Robert Wallace Paolinelli
I met Ruth completely by chance. I was teaching English literature at a boarding school, a small, private high school for girls. My first week of the semester had been
hectic and I had had no time for anything else. When Friday afternoon rolled around, I was ready for a stroll to be alone with my thoughts, and to visit a swift-moving creek one of my new colleagues told me about, for I am an inveterate fisherman. Aside from playing classical and flamenco guitar, fishing is my second passion, a lifelong one I never grow tired of.
So, after class, I walked back to my bachelor's cottage, changed into my field clothes and, with rod and reel, creel, tackle box, and a sandwich and two cans of beer, I followed the directions of my colleague: Across the sports field, into the wood of laurels, oaks and madrones, until I saw a well-trodden path, go left and follow it to the creek, which he said was called Rik's Creek.
It was autumn, late September; the sun was warm; there was no wind; all was still. The path zigzagged through the trees; there was a pleasant smell in the air. Then I heard the sound of running water. I stopped, held my breath, closed my eyes, and for a few moments listened to the flow of Rik's Creek. I felt at peace with the sound of the water, it eased the tensions of the hectic first week and I felt happy. Opening my eyes, I continued my march and at last found myself on the banks of Rik's Creek which was running fast and deep. The creek was lit up in spots by narrow shafts of soft September sunlight cutting through the trees.
I continued up stream, keeping my eyes peeled for a likely spot.
Having reconnoitered as far as I wanted to go, I put my beers in the shallows with a heavy stone on top, rigged my line, baited my hook, cast out, sat down, took out my sandwich, took a leisurely bite and waited. For me fishing is mainly waiting, and I don't mind waiting. If I caught a fish, I caught a fish. If I didn't catch one--well, there would be other days. I leaned back on the trunk of an old laurel tree, looked up to the sky and felt good for having accepted the teaching position when I needed it most. I had wanted to get out of Southern California, so when the position at the Josephine Brawley High School for Girls became available, I applied and was accepted. I was offered a one year contract--which included a small, on-campus, cottage.
Now I was at peace and fishing. The beer was cold. I took a long drink of it, and another bite of my sandwich, washed down with another slug of beer, cooled by the chill waters of Rik's Creek.
I guess the peace I was feeling, the sandwich, the good beer and the laziness of the hour put me to sleep, for when I awoke, it was almost sundown and just enough light to see silhouettes. The fishing reel was not in my hands nor was it at my side and I was not alone.
Sitting on the banks of the creek I could see the head of a girl with long hair and she was holding my fishing rod. I was a bit surprised and did not make a sound or move; I just lay there against the tree watching. The girl was humming "My Old Kentucky Home." She seemed to be very much at home herself, and I sensed her contentment and it made me feel good that someone enjoyed fishing as much as I do.
Nevertheless, I simply couldn't sit where I was, so I pretended I was just waking up and yawned louder than necessary.
She turned around; I could barely see her face but I could see she was smiling. "Hello," she said in a cheery voice. "Hello, yourself," I replied. "What are you doing with my rod and reel."
"I'm fishing--I was walking along the creek and saw you dozing and the rod was on the ground and the line was moving, so I grabbed the line and really hooked the fish then reeled it in," she said, all in one breath and very quickly--then added in a contrite voice, "Are you angry?"
"Angry" How could I be angry? No, I'm not angry. Where's the fish?"
"In your creel," she answered, "along with the other ones."
"Others?" I jumped up and was at her side. I fumbled in my pockets for matches, found a box, struck one and in the orange glow of the match saw three, pan-sized trout!
The match went out, I struck another, but this time, instead of the fish, I looked at my mysterious angler and saw a young girl, about sixteen, with long, dark hair, an unblemished, pretty face and green eyes, which took my breath away. I stared at her eyes as if I'd never seen green eyes before, and the flame of the match, which was about to burn my fingers, made them stand out like two rich gems in the fast falling darkness. Then the match went out. But I didn't light another.
"Well," I said, "since you've done all the work, you can have the fish."
"Oh no; you keep them. We've got a freezer full of them."
Then I asked, "Are you a Brawley student?"
"No," she replied, "I live over there," and she pointed across Rik's Creek through the trees.
"What's your name?"
"Ruth Canfield. What' yours?"
"Bob Durrell, pleased to meet you, Ruth," and I offered my hand. Her hand was soft, and her grip firm, confident.
"Pleased to meet you, too," she answered.
Suddenly it was dark and I wondered how she was going to cross the creek to go home and how I would make my way back to the campus through the dense and now dark wood.
"How will you get home?" I inquired.
"The same way I always do, walk," and she giggled in her girlish way at her matter-of-factness.
I struck another match. "That's well and good for you, Ruth, but I've just been here for the first time today and I'd appreciate it if you would suggest an alternative way back to the campus."
"No problem, Bob, we take the footbridge a little ways up stream, then we go back to my place and my mom can drive you back," she said, again with her matter-of-factness.
"A deal," said I, handing her the box of matches, "Keep striking matches while I get my things together."
"Don't forget your other beer in the stream," she said, striking a match and holding it close to the water and illuminating the shining can.
