate broker had shown me three houses in this neighborhood and, to make them sound precious, she referred to this one in disparaging terms while we were driving on the street in front of it.
"Now, this house has been on sale for four years now. We are reluctant to show it and the buyers reject it. Who needs to deal with a house which has stayed empty for so long?"
"I want to see it," I said.
"Are you sure?" Carol, the real estate broker, sounded surprised.
As I stepped out of her car, "I'm very sure," I said, "I love the canal in the back."
"Oh, I wouldn't call it a canal," she said. "It is the tip of one of the forks of the St. Lucie River. And this house is at the end of the tip. In other words, here you have the river-view. Let's walk to the back and see."
It was late afternoon and behind us the sun was shrinking to the west. Some unexpected bright rays still shone through the breaks among the trees and other lush vegetation. The river, quenching the thirst of the hollowed subtropical earth, lay untormented inside its dark cloak speckled with fallen tree branches, leaves, and water plants. Several egrets by the water clapped their wings and flew away into the dimmed dense thicket when they saw us approaching.
The backyard of the house edged the river. On the left side stood a wooden dock with its slats broken and legs buckling.
"That contraption will need fixing real soon," Carol commented. "There are too many things inside that need attention too."
"I don't need a dock," I said. "I wouldn't step inside a boat. I am afraid to go in any water, even a bathtub. I'm a shower gal, pure and simple."
"But the value of the house will decrease if you get rid of it. And as it is, it's an eyesore. Besides, it would be tough to get a new permit for a dock, if you decide to sell it later."
"I won't sell it."
Carol gave me a funny look. "You haven't even seen the inside yet."
"Then, let's go," I urged her. It seemed so unusual for a real-estate broker not to want to sell any property.
I walked through the front door into the open arms of a house I had already fallen in love with. The entrance hallway opened into a large living space with an airy cathedral ceiling. I walked to the middle dazzled by the light coming from the outside.
"Come back, Mrs. Ferguson. Let's start here," Carol said, opening a door to the left to exhibit a full bath. "Now, who'd put a full bathroom at the foyer?" she ridiculed.
"I may be able to live with that," I said. "Call me Lynn. I'm Laura Lynn. Most call me Laura but I like the Lynn part better."
"Okay, Lynn." She opened another door adjacent to the bathroom, baring a large laundry-room without appliances.
"Great," I said, "I can even do my ironing here."
"These stairs lead to the second floor," Carol pointed to the spiraling wrought-iron staircase. "That door behind the staircase opens to the kitchen. You also have access to the kitchen through the dining area."
At the back of the house, the living area had several sets of sliding doors opening to a mesh-covered porch. Inside the porch, a swimming pool showed off its bright turquoise water. There was also a cabana with a shower, a sink, and a commode. On the other side of the pool a brick built-in barbecue pit was positioned to face the sliding door of the dining area.
"The owner sends a pool-man once a week and a landscaper takes care of the lawn. You can't build a fence around this property or anything else. You can plant some things but not just anything you want due to the regulations of the neighborhood association. This is a restricted-deed area." Why was Carol talking this place down?
"Let's see upstairs," I urged her again.
On the second floor, it was a surprise to find three large bedrooms plus two baths and lots of closets with one walk-in, considering that the cathedral ceiling of the living area had taken half the floor space upstairs. My mind was made up.
"I'll take it," I said.
"Okay, then. I'll draw up the necessary papers. You'll probably need repairmen and such. Since you're new to this town, I can recommend a painter, an electrician, and a plumber, if you wish."
"Yes, that would be wonderful. Thanks," I said.
"The good news is the price of this house is one third less than those built during the same year and its basic structure is faultless. It is a strong cement-block house. So it is a good buy there. But there is one thing I have to tell you. It is required that we do this by Florida laws."
"Sure, I'd like to know whatever that is."
"Someone has died in this house. The law says we have to inform the prospective buyers when such a thing occurs during the time a place was last occupied. That is why some places stay on the market longer than they should."
"Strange law," I said. "People die all the time and Florida hosts an elderly population."
"Florida has many strange laws. When you have the time, check these things up in the library. Recently they built a beautiful library next to the middle school. It is within a short walking distance of this house you want."
"I might be working there," I said. "I saw their ad and I'm looking for a job like that."
"Didn't you tell me you were a translator or something?"
"Yes, but I'd like to have a job to go to. Those things I always did from home. Tell me one thing. Who died in that house, an old person?"
"On the contrary. It was a fifteen year-old boy. Very tragic."
"How awful! How did he die?"
Carol swallowed her breath. "Accident," she said. "It was an accident. He drowned."
"In the river?"
"Then that means he didn't die in the house."
"That is technically true. The family was devastated. The whole town was. Do you still want the house? There are many others I can show you."
"No, I'm happy with my choice. Let me talk to my sister and see what she says."
"Look Sweetie, if you like it so much, take it," Justine, my sister, sighed on the phone. "Don't pay attention to superstition. People die in houses all the time. We are nearing the twenty-first century. Never mind what people say, and call me if you need help, financial or otherwise. A house is better than any man. You can always get rid of it easily. I'm sure it will be less of a rash decision than that of your marriage and divorce."
All my life I've looked up to Justine. Being five years older than me, my sister watched over me like a lioness taking care of her cubs. In contrast to my impulsive behavior, Justine knew what to do in any situation. I'd be penniless now if it weren't for Justine. She had a mind for finances and it was she who secured that Darren, my ex-husband, wouldn't take a penny away from my inheritance from Dad.
I smiled whenever I thought of Justine; Justine was so adaptable. When she began working in the New York Stock Exchange, she turned herself around effortlessly into a business woman, elbowing her way to Wall Street on the Port Jefferson line of Long Island Railroad everyday. Justine's fashion taste changed its colors as fast as a chameleon and she easily switched from her carefree jeans and tees to smart business outfits. Tall and slinky, she seemed even younger than before, a little boyish, and so stylish, hiding her large eyes behind the shaggy bangs of her short-cropped blond hair.
Like me, Justine inherited blue eyes and blond tresses from our mother. Unlike me, what she inherited from Dad was a long Roman nose with a curved tip. But she took care of that with one simple operation just before she married our next-door neighbor Frank Severino, after testing his mettle for many years.
"I wish I could be as smart as you," I'd tell Justine.
"I wish I had your looks," she'd tell me.
I sighed with content and fatigue. What a day it had been! Still thinking about Justine and our growing years together, I nestled inside a wicker armchair in the porch with a tall glass of diet coke and embraced the calm of my first night in my new home. The nocturnal beauty of the river shimmering under a full moon, flickering lights and shadows dancing through the dark embroidery of woods and brush entranced me. From the depths of that black water stretching along my backyard, mystifying night sounds hissed and whispered, sending their intuitive vibes to this new inhabitant as an occasional frog croaked somewhere.
All of a sudden it dawned on me that, through the rush of the day, I had left the two grocery bags by the kitchen door. It had been a steaming Florida afternoon in May; it was doubtless every single thing in those bags was spoiled and that whole chicken probably reeked enough to make angels in high heaven hold their noses with clothes pins. I thought of stepping outside to put the bags in the garbage bin, but imagining the stink, I held back. Instead I fixed my gaze on the glittery coat of the serene water. So much beauty existed in its solitude. This river was grabbing hold of me like a dream solidified.
