“Hey,” the guy says, walking over to him.
“I live here,” Rich says, standing his ground.
The guy sticks out his hand. “Matt Long.” He gestures towards the girl, “My wife, Gloria.”
“I live here,” Rich says again, refusing his hand.
“Nice to meet you,” the guy says, standing more upright now, in good shape, slightly taller than Rich who’s nearly six feet. His baseball cap says Southwest Windpower. “I’m renting a slip here,” the guy says.
“There’s no place to walk,” Rich says, staring at the cluttered pier.
The girl walks over, stands between them. “We can move the kayaks,” she says.
“I’ll be tying up our sailboat here tomorrow,” the guy says. “I rented a slip from Bob.”
“We can tie the kayaks behind it,” the girl says.
“Which slip?” Rich asks, his boat the only one docked on the pier, the other three slips empty since he’s been living here the past five years.
The guy shrugs. “Doesn’t matter to me.”
Rich gestures towards the slips on the other side of the dock, a sweeping motion that is more about sending this couple on their way, off his rented property for good.
He points up at the one-story house on a bluff. The whole front made of glass, curtains never needed before. “I live here. It’s a fish bowl. I live in a fish bowl.”
“Well, it was nice to meet you,” the guy says. “What’s your name again?”
“Rich,” he says. “I live here.”
“Well, see ya tomorrow, Rich,” the guy says.
The next day, Rich sits at his computer, stares out the window, the same lone, blue heron poised on the dock staring back, holding his slender body perfectly still. Rich called his landlord after the couple left last night, complained about his loss of privacy.
“Times are tough, Rich—I needed to rent that slip,” Bob said.
“Do you even know where they’re from?”
“They were out in Arizona, but they’ve been here going on ten years,” Bob said. “They have a flower farm in Galena—Galena Blooms Farm.”
“Never heard of it,” Rich said. If he needs flowers he goes to Turners—they’ve been in business as long he’s been alive: sixty-five years and counting.
Rich is just back from shopping later that day, putting the groceries away, when Gloria pulls up in the red wagon, a bike thrown in the back. She parks at the end of the private drive, takes the bike out, gets on, starts to peddle towards the dock, then slows down when she sees him standing at the door. She stops, gets off the bike, leans it against the flaming red Crapemyrtle, another non-native species gone wild. He shushes Eddy, walks out the door, that overwhelming feeling that the world is closing in on him again.
“Hi again,” she says, taking off her big dark shades. “Matt’s on the Bay now, motoring the boat over from the Chester. He’s gonna ride the bike back.”
“Where was the boat docked before?” he asks, seeing her in the light of day, not as young as she seemed last night. Late thirties, early forties, brownish-red hair pulled back in a pony tail, something so familiar about her now. Green eyes. Attractive.
“Rolph’s Wharf,” she says. “Too far from our house and the Bay.”
“So he’ll be here tonight?” he asks.
“Yeah, here’s one of our cards,” she says.
He takes the card, but he’s still looking at her, his heart remembering now—she reminds him of his first girlfriend, the one that got away all those years ago.
“You can e-mail us your concerns, and we’ll try to address them,” she says.
“What’s that?” he asks.
She repeats herself.
He nods but has never sent an email in his life.
“Nice dog,” she says, looking at Eddy through the door. “Looks like an old guy.”
“He’s only seven.”
“Oh you’re still a pup,” she says to Eddy, then walks away.
Rich turns off the lights when he sees the O’day approaching, too tired for any confrontation. He calls Eddy, makes his way into the bedroom, props his pillow up on the bed for reading. Eddy jumps up, makes himself comfortable, his head on the opposite pillow, happy to take Ruth’s place. Rich mindlessly flips through his sailing magazines. Last year he sent Ruth, his wife of over forty years, to live in the house she inherited five miles away. Now Ruth works on her quilts in Galena, and he works on his boat in peace—they stopped having sex years ago, so the only thing he really misses is her cooking, but she brings him casseroles and homemade breads, joins him for a meal every now and then.
