Sundays were special to Forbes, and they had nothing to do with religion or any proverbial day of rest. When he was young he associated the day with forgivable laziness which included lolling about in bed until late morning, afternoon sports on the tube and the Sunday comics. When he entered high school, he introduced a small business venture to the day, circling the neighborhood delivering newspapers, magazines, even prescriptions for those on the far end of Anthracite Avenue and other Kingston, Pennsylvania environs. He spent his profits on gas for his Jeep Cherokee and some high-calorie pastries from Costello's, an Italian bakery two doors down from the drugstore where he picked up the wire bound newspaper bundles.
There were interruptions to his favorite day during college and his four years in the navy. Yet he managed to patch together an observance of sorts. In his dorm at Penn, the Philadelphia and New York papers rested comfortably on his lap during the afternoon as he followed the Eagles football fortunes on a muted TV. If he decided to partake of a solitary brunch somewhere in South Philadelphia, the newspaper sections would be stacked high upon an extra chair as he ate and read his way through the "Week in Review", "Arts and Leisure" and "The Book Review". After the navy and at the beginning of his Museum Studies graduate program at Boston University, he added a musical component to the morning. He tuned in the classical stations WGBH or WCRB, a Bach cantata always contributing a pleasant ambiance to the morning.
In 1991, halfway through graduate school, he instituted a exercise regimen. An hour or more of jogging down Massachusetts Avenue from his North Cambridge apartment then along the BU side of the Charles began the day just before sunrise. After this heavy duty workout, he grabbed a quick shower and then drifted back to bed for a brief nap before tackling the Boston Globe and New York Times, concomitant with his indulgence in some sinful pastries purchased the previous morning from Mike's Bakery in Boston's North End.
When he began his internship with the auction house, Shearer and Latham, and, later, as their investment specialist in stamps, coins and antiquarian books, a series of significant others entered his life. The litmus test for each prospective mate was Sunday morning. Were they willing to rise, shine and plod along the banks of the Charles in huffed and puffed conversation? To have a woman in Spandex slightly in front of him was, for Forbes, the best of companionship to say nothing of foreplay. And, upon returning home, would they agree to a communal shower and then further exhaust themselves in lovemaking before a power nap? And could they then fill out the rest of the languid morning by reading the papers and attempting the Times crossword before heading out to the Casablanca for brunch followed by an afternoon film at the Brattle?
There had been many candidates for the post of sharing this Sunday rite, but very few passed the test on every level. His spirits had been buoyed by those who initially seemed to share his enthusiasm, but, usually, their élan flagged after a month or so, and they were soon cast adrift. Forbes could tolerate minor aberrations to his day, but nothing as crass as sleeping to eleven and then plopping in front of a TV set or curling up on the couch sloth-like in pajamas or sweats for the bulk of the day.
After a tempestuous breakup right before Thanksgiving of 2001, Forbes, at thirty-seven and after nearly ten frustrating years of auditioning soul mates, decided to go it alone. Enough was enough. He had always enjoyed solitude anyway. His career, exercise, and his plan for reading all of Anthony Trollope and Balzac was more than fulfilling. He was rarely bored, never lonely. Finding a partner to share his precious routine was no longer his primary goal. If one came along, fine, but he knew that he could enjoy the moments of the special day better if he had only one drummer to march to.
Still, he lamented that he had not compromised more with Sheila Burks. True, she had weak points, but, overall, she was the closest he knew he would ever get to share his Sunday observance. When she balked at some of the procedures, he even went so far as to make concessions, like a car dealer offering pin striping or free oil changes to close the deal. The bribe was a new bathroom.
In 1993 Forbes had purchased an old three-decker in a run down Cambridge neighborhood just off Huron Avenue and rented the top floor to a retiree who died nine months later. After that he had kept the building tenant free, and, over the next few years, refurbished all three floors for his own private use. To his mild surprise, the area had seen an influx of young professionals and property values went sky high. To celebrate the millennium of 2000 and his thirty-sixth birthday, he used an equity loan to convert what had been a large bedroom on the second floor, something twenty-five by twenty, into a huge bathroom. The highlight of the project was the vast walk-in shower with multiple, full body shower heads, and a built in bench which allowed one to sit and have the spray cascade over an aching body. There was also a heated, magnificently hand decorated tile floor. At the time, it was an inducement for Shelia to maintain her level of Sunday commitment. Her weak area had been in the early morning jogging component, and it was Forbes' brilliant carrot at the end of the stick to build her a bath worthy of princess, not unlike some Far Eastern potentate.
