Dandelions

The engine was still cold as they backed away from the empty house, so Evan didn’t turn the heat on.

“This’ll just take a few minutes.” He looked over at Sally, her hands stuck up the sleeves of her winter coat, hugging herself.

“You were smart to decide on that coat,” he said, looking at the traffic, waiting to make his move.

He was wearing his blue blazer over light grey slacks and a pearl shirt because a draper told him his colors were “winter.”

“It’ll be warm enough when we get there.”

“I don’t know why we’re going,” said Sally.

“You have to get out of the house sometime, Sal. You have to return to normal life.”

He had returned to “normal life,” to work, to business lunches, to meetings with his agent and publishers, to writing the “How To …” and “Fix-It-Yourself” manuals that sold at check-out counters throughout the country.

Evan turned on the defrost to clear the fog from the windshield. And then he turned the music on to “Jazz Hot and Cool.”

The party was noisy by the time they arrived.

When Sally opened her coat, she drew “ooo”s and “ahh”s from Loretta and the other women, though most had seen it before. It was a gay dress, with a full skirt, rich in the color her hair used to be. Now it lied. The colors were too bright for who she was now.

“Oh, Sally. Don’t you look lovely!”

“Thank you,” she tried. Her lips pulled back in a smile that almost reminded them of before.

They hugged her and asked “How are you? I mean, really?”

The living room was full of happy people talking, some with plates on their laps. People waved at her and smiled from around the room.

“Hi, Sally!”

“There’s Sally and Evan.”

“Sally!”

The tables, pushed against the wall in the dining room, gleamed with stainless steel chafing dishes invaded, depleted, and the remnants of tid-bits on hot trays. A spray of newly brightened silverware and an interrupted spread of napkins fanned out across the breakfront between diminished towers of white dishes in assorted sizes. The kitchen was busy.

“Hey, Sally. You’re looking great. Red or white?”

The doors were open to the glassed-in patio where the dance music was coming from. All the white plastic furniture was stacked in a corner. The glare on the windows made it difficult to see that the garden lights were on, that somewhere out there people used to laugh around the pool in sunlight.

“Game’s on!” someone called from the den.

“Oh, good, Sal. Look. We got here just in time.” Evan turned bright and smiling to her, glass already in hand.

“Can I get you something to eat?”

“No thanks,” she said. “I’ll get something later.”

“Don’t forget to eat.”

The men melted away. She retreated to the kitchen where she set out the desserts and coffee and busied herself until there was nothing more for women to do but talk in groups around the house or join the men in front of the game.

Now Danny Saphran sat with her in the empty kitchen, detritus from the noisy wave of men that swept through the kitchen to violate the refrigerator at half-time.

“I was sorry to hear,” he said. “I knew, of course, half-a-dozen people e-mailed me. Jane and Roberta seemed to have the most information, but I still don’t know what happened.”

Sally rounded up crumbs from the kitchen table, shepherding them with the heel of her hand toward the table’s dangerous edge.

“Nobody knows what happened,” she said, gathering them in a pile.

“She was killed in the accident.”

“Yes. But she didn’t die in the accident,” she said, sweeping them all carefully off the brink and into a soiled napkin. Danny Saphran looked at her, his sad, serious face quizzical now.

“We had to let her go,” she said, closing up the napkin.

“Oh, my dear,” he said, reaching out for her hands, folding over them, as if to protect the napkin holding the crumbs.

His hands were warm. She looked at his hands. She couldn’t look into his eyes.

“Holding hands with my wife, eh?” said Evan striding into the kitchen. “You rogue!”

“I’m hearing about the accident,” said Danny. He didn’t sit back, he didn’t let go.

“See if you can get her to eat something,” said Evan, fist around a beer in the refrigerator. “She’s wasting away.”

“I’ll try.”

“Score’s tied. Twenty-four all. You coming?” he said, popping the tab, turning away.

“In a minute.” But he didn’t let go.

“How terrible for you,” he said. “How lonely.”

“There wasn’t anything to be done,” Sally said. “The line for brain activity was flat. The machines were breathing for her, but she wasn’t alive. Her eyes were shut. She was crumpled and bandaged and would never heal and would never be anyone again. All that life…all that…. We had to let her go.”

Danny Saphran moved his hands over hers, warming her.

“If she were taken from me, if she disappeared, lost at sea, if she died somewhere else and was shipped home in a box, it would be one thing. But I sat in the hospital and watched her. And then I let her go. I did. And now I can’t … ever … let her go.”

She closed the napkin tightly and put it in the garbage.

