“Go stand over there.” He pointed down the little trail by the creek.
“Okay,” said Juliet. “But not if you’re going to paint me.”
She walked a ways through the cottonwoods. The trail bordered a creek that, two months earlier, had overflowed the banks. She’d asked if he wanted to go see it with her, not just on the 6 o’clock news but for themselves. That’s where they started. Two old people, walking down the sidewalk to the trail. She knew she looked adorably dowdy in her 40-year old faded down jacket. He wore a sweater vest with wood toggles over his wool plaid shirt over cream-colored long johns. They’d held hands through her mittens and she thought to herself: We make for a pretty good old couple. It made her smile. His name was Ron but he seemed more like a “Mario”, somehow old-ish and comfortable. Maybe they could even pass for one of those 60-year-marriage kind of couples you sometimes meet in nursing homes. He’d probably go for it, at least in the grocery store or somewhere. It could be their own little joke and why not? They had the old down, just not with each other. She could see him throwing things in the cart that she would never buy and her protesting at the checkout. Then she imagined herself giving in and agreeing to buy the five-dollar pint of Southern Butter Pecan gelato that she never would buy on her own. Today, though, it felt too hard.
“You always paint me more beautiful than I am and I don’t think I can take that today. You know how sometimes you can’t stand someone being so nice to you? It’s a fragile day. The Juliet is tired and she feels old.”
Ron smiled the way he always did when she said she felt old, when she exposed a little bit of vulnerable to him. He winked.
“Go over there. The yellow of the fallen leaves matches your hair.”
“You’re saying I match dead leaves?” She knew her hair was more grey than blond now.
“Don’t make bad assumptions. I’m saying winter suits you. I won’t paint your face. No one will know it is you and when you feel more beautiful, you can tell people, ‘that’s me’. We all feel more beautiful in spring.”
She hiked up her pants, settled her easel under her arm and carefully walked down the trail. Walking took more intention now. A broken hip and it would all be over but the crying, as her mother used to say. She imagined Ron visiting her in the hospital.
“How did you fall?” the doctor would ask.
“My friend wanted me to be in his painting but I told him I was feeling ugly.” She would shoot him a glance meant to be withering but grin in triumph when she caught his eye.
“Do you know what happened?”
“Yes, I tripped on a root.”
“Do you know what day it is?”
“Do you know where you are?”
“Not Wrigley Field.”
The doctor would note that she was oriented to time and space, and leave them. No brain damage. Then she would ask Ron to bring her ice cream, the five-dollar-a-pint stuff.
“Stop there,” Ron called to her down the path. That’s what he always said, even when she was sautéing green beans. Stop there and she knew enough to at least think. So much of her life had been going too far. She’d worked two jobs and put herself through college years ago, with a husband who left to go work the pipelines in North Dakota; that same husband long gone when she walked down the aisle to receive her diploma. No one ever told her when to stop so she kept moving, like a dragonfly, unable to walk, only able to fly. Stop there. Wasn’t that what she always wanted but hated? Someone to just say stop?
The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places, she thought, setting down her easel and pulling a few tubes of paint from her pocket to place in the tray. Surely, I have a delightful inheritance. It was her father’s favorite verse in the Bible. She wasn’t religious but liked the way the words felt when she said them to herself. Even though she felt ugly and wondered if the plan to cut carbs from her diet would actually help her lose that last five pounds, she still found joy in the words, an irony of sorts.
“You can’t even see me,” she hollered back at Ron. “I guess that’s probably better.”
“Step into the light.”
“It’s cloudy,” she argued but stepped in front of her easel.
“That’s perfect,” he said. “You have no idea.”
To trust the artist or to not. Juliet met Ron in a watercolor class at the senior center. Could you have chemistry in your eighties or was she just desperate to make her life interesting again? Life certainly was more mundane than she expected, living in subsidized housing. She found herself rearranging the furniture in her 30-by-30-foot space, just to have something to do. There were only so many home décor items she could scavenge from the discount store to make it feel homey. The white Christmas lights could pass for ambiance – might as well leave them up. It was just too much to be motivated. Juliet realized after about five months that she’d never felt so uninteresting in her life. She knew why she hated being told to stop; she feared boredom. Was Ron a reaction to her desire to move to the next thing, and then the next thing? Was a new relationship (at her age) simply a desire to try on something new and break up the monotony?
