Hollow Branch

Cassandra checked the text for the fourth time: The old oak in the meadow behind Oakenstead, it read, midnight.

The cliche wasn’t lost on Cassandra–where else would the Willow Creek Coven meet but there? But then she didn’t mind that it fit a stereotype, either. After all, wasn’t her entire family a cliche? Wasn’t she a stereotype, herself?

She pulled her hair out of the pigtails and mussed it. It was so stringy.

She found a pair of scissors in her mom’s sewing kit and her dad’s razor on his shelf in the medicine cabinet. Half an hour later, her head was shaved in patches.

“There!” she said, triumphantly. “I may still be a cliche, but at least now, I’m a stereotype of my own choosing!”

She cleaned up the scraps of hair quickly–that would set Mother off for sure, to find hair clippings in the sink–and called Malcolm.

“I need to get out of the house before my parents come home. Can I come over?”

“Aren’t you watching your brother?”

“No. He’s at Olivia’s.”

“I’m at my dad’s,” Malcolm said. “Can you take the bus?”

“Yeah,” she replied. “Pick me up at Rattlesnake?”

When Cassandra hopped off the bus, Malcolm was nowhere in sight. “Plum him,” she thought, dreading the long walk up the hill. But then she spied their old VW bug at the curb, with Mr. Landgraab slouching against it, casting his vacant gaze towards a patch of barrel cactii.

“Heyo,” she said. She smiled when she saw his double-take at her shaved head, though she didn’t let him see her smile.

“Cassandra,” he said solicitously, “is everything all right? Are you ill?”

She laughed. “I’m great, Mr. L. Peachy.”

They sat silently while the old car grumbled at the steepness of the hill. She found it entertaining to see how long grown-ups would wait before beginning the questions. Mr. L., she’d found, could rarely wait longer that 30 seconds. This time, it was just over 15.

“So, how’s school?” he asked, forcing that cheerful tone into his voice that adults assume when they want to be reassured that all is right in a teen’s world.

“Groovy,” she said. “I’m reading Sartre. In French. ‘On peut toujours faire quelque chose de ce qu’on a fait de nous’.”

He looked at her blankly.

“No, I’m not giving in to nothingness,” she replied to his unspoken question. “Translated: ‘We can always make something out of what we’ve been made into,‘ right, Mr. L.?”

He laughed. A real laugh. “That’s what my wife always tells me! Not Nancy. Clarissa. The new wife.”

They continued on in silence, but it was no longer awkward, for each settled into the peaceful rhythm of thought and reflection.

She found Malcolm up in the study, his old bedroom, reading the I-Ching.

“What on earth?” she said.

Without looking up, he read aloud, “‘Twenty-five. Without pretense. A foundation for progress. It is beneficial to persist. In fact, not being pure is a severe mistake. It is a disadvantage to have a goal to move to.’

She found his duffel bag in the corner and changed out of her school uniform into a pair of his jeans and a t-shirt.

“Damn,” he said when he looked up. “You look like a boy. You look hot.”

He tossed down his book and grabbed her, kissing her hard.

“Malcolm!” she said. “This is different.”

“Different is good.”

Afterwards, with her arms around his shoulders as they lay on the bed, he whispered, “Think I could wear your uniform sometime?” And she felt him grow hard again.

While he showered, she headed outside to clear her mind. She saw Clarissa sitting on the rock beneath the eucalyptus. If anyone knew where the Willow Creek Coven really met, it would be Clarissa.

Usually, Cassandra had no problem introducing a topic. One could always be blunt, and she sort of enjoyed watching how the other person reacted to what seemed to be her complete disregard of social niceties.

But as she looked into Clarissa’s relaxed gaze, she somehow didn’t want to intrude abruptly. And she thought that possibly Clarissa might know something, something that could help her, and if she put up too many barriers now, she’d just have to find a way to dismantle them later.

Clarissa scooted closer to the edge and motioned towards the empty half of the large rock.