Suddenly, a kitten leaped up from under the table and startled her.

“Oh,” she laughed. “It’s a kitten. Loretta has three left, I think. There were six in the litter. She’s giving them away. They’ve had all their shots. Would you like a kitten? A beautiful little kitten?” Touching it, stroking it, twisty playful beneath her hand. “Sweet, sweet kitty.”

“No, thanks,” said Danny, leaning back, getting up to screams and cheers from the den. “I’m a dog-person.”

“What was that,” said Evan on the way home that night, “with you and Danny Saphran in the kitchen?”

She wasn’t any better by the time they left for the mountains in the summer. Evan was weary of her careless gray dressing, her silence, her perfunctory cooking, her moods. The mountains always cheered her, driving up that final road through a dark tunnel of trees, then along the brim with sudden openings to infinitely various green, the cloudless sky, the sun intense through the windshield, the lake blue-green and silent at meadow’s end beyond the cabin.

In Taylorsville, they picked up the order for staples they phoned in the night before. Old man Taylor had the cartons ready when they pulled in late in the afternoon, and young P. T. Taylor, III, carried the groceries out to the car. A shiftless, unshaven man in his late twenties, and already permanently in bib-top overalls, he had found the only job from which he would never be let go.

“Is Kim coming up this year?” he asked as he put the last carton in the trunk and closed the lid.

They never knew what she saw in him, one of the few amusements her own age in the village, but she laughed and said P. T., III, knew where to find things like berry bushes and violets in the woods, wild strawberries, a falcon’s nest, cubs.

“No,” said Sally.

“She’s dead,” said Evan, slamming the car door.

“That wasn’t necessary,” Sally said as they drove away.

“She’s dead, Sally. I wish, oh! how I wish you would come to accept it.”

But Evan was wrong. Kim was everywhere. Crawling out from under the front porch when she was seven and still Kimberley; finding the bloody mop in the tool shed where the kittens were born and she was eleven, interested, worried; lining up her collection of geology samples along the windowsill. Her books and beadwork, the Indian dream-catcher she made with found feathers.

Breakfast together was sour and the day long. Evan fished alone for his two weeks and then again when he returned on the weekends. Sometimes he took the car into town to do nothing, have lunch at the counter in the drugstore, chat up the waitress, talk to someone human, buy a newspaper to read on the bench on the front porch at Taylor’s and bring back to the cabin with the groceries. He was eager for evening and drinks with the neighbors who were disappointed to hear that Sally wasn’t up to it tonight.

“Nothing the matter?”

“No, no. Nothing serious. She’ll get over it,” he said.

“She’s looking mighty thin.”

“She needs another one of your key-lime pies to cheer her up, bring back her appetite.”

Sally sat on the dock with her feet in the water, frightening thousands of fish that darted away if she moved when they suckled her toes. Or she sat on the porch on the pendant swing that young P. T. had repaired for them and read a book or watched the wild life that flew into spiders’ webs, the little ones in the rafters or the big one on the window where the lamp stood. Watched the struggle, sometimes long and furious, and waited for the line to be flat.

Often she walked in the woods, following the trails she and Kim had walked, mother and daughter, young women together, looking, talking, laughing. All the years they took picnic baskets into the woods, and sat by a pool where the deer came and the ‘possum, silent out of shadows, suddenly there.

“Hush!”

“Where?”

“There, by the rocks. A fawn.”

Danny Saphran was first. Then Stephen Bine, Monk McCarthy, Eric D’Roche, Dennis Wick. No one touched her.

Sally stood in line at the supermarket, idly reading the racked magazines.

“May I apply for the job?” Dennis said.

She turned quizzically and looked across an almost empty cart.

“You were asking for ‘a man after midnight, someone to help you chase the shadows away.’” He smiled. “Do you always sing in the supermarket, or are you …?”

“I’m almost serious,” she smiled.

“I’m Dennis Wick,” he said, reaching across to shake her hand. “That’s almost ‘wicked,’”

“With a little bit cut off.”

“It was at the hospital. I was very young.”

“‘Almost’ doesn’t count,’ said Sally. “It’s like having an affair without taking your clothes off.”

He was an engineer who built bridges and sometimes he missed his plane so they could spend a night together at a B&B in the city.

She tucked the pillows behind her against the bars of the brass bed in order to see the blueprints he spread out on the quilt. So complicated, bridges. Attached at both ends and standing on piers or hung from wire cable strung over stanchions. Dennis’s specialty was designing abutments.

