"Where Love Lies" by Anne Leigh Parrish

Categories: ISSUE 03: Edgar

Where Love Lies
They were a common sight, the little white dog and the man who held his leash.  They never rushed.  On warm days they sat in the sun.  The man dozed with his head to his chest, and the little dog lay on the ground with its nose on its paws.  When the weather turned harsh, they moved to the coffee shop and took the last booth.  No one came by to say it was time to go, or minded that he had only one cup.  He was allowed to stay on while the light died down.

Such was life on the island.  One was accepted, sometimes indulged, yet people weren't particularly friendly.  They regarded each other coolly.  Kept you at arm's length.  Dana didn't care.  She wanted to be left alone.  The town respected that.  Even so, there was gossip shared at the bakery, or the hardware store.  She'd overheard comments about folks she later recognized.  Had another one of those quiet weekends, was whispered about the guy who ushered your car on and off the ferry, which meant he stayed home and got smashed.  Heard she spent all last week off-island, with that friend of hers.  The woman who sorted mail at the post office had a boyfriend her husband knew about and didn't object to.  Dana didn't know what was said about her, but she could guess.  Is that hair for real, do you think?  Never saw such frizz.  Her hair was tightly kinked, like an African's.  Yet she was as white as milk.  Forbearers came over on the Mayflower.  Some rogue gene, no doubt, a mutation put there just to make you wonder.  People didn't really care about her hair, though.  They'd talk about her situation.  Husband beat the tar out of her.  That's why she ran away.  He'll be up for parole in another year.  Couldn't take the chance of him landing right back on their old doorstep.  But no one had those details.  Rather, they probably just said she was divorced or separated, which would be clear from the white mark left by her now absent wedding band, and simply wanted to start over in a quiet, peaceful place.

Was it too quiet there, Dana wondered?  Sometimes.  At heart she was a hustle-and-bustle girl.  Sidewalks and storefronts stirred her more than open fields and water views.  The noise of the city could make you laugh and feel alive, especially what you were liable to overhear, she's as crazy as a box of hair, I'm telling you, and I'm not kidding, he bought another monkey.  Here, people kept to the essentials.  Do you have any more energy-saver sixty-watt bulbs?  Your tulips are looking lovely, aren't they?  Hardly conversation as Dana was used to having it.  Politics had been the usual topic.  The scoundrel Republicans, lambasted at leisure over single-malt scotch.  Chip always knew what should be done and how.  She respected his expertise.  He read history, political theory, and economics.  Really, all they had to do was ask him.  He was tall, slender, and light on his feet.  When he made a point, he did a jaunty two-step, like a rapid hop, one foot to the other.  Then Chip lost his sense of humor.  Sarcasm turned to rage, aimed not at the world in general, but at her.  He thought Dana was lazy and useless.  Soft, was his favorite insult.  Dana wasn't soft.  She simply had never been poor, never had to bounce a check, or eat Ramen for two weeks straight.  Chip felt these things made him who he was, a superior person who really understood life.  Dana didn't see it that way.  She worked hard, didn't she?  At what?  Those stupid paintings?  That hurt more than the slap which quickly followed.  He didn't work at all, for money or for himself.  Maybe that was the problem.  Maybe he needed to find something to hang onto and give him self-esteem.  Cut the crap, he told her when she suggested exactly that.  The apartment was hers.  So was what they lived on.  Well, it was her parents.  They could afford to be generous.  Chip hated them for having money.  She told him if it bothered him so much, he should get a job.  That earned another slap.  She told him there wouldn't be a third, and to get the hell out.  He broke her nose.  She called the police.

There on the island her work took on darker tones and ragged shapes.  She never liked the idea of using art to work through personal problems.  That always seemed self-indulgent.  Now she knew there was no choice–that what was inside of her would express itself, no matter what.  Just as Chip's rage expressed itself.  His love, too, even in those last, awful days.  He held her while her nose bled.  He wept with her.  He was still crying when the officers snapped the cuffs on.