When all was packed and ready, she lead the way striking matches and cupping them and I followed. The bridge--if it could be called that, was two six inch wide planks, side by side, across the stream. Our weight made them sag but we made it across. She walked straight ahead through a small stand of trees on the other side of which was a light about a hundred yards away. Our line of march was clear. I trusted her knowledge of the terrain and walked at her side.
"You teach over at the school?" she asked.
"Yes I do; it's my first week."
"What do you teach?"
"Boring," she said, "English lit is boring."
"How can you say that?"
"Because I like to read and the teachers make reading boring with all their comments about what you need to look for and silly comparisons that don't have anything to do with the story."
She did have a point, but I was not in the mood for debate, so I changed the subject: "What's your favorite subject in school, Ruth?"
"I've got two of them: Music and history--I want to be an opera singer and go to La Scala some day."
I was impressed. A fledgling opera singer and histo-rian. My curiosity about her was now increased. "And do your parents know you want to sing opera some day?"
"I don't have parents, there's only my mom--dad left us when I was six." She answered with no further comment.
As we neared the house I saw a small pick-up parked in front. "Mom. I've got company!" she called out.
A moment later the door opened, "Is that you, Ruthie?"
I saw a woman with long hair, just like Ruth's standing in the doorway the light was behind her so I couldn't see her face at first, but I could see the outline of her body, which was well-proportioned. She walked out to greet us with a puzzled look on her face.
"This is Bob Durrell, mom, he teaches over at Brawley; this is my mother, Janet."
"How do you do," I said, extending my free hand, which she took.
"Pleased to meet you," she said with a slight hint of suspicion in her voice. "How is it that you've come home with my daughter?" But before I could explain, Ruth explained in my stead:--
"I'll tell you all about it, mom, but could we go in? I've got to go to the bathroom," and Ruth pushed past her mother and half ran into the house.
"Won't you come in, Mr. Durrell?" she said, stepping aside and allowing me to go first. I waited for her just inside the door. When she entered into the light I saw the unmistakable features of Ruth in Janet's comely face and the same kind of green eyes which had captured me by the orange glow of the matches at Rik's Creek earlier. Again I stared at green eyes because they are not common among dark-haired people. But I also saw that she was looking at me very strangely, eyeing me up and down.
"Excuse me for being so direct, Mr. Durrell, but I would like some explanation." Her arms were folded and she did not take her eyes off me. I had my creel over my shoulder, my fishing rod and tackle box in one hand and I felt a little foolish. Perhaps I should have just tried to find the way back myself and I would have spared myself the maternal scrutiny I was now going through. Just then a door closed and footsteps were heard approaching us and out walked Ruth with her cheery smile and in her friendly voice began explaining how it was that we had met. Janet Can-field's face softened as the story unfolded until at the end she burst into genuine laughter and asked, "Let me see the fish."
I was relieved. I took off the creel, opened it and showed her. "By rights, they're Ruth's; she caught them," I said.
"Mom, I'm hungry. Is dinner ready?"
"It will be--but I wasn't expecting company. I hope you don't mind just some soup, bread and salad, Mr. durrell."
"Oh, you needn't put yourself out, ma'am; but if you'd drive me back to the campus, I'd appreciate that."
"Let's cook the trout, mom--and you stay for dinner, Bob, we hardly ever have any company--and then she can drive you back. Can we have the soup, mom?"
"Well, I guess it's settled, Mr. Durrell," she said good-naturedly, "let me take your things. Ruth, show him where to wash up."
She took the rod, stood it up by the door, took the creel, and, walking to the sink, took out the fish and put them on the counter.
While I washed up, another place had been set for me; and upon returning, I found a steaming bowl of vegetable-barley soup and slices of what turned out to be delicious, homemade bread.
"Start without me," said Janet, "I'll clean the trout; it won't take long, please, sit down, Mr. Durrell, don't be shy, you're welcome at our table." She spoke with that same matter-of-factness I'd heard in Ruth's voice.
The soup, the bread and butter, the salad and the fresh trout were excellent. After dinner Ruth made us all tea.
"May I smoke?" I asked.
"By all means. Make yourself at home," said Janet. Ruth raced for an ashtray and placed it before me and I took out my pipe.
All during dinner Janet Canfield had been silent except, of course, to offer more food. She was a gracious hostess to a most unexpected guest. But after dinner, while Ruth, without prompting, cleared the table and washed the dishes and tidied up the kitchen, Janet, now more relaxed, became friendlier.
"We don't have many guests. Why I'd venture to say you're the first dinner guest in --well--maybe a couple of months. You must excuse me if I seemed a bit withdrawn. I apologize."
"I'm the one who should apologize," I answered politely. "And I appreciate your hospitality--and the way you cooked the trout. I've not tasted such good fish in ages."
"No secret about the fish--just some garlic and butter and a dash of white wine."
"Nonetheless, it was delicious. Ruth told me you have a freezer full of trout. You must be quite the angler your-self."
Ruth turned from the sink, "Mom's a great fisherman--or woman--I should say," then returned to her dishwashing."
"Now I know where Ruth got her skill. She's quite good."
