The Condos at Murells Inlet
Less than a year after her husband died in 2014, Mrs. Arquette moved from the big Kiawah Island house overlooking the Turtle Point golf course to a condo in Murrells Inlet, a small fishing village in Georgetown, said to be the seafood capital of South Carolina. She had lived happily in the Kiawah house for many of the more than fifteen years she spent there with her husband Baron, a well-respected, retired business executive. They had met at a mixer in the sixties in New York, where she was studying at Hunter College and he was a graduate student at Columbia University, and at the time, the young, freckled Kathleen Duffy could never have imagined that she’d one day call herself a member of the “upper class,” let alone worry about falling back into the confusion of the “upper-middle.” Anyway, life never turns out exactly as expected. Here she was, at the end of a long, happily married upper-class life, alone—reckoning with the reality of her new status—and eager to find where and how her new life would evolve.
She had given most of her furniture away to the Salvation Army—the long mahogany dining table with its eight brocade-upholstered chairs, beds, lamps, and various knickknacks collected over years of travel from Venice to Hong Kong, and placed randomly on ledges and window sills here and there, and the horrid leather La-Z-Boy recliner in which Baron had slept away the last five years of his life, waking occasionally to utter incoherent thoughts—and took with her only the strict necessities to fill the new condo—whatever she couldn’t live without.
She forgave herself for including in the inventory Baron’s mother’s Wedgwood china in the Hibiscus pattern, the full set for twelve, her Jensen Pyramid silver, including the coffee and tea service, and the oil paintings—the Wyeth landscape, the School of Vermeer woman, and the early Thomas Eakins scene of rowers on the Schuylkill River—that had adorned the living room walls. At the last minute, Ginger, their final Chesapeake lab, had keeled over unexpectedly, so she found herself unencumbered by either dog or ailing husband for the first time in years.
Among the things that had appealed to her about moving to Murrells Inlet was the fact that her brother Seamus, the only family member within almost a thousand miles, now called this less glamorous and far less expensive stretch of South Carolina marshland his home. Just inland from the coast, on the edge of a network of waterways that ran south to the tip of Florida, it enjoyed—she discovered when she visited Seamus there—the same mild climate she had come to appreciate on Kiawah Island and was still within close range of Charleston’s rich cultural life. Seamus, a semi-retired carpenter, was eager for her to become his neighbor, and this too made it much more palatable to make the move. Now that they were reaching into their seventies and bereft of spouses, he had rightly suspected that she, too, was longing for a bit of family. At Baron’s funeral, he had begun talking to her about The Condos at Murrells Inlet.
“I could never live in that complex myself,” he said, holding a plate of small sandwiches in one hand and what looked like a glass of sparkling water with a lime in the other. “Much too clubby for me! But for you, it’s the perfect place.”
“Oh, dear! Have I become that person? Is that who you think I am?” Kathleen was offended by the insinuation.
Looking around him, Seamus said, “No insult intended. I just think you’re used to certain things that The Condos have to offer, at a fraction of the price you’re paying here.”
She’d thanked him and promised to look into it but made a mental note that she would soon show him she was still herself.
* * *
Once she had gotten her asking price for the Kiawah house and felt a bit more financially secure, she’d enthusiastically embraced the idea of the move. She had been relieved to let the big house go, with all its complicated memories of happiness, then intolerable suffering, and finally, prolonged boredom during Baron’s incapacitating illness when they had lost most of their friends and a great deal of their fortune, not to mention being more or less abandoned by their only son.
She remembered the night, maybe eight years ago, when her life began to change. She had casually approached Baron with a question about their finances, having received a call that the checking account she used regularly was overdrawn. He was sitting at the computer, a beast she had not yet conquered, when she said over his shoulder, “Baron, while you’re in there working on our affairs, could you check my account? I got a call from Cynthia today. Can you put some more cash into it for me? I’ve got bills to pay.” When he looked up, she saw something vague in his expression, something she had to admit she might have seen before but not wanted to acknowledge. And when she walked over to him and looked down at the screen, she was horrified to see that while trying to balance her account, he had been typing in a mixture of letters and numbers. He was belligerent when she tried to show him the problem. “Don’t be ridiculous! You’re looking cockeyed. When was the last time you balanced anything?” He’d lashed out at her in uncharacteristic hostility and shoved her aside. There was no way for her not to realize that something was wrong. She’d made an appointment for him the next day with their physician and insisted that he go. Baron must have known he wasn’t himself, because he agreed to it almost immediately and let her drive him there in his beloved Jaguar. That visit had resulted in a referral to a neurologist, and then to a behavioral gerontologist, as Baron moved deeper and deeper into the fog of Alzheimer’s disease.
