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

Monday, April 4, 2011

Shades of Gray, Chapters Four and Five


            Charlie Yen’s Yangtze Taste was the only Chinese restaurant in Stockbridge, and even if it wasn’t, it still would have been the best.  Charlie was tall, bald and genial, with a limited command of English and an establishment that had long been a favorite of high school kids and families in town.  The dining room was low-ceilinged and dim, lit by gold candles in squat frosted-glass globes on the dark wooden tables.  Ted had been coming here since junior high, and tonight he sat in his usual corner, where once he and his buddies had held court before dances or after big wins, and where he and his parents would come for birthday dinners.  He idly fingered the label on the Tsingtao beer in front of him as five after seven became ten after, then fifteen.  He had successfully avoided Jill Ward for the remaining two days of the week after their conversation, and he was now faced with the prospect that he was being stood up.  He could see a couple of the familiar waiters standing by the front desk, glancing at him and whispering to each other in muted Cantonese.  Maybe, he thought, Ted Gray did suck after all.
            Ted had all but given up when Jill ducked in the front door at seven-thirty.  She briskly crossed the room and sat across from Ted, a little breathless and looking like she’d just gotten off a train.  Her hair had staged an insurrection against its usual bun and most had won its freedom, exploding into tendrils that snaked down past her shoulders or over her face.  She wore jeans and a clean white blouse under a black cropped knit vest, and smelled vaguely of vanilla.  The overall affect was very appealing.
            “Sorry,” she said, picking up one of the menus.  “A little trouble getting Abigail squared away at my mom and dad’s.”  Ted followed suit, picking up his menu as well.  It was purely courtesy, his order almost never varied.
            “Abigail?”  Then he remembered what Bill Pope had mentioned.  “Oh, your daughter.”  She looked at him evenly over the glossy red menu.
            “Still want to have dinner?” she asked archly.
            “Of course,” Ted stammered.  “Is that inconvenient for you, leaving her at your parents like that?”  She considered him for a moment, as if she were trying to figure out his angle.
            “Not really, no.  My mom watches Abby during the day lots of the time anyway, and it’s nice for my dad to get to spend some time with her too.  She’s probably asleep by now anyway.”
            “How old is she?” Ted asked. 
            “Six,” Jill reached into her purse and handed Ted a couple of photos.  They showed a smiling, tiny redheaded doppelganger of Jill.  “Going on fifteen.”  Ted laughed, and then felt daring.
            “So, you’re out here with me, no ring, kiddo at grandma and grandpa’s, so I assume Dad’s not in the picture?” Her face darkened a bit.
            “College boyfriend, long story.”  She reclaimed the pictures and returned them to her bag.  “Can we order?  I want to get back by ten.”
            They proceeded to order, Ted with his usual spicy pork and vegetables, Jill the chicken and pineapple.  Over a couple of Tsingtaos the conversation turned to common remembrances from high school days, shared acquaintances, updates on family and friends.  They had traveled in very different orbits then, and Ted was surprised to hear how difficult school had been for her.  In college at the University of New Hampshire she’d found herself a bit more, discovered a love for teaching.  Slowly, Ted drew out of her the story of how her junior year she had met Ed Kendall, a business major from Boston, and how after a few months together she’d wound up pregnant.  Ed had promised to stand by her whatever she decided, but when she opted to keep the baby that had been the end of Ed.  It had taken her a couple of extra years to finish her degree and get her masters in education, but she had toughed it out.  Ted was suitably impressed.  This was a stubborn woman on the other side of the table.
            “It must have been so hard for you,” he sympathized between swallows of pork.  As usual, Charlie had not disappointed.
            “Frankly, sometimes I’m a little tired of hearing how tough it was and how great that’s supposed to make me,” Jill allowed.  She poked at a stray cube of pineapple with her fork.  “And it’s not like I was alone.  My folks are a huge help, and even if he was a scumbag, Ed has always made child support payments.  I can’t imagine what it’s like for women who don’t have that support.”  She lowered her voice.  “And I can’t imagine losing my parents like you did.”
            Ted set down his beer and laid down his fork in his plate.  Suddenly his appetite was gone.  He tossed some bills on the table and glanced at Jill.
            “It’s only nine.  Want to get some air?”


