Romantic Novel: New England Love Story - Librarian and Millionaire - by Jean-Thomas Cullen - Clocktower Books

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= Romantic Novel =

A New England Love Story

by Jean-Thomas Cullen


Part One: Summer

1.

Romantic Parkway: A New England Love Story by Jean-Thomas Cullen

One humid, sticky August afternoon, our traveler—Rick Moyer, 32—was coming home early from a successful business trip to Manhattan. He needed gas for his car, and maybe a bite to eat, and it just happened that his stomach growled loudly as he neared Emery. He also spotted a big blue sign among the full tree crowns:

Food Gas Lodging 1 Mile.

Heíd been through here more times than he could count, if he even cared to do so, but today was his first time in Emery.

"Yeah," Rick said out loud to the three empty seats around him in the air conditioned car, "It was a successful day. I think I might just treat myself to a little lunch."

He told the car, which listened attentively and did not interrupt: "If you have to guzzle your gallon of gas, I might as well have a soda or some coffee for myself. And a sandwich, or a slice of pizza."

Rick was a tall, handsome man with tousled light brown hair, twinkling blue party eyes, and a winning athlete's self-assured facial expression. If he had a cocky grin, it was primarily about putting others at ease. Despite a rough divorce in recent years, and related difficulties, he was quite relaxed with himself and his car, as he was with most people who swirled through his life.

He spotted the Food Gas Lodging sign—now just 100 feet and a quick, spur of the moment stop ahead—through a mass of glowing green leaves. Another sign read: Welcome to Emery Township, Connecticut—Pop. 5,000. Stop By.

The thruway was an ancient concrete turnpike built a century ago with many quaint bridges over it. That had been during the early days when automobiles became popular enough to demand smoothly paved roads. Each town along the route had won its own contract with the state to build a local bridge, and the towns had competed with each other for originality of design. Each bridge was a different and unique masterpiece of Art Deco design.

Here, the thruway continued without interruption as a slightly sunken road. The exit took Rick along an upper, local frontage road that ran on either side of the thruway. He came to the gas station, pulled in on a concrete apron under some advertising signs swinging in a light wind, and turned off the engine.

No matter about the shave. He was always self-conscious about that, but hey, he was done with his dayís work in the City, and he could kick out the jams. In another few hours, in fact, heíd be home in his jammies, speaking of jams, holding a beer, and catching the latest UConn basketball game.

Before stepping from the car—from force of habit—he looked in the rear-view mirror and ran a fine-fingered but strong hand over his jaw. He sighed. One of the crabbies of his life (not a curse, so much; just a pain in the wazoo) was that he was one of those two-shaves a day guys. Heíd made three meetings in Manhattan today, nailed down a million dollar deal, missed lunch, and forgot to run a shaver over his tanned features. Now he had a growing beard shadow, growing like dusk around his easy-mannered mouth, and the shaver was back home where heíd forgotten it by the entrance to the garage. Heíd also forgotten to fill the tank before leaving home base this morning.

And it was a hot, humid day to boot. One good thing about making endless meetings in skyscrapers was that you forgot Manhattan was hot enough to melt gum on sidewalks. He was always happy to cross over the Connecticut state line into peaceful, green New England. Usually, however, he simply drove on through to home base in Hartford. Today was an exception, since the car needed servicing.

When Rick stepped from the car, that wave of New England heat struck him like a baseball bat. A thermometer in the service station window read 102F, and the humidity had to be close to 100%.

"Afternoon,í said a brash but friendly middle-aged man in technicianís overalls. He had graying, slicked back hair, along with a Roman nose and blunt features. "Need your oil checked?"

Rickís first impulse was to look for a catch—like, what is it going to cost me?

"Iím the owner," the man said. "Nameís Tony. Iíd shake your hand, but Iíve got grease all over me and thatís a mighty fine suit you are wearing." Tony wiped his hands with a rag as he spoke, like a man who never wasted a moment or a motion.