At first his gentility had seen them through. Baron had never been a big talker. He usually sat back and let others dominate, interjecting something ironic or wise or in some way right on that made people aware of his command of a wide range of subjects. So, for a while, no one noticed his absence from the conversation. Then one night at the club, Peter had pointedly asked him what he thought of Obamacare. There was a long pause and Kathleen jostled him gently to get his attention. “Baron, Peter’s asked you for your opinion on Obamacare,” she said. “Why don’t you give him the lecture you gave me last night about the nearly $570 billion in tax hikes?” She was trying to prompt him with some line he could build on. Baron had looked first at her and then the rest of them with an expression of total bewilderment. It had broken her heart, but Peter and the others mistook it for Baron’s way of acting out his wry humor. “Attaboy, Baron!” Peter said, laughing boisterously. “That look says it all!”
Eventually the faux pas and blunders had added up, culminating in the night Baron couldn’t find the table on the way back from the men’s room and embarrassed them all. The invitations stopped coming. People were polite, of course, and she didn’t blame them. Nobody wanted to see Baron humiliate himself. So she had kept him at home.
All these years later and with her remaining resources stretched in ways she was beginning to come to grips with, she’d understood that a condo on Kiawah was out of the question—too pricey and an obvious comedown in status. The Condos at Murrells Inlet seemed like a wise choice.
She’d lamented briefly that she could not move closer to her son. Daniel, long married to a woman who kept her at arm’s length and treated her as formally today as she had on their wedding day, lived far away and had rarely visited over the years, even as his father’s health declined. After Baron’s death, he had not suggested that his mother come to live near him. It wasn’t his fault that they weren’t close. She knew that. Over Daniel’s objections and hers, Baron had insisted that their only son go off to boarding school at Phillips Exeter in ninth grade, just as he had done. It was there that Daniel had bonded with Candace, a scholarship student, kindred computer geek, and fellow Exonian. They had gone on together to college at Carnegie Mellon, eloped during their sophomore year, and been a closed society ever since.
No need to rely too much on one’s children anyway. She tried to see independence as a good thing and not to be afraid of it.
She had bought economically at Murrells Inlet and planned to have some work done on the two-bedroom, two-bath condo of undetermined square footage—a postage stamp in comparison with her former home—since nobody had lived in it for a very long time, and it was in a state of disrepair. Seamus had been touchingly relieved and delighted when she showed up at his place announcing the purchase and enlisting his aid in overseeing the job of replacing the roof, painting the walls, and updating the master bathroom. The rest of it she would live with for the moment, at least.
* * *
Seamus had managed much of the work to get the place ready before her move-in date, and he had shown up to welcome Kathleen with a strong vodka tonic on her first night in the condo. “I thought you had stopped drinking,” she said when he handed it to her and returned to clink glasses with one of his own. “Only on special occasions,” he said, looking down at his hands. They sat on squeaking plastic chairs on the small terrace off the living/dining room of her new home, just as the full moon was about to bob up from the horizon of tall pines and marsh grasses.
“Welcome to the best-kept secret in the South Carolina lowlands!” he said, raising his glass to her. “We should have sundowners together every evening!”
He still wore the paint-stained, faded khaki shorts and torn canvas boat shoes he was wearing when she arrived early a few days ago to meet the moving truck and caught him at the condo, putting the finishing touches on the wall in the dining area. And now, when she looked at him closely, she saw that he was unshaven, probably unwashed, and with the red-rimmed eyes of someone who had been on a recent bender.
“We’ll see about that, Seamus. We’ll see,” Kathleen said, trying to brush away her worst fears. “I don’t like to encourage your drinking. And I don’t want you to get sick of me too soon.”
“That’s an order, little sister! Sundowners every evening!” Seamus said, adding a generous splash of vodka to her glass, and refreshing his own.
He had put on quite a bit of weight, she was noticing, and this bullying, however jovial, was disturbing. She told herself it was nothing. That it was just the excitement of having her there. They had grown up together in the same house. Shouldn’t they behave like family? And besides, as far as she was concerned, she believed she could help him with his drinking problem if it had reoccurred.