Something moved. Staring intently I detected ripples arching outward from the waterside. Right near the dock, a fallen log sailed along in silence. A slight rustle; the log was moving out of the water. It inched its way on to the lawn. That's when I saw HIM fully as the moonlight danced off the bumps of his hide, leaving the recesses in total darkness. The head, on which red-neon gleaming eyes flickered, had to be enormous. But he seemed to be one huge piece with that head attached to the body. Offhand, I guessed him to be at least twelve feet. A behemoth or an antique entity, he fitted well into the night for moonbeams defined him. But with him it wasn't that which was defined. The breathtaking part was the part of him left in the dark.
Watching him I suddenly felt more alive, with something inside me emerging, as life had emerged from sea to land. Mesmerized, I stood up and tiptoed to the side of the porch closer to him. On the grass hissing, he wagged his tail and thumped his head. Then he waddled toward the side of the house. The sound of a single crunch dashed through the air. "The Publix bags," I speculated, remembering the chicken. "He's cleaning up for me. Thank you, Alligator."
When he tottered back to where he was in my full view, his head moved and his mouth opened. A hollow roar or a bellow maybe, but not a fierce tone for sure; he sounded more like ancient windpipes playing Bach in mournful tones. In joint consciousness with him, I listened. His grandeur had blinded the full moon.
The sound of a passing car echoed from the street. The alligator stopped moving for a few seconds; then, he slid on his belly into the water. Soon the river shifted to its previous splendor.
Sometime past midnight, I arose from bed feeling watched over, with the magic of the river still lingering inside my soul. In spite of the heat outside, I turned off the air-conditioning and opened all the upstairs' windows. Then I went to bed and closed my eyes. Soon the sweet songs of the river grew rhythmic as they lulled me back to sleep.
The dance hall contained only women, but Darren was there too and he was dancing with Sheila. All the women danced with cut-out male dolls from the Esquire magazine and nobody asked me to dance. I saw Darren smirk.
The next minute everyone started laughing with their fingers pointing at me, schreeching, "Wallflower!"
Suddenly through the door, a dark shapeless figure dashed in and pulled me to dance. I couldn't see the face at all, but the hand that took my own was rough and scaly. We were dancing, gliding, soaring...I felt my body tremble as I witnessed and at the same time took part in this miraculous dance. Someone on the dance floor shrieked, "Laura is dancing with her beast..." No! No! Don't call me that. I'm not Laura anymore. I'm Lynn. I'm Lynn. Call me Lynn.
Abruptly I woke up, drenched. Lynn, I called myself out loud. Lynn! Like my parents and everyone else used to call me. Only Darren called me Laura and I had let him.
The first rays of the dawn were breaking into the room. In spite of the cool morning breeze, it was still steaming inside. I closed the windows and turned on the air conditioning again.
"So you moved in already! Welcome! I'm Cynthia."
Tamping down the soil around the sapling, I looked up to see an elderly, tall, twig-like lady in a full-length pastel-pink cotton dress. I had to grin at the way she held the digging fork like a staff, as if she were the female half of that famous early American painting.
"Hello," I said, "I moved in yesterday."
I stood up, wiped my hands on the seat of my jeans, and held out my hand. "I'm Laura Lynn Ferguson."
"Nice to meet you, Laura."
"Please, call me Lynn. Laura was my mother's name. My family calls me Lynn."
Cynthia took my hand. "Mrs.? Am I right, Lynn?"
"Yes. But I'm not married anymore. I am divorced several months now."
"Oh, I always say drop those no-good ones. Richard is my third. You're so young and pretty. It should be dime a dozen for you. Especially around here. They'll crowd around you like bees to honey."
"I'm not looking, really. I've had it. I think I'll stay single for a long time to come."
"That bad eh? Well, we'll see about that. Do you have any children, Lynn?"
"I have a fourteen-year old, Nora. She lives with her father."
"You have a big house...Who'll be living with you then? If you don't mind my asking..."
"No, not at all. I live alone. Nora will come to visit me often and I'm hoping my sister and her family can find the time also."
"Why are we standing here?" Cynthia laid the digging fork to the side of her lemon tree in between our properties. "Come in the porch with me. We'll chat over a cold drink."
"First, let me close my porch door," I said.
"Don't worry about that. This neighborhood is safe. Nothing ever happens around here."
I locked the porch door anyway.
"Richard," Cynthia raised her voice sticking her neck out toward the inside of her house. "Bring out some refreshments for Lynn and me."
Richard, probably in his seventies, rushed around from the other side of their house like a puppy about to fetch his master's slippers. He was shorter than Cynthia with dark brown eyes and crew-cut white hair. He took his baseball cap off and waved at me.
"So glad someone's next door," he said when he came out again, this time carrying a tray. "For so long that house has been empty. This place sometimes looks like a ghost town. We are not here all through the year either." He spooned crushed ice into tall glasses and popped open a couple of ginger ale cans.
"We're both retired," Cynthia handed a glass to me and she took another one for herself. "By the time it is May 15, we're usually out of here. It gets too warm to bear."
"Where do you go?" I asked, sipping the drink with the strong fizz.
"We have a place in Toronto. We stay there from May to October. They call people like us, snowbirds," she giggled.
"How nice," I said, to be polite. "I'm from Long Island, Port Jefferson to be exact. But the last two years I lived in Westchester."
"Hmmmm, Westchester," Cynthia sounded impressed. Darren should have seen her. That's why he had us move to Westchester, to impress people.
"What made you choose this town?" Richard asked.
"My brother in-law mistakenly bought a condo from General Development in 1987. After my divorce, my sister gave me the keys to the condo and told me to take a vacation. I liked the laid-back atmosphere of the town and started to look for a house here. I liked this house. So here I am drinking your ginger ale."
"And we're so glad you did that," Cynthia said. "Many come here for a visit, but then end up staying. Some go away in summer because of the heat. This year we'll be a little late in leaving. Our place in Toronto is getting a new roof. We're hoping we'll be out of here by mid-June."
"That General Development!" Richard grimaced. "I have to say they built up cities but they swindled an awful lot of unsuspecting people."
"You can say that again," Sylvia said. "Some people were really taken in."
"Let me know if you need repairs done," Richard offered. "I do everything myself. Out of self-defense, I say. It isn't the cost, mind you. It is the sloppy way they do anything around here."
"Thank you so much. I'll keep that in mind. Right now I've been through with all the repairs. I think! I'm sure more will sprout up, once I get to know the house better."
"If there's anything, Dear, anything at all," Cynthia said, "Do tell us. Please. That's what neighbors are for."
"Thank you and likewise," I answered. "I want to ask about the previous owners of the house. I never met them. Their attorney took care of the sales."
"Oh, the Quinns," Richard's face grew solemn. "After the gator got their kid, they moved to Virginia. Nobody has seen them again."
"Gator? I thought he drowned."
"Yes, that's true too. We don't exactly know how. We weren't here when it happened," Cynthia said, "That kid loved the water. If he wasn't in the pool, he was in the river. I heard they got the gator later and killed him. It was a seven-footer. If a gator measures less than four feet long they take them elsewhere. Otherwise these animals return because they can remember the place. They're a nuisance. Those bigger ones are destroyed if found around the neighborhoods."
"Mind you, the gator didn't eat the kid," Richard said. "It grabbed him and dragged him down. That's how he drowned. When a gator sees a small head bobbing up and down, he mistakes it for small prey. I'll give you a couple of phone numbers, Lynn. If you see anything, call. We don't need another mishap around here."
The night before flashed through my mind but I didn't say anything. I just couldn't. 'Far be it from me to cause the demise of any animal,' I reasoned inside me, 'Especially where we humans were the invaders of this alligator-land.'
I took a few sips from my ginger ale. Meanwhile Cynthia and I turned the conversation around to interior decorating as Richard hobbled into the house for the phone numbers.
