Jack pushed the button twice, impatient and hoping to get the light to change quickly. It seemed ridiculous to stand there waiting when there were no cars in sight, much less people. But he did it anyway. He should be proud of that - living his life by the book… but sometimes he thought it just made him seem weak. He pretty much believed that a leopard didn’t change its spots though, so he made little effort to change. He thought it was his nature. He saw things simply; black and white, right and wrong, worth his time.. or not.
Maybe it was the rain that was making him so grumpy. It was running down his neck in rivulets by now and his shoes were soaked. It was irritating because he had at least a half hour’s drive home and he was determined to stop at the library first, even if only to peer in through the windows. It was probably closed by now, but he crossed at the crosswalk and turned right at the corner. When he got closer, he saw a light on in the front window and breathed a sigh of relief. At least he could warm up a bit. Titus probably had a fire going in the old fireplace on a day like this and he could dry out a bit. He ran up the block and dashed up the stairs, smack into Isabel Wolfe.
“Izzy, my god! What are you doing here?”
He hadn’t seen her in years, not since John had died in that wretched forest fire out west near the California border. They’d attended his memorial service at the church across from the library a month later and he still remembered how Annie sobbed for days after. She and Isabel had been friends since childhood, but had lost touch, when Izzy moved out to that cabin in the Adirondacks, after her husband died. He tried to remember how many years it had been since then, but it escaped him. She had a few more wrinkles around her eyes now, but then so did he. There was a sadness in her that mirrored his own. And also a grim determination.
“Jack, wow, it’s so good to see you! How’s Annie, where is she, can I see her?” she smiled.
She hadn’t heard then. He couldn’t imagine how that was possible. It had been the talk of the town forever and he wasn’t able to go anywhere without someone offering their well meaning sympathy and a casserole. He hated it.
"She’s out there somewhere and I will find her!” he repeated again and again, refusing to give up hope. Eventually, folks just left him alone.
He guessed she didn’t know yet because although she was well regarded, most people remained distant, not knowing what to say to her. Some found her celebrity intimidating, others avoided her because her loss made them sad and uncomfortable. She kept to herself most of the time and when she was working on a project, she didn’t read the news. He remembered reading that in the paper, finding that somewhat ironic and thinking it was a strange way for her to exist. Annie always seemed to understand her though, accepting her need for frequent solitude as something totally normal.
She reached out and touched his arm. “Hey, where did you go, just now?” she asked gently.
He almost lost it then, and she decided it best not to question him further. Instead, she followed him back inside the library and they settled into some comfortable chairs next to the fireplace. Jack was right. Titus had a roaring fire blazing strong and the heat drifted over the hearth, warming him in spite of his wet clothes. He looked so disheveled and out of place, curly hair dripping on the rug. She was rather amazed at how moments of amusement would sneak up on her like this unexpectedly and offer the gift of laughter as a salve for the dull never-ending ache John had left in his wake. Looking at her, Jack felt sorry again for her loss, and understood better than ever now.. what it had cost her.
Isabel had made quite a name for herself as an author. It was funny though, he knew her best through her artwork, some of which hung in this very library. His favorite, was a beautiful sunrise painting of a woman standing at water's edge, her hand resting on the head of the wolf sitting beside her. He had seen it many times and when he asked her about it she smiled and said, "That's Maya..she's mine."
The village was proud of her, she was one of their own and could visit here and remain relatively anonymous as the town closed in around her protectively. In recent years she had become something of a recluse, living up in the mountains with her lone wolf-dog, but he had heard that she occasionally came here for months at a time to write, staying way down on the east side of the lake, in an impressive Lodge built by the offensive line coach to the Cincinnati Bengals. The road to get down there was steep and full of crazy switchbacks. Most people never even knew it was there; it was unpaved dirt and gravel for most of the way and unless you had a four wheel drive vehicle, you could forget about reaching your destination. He worked in construction and had bid on that job many years ago, but it had gone to someone else and he ended up being thankful for it.
The Lodge was an astonishing feat that took years of hard work and sweat to complete. It had been a nightmare to get the building materials down in there. He’d done some work for the company that took on the project and was friendly with several of their contractors. In this business, it paid to have connections and he had garnered an invitation to view it when it was almost complete but hadn’t yet been occupied. His truck took on the challenge with ease. The diesel engine was pretty useful out in these parts.
He was really surprised by how beautiful the scenery was on the way down, dotted by babbling brooks and waterfalls and only one or two other homes built by rich owners who counted them as second homes and mostly came to visit for a few weeks in the summertime. He felt like he’d somehow fallen into a Tolkien novel… it was a world away from the village, even though it only took thirty minutes to get down there. He knew there were some famous people who had made this trek and stayed in the Lodge, most of them big name ball players escorted by the caretaker of the property who owned a pickup truck with some power behind it himself. He thought it pretty special that Isabel was among them. She preferred being there in the winter as it was quieter and people, even in the village, kept largely to themselves. She was extremely private and he hadn’t gotten to know her very well as a result. Still, he liked her, and Annie had read every one of her books. There was one whole shelf in her office lined with them; there must have been more than a dozen. He hadn’t touched them, preferring to leave everything exactly the way she had left it. He was ashamed to admit, sitting across from Isabel, that he hadn’t opened a single one. Maybe he would now.