* * *
Kathleen had not seen much of her brother until quite recently. As a young woman, she had let go of her family. Her drift away from them began when she moved to New York and met the man who was to become her husband. It was almost love at first sight. Baron Arquette was handsome, quiet, and slightly older. His family was originally from France, but in the thirties, his grandfather had immigrated to Philadelphia to work for an international bank. As she got to know Baron, she was in awe of his impeccable manners, his carriage, and his wit. At Christmastime, when he finally took her home to the Main Line suburbs of Philadelphia to meet his parents, she was completely smitten both with him and a family that was far more sophisticated and worldly than her own.
Sabine, Baron’s mother, had greeted her in the foyer, wearing a red velvet dressing gown. “So you’re the little vixen who has stolen my boy’s heart away,” she said, air-kissing her on each cheek as Kathleen stood there helplessly. “Maurice, come in and meet Miss O’Doule.”
“It’s Duffy,” Baron said, the vein in his forehead bulging, “Kathleen Duffy.”
Maurice materialized from the drawing room, drink in hand, took her by the shoulders, and kissed each cheek, while splashing whiskey on her right shoulder. Then, holding her at arm’s length, he assessed her closely, drawing her into an embrace before saying, “You’re lovely, my dear. Welcome,” and leading her into the parlor.
Much later in the evening, alone with Baron in front of the heavily festooned marble mantle and fireplace she said, “I don’t think your mother likes me very much.”
“Of course she does, my little Irish rose. Anyway, she and Dad know you’re here to stay. I’ve never brought anyone home before, and I’ve already told them you’re the girl I’m going to marry.” That was the way Baron proposed.
In 1968, right after their wedding (an elegant affair hosted by Baron’s parents), the couple had moved to Bryn Mawr to stay with his family until they got settled. She had completely given herself over to her new family. At first, she was intimidated at every turn, but little by little, it felt right to her. She remembered her head spinning with surprise and delight every time she walked out the door of their home. Not only had she gained a new family, but also, there was a whole new way of life to learn, new tastes, new attitudes, and very different rules to get used to.
“Cream or lemon?” the white-uniformed waiter asked her at the Elderon Club one day, when she ordered tea after lunch with Sabine and a few of her friends.
They had always taken tea with milk at home—rich black tea with lumps of sugar and warm milk. But this watery liquid that passed for tea, she didn’t recognize. “Both,” she said trying to sound confident.
The waiter looked surprised and started to say something when Sabine put her hand on his arm. Making eye contact with Kathleen, he poured the cream, and then, with silver tongs, placed a lemon wedge on the saucer, bowed slightly, and walked away.
Kathleen picked up the lemon wedge and squeezed its juice into her tea. She watched in horror as the cream instantly began to curdle in the cup, and the ladies laughed with hands over their mouths.
Only at moments like this did she long for the simple life she had left behind. But she was tough, and she learned fast. She would be everything Baron expected; she would excel at this new way of life.
* * *
She asked Seamus suddenly whether he still liked to play golf. She was thinking about all the times they had sneaked onto the South Shore Country Club course on Staten Island as teenagers, with their father’s discarded clubs. He had been a scratch golfer when they were young kids, before the drinking took over his life, and she had learned quite a bit from him before he quit playing.
“Golf? Geez, I haven’t played for ages. But guess what? I still have that same old set of clubs I inherited from Dad. We could play again. Maybe on Sundays. When the weather’s good.”
Seamus’ enthusiasm reassured her. She remembered the early years of their childhood before the drinking. Their father had been a bit player in the booming real estate market on Staten Island during the fifties, but he had done well enough to settle his family in a nice (though modest) home not far from the golf club. Their mother had been a homemaker, who cooked simple, wholesome meals and loved to sew, and their home had been a cheerful, comfortable place, much like the one Seamus was helping her to set up. It had been a good decision to move here, she told herself, to reunite with her brother. She could restore him to his old self. She was sure of it.
That first night, in her new condo in Murrells Inlet with Seamus, was scented with pine, and the full moon peeked through the rustling palms, leaving a silver trail on the dark surface of Marsh Creek. It reminded Kathleen of an advertisement for vacation homes in the tropics that she and Baron had looked at long ago, before buying their land on Kiawah and building the house. After Seamus left, she sat on the terrace with a nightcap before retiring to bed. She was certain she’d sleep soundly, and she did, lulled by the sound of palm fronds against her shuttered window.
