[Issue 8 / February 2014]

The sign says Berkshire and Gillette, and any observer, whether astute or not, can see that it has seen better days. The light brown paint is peeling, splinters stick out from both corners looming over the street, and the shocking weather of New England has reduced the corporate symbol of the firm to something vaguely resembling a sunrise.

In fact, it is not a sunrise. The corporate logo of B&G consists of two lightning bolts meeting and crossing at the bottom, while an arc crosses both of them at the top: a stylized protractor to indicate that Mr. B— And Mr. G— are architects.

An observer of this scene will notice the man exit the building, pause for a moment as he fiddles with his camel-colored coat, and continue down the snow-covered street. An astute observer of the scene will notice that the man is past his youth but not yet middle-aged, that fumbling with his coat pockets is meant to hide his trembling chin and a hiccup of emotion as he glances toward the sign. Who might he be?

This is none other than Mr. Gillette: he who started the business with his friend, Mr. Berkshire, seven years ago. He looks healthy enough, his coat is new and fine, so why then does he have that hiccup of emotion, that trembling chin? It seems to betray some regret or sadness, stirred up by the view of the sign.

Let us follow him then, to see where he goes with his regret.

*

He passes the jewelry shop without a second glance, proceeds past the two antique shops lining this sleepy provincial town’s main street, and barely turns his head to look at the books displayed in the small bookshop on his left. More of this behavior persists for the next two blocks, until one might think he is steeling himself from paying attention to anything other than his footpath through the snow, mostly cleared from the sidewalks but piled up around the curbs.

Finally, his pace slows.

He comes to rest at an oblique angle to a large window. He looks in to see several children at play on a carpet, climbing over toys and chewing blissfully on plastic rings too big to swallow. Not something that would ordinarily bowl over a young man, we might think, but he appears lost in thought. Perhaps he is a father of one of the urchins inside?

The monitor of the toddlers comes into view around the load-bearing partition Mr. Gillette has positioned himself behind. She is fair, with ash blond hair pulled into a ponytail, a pink turtleneck covering a large expanse of chest and jeans that fit snugly over wide hips. A consummate mother-type, an astute observer would conclude.

However, at her appearance, Mr. Gillette abruptly turns back to the sidewalk and marches on. We could keep following him, but we do not. We turn to investigate this blonde woman, who is about the same age as Mr. Gillette. Her glance flicks to the window as the shadow passes by, indistinguishable from the late afternoon weak winter sun, but her attention is immediately pulled back by a little brown-haired, blue-eyed boy who hammers the toe of her boot. She picks him up and places him on her hip, and we see a look of tender tolerance for his antics as she rounds up the rest of the kids for snack time.

Is that her son? We look at her left hand, but there is no ring. Ah well, not much of an indicator these days. We look at the tiny parking lot next to the building and see no minivans or SUVs, just one small sedan, not even a car seat in back. Maybe we have to rethink our motherly assignment.

Our trail starting with Mr. Gillette has gone cold, and we cannot determine the situation of the woman he so fervently avoided, so let us return to the sign tomorrow morning when the architects’ office reopens.

*

Waiting at the sign, observing comers and goers, it is easy to see the character of this town: friendly, polite, hardy, reserved. It is too intemperate for there to be homeless people on the streets when there’s snow, so there is a veneer of purity and tidiness about the place. Most of the passersby work in the buildings, some of them are dependents out for errands or school, and a select few of them are tourists and travelers, perusing the sights under cover of heavy down jackets and thick, colored scarves.

But none of these town characters can offer us a clue as to why it is past ten o’clock and only Mr. Berkshire and the office assistant, Miss Randall, have passed under that sign and through that door. We will have to go in for a closer look, to Miss Randall, perhaps.

Inside the firm, Mr. Berkshire is already entertaining the first client of the day, and Miss Randall is sitting at her desk, peering at her computer. She would likely try to stop herself doing this—hunching forward and scrunching up her fine-featured face to comprehend something on the screen—but does not seem conscious of her habit. If we step behind her desk to see what she is peering at—ah.

There are several tabs open in her browser: one is from Zappo’s, one is from Gmail, and one is from the Connecticut Register, a regional paper that covers their county and the one adjoining to the west. This tab reveals a brief article stating the personnel changes at a certain firm B— & G— due to the junior partner’s ‘family circumstances.’ As Miss Randall flips back from her email to read the end of the article, she sighs, and we see her shoulders sag a little, not from her reading position but from the admission of a minute defeat in her day.

If we were to peer through the frosted glass of Mr. Berkshire’s office, would we see a similar deflation in how he conducts the day’s business? When he comes to the door to farewell his client and nods at his assistant, we see that yes, it is there in the relaxed lines of his smile at her, and his small sigh.

So why have they lost Mr. Gillette, so long a fixture of the architectural team, to ‘family circumstances?’

