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A Pale Fire Burning
By Timothy C. Hobbs
It was a soft alarm. A low buzz tickling the subconscious out of slumber. For awhile, they’d awaken to the local oldies radio station, but Claire detested the female disc jockey and her annoying laugh and her corny attempts at humor that seemed comical only to herself and her male counterpoint. So John changed the setting to the affable, monotonous, pulsing buzz.
His dream state dissolving, John Trevor, warm and comfortable, did not feel like getting up to hit the snooze button. It was mid October and cool outside in the early morning, the house warm and snug inside. He decided to laze awhile in his body heat beneath the sheets. John reached across and laid a hand on an empty space. He guessed Claire had gotten up ahead of him. She must have needed to get to work early, which was not out of the ordinary this time of year. The semester was in full throttle, and she always went out of her way to schedule student or parent conferences. Increasing numbers of exams put a certain panic on what scores were needed to finish the semester with a high grade average. The university where Claire worked in Student Affairs was attended primarily by students from affluent families who expected A’s from their children, so at this time of year there was much gnashing of teeth and gnarling of hands so as not to disappoint mommy and daddy.
John stretched, swung his legs off the bed, and sat for a moment allowing his sleep-numbed brain to face reality. He then rose and headed toward the kitchen; his flannel pajamas still holding the warmth of the bed around him.
The smell of coffee greeted him. He smiled and pulled his mug from the cup tree and filled it. A note sat on the kitchen counter by the sink. DON’T FORGET TO TAKE OUT THE TRASH BEFORE YOU LEAVE commanded in stoic letters Claire had typed and printed out years before to be used each week on the specified trash pickup day, at present Thursday, just like the ones that said DISHES ARE CLEAN or DISHES ARE DIRTY to alert John of the dishwasher’s status.
He pulled a carton of liquid eggs from the refrigerator and poured a measured amount into a bowl sprayed with nonstick cooking oil. He then put the bowl in the microwave. The smell of the cooking mixture swirled cordially with the coffee, and John was soon fortified and ready for his shower. It was seven a.m. He didn’t have to be at his part time job until nine.
John and Claire had both retired six years earlier, the same time they had started to date. He from his medical laboratory position at the Texas Department of Health and her from a position in administration at a local university. They had two previous marriages, and were, quite frankly, surprised they had started dating and were now contemplating a third. Their love for literature and writing brought them together at several literary conferences in Texas. They slid into the relationship easily and found each other’s company comfortable and desirable.
They married a year later and, due to their retirement status, decided to travel for awhile. A tour of England, Scotland , and Whales was followed within six months by a tour of Germany, Switzerland, Italy, France, and, once again, England. The first trip was on their own, the second with a friend of Claire’s who had asked them to accompany her and a group of college students as unofficial chaperones. The tours of each country were always centered on touristy areas like Rome, Paris, and London, and were always passed through quickly. You got to see a little bit of everything, but you didn’t get to spend a lot of time doing it.
After the initial lure of traveling cooled, John and Claire spent most of their days writing, reading, or whatever suited them at the moment. “Retirement is like an eternal Christmas vacation,” John had remarked one rainy afternoon. But Claire soon became restless, and after not quite three years of retirement, she took a part-time job in Student Affairs at a university thirty miles away. Eventually, Claire was offered a full-time position, so the couple decided to move just outside the city where the university was located. John spent his time doing odd jobs and yard work around their new home, or sometimes he would go with Claire and work on his writing in the university library until Claire was through for the day.
Eventually, John felt a bit parasitic with his wife working and him not. And even though Claire told him he’d already given thirty years to a job and received a substantial monthly stipend, he was determined to at least acquire a part-time position. He did, however, want something different. The stress of his old lab days was still ingrained, and he wanted something slower, more relaxed. As it happened, the university where Claire was employed had some half-day positions open in grounds keeping. When he applied, John was told he was overqualified, but he convinced the department he was looking for such a position. He didn’t care about the pay. Besides, he had always enjoyed working with plants and landscaping.
Now, as he climbed in his pickup, pulled out of the garage, and pushed the remote button to close the garage door, John felt ready for the day and his routine lunch break at one o’clock with Claire. This was the beginning of his third year of half-days, and it was time for the late fall planting of the flower beds at his job.
The day was clear and cool when he arrived at the university and parked in his designated spot. Inside the maintenance building, soft laughter between co-workers filled the morning along with coffee smells mixed with that of micro-waved breakfast foods and the doughy aroma of pastries. He liked the group he worked with, and John, being the oldest newcomer there, was looked on fondly, almost as a token father type to the younger crew.
After the routine sharing of pleasantries and food, John rode with two of his co-workers in a cart used by ground crews. A flat wagon filled with small white tubs of fall and winter plants trailed behind them as they headed toward the Administration building. The grounds keeping department put their crews together in groups of three. The other two in John’s group were a thirtyish, slim, well-built Latino named Roy Martinez and a twenty something, short stocky white kid named Lester Perkins. They had been working there longer than John but always looked to the older man as ‘the boss’. John liked them immensely.
“Hey, Hefe John,” Roy said with a chuckle as he handed plastic containers holding twelve plant tubs each to Lester, who in turn handed them to John, who then placed them in a line by the first flower bed they would be working in. “Do you think the Cowboys will win this weekend?”
Lester laughed at the standing joke, both he and Roy knowing John was a big fan and in a constant state of disappointment by the team’s lackluster year so far.
“They still need to get rid of one more player,” John answered as he mentally set up how he wanted to rotate plants in the bed. “They sent one packing at the end of last season. They still got one to go if they want to get a real team playing.”