That was almost a year ago.  She stayed in the city for a while.  Her family urged her to leave and start over somewhere else.  She went because she was sick of where she was, not because she was afraid Chip might find her one day.  If he did, and tried to hurt her again, she would kill him. She believed herself capable of it.

The man with the dog, it turned out, also painted.  They met in the art supplies aisle of the island's only hardware store, next to the home-ware section with its cheap, blue-speckled pots and pans, more suited to cooking on an open camp fire than on a six-burner gas range, Dana thought.  Not that her small rental house had a six-burner range.  It had a two-burner electric cook-top.  On which she brewed the man–Bruce–a cup of herbal tea.  He'd asked for coffee, which she didn't have.  Nor sugar.

"Sort of a Spartan life you have going here, isn't it?" he asked her.  He had the sharp, clear eyes of a young man, which surprised her.  He wore a silver band with a dull green stone on one finger.  His nails were short and dirty.  The fingers were thick and scarred, more like a carpenter's than a painter's.

"Luxurious in its way," she said.  Her home had a large room with a kitchen at one end and a wall of windows at the other.  Her easel was set up by the windows, which faced due north.  She slept in the upstairs loft, accessible by a narrow, poorly built wooden ladder that tended to shudder under her weight, though she was slim and slight.  It suited her very well.  She adored it, in fact.

"Less is more kind of thing," Bruce said.  He stared into his tea.  The top of his head was bald.  His work confused her.  There were lots of colored dots, in no order, and suggesting nothing.  He said that's how he saw atoms.  Dana nodded.  At that point she was in his studio–his territory, after all, and who was she to disagree, though in truth she had to think that the universe was a bit more ordered than Bruce depicted it.  It was people who disordered the universe with envy and rage.  And grief.  Grief caused the biggest wreck of all.

Bruce took up painting after his wife died.  His home was large, well-furnished, and very comfortable.  He painted in a downstairs room with only a small window, as if fighting distraction.  The kitchen looked into the back garden that still had bright geraniums in pots, though it was late October.

The dog's name was Edgar, Dana assumed after Poe and didn't ask.  Later, Bruce said his brother had been named Edgar, and he had been gone many years by then.  Bruce was clearly lonely in a way Dana wasn't.  He was sixty-three–thirty years her senior–yet she found him easier to be with than people her own age.  He stopped in often.  He liked to sit and watch her paint, and she didn't mind.  Until he put his hand on her shoulder.

"Don't," she said.

"I'm sorry.  It's just that you're a lovely woman."

Her eyes were her best feature, large and blue, but her nose was crooked, even before the break, and her chin a bit too prominent.

She got up, wiped her paint brush, and studied the scene she'd been trying–without success–to capture.  Waves on rock.  Something always in motion against something that never moved.  She wanted to speed up time, show the process of erosion.  On one side of the canvas the rock was jagged and hard.  On the opposite side it softened, melted away.  It was either brilliant, or inane.

"He must have hurt you real bad," he said.

"Who?"

"The one you ran away from."

She looked at her canvas again.  Bruce went on looking at her.

"Am I wrong?" he asked.

Later that afternoon, at the Lower Tavern, she told him he wasn't wrong.  But she also didn't want to talk about it, and he needed to respect that.  He saluted her.  He'd had a lot to drink.  So had she.  They each wondered if they'd end up in bed together.  He was worried about it, and didn't let on.  He knew what he felt for her would lead nowhere.  Close companionship was the best he could hope for.  He suffered from erectile dysfunction, and had for years.  His wife had struggled to accept it, and often couldn't.  She stepped out.  He couldn't really blame her.  Others did, because they didn't know what drove her.  He was pitied for being cheated on.  That pity was worse than the pain of her infidelity.

