A Lady’s Things

Peter moved beyond the next row of cars.  Darkness swallowed him.  Elizabeth and Ellen watched him disappear then saw him reemerge briefly when he passed through the lighted doorway.

“You OK?”  Ellen asked.

Elizabeth nodded and took a ragged breath.

Once inside, Peter cut through the crowd towards the bar.  He wasn’t sure he trusted himself.  Inside he was tinder, ready to spark.  Still, he needed to talk with Jess one last time.  There was more he needed to say to him.

Jess was about where he expected he’d be, leaning on the bar, the neck of a brown bottle rolling in his fingers.  Peter hesitated, watched him tip the beer, take a long drink then sit it back down, resume studying it.

Fighting the urge to pounce on his unsuspecting back, Peter wavered in his resolve, almost turned to go, then saw Jess reach into his pocket, take out a handkerchief, one with blue lace.  He placed it on the bar, touched it. 

Without hesitation, Peter stepped through the crowd, grabbed Jess, spun him around.  Jerking the handkerchief from the bar, he said, “Where did you get this?”

Jess did not answer.  Noting Peter’s anger, he pulled free, turned away, and lifted the Storz.  “What do you want now?  I thought you had everything you want; or . . .” he glanced back, “ . . . you come to finish what you started?”

“I asked you a question, Jess.  Where’d you get this?”

“Where do you suppose?” Jess growled.  “I took it.”

“When?”

“What’s the difference?”

“Because I want to know.  You owe me that much, Jess.”

Their eyes held.  Jess shrugged.  “The night of the carnival.  When no one was home.  OK?  I watched from the crack in the door, like we used to, and when everyone left, I went into the house.  It’s no big deal.  I just wanted to see it again.  It didn’t mean anything.  I saw it and I took it.  Satisfied?”

“Maybe.  Maybe I can understand that, but I can’t understand what you’ve been up to with Beth.  How could you treat her like . . . She’s not some tramp! 

“How could you do that to me?  Doesn’t my friendship mean anything to you?  Why, Jess?” 

As he spoke, Peter’s anger became a desperate attempt at reason, to salvage some shred of loyalty that might remain between them.  His eyes pleaded for an answer.

Jess, on the other hand, allowed his jealousy to surface.  If Peter wanted an explanation, well, he may as well give him one.

“You wouldn’t understand.  How could you?  Even after the other night when you thought you’d lost her.  You’ve never lost anything, Peter.  Hell, you have everything I’ve ever wanted and more!  You have her. 

“Do you think I didn’t know how rotten things were at home when I was a kid?  Why do you suppose I spent so much time at your place?  I used to lie awake nights listening to my folks and wish I was you, that I had your Dad and you had my old man!”   

Jess’ jealousy turned to rage.  “Do you think you are the only one who can look at her and see what she is?  Do you?”  He watched Peter absorb the shock.

The outburst partially diffused Peter’s anger.   A type of pity began to replace it as he listened and watched the man he thought he’d known so well transform, become a stranger before his very eyes.  “Jess, I didn’t . . .”

“Realize?  How could you?  You’re always top dog, always the winner.  Always smarter, quicker at everything.”  Jess took a breath then spit out, “Always telling me what was right and wrong, what I should and shouldn’t do!  Just like when I left.  Still trying to turn things the way you thought they should be.  You didn’t understand how I felt then, any more than you do now!”

Peter breathed in new perspective.  “You hate me that much?”

Jess snorted, picked up his beer, and turned away.

“Then why pretend, Jess?  Why not take it out on me?  Leave her out of this!”

The brown bottle slammed onto the bar.

“Because she’s yours, and I want her!”  Molten eyes bubbled.  Vengeance hung in the air around them.  Those nearby waited for Peter’s response.  No one within earshot had missed what Jess said.

“You selfish-son-of-a-bitch!” Peter said.  Grabbing Jess’ beer, he slammed it to the floor.  Beer ran brown around their feet.  “What about what she wants, how she feels?  She’s a lady, Jess.  How do you think it makes her feel to be treated like that? 

“Did it excite you to frighten her?  Make you feel like a man?”

Peter watched the truth of his words register in Jess’ eyes, recognized the callous disregard Jess held for others, not just Peter.  Both heightened the apprehension Peter now knew.

