On Writing

"Every fine story must leave in the mind of the sensitive reader an intangible residuum of pleasure, a cadence, a quality of voice that is exclusively the writer's own, individual, unique."
Willa Cather

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Ever After: An Excerpt from the Foxhill Series

            “Don’t you think I’m a trifle old to be ‘fixed up’ with some woman?  Besides, I’m used to being alone.”  Hal Stensson gave his mother an aggrieved look.  Ever since he’d been widowed he’d been treated to periodic attempts on her part to see him ‘settled’ as she called it.  Never mind that he’d lived quite happily–well, with a minimum of angst, since his wife died, fifteen years now, he recalled.   The real disappointment was that Josh was working for a large IT company in Portland, much to his regret.  It was painful to have him so far away, especially as he and his son had always been close.  But, as Josh and Hal agreed, he had to go where the job took him.
             At the same time these thoughts occurred, he was trying to deflect his mother’s genteel wangling of a date for him.  Someone she called Marian, which had an ominous, dull sound in itself, Marian the Librarian.  That was pretty much his mother’s speed, and what she might plan for him.  The woman would have to be a knockout to overcome that name, he told himself irrationally.
            “I’m not exactly fixing you up,” his mother continued.  “She’s new to town, and the last time I played bridge with her mother, she mentioned that Marian was interested in getting acquainted since moving here after her divorce.”  Hal’s mother lowered her voice to a near whisper as if someone might be listening at her front door.  “He was a drinker and a rounder, you know, and Marian stayed with him until her two girls graduated from high school.  They’re in college now.  Apparently, there’s money somewhere so she’s not in dire straits, or anything.”
            Hal sighed.  He knew his mother.  She’d not let up until he complied with her wishes.  “When is this little outing?”
            “Saturday night.  We’ll meet for early dinner at Merchants and then go on to the ballet.  Jane has already gotten the tickets.  I think with your sister and Don there, it won’t seem so much like a date.  A kind of family party.  You like her mother, I know.”
            He nodded.  “Yes, as old gals go, Nancy is rather a charmer.  Let’s hope her daughter takes after her rather than her father.  A captain of industry with the jaw to prove it.”
            Hal’s mother took the jibe well and merely laughed.   Adele looked like aging royalty as she sat in the gold bergère chair in her living room, petting her little dog, the papillon Louie, who was happily squashed beside her.  Adele Stensson’s blue cashmere sweater exactly matched her eyes, and her hair was still mainly light brown with only a sprinkling of silver.  Of medium height with a only few tell-tale signs of arthritis in her fingers, she looked younger than her years.  She was Norwegian while Hal’s father had been Norwegian with one Swedish grandsire, who provided their surname.  Hal’s parents were originally from Minnesota and had arrived in Nashville soon after their marriage. 
            Although Hal favored his mother in his looks, he had his father’s coloring, commonly called “black Norwegian” with very dark hair and blue eyes.  His father, deceased for six years, had had a printing company that he’d bought into when an army buddy had made the offer.  Hal had grown up immersed in the sound of presses and the smell of ink but chose the writing side of the business until his employer, the Nashville Banner, went out of business.  It was, he occasionally reflected, a sign of the times that even now with his own city magazine that he published monthly, he rarely saw those things that were part and parcel of his father’s business.
            So with a few more details to arrange at what was to be a date, no matter what his mother called it, Hal left for his own house, a few blocks away in the historically important neighborhood of Foxhill.  His place was an early  20th century but still significant design called a Craftsman bungalow, while his mother’s house was a two-story 1850s Italianate with mansard roof, bracketed window heads, and high ceilings. 
            On the way home, he had to admit that his few independent forays into that strange world of dates and relationships had definitely bombed, the only word for it.  Never considering himself a lady’s man, he’d gotten less and less interested in the pursuits and the necessary repartee when nothing seemed to click.  He and his wife, Chrissy, had met in college and like so many romances in that rarified atmosphere permeated by hormones and set in a cloistered environment, they married shortly after graduation.  They’d had a strong attachment that Hal believed could never again be duplicated.  It was that sense of belonging wholly to one another, almost from the first encounter, that he had not found again, even with seemingly suitable women. 