His mind turns back to Gloria, and then further back to Karen. He hasn’t really thought about her in years, but he holds her in his heart, pure and unscathed, as beautiful as she was when they were in high school—she was two years younger than him, and when he was a senior (and she was still a virgin), she moved away, and they lost touch. Soon after he started dating Ruth, but it was never the same with her—with Ruth it just felt comfortable.
One of the orange kayaks is missing when Rich gets back from town the next day. Matt moved them to his side of the pier, stacked them up in front of his boat, Afternoon Delight—a well-used Sloop that he got a good deal on—but there’s only one kayak there now. He lets Eddy out, walks down to his boat to shine the teak. He prides himself on the maintenance of his craft, Blue Lady. Without a doubt, one of the best-looking rigs on this side of the Bay. He’s never happier than when he’s seated in her cockpit, hand on the rudder, a sunrise opening up before him. But over the past few years, the outings have been far and few between, her rigging wearing out, the engine past due for an overhaul.
He catches sight of the orange kayak coming up the creek. It’s Gloria with a red dress on, white sun hat, those big dark shades. He starts waxing the guard rail, racking his brain for what to say when she pulls up at the dock. He’ll offer to help her, of course, lend a hand in getting the kayak back up on the pier. But he needs something witty to say, something charming—
“Hey Rich,” she says approaching the dock.
He acts startled, then says, “You’re a bright bird.”
She laughs, paddles up to the dock. “I should be weeding.”
“The work is always waiting,” he says, cringing at the cliché.
She hoists herself out of the boat, up onto the pier.
“Need some help?” he asks.
“I’ve got it,” she says, leaning over, her dress wet in the back. She pulls the kayak up after her, drags it up onto the pier, her body muscular, small, perky boobs.
Eddy runs up to her, and she kneels down, fusses over him, his tail wagging happily. “You’re such a nice dog,” she says.
“He’s a sucker for a pretty lady,” Rich says, smiling, self-conscious now of his missing teeth, but all his extra money goes into the boat, always has.
She stands back up, stacks the kayak on the other one, looks over his boat. “You take good care of her,” she says.
“Plan on taking a voyage soon.”
“I don’t know. I was thinking St. Croix. Catch the trade winds down. Calm waters on the west side, palm trees. Water temperature in the 80s year round.”
He scratches Eddy behind the ear, not wanting to rush the moment. “Just have to find a first mate—my wife doesn’t like to sail.”
“That’s too bad,” she says, taking off her dark shades, her eyes glinting in the sun.
“Not really,” he says. “We get along better when we’re apart.”
She smiles, puts her shades back on. “Well, I’d better get back to the farm.”
“Yeah, I’ve played hooky long enough.”
He considers asking her if she’d like a drink, but instead says, “Why don’t you and Matt come over for dinner tomorrow night? We’ll make it a fresh start.”
“That sounds nice,” she says.
“Around six,” he says, then watches her climb the steps, sure-footed with a slight sway.
When the red wagon pulls up that next night, Rich walks out to greet Matt and Gloria, Eddy by his side. He called Ruth, talked her into cooking a meal for his new dock neighbors, told her he needed to smooth things over a bit. She sighed in agreement, much like she did when he asked her to marry him, both of them just out of high school—she had hopes of going to college, but the money wasn’t there, and then the kids and the farm took up all of her time.
He offers his hand to Matt, who meets it with a brisk firm shake. Gloria hands him the arrangement she brought in a mason jar. Bright reds and yellows. She’s wearing a short white cotton dress. He thanks her, leads them to the deck overlooking the water, in front of the boat house. Ruth is there, looking frumpy in jeans and a tee-shirt that says, “Home is Where the Heart is,” the table already set. The white wine uncorked in the ice bucket. He places the flowers in the center of the table, makes the round of introductions. Ruth pours the wine, starts talking about the weather, their flower farm—turns out Ruth has been to their booth at the farmers market in Chestertown, has even bought flowers from them before.
“How long have you had the business?” Rich asks them; they’re sitting on the deck swing together; he and Ruth sitting across from each other at the table.
“Five years,” Matt says. “Finally the perennials are starting to pay off.”
“We were in farming for thirty years,” Ruth says.
“What did you grow?” Matt asks.
“Grain, corn, soybean,” Rich says.“We alternated crops. Ten acres.”
