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(from Jazz Notes in the Misty Blue: A Mountain Empire Anthology)
“Viva Nonpareil, Massachusetts”
by Jeannette Harris
"Hey, Darla. How about if I come over for a little visit today?" Jennifer asked, as they stood by the intersection of Main and Fifth Streets.
Jennifer was worried about her friend but didn't want to push her for answers. She hadn't called or visited Jenny for months. That was not normal. The two of them had been close for many years. Something was wrong. It could just be Stephen, who'd left without warning or notice of any kind. He just disappeared. After five years or so in Viva, he just vanished. No one heard from him. No one knew where he'd gone. No one really knew for sure if he was alive. What had caused him to behave like that, Jennifer wondered. And she pondered whether Darla was keeping a secret of the answer.
Darla said she had no idea why Stephen had left, that it was as much a surprise to her as anyone else. Still, they had been nearly inseparable for the years they had lived together. Surely Darla had a clue, whether she consciously knew it or not. Jennifer had suggested psychotherapy, maybe hypnosis. She knew Darla had gone for a few sessions and quit abruptly. She knew that Darla dragged herself around on her job, giving it fifty percent or less of her mind and effort.
Darla looked down now when she walked, refused to meet the eyes of passersby. Jennifer wanted to rouse her somehow from her lethargy, give her new life, or life back to her. She missed the friend that Darla had been, the person she had been. Darla had been bouncy, joyous, full of enthusiasm and love. That person seemed to have died slowly over the past few months, maybe the past year little by little. Jennifer went over in her mind the last months that Darla had been with Stephen. She remembered how Darla had paled little by little, become quieter and more withdrawn. What had gone on between them?
"Sure," Darla answered without enthusiasm. "What time?"
"Oh, between three and four, say. Is that okay?"
"Yeah. That'll be fine." Darla hugged her and they parted to go their separate ways.
She scraped the dirty cobwebs from ceilings and corners with an old broom. Then she dusted the furniture with a damp cloth. Company required some upkeep. Left to her own devices, Darla didn't really care how filthy her home was. The doctor said she was depressed. He prescribed medicine that made her feel crazy. Her mind raced and her hands shook. She refused to take it anymore.
"Hi, girl. How are you doing?" Jennifer was at the door now, just a screen between her and her friend. Her blonde hair had blown nearly loose from the bow at the back of her neck. Tall and slim, she wore a pale print sundress with spaghetti straps and low-slung leather sandals. A small silver purse hung from her right shoulder. Around her neck was a string of cultured pearls and lightly colored seashells. Scattered freckles dotted her tanned nose and cheeks.
"Come on in. I'm just trying to create a false impression here," Darla answered. She wore bright plaid bermuda shorts with a blue tank top. Her feet were bare except for a gold braided ankle bracelet. Her short brown hair had been permed recently and curled fetchingly to circle a round face. Darla was a little on the chunky side with short legs and a thick waist. Nevertheless, she was attractive and her breasts were ample. They pushed now over and against her shirt.
"Cleaning?" Jennifer asked in mock surprise as she opened the screen door to a slight screech from its hinges.
"Yeah," Darla responded. "Have a seat. I even made us some macaroni and cheese and hot dogs."
"You really went all out," Jenny teased her. She knew that Darla was an excellent cook, had had many a fancy meal at her house. The standout, Jenny always thought, was sirloin tip steak and Yorkshire pudding served with fresh peas and potatoes from the garden. That afternoon they had had red wine, beaujolais, the four of them laughing and talking and carrying on, watching sports on television and then listening to music and dancing. Those were happy days, Jennifer reflected, the days of their innocence just a few years ago.
Darla went to the kitchen, pulled pretzels from a cabinet and poured them into a white porcelain bowl. "Want some pretzels and beer?" she called. The kitchen was compact. It held a small round glass-topped table with two white wire chairs. There was a narrow buffet filled with decorator plates on top. The closed cabinets beneath held extra pots and pans.
