“Quartet” by Beth Lordan

Image by Jillian Stiles / jillianstiles.com

The truth was, Paul knew virtually nothing about classical music, and didn’t remember the name of the last piece at last night’s concert, or its composer, or even of the quartet itself. Very little of the music he and Tracy owned was classical, aside from Christmas stuff, and although to friends she could say things like The Bach wasn’t as lively as I’d expected, or His interpretation of the nocturne was something or other, he’d never known her to listen to it except at concerts. He’d never been to a classical concert before they got married—even when they were dating they’d done normal things, movies, dinners, and then things where they could take Virginia, the child of her first marriage, of her widowing: festivals, the zoo a couple times, the Science Center, parks. Then after they were married, one day she said We should get our season tickets, so he’d known it was something she and Robert had always done; he’d said Sure, and then just followed her lead, faking it, ready to clap when others did and not clap during the uncomfortable silence between movements of whatever. He liked the ritual of dressing up and having the tickets in his inside jacket pocket, the elegance of the concert hall, the sense that he was doing a highly civilized thing by being there; he even liked the discreet bowl of cough drops in the lobby. And then, last night, something happened to him.

Last night Tracy had done something with her hair that made her look happy, and had worn the earrings he’d given her last year for their first anniversary; during the intermission in the lobby they’d run into people they knew, and when the bell rang and they went back to their seats, Tracy leaned close and whispered, “I think Sandy and Guy make a good couple,” her perfume and the warmth of her breath in his ear bringing him a hint of arousal, and he touched her cheek. She smiled, and then opened her program, and he felt her settle into her seat, felt her feeling their ease together.

He’d hardly bothered to notice the next piece of music, which must have matched somehow his sense of harmony; when the last piece began, he was probably already halfway home, in his mind, probably already rehearsing how he’d pay the sitter and Tracy would go upstairs, how he’d hang up his clothes and she’d be in bed before him, maybe already thinking he’d be tired the next day but it had been a good evening, could be a good night, worth missing a little sleep. He hadn’t been prepared in any way for that last piece of music, how everything changed, and now, the morning after, standing in the kitchen, finishing his coffee while Tracy made Virginia’s lunch, she brushed her hair from her forehead with the back of her wrist and the sleeve of her robe slid, flashing the sweet bareness of her arm, and he felt again that clutch below his throat, that slow urgent struggle the music had done to him.

Watching the four people playing that last piece of music had been almost embarrassing. At first, they’d all seemed to be playing different pieces, and then out of that one woman’s violin had raised a melody, and as she played she’d begun to glance at the faces of the two men across from her, the violist and the cellist, and they had kept their eyes down, going on with their own music that was so different from hers, from each other’s. She’d kept it up, leaning forward, begging them with her body and her music, her face sadder and sadder, until he’d wanted her to stop, and then she’d closed her eyes and let her tune falter and fade—and just then the cello turned, slowly caught the end of the same melody, and then the cellist had looked up, his homely face searching as hers had, but she was gone by then, scowling at the wall behind him, the noise from her violin a harsh sawing. And then it had happened again, the cellist defeated, the viola hearing too late, and then again, and then far off the other violin had discovered what they’d all been saying, and started it again. He’d had tears in his eyes. He’d have done anything.

And now, this morning, all of it was ordinary, habitual: Tracy set her mouth, surveyed the counter, and moved along, spreading peanut butter on white bread, laying three strips of bacon on top. Virginia was in second grade, and her lunch sandwiches were breakfast again: bacon and peanut butter, or fried egg and jam, or, to Paul’s mind the strangest, cold sausage dipped in maple syrup and folded in a waffle. Without an intention in the world, just knowing he couldn’t bear to see her wrap his sandwich, his cookies, today, he said, “I’m buying my lunch today.”