"Well, yes, we do a lot of fishing. I like to fish. It's a good way to spend some quiet hours. But tell me, Mr. Durrell, what do you teach over at the Brawley school?"
"I have to admit that English literature was my worst subject in college. I congratulate you on sticking to it."
"And what is your field, if you don't mind me asking?"
"Not at all. I'm the manager and day ticket agent and baggage handler at the bus depot," she said, "not very exciting, but the pay is good, the work interesting and I have weekends off."
"Have you worked there long?" I asked, not really interested--then it struck me that my question might have seemed patronizing; but no, she didn't seem to mind and answered me:--
"Long enough to buy this place and pay half the mortgage. But enough shop talk, Mr. Durrell. Since it's Friday, we usually have a music recital, that is, Ruth sings the songs she's practiced during the week and I accompany her on the harp and sort of coach, too, if needed, and I'm inviting you to stay, that is, if you want to, and if Ruth doesn't mind an audience."
Again I was taken by her directness and touched by her invitation. I was comfortable there; I had had a good dinner and had no desire to return to my bachelor's cottage at the school. "Thank you for asking me to stay; aside from a few faculty members, I've met no one here and I'm touched that you've asked me to stay. Thank you."
Don't mention it. Ruth," she said, turning to her daughter, "do you mind if Mr. Durrell stays?"
"No. I'm glad you asked, I'll get my music. See you in the music room," and off she went upstairs.
"You have a music room?" I asked.
"Well not exactly. It's just a small room down the hall where I keep the harp--it's not exactly the kind of instrument one carries around. Come on, I'll show you," and, guiding me down the hall just off the kitchen, we entered a small room, in the middle of which was a concert harp, a chair and a music sand. The room was painted a pastel lavender and the windows had white curtains; there was a small love seat too, a bookcase with sheet music and books; and next to the bookcase I saw a guitar case. Janet sat in the chair and began to tune her instrument. "Have a seat," she said, without looking up from her harp.
"Is that your guitar?" I asked.
"No; it belonged to my late father. He wasn't a very good player, but now and then he'd pull it out and play a few chords."
"May I open the case and examine it?"
"Yes, if you're careful. It has great sentimental value."
"May I tell you that I am an accomplished guitar player? Flamenco and classical guitar."
"Really?" she said, stopping her tuning and lifting her head. "Then, by all means, take it out, tune it and give us a song or two, Mr. Durrell. Well, well, what a pleasant evening this is going to be: A guitarist, a harpist and a soprano. What a treat!" she said, with absolute delight in her voice and vividly expressed on her face and in her beautiful green eyes.
Ruth came in. "Here's the diva," she said. I turned and looked and to my surprise I saw her dressed in a long, dark blue gown, the kind a soloist might wear at a recital. Her hair was combed back; she'd put a bit of lipstick on, not much, and around her neck was a double strand of costume jewelry pearls. She looked stunning nd I said so. She bowed her head in genuine shyness.
"Mr durrell plays the guitar, Ruth, and he's going to play grandpa's guitar. Won't the evening be grand?"
"Great. Maybe he can accompany me with one of my songs."
"I'd be glad to. What did you have in mind, Ruth?"
"I've not practiced it a lot. Let me get the music out."
She knelt on the floor, spread out several sheets of music searching for her piece and I opened the guitar case and to my surprise saw a very old Ramirez guitar, and when I had it out and examined it, I saw that it was in excellent condition. I began to tune the very fine Ramirez.
"Here's the song, Bob," said Ruth, getting up and handing it to me. On the title page was written, Plaisir D'Amour, and old French song. I knew it well. "I know this song," I said with enthusiasm, for I always felt good when around music land musicians, be they professionals or amateurs.
"Good," she said, "it will be number three on the program after our intermission," she continued very seri-ously. I liked Ruth, liked her because I could see the germinating seed of a very determined young girl who, even though far removed from a cosmopolitan milieu, took great pains to act out her dream of becoming an opera singer and to sing at Milan's La Scala. It was a tremendous goal, a long arduous journey and I was proud to have made her acquaintance.
The guitar was tuned and I announced it.
"Very well, Mr. Durrell," said Janet, in a jocular voice, "you've eaten, and now you must play for your supper."
"Gladly," said I, with a flourish of my hand a bow, "but I'll need a chair."
"Use mine. We'll sit on the love seat."
Sitting down and adjusting the guitar, I strummed a little to warm up my fingers then announced to my audience: "In honor of this occasion, and because I am sitting next to this beautiful harp and because I have been treated royally by my tow fine hostesses, I shall play, Fantasia que contrahaze la harpa en la manera de Ludovico, by Alonso Mudarra."
"Bravo!" called out Janet, "I know it." She clapped and so did Ruth and I felt I was in front of a large and appreciative audience at a very important concert.
The Fantasia I played was a delicate piece; I'd not played it in a long time, but my fingers were certain and because I was so happy (as I usually am when I play) I played the simple piece with a warmth I'd not ever experienced with it before. Being a short work, it was over in less than five minutes; but my enthusiastic audience applauded and called out, "Encore, encore!" I stood up and bowed with a big grin on my face, resat and prepared for my encore.