“Join me, Cassandra,” she said.

Cassandra sat beside her. They looked together over the canyon. They sat silently for thirty seconds. Forty. Forty-five. A minute. Two minutes. Finally, Cassandra could wait no longer.

“I hear they meet in the meadow behind Oakenstead,” she said.

“What’s that?” asked Clarissa.

“You know,” Cassandra said. “Your group? All those others like you?”

“Are there others like me?” Clarissa asked. “Who’s this that meets in the meadow?”

Clarissa could see that Cassandra was going to make her say it, to bring her curiosity into the open.

“The coven?” she said. “You know, your people?”

Clarissa laughed. “I’m not a witch!” she replied. “I didn’t even know there was a coven in Willow Creek!”

“Then what’s all this?” Cassandra asked.

Clarissa looked at her with her open gaze. “All this?”

“Look,” Cassandra said. “I’ve been watching you. I see how you’re always… there, but separate. I see how you dress, where you look, what you say. If you’re not a witch, what are you?”

Clarissa looked back over the canyon. “Just a person on this planet,” she replied. “Like you.”

“But what do you practice? You’re a pagan, right?”

Clarissa gazed at the horizon. “If recognizing being in everything is pagan, then I guess maybe I am. My practice isn’t necessarily pagan, though.”

Cassandra waited for more, and when she tired of waiting, she asked, “Then what do you practice?”

“Breathing. Listening. That’s about it,” said Clarissa.

“What do you mean?”

“We can try it now,” Clarissa said. “It’s what I was doing before you came along. It’s what I do most of the time, actually.” And she laughed.

“Watch your breath,” Clarissa said. “And listen.”

“What do you hear?”

“I hear my breath and yours. I hear crickets and cicadas. I hear a gila woodpecker calling his mate. Do you hear that red-tailed hawk across the canyon? Listen to the raven wings flapping!”

And then, they fell into silence.

After a moment, Clarissa said, “Can you hear the eucalyptus tree? It says we’ll have rain soon. Listen to how its roots talk to the grasses there at the edge of its shadow. Can you hear how all the trees and grasses and cactuses are talking with each other about rainfall and nutrients and the shifting sunlight?”

“You are a witch,” Cassandra said. But she didn’t get up and head into the house. She sat there still, and though she could only hear the thoughts in her head, and now and then, the beating of her heart, she continued to breathe and to listen.

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VW Bug

Geoffrey giggled as he opened the car door. He wasn’t used to this feeling of giddiness, though it had been a daily companion since he met Clarissa five months ago.

Once the door closed with a squeak and a bang, he rested his head on steering wheel and laughed, long and hard.

“It’s so the apple won’t get lonely,” she had said when she tucked the bag of walnuts into his briefcase.

What a thing to say! And now, when he thought of his snack inside his belly, apple and walnut mixing together, he had to laugh again.

Oh, life had never been so silly, nor so sweet!

Even the drive home had become an event to look forward to. As the engine strained up the hill past Rattlesnake bar, he found his heart beat a little faster, his breath race. She could always hear the old VW bug grumble up the canyon road and turn into their drive, and she would stand in the doorway to greet him.

The old car heaved as the hill steepened. “Poor old bug,” Geoffrey said, leaning forward in his seat, as if he could gesture the car up the hill. “You could use a younger, stronger engine.”

The rock had been so heavy. It was more a boulder than a rock, with specks of mica and veins of quartz that glistened when the sun glanced off it. He knew he had to move it, though, that evening when he’d seen Clarissa sitting on the ground beneath the eucalyptus tree.

“Are you ok?” he’d cried when he raced out to her. She smiled at him. “But you’re sitting in the dirt!” he exclaimed.

She stood up, brushing off the seat of her pants. “Yes,” she’d said.

“But it’s… dirty!”

She laughed. “It’s desert soil,” she said. “A little red from copper, isn’t it? It’ll wash out.” She craned her head to try to glimpse the back of her pants.

