The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug. Mark Twain

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Shades of Gray: Chapters Eleven and Twelve


            Ted stepped out into the Saturday afternoon sun, cringing at the glare even behind his sunglasses.  It was a dazzling day, though darker clouds to the west hinted at less pleasant weather coming.  He hopped into his blue Honda Civic and rolled down the windows, letting the fresh air in.  He made the ten minute drive to the Oakwood Condos across town and rolled to a stop in front of number forty-five.  It was a three-story brick building, with patios on the first floor and tiny balconies on the second and third.  As far as Ted could tell there were four units per floor, two in front and two in the back.  The faculty directory had said Jill was in unit twelve.  Third floor, thought Ted with a groan.  Three flights of stairs had never bothered him before, but he’d never been quite this hung over before, either.
            Feeling a bit green when he reached the top landing, Ted rang the bell on number 12.  Maybe, he thought, she wouldn’t be home, or she’d be busy with Abby.  Those fears–hopes?–were dashed when he heard footsteps approaching the door.
            “Hello?” Jill opened the door in flip flops, jean shorts and a gray UNH t-shirt.  Seeing Ted standing there, she took a step back, not sure whether to smile or be upset.  When he produced a bouquet of lilies, she decided on the former.
            “By way of apology and thanks,” he offered. 
            “Come in,” she invited, taking the flowers.  “They’re beautiful, thank you.”  She headed to the small kitchen, where she filled a vase with water.  “But no apology needed.  I should never have bothered you when you so clearly wanted to be alone.”  Ted shrugged.  The apartment was tiny, with a small, brown-carpeted living room, the kitchen and then a short hall leading to what Ted assumed were two bedrooms and a bathroom.  It was similar to half the units in town he’d seen visiting students and their parents.  Jill was cutting the stems of the lilies and arranging them in the vase.
            “Then just thank you,” Ted amended as she placed the flowers on the counter and turned to face him.  “Thanks for putting up with my little fit.  I’m not usually so…emotional.”  She waved a hand, trying to look causal.
            “Forget it.  I’ve got a six year old, remember?  Not the first tantrum I’ve seen.  Not even the best.  Abby’s got talent.”  They laughed.
            “Where is she?”  Ted asked, glancing around the apartment.
            “Brownies, overnight.  Most of the kids freak out, but she loves them.  Mom’s picking her up so I can get some grading done today.”
            “Will you come somewhere with me?”  Ted asked. 
            “Where?”  Jill inquired, glancing at her watch.  Ten minutes past one.
            “It’s a surprise.  Please?  I don’t want to go alone.”  Then Jill remembered the clipping from that morning, and knew what he was talking about.
            “Sure.  Let me throw on some sneakers and a sweatshirt.”  As she opened the hall closet, Ted closed suddenly and put an arm around her waist and was kissing her.  She leaned into him, glad he smelled so much cleaner than the night before.
            “Don’t look now, Friday night girl,” he whispered in her ear.  “But it’s Saturday afternoon.” 


            It was a short drive to the immense, white clapboard Stockbridge Congregational Church.  The steeple was the highest point in town, and stretched up into a mixed sky of gray and blue.  The church was flanked by maples and elms that had started to change the color of their foliage, the deep greens giving way to the merest hints of yellow.  The brilliant reds and oranges were still a few weeks off.  They parked beside the curb and walked along the side of the church to the iron rail fence that guarded the graveyard beyond.  Ted was clutching a bouquet of lilies very much like the one he had given Jill in his right hand.  She was holding his left with both of hers.  It was still a warm fall day, but the rising breeze was starting to have a taste of chill, and Jill was glad for the sweatshirt she’d brought.  She glanced at Ted in his khaki shorts and Yale polo shirt, and knew that he wouldn’t notice the weather right now if it started to snow.  
            They pushed through the iron gate and into the rows of headstones behind the church.  The Grays had been in Stockbridge since before the Revolution, and their family plot was large.  Eustace Gray, mayor of Stockbridge in the 1870’s and ‘80s was there, under a massive square block guarded by fierce looking angels carved into each corner.  Nearby was Maureen Gray Zink, the first female doctor to practice at Stockbridge Hospital fifty years ago, and Gerald Gray III, the headmaster of Stockbridge Academy at the beginning of the twentieth century.  Even in the warmth of the afternoon, she could feel the shades of Grays gone by pressing around her.  Jill had never really realized how important Ted’s family was to the town, and Ted’s love-hate relationship with the place began to make some sense.  Suddenly they were there, looking down at a simple white headstone under a spreading chestnut tree in the corner of the plot.  The names of Archibald and Suzanne Gray were engraved beautifully, with the date of their death: September 14, 1995.  Jill squeezed Ted’s hand.
            “That’s today,” she murmured, just as she had with Arthur Brewster.  Ted nodded, knelt, and placed the flowers in front of the stone.
            “Seven years,” he whispered huskily, though his eyes were dry.  “God, I miss them.”  Jill turned into him and hugged him as he stared at the stone.
            “Mom, Dad.  This is Jill.”  His voice trailed off, and then the tears came.  He buried his face in her hair.  It smelled of mangoes, he thought vaguely.  After a few moments he broke the embrace, though he kept hold of her hand.
            “You would have liked them,” he said, his voice shaky.  “My mom was a great cook.  Nothing fancy, but everything was great.  And she was smart, too.  She went to Bowdoin, you know.  That’s where she met my dad.”  Ted looked at the stone, at all that was left of the legendary Archibald Gray.  “He was President of the Stockbridge Banking Company, my dad.  Could’ve made millions, done anything he wanted, but he stayed here.”
            “I remember my dad liked him,” Jill murmured, and Ted laughed.
            “Everybody liked Archie Gray, and he liked everybody.  He was the last handshake banker.  He’d look you in the eye, sign his name next to yours, and help you buy your first house, or send your kid to college, or start your business.”  Ted shook his head.  “He loved it.  And he loved us, my mom and me.  He used to come home and tell us all about how great the world was, and how if we give them a chance, people will always surprise us.”  He glanced at Jill and brushed a strand of red hair out of her face.  “And he was only forty-seven when he…when they…when it happened.”  He released her hand, and his own balled into fists.
            “I wasn’t here, Jill.  I was in New Haven, at school.”
            “Ted,” she put a hand on his shoulder.  “There’s no way you could have known.  And there’s nothing you could have done anyway.”
            “It’s not that,” he insisted, the tears starting again.  “My dad…this was his town.  These were his people.  He took care of them.”  Jill stared at him, understanding.
            “You don’t have to be your father, Ted.”  She expected him to be angry at her, but instead they were embracing again in silence.  A gust of wind tore through the cemetery, chasing fallen leaves and turning Jill’s hair into a wild, fiery halo.  Then the rain came light and cool, and summer was over.

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