Three in the morning wasn’t his typical time to sit on the lawn. Dew heavy trouser legs chilling his ankles and what had to be the same two mosquitoes circling his ears and neck.
Passersby were used to seeing him in sundry positions with a paintbrush before a canvas. On scaffolding in the topmost tips of the city’s distinguished Methodist church, within the main hall of the new primary school, and prostrate over the park’s famous fountained pool.
Now that he owned a fine brick and pillared home along the esteemed Maple Street in North Zanesville—a street with constant shadow studies that played indoors and out from those trees that lined the lanes—now that he owned this home, his personal habit and life were more widely observed.
“Don’t be alarmed, Mother, if the conservatory, the greenhouse, lights stay on tonight,” he had mentioned at the dinner table.
“Yes, dear,” she had replied absently.
“Do you really think the brown suit won’t be too drab for the Grand Opening? I could still run uptown tomorrow morning; there’s this soft blue—but, oh, I can’t look like I’m trying to be too young, you know, Charles.”
“Mutton dressed like lamb?” he said.
“One of those British phrases of yours again; but do tell me, please. This is your event and—“
“You could never be mutton,” he said. “I’d take you with pride if you wore Wellies and your garden wrap.”
“Emma Lane was buying a new crimson gown today; you aren’t taking her?”
Although the conversation that followed wasn’t unusual, tonight he knew it was the reason he was out painting still at three. By midnight he had realized the outside-looking-in effect he wanted wasn’t as he had pictured it; he was going to have to try to catch dawn some day. But he stayed out painting anyway.
The next day, those who knew him well enough to notice the night before in his eyes and face, attributed it to his work toward the Art Center’s big opening event. Final details in the displays, entertainment, catering, and special guests had to be run by the director and founder—and despite Charles’s ongoing assurances to his small volunteer staff that he had perfect confidence in their decisions, his call was always slightly different than theirs might have been.
“No, we won’t have the mayor speak first—even if he is requesting it. You know he runs out of breath during the second sentence of his speech from nervousness. Weak openings are always remembered. Open as planned.”
“Egg salad? By no means; if the Corner Café ran out of smoked salmon, track down some canned. Mable knows how to fancy it up, I know.”
“Who withdrew from the exhibit? Emma Lane? No, that gap is too unsightly. Run back to my studio; there’s a painting—ah, nevermind. I’ll get it.”
Your mother is right, he told himself as he looked at the painting in the quiet of his studio. She was out buying that blue suit; he knew it would happen. No, he didn’t like it, this painting. It wasn’t one he wanted anyone to see just yet, but thanks to Emma Lane’s reaction it seemed he’d be forced to use it.
“She’s right,” he said aloud this time.
After tonight he’d write a note to Emma Lane and apologize as he should, no, he should visit her. Yes, and he’d try to kiss her, maybe; she’d wanted it before, of course. That should deal with him. Hours together talking about art and working on paintings didn’t technically count as dating, but the community didn’t work in technicalities—and neither did a woman’s heart, or a man’s for that matter.
“It’s been six years now, Charles; six.” His mother’s voice from last night echoed in his mind as he wrapped up his painting.
“Six years and seventeen days,” he said to the door handle before he turned it. He couldn’t resist walking around the back of the house; he hadn’t seen the conservatory in the afternoon light since he bought this place.
“Or to be technical,” he said as he watched his gladiolas behind the glass trying to touch the shadows of the maple from across the yard, “five years and nine months minus a day.”
Suddenly he remembered the painting over the piano, the one he’d hung last week after finding it in the attic of his childhood home, the one with his mother’s signature in the corner. Maybe it was that soft pink climbing rose next to the glads that reminded him. Or the leap back six years in his mind.
Whatever Emma Lane’s motivation for removing her painting from the exhibit, it didn’t translate into coolness during the evening event. Perhaps she had reasoned with herself that the founder and CEO of the new Art Center simply couldn’t act as escort and had assumed she’d know it. Charles wouldn’t give the matter any more thought than that.
“Your mother is the star of the show,” she said, whispering in his ear during one of the moments she was able to snatch by his side. “You never told me she paints.”
“She never told me. I discovered this during the move; she did it while I was overseas and kept it covered in the closet,” he replied.
He was smiling at his mother in blue across the room, standing next to her painting.
“Was that why she scolded you then?” Emma Lane said. Laughing, she put her arm through his and gave him scolding eyes herself.
