Chapter Four ~ A Brief Encounter
“I’ll help if I can,” I said. “Why don’t you start at the beginning and tell me—”
Mrs. Plumley raised her voice. “I’ll have to check my list and get back to you later.”
“Who is that?” a voice in the background said.
“The caterer,” Mrs. Plumley said.
“I’ll ask you again,” the voice said. “To whom are you speaking?”
Mrs. Plumley wilted. “One of Xander’s friends.”
“We agreed not to discuss this with anyone,” the voice said.
“I only thought—” Mrs. Plumley said.
He snatched the phone. “Who is this?” he said to me.
“Agnes Quinn. Is this Dr. Plumley?”
“It is. This is a not a convenient time for you to call. My wife is not herself.”
“She asked me to call,” I said, irritated by his tone. “Is Xander all right?”
“No, I’m afraid he is not, and it’s been very difficult on all of us. I’ll say goodbye now.”
“Is there a more convenient time when—?”
The receiver clicked in my ear.
Dumbfounded, I stared at the receiver. I’d been mistaken about the Plumleys. They were not remarkable at all. Mrs. Plumley was as pitiful as any other worried mother, and Dr. Plumley was just plain rude.
“And don’t even get me started on Xander,” I said to Saturn, who, impatient for dinner, brushed against my leg. I grabbed two cans from the cabinet—one of chicken soup and one of cat food. I filled Saturn’s dish and then complained to him as I swirled the noodles in a pan.
“For years,” I said, “I haven’t taken a step without wondering what Xander would think of me, and now he’s off touring the world while I’m stuck in a community college.”
Occupied with his tuna, Saturn ignored me.
When I sat down to supper, someone knocked at the door.
I stood at the door and called out. “Who is it?”
“Your neighbor,” a man said. “Warner Bingham.”
I remembered his name from the mailboxes.
Brought up to be a good neighbor, I opened the door.
Warner scraped his thick-soled black boots on my welcome mat. Saturn, fearing the intruder, skittered behind the sofa where I wished I could follow. Outfitted in black jeans and a black leather jacket, Warner did nothing to put me at ease.
He held out a blue plastic measuring cup. “Honey.”
I stepped back. “I’m sorry … what?”
“I need honey.”
“I have apricot preserves,” I said. “That’s about it.”
His face turned as red as the bandana on his head. “Not for toast—for a cough.”
“I see. I have cough syrup.”
He narrowed his eyes. “It will have to do. Go get it.”
I was afraid to turn my back to Warner, but more afraid to refuse him. I rifled through the kitchen cabinet and produced a half-empty bottle of cherry-flavored cough syrup my mother had insisted I bring.
He held the bottle up to the light. “I hope it’s enough, or she’ll keep me awake all night.”
“Your wife?” I asked, hoping he was not in charge of a sick child.
“No, my mother.”
He left without saying thank you or goodbye. I made sure the door was locked, and returned to my lukewarm soup.
Exhausted, I went to bed early, but couldn’t fall asleep. Every time I drifted off, images of the sinister Warner or weeping Mrs. Plumley jolted me awake. The next day I tried several times to call Mrs. Plumley, but could never get past the maid. I tried to keep busy by reviewing my lectures for the first day of class, but couldn’t concentrate. When I learned from the evening news that a thunderstorm was approaching, I went to bed in a worse state of mind than the evening before. A clap of thunder rattled my building around midnight.
When I opened the door for a closer look at the storm, Saturn bolted out into the pouring rain. Since the day Chester and I had rescued him, I’d never let Saturn outside.
How would he find his way home?
Hoping for some sound from Saturn, I lay awake most of the night. He didn’t reappear. On Monday morning, still worn out, I dressed, packed my lunch, and organized my book bag. Out of habit, I reached for Xander’s letter, which I’d always taken with me on the first day of any new undertaking. I held the envelope for a moment, then opened the desk drawer, threw it in on top of Trevorode the Defender, and slammed the drawer shut.
Instead I took Mrs. Plumley’s letter with me.
I called for Saturn as I opened my car door and looked in the rearview mirror one last time as I drove toward the Drifters’ Rest. Housed on the first floor of a restored brown-brick, two-story house, the restaurant, owned by Muriel Porter, was well-known for serving the “best coffee in town.”
“Good morning,” Muriel said. “Have a seat. You look all done in. Coffee?”