But while he was rolling up the plans again, she reached out suddenly to touch a patch of fabric from a little sundress she made for Kimberley.

“I had a daughter who could have used you,” she said.

“That’s very flattering,” Dennis smiled from across the room. “I’ve never done a mother-daughter combo.” And then, standing, turning, “What do you mean, ‘had’?”

“She went off the side of a mountain a year ago, September. She needed a bridge.”

“I’m so sorry,” he said, coming to her.

But sex was no substitute.

She looked at the fabric more closely the next morning. She came back to the room after he left her at breakfast and spread the quilt out, smoothed it. Hand-stitching. Bangladesh. “No child labor used in the manufacture of this item.” ‘Log Cabin’ pattern. Seen from the side: stepping stones, flight of stairs. Women’s work.

Worked into the pattern was a patch, the color and design of Kimberley’s fabric over twenty years ago, or close enough to make no difference.

“That’s a great idea,” said Evan, “getting rid of Kim’s clothes. But you don’t have to cut them up. I mean, you can just give them away. Salvation Army. Someone else can use them”

Sally cut for weeks. Hexagons mostly, then triangles and squares. And then she separated them into colors. She chose the pile of earth colors first.

“Oh, you’re making a quilt? Remember my chapter on How To Decorate Your Country Home? I talk about quilts.”

Day after dark day, through the long winter, she sat in the living room in a circle of light and sewed the patchwork pieces together. Cotton flowers, checks, plaids, and stripes. The silence surprised her. Alone with Kim’s clothes in cambric and broadcloth, she locked all that remained of love into blocks made of echo.

“Don’t you look pretty today! That’s the blouse we found in Westfield.”

“Oh, mother.”

She sewed each memory, the color and flow of it, into the patchwork text of dream.

Old P.T.’s wife helped her find the country women who gathered in the storeroom of the Historical Society in Taylorsville. Sally crossed the culvert and parked in the elbow of the road beneath a dozen tilted spruce.

Mrs. Taylor met her at the door and introduced her to Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Wright who would help with the quilting. They sat and chatted before laying out the muslin backing, the batting, and the quilt top on the table in the dining room.

“‘Honeycomb,’” said Mrs. Wright. “Also called ‘Mosaic.’”

“My grandmother had one that her grandmother made,” said Mrs. Hale, “and she called it ‘Martha Washington’s Flower Garden.’”

“Yes, it’s known by all those names, but this has a ‘Daisy Chain’ border. Now that’s unusual.”

“But those aren’t daisies,” said Mrs. Taylor. “They are …?”

“Dandelions. They were my daughter’s favorite flower.”

“Were they? How generous to love a weed.”

“Oh,” said Sally, “Kim loved the underdog. She was driving home from teaching the children of those migrant workers the night she was killed.”

“The most loving often go first,” said Mrs. Taylor. “They show the way.”

“There. You see. It all comes together.”

Gentle fingers, spotted and shiny with age, splayed over the fabric tenderly, touching, pressing, turning over the quilt top to look at the underside.

“Your stitching is very even. Look, Myra, beautifully even. No machine stitching here, all by hand.”

“Yes,” said Mrs. Taylor, “and the corners match perfectly.”

“The patches come from Kim’s clothes.”

The older women looked down at the quilt top.

“Was sewing the blocks very difficult for you?” asked the first to look up.

“No, Mrs. Wright. It was peaceful. Calming.”

“Yes.”

“I needed to touch everything that touched her. And all I had left were her clothes and her books. I read the books.”

Mrs. Taylor turned to Sally and put her arms around her.

Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Wright tacked the corners to hold them in place while Mrs. Taylor and Sally began basting the edges.

“This will be lovely,” said Mrs. Wright. “We can use the seashell pattern for the white borders. It’ll give a nice texture.”

The quilting frame stood, legs splayed, bright with daylight in the bay window area of what had once been the living room. They wound the quilt carefully around the muslin-wrapped poles, pulled it taut, and drew their chairs up to the frame, two on each side.

And so they began where it always begins: women working on the composition of love.

One evening that summer, coming from the shadow of woods into the meadow amidst the tug of the night breeze rising, Sally was suddenly assailed. She was in the dandelion patch, white as an alpine snowfield, that bent around the lake near the cottage. The brilliant yellow flowers had gone to seed that she kicked free as she walked and the wind lifted and twisted around her.

She bent down to pick one. She held it up in the late light. A perfect white globe, so beautiful, so rich in generations. Infinite seeds with wings the wind took. So much life.

She took a great breath and blew the seeds free.