Installment One - Installment Two - Installment Three - Installment Four - Installment Five - Installment Six - Installment Seven
THE HUGE ROSES (working title)
copyright 2014 by Betty van den Betsy; not for reprint or publication without permission
Chapter Three, part 3:
Recalled to the purpose of their outing, Tory declined the car and swept an arm before her to show Max the small town center. “Just down the hill,” she said, “is pretty much everything we offer, except groceries, which are to the west on Pleasant Street. Otherwise, we’ve got the library, yoga, several burger and pizza options, beer and plenty of antiques. A lot of places don’t open on Sundays, especially in the winter, and some close down completely for the season in mid-October, and don’t open again until April or May. Restaurants are mostly pizza and burgers; the diner will give you breakfast all day, and it’s a pretty good one. Real eggs, from shells.”
“Should I ask what other kinds of eggs there are?” Max inquired doubtfully. Tory paused a moment, pursed her lips and shook her head. “Well,” he responded, eyes twinkling, “shall we take a bit of a look around, or do you need to get back home?”
“Oh, I’m always happy to poke through a few shops,” Tory assured him, and they headed down the hill together.
“Do you know Pooh sticks?” the doctor asked as they approached the river.
“Oh, I love Pooh sticks!” she exclaimed with delight. “You mean races, right, under the bridge?”
“Indeed,” he answered, bending down to search the ground for his racer. Tory took a few steps away and located a handsome, branchy pine twig that she waved triumphantly. Max had found a sturdy maple branch. “You’ve chosen appearance over utility, I think,” he told her. “Those twigs and needles add up to a lot of drag.”
“I suppose so,” Tory answered, “but it’s so pretty.” They both laughed at her silliness, then leaned over the railing and dropped their entrants into the Newfound River. As they turned to sprint to the other side of the bridge, Max grabbed her hand, and held onto it as they bent over the opposite railing, watching for their sticks to appear in the current below. ‘It’s like I’m a kid, and he’s the big brother or something,’ Tory assured herself, absorbing the warmth from his hand even through their two sets of gloves.
Sure enough, the doctor’s stick emerged from beneath the bridge first. He dropped her hand and straightened, while she remained bent almost double, clutching the railing. After a moment or two, her twig floated into view, and she watched it drift slowly downriver while she pushed herself back upright. The doctor turned to her with a grave expression and extended his right hand. They shook hands briefly and solemnly, and then broke into wide grins simultaneously.
“I believe I shall never outgrow that game,” he said, and Tory answered, “Or the Pooh stories.” In comfortable accord, they resumed their stroll toward the cluster of shops ahead of them, Tory pointing out a café and a bar as they proceeded. As she had predicted, few of the antique stores were open, but rounding the corner onto Pleasant Street, they saw a sandwich board on the sidewalk in front of Golden Treasures.
“I don’t know this shop well,” Tory informed the doctor. “The woman who runs it moved here last year from New York. It seems a lot like the others, with a mix of antiques and junk and second-hand collectibles, and how you categorize them depends on what you like.”
“Let’s take a look,” Max proposed, and held the door for her to enter ahead of him.
“Welcome, welcome,” a high, slightly adenoidal voice greeted them. “Welcome to Golden Treasures! I’m Fleurie, the owner. Please, take your time looking around and let me know if there’s anything I can do to help.” The woman who approached them was a vision in a bright yellow tweed suit with iridescent leather piping on the seams and gunmetal gray, patent leather pumps on four-inch stiletto heels. Her gleaming, brass-blonde hair was expensively cut, swinging just below her jaw, and her make-up was plentiful and flawless. Having seen Fleurie before, Tory simply smiled a greeting, but Max stopped in his tracks. Was it for the incongruity of her big-city chic, Tory wondered, or her inarguable beauty?
Whichever it was, Fleurie seemed eager to encourage the doctor’s interest. She reached out a manicured hand – her nails matched her shoes – and briefly touched his elbow. “Is there anything in particular you’re looking for?” she asked, bringing her high voice down a measure and trying to purr.