“Yes, and keep it coming. This is a beautiful place. How long have you been here?”
She laughed. “Almost as long as the house itself. I inherited it from my great-grandmother, Emmaline. That’s her over there on the wall.”
I glanced at the portrait smiling down on all who entered.
“The city council wanted to turn the place into a museum,” she said, “but I couldn’t bear the thought of dirt and smudges everywhere, so I opened this place and moved in upstairs.”
“I’m glad you did,” I said. “This really is the best coffee I’ve ever had.”
Shored up by caffeine, I summoned my will and drove to Brighton Park Community College. On the way, I urged myself to stop worrying about Xander and my cat and to focus on the job I’d been hired to do. I commended myself for how hard I’d worked to get to where I was. I reminded myself I’d signed a contract and had an obligation to fulfill. By the time I drove into the parking lot, my rhetoric had convinced me. My common sense had calmed me. I was ready to meet any challenge.
And my good intentions might have actually paid off—if only faculty orientation had not left out one unwritten rule: No one ever parks in Jonas Grinstead’s spot. Had it not been for this fateful omission in my training, I might never have intersected with the reclusive Dr. Grinstead, who had mastered the art of being virtually invisible among the other eighty-seven professors. Out of dozens of empty spaces, I somehow managed to pull into the place where he had parked every day for thirty years.
Predictability and destiny seldom walk hand-in-hand.
When the rusty white pickup pulled in next to me, I assumed it was part of the maintenance fleet. No one but a first-year teacher or a janitor, I reasoned, would be so zealous about putting the best foot forward. Occupied with my books and file folders, I didn’t look up till I heard a tap at my car window. Dr. Grinstead’s frayed khaki pants and white shirt, perfectly starched and creased, did little to alert me to his true identity. A good wife ironed those clothes, I thought as I rolled down the window.
“Good morning,” I said.
“You’re new here, aren’t you?” he asked.
His face was as unreadable as the fading logo on his truck door.
“Yes. First day.”
“That explains it. Look, Miss, it will take awhile before you become acquainted with our patterns around here, and you’re not to be faulted if you didn’t realize …”
“Oh, I see. Have I blocked you from making a delivery?”
“In a manner of speaking. I’m here to deliver knowledge to the unlearned.”
I chuckled. “I don’t think it’s quite that simple.”
“Young woman, I know they don’t cover anything useful in faculty orientation, but everyone knows this is my parking place.”
“I didn’t know reserved parking was available,” I said.
I reached into the backseat for my umbrella. Though the sun had risen, dark clouds, lingering from the night before, hung low in the sky.
“It’s not, but I’m used to having things a certain way.”
“Your way, you mean?” My conscience cringed about my poor manners. I ignored it.
“No, I wouldn’t put it that way,” he said. “But I’ve been here a long time, and I have no intention of altering my habits for a newcomer.”
“Grinstead and it’s ‘Dr.’ ”
“Look, Dr. Grinstead, you may not have asked yourself why I’m here at this ridiculous hour, so I’ll explain.” A convenient clap of thunder punctuated my outburst. “I got some bad news on Friday.” I glanced at the letter which lay on the seat beside me. “I didn’t sleep well last night, so I stopped on my way here for coffee.” I held up the cup labeled Drifters’ Rest. “I was feeling better when I pulled into this parking lot—” I looked at my watch—“twelve short minutes ago. But you, sir, have undone all my efforts to regroup.”
I threw my car into reverse, backed up a few feet, and angled into the spot next to the one I was vacating. I slammed the car into park and turned off the engine.
“Better?” I asked.
Jonas met my tirade with unexpected composure, rendering my childish triumph hollow. He bowed his head and exhaled, his silence stunning me. Large, languid raindrops descended, awaking in me the settled conviction that he was in reality a kindly wizard, deploying a seldom summoned power.
After a moment, he lifted his eyes to meet mine. “You must excuse me,” he said in a low voice. “I’ve never been good at first impressions.”
“I liked you better when I thought you were the janitor,” I said.
“He has much better manners than I.”
Jonas took an old black umbrella from his truck.
“Manners can be learned,” I said.
“Yes, they can,” he said.
He shouldered an olive green backpack, tattered perhaps by many a hike through the woods, and walked away without looking back.
