B & B
The three things I remember most about that day are the way the woman’s foot twitched in the doorway, the hoot of the owl, and the man’s tall, regal bearing after he got out of the car.
* * *
Gwen had been hoping we could arrange a get-away together for a long time. But her life had become more complicated early in the year when her stepmother died suddenly and she moved her father in with her to provide the assistance he needed for his dementia. She found an apartment for them that was only five minutes away from the children’s convalescent hospital where she worked so she could come home at lunch to help him change his diaper, give him his meds, make him a sandwich, and take his dog out. She handled similar chores for him in the mornings and at night. I had my own longstanding caretaking duties with my severely-disabled son Ben, so the limited amount of time we had to spend with each other didn’t really change much; instead of staying overnight on Fridays and Saturdays when Ben was with my ex-wife, Gwen just came over on those evenings for a couple of hours and dinner before going home.
Gwen and I had met at the convalescent hospital, but not when Ben had spent the twenty months there with his most serious problems just after he’d turned five. That stretch had taken place several years earlier, the same period of time when my ex-wife told me she was done being a martyr, was having an affair with a co-worker, and left to move in with him. We met well after my divorce and a half-dozen months after Ben’s condition had improved enough for me to take him home with nursing help. Following his discharge, I began volunteering at the convalescent hospital once a month or so on a Saturday when the recreational therapist took a group of patients on outings; I was introduced to her on one of those that she also helped with after she replaced the former social worker who’d recently retired. We began seeing each other after that, and things developed from there pretty quickly. I was a teacher and she’d been a school counselor before her job at the hospital, so we understood one another’s worlds and their limitations well. We had few expectations, and it worked for us somehow. But we both wished we could share more of a life together; we spoke of it sometimes.
An evening came in the fall when Gwen told me that her aunt, her father’s sister, was coming from the east coast for a short visit and would spend an upcoming weekend with him. The aunt could provide his needed care then, so Gwen could finally have a little respite. She asked if I could locate a bed and breakfast we could go to nearby so she’d be able to return quickly if things suddenly went south with him. I told her I would.
I found a place that looked nice enough on its website less than an hour away in the foothills to the east of us. It was on an old avocado ranch on a hill that overlooked a lake: a detached cottage with a wood stove, a patio, and a jacuzzi. I called the number and reached a woman whose elderly voice seemed uncertain.
“You’d better talk to my husband,” she said. Then I heard her call, “Frank!”
Frank came to the phone and his voice sounded as old, but firmer. We made arrangements for the weekend requested. He gave me his cell phone number that I entered into my own, but said the best way to communicate further was by email and provided an address that had his full name followed by “consulting”. It was hard to imagine a voice that old still working at a job. “Try to get here before the sun sets,” he told me prior to hanging up. “You don’t want to miss it.”
That particular Friday afternoon, I was able to leave the school where I taught right after dismissal, so Gwen and I could meet at the condo I owned at three-thirty for the drive. We took her car, followed the directions Frank had emailed me, and watched the afternoon’s light fall. We found the driveway to their place where he described it would be, passed a newspaper still in its wrap at the foot of it, and started up the long, steep incline until we reached a gravel turnaround at the top of the hill in front of their house. The place was large, two-storied, painted barn-red, and was mostly windows – some floor to ceiling. When we got out of the car and looked around, we could see the reason for them. The views were expansive and breathtaking in all directions: vineyards and farmland to the east, the lake and mountains to the west, and lower foothills sprinkled with houses here and there elsewhere. Trees were abundant, and the cool breeze was pine-scented. The landscaping seemed intentionally sparse, a rustic and almost oriental combination: an old, rusted piece of farm machinery sat near a couple of weathered wicker chairs overlooking the valley, a cement fountain with some sort of mossed-over Buddha on top trickled in front of the house, and tiny Japanese lamps lit the way to an enormous front door over which hung a pair of horseshoes.
“My,” I heard Gwen whisper.
“Yeah, this is really something.”
We walked past the fountain to the front door. Before we could knock, it opened and a small, stooped woman who I figured for near eighty stood inside of it closing a light-blue cardigan around herself. She looked up at us, and her eyes were almost the same shade. They were moist with age, but sparkled. Her hair was white, disheveled; she wore corduroy pants and moccasins. She couldn’t have weighed much more than a hundred pounds.
