Scooting over to me, he raised the front end of his poncho, then lifted mine so that we were sitting under a little tent, our bags of equipment between us. The rain was coming down hard, pelting the plastic over the top of us, but it was cozy and dry inside our little tent. Too cozy, actually.
"I want you to take these and play with them," Russell said, holding out the little camera and the tiny printer. The camera had five million pixels.
Gee. Funny how your scruples disappear when something becomes free.
Had I been disdainful of digital photography merely because I couldn't afford a digital camera?
"I couldn't. Really," I began, but he was slipping both items into my bag.
"It's just a loan." He was smiling, and at this close range I could smell his breath. Flowers would be jealous. "Besides, to get them back I'll have to see you again."
Looking down at my bag of camera equipment, I tried to smile demurely.
What I really wanted to do was tattoo my address and phone number across his upper thigh. "Okay," I said after what I hoped was a suitable interval.
"That is, if you're sure there's nothing going on between you and Newcombe."
"Nothing whatever," I said, grinning. I didn't add that there might have been, but Ford had dropped me the second he saw Miss Dessie's cleavage.
And her talent, I thought. I didn't want to be fair, but I was cursed with the ability to see both sides of a problem.
Russell peeked out of the ponchos. The rain didn't seem to be letting up.
"I think we better go or we'll be caught in the dark."
Wouldn't that be a tragedy? I wanted to say, but didn't. I was feeling a bit frantic that we hadn't exchanged telephone numbers, but I didn't want to appear anxious.
Russell solved the problem by opening a pocket on the side of his bag and removing a couple of cards and a pen. "Could I possibly persuade you to give me your telephone number?" he asked.
I would have said that I'd give him the number of my bank account, but I'd done that with Kirk and look what had happened. Oh, well, that was water under the bridge. I wrote the phone number for the house I shared with Ford on the back of one of the cards, but before I handed it to him, I turned the card over and looked at it. "Russell Dunne" and a telephone number in the lower left corner was all that was on the card. I looked up at him in puzzlement.
He understood my unspoken question. "When I had them printed, I was about to move and I couldn't decide whether to put my new address or my old one on it." He shrugged in a way that I found endearing. "Ready?" he asked. "I think we should try to get out of here while we can."
If we couldn't spend the night together, I guess I'd have to follow him to wherever he was going. Minutes later we were on the trail, heads down against the driving rain, camera equipment safe under our ponchos, mud clinging to our shoes. Somewhere along the way, I told myself that I needed to ask him what his address now was. Was he staying nearby? Or had he driven here all the way from Raleigh? When would he return to his job and his real life?
But the rain and our fast pace kept me from asking anything. I just kept my head down and followed him, watching his heels, not looking ahead, and having no idea of the direction he was taking to get us out of there.
After a while we came to pavement, but it was still raining too hard for me to look up. It was odd that even though I'd just met this man, I had complete faith that he knew where he was going. I followed him as though I were a child with its father, unquestioning.
When he halted, I almost ran into the back of him, and when I did look up, I was surprised to see that we were in front of Ford's house. The rain was making such a racket that I knew we couldn't talk. I looked up at Russell and made a gesture for him to come inside for something warm to drink.
Lifting his poncho-covered arm, he pointed to where a wrist.w.a.tch went, and shook his head. Then he used his finger to do a pantomime of tears running down his cheeks and sniffed. Like most people, I hated mimes, but he was making me change my opinion.
Turning the corners of my mouth down, I imitated great sadness.
Pretended to imitate. Actually, I wanted to take him inside, tell Ford I'd found him in the forest, and could I keep him? Pretty please?
Smiling, Russell leaned forward, put his beautiful face inside the hood of my poncho and kissed my cheek. Then he turned and was gone from my sight in seconds.
For a moment I stood there looking into the mist of the rain and sighing.
What an extraordinary day, I thought. What a truly extraordinary day.
Turning, I went down the path, up the porch stairs, and into the house.
Like something in a 1950s teen movie, I floated up the stairs. I just wanted to take a hot bath, put on dry clothes, and dream about Russell Dunne.
Ford I'm sure a psychic experience in which you see a couple of little kids go up in flame wasn't what a normal person would label as "fun." But saving those children had been.
Sometimes Jackie had a way of looking at me that made me feel like I could solve all the world's problems. At other times, she made me feel old and decrepit. Whatever she thought of me as a physical specimen, she certainly looked surprised when I grabbed her backpack and mine and headed back down the trail. It was easier going on the return because, if nothing else, the cobwebs had been cleared away.