"Iíd appreciate that," Rick said. Tony acted like the Caesar of his little domain here on the macadam road above the thruway. Location, location, location, Rick thought. Tony gave comforting evidence of a well-off middle class of business owners in the area.

"Hot one." Rick loosened his merlot tie. Already, his white linen shirt was soaked with sweat. He started taking off his jacket.

Tony popped the hood. "Brutal day." His olive-skinned Italian features glistened with sweat. "Canít wait to get home and pop a cold one."

"Yep, I hear ya." Rick carefully laid his expensive jacket across the back seat. He went through the motions of paying and pumping.

"Youíre a little low here," Tony said, showing him the exposed oil dip stick. "Youíll make it home, no problem; but I wonder if you have an oil leak. Sometimes a pebble kicks up, nicks the oil pan, and there you go—a slow leak. You donít notice it, and sometime soon your engine coughs its last feeble breath."

"Usually at the worst moment," Rick said, "like in a snow storm, or a hurricane or whatever."

"Yep. I can check that really quick for you."

Rick sighed. "Cars."

"Yeah," Tony said businesslike irony, "canít live with them, and canít live without them. Hey, Iíll put her up on the lift and have you checked out in no time; tire pressure, coolant, the works. You might want to go get yourself a cold soda or something." He pointed to a lounge in his station, with two rows of worn black plastic seats and several vending machines in it. "Itís air conditioned in there."

"Thanks," Rick said. "I might do that. Actually, Iíd rather stretch my legs a bit."

"Suit yourself."

"Been cooped up in a skyscraper all day."

"Manhattan, huh?"

"Yeah." Heíd been reviewing contracts, as usual, signing documents approved by accountants and lawyers. His fatherís firm specialized in salvaging deleveraged firms that had gone over the edge and crashed in negative amortization valleys. Moyer brokered the assets, paid off the departing stock holders, and (usually, ideally) seamlessly sold a newly reconstituted package to new owners, often in mergers, pocketing ten or twenty percent on a good day. He did not tell Tony any of this; it would take too much jaw motion when he really just wanted to plant his lips on an icy cola or a beer and sit back by the pool at home, maybe with a takeout pastrami sandwich or small pizza for one, picked up along the way into West Hartford.

"You from Connecticut?" Tony made conversation. A little of it was curiosity, as Rick could read in the older manís eyes.

"Yes. Hartford."

"The big city." Tony meant it ironically, and they both laughed. Tony amended: "Donít feel bad. Here we are--Emery, population 5,000 during rush hour, half that by supper time."

"Looks like a nice little town."

A young man drove Rickís car into the garage, with one dirty boot and greasy overall leg hanging out the partially open door. That must be Johnny—maybe a nephew, a son, or a local trade school apprentice.

"Most of us that live here wouldnít trade life here for anything else," Tony said. He looked a bit distastefully down on the noisy swarm of headlights and taillights in the sunken thruway carrying traffic between major cities.

Rickís eyes tracked Tonyís gaze, and gave a lingering look around. The constant zooming of cars and trucks on the ancient, four-lane turnpike was distracting. Other than that, you could hear birds and crickets chirping in lush undergrowth that fell down reddish stone outcroppings into the valley.

It felt good to have his feet on firm ground. A breeze blew up from down on his left, below the upper thruway that housed Tonyís station and other roadside businesses.

"Thatís a nice breeze here," Rick said.

"You noticed," Tony said appreciatively. "The air is always kind of fresh in our little town. Comes in from that valley down there." He pointed north, over the heavy, rusty cable guard rail that was tangled with tall grass, flowers, and weed. He pointed over miles of tree crowns, toward nestled rooftops far out, surrounding a shimmering lake. "Thatís Emery. The town, as opposed to the thruway business district up here."