Nancy had never sat on the ground. Not once, in all the years he’d known her. Not even when she was a teen.

Come to think of it, he couldn’t remember the last time he’d sat on the ground, either. Maybe he had sat on a blanket spread over the lawn at the park in Willow Creek years and years ago, when he’d taken Malcolm to hear a concert in the amphitheater. Yes, he must have, for Nancy scolded them both over the grass stains they had somehow managed to get on the backs of their knees, even though he’d been so careful to instruct Malcolm to stay on the blanket.

And there was Clarissa, forever sitting on the earth.

“I have a rock,” he said. “It’s a boulder. We could put it here.”

“Oh, I’d love to sit on a rock!” she said. “Is it granite?” And the mica in her eyes sparkled.

It had been so hard to move. It took all afternoon.

As Clarissa bent over it, tracing her finger along the river of quartz,  Geoffrey carried over two long poles.

“What’s this for?” she asked.

“You’ll see.”

When he returned, he brought several round, straight branches of the same thickness, each a little longer than the diameter of the boulder.

“It’s ancient Egyptian technology,” he said, laying the branches down in front of the boulder.

Using the long poles as levers, they managed, at last, to get the boulder on top of the branches.

“It rolls!” she exclaimed.

He giggled when he saw her eyes light up.

“I can do this,” he said. “But you can’t be so cute! I have to concentrate.”

They laughed. He was still not used to what that felt like–how powerless one feels during the height of laughter, doubling over, all these feelings spilling out in streams of strange sounds. And afterwards, how his chest heaved as he caught his breath. He was helpless.

“Let’s move this thing!” he said at last.

And they had moved it, just the two of them. It took them three hours to cover two hundred feet.

“Maybe we shouldn’t take so many breaks,” he said, after they’d reached the one-quarter mark.

“It’s ok,” she said. “We don’t have to complete it today. We’ll work like yogis–mindfully. Stopping now and then to stretch. Remembering to breathe. This way, we won’t get hurt.”

When she stretched, reaching her arms above her head and arching her back, exposing a little sliver of pink belly under her shirt, he marveled at how different a woman’s body could be. Clarissa’s body looked like a comfortable home–no rough edges, nothing tight, everything relaxed and supple. Nancy had never seemed comfortable in her body–she always looked as if something pained her somewhere, as if, try as she might, her body was never good enough for her. He had loved her body–even in its discomforts. Even now, when he thought of Nancy’s knees–and how she grumbled as she climbed the stairs–he felt tender towards her. When you live beside someone else’s body for decades, it becomes almost a part of you, he thought.

He became aware that Clarissa was watching him. “Ready?” he said, valiantly.

“Let’s rest another moment or two,” she’d said. “There’s no rush.”

At sunset, they finally had it positioned under the boughs of the tree. It was wide enough to seat two, a low, even slab of granite.

They sat together and faced the setting sun.

“Do you miss her?” Clarissa asked.

Geoffrey looked at her. A lock of gray hair had fallen out of her pony tail, and he reached over to try to tuck it under her hair band.

“I don’t know how to answer that,” he said. She leaned into him, and he felt the coolness of her arm against his.

“You fit better,” he said.

“Yes,” she answered. “I know.”

The next day, he had been surprised that he didn’t feel sore from the labor.

“It’s because of your amazing knowledge of Egyptian technology,” she said. “And also, because we took our time.”

But he felt young to be able to spend an entire afternoon moving a boulder and not feel a stitch of soreness the next day.

Now, whenever he saw her sitting on her boulder, he felt his blood rushing through the veins in his arms and legs. “You have a second heart here,” Clarissa told him one night, touching his calf.

The old VW bug made it up the hill, and with a final groan, pulled into their drive. As he shook his head to clear his reverie, the front door opened, and Clarissa stepped out. Three steps was all it took to bound to her.