"My next piece is by the famous Francisco Tarrega, Recuerdos de la Alhambra." It is one of my favorite guitar pieces, and I played this vibrant, slightly melancholic piece with all my heart. I could tell Ruth and Janet truly appreciated the piece, for when it was finished there was a silence in that small room, a reverent silence which, some-how, bound us together in time, space and musical vibration. My head was bowed, my eyes were closed, I felt our silence deeply and I was glad to be where I was with the mother and daughter who had been so very kind to a complete stranger. When I raised my head and opened my eyes, they burst out with bravos and an appreciative clapping which I accepted most graciously because I knew it was from their hearts.
"Thank you," I said, standing and taking a bow.
"You are a superlative and accomplished musician, Mr. Durrell. You are doubly welcome to our house," said Janet; and she got up from the love seat, walked over to me and, extending her hand, shook mine and said, "Thank you; my father would have loved having his instrument played so beautifully," she said, brushing away two tears welling up in her eyes; then turning, called to Ruth. "Ruthie, now it's your turn. Come along."
For more than half an hour Ruth sang with Janet's excellent accompaniment on the harp. Ruth's voice was clear and well-controlled. She had a natural talent which I knew would develop with time, proper training and practice. Her sweet voice endeared me to her.
That night I sat listening to her angelic voice fill the small music room, hovering in the air, clinging to everything. The lighting in the room seemed to get brighter the longer she sang; and at one point I shaded my eyes. When the last notes of Shenandoah faded, it was my turn to burst into applause and shouts of "Brava! Bravissima!" She blushed and bowed deeply, gracefully and I knew, as I saw her bow, she would one day have her dream come true.
Janet announced the intermission and we all went to the kitchen where tea was made and Ruthie served us some cookies she said she'd made, but would not eat because she still had to sing. As we drank our tea and ate the cookies I asked, "And you say you have these recitals every Friday?"
"Yes, for the last year or so--that's when Ruth decided singing was what she wanted most in her life."
"Commendable, absolutely commendable. Your encour-agement will take her far. I compliment you. It's not every mother who would put herself out as you have. Does Ruth have a voice teacher?"
"Yes; in fact she's a former Brawley faculty member, Caterina Sandini--she used to direct the Brawley chorus and teach piano; but she's retired now and lives not far from us--just down the road. I think you'd like her, Mr. Durrell. She likes guitar music, too."
"I'd like to meet her. I like musical people."
"And she's funny," added Ruth with a giggle, and she stood up, put one hand at her side, threw back her head, pursed her lips, and, in a deeper voice, and rolling her Rs, mimicked her voice teacher: "Now signorina, you must stand straight and breath deeply, deeply, like this--" and Ruth breathed deeply, exaggeratingly so, and, exhaling, contin-ued: "Remember, the breath, the breath is so very important. No correct breath, no good singing. No?" and she burst into laughter and so did we.
"Ruthie, that's not kind. Caterina is the most impor-tant person in your musical life--she's your teacher," said Janet, frowning, but, at the same time obviously amused by her daughter's skit.
"Yes, mother," she answered demurely, nevertheless rejoined with her smile and wit--"but she's still funny." Janet looked at her with a smile and a shake of her head. It was obvious to me that there was a great affection and respect between Ruth and her mother; it was warm and shared; not strained. The comfortableness they felt in each other's company was transferred, also, to me, their solitary guest.
Ruth looked at her watch. "Intermission's over," and we trooped back to the music room. "I'll be singing Plaisir D'Amour, so if you'll tune the guitar I'd appreciate it."
"Very well," I answered. When it was tuned I played the introduction and waited for her to begin. Without missing a beat, she began the old love song. Her phrasing was perfect. Again her crystal voice filled the room making it magic. Janet was sitting on the love seat; Ruth was standing, more or less, in the middle of the room facing her mother; but then turned and faced me, her face beaming with the joy of music and her green, beautiful eyes were staring right at me. Knowing the song well, I did not need to look at the music, so our eyes met and when they did I almost lost the beat, for in her eyes I could read infatuation--and, frankly--it startled me. Nevertheless, I continued playing without mishap. But I was glad when the song was over.
The hour was late. After putting away the guitar and after declining a cup of tea (pleading the hour) I asked to be driven back.
Janet was quiet most of the drive back, but Ruth went on chatting about this and that in he girlish way. Her polished, almost professional demeanor while she had sung and the juxtaposition of her teenage spontaneity were a marvel to me.
At my front door, with the engine still running, we traded phone numbers and amenities. Janet shook my hand, "Mr. Durrell, it was sublime pleasure having had you as our guest; and I extend our welcome to you to come and visit us again for our Friday recitals." And Ruth burst forth: "Can you come next Friday, Bob, and bring your guitar? Can you practice Manha de Carnaval? I want to sing it next Friday."
"Ruthie," said Janet a little embarrassed.
"It's okay, Mrs. Canfield, I like her enthusiasm--and I won't have to practice much, I know it, too. I'd like to accompany you. You're quite a talented young lady, and it would be my pleasure. Thank you again, both of you, for a wonderful evening. I'll call during the week. Good night."