"I'm a licensed decorator, retired though I may be," Cynthia beamed proudly. "I'll help you. I know all the furniture stores around here."
"Thank you so much," I said, elated. "Most of the rooms are empty. So far I have my bed. I eat on the kitchen counter. I have my sister's condo furniture, in wicker, which I put in the porch. Now my sister wants to rent the condo unfurnished year-round, so she told me to take whatever."
"Fantastic. We'll work it out. It will be a joy for me."
I'd have liked to see Darren's face, had he been watching me at that moment. Darren had ridiculed me when I told him I would be moving to Florida.
"People go there to wait for their death. You'll be all alone. You can't make friends very easily."
"Not if you take them away from me."
That was true. Darren had a habit of going through my friends; that is, through their bedrooms. Those who didn't let him felt so uncomfortable about the situation that they usually stopped seeing me also. Looking back, I mourned more for those friendships than I've ever mourned for my stupid marriage.
Sheila's was the last one of those friendships. Sheila was a Westchester widow, strikingly beautiful and rich, who lived next door to us. During the two years I lived in Westchester, she became my best friend. With any other woman the affair would have blown over; I'd look the other way and it would be history. But for Darren, Sheila was too good to pass up. So, Darren was the one who wanted out and I let him go.
What shocked me the most about this whole thing was not the behavior of Darren or Sheila but that of Nora, my fourteen year-old daughter. Nora, who had never liked Sheila, chose to stay with Darren and Sheila when I moved out to my father's summer cottage in Quoque. I felt betrayed. Had I imagined a close relationship with my daughter when there wasn't any?
"Mom, please understand," Nora begged me, shaking her blond curls, "And I know you'll understand because you always do. I don't want to uproot myself again. And don't worry; I love you just the same. I know none of this is your fault."
It felt as if something weird was running inside that pretty head, but at the time I thought it to be one of those teenage things.
"I'm going to miss you, Nora," I said, my eyes tearing up. "I guess it is tough to cut the cord at any age."
Nora hid her face on my shoulder and sobbed. "Mom, don't make it any more difficult than it already is, especially when I'll miss your cooking."
This trying to show justification for her choice... It was evident that she loathed every minute of this. Nora was like me in so many ways, especially when she made choices she couldn't explain. I had to respect that. I held my daughter tight and said, "You don't have to give me any reasons, Baby. Sheila and your father will be family and it may work out for you."
"Mom, You're the only family I have," Nora answered, taken aback. "You and Aunt Justie. Dad isn't making me stay here anyway. He said I could come live with you whenever I choose to. But I have to stay here. Please don't ask why."
"You'll tell me when you're ready. But you'll visit me often, won't you?"
"I sure will," Nora said strongly. "I love you, Mom."
The library was a brand new building with large floor space and an ample parking lot. It was situated on the same street as my house, about a quarter of a mile down, between the middle school and a small shopping center with Eckerd's drugstore in its corner.
At the entrance, in the middle, the first thing that caught my eye was the computer center with eight units. The counter for borrowing books was in front of the left wall, and to the right, a square area probably thirty feet by thirty feet was sectioned off for the children's books. Further inside, some chairs and tables were strategically placed among the shelves, and in the middle, like a well-to-do physician's waiting-room, a reading center boasted comfortably cushioned armchairs and a sofa. At the far end, there were several quiet booths each with glass walls and a door.
It was a relaxing atmosphere for sure. After looking around a bit, I approached the counter, determined not to let timidity and stage-fright interfere with my goal. A black girl with fully rounded face looked up at me from behind her computer.
"May I help you with something?"
"Yes, please. I have an appointment with Gwen Robertson. My name is Laura Lynn Ferguson."
Gwen Robertson, a trim, serene-looking woman in her late fifties with sharp hazel eyes, asked me to step behind the counter and opened a door I had missed noticing at first glance.
"This is where we have our staff meetings," she said.
"Beautiful library with plenty of space," I commented.
"The community had a lot to do with it," she said. "People pitched in. Half the shelves were filled already before we began ordering books."
It would be so convenient for me if I could get the job here. I always loved libraries. This one was built probably within a year or two and it looked fabulous.
Looking through my papers Gwen Robertson commented, "If you'd rather, there's another opening at the Indian Head Community College West. The pay and the benefits are much better."
"Is there a reason why I can't work here?"
"No, not at all. If anything, you're over-qualified. I said that to just let you know. You'd be perfect here. None of my co-workers are language-savvy. I know Dutch because of my origin. A Spanish girl used to work here but she left. I see that you have worked with quite a few languages. Your résumé doesn't show any workplace experience during the last fifteen years though."
"I wasn't working outside the home. I translated a few books during that time. Here is a list of those that have been published. I'm really a linguist rather than a librarian, but I think I have enough college credits for both. I also worked in Stony Brook Library before I was married. I have that in my résumé."
I didn't find this interview easy; I wasn't used to selling myself by re-wording and re-constructing my life like a sacrificial offer at the altar of a job opportunity. Fortunately, Gwen interrupted the interview right there by shoving a document in front of me.
"I'm delighted," she said. "Here's your contract. Look it over and sign it. When can you start?"
"You tell me. I live close by, a few blocks down the street here. I just moved in."
My stomach muscles contracted as I laced my sneakers. This morning I'd start jogging. I planned to keep to a steady schedule by starting slow and building up gradually. After the decision to relocate, the house, and then the job, this was to be the fourth thing I'd do on my own without anyone prodding me. Usually it would have been a friend, Justine, or Darren. I stomped my feet to loosen my toes, belted my fanny sack on, and rushed out the door.
It was 6:30 A.M. An elderly couple were on their morning walk across the street; they waved at me and I waved back. I jogged turning to the left where the road curved with the river. There was no housing here. The green edge of the golf course curved around the opposite side of the road. Alongside the road to my right, what was left of a forest blocked out the river's view for a long stretch. The subtropical light, so clear on the trimmed lawns and white tile roofs, looked even brighter against the shady green of the tiny jungle to my right. 'This will be a good route away from the traffic,' I thought, since I also wanted to explore the neighborhood on foot.
I was going at a good pace when, upon hearing the bark of a dog, I slowed down instantly. From within the vegetation, a reddish-brown shaggy setter leapt in front of me dragging his owner, a young man who was hanging on to the dog's leash with one hand and carrying a rifle with the other.
"Hush, Boy! Sorry! Did we scare you?" He grinned, showing through his stark white glistening teeth. With crisply chiseled features on a square face, moss green eyes, a glowing blond head and an impressively built body, he was a young man any girl would love to put the move on. If Sheila would see him, she'd call him, 'eye-candy'. Embarrassment inched up my face when I realized I was staring at him.
"Oh, okay. Don't worry about it," I muttered forcing my eyes away from him to the rifle.
"That comes in handy with the critters in there," he said, holding up the rifle. "Nothing to worry about. I have a license and all." He talked with an accent, possibly a Louisiana drawl.
"Sure... Okay, nice to see you," I said in amazed joy and turned around to jog back home, ordering my thoughts to steer to what was going to be my third day at work and the appointment with Cynthia to go furniture hunting.
Newly tagged large-size volumes weighed down the middle of the metal cart. I pushed it to the end section and began putting the books in their places. Feeling a gentle pat on my shoulder, I turned around.
"Could you help me with something?" A tall man with peppery grey hair and dark chocolate eyes, possibly in his early sixties, stood in front of me. His right hand was gently stroking the books he was holding with his left hand.
"Certainly. How can I help you?"
"I'm looking for information on Spanish Civil War, in particular for Americans who fought in that war."
"Hemingway comes to mind. You might want to check the isle with the 900 numbers and the next with the 800's."