* * *
Only two weeks after Kathleen moved into the condo, Seamus drove his ancient pickup truck into a tree at full speed, on his way home from a bar late one Saturday night, and he died on the spot.
When they called her—Seamus had listed her as next of kin on the ID card he carried—Kathleen froze. For minutes, she could not absorb the enormity of what the official was saying to her. When she eventually came to her senses, she began shaking from head to toe. “Oh God, what am I going to do?” she cried out into the empty condo. “How will I manage?” Somehow, she would have to pull herself together and set to work on the grim task of notifying the family and planning Seamus’s funeral. She made all the calls, one after the other. Reassuring her son, Daniel, that she was all right was far and away the most difficult.
“God, Mom, that’s awful! What will you do now? I know you were counting on Seamus to help you get settled.”
“I don’t quite know yet, Daniel. I’m afraid I’m still reeling.”
The line went silent. “Daniel? Are you still there?” An acknowledging groan encouraged her to continue. “I’ll be all right. I’ll pick myself up and keep going the way I always have.”
“We’ll talk about it when Candace and I get down there,” he said. “What are the funeral plans?”
Of course, she had made all the arrangements. She’d filled the void by planning every detail and supervising the complicated logistics of transportation of relatives and friends to and from the airport. Then she cooked for days in advance to prepare meals for arriving cousins and their adult children. And she did it all with the military precision and stoic calm of the good soldier she had trained herself to be.
On the final evening of their visit, sitting on the terrace with her son and daughter-in-law on the same squeaking plastic chairs she and Seamus had occupied on her first night in the condo, the moon beaming down on them through the tall pines, the dread began to settle in.
“What will you do now, Mother Arquette?” Candace asked.
Her daughter-in-law was wearing a look of concern. They sat directly across from each other, but their eyes never met.
“I’ll stay here, of course. It’s a nice community; retired folks have the time to be friendly. And fortunately, I still have my health.” She saw Candace exchange a look with Daniel. “It’s okay. I’ve been on my own for a while now,” she said, addressing both of them. “Dad was pretty out of it. I took care of everything. It’s a good thing I enrolled in those accounting classes all those many years ago. It’s amazing what comes in handy in life.”
“We’re really hard up for space in Lawrenceville, or I’d suggest you spend some time with us up in New Jersey,” Daniel said.
Again, the look passed between them.
“I wouldn’t think of it. It’s important for me to get settled in here.” She looked over at Daniel, then at Candace, and smiled.
“Maybe we’ll see you for Christmas?” Candace said, looking at her this time. “Do you think you’ll make it up North? Even though it’s bitter cold.”
“It’s possible. But you’re right. I hate the cold. Blood does get thinner in this climate. We’ll see.”
When Candace and Daniel left for the airport in their rental car, she walked back into the kitchen with the empty glasses and put them on the counter by the sink. As she ran the hot water and sponged the crystal stemware, she thought of another home and cleaning up with Baron after a party of another kind. They had spent so much time entertaining friends over the years. Baron had loved to play the role of host. He had been so proud of her decorating and culinary skills. The night she was remembering, he had come up behind her at the sink as she was cleaning up. She hadn’t heard him because of the running water and wasn’t aware that he was there until he put his hands on her waist, whirled her around, and gave her a long, deep kiss before undoing her apron and leading her down the corridor to their bedroom. They had held onto their romance, the envy of their friends, for all those years. Kathleen sighed. Resting an elbow on the counter where she stood, she put her hand to her forehead and closed her eyes. First Baron. Now Seamus. What was one to do?
In bed that night, she lay awake listening. Somehow the rustling pines and the brush of palm fronds sounded ominous to her. She pictured the vast darkness outside her shuttered windows and felt the weight of solitude.
* * *
With Seamus and everyone else gone, she battled her loneliness with every bit of energy she could summon. She started playing golf again; she joined the club at Murrells Inlet and was a regular in the women’s nine holers. She took up bridge again, even though she hadn’t played since college, and went to the same club on Wednesdays to play with more or less the same women. She persevered, even after she arrived late one day in time to hear Martha saying, “Oh yes, dear, that would be mahvahlous,” in a voice that she was sure was meant to mimic her own. But after months of trying to fit in, she still felt like a newcomer and had more and more the sense that the women thought of her as putting on airs.
