(Early Spring 1964)
Euphony: A harmonious succession of words having a pleasing sound
Adelaide had just discovered the word euphony in a 1934 Webster’s in Past Perfect, an antique shop and her new place of employment. She wondered why she hadn’t heard that word in any of the night classes she was taking. Her professors never used it, not even Mr. Staley, who taught a class in poetry. She wished she had known it from the very beginning, from Mrs. Campbell’s first grade.
As interesting as she found their meanings, mere definitions of words never sufficed. And now, she had euphony for how she felt when she put them together and said them aloud. She pulled her journal from within her cherry roll-top desk and wrote: Perhaps to reach landfall by evening/Or to stay adrift forever/Watching iridescent stars, one by one/Shimmer toward the purple sea.
The journal, which she began as an assignment in last year’s English class, also served as a memory book about her father. When she reread the entries, she found herself better able to understand how his life influenced her own, the sequence of events that led to his death, and her feelings about him—good and bad: the warm, gentle Papa of empty promises and the drunken parent who terrified her and left her on shaky ground, as though she were always walking around blindfolded, stumbling, afraid of the next moment. Her journal helped put those years in perspective, placed the fears outside herself without renouncing her love or disowning him.
Her more recent writing, however, had not been about her father. Both her neighbors on Puddingstone Hill had lost someone last fall, and although she felt sad for Kate, whose grandmother had died, the left-slanting loops of her words filled pages about Bobby Snow. He’d taken his own life with his father’s World War II souvenir. The news sent chills through her body, and emptiness at the loss of her father—quieted somewhat by the intervening years—reawakened and enveloped her. Could she have done something to help? There must have been something. But what?
When Adelaide heard the door to the shop jingle open, she put the journal back in the desk. A glance toward the entrance and she knew it was him. His sixth visit to Past Perfect, she thought, and then felt herself blush slightly about keeping count of the young man’s visits. His arrival always made her heart jumpy, set it off in directions as erratic as the flight path of a grasshopper. Was it just because it was spring? Well, early spring anyway. There was that occasional warm breeze that blew from the south, and she’d even seen a crocus or two poking their heads up through soft, cold dirt beside the library.
She didn’t even know his name. But then she didn’t know a lot of people who came looking for antiques. Unlike the customers at her previous job at Harris’s Grocery Store—who were her Kettle Crossing neighbors and people she’d known all her life—the people who came into Past Perfect were mainly tourists, or they were dealers who picked up items at discount for their own shops in other towns or distant cities.
To occupy herself, Adelaide grabbed a feather duster and busily dusted everything in sight. She liked the old things in this place. The owner, Edith Rich, artfully arranged them, from bottles to maps and pictures and things made of wood such as desks, bureaus, and even a Victrola with an assortment of thick 78 rpm records. Here, unlike Harris’s, everything had a history. Not that she would have gone looking for a job in an antique shop. The small grocery had been fine, and she would gladly have stayed if the owner, an elderly gent, hadn’t felt the need to sell it to two newcomers who decided to wear all the hats.
Things for Adelaide worked out all right. Edith welcomed the help and trusted Adelaide to maintain the shop while she was away on buying trips.
She heard his voice, but not his words. They came from near the door where a captivating show of light and shadow flitted across a window and mirrored in it the promise of sunny days and bright new leaves bordering Main Street. He stood, a dark outline in the deep recess of a corner, next to a china cupboard with some prints stacked against its base.
Adelaide moved closer.
He pointed to a recently acquired painting. His glasses framed his hazel eyes, which scrutinized a stern-looking schoolmarm holding a stick and appearing to dole out advice to her students.
“School. I remember it well,” he said.
“Me too,” Adelaide ventured.
The picture behind the glass in an embellished gold frame did remind her of her days in the old elementary school, especially the harsh, unhappy Miss Green, who’d taught her in fourth grade.
“I liked it in spite of the teacher,” she added. In her mind she remembered how the word bomb described the teacher’s explosions of temper and the duck-and-cover bomb drills that sent students beneath their desks.
“Studious type, no doubt,” he said, inspecting the frame.
“Afraid so,” Adelaide said, instantly regretting the admission. She’d thought he must be studious, too. Hadn’t he come in here time and again and studied everything in the shop? But, studious or not, it sounded as though he didn’t appreciate that quality in others. She turned away.