"I already did that. I need a little more."
"We could do an Altavista search."
"I did that too. I was wondering if you could request books from other libraries."
"I'll check at the desk," I said, leaving the cart and walking to the right. He followed me.
"I come here quite often. I haven't seen you before."
"I just started to work here," I said.
A catalogue search showed two books. One was in the library in Stuart, the other in Tampa. At the time we had reciprocity with neither library and I didn't know if I could file a special request. I asked Elly, the sweet black girl I had met when I had applied for the job. "Gwen would know that but she just stepped out," she said.
"I'll make a note of it and I'll let you know as soon as I can," I told the man.
"Please do that. I can't start the manuscript without enough information."
"I'll see what I can do. Good luck with your manuscript." Then I recalled an article I had seen. "The other day, I saw something that might interest you in New Times Book Review. It's a new book just off the press. Something like, Letters from the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, if I'm not mistaken with the title."
"That would be perfect."
"I don't know if we can get it for you. I'll mention it during the staff meeting but even if accepted, it will take a few months to process it."
"Don't bother," he said. "I'll ask the bookstore in the mall to order it for me. Thank you very much. That was very helpful."
Then he held out the two books and his card. "While you're here, would you check these out for me?"
I looked at his card while scanning the books. His name was Bruce Watson.
Cynthia had said she'd drive, since she knew her way around better than me. At the appointed time, I slung my purse over my shoulder and walked over to her house. Richard let me in.
"She's looking for her keys again," he rolled his eyes upward.
"I found them, I found them," Cynthia chimed in from the other room. "Hi Lynn," she walked in, wearing a grey pants suit, "How are you today?"
The phone rang, just when I was following Cynthia to the garage.
"Richard, answer it, will you? If for me, I'm not home." It was more of a command than a request.
"It's Sylvia," Richard called from inside. "She's upset or something." He rushed to us holding a cordless phone. "I can't make out what she's saying; she's garbling it up. I don't hear well as it is."
"Okay, give me it," Cynthia yanked the phone from Richard. "What? What? Did you call anybody? I'll be right there. Stay inside and close the door to the porch. And Sylvia, CALM down."
She handed the phone to Richard. "Richard, call the animal control to Sylvia's. She's hysterical. She says she has an alligator in her pool. Lynn, come with me to Sylvia's. She's only two houses down."
We raced on foot cutting through the backyards. Cynthia was out of breath. We came to an abrupt stop in front of what she signaled to me as Sylvia's house.
"Oh, to be young like you..." she panted.
Sylvia, an elderly lady with her small figure lost inside a wide summer duster, was standing at the door. "So glad you're here. I'm all shook up," she whimpered pressing her Bible to her chest.
"You, Poor Dear," Cynthia embraced her. "You must be so upset. They'll be here soon. Richard's calling them." Then she let her go and pointed to me. "Meet Lynn here. She moved next door to me into Quinn's place."
"Hi," I said, "Nice to meet you."
"Dear me, such a young thing!" Sylvia reached up to hug me.
Again! Me, young? I must have looked like a spring chicken to most, judging from the ages of the customers that shopped at Publix and Albertson's. 'Not bad at all,' I thought. 'Here in this town, maybe I'll never age.'
"The pool-man left the door to the pump open yesterday, but I saw it in the morning." Sylvia shook her head from side to side, dangling her white cotton-ball hair over her shoulders. "When I stepped out to close it, I saw it inside the pool. Can you imagine such a thing happening? I've lived here for seven years now and heard nothing like it. Can you imagine? Right inside my pool... My Goodness..."
We approached the glass sliding door in the living room to take a look at the pool. Something definitely was in there; I could tell from the splashing. Sylvia and Cynthia shrieked in unison when the animal tried to slither out to the side but skidding, it fell back into the pool. It wasn't too big, just long like three or four cats threaded on a string. It looked pale and greenish.
"I thought they were much darker," I said. "This one's pale. It must be a baby."
"The men are here," Cynthia said noticing two policemen outside the porch door. Sylvia crossed the living room to open the front door. There was a police car outside with two policemen. One of the men came up.
"Is your porch door open?"
"It is," Sylvia said, "I never lock the side one on account of the pool-man coming and going."
"You stay inside, Ma'm. Our trapper will be here shortly."
"Do I have to empty the pool water?"
"I don't think so. Let's see what happens."
Twenty minutes and several wild animal stories later, a small white truck pulled up into the driveway. We watched at the door as both policemen rushed to help with the gear. I saw the rifle first since the trapper's back was turned to us when he got out of the truck. The policemen told him something; the trapper put the rifle on the front seat. Then he turned around to walk to the back of the truck. I tried to resist the urge to lean on the side jamb for balance when I saw his face fully. That glowing blond hair and that sturdy physique... I recognized him right away as the guy I had met during my morning jog. He was now wearing denim overalls with large pockets.
"I'm glad he looks so strong," Cynthia said. "The man who came to the pond at the sixth hole was puny and we were afraid for him. Still he got the animal."
"They must know what they are doing," I commented.
"They'd better. It'd be terrible otherwise," Sylvia said.
The trapper handed some coiled rope, a grocery bag, and other gear to one of the policeman. Then he walked toward us.
"May I go through from the inside? I want to approach it slowly." There was something powerful and unnerving in his voice which made me slide against the wall. He gazed at me then.
"Hi, there. You live here?" He tapped his hand to his temple as a sign of greeting.
"Hi," I said, afraid of the jolt in my voice. "I live two houses to the right."
"She just moved into that Quinn's house," Cynthia volunteered.
The trapper's features tightened unexpectedly. He scanned my face.
"Oh, I didn't know," he said walking in, through the hallway, then toward the back. The policemen followed him.
"Have you two met before?" Cynthia asked.
He answered immediately instead of me, "My dog got in her way in the morning. Does that to everyone. He's not a puppy anymore but he ain't on to it yet. He gets frisky outside."
He slid the porch door open and stepped out, taking some white cylindrical things out of his pocket. He threw them in to the pool one by one.
"Marshmallows," Cynthia said, "I've seen this before."
Having gained some confidence, we now stood at the open door.
"He's a young'un," the trapper said. "We'll have to transport him."
The animal bobbed its head on the water and swam to get the marshmallows. At first the trapper stood there letting the animal see him in full view; then he knelt down to hook some foul smelling bait to the end of the rope.
"Pigs lungs," he grinned. "I bet you ladies love this scent. Chicken is better bait though. "
He tossed the rope into the water but held on to its other end. Soon the hook was inside the animal's mouth. It squirmed and wriggled, but the more it twisted its body the more the rope coiled around him. After a few minutes he didn't move as much.
"He's all tired out now," the trapper slipped out of his overalls stripping to his swim trunks. Next second he was in the water with the animal. He grabbed it from the back, clamping the mouth shut with his bare hands and lugged it out of the pool. He taped the animal's mouth with duct tape, secured the rope around its body, and slung him over his shoulder to take him to his truck. We followed to watch him pull the shade over the truck.
"I have to take it down all the way out to the lake now," he said. "It measures just three and a half feet. Had it been bigger, I'd have a hide to sell."
"Let's leave shopping for tomorrow," Cynthia said on our way back. "I'm worn out. What a day!"
"Poor animal, he was harmless," I said, recalling the writhing lizard with a snag hook in his mouth.
"That trapper, what a young man! He's good at it too. I thought maybe he was showing off a bit for you, Lynn. Wouldn't you say?" Cynthia grinned mischievously.
"No," I laughed it off. "He's at least ten years younger than I am. He was just being himself."