She told herself they just had to get to know each other better. She thought back to the early days of her marriage—to Sabine and her crowd—and she shuddered, remembering her first cup of tea at the Elderon Club. Surely winning over those women was more of a challenge. She would carry on. So, in November she asked the bridge regulars—Martha, June, Helen—and their husbands over for Sunday lunch. Helen’s husband Keith arrived almost an hour late, muttering excuses about an excruciatingly slow round of golf, and by the time they sat down, everybody was starving and jittery. Even before Keith’s late arrival, Kathleen could tell that the husbands were bored. Stuart found the ladies’ conversation dull and had retreated into the corner with Justin to discuss sports. She fussed over the hors d’oeuvres and passed them from group to group, going back and forth between the kitchen and living/dining room areas with a regularity that didn’t permit her to join in any conversation.
At the table, when Kathleen served the platter of grilled flank steak and asparagus with béarnaise sauce and the potato, fennel, and leak gratin, all conversation stopped. “Oh my! What a feast!” June said. It was clear from their astonished reception of the food that Kathleen had overdone it by a lot. She had cautioned herself to keep it simple, and she was sure now that this would be perceived as showing off. She had no choice but to carry on. As they passed her their plates, and she prepared each one from the head of the table, Helen began a meandering tale about how she and Keith had once been invited to dinner at his boss’s estate in Greenwich, Connecticut and been served course after course of things she had never eaten before, and how they had both gotten sick from the overly rich food. All the while she was talking, Keith, who had been served earlier, ate his food in greedy gulps, shaking his leg under the table in a nervous tic. Martha half listened to Helen’s meandering rant, while sending amused glances across the table to her husband Stuart, who had no doubt been briefed on the pretentiousness of their hostess. None of this escaped Kathleen, who felt sorry she had ever invited them, only to watch her make a fool of herself. By the time she served the strawberry and kiwi torte with honey cream, she was completely exhausted. She was relieved when, after coffee, Keith declared that he hated to eat and run, but it was time for his nap, and the others followed quickly after him. There would be no need to repeat this noble experiment, and Kathleen felt certain that not one of the women would return the invitation.
* * *
When the rains came in early December, Kathleen spent endless hours at home playing solitaire and rereading the same yellowing paperbacks on the shelf—mostly James Patterson and Daniel Silva thrillers left behind by Baron, and the old Graham Greene and Katherine Porter classics she couldn’t bear to throw away when she’d made the move from Kiawah. In between the daily power outages, she watched CNN and wandered around the kitchen planning her dinner, hours in advance, preparing complicated recipes from Julia Child, setting the dining room table as if for a special guest, and succumbing to her nightly sundowner earlier and earlier, joking to herself that it must be five o’clock somewhere in the world, before sitting down to dine alone. It was essential that she keep her spirits high and not indulge in dark thoughts. It was too late to turn back. And besides, even if she’d wanted to, there was no place waiting for her to return to.
She prepared for Christmas well in advance, shopping for and sending presents before the rush, the way she always did. During the first week of December, she had mailed handmade cards to her son and daughter-in-law, cousins, aunts and uncles, and friends. She had collected bits of palm fronds and berries and pods of all sorts in the garden to embellish the photo of the condo she had taken for the card, and she used these to festoon the living/dining room area of the house as well.
She spent the early part of Christmas Eve alone. Then, looking for some festivity, she went to dinner at the club and returned home after dark to light the tree adorned with her collection of songbirds-of-the-world ornaments in straw and glass and wood. Sitting by the tree, she opened her present—a lovely silk scarf with a Renoir landscape in muted pastels—and called Daniel and Candace to thank them and to wish them a Merry Christmas.
“Did the gifts from Santa arrive in time?” she asked Candace, who had picked up the phone after more than ten rings, sounding annoyed by the intrusion.
“Yes, Mother Arquette. Thanks.” The line seemed to go momentarily dead, and then she heard, “Hey, we’re kind of in the middle of things. Do you want to say a quick ‘Hi’ to Dan?”
Follow-up calls after the holidays were also vague and unproductive. When she phoned her Kiawah friend, Gwen, to suggest that they meet in Charleston for lunch and a tour of the new wing of the Gibbs Museum, she was met with “Maybe when the weather improves. I’m just not getting out much in this nasty rain.” And Phoebe, who had been her best friend for years and the last to stop including her when Baron was too incapacitated to join their revolving dinner parties, said, in response to an invitation to see her new digs, now that she was settled in, “Gosh. I would love to, honey. But Jack and I aren’t driving that kind of distance anymore.”