“Must’ve been hard work,” Gloria says. “We only plant an acre of flowers.”
“Yeah,” Rich says. “Glad we’re out of it.”
“How’d you get into flowers?” Ruth asks them.
“Gloria’s always had a passion for them,” Matt says, not letting her speak for herself.
But then Gloria starts talking about her love for flowers, says she was always making up bouquets as a child, that her mother said dandelions were weeds, but she thought they were beautiful, that wildflowers are the most beautiful. The passion in her voice stirs Rich. He stands up, refreshes his glass of wine, while Ruth passes the plate of cheese and crackers; he sits back down, glances at the smooth curve of Gloria’s knee.
“Should we put the burgers on the grill?” Ruth asks.
“We’re vegetarians,” Matt says, speaking for both of them again.
Ruth makes a swift comeback. “Do you eat fish?”
“Yeah,” Matt says. “If it ever swam, we’ll eat it.”
“I was a vegan in Arizona, but I eat seafood again now,” Gloria says.
“I’ll quick thaw some fish,” Ruth says, getting up, heading for the house.
Rich sits back, sips his wine, glad for the extra time with Gloria. Clearly, she’s being controlled, Matt speaking and making decisions for her.
“Have you lived here your whole life?” Matt asks.
“Every day of it,” Rich says.
“We’ve kind of lived all over the place,” Gloria says.
“We played music on the road for a while,” Matt says. “Lived in a van.”
Rich nods, feeling sorrier for Gloria. He could offer her so much more financial security.
“Folk music,” Gloria says, tossing her hair back; she tells him about their time in Key West when they played out every night for six months, sang for their supper and tips; now Matt tells him about the time they drove down into the mainland of Mexico to see a total eclipse of the sun—a seven minute total duration. All of nature sensing the change: birds roosting, cocks crowing, nocturnal animals scurrying about.
Rich lets Ruth clean up from dinner while he finishes the last of the wine on the deck, the last of the sun quickly fading into darkness. Ruth made her family’s famous potato salad, her special double chocolate cake. The meal was a success. Matt and Gloria went home full and seemingly happy, but he feels a deep sense of emptiness now, a loss he can’t put his finger on. He used to think he had it all here—the open water of the Bay enough air to breathe, the local creeks and islands offering enough meandering.
Ruth comes out of the house, keys in her hand, ready to leave. “Gloria left her sunglasses here,” she says. “I put them on the kitchen counter.”
“I’m sure she’ll be back tomorrow,” he says.
Ruth nods. “Annie called this morning—she’s flying to Australia to work on a new documentary.”
“Is she ever flying home?”
“Probably for Thanksgiving—if she can get away. You look tired.” She pats his head. “Get some sleep.”
He watches her go, the fullness of her thighs, the grey wisps of her hair, trying to remember if he ever really found her attractive, wondering, now, if he’s ever truly loved anyone other than Karen—but that was child’s play. He loved his kids enough when they were young, but now it’s as if they’re no longer a part of him—his son living out west with another man; his daughter flying all over the world.
He tells Eddy it’s time for bed, makes his way slowly into the house.
Gloria doesn’t come back the next day. A week goes by, and then another, and no further sign of the couple, their boat seemingly deserted. Rich starts to wonder if something is wrong. They’re young, but maybe Matt had a massive heart attack in the field, behind the tiller, or Gloria dropped from heat exhaustion. These things happen, people die suddenly, but most people just keep on going, slogging on until the end. He calls Ruth, asks her where their farm is in Galena. “Interested in buying flowers?” she asks.
“Gloria never came back for her glasses.”
“She must not miss them then,” she says, but gives him directions.
He thanks her, tells her he’ll stop by soon to take a look at those kitchen cabinets.
The long dirt driveway to Galena Blooms Farm is lined with bamboo; it’s other-wordly, taking out the native understory. Rich wonders how it ever got here to begin with—on the eastern shore you’re either from here, brought here, or you come here.
