A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square
Published: 2002 Carve, 2003 Best of Carve , nominated for Pushcart Prize, O.Henry Award, Best American Short Stories (BASS) 2002
Wilson met the young woman in the fall of the year when Ronald Reagan, born the same year as he, was re-elected President. It was a gray Tuesday mid-morning in October and he was taking his daily walk through Michelante Park. The clouds were drooping over the taller buildings of the city like swatches of gauze. The air smelled of ozone but was quite still, the raindrops and the breeze mysteriously suspended, as if the sky were holding its breath.
The park was usually deserted and desolate at this time of day, the commuters busy at work by now, the Fairfield Junior College students in class or loitering elsewhere, and Wilson enjoyed escaping from the oppressive house, Leona's house, like a godsend. He would sometimes stop and rest by leaning on a waist-high iron railing separating the walkway from the sluggish, brown waters of the San Angelo River. Crumbs of maroon rust clung to his coat sleeve while he contemplated the current slowly drifting by. Anything that moved too rapidly depressed him, and he felt surrounded by speediness wherever he turned, whether it was the traffic whizzing by on 101 or the boys clattering by his house on their skateboards. Or the rock music that seemed to underscore everything, everywhere: on the radio, on TV, in the movies, in the grocery store, even at the barber shop; it seemed no activity was immune from it. He longed for the jaunty and sophisticated melodies of his youth, when, for a few years, he played jazz piano in speakeasies. Now he rarely even whistled the tunes under his breath; they seemed irrelevant; from a time and place so far removed from Michelante Park as to seem almost a dream, or another life lived altogether in another suit of skin.
The park was too near a poor neighborhood and had too many trees; those were the complaints he heard down at the Fairfield Club, where he went every Thursday night to play pinochle with his fellow retirees and fallen Catholics. The aspens and oaks and sycamores whose branches, fully leaved, met overhead, created melancholy, if not dangerous pockets of darkness even on a sunny day. In the fall, the leaves turned brown and shriveled up into dry, crumbling husks and the wind scattered them across the park, across the city, as if they were just another of God's little mistakes.
On that October morning, red and brown squirrels dashed around ahead of him as if in a panic over their sudden exposure. He understood their distress; he often felt that way, too. Felt that urgent need to become colorless, to blend seamlessly into his surroundings, like girls he'd read about who gained weight in order to become invisible. He passed two middle-aged men in identical charcoal gray raincoats, overheard the balding one with glasses say mournfully, "I guess I'm out of the sexual race now." And the other one with a shock of stiff white hair and a Lenin goatee, replying, "That's a fallacy, you know."
From afar, she looked quite young, tall and attractive, idling in the middle of the walkway, probably with a dog or a child in tow; why else would she remain so stationary, so conspicuous, for so long? He could tell, though, the closer he got, that she was alone and not so young, on the cusp of middle-age, in fact, with dark hair that had tendrils of gray streaked through it and a face coarsened by the weight of years and perhaps a trifle too made up. She was wearing a baggy, navy-blue sweater over a white frilled blouse and a tan plaid skirt that came down to her ankles and white tennis shoes and she looked oddly schoolgirlish, standing the way she was, slightly pigeon-toed. But something about her face engaged his fascination; a quality tantalizingly familiar animated her features. He couldn't quite place it but it was not an entirely pleasant sensation. He noted in surprise as he approached that she was also eyeing him. In fact, she seemed to be blocking his way.
"Excuse me," she said to him when he pulled within a few feet of her. "I'm sorry to bother you like this but I've suddenly discovered I haven't any money. Could you possibly spare me some change for the bus?"
Her voice was low with a slight trace of a Southern accent. He stared at her in confusion for a moment. She seemed an unlikely, the most unlikely of panhandlers. Her eyes were slightly moist as if after a recent cry, and gleamed at him, like shifting facets of polished gemstones in the autumn sunlight. Her hair seemed to change color with the slightest touch of the breeze, from waxy black to silver and gold, then back to black again.
Still, that nameless something about her rendered him speechless. He groped with one hand into his pants pocket and withdrew a few coins, interspersed with lint and an ancient throat lozenge. He thrust the whole business into her outstretched palm.
She placed her other hand on top of his and pressed until his hand was enveloped in soft, feminine flesh. He was surprised and disturbed by its tingling coolness, a sensation so alien and so erotic, it vibrated through his body like a shock wave, down to his extremities and back up again. It was like being aroused from a long slumber.