Janet put the pick-up in gear and drove off slowly, but not before she gave me a big, friendly grin and a wave of her hand. Ruth stuck her head out of the window. "See you next week. Good night, Bob."
Afterward, I reflected on the pleasant evening and the strange way I'd met Ruth--and all the time I could see her beautiful green eyes in my mind's eye. They were singing to me; and with that image, I fell asleep in my chair.
All the next week I was the earnest task master and devoted my days to teaching and my evenings to correcting papers and preparing lessons, listening to the autumn winds sough through the trees outside my cottage and, playing my guitar. So absorbed was I in my busy week that it wasn't until Friday that I realized my work-week was over and had the weekend free. At lunch time, when I went to my faculty mailbox I found a telephone message. "You are cordially invited, also, to dinner; and, of course, the recital. Will you come? Ruth."
The seeing of her name brought her gem-green eyes to mind. I'd not planned anything for dinner. It being noon, and knowing no one to be at the Canfield home, I got the number of the bus depot and called. Janet answered. When She understood it was I, she said, "I'm sorry I didn't call you myself. But it's always busy here Fridays. Anyway, will you come for dinner? I'd like that. We're going to have a pork roast, pasta and Puccini arias for the recital. What do you say?"
How could I refuse? but added: "Have you prepared a dessert?:"
"Then allow me to bring something."
"Very well--and don't forget to bring your guitar."
"I won't. What time shall I come?"
"Any time after six."
So began a weekly ritual I came to look forward to. The food was always delicious, the music the three of us made was excellent and gradually I began to feel a deep attach-ment to the Canfield women--especially Janet, but there was always Ruth's almost pained look whenever Janet and I would demonstrate our growing affection for one another. I knew if I did not say something to janet there might be pain and resentment should we decide to make a permanent commitment.
Christmas vacation rolled by. For fifteen days the school would be in recess and I would be free to indulge myself until the fifth of January. On the first day of my winter vacation, while I was sitting in front of my fire-place drinking my morning coffee and trying to decide whether I should practice my guitar, go for a long walk or read--or all three, I heard a knock on my door. Not expec-ting anyone, I was surprised at the knock. When I opened the front door there stood Ruth, a long, bright red scarf around her throat and head, and over her torso a heavy, bulky sweater which made her seem plump, hiding her svelte figure. Her visit was indeed a surprise, but I began to wonder why she was here. I invited her in and offered her some refreshment, and as we sat in front of the fire I asked, "What brings you out so early in the morning?"
"I just thought I'd come and spend the morning with you. Do you mind my being here?"
"No; but I wish you would've called first."
"Oh, I thought you'd like a surprise, but I won't stay long...only...well...I thought...I mean, there's no school and mom's at work until five...and I don't really feel like staying alone in the house...and here you are in the same situation..."
I decided to be a polite host, but I had serious reservations about being alone with Ruth whose infatuation with me was strong, and, at times, I sensed a little jealousy in her about the affection growing between Janet and me.
There was a long, tense silence as we two sat in front of the fire drinking our coffee. It was then I decided to speak to Ruth about her mother and me.
"Ruthie, your mother and I think highly of each other and...well..."
"Do you mean you're in love? That's great! Will you ask mom to marry you? I hope so, Bob."
"Hey, hold on a minute. You've got us in love and married all in one breath." She had an excited, dreamy look in her eyes and she was looking directly at me and suddenly by what she'd said I intuited that what I thought was girlish infatuation was not that at all but something else. But to confirm my intuition I asked, "Do you ever think of your father?"
She blinked her eyes and her entire expression changed. "Dad? No; never--never think of him; he's not around and, frankly, I don't care," she ended, turning away from me and folding her arms and staring at her shoes. "Why'd you talk about that man; just when I was hoping you'd marry mom and be my dad," she said almost dejectedly
There, it was out and my intuition proved correct: She was not infatuated with me; she wanted me to be her father! I was touched, my eyes watered and I wiped the nascent tears from my eyes. This young soprano loved me as would a daughter. I was moved to embrace her, but I sat and sipped my coffee not really knowing what to say. Again we sat in a long silence. It was not an uncomfortable silence; I rather enjoyed it. We were like old friends between whom a lot of talking is not necessary.
Ruth got up and, walking up to me, put her hand on my shoulder. I turned and met her gaze. "I apologize for having such a big mouth, Bob. I shouldn't have said what I did. After all, it's up to you and mom if you want to marry--I don't have any say about it at all."
"But you do," I piped back. "I couldn't--wouldn't marry her if you didn't like me--but now everything is different."
"It is?" she said excitedly.
"Why yes--everything." And I got very excited and began to speak quickly. "Ruthie, I thought you were infatuated with me and were sometimes jealous--especially when I'd put my arm around your mother. But that wasn't so. Now I understand."
"Of course it wasn't so. I've liked you from the first time we met and if I seemed to be jealous--well it wasn't jealousy, it's because I know my mom and she's a very sensitive person and I didn't want her to get hurt. She had a boyfriend a couple of years ago and I didn't like him; he wasn't musical enough to suit me. Well, he used to sweet talk her, but all the time I knew he wasn't serious. And later they broke up and she cried a lot after Jim. I liked you, but I wanted to be sure you weren't going to hurt mom."