“I look out for me!” Jess poked a finger into Peter’s chest, “And I take what I want, without regret.  That’s the only way to survive that I can see.  It’s kept me alive these past years when no one care if I lived or died, but then,” the finger tapped cadence to the words, “you couldn’t understand that, could you?”

In the background, music played, people talked.  The bar was absolutely still, the calm before the expected storm.  Brown eyes burrowed deep into Peter’s. 

Peter took a slow, steady breath.  Blue fire danced its warning.

“Stay the hell away from Elizabeth, Jess.  She’s not yours to have!”

Their eyes held.  If they were aware the men around them were poised to intervene, neither cared. 

Jess shrugged, broke the stalemate.

“I’ve been thinking it’s time to move on.  Just hadn’t yet.”  And then, right before Peter’s eyes, he transformed.  Fierceness became indifference.  “Sorry, Pete.  Guess I went a little too far.  I’ll find my own accommodations for the night.  Probably best that way.”

Mutely, Peter searched for something reasonable to say.  Nothing, absolutely nothing, came. 

Jess turned, vanished into the throng of onlookers.   Once again, Peter felt he was kneeling in a muddy field, watching his friend disappear into a gray mist.  This time, however, there were no tears, no heartache, no regret.  This time, as Jess faded from view, Peter was glad to see him go.

Elizabeth and Ellen were in the front seat of the car when he returned.  Peter climbed in, handed Ellen her handbag, and reached to start the car.  Still silent, he backed from the parking place.  As he turned from the lot towards home, he reached into his shirt pocket, withdrew the handkerchief, handed it to Elizabeth.

She stared at the handkerchief a long moment then whispered, “He was in my room?”

The question was purely rhetorical.  Peter’s eyes met hers.  Elizabeth felt violated anew.  Tears again filled her eyes. 

Peter put his arm around her and pulled her close.  “He’s leaving.  He won’t bother you anymore.” 

Elizabeth clung to his words as she clung to him.  Peter, on the other hand, even as he lay alone and awake in his bed, reliving the warmth of Beth in his embrace, the desire he curbed because of a promise made to her father and his own intent not to complicate their future, even then he recalled Jess’ look, his words, his insincerity.   Peter recalled it all and knew two things.  He no longer trusted Jess.  And because of that, his reassurances to Beth lacked truth.

The summer sun melted onto heaven’s blue canopy as butter does on toast—everywhere at once—no longer separate entities, but one.  The air was still.  Not a leaf danced.  Yet, the air possessed a freshness borne of low humidity, slackening the sun’s power and setting the world ablaze, vibrant with color.  Stillness and clarity created a perfect day.  In a time less hampered by sound, a time when one could still know absolute silence, this day was everything a rural day should be.

The Christiansen family was spending their Sunday, as they often did, under the shade of the maple trees, the ones that a week earlier had shaded Peter’s friends.  Grandma Kraus and Laura sat in the wicker chairs.  Tom lay flat on his back near his wife’s chair, resting from the hard labor of the week past, the week to come.  He’d closed his eyes and dozed, rousing occasionally with a jerk and rub of his nose then lost consciousness again instantly. 

Matt, restless as any thirteen year old, teased Max and tossed a softball into the air.   So far he’d failed to entice Peter into a game of catch.

Peter alone was preoccupied.  It had been late when he’d gotten in the night before.  His explanation of how Jess had come to have her handkerchief had been little comfort to Elizabeth.  It had helped to tell her Jess had said he was leaving, but not much.  Fear of him had cut deep within her. 

And Peter was not completely convinced that Jess was out of their lives.  Something in Jess’ casual manner, his dismissal of Peter at the bar created apprehension.

But there was more.  Peter had reasoned that Jess would simply show up that morning, collect his pay and his things and be gone.  That had not happened.  Jess’ duffle bag was still in Peter’s room.  Peter had even taken the liberty of looking through its contents.  Nothing but a change of clothes, an old jacket, and a few personal effects were inside.  Jess wouldn’t leave what little he had.  He wouldn’t leave his pay.

That awareness and a lack of sleep from reliving the dramatic shift his life had taken the past few weeks kept Peter from fully appreciating the calm Sunday afternoon.  He leaned against the maple tree that afforded him the best view of the road below and waited.  Chewing on a stem of brome grass, he reran the prior night’s confrontation, searching for the one line that plagued him, but, at this point in time, escaped his tired mind.