But maybe, he reflected later, this feeling was only natural, perfectly understandable, in fact. Perhaps his flesh had merely been pretending to be asleep all these years, yearning for the tender touch of a younger woman. There had been so many long, gray stretches, alone in his bed, prey to dreams, awake or unconscious; often he found it hard to distinguish between the waking and the plunging.
She let go of his hand, clutched the money and pressed it to her chest. Her face underwent an extraordinary change. Her eyes widened and brightened, her cheeks flushed, her lips pulled upward from her teeth and gums, forming a radiant half-moon. "Thank you. Thank you very much," she said with such breathy, unfeigned delight, it was as if he had imparted a gift of inestimable worth. Her smile was so broad, her gratitude so overwrought, he decided she was crazy and that assessment closed the loop somehow, and gave him ample excuse not to begin a conversation and move on. He turned his back on her and went on his way, thinking: a nutcase. Oh well, they come in all shapes and sizes these days, these terrible days. Pretty girl, a shame. As he toddled on, however, he felt watched and self-conscious and, despite himself, he wondered briefly, absurdly, how he might be appearing from behind to her young eyes.
On the living room wall above the piano was a photograph of Leona, taken when she was 25 and he was 22. She wore a cloche hat and a seal-fur coat and she was trying hard to look like a carefree flapper but, even in the black-and-white photo, her lipstick was too thick, her eyes too artificially bright. Her mouth was stretched into a perfectly straight line, her only idea of a smile. Her jaw, already at age 25, looked square and locked, as if set that way for life.
Chopin was what won her, or at least got him past the rude and overwhelming resistance of her family. He was a poor, unknown musician, teaching piano to the children of the rich by day, playing jazz in speakeasies at night. Her father owned vineyards in Napa Valley. He manufactured and exported wine during Prohibition. The government allowed him to put "grape juice" on the invoices, acquiesced in the absurd fiction that the juice would only start fermenting once it left the harbor and was out to sea.
Leona was slightly older than the rest of Wilson's students and lived an idle life in a pink stucco mansion. Her most attractive quality was the air of indifference she projected toward everything around her, including him. Her wealth made Wilson's nomadic life seem shabby, his poverty shameful. Jazz was fine for impressing the society girls with a taste for slumming. But it was barely a living and in the end, that was no kind of life.
Leona's father was in his mid-sixties, tall and balding, fat around the middle, but otherwise thin and slightly sunken. He always wore loosefitting white clothes, which emphasized the sickly blue tints and brown patches within his skin; white suits, mostly, but white everything else, too: hats, shoes, ties, gloves. He wore dark glasses and carried around a white cane, like a blind man, and wherever he went, he would tap things proprietorially, whether they belonged to him or not. There was within him, or seemed to be, within all that billowing whiteness, a barely contained hostility toward all things inside and just outside his grasp, a seething irritation at the everyday banalities with which he surrounded himself: obsequious servants, and, in the form of his wife and daughter, docile female companionship with its nervewracking dullness.
Leona had no interest in learning the piano but enjoyed listening to him play Chopin. Chopin waltzes, particularly the Opus 69, Ab major "L'adieu" waltz, the one in which the melody meandered charmingly for quite a little while before settling, with a sigh of resignation, into its rightful key. He would play the Ab waltz on her mother's parlor grand and Leona would fall utterly silent and still beside him on the bench. One time as he played, he looked over and her eyes were closed, her hands folded quietly in her lap, her head tilted back, and she was swaying ever so slightly. She was wearing one of her old maid dresses, with the strange bows and odd flaps of cotton material attached here and there, like protective wadding, the cloth white enough to emphasize the thick clot-like brown freckles on her neck and arms but not quite white enough to be exciting. Yet, she looked so serene, so completely unLeona-like, it threw him, and he lost his place. Her eyes snapped open and she blinked, as if coming out of a trance and then she gave him a look of intense annoyance, her face forming itself into its usual dour lines, lines of vague, irrepressible discontent. But her previous expression, in that micro-second between the blink and the glare, revealed itself, in its vulnerability, its innocence, how it might be won. And then one day he married her.
He went to work in her father's office, who, despite his initial misgivings, eventually made Wilson a partner. Through Prohibition and Repeal and Depression and War and the old man's death in 1953 and a half a dozen droughts and a grape-pickers' strike in the 1960s and a long, organized boycott, the company somehow thrived. In 1981, Wilson retired to the pink mansion, a sufficiently rich man.