“I’m Agnes,” she said. She closed the door behind her and pointed to a bench next to it. “Here’s where I’ll put the basket with your breakfast in the morning. Return it there when you’re done. Park over in the space next to the garage.” She hooked her hand in the crook of Gwen’s arm. “Come, I’ll show you the cottage.”
They shuffled past me, and I parked where she’d indicated. I unloaded our things and caught up to them where they’d stopped on a pine needle-covered path winding around towards the back of the big house. Agnes was pointing up into one of the tall trees that arched over the path.
She said, “See that little place we built up there. An owl lives in it. A barn owl without a barn. Or with a tiny barn of its own.”
We looked up at the small wooden structure with its opening at the front that was painted identically to their house, but faded. It was at least thirty feet high, and I couldn’t imagine how they’d attached it there.
“He’s probably still sleeping,” Agnes said. “But sometimes you can hear him at night. He’s a hunter.”
We continued our halting way to the end of the path, turned, and stepped up onto a patio laid with a mosaic of flagstones bordered by potted flowers and plants. It was situated on a shelf of land fifteen or so yards long and about the same distance below the back of their house. It overlooked the lake that sat perhaps a half mile away beyond a descending hillside of old avocado and cypress trees. The lake’s water was flat and still and reflected the orange and red of the sun that was beginning to dip towards the mountains behind it. The mountain faces were already in shadow. It was very quiet.
“This is so beautiful,” I heard Gwen say.
“Yes,” Agnes said softly.
I followed their sweeping gazes until I asked, “How’d you find this place?”
Agnes shrugged. “Frank grew up in town here. He always wanted a place up in the hills, a ranch. He just kept looking until he found this. That was twenty-five years ago. At first, we tried to keep the avocado operation going, but it became too much.” She shrugged again. “Things made more sense at first, I suppose, or maybe we just didn’t care then if they didn’t.” She gestured at the cottage a few steps above us, painted the same red. “That used to be the packing shed. Now it’s your room.” She pointed down the patio. “That little table at the end is where guests usually take their breakfast. You see the jacuzzi over there.”
I looked where it was set in the ground. Several pairs of Adirondack chairs were clustered in other spots on the patio where they commanded different vistas. A sort of cushioned love seat had been built into the back of the patio just below the front of the cottage that had pillows and a tall, folded umbrella next to it.
Agnes said, “Let me show you the inside.”
We followed her up the steps until she stopped at the top where a small grotto had been fashioned out of boulders and mortar against the near side of the cottage. A toilet sat at the back of it, and a high, circular shower head was mounted at the front. Thick red towels hung on wooden racks, and a tall red curtain was pulled back in an iron clasp at its entrance.
“I hope you like outdoor living,” Agnes said.
“I love it,” Gwen said and gave a little laugh of delight. It felt good to hear.
We followed Agnes up onto the narrow porch, through the sliding glass doors there, and into the cottage. It wasn’t big, but was spotlessly clean, simple and well-appointed: a big bed facing the lake with a cream-colored chenille bedspread and folded patchwork quilts, a wood slab counter along the bathroom wall with a sink, a tiny refrigerator, and a coffeemaker, and a glass-faced wood stove on a brick pad in a corner near the foot of the bed that was laid with newspaper, kindling, and logs. A box of matches sat on top of the wood stove. An armoire and curtained windows filled most of the far wall, and mounted weavings hung on the others.
Gwen clapped her hands and said, “It’s wonderful!”
“The weavings,” I said. “They’re remarkable. Where are they from?”
“I made them,” Agnes said. “And the quilts. The coffee mugs, too.”
“You’re an artist then.”
“Hardly. A retired museum worker who’s dabbled in her later years.” She gave a little laugh of her own. “So, Frank said you wanted breakfast about eight-thirty, is that right?”
I looked at Gwen who said, “Sure.”
“That’s a good time,” Agnes said. “No need to rush in the morning. So then, I’ll be going. There’s no key. I hope that’s all right.”
“That’s fine,” I told her. “Thank you very much.”