The farm is at the top of the hill on the right, a wooden sign welcoming him. He turns into the main driveway where the red wagon is parked, hoping he’ll catch Gloria alone. He grabs her sunglasses off the dash of his old Monte Carlo, gets out to look around: their old farm house to the right, white with yellow trim. No lawn to speak of, just all kinds of flowers blooming everywhere—some grass paths cut with a push mower for walking space. There’s a big white cold frame off to the far right, and that’s where he spots Gloria emerging from, her arms full of flowers. She frees an arm, waves to him.
He waves back, holds up her sunglasses, wishing he had another excuse. She has on another pair —probably has plenty of spares.
“You left these,” he says, as she approaches, wearing a green, hippy style dress. No bra.
“Thanks,” she says. “I’ve meant to come get them. We’ve just been so busy.”
“No more time for kayaking?”
“Not lately,” she says. “We’ve done three weddings the last two weeks.”
“Matt home?” he asks, trying to sound nonchalant.
She shakes her head. “He’s working on a woman’s deck in Chestertown. Let me put these flowers in water, and then I’ll show you around.”
That night Rich blasts Stravinsky’s Rites of Spring on the stereo. He loves the story about its first performance, the shouts and fistfights in the aisles that eventually turned into a riot. It amazes him that a work of art could be so powerful, that it could create such profound chaos.
Gloria gave him the whole tour of the flower farm, naming all the flowers as they walked along, the annuals, perennials, self-seeders. She was completely in her element, and he loved being there with her, made him feel like a kid again. Next Sunday he’ll come up with another excuse to visit, certain that Matt will be gone again, that it’s not just that woman’s deck he’s working on. Poor Gloria, so sweet and naïve.
One thing he can say is that he was always faithful to Ruth. Maybe he wasn’t the most attentive of husbands, but he never cheated on her. Now, though, since they’ve been living apart, it seems different, like the rules have changed—or loosened.
He goes from room to room boxing up clutter; so much of Ruth still here. She only took what she needed to the other house. He packs up her romance novels, her extra yarn, the lace doilies she likes to put on all the tables, under her candles, jars of potpourri.
“Time takes no prisoners,” he says to himself in the mirror, seeing hope now in his sagging, ruddy face—the blue of his eyes sparkling like the sun on the water.
Ruth stops by the next day to check on him; right away she notices her missing things, asks him what he did with them.
“Boxed them up,” he says. He’s reading the paper at the kitchen table; he turns the page.
“Why?” she asks, walking into the kitchen from the living room.
“Just making space,” he says, his eyes still on the paper.
He shrugs. “For whatever comes my way.”
She walks over to the kitchen sink, turns the water on, starts washing the dishes piled on the counter, clanking them together to almost the breaking point.
She suddenly stops, her back still to him. “Are you asking for a divorce?”
He closes the paper. Neither one of them ever mentioned that word before.
He shakes his head. “Don’t think so.”
She turns around. “Well, maybe you’d better think about it,” she says cooly.
“Don’t Ruth me,” she says, wiping her hands on a dish towel.
“That’s not what I meant,” he says, but he fumbles over his words.
“Then what did you mean?”
“Just that. . . I may be taking a voyage soon.”
“Where? To the moon?”
“I was thinking St. Croix.”
“Well, good riddance,” she says, throwing the dish towel on the counter, walking out, slamming the door behind her.
Rich thinks about going after her, but he remains still, looking out the window, unsure of his direction. He and Ruth have had their share of differences over the years—she’s even threatened to leave him on occasion, but she’s never gone through with it, the sun always bringing a brand new day. Maybe now, though, the horizon has changed.
Rich finds it hard to fall asleep that night, but when he does, he is on his boat, sailing on the turbulent sea. Karen is there, who turns into Gloria, bouncing in her kayak, tied to the back, and Ruth is baking blueberry pies in a toaster oven, the deck covered in little pies so that he has to navigate an obstacle course, and every time, he opens his mouth to speak, fish stream out, little guppies. He wakes with a start, slowly makes his way into the kitchen, starts the coffee maker. He catches sight of the blue heron perched on the cliff where the old Winston mansion now sits emptied, the last of its line passed on, a realtor there last week, appraising the value.
He sits down at the kitchen table, rubs his tired eyes, thinks about his voyage. He has no real route, destination, date of departure—or return.
