A forsaken romance opens the door to new opportunity’s in this short romance story by M. G. Doane.
It was a red day, February 14th. The glow of the setting sun lit the clouds on fire, in the reddish-orange afterglow, of an unusually warm winter’s day. The clock on the wall ticked by the minutes. I missed the hum of electric wires not to mention the light of a 60-watt bulb. As the sun set I knew I’d miss them even more.
I’d stared at the pasty white canvas propped by the window, for hours, and all I had to show for it was a cherry red heart in the middle, glaring back at me like a misshapen red snapper’s tail, it was off kilter like everything else today.
“The life of a starving artist,” I grumbled, “I’m starving anyway.”
I emptied half of a crumbled sleeve of saltines into my mouth and pulled on my least offensive polo. The slacks that used to slip down as I fiddle with buttoning them, I now had to hold up while working my belt through the torn loopholes on the sides.
A blind date was a terrible idea. How Montgomery ever talked me into it was lost in a fog of late night texts, and the promise of a steak dinner.
I peered out the door. Dodging the landlady had become an art. She always walked down the hall at 8:30. It was 8:15. I stole out, locking the door and confining my keys in a tight grasp, then crept down the hall.
The floorboard on the stair betrayed me with a defiant creek. I froze and took the first step down.
“Able? Is that you?” The plump form dashed from her door and stood on the landing, worrying the drawstring on the front of her waistband.
I grinned, trying not to show too much teeth. She’d know for sure if I was nervous.
“Your rent, it’s two weeks late, and you haven’t paid utilities in three months.”
“I’m uhm… I’m just going out to the bank.”
She lifted a brow.
“I’ll have the rent first thing tomorrow.”
“You’d better not be slipping out on me. I will call the cops.”
“You know me better than that.” My voice rose. As if she had a right to complain. I was the one who couldn’t see my hand in front of my face at night, and still I’d paid the rent every month until now.
“I expect the rent paid tomorrow, and the utilities, or that’s it.” She turned the knob on her door.
“Happy Valentine’s Day.” I muttered, skulking down stairs.
The rows of buildings outside my door, were gray cutouts of the same mold. To think I was once happily unpacking boxes from my Prius and dreaming of life here as a successful painter; patting myself on the back at having picked a cheap rental, that wouldn’t cut into my savings.
I loaded myself into the car squeezing my knees below the steering wheel. Knowing now how the old trick snake in the peanut tin felt before someone open the lid.
I turned the key, it revved and stopped. I cursed it might of have been aloud; I don’t really recall, but the condemnation did nothing to make the car start. I turned the key once more and it squealed sputtered and stopped again.
I unfolded my legs and climbed out, somewhat glad of the excuse. I yanked the double door of the building and stopped short. I told the landlady I was going to the bank. She’d hear me come in, it was too soon for her to be in bed. My stomach was growling, and the restaurant was only two blocks away.
I walked up the street, listening to the soft flap of my shoes over the empty pavement. As I left the complex, the town lights were just starting to glow.
Couples clung outside of doors, near shops that were singing their warm invitations, to come inside and partake of the half-price valentine candy, and slightly wilted carnations. A drizzle coated my hair mixed with a spit or two of ice, February’s reminder that it was still winter.
A rush of rose perfume and satin rushed passed me, her hair tumbling out of a tight flowered knot on the back of her head. Tears were in her eyes, she clutched a green paper wrapped cluster of red roses, dotted with specks of tiny white flowers. She forced her way around me with a muffled ‘excuse me’, then she made a beeline for the closet trash bin. She chucked the bouquet cursed loud enough to make heads turn, then breaking down in a guttural sob; she made off in the nearest taxi.
I stopped short, the imagery soaked into my brain as she drove off.
The stems were sticking up out of the trash, people passed by ignoring them. Everyone around me was carrying some similar token of the holiday. Whoever Montgomery set me up with probably would be expecting something similar, flowers or candy.
I glanced toward the shop with 50% off painted in white on a red sign. Until now I was only hoping Montgomery was planning to foot the bill for dinner.
I pulled out a dime I’d saved back for a pack of gum, to tide me over till dinner time. That wasn’t going to do it.
I casually made my way to the bin and peaked inside. The chucked flowers were still mostly intact, only having lost a petal or two. I brushed the remnants of dust from around the edges. “A dozen red roses.” I grinned.