Now the piano sat beneath Leona's photo, entombed in a coat of antique-white paint. It hadn't been properly exercised for decades nor been regulated or tuned. Sometimes when his granddaughter, Michelle, visited, she would forget herself and play a few notes on the immaculately polished ivory keyboard. The chords sounded hideous, jarringly sour. They crashed and collided through the silent old house, like the clang of rusted and cracked doorchimes, music gone to seed, gone to rot, bouncing off the redwood floors, the paneled walls, cascading down the long hallway to where he invariably sat alone in his study. He shuddered at the sound. The treble keys, once the glory of the ancient Baldwin, had all slipped downward toward middle C, like aging flesh sagging toward the malignant center. He supposed he kept the piano that way for the same reason he kept Leona's photo where it was: as a reminder, to her, to him, of what he once thought his dreams were, and what became of those dreams in the long course of pursuit and conquest and disillusionment.
That evening, like every evening, he sat enfolded like a question mark in his favorite navy blue chair in his study, surrounded by his shelves of hardback first editions and stacks of shellac 78s. He listened to one over and over on his 1939 Victrola: "A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square," the only recording he'd ever made. He'd paid for it himself, a gift to his one-time mistress during the war, Linda, who loved the song. He was allowed only one run through and then only one take. The pressure was disconcerting and he'd made a tiny mistake in the bridge section. Over the years, he'd mostly forgiven himself for it but sometimes it irritated him terribly: other times he convinced himself that it was hardly a mistake at all, that he'd meant to do it all along.
He played the scratchy '78 while Leona stayed behind in the kitchen, cleaning up and cursing him. Since she'd become hard of hearing, she'd forgotten that others heard her mutterings now. In fact, that they weren't mutterings at all, but very loud rantings. The remarkable thing was the sophisticated foulness of her vocabulary. Where did she pick up such an arsenal, anyway? And so late in life. What would her blessed father say to that? The evil old goat would have been shocked back to life to hear his Leona Dollie, as he called her to his dying day, carrying on like a Marine. It would be funny, if it weren't so unfunny, the way she cursed out loud standing by the stove in the kitchen, getting dressed in the morning, watering the rosebush in the yard. Some days they were the only words he heard her utter.
That night, alone on a waterbed in a separate room, Wilson skimmed a few pages of his book on the Mongol conquest of Eastern Europe. He'd discovered in his later years that the only way he could fall asleep was to read something particularly violent. He was particularly attracted to one passage quoting Genghis Kahn:
"The greatest pleasure is to vanquish your enemies and chase them before you, to rob them of their wealth and see those dear to them bathed in tears, to ride their horses and clasp to your bosom their wives and daughters."
After this, Wilson slumbered.
That night the girl appeared in a dream. He woke up out of it in a terrible fright and in the process of swimming toward consciousness, he lost the dream's details. He sat up, gasped for breath, threw back the covers, reached for the lightswitch with a trembling hand. Jagged jigsaw images cohered in his mind into a single vivid scene. Not a dream but a memory: 1942, the War. A train that lay idling in the catacombs of Grand Central, the
stench of steam and raw diesel fuel in the subterranean air, the pale flutter of Linda's handkerchief behind the smudged window as the train slowly pulled away. His Linda, his love, born of war, of adultery, now in the bosom of that departing train. Lost, lost, forever. And the terrible momentary impulse he had felt to throw himself onto the tracks and under the wheels and perhaps only the fear of mortal sin, the compounding of sin with sin, prevented him from making that leap.
His roommate was a Lieutenant named Pinckney; he'd long ago forgotten his first name. They were quartered in a hotel in Jacksonville, North Carolina, near Camp LeJeune. They were marking time before being shipped overseas.
"Take off that frigging ring, will you, Wilson? It makes me nervous," said Pinckney one evening, ten days before their departure for England.
"That gaudy thing between your fingers. That way we can go hunting tonight." Pinckney had an annoying habit of hanging a cigarette out of his mouth and smirking, talking around the butt, out of the side of his mouth like a movie gangster. He was married to an unpleasant-looking girl named Muriel, whose picture he kept in his wallet and flashed only with great reluctance, after being badgered about it. He was a great advocate for adultery.