            His last date was over a year ago with Paige Crowell, now Geitner, and should have worked.  They were of the right age; they had fairly common interests; and she was a lovely woman.  Yet he knew on that first date that it was falling flat.  And then he heard from Tessa Wenger that the woman had married less than six weeks after he’d taken her out! 
            A couple of years before that, he had even dated Tessa when she’d first started working for him.  She, too, had married shortly after that.  There’d been other abortive attempts in other years.  Maybe he had turned into a misogynist without noticing, and women were telling him so.  That was all right, as far as he was concerned.  It set up fewer expectations–for himself and for the women who crossed his path.  He would patiently suffer this setup by his family, for he knew it would be a fleeting encounter.  The chances of him and Marian hitting it off were quite slim.
            There were compensations in living alone, he reflected, letting himself into his neat and spare bungalow. He’d always liked the neighborhood, and though he and Chrissy had raised Josh in an outlying area of Nashville, after her death he decided Foxhill would be the place where he might live out his remaining years.   For one thing, the houses were interesting and varied, not only in design, but also in age and size, so there seemed to be something for everyone.  Further, the restoration atmosphere and the homeowners association engendered a community spirit not found in most neighborhoods.  He appreciated that.
            On the negative side, it was close to the projects and occasional gang members might wander into the area, but with a vigilant Neighborhood Watch on the lookout, no ruffians would stay long.  Large families seldom lived here, he reflected.  It seemed one- or two-child families sent their youngsters to a boarding school or maybe a day school if they were able to transport them.  The nearby public schools had little to recommend them, unfortunately.  Friends had to be imported for play times and parties.  But once ensconced in Foxhill, almost no one wanted to leave.  Its historic houses and mellow brick sidewalks with tree-lined streets lent a homey, old world ambiance and made the place unique.
            The next morning Hal was having breakfast at a restaurant near his magazine office.  He was soon joined by his second in command, Juliet Norman, who handled every detail he forgot, with tasks assigned to her that he usually avoided, such as those of an office manager.  Reporters he had, along with a circulation manager and an advertising assistant who helped him with his own advertising efforts, but he detested the day-to-day arrangements about staff problems and bills, which Juliet managed very well.
            “I think I’ve got someone to do both jobs that we’re needing done,” Juliet said, cutting her french toast into a messy plateful of bite-sized pieces.
            “Both jobs?  I thought we just needed a typist.?”
            “True, that’s what I was after initially,” Juliet nodded in agreement.  She was a brusque woman in her forties, squarely built.  She and her husband had both retired from the army after twenty years and had a boy and girl in high school.  Her name, Hal often thought, seemed a kind of reproach to her parents, for she was hardly the delicate romantic. 
            “She applied for the typing post,” Juliet continued, “and her test was remarkably good.  But when she was filling out some forms, she pointed to the corner of my office, which was its usual filthy mess, thanks to Daniel’s frequent absences, and said, ‘I can clean for you, too, if you’ll let me stay a couple of hours later two or three times a week, and I’ll do a better job than that!’  Well, I agreed, and she’ll do it for the same money as our errant college boy.  I texted him and gave him the bad news.”
            “Does this woman know anything about publishing?”  Hal wasn’t questioning his lieutenant’s judgment, but he was curious.
            “She is new to the field, but she’s very keen.  Took a couple of English classes, as a matter of fact, to sharpen her writing skills.  But in Romania, she was close to getting a degree when she immigrated.”
            “Romania!  Who is this paragon?”
            Juliet gave her hearty laugh and said, “I don’t say she’s a paragon.  She’s something of a character, but as I say, she’s eager and a good typist as well.  She’ll be fine.  Don’t worry.”
            “I don’t, not for a minute.  What’s her name?”
            “Mihaela Forenscu.  She’ll start work on Monday.”
            “Fine.”  But he finished his breakfast in a kind of dread at meeting someone who saw dirt in corners and offered to clean it up.