Whoever she got them from must have paid a pretty penny. He would get his money’s worth making two women happy, or at least one; the original intended obviously didn’t get much joy out of them.
By the time I reached the restaurant, the night had turned cold.
Montgomery perched on a soda shop stool looking like a heavy Perry Mason. He was as old-fashioned as they came, in a black suit and tie. His wife Marie glided a reedy hand over his shoulder and he got to his feet at the motion.
“Jefferies” he exclaimed. “There you are where have you been?”
My skin prickled. My brother always called me Jefferies, since I took my mother’s maiden name.
“We waited to be seated.” Marie scolded and waved over a waitress. “Party of four.”
I glanced about wondering who held the fourth seat. Over my brother’s shoulder I spotted the willowy brown-eyed pixie.
“This is Beth Winsor. Beth this is Able Jefferies,” Marie introduced us with a wave of her arm and we were escorted to a table.
Beth’s features would ever be in my mind, she was as I said, every bit a pixie, with short-cropped hair and an angled face. But anything else about her was clouded by the sultry smell of steak and baked potato.
To my credit I had the foresight of mind to present her with the bouquet, before we got a table, eliciting an adenoid thank you and a soft pleasant smile.
I could get along with this girl, I thought, as the evening wore on; she allowed me to settle into cramming my face with bits of warm meat while she carried the conversation ever forward. Occasionally she would elude to my kindness, bringing flowers was a nice gesture. But I squirmed, especially given my brother’s raised brow. He knew my financial situation all too well.
Beth was some work friend of my sister-in-law, and when dinner was through Beth and Marie walked out arm in arm.
“How’s the…” Montgomery raised his brow.
“Do you have lights?” he demanded and stuffed a wad of cash in my hand before I could answer.
I left the restaurant chagrined, but happy I could pay for rent and electricity.
“Do you need a lift?” Montgomery called, leaning out the window of his truck.
I hesitated a second, it would be cramped, but a short trip. I started for the door then out of the corner of my eye, I caught sight of a figure moving down the street.
“I’ll walk it’s fine.” I waved my brother and his wife goodbye, nodding toward Beth as they drove away.
I stuffed my hands in my pockets, strolling toward the figure. The satin dress was replaced with elastic waist pants and a short coat, but her hair was still in the unmistakable flowered wreath that appeared to have once held it in a firm bun. She was near the bin I retrieved the flowers from earlier, rifling through the trash, but as I neared, she stopped her hand quickly retreating behind her back, as if to say she was doing nothing.
I walked passed, pretending not to notice. But getting down the road some ways off I stopped short and watched her from a distance, tossing old fast food wrappers onto the sidewalk. I started back her way, she swiped up the trash and threw it away.
I repeated the action one more time. The street around us was bathed in a full moon not even a car rumbled by. This time she stopped short and glared at me. “I lost something, okay.” She huffed. “I thought I threw it away here.”
“What are you looking for?” I asked, though in the back of my mind, I knew already.
“Never mind,” she sighed, “they’re gone.”
“Sorry,” I grinned.
“Why are you smiling?” Her eyes flashed.
I clamped my lips together. “Nervous habit. You look innocent when you smile.”
“You look like a kid with his hand in the cookie jar, when you grin like that. Why are you trying to look innocent?”
My mind cried out tell her the truth. But, ‘I was watching you dig through the trash,’ spilled out. I grinned again, then corrected myself.
“I’m sure it’s an amusing show.” She huffed, running a ketchup streaked hand through her chestnut hair.
“Can I help you?”
“You can go away.”
This caused a real smile to cross my face.
Her eyes glowed with a fierce steely blue, her square-cut jaw tightened.
She moved on to the bin across the street.
I sighed and neared.
She cursed me under her breath.
I lifted the can and dumped it in the street. Just as I did a police siren wailed. “Now we are both going to get it!” I grasped her wrist and started down the other way.
She hesitated and brushed a foot over the pile of trash.
“You really want those flowers.” I half laughed. As the sound neared, she relented and we both took off at a trot.
We reached a dead-end, but no sirens followed us. I was grinning, knowing I gave myself away. But either she didn’t hear or perhaps she recognized me from earlier.
“Why did you throw them away?”
“I broke up with my boyfriend.”
“Now your back together, and you don’t want him to know you threw them out?”
“No,” she huffed, “The last thing I need is my roommate knowing we broke up on Valentine’s Day. She has a room full of blue daisies, and if I have nothing to show for my date tonight…”
I nodded, and glanced back down the street, “sorry about that,” I mumbled.