Nearby was an overpass on top of the thruway. Red taillights headed east and northward into New England in the two right lanes, and some cars already had their headlights on coming west toward New York City. The overpass carried a two-lane local street with traffic lights at either end of the bridge, where the frontage roads crossed the bridge road. The bridge road became a quaint little country lane on the other side of the freeway by a library, school, and roadside businesses. On this side, the bridge road crossed the frontage road at a traffic signal not far from Tonyís garage; the bridge road became a two-lane blacktop road heading downward, between weedy embankments, into Emery Township proper.

"Beats the City by a mile. I was just in Manhattan two hours ago," Rick said, as he bounced on the balls of his feet in his tasseled loafers. He had his hands in his pockets. "It was stifling hot there."

"Iíll bet," Tony said. "Always nice to get back to the green stuff here in New England." He slowly lowered the hood shut with a wincing expression as if he felt a sudden pain.

"Something wrong?" Rick asked.

"Naw. Real gas station owners never slam hoods or trunks shut, unlike most people. We are acutely aware we might dislodge something, jiggle something loose, and next thing you know itís a repair job or a law suit or who knows what."

"You see it all, I bet," Rick said with a grin. Unspoken between them was the fact that each had a stake in a business. Tony owned his own, probably not as lucrative as Moyer LX Holdings Inc., but Rick was still somewhere between an employee and a partner at the whim of his father. Aside from the divorce just two years ago, the constant pressure and the traveling to New York, Boston, Chicago, and L.A. among other destinations was the other big bane in his life. That, and an empty apartment that had been meant for sharing with Cindy, with whom he could have had at least one child by now if she had not turned out to have a different plan in life, involving lawyers, alimony, and the freedom to cavort. Cindy had not gone through a war, as Rick had, and there had been too much distance between them on account of the changes heíd gone through in the Middle East, including the deaths of two comrades; while she simply remained a spoiled party girl—high maintenance, as guys said among each other about women like Cindy.

Rick sighed. At times he thought of renting a room or two in his large town home to a responsible, younger business man or woman, or maybe a college professor—someone he could talk to sometimes, even if it meant bickering over laundry, refrigerators, and parking spaces.

"Been a long day?" Tony said, regarding Rickís shifting moods with evident empathy. The way that drama worked, unspoken, and shifting like clouds on a windy day, was that Tony was obviously older and settled in life, while Rick sort of carried this attitude on his sleeve, that he might be doing well in business, but he was truthfully starting life over. But of course he would not tell that to a stranger; yet this small town businessman seemed shrewd enough to read Rick the same way Rick could read a cagey board of directors official, or a partisan lawyer in a corporate lawsuit, or an acquiring or divesting investor with some kind of axe to grind.

"All the days are long," Rick said.

"Yeah." Tony turned his attention back to the open motor, signaling he did not want to pry any further. Must be the beard shadow, Rick thought. His mother had always told him he should shave so he wouldnít look like a pondering professor or a troubled artist. Mom was a fond, doting mother, who took a backseat to her captain of industry husband, Rickís stern but guardedly affectionate father.

The tank was full. Rick hung up the hose and screwed on the gas cap. "You might as well give it the works. The car is overdue for a checkup anyway."

"All right," Tony said. "Iíll have Johnny check the water, the tires, and the whole shebang. It can never hurt, especially when you have to drive in this kind of heat. Stresses a car right out."

"The last thing I would want is a stressed out car," Rick said. "Is there a restaurant nearby?"

"You mean like food? Something more than a vending machine?"

"I know you pride yourself on your cellophane wrapped cookies and wafers, but yes, lunch, like maybe a nice Italian sub or something."

Tony nodded. As he stood wiping his hands, and then his face, with a blue rag, he pointed with his chin. "Other side of the turnpike, across the street, those shops there?"

Rick followed the chin motion, and saw a row of store windows across the busy thruway with its constant stream of zipping and zooming cars and trucks. On the quieter frontage road there, he read signs: dry cleaning, a bar, a barber, a pizzeria, and a sewing machine repair place. Beyond that was a large white stucco building with a parking lot—the Emery Free Public Library. Beyond that were a very old brick grammar school with gargoyles in the second story eaves. The main entrances to the adjoining library and school lay on the quiet little side street that descended into rich tree crowns from the bridge overpass.