“You’re hard on that QB, Mr. Trevor,” Lester responded as he took the last container from Roy. “Can’t blame his pretty girlfriend no more though.”
“Ay yi yi,” Roy said and let out a sigh. “I couldn’t have thrown a straight pass either with her watching. That muchacha was muy caliente.” The three men laughed and then went about their business.
John dug his hand in the newly fertilized soil and felt a familiar thrill at the moist, temperate condition beneath his fingers. He let out a sigh and looked at the building in front of him and the area that stretched in all four directions from it. A modest campus spread out orderly under Central Texas skies. The buildings were old and stately stone and brick affairs. Some, like the Administration Building, rose on Doric Columns and was the only building on campus to have an ornate bell tower that chimed every quarter hour. The area was heavily dotted with ancient oak and pecan trees. A multitude of squirrels lived in the trees and were busy this time of year gathering acorns and pecans. The industrious creatures chattered and fussed at the grounds crew who had invaded the spot the squirrels preferred for burying spring treasures.
John loved to watch the squirrels as they picked up and shucked pecans, leaving little piles of husks on the concrete corners around the buildings and parking lots. The animals were used to the crowds of strolling students, teachers, and university employees. Even though the creatures wouldn’t flee every time a human approached, they definitely kept a wary eye on them.
Along with squirrels, the place had a throng of birds. Grackles and doves did their part of sweeping the area for food as well. There were also a few feral cats roaming around. John was particularly bothered by that fact because he feared one might kill a squirrel. He never got used to or understood the brutality of nature.
But today work was going smooth on the quite campus. John’s crew finished planting Golden Yellow Mums and Snapdragons by twelve thirty, giving John enough time to clean up any stray dirt from around the flower beds and get ready for lunch with Claire in one of the school dormitory cafeterias at their routine time of one p.m.
“Someday,” Roy said as the three headed back to the maintenance building, “me and Lester are going to be working half-days like you, Hefe. Easy street.”
“Speak for yourself,” Lester replied. “When I retire, I’m going to retire. If I ever go back to work, it’ll be kicking and screaming.”
John laughed and said, “Believe me, you’ll have more to do than you think after you retire.”
“You mean your esposa will find more for you to do!” Roy said and crossed himself.
“Bullshit,” Lester said and winked at John. “If my old lady wants me to ‘honey do’, she’s gonna have to find my secret fishing spot. And if she ever does, she better learn how to bait a hook!”
The three laughed and continued friendly banter concerning the pros and cons of marital bliss. When John pulled the cart into a turn leading to the lot for maintenance vehicles, he noticed a lone student sitting under a massive pecan tree. The boy’s eyes locked with John’s for an instant before the young man went back to reading a book he held. A sudden burst of wind then swept through the cart’s cab.
“Ay Dios mio,” Roy said and rubbed his arms. “A cold one is coming through.”
Lester flipped his collar higher up on his neck and remarked, “That time of year. Warm at sunup, cold at sundown. Nowhere but Texas.”
John pulled into the lot and glanced over his shoulder at the tree where the student had been. No one sat there now, only the north wind playing with an expansive mass of limbs and leaves engaged the spot. A chill of unease unexpectedly gripped John. He shivered.
In the middle of the spring session two years before, John was still getting acquainted with the university, his duties, and co-workers. He’d started his employ the previous fall. It was mid March and a typical Texas storm had passed through in the early morning hours. John’s ground crew was out removing piles of broken limbs, debris, and leaves from the sidewalks and drainage ditches. It was around ten on a Tuesday morning.
As John was shoveling a load of limbs and the trash gnarled in between the twisted hand-like appendages of their branches, he noticed a young man watching him. The student stood about thirty yards away by one of the many cement benches surrounding the student quad. He had dark skin and looked to be of Eastern Indian heritage. There was quite an assortment of ethnic groups mixed in with the predominately white student population at the school, but John knew from his life with Claire that those minority groups had to have excellent grades to get in, and for them, fitting in was another matter altogether.
John went back to his work clearing the path. When he glanced up again, the young man appeared just across from him. “Excuse me, sir,” the student said in affected English. “Haven’t I seen you in the cafeteria?”
John was a bit puzzled but answered, “Yes, I have lunch with my wife there. She works in Student Affairs.”
The young man smiled, revealing starkly white teeth. A large space was present between the upper incisors. “Yes, I have talked with your wife.” He extended his hand. “I am Kevala.”
“My name is John,” he said as he shook the young man’s hand. “What year are you in?”
“Oh, I am a freshman. A ‘fish’ some say.” He laughed softly. “Your wife was very kind to me. That is why I stopped to say hello.”
John scrutinized the young man: a bit taller than John’s six feet, thin, a pair of thick Buddy Holly eyeglasses slightly slipping down from a hawkish nose, and a sporadic burst of pimples standing out against a dark sienna background of flesh. A typical youth in the transformation of teenager to young adult dressed in a loose, wrinkled shirt and rumpled, baggy khakis so popular those days. John’s mother would have been mortified if he ever thought of wearing such a wardrobe to school, college or otherwise.
“Well,” John said and put down his shovel. “I know Claire would appreciate you said so.”
“Oh, yes,” Kevala said. “You see, my mother and father are MD’s here in the city. They came to the U.S. from India, but I was born here.” An expression of fatigue spread on the young man’s face. “They expect me to follow in their profession, but I don’t seem to have the knack for it.”
John relaxed and readied himself for a conversation he would have once avoided like the plague. Now that he was sixty, John found talking to these young students somehow more like therapy for both parties. “I see. Is that how my wife helped?”