“My name’s Turner Benson,” he said.
“Adelaide Lemire.” She didn’t turn from her dusting.
He walked quickly by her in the narrow aisle between two highboys. As he passed his fingers brushed against her hand. She pulled her hand away as though she’d burned it on a hot pan.
Suddenly he was in front of her, facing her, blocking her. For an awkward moment they faced each other. She was aware of what they would look like to anyone entering the shop; two young people standing almost eye to eye, both slim, with long limbs, brown hair.
“I was a reject myself,” he said.
She knew she was staring at him but didn’t avert her eyes. “Surely you aren’t going to tell me you didn’t do well in school.”
“All As, unfortunately,” he said. He picked up a blue Delft coffee grinder and swung the handle back and forth with the index finger of his right hand.
“Unfortunately? A reject?”
“A high school reject,” he answered. “You know, a social reject.”
“How about you, Adelaide? May I call you that? Miss Lemire sounds so formal for a steady customer like me.”
Something came to mind from an old song—“Far Away Places”—she used to sing on her walk down Puddingstone Hill. There was pleasure and enticement in the unknown. Books gave her that, but so had the movie Picnic. Her Aunt Francine took her when she was hardly old enough for grownup movies, but she did recognize that a stranger had entranced Kim Novak.
“Of course you may,” Adelaide said. But how could he claim to be a customer when he never bought anything? “Well,” she said, then paused to choose the right words to answer his first question, “the teachers always liked me, but no one else seemed to know I was alive.”
Oh Lord, let that be the right thing to say, she thought, but then decided because it was the truth, it would have to do.
“Me too,” he replied.
“I wasn’t just your usual reject,” he said, placing the coffee grinder back on its shelf. “I was clumsy, real clumsy. Got an award for it.”
“You’re not serious,” she said, and couldn’t help but laugh. She’d caught on that the glint in his eyes was more than a reflection of his glasses. Still, she’d never had this teasing kind of conversation before.
“Oh yes. Very serious. Superlatives. You know, everyone votes on who’s most popular, best dancer, et cetera. Well, me, I got clumsiest.”
“But you weren’t really, were you?” He didn’t look at all clumsy.
“Do you want to hear the worst of it?”
“Only if you want to tell it.”
“Well, I’ll tell you and then you’ll let it go, right?”
“Me? Agreed.” She laughed again. The laughter healed hollow edges inside her and with that, possibilities took flight. The maw of self-doubt, legacy of an uncertain childhood, retracted slightly.
“Well, when they were passing out the awards, there were three steps to the platform and . . .”
“You fell down the steps?”
“No, actually, I fell up them.” He checked his watch. “Got to go. See you next time.”
Next time sounded fine, but Adelaide’s curiosity now got the better of her. If she had to make up a story about him, what would she say? He always seemed to arrive and leave at the same time each Sunday. Where did he come from? Why was he here? Where did he go when he left Past Perfect? And why did he keep coming in, turning over the same objects? By now he must have seen everything in the shop at least twice.
“‘The fecund sea turned feculent.’ What is this?”
Adelaide fidgeted in her chair in Professor Moreau’s office and silently chastised herself. More than two years of this and still cowed by authority. She blushed with shame at her inability to confront her English professor. Perhaps because what he was saying was so unexpected. She’d come to this appointment expecting praise, not ridicule. Understandably, he would present a point or two about her short story, find something she had overlooked, suggest ways to improve it. But she hadn’t expected this type of criticism.
Nonetheless, she mustered the courage to question his judgment. “You said you didn’t want to read nice. You wanted real.”
“Oh, yes. Granted, it is an improvement over last week’s assignment. Purple stars, wasn’t it?” He raised his flinty eyes toward baggy brows in mock disbelief. Then his gaze returned to her. Adelaide dropped her eyes to his pointed beard. “Iridescent stars . . . purple sea.” Her voice faltered.
“So far, Miss Lemire, I know more about the sea and the stars than I do about the characters. Life isn’t all moonbeams and purple stars.” He paused the length of a breath. “No need for a Promethean effort on your part. Just get down to Earth and forget the sentimental stuff. You know,” he said, softening his voice, “I think you’ll make one fine teacher. But the writing . . .” He let his sentence trail off in dismissal.
Her mind ruminated on his words and their implication long after she left his office, even through the weekend and into her Sunday at the shop.