“I’ve a young goddaughter,” he answered. “About to turn nine, and I thought I might find something unique for her here.” Adding a burst of speed to her puttering pace, Tory nipped around a convenient corner. If Max had wanted her help with selecting a gift, surely he would have mentioned that earlier. Apparently Fleurie had something she lacked when it came to inspiring confidences. Of course, Fleurie had a lot that she lacked. Trailing a finger along a shelf holding mid-century modern dishes, Tory wistfully imagined pampering herself with a time-consuming beauty routine: expensive creams and lotions, salon facials, weekly hair appointments and twice-weekly manicures. A vision of herself, impeccably made up, using polished fingernails to grub in the garden and affix the blood pressure cuff snapped her out of that wistful reverie, and restored her grin. She headed down a nearby staircase and found herself in a room decorated as a 1950s den, complete with old copies of ‘Life’ magazine that would make entertaining browsing.
Ten minutes later, Max found her in an Adrian Pearsall lounge chair, upholstered in salmon velvet and priced at $1,500, reading a decades-old article about adopting lighthouses. She gazed up at him with a welcoming smile – which he didn’t return. “You seem comfortable,” he remarked blandly.
“Um...” Tory began to answer. “Well, I didn’t want to barge in on your shopping, and it sounded like you had something specific in mind, and I don’t want to be nosy, but.” She stopped abruptly, with no idea where her train of thought was going or why some of the fun had gone out of the afternoon. Why was Max looking like that? Or why wasn’t he looking like something – his face was a blank canvas, without expression.
Suddenly he smiled, though a social gesture without the warmth she’d seen on him before. “Right,” he answered. “I’ll just finish up upstairs, and then take you home. I should be five minutes.” As he walked toward the staircase, Tory thought she might have heard, “hopefully less.” She quickly realized, however, that she must have misunderstood, or imagined the muttered words. She rose from her seat, rolled her hips and shoulders – that chair had mis-aligned a few things – and replaced the magazine tidily where she’d found it. Gathering her purse, she made her way up to the register, where Max was signing a charge slip, a lavender paper bag with red script on the counter next to him. Fleurie was chattering lightly about her love of the tranquil countryside, so Tory stood quietly to the side waiting for them to finish the transaction – economic and social.
“Ah, Tory,” Max intoned, turning his head toward her. “Have you met Ms. Gold?”
“Oh, no no no no no,” the blonde interjected. “Fleurie, puh-leease, doctor. I’m sure, in such a small town, we’ll be very good friends in no time.” She gazed at him through her spiky lashes, gold dust glinting from her eyelids. He smiled with great charm and assured her, “Of course. Fleurie.”
Tory took a tentative step forward. After all, he had invited her to join their conversation. “We have met,” she said, “but Ms. Gold may not remember, with all the new people she’s been meeting since she arrived.”
“Oh, and it’s been lovely,” the older woman gushed. “Of course, I came here most summers after I married Archie, and his family’s been coming since the 60s or 70s. So I feel quite at home, which is a blessing after the difficulties during my divorce.” Abruptly, her expression changed from cosmopolitan and provocative to brave and wistful. To Tory, it didn’t seem quite real.
“Ah, yes,” the doctor responded with sympathy. “Wonderful to have friends about you at such a time. I do hope we’ll meet again,” he added, sweeping up his package and collecting Tory with one large arm at the same time. He moved decisively but unhurriedly toward the door, bearing her with him, and Fleurie charged around her counter to collide with them at the doorknob. She put a hand on his shoulder and fluttered again, while Max grasped the doorknob firmly. Tory, believing herself unobserved by her two companions, who seemed to have eyes only for each other, frankly stared at Fleurie. Were those false eyelashes, or just several coats of mascara?
False, she decided as she was thrust back into the crisp November air, calling, “Thanks. Good-bye,” over her shoulder. There seemed to be undercurrents playing around her that she didn’t want to try to interpret. So she took half a step out of the doctor’s reach, and turned slowly left before beginning to turn slowly right.
“Well,” said Max, “a successful expedition. I was able to find a bangle bracelet – is that the right term? – for Saskia. I think she’ll like it. Now I’m hungry. Could we get lunch?”
“Umm...” Tory answered. Hadn’t they been going straight home? She thought he’d been angry with her, or at least bored. Perhaps she ought to decline lunch. But she was quite hungry. “There’s Pat’s. Pizza and fish. It’s this way,” she stepped out, headed for the casual restaurant that rarely entertained Rolls-Royce owners.