Still, soft, silent, the rain fell as I watched Jonas, otherworldly, pace off purposeful steps, still visible far away, behind a silver silk curtain of tumbling water flowing and spilling over red brick walls, coarse gray pavement, and golden-yellow trees, on his way to—what had he said?—deliver knowledge to the unlearned.
I stared vacantly at the water cascading over my windshield. My attempt at an impressive first day at my new job had been thoroughly upended.
“Your first class is still ninety minutes away—review your lectures,” my father would sermonize.
“Don’t get your new shoes wet,” my mother would admonish.
“Snap out of it, Aggie,” my brother Toby would chide. “The old guy didn’t make it rain. Don’t be silly.”
And so, bowing to the voices of reason in my mind, I sat.
I retrieved the bagel I’d intended as a midmorning snack and surveyed my surroundings. As I sipped coffee, I took note of a lone weed growing through a crack in the sidewalk. Then I looked at the offensive vehicle parked two spaces away. What was the big deal about that place? Maybe Dr. Grinstead was obsessive, afraid of germs and scratches. No. The truck was decades old, dented, and weathered. He couldn’t be worried about the paint. I looked closer. That door had been through its fair share of—and then I took a second look at the logo.
Through the dense rain, I could make out pale gray lines, which skipped and blanked out like a connect-the-dots puzzle in a coloring book. The drawing was so eroded it took several minutes to conclude these traces had once been the picture of a tree. As the rain dwindled into a shower, I noticed faint flecks of green and yellow speckling the imperceptible branches. Flowers, I supposed. I had the strangest notion if Jonas could drive this truck out of the parking lot and into the past, these remnants of color would swirl, surge, and shape themselves into blooms again.
Waiting for the storm to subside, I reached several conclusions. First, there was some reason Jonas Grinstead was so rigid and controlled. Second, I’d been rude and thoughtless to a man whose age and experience warranted my respect. Third, I knew how school life played out. I was not going to be known as “the new teacher who yelled at Dr. Grinstead.” I emerged from my car a much wiser woman and determined that the day, begun badly, had to be redeemed. A standard letter of apology was my first attempt at reconciliation.
Between morning classes, I scribbled out a note:
Dear Dr. Grinstead,
Please accept my apology for my rude behavior this morning. As I mentioned, I was very nervous about my first day on the job, and my frustrations got the best of me. Ordinarily, I’m easy to get along with or so I’ve been told. I was wondering if maybe we could start over.
I quizzed each of my classes about who might be going in the direction of Dr. Grinstead’s classroom and found a student willing to deliver my message. Satisfied, I settled down at my desk to eat lunch and read. Within minutes a different student returned with my note. At the bottom in a small, scrawled script were the words: Good fences make good neighbors. JG
Furious, I wadded up the paper and tossed it in the trashcan. Unbidden scenes of revenge played out in my mind. I’d report him to an administrator. No, I’d write the college accrediting agency. No, I’d write a letter to the United States Department of Education. Who did he think he was—refusing the courteous request of a colleague? As the afternoon dragged on, I alternated from feeling like a naughty schoolchild, to a victim, to an avenging angel.
Determined to have the final word with Jonas, I stayed after my last class. On the back of the crumpled paper I’d retrieved from the trash, I wrote: To err is human; to forgive divine. I headed to the parking lot, pleased to find Jonas’ truck still there and untended. I looked over my shoulder to be sure I was unobserved and approached the truck. Like an assassin drawing a silenced gun, I pulled the note from my pocket and lifted the windshield wiper to secure the message. There on the front seat was a bag from the Drifters’ Rest.
Maybe bribery was a better option. I holstered my note and drove home.
Saturn was waiting for me in the driveway. There he sat, meowing as if he’d never been away. He pawed at the door while I fumbled with the lock. Tired from an honest day’s work and eager to wake early for my visit to the coffee shop, I sank into a dreamless sleep with Saturn, cleaned, brushed, and fed, snuggled up and purring by my side.
When I arrived at the Drifters’ Rest, Muriel set a cup of coffee on the counter before I could sit down. She slid a cinnamon-raisin bagel toward me.
“How was the first day of school?”
“Not bad. I got along great with the students, but I got off on the wrong foot with one of the teachers. In fact, I thought I might pick up a little something extra as a peace offering.”
“You won’t believe it. I drove into the wrong parking place.”
“Let me guess—Dr. Grinstead’s?”