"Do you know what it's like to sit in a room with people who feel sorry for you?" he asked.  His nose was red.  There was a small splotch of bright blue paint on his cheek.

"No."

"You end up hating them."

"Hating's easy."

It was a truth she'd recently discovered.  Hating was far easier than loving, and came more naturally, she thought.

"Living with it's not," Bruce said.  That was true, too.  So much truth.  So much sharp, brilliant, blinding truth.

"Whoa," she said.  She was wobbly, there on the barstool.  He told her to take it easy.  Then he said he loved her work.

"Really?"

"Indeed."

"You're the first person to."

"Don't believe it."

"Truth."

"Not one art teacher?  Your folks?  Even the ex?"

She shook her head.  Her kinked hair swayed.  One end of her silk scarf lay on the bar, close to a tiny puddle of beer.  Painting was something no one else seemed to understand.  Her painting, that is.  She didn't understand it, herself.  That was the problem.  Basically, she saw the how, but not the why.

"Why?" she asked.

"What?"

"Do we paint."

Bruce shrugged.  His shoulders were huge inside his worn flannel shirt.  Chip's shoulders were narrow.  Maybe that's why he hit her–to prove that they weren't.

"No choice," Bruce said.

"What?" The music in the bar came up.  Two people were dancing in a corner, their boots slamming the worn wooden floor.  Edgar, at Bruce's feet, lifted his head.

"To paint.  We got no choice but to."

"But to."

They thought about painting.  Then they thought about lost loves.  Dana figured nothing had been her fault.  Bruce figured everything had been his fault.   His head swam.  He looked at her, slung low over her beer.  She was a little thing.  Like his wife.  Sometimes he imagined her remains.  The dried, curling flesh dressing the bones.  And the smell of rot.  Sometimes Dana imagined a different ending.  Instead of sitting on the floor weeping, she threw the lamp at him.  Then Chip was the one to cower and cry.

Winter was on the way.  The annual holiday festival was held in the Odd Fellows hall, a converted barn that sat on a rocky cliff over the sea.  Every year Bruce was put in charge of decorating the inside, on the grounds that he was artistic, and therefore had good taste.  And he'd lived on the island for over twenty years.  His tragedy was well-known, and led him to be respected.  Dana, as a newcomer, was allowed only a minor role.  She was to stand and serve spiced cider.  These decisions were made by Mary and Margaret Dykman, twins, widows, and owners of the island's knitting and crafts shop.  They were short and squat, like a pair of soup cans.  Their hands were fat and clumsy, and it was hard to see them handling the gorgeous yarn they sold.  Dana had bought some her first week on the island, just because she loved the color–somewhere between plum and purple.  The women asked her what she intended to do with the yarn.  She didn't know.  For a moment it seemed as if they might refuse to sell it to her.  Maybe I'll use it to strangle someone, Dana said.

Bruce hung tapestries stitched with sunflowers, and set out bright yellow tablecloths.  They were cheerful, but didn't really evoke the holidays.  Then someone mentioned that everything had belonged to his late wife from some event she'd sponsored before ever coming to the island.  It was Bruce's way of honoring her, one woman said in a hushed voice, as she took a cup of cider from Dana, then poured liquor into it from a tarnished silver flash she had in her plaid, wool coat.

There were a few children at the event, taking turns sitting on the knee of the man who ran the hardware store, Amos Rind.  Amos wore an old, worn, and too-tight Santa suit. Watching him with the children, Dana wondered what it was like, growing up there.  Her own childhood in the suburbs was easy, and comfortable.  She didn't remember visiting Santa, though, probably because her parents had never supported the myth of his existence.  They were blunt, plain-spoken people, a trait which let her father, a cardiologist, earn the trust of his many patients and a good deal of money, too, which he invested in real estate in Suffolk County, on Long Island.  Her mother, like the Dykman sisters, ran the small community they lived in, but out of the country club, not a crafts shop.  Where other women kept their opinions quiet, Dana's mother never did.  Yet she was well-liked, despite her sometimes painful candor.  Even Chip had liked her.  She tells it like it is.  Then he didn't like her.  She looks at me like I'm dirt.  That was after it became clear that he had no interest in getting a job, or going to school, or volunteering his time in some worthy cause.  He acts as if it takes all of his energy just to wake up every day, her mother had said.  She was right about that.