Rick walked two hundred feet to the big intersection with overhead traffic light. He crossed the north frontage road, walked a few hundred feet over the hundred-year-old overpass bridge, and crossed the south frontage road at the opposite traffic light. Rick found himself walking at a leisurely but determined pace. A few huffing and chuffing vehicles passed on the local roads above the teeming freeway. It felt good, despite the heat, to be putting his legs through walking motions. He patted his left rear pocket to reassure himself of the sturdy wallet that always rode on his gluteus. He was a tall, muscular man with pinched rear end. A long-ago female admirer had once told him that he had a gluteus minimus rather than a maximus. He had a complete set of exercise equipment at home, which could see more use if he had time; but he actually considered joining a private gym or even the YMCA just to get out and meet more people outside of his constant work. As he walked along the curb, the sidewalk had a sizzling summer quality, almost greasy from much use—imagine all the dropped ice cream cones, spilled sodas, dogs doing what dogs do, and so on. The pizzeria inside smelled of baked crust, steamy tomato sauce with basil and other spices, and meatballs or sausage.

The air conditioning in the pizzeria was broken. The doors stood open to let in that little valley breeze. The pizza maker and his family were big, heavy persons who sat waiting for business. They sat with their tongues protruding and their eyes bugging, as if the effort of making yet one more pie would be their last. They looked upon Rick with suffering. Then the mother rose on thick legs and sighed. "Would you like a couple of slices and a soda, mister?"

"Smells divine in here," Rick said. It did, indeed—the crust, the cheese, the pepperoni, the sauce, were all to die for. "How about your lunch special?"

The papa rose, like a bear lumbering from his cave. "Iíll have to make a fresh pie," he said in a voice as thick as his fingers and his bulging arms. "Iíll have a nice fresh new pie just for you, mister," he said as if he had never had a more wonderful customer than Rick. Meanwhile, a dozen wise ass kids on bicycles whizzed past, and a few stopped in the store to bang their quarters on the hot, steamy counter glass as they stared rudely around waiting for service, and cast yearning eyes upon the empty pizza trays inside.

"Weíre making a couple of fresh pies," mama said loudly, as if she were ready to swat them.

The boys made acquiescent, if guilty, faces and indicated by squirming and other body language that they would wait.

Rick found the air stifling, the store too small, and the smell of pastas intoxicating. He ordered a medium cola to tide him over while he waited to eat. The drink was served promptly by a demure high school girl, probably a nephew or daughter of the family. The waxy cup was full of ice cubes and dark liquid full of happily jumping bubbles. It came with a plastic lid and a straw to travel. Rick took a long, shuddering, delighted drink that slaked the worst of his thirst. "Iíll take a walk to the library for a few minutes," he told mama.

A wide, dark-haired woman, she said as she worked behind the counter: "Itís air conditioned in there. Youíll love it. Youíll have icicles hanging from your nose."

He touched himself on the nose. "Thanks, just what I need."

"Weíll have your lunch ready in fifteen minutes," papa said as he spun a ball of dough in the air. It turned into a whirling disk in a matter of seconds.

The walk to the library, which took about two minutes, was about to change Rickís life—although he did not know it yet by a long shot.