Kevala brightened a little. “She helped me understand there are other things I might be suited for. You see, my grades last semester were not very good. All the science courses for premed majors . . . well, I just couldn’t cut it. My parents were furious with me. They would not listen. I was called into Student Affairs because of my low grade point average. That is how I met your wife.”
“Have you decided to change major then?”
“My goodness, yes,” Kevala said peevishly. “But I can’t convince my parents yet. That is why your wife told me she would be glad to discuss the situation with them. I only need to persuade them to make an appointment.”
John looked at his reflection in Kevala’s glasses. He felt a slight flutter in his chest as he observed the senior grounds man in dark green work clothes stretched out in the lenses like a figure in a Fun House mirror. What could he possibly say to this young man? “Is there something I can do to help?” he asked, knowing well enough there was nothing he could offer other than encouragement.
Kevala shook his head and muttered. “It will be difficult. My parents and their parents are all physicians. Custom dictates the same for me, so it will be difficult.” He seemed to throw off his sense of despair and held out his hand, again. “I am pleased to have met you,” he said as he shook hands with John. “Please tell your most wonderful wife that I said hello.” Then, Kevala smiled and walked down the path John had earlier cleared of the night’s storm trappings. John watched as the young man moved into the distance; a gangly youth clutching a load of textbooks and the problem of family custom and expectation. And John was thankful that his own parents only wanted him to graduate—doctor, lawyer, Indian chief . . . it didn’t matter. “Just get that sheepskin, boy!”
* * * *
“It doesn’t surprise me that the boy seemed depressed,” Claire said as she
lifted her wine glass from the table. She traced the rim softly with one finger and took a
delicate sip. “The pressure parents can apply seems so unfair, but different cultures have
It was their Italian night out, and John told Claire of his experience earlier that day with
Kevala. “Did his parents even make an appointment?” John asked as he spooned
steaming pasta around a fork.
Claire shook her head no. “Not yet. I’ve left several messages. I wish I could do
more, but my hands are tied.” She sat down her glass. “His grades in science courses are
poor, which is a shame. If he had an aptitude for Physics or Mathematics, his parents
might well accept an alternate degree in those subjects, or even one in Law, over a
medical one. But his aptitude seems to be toward the arts, and I’m sure his parents don’t
see any future there for him.”
The waiter appeared and asked for their dessert order. They were seated next to
a window. John glanced out and watched the early evening traffic buzzing by and
thought how hurried and complex life was, how uncertain the future for everyone,
especially students like Kevala. He felt secure in his sixty year old skin and
somehow afraid at the same time. He heard Claire order the Tiramisu against a light
echo softly caressing the small hairs of his inner ear. He saw her mouth form something
more. “Hmm?” he asked her in a distracted tone.
“No more wine for you, mister,” she said with a laugh. “I asked, do you want
a dessert of your own or do you want to share my Tiramisu?”
John smiled and reached across the table and touched her hand.
John slid as easily into the dream as he did the warm water waiting for him there. Claire stood at the far end of an expansive enclosed pool. They were the only two people in the immense building, and she seemed an eternity away.
As John began to move through the water toward her, Claire waved at him. The further he progressed the cooler the water became and the more frantic Claire’s gestures. The water seemed to gel the more John fought against it. He felt panic and struggled to reach his wife, but it was like moving through wet concrete. Then, Claire disappeared under the water and a flash of red and blue lights exploded through the building’s windows. John screamed, but no sound came from his throat. He clenched his teeth and tried to move against the barrier of congealed water. There was a strange tap, tap, tap just beside his ear.
When he woke up, John was in his truck in the maintenance building parking lot with his face flat against the driver’s window. After the initial confusion of waking, he saw the concerned faces of Lester and Roy. Lester tapped on the window. “Mr. Trevor,” he said, his voice muffled by the window glass. “You okay?”
John put his hands to his face, rubbed briskly, and then shook his head. He rolled down the window. “I must have dozed off after lunch,” he said with an unsure tone. He smiled weakly. “I guess I never made it home.”
Lester and Roy crowded the window space. “Hefe,” Roy said with a chuckle, “if you wanted to stay, you could have helped us clear that ivy away from the Science Building.” He smiled and reached in and patted John on the shoulder. Roy then shivered and said, “This wind is getting colder. You need us to get you home?”
“No, no, I’m perfectly fine,” John said while turning the truck’s ignition. The engine fired up. “When you guys get to be in your sixties, you’ll probably doze off in some unexpected places yourself,” he said and laughed along with his crew.
“Better not be in the wrong bed though,” Roy added with a grin.
Lester added, “That could be sticky.”
John shook his head again. “You guys,” he said. “Don’t you ever think of anything else?”
Roy smiled broadly, “I still like to crow, Hefe.”
“Just be careful you don’t end up in a fryer,” John answered. Roy waved him off with another burst of laughter. “I’ll see you two in the morning,” John said and pulled the truck out of the lot. He checked his watch. Claire had probably beat him home and would be wondering just where her husband had gotten off to.
* * * *
There were a group of young ash trees in front of the University Science Building. Around them a rectangular flower bed had grown thick with ground cover vines. For some unknown reason, John’s crew had been instructed to clear away the ivy and replace it with mixed stones for a rock garden. What Lester and Roy hadn’t cleared away the day before, John set out to finish the next day with them—Friday, the last day of their work week.
The weather had kept its cool nature from the previous day, and the work, though tedious, was made easier by the lack of autumn heat known to linger for awhile in Central Texas. During their mid-morning break, Lester and Roy walked to the student center, which was just a short distance from the Science Building, to grab coffee from the Java Shop inside. John declined the offer of caffeine this late in the morning, opting instead to sit on one of the metal benches in the quad area to relax. There was a primordial oak John had been drawn to from his first day on the grounds. It limbs spread out heavy and vast. It had been manicured of unsightly branch growth along its base. Large black scars where shorter limbs had been removed stared like empty tooth sockets from its thick majestic arms.