It had worked after a fashion. Shelia helped pick out the tile, even threw herself into the more feminine aspects of the project such as selecting towels, fixtures and lighting. When it was done, they "christened" the shower on a Sunday morning after a strong 10K run. It had been one of the more memorable Sundays of his life, and he had, kneeling down on the forty-five dollar a square foot, opalescent green, Italian marble floor, asked her to be his wife.
She agreed and Forbes was gratified but, as the weeks wore on, Shelia's passion for the "Sunday morning exercise gospel according to Forbes" diminished dramatically. Within three months she had moved out and, though he still kept in occasional touch via e-mail, they had not seen one another for over a year.
After that rather crushing defeat, there was a void for some months in Forbes' life. Yet his now solitary, Sunday ritual had a way of softening the blow, and for the past few months, he had focused on enjoying it his way rather than finding a special someone to share it.
Comfortably settled in Boston, Forbes became somewhat distant from his own mother and father. He was independent . His moving from Pennsylvania to Beantown for graduate school had been more than sufficient proof of that. He discovered that family duties could be handled from any distance by phone calls but visits, either being a host or encumbering his schedule to travel, were considerations he avoided as much as he could. He filled the free time he had between work and rest by being with the one person, himself, who always had an idea or project that proved intellectually challenging or entertaining.
This was why the phone call which interrupted a rather engrossing chapter of Trollope's Phineas Finn one Tuesday evening in early March of 2003 was so perplexing. It was a first cousin, Wilhelmina Fleming (nee Forbes), the daughter of his father's eldest brother, Ronnie. He vaguely remembered her and the cloudiness of his recollection infected his voice causing Willie (as she proclaimed everyone called her) to list some reasons why he should. She had baby sat him while his parents went to see Cabaret at the Bucks County Playhouse. He must have been five or six because she remembered that it had been her senior year in high school, and he had taken peculiar adult interest in the college application process which she was working on. Ten years later he, by then a sophomore in high school, had attended her wedding in Pittsburgh and was one of several ushers.
The wedding brought her into sharper focus. He recalled the family's opinion of the match. She was twenty-eight. The groom, Peter Fleming, was ten years older and very successful in insurance. They paid for their own wedding, sparing her family the burden was the whispered encomium. They had honeymooned in Bermuda, and he suddenly remembered that she had sent him some picturesque stamps. They had intrigued him enough to begin a serious collection from the island. When he mentioned this thoughtfulness, it was her turn to be vague but she accepted full responsibility for her generosity and then responded with typical feminine adroitness by switching the topic to inquire what he was doing with himself these days.
He explained that he worked for a Boston auction and investment house and specialized in stamps, coins, literary memorabilia, American art and some period furniture, although he was just scratching the surface of that area of expertise. Her laconic reply to this was a muted "how interesting," and she immediately began to catch him up on her life. Her husband, Peter, the creep, had left her and their one year old daughter in 1983, some twenty years ago. She had survived by getting a real estate license (a good lot that Swarthmore degree did her), but when her daughter began to have problems (Peter's departure and post divorce actions the implied cause), she became a full time stay-at-home mom. The long and the short of her call, then, was that Racine, soon to be twenty-one, was looking at undergraduate colleges in the Boston area (Tufts, Boston University, Northeastern, Emerson and Boston College). She had called his parents as she remembered that he lived up in the New England area, and his mother proclaimed he would not mind it one bit if she called. Willie realized it might be an imposition, but money was a bit tight just now and, if he could put them up for a short stay (a weekend—no more) or recommend a cheap hotel, it would be greatly appreciated.
Forbes' mind raced wildly to think of something that could politely exclude him from her grand plan, but, caught totally off guard, the best he could come up with was that the next two weeks were spoken for. This was a mere bagatelle to her mission as they were not thinking of visiting until early April at the soonest. There was more polite chit-chat on her end, and, before he knew it, the first weekend in April was decided upon with a Logan airport pickup for Saturday the 5th (she'd e-mail the details later) and a midday departure sometime on Monday the 7th.