After an extended quiet period, his mother began where she’d left off on the way home from church. 

“I know we told you we wouldn’t bother you about it, Peter, and I won’t.  I trust you enough to know you wouldn’t cause any trouble . . .”

“Leave the boy alone, Mother.”  Tom Christiansen rubbed his nose once more then opened his eyes full on his wife’s exasperated face.

“But, Tom, I didn’t finish.”  There was sharpness in her normally calm voice.  “I only wanted to say that it might help to talk about it.  Look at him!”

Peter glanced at his mother.  A knife’s edge of despair flickered in his tired eyes.  He knew well how she would react to the truth.  He was too tired to deal with her hysterical outburst.  

“He’ll tell us when he’s ready, Mother.”  Sitting up, Tom continued, “Let’s you and I go out back and check that apple tree you were wondering about the other day.”  His tone was definitive.  Considerate beyond words, her husband possessed a strong will.  When his voice found a particular tone, she knew argument was pointless. 

“Matt, you run to the washhouse for a basket.  If there are apples down, you can help pick them up.”  Tom stood and stretched the stiffness from his spine.

Matt looked up, ready to protest.  Before he could speak, Tom added, “Get goin’, Matt.  No argument now.”

Laura followed her husband into the house.  She placed the newspaper she’d been reading on the kitchen table as he reached for his cap on the hook by the back door.  Unable or unwilling to let the matter go, she asked, “Why didn’t you let me ask him?  Can’t you see how miserable he is?  You don’t suppose Frank is behind this, too?”

Tom placed his cap on his graying head.  “No, but I have a pretty good hunch what happened.”

Laura waited.

“Even as a kid Jess had an edge to him.  Now, well, he’s hard underneath.  His idea of a good time and Peter’s are probably not the same anymore, or . . .” he paused for the proper phrasing, “maybe they are.  A man would have to be blind not to notice how attractive Liz is.  Jess isn’t blind.  I saw him watching her last Sunday.  Sometimes friendship just isn’t enough, Laura.  I had a hunch then there might be trouble.”

“Oh, Tom, that’d break Peter’s heart.” 

“I know, but he’s a man now, Mother.  Trouble will find him, as it does us all.” 

With that the screen door banged behind them and the conversation turned to other things.  Apples for one.

Out front, Anna Kraus waited until the blur of voices disappeared.  Removing her glasses, she wiped her eyes then placed them back on her nose.  All the while she studied her grandson’s unhappy expression.

“He’ll show up, eventually.”

Peter’s eyes met hers.  He shook his head.  “That’s not it, Grandma.  I don’t want to see him, not really.”

“People change, Peter.  Jess has changed a lot from what I can see.”

“Yeah, I see that now.  I thought, well, hoped things could be like they used to, but I was wrong.”

“Neither of you are the same boys your father caught smoking shucks in the corncrib.  What happened last night?”

Peter listened to the irresistible question and shook his head.  His grandmother had always been his confidant, closer in some ways than his father even. “It’s not easy to talk about.”

“Why don’t you try?”

Studying the grass stem in his hand, Peter said, “I realized he was different, but I thought he was still my friend, that I could trust him.  Now . . . Grandma, for some reason I’m not sure I understand—he hates me.  It’s like he blames me for everything he’s been through.”

“Hard times bring out the best or the worst in us, or both.  We don’t ask for them any more than we ask to be born.  How we deal with them, that’s what matters.  Jess has had his share of trouble, made some poor choices.

“Some day, maybe, he’ll realize what a true friend you’ve been.”

Peter shook his head.  His eyes found hers.  “Jess,” he looked away, “he’s capable of things I wouldn’t have believed.”  His nagging concern for Beth again haunted him.

Anna Kraus wisely let it go.  Just as she had early on recognized Peter’s attraction to Elizabeth, she now knew his feelings for her were at the heart of his mood.  One question could bring some clarity.

“Are you going to see Elizabeth this evening?”

“Yeah,” he said, standing.  “After chores.  You want to go in, Grandma?”

“Not yet.  At my age,” she chuckled, “I want to enjoy every day like this that I can.” 

Peter smiled.  His grandmother’s words had their desired affect.  Yet, when he turned away, his face clouded, his unease returned.

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