He certainly didn’t seem to have a family, with that new coat, shiny shoes, slim attaché case and streamlined keychain. But at least we now know why he hasn’t shown up for work today. Perhaps that sign will now finally be updated.

Both his colleagues seem chagrined at his departure, so we have to assume something compelled him to leave on his own, and the phrase ‘family circumstances’ does not camouflage some heated disagreement in the office. Where might he be found on his first day of freedom from work? There are two bars in this small town, and only one in the direction he went the day before. We shall try there first.

*

This bar is the older one in the town, and it exploits its position rather too much: polished English walnut booths, tarnished brass handles and bar stools, all to make the most of its two years’ seniority over The Sonsey Pub, its competition across town. The sign over McCracken’s Bar is weathered like the architects’, but supplemented by neon signs in the windows for various beers. As we enter McCracken’s, we do indeed see Mr. Gillette, sitting at the bar a bowl of nuts close at hand, and a tall glass of water. He stares at the air in front of him for several minutes.

This is not illuminating his ‘family circumstances,’ however, and we are about to try another tack when the bartender shows up from behind the partition and calls out, “It’s noon now, would you like that burger now, Davey?”

Now an observer might get somewhere, if Davey would only engage in some conversation.

Davey pushes away the bowl of nuts, gives a curt nod, and adds, “Thanks, Stan.”

Apparently these two go back longer than the news of the separation from B— & G—. When Stan comes out again, the food can be heard sizzling in the back, as he stays to engage Davey in conversation.

“So’d’ja do it?” Stan says.

“Yeah, I quit. I did it. John would take me back in a few months if I come back with my head on straight, but I don’t know how to make that happen yet. Maybe a trip to the islands, eh?”

Davey smirks, cocking an eyebrow at the wintry weather.

“Maybe. But you know what I think.”

“I do,” Davey says too quickly. “And I’m not gonna pester her again. We tried, we broke each other’s hearts, we failed. Repeat, repeat, repeat. And now she’s got a kid. So no, Stan, not gonna happen. I’m thinking maybe I should just leave.”

Stan is quiet. The sizzling of meat juices changes in pitch and he saunters back to flip the burger on the grill. Returning, he says, “We-e-ell, at least you know you tried. You won’t have those mighta-been’s the rest of us do.”

Davey gives a short sigh, and a flash of frustration crosses his face before he says, “Not that easy. I still got ‘em. But can we talk about something else, anyway? Like which Caribbean island would best teach me to enjoy life again?”

The talk devolves into sailing and boats and the glorious past of Connecticut harbor towns before coming back round to Davey’s plans for the foreseeable future. His body relaxes a fraction as the cheeseburger is placed in front of him and he can fall to, without thought to anything but the task of eating.

“Stan, your burgers are sooo good,” he says through a mouth full of food.

“I know, he must have a special seasoning salt or something, isn’t that right, Stan?” This new voice comes from behind us, near the door. It’s the ash blonde from the day-care center. Davey’s face has frozen mid-chew, and he looks like he might be choking on something.

“Amanda,” Stan says, to cover up Davey’s inelegant choking sounds. “How are ya?”

“Doing fine. Steph just took over for the lunch shift so I thought I’d come over for one of those burgers myself.”

Davey has managed to cough up the bite he choked on into his napkin, which he folds up and curls into the palm of his right hand. He finally turns to acknowledge Amanda, and we see what it’s costing him to keep his face neutral. His right index finger picks at the cuticle of his thumb, a vein stands out in his neck, but he quietly says, “Hey there,” his gaze pausing briefly on her face before switching to the counter.

“Hey. I don’t intend to come here a lot; don’t worry. Just wanted to see you, now that I’m back and settled in with Steph and the job and everything.”

There is a pause as our Mr. Gillette tries to figure out something neutral to say, but fails. Amanda brings up one of his rejected thoughts.

“I saw you left the firm in the paper today,” she says, watching him. His neck twitches and his cheeks redden, but she acts as if she takes no notice. “Wanna talk about it?”

“No,” he says. “But thanks for asking.”

“Look, Dave, I don’t want to pry, but I do want to be on good terms, especially now that I’m back living in town and it’s about as big as a two-fish goldfish bowl.” She smiles wryly, a position of her lips that he once rhapsodized.

“Then can you tell me why you have a kid with you, after all that we went through about—”

“About not wanting kids, not wanting to have a baby on my own while you worked like crazy and couldn’t pause for breath?”

The sizzling sound gets louder now, a sure sign Stan is pressing down on her burger patty with his spatula.

Amanda exhales a breath. “I was ready.”

“I see. And I wasn’t.”

“Not two years ago, you weren’t.”

“He-ey,” calls Stan, into the silence that has descended. He comes out after this announcement, anxious to set down her burger, print out the tab, and leave the two anguished lovebirds to their tortured discussion.

Dave looks at her, and we can see his hurt, disappointment and regret. Amanda looks down at her hands however, and the split second before she makes eye contact with him, his emotions are concealed, like a candle being snuffed out.