“One of the reasons,” he said. He raised his eyebrows, smiled, and looked down at her, into her. A flash and a pop. And laughing in the room. Community strikes again, he thought. Emma Lane tried to look embarrassed, while still clinging to his arm. He shrugged, punched the camera man lightly in the shoulder, and turned toward a guest waiting to speak with him wearing his best how-can-I-help-you smile.
“Do you want a cup of tea?” he asked his mother. It was past eleven and his outdoor painting rendezvous from the night before was catching up with him. However, his mother showed no signs of slowing down in her commentary on the evening.
“Why it’s been years—four at least—since you offered me tea. Suddenly a tea drinker again?” she asked.
“Shall I brew enough for you? Would you like it white?”
“And you called the greenhouse a conservatory last night, didn’t you,” she said. She followed him into the kitchen, watching him as he hunted for the tea kettle.
“You find things when you move,” he said. “Like paintings and tea kettles.”
“Yes, that. All your buttering up won’t change what I said last night. That painting. Still can’t believe—“ She laughed, shook her head, and went to find her slippers.
“And you find things like memories,” he added under his breath.
“Or ghosts,” his mother said from the doorway.
“She who dwells in England may be dead to you as you told me last night, but you’d better learn how to scare off her ghost too. No decent girl will put up with your shenanigans—or hers—for very long. Remembered my slippers are over there by the door; please?”
He handed them to her.
“Emma Lane was the belle tonight and I saw more than one man’s envious eye. She was more than forgiving to give you the time of day if you ask me.”
He had considered trying to discuss what he had seen—or not seen—in that instant before the camera went off.
It was a perfect dawn, at least in his short book of dawns viewed as an anti-morning person, a perfect dawn for painting. Vague mists that were only visible once the soft colors of the rising sun hit them made him turn from the pathetically feeble manmade yellow lights in the greenhouse to the gently sloping hill and snatches of sky visible underneath and between the maples and the brick homes flanking his. Impressionistic capturing of the moment made his brush scurry across the canvas as the scene shifted every moment.
“Some day I’ll catch you,” he said to the greenhouse as he turned back to the house. “I’ll catch you in the mood I want you in and I’ll get it in paint.”
Emma Lane said she perfectly understood his battle with the greenhouse and begged to see both attempted paintings. He had stammered out some kind of explanation for being caught up in the events of last evening. She had noticed he wasn’t quite himself these past weeks.
“But don’t think another thing about it, darling. I’m sure I won’t,” she said.
He opened his mouth to say something about the weather, but she put her fingers over his lips. And leaned in close.
“No more; it’s all forgiven and forgotten.”
Now was the time to kiss her, he knew. Instead he waited until her hand dropped onto his leg and then stood up to leave. That’s when he talked about the greenhouse, only he had slipped back into calling it the conservatory again and had to explain.
“In England they call it that, you say?” she asked.
“Yes, in England.”
“Was she very beautiful?”
For a moment he thought her eyes held sympathy, but then he wondered if it were only scorn all along.
“No,” he said. “No. But she needed me.”
He paused as Emma Lane stood speechless.
“And I her,” he said.
As he left Emma Lane’s home for what he knew now was the final time, he asked himself again the question that had become like a song on repeat since that day five years and nine months ago. Did he make the right decision?
When her missing-in-action and declared-dead husband had reappeared two weeks before their wedding, he knew along with everyone else that he had to leave immediately. But when her letter had arrived over a month later, it took all his moral strength to burn it. His world had burned with it, the world that he knew and loved and felt safe in.
“I’m sorry, Mother,” he said that night. He had made tea again and they were walking in the conservatory examining the plants for fall planting.
“It wouldn’t be fair to her. I tried. Tried to make love something I could grow.”
When she had finished her lamenting and predictions that he would still someday meet someone who would make him forget, she took his mug and headed back toward the kitchen.
“I’m going to check the stars,” he said.
For six years he had avoided looking at them, but tonight he thought the pain might do him good. Something in facing it made him feel alive again. The cooler night air enveloped him as he walked through the conservatory door. The vastness of the night sky nearly left him dizzy with—was that joy?
“The world is big,” he said to himself.
When his neck grew tired of looking up, he turned toward the conservatory, ready to lie on his back until dawn.
“Ah, I caught you!” he said.
Steamed on the inside and glowing with indistinguishable beauty hidden, this was the picture he wanted. Rushing back with his tools, Charles painted the hazy, intimate world he somehow knew he had just left behind him forever.