He’d helped her with the wing-nuts on her easel in the little room that doubled as the senior center card room.
“Righty-tighty, lefty-loosy,” he told her.
She held up her hand to form an L-shape, reminding her which way was left. Actually she was quite special and could fix plumbing in a pinch when she was younger but she did always turn the wrong way first. She didn’t really want him to notice. He placed his hand over hers and turned righty. Juliet told herself that she was blushing from a residual hot flash. Sweat-soldering was easier. No twists. She didn’t tell him that after her schooling, she’d decided to buy a farm which went under, leaving her with exactly nothing now except her place in subsidized housing. They should call it subsequent housing. All this but not before she learned to sweat-solder. She’d always wanted to be a plumber.
A friend had told her once: “There are only three things you need to know about plumbing…First, shit flows downhill. Second, you get paid on Fridays. Third, don’t bite your fingernails.” But she had never pursued plumbing. It would’ve been a good trade, bringing fresh water to the masses. She’d called on one apprenticeship but talked herself out of it when she heard the boss doubting that she could handle the work. Still, there was something cleansing about helping the water find a path to where it wanted to be.
Juliet looked down into the stream and shifted her weight onto her strong leg.
“Good,” she heard Ron say. He was holding up tubes of paint, pretending to match them to her. She knew he would choose brighter colors than the reality of winter.
“Now just act natural.”
Was it the winter that made her conscious of every movement, introspective about hidden meanings around her? She’d always been that way after being on the farm. The ebb and flow of seasons affected her. She knew the stream would swell in the spring and she would feel better once the grass crept out of the ground. Movement, she craved movement.
“I’m glad you approve,” she commented, instantly hating herself for being exasperated.
“Oh, I approve. Now take off all your clothes.” She turned abruptly to catch him laughing.
“I’m kidding,” he chuckled. “Just stand there and be your beautiful self.”
Ron was a farm boy from Wisconsin. He’d milked dairy cows since the time he realized it gave him an excuse to be late to school. On their first walk to the flooded creek, he told her that he had messed up more than one relationship by talking about cows. He and a friend had tried to meet girls in the grocery store just like in the country song, Boy if you were smart, you’d hit the produce aisle at the super Wal-Mart. It worked for a bit but then he’d talk about his cows. The girl’s eyes would glaze over at “mastitis”.
“Udder failure,” he told her and laughed.
“So tell me about the cows,” she’d replied. He grinned.
“I can’t. But I can tell you their stories.” That’s when he grabbed her hand through her mitten. They stared into the swollen creek, mesmerized by the bushes buckling over under the surge of dirty water.
“We had fifty head and those things lined up in the same order every morning at five to be milked. Bessy, the most unoriginal of cows, always shoved her way to the front. We didn’t have automatic milkers then so we just plopped a pail under each cow and got to work. If you push your head into that space between their leg and stomach, they lean against you and don’t kick. It’s like they know you’re going to give them some relief. Kind of like a woman.”
She’d wanted to kick him then, and would have if she’d had a clear shot. Instead she rolled her eyes and butted her head into his arm.
“So you compare woman to cows?” How could a man wearing a sweater vest be so belligerent? She wondered if he saw that irony of his toughness compared to his soft side at the moment.
“Of course,” he teased. “And that’s why it never worked at the grocery store.”
Juliet wasn’t sure what to say. She was a liberated woman who had survived years of being able to do whatever she wanted, including fail, which she had. It was just that she didn’t know what she wanted to do and found herself wanting to tell him how chauvinistic he sounded. But she didn’t, for once. One thing had turned into another. Juliet didn’t approve of everything Ron said but for once, the thing she loved in her life didn’t come from bucking all the rules and deciding to tackle the next thing. Or from rearranging the furniture and pretending that was an accomplishment. Why should you do things the way everyone thinks you should do them? And he was introducing her to new things in a way she could tolerate. Like the time they’d gone to buy whiskey for a cold she insisted was allergies.
“I usually take Benadryl,” she’s said. “Two or three.”
“Does that work?”
“Well, if it’s not working, why do you take it?”
“I’ve taken it my whole life. I’m used to it, don’t worry.” She couldn’t tell Ron that she took Benadryl because her kids told her she shouldn’t at her age, and she wanted to prove them wrong. Just stop. She wouldn’t with her kids.
