The Resident (part twelve)
An Anniversary Party
A door swung open to the passage, the sliver of wet-looking concrete between garage and house. A man stepped out, flung into a stride, noticed himself watched, skidded on a paver, wobbled upright.
“Oh, hello… Claudie!”
“John, that’s Debra, our neighbor.”
“The little girl.”
“I think she’s fourteen or fifteen, isn’t she?” Mrs. Rancilton glanced behind, and in that look Debra read conspiracy.
“I’m thirteen,” she decided.
Coming fast to his wife’s side, John crouched, stretching hands. The hands, shooed away, fell to the marigolds.
“Worrywart. I thought I…John, put those down…saw an owl. Get me standing, and we’ll go see what’s in the fridge.”
“My grandfather sent you a present,” Debra said. (She might just have heard John whisper, catching his wife by the waist, “Why is she here?”)
“Ooh! I’m excited!”
More marital muttering, Claudie saying, “I felt some growing and I got rid of them. Really, John, no pain.”
John: “I don’t like…” Changing this to, “I’m afraid…”
Claudie: “I’m not, though. What happens next is what we’ll find out. Come on, Debra!” She sang this last, inching into slippers, and was off, brisk enough. “Did your grandfather say what he thinks the occasion is?”
“No. He said it was special for you, one of his heirlooms.”
“Sweet! We never could have bought a house, you know, because it absolutely had to be this house, and he’s made it work for us…”
Then they were at the door, and Claudie, passing him, punched her husband between the shoulders. “You haven’t done your duty.”
He turned to Debra. “I’ll take that.”
A refrigerator door opened; a giggle: “Hopeless! He wants to say, my name is John Rancilton, and this is my wife, Claudine. We’re so pleased to meet you! May I carry that for you?”
“Debra Cheale,” Debra said. John had a broad forehead, a small mouth, and dark eyes. His hair stuck up ends all over, like picketers protesting. He was dressed in a corduroy shirt and cargo pants, belted. He was…weirdly dreamy.
Ransacking his cabinets for the celery, Debra could recall herself at that age, crushing a little. She had seen John again only at the time of Claudie’s death, and not expecting to.
“You know a creek can be channeled so it runs underground. The part that Acer owns, what’s it called…?”
“Dunno,” she muttered.
“I mean not creek…it’s supposed to be the fork of a river…jeez! What…”
“I feel like not. But I think you’re right.” Bridge smiled, in that confessional way, that I’m kinda faking life way, that sometimes made Debra love him.
“The Shumack River. Teconieshe owns part of Leaper Creek, that feeds into it. I guess your evil friends have a piece of the East Shumack…and you say the county’s letting them run it through a culvert?” She heard her voice pitch up.
“It doesn’t do any harm.”
They stood in an awkward eye-lock.
“Sure,” she said. “God made culverts.”
“I have a phone call.”
After a time of watching him through the window, batted in the face by dangling pods of laburnum, sitting at last on a pile of bagged mulch, she heard her mother’s voice: “Deb, don’t be rude. Come talk to John. He may disappear in a minute.”
“Did Des lure him out?”
“Aren’t we lucky those two have turned up? And so much fun!” Aura shot her daughter one look that said put your priorities in order, picked up the brown plastic tray, and said aloud: “After you.”
“Oh, Aura, you’ve brought some wonderful fruit!” Des said. “Let me set that down for you.”
“I’ll manage. You owe Debra for this.”
“Debra, cheers! You know John, do you?”
John sat in an agony of participation, propped on the pheasant-print rocker, a plate on his lap. The impulse was to bend over him, to condole, to say: “I’m so very sorry.” Teconieshe sat at the sofa end, a slight, benign smile on his lips, and Debra, catching his eye, said instead, “I was just remembering Claudine. Des, she loved marigolds. You might put some around the foundation. Is Wiss back?”
“I begin to think the candy box has become a fool’s errand.”
“Well, I’ll steal his notebook. I want to show you, and John… You see…” She squeezed next to her grandfather, sketching. “A serpentine scheme, a trio of salvia at each point of a curve, and the marigolds in a thick and thin wave, naturalesque…”
“I like it!” Jennifer swirled a pineapple slice, adding a line of yellow dots. “But I want more color. Lobelia, Aura?”
“Almost strawberry begonia,” Aura said. “There, at the leading edge. But almost a creeping sedum, bleeding into the pathway. I see both. Des, have you uncovered the pavers? Her little walk along the front?”
“I thought some animal was peeing on the grass! I’d said to Wiss, look at those dried-up patches, so perfectly spaced…”
“I ought to dig that out,” John said. And he left them, making through the kitchen for the garage. Tools clanked.
“Right now?” Stu said, low.
(2022, Stephanie Foster)