John sat on a bench under that oak and took a deep breath of the earth and woody smell above and around him. He closed his eyes and relaxed in the shade of what seemed an old friend. Classes were in progress at this time and there were very few students milling about. John opened his eyes and caught just the subtle hint of gray not far from where he sat. It was the body of a white-wing dove. Close by, another dove stood in vigil faintly bobbing its head. The day was overcast and John knew it could rain. He looked again at the dove’s body and could not bear the thought of the poor creature’s remains being soaked. He stood up and slowly approached the body. The second dove did not fly away and only moved back at little at John’s approach.
“This must be your mate,” John said to the watchful bird. He gently lifted the dead bird’s corpse. The body was just turning cool; the head, not yet in rigor, drooped over John’s fingers. A thick breast of plump feathers rippled slightly in the light breeze as he walked to the base of the oak’s large trunk. He placed the body on its side on the soil surrounding the tree trunk. The second dove stood nearby. John stroked the feathers lightly on the stilled breast of the dead bird. “Your love will be sheltered here,” he said to the vigilant mate. He dug a hole in the earth and placed the body there and covered it with earth. He had not noticed that Roy and Lester were standing nearby by watching him.
“Hey, Mr. Trevor,” Lester said with a chuckle. “Is that sanitary?” The look on John’s face stopped Roy from adding a comment. The older man had tears running down his cheeks. His eyes had something beyond remorse in them.
John stood up and wiped his hands on his work pants. “I don’t know why I get so emotional when it comes to animals,” he said. He looked at the young men as if in apology. “My parents passed away within a year of each other. They died in a nursing home. I was there when each one passed. After that, any death bothers me no matter how lowly the creature.” He wiped the wet splotches under his eyes. “Hell, I even take insects outside of my house instead of harming them.”
Lester took the napkin from under his coffee cup and handed it to John. “It’s okay, Mr. Trevor,” he said. “Especially since . . .” Roy tapped Lester on the arm to stop him.
“Hey, Hefe,” Roy said as he shook his head at Lester, “what’s that other bird doing there?”
John wiped away what tears remained and said,” Thank you, Lester,” then to Roy, “I think that’s the mate of the dead one. I’m not sure if it’s the male or female.”
“Male, I think,” Roy added and shrugged his shoulders.
The second dove had settled by the tiny grave, its head still bobbing gently.
“How long will it stay there?” Lester asked.
John turned and looked at the resting bird and felt tears well up again. “As long as it takes to grieve, I guess,” he said, and then shook off the melancholy. “You two sit down and finish your coffee. I’ll get started leveling off the flower bed for the rocks.”
“No,” Roy said, “we’ll get back to work too.”
John held up his hand. “Just take your time, guys. Enjoy the day while it lasts. It looks like it may rain soon.”
But Lester and Roy wouldn’t let John work alone, and by the time the flower bed was leveled, another crew was approaching with a wagon load of loose rocks while under the ancient oak, the grieving dove established itself into the dirt by the grave of its mate.
“What you did the other day,” the young woman standing next to where John burrowed holes for plant tubs said, “was very sweet.”
John glanced up sheltering his eyes from the sun. “Beg your pardon,” he said to the shadow above him.
The woman moved slightly to the side so John could get a better look at her. “I watched you bury that dove last Friday,” she said. “I’ve never seen anyone do something like that before. It was sweet.”
John stood from his previous, kneeling position. The young woman had appeared very tall, but after standing up to her level, John found her only as high as his collarbone. She looked to be in her mid twenties with shoulder length black hair and an animated, appealing face. She was dressed for the cool day in pants, long sleeved blouse, and a light sweater. She was not as thin as most of the college girls seemed to be those days, but she certainly was not overweight, and, in fact, possessed a very attractive form.
John smiled. “Sometimes I do things that even surprise me. But thanks for your comment,” he said and extended his hand, noticed it still had dirt clinging to it and then pulled it back.
The young woman laughed softly at his embarrassment. “Perils of the job,” she noted with a grin.
“Yes, afraid so,” John said while wiping his hands on his work pants. “Anyway, I’m John Trevor.”
“Nice to meet you, John. I’m Laura Compton. A Teacher’s Aid in the Science Department.”
“I see. Are you going for a Master’s or a Doctorate?”
“Doctorate. In Chemistry. Just getting my teaching in along with it.”
John said, “Before I retired, I was a lab technician for the state. But I only had my Bachelor’s. Never was drawn to the noble idea of teaching.”
Laura chuckled, “I don’t know how noble it is. It’s a lot more work than I thought it would be.”
“But you like it, don’t you?”
“I do,” she answered, then glanced at her watch. “Well. I’ve got to be going. Got a class of young, budding Organic Chemists waiting for an exam review.”
“It was nice talking to you,” John said. “Have a pleasant day.”
“You too.” Laura walked away, then stopped, and glanced back. “Maybe we can grab a cup of coffee or tea sometime. I’d like to find out more about what you did in the lab.”
“Sure, that would be nice,” John said and gave a little wave as Laura continued toward the Science Building. It took a moment before he realized what he had said to her. He knew Claire would get a kick out of this. She always told him to watch out for these young campus cuties. “You might discover a dirty old man hiding under your skin, John,” she had kidded him when he decided to take the part-time job at the university. A smile spread across John’s face as he bent down to continue planting the flower tubs. “Dirty old man, my ass,” he thought and sighed. “A young woman like that would be so disappointed.” He shook his head and smiled, but he also felt a slight tightening in his stomach that spread slowly and warmly downward.