I spluttered, spraying crumbs. “How did you know?”
“Jonas has come by here every day since I opened this place.” She took a French onion bagel from a basket on the shelf behind her. “In fact, if you wait another twenty minutes, he’ll walk right through that door.” She handed me the bag she’d filled. “Or you can hurry and get to school before he does. Make him a present of this, and he’ll be your friend forever.”
“Onion? You can’t be serious. No one eats onion bagels for breakfast.”
“No. He brings his own pastrami from home and makes the same sandwich every day. Insists on freshness—buys only one.” She pointed to a shelf lined with small jars. “Take a little of that hot mustard to go with it. You’ll win him over on the spot.” She laughed. “I’ll tell him I ran out of onion. Then you can step in and be the heroine.”
I imagined the scene and broke out in a cold sweat. “He’ll think I bought the last one,” I said.
“Then tell him the truth,” she said.
“I tried that yesterday.”
“Try again. He’s not at all what he seems.”
Who was I to argue with Muriel Porter?
I scooped up my own breakfast along with the makings of Jonas’ lunch and was out the door and on the campus before he arrived. We both left the distasteful parking place empty between us as we had the day before. Before he had time to turn off his engine, I was out of my car. Offering in hand, I approached.
By the time I reached him, his door was open. He had one foot on the pavement. “Yes?”
“I stopped by Drifters’ Rest on the way. Everything looked so good I got a little carried away. I have this extra bagel. I wonder if you’d like to have it.”
He appeared to ignore me as he exited his truck and stepped onto the sidewalk. But as I held out the bag to him, he paused, like a deer sensing a hunter in the woods.
“I don’t think I’d be interested,” he said. “I like only one flavor, and she was out of it this morning.” Faint recognition flickered in his eyes.
“If you’re not hungry now,” I said, “you could always save it for lunch.”
He took the bag and looked inside.
“Mustard, too. It seems I’m the victim of a conspiracy.”
“Muriel said it would work,” I said. “Do you really want to go back there tomorrow and tell her she was wrong?”
“No. Muriel believes herself to be the sum of all wisdom. Thank you—”
“Thank you, Agnes.” He turned to go.
Without thinking, I blurted out, “Jonas.”
He stopped and looked back.
“The logo on your truck—what does it mean?”
“It’s the place I built,” he said, “and abandoned.”
And with that impromptu confession, he walked away.
I was all but whistling a happy tune when I wandered into the English Department office later that morning to check my mailbox. I felt a sharp rap on my shoulder and turned to find a brittle-faced woman, primly dressed in a floral skirt and pearl-buttoned, peach-colored sweater, dyed-to-match peach-colored shoes, sprayed-stiff short blonde hair, and red-framed glasses.
“Excuse me,” she said.
“We haven’t met. I’m Beatrix Thorpe.”
“Agnes Quinn.” I extended my hand, which she ignored. “Beatrice …”
“No,” she said. “Trix. Trix.”
“Like the cereal?”
“No. Like the author. Beatrix Potter.”
“Oh, Peter Rabbit.”
She bristled. “Among others.”
I had no idea how I’d gotten off on the wrong foot with this woman, but had no intention of allowing her to dampen my happy mood.
“I noticed,” she said, “you stopped to talk to Jonas—Dr. Grinstead—this morning.”
“Yes.” I thumbed through my mail and hoped she would go away.
“And you gave him a gift of some sort?”
I felt as if I’d been called in from recess for throwing a rock at a classmate.
“You were watching?” I asked.
She reddened. “I was getting out of my car and happened to be looking that way.”
“Yes?” I matched her tone icicle for icicle.
“I think you should be informed that Dr. Grinstead and I have an arrangement.”
Her friend, who had been looking on from a nearby table, stood and walked toward me.
“Let me help, Trixie,” she said. “Young lady—”
I looked down on a short, lanky, gray-haired woman who seemed to be all elbows and knees. Her nose, beak-like, straddled pale, thin lips. Dressed in jeans shortened and hemmed by hand, and a royal blue jacket, she stared up at me like a fierce old bird of prey. I could have knocked her from her perch with one well-placed shove to her bony shoulder.
“You are?” I asked.
“Mavis Applewhite. Miss Quinn, I don’t know how the faculty at your other school treated each other, but here at B-P-C-C, we—”
“Have a certain pecking order,” I said.
