Sun savored their limbs, bare, freckled, veined, and relishing animation still, not yet conscious of the body’s worries for its future. An ice cube clinked in a glass, then another and, beneath breath heavy with nonchalant irony, melted.
“Where are the shorts UPS man?”
And he stopped, glanced at his trousers, and smiling at the women flocked at tables and lawn-chairs, standing, crouching, lounging, extending and retracting limbs in surprise feigned and genuine, in sociability desperate and restrained, he shrugged and winked; the box landed with a thud on the porch, and his truck churned loose gravel from the drive.
Peals of laughter punctured the chatter. Amidst an anecdote, a bird ventured to peck at a disused cracker; another anxiously called it away, a fragile whistle against peril; and a third, with design of its own, attempted seduction from a thin pine nearby, promising shade and resinous calm.
“But you would never believe what they cost?”
Summer shoes flashed outwards.
“Oh but I would and you know why, because just the other day…”
A raised arm pruned her words:
“But four hundred? Four hundred?”
But a breeze turned their heads to another voice, high and taut in the throat:
“My hips have barely recovered…”
Titters, expectancy, then
“From the twins or from the…?”
Impeded by her own guffaw, morsel of cracker catching on a lip, leaving time for:
“No, this morning’s yin–the pose must have been twenty minutes, I can’t wait till Susie gets back from her leave…”
But nobody caring much, they stared down at glasses searing them with colorless light:
“I think we should do white next, right, white? Or would…”
“Another vodka soda for me if you”
She didn’t, and said so:
“Of course and we need, just once we finish pouring here, whoops a bit heavy there”
Brimming, yellowed, buttery, the pomegranate tones barely finishing on the tongue before:
“Yes, we should get back on track, we should…”
Business, then, to be established, forthright; merrily, however. Sleeves would have to have been rolled up, had there been any sleeves. The source of trouble—distraction, perhaps– was the Glowering Private Banking Services building, an institution dear to the funds that could not be ignored as an essential element in the happiness, flourishing beyond a season, of their lives; they were grateful to it, depended on at least some of its services, which they conscientiously employed as efforts at sustaining the local economy, it being said on the letterhead that they were to the community farm of the financial industry services, “Farming for wealth so you can enjoy your health.” That spirit was genuinely deserving of appreciation, they felt, and they wanted to show it in some form different from their usual transactions within its walls; that is, cash would not be enough, but must be imparted through rites and rituals of the festival, an interruption in the time of markets and growth; a time for mysteries to be imparted and celebrated. This was not the first such occasion. First they had brought to the building the gift of water, by way of an underground irrigation and sprinkling system, ensuring that its rows of carnations, its hydrangeas, its azaleas, and rhododendrons would thrive, admiring the planning that the landscape firm had thought to carry out, weighing such variables as cost, climate, conventions of color, the pagan and Christian symbolism of flowers, and the imported knowledge of various foreign, most Eastern, philosophies.
In the plain and pious words of the toast, and they laughed that they ought to have made it sprinkle Pellegrino, that was the gift of water; this year would be the gift of art. For the lobby of the building had been desperately in need of something more than the collages of nineteenth-century stock reports and framed old business sections of the Journal. They had no little acquaintance with the art world, hunting, many an autumn weekend, through the galleries of the suburbs, so near to New York that the spill-over from the Chelsea talent would be inevitable, even daring at time. One had agonized over, but decided against the photorealist painting of a bloodied sock being removed from the foot of a marathon runner. Others had even considered minor pieces of ink-work from up-and-coming New York youth. Some, naturally, preferred the gustatory verities—an auctioned sketch by Cezanne, or a scrap of Chagall. In the case of the Glowering Private Banking, though, the spirit of the local reigned with such pride that it seemed wrong to look afield, even if they were just too far to expect the city’s talent to have much diffused the region.
“How much do we think is right, in sum? We need to have this settled because we can’t go through the embarrassment twice…”
There had been an incident with an artist earlier in the afternoon; a mistake over the nature of the commission, which had been, only with some consternation, set to rights.
“If we commit to one each, then we are guaranteed ten, and that seems right for the space.”
“And one of these artists around here would appreciate that.”
“We need clarity though, we need to say what we want and what it is for”
“I thought we had last time.”
Laughter. A bird stole a cracker, and was struggling to drag it back to the shade in the corner of the lawn. Other birds drew near, a small flock, now, only breaking up at the movement nearby, a weight on the gravel, unevenly swept away before two sandaled feet, and, noticed now, and seen, a girl, in high school or college, wearing jeans torn slightly, and a yellow t-shirt with scrawl across the chest. A rabbit behind her froze, enraptured by the scene, and in superfluous terror for its life.
“Is my…is my mother here?”
As at a carrion call, the rabbit panicked into flight, and the girl turned and stared for a moment of interest.
Her face was equine, her jaw hung open, and she waited. But their jaws opened too, some tongues working forward to words, but not arrived at them yet, while others perhaps assumed significance would emerge from the quiet clinking of ice against glass, if only the world would still itself to listen. Eventually one or two cleared the way, finger tips correlated to blinks maneuvered through the air, until the thread was found:
It was not, however, a thread attached to the girl who stood now relegated to the third-person.
“Not mine or…is it yours?”
Gold rings, dulled in the salt air, clutched to fingers; birds clutched on the branches; glances clutched one another; the rabbit peered from the hedge, still terrified, but now sharing in the rapture of a shared, indistinct terror.
“Is my mother?”
She was blinking, pale, the youngest present by thirty years; her arms were favored by sunlight, though it seemed to distress her pale eyes, squinting unevenly at what they would say:
“Are you looking for?”