When Forbes hung up, he found his heart racing. He was poor at dealing with people he knew let alone these two who could easily qualify as strangers. As he sat in his kitchen, he slowly eased into the compromise position that it was a month away, and they would be here for a mere seventy-two hours at best. Surely he could deal with that.
Forbes dreaded calling home. For years the "contact" day had been Sunday evening. That always cast a pall on the end of his otherwise sacrosanct day. There would be the usual recounting of how the week had gone, a verbal tennis game with each side careful not to dominate the conversation. When his parents retired some seven years ago just after his father's heart attack, he took to calling on Saturday every other week, knowing that they never went anywhere and would be home whenever he called. His parents never called him, perhaps fearing that they would be imposing on him or his job, which required some travel.
His father never answered the phone so he only ever spoke to his mother. She would always end the call with, "Your father says hello" as if he were in some distant country and not sitting ten feet from her. His call to Kingston on Tuesday evening was greeted with extreme paternal anxiety. "What was wrong? A car accident? Job layoff?" Once he assuaged her greatest fears, he settled into recounting Wilhelmina's just completed call and began angling for more information.
Within the past five years his mother had had memory lapses causing him to suspect Alzheimer's. When he spoke to his father about it during his yearly visit, he always responded with, "Everybody forgets when they get old; you'll see, your time's coming." Yet, despite a diminution of some cognitive functions, his mother never forgot relatives and their attendant history. There was a tremor of excitement in her voice as she wove the tale. Wilhelmina had married out of desperation. No, she was not pregnant, but at twenty-eight she took the first street car to slow down for her. It was not a match made in heaven from the start (his mother's source here was Willie's mother, Rose Forbes, Ronnie's wife).
The husband, Peter Fleming, was a bit of a snob. The proof here had been a get acquainted dinner his parents had attended wherein Peter (never Pete) eschewed the house Paul Masson chardonnay as well below his standards and suffered the meal with tap water instead. He was ten years older than Willie, a high and mighty in the actuarial insurance world so he pretty much ruled the roost. Peter liked horse racing and made Willie go along with it when he bought half interest in some nag that always finished next to last at a track near Chicago. That's where they moved when he got some big promotion. Willie didn't want to go that far from her family, but she wanted to be the good wife. ("Sportsman's Park, that was the name of the race track," she interjected when it came to her). Anyway, after five years, they finally separated, though the divorce didn't become final until much later. Willie never worked. Peter was the head of the whole Aetna insurance company if you asked him. He did quite well until the stock market went south, and Willie began to have support payment issues from him which were compounded because she couldn't adjust to giving up some of the things she had grown used to. (His mother mentioned no examples as to what "things" were her luxuries so the mind ran riot.)
There was one child, Racine. The name was not from the French playwright as one might expect but from a town in Wisconsin where, family folklore had it, she was conceived on their first vacation en route to Yellowstone. The girl had all sorts of problems growing up. She was bright enough but had trouble finishing high school and had to be pushing twenty one. That would make Willie about fifty. The last she knew they were living in the Chicago area (was it Bollingbrook? something Shakespearian anyway) in some condo and were both in therapy.
His mother prattled on, obviously enjoying the gossip spotlight. Her considered opinion of Willie was that she was a very mixed up lady who transferred that to her daughter. Though she never liked Peter, her sympathies were sometimes with him in trying to put up with the Epstein Barr and god knows what other current basket case syndrome Willie was hanging her hat on. The final word of advice was not to lend her any money. "You might as well toss it out the window. By the way, your Father says hello."
The call left Forbes even more anxious despite the fact that, usually, the more information he collected about any subject, the more confident he became about it. He had devoted his life to insulating himself from relatives and now there was a full-scale invasion not unlike the Mongol hordes who swept across Central Asia. In what he consciously knew was an extreme over-reaction, he walked through his living space floor by floor from the viewpoint of what might be valuable enough to be spirited away by this Visigoth onslaught. He envisioned some of his original paintings cut out of their frames and stuffed into carryon luggage. His stamp albums, he thought, might better spend the fateful April weekend in basement storage but reconsidered, given the lugging it would involve and how difficult it would be to explain the huge void of his built-in shelves.