"And when did you decide I was serious?"
She giggled and covered her mouth with two hands, "When I knew you liked my singing. Isn't that silly, Bob?"
"Yes and no--I don't care. You know, Ruthie, you've made me very happy!" I almost shouted it. I wanted to call Janet on the phone and ask her to marry me right then and there; but I thought I'd better wait for an appropriate time; after all, we'd known each other for only four months, but in that time had fallen in love. I did suggest, however, we go into town and have lunch with Janet.
Janet was surprised to see us walk into the depot.
"We've come to take you out to lunch," said I. Janet smiled. "That's fine with me. I'll be relieved in about ten minutes. Did you have any place in particular in mind?"
"Not really. But I've always wanted to try the restaurant in the hotel. What do you say?"
"A good choice. Why don't you two go over and get us a table. They get pretty crowded at noon."
"Okay; let's go Ruth."
As we started toward the door Ruth turned and called back: "Hey mom, what's the cost of round trip tickets for two to Niagra Falls?"
Janet looked at her quizzically. Then Ruth started to hum the wedding march from "Lohengrin," then skipped out the front door with a mischievous grin on her face.
We found a table; and in not too long a time the hotel's dinning room was filled. A waiter, known to Ruth, approached our table. "Hi Jake," said Ruth. "Hi yourself. Your mom just called to say her relief hasn't shown up yet, but for you two to go ahead and order and she'll be over as soon as she can."
We were both hungry, so we ordered. We were having an animated conversation when all of a sudden, Ruth, who was facing the door stopped talking in the middle of one of her cogent arguments and turned pale. I expressed my immediate concern at the abrupt change in her comportment.
"Ruthie, what's up? Are you ill?" she did not answer me but kept looking toward the door. I put my hand on her cheek and turned her face to mine. "What's wrong?' I asked again. She pulled her face away from my hand, but, at last, answered me.
"The man who just walked in, the one with the blue scarf--he's my...that man...I hate him...my father," she said bitterly, then getting up from the table walked toward the ladies room. Some minutes later Janet, full of apolo-gies, walked in; and when I told her what had happend she did not move a muscle or bat an eye, but turned and looked across the large dinning room, stared for a moment then faced me.
"That's Donovan. Excuse me, I'll go see about Ruthie. Order me the chicken special. I'm hungry and his appearance isn't going to upset my appetite. I'll be back shortly."
What went on between daughter and mother? I never asked; but by the time our orders were brought they were both back and ate; but we were all three of us, silent during our lunch which had started out on such a jolly note.
Janet reached over and put her hand on mine and spoke in a low voice. "I think you ought to know that my divorce was not a pleasant one. Donovan had a roving eye and no sense of responsibility. I tried to look the other way, but I finally had to confront him about his infidelities--and the next morning he was gone"--and snapped her fingers--"just like that. Ruth was very attached to her father. She never got over his leaving. He never communicated with her, never. That's all I wanted to say, Bob."
I squeezed her hand, nodded and we continued our lunch.
The lunch crowd started to thin and between us and "that man" (as Ruthie referred to him) were no customers. He could see us and we could see him. Ruth kept her face down close to the plate and refused to look up. Janet, on the other hand, showed no change in her comportment; she ate slowly and with grace as she always did. Ruth mumbled something.
"What did you say?" asked Janet.
"It doesn't matter," she said surely.
"But it must matter, otherwise you wouldn't have said anything. Speak up. You mustn't hold back your feelings."
Ruth looked up from her plate and, instead of responding to her mother she spoke to me: "Why did he have to come and spoil things for us just when you were going to ask mom..."
Anticipating the rest of her sentence, I cut her off. "Ruth--don't say it--that's my business. Please don't spoil things for me."
She looked at me with eyes wide open. My voice had not been harsh but it had been forceful.
"I'm sorry," she said curtly. "I won't let the cat out of the bag," then lowered her head and continued eating her lunch.
Janet turned to me. "What's between you two--and I know it involves me? What cat was she about to let out of the bag?"
Right then and there I found myself in a rather awkward position. "I'll explain later."
"No; I want an explanation now--if you don't mind," she added mildly and with a smile to seduce me into telling her what Ruth had been about to expose.
"I can't tell you. This is neither the time nor the place--and I don't like to be pushed into a corner," said I, shooting a glance at Ruth which Janet saw.
"Okay, don't tell me here; but I do believe I deserve an explanation."
"You're right; and at the proper time you shall know all. Now let's change the subject and address our energies to the problem at hand, namely, your ex-husband, who, I believe, is on his way to our table."
He was about five foot nine with sandy colored hair, a thick moustache stood out on his sickly face, which made him seem older than his years; he wore a plain brown suit with a green tie. I got a good look at him and immediately disliked him.
"Hello, hello, Janet," he said in a perjurous voice, "what a pleasant surprise seeing you, and Ruth," he said as if she had just appeared, "how big you've grown. Mind if I sit down?"