As one sipped, the girl stepped forward, leaving the women uncertain whether to laugh or console. At her distance from them, she started doubting what they could see in the sun’s glare, even though they wore sunglasses. She stepped forward, uncertainly, as if the gravel pained her through her sandals, silver and gold it seemed, and wide-buckled. They might have been a sign, had any been intended or expected. Instead, she hazarded:
“I’m sorry…I don’t think…”
But necks extended, heads craned, and she held them in her words:
“My mom, my mother said she would be at…I think it was here.”
To either side of her, high hedges guarded costly plots of land. She had no way of knowing what other parties might simultaneously be in progress, though none had been conspicuous from her friend’s car. That friend had left, though, and she realized now that her mother’s car was nowhere to be seen. With a sudden reddening and youthening, and the equine distress of a jaw pulling her from the bridle of where she stood, nothing was said.
Then a descent of memory, from the crowd:
“Your mother, are you–?”
Her blush fading in hope.
“I’m sorry–if you know her, Janet MacHeath—”
One whispered to her neighbor and then a clutch, a glaring of them, stood and one, now two and three, approached her, arms somnambulant in reach, as if to caress or soothe, but stopping short of intimacy. One of them, at the last minute, swerved off, rattled as a doe, letting her half-full glass spill and then tumble to the lawn. She reached the house over the brick patio, fought briefly with the long white curtains, and found the cool of the bathroom where she stared at herself in the mirror.
On her way she had called out, nearly pleading:
“Just to the bathroom”
Her voice barely reached the table, where those still seated arched eyebrows in confusion, and looked at the scene on the gravel, irresolute, complicit in the moment.
“She left already”
And then the other figure, both across from the girl, breeze stirring the hair of all three:
“Yes, she had to…”
But the palliative effect of explanation opened new wounds:
“Left? Oh, ok, but she didn’t tell me.”
The bouquet of toes, pink, red, green, stirred into the gravel. All three, captivated by the beauty of them, excused themselves from looking up.
And now another stood from the table, tottering slightly, her glass emptied on the table:
“Come here, or wait, I’ll come to you, it was all such a misunderstanding”
A whisper of voices in the chorus, and one word rising above
Then on the gravel stage, where the three women now stood, no choreography in their alternating approaches and retreats, their glances down and aside:
“I don’t think we could have seen… we obviously did not…”
A swell of words rose from under the collective breath, met shallows, crashed. Behind, straggling, out into glare, emerged one from the house, flushed, one band of hair disheveled.
On the gravel, the recent arrival:
“We should have–it was a terrible thing to tell her it shimmered like that, and we let her go, I’m sorry, I’m sorry,”
The girl breathed through her mouth and now her neck spotted red asymmetrically, setting off the metal of her necklace, an initial or a locket. It drew the attention of those near to her, as she took a step back, and they, inadvertently, did the same, checking any future advance.
“She…she..left? Why didn’t she call? I had my friend drive me here but I obviously wouldn’t”
Joining them, with one hand pressing down the eccentric band of hair:
“We–there was such a misunderstanding, when we saw what it was, and she had it brought out of her car. We had told her, I mean—we had said that we expected something, needed something, for the lobby, something that would be local but also tasteful and”
“We had loved her work when we saw her night-sky with seashells…we didn’t want that, I mean, obviously, but it was the sort of silly thing that would remind anyone of where they were, near the sea, on vacation, nothing too heavy and we thought that, if we could have it without the shells, she might, in paint or, maybe even with the shells, more subtly used”
“She didn’t use shells, but it…what she…it was large, and it shone, somehow, and”
“There seemed to be a sequin or a string of sequins”
They were perspiring slightly now, the heat rising off the gravel, the drinks longingly distant, and in the smell of sweat was carried the scent of lotion, of sunscreen, of perfume, tickling noses; the girl did not reply, but she rubbed her hands over her arms, as if exasperated that the breeze would not cease stirring the light hairs found there.
“You know, I mean, it’s hard to offer money and then explain that it’s not right”
Her hair finally rearranged, set at rights:
“I am so sorry, so sorry for it—we did not go about it the right way and oh, I wish we had said something different or that it had all remained calmer…I’m sorry”
Those near her looked down and away, seeking distraction from a bold rabbit or defiant bird, finding only leaves quivering in an uncertain breeze, nearly gone now, the air and foliage trembling only with heat. The girl had resumed her equine uneasiness:
“Did she leave upset? Was she…was…”
“We all are sometimes, we all are, and I’m sure she just needed time and”
“I’m not sure we were clear–it’s our project, our decision but the lobby belongs to Glowery–the”
“Private Banking Services. Maybe you have heard something, we all feel, god knows, that its become our lives, but not”
Beneath the girl’s foot, the gravel stirred into circles, oblongs, vectors. Her words were aimless:
“I thought it was her b….how ups…Did you notice that it shim…like the sea but not actually a painti…”
“I’m sure she will find someone who will buy it…if you could tell her we…she should be proud of it..”
Turning back to the chairs and tables, hoping she would follow, though she remained in the driveway, startling the women who had watched from their seats and who had resumed sipping on wine, poured at discreetly as it proceeded.
What the girl felt was hard, cold, indifferent to embarrassment or accusation; it was a decision not to think or recall, so that, she looked up absent-minded as a question was directed at her:
“We can call a tube..an uber I mean”
“My phone is dead, can someone else call or that app?”
“And tell your mother we will call her back, to…we will…”
The moneyed explanation tinkled. The sun feasted, glutted even, on puddling cubes of ice. A bird encroached, another withdrew, not knowing why. The rabbit peered, irrelevant.