Leaving the pizzeria, he sauntered along the cracked, uneven sidewalk with its stray grass, occasional discarded candy wrapper, and ancient stain of oil or whatever. It was a pleasant town here, Rick thought, if you had time to slow down and enjoy things. It was that kind of place where you could stop and watch the trees grow, as the saying went. As solitary as his life was, in a huge, empty gated community house meant for a family with kids--the more the merrier--he was afraid a place like this would drive him crazy. He relished the constant distraction of travel, of business, of meeting strangers, and the challenge of finding his way around in strange cities. He hoped in the coming years to expand the family business into Canada, particularly Montreal and Quebec City, and then into the European Union—especially the Greater London area, and a few odd capitals here and there like Brussels, Luxembourg, and maybe Prague. He would leave Rome, Paris, and Berlin among his vacation and fun spots. In recent years, he'd tended to date female airline attendants (formerly known as stewardesses)--not immersed in business, but usually anchored someplace in some small town hideaway to get away from their life-bending travel schedules. Heíd made friends, but not the kind you took on vacation with you, or traveled far to spend a few days with. That delight was reserved for his few remaining close college friends, all guys who were by now married and stuck in the fast lane between family and careers.

The Emery Township Free Public Library was a plain building of weathered stucco that had once been white but now had a kind of amber, ice tea patina. Its lines were simple and severe, in a style that had seemed modern half a century ago or more. Now it looked more like a shipwreck that had weathered many seasons of heat and rain, of storms and snows. At the moment, its plate glass windows had a stunned, baked look. On the inside, the glass had all sorts of childrenís projects taped to it in decorative arcs. The current theme was the approach of Labor Day at the end of August.

Outside on the lawn was a wooden sign, comparable to that on the church lawn across High Street. The libraryís sign read: Welcome to the Emery Township Free Public Library. Stop In Anytime You Feel Like It. Our Friendly Librarians Will Care For All Your Information and Reading Needs.

How funny, Rick thought. Is that the town motto? Stop By.

Entering the main library building by its side door on the frontage road, Rick stepped into an atmosphere of books and ink. His body shivered thanks as a chill swirled around him. The dry, dehumidified air had a faintly rancid, vinegar scent. He closed his eyes for a second, and let all sorts of taupe and mauve balls of light rush toward him inside his brain. Inside the building, as in any of its tens of thousands of sister institutions large and small across vast America, was a hushed, dignified peace. These heavy walls and massive wooden doors shut out all the stray highway noise and other mortal distractions from the secular world. Rick was a lover of books, libraries, and bookstores. This was a sacred place to him, full of a kind of ephemeral green forest energy, a light filled with whispers and charm. Among its fragrances was a faint blossom of mixed perfumes, like an anthology of fading flowers.

The instant he opened his eyes, he saw her: a singularly attractive young woman, among the several older, or married looking women working at various library tasks. The older ones looked matronly, fussy, pleasant but reserved (like books already spoken for). She was just coming down the front hall, pushing a light cart from one office to another. She hardly stopped as their eyes found and arrested each other; she slowed way down, as if he were stopping her just by the force of his surprised and helpless look.

As he spotted this striking young woman, who made his breath catch for a second, and his heart skip a beat, she saw him also. An atomically charged look full of mystery and desire crossed between them for a fraction of a second, like lightning and thunder in a summer storm. She carried herself with a kind of eternal, patient dignity and grace, but her eyes sent a different message. Like the faint, enigmatic smile that played knowingly around her lips, her eyes radiated something positively wild to Rick. It was actually almost scary. He felt as if he had just glimpsed a mythical forest grove filled with nymphs and satyrs, or an outdoor picnic of knights and damsels in some legendary feudal manor far from everyday life. There would come a day when she would surprise him, and tell him what had been going on with her that very day. Scary was the word. And breathtakingly beautiful.

Rick felt a strange something haunted, bleak, painful—something that stabbed into his soul like a knife. It was a look of loss and grieving, which met the barely healing scars of his own losses and wounds deep in the heart.