Janet frowned. "What ill-wind brought you to town, Donovan? The last child support check you sent was from down south."
"That's right: Atlanta, Jacksonville, New Orleans--the company keeps me on the move. I'm up here on business--sales are great this time of the year. Mind if I sit down?' he asked again as if he'd not already asked once before.
"Yes, as a matter of fact, I do mind. I'm on my lunch hour and I've got about ten minutes left. If you've got something to say, say it--and be quick about it." Her tone was firm and cold and so unlike the Janet I had come to love.
"Same old Janet--haven't changed at all. Well, I just thought I'd come over and wish you a Merry Christmas--for whatever it's worth. What would you like for Christmas, Ruthie?" he asked turning to her.
She looked him coldly in the eyes and said, "I'd like you to leave town and never come back!" and she stood up, threw her napkin on the table and holding her head high, her shoulders straight (like a young diva giving a performance) she said, "Mother, I shall wait for you and Bob at the depot," with which she left the table and walked away.
Donovan stood there impassive. He had been rebuffed by his ex-wife, insulted by his daughter and he didn't show any kind of emotion; he just stood there with a cheater's grin on his face which made me want to shake him.
"So you're Bob. Pleased to met you. Donovan's my name," and he put out his hand. I stood up and faced him. "Sir, you spoiled our very fine lunch. Obviously you are not welcome by either Janet or Ruth--nor by myself; so if you would kindly remove yourself, you would show you have the vestiges of common courtesy." I was a bit hot under the collar. He just looked at me without a change in his expression.
"Well, so long, folks, it was real nice seeing you, Janet. A Merry Christmas. See you around." He turned and I watched him go back to his table. Let's get out of here," I said.
Back at the depot we found Ruth sitting in the small waiting room reading a magazine. As we approached she looked up. "Has he gone?"
"No, dear; he's here on business. Let's change the subject," said Janet.
"Since our lunch was spoiled," I interjected, "I'm inviting you both out to dinner tonight, and then we can go back for Friday's recital." I was still upset at what had happened. I'd worked hard through the years to keep my life on an even keel; I had had enough turbulence in my youth and I like peace and will go to great lengths to have it.
"Fine with me," answered Janet, who was now back behind the ticket counter. "Chose the hour and we'll be ready."
"I want to eat pizza tonight," said Ruth, "can we go to the Italian restaurant. I love their pizza."
"What about you, Janet?" I asked.
"Italian," she said cheerfully and reached out her hand and took mine in hers and said in a stage whisper, "You know what Bob? You're one hell of a guy."
I tightened my fingers on her hand. I was gazing into her beautiful eyes and enjoyed loving her in that moment in a way I'd not known before. "And you're one hell of a woman...and well, I'll tell you later."
"Tell me what? What's all the mystery about?"
"I'll tell you later," I said, grinning and still looking into her eyes. Then a voice from behind said, "Listen, if you love birds want to coo, let me buy a ticket first." I turned to see an elderly woman standing behind me and behind her other people waiting to purchase tickets. I blushed. "Excuse me, ma'am," said I, letting go of Janet's hand, and stepping aside telling her I'd pick her up at seven and that Ruthie and I were going to spend the rest of the afternoon together. We left.
Instead of any of the things I was going to do that day, Ruth and I went for a long walk up and down the banks of Rik's Creek. We hardly spoke. But when we stopped and sat on a weathered, branchless, fallen tree, Ruth opened up and began a diatribe against her father which made me wince.
"I'd buried him long ago. I killed him, cut him up into small pieces and buried him as deep as I could--his body parts were all up and down creek. Why did he have to come back?!" She screamed this last outburst, and, picking up a large stone, she hurled it with all her might into Rik's Creek, making a geyser and hundreds of rippling, concentric circles. Ruth burst into tears and fell into my arms and wept and wept. "I Hate him! I hate him!" she said over and over again. I kept silent but held her and stroked her head and rocked her in my arms. She was in a lot of pain; but I knew that nothing I could say or do would change anything. Many years before, a little girl hurt because of her father's abandonment. had "killed" him and buried him, but now that father whom she had destroyed long ago was back--incarnate. I knew that somewhere inside Ruth there was still love for the man whom she said she hated--but her youthful adamancy would not allow her to admit of that love; and therein, I deduced, was the real reason for her tears and anger: The little girl in her truly loved, but the sixteen year old refused to allow that love to come forth. Person-ally, I did not like Donovan. He was unctuous, and I found his smiling insensitivity repugnant. But I would not insin-uate my thoughts onto this matter. I was but a newcomer into her life--even if I was almost her step-father. For the mo-ment, however, I was only a friend, and as a friend I would hold her, comfort her--but she would have to come to grips with her feelings--if not now, then one day in her life she would.
Gradually her crying diminished and she asked me to release her; I did. She went to the creek and, with cupped hands, washed her face in the icy waters of Rik's Creek while I sat and smoked my pipe and hoped she would be calmer now that she had vented her spleen and had had a good cry.
"Take me home, please," she said in a low, pathetic voice.