We parted ways without another word between us.
I returned to my building, sliding a note and cash under the landlady’s door and made my way up the stair.
The room was just the way I left it, with nothing but moonlight lighting up the sad canvas.
Her eyes still on the top of my mind. I mixed a cobalt blue with silver until some resemblance of the color was matched and sketched out the almond cut eyes. Like the heart they were uneven, teary and askew, but on her they worked.
The square cut jaw, was graced with a loose knotted curl of hair. A slight crease of caked makeup on her forehead made her look older than she probably was.
Discarded roses behind her were snatched up by a shadowy figure near the street lamp. I put an oval outline around the fishtail heart and by morning a distorted, unseasonably warm valentine’s scene glared back at me.
“Jilted valentine,” I grinned. As the walls hummed softly. I flicked the light switch on and the room lit up.
The next day I woke to the sensation that the jilted valentine was still staring at me. I dressed and made way down the stairs, having enough money for a few groceries and perhaps a cup of coffee, I was out the door in moments.
I dodged my car as if it was plagued. The money was not enough for that problem. Soon I was standing on the same street I had met the woman on the day before. In the front of my mind, I assured myself I only wanted coffee from the shop close by, but after passing at least two suitable shops I was sure my motives were foggy. There was no sign of her.
I returned to that same street every day for weeks, in the meantime making some calls I found a buyer willing to pay for my canvas.
I walked down the street in the evening still assuring myself, I had only gained an affinity for the nearby coffee shop when a familiar form brushed past.
“Hey,” the word came out over my dry tongue barely making it past my tacky lips. I swallowed and nodded to her as she turned.
Her brow lowered inscrutably. “Yes?”
“We met the other day.”
“Oh, yeah, I remember.” She gave a smile that didn’t even make it passed her lips, then with a nod she started off down the street.
“How did it go with blue daisy?” I called after her
“What?” She turned.
“You know your roommate… with all the daisies.” I wiped my palms against the rough wool of my coat, my face was hot, and my collar was suffocating me. I loosened it and not waiting for an answer I moved off to the nearest shop and went in.
A warm blast from the heat showered overhead, making the suffocation worse. I turned sharply to the closest men’s room and ducked into a stall. “Idiot,” I muttered.
I composed myself, imagining that was the last I would ever be talking to the jilted valentine.
The shop was filled with the odor of heavy chemical cleaners and soft pine, but as I came back out a familiar smell of rose perfume met me.
Near the door, she stood staring her brow raised, her eyes were somewhere between I’m furious and I may be dealing with a madman. She hesitated before approaching.
“Sorry about that, “I managed to say. Unable to think of a good excuse, we settled into awkward silence. Finally, I heard a soft ‘hum’ then she started to laugh.
“As I was saying, how did everything turn out?”
“It took me a minute to figure out what you ask before you took off. But Emma was fine, she gave me what I expected, a heaping load of pity. I spent a week loathing it, then Danny called, and the rest is history.”
“Oh, so your back with him?”
“That’s wonderful,” I looked at the nearest exit. Well, I was just getting some…” I fumbled through the merchandise and grabbed up a pack of gum, dropping it on the counter.
“Got to have your gum.” She shrugged, turned and left.
Leaving the confection on the counter I followed. “Want to have coffee?”
“Now? It’s…” she looked up at the dimming lights. “No, thank you.”
I nodded, and we parted ways.
At home the answering machine was flashing one.
The jilted valentine canvas was all wrapped up for delivery she would be shipped out tomorrow and I would have enough to pay rent and fix the car.
I flicked on the answering machine, “Hey, it’s Beth I thought you might want to meet in town today, 9 O’clock?”
I looked at the clock on the wall, I had fifteen minutes. I didn’t bother to dress for dinner but slumped back out into the street.
Beth was waiting for me, with a cup of coffee in her hand. “I know you said you like this place. She nodded to the coffee shop.
I smiled weakly. “That’s right. Thank you.”
“So, you sold your painting?” Her voice rose, and she grinned.
“That’s right. I’m no longer a starving artist.”
She looped her arm around mine. “Shall we eat?”
“Why don’t we go up town? I glance to the corner.”
“If you want to.” Her pixie eyes showed marked disappointment.
I squinted. “Never mind here is fine.”
Beth guided me to the restaurant, but I was unconsciously looking around the street.