She paused with two oatmeal cookies in her hand but didn’t look at him. “All right,” she said, and put the cookies in a stack on the second piece of paper, and wrapped them, carefully, tidily. She put the apple she had already washed and dried into Virginia’s lunch bag beside the cookies and laid the sandwich on top and zipped the bag closed. “Virginia!” She turned her back to him, as if to shield her actions, and folded the other two pieces of waxed paper, which should have been wrapped around his ham and cheese sandwich and his oatmeal cookies, into quarters, and slid them into the drawer. “Time to go!” she called.

As usual, Virginia came immediately, without protest or excuse. Another child, Paul thought, might have called back In a minute, or simply waited to be called again and then come grumbling. But Virginia came and stood beside the back door, her backpack open in her hand for Tracy to tuck the lunch bag into. He dumped the last of his coffee into the sink. Virginia had been born two months after Robert’s death, a kindergartner when Paul met Tracy. Today, on his way to the bus stop, Paul would walk her the three blocks to the door of her school, where he would say Have a good day, and she would say Bye, and he would open that heavy door for her and she would walk away down the bright hallway. If he stood a few seconds watching her go, he’d see only the rich purple of her backpack with her neat sandy hair above and the flashing lights of her sneakers below. She wouldn’t turn to wave, or to see if he were watching. Before he knew Tracy and Virginia, he’d used to think he had a way with kids; other people had said so.

He could try now, as he had before, to charm: he could make an extravagant bow, swing his invisible cap in a wide arc as he bent; Ah, milady, he could say, do allow me to escort you from this foul dungeon past the dragons waiting outside wishing to devour your royal self. Virginia might smile, Tracy might give a small laugh, but she’d go on zipping up the backpack. He could hop on one foot and say Oh, no—my foot has fallen off, I’m crippled, you’ll have to carry me today, and neither of them would approve, but the zipping up would go on anyway, the adjusting of Virginia’s collar once she’d put her arms through the backpack straps, the cautious street-crossings between here and school.

He could drop to the floor as Robert had done, and pretend to be dead.

Instead, he shrugged his light jacket on and said, “Ready?” and he walked on beside the silent Virginia, and held her hand across the streets as usual, saw her into the school as usual. The day was beautiful, mild, April. The cruelest month, he remembered from somewhere. Maybe that was all it was: the sadness of spring.

Another day, he would have exchanged nods with the two dreadlocked guys who stood beside the bus shelter; they were students at the university where he managed the textbook department of the book store. Another day, feeling benevolent, he might have complimented Meredith, the little woman with Down syndrome, on her new straw hat, and listened to her gabbling account of the gardening she did for a faculty family. Today, he stood a short distance from the shelter; still, as the bus came around the corner and slowed, Meredith spotted him and waved. If he boarded first, she often chose to sit beside him, so he looked away, and hung back, the last in their little line when the bus door sighed open. And then, as his turn came and he raised his foot to the worn black rubber of the first step, he knew he wasn’t going to work today either.

He passed Meredith, already settled on one of the side-facing benches at the front of the bus, talking away to an Asian woman, and he took a seat beside an older man who was reading a folded newspaper. The bus would stop behind Parish Hall and Paul would not get off. He would stay in his seat, and the bus would go on. He glanced carefully around the bus, checking for inconvenient acquaintances, anyone who might say, Hey, Paul—isn’t this your stop?

Nobody on the bus knew him any better than the two drowsy students, who always got off before he did, and Meredith. She was completely focused on the Asian woman, who looked the way Paul always felt when Meredith got going—willing but embarrassed, guiltily unable to understand much of what she said—and Meredith was certainly going. “My mother got it for me, from a package, and my father said Aren’t you pretty.” It was all about the hat, which she kept touching, insisting that the woman observe it. “But it’s not about pretty, my mother said—oh, no, no.” She leaned close and the woman stiffened. “It’s for the sun!” The woman inclined her head ever so slightly. “It’s so I don’t get any sunburn. Oh, boy,” Meredith said, leaning back now with both hands on top of the wide hat, “oh, boy, that sunburn!”