He noticed a black ribbon on her dress. Instantly, he loved the little imperfections that made her heart-stoppingly real: a little silk-coated button half undone to one side of her modest blouse—that one button in a row of five over her left breast, as if she had innocently been in a hurry and forgotten to finish push it through its eyelet, but left it carelessly sticking sideways, half in and out. He saw a streak of dark, sky-blue ink along one tea-colored hand from some little mishap with a pen, probably while busy with children and a dozen other things all at once. He noticed a cute, almost school girlish unevenness about her skirt, as if she had risen too quickly from kneeling to file a book in its shelf, and had not yet found time to smooth her clothes down with a quick, busy brush of both palms. She was not perfect, but that in itself was her supreme perfection, just as she was, human and real. The long, delicate fingers of her capable hands rested on the handle to push the cart, which just now slowed to a crawl like time and the universe itself. Everything about her was so nice—so very nice—but nicest, and most deeply piercing, was how she looked straight at him and into him. Her eyes widened—expressionlessly, he thought—was she annoyed? shocked? pained? Something emotional passed through her gaze, and her mouth opened slightly. She had such a captivating face. He might have described it as attractive or even beautiful, but her face perfectly matched his tastes, in a way he had never imagined in any woman. Another man might pass by without noticing more than her pleasant, well proportioned features. A woman might have thought of her as handsome, or pretty, or felt jealous, or whatever.

In that wonderful but incredibly awkward moment, they stopped and looked at each other in the libraryís front hallway. He felt like a schoolboy, and awkwardly stammered: "This is a really nice library." He almost said a little town or a little library, but he didnít want to offend her. More pragmatically, he realized, he might have said it was a surprisingly large library for such a small town scattered and hidden among millions of New England forest trees, but he imagined they were a township and serviced even smaller hamlets and villages in the area.

She seemed flustered as well, which lent her soft voice a faint, delicate, just barely perceptible lisp as she echoed the advertising billboard on the libraryís front lawn: "Stop by anytime you like."

With that, she pushed her cart away and, with just a hint of a smile, turned her back to him. Something in how she held her shoulders and moved her hips told him she was acutely aware that his eyes and gaping expression followed her as her figure down the hall.

He stared for a few long seconds after her as she walked away, pushing a little cart with a few books, papers, pens, and inking stamps on it.

He would relive that moment many times, and it would bring him back, time and again, to stop for a breath of air and peace in the little township of Emery along the busy highways of his constantly working hours.

This is a really nice library.

Stop by anytime you like.

These were the only words they would speak to each other for a long time to come. Neither would ever forget the moment, as it turned out. But like roads to small towns anywhere—especially for a busy and successful man racing between major cities—the one that wanted to bring them together took its winding time and way.

For just that instant, with its massive voltage that passed, even as she walked away, they seemed to communicate from the oneís heart to the otherís heart. He knew she meant the library (Stop by) —and it was maybe just the libraryís advertising slogan—but it almost seemed as if she meant for him to stop by and see her again; that she might be available.

She was slender, modestly dressed, and quiet. Her hair was combed in whatever manner it wanted to fall, in thick black waves, from under which peered the most vivid, caramel-greenish eyes Rick had ever seen. As his eyes focused, so did hers, and he felt an electric jolt go through his entire being. She was moderately tall, not near Rickís six feet; maybe five-seven. She looked crisp but comfortable in a summery blouse above a modest, calf-length white cotton skirt. The blouse was cream-colored, with tasteful images of ripe fruit and green leaves attached to crisp browning twigs. It was closed in the center, but had a vertical row of small, cream-textured buttons over the left breast, almost a Chinese touch. Her long, slender tanned arms were bare except for one delicate black bow tied from a single, tattered ribbon; in addition to a fun white wristwatch with black face and jazzy pointers on her other wrist. She had tanned skin and sharply pretty features. He instantly thought: college girl, classy, but not sorority, not spoiled, not high maintenance—just untouchable but wanting to be released from the prison of her reserve. It never occurred to him at that moment that she might be married, or something yet more complicated and dark. She seemed imprisoned on the other side of a barrier neither could cross, and he had not idea what that might be. All these thoughts crossed his mind in a blur, in seconds. They stopped, stared at each other in a shock of recognition—soul mates? And then each quickly turned away, as if blinded by the sun, stung by the fire, of what just happened in that blinding instant. For a long, paralyzed, infinitely pleasant moment, Rick seemed to continue floating in a kind of timeless nectar. He did not just see her. He inhaled her. As she walked away, he breathed her essence and felt spring flowers in the heart of summer.