Lester and Roy, who had been arranging and rearranging the rock bed not far from where John worked, hailed him. He looked up and found Roy running one index finger over the opposite in a ‘shame on you gesture’. Lester had puckered his lips in a kissing pose. John waved a dismissal to them and laughed at their teasing. He got up to grab another square of plant tubs and happened to glance at the old oak where he had buried the dove. He noticed the earth there had been disturbed. He walked over and found the grave dug up. Feathers were strewn about the little cavity along with what looked like dried blood stains. He frowned at what was evidently the work of some nocturnal scavenger that routinely prowled the campus grounds. John let out a sigh, turned back, and returned to the flower bed shaking his head.
John couldn’t get her out of his mind. Laura Compton was one of those songs you can’t chase from your head, one of those ‘mind worms’. He chided himself for the thoughts. As he floated on the waves of aging, John’s passion was a pale fire burning. If it ever threatened to be anything more, it was Claire he turned to. Whatever burst of sexual longing arrived was usually sudden and fleeting and reserved for his wife. Why would a young woman he had talked with briefly have this affect on him?
John made up his mind to avoid Laura if she happened to want to talk again. But his fear of having further contact with her was in turmoil with the urge to do just that. And as he was sitting in the cafeteria one day, the need to keep away from Laura was bested by the hope to see her.
“May I join you?” Laura said as she stood by his table while holding a tray with a salad of mixed greens and a glass of tea.
John felt a fine line of sweat grow under his work shirt. “Actually, I was just finishing my dessert,” he said and pointed to the crumbled remains of a slice of pumpkin pie. “My wife had to get back to her office before I was through.” He looked up hoping Laura would take the hint he wouldn’t be around much longer, although he secretly wished she wouldn’t. “But, certainly,” John said when he realized she was not going to leave, “you are quite welcome to sit here."
“Thanks.” Laura sat down and took her salad and tea from the tray and placed it on the table. “Where does your wife work?” she asked as she moved a forkful of salad greens to her mouth. John noticed a small amount of what looked to be ranch dressing to the side of the salad.
“In Student Affairs. Like me, she came out of retirement. Or rather she came out of retirement first, then me.” He felt like a prattling idiot school boy unable to talk with girls.
“Maybe I know her.”
“Her name is Claire.”
Laura’s eyebrows knitted in thought. “Hmm, maybe not then. I don’t remember a Claire, but, then again, I go over there sporadically. When one of my students seems to be having a difficult time.” She took a sip of her tea. “Back to work this afternoon for you then?”
“No, I only work half days. Nine am till one pm.” He took a fork and nervously knocked pieces of pie crust around the plate.
“Wow, that’s great. But why didn’t you want to go back to lab work, if you don’t mind my asking?”
“Not at all.” He noticed Laura was watching him and felt his sweating increase. Little rivulets coursed from under his arms, trailing down the side of his chest. He moved his arms against his shirt to blot them. “The last few years I was there the state started taking on more work from reference labs. We were doing twice our old work load with no increase in personnel.”
“More with less,” Laura commented with a slight smile. “It’s the way of any profession these days.”
“Anyway, I decided if I went back to work it would be in a more relaxed atmosphere than a laboratory. I can’t imagine how much work a hospital lab does these days. I bet it’s tremendous.”
“Oh, I’m sure it is, what with the increase in patient loads.” Laura pushed her plate aside. She had eaten almost all the salad.
“Well, I suppose I should be getting home.” John stood with his plate in hand. “Since Claire went back to working full time, I took on the supper duties.”
“Just a sec”, Laura said. She pulled her tray from the table and placed her salad dish and tea glass on it. “I’ll walk out with you.”
“Allow me,” John said, taking her tray. He added his plate to hers.
“Thanks. You’re quite the gentleman as well as the evening cook. Your wife wouldn’t consider renting you out would she?”
He blushed as he placed the tray on the conveyor belt at the pickup station along with other dirty dishes. “You probably need a younger and more energetic worker than me,” he said with a chuckle. “And to be honest, we eat out a lot.”
As they walked out the cafeteria front doors, Laura gave his arm a soft prod with her finger. “Why younger? I think maturity has way more going for it.”
They parted amiably, and John swore to himself he would not sit with Laura again. But in the days that followed, he found himself lingering at the cafeteria more often after Claire went back to work. He tried not to consider the possibility, but he had the nagging intuition it was only a matter of time.
The motel room held a distinctive carpet cleaner smell. John supposed every motel used the same product sprinkled on and vacuumed from the indoor-outdoor carpet. It didn’t so much smell clean, but musty sweet, like talcum covering old mildew.
Laura suggested they meet at her apartment, but John had flatly refused. He said he didn’t want to establish a second home. Their meetings were to be for one purpose only. It was what they’d agreed on—physical and nothing beyond friendship. How they even came to this decision was beyond him. In fact, if asked, neither John nor Laura would be able to find an explanation for their decision other than mutual carnality.
The motel was off the interstate not far from where Laura lived. It was modest and well kept and inexpensive. John was to call her with the room number when he settled in. He sat looking around the small room. The bed was fitted with thin sheets. A long, low dresser, the perch for a nineteen inch television, stood across from it. The dresser had three separate front panels and three horizontal sets drawers on each. A cardboard triangle advertising Free HBO with a list of available adult programming on its flip side sat nearby the television. The bathroom held a sink and a tub-shower combo. The white enamel of these permanent residents had tinged to a flat yellow over the years. Faint lines of shower mold defying chemical removal snaked erratically across the tiles.