At the next stop, the three tall women who looked eerily alike but seemed not to know one another got on, and then the bus picked up speed for the highway part of the trip. “Yup,” Meredith was saying, “you got to dig and dig, oh, boy, good and deep.”

The bus slowed, slowed more, changed lanes, and as they came almost to a stop Paul could see police cars and an ambulance, a wrecker, all with their lights flashing. “Aw-oh,” Meredith said, and though other people were also saying the obvious—There’s been an accident, I hope no one’s hurt—her voice was the loudest, and frightened. “Aw-oh! Something happened out there—I think it’s something bad! I think something bad happened!” A small white car lay on its roof on the median; off to the right a pick-up truck, both doors open, hung against the retaining wall. Was there blood? Were there bodies? The bus kept moving, slowly, slowly, and although Paul, like several others, stood and bent and leaned to look out, he couldn’t see. “Looks like a rear-ender,” the man with the newspaper said, casually settling it, and returned to his paper, although other opinions were flying and through them all Meredith’s blunt shouts of distress kept on.

“Show’s over,” the bus driver called. “Take your seats, ladies and gents.” Meredith knelt on her seat crying, her hands in fists against the window, her slacks rucked up so her pudgy legs showed above her white socks, the new hat on the floor. The Asian woman, who had remained seated, gazed now at Meredith’s reddened face with an expression of intelligent expectation, and Paul recognized her as the violinist from last night’s quartet. On the stage, she had worn a long black skirt and a white blouse, and her hair had been pulled back into a tight, elegant knot; she had looked younger than she did now, here in the daylight, on the bus, in a blue sweater and slacks, with her hair in a braid and acne scars visible, a purse on her lap. He bent and picked up Meredith’s hat.

“Meredith?” he said. “Isn’t this your new hat?” The bus lurched, shifting gears to return to its usual highway speed, and he took hold of the pole to steady himself.

“Somebody got hurt out there,” she said, but she turned and accepted the hat.

“Probably not,” he said. “Probably they just got scared. The doctors are there to take care of them.”

She wriggled on the seat, made room for him beside her, between her and the violinist, and he sat down. “I go to the doctor sometimes,” she said. Her voice was calmer now, almost sleepy, like any child’s after a long cry.

“You should probably put your hat on,” he said, “so you don’t drop it again.”

She sniffled and put the hat on cautiously, her short fingers almost dainty. “It’s for the sun,” she said.

“To keep you from getting sunburned in the garden?” he said.

She passed her hands across her face, drying the tears. “My mother got it for me, from a package.”

“It’s pretty.”

“It’s for the sun.” She bent her head and the hat completely hid her face.

Paul turned to the violinist, who returned his smile briefly, perhaps formally, though certainly with some approval, before she looked away. Probably late forties, not pretty, but poised, collected, as she had been last night. Until that poise, that calm, had wavered, nearly broken, in the last thing they played.

“That sunburn, oh boy,” Meredith murmured, and then more clearly, “That was an accident we saw there, huh?” The bus swung onto the exit and slowed. They had reached the edge of campus; two more stops and they’d be at Parish, where Paul would not get off.

“Yes,” he said.

“That was an accident,” Meredith said, the straw hat nodding.

The bus slowed, half a dozen people stood, and as they filed past, the violinist joined them, her braid an arrow down her back.

With no more intention than he’d had in lying to Tracy about lunch, with no more choice than that, Paul followed her.

The bus pulled away; she had already taken a street map from her purse, and unfolded it; a route was marked in yellow highlighter. She looked at the street sign and back to the map.

“This is Howell Street,” Paul said, and when she met his eyes solemnly but said nothing, he repeated it, smiling carefully, and stepped closer, touched his finger to the spot on her map.

She put her own finger on the spot and smiled, her eyes still serious, a question.