Rich has never been to the farmers market in Chestertown, too much of a social outing for him, but he hasn’t seen Gloria in over a week (he stopped by the farm last Sunday, but neither Gloria or Matt were home), and Ruth hasn’t been around since she mentioned the divorce. For the first time in his life, he feels a profound sense of loneliness; he recognizes a few people, stops to exchange a few words, but most are strangers, tourists and newcomers to the area—mainly retirees from D.C. who come here to die.
He walks Eddy up to the fountain for a drink—a grossly ornate structure adorned with lions and swans, the Greek goddess of youth Hebe on top, pouring her ambrosia from a pitcher at the heavenly feast. Eddy slurps away at the basin, while Rich looks around for the Galena Blooms stand: people standing around doing more socializing than buying; kids running around, climbing the magnolia trees; dogs greeting other dogs with excitement or menace; derelicts on the surrounding benches.
He spots a flowered tarp covering a stand, makes his way in that direction. He spent some time getting ready this morning, pressed his khakis, polished his docksiders, but now he’s soaked in sweat, the temperature already pushing ninety degrees, and it’s only just after ten. As he gets closer, he sees Matt behind the booth, but no Gloria, his heart sinking.
He stands off to the side with Eddy, behind a big bucket of sunflowers, listens to Matt close out a sale.
“How about a few lilies to go with that bouquet?” he’s saying. And the woman acquiesces, just like that, hands the money over.
Eddy barks a greeting at a poodle and Rich is revealed. He exchanges an awkward greeting with Matt, a thin handshake.
“Surprised to see you here,” Matt says.
“Just came to get some flowers for Ruth—have to keep her happy,” Rich says, bypassing the big bouquets, looking over the small bunches of zinnias.
“Those are eight,” Matt says.
Rich nods. “Haven’t seen you on the dock in a while.”
“Been too busy on the farm—you know how it is.”
“Yeah,” Rich says. “Sure do.” He pulls a bunch of red zinnias out of the bucket, hands them to Matt to wrap up. “Where’s Gloria today?” he asks.
“She’s back at the farm. She was up late putting the bouquets together.”
Rich nods. “Getting her beauty sleep.”
“Actually, we’re planning on selling the boat,” Matt says, dipping newspaper into a bucket, then wrapping it around the stems of the flowers. “We’re moving back to Arizona.”
“Yeah,” Matt says, twisting a plastic bag around the newspaper. He hands Rich the flowers. “I was offered a sweet position at my old job—quality control. Not to mention the better quality of the air and water out there.”
“I bet Gloria hates to leave her flowers.”
“Yeah, but she can still grow them out there—in pots.”
“It’s eight,” Matt says.
“What?” Rich says, feeling dazed, knowing it’s got to be later than that. Other customers lined up behind him now.
“Oh. Yeah,” he says, taking out his wallet and paying.
Matt thanks him. “Say hi to Ruth.”
“Ruth? Yeah. I will.”
Rich drives straight to Galena Blooms Farm, his heart racing. Matt is probably just fleeing from that other woman. He can’t imagine Gloria wanting to leave the farm, her dear flowers—all that work building up a business to just up and leave. It makes no sense. He drives faster, the windows down, Eddy gulping at the air with his open jowls.
Rich knocks on the front door of the farmhouse, steadying himself, the moment like an eternity. Gloria opens the door in tight fitting work-out-wear.
“Hey,” she says, looking at him questionably. “I was doing yoga.”
“I was just at the market,” Rich says. “I saw Matt.”
She nods, “I was too beat to go.”
“Can I come in for a minute?”
“Is there something wrong?” she asks, concern in her eyes.
“No, no,” he says. “I mean, yes. He says you’re moving.”
“Yeah,” she says, softly, motioning him inside.
He tells Eddy to stay, follows her inside, instruments filling the living room: guitars, a bass, various drums, a piano. Pictures on the wall of the two of them playing their music out.
“Do you want something to drink?” she asks.
“I could use some water,” he says.
He follows her in the kitchen, and she invites him to sit down at the round kitchen table, open cabinets painted in bright green and white trim. Fiestaware displayed. “It was too good of an offer for Matt to turn down,” she says, pouring two glasses of water from a pitcher in the fridge. She hands him a glass, and he takes a big drink, searching for the right words.