They sat together with their tea on the back porch.

“I suppose Malcolm never showed,” he said, after he’d told her about his day at the office.

“No, he’s here,” she replied. “Upstairs.”

“On that computer? He’s addicted to electronics, you know.”

“No,” she replied. “Reading.”

“What’s he reading?”

“Carlos Castaneda.”

“My son?”

Clarissa laughed. “We’d been talking about enlightenment, whether it was real or an illusion. And I mentioned I had some books on the subject. I thought he’d choose Thich Nhat Hanh, something simple and safe. But when he saw the Castaneda books, it was as if he were drawn to them.”

“I’ve never read them,” Geoffrey said.

“Just as well,” Clarissa replied. “There’s no need. Do you realize that your son is somewhat of a prodigy at controlling his perception? He manipulates boredom to achieve altered states.”

How well do we ever know anyone? Geoffrey wondered. And as the sun set, he suddenly felt incredibly lonely.

The Connoisseur of Boredom

Cassandra’s inner thigh was so boring, that vast white continent, broken here and there where blue tributaries swelled near the surface.

If I were to build a village, Malcolm thought, tracing the saphenous vein, I would place it right here, along the banks of this blue river.

“Hold up!” he yelled as Cassandra rose. “You’ll topple the villagers!”

“Duffus,” she said, tossing him his pants. “Hurry up. Father’s home soon, and you know how he gets.”

Part of him craved a confrontation, but he was out the door and down the steps before Mr. Goth rounded the corner.

He’d decided to take the bus to Oasis Springs and hop off down near Rattlesnake, then walk the long hill up to his dad’s place. Walking suited him. Something about the monotony of a long walk, step after step, falling with each boring breath, the pulse ticking like an endless clock, suited Malcolm.

Extreme boredom, he had found, ceased to be completely boring and could even produce hallucinations. Once, when he’d been walking for several hours, his mind starved of sensation, he thought he saw the Tragic Clown approaching. “Great,” he said to himself, “now all we need is a guy in a hot dog suit, a panda suit, and the Grim Reaper.”

But his joke ruined it, and the extremity dissolved into the mundane, and it was simply boredom again.

Malcolm had become quite a connoisseur. He could identify from the sensations in his toes which stage of boredom he was at. So far, he’d identified seven distinct stages, with three main poles and countless substations along the spectrum. In mild boredom, when the mind simply began to feel as if it were locked in a stuffy closet, the sensation in the toes was normal–nothing particular to notice. Then, as the air slowly drained from the closet, the toes began to feel warm, enlarged. At the extreme stages of boredom, when all the oxygen had been sucked out, the hot toes pulsed. He had to be careful at this stage, for the sensations were interesting and slightly delicious, and if he let himself enjoy them too much, air rushed back into the closet, and his state returned to normal, everyday boredom.

Heck, it was cheaper than drugs.

The one time in recent years when Malcolm hadn’t experienced one of the seven stages of boredom happened a few months before his parents split. For some undisclosed reason, this drifter who’d been passing through town was crashing at their house. One morning, when his mom was at the gym and his dad at work, Malcolm came downstairs in the nude and found the drifter sitting at the long dining table with a plate of fresh-grilled veggie burgers.

The drifter saw him, but didn’t really look at him, and Malcolm felt this intense thrill–a sense of freedom. It wasn’t that he was turned-on. He just felt alive for, maybe, the first time ever.

“I’m not sure what kind of attention you’re angling after, kid,” the drifter said, “but whatever it is, I’m sure as heck not the guy to give it to you.”

And with that, the drifter grabbed his duffel bag and headed out the door, leaving his half-eaten veggie burger on the table. Malcolm never saw him again.

The old house looked just the same as always–a big modern pile of glass and steel perched there on the mesa. He stood at the front door, wondering if he should knock or just go in. He didn’t really want to hurt his knuckles by rapping on the steel frame. But then again, walking in uninvited felt like he was making a statement–like he belonged there or something.