Maybe, Rick thought later on his way home, it was just the moment. Sure, that had to be it. It was the heat, and his appetite (for pizza, not for librarians), or a combination of a whole lot of things. Of all the women in the world, why did this one, at a random encounter lasting only seconds, shoot through him like a bolt of lightning?

For a moment, it seemed as if she meant to say something. But what could she say? They did not know each other. He was not whispering or chewing gum or running around, and therefore not in need of chiding or shooshing. He was a grown man, for heavenís sake. Here he was, feeling like a boy who was in trouble. Those days were long behind him, in other libraries and schools and movie theaters elsewhere in New England or around the world.

For a moment, the woman stared at him with her mouth opening. Just as quickly, she looked just as he felt. She touched her hair, her collar, and a little black ribbon on her left wrist, as if checking to see that everything was properly tidy and in place. Her eyes acquired a furtive, pained look as she quickly looked down at the cart, and a flush visibly rose to her cheeks.

The one odd, striking thing about her was a fine little black bow, worn amid fine golden peach down on one tea-colored forearm with a tattered, dangling ribbon hanging down toward the hand. It did not look as if it were meant to be sexy, or an ornament, as much as a statement or a symbol—but of what? Its black hue matched that faint air of grieving or gravity that surrounded her.

She was, Rick had long to consider the afterglow of that first impression, the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. As a man, he instantly noticed how fine and shapely was her figure in those attractive but modest clothes. He loved the rich black hair that seemed to hang over her long, pale neck in curls yet also rose up in a cloud of tight curls. Her features were regular, finely apportioned, and somehow a contradictory mix of proper and exotic. It was a mystery. That was it. She was filled with mystery, like a summer afternoonís forest grove. Seeing her was like looking through a stained glass window.

For an instant, a smile played about her rouged lips. She had a sensuous, full mouth to match the hidden intrigue in her gorgeous dark-blue eyes. The covert wildness of her look did not so much shoot outward to him—it lured him toward him. And yet she seemed so distant, so proper, so taken, so owned. Her dazzling look turned almost to sadness as she turned and walked away. He stared after her sharply shapely figure as she pushed her cart before her, losing nothing in grace, and gaining naught in pretense. She was real, and he had to remember to close his mouth. He wetted his lips and mouth with a hurried sip at the forgotten soda and straw in his hand.

In the next instant, an older woman who resembled a disapproving chicken with dyed melon-colored hair and a pink-sticked mouth interrupted his stunned reverie by saying: "Is there something I can help you with, sir?"

As his eyes followed her yet another moment, she glanced over her shoulder for an instant. Her almond gaze sought Rickís eyes yet one more moment, filled with longing and questioning. As Rick savored her departing figure, a fatherly looking patron in a maroon vest, with white hair and a red face, approached from a side aisle. The man held a book, and his body language suggested he was about to ask the Goddess a question. She in turn switched her attention to Mr. Book and opened a mouth of a color inside as pink as bubble gum. She had a shy, sweet sort of smile--probably permanently minty, Rick imagined, wishing he could breathe it in more closely with his eyes closed. It was a reserved, polite smile, crisp and chicle-white, and eager to please. In turning her head suddenly, and tearing her gaze away from Rickís, her cheek made a stunned motion as if a hand had struck her out of her reverie. Actually, Mr. Book was very demure and polite, and handed the book to the Goddess with both hands like an offering.

"Sir?" Mrs. Chicken said insistently to Rick, as he stood frozen in place. The chicken lady stood behind the Reference Desk doing something with a book and a telephone and, Rick almost suspected, a hammer with his name on it.

"Iím sorry," Rick said. "I am suffering from heat stroke. Seeing visions, you know, that sort of thing. But I will be fine in a second. Just let me breathe in the air conditioning another moment or two."

