THE WINGTHORN ROSE
A Story of Transgression, Redemption and the Power of Love
Six-thirty a.m. Sunday morning.
It was still cool, surprisingly cool for May. Lucas had been awake for almost an hour, lying in bed on his back, watching the shadows on the white ceiling, listening to the small sounds that floated through the silence.
If he was alone, early morning was his best time. He remembered, sometimes he planned.
If he wasn’t alone, early morning was when he tried to forget.
He sat up and looked around him at the apartment in Fay Geneen’s house. The furniture was functional and bland. There were two dark prints on the living room/dining room walls. A faded still-life painting hung over the bed. The living-room carpet was a half-hearted imitation of an Oriental rug, and even less thought had been given to the dark braided rug that covered the bedroom floor. The bathroom was equipped with the chrome bars that ease the movements of elderly people.
A generic apartment.
He wondered if the rooms had been as barren when Fay’s mother had lived here. Or had Fay stripped it of its humanity when her mother died?
For Lucas, the apartment was ideal. It was temporary. It gave him nothing.
He got out of bed, smoothed out the blanket as he always did. He was naked. He went to the bathroom, showered, and brushed his hair with a few quick strokes of his fingers.
His breakfast was a glass of orange juice, a blueberry muffin and a multivitamin pill.
Lucas went into the backyard through the door that opened onto the concrete patio, furnished with a dark green wrought iron table and chairs.
He stretched his arms over his head, bent over and, keeping his knees locked, touched his toes ten times, then went around to the front of the house.
Fay Geneen was walking up the street, a few yards ahead of him. He ran to catch up to her.
She was wearing a gray sweat suit and sneakers. She walked quickly, fluidly.
At her side, he fell into the rhythm of her stride.
“Would you mind if I tag along?”
“It’s more than two miles.”
He acknowledged the challenge: “I’ll do my best.”
She glanced at him out of the corner of her eye.
“We don’t have to talk, do we?” she asked.
They followed the street uphill, for almost ten minutes, passing a few other houses, until they came to a wider, winding street that formed a “T” in front of them. Lucas recognized the cross-street. To the left it led up to the mansion on the hill. She turned right.
“This is called Schuyler’s Trace,” she said. “It was the first street in town, before there was a town.”
He didn’t respond.
A cool, soft breeze stroked his face. The sky was a clear, brittle, early-morning blue.
“In the seventeen hundreds, before the Revolutionary War, Hans Schuyler cut the Trace--just a path through the woods--built a farmhouse on the hill and cleared the land around it. Then he plowed and planted his crops.”
She looked at him, but he continued to look straight ahead, unsmiling, keeping pace with her.
“We’ll cross here and take that street to the Cascades.”
“It’s a preserve that belongs to the town. There’s a stream running through it and a waterfall--the Cascades--at the eastern end. We can follow a path that winds around through the woods. Lots of hills. It’s a good workout.”
They continued to walk uphill for a few more minutes and then came to a second “T.” Beyond was a broad stretch of forest. Tucked into the western end of the woods, just across the street to the left, was “Smythe’s Garden Center.”
Fay led Lucas to the right of the center, onto a well-worn dirt path leading into the preserve.
Under the trees, it was almost cold. Lucas shivered.
She picked up the pace.
“If Schuyler started this town, why isn’t it named after him?” he asked.
“He was Dutch, and the English weren’t about to let him give the place a Dutch name. Schuyler didn’t care. The Dutch are very good businessmen. And very tight with their money.”
“Murdoch is a Scottish name. I understand perfectly.”
“Pennington was an English settler with a small farm, and he took great pride in his name. Hans Schuyler is supposed to have said, ‘Never mind about pride. I’d rather have property.’ He got what he wanted. Eventually, Schuyler bought the whole town. Even the Pennington farm. This was always his town. Most of it still belongs to his family.”
“Is that their house on the hill?”
“Yes. The Grange. But there’s not much left of the Schuylers. An old woman and her granddaughter.”
They walked silently through the shaded woods, into a clearing now and then, and back into the cool shadows.
At first, the sound of flowing water was distant and vague. Then it began to gain volume and clarity, until it became a steady rumble. Then, through a stand of trees, he saw a narrow, twenty-foot-high waterfall cascading over rough boulders, scattering the morning light.
The path led up a hill, across a stone bridge over a stream, down to the other side of the waterfall and back toward the entrance to the preserve.
“Have you settled in?” she asked.