"Having any fun?" Bruce asked her.  He had Edgar in his arms.

"Sure."

"I was watching you from over there.  You're a million miles away."

Dana wore a light blue sweater that matched her eyes, and a lapis pendant.  He thought she looked nice, she could tell.

"Swing by on your way home.  We'll have a drink," he said.

"Only one."

"Two at the most."

"Okay."

A scrawny young guy that Dana had seen in town a number of times–Roy?–plunked out Silent Night on the upright piano.  Soon an off-key crowd had gathered around him. Dana watched the sky through the huge windows.  Every building out there seemed to have a lot of glass.  Oh, holy night, the stars are... and they were.  She could see them clearly.  She went to the window, drawn by their glitter.  Was she sad?  Maybe. She couldn't tell, because she'd forgotten how to feel.  With the passing of time even anger and the thrill of murder had grown cold.

The door opened and the sudden wind sent dead leaves rushing over the floor.  The man wore an old Army jacket and blue jeans.  He carried a cardboard box full of candy canes, each individually wrapped in plastic.  Dana could make them out clearly from the little distance between her and him.  He wore a ponytail, streaked with gray.  The stubble on his chin was both black and white.  The eyes were piercing, the nose perfectly straight.  He handed the box to one of the Dykman sisters, then stood briefly with his hands in the deep pockets of his jacket.  Then he made his way toward the punch bowl Dana had served from.  He helped himself, and looked around.  When he saw her, he walked over.  He didn't smile.

"Jess," he said.  His handshake was firm, and his palm rough.

"Dana."

He nodded.  His silence was unnerving.

"You must not live near town.  I'd have seen you before," she said.

"I'm on the far side."

"Of the moon?"

"It can seem like it.  Have you ever been out that way?"

"I don't think so."

Dana's exploration of the island was limited to the road that ran between her house, town, and Bruce's.  She'd never gone anywhere else on the assumption that it would all look more or less the same.  She didn't explain this to Jess.  He seemed to understand it, from the way he appraised her.  Yet he didn't give an impression of being judgmental, or unkind.  Just knowing.  The music stopped.  Then another carol was underway.  Joy to the world... A baby cried.  Someone coughed.  Bits of conversation reached them.  It's true, they're orange... That son of his is just no good... Did you see that dress of hers?  Heavens!  Edgar trotted past, chased by a little girl in a red dress and white tights.

"Come out sometime, I'll show you around," Jess said.

"How about tomorrow?"

"Tomorrow works."

Four days later, Bruce said he was sorry he missed her after the festival.  She never stopped by.  Meeting Jess had rattled her, so much, in fact, that she hadn't gotten up the nerve to visit him yet, either.

"I'm sorry.  I hope you didn't wait all night for me," Dana said.  They were at her place.  She'd been cleaning when he arrived.  Sweeping the floor was soothing, and let her mind wander to the far side of the island.  Now Edgar lay under the table by Bruce's feet, dropping white hair on the dark planking.

"Not at all.  I turned in early."  He'd refused her offer of tea and was drinking from a bottle of wine he'd brought.  It was early afternoon.  She decided to join him.  He said he hoped she was ready to put her heart on the line.

"I just met him.  You act as if I'm madly in love," Dana said.

Bruce looked at her closely.

"One, I admit that it's none of my beeswax whether you take up with the fellow or not.  Two, I think you probably will because three, he's got a way with the ladies, and four, you should trust me on that one."

His tone was bitter.  And sad.  Dana had never heard him so sad.  She put her hand on his.