The chicken sniffed. "The heat will do that to a person." She was not entirely unfriendly amid her severe sort of chalky restraint. "Youíll have to step out of the main thoroughfare then, and let people get by."

Rick looked around and saw nobody—at least nobody seemed blocked. Mothers flowed past with children in tow, children ran in silently tiptoeing packs, and everything seemed normal.

"I was just leaving," Rick said. He was still bathed in the aura of the Goddess, and did not really notice Mrs. Chicken much. He turned on rubbery legs toward the door. As he exited, he looked back and saw that the woman who had just turned his life upside down had her back to him—a slender, shapely back covered in peaches and green leaves—and was conversing with Mr. Book about some esoteric library business.

Rick had spent no more than five minutes in the library, but had cooled off while being turned on. Now the summer heat struck him like Mrs. Chickenís imaginary hammer, and he thought about his pizza. He did not expect to ever see the unknown and unknowable woman again. After all, he had just been in Manhattan, with millions of attractive women flowing around him, fragrant as rose water. So many of those were available for the moment—a drink, a date, coffee, a dance or a walk along the Central Park paths during their lunch break—that he thought little about them. He kept himself buried in work, trying to please Dad, hoping to be worthy of the Moyer inheritance after his early years of constantly doing things his own way. It had always been with a vague feeling that his parents were somehow disappointed—Mom still pretty in a manicured, aging way behind her glass of lush in the shade of their sprawling West Hartford home; Dad a whipcord, red-faced, gray-haired Saturnian god of finance behind his desk. Dad seemed captain of a ship only he was qualified to run, and had to watch every moment so mortals like Rick would not run it aground. Until the shipwreck with Cindy a few years ago—to carry forward the nautical theme, since Dad had been a Navy officer long ago—Rick had been brashly self-confident and reckless. A stint in the army, followed by a disastrous brief marriage with a New York City socialite, had smacked him up on the reefs of his own youthful myopia. He was a man in a life jacket, adrift amid debris, grateful to be alive, and treading water frantically while hoping to find yet a new, saving shore. He could only hope that shore would not have a row of cannibals waiting for him. It was all metaphor, and grimly fun. Rick had once dallied with the idea of being a Liberal Arts professor one day, but Moyer LX Holdings was the road life had chosen for him, no matter how he might have protested it in his youthful exuberances. These thoughts flashed through Rickís ragged thoughts with the speed and brevity of passing light in a black vacuum somewhere far from Earth; far from a humid, crawlingly stifling late summer day in Connecticut.

Across the thruway, Tony stood looking up under the car, which was still on the lift. Rick did not worry about the money of a possible service need. He had plenty of money. He hoped his time would not be taken, or heíd have to rent a car to get home rather than be stuck here all evening. But as it turned out, the pizza and salad were delicious, the soda was quenching, and Tony had the car waiting for him with only a small tab due for two cans of premium motor oil. It was a station, and a town, and a pizzeria worth stopping by in again some day.

Before he crossed the frontage road north over the overpass bridge, Rick stopped as he waited for the little white man to appear on the crossing sign. As he did so, he looked back over his shoulder. Was that a pale, narrow, gorgeous face in the window amid the arch of green childrenís cards? Was that a shock of black hair, and a glow of greenish eyes from some primeval forest? Or was he imagining things? The window looked blank, the little white man went tweet-tweet, and Rick headed back to Tonyís garage.

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Thank you for reading the first half (free, what I call the Bookstore Metaphor). If you love it, you can (easily and safely at Amazon) buy the whole e-book for the painless price of a cup of coffee—also known as Read-a-Latte (hours of reading enjoyment; the coffee is gone in minutes, but the book stays with you forever). You can also get those many hours of happy reading from the print edition for the price of a sandwich (no, I don't have a metaphor for that, like a 'sandwich metaphor?'). To help the author, please recommend this book your friends, and also post a favorable (five star!) review at Amazon, Good Reads, and similar online reader resources. Thank you (JTC).

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