* * *
On Monday of each week, she drove the ten or so miles from Murrells Inlet to the Crossroads Mall on the outskirts of Myrtle Beach where she’d discovered a grocery store and butcher’s shop she particularly liked. She enjoyed these weekly visits, especially now that the weather was clearing and warming up, carefully sketching out her meals in advance, buying the necessary ingredients, and taking care of her other household errands. What she looked forward to, more than anything else, was her visit to the general store at the end of the strip and having a chat with the owner. She liked the smell of the place—sawdust mixed with lavender, she thought—the dim light filtering through the skylight, the old wood cabinets filled with antique brass locks and hinges, old dolls, and snow globes. Mr. Prescott was a tall man like her Baron, with thick tortoiseshell glasses. He always seemed to be sitting in the leather chair in the corner reading The Post and Courier, and he always stood to greet her when she arrived.
“Good morning, Mrs. Arquette. How are things at the condo? Did you find someone to fix the broken leg on the kitchen stool, or do we need to discuss another approach?” As he spoke, he made his way over to the store counter and stood facing her.
“No need to, Mr. Prescott. I managed on my own. I have a pretty good toolbox.”
“No problem. You know I’m always here to assist you.”
Oliver Prescott behaved with the utmost of civility. Somehow, when they’d first met, he’d reminded her of her husband. He, too, had exquisite manners, a mane of, in his case, gray hair (Baron’s had been chestnut), and thick eyebrows. His words were always carefully articulated.
“The weather,” he said laconically. “Abysmally damp.”
“Yes, yes, I know. Hard on these old bones.” She looked up coquettishly as she said this.
“Why you don’t look a day over forty,” he said. “But in my case…”
That was part of the reason she felt a special empathy toward him. Like her, he bore his years bravely, yet he had held onto the luster of a more youthful charm.
Right behind him one could get a glimpse of what his present and former life must have been. Not at all like hers. There were photos of his children and grandchildren, and one taken only a few years ago of him in hunting gear. She couldn’t picture Baron doing anything like that—a fox hunt, maybe, in black leather boots, breeches, and a tailored hunting coat, but not in simple hunting plaid with a shotgun. And beyond the photo wall, there seemed to be a small kitchen. From where she stood, she could smell something cooking on the stove beyond the archway. She sniffed the air. Caramelized onions. No doubt about it. She found herself wondering if he lived here.
“Would you like to taste some, Mrs. Arquette?” he asked. “I’m preparing a soup for lunch.”
“No, thank you, Mr. Prescott,” she said hurriedly. She was embarrassed by her evident curiosity about what was on the stove behind him.
“Oliver,” he said. “Please.” Before she could demur, he added, “Why not join me? My wife was French, and I make a mean onion soup.”
“I have no doubt about that Mr.…Oliver!” she said, blushing deeply. “I can tell when onions have been allowed to properly caramelize.”
He laughed. “Of course you can, Mrs. Arquette. Did you learn French cooking from your mother-in-law?”
“Call me Kathleen. It’s only fair.” She blushed again. “Yes, I did. She was an excellent teacher. I had to prepare all the sauces. Everything from scratch. And she was very particular. Before I met her, all I knew was meat, boiled carrots, and potatoes.” She started laughing too. Naturally he knew. Her French surname and Irish freckles were a dead giveaway.
“Yes. Yes. Everything comes in a box these days. But it certainly doesn’t taste the same. Are you sure you won’t join me?”
Kathleen was still embarrassed. She shook her head, all the while gathering a few things from adjacent cabinets—four antique buttons, a garden spade—approaching the dark wood counter, and sliding a twenty-dollar bill toward him. “I’m really pressed for time today,” she said, “but one day I’d like you to taste my Sunday coq au vin, Oliver. I suspect you won’t be disappointed.” She said it in an unusually exuberant voice, and as she heard herself, she felt her cheeks burn in a way they hadn’t in God knows how many years.
He took the twenty-dollar bill and made change efficiently. Facing her, with palms together over his chest, he said, “I would be delighted to receive an invitation. Any Sunday.” Then he added with a jovial smile, “It’s always a pleasure to see you, Kathleen.”