I don’t recall the conversation until I was in the middle of a sharp rebuke. “Why are you so nervous?”
“I’m not.” I smiled to her as we sat down to eat, but the night dragged. I’d found nothing out about Beth the first time I was with her. Now I was pretty sure there was nothing to find out. And to make it worse, the girl whose name I didn’t know was on my mind constantly.
I returned home that night and mixed a pallet of shadowy grays and reds.
Soon the form of a man in a shabby gray played over the canvas without distinct lines, he blended into the grayish black night. Holding a heart-shaped cup out to a female form whose face turned decidedly to a door leading out into the street. “Another Jilted Valentine.” I chuckled at my own misfortune and tried to put the whole thing out of my head.
A few days later I was picking up my car. Having it repaired was giving me something new to think about, the shop was, of course, beyond the street where I met the woman. After all, I’d set the appointment to have it repaired in what I’d come to call my jilted valentine phase.
I stuffed my hands in my pockets, a chill was working its way through my coat. Looking forward to a heated car, keeping me off this street for good. I neared the corner cross walk and a started across. “Stop!” A firm hand jolted me back. A sleek black blazer didn’t even slow.
“Thanks.” I turned and there she was again. “You saved my life.” I tried to smile, but something made it feel wrong.
“I saw you cross the street, and thought I’d say hi. I didn’t think you’d walk out into traffic to avoid me.”
I chuckled. “I was just getting my car. I had it repaired.”
“That’s good. You obviously shouldn’t be on the street.” She gave a smile that made creases around her eyes. They weren’t steely today, but softer blue, I found they were less mesmerizing this way. “I’m getting my car do you want to come?”
She shrugged and followed me down the street.
“Do you have a name?”
I nodded. She raised her brow and her eyes sparked, but soon she gave a half-smile and shook her head.
We were half way to the shop before I realized my error. “Able Jefferies,” the words tumbled from my lips and the conversation stalled again.
“Well, Able Jefferies, do you want a cup of coffee?”
I nodded, retrieved my car and we both crammed inside. I sped to the coffee shop trying to make the length of time inside the cramped car as short as I could.
I gathered during the evening, she was Stacey Callister, from Washington. She grew up on a farm and left for the city where her boyfriend worked as a doctor at Saint Vincent. That was all I needed to hear.
Although she clutched my arm gently just before I left, the feeling of frustration brewed. When I got home, I painted the figure of a dark shadow outside the door on my painting. Streaking the scene with disjointed white lightning mixed with a shower of red drops of rain like tiny flower petals.
The rest of the year I spent painting my muse. Sometimes with soft blue eyes, other times with eyes that cut with cold silver blades.
I sold three including my second jilted valentine.
February 14th rolled around again and in a whisky inspired moment I painted her with tear-stained face, with discarded flowers, then painted my portrait comforting her.
The next day I was outside of Saint Vincent my mind fixed only on how the infamous Danny would react to the portrait. That little crack in their relationship, was all I could think about.
The nurse at the front desk was curt and uninviting, but I found out Danny worked on the third floor. I got to the elevator and paused outside the door. A prick of guilt crept over me. I had convinced myself that anyone who would break up with her on Valentine’s Day was no doubt a monster.
His office door opened, and I readied myself.
Danny was soft around the middle. His clothes were a jumbled mess with brown stains across white scrubs. Juggling paper work and a half-eaten sandwich, he was no monster, just completely average and busy.
The fire was out, I’d been dashed with cold water. I skulked back to the elevator resigned.
I reached the landing and rounded the corner and there she stood, checking in. “Is Danny in surgery? She asked.
“He will be yes,” the curt nurse, was a different soul for her. I’m sorry it gets busy, especially this time of day. I don’t think he’ll be done for hours.”
Retreat sounded in my head, just as her eyes met mine with momentary confusion, then a spark of recognition. “What are you doing here?”
“I made this for you.”
She cocked her head, as I pushed the parchment toward her, and walked back out into the street.
This valentine’s Day was a brisk icy one, but the sky had that familiar reddish glow; it was another red day.
I turned and spotted the figure, as she crossed the intersection.
“It was foolish, the painting… I was just. I paint for a living and…”
She grinned and leaned near giving me a soft peck on the cheek. “Happy Valentine’s Day,” she whispered.
Born in Southern Indiana MGD is a contributor at Deliberate Magazine. A novelist, and short story author. She is addicted to coffee and pug dogs.
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