“Howell Street,” he said again, more slowly, and pointed to the street sign, and nodded. “Listen—I really enjoyed the concert last night.”

Her smile didn’t change.

He mimed playing a violin. “The concert last night?”

Her smile grew bright, then shy, and she nodded, touched her spread hand to the base of her throat.

He applauded softly and then opened his hands flat, offering her the applause.

She laid the map on his hands.

An emptiedness had filled the world then, an aftermath, witnessed as if secretly by the child home with a little fever.

The yellow line went up Howell to Dennis, past the Science Center and across James to the pedestrianized stretch of Porter with its cluster of upscale gift and antique shops, looped through the arboretum and down Collins past the elegant old restored houses, and ended back at the university’s music building: a morning’s walking tour, annotated here and there in what he assumed was Chinese.

He gestured an invitation up the street with the map.

The sun lay on the lawns and sidewalks, across the swept porches of tall old houses, and they walked within a silence he remembered, of all the children gone to school, all the fathers gone to work. An emptiedness had filled the world then, an aftermath, witnessed as if secretly by the child home with a little fever. And the mothers? On those mornings he had imagined his own mother standing motionless downstairs in the kitchen, listening, as he did, to the stillness, her face calm and alert.

He said, “I grew up in a neighborhood like this,” without looking at the violinist. That wasn’t true: his neighborhood had been shabby ranch houses, and despite the hollow silence in which their footsteps were clearly audible, he knew these houses to be, for the most part, rented by students, and he knew the quiet to be inhabited by their sleep, not their absence. He wished immediately that he hadn’t spoken, because the lie, as he knew lies would, had called up that truth, disrupted the small shimmer of nostalgia, banished little Paul from the bedroom with his books spread on the blanket that covered him. Banished from that shabby old kitchen his good mother, who lived now in Montana, near his sister, and who sent comically inappropriate presents to Virginia, always a week late, the packages sealed with multiple layers of strapping tape.

But having begun, he went on. “Actually, I still live in a neighborhood like this,” and there was some truth to that: he felt himself to be an odd sort of tenant. Tracy had used Robert’s life insurance to pay off the house; Paul had married the widow who owned the house. It made complete sense to live in it, as Tracy had said many times: it was paid for, Virginia could keep her old bedroom, continue at her old school, Tracy kept her part-time work at the hospital that allowed her to be home when Virginia was—nothing had changed but him. He inhaled deeply, and said, “I still live like this,” and raised his arm to indicate the houses they were passing.

The violinist looked at the house he had seemed to point to, and stopped. “Ah,” she agreed. Along the front porch a deep row of tulips stood, melon-colored with purple splotches, elegant, quietly dramatic as the sun struck them.

Both of them faced the flowers for a few seconds, politely observing, and then they exchanged a nod, and walked on.

The lobby of the Science Center was empty except for the docent at the desk, and the violinist stood off to the side, eyes downcast, while he swiped his membership card. She looked both old and childlike to him, slight and timid there beneath the barely turning mobile of the solar system. What had she been told to see here? The walk-in camera? The resonant pendulum? Something, certainly.

Outside she had touched his arm, requesting the return of the map, read the notation there and questioned him with gestures, comparing the spot on the map with the sign out front. He wouldn’t have chosen to come in: he knew the place from rainy Saturdays, bleak Sundays, the now-echoing spaces frantic with kids, and with the urgent patience of the parents, Tracy saying This looks interesting, and Don’t you want to try it?, and Virginia looking away, watching, maybe, the other kids being wild, tearing up and down the musical stairway, hogging the magnets, screaming into the echo tube.