John sighed. This room hinted the exhaustion of a thousand such episodes as the one he now contemplated. He thought of Claire still at work that afternoon and felt like weeping. He stood and walked to the curtain window. He noticed thin holes worn into the bottom of the drapes. He pulled back the curtains and blinds and watched a young woman push her cart of cleaning products down the concrete walkway as she thumped cigarette ashes deftly to the side before taking another drag. He saw only a few cars in the motel parking lot. He imagined, with the exception of weekends or holidays, the afternoons were never busy here. He then thought of Laura sitting by her phone waiting for his call, nervous, and expecting, and he abruptly realized he could not go through with it.
John left the room and stopped by the outside key drop off window. The girl on the other side was the same one who’d checked him in less than an hour before. She was obese and pale with stringy blonde hair knotted on the top of her head. She was sitting down in front of a laptop. He saw she was surfing Facebook. A myriad collection of tiny images leaped up vague and blurred across the laptop’s screen. John slid the key under the opening in the window. The girl swirled around in her chair. She wore a sleeveless, yellow blouse. Tweedy Bird was tattooed on one arm, Sylvester the Cat on the other. She took the key and checked her watch. She glanced up impassively and said, “Hope you enjoyed your stay. Come back to see us,” and then turned back to her computer screen.
John walked to his car and sat there for almost half an hour. Then, his cell phone rang.
“John?” Laura asked with a faint trembling in her voice. “Is everything all right? It’s getting late.”
John tried to speak over the lump in his throat and failed. He turned his head away from the phone’s receiver and coughed. “Laura,” he said with a dry rasp, “I’m sorry, I can’t do this.”
There was an awkward delay before Laura replied. “I cut my afternoon labs, John. I had to arrange for another teacher to take them.”
“I’m . . . sorry. I thought I could, but I can’t.”
He heard a soft sob on the other end. “Okay, John, okay, but you should know I was just as nervous as you, and now . . .”
The connection ended from her side. John stared down at his cell phone for what seemed an eternity and then slowly clicked it shut.
It was almost two weeks before John saw Laura again. Lester and Roy were cleaning up some erratic patches of fallen branches and leaves while John shoveled the piles his coworkers left behind into a wagon attached to the rear of a maintenance cart. John turned around to dump in the next load of debris when he discovered Laura standing behind him. He felt at a loss for words but managed a sheepish grin.
“John,” Laura said quietly, “I want to speak with you.”
Lester had stopped his work when he noticed Laura standing by John. Roy grabbed Lester’s arm, urging him to get back to work and mind his own business.
“I really am sorry about my behavior,” John said feebly. “But I don’t see any reason to talk about it.”
Laura scrutinized him with an even stare. “Please, John. It won’t take long.”
John glanced at his coworkers to see if they were watching and found them with their heads down and busy raking. He let out a tired sigh and said, “I guess I’m more of a faithful husband than I thought. Sitting in that cold motel room, all the people there before me, I don’t know, it just made me feel terrible about betraying Claire.”
Laura’s face softened and she placed a hand briefly on John’s arm. “Just say you’ll talk to me about it for a little while.” The indecision was obvious in his pained expression. “I promise I won’t take much of your time.”
John shrugged and said, “I suppose I can stay over at the cafeteria when Claire goes back to work. It wouldn’t seem strange to anyone. You and I have talked there enough.”
“No,” Laura answered. “I want somewhere more private.”
“Oh, I don’t know about that.”
“You know where the library is?”
“Yes, I do.”
“Will you meet me at the fountain in front of the library at two this afternoon? There are some isolated benches under the trees there. That’s what I meant by more private.”
“I guess that would be okay.”
“At two then?”
“Yes, all right, I’ll be there.”
Laura turned to walk away. She stopped after a few steps and glanced back with a brief look of concern, then turned and headed down the sidewalk. John watched her and felt his stomach tighten.
“Hey, Hefe,” Roy said and broke John’s concentration. “We made a few more piles of work for you.” Roy smiled and pointed to a little trail of collected rubbish leading up to him and Lester. “You okay?”
John dug his shovel under the first pile, lifted what fit into the shovel and tossed it in the half-filled wagon. “Don’t worry about me. I’ll catch up with you two in no time.”
* * * *
Laura was already there when John walked up to the fountain—a grand work of bronze now shaded with a tint of green where a solitary heroic male figure held the reins of four horses as they reared up, manes flying. Water spewed upward in dancing jets. At night with spotlights on, the statue was an impressive sight, but today in the cold overcast afternoon, its power was lost on John. All he could see was the young woman he had almost shared a bed with standing in front of the fountain.
“Hello,” Laura said. “Let’s go over to that bench.” She pointed to an empty one secluded under a shroud of pecan limbs.
They sat there with a distance between them, passively waiting for the other to say something. There were a few students making their way up the library steps behind the fountain, but no one seemed to notice the couple under the trees.
Finally, John broke the silence, “Do you realize there’s almost forty years difference in our ages?” He shook his head. “I don’t know what I was thinking. I feel like I should be convicted of premeditated lust even if I didn’t go through with it.”
Laura didn’t laugh. She looked at him with a hard expression. “That’s not what this is about.”
She hesitated before explaining, “I was really upset with you that day.” She paused and glanced down at her feet. “I’ve never been this attracted to a man before. I told myself if I could only have you as a lover and a friend it would be all right, that I would be willing to share you.”
“Laura . . .”
“No, let me finish. I went over to Student Affairs yesterday.”
Laura held up her hands. “I didn’t go there to confront your wife,” she informed him. “I went there to see what she looked like. I’ve never seen her. She was always gone when I would stop and sit with you in the cafeteria.”