“But what about you?” he asks.
“What about me?” she asks, sitting across from him.
“Do you really want to go?”
“Yes and no. I miss it out West. But my family is here, on the western shore.”
Rich takes another drink of his water, searching for the right words. “If you don’t want to go. . . you could rent out the house. . . maybe to a Mexican family. . . they could work the farm, and you could still have your flowers.”
“And where would I live?” she asks, raising her eyebrows.
Rich shifts in his chair. “I have plenty of room.”
“And your wife?”
“She moved out.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” she says.
“It was a long time coming,” he says.
She nods, then looks away.
He pats her hand, says slowly, “Sometimes things just don’t work out.”
She pulls her hand away.
“Matt sure seems in an awful hurry to leave,” Rich says.
“What are you insinuating?” she asks, her eyes flashing.
“Just that—you don’t always know.”
“I know,” she says. She gets up, puts her glass in the sink, then turns around and folds her arms. “I’m sorry about your marriage, but you should go now.”
Rich stands up, his legs wobbly. “Well, if you change your mind—”
Rich drives to the house in Galena, Ruth’s car in the drive, her homespun touches on the front porch: two blue Adirondack chairs with green and white striped cushions, hanging flower baskets, a red lantern on a small yellow table. He grabs the flowers, calls Eddy.
He doesn’t feel the need, but he knocks at the front door anyway, a Welcome Friends plaque hanging from a nail. No response. He knocks again, then turns the knob, the door open. She probably walked to the store or is taking a nap. He’ll just leave the flowers in a glass on the kitchen counter. He walks down the hallway, the kitchen on the right, old wooden cabinetry. He made a promise to Ruth last year to tear it all out, put in one of those pre-manufactured kitchens, but he knows and so does she, that it’s way down on the end of his list.
He opens one of the cabinets, takes out a glass, fills it with water. Seems her wants and needs were always at the bottom of his list. He unwraps the flowers, sticks them in the glass, wishing he’d bought another color now. Red, too deep, intense; he should’ve gone with pink or white. A few broken heads dangle over the edge of the glass, like the necks of geese he’s shot, dangling from the mouth of one of his Labs. He stopped hunting before he got Eddy, just didn’t have it in him anymore. And now when the geese migrate back in the fall, he’s filled with a sense of wonder at their return, their voyage.
He leaves the broken flowers in the vase, knowing Ruth will make the necessary repairs, looks around for paper, then grabs a napkin, engraves an R in it with a toothpick.
Walking back down the hall, he hears Ruth’s voice, out back, in the garden. He turns and looks out the back door. She’s leaning over one of the rose bushes, at the far end of the gated property, a man beside her seemingly diagnosing the problem—probably the neighbor, or maybe a gardener she’s hired, but Rich suddenly feels as if he’s no longer welcome here. He turns and quickly makes his way down the hall, out the door, Eddy by his side.
When Rich gets back to his house, it seems the entire landscape has changed. What once brought him a sense of peace, only heightens his anxiety, the turbulence of the water from the day’s activities only reminding him how stagnant he’s become. Men and ships rot at the port. He walks down to the pier, steps into the galley of his boat, Eddy following him. He starts making the necessary calculations for his voyage. The wind steady out of the west at ten knots. He should be able to make the first marker in two hours, the second in three if the air holds. With some luck, he’ll make a hundred miles the first day. By the middle of the second day, he should hit open water. He’ll leave first thing in the morning, just before sunrise. He’ll only go so far. But this time he won’t turn back. The blue heron on the cliff eyes him intently, then lifts his elegant wings, soars over the creek, as if to show Rich the way, then fades into the landscape.
Lisa Lynn Biggar received her MFA in Fiction from Vermont College. Her short fiction has appeared in numerous literary journals, including Litro Magazine, Bluestem Magazine, Newfound, Main Street Rag, The Minnesota Review, and Kentucky Review. She teaches English at Chesapeake College and is the fiction editor for Little Patuxent Review. In her spare time, she co-owns and operates a cut flower farm on the eastern shore of Maryland with her husband and four cats.