In the car on her way home, Kathleen thought about Oliver Prescott. She felt so at ease in his company; he was such a nice, courteous man, and she would like to get to know him better. She wondered what his profession had been, assuming the shop was a late-life distraction. Surely such a refined man had had a good career. Perhaps she had been too forward mentioning Sunday lunch. What was she thinking, anyway? And at her age. It would probably turn out badly. Oh well, it was done. Now she would have to ask him.
* * *
The following Monday when Kathleen drove to the Crossroads Mall, Prescott’s General Store was teeming with life. Three little boys were playing jacks in the front corner. Kathleen was sure she hadn’t seen anyone play jacks since she was a child. Not even Daniel had played. Oliver was sitting in the leather chair as usual with the newspaper in his lap. He rose, placing the paper on the chair cushion as he got up, and crossed the room to greet her.
“These three ruffians are my grandsons,” he said, indicating them with an outstretched arm and beaming, even as he disparaged them. “Samuel here is the oldest. He’s nine.” Samuel looked up and smiled when he heard his name mentioned. “This one’s Clem, short for Clemson. He’s seven.” Clemson waved at her. “And this pipsqueak over here is Paul. He’ll be six in March—coming right up before you know it.” Paul turned red around the ears and kept right on playing. “They’re spending the afternoon here with me while their mom goes shopping.”
“Oh, how nice!” she said. “How nice to have family so close by.”
“What can we do for you today?” he asked.
“I wanted your advice about what to plant. Looks like we’re in for an early spring and I’m missing my flowers. I’d like to get some seeds for my garden.”
In an effort to broaden her circle, she had joined the Murrells Inlet gardening club and had offered to look in on Prescott, a local gardening expert, while she was in town. It seemed like a practical thing to offer to do, and it gave her an excuse to visit his store in a natural way.
Oliver leaned over to speak directly into her ear, grabbing his reading glasses as they slid to the tip of his nose and whispering, “You want me to tell you all my deep, dark secrets about the best spring flowers? Will you promise not to share them with any of the other ladies at the club?”
Kathleen was shocked. Was there anything about the Murrell’s Inlet locals this man didn’t know, or was he particularly interested in her? She was taken aback and felt suddenly bashful in his presence.
He read her alarm. “Oh, Kathleen, don’t be silly. Of course I heard you joined the gardening club. The members have been buying their seeds from me and using my gardening tips for years. I do a little NPR show every now and then. You know where people call in and ask advice?”
“I couldn’t be more impressed,” she said. “But I’m not going to lie to you. I promised to pass on whatever tips you gave me.”
“Let’s see what we can come up with,” he said, taking her arm and leading her toward the seed section. The boys returned to their game.
Later, as she was getting ready to reverse the car and head home, she saw Oliver Prescott exiting the store and coming toward her.
She left the keys in the ignition and stepped out of her idling car, as he approached.
He held out his hand to show her the cluster of white flowers he held between his fingers.
“At home, we call them ‘white coral bells.’ Lily of the valley. My mother planted them in her garden in Boston, when she got married to my father. She sent my wife and me the seeds when we moved down here. Smell.”
The scent was deliciously sweet.
“In the spring, my Sarah would wear one every night behind her ear.”
“How beautiful,” Kathleen said.
He pulled a tiny envelope out of his breast pocket. “I prepared some seeds for you when I heard you liked gardening. Take them. They’ll be our little secret. Nobody else in the inlet will have anything like them.”
“Thank you, Oliver. What a lovely gesture.”
Then, unexpectedly, he lifted a strand of her hair and slid the lily stalk behind her ear.
There was a pause. He bowed his head slightly, and Kathleen brushed the flower with the tip of her finger.
As she drove back home, she kept glancing in the rearview mirror to see the delicate white blossom in her hair. She was sure now that she would ask Oliver to have lunch with her the following Sunday. She would take a chance. She’d prepare her coq au vin, just as she’d promised. She caught sight of her image in the mirror again and blushed as she touched the flower. It drifted down to the empty seat beside her.
Marlene S. Molinoff lives in New York City and on Kiawah Island, SC. She writes about people in transition, either by choice or by chance. Currently, she is completing an autofiction about a late-life romance between a woman and a much younger man, and working on a collection of short stories about the challenges faced by a group of people as they approach their sixties and beyond. A former literature teacher and marketing strategist, she has traveled and photographed extensively worldwide. Her short fiction has appeared in multiple journals, including Forge, The Alembic, Amarillo Bay, The Edge, and Crack the Spine, and is forthcoming in Steam Ticket Journal and Good Works Review.