John’s legs started to jerk in nervous agitation. He almost moaned, “You didn’t end up talking with her did you? I mean you must not have. Claire would have definitely let me know about it. She . . .”
Laura moved closer to John and took his hand in her own. “John, look at me.” He turned to her. He squeezed her hand. His eyes met hers with a beginning panic. “John, I asked someone I knew there where Claire Trevor was.” His eyes grew wide, and he was about to speak when she stopped him. “I told my friend that Claire had been recommended and I wanted to send a student to her.” A look of relief covered his face as Laura shrugged and said, “So I lied, but I wanted to see the woman who had instilled that kind of loyalty in you.”
“Laura, you shouldn’t . . .”
She grabbed his other hand. “It’s a female thing. Trust me.” She let out a long sigh. “The thing is my friend didn’t remember a Claire Trevor ever working in Student Affairs.”
“Oh, that’s right, I never told you. After changing her name back and forth in her other two marriages, Claire wanted to keep her maiden name when we got married. It would save her the trouble of tedious paperwork, and I certainly didn’t care. I never saw why a woman couldn’t keep her name after marriage anyway. The only problem we encountered was with health insurance. She had to use my last name for that instance since she converted over to my state-supported plan.”
“What was her last name when she went to work here then?”
“Anderson. Claire Anderson.”
“Yes, that was the Claire my friend knew of.” Laura released his hands. She covered her face with her own. “I’m so sorry,” she said, her voice muffled by her fingers.
“Well, this whole business is my fault really. It wasn’t like I didn’t lead you on.”
Laura uncovered her face. Tears rolled down her cheeks. She shook her head and searched inside her purse coming away with a wad of tissue. “Oh my God, John,” she managed between wipes, “how long has this been going on?”
“What? What do you mean? Nothing’s going on between us. I didn’t want it to.”
“Not this thing between us. You know, about what happened two years ago. I wasn’t here then. I came on campus last year.”
A look of uncertainty clouded John’s face. “I have no idea what you’re talking about, Claire . . . I mean, Laura.”
“It was horrible. I saw it on national news that evening. It was on all the channels. That student, that young boy killed his parents and then came here and started shooting the people in Student Affairs. Your wife . . .”
John grabbed her shoulders. He squeezed. Laura winced and looked at him with a shocked expression. “No!” he screamed. “No! You don’t understand.” A few students walking down the path by the fountain turned in the direction of John’s pleading voice. “Claire called in sick that day,” he said, lowering his voice as he released the grip on Laura’s shoulders. “Lucky thing she wasn’t there. All those deaths.”
“John,” Laura said softly. “My friend told me what happened. Let me help you.”
He turned sideways, avoiding Laura’s face. “I talked to that boy a few days before he did it,” he said and lowered his head. “He was very troubled, but I never guessed he would break down like that. His name was Kevala, but I guess you know that, what with the media coverage and all.”
“John.” Laura reached over to comfort him, but he pulled away.
“No!” he yelled. “Claire, I mean Laura, there’s nothing wrong. Don’t you get it?” Laura felt a thread of fear as he turned around to face her, his face livid with anger.
“Goddamnit! I just had lunch with my wife today. There’s not a thing wrong with her!”
“I went by the cafeteria today and watched you,” Laura said painfully. “You were sitting alone the whole time.”
John’s face suddenly relaxed. “But that’s not true,” he said in a strange, detached tone. He stood up and turned in the opposite direction. “Tell her, Claire. She doesn’t believe you weren’t shot that day.” He paused then turned back to Laura. “See, my wife told you she’s fine. Why won’t you listen?”
Laura stood up and extended her arms. “Please, John, please. Let me take you to the infirmary.”
“Infirmary?” he asked and laughed. “Why? I’m not . . .” He started hyperventilating and went to his knees. His heart pounded furiously. The world seemed to blur in and out of focus. He was choking, strangling, and gasping for air. He heard a muffled cry as Laura shouted for help and then he collapsed on the cool ground beneath him.
Laura sat in the emergency waiting room for almost three hours before a nurse came through the double doors marked PATIENTS ONLY and motioned for Laura to follow her.
“Mr. Trevor’s been moved to the Psyche wing,” the nurse said. “I’ll go up in the elevator and show you exactly where you need to wait.”
There was no one else in the Psychiatric waiting area when Laura arrived. It was a small silent rectangle with two sofas and groups of magazines spread erratically on end tables. A lamp burned gently on each table.
Laura had positioned herself for another long wait, but in less than half an hour a young doctor came in asking if she was with John Trevor.
“I’m Dr. Boley,” the doctor said and extended his hand. “And you are?”
Dr. Boley sat by Laura and said, “John’s sedated now. He had quite a panic attack. I saw in your interview from the ER that you had been discussing his wife’s tragic death.”
“I had no idea he was in that kind of denial,” Laura said with a tremor in her voice.
Dr. Boley smiled. “May I ask, are you involved romantically with John?”
“We’d thought about it. He couldn’t go through with it though. He said he wouldn’t betray his wife.”
“You didn’t know about her death at that time?”
“No, he always spoke as if she were still alive. I guess that makes my attraction to him a bit offensive and me a potential home wrecker of sorts doesn’t it? I mean, for all I knew, he was married.”
“Well, to be honest, I think it was a step in the right direction for John even if you didn’t know the truth.” The doctor paused for a moment and then continued, “I don’t normally share a patient’s information with any one but family. However, John has no immediate relatives beyond some distant cousins that he rarely hears from, so I think there are some things about his case you should know, especially if you want to continue building a relationship with him. Do you think that might continue?”
Laura felt tears welling in her eyes. “If I can,” she said. “If I can do it without hurting him.”