“Yes. I’ve opened a checking account at People’s Bank. I guess I’lI need a new driver’s license and registration, but there’s no hurry. I found Appleby’s and bought all the basics. I’ve already cooked a few meals. And I’ve bought an electric coffee maker. And an electric frying pan, which I use for practically everything.”
A long pause.
“My drums were in storage, but they should be here by Tuesday,” Lucas said.
“I can hardly wait.”
“The only thing I need now is a library card.”
“Stop in tomorrow and I’ll take care of it,” she said as they reached the edge of the preserve.
When they arrived at the house, she asked, “Would you like a cup of coffee? It’s already brewed.”
“Yes, thank you.”
She led him through the living room into the dining room. Motioning to the table, she asked him if he wanted cream or sugar.
She went into the kitchen.
He sat at the table and examined the dining room furniture. It was antique, but graceless. Family hand-me-downs, no doubt. An enormous breakfront dominated one wall, displaying a delicate set of china dinnerware. The chair he was sitting in was cushionless and uncomfortable. The table was a dark, clumsy slab of wood, fringed with carved chains of flowers and supported by bulbous floral columns.
Fay returned with two cups of black coffee, gave him one and sat down opposite him. She sipped hers, looking down into the cup, then glanced up at him.
“I guess Joey won’t be joining us?”
She shook her head. Frown lines appeared at the corners of her mouth.
“You’re not likely to see my brother on Sunday morning. Not around here, anyway.”
“I hope you didn’t mind me tagging along this morning.”
“I’ve been thinking about getting a job. Any suggestions?”
She shrugged. “What can you do?”
“I’ve been a salesman most of my life. But I’m adaptable. And I don’t need to be challenged. I wouldn’t mind putting stuff on shelves or unloading trucks. I have my pension to keep me warm. I just want to make a few extra dollars. Pocket money.”
She watched him over the rim of her cup.
“That’s all you want?”
“That’s all I want.”
“I’ll ask around.”
He had finished his coffee.
“Would you like another cup?”
He stood up and added, “Do you walk every morning?”
“Would it be okay if I came along once in a while?”
“Just don’t bring your drums.”
On Tuesday afternoon, Lucas sat in the sun out on the patio, reading a library book. It was a warm, comfortable day.
Joey Geneen came out of the house through a sliding door that connected Fay’s kitchen to the patio. Lucas watched him over the rims of his reading glasses.
Joey was wearing threadbare jeans, a wrinkled tee-shirt and sandals. His hair was combed but he hadn’t shaved. A cigarette drooped between his lips.
Lucas read the cigarette’s smoke signal, echoed by Joey’s eyes: “Don’t make too much noise. I’m hung over.”
He was carrying a coffee pot and two cups, which he carefully set down on the table.
He sat down opposite Lucas and asked, “Y’ want a cup?”
Lucas closed the book and put it on the table.
“Yes. Thanks,” Lucas said softly. “Black is fine.”
Joey laughed. “Black is mandatory.”
“Yeah. I worked this weekend.”
Lucas sipped his coffee and waited.
Joey stared at the sky as if he was trying to remember something. He looked down at Lucas’s book.
“What’re you reading?”
“It’s about Eisenhower and Montgomery during the Second World War.”
Joey looked at the sky again.
“Military shit. You been in the service?”
“The Army.” He added, casually, “Vietnam.”
“Like I told you, I was in the Navy over there. But the war was almost over by then.”
“You didn’t miss anything.”
“It must have been pretty bad.”
“It could have been worse. I could have been killed.”
“I was in the Gulf War, too. Just ferrying troops in.”
“When did you retire?”
“Five years ago. Maybe I should have re-upped. Maybe I should have been a thirty-year man.”
“What made you decide not to?”
“Don’ know. Some things I do very carefully. Like buying a pair of slacks, or a shirt. I can look around for weeks ‘til I find the right one. But if it’s something important, I usually make up my mind just like that.” He snapped his fingers. “My first wife--we were having breakfast and she said something that really pissed me off. So I told her I wanted a divorce.” He snapped his fingers again. “Just like that.”
Joey stretched and yawned. His face was pale and deeply lined, a wintry counterpoint to a Spring day.
He laughed. “My second wife did the same thing to me.”
“You ever been married?” Joey asked.
Lucas shook his head.
“You ever been close?”
“Well, twice is enough for me. Shit, that’s enough for anybody.”
“I don’t like women,” Joey said. “I love to fuck them, but I don’t like anything else about them. I never did. It’s like they’re all working from the same plan but they never tell us what it is. Know what I mean?”
Lucas just smiled.