Then there was the ride in the truck. As we bounced along the trail, the look on her face reminded me of something my cousin n.o.ble liked to do.
He was blessed-or cursed as one of my female cousins said-by not having the Newcombe looks. In other words, n.o.ble had a face girls love.
He'd go into town, do his "shy-little-me act" as a cousin called it, and a girl would inevitably sashay over to him. n.o.ble would eventually treat her to a "Newcombe special" which was a fast pickup ride across deep ruts.
Afterward, he'd come home and entertain us all with vivid accounts of the indignation and fear of the girls.
Back then I never appreciated the humor or the appeal in what n.o.ble did.
I'd always wanted to spend time with a town girl-namely, one who wasn't likely to give birth at sixteen-but my looks and my shyness didn't attract those twinset-clad girls with their perfect pageboy hair and single strands of pearls. It wasn't until I was at college and away from the stigma of the Newcombe family that one of those girls paid any attention to me. When I met Pat she was wearing a sky blue twinset, a darker blue skirt, and a strand of creamy white pearls. "Fake," she told me later, laughing when I asked her to leave the pearls on while we made love.
On that day when I was driving the truck across the ruts, I finally understood why n.o.ble had so loved scaring those town girls. Jackie's face bore a combination of fear and excitement that did things to me in a s.e.xual way. She looked at me in horror, true, but she also looked at me as though I were a magician, a race car driver, and a rescuing hero all in one.
After the exhilarating experience of saving the kids was added to the thrill of the drive, I don't know what would have happened if Dessie hadn't shown up. While Jackie and I had bought pizza and beer, my mind was tumbling all over itself with images of a naked Jackie with little rings of black olives scattered over her nude body. I could imagine myself drinking beer and trying to decide which delectable little ring I was going to eat next.
I was trying to figure out how I was going to make this vision a reality when we arrived home and Dessie was standing there waiting.
Since the last time I'd seen her and she'd unveiled the sculptures, I'd had some time to think and-Well, okay, Jackie's sarcastic, albeit painfully true, remarks had dimmed some of the stars in my eyes. Maybe it hadn't been so tasteful of Dessie to unveil a statue of a man's beloved, deceased wife in front of guests. And, yes, Jackie was right that that sort of thing pretty much always produced tears. I didn't, however, agree when Jackie said, "Especially in someone as soft and sentimental as you are." That didn't sound very masculine, so I protested. Then she pointed out that I had written some books that were "pretty weepy."
Okay, so she had me. Jackie had a way of seeing to the heart of a matter, which was a good thing. But, sometimes, I really wished she'd keep her mouth shut about what she saw.
By the time I was to leave for Dessie's house on Sunday, I wanted to call her and tell her I wouldn't be able to make it. At breakfast Jackie made a remark about which of the little statues that Tessa and I had bought Dessie would replace first. I was determined not to let Jackie see what was in my mind, so I began reading the nutritional content on the back of the box of that cereal she eats. "Amazing," I said. "This stuff has more vitamins and minerals than three of those green pills you take." I'd read the label on those, too.
When Jackie narrowed her eyes at me, I knew she knew I was avoiding her comment.
The night before, Dessie had stayed until a little after midnight. I'd had to give a couple of huge yawns to get her to leave. Of course I knew what she wanted. She was after a trip to my bedroom.
But I couldn't do it. A couple of hours before I'd been l.u.s.ting after Jackie, and I wasn't the kind of man who could change from one woman to another in the course of an evening.
Besides, Jackie made me laugh. Her sarcasm and black humor nearly always amused me. When I was around Jackie I felt alert, and as though something exciting was about to happen. Jackie was interested in things in the same way I had been before Pat died. I was finding Jackie's photography fascinating, and I had a good time when she invited people over.
So I sat there that night and tried my best to talk to Dessie, but I couldn't seem to get into it. For one thing, the conversation always seemed to go back to her and her sculpture. If I mentioned a movie, that would lead to her remembering some movie that was the inspiration for a bronze she'd made for some really famous man. "Not as famous as you are," she said as she looked over her winegla.s.s at me.
Of course I knew she was hinting that I buy a bronze from her. But that didn't bother me. What bothered me was that she didn't ask a word about what Jackie and I had been doing when we'd called and asked for her help.
Wasn't she curious about why we'd needed to find a specific house, and why we'd had to find it fast? But Dessie never mentioned the incident.