Dr. Boley handed her a box of tissues from one of the end tables, nodded and then said, “John was with us after the shootings. He stayed in the hospital for six months and went through a long series of therapies. We believed he was well on the way to recovery when he was released. He had responded to medication and treatment and finally seemed to accept his wife’s death. He came back weekly for sessions the first month after his release, then we cut it to every two months, then every three until he was coming in for a checkup once every six months. In all those meetings, John presented himself as coming to terms with Claire’s tragic death.”
“But he hadn’t.”
“No. I think he was just telling us what we wanted to hear. He did a good job of convincing us too. As bad as what happened today seems, Miss Compton, I think being confronted by someone other than a doctor, and especially a young woman who has an interest in him, may be what he needs.”
“One thing, Doctor.”
“Why did he go back to work at the university? I mean, wouldn’t that be too painful.”
“Actually, we thought it was a good idea, that it would help him to an even better acceptance. He was well liked there and the staff was more than happy to have him back.” Dr. Boley stood up from the sofa. “No one had any idea he was still in refusal. He fooled us all.” He extended his hand again. “I’m not certain how we will approach John’s treatment this time, but I’m sure you will end up being a part of it. And if you have no objections, I would like for you to fill out a small bit of paperwork for us. Just some contact information in case we would like to involve you.”
“That will be fine. Anything I can do to help.”
“That’s wonderful. I think your involvement will prove very important in John’s recovery.” Dr. Boley pulled some pages from a clipboard and handed them to Laura. “When you’re finished with these just give them to the clerk in our reception area outside this room and to the left.”
“It may be awhile before John can have visitors, so bear with us.”
Dr. Boley left and Laura scanned the first page of the information sheet. For a moment, she had the impulse to set the forms down and leave, to remove herself from the problems of this tortured man she had come to know. Then, in her mind, she saw John burying the dove beneath that ancient oak. She opened her purse, rummaged through it until she found a pen, and started writing on the first page.
It had just started to snow as Laura drove down the narrow cemetery lanes. Her friend in Student Affairs told her where Claire had been buried. Laura, never able to defeat the urge to see Claire’s image, looked up Claire in older faculty catalogs to see what she looked like. The woman who had gazed back at Laura from the pages possessed a pleasant face. Youthful vigor still filled that face under the beginning lines of age. Claire’s hair was thick and short and layered. A sprinkling of gray peppered the deeper brown. The eyes were green and peered out of the photo with warmth. A smile rested easily above Claire’s chin and appeared neither forced nor false. It was the face of a woman Laura thought she could have called a friend.
At the gates of the cemetery, Laura stopped by the office and got information as to the row and plot number of Claire’s grave. When she came to that location, she pulled her car to the side and got out. The snow was falling faster now, but there was no wind pushing it. Laura saw no one else around, which made the scene austere but beautiful, a contradiction common to snow. She thought that snow had never been as silent as that falling around her in this graveyard.
At the beginning of the row where Claire was buried, two plain gray granite headstones lay almost flat against the ground. They were for John’s parents, the inscriptions simple: names, dates, and Loving wife and mother – Loving husband and father. The third marker in line was four feet high and three feet wide. It was composed of polished red granite with a scalloped designed top. Bits of stone had been cut unevenly about its surface to give the illusion of motion where there could be none. Toward the top, a single wild rose was etched into the granite outlined and partially shaded in white. In the center of the stone was the name
Claire S. Anderson-Trevor
Born February 16, 1951
with no date of death inscribed.
Laura’s eyes trailed to the bottom of the marker. She felt an overwhelming fatigue. All the sessions she had attended with John and Dr. Boley over the last few months seemed nonexistent and unnecessary as she read:
O Death, Where Is Thy Sting?
O Grave, Where Is Thy Victory?
It was a soft alarm. One that tickled the subconscious out of slumber. John snuggled under the covers. He reached across and found an empty space. He thought Claire must already be up and in front of her computer. When they bought the house, they had converted the spare bedrooms into offices so they could work on their writings. Now that they had both retired for a second time, there would more time for such creative activities.
John remained in bed awhile longer to enjoy the snug fit of his body heat before he rose up and sat on the side of the bed. Once his mind adjusted to the world around him, John stood and walked in the direction of the welcomed aroma of coffee. In the kitchen, he poured a cup of the dark magical elixir.
“Claire, can I freshen up your mug?” he asked in a loud, cheerful tone.
“ . . .”
“Okay. How about some scrambled micro-waved eggs?”
“. . .”
John giggled. “I know, I know.” He shook his head and said subtlety with a funny smile on his face, “That aftertaste, of course she doesn’t care for the aftertaste from liquid eggs.” He raised his voice again. “How about a bagel and cream cheese?”
“. . .”
“Oh, you already have.” He poured the liquid eggs from the carton into a heavy bowl and placed it in the microwave. As the mixture heated, he asked, “Hey, Claire, this real retirement is great isn’t it? We should have never gone back to work in the first place.” He went to open the microwave door and saw his reflection in its glass. He paused. “Just think,” he said in a flat tone to his reflection, “what we could have avoided.”
“. . .”
“What?” he asked as he opened the door and removed the bowl, stirred the contents and then placed them back in the microwave for a second heating. “No, I didn’t say anything, dear. Nothing at all.”
He placed two pieces of wheat bread in a toaster, and while waiting for them to pop up, he poured himself a second cup of coffee. He inhaled the steam from the surface of the liquid in his cup and felt warmth spread over and through him. Once his breakfast was ready, John placed it on a tray and walked toward Claire’s converted office.
“Mind if I join you?” he asked.
“. . .”
“Great. Then, ready or not, here I come.”
#Unreal #Fiction #PaleFireBurning
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