Yet, the vision of the trapper's tanned skin, his muscles flexing into silky bulges as he grasped the animal, and his hair shimmering with each touch of the wind electrified me all through the evening. I had never been haunted this way by anyone before. A pre-menopausal attack maybe. My hormones had to be going wild.
Morning jogs cleared my mind. Along my route as the queen palms evaporated into the sky, the river sang to the thickets and cool drops of sweat formed on my forehead, I wanted to move faster and faster, not to run away from my thoughts and feelings but to just stay with them to evaluate them. Self-observation had to be the first step in finding whatever it was I had lost. To begin with, I yearned to have my daughter with me; yet, at the same time, I understood her. I yearned for what I could have been and regretted having woven a fancy floor mat out of my being for everyone to tread upon. I yearned to be savvy enough and not be weak-willed anymore; all my life I had given in, looked the other way, and accepted things, lacking to have the courage to change them.
I thought of such things not only during the mornings but throughout the day, at home, or in the library while I checked out books, collected fines, labeled, tagged, filed, or sorted. If I could only sort my life as easily...
That morning I started out earlier and jogged farther thinking about the past.
Darren and I had met when Darren, a computer engineer, came to work in my father's company. Dad had felt that Darren had much to offer to the company in security matters with his electronics know-how. But Darren had something else in mind. He needed a rich father in-law to finance his inventions. Although Justine never mentioned this, I believe he tried Justine first. But Justine was seeing Frank then. So Darren turned to me.
I had been such an idiot. I wasn't even in love with Darren; yet, his attentive manner led me to believe he would be the best candidate to make me get over Jimmy.
Jimmy and I had been together since grade school, friends at first, lovers later. I had all my first experiences with Jimmy. After he got sick we got even closer. So much so that, his parents, after Jimmy passed on from leukemia at seventeen, came to thank my parents for letting us spend his last days together. After Jimmy died, I gave my total attention to school work. That's how I survived for several years. Jimmy's parents, who had remained my friends, agreed with Justine about Darren. Justine had seen through Darren right away. "He's after something and that something is not you," she warned me. But Mom and Dad adored Darren and I went with the flow.
Two years after our marriage, Nora was born and Darren had invented a revolutionary computer chip. Dad financed Darren's invention once more. Then seeing its success, he set Darren up with his own company. I have to give Darren credit here, because he worked very hard and became filthy rich in a very short time. Soon, Port Jefferson wasn't good enough for him. He bought a place in Westchester and moved Nora and me away from family and friends.
Suddenly I realized that I wasn't jogging but running. The brush around the river had cleared and the pointed roofs of a water-front condo complex were in full view.
"You're wearing out the asphalt, Lynn."
I turned my head toward the voice to see a wry smile turn into a grin on the trapper's face. My throat felt tight but I forced myself to talk.
"Hi, there. How do you know my name?"
"I heard the other ladies call you that the other day."
"And I thought you only jostled with that alligator."
"I jostle with many things, not just them critters. That fellow, if you're curious, is having a grand time in Lake Okeechobee now." He started jogging along with me. "My name's Gerald."
"Hi Gerald, then." I looked at him, then turned my head to the other side, and closed my eyes. Boy, he was handsome!
Next, I pointed to the condos just to steer my mind away from his looks. "Do you live here?"
"Nope, I couldn't afford those. My pad is in town. Say, have you seen anything funny around your place, something big like a gator or a coon?"
"No," I lied, "I see only birds and frogs. Sometimes a little rabbit and a puny squirrel hop through. That's about it."
"I know there's a biggie around. I can sense it. And it's the one that got that kid."
"You were here then?"
"I've been here quite a while. I knew that Quinn kid. He was big and strong; he'd have fought it well. The seven-footer we got couldn't be the one, but there was another trapper with me that day who insisted that we got the gator that killed the boy; I know that seven-footer wasn't the one. But I'll get him. The real killer's out there somewhere and I'll get him."
There was a tone so savage and fiery in his tone that I quivered inside. The large form with his musical bellow in my backyard paraded through my thoughts. "Why, it is only an animal," I said.
"This one's different. He senses things. He's tricky. He conceals himself like no other. Yet, I don't know how..." he stopped broodingly for a few seconds, then he continued. "See, if a gator gets a person, that's a death sentence for him. He's the murderer. I'm sure he comes back to the crime scene like any other murderer."
He was silent for a while.
"Do you mind if I came around and looked for signs of him in your backyard?"
"Suit yourself," I waved off as if I didn't care. "I have to rush back now or I'll be late for work."
That evening Cynthia and I went shopping.
"You know what, Lynn," Cynthia said, while we were trying to decide between two living room sets, "That trapper went back to Sylvia's, telling her he left behind some equipment."
"Didn't the policemen cart away all his stuff?"
"Well, Sylvia says he asked all kinds of questions about you. Maybe it wasn't his gear he was after."
"This is a gift from the gods of haute cuisine," Cynthia complemented me as she chewed slowly a forkful of the spinach salad. She and Richard were having lunch with me in my newly furnished dining room.
"Thank you Cynthia," I said. "And I am so grateful to you. The house looks amazing now. This would have taken me months and it wouldn't turn out half as fabulous."
"Don't underestimate yourself, Lynn. You're a joy to work with. Also, not having a tight budget was a big help," Cynthia said.
"You gals are lucky; it's summer and they could deliver everything within a few days," Richard sliced another piece of bread and buttered it. "Everything gets impossible during the tourist season."
"There is some touching up to do but we'll get to that later. I bet your daughter will love her room when she sees it," Cynthia handed over her salad plate to me for a second helping.
"I'm quite sure of that. Nora loves blue," I said as I piled the salad on her plate.
Nora's room looked chic and feminine with an antique-white lacquered set on pastel-blue deeply piled wall-to-wall carpeting, pastel-blue and light-beige print wallpaper, matching bedspread and chiffon curtains over light-beige blinds. Cynthia and I had stood at the door and admired it after our composition had been put together. I had splurged on Nora's room to make up for the fact that she wouldn't live with me. This was my consolation prize; I sighed with a shiver, which I recognized as hope.
"We have a home-owners association meeting tomorrow night. Why don't you come with us, Lynn? You'll meet the neighbors," Cynthia offered.
"All three hundred of them?" Richard quipped. "But don't worry, most don't attend. We consider ourselves lucky if there are twenty people besides the board members."
But at least fifty people buzzed around inside the meeting room at the Town Center, since a delicate zoning issue was on the agenda. Most had dressed casually in shorts and tees or knitted shirts. Clustered in groups, they discussed the matter at hand detachedly, as if it belonged to other people halfway around the world.
"Lynn, come meet some friends of mine," Cynthia took my hand and gave it an encouraging squeeze.
Shaking hands and exchanging pleasantries, I found out that the differences among these people were only a few. To begin with, more than half of them had migrated from Long Island, New York. Another one fourth was from the surrounding New England States. And age-wise, I really was among the babies.
"I got the book you told me about and I love it."
I spun around to glimpse at Bruce Watson's luminous face carrying a hint of a smile.
"I'm glad," I mumbled.
"Did you know Lynn, Bruce?" Cynthia asked.
"This young lady helped me in the library. But we were never officially introduced."
"Laura Lynn Ferguson. Please call me Lynn." I stretched my hand.
Taking my hand, "Bruce Watson," he said simply.
Cynthia unleashed a cheerful smile. "Lynn bought the Quinn's house and it looks awesome now."
"Thanks to Cynthia; she helped me," I said. "I'm lucky to have such great neighbors."
"And we're so happy to have you around," Cynthia beamed.
Saturday, late afternoon after the library hours, I went to Publix for my weekly food shopping.
