By Virginia Young
She sat at a card table on a folding chair next to an open window in her first floor apartment. She had gleaming hardwood floors and almost no furniture because she knew what she wanted and simply couldn’t afford it yet.
She worked intently, shoving her long, straight dark hair behind her left ear. With small steel prongs and flat ended tools, using both of her hands, pushing here and pulling there, she persuaded from clay a perfect little goat, horns and all.
The answering machine clicked on after a few annoying rings and she heard the voice of her friend.
“Hey, Juniper Joy, what are you doing? Pick up, Joy, come on, I know you’re there.”
Joy hissed, threw a damp cloth over her goat and walked to the phone a few feet away. There was no chair there, so she sat down, cross-legged, on the shiny floor.
“What, Leah? I’m in the middle of a goat.”
“A goat - clay. Anyway, what’s up?”
“I want you to come out and play tonight.”
“No, I can’t. I’m busy.”
“No, I can’t. I’m busy.”
“Are you kidding? No pun intended, but, are you serious? Working on a goat?”
Joy moved the phone to her other ear. “I enjoy it, Leah. Remember? I seem to recall you begging for the polar bear I made last week. Besides, I need to do this, it’s my therapy and I can use the money too.”
Leah sighed. “I know, really. But all work and no play…”
“It’s play to me.”
“You need to come out tonight. Come on, we’ll have a beer, that’s affordable, and we’ll have a good time. A little honky-tonk music, a few laughs. Talk about therapy!”
Joy looked at her watch. “What time are you thinking?”
“It’s seven-fifteen. I’m a mess. I can’t make it by eight. Where are you going anyway? Bubba’s?”
“Oh stop. What’s Bubba’s? We’ll go to our usual, The Pitfall. Come on, Mike said he’d meet us there and he might bring a friend.”
“Oh no you don’t! I’m not getting set up again! No. No way. I’m staying home with my five inch goat.”
Leah’s deep breath could be heard and Joy could imagine her friend’s exasperation showing in the rolling of her eyes.
“Come on, Joy. We’ll have fun. Take a shower and meet me there at eight. Okay, eight-thirty. Come on, you’re becoming an introvert. It’s not healthy.”
“Are you really talking to me about health? Let me see. You eat burgers and fries. I eat apples and tofu.” Again, Joy could envision her best friend making a scrunched up face to tolerate the light-hearted truth.
“I know. But you’re in need of social gracing. Come on, go get ready.”
Joy scrambled to her feet and tugged at her sleeveless white blouse, smoothing her sage green shorts. “What are you wearing?”
“Jeans and my new pink top. But wear whatever makes you happy.”
“I’m happy nude.”
Leah laughed. “I don’t care, come naked if you want to. It’ll sure liven up the place.”
“I’ll figure something out to wear,” Joy said. “But who’s this dude Mike might bring? I’m not in the mood for that kind of torture, Leah, I mean it. That last guy, Norman, what a creep! He never took his cowboy hat and leather gloves off all night. I still think he was hiding a fungus.”
Leah giggled. “We all thought Norman was hiding a fungus, or something. No more Normans,” she said, “I promise.”
“Yeah, but does Mike promise? That’s what I want to know.”
“Yes,” Leah said, “we both promise, really.”
Joy took a shower and used the juice from real lemons in her hair. She dressed in an ankle length brown skirt with orange flecks in the fabric, and a sleeveless burnt umber blouse. Dark sandals, made from a synthetic material, no leather for her, cradled her slender feet. With tiny gold acorn shaped earrings fastened in place, she brushed her long hair and decided that she was ready.
When she arrived at The Pitfall, Leah and Mike were sitting at the bar laughing, surrounded by three others, also laughing. There was Patti, a girl Joy couldn’t stand and doubted had gone beyond third grade; she was with Gary, her long time beau. And then there was a large, blonde-haired man with a mouthful of the biggest, whitest teeth she had ever seen, except for that visit to the aquarium when she studied the shark tank. She nearly turned to leave.
“Juniper Joy!” Leah called to her. “Come on over. Meet Glen,” the skinny one, “and Bif,” the blond with the teeth.
Bif reached out to grasp and shake Joy’s hand. Apparently he didn’t know that it should be the woman’s gesture to shake or not to shake. “Mike told me all about you,” he said with a broad smile.
Joy half smiled and nodded. She was definitely killing Mike. “I’ll have a cold one,” she said to the bartender.
“I’ll get that for you,” Bif said with his luminous smile.
“No,” Joy said, “I’m all set.” This guy, she thought, might assume he owned her for the night if he paid for her beer. “Thanks anyway.”
“Let’s get a table where we can all sit and be comfy,” Leah said, and they moved to a darkened circle of wood in the corner.
“So,” Bif began as he pulled out a chair for Joy, “I heard you’re a librarian. Does that mean we have to whisper?” he asked in a soft proud-of-himself voice, and then he laughed.
Joy shuddered inside and gave him a quick smile with closed lips. “Good one,” she said and wondered how many more times in her life would she be asked that question.