Wilson wasn't even sure if he could remove the ring; his fingers had grown subtly fatter over the years, like the rest of him.
"Use some butter," Pinckney advised, with a knowing leer, "Christ, look at that thing. I'm telling you, it's the male equivalent of a chastity belt."
The mixer was held in a ballroom in one of Wilmington's downtown hotels. The room felt cheap and tawdry to Wilson's experienced entertainer's eye, like a glorified mess hall, with concrete walls painted pink and yellow, and decorative red, white, and blue bunting along the balcony. There wasn't an orchestra or any musicians at all on stage. Just a jukebox, like a slot machine, blaring Glenn Miller and Tommy Dorsey tunes all night long. Nobody else seemed depressed by this, to feel cheated by the mechanical whiz.
In a sideroom where they kept the pool tables, an old upright grand sat against the wall, a lost and lonely soul, the kind of old beater that made Wilson's fingers sore just to look at it. The keys were cracked and yellowed, uneven and bumpy, with patches of ivory missing. He knew without looking inside that many of the felt hammers were blunted, eroded away, and therefore the action was unreliable. Perhaps even a few of the hammers had been broken off and never replaced. He'd played more than a few such crippled pianos in his time. The worst was in a lounge in Laguna Beach. It was missing only one note but it was the Bb right below middle C. That note was gone, vanished; when he depressed the key, there was only the deathly clack of wood. To the owner, it was a trifle, of course, just one little old note out of 88. Surely you can make do without it; the others don't seem to mind, the owner said when Wilson complained, implying that Wilson was being a temperamental artiste, a role absurdly inappropriate for a pianist of his class, of his sort. Playing that night with the missing key, located in such a strategic part of the keyboard, was like using a typewriter that lacked the letter E. It created a thousand holes in the music and made Wilson sound bad without the customers knowing why. But it was just another wino bar with a wino clientele, with loud and experienced hecklers.
Now, strangely, Wilson felt that old itch that was like no other. His wrists and fingers flexed unconsciously, his breath went shallow, his throat went dry as if in anticipation of sex. If only to Christ they'd kept it tuned. Most joints did, if for no other reason than pride. It was only the lowest class joints that didn't, like the one in Laguna, where the music, whether sweet or sour, made no difference. The ballroom was a toss-up. If it were in tune he might make a go of it. He sat down on the bench. He played a few chords, and to his surprise, found the resonance nearly perfect. The keys were greasy from sweat and fingerprints, the skin oil ground into the ivory by countless predecessors. But the action itself was hard and taut and resistant.
He began with the "Carolina Shout." From the beginning trill and all the way through the myriad variations and cadenzas, his fingers flew with ease to all the right notes, independently of any conscious thought. More than the right notes; there were no wrong notes where his fingers went. The pool players stopped to listen. Eventually a small crowd moved in from the ballroom. He played for over an hour, oblivious to time. Among the crowd was a dark-haired USO nurse. When he was about to finish up, she asked him if he knew "A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square." Her voice had a slight Southern tinge.
As he played it, she smiled down at him. He smiled up at her and played without watching his fingers, a parlor trick from his speakeasy days. But that night it just seemed part of the magic, as did this beautiful woman hovering beside him. Her face was round, a perfect porcelain white made whiter by her dark blue eyes and her red ripe underlip, and most strikingly by her black hair, so dark it seemed to have deep currents of purple and blue within it, pulled back tautly but gently and tied in back with an oaken clasp.
Later, over a drink, she said. "You play beautifully."
"It's kind of a miracle, really. I haven't played in five years."
"What made you give it up?"
He told this stranger the truth without thought. "Marriage, lack of money. I needed a real job. But also, I was disillusioned. I never understood what people hear when they listen to music. Ever wonder that? Is it like they're looking at an oil painting or at their own reflection in a mirror?"
"It's both, if the music's good."
"That was the thing; it didn't really matter if I was good or not."
"Of course that matters. That's the only thing that matters."
"Yeah, well, you'd think so. I once thought so."
"Maybe you'll think so again."
"I doubt it. But tonight I feel like anything's possible."
They had ten days and then a year later, while on leave from Italy, two weeks in Manhattan. He sometimes thinks of her and him as happiness, quivering in the palm of his hand. And then, on that terrible morning in Grand Central, he closed his hand and crushed it.