Adelaide decided to close the shop early because of the storm. Spring and snow! She wanted more sun and crocuses and daffodils and new leaves, and she wanted Turner to come through the door, snow or no snow.
Wet and heavy flakes fell beyond the window as she buttoned up for the walk home. She repeated to herself that it was okay he hadn’t shown up this Sunday. The roads were probably getting slick. At least she’d managed to learn more about him over the past few weeks. He was in his last year at Boston University as a prelaw student. Each Sunday he drove his father, who had trouble with his eyes, to visit his ailing sister, Bertha Trombley. Adelaide knew Bertha. She’d been the town librarian until she’d become ill. Adelaide remembered her as a small gray-haired lady with twinkling eyes.
The door opened with a jingle and a blast of icy wind. With the sound of his voice, something like joy leaped inside her. He asked to walk her home.
“Yes, in just a minute.” Yes! Yes! Yes! She’d never been anywhere, really, just lost in faraway places within books. The faraway places were calling—he was calling. Wasn’t he? “I have a couple of things to do first,” she added, trying to keep her voice steady.
“I’ll wait outside.”
“Not me.” No smile accompanied his words. He looked so serious. Adelaide hoped Bertha hadn’t taken a turn for the worse. No, he wouldn’t have left his father alone with her had anything happened.
Maybe, as they sometimes did when there were no customers, he wanted to discuss serious subjects. President Kennedy’s assassination a few months ago, a new president in office—the focus of newspapers, magazines, and television news that one couldn’t escape, even in a small New Hampshire town. Increasingly, the world invaded the tiniest, quietest, remotest of places. It no longer knocked at the door. It invited itself into the living room. Terrible images penetrated her thoughts and threatened to take up permanent residence in her memory. Blood on a pink suit, for example. Every death, especially those by violence—like her neighbor Bobby Snow’s—was too close to home.
By the time Adelaide put on her coat and went out, he was gone. She looked around. He must have changed his mind, she thought. Her disappointment was as heavy as the outside world and her old coat.
Then something caught her eye. There he was, in a row of saplings next to the shop; the tree limbs doubled over by the weight of heavy wet snow. He stood silently, his arms out to his sides, snow packed on his shoulders, large soggy flakes falling on his head and dripping down his face, his glasses opaque with steam.
“What are you doing?” she called, relieved that he hadn’t left.
“Come here,” he called back.
Adelaide hadn’t planned for the change in the weather. Winter gear had already been put away, boots left on a mat in the shed. She approached, carefully placing her loafers in his larger footprints.
When she got close, he said, “Who am I?”
“Turner Benson, of course.”
“No. No. No. Where’s your imagination, Adelaide Lemire? Tut. Tut. Tut.”
“I don’t know,” she said.
“I’m a tree! You couldn’t tell? See?” he said as she moved nearer. “I’m a tree covered with snow.” He swayed. “I bend, I bend, I b-r-e-a-k.” He keeled over.
“Turner, get up. You’re getting all wet!” But she had moved too close and he grabbed her ankle and pulled her down. “What are you thinking of?” she said trying to get back up. Was this the grave young man who’d left the shop a few minutes before?
“This,” he said, pulling her toward him. “I’m thinking of this. Lately, it’s all I can think about. The absolute nitty-gritty. Kiss me.”
Adelaide looked at his eyes, which looked intently back. She moved her face close to his and kissed him on the cheek.
“Right here,” he said, indicating his mouth.
“Right here. Right now.”
She complied. China! She’d discovered China! No time to consider that she felt 10 years old instead of 20. His next words made age a moot subject.
“Kiss me again,” he said, and she did.
She became an explorer beyond books. She saw the glint of oceans, excited schools of fish swirling their rainbow colors beneath waves. She was that new island—Surtsey—blown to the surface by a volcano erupting beneath the sea. Mountains dipped and swayed. Climates collided, desert heat burned inside, snow burned outside. She laughed and found herself entwined and rolling over and over in a thick wet bed of it.
“What am I going to tell Mama?” she said.
“About being soaking wet? About coming home early? About being with me? Or about that couple over there in the street, staring at us?”
Adelaide turned her head to find no one there. She pushed him over and fell on top of him.
“About your mother,” he said after several minutes.
“You know, your Mama?”
“What about her?” she said, kissing him again.