Chapter 2

            Early November evenings in Nashville could be chilly, so it wasn’t surprising to see both Nancy Lankford and a woman who was obviously her daughter wearing light furs over their shoulders.  Nancy wore an old fashioned ermine stole, while the younger woman had on over her dress a mink vest that exactly matched her thick chestnut hair, worn in a bob.  They arrived at the front of the restaurant at the same time as Hal and his mother but came from a different direction.
            “Perfect timing,” Nancy exclaimed, greeting her friend Adele with a hug.  “I want you two to meet my daughter, Marian Keeler.” 
            Marian held out her hand, first to Hal’s mother and then to Hal, who tried not to register surprise.  She may not have been termed a knockout, but staid and insipid in looks Marian definitely was not.  She was a little taller than her mother, about five-foot six or seven with a slender but curvy figure, wearing a long, green wool sheath slit at the knee.  Hal noticed a diamond bracelet when they shook hands.  In the light of the marquee, Hal saw that Marian had beautiful topaz-colored eyes and a creamy oval face that just missed being beautiful.  She didn’t look forty, but he suspected she was actually older than that.
            Amenities were exchanged, and then Hal opened the door for the women to enter the restaurant foyer where the light was considerably dimmer, more intimate.  The group was immediately shown to a table upstairs where Hal’s sister Jane and her husband Don were already seated.  For a few minutes there was a flurry of introductions and people moving here and there as they settled into their seats around a rectangular table for six.  Hal sat at one end, and his brother-in-law at the other.  Sitting to Hal’s left was his sister and to his right Marian.  She was looking around at the historic setting with interest.
            “I’ve heard of this place, but as many times as I’ve visited Nashville, this is a first for me, so it’s a real treat.” The hostess handed out large menus to them.
            Promptly, the beverage server arrived and took their orders, and amid general conversation about the history of the hotel, they were all served wine with the exception of Hal’s mother who always had iced water with lemon.
            “I’m afraid I don’t know where you moved from,” Hal said to Marian, after ordering Steak Frites as his entrée.  Hal’s sister asked for a baked chicken dish, while Marian ordered Mushroom Papparello, which was, according to the waiter, a Merchants’ specialty.
            “Atlanta, for most of my married life.  I have two daughters, one of whom is going to William and Mary while the other is at Davidson.  It seemed the perfect time to make a real break with my former life.”
            “I hope you’ll enjoy Nashville.  It’s always been our home,” he gestured to his sister, who now joined in the conversation.
            “Yes, if there’s anything I can do to help you get acquainted, Marian,” Jane offered, “any clubs I might introduce you to, for instance, I’d be more than happy to do so.  Are you in Woman’s Club?”
            “I have been, but several years ago, and for now, I’m going to take my time and see what I might like to be involved in, but thank you for the offer.  I’ve been a professional volunteer for years,” she said with a laugh. “I was the wife of a member of the U.S. Polo team and playboy extrordinaire.  I had few options for doing anything other than managing a household and taking care of social obligations.” 
            “So were you college trained for a career?”  Hal said, in between sips of tomato bisque.
            “Yes, sort of. I graduated from Sweet Briar with a degree in, of all things, Sociology.  I had some thought about helping the displaced, the homeless.  But after I married, my life took a different turn, and I sort of settled, you might say.  I became as much of a dilettante as my husband.  I’ve been quite useless, except for taking care of my girls.  I am a good mom,” she said with definite nod of her head.  Then she looked at Hal with an amused expression and said, “But I can’t cook or iron or sew or do anything very practical.”
            “Like the lilies of the field–they toil not neither do they spin.  You’re quite nicely arrayed yourself,” he said with a polite little bow of his head.
            “I really don’t think that passage was referring to the likes of me,” Marian laughed.  “That eye of the needle thing is probably more applicable.”
            “And now,” Hal said, with an appreciative smile, “you want to do something significant with your life?”
             “I’d like to continue my work with the homeless, only professionally.  To that end, I’ve applied for a job at the Nashville Mission.”
            As if the words carried an electric charge, everyone’s attention suddenly was focused on Marian, and her mother cried, “I’ve told her that’s not a proper thing for a woman to be doing.  Dreadful things go on there, I’ve heard.”