After Dessie left Sat.u.r.day night-or, actually, it was early Sunday-I fell into bed and slept hard.
The next morning I studied the back of the cereal box and made no comment on Jackie's snide remark about the little frogs and other beasties that Tessa and I had scattered about the garden. I didn't even comment when Jackie said that maybe Dessie could make a frog with a mouth big enough that Tessa and I could hide inside it. I started to say that that was a great idea, but I knew Jackie was baiting me and trying to get me to-to what? I wondered. Not go to Dessie's house that afternoon? Did Jackie want me to stay home and try out some of the new camera equipment we'd ordered together?
Jackie and I had talked about how to open her business and we'd decided she needed to photograph some kids for free. We could use those pictures to publicize her work. She'd be able to get some people to drive to Cole Creek, but she was also going to need to do a lot of location shooting.
We'd decided that Jackie could start her photography career by taking photos of Tessa. "And Nate," Jackie said. "Don't forget that he's a kid, too.
And pictures of him would certainly sell a lot of portraits." As I was supposed to, I grimaced and pretended I thought Jackie was after young Nate. But, actually, I thought photographing him was a good idea. The art director of my publishing house knew some photographers in the fashion industry. Maybe they'd like to see pictures of beautiful Nate. If the camera loved him, he had a chance at a career that would support him and his arthritis-crippled grandmother.
His grandmother had done well at selling the junk from the house. It seemed that there were people in the U.S.-and Europe, which surprised me-who wanted old Statues of Liberty, and they were willing to pay for them. When Nate returned from a day of hacking away at the man-eating jungle around my house, he packaged what his grandmother had sold and took them to the post office.
On Sunday morning I was thinking of helping Jackie photograph both Tessa and Nate, and I knew I'd rather do that than spend the day with Dessie and be hit up for some giant bronze statue. Of what? Truthfully, after hearing Dessie's descriptions of her previous sculptures, I liked Jackie's big-mouthed frog idea the best.
When it was time to go to Dessie's, I just left. I started to say goodbye to Jackie, but I didn't. What was I supposed to say? "Bye, hon, see you later"?
And, also, I didn't want to hear any more sarcastic remarks. I especially didn't want to hear Jackie tell me about whatever I was going to miss that afternoon. Part of me wanted to tell her that if she had a vision to be sure and call me. But that was like telling an epileptic that if he had a seizure he should call.
I took the car, leaving Jackie with the truck. It wasn't until I got to Dessie's that I realized I had the truck keys. I flipped open my cell phone to tell Jackie I had them, but then I closed the phone. I knew it was wrong of me to leave her with no transportation. I even knew I was being a throwback to a caveman for doing it. On the other hand, who could fight centuries of tradition?
I dredged up a smile and knocked on Dessie's door. She had a pretty house, even if it was a little artsy for my taste. All those wind chimes on the porch would drive me mad.
When Dessie opened the door, I let out my breath. I hadn't been aware of it, but I'd been dreading what she'd wear. Would it be cut down to her belt buckle? But she had on tan pants, fairly loose, and a big pink sweater with a high neck.
"Hi," I said, handing her the bottle of wine Jackie told me I was to take, and following her into the house.
Right away I saw that Dessie seemed nervous about something. She had a table set up in her small dining room that was off her kitchen, with big double gla.s.s doors leading onto a brick-floored, covered patio. It was a beautiful day and I wondered why we didn't eat outside.
"Mosquitoes," Dessie said quickly when I asked.
"But I thought-" I began, but stopped. There were so few mosquitoes in the Appalachians that they weren't a problem.
She seated me with my back to the gla.s.s door, which made me feel jittery. As a kid, I'd learned to sit with my back to the wall because cousins tended to leap in through windows. All too often I'd been jolted when frogs, snakes, and various colors and textures of pond slime were dropped down my back through the open window behind me.
We had just sat down to eat when a lawn mower was started just outside the door. The resulting noise made it impossible to speak.
"Gardener!" Dessie shouted across the table.
"On Sunday?" I shouted back.
As she started to answer, she looked to the left of my head and out the gla.s.s doors, her eyes widening in horror.
I twisted around just in time to see a young man push a mower across a bed of tulips. When he got to the end, the gra.s.s littered with chopped-up tulips, he turned to look straight at Dessie and smiled. A malicious smile. A jealous, angry-lover smile.
It was that smile that made me relax. Maybe I should have been angry to realize that Dessie had been flirting with me because she was having a fight with her boyfriend, but I wasn't. When I saw that she was attached, more or less, to a guy who was obviously quite jealous, all I felt was relief.
I pressed the napkin to my lips, said, "Excuse me," then went outside and spoke to the young man. I didn't take time for small talk. I just told him that I wasn't a rival, that it was business only between Dessie and me, and that he could stop razing the tulips.
When he didn't seem to believe that I wasn't insane with l.u.s.t and love for Dessie, I understood. To me, Pat had been the most beautiful woman on earth, and I never understood why other people didn't think so, too. But Dessie's gardener was young and I wasn't, so he eventually believed me and pushed the mower back into the little shed at the end of the garden. I stayed outside for a few moments while he went inside. After a while, an embarra.s.sed-looking Dessie opened the gla.s.s door. I noticed that her lipstick was gone so I guess she and the Lawn Mower Man had made up.
"You can come in now," she said and I smiled. Gone was the aggressive-salesman tone in her voice and gone was the flirt.
I said, " Now can we eat outside?" and she laughed.
"You're a nice man," she said and that made me feel good.
We moved food and dishes outside, and we both relaxed and enjoyed each other's company. Unfortunately for me, she'd read all my books so there was nothing new I could tell her about myself. But Dessie was full of stories about her life, both in L.A. and in Cole Creek. She made me laugh about what she'd been through when she was on a soap because the viewers thought she was the tramp she portrayed.
I sipped beer, munched on little puffy, cheesy things she seemed to have an unlimited supply of, and watched her as I listened. The stories she told were hilarious, but they had an often-repeated quality to them, and there was a sadness in her eyes that I couldn't figure out. I'd heard that she'd decided to stay in Cole Creek to pursue her real love, sculpture.
I'm not sure what it was, but something wasn't ringing true. There was a look of longing in her eyes that I couldn't figure out. From the sound of her voice as she told the stories, she'd loved L.A., and loved her job. So why did she give it up? Couldn't she have combined sculpting and acting?
When I asked her that, she just offered me more of the little cheesy things. I said no, but she still jumped up to go get them. When she returned, she told me another funny soap opera story. By three I was getting bored and wondered if it was too early to leave. She must have sensed my restlessness because she suggested I see her studio. It was a separate building, big, modern, beautiful. Through a carved wooden door, we entered a small office, and on the desk was a photograph of two teenage girls laughing and hugging each other. They were Dessie and Rebecca.
I'd almost forgotten that Rebecca worked for Dessie. I started to ask about her, but Dessie opened two wide doors and we went into a marvelous room.
It was the size and height of a six stall barn, with light everywhere.
Windows ran along one long wall, enormous cabinets along the other. The ceiling had rows of skylights, and at both ends of the building were tall, wide, sliding doors.
Dessie had several big projects going, and in one cabinet were a dozen small clays of projects she hadn't yet made. Most of her sculptures were of people. She had a nice one of old men sitting on a park bench that appealed to me. Life-size, I thought, it could be kind of interesting in my garden.
Tessa and I could play checkers with the old men.
But before I could ask about it, she reached behind a cabinet frame, withdrew a key, and unlocked a cabinet door. "I only show these to very special people," she said, her eyes twinkling.
Uh oh, I thought. The erotica. The "collection" of p.o.r.no.
But when Dessie opened the cabinet and the automatic light came on, I laughed. Actually, I snorted at first, then I let out a real laugh. I looked at Dessie. Could I pick them up? Eyes twinkling even brighter, she nodded yes.
Inside the cabinet were small bronzes of nearly everyone I'd met in Cole Creek. But they weren't exact likenesses; they were caricatures. They looked like the people, but they also showed their personalities.
The one my hand went to first was a six-inch-tall Mayor. Dessie had exaggerated his strange body and facial features. "Pompous windbag" were the words that came to mind. Dessie had shown him rocking back on his heels, his belly stuck out, his hands clasped behind his back. "You should name it 'Little Emperor,' " I said, and Dessie agreed.
Next I picked up Miss Essie Lee and gave a low whistle. Dessie had shown her as a skeleton. Not a real skeleton, but it was as though Dessie had covered a figure with skin-no muscle or fat-and put Miss Essie Lee's vintage clothes on her.
There were several other statues of people I didn't know, but I could guess their personalities. She told me one was of a former client, an odious man who'd wanted a fawning, self-loving sculpture made of himself. She'd done it, but she'd also made a small one that showed the man with long, narrow teeth and eyes that exuded greed.
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