Jennifer examined her nails and reminded herself to redo them later that evening. The bright red paint had chipped, as it had on her toes. "Do you have any wine?" she asked hopefully.
"Nope, sorry." Darla had barely been shopping lately, just for essentials and had no interest in fancy liquors or wines. "Just beer today. But it's good stuff. Guiness Stout." Stephen had left it behind and she had had no taste for it.
"Oh, I don't like that in warm weather." Jenny looked out a window facing the backyard at clear sky beyond. She felt afternoon sun heating the livingroom. "How about iced tea? Do you have that?"
Darla read her mind and switched on the air conditioning. "How about orange juice?" she offered.
"That'll be great," Jennifer agreed. She saw a blue jay flit past the kitchen window to a feeder hung from the branch of an oak tree. Summer was her favorite time of year, despite the sizzling temperatures. She kicked off her sandles and pulled her legs up beside her on the couch. Leaning into the pillows, she stretched her shoulders and rubbed her arms in comfort at the surroundings. "This is a wonderful house," she commented.
Darla reappeared with the bowl and their drinks. She set the pretzels on a table in front of the couch and sat down on the flowered overstuffed chair. "What do you think of the new arrangement?" she asked.
The question threw Jennifer. "You mean your single status?" she inquired cautiously.
"No!" Darla laughed. "I mean where the furniture is now."
Oliver George Tedersen. You’re next,” the white-suited announcer called from her booth to the left of the cluttered stage.
Ollie pulled in his stomach and stood, fumbling for the papers beside his chair. Donald reached over to gather and hold them in the air.
Stephen leaned over the stove. He stirred the spaghetti thoughtfully. Would Darla show up? He put a bottle of white wine in the refrigerator and set the table with a white cloth and white napkins. He got out his mother's silver and shined it with polish in the sink. He re-stacked the magazines on the coffee table, emptied and washed the ashtray, and dusted the smooth glass surface. He stared at the phone. She was late. Should he call? No, he'd wait for awhile. Anything could have happened. She might be stuck in traffic. She might have had trouble deciding what to wear, as women do. He tied the garbage bag and took it outside, put a new one in. He found a vase in the cabinet and put the flowers from the living room in it, set it in the middle of the dining table. Finally, he sat down on the sofa and turned on the television. He watched it unseeingly. Where was she?
"Finally," he said, opening the door. "I wondered what happened to you."
Darla stepped across the threshold with some trepidation. She didn't really know Stephen well and had accepted his invitation by sudden whim, borne of a loneliness that pulled at her heart lately. She needed to make a change in her life. Something wasn't right, was missing from it. The attentions of a man had eluded her for several years, partly of her own choosing. Coming out of her shell again, so to speak, seemed to be the answer, a step forward toward engaging in the world and the swirl of humanity in it again. She had removed herself, concentrated on her work for too long. She walked with more determination into the room.
"Sorry. Believe it or not, I got lost on the freeway. Took the wrong exit and had a hell of a time getting back to where I was. There's a lot of traffic."
"It's the holidays. Rough time to travel." Darla took off her coat and Stephen hung it in the closet carefully. He silently admired her tastefully tailored blue suit and matching high heels balancing long, slim legs. Her figure was nearly perfect, he assessed, especially for a woman of her years.
"Want a drink before we eat?" he inquired with nervous cheer. It had been awhile since he'd entertained anyone formally and he felt ill at ease, forgetting what might be the correct thing to say or order of details.
Darla stood by the door, shaking her long hair loose and running her fingers through it to loosen the strands. "Sure," she agreed, uncomfortably.
"Here," he offered, remembering his manners and gesturing vaguely toward the picture window. "Have a seat on the sofa while I get it."
As Darla settled in to the soft gray cushions, Stephen left to pull crystal wine glasses from the cabinet. He opened the refrigerator door noisily and found the chablis, poured it carefully and turned toward Darla.