            A few moments later Ted and Jill were walking along the narrow strip of green that hugged the edge of the Stock River, low and brown in the first days of autumn.  It was a warm night, with just enough light breeze to keep the mosquitoes disinterested.  By the time they reached the red-painted covered bridge that had given the town its name nearly four centuries before, they were laughing.
            “So the rest of you chickened out?” Jill asked.
            “Not so much chickened out as came to our senses,” Ted replied. 
            “I don’t know,” Jill winked at him playfully.  “A tattoo can be sexy.”
            “A heart or flower on a girl’s ankle, maybe.  Your high school football number on your shoulder when you’re fifty years old, not so much.”  They wandered into the bridge.  It was a beautiful old structure, supported by crossed vertical timbers.  Ted ran his hand along the wooden rail, over the layered etchings of generations of lovers, over the crude hearts and initials worn to nothing over the decades.  He had always loved this bridge.  He gazed out over the broad river, back toward the modest skyline of Stockbridge, unimposing and perfect under an indigo blanket.  He could feel Jill moving closer behind him, placing her hand lightly on his shoulder.  It was the first time they had touched, and he felt a brief electric tingle.
            “Please don’t ask me about my parents,” he was surprised to hear himself say in a husky voice that sounded near to tears.  She took back her hand and the tingle was gone.
            “I wasn’t…I mean, I won’t.  Ted, what happened to you?  At Columbia, I mean?”
He didn’t turn to face her, looking instead down at the still brown water moving slowly beneath them.  Jill waited.
            “I got…tired.”
            Ted turned to face Jill, and seeing the quiet encouragement in her eyes, continued.
            “I got tired of all the bullshit, really.  I was 23, 24.  I was on a path, and looking back on it now, it would have led me to a place I would have hated.  I would have hated me.  I woke up one morning and I didn’t want to be one of the guys I took class with, you know?  I didn’t want to be that…predatory.”
            “So you came back home?”
            “It was a place to sort things out.  All I can remember is desperately wanting things to be simple again.  At Columbia everything was ambition and politics and nothing meant anything.  What was said was less important than who was saying it.  Nothing was real.  Damn, Jill, I left here to change the world, but…”
            “Instead it changed you,” she whispered.
            “No!” Ted shouted angrily, slamming a fist down on the railing.  “Maybe, I don’t know.  You know how when you’re in an unfamiliar dark house at night, you put your hand on the wall and feel your way along?  You know that feeling when the wall ends and you’re in open space, and you’re not exactly sure which way to go?”
            “So you came back here because Stockbridge is the wall?”  Ted shook his head.
            “No, Jill.  I came back here because here I don’t need the wall at all.  You only need the wall if you’re trying to get somewhere.”  He turned back to the river.  In the silence they heard the soft splash of a turtle sliding off a log into the water nearby.
            “You’re saying you gave up?” Jill asked.  When Ted did not respond, she stepped closer to him and took one of his hands in both of hers.  He could smell the vanilla again.  “Ted, I’ve been in your classroom.  You put those pictures of the Presidents as kids on the wall to tell your students that everyone was young once, and that they can be anything they want to be.  Don’t tell me you don’t believe that.”
            “I believe it,” he murmured, so faintly Jill could barely hear him.  He turned into her, his face resting on her shoulder.  “Just not for me.  I wasn’t strong enough.  I didn’t come home to regroup.  I came home to hide.”  Ted looked up, and his eyes were wet.  He had never spoken to anyone about this before, and didn’t really know why he was telling her, now, here.  If only his father was still alive…
            “Ted,” Jill began, putting a hand on his cheek.  The electricity again.  Their eyes met for a long moment, and time seemed to stop.  They drew together and suddenly he was kissing her, or she was kissing him, it was hard to tell.  As quickly as it happened it ended, and Jill broke away, fingers raised to her lips.
            “I have to go.”
            Ted reached out a hand toward her, tentatively, and she took a step back, shaking her head.
            “No, I have to go.  It’s late.  I need to get Abby home.”  She looked at him, a bewildered expression on her face.  “I just kissed Ted Gray.”   
            “Yeah, I know, I was there.”  He leaned back against the wooden supports of the Stock Bridge, unsure of what to do next. 
            “Walk me to my car,” she said, and he nodded.  They retraced their steps along the riverbank in silence, down Water Street to Charlie’s.  A gray Volkswagen was the only car parked along the curb next to the darkened restaurant.  Jill opened the driver’s side door and paused, looking at Ted.
            “Do you need a ride?”
            “Nah,” he said.  “I’m on foot.” 
            “Oh.  Well, good luck tomorrow, Coach.”  She smiled at him, and a warm feeling spread across his chest.  Without thinking he leaned into her and kissed her again, and she did not resist.  After a minute or two they came apart, and Jill got into her car and closed the door.  Ted stepped back as she started up the VW and started to drive off.  He shook his head and began to walk in the other direction toward his apartment.
            Hearing the shout, he glanced over his shoulder.  Jill had stopped the car and was leaning out her window.
            “Just thought you’d want to know.  That didn’t suck at all.”  And with a giggle she rolled the window back up and drove away.

1 comment:

  1. I like the wall discussion. It makes Ted seem less big man on campus, more vulnerable and likeable, interesting, complex.