"Tell me," she said, though she didn't really want to hear.  It was what people did in a situation like that, though, wasn't it?  Listen?

"He knew my wife."

"Oh."

"She had quite a thing for him."

"And he took advantage."

"On the contrary.  He turned her down."

The wind came up.  Snow was forecast for that evening, yet the sky was perfectly clear.  Dana's place was heated with an enamel wood stove.  It worked well.  Sometimes it got too warm, and she opened a window.  The air always smelled pure.  City air never smelled like that.  She loved living there, she realized.  She wanted to stay.

She poured Bruce more wine.  His face was heavy.  He hadn't shaved.  He didn't look rugged, but worn out.

"Go on," Dana said.

"He wouldn't reconsider.  She couldn't take it.  So she killed herself."

"My god!"

"You didn't know?"

"How would I?"

"You've seen how people up here talk."

"Not to me, they don't."

Bruce looked her in the eye.  His expression softened.  A sweet sentiment seemed to fill him up.

"That hair of yours," he said.  Then he touched it.  She leaned back.  He withdrew his hand.

"When did all this happen?" she asked.

"Long time ago."

"I'm sorry."

Bruce nodded.  She could see how hard it was for him to remember.

"Why didn't you move away?" she asked.

"Can't escape a thing like that, no matter where you go."  Edgar whimpered in his sleep. "And there was no need, really.  Jess and I don't exactly cross paths, with him over there."

"What's he do?"

"Raises sheep.  Sells their wool.  Lives more or less like a hermit."

"How did your wife meet him?"

"She was a fiber artist."

"I see."

She put another log in the stove, got another bottle of wine, one she bought thinking she might drink it with Jess.  She put the bottle on the table.  Then she went to the window.  The water was cut with whitecaps.  A small motorboat with a cheerful yellow flag made its way into the wind.  Gulls were lifted high on the gust, circled, and sank back to earth.  Madrona trees leaned over the tall, rocky banks.  Their bark shed naturally, exposing a deep red wood underneath.  Dana wanted to paint them.  She was done with dark seascapes.  She returned to the table and opened the wine.

"He's a cold man," Bruce said.

"Cold?"

"The way he turned her down.  Made her miserable.  Awful to see."

"You wanted her to sleep with him?"

"No, of course not."  He drank his wine.  "I just didn't want her to get hurt."

"What was her name?"

"Lily."

A car came up the one-lane road.  Its motor struggled on the slope with an urgent, jerky whine.  Bruce turned his head that way.  Dana didn't.  He turned back to her.  His eyes were different now.  They looked empty.  She told him to take a little nap before heading home.  The blanket she threw over him came from her grandmother, a simple weave of blue and white, nautical you might say, clean, antiseptic almost.  Though he was a large man, the way he huddled beneath it made him look like a little boy.

A week later, with the island dusted in snow, Dana drove to Jess'.  She had a thermos full of hot cider, better than what was served at the festival.  She thought to offer it to him as an apology for not showing up before.  She could say she forgot, or was too busy, but he didn't ask what kept her.

He was in the barn with his sheep.  He listed their names, and she didn't hear.  She was watching his fingers as he stroked their heads in turn.  They accepted his caresses blandly, and ate the hay at their feet.

His house was cozy, with windows so old the glass was wavy.  The wood floors creaked as they walked.  The downstairs had a living room with full bookshelves.  There were books stacked on the floor, and on the kitchen table, too.  The upstairs was one large room.  The bathroom was closed off at the far end.  A skylight over the king-sized bed let in a broad swath of afternoon sunlight.  On the table by the bed was a novel by Virginia Woolf.  Dana asked where he got his books.  He'd brought them to the island when he moved there.  She didn't ask from where, or how long ago that was.  He was good with his hands, she could tell.  He'd refinished the stairs, balusters, and rail himself.  He had plans to build an enclosed porch in back where he could sit in all weather, and watch the sky.  She said that sounded nice.  He said he hoped she'd be willing to join him.