“Like my mother. No matter how I screwed up, my mother always thought I was hot shit. My father died when I was a kid. I hardly remember him. And Mom just let me do whatever the hell I wanted to do. She never complained. Never got mad at me. She didn’t want me to join the Navy, but she never told me that. She told Fay, but she never told me.”
“Fay’s another fucking mystery. She went away to college and I figured she’d stay away. Like I did. She got an education. She had no ties here. She and Mom weren’t exactly buddies. But she came back. I don’t know why. She’s been here all these fucking years. Took care of Mom.”
“Did you ever ask her why?”
“We don’t talk much. She wouldn’t tell me anyway.”
“Did she ever ask you why you came back?”
“Yeah. I told her: it’s home.”
Joey poured them both another cup of coffee. He picked up the library book and looked at the cover, upside down, and returned it to the table.
“I don’t read much. A mystery or a spy story once in a while.”
“I like true stories.”
“Y’know, you can’t believe everything you read.”
“You’re right, Joey. That’s the fun of it. When you read what’s supposed to be history, some of it’s true and some of it isn’t.” He tapped the book on the table. “Eisenhower thought he knew how to win the war. And so did Montgomery. If you read Eisenhower’s book, Montgomery was wrong. If you read Montgomery’s book, Ike was wrong. And there are all kinds of opinions in between.”
“So how do you know who was right?”
“You dig. You peel away the lies. You keep digging. If you’re patient enough, you can usually find the truth.”
“Too much work,” Joey said.
“Too deep for me.”
Lucas downed the last mouthful of his coffee. “It’s just a game.”
“Just a game,” Joey repeated.
Later that afternoon, Lucas walked to the waterfall by himself.
Insect voices hummed in the air. A Babel of mismatched, dissonant birdsongs joined them.
Squirrels rushed through the branches overhead, leaping from tree to tree. Lucas could hear the hollow hoof-falls of deer, hiding in shadows.
The sounds heightened the stillness.
He watched the waterfall leap into the air and crash into the stream below, an endless watery suicide.
His gray eyes mirrored the sun-and-shade patterns of the forest around him. He felt completely alone. Completely at ease.
This would be a place to die. To disappear.
He turned and walked off the pathway, deeper into the woods. He changed direction constantly, finding open spaces between the tree-trunks, the bushes, the undergrowth. He stopped abruptly, listening. He had heard a faint new sound, the sound of bells.
He stood still, waiting for that sound again.
Only the insect voices, the dissonant birdsongs, but not the bells. After a few minutes, he began to walk again, and then he heard the bells again.
He looked up. There, like ripe silver fruit, hanging from a branch of a nearby tree, twenty feet from the ground, was a cluster of wind chimes. A squirrel running up the bole of the tree and back down again must have shaken the branch, sounding the chimes.
Wind chimes in the middle of a forest.
Who climbed that tree?
Who left behind that quiet music?
Does it mark a place to remember? A secret place?
He looked around on the ground and found a small stone. He aimed it carefully, threw it and hit them--too hard. The slim tubes crashed together, jangling harshly.
Lucas nodded and smiled, as if a question had just been answered.
On Thursday morning, Lucas went back to the waterfall. This time with Fay.
She was quiet as they approached the preserve.
There was a trace of coolness in the air as they entered the grassless, leaf-shaded areas in the woods that the sun couldn’t touch.
“There’s a side road--a loop that goes into the forest and then comes back again onto the main pathway--near the Cascades. Are you in the mood for a longer walk?” she asked.
They surprised a trio of deer grazing in a small clearing. Three tapered heads swiveled toward them, three pairs of cautious, dark brown eyes watched for a moment. Then, in graceful arcs, the three leaped away from the clearing, tawny streaks disappearing into the shadows.
After a long pause, Fay said, “You asked me about where you might look for a job. I’ve heard that someone’s leaving the nursery--the one we pass on the way here. It’s the kind of thing you said you wouldn’t mind doing: fetch and carry, that kind of thing.”
“It won’t be available for a week or so. But Henry Smythe said you should come in and talk to him.”
“Henry Smythe? Red-headed guy?”
“I met him at Sarge’s Diner, the day I came to town.”
“He’s not exactly a charmer.”
“He sounded like a preacher.”
“He almost became one. He holds Bible study classes--unofficial ones--at his house.”
“How does your minister feel about that?”
“I don’t have a minister. But I know that Reverend Stokes doesn’t like the competition.”
“I’m not a churchgoer, either.”
She didn’t respond to his confession.