She gave a tiny nod, and we watched her leave, carefully descend the steps, and pass around the corner of the cottage. Gwen and I smiled at each other as the sound of Agnes’ shuffling footsteps died away up the path.
I watched her lift one of the quilts off the bed. “Well,” she said. “I’ll be down on that loveseat, and if you don’t bring us some wine there in about two minutes, you’ll be on detention.” She looked out through the sliding glass doors. “See.” She smiled. “The sun hasn’t quite set yet.”
I opened a bottle from the cooler we’d brought, poured wine into two of the ceramic mugs, and joined her on the loveseat. I handed her a mug; we clinked and sipped. Then she pulled the quilt over our laps and put her head against my shoulder. We watched the big ball of sun drop slowly behind the mountains. It seemed to go grudgingly. The sky above where it had been took on the colors of a bruise. A couple of hot air balloons hovered way off towards the coast where the sky was lighter. It was completely quiet, not a sound. Gwen’s hand found mine under the quilt. I kissed the side of her head.
By the time we went back up into the cottage, except for a pink line grazing the far horizon, the sky had darkened and a few stars had emerged. I started a fire in the wood stove and heard Gwen pull down the bed covers as I blew the flames to life. When I stood up, I felt her arms close around me from behind, and her cheek press against my back. I closed my hands on top of hers. We swayed a little together standing like that until we took off our clothes and got in bed.
Afterwards, we lay propped up on pillows and watched the fire burn and the canopy of stars build outside. We drank more wine and listened to the silence.
At one point, Gwen asked, “Do we really have to go out somewhere to eat?”
“I brought some crackers and cheese. Fruit. Chocolate.”
“Perfect,” she said.
* * *
In the middle of the night, I was shaken awake suddenly by Gwen.
“Did you hear that?” she exclaimed.
“That screech, that squeal, the commotion in the bushes outside, that rustle of feathers.”
“No,” I shook my head. The fire had turned to embers in the wood stove, so I couldn’t see her face in the darkness. “I didn’t hear anything.”
“I did,” she said. “And it was startling. I think it was the owl. I think I heard it fly up into its house.”
“Well,” I said. “That would make sense. Hunting, like she said.”
I felt her head nod on the pillow next to me. Then she moved closer, and I wrapped my arm around her. In a moment, her breathing slowed into sleep again.
* * *
I got up first the next morning, showered, made coffee, and sat reading in one of the Adirondack chairs until Gwen did the same and joined me. The day was cool, but was already bright with sun. We read until a little after eight-thirty when I went up to the big house to get breakfast. The basket was where Agnes said it would be, sitting on the bench next to the front door. It was a large and grey, covered with a blue and white-checkered cloth. The front door was open, but empty. Through it, on a small table in the foyer, I took a moment to study a framed photograph of Agnes and a man about the same age who I assumed was Frank. In it, they were standing arm in arm in front of the house. By the looks of them, it must have been taken not too long after they moved in. He was much taller than her with glasses and thinning hair. They were both smiling broadly.
Gwen and I ate at the little table at the end of the patio. The sun had grown high enough to send streams of dusty light through the tree branches above us, and the air had warmed. In the basket were two small lidded crockery dishes of Mexican design that held some sort of chicken casserole, warm flour tortillas, mango cubes, and seasoned hot chocolate. Everything was delicious. We looked out over the vineyards and ate slowly. The only sound came from tiny birds, sparrows perhaps, flitting among the trees.
After we finished, I brought the basket back up to the bench, then walked down to the bottom of the drive and picked up the newspaper from the day before and the new one from that morning. I brought them both back up the drive. The basket had been taken from the bench, and I set the newspapers where it had been. The front door was still open, and classical music was playing inside, but Agnes didn’t appear.
* * *
We hiked down to the lake and along the path around it as the late morning continued to warm. On the other side, we found a place that rented bicycles and peddled out to a roadhouse at the shore’s far end for lunch. We sat on the back deck that was perched over a creek and listened to a folk singer who played guitar on a little platform up by the outdoor portion of the bar. Oak trees surrounded three sides of the deck and shadows dotted it through their canopy of yellowing leaves.
We got back to the cottage a little past mid-afternoon and sat in another pair of Adirondack chairs sipping dark beer and playing gin rummy. Occasionally, when I glanced up at the big house, I could see Agnes moving through the windows, and I wondered about how she filled her time and about the long history she and Frank had fashioned with each other.