            “Oh, Mother,” Marian said, shaking her head, “I think it’s perfectly safe.  I’ve looked it up on-line and visited it when I was here prior to my move, and I think it would be a very interesting place to work.”  Then she turned to Hal and said, “But enough about me.  I know you’re a publisher of Cityscape magazine, and I’ve seen copies of it at Mother’s.  How did that come about?”
            And for the remainder of the meal, the conversation centered around Hal’s venture, the stories he’d covered, and his personnel, until the few who had succumbed to a sherbet and ice cream dessert were finished.  He felt he hadn’t talked about himself that much in years.  In order to simplify matters, Hal picked up the bill for the party, which was fine.  He had few expenses in his bachelor life, and this was an unusual occasion.  He felt strangely happy and full of well being this evening.
            “We’d better hurry to TPAC,” Hal’s brother-in-law said, snapping shut his cell phone,“since it’s nearly time for the curtain.   I’ve ordered a taxi to drop us off there and pick us up after the ballet, so we won’t have to either walk or move our cars around.  I just checked with the cab company, and it’s out front as we speak.  How does that sound?”
            Everyone congratulated him on his forethought, and the group moved to the sidewalk where one of the roomier cabs awaited them.  Hal and Marian were the first to get in, which required crawling into the far back seat.  He went ahead and helped her to get situated, both of them laughing at the awkwardness of SUVs.  Hal was very pleased the way the evening was progressing.  He couldn’t fault his mother for her manipulating this occasion.  So much for Marian the Librarian.
            After Swan Lake, a nice but familiar performance for most of the company, they exited the taxi at the various places where their cars were parked.  Hal and his mother were the first to reach their parking garage.  He’d had little opportunity to be alone with Marian to set up some further meeting, but he had found out she had purchased a condo somewhere on West End, and believing they’d gotten along well, he planned to find her number and give her a call.  He couldn’t claim sparks, exactly, but she was a lovely woman as well as intelligent and interesting.  Going against his habitual lack of momentum when it came to such things, he decided she was worth pursuing to get better acquainted.
            “So what did you think?” Hal’s mother queried as they drove home.  “It wasn’t a bad evening, was it?”
            “No, Mom, you did good.  Actually, Marian’s something of a puzzle, a pretty one, for sure, and you know I’ve always liked a mystery, so I may have to check her out further.”
            Adele clapped her hands together.  “I knew it!  I just had a feeling about this.  So you’ll be asking her out then?”
            “I think I will.  Of course, I don’t know if she’ll be interested in going out with me.”
            “What girl wouldn’t?  Of course, she’d be pleased as punch.”  She got out of the car in her own driveway and leaned in before closing the door.  “Let me know what happens.  Promise?”
            “Yes, my dear, I’ll keep you informed.  Now scoot.  It’s past your bedtime.”
            But what surprised him the most was that he couldn’t wait until the next day, but called information and got her number as soon as he was inside his house.  He hesitated a moment before ringing her, wondering if she stopped at her mother’s or had he even given her enough time to reach her place.  He punched in the number resolutely and was gratified to hear her low voice answer, “Hello?”
            He knew he sounded a bit gruff when he asked her if she enjoyed the evening, but that was him, and she surely knew that by now.  In fact, she made it easy, saying she was glad he called since she wanted to know if he’d like to go with her to an exhibition of medieval religious icons and objects from the Metropolitan Museum Cloisters collection--if he hadn’t already been.
            She explained further as if having to tempt him.  “Mother’s seen it, and I’ve read up on these items, which are supposed to be fabulous.  Does that interest you?”  She laughed then, rather self-consciously, he thought, which was rather endearing.
            “Sure, I’d like to go, and no, I haven’t yet been.  Good idea.”  They agreed on the following Saturday afternoon at 2:30.  After wishing her a good night, he rang off and sat for a moment, wondering about her–she went straight to the point, that was for sure.   He normally gave a wide berth to socialites, particularly wealthy ones since their lives had little in common with his own.  But Marian seemed different, iconoclastic, he thought, despite the fur and diamonds.  That business about wanting to work at the Nashville Mission, for instance, was what?  A genuine interest in helping the underclass?  Or was she merely getting off on playing Lady Bountiful?  Time would tell, and for now he was willing to take that time.

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