“Have a certain code of conduct.”
“Like chivalry?” I asked.
“That’s for men,” she said.
“The women don’t have a code of conduct?” I asked.
“We—” With a sweep of her hand she indicated Beatrix, herself, and their silent partner at the table, “—have an established way of doing things. Certain situations are taken for granted and one of those is that Jonas Grinstead and Mrs. Thorpe are … I think your generation would call it ‘an item.’ So we’ll thank you to keep your feminine wiles in check when you have contact with him.”
This scene was too luscious to be believed. After all my years of being too tall, too plain, too loud, too silly to be considered dating material for desirable eligible men, at last—without even meaning to—I had become The Other Woman. Now I had two transgressions to my credit: I’d violated a sacred parking place and flirted with the off-limits man. I restrained the urge to laugh and squared my shoulders as I addressed my accusers.
“In the first place,” I said, “if she’s ‘Mrs.’ Thorpe, why is she pursuing Dr. Grinstead, who is, by the way, old enough to be my father? In the second place, the last time I checked, I believe the Constitution guarantees freedom of speech—even here. In the third place, you can put your spying skills to better use than watching me. I live a thoroughly pedestrian life. In the fourth place, I have far worse problems than concerning myself with what you and your tribe consider aggressive behavior. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a class to teach.”
I marched from the room. What had come over me? My whole life I’d bowed to the voices of authority, and now I was behaving like a raving lunatic. Poor Jonas, I thought, no wonder he’s so guarded. If he’s been dodging this bunch all these years, what a wretched life he must lead. Now I knew I’d been mistaken in at least one notion about Jonas Grinstead. His creases and starches were not evidence of a loving wife.
I was only a few steps down the hall when the office door swung open and another voice, almost whispering, called my name. I turned to find Mavis’ and Trixie’s silent friend tiptoeing after me. Her forehead wrinkled, her eyes darting, she urged my silence by holding her finger to pursed lips.
“Miss Quinn,” she said in a low voice, as if warning a murderer was lurking around the next corner, “please excuse my friends. They tend to be a little … territorial.”
“Territorial—that puts a nice spin on it.”
“May I walk with you?” She looked over her shoulder.
Her gentle nature calmed me. “Yes, of course. I behaved badly. I shouldn’t have—”
She shook her head. “You’re not entirely to blame. For all their flaws, Trixie and Mavis are longtime friends, and I don’t want you to get the wrong idea about them.”
“And you are …”
“Elinor Parfrey. Librarian.”
I wondered why such a mild-mannered person surrounded herself with spiteful friends.
“You mustn’t think ill of Trixie,” she said.
“As in Potter.”
She smiled. “Yes, not ‘as in cereal.’ I did enjoy that. At any rate, I’ve long since given up trying to reason with those two. They should’ve retired years ago, but teaching is all they know.”
“That and Dr. Grinstead.”
She nodded. “Trixie went through a nasty divorce last year, and Jonas is the only eligible man in her age bracket. She fixated on him as her best option.”
“Is he aware of her interest?” I asked.
“I couldn’t say. He’s always behaved as the sole resident of his own world.”
We arrived at my classroom. “Why does Trixie keep waiting?” I asked.
“Dreams die hard. Anyway, I’m sorry you received such a poor welcome.”
As Elinor and I stood at my door, I noticed a man in a wrinkled blue suit staring at us from the end of the hall. I thought at first he might be another teacher, waiting to talk to Elinor, but when she walked past him on her way to the library, he only nodded. I realized he was staring at me. I shut the door and began my class. All during my lecture I half-expected him to interrupt. I couldn’t shake the persistent feeling of dread, that he’d be waiting for me when the hour was over.
There was no sign of him when I left the room or for the rest of the day. But I still ended my last class five minutes early so I could pack my books and lose myself in the horde of retreating students. Keys in hand, I hurried to my car, telling myself I was being ridiculous, but I was glad to see my car’s white vinyl top come into view and rushed over to put the key in the door.
Someone stepped beside me.
Terrified, I turned to face the mysterious man.
“May I help you?” I looked at him and pretended confidence.
“Name’s Brooker. I’d like to ask you a few questions.”
I stepped back and prepared to run. “May I see some identification?”
“Sure.” He held out a business card.
I took it. “What’s this about?”
With his left thumb he pointed over his shoulder at Jonas Grinstead’s truck.