Wallis Simpson at the Palomino Hotel
Fiction - Second Place
He whispers my name like a prayer.
"Evan, what's up? It's Wednesday night."
He never calls on weeknights. It's against my rules. Usually he drives out from Raleigh on Friday, spends the night, gets up in the morning and goes fox hunting with his cousin, Woody. We share a late lunch and he goes to his studio. He works late into the night and all day Sunday. Monday he drives home to his wife.
Her name is Lucinda. She doesn't know about me. She's already in a tizz because Evan takes the time to hunt and paint. He was a painter when she married him, but maybe she thought he'd change.
Woody, he's in on the secret. There's no phone in the studio, so when Lucinda calls for Evan, Woody says he'll deliver her message. Then he rings my house.
I wish Woody weren't our partner in crime. I've known him for 20 years, ever since I came here, and I suppose he's trustworthy. He reads the Bible every day and lives like a monk. Still, he always seems to take a lascivious interest in other people's romances.
"I'm at the Palomino," Evan says. "I wondered if I could see you tonight."
"The Palomino? Where business and leisure meet?"
That's what it says on the highway sign. It's a local joke. The Palomino looks like the kind of joint where there are mirrors over the beds and rooms are rented by the hour. Nobody knows if this is true, or admits to knowing. Sometimes Evan says he's going to take me there for a sex holiday, but I say I am the holiday. That's what I want to be.
"Cameron, I know I'm breaking the rules, but I'm a desperate man. Are you busy?"
"You come on." I can't believe this is me, spitting out the spontaneous invitation. Like the proverbial moth to a flame. "Do you need dinner?"
"I'm too spun around to eat."
"I'll throw something on the fire anyway, in case you get unspun."
We hang up and I panic. Not over dinner; I know what to do about food. There are fresh tuna steaks in the fridge; I'll pop them on the grill, make some pineapple salsa and pick a salad out of the garden. It's my imagination that's running wild. What if Lucinda found out about me? She'll come tearing down the highway in her fancy Saab and blow my brains outthe woman keeps a .38 Special in her glove box on account of the crime rate in Raleighand I am not ready to die.
Or what if Evan has decided to leave her? They've got a kid. I've always thought Evan's sense of duty would keep him home. And he loves his daughter. I'm glad. I wouldn't want a man who could trade in his kid for a new life.
My knees are shaking as I walk around the kitchen opening cupboard doors and slamming them shut again. The cat is curled in the empty fruit basket on the table, watching me.
"Damn it, Melba," I grumble as I take the tuna and pineapple out of the fridge. "Something is about to rock my tidy little world."
She leaps off the table and circles my legs as I begin to hack at the pineapple.
"OK. No sense jumping to conclusions, right?"
I'm outside pouring charcoal in the grill when the phone rings again. It's Woody. I can tell by the way he breathes, before he speaks, that he has his Bible in one hand and a bottle of Jameson in the other.
"Cameron?" He kind of barks my name, like a dog who doesn't know whether he wants to bite you or lick you.
I feel tired. Too tired to strike the match and lift it to the charcoal. I told Evan the rules right from the get-go: One, no family drama. Two, no clandestine phone calls. Three, no surprise visits. Four, no guilt-ridden confessions to the wife. "What you and I do together is private," I told him. Evan said he understood.
But now his crazy cousin is on the phone and I can tell he's about to deliver a sermon. So much for privacy.
"Cameron, Evan is leaving his wife."
"I reckoned maybe that was the case."
"Yeah, he's on his way to your house and I don't want to break his heart, is all. My cousin is flat-out in love with you. You're his Wallis Simpson."
"Who's Wallis Simpson?"
"The king of England gave up his crown for her. She was an American divorcée."
"Oh, I've read about them. That was the only time in the history of the world that a man gave up anything for a woman. Except a few teaspoons of sperm."
"Darlin', you're so cynical."