The door opened before he made up his mind. And there she was, the old lady his dad had married.

Looking like a great aunt.

He wondered for a brief second where his dad would put encampments on the firm continent that was her, and then he chased those thoughts out of his mind noticing that, at present, he’d chased the boredom, too.

“Come have some tea,” she said, “after you set your bag down. I’ve got a fresh pot brewed.”

Clarissa led him into the kitchen.

“What’s that smell?” he asked.

“Butternut squash,” she replied.

He inhaled and smiled, in spite of himself.

“Do you like it?” she asked.

“Never had it.”

They sat together at the kitchen table, surrounded by the aroma of Makaibari tea and roasted butternut squash, the silence deep enough that Malcolm heard the ticking of the clock on the landing.

He’d come loaded with his usual arsenal of noncommittal replies–sure protection against the prying questions of adults.

But Clarissa asked nothing. She simply sat in silence, sipping her tea, and gazing out the window towards the hills across the canyon.

It was annoying at first–this thick silence. Like what you might feel in the dentist’s office while waiting for them to bring the results of your x-ray. To drill or not to drill.

But then, once he realized she didn’t have a barrage of questions waiting, he felt himself settle.

He sipped the tea, and slowly, as the warmth moved down his throat, he felt this hard knot in his heart soften and relax.

“This tea is really good,” he said.

Clarissa nodded.

“It’s like,” he said, “it’s like. I’m not sure I’ve ever had tea like this before.”

“It’s from India,” she replied.

He counted twelve ticks on the clock.

“Do you know the story of tea?” she asked. “The myth of its creation?”

He shook his head.

“The story goes,” she replied, “and of course, the story isn’t true except in the deepest way, the way that all myths are true, that tea was discovered by a zen monk, looking for something that could help him with his meditation. Sometimes, when there is something there for you, it is as if it is lit up from within,” she continued. “And the tea plant was like that.”

“And did it help with his meditation?” Malcolm asked.

“The myth goes that it brought him into enlightenment.”

Malcolm laughed and looked at the leaves at the bottom of his cup. “Enlightenment doesn’t exist,” he said. “It’s just a trick of the mind.”

Across the Canyon

This draft will be workshopped during the week of August 17, 2015, in the Writers’ Workshop thread at the EA Forums. If you’d like to share your feedback on it as part of this workshop, I’d love to hear your ideas and responses to the questions I’ll be posing to help me with revisions. I will likely be making revisions to this draft.

Midafternoon, during this late summer season, the shadow from Finger Rock stretched over the hills across the canyon and drew Clarissa’s attention. She often found herself at the kitchen window, facing south and gazing into the shadow’s deep purple. Something about depth, she told herself, and what can’t be seen.

She roused herself from contemplation and made the phone call that she’d decided to make when she’d woken that morning.

“Nancy,” she said, “I’ve been wanting to talk with you!”

As she said the words, she heard how hollow they must sound. She didn’t anticipate they’d sound empty, before she spoke them, for they were filled with her own earnest feelings of goodwill, but as she imagined how they would sound in the ears of her new husband’s ex-wife, she felt all the warmth drain from them. Empty.

She closed her eyes for a moment and breathed. What to do? She could continue the conversation pretending to be cheerful, trying to recapture her typical buoyancy, or she could create space for her authentic feelings and proceed from there.

Across the canyon, the purple of the shadow deepened into black, right in the center.

“We were wondering,” Clarissa continued, “if Malcolm could come over this weekend.”

In the moment of silence, Clarissa thought she heard ice cubes clinking against the sides of a glass.

“I don’t tell our son what to do,” Nancy replied. “Geoffrey and I agreed a long time ago that it would be Malcolm’s choice which house he stayed at.”

“Yes, I understand the arrangements,” Clarrissa continued, soldiering on. “It’s just that. Well, now that I’m here, too–we just wanted him to know that he’s welcome. That we’d like to see him.”