Bif’s eyes grew almost brighter than his teeth. “I’m impressed. No librarian I ever knew looked like you. Boy, I just might start checking out some books.”
And if only, she thought, you could do more than tear off the covers and eat the pages.
Leah and Mike, Patti, Gary and Glen all watched the pair and listened through the loud music. At one point, Patti leaned toward Leah and Joy could half hear and half read the words from Patti’s red lips. “Cool, it looks like we made a match with Joy and Bif.”
Leah smiled, took a sip of her beer and then folded her hands tightly into one impenetrable knot.
Three weeks later, with her window open to crisp early autumn air, Joy fashioned an eight or nine inch horse with her clay, adding the detail of an intricate braided mane. The phone rang and she let the answering machine do what she’d intended it for.
“Juniper,” came Leah’s sweet voice, “it’s a gorgeous evening, the sun’s going down, let’s go out. Pick up, Joy. Come on.”
Joy scooted her folding chair back carefully so that she wouldn’t scratch the beautiful floors. She loved her landlords, they were like the best ever grandparents, and they loved her as well.
“What now? Atilla the Hun came back from the grave and needs a woman?”
Leah laughed. “Oh come on, Bif wasn’t that bad, was he?”
Joy rolled her eyes. “Worse.”
“Look, it’s not like I think you’re needy or anything, but it’s fun to have someone in your life. I hadn’t met Bif before or I’d have known he wasn’t your type. Sorry. But listen, let’s just go for a walk and we can end up at The Pitfall for a beer, or just some coffee. Come on, I need the walk in this terrific fresh air.”
Joy looked at her open window. The evening was beautiful and she would love the walk. “All right, a walk and coffee, that’s it. You won’t have some weirdo lurking in the corner?”
After an hour of chatting as they walked around their small town, they ended up at The Pitfall where they both ordered a beer, thirsty from their fast paced endeavor.
“Okay,” Leah said as they moved to a small, intimate table away from the juke box, “I need to talk to you about something and I don’t want you to get all upset.”
Joy squinted as she focused her attention on Leah. Now what, she wondered.
“Don’t look at me that way,” Leah begged.
“Okay. Don’t fix me up with anymore of the limp and ludicrous from your lonely list!”
Leah sighed and looked around the room, then back at Joy who was gulping down her beer.
“Look,” Leah said, “I know we haven’t found a good match for you yet, and I also know that you don’t really need any help, but I need you to do me this one favor.”
“I’m not for rent.”
“I’m not renting you. Come on, Juniper, do me this favor. Please, I’m desperate.”
Joy placed her empty glass down on the table. “Desperate about what? Explain.”
Leah put her half full glass down and then folded her arms on the table as she leaned forward. “There’s this guy, Brian. He’s twenty-eight, has a great accounting job with the state. He’s dying to meet you and maybe go out with you.”
Joy looked at her friend. “And why is that? He doesn’t know me.”
“He’s seen you in here and he asked Mike about you.”
“I don’t get this at all. How does any of this affect you? What’s the favor?”
“Well,” Leah began, “this guy, Brian, he has a nineteen fifty-seven Ford in mint condition. You know Mike, he wants that car so bad he can taste it. He told me that if he can get this car at a good rate, we’ll go shopping for my diamond. Brian will give Mike a bargain if he can get to you.”
Joy looked at Leah. “You aren’t serious! Maybe you need to have a talk with Mike. I mean, come on Leah, the guy either wants to marry you or he doesn’t. You’ve been together for what, five years now?”
Leah looked sheepishly at her friend.
“I don’t believe this. You’re pimping me out for a retro car!”
Leah took a sip of her now warm beer.
“Say something,” Joy demanded.
“I’m sorry,” Leah said.
“You should be.”
The two girls sat there, one slightly angry, the other slightly scared. They looked around the room.
“Are you mad at me?” Leah finally asked.
Joy looked directly into Leah’s eyes. “Oh, should I be?”
Leah looked as if she might cry. “I’d probably be mad at you,” she said.
They spent the next few minutes in silence.
“Was there a time when I was supposed to meet this character? A place? What?”
“You’ll do it?” Leah asked with surprise in her voice and eyes.
“I don’t know. Answer my questions.”
Leah squirmed in her seat. “Okay. He’s twenty-eight and has a good job.”
“You said that.”
“Oh. Well. He’s smart and he’s decent. He’d like to meet you here where both of you are on familiar ground. Just have a beer or coffee at first, talk, get to know one another.”
“Tomorrow evening around seven if that works for you.”
Joy looked away and then back again at Leah. “Don’t do this to me again.”
Joy stood. “I’m tired, I’m going home.”
“Okay,” Leah said, “but there’s just one thing. Look for a guy dressed in brown. All brown. He loves brown. Loves your brown hair, loved that brown outfit you wore , the one with the orange flecks in the skirt, loves brown.”
“Oh, good,” Joy said, and then she shoved her chair in and walked out of the bar and three blocