Tall. Dark hair. Nose almost straight. Mouth curving around prominent teeth. Beautiful, Oliver realized as their eyes met perfectly.
“Francesca, sorry Im late,” another woman said, guiding two girls into the next booth.
“I just got here.
“Hi, Mommy. Francescas smile turned down, traveled around, and turned up independently at each corner.
“Hi, Sweetheart. Turn around, now.
One of the girls was looking tentatively at Oliver, holding the top of the booth with both hands. He waved at her, raised his eyebrows, and bent to his eggs. Toast. Nothing like toast. He wiped up the remaining yolk. Wheres the husband? Probably one of those jerks in a Land Rover. A bad golfer. Cheats. Christ. Oliver drank the rest of his coffee and prepared to leave. As he slid sideways across the green plastic seat, he again caught the womans eyes. They were calm and questioning, brown with deepening centers the color of the inner heart of black walnut. He stood and nodded in the Japanese manner. No one would have noticed, unless perhaps for her friend.
He buttoned his coat before pushing open the outer door of the diner. The air was damp, tinged with car exhaust and diesel. The first flakes of a northeaster coasted innocently to the ground. Francescawhat a smile! She reminded him of the young Sinatra in From Here To Eternity, awkward and graceful at the same time. The friend was heavier and looked unmarried, a career teacher, maybe. Problems on short leashes yapped around her heels. Oliver shrugged, pulled a watch cap over his ears, and walked toward the Old Port.
A car pulled over. “Olive Oil! George Goodbean shouted. “Want a ride?
“Taking my life in my hands, Oliver said, getting in.
“Its a good day to die, George said.
“Arent we romantic.
“Artists live on the edge, Olive Oil. Where the view is. A pickup passed at high speed, hitting a pothole and splattering mud across the windshield. “Moron! George reached for the wiper switch.
The street reappeared. “Ahh, Oliver said, “now theres a view.
“Why is it, the worse the weather, the worse they drive? George asked.
“Dunno. It isnt even bad yet.
“Assholes, George said.
“Yeah. I bought some black walnut, Oliver said. “I just saw a woman in Beckys; she had eyes the same color.
“You want I should go back?
“Im too short for her, Oliver said.
“You never know. Some of those short people in Hollywood have big reputations.
“Theyre stars, Oliver said. “Im just short.
“What are you doing with the wood?
“Havent decidedmaybe a table.
“Im getting into casting. You ought to come over; Im going to try out my furnace.
“Bronze. Small pieces.
“Hey, whoa, let me out. Oliver pointed at the ferry terminal, and George stopped.
“Yeah, come on over tomorrow morning, if youre not doing anything.
“O.K., Ill see.
George beeped twice and drove into the thickening snow. Oliver bought a ticket for Peaks Island. The ferry was nearly empty, cheerful with its high snub bow painted yellow, white superstructure, and red roof. It was not as spirited as the red and black tugs that herd tankers to the Montreal pipeline, nothing could match the tugboatsbut the ferry was close; it had the human touch, a dory that couldnt stay away from cheesecake, broad in the beam, resolute, proof against the cold rollers of the outer bay. After two long blasts, the ferry churned away from the wharf. A line of gulls on the lee side of a rooftop watched them move into the channel and gather speed.
Twenty minutes later, the ferry slowed, shuddered, and stopped at the Peaks Island landing. Oliver walked uphill to the main street, unsure why he had come. Habit took him around by his former house. No lights were on, no sign of anyone home. He continued around the block, surprised at his disappointment. He hadnt seen Charlotte for six months and had no reason to see her now. He considered this over a cup of coffee at Wills. It was natural to check in sometimes with old friends. I mean, we were married, he told his cup.
Jealousy is a symptomlike the effects of drought. Owl told him that once. They had been standing on the club dock, having one of their rare conversations. He was telling Owl about Kiersten, how she wouldnt take him seriously, her smile always for Garystar everything. Owls voice was sympathetic but with a dissatisfied edge, as though he were impatient with or imprisoned by his superiority, his tenure at Brown, his aluminum boat, one of the fastest on the sound.
Oliver never thought to ask for an explanation, and then, sadly, it was too late. It was years before he understood Owls jealousy pronouncement. He wasnt jealous any longer, certainly not where Kiersten was concerned. God, shed driven everybody crazy. Territorynow that was different. You want your own territory, your own mate, your house, your space. It still pissed him off to see his old garage surrounded by Mikes messy piles of building materials. But he wasnt jealous. Charlotte was better off without him; she had a child, finally.
The waitress had a tolerant smile. Thank God for waitresses. He left a big tip and got back on the ferry.
Snow was drifting against brick buildings as Oliver walked into the Old Port. He decided to stop for a pint. Deweys was busy; people were packing it in early, finding strength in numbers. “A Guinness, he ordered, “for this fine March day. Sam set a dark glass, overflowing, on the bar in front of him. Oliver bent forward and slurped a mouthful. “You could live on Guinness foam, he said.
“And the occasional piece of cheese, Sam said. Patti Page was singing, “I remember the night of The Tennessee Waltz . . .” Her voice, the fiddle, the stately waltz told the old story: “stole my sweetheart from me . . .” One way or another, sooner or later, we are all defeated. Oliver felt a swell of sadness and the beginning of liberation.
“God, what a song, he said to Mark Barnes, who had come up beside him.
“Classic. How you doing, guy?
“Hanging in there. More people came in, stamping snow from their boots. Patti Page gave way to Tom Waits belting out, Jersey Girl. “Another classic, Oliver said. Tragedy was just offstage in Jersey Girl, momentarily held at bay by sex and love and hope. “All downhill from here, Mark.
“Life is fine, my man.
“What? Must be a new dancer in town. How do you do it, anyway?
“Innate sensuality, Mark said. “One glance across a crowded room . . .”
“Yeah, right. My rooms are crowded with women in black pants who have eyes only for each other. Although, I did see a beauty in Beckys this morning. Had two little girls with her-and a friend.
“What kind of friend?
“A lady friend, not a black pantser, Im pretty sure. Francesca, her name was.
“Francesca? Tall chick? Good looking?
“I wouldnt call her a chick, exactly. More like a Madonna by Modigliani.
“Yeah, Francesca. She lives in Cape Elizabeth. I was in a yoga class with her once.
“I ought to take yoga, Oliver said.
“The ratio is good, man. Francesca. That was years ago. She married some guy who works for Hannafords.
“I knew it, Oliver said.
“They cant help it, Mark said. “They have this nesting thing. Dancers came to Portland, walked around the block a couple of times, and met Mark. Six to eighteen months later, they married doctors.
“Did you ever think of settling down? Oliver asked.
“Im trying, man. Who do you like in the NCAAs? Duke?
“No way. Robots, Oliver said. “Smug. Bred to win from birth.
“I got a hundred on them. Mark made money helping executives scale the job ladder. He was amused and ironic about it. They knocked themselves out; he got the dancersfor a time.
“Mark . . . Oliver . . . The boss let us out early. Pleased with this statement, Richard OGrady, who acknowledged no boss but “The Man Upstairs, shuffled to his customary place at a long table on the other side of the bar. He was bright eyed, slight, and stooped, a survivor of diabetes and severe arthritis.
“Amazing smile! Oliver said.
“A world authority on blood chemistry, Mark said. “Youd never know itin here every night drinking scotch.
“Every night but Sunday, Oliver said. “I asked him, one time, where he got that smile. I thought hed say something like: it was his mothers. He said, Dont know. Then he said, Use it! It was like a command hed been given.
“Not too many around here that havent had a drink on Richard, Mark said. “Im outa here. Duke, man.
“Oliver, Richard called, “Help me with this plowmans lunch. Oliver sat on a wooden bench across the table from Richard.
“Ill have a bite, he said. “Whats happening?
“Oh, the usual, Richard said. “Palace intrigue. Too many chemists in one lab. I shouldnt complain; they do a good job. He bent over the table and lowered his voice. “One of the supervisors is a bit rigid. I hear about it, you know. Ive tried to talk to her. Its delicate. He brightened as he straightened. “Im sending her to a conference in Amsterdam. Maybe something will happen.
“That would be the place, Oliver said, cutting a slab of Stilton.
“How are you doing? Working?
“In between programming projects at the moment, Oliver said. “Not sure what to do next. Sometimes I wonder whats the point of doing anything.
“Oliver . . .” Richard reminded him, pointing at the smoky ceiling, “youve got to trust The Man Upstairs. Its His plan. This would be too corny to take if it werent coming from Richard.
“I wish Hed let me in on it. Oliver took a long swallow of stout.
“Ill tell you what I do when I feel bad, Richard said. “I find somebody whos worse off than I am, and I do something to help him out. Or her out. Works every time. He turned toward Sam and held one crippled hand in the air. “Over here, Sam, when you can. Oliver didnt think in terms of other people. He related to them as required, but his focus was inward. He imagined Richards process: lets see, I feel bad; therefore, its time to find person X who is worse off than I am and help him out. Or her. He could picture eligible persons, but he stumbled on the help part. What did he have to offer? Was a dollar bill going to make a difference? He felt blocked from the part of himself that might contain helpful things he could pass along.
“I like this chutney, he said, “good with this cheese. What was your father like, Richard?
“Great guy, Richard said. He sloshed the scotch and ice cubes around in his glass. “Ill tell you a story about my father. He couldnt tell time. Someone gave him a watch, but he didnt want to learn. He was proud of the watch, wore it every day. He used to go to people and say, Im having a little trouble reading this, and then hed hold his wrist up. Richard raised his arm proudly out in front of him. “And hed squint, as if he had eye trouble. Oh, its a quarter to nine, theyd say. Richard threw back his head and laughed. “My dad was a great guycould barely read, always singing. He worked on the docks.
“Hi, Richard. A thin woman approached. She had dark eyes and bleached blonde hair pulled into a tight pony tail.
“Hi, Sally. How are you?
“Do you know Oliver?
“Seen you around, she said, appraising him. Oliver felt about a four out of ten, maybe a three.
“Sally works at Mercy Hospital. That cigarette isnt doing you any good, you know.
“Nag, nag, nag.
“You got one for me? Richard lit up the room with his smile.
“Oh, Richard! Sally felt in her purse with one hand.
“What are you drinking? Richard asked.
“Ill see you guys, Oliver said, sliding to the end of the bench and standing. Sally took his place. “Thanks for the eats, Richard.
“Stay warm, Richard said.
A plow rumbled by, as Oliver stepped out into the storm. He followed it along the white empty street. He considered stopping at Giobbis Restaurant, but he turned up Danforth and walked to State Street where he lived in a second floor apartment on the last block before the Million Dollar bridge.
Verdi was waiting. He jumped from the window sill and made a fuss bumping against Olivers legs. “Hungry, are we? Oliver bent over and stroked him from head to tail. “Yes, very large and very fierce is Verdi. Very fierce. Verdi was brown and black, heavyset, with a large tomcats head and yellow eyes. He padded deliberately over to the lengths of walnut leaning upright in one corner of the room and scratched luxuriously, stretching full length, as though he had been waiting to do this for some time. “Aieee! Swell, Verdi. Oliver hung his coat on a peg and gathered up the boards. For the moment, he laid them on the table. The cat was irritated. “How about some nice pine, Oliver said. “Much better than walnut. Ill get you a nice soft piece of pine. In the meantime . . .” He opened a can of salmon Friskies.
Verdi ate, and Oliver refilled his water dish. The boards were beautiful. Hed been right about the color of Francescas eyes. There was an actual black walnut, a large one, at the edge of the parking area behind his building. It shaded his kitchen window during the summer and dropped hundreds of furry green walnuts that were gathered by squirrels each fall. Oliver had planted six walnuts in yogurt containers. Hed let them freeze first, done everything right, but none of them came up. The seeds were finicky for such a powerful tree. Maybe they had to pass through a squirrel. “Biology is complicated, he said to Verdi.
The kitchen had been a master bedroom in the original house. The appliances, counter, and sink were arranged along one wall and part of another, leaving plenty of space for a table in the center. The wall to the adjoining living room had been mostly removed; the two rooms functioned as one. Steps led to a landing and then to an attic bedroom with a view of the harbor. There was a fireplace that he rarely used. In one corner, a small table held a computer system.
Oliver sat at the kitchen table and ran the heels of his hands along the walnut. He enjoyed making things from wood: easy shelves, chests, a cradle once for a wedding present. He had a table saw and a router in the basement, but he kept his tools under a rough workbench that he had built along one wall of the kitchen. A “Workmate stood in the living room near the door to the hall. Usually it was covered with mail.
The touch of the wood was reassuring. Deep in the grain, in what might be made from the grain, was something iconic and alive, more alive than what could be said about it. Oliver took particular pleasure in finishing a shelf or a chest, hand rubbing the surface and seeing the patterns of the grain shine and deepen. He would have to buy legs if he were going to make a table. Or learn how to use a lathe. He didnt have a lathe. Maybe he could make a small boxto hold something special. He could give it to someone.
Who? A wave of longing swept over him. Who would care? He had an impulse to put his head down on his arms and give up.
“There are no cowards on this ship! God, he hadnt thought of that for years. His high school English teacher had said it, loudly. It was the punch line of a war story. The teacher had accompanied a couple of his Navy buddies to the bow of their ship; one of them was bragging that he would dive. The captain had come up behind them, asked what they were doing, and then ordered them all to dive. Apparently, it had been a high point of sorts in his teachers life.
“No cowards on this ship, Verdi, Oliver said, standing. Toast. Tea. When Oliver was upset, he turned to food. He had a high metabolism and ate what he wanted. His body looked chubby on its short square frame, but there was more muscle than fat under his skin; he could move quickly when he wished. He had a wide serious mouth with strong teeth. His eyebrows and hair were black. His eyes were large and dark brown with lids that slanted slightly across the corners. Women looked at him and were puzzled by something that was different. He almost never got into it.
“Oliver Muni Prescott, he had told a few. “Owl Prescott was my stepfather. My father is JapaneseMuni, his name isI never met him. The toast popped up. Oliver buttered it and laid on marmalade. He put the toast and tea on a tray and carried it upstairs. His mattress was on the floor next to a window set low in the wall, under the eaves. He lay down, munched toast, and watched the snow falling and blowing. When he turned his head, the window was like a skylight. Mother is coming, he remembered. The image of his mother with her flamboyant blonde hair was replaced immediately by that of Francescaquiet, natural, and no less forceful.
He finished the toast and held the mug of tea on his chest with both hands. He could see Francescas eyes in front of him. They were asking something, and he was answering. Her question was more complicated than he had thought at Beckys Diner. Were they the same? Was she beautiful? Was he for real? He relaxed and aligned in her direction. The answer was reassuring. “Yes, he said. He lifted his head and sipped tea. “O.K., he said.
John Moncure Wetterau