We finished our card game, but remained there long enough to see the setting sun make its gradual, unfolding performance again before driving up to a winery on a high hillside nearby that Frank had recommended for dinner. We sat next to a wall of windows that looked out over the wide expanse of valley: vineyards, farmland, and a long, meandering, mostly dry riverbed.
Lights from the city where we lived gradually became visible in the distance as darkness fully fell.
When we returned, we made love, wrapped ourselves in towels, and got in the jacuzzi. The big house was dark and silent above us, and the moonless sky full of stars again. A salamander we’d startled skittered across the flagstones. Gwen sat between my legs and leaned back against my chest. Occasionally, I rubbed her shoulders. Otherwise, we were still in the burbling warmth thinking our separate thoughts. Mine had to do with her and what might lay ahead for us with our circumstances. Nothing was more important to Gwen’s father than his dog and cat, and Ben had a severe allergy to animal hair. Even if we could get past that somehow, my little condo had only two small bedrooms, so merging our lives much further seemed pretty inconceivable. Gwen startled me when she whispered, “This has been nice. Really nice.”
* * *
The next morning, we followed the same routine as the previous one. When I went up for the basket, it was in the identical spot with the front door open and no one visible inside, but no music played. We ate at the little table again. The menu included a vegetarian frittata, homemade yoghurt with berries, whole grain toast spread with apple butter, fresh-squeezed orange juice, and sliced avocados with wedges of lime. We wondered if the avocados had come from their property, although we hadn’t seen any fruit-bearing trees on our hike to the lake.
While we ate, I asked Gwen if she’d heard the owl again overnight, and she said she hadn’t, but had laid awake a while listening for it.
Afterwards, we lingered reading on the loveseat as long as we could before getting ready to leave. Frank had indicated that check-out wasn’t until eleven o’clock. Gwen didn’t have to be home until two to bring her aunt to the airport, and I wasn’t picking up Ben until five, so there wasn’t any rush. Shortly before eleven, Gwen closed her book, sighed, and I followed her gaze a last time over the expanse in front of us before following her up into the cottage to pack. I left a little before Gwen and told her I wanted to retrieve the newspaper again for Agnes and would meet her at the car. I carried the breakfast basket and my small duffel bag; Gwen said she’d bring her own and the cooler. On the way, I stopped to glance up at the owl’s house; I couldn’t be sure, but I thought I saw its two white eyes back in the darkened opening. The scent of the sun-warmed pine needles where I stood was strong.
I dropped my bag by the car, replaced the basket where it had been on the bench next to the open door, and walked down the drive. I returned with the Sunday newspaper, thicker than the day before in its plastic wrap. The breakfast basket was gone again, and as I bent to put the newspaper where it had been, I saw Agnes’ foot twitching on the foyer’s hardwood floor. The basket was tipped over beside her, the breakfast things scattered about. I went to where she lay on her side and knelt next to her. She was breathing unsteadily, her eyes open, but glassy; spittle had gathered in a bubble of foam at a corner of her mouth. I felt for her pulse, which was present, but seemed weak.
“Agnes,” I said. “What happened?”
She didn’t respond, and I heard Gwen putting our things in the trunk of the car. I turned and shouted to her, “Call 911…quick!” I saw her look wide-eyed at me and knew she could see Agnes from where she stood. She took out her cell phone and dialed while she ran to us.
When she’d finished the call, Gwen covered Agnes with an afghan that hung over the stairway railing in the foyer, took off her fleece, and laid it under the old woman’s head. Then we remained by her side until the paramedics arrived a few minutes later. After my brief explanation to them, Gwen and I stood out of their way near the bench as they went about their business with her. At one point, I heard the one who had taken my report say something into a walkie-talkie about a probable stroke. It wasn’t long until they had moved her onto a stretcher and out into the back of an ambulance. They took Frank’s cell phone number from me and said they would call him on the way to the hospital. I asked which one they were taking her to, and they told us the name of a big facility on the eastern side of the city. I said we didn’t want her to be alone and that we’d follow them there. Before we left, we cleaned up the breakfast items the best we could and replaced them in the basket. While we were doing that, I heard the owl hoot twice, long and echoing. We set the basket next to the stairwell and closed the door behind us.