“You’ll have to ask him,” said Nancy. “Or better yet. Have his father call him for a change.”

And with that, Nancy ended the call.

Clarissa held onto the edge of the counter and looked across the chasm of the canyon into the purple shadow.

There was that sharp line, right inside, cutting across her chest. She gazed into the shadow and breathed.

She carried her cup of tea into the garden behind the house.

She and Geoffrey had struggled one long hot afternoon to shift and slide a boulder into the shade of the eucalyptus at the south edge of the garden, overlooking the canyon.

“My gramps planted this tree,” Geoffrey said between huffs. “Must’ve been sixty years ago or more.”

She sat on the boulder now, shaded from the late afternoon sun, facing south and letting the breeze from the valley floor carry to her the scent of mesquite pods and Texas sage.

She wanted, almost more than anything, to be friends with this woman who had spent half her life with Geoffrey. In part, she knew, she wanted the friendship because of Geoffrey. He loved Nancy still–with most of his heart, actually. Geoffrey was one of those loyal men who loved hard, fast, and for a lifetime. Nancy was there in the deepest part of his heart; Clarissa faced her in every tender moment.

Clarissa accepted this without jealousy–this quality was part of what made Geoffrey a good man. And she knew, too, that on some deep level, all of the suffering that he experienced in his marriage to Nancy filled a purpose. It was that suffering that provided the counterbalance to the bright happiness which she and Geoffrey now shared.

So that was part of it.

But there was more, something unconnected with Geoffrey, a pattern that was wholly her own, reaching back to her own youth: the division between herself and others which she seemed to face when what she wished most for was connection.

She kept thinking of Linda Hyte from high school. Linda wore a biker’s jacket as dress–she’d hacked off the sleeves, belted it, and wore it over black fishnet stockings with biker boots. She was popular, but she refused to hang out with the popular crowd. She had her own circle. Linda and Clarissa had been friends for a few months in junior high. And then, they hadn’t. Sometimes, even now, thirty-seven years later, Clarissa would sometimes hold in her hand the sphere of the memory of their friendship and look at it from all sides. She could never understand the barrier that had come between them. It seemed that, for a brief time, the two had enjoyed a shared happiness. And then came the biker’s jacket with the hacked-off sleeves, the black mascara, and bitter cynicism. But it’s so easy to be happy, Clarissa thought then–and now. This divide doesn’t need to exist.

Nancy had that same bitter edge.

Clarissa looked out over the canyon. The sunlight had shifted and now the shadow was diffuse.

There was something else in Nancy that drew her in, something more than the desire that a happy person feels to befriend those in pain. She felt in Nancy some embers of creative energy seeking an outlet, and there were times when Clarissa felt that this spark might light something within her. She could see why Geoffrey had been drawn to Nancy. What is it about a secret power that is so irresistible?

It was one of those impossible friendships, Clarissa realized, a longing that could never be fulfilled.

She sat on the boulder, cradling the tea cup, as rays from the setting sun peeked beneath the eucalyptus leaves. She had learned that one way to greet pain was to create space within, and so she inhaled the scent of Indian green tea, she let the sun’s light shine in her eyes, and she opened her heart in silence. The edge softened and eased.

She sat quietly while the shadows shifted.

As she stood to head back into the house, the phone rang.

“Hey. It’s Malcolm,” a voice mumbled. “My mom said you wanted me to spend the weekend.”

The Wedding of Nancy’s Ex

The first time Nancy’s first husband said no to her was at his second wedding.

“What are you going to wear?” Bella had asked her, a few weeks before the event.

“I thought I’d wear something red,” replied Nancy. “You know. One of those Bella numbers.”

They both laughed.

“Give the folks what they want: the complete picture of the adulterous first wife,” continued Nancy.

“Now, Nan,” said Bella, “you and I know there was nothing adulterous about your relationship with Peter. You both waited until your divorces were final before you started seeing each other.”