"Practical, Woody. I'm practical. Look, I'm making dinner for Evan and you don't need to fret. I'll take good care of him. I promise."
"You'd better, or else you'll have to answer to me."
"Don't worry, Woody. Please."
Most everybody makes fun of Woody for being a drunk and a recluse, but I try to be gentle. He is hiding out from heartbreak. I understand that. I said as much to Evan one night and Evan said, "Yes, but he's also hiding out from happiness."
"We all have our own style," I said.
I was thinking of Evan, hiding out under the pretty chintz cover of family life. And me, hiding out in my barn, only showing my real face to my horses. Sometimes I think human beings are just as afraid of feeling happy as we are of feeling sad.
I met Evan out fox hunting. I hate fox hunting"The unspeakable chasing the uneatable," like Oscar Wilde said. But riding is how I earn my living and that day I was out on Vita Dillard's new filly. Vita pays me well and she's a straight-up old bird. We were standing at a check and Woody rode over with Evan in tow.
"Cameron, here's a man who's dying to meet you. This is my cousin, Evan Mosley. Evan, Cameron Roberts."
"Nice to see you," I said. I wasn't just being polite. Evan looked real pretty on a horse. I knew he'd look pretty with two feet on the ground too, and that was unsettling.
Woody rode off and Evan parked his horse close to mine. "You look like you'd rather be somewhere else," he said.
I think I fell in love with him right then and there. Everybody in this town thinks I'm cool and mysterious. I don't do anything to dissuade them, but truth is, I like a man who can read me like a book. My ex-husband read me like a book, but when he got to the last page he decided he didn't like it.
Evan told me that he and his wife had recently moved from New York City to Raleigh.
"I grew up riding in Virginia," he said, "and then I didn't ride at all when I was in New York. With Woody only an hour away, this seemed like an opportunity to get back into it."
"What were you doing in New York?"
"Houses or pictures?"
He laughed. "Pictures, mostly, but I've painted a few houses when the pictures didn't sell. Why? Do you need your house painted?"
"I could probably stand more color in my life," I said.
I blushed and turned my head. I'd been alone so long I couldn't even pass Flirting 101.
After that, Evan came out most every weekend. He bought Harry McKinnon's old log house, blew a hole in the north wall, and put in a big window. Knocked a hole in the roof, installed a skylight, and voilàa studio.
For several weeks he painted nothing but landscapes. The way he painted the gauzy light of the long leaf pines, it looked like you could walk right into it and meet Jesus on the other side of the woods. Then he asked me to model. I don't know why I said yes. But I liked posing in the quiet studio with the wood crackling in the stove and the winter sun shining in.
Evan painted me in stark, bold anglestrue to lifeand at the end of the day we sat by the stove drinking tea and talking. We talked and talked. Our words crackled like the oak in the stove. When we said good-bye, I felt all shimmery and bright, like I'd been shot full of stars.
One afternoon I asked him, "Evan, remember when Andrew Wyeth painted those pictures of his neighbor, Helga, and it created a big scandal because he kept it a secret from everybody, including his wife?"
"Do you think Andrew and Helga were lovers?"
"I don't know what Helga was to Andy, but I know you're my heart's delight."
I felt like God grabbed a big old Electrolux and sucked the breath right out of my body. I could hardly make words.
"That's kind of inconvenient, isn't it, considering you're married?"
"It's damned inconvenient. I'm not sure what to do."
"Evan, I have to go."
"Hey, Helga made the cover of Time. Stick with me, baby. I'll take you places you've never been."
"Christ. Get serious, Evan."
"I am serious."
"Stay," he said, but I was already out the door. I had asked the question but I wasn't ready for the answer.
I bolted for home and called Vita. Vita is 73 years old. She has lived in five countries with three husbands and assorted lovers. Even now she has two boyfriends, Trusty and Sparky. Trusty is good at home repairs and Sparky is apparently all that his name implies.
When I was young, I aspired to an adventurous life like Vita's. Then I fell in love and married. When my husband left, my sense of adventure left too.