"Two for $5 is a very good price, wouldn't you say?"
I turned my head to the woman shopper pointing to the roasters. Such talkative people! Everyone talked to anyone anywhere in this town.
"I was trying to decide whether to buy fish instead, but you're right. It's a good buy."
"We can cook one tonight and freeze the other for later," she waved her head up and down, happy with her find.
Yes, I could save one and as to the other... I bought the chickens.
After a light supper, I sat in the porch watching the dusk settle over the river and the neighborhood. The last colored streaks of the sky faded away and a dignified quiet pervaded the street as if upholding an honor; the honor of a magical strength hidden in the bosom of the waterway whose energy penetrated the entire region. Soon, the stars began sparkling inside the dark and moonless night.
Suddenly I remembered the chickens.
Should I? I marched inside and took one of the packages of poultry out of the refrigerator.
'He will come,' I thought. 'He has to come.'
I was curious if he would. Also in a strange unexplainable way, I felt seeing him again would make my questions and worries evaporate.
In front of the kitchen door, some pesky mosquitoes started teasing me as I stepped out into the yard. "Next time," I muttered, "I have to remind myself not to turn on the light." Holding the chicken without its wrapping, I ventured close to the edge of the water, and laid it on the grass near the dock. Then I walked back inside.
Hours passed. I must have dozed off on the wicker chair. A hissing sound, much different than the buzz of the insects and the croak of the frogs, woke me up. Hearing something slide on the grass, I rose to my feet, paced in silence to the side of the porch, and pressed my forehead against the screen, trying to make out the shapes in the dark. A short bellow, not as loud as the one I had first heard but musical nevertheless, echoed through the yard. The dark form with red-neon eyes turned around and swished at the edge of the water. He had come.
'He's my dragon,' I thought. 'My dragon of hidden treasures. He'll convey to me the mysteries of the river and my life.'
The sun was glittering off the water when I set out toward the riverside in the morning. There was no chicken left near the dock. I simmered in joy, as I examined the water's edge and the high grass bent and crushed under the weight of something hefty.
"Lynn, come up here." Cynthia was waving from her backyard. I turned toward her; she also took a few steps to my direction.
"Good morning! Such a nice day, isn't it?" I greeted her.
"Good morning, Lynn. You gave me such a scare. I thought I saw you in the water alone. From my bedroom window, I could only see the embankment and the top of your head."
"Sorry about that. But relax; I never go in any water. People say I have a phobia. Don't worry though; I like my showers," I giggled.
"Oh, You!" she said, amused. "What were you doing so close to the river?"
"I was looking at the grass. It is so tall there."
"I know. The landscapers leave it like that on purpose. They say it prevents erosion." Then, Cynthia changed the subject. "Last night I was going to call you but your lights were off."
"I went to bed early."
"I know you get up at dawn. Did you go jogging today?"
"I am a little late, but maybe I'll go for a short run around the block while it is still not so warm."
"I want to ask you something. The other night after we came home from the meeting, Richard and I thought of a little get-together. Just a few people from around here, you know. Would you come? We'll be leaving soon and won't be able to see people for several months."
"How nice! I sure will. Thank you for asking me," I replied. "Can I help with anything?"
"I was hoping you'd ask," Cynthia grinned as if a mischief had succeeded. "We thought of having a barbecue in the porch. How about giving me your spinach salad recipe?"
"Certainly. And I'll make a big bowl of it and bring that over too, if it's okay with you."
"Wonderful! It will be sometime during the next week, probably Wednesday. I'll let you know, okay?"
The way people related to each other at parties, by putting their happy masks on and trying to appear casual at the same time, never failed to amaze and entertain me. And Cynthia's barbecue party was no different. The only thing unplanned was the sudden late afternoon Florida thunderstorm, which made us scramble to move everything inside. In a way, maybe it was for the better since it forced my attention away from the river to the people.
Bruce Watson was among the guests.
"Cynthia tells me you are divorced and you have a daughter living with your ex, Lynn." We were standing near a window, probably as the only two single persons in the party. Was this Cynthia's match-making?
"People easily walk away from me. Remarkable, isn't it?" I said.
"Did they all go that-a-way?" he asked pointing to the river from the window. "On the porch, before the storm started, you kept watching the river."
"I have my obsessions," I smiled. "I bought the house because I fell in love with the river-view."
"We obsess with things we expect something from," Bruce said. "You must be expecting something from the river."
"What about you, Bruce?" I changed the subject. "Do you have any children?"
"I have two sons in the Air Force, at the West Coast. Unlike most of you New Yorkers here, my wife and I came down from Connecticut."
"That's close enough, though. In clear weather, Bridgeport is visible from Port Jefferson." I was attempting to steer the conversation away from me; yet, I didn't want to mention his wife because Cynthia had told me that she had passed away a year ago.
"I'm from Bridgeport; my wife was from New Haven."
"What made you move down here, if I may ask?"
"Ask away, please," he said in a good mood. "I accept life as it comes. People tiptoe around the negatives, making them even more negative. We moved to Florida ten years ago because of Judie's arthritis. But it wasn't the arthritis she died from. Pancreatic cancer took her away."
"I'm sorry," I said.
"So am I. We had been together since childhood."
There was a short pause. Neither of us knew what to say.
"You still didn't tell me what you expect from the river," Bruce broke the silence. "There's always a deeper reason when something attracts us."
"I don't know exactly. Maybe I like the mystery of it. Maybe I expect a magical dragon out of it." He would never guess how true that was.
"A dragon instead of a knight. Now, that's news!"
"I found out what knights are made of. I think I'll stick to dragons," I grinned.
"Now you have a great idea there. I wouldn't mind meeting a yellow dragon myself."
"A yellow dragon?"
"A yellow dragon emerged from the water and gifted the Emperor Fu Shi with the elements of writing. My manuscript needs a push."
"I would love to read your manuscript, if you ever want an opinion. I am not entirely alien to writing. I did several book translations in the past."
"Would you, please? That would be such help."
"Whenever you want me to. Let me know. Except the week after because my daughter will be visiting."
I liked Bruce. He was gentle; he had culture; and he wasn't snotty like some people with education.
"I think you hit it off with Bruce," Cynthia said after the party. Her eyes were gleaming with success.
"He has a good mind and he's a nice person."
"You don't know how nice. You should see how he took care of his wife and how loyal to her he was," Cynthia shook her head in admiration.
"My daughter is coming the week after," I told her to change the topic. "She called yesterday. She'll stay for a week. Then she'll go back to travel in Europe for a month and a half with her father and stepmother."
"Lynn, I'm glad she's coming but I was hoping she'd spend the summer with you."
"Europe will be an education for her. I understand."
Cynthia tossed her head in defiance. "You're too good," she said. Then she gently slapped her face. "I hate old age. Things just spill out sometimes. Oh, I almost forgot. We'll be going away to Marathon for a few days. Can you water my plants while we're away? I'll give you the keys. In summer, before we leave, I carry them over to Sylvia's."
"Sure, no problem. And you don't have to displace them in summer either. I'll be here. I'll water them."
"Thank you, Lynn. You're such a sweetheart. But that is not all. There's a little doggie. It is Caroline's. I go over to her house and feed it once a day. It is two blocks from here. Caroline had a stroke. Until she comes back, I'm taking care of it. I can't bring it here because of Richard's allergies."
"I'm not much for pets either, but if you like I can keep him here in my house until you are back."
Because I didn't want to turn Cynthia down, I accepted this pet assignment. I didn't know why, but I always felt myself incapable with pets. Maybe I thought, if I had a pet, it could break or something. Part of this was my mother's fault. She didn't allow pets in the house while we were growing up. Darren let Nora have a poodle, which was mostly taken care of by the maid, and at the end the dog thought the maid was the mother.