After the war, he went home to Leona, for whom he had no love but without whom he would be simply ruined. Her father had written to tell him that if he persisted in his foolish request for a divorce, he would be left with nothing, not even a single case of wine with which to drown his sorrows. "You are irreplaceable in my daughter's affections but not in mine. Your position in the company is entirely dependent upon your returning to her side after the war."
Now with the chimes from the enormous antique clock in the living room tolling two bells, then three, Wilson dreamed awake of the claims the past was making on him now, in the form of this girl in the park.
But would she be back? And what to say to her? He did not sleep the rest of the night, didn't even try to. Instead he lay in the waterbed with the light on, the water like cold, dead putty beneath him, and he thought of Linda, of loss and longing. And then, near dawn, he just lay back, and listened for the longest time to the sound of his own heartbeat, felt in its relentless, mad tick-tocking, the measure of his own mortal, finite breaths leeching away, his life mostly past, but still passing, lost, but perhaps not yet lost forever.
That morning he rose at his normal hour and went about his routine with the coffee beans and the espresso machine, and, as usual, did not encounter Leona at all. It was as if she were already a widow and he a widower, he thought, and this idea was not at all unpleasant; it cheered him up, in fact. He dressed with his usual care, went through this business with no sense of portent.
He inadvertently glimpsed himself in the dresser mirror and frowned. His hair, once a healthy pale yellow, had thinned considerably over the years into patches and tufts of fine silver and white threads, scattered at random over a spotted scalp. Thank God his teeth had miraculously survived intact. The secret had been to rinse them in Listerine twice a day, every day of his adult life. His eyes were still blue, his mustache, though gone to white, still rakishly trimmed, the main remnant of his dissolute youth. His back was slightly bowed but -- another miracle -- surprisingly little of him had gone to stoop and fat. He was proud of the faint traces of a military bearing he could still muster, although nearly forty years had passed since his tour of service.
He chose a dark blue striped tie, with silver chevrons. He always wore a tie and jacket, even for a short trip to the pharmacy or the barber shop or on his daily walks in Michelante Park and could not imagine ever doing otherwise.
By the time he left the house at 10, the sun had burned off the morning fog, and a fine overripe fall day had emerged and spread itself generously over the city, the sky high and white through the bare branches, the breeze supple and redolent. He walked the six blocks to Michelante Park, crunching his black shoes through the leaves that littered the sidewalks and crosswalks. At the same hour and spot as the day before, he waited for her on a nearby bench.
While he waited, he imagined Linda as she was then, in 1942, because he knew no other Linda. The purple-black hair and pale, pale white skin, the eyes the color of the Mediterranean Sea. Her white nurse's uniform like a shed skin lying on a hotel room bed beside his khaki tunic. The last time he saw her she was crying.
After the train left, the hot breath of its passing swept over him and oily beads of sweat popped out on his forehead. His hand shook as he reached up to wipe his brow. He told himself that it was lack of sleep that had caused the bad moment. Awake all night, with her in the humid, unventilated hotel room on 38th and Broadway, the room with the faded gold brocade wallpaper, the cheerless dressers and dour throw rugs, the toilet that gurgled and churned through the night. It was a room like all cheap hotel rooms, a parody of domesticity, with ugly red and black stuffed chairs that oozed tiny squibs of sawdust onto the carpet every time he sat in one, as if they weren't meant to be sat in at all, as if they were simply props to be viewed from the bed, the only important piece of furniture in the room. The bed: flat and hard, with an arched headboard with iron bars, and springs that never stopped squeaking, even when they tried to sit as quiet and still as churchgoers.
"Just stay, please, for a while longer. Please don't leave," she said or similar words, words to that effect, and he sat down again.
"You could play the piano again," she said. "Don't you see? All that, all that you talk about. People adjust, people go on. They survive. They survive their grief and anger, their worst fears come true. It's amazing, but they do. I see it all the time. In all the world it's the one tiny thing I know."
"Everybody's different on that subject."
"What are you afraid of?" she asked, a hand on his arm.
"Of losing everything."
"He has no hold on you that you can't shed. Nor does she."
"I don't love her."
"So why would you go back anyway, knowing that?"
"I don't know."
"It would be a mystery that you'd never solve, never as long as you live. It would torment you forever. All this, this, everything that we've found together, made into a dream. Nothing but a sweet and beautiful dream with a tragic ending. Is that what this was for? I don't believe it."