Later, she told him she had never fallen in love with anyone so fast before.  He said he loved her the moment he saw her.

"At the festival," she said.  Their heads were on the same pillow.

"No.  I saw you in town, walking with Bruce."

"You did?"

"Sure.  More than once."

The night was thrown with stars.  It was cold, and they made her think of ice.  The warmth from the stove down below rose pleasantly.  The room was comfortable.  She told him about Chip.  He listened, his face still.  She waited for him to tell her about Bruce's wife.  When he didn't, she prompted him.

"She was desperate.  I don't know why she set her sights on me," he said.

"Come on."

"I'm nothing special."

Bull, she thought.

He was from Vermont, and moved west because he wanted a bigger sky to look at.  On the island there was nothing but sky, if you just kept looking up, he said.  Or sea, if your gaze happens to fall.  And in between, the deep, rich forest.  Had she ever walked around in it?  She said no, not yet.  He'd take her when the weather improved, unless she didn't mind the cold.  He wanted her to know that he wasn't always easy to be with.  But he was consistent, dependable.  He always showed up.

"How did she kill herself?" Dana asked.

"Gunshot. Opened her mouth, and put it right in."

"How long ago was this?"

"Good eight, nine years."

Dana pulled the quilt tightly around her shoulders.  It was an antique Desert Rose, from around 1900, that had belonged to his great grandmother.   The quilt was thin and worn, though its reds and pinks were still bold.

On New Year's Eve, another snow was forecast, and Dana told Jess to spend the night at her place.  She was afraid the road would be bad for a while, and they wouldn't be able to see each other.  She was also working on something she didn't want to leave, an abstract with pale colors within bold outlines, meant to suggest soft interiors and hard exteriors.  He agreed.

She was at her easel when Bruce drove up.  Jess was on the couch with a book.  Dana hadn't seen Bruce for a while.  She'd found and not answered a note he'd left on her door asking her to have Christmas dinner with him.  She felt guilty when she saw his face in glare of the outside light.  He asked her to put her brush away.  He thought she might be more comfortable if she joined Jess on the couch.  Jess had gotten to his feet when Bruce came in, and Bruce told him to sit back down.  His tone, too, was flat.  Edgar wasn't with him, Dana realized, and she wondered if he'd come to say that he'd died.  He sat at Dana's table.  She offered him a drink, and he refused.  He talked about Lily, how New Year's was her favorite holiday.  It always perked her up, the idea of starting over.  Dana said in that case she was glad Bruce had decided to spend it with them.  She became aware of Jess beside her on the couch, of the shift in his position.  He was leaning forward, with his elbows on his knees.

Bruce put the gun on the table.  It caught the light from the fireplace.  Its handle was heavy and blunt-looking.  Dana had never seen a gun in person before.  She'd thought of taking shooting lessons after Chip, and then didn't.

"Why couldn't you love her?" Bruce asked.  "That's all she wanted.  All she needed.  She'd be here now, if you hadn't turned her down."

Jess stood up and asked Bruce to leave.  Bruce stared at the floor.  Then Dana stood up, too, and came towards Bruce.  Bruce picked up the gun and pointed it at her.  Then he aimed it at Jess.

"This is the second woman you've stolen from me.  Don't you think that's enough?" Bruce asked.  Jess said something Dana didn't comprehend.  She was looking at the gun.  Suddenly, it was the only thing in the room.

Afterwards, the people on the island couldn't stop talking about what had happened.  But then, as always, their enthusiasm faded, and life went on.  Waves washed the rocky shore, fields greened and then turned brown, the sky opened and closed like a secret briefly shared.  Every now and then, though, someone would remember and consider, just for a moment, where love lies.

--Story by Anne Leigh Parrish
***
--Background and Foreground photos by Doriana Maria