Maybe my lack of skill with pets was the reason for Nora to choose her father. Maybe this was why Justine protected me so much. Maybe my nomadic mind was wandering all over the place again.
A white beagle with black and rust patches jumped up and down, and then began running around us in an explosion of excitement.
"This is Joey," Cynthia said tossing her hair with a triumphant gesture.
I bent down to touch the silky-smooth shiny coat. Joey rolled on his side and licked my hand, murmuring with warm sonorous sounds of delight. How could I not to like him! He was starved not only for food but also for affection now that his companion was incapacitated.
"I'll do my best with him until you come back," I told Cynthia, trying to sound noncommittal.
I wasn't at all sure I wanted to care for a dog, but now that I had met him, something had thawed out within me leaving me no choice but to love the feel of his friendliness. Still that unknown voice inside me was questioning my approach and warning me to behave. What was that for? Why was my internal alarm system acting up? But the joy I felt when I held him overcame any inner reproach and I even smiled when I felt his wet tongue licking my cheeks.
"See, he took to you," Cynthia said. "And thank you, My Dear, for taking him off my hands. Richard was getting antsy since we'll go to Toronto late this year. A mini vacation will be a good thing for him now."
"Look where a mini vacation got me," I laughed. "I'm a Florida resident as the result of it."
So Joey entered my life when Cynthia and Richard left for the Keys the next day. And my morning runs turned into elation accompanied by Joey who also started to reconstruct his instincts by running, jogging, jumping, and yelping while I held onto his leash. He made me grin, smile, laugh, and I adored his recklessness.
Later that day, when I arrived at the library, I met Marjorie, the curly gray-haired slender widow who tapped her fingers and moved her hands nervously over the desk. She was the other worker Gwen had told me about, returning to work from her vacation.
"You look like you're my age, Lynn," she said. "It is nice to have a peer around."
I stared at her stunned. On her olive-complexioned face, especially around the corners of her eyes and mouth, myriad of wrinkles were deeply etched. The skin on her neck twisted in folds and gullies. Her age was at least sixty-five. Did I look that old? I heard Ellie's giggle as she doubled over her keyboard attempting to hide her face.
"Where were you on your vacation, Marjorie?" I asked, shaking off the shock.
"It was no vacation. I went to Ohio to see Mother. I hadn't seen her since Robby passed."
"Marjorie," Gwen called from the children's section. "I need your gentle touch here before the story hour begins."
When Marjorie was out of earshot, Ellie whispered, "Watch it, she'll tell you her life story and carry on. She hasn't been quite there after her husband Robert died last year. And Lynn, don't worry, you don't look as old. Actually you don't look old at all."
Before I could answer Ellie, I saw Bruce waving at me as he entered the library. He was returning a few books. Leaving them on the counter, he said, "Lynn, Mystic Theater in Stuart is putting on the Three-Penny Opera. I have tickets for Friday. Will you go with me?"
"I didn't know there was a theater around here."
"It is no Broadway but they do a good job with a semi-amateur cast."
"Sure, Bruce. I'd love to go. Thank you," I said, surprised at my own ease in accepting the offer.
When Bruce headed to the new books section, Marjorie sidled up to me. "Lynn, is he your boyfriend?"
"No, just a friend. I don't have boyfriends, Marjorie."
"It is so difficult, isn't it? I know. The dating scene has changed. What do you do? I don't know what to do either. I don't even know how to act around men after Rob died and left me. Sometimes I get so mad at him for dying."
"I'm not dating," I said, "Believe me!"
"But you just accepted that man's invitation."
"Not as a date though. He's just a friend. I met him only a few days ago. Bruce's interested in arts and literature; his likes are similar to mine. That's all."
"Is it your ex still? I know a woman who never forgot the husband she divorced."
"My ex is very forgettable," I snickered. "He wanted out and I let him go, thanking my lucky stars."
"Why did you move down here then?"
"I don't know. It just happened. Maybe, at the old neighborhood, there was too much din around for me. I needed to get to know me."
"Don't we all need to do that!"
Although she showed some neurotic tendencies, I didn't find Marjorie "not quite there" as Ellie had put it. Marjorie was still grieving, and as to how to go about re-doing her life, she didn't know. I didn't either. But the only thing I had to grieve over was my own stupidity in letting things happen to me and around me. Still, I didn't think of life as an empty house to furnish or change the decor when it didn't fit me. I thought of life as a river hiding undercurrents and mysteries in its depths. A life was something I had to explore. And for decades, I had neglected doing that.
Next morning, just before I was about to leave for work, Joey started barking.
"Now, Joey, I promise I'm coming back."
When I knelt down and stroked him to calm him down, the doorbell rang. So that was what the barking was about. What a nice surprise had Joey been!
I looked through the peep-hole in the door to see Gerald's face with its altered features through the focal distortion of the lens. What in the world...
I unlocked the door.
He stood at the threshold grinning awkwardly through his glossy white teeth. "Good morning, I wanted to catch you before you left. I have something for you." He handed me something soft and limp covered with waxed paper and saran wrap. "I was fishing yesterday. I thought I'd bring you a kingfish. I filleted it. Hope you like it." His torso and his head were slightly bobbing as if swaying to some Caribbean rhythm. His features were so clear-cut; it was as if I was looking at them for the first time, each time.
"How nice! Thank you, Gerald. I love fish. Let me put it in the fridge."
I couldn't help but notice the trembling in my hands when I opened the refrigerator door. How I hated my hormones!
"I just noticed. Your dock needs fixing," he said, following me into the kitchen.
"Well, yes. But I don't know. Chances are I'll never use it."
"Still it needs fixing. It's your house..." He hesitated a little then offered, "I could do it for you. I do such jobs on the side. You don't have to pay right away. I could start right tomorrow if you wish."
I didn't say no. I just couldn't. The image of him topless and in shorts working on the dock flashed back and forth in front of my eyes, and I said, "That will be very nice. Thank you."
"I'll get some material today, then."
"I'll write you a check. Okay?'
"No, later. I'll tell you how much when it's finished."
"You needn't rush that much; your face is flushed," Gwen said when she saw me. "It's okay to be a few minutes late once in while." But the redness on my face wasn't because of my hurrying to work.
I woke up to Joey's barking around midnight. There were footsteps outside and sounds that suggested someone was dragging something. It upset me thinking it was an intruder. I turned on the lights outside. A tall figure stopped in full view by a corner floodlight; he looked up and waved toward the house. I put a robe on and went down.
"Sorry, didn't mean to wake you up. But I got the wood late and when my landlord saw it, he ordered me to take it off his property. So I brought it here. Hope you aren't mad at me."
"It's okay, Gerald." I felt my face redden through the work of some craving's imps. I tried to avert my eyes from his face and focused them on the collar of his shirt but even that ended up signaling lust. So I fixed my gaze at his boots that looked like grey ghosts in the dim outdoor light. "I'll leave the lights on, so nobody will think you're a prowler," I said.
"Nah, don't worry about it. It's only the woods on this side of the house and the police know me well."
I left the lights on anyhow.
I didn't see him in the morning, but next to the dock was a heap of weathered wood pieces and four-by-fours.
When I came back from work in the evening, he was about to drive off. I lowered my window, as he leaned out from his truck. "The legs are all rotted out. Nothing's worth saving. Be back tomorrow. Take care!" As he pulled off, I consoled myself that my imps of desire were built-in necessities of life and if faced with understanding, they would go away. Still, when inside, I avoided looking at the mirror until my face didn't feel so hot to the touch.