He’d talked her into trying hot toddies so there they were: at the liquor store, in their eighties, buying whiskey. He told her rye was best. Green label, from Tennessee.
“How do you know that?”
He pushed her toward the cashier who rang her up.
“Thirty-four, eighty-nine.” The man behind the counter didn’t know them. She counted out the dollars.
“You’d better count those ones,” she said. She didn’t have her glasses on.
“You look like an honest face.”
“He said to the gal buying whiskey.”
The cashier laughed and she told him, “See you later”, not that whiskey was going to become a habit. Unless it worked.
The lemon juice and honey were waiting in the car. Ron held open the door as she clung to the bottle in a bag.
“You’ll feel better soon.”
And she did. The next day, she felt well enough to tell Ron about her plan. It was only a small plan but it was hers.
Everyone in her building used the same laundry room and she was tired of seeing forgotten old lady panties. They usually found their way out of the dryer and onto the floor. The residents kicked them under the table where turned into an lint-covered mass until their owner reclaimed them the next time she did laundry. But it was more than that. The ladies who sat in the lobby pretending to talk about the weather commented on laundry room etiquette and eyed anyone who didn’t join their regime. Juliet refused to be a lobby matriarch. Was her life headed in that direction? The thought made her inhale through her teeth. Once the escaped panty gathered enough lint to capture the interest of the lobby-matriarchs, a sign from management would appear asking everyone to please be sure they collected ALL of their belongings before leaving the laundry room. Subsequent housing. Who would’ve thought?
Juliet asked Ron to pick her up.
“What’s this about?” His Buick was warm.
“I have a plan for those ladies who sit and gossip in the lobby. When someone leaves a pair of underwear in the laundry room, they look at me.”
“Do you think they’re talking about you?”
“I’ve never left my underwear in there! They pretend to talk about the weather. I don’t know. It’s all they have to talk about.”
“You know that’s what people do when they don’t understand something. They fill in the blanks with speculation.”
“I’m fine with them talking . I’m going to give them a gift.” She smiled and Ron dropped the subject.
Juliet directed him to the women’s underwear section at Wal-Mart. She picked out a package of three lacy thongs – red, black and white. This time she put them in the cart he was pushing. Ron blushed. Not a hot flash and he definitely was not talking about cows. She finished her shopping with a yard of cotton ribbon.
At the check-out, the cashier picked up the package of thongs, looked at Juliet and grinned. Selling thongs to a woman in her eighties was on par with a 20-something-year old man buying condoms. Things come full circle. She held up her hand and high-fived the cashier who winked at Ron. He shook his head. They had old down, perhaps a little more with each other.
Back at her apartment, Juliet carefully wrote the last name of the unhappiest lobby-matriarch on the cotton tape. Ron watched her.
“Sure.” Her plan wasn’t that daring but whiskey couldn’t hurt. She sewed the name label into the back of the red thong and held it up. Outrageous.
“Stay here a second.” She grabbed her keys and headed out the apartment door.
The laundry room was empty and warm. When she was younger and the farm had no amenities, she’d taken to spending time in Laundromats. She liked being able to do her family’s laundry in one fell swoop: barn clothes, school clothes, sheets and a load of towels. She took the downtime for granted sitting next to the washers and often wanted it all to be done. I’ve been a lobby-matriarch, she thought. Where else did she learn to wish for something interesting to happen? Waiting for the clothes to dry and for someone to walk in the door, anyone. Even to talk about cows.
Juliet placed the red thong with the nametag on the dryer and walked out. That was it. Eight-dollars and she felt a little more beautiful for giving someone something to talk about. She might even let Ron paint her. Perhaps even wear a thong. Maybe, at this point, hers was the life that made others’ interested in theirs.
Ron was waiting at the table when she returned.
“Did you do the deed?” He grinned.
“Be free, lobby-matriarchs!” she said, and waited at the door. “I kind of want to hear what they do when they see that.” Juliet was grinning in a way she hadn’t grinned since realizing she was free of the farm – less a few thousand but free to do whatever she wanted. Subsequent housing be what it may.
“You know they’ll know it’s you.” Ron handed her the hot toddy as she sat down next to him.
“It’s always been me,” she said and leaned into his shoulder. “Thanks for not telling me to stop.”
“You’re not a cow, my dear. I wouldn’t dream of it.”