The sleeping arrangements would not be difficult. The living room couch folded out and was quite comfortable, and there was a full bath for one of them just off the kitchen. His office upstairs contained a futon with a half bath for any late night bladder relief and the master bath, the Taj Mahal, as Sheila had dubbed it, could be scheduled for morning showers, though, for some unknown reason, he was loath to share it with anyone. As for the airport pickup—that was the worst of it. He had once joked to Shelia that he deliberately choose not to cultivate friendships for fear that people would put the touch on him for a Logan pick or drop off, and this was even before September of 2001!
On Wednesday April 2nd and Thursday the 3rd he was sick. Whether it was from the impending weekend visit or some early spring flu, he did not know. Though he felt better on Friday, he called in sick, later regretting it because he had little to occupy his mind other than thoughts of dealing with two veritable strangers who were reputed nut jobs. On the dreaded Saturday, the Ted Williams Tunnel traffic to Logan was light, but he still had the notion that most drivers, due to the Big Dig, had no clue where they were going, forcing him into a defensive driving mode of the highest degree. When he got to the Arrivals' terminal and entered the crowded waiting area, he decided to cloister himself off to the side, close to but not actually behind a pillar, allowing him time to spot them and, the diabolical plan to flee crossed his mind, if they came close to matching what his imagination had conjured up.
As the passengers from Chicago disembarked, he tried to pick Willie out of the crowd. His only point of reference was his recollection of her wedding—overly made up, hair coiffured and then ridiculously topped with a rhinestone tiara. That was over twenty years ago, and he began to regret his mother's offer of mailing him a more recent photo. It was then that he spotted what had to be them. Wilhelmina's grey hair was pulled back into a pony tail. Her torso listed to one side because of a heavy duffle bag. She used one hand to drag an oversized suitcase on wheels which overwhelmed like her namesake character in Death of a Salesman. She used her other hand to grip Racine's coat sleeve, pulling her along like a recalcitrant child.
The daughter was overmatched by her L.L. Bean backpack to the degree that, if Willie ever let go, she would suddenly topple backwards. Despite the April time frame, they both were dressed for the Arctic tundra in heavy down jackets and in what were obviously coordinated mother and daughter hand knitted scarves and mittens. He could see little of Racine as she wore her knitted cap pulled low about her forehead and sported dark glasses. An image of a waif-like Winona Ryder came to mind.
They looked perplexed as if they were immigrants entering a foreign country and on the watch for pickpockets and other airport scam artists. Willie's eyes darted, looking for directions, signs, anything that would relieve their present, bewildering plight. He watched them, unmoved, almost enjoying their situation, knowing all that must be passing through their minds. Did he forget? Were they at the right gate? Did something happen to him?
He sensed their panic reaching a fever pitch so he sauntered over. He had played and replayed the greeting in his mind several times—the hug? a kiss? a handshake? When he made eye contact with Willie, however, he saw that all his rehearsals would be for naught. Her eyes went from confusion to immediate recognition then relief that he was finally there. She headed straight for him then stopped abruptly. Then she started up again, arms akimbo, closing the last few feet with the speed of a free safety as she tackled him in a breath-stunning hug which she clung to for what seemed an eternity. He withstood the intensity of her embrace, made eye contact with Racine now without the sun glasses and affected a silly smile which was conspiratorially returned as if to say, "Yes, this it what my mother's like."
Upon his release there was the ubiquitous "stand back and let me look at you's" followed by the standard "you look exactly like your parents' photo from you when you were in college." This was mercifully ended by Racine who stepped forward and with a limp handshake introduced herself. Like her mother she wore no makeup. She still had not removed the knitted ski cap which, up close, called even more attention to her small, almost perfectly oval face, the lower half greeting him with a bright smile but the eyes reflected an intense sadness. She had taken off a heavily lined ski parka to reveal a peasant style dress which decidedly overwhelmed her tiny frame. He would have guessed her to be no more than fifteen rather than over twenty.