He was there early, way before I left for work the next day. I gave up on jogging, except taking a perplexed Joey out for a couple of minutes who expressed his confusion in short yelps. Instead I flitted about the house taking eyefuls of Gerald from the safe indoors while my heart nearly burst with its own beating. But eventually, I had to pull myself away for the sake of my work if not for my self-respect.
I had a good time with Bruce. The play was a local production with less of a movement and light, but it boasted of sincerity and Bruce had a certain brilliance and ease of culture about him that can only be expected as a common occurrence like that of the sun rising in the morning. No right-thinking person could fail to like him.
"My daughter is coming soon, but only for a week," I told him on the way home.
"You sound happy. You wish she'd stay longer, don't you?"
"Yes, but I understand."
"I don't think you do, Lynn. I think you're hurt, permit me to say."
"It's okay, really. There isn't much I can do, is there?"
"Maybe not. But I hope your daughter has just as sweet a nature as her mother and decides to stay for the summer."
"Thank you Bruce. But I wouldn't get my hopes up too high," I said, smiling. But for an instant or so, this part of the conversation formed a lump in my throat like an offensive intruder.
"You were out last night. Did you have a good time?" Gerald asked, conscious of himself for asking me a personal question.
"Yes, I went to see a play with a friend."
"Where to? Vero? or the Mystic?"
"We were at the Mystic Theater. Were you here? I didn't see you when I left."
"I came to look around later, when I was passing by. Had to measure something."
It was a Saturday and I had the morning off. From the back of the truck Gerald took out a sledge hammer, a horse and a circular saw, and carried them to the side of the dock. I retreated into the house to fumble through the dishes while I glanced at him through the window over the kitchen sink.
For a few minutes, the sound of the sledge hammer hitting against the wood resonated in regular momentary intervals. When he stood up his white tee shirt was glued to his ample back. He twirled the hem of the shirt and slid it all the way up to his underarms. My heart leaped at the sight of his half-bared back glistening with sweat under the sun. I found my hands on my face, with dish soap and all, as he held the back of the shirt and pulled it over the back of his head. I ducked instinctively when he turned around. When I came up again his back was turned to me and the shirt was lying on the grass behind him. He was standing straight, motionless, watching the water.
I dried my face with a kitchen towel, hoping the harsh detergent wouldn't make my skin flake out. Then I took a tall glass, filled it with iced tea and stepped out the kitchen door.
"Would you like a drink?"
"Thanks, yeah. This is great." He drank it in one gulp.
Once inside, I rummaged through the bottom drawers. An Aladdin thermos was in there somewhere. I filled the thermos with iced tea and opened the kitchen door. He was nowhere in sight, though his truck was still parked to the side, his knapsack and his shirt were still on the grass. I came back in and looked around through the window. He came out of the woods zipping up. God! He could have asked to use the bathroom. He knelt by the water and washed his hands and face, and dried them with the tee shirt, then tossing it back on the lawn again. Then he went back to work.
A few minutes later, I took the thermos to him.
"Great!" he said. "This will work better."
"There's a bathroom inside the porch. The porch door is open. You can also come into the house and use the one at the entrance"
"I know. I know your house. I knew the people there before you. But don't worry. It won't be necessary."
But later he came in anyway and used the bathroom in the porch.
When I got ready for work, he was still cutting the wood on the sawhorse.
"I have to finish this cutting and hope there'll be little need for the handsaw later. I borrowed the circular saw just for today." He looked up at me. "Going out?"
"To work. I work from noon to five on Saturdays."
"Okeydoke. I'll be here, till the cutting's done. See ya, tomorrow then. Won't mind me working on a Sunday, will you?"
"Not at all, it's your time."
"Some folks are funny about Sundays." He grinned, the stark whiteness of his teeth showing.
Sunday afternoon I noticed something peculiar. At regular intervals, he stood straight and watched the water. For long periods at a time. There was a willfulness about him when he did that.
I too liked to sit by the window or in the porch and stare at the view, but what I did was out of wonder and admiration; in his staring there was a different kind of connection. He stared at the river with sour insistence, as an inquisitor does while he waits for his subject to break down and confess.
Suddenly, I recalled his exact words from days ago. "If a gator gets a person, that's a death sentence. I'm sure he comes back to the crime scene like any other murderer. Do you mind if I came around and looked for signs of it in your backyard?" And also, "He's out there somewhere and I'll get him." Is that why he was here? I tried to sidestep the thought but couldn't. I clutched at a dishrag. Its loosely knitted surface felt wet, tired, and worn. I had to be careful with Gerald, and yet...
Almost involuntarily, I stepped out of the kitchen door and stumbled toward him. He turned around and looked at me with questioning eyes.
"Would you like to have a bite to eat? I'm going to fix something for myself."
I had suddenly come up with a good impromptu question instead of asking why he was really here. On rare occasions, I stop myself from making a fool of myself.
"Sure. Just not fruit salad, okay? Most ladies like that. Not me. Anything else is fine."
"Okay, no fruit salad."
"Just call me when."
What a weird man! So he didn't like fruit salad. Yet, not even a thank you? Not that it mattered...
I set the table inside the alcove in the porch and turned on the outdoor fans. Then I called him.
He ate with gusto talking about how they weathered different kinds of wood and I ate slowly looking down, with the acknowledgement of the proximity of his perfect shape inside my mind. I nodded now and then, pretending I was listening because his words were rumbling by like trucks over a bridge and all I could concentrate on was his bare legs.
I almost jumped out of my skin when he touched my arm with a slight pat. With his other hand, he was pointing to the barbecue pit. "Next time I bring you fish, I'll barbecue it."
"Good," I muttered not knowing what else to say but I was scared of the sudden burst of anticipation inside me as if something had slipped across an invisible line.
By Monday afternoon, he had the old dock completely pulled out. I don't know how he put in the legs of the new one, because I wasn't home when he did it and I didn't ask him in case he might have misinterpreted and thought I was questioning his expertise. Yet, some kind of a freeze had thawed in the meantime. We were friendlier with each other and talking more about things other than the weather.
When he said he grew up around the Lousiana Bayous and moved to Florida later, I asked, "Do you have any family?"
I was standing next to him by the dock and he was nailing some slats together on a frame. He put the hammer down and looked at me with the eyes of a cornered animal.
"Not really. No parents, no brothers or sisters and no woman will have me either with the kind of work I do."
Something swelled in me in loose knots and opened up like silken threads smoothing themselves out.
"What about you?" he asked. "Do you have a boyfriend?"
"No, nobody special," I hadn't expected his question.
"You're nice. Good-looking too. I'm surprised anyone would let you get away."
Like whitewater taking a sharp bend, he stood up suddenly and faced me. "You don't know how hot you are."
I took a step back without wanting to. It was due to my mother's New England conditioning. I scolded myself inwardly
"Are you mad?"
"No. No," I repeated. "You took me by surprise."
"Okay," he turned around. Then he reversed his stance and faced me again.
"Am I too coarse for you?"
"I'd be too old for you."
He smiled wearily and put his hand forward gently touching my shoulder. An invisible current seeped into every pore of my skin and clung inside every vein and artery.
"Nope. You're just right." His voice was low and confident.
His cell phone interrupted us. He reached into his knapsack on the grass and answered it.
"Gator problem. Gotta go. I'll have to leave the tools with you."
"Bring them in the house."
"They'll be okay in your porch."
And he was off just like that. With my mouth open, I stood in the middle of my house hanging on to every syllable of his words, every gesture, every meaning, and I wondered what I was getting myself into.