"Sure, I'll take you home, but first I want you to know that you're only feeling sorry for yourself and hurting yourself by the way you feel. I know you were hurt by your father, felt abandoned by him--but that was a long time ago and you're only letting the past upset your present. Get all of this behind you or you will never have peace."
She lifted her head and stared at me incredulously. "Whose side are you on, Bob?"
"I'm on your side, Ruthie. I'll always be on your side. Do you think I like to see you upset, see you rant and rave and weep? When I say to get all of this hatred for your father behind you, I mean let it go! It serves no good purpose and will only prolong your agony. If you really want to get rid of all your hurt--go tell him and get it over with."
Again she stared; her eyes opened wide and she made as if to speak, then checked herself, then opened her mouth again and said: "Okay. Don't take me home. Take me back to town. There's only one hotel, he's got to be there. Let's go," she said with determination in her voice.
I was the one who had made the suggestion and wasn't going to back down. "All right, let's go," I responded, equally determined to help her put paid to this unpleasant business.
At the hotel Ruthie boldly walked up to the front desk and asked, "Is Mr. Donovan Canfield in?"
The clerk looked at her somewhat cautiously. "Are you a friend or relative?"
"I'm his daughter. Is he in?"
"Then you don't know?"
"Know what?" she asked impatiently.
"Mr. Canfield had a stroke or a heart attack--I'm not sure which. I called the ambulance myself. He's been taken to the county hospital--about an hour ago."
She turned to me, a look of genuine sadness on her face. She swallowed hard. "Let's pick up my mon on the way," she said as she walked towards the door.
Janet and Ruth talked to the attending physician as I stood listening. Donovan had had a massive heart attack compounded by a concussion, for as he fell, he'd hit his head on something. He was conscious, but the doctor did not express much hope. "If he lives through the next twenty-four hours will be a miracle. I've talked to his personal physician and was told this is the third attack this year. I"m afraid I can't do anything more than what I've done. You can see him--but only five minutes."
Five minutes seemed to go on forever and I kept looking up at the closed door to his room. When it did open Janet came out alone. "Where's Ruthie?" I asked in a whisper. Janet beckoned me with her hand to follow her to the nurse's station and there she spoke to the nurse in a whisper and the nurse left her station immediately. Then turning to me Janet said, "He said he loved her--then...then he died."
"He's dead?" I said. She nodded. Slowly we walked back to the room.
Janet sat outside where I'd been sitting and cried. I now stepped into the room. The doctor was standing over Donovan talking to the nurse in a low voice. Ruth was sitting staring at her late father. Tears were rolling down her cheeks. The doctor closed Donovan's eyes and covered his face with the bed sheet. He and the nurse left quietly to leave Ruth with her grief. From her pocket she took a tissue and wiped her eyes and blew her nose then stood up and, reaching out pulled back the sheet covering Donovan's face, bent over and kissed both his cheeks. And then, taking a deep breath she began to sing Shenandoah, which in spite of her shaking voice was sung beautifully, with love and tenderness.
Donovan was buried in the local cemetery. Only the three of us and a priest attending. Afterwards we returned to Janet's house where we sat around the kitchen table drinking coffee in silence. After a while Ruth excused herself and went to her room and Janet and I were alone.
She cleared her throat. "This is not a happy time for us, Bob. I'm sorry you've got to suffer this with us."
"I'm glad I'm with the both of you in this. I'm not exactly a stranger."
She smiled. "Thank you--only you shouldn't have to be burdened with our grief."
"I assure you, I am not burdened. I am here to support the both of you as I can. In fact, the day Donovan died I was going to ask you to marry me--and I'm asking you now--in spite of the circumstances. Janet, I want you and Ruthie to be part of my life; I want us to be a family--a musical one, a trio," I said trying to bring a little levity into the sadness of the day. "Will you marry me?"
A look of utter surprise came over her face. "Marriage? I...well I need to..." her voice trailed off.
"Not today, not tomorrow, but soon. Perhaps this was not a good time, but, why not?" I said.
Recovering from her surprise, she stood up and walked to the sink looking out of the window and staring into the gray, winter afternoon. Slowly turning I could see tears in her eyes. She stood for some moments at the sink looking at me. "As you said, 'why not'." And rushing to me she pulled me out of my chair and we embraced a long, tender time.
We were married on new year's day. That was five years ago. Shortly after our wedding Ruth received a letter from her late father's former employer. Donovan had a life insurance policy, one of the company's benefits, and she was the sole beneficiary of fiftythousand dollars plus all wages and commissions due the deceased which would be paid out to her forthwith.
Ruth is now studying voice at the Santa Cecilia Conservatory of Music in Rome. She often sends us tapes. Her voice is maturing and I know she will one day sing at La Scala. Donovan's death gave life to her career.
Janet and I go fishing and walking at Rik's Creek, and we have continued the Friday night recitals; sometimes we invite Ruth's former voice teacher and some other musicians I have met, and we make music long into the night.
." her voice trailed off.
"Not today, not tomorrow, but soon. Perhaps this was not a good time, but, why not
r surprise, she stood up and walked to the sink looking out of the window and staring into the gray, win
We were married on new year's day. That was five years ago. Shortly after our wedding Ruth received a letter from her late father's former employer. Donovan