How did he resist that voice? How did he, in the end, resist that soft Tennessee alto voice with its slight undertow of roughness? The world over he never heard a voice as exotic or as carnally exciting as Linda's. There was much a woman could re-do in herself or cover up or blur or simply invent. He was as susceptible to it as any man of his generation. But what he desired in Linda could not be faked. Such qualities came around, assaulted the senses, only once in a lifetime, he believed. The whiteness of her skin stood out most vividly in the part on top of her head. How could hair be that black, he wondered as he caressed the part with his fingers, skin that white? Her tiny overbite, with the points of her back teeth small and sharp and somehow carnivorous when she smiled. And her musk as dangerous, more dangerous even, than any perfume. He never wanted her to wear any in his presence; it became an issue between them. Her own scent excited him too wildly. It gave him an overpowering desire to seize and possess and never let go. It was a scent that at one time not long before he left her he had vowed he would never give up, never willingly surrender to another man.
On that distant morning in 1942, after her train had rumbled out of earshot, and he had mopped his brow and probed his tunic pocket for a cigarette, the silence that suddenly yawned in front of him, yawned all around him, filled him with a frantic restlessness. He spun around, intent upon leaving, and noticed as if for the first time the other men on the platform, who had suddenly sprouted up like mushrooms in the fetid air. Many of them were uniformed like himself, many, like himself, lighting cigarettes in the wake of the departed train, as if after a sexual encounter in which they had all reluctantly taken part, glad to have it over and done with, as if the cigarette was all they had really wanted in the first place. The metallic ringing of Zippo lighters being opened and shut, a deeply masculine sound, echoed desolately up and down the cavernous interior. They seemed to avoid each other's eyes, to look away from each other, determined to preserve whatever last impression, whatever private moment there was to still grasp onto.
The lingering scents of diesel fuel and oil and vapor and cigarette smoke trailed behind him up the dingy stairwells, up two flights and then another and then into the concourse. The sunbeams stabbed through the half-completed cross-hatched roof, illuminated the individual particles of dust, visible like something solid and concrete hovering in the air, like the light caught up in the apse of a cathedral. But before he exited into the teeming, gleaming too-bright Manhattan street, the tiredness in his legs made him wobble again. This time he almost went down. A soldier, a doughfaced boy with red patches of acne, looked at him anxiously, and then withdrew his hands from his pockets, as if to offer help, or perhaps only to salute. He shook his head and tried to wave the boy off, grasped the railing to keep from rolling to the ground. But the boy was persistent. Perhaps he thought there was some benefit to be gained by assisting a distraught officer; perhaps he was only being kind. The boy reached out awkwardly to him but somehow he found his legs and pulled himself up, straightened himself, stood tall. And then he saluted, looking intently into the young man's eyes as he did so, saluted as if standing by the graveside of someone dear, precious, once known intimately by him and for all time remembered fondly, wistfully. The boy responded by stiffening his shoulders and joints and returning the salute, face gone wooden and terrified. And it was in this way that he found the strength to make it back up and out into the light of the day.
He gave up on her at noon. The morning had turned hot and he began to feel vaguely ill, stuffed in his suit. As he stood up to go, he felt he'd never been closer to death or so far away from it as at that moment. Perhaps death would not come for a good long while, not until he took matters in his own hands and willed it himself, as an insomniac eventually has no choice but to will his own sleep. The thought of what lay ahead made his heart ache.
For days and weeks and months his eyes searched hungrily among the trees, down the walkway, along the riverfront. Any trace of color, of motion among the dull grays and browns would set his heart astir. He looked carefully in the faces of passing women for the ghostly remnants of the one he had once landed and loved, deeply and wildly. Drunk with love, and equally with the hopelessness of that love. But there was no answering cry, no resonating echo, only the disinterest of strangers toward the very old.
He told himself that when he encountered her again, they would make right what was wrong. They would meet every Tuesday in the park, at the same bench at the same time of day. Sometimes he would bring her fresh cut flowers: azaleas or dogwood or lilacs, whatever was in season. They would sit idling away a quarter of an hour or so and speak of the changed angle of the sunlight through the aspens, rain, the romantic life of squirrels. She could have a cry if she wanted to. Then, on some unspoken, invisible cue, they would stand up together and take leave of each other. He would know -- and as he walked home the knowledge would settle comfortably next to his ticking heart -- that there would be a next time.