“Henry doesn’t pay much attention to the nursery. Six or seven years ago, he hired a manager: a black man named Leo Sage. From Chicago. Smart guy. Leo runs the whole operation.”
“I haven’t seen any blacks in town.”
“Leo’s the only one. There’s a black neighborhood in Fulton, but Leo doesn’t hang out there, as far as I know. Doesn’t drink. Doesn’t gamble. He’s a loner. Very quiet. Keeps to himself. I guess in a town like this, that’s not surprising.”
They followed the loop deeper into the forest, then made a wide turn and started back toward the main pathway. A few paces on, he could hear the rumble of the Cascades.
“The trees have the right idea,” Fay said. “They don’t get old.”
He didn’t respond. He let her words float in the air.
She’s so accustomed to walking here by herself. She may have forgotten that I’m here.
“They live a lifetime every year. Dying every winter. But there’s always another spring. Another chance to be young. Hundreds of chances.”
She turned and looked at him.
He wasn’t ready to agree or disagree. Not yet.
He smiled at her: a neutral, passive smile.
Now she was sorry she had shared her thoughts with him. Her dark brown eyes reminded him of the deers’ eyes: alert, always anticipating flight.
She turned away.
They walked back in silence.
The next day, Lucas went to talk to Henry Smythe. When he entered the main building, a stocky black man was behind the counter speaking on the telephone, adding up a nearby customer’s bill, using sign language to tell a young man in coveralls how to line up flowerpots in a display, and smiling a greeting to Lucas.
The first three tasks completed, the man looked at Lucas and asked, “Can I help you?”
“From what I’ve heard, you must be Leo Sage.”
The man nodded and smiled slyly. “Now, how in the world did you know that?”
Lucas returned the same kind of smile. “Fay Geneen said you were in charge of everything at the nursery.”
Leo laughed. “What can I do for you?”
“My name is Lucas Murdoch. I’m here to see Henry Smythe about a job.”
“Yeah. Henry told me you’d be in. He’s not here right now, and I’m not sure when he’ll be back. But hiring and firing is my responsibility.”
“Why don’t we go to the office and talk.” He called to the young man who was eyeing the display of flowerpots with pride, “Tom! Take over the counter. I’ll be back in a little while.”
Lucas followed Leo down a corridor to an airy, high-ceilinged room. Sunlight poured through three huge windows that looked out on several greenhouses, racks of well-watered flowering plants in clusters of purple, yellow, white and pink, and rows of saplings thrusting out of burlap-wrapped globes of earth.
Leo sat down behind a large, oak work table and motioned for Lucas to sit across from him.
“Coffee?” he asked.
Leo looked out the window for a moment. Lucas studied his face. It was a handsome face, broad-boned and confident. His hair was sprinkled with gray. But his eyes didn’t tell you anything.
“I’m not sure you’ll really be interested in this job.”
“It doesn’t pay much. It’s part-time, afternoons and half a day on Saturday. And it’s really just grunt work.”
“Sounds like the ideal job for me.”
Leo watched him for a moment.
He’s looking for signals. He’s used to looking for signals. And he’s used to hiding his own.
“I’m retired. I’ve got a pension. This isn’t a second career. Just a way to make a few extra dollars.”
“Henry told me about you. He says that you’re living at Fay’s place.”
“She’s the one who told me about the job.”
“You plan to stay in Pennington for a while?”
“Maybe for good.”
He’s not comfortable with me.
“Why not? I grew up in a small town. And you’re living here, aren’t you? Fay said you’re from Chicago. If you can be happy here, why can’t I?”
“How do you know I’m happy?”
“I don’t. But I think I can be.”
Leo looked out the window again, then back at Lucas.
“You’d be doing the kind of things Tom does--that kid you saw setting up the flowerpots: stocking shelves, watering plants, loading customers’ cars, cleaning up, and whatever else I can think of. I’ll give you five dollars an hour. You work every weekday afternoon from one o’clock to five. Every other Saturday morning, from eight to noon. And it won’t start for another week--a week from next Monday.”
“Sounds fine. By the way, I don’t know anything about flowers.”
“Don’t worry, you won’t be giving anyone gardening tips. You can leave that to me. And we’ll try to educate you as we go along.”
Leo stood up and extended his hand.
A friendly gesture, but he still isn’t comfortable with me. Good.
Lucas shook his hand.
“I’ll see you in a week,” Leo said. “The first day you come in, you can fill out your tax forms and any other paperwork.”
“Thanks. I’m looking forward to it.”
“See you then.”