But today, probably because it was early and because it was beautiful outside, they seemed to be the first customers. Paul led the way, demonstrating the exhibits briefly, and the violinist nodded gently at each of them, at the heat tunnel and the watergates, at the delay tube and the giant lever, but when they reached the musical stairway she finally reacted, smiling like a kid at the tones and the colored lights. She went all the way up and then all the way down, and laughed. Paul smiled: this must be what she’d been sent to see, and he felt, for that moment, as pleased as if he’d arranged it for her. She gestured to him, directed him to a particular step, pointed to the one above, one finger, and the one below, two fingers, gestured Wait, Stay there until I tell you, and went back up, almost frowning now, listening to the bell-like tones, concentrating. Then they stood facing one another on the curving stairway, she above, and she nodded like a conductor, one-two-three-four, one-two-three-four, and began, stepping and pointing for him to step, and between them, note by note, they played “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” the sad little melody ringing softly in the empty space, hovering at the end for just a moment before they heard children approaching.

A busload of children, herded loosely by two teachers, and Paul looked up to smile a sort of regret to the violinist, but she had already turned. Calm notes ascended; she ascended, and stood at the head of the stairs looking away with that smile of polite anticipation.

All right. He followed and then led again, to the frozen shadows exhibit and past the two-story ball machine, ahead of the rising racket of happy kids, and out onto the deck.

No sign of any of last night’s yearning in her face or body now: just that same prim smile, deepening, maybe, with the pleasure of the soft air out here. He was less certain of these exhibits, since the bad weather that inspired Tracy to suggest a visit usually kept them inside, but he remembered that Virginia liked one thing here, had actually led them to it—there: the whisper dishes, two huge white fiberglass dishes that faced each other from opposite sides of the long wooden deck, probably fifty yards apart. A whisper directed to one of them could be heard at the other, no matter the level of noise in between. Listen, he could say, whisper.

But what he wanted to say was what the music had done.

Maybe all he’d wanted to say last night to Tracy was Did you hear that?

But when the piece ended she hadn’t exactly turned away from him—the seats weren’t big enough for that—she hadn’t turned away, she’d continued to look forward, continued to applaud, but yes: she had raised her shoulder that way. And he had felt so—what?

The violinist had gone past the dishes, and stood now at the railing, looking out at the town, and he went and stood with her, pointed to the lake, a bright glint to the north, and to the clock tower of the university off to the south. She took the map from her purse and unfolded it, turned it, aligning the lake and the town, finding where she was, where she meant to go, and he followed her down and outside.

The day had gone on blossoming while they were inside, and traffic on James Street was heavy. As they waited to cross, he caught a glimpse of a blue car and felt a brief lurch of guilt, remembering Tracy’s shy laughter the day they’d chosen that particularly brazen shade of blue. So pedestrianized Porter was a relief, with its old-fashioned light poles and quaint benches. Like the concert hall, it was contrived, artificial but effective; the other people strolling, windowshopping, laughing softly, were all well dressed, polished looking, a few couples, a dapper short man, a group of older women. It was a relief, too, he almost thought, to be unable to make small talk. He and the woman fell into the slower pace; they paused by a windowbox of violets and pansies; she touched his arm to draw his attention to a trio of iridescent pigeons walking the perimeter of a small fountain.

Easter was coming, but the window displays were all tasteful—no animated bunnies or fluorescent eggs here, just the occasional antique rabbit, a filigree cross, a few vintage cards. He and Tracy had actually shopped here a couple times last summer, looking for a wedding present for her sister in Illinois, though everything was pretty high end, beyond their usual budget. Several of the shops had their doors propped open with pots of flowers or ornate doorstops and he followed the violinist through one of these open doors—What had caught her eye? He didn’t know. The shop was small and smelled agreeably of wood; inside she changed again, seemed taller, awkward, and only glanced almost furtively at a display of antique watches before she turned and went back out, leaving him to smile a weak apology to the woman who had greeted them. “Come again,” she said, and he heard in her neutral tone that she knew he couldn’t afford anything here.