* * *
Gwen and I sat in the waiting area of the hospital’s emergency room for almost an hour before a doctor came out to tell us that Agnes had, indeed, suffered a mild stroke, but should recover fine and was awake and resting comfortably. Her speech was unaffected and all her vital signs were stable. Her husband had been in contact, was returning from out of town, and would be coming soon.
The doctor said we could see her if we liked and led us through a swinging door to a curtained section where Agnes lay on her back with the head of the bed raised, hooked up to wires and probes, but with a bit of color in her cheeks and some of the same sparkle in her eyes.
“Hello,” she said to us. “They said you found me on the foyer floor.” She looked from one to the other of us. “Thank you.”
“Don’t get old…it isn’t any fun.”
“You look good,” Gwen told her.
“Better than I did when you found me, I guess.”
We all smiled, but hers quickly passed. She blinked several times and said quietly, “Actually, I was quite worried lying there.” Her lower lip began trembling. “I was actually quite terrified.”
Gwen reached down, took her hand, and I said, “Your husband is coming. He’ll be here soon.”
She nodded. “Yes, so I’ve been told. Frank. Returning early.”
I felt my eyebrows knit at the way she said it. She gazed straight ahead. “I can hardly remember what it was like to be together at your age. It seems almost impossible.” She looked back at us. “Love while you can,” she told us. “Love while it’s still there.”
We nodded. I watched her squeeze Gwen’s hand with both of her own. “I’m afraid I need to sleep now,” she said. “Suddenly, I’m very tired.”
“Sure,” I said. “Get some rest.”
We watched her eyes close. In a moment, her mouth formed a small circle and she was snoring softly. Lying perfectly still there under the white sheet, she hardly filled more than half of the bed. Gwen pulled the blanket from the end of it up over her and we left.
When we’d returned to the waiting room, Gwen checked her watch and said she had to leave to get her aunt to the airport. I told her I’d stay a while longer, wait for Frank, and catch a taxi home. She said she’d drop my things off at my place before going to her apartment. I walked her to the car. Clouds had gathered and we embraced in the mottled light. After several moments holding each other, I heard her say, “She’ll be all right, I think. Don’t you think so?” I hoped she could make out my mumbled ascent.
Back in the waiting room, my thoughts tumbled over themselves. I thought about what Agnes had said and wondered what the future held for Gwen and me. I thought about the years after Ben’s birth and what had transpired with my ex-wife. I wondered about Ben and his future and what would happen to him if he was still alive when I was Agnes’ age. I thought about the new level of care she might now need and if we would be their last guests. I wondered about love and what she’d said about it.
I stayed as long as possible before calling a taxi. I waited for it across the street from the hospital. When it came alongside me, I got in the back, and cracked the window while the driver spoke on the radio with his dispatcher in a language I didn’t understand. As their conversation continued, I saw a man climb out of a car that had pulled into a parking spot near the entrance to the emergency room, and by his tall and almost regal frame, I recognized at once that it was Frank. He closed the car door, then leaned against it, took a pack of cigarettes out of his coat pocket, and lit one. He took a long drag and exhaled in a manner that looked exasperated. I watched him inhale again and adjust his glasses. I reached for the door handle, but hesitated because his face held clear annoyance. He didn’t appear to be in any hurry.
“Go inside,” I whispered. I shook my head. “Go be with her.”
“What?” the driver asked in English.
He replaced his radio in its holder, started the meter, and shifted into gear. A breeze blew a scrap of paper by Frank’s feet, and a crow called on the telephone wire above him, a sound not too unlike the owl’s. The driver asked my address, I told him, and he inched away from the curb. I watched Frank smoke again and then disappear as the taxi headed off in the direction where my life and whatever it would become awaited.
About the writer:
William Cass has had over a hundred short stories appear in a variety of literary magazines such as december, Briar Cliff Review, and High Desert Journal. Recently, he was a finalist in short fiction and novella competitions at Glimmer Train and Black Hill Press, received a Pushcart nomination, and won writing contests at Terrain.org and The Examined Life Journal. He lives in San Diego, California.