During the drive back to his Cambridge home, he had planned to narrate the sights and perhaps give Racine ("call her Racy; everyone does") a quick lay of the land regarding Boston University, Northeastern and Boston College. This was soon aborted as his mother's description of Willie, "She's a talker, that one," came to fruition. Willie sat in the front next to him with Racy in the exact middle of the backseat hovering between them as though, if she did not, they would begin to talk about her. Wilhelmina began a blow by blow account of the trauma on the two and one half hour flight from Chicago's O'Hare. Once that was done, she launched into the time they had getting themselves to the airport and the tobacco-reeking limo driver who held them captive.
Forbes, slightly overwhelmed at each salvo, glanced into the rear view mirror. Racy was alternately looking out each window at the passing sights as if she were at a tennis match and had no concept of the game. As Willie prattled on, Forbes politely nodded to her every point but noted even more details about her. Certainly she was not as tall as he had thought, barely over five feet. Forbes had remembered her as slightly on the chubby side when she was younger, yet age had not added much more, if any, weight. She had learned the subtle art of dressing to disguise her body's flaws. She must have, some time ago, decided to "go natural". She did not color her hair nor style it; instead, she let it grow and drew it back. It was kempt, healthy and the look suited her. It was obvious that she knitted and sewed, and he was certain that, had he been a woman, she would have related the technical details behind each garment she wore.
When they reached his home, her chatter, perhaps it was a nervous reaction, intensified to an even greater degree. He showed them through the various levels, and then they settled in the kitchen for tea. When there was a rare lull in their conversation (largely due to his inability to think of anything), she would fix her eyes upon something in the room, be it the toaster oven or microwave, and comment, interrogate or relate her experience with something just like it. She was a woman who took over. She vowed that he would not prepare any food this weekend; she would do it all. Within minutes of their arrival she had researched the refrigerator and pulled together the makings of a tasty lunch. She said it was a skill she developed from an idea she had seen on the Food Network channel some years ago.
As she clattered around the kitchen, Forbes was left sitting across from
Racine. Her curly, dark brown hair had been matted down by her wool cap, but no attempt had been made to fix it. The sunglasses were off for good and replaced by regular wire frames a bit too large for her petite face. She rarely made eye contact, sitting rather rigidly, hands locked in her lap. Her mode of dress suggested that she either followed her mother's talent for making her own clothes, or Willie used her as an ongoing experimental mannequin for her many projects. Forbes brought up colleges and his questions to Racy were met by nods or an occasional smile, until Willie commented, "She really wants BU, but we're not ruling out Tufts are we, Racy?"
During lunch Forbes began to outline a brief itinerary for the rest of the afternoon. He suggested a drive over to the schools Racine wanted to see and maybe a campus walking tour. Willie begged out of the equation saying she wanted to make them a nice evening meal and, if Forbes would point her in the direction of the nearest supermarket, she would consider it a favor to return his hospitality in this way. Racine uttered her longest sustained oration since their arrival by announcing that she was not feeling that well and would like to rest for a bit. Forbes tried to take this in stride but wondered out loud when they could explore the area if they did not do it this afternoon. "Racy's her own boss these days, I'm afraid. I've learned to go with her flow." The look on Racine's face as Willie, arms folded across her breasts, finished this mild castigation was one of bemusement.
After lunch Forbes drove Willie to the Star Market and pushed the carriage as she filled it with her menu items. She would occasionally ask him if he cared for this or that ingredient, but his reply rarely invaded the grand scheme of her dinner plans. On the way home Forbes, strangely, began to warm up to her. She was comfortable to be with if only because she carried most of the conversational burden. She was very open. Sharing the more intimate and private moments of her life was her way of extending the hand of friendship. Racine was certainly a trial. "We could get back there and find that she wants to go out. Sometimes I think that, if I want her to do something, I'd just suggest the opposite. "
When they did arrive home, Racy was on the couch, clicker in hand, flitting between the "E" Network and a channel devoted to Westerns. She barely acknowledged their existence as the car was unloaded and groceries stored.
Forbes spent the rest of the afternoon in the kitchen watching and listening to
Willie as she prepped their dinner.
Racine perked up a bit during supper. At Willie's urging to discuss her academic interests, she stated that she was thinking about literature and some history but also art. This seemed to surprise Willie who opined that Racy had just last month been interested of majoring in psychology. Racine countered this by ignoring it and said, "I'm thinking American Studies also or something like that which is why I like TV so much. I just don't watch the programs to kill time as some people might think (there was a quick glance at Willie here); I study them. TV Guide magazine may be the best tool people two hundred years from now will have to find out what we're all about."