"There's nothing wrong with enjoying a little pounce, Ducky," Vita said. "You're a bright, beautiful woman and if you don't drop your knickers once in a while you're going to shrivel up and die. Your good looks won't be anything but a dusty piece of history no one remembers."
"But Vita, Evan's married."
"Come now, Cameron. Marriage needn't stand in the way. Besides, Evan is no bounder. He comes from a fine old Virginia family. I know his mother well, and they were all appalled when he married that woman. Stocky, short-legged thing she is. A frightful temper and can't sit on a horse to save her soul. I can't imagine what Evan was thinking when he married her."
"Just because she can't ride doesn't mean she's a bad person."
"Of course not, Ducky, but you're more of a sport, and it's obvious Evan adores you. He worries his mother to death. She says he's been doing penance for imaginary sins his whole life. So have you, ever since that loathsome husband left. Go on, Ducky, take the medicine."
The prospect of shriveling up and dying was grim. I wasn't keen on being forgotten either. I took the medicine.
After we became lovers, Evan's work changed. In the new paintings, angles softened to curves. I looked like a goddess. He dressed me in a purple cape with silver stars. I wore an oak wreath in my hair. A basket of herbs at my hip. A handful of cinnamon. My eyes shone like amber.
"I thought you were a realist," I said.
"I'm not comfortable being a goddess."
"Every goddess has human frailties, Cameron. And in every mortal woman there is a goddess. Do you think I can't see you clearly?"
"So where is the goddess in your wife?"
Evan shrugged. "Lost on the astral plane? Waylaid at the office? I've given up searching."
"Maybe you should call in the bloodhounds and the FBI."
"Are you trying to talk me into staying with her?"
"I don't know."
Tears were running down my cheeks. They surprised me. They felt like rain after a severe drought. Sometimes after a long spell of dry weather, I don't recognize the sound of rain on my roof.
"Cameron, when Lucinda and I divorce, I'll still be a good parent."
He was reading me again. I know what it's like to be left. I don't ever want to visit that kind of loneliness on a child.
I'm picking tomatoes when I hear Evan's car in the lane. I hide behind the plants, sprawling wild and tall in their cages, and watch him climb out, close the door, and start up the walk. He looks happier than he sounded on the phone. He looks positively jaunty. My feet are sprouting wings. Chickenshit goddess, ready to fly.
Evan pauses to pat the horses who are hanging their heads over the gate, looking for treats, then he turns and heads straight for the garden. I don't want him to catch me hiding so I step out from behind the cages.
"Hello," I say, trying to sound casual, but I'm clutching the basket of tomatoes in front of my belly like a shield.
He lifts the basket out of my hands, sits it down in the basil, and kisses me.
"You don't look desperate," I say when our lips finally part company.
"Want to hear something stupid? I made a bet with myself. If you threw out your rulebook and consented to see me tonight, that would be a good omen. If you turned me away, I was going to locate the nearest river and make like a diving duck."
"Dive to the bottom and never come up?"
"That's right, sister."
"Suicide won't be necessary," I say.
"What a relief, Garden Goddessbecause you and I have a lot of living to do. Lots to talk about too. But right now there's a cowboy swing band playing at the Palomino. What say we take a few turns on the dance floor?"
"Can we rent the honeymoon suite and watch ourselves kissing 'til the sun comes up?"
So I'm watching the dancers as Evan twirls me around. Some of them look joyous, making it up as they go. Others look like they're practicing some painful, preordained choreography, like they're scared to take a wrong step. I am filled up with this wordless, nearly unbearable tenderness for each and every one of them. I think about Evan's daughter, and Woody and Vita and Lucinda too, and I feel the same. It feels like medicine. I want to hold out the spoon.
Annie Hawkins lives in Sparks and writes a column called Renegade Poet for the Kennett Paper of Kennett Square, Pa. When she is not at her desk, she exercises racehorses.
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