They chatted easily in front of the fire and he found her well spoken and thoughtful. She talked about a recent trip to Hawaii and told a funny story about a gallery owner from Russia who regaled her with his conspiracy theories about 9/11 for an entire morning, while she waited out a passing tropical shower in the little cowboy town. She told him about the restaurant across the street from the gallery and how she liked to sit at the counter bar that looked over Main Street and watch the old men who retired on Maui. They bought cowboy hats and boots and declared themselves Paniolos in the old tradition, strutting up and down the sidewalk proudly in their "authentic" garb right along with the real ones. The locals rolled their eyes good-naturedly and accepted it, leaving each to his own. She spoke of the Farmer’s Market that happened around the corner every Wednesday afternoon, guitar music played by a Hawaiian with a silky smooth voice, the girl who sold necklaces she made from beads and fishing twine and wore dreadlocks so she didn’t have to brush her hair, and the old woman who made little bird whistles by whittling them out of local wood.
She talked about how Oprah liked it in town, coming down from her ranch high on the slopes of Haleakala in shorts and a t-shirt and big giant sunglasses and a hat, and how everyone just left her alone. And she told him every detail about the tiny Star Lookout she rented when she visited… vividly recalling everything about the coffee house at the end of the road that made her cornbread waffles and eggs benedict with the absolute best hollandaise sauce she had ever tasted anywhere, even if it wasn’t Saturday.
She had a gift for putting her listener right into whatever scene she was setting and it was easy to see why she had chosen writing as a profession. He could picture it all easily in his mind and she made him wish he could see it with his own two eyes. She was a born storyteller and for the first time in a really long time, he realized that he hadn’t thought of his troubles once, since he’d sat down.
The fire was reduced to embers now, glowing red in the waning light. He couldn’t imagine how that much time had passed. The rain had stopped but the wind still howled, playing with the new leaves on the tree outside the window, making the branches bang against the pane, beating haphazardly. The sun was coming in, stopping just behind her chair, making dappled light dance in waves over the floorboards at their feet. The dust of a few ancient books was lit up and drifting silently in the air around her head and he wondered suddenly, if he’d ever find this particular scene in one of her novels, sincerely hoping that he would.
Though he felt conflicted and strangely disloyal, he stuffed his feelings down, like he so often did, and asked her to dinner, with his heart in his throat. Being here with her felt like clinging to a bit of Annie.. and he didn't want it to end. When she looked at him he was certain that she understood that, and she accepted, with one caveat. She wanted him to come with her back to the Lodge. It took only seconds for him to grab his coat and say yes, and as he stood up, he was pleased to note that his clothes were now dry. They decided that he would follow her in his truck, so that he could leave without her having to drive the winding road in the dark to bring him back into the village.
Jack admitted to himself easily that he was curious about what the place looked like now that it was furnished. However, he did not admit to himself, that he was intrigued by this woman and was avoiding his own empty house.. stalling for as long as possible. That would come in time. For now, he decided he’d live only in this moment and let tomorrow take care of itself.
Both of them were quiet on the ride down, she in her own car, he in the truck. She had the radio on and he could see her tapping absentmindedly on the steering wheel, head bobbing ever so slightly. He wondered, as they made their way down to the lake, if he was making her nervous, but if he was, she didn’t show it. He wished they were in the same car so they could keep talking. She was clearly comfortable on this road, having driven it many times, but he found the further down they went, the more he needed to concentrate. He was surprised then, when they rounded the last corner and came around the bend, the Lodge suddenly directly in front of him. The driveway was steep so she signaled to him to park at the top, motioning that they would walk the rest of the way down.
It was quiet when she opened the door and stepped inside, the only sound a gentle hum coming from the refrigerator in the kitchen. She laid the keys on the window ledge, beside a vase full of pussy willows she had cut out in the yard earlier in the day. She ran her palm gently over the soft little mounds just once and he swallowed hard, thinking that maybe this wasn’t such a good idea after all. She smiled at him affectionately but there was distance in her eyes and he relaxed as it registered with him. She wasn't interested in any romantic entanglements which was good, because neither was he.
She led him into a beautiful room, one he had noticed from the outside because it had floor to ceiling windows and the lights were already on. It was a turret and it gave the Lodge a chalet like feel without a lot of drama. He liked that. Understated elegance was so rare these days. A baby grand piano stood in the center of the room and a fine collection of wines were displayed on the wall behind it, the cooler below, fully stocked from one of the nearby wineries. She asked him to open a bottle and he poured them each a glass. She sat down to play, and his heart almost stopped when her bracelet clinked against the keys and her smoky voice sang the first few notes of the song, tearing a path across his heart. She couldn't possibly know, but it was the song in his heart... the one he'd danced to for the very first time with Annie in the middle of the street.. surrounded by pink trees and fire.