For the next forty-five minutes they (mostly his two guests) discussed TV, pop culture, music and Forbes found enjoyment in this. It was as if he was the buffer, and Racy and Willie were conversing because he was moderating like a good talk show host might. He knew that if he excused himself at any time all conversation would cease.
Finally, at nine, Willie arose stiffly, joked about her aching bones (she'd never see forty-nine again) and began clearing the table. As she attended to kitchen matters, Forbes took Racine up to his study, pointed out how the eccentric futon worked and, throwing caution to the wind, showed her his sacrosanct stamp collection, especially the topicals as they pertained to the American Revolution, Boston and New England in general. Her interest appeared genuine and, when Willie finished the kitchen cleanup and joined them upstairs, Racy, excitedly, showed her the same books and albums, parroting the exact information and background Forbes had just given her.
When ten o'clock rolled around Forbes began the organizational task of giving sleeping directions and setting up the Sunday morning schedule. Willie had the sofa bed downstairs and the bath off the kitchen was solely hers. Racy would be on the futon here in his study, and there was a half bath connected to it. His bedroom was way down the hall. He would be going out for a run around five which would mean that Willie would have to put up with his clomping around as he let himself out the front door. He would be back no later than eight and shower in the big bathroom.
The mention of his bath engendered curiosity and a march down the hall to see it. Willie feigned being blown away by the size and the beauty of the imported tile that covered the shower floor as well as the six foot long, dark green, granite-topped vanity. The shower walls were thick, translucent glass blocks that let in light but, he assured them, offered complete privacy if anyone wanted to use the rest of the room. Racy, standing inside the shower, thought the many nozzles with various settings and angles together with a little seating bench totally cool. Forbes rose to the level of a proud home owner by switching on the stereo and treating them to the sounds of The Magic Flute as it came out of the strategically placed speakers and reverberated around the space. After fifteen minutes of the light banter and some good natured criticism (Willie felt it was a shame there was no bidet), good-nights were exchanged, and Forbes went to his room to settle in with Balzac's Cousin Pons before dozing off.
He did not sleep well. He never did with company around; not that he ever had much. For some strange reason, he locked his bedroom door and pushed a small padded chair in front of it. He thought he heard water running and remembered that the toilet handle downstairs sometimes needed jiggling or it would run all night. He debated whether it was worth disturbing Willie's privacy to slip down and check it. Or maybe he should just let it run if it was stuck? He tried to calm himself knowing they would be gone in thirty-six hours and that would be the end of it. His life would get back to normal. But, so far, it had not been that bad. Willie was almost the perfect guest in keeping him at ease with her idle chatter. With Racine there was an ebb and flow with no discernible cause to these fluctuations of alternating expansiveness and introversion. He could put up with her as long as Willie was around to temper matters, but there had been too many pregnant pauses when he and Racine had been alone for too long. His conversation with her, at times, had been all too formal like that of a prospective employer interviewing a job candidate.
He was awake at four. He did not know when he had dozed off save to say that his bookmark suggested that he advanced another chapter in the novel, yet he had little memory of the plot. He debated whether he should go for a jog in the semi-darkness, but, the more he thought about it, it was best to keep to the schedule he had told them. He decided to catnap a bit more and was comforted by not hearing any water running from the downstairs toilet.
When he next awoke it was half past six. He cursed at his laxity and groggily stumbled into his running gear already laid out in the master bath. Dressed for his run, he came out of the bath and quietly slipped down the hall to the stairs. As he passed his study, he heard the door click open, and he froze thinking that it might be Racine indiscreetly clad. As she opened the door fully, he saw that she was in running shorts, tights, a sweatshirt and Nikes. "I wanted to go with you. I was afraid I'd miss you so I slept in everything but my sneakers; what kept you anyway? I thought you said it would be about five?"
He had no answers for her. He was so caught off guard he never thought to debate the issue, merely motioned her with a finger to his lips and mimed a sshhh when they tiptoed down the stairs past Willie, who was virtually non-existent save for a mound of blankets in the center of the couch. When they reached the front door, Forbes doubled back to the kitchen and scrawled a quick note to Willie telling her when they had left and an approximate return time of ten.
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