“You know,” the doctor remarked casually, “you must try to cure yourself of your ‘um’ habit. Eventually, I shall determine what the utterance signifies for you.”
Tory peeped up at him nervously. These were strange waters, and she wasn’t sure what to think, or how to respond. He glanced down at her, hooding his bright blue eyes suddenly from her gaze. His real smile, the warm one, spread over his face. “Tory, I beg your pardon if I’ve misbehaved. You’re very patient to put up with me today.”
“Oh, but I’m having a lovely time,” she assured him. “And the dogs like you, too.” She took one skipping step to keep up with his long strides, and heard the great shout of laughter characteristic of him. Whatever had been going on, it seemed to be okay now. She hoped the good mood would survive lunch at a pizza joint – probably not his usual meal.
She needn’t have worried. Max looked around the place with some curiosity, but no concern. He asked for a recommendation after they gave their drink orders and got their menus, and Tory told him, “The pasta is okay, the seafood is good, the pizza is excellent.” They agreed to split a pizza after having salads – Greek for Tory; garden for Max.
“You were going to tell me something about your research,” she reminded him as they pulled their first cheesy slices from the pan. “Remember, when we were talking about social interaction and relationships being healthy?” He’d seemed happy to describe some of the work he was doing, and the care with which he and his colleagues took into consideration specific circumstances related to their patients.
“We generally see better results when people work on their recoveries with others who have related injuries and prognoses,” he said. “However, for a competitive athlete in a solo sport, the team environment can be stressful initially. I also work with a number of elderly people, and I suspect our research project on that subject will uncover something similar. My elderly patients who’ve been isolated for some time often need extra care and patience when we ask them to transition into a group setting. It’s as if the social muscle needs regular exercise, just like everything else.”
“We see a lot of that in family practice, too. People who kind of... shut down. Sometimes I can understand why kids or grandkids don’t want to deal with their relatives – there are some pretty ugly stories. But most often it’s just, ‘I’m too busy,’ or, ‘I’m sick of him going on about the old days.’ We have some programs at the community center, and Dr. Bachmann and I both go out on house calls. Still, it’s too easy for people to get lonely. Sorry, this is a hobbyhorse of mine, I guess.”
“I’m impressed by your caring,” Max replied. “I get the impression your own family is very close.”
“Oh, yes. My parents are so deeply in love – forty years on – that I sometimes worry what might happen when one of them dies. But why borrow trouble? We four siblings talk most days, and we get together often. We’ll never leave Mother and Dad to grow lonely, either. Sometimes I think they wish we would! That’s why they travel so much. It’s not just research.” She grinned at him, eyes sparkling, and he smiled back, reaching a hand across the table – but then turned his wrist to check his watch. Tory felt her cheeks warming, grateful she hadn’t had time to reach out to take his hand as she’d been about to do. What a fool she’d have felt then!
Instead, she rose from the booth and said, maybe a bit too brightly, “I should probably get back home. Lots of chores to do!” The doctor joined her, stopping at the register to pay their tab, and together they walked back to his car. “Thank you for lunch,” Tory said. “You shouldn’t have paid for mine. I’ll get the check next time.”
“Most certainly you shan’t,” Max answered. “I must have some opportunity to show my appreciation of your generosity in the snowstorm.”
“You shoveled,” Tory exclaimed. In her mind, the statement needed no explanation. Shoveling was the ultimate act of kindness.
Max, of course, didn’t just drop her off at the house. Again, he held doors, walking with her to the house and ushering her into her home. He held out a friendly hand and Tory took it, approving of this continental habit. She approved of the continental kiss he brushed on her cheek, as well – approved of it perhaps a bit more than was sensible, given how far out of her league he was.
The doctor was thinking of leagues, too, as he drove away, though he might not phrase the idea quite that way. Her shining eyes and ready smile, the bright bloom on her cheeks when she was cold, warm or embarrassed all rendered her lovely. They were also signs of her comparative youth, of her joy in her family and her New Hampshire village. He saw clearly there could be no future for a Dutchman nearing middle age and a youthful Yankee. And since a brief affair with someone like Tory, with her open heart and innocence, was out of the question, it behooved him to take a long step back from their developing friendship.