He has chosen clean jeans, a pressed khaki shirt, and a sport coat. On his way out he grabs the package, notices there is already a rip in the wrapping and stops at the kitchen to repair it with another piece of tape. Completely baffled by the expectations of a five year old girl, he asked of a clerk at a flower shop what kind of gift was appropriate. In the end he settled for a doll, then on a whim threw in a card covered with hearts on which he wrote, ‘It must be nice to not only give Valentines, but to also actually be one’. At three o’clock he leaves by the path and walks down to the road to turn and enter the driveway up to his neighbor’s home.
“If you stand in one spot with your arms spread and spin this way,” she turns clockwise, “You may turn into a tree. But if you choose to spin the other way,” she stops and turns the opposite direction, “You would become a flower.” She smiles. “My mommy told me that.”
“And what happens if you jump up and down?” Donald smiles, hoping to gain favor.
The little girl smirks, “That’s not part of it.” She turns and walks up the steps through the door, shouting, “Amy, somebody’s here!”
Donald stands unsure, looks at the dust on his shoes and then up at the angle of the sun.
I should be pruning the hedge.
His neighbor appears at the doorway and smiles, “Oh, hi. I’m glad you could come. Please come up. Come in.”
“Thank you.” Donald takes the steps slowly, hears subdued voices from the inside of the house.
“That was Jessica. Natalie’s friends are in the back yard.”
“I brought a gift.”
“Amelia,” his neighbor offers her hand.
“Donald. Nice to meet you,” handing her the package.
He begins to feel that this is a mistake and his mind begins to invent reasons to leave. He is embarrassed for missing the handshake.
Amelia looks at his face, smiles and nods toward the hallway.
“Please, feel comfortable. Come, meet some people.”
He is thankful for her kindness and for her perception of his discomfort. He feels reassured and allows her to take command. She leads him past a nook and a hallway on the left to the high ceilinged living room. She pauses at the entrance and the sitting company looks to her, waiting.
“Everybody, this is Mr. McMullan, he is my neighbor.”
“Call me Donald.” He manages a smile.
“Very well. Donald, this is Francis,” gesturing to the woman at the near end of the couch.
She continues along the wall, “Arthur.” Arthur stands, spilling a napkin from his lap and extends his hand, “My pleasure,” he says.
Donald doesn’t hesitate, and crosses the three feet separating them to grip, and shake the man’s hand.
“Pleased to meet you,” he says. He is aware he is now standing in the center of the room and turns to face the person he believes he will next be introduced to.
“Behind you, “Amelia says, “is Jennifer.”
He turns to look.
The introductions continue and instead of trying to remember names, Donald counts them. Nine. Just nine people. That’s not too bad. Plus the kids.
“Please sit down. Can I bring you a drink? We have some tea brewed.”
“Tea would be great. Thanks.”
Donald moves toward a vacant chair, adjacent to a fireplace and facing the living room window. “Cream? Sugar?”
“No, thank you. Just black is fine.”
He sits, and unwillingly becomes the focus of the room.
There is a painting above the couch rendered in the style of the impressionist; a woman in a flowered dress sits at an upright piano with her back angled to the viewer. Her skirt is large and billows over the piano bench. Her arms are pressed to her sides and her hands extend gently to touch the keyboard. Donald sees the shape of the subject, her head, her body, and the flow of the dress. All else in the picture disappears. He realizes, with pleasure that her form holds the shape, exactly, of a treble clef.
He smiles and says aloud, “Wonderful.”
“It’s nice isn’t it,” says number five, craning her neck to follow his gaze.
Heads turn toward the wall. He is reminded of geese.
“Yes.” He laughs, “What a brilliant idea.”
She lifts one eyebrow, uncertain of his meaning.
With his comment, silence returns. Three people reach for their drinks. One coughs.
Arthur offers a thought, “Amelia says you own the adjacent land. It’s quite a nice spread. Do you do the harvest yourself?”
Donald is uncomfortable with the idea that he should be the focal point upon which hope of conversation should rest.
“Umm, no. I have decided to be more or less a tenant. I contract that work out.”
“Ahh.” Says Arthur.
Again, silence descends.
Arthur whispers something to the woman beside him and she nods, smiling.
Donald looks through the window at his orchards.
Snippets from conversations reach him from across the room, then, abruptly they too stop.
“Did you say you’re in the music business?” Jennifer addresses the question to a man sitting on the sofa.
He looks to his companion, clears his throat into his fist.
“No,” comes the reply, “I was, a long time ago. I just dabble here and there. There’s not much money in it.”
Jennifer’s attempt is doomed by his reluctance to divulge his current occupation.
Francis leans forward to speak to the man two people away. “My solution is this,” she says, “Just stop leaving tips altogether.”
Donald surmises this must be a resurrected exchange.
She continues, “I mean the service is just so shitty, yet they expect to be tipped anyway. Tips are meant to recognize service, not obligation. I won’t tip waiters anymore. I just don’t do it.”
“What if it’s good service?” The man asks.
“I haven’t seen it yet.”
“Well, I don’t know if I agree. They rely on it. They make such poor wages,” the man adds.
Donald is sympathetic to this point of view and as they are adjacent, leans over and addresses a comment to him;
“When I first arrived in Portugal, it took me only two days to fall in love with a waitress.”
The words fall on a quiet room. Heads turn.
The man is surprised, not expecting this intimacy.
Looking at Donald, Arthur smiles, “What was that?” he asks.
The corners of Jen’s mouth turn down in a little frown.
Some look away, embarrassed on his behalf.
He didn’t expect to be overheard. A frivolous comment. He feels cornered, obliged to elaborate, for the sake of the empty air.
He presses his finger-tips together saying, “I said I fell in love with a waitress in Lisbon once. I was in my 20’s then. Young. She was magnificent. Very pretty.”
He stops, thinking how silly this must sound. Then, when there is no comment that would allow him to simply quit, looks around and continues; “In the end it didn’t amount to anything. I had no command of the language. I had to ask someone to teach me some words I could use to ask her out on a date.”
“He wrote out a little poem. She was alone at the end of the day when I finally found the courage to approach her.”
Stop. Please stop.
He remembers the day, the paraphernalia on the walls of the tavern, and feels heat rise at his collar. He shrugs his shoulders, as if to conclude.
There. I’ve done my part. Stop.
“What was in the poem?” Jennifer asks, to some unknown end.
“Um, nothing really. Just a little poem.” He attempts a smile, hoping to disappear.
She is persistent. “Oh, come on. I’m sure you remember.”
He pulls at the sleeve of his jacket and looks up, resigned.
“I handed her a spray of flowers and said, ‘I have soiled myself and need to use your laundry facilities.’”
The silence is overpowering. Mouths are agape. They erupt.
“I found out a week later. It’s quite pretty in Portuguese,” he says, unheard over the laughter. Then thinking for a moment, adds, “It rhymes.”
Something has changed. The room feels light.
Amelia moves from the edge of the dining room where she listened to the story, puts a cup on the table beside him, bends close to him and whispers, “Your tea.”
He feels her breath on his ear.
He glances up at her, and says, “She ended up dating the guy that gave me the poem.”
She looks at him and he can’t decipher her expression. He wishes he hadn’t spoken.
He lifts the cup and takes a sip.
“There are chips and dip in the dining room, and a vegetable plate. Please help yourself.”
All around them, people are chatting, comfortable.