“You know that, and I know that,” said Nancy, “and Peter knows that. But the rest of them…”

Her voice trailed off.

It wasn’t a reputation she minded, necessarily.

Nonetheless, she was dressed in something modest and tasteful when she and Peter showed up at Geoffrey and Clarissa’s wedding. They arrived at just the right time–not too early, so as not to attract attention, nor too late, so as not to be seen to be making a statement of protest or resentment.

Generosity and graciousness, that was the foundation of Peter’s reputation as physician and pillar of the community, and one he calculated would spread to them as a couple.

“You doing ok, honey?” Peter asked as the ceremony was concluding.

“Perfectly fine,” replied Nancy. “Why?”

“You’ve just got a tension furrow,” Peter said, “One of your migraines coming on?”

“I’m fine.”

Geoffrey’s bride looked amazingly fresh for a woman just past fifty. She and Geoffrey had met at yoga, of all things. Yoga! There was something about her, aside from the fact that she was marrying Nancy’s first husband, that Nancy simply didn’t trust. How does a woman get to be middle-aged without picking up an ounce of cynicism? What was she hiding beneath that wholesome New Age grin? What sins did her “body-by-yoga” cover?

But she could make Geoffrey happy. Nancy had never seen him smile so wholeheartedly, not even on their wedding day, when, if Nancy remembered correctly, it was Geoffrey who had suffered from migraine.

As they were seated for the reception tea, Peter got a call from the hospital. “Gotta go,” he said. “Life of a surgeon!”

And Nancy faced an empty seat beside her.

Before she could make eye contact with Bella, two tables over, Geoffrey sauntered over and slid into the empty seat.

“Thanks for coming,” he said. “Malcolm stayed home?”

“He’s off with Cassandra,” Nancy answered.

“You don’t look well.”

“I have one of my heads,” said Nancy. “I don’t think I can drive. And I certainly can’t stay here, feeling like this. Can you take me home?”

She could see worry enter into Geoffrey’s forehead, and she saw his lips begin to stretch to form the word “Yes,” when, the next instant, his eyes sparkled and the corners crinkled upwards with his genuine smile. She followed his gaze. There stood Clarissa, smiling warmly at both of them. She actually waved.

“No,” said Geoffrey, as he rose, “but I’ll be happy to call you a cab.”

“Don’t bother,” replied Nancy. “I have a cell phone myself.”

By this time, Bella had come to sit beside her friend.

“Let’s pull over,” said Nancy on the drive home, as they rolled past Rattlesnake Bar.

The two women, dressed with an elegance not often seen in the old joint, found a table near the window.

“Did you notice anything funny when we walked in?” asked Nancy.

Bella looked around. “Don’s not here,” she said. And they both laughed.

Nancy gestured toward the row of men sitting at the bar.

“When we walked in,” said Nancy, “not a single one turned to look.”

As she held the cold glass, she noticed for the first time age spots sprawling across the raised veins and stretched tendons along the back of her hands. I’m going to have to find a new currency, she thought.

When she got home, the house felt empty. Malcolm was still out, Peter still at the hospital. She wandered through the home, spotless after the maid’s earlier visit. On the upstairs porch stood an easel that had belonged to Peter’s niece. They still had a box of acrylics that they’d bought for her when she’d visited during spring break.

Why not? thought Nancy.

When Peter came home after midnight, she was still up there painting. He followed the porch light and stood in the doorway, smiling at the lock of her hair that had fallen out of the bun, enjoying the wild streaks of indigo and purple that covered the canvas.

“Where did this come from?” he asked with a chuckle.

“Call it a post-wedding revelation,” she said, as she drew a bold red line across the blue field.

It wasn’t settled within her, not by a long shot, but this time, when she saw the backs of her hands, rather than feel a shudder of doom, she felt, perhaps, a glimmer of something. There’s more than one source of worth, after all.