“Okay,” he sighs. “You wanna be on good terms. What does that mean?”

“It means acknowledging each other, for one. Stopping by to say hello, for another. Telling each other about big life changes, for a third—”

“Like you did?” he says. “Sorry. I’ll just think of it as starting over with a clean slate. We can be on good terms from now on then.” There is a rising inflection in his tone.

She nods slowly.

“I’m leaving the business to John because I’m not happy, and it shows. Either I find a way to get myself together and come back in a few months, or I’ve gotta find something new. That’s the plan, if you wanna call it that.”

“You gonna leave here?”

He blows out an impatient breath. “I’d love to, but I don’t think it’ll make a difference where I go. I’ll still be a sad sack, even sitting on a beach.” He gives her a lopsided smile. She touches his arm.

“Take the boat,” she says, and it produces a delayed, yet vehement, reaction in Dave.

“No way. That’s your dad’s. I couldn’t—”

“My dad died two years ago. You didn’t hear?” She doesn’t stop for his answer. “It’s been in dry dock since. Dave, it’ll get you off your ass and working. You know it will.”

“Yeah, but— it’s yours.”

“He meant you to have it. Before we—separated, when you took it out for our trip, he saw you loved it. He wanted you to have it. I’ll sign it over. God knows I’m not doing anything with it, and you can afford the insurance.” She grins.

“Really? He—he did? Why didn’t you tell me?”

“I should have, I didn’t. Clean slate?”

Dave nods.

“Well, I guess I have a plan now,” he says. And the look of regret has turned into afield for his imagination to run into the future where he sees a small, tidy yacht fitted out as she should be, cruising down the coast. He turns to Amanda, considering her for a moment.

“Are you happy?” he asks.

“Happy enough,” she says. “And I love my Isabel. And Darla. She’s the Australian shepherd that helps me get everything done,” she adds when he looks confused.

He nods again. What we can’t see, but can imagine, is the self-doubt that still roils around in his large ribcage. But he’s taken the decision to try out the boat, and it has effected a change in him. Or maybe it is accepting the help that has made the change?

There is awkwardness again, but they resolve to try their best to ‘be on good terms’ again, and Amanda gives Dave the details of the boat’s location and registration, promising to send him the info at his old address. Dave shuffles out, his burger forgotten, as Amanda sits down to hers, now cooled.

*

It is six months later, high summer and blossoming in Connecticut, when we see anew point of light that is the soul of our Mr. Gillette, Davey, Dave. He sports a faded blue linen shirt, rolled up to the elbows, and loose at the neck, which sets off his sun-darkened skin and sun-lightened hair. He is at the busy corner coffee shop on the main drag of the same cozy town, holding court outside on a bench as locals stop to ask him where he’s been and what he’s been up to. This is his first trip back in some time, we can tell from the excitement on people’s faces at the novelty of his appearance.

“It’s a completely new life,” he says, at six months and four minutes after his last words with Amanda. At six months and twelve minutes since those last words, she strolls up to him.

“Pearl told me you were here,” she says, unsure of how she will be received.

“I am, and glad to be so. You never did me a nicer thing than when you sprung that boat on me, ‘Manda. Thank you. It’s changed my life.”

She looks at him, doubting the sincerity of this complete turnaround, thinking it might be mere braggadocio. Or disguised, howling disappointment. The things she is more familiar with.

He looks at her as if he can read the doubt on her face, and says, “I’m ready now. Ready for anything. Ready for love.”

Some of those gathered around laugh at his cheesy phrase, while others glance with trepidation at Amanda, knowing some of the history between them.

Amanda shifts her feet uneasily, unprepared for this public ultimatum-sounding declaration. She is a cornered animal, eyes darting, heat rising to her throat, and muscles tensed. Dave keeps his gaze on her, giving off a feeling of openness and vulnerability as he waits… but the silence stretches too long, becomes charged with the expectations of the small crowd, so he turns to his nearest neighbor, Marge, and asks her if she wants to dance. Laughing, the forty-four-year-old woman rises and the two of them dance a few turns to Dave’s counted tempo. Amanda watches, laughter burbling up and turning into something like a sob. The sight of that old Dave, seeing his delight in the life around him, and the relief of witnessing the return of the creature she trusted— these fill her eyes with tears.

After a showy turn, the onlookers clap, and Dave turns to Amanda again. He quiets his joy, keeps his face relaxed, and holds out his hand to her. She steps forward, and the shards of shattered dreams seem to make the air scintillate around them as they dance their favorite steps of West Coast Swing.

*

 

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Margaret Pinard has spent her first few decades traveling the globe in search of adventures to incorporate into her writing, including living in the lands of the Celts, the capitals of European culture, and several dolce far niente Mediterranean cultures. She currently resides in Portland, OR. Her first novel, Memory’s Hostage, was published in 2013.