Now the things in the windows looked pretentious to him, as pompous and silly as the pigeons. Down the block was a shop where local craftspeople sold their work, and he put his hand on the violinist’s back and shepherded her past the antique places and the two small galleries, and into that shop, which, he thought, was actually a store, not a shop, bright, well-organized, prices not hidden, several customers in the place, and the clerk, a young woman hunched over a book, hadn’t spent a week’s salary on her haircut. “Hi,” the clerk said, softly, “if you need anything,” and he said, “Thanks,” and that was it. He smiled at his violinist, and said, “I really like this place—look,” and showed her the shelf of handmade coffee mugs, the shelf of dramatic serving dishes, led her to the handwoven shawls, handknit caps, the table of handcrafted wooden trains and animals, and she, too, smiled, touched things carefully, nodded, drifted away.

He’d never given Tracy a gift she hadn’t somehow already chosen. They’d seen the anniversary earrings when they were looking together for something for her friend’s birthday; for Christmas he’d ordered her a dress she’d admired in a catalogue, and last year for her birthday he’d given her a gift card for the bookstore. Now he considered a rack of handpainted silk scarves, lifting one after another without taking them down, trying to remember if Tracy ever actually wore such things. For his birthday, she’d bought him a telescope. He still hadn’t taken it out of the box, two months later. Why not?

“Those are nice,” the clerk said, and he turned to see his violinist swiping her credit card with a confidence that surprised him. “The woman who makes these?” the clerk said, cupping her hand around one of the three baskets the violinist had apparently, without his assistance, chosen to buy, “She weaves one red bow into each one—it’s her signature.” She bundled the basket loosely in tissue paper and set it aside. “Because she’s got red hair, she says,” the clerk said, and laughed softly, wrapping the next basket. “And these little ones, they’re called friendship baskets. They’re supposed to look like two hands clasped, see? They’re Choctaw—Native American?” The violinist nodded, but her face was blank, her mouth tense, waiting. “She’s got two little girls,” the clerk said, and Paul jerked a scarf from the rack and took it to the counter, held it out to the violinist.

“What do you think of this one?” he said; his own voice startled him, the rough demand in it, and both women flinched, or something like it.

“It’s nice,” the clerk said, pausing in her wrapping, and after a second the violinist touched the delicate cloth, first with her fingertips and then with the back of her hand, and met his eyes, recovered, solemn, and nodded. The scarf was a creamy pink, painted with a deep red flower. “The man who designs those?” the clerk said.

The shopping bag of baskets was large but light, his own plastic bag tiny and nearly weightless, and he carried them both, out into the growing crowd of shoppers, past the concrete posts that blocked cars from entering, and back onto Porter proper. He said, “My wife has dark hair—I think the scarf will look good on her,” a sort of apology for his brusqueness in the store, but the violinist didn’t react; maybe she hadn’t heard, over the noise of the traffic here. He checked his watch—almost eleven—and raised his voice a little. “Yeah—I guess shopping is the new international language, huh?” It came out peevish, which he hadn’t exactly meant, but still, she didn’t turn her head, didn’t nod; she had her map in her hand and seemed to know, now, where she was going. As they waited at a corner for the light to change, he folded his own small sack into quarters and slid it into his jacket pocket. He’d return the scarf: he’d never seen her wear anything like it. It had cost almost eighty dollars, with tax: shocking, really. And he’d bought it why? To prove he could swipe his card on Porter Street if he wanted to? For an instant the true answer rose like a sour taste in his mouth: not for Tracy, but somehow against her, against the way she had heard that music by herself, kept him away.

“Don’t worry,” he said, and now he didn’t mind that he sounded rough, angry, “I know where to go.” He turned and walked away down the slight hill toward the arboretum, and didn’t look back to see whether she followed.

She did, of course, and they reached the bottom of the hill and the left curve that led to the townside entrance to the arboretum, and they passed the last of the cheap restaurants side by side, the few shabby houses, Paul ignoring her. What did she care? She’d been ignoring him too. The houses ended, the traffic thinned, and they passed between the brick pillars that marked the entrance. He chose the path that led most directly uphill, the shortest way through to Collins Street and the campus. He’d go on to work once he was rid of her. Her and this stupid bag.

The path rose and then turned sharply, and they were among blooming dogwoods, and she stopped and said, “Ah!” and raised her hand, saluting the white blossoms. He kept going a few steps, muttered, “Yeah, right, pretty trees, really great, glad you like it.” A young couple came down the rise hand in hand, and he had to step almost off the path to let them by. Past him, the guy said, “Hey, nice,” and the girl said something back, and then the violinist did it again, that delighted Ah thing, and he stopped and turned. The couple had disappeared around the turn, but the violinist stood there still, moving her hands in the air, as if she were caressing the flowers, a strange awkward gesture that embarrassed him. As she had embarrassed him last night, begging that way with the violin.

He raised the bag at the pretty trees. “You think this is something? It’s a fake, lady—they put it here to pretend it’s a forest, but it’s not—none of it.” He gave the bag a shake. “If you get my drift,” he said, and turned away from her again, walking again now, and said, “And you get my drift, don’t you—this no-speaka-da-English thing,” and barked a laugh that was almost a sob.

He heard her coming behind him and he speeded up, and then the path turned again, and took him beneath the huge evergreens, and the air was chilly in their shade when she caught up to him, and touched his arm. As Tracy had not touched his arm last night.

He turned on her. He was out of breath, and shaking, and tears stood in his eyes, and he could hear no sound but his own panting and the faint rattle of the tissue paper in the bag. She faced him, so straight, her arms loose at her sides, that intelligent curiosity on her face again.

“Here,” he said, and thrust the bag at her.

She frowned slightly, and took the bag from him, still meeting his eyes.

He could feel how the blunt ache in his throat snarled his voice, but he went on anyway. “You come into a foreign country, you don’t even know the language, and you go off into the woods with some guy you don’t know—”

“Everything okay here?” a man’s voice said, a man Paul hadn’t seen coming up the path behind them, a kid, really, a college kid in a tee-shirt when it was too early in the year for a tee-shirt, a wonder he wasn’t wearing sandals.

“Fine,” Paul said, but the guy lingered a long second, looking at the woman.

She was astonishing, the way she could change: she seemed to become taller, and her face went haughty, and she turned that look, that disdain, on the kid.

Who said, “Cool,” and shot a glance at Paul, murmured something that might have been “Sorry” and went on past them and didn’t look back.

Paul watched him go. They’d get through the trees, they’d come out into the sunshine on Collins Street, go down that hill. She’d admire the old houses; she’d point at the thick daffodils and weeping cherry trees and say Ah. He’d carry the bag again, of course, and when they got to campus there would be kids sitting in the sun, a couple of them playing Frisbee on the quad, a guitar somewhere. When they got to the music building he would give her back her bag, and he would take the other bag from his pocket, make her a present of the scarf and she would make him a gift of one of the small baskets shaped like clasped hands. He would come upon it now and then over the years, long after he and Tracy had given up and he had moved away.

He sighed now, closed his eyes, opened them again and met her eyes. “She’s got this way of putting her shoulder up,” he said.

Her eyes searched his in the silence after he stopped speaking, and then she too sighed, and looked past his shoulder, and spoke quietly, maybe a sentence, maybe two, of great certainty, and he waited, and then she said something else, something as short and plaintive as I think something bad happened. No bird sang in the silence after her voice stopped, so he nodded. “I guess so,” he said. “Time to go,” he said, and took the shopping bag gently from her hand.



Beth Lordan is the author of the novel August Heat, the short-story collection And Both Shall Row, and the novel-in-stories But Come Ye Back. Her short fiction has appeared in The Best of American Short Stories 2002, The Atlantic Monthly, New England Review, and others. She received her AB and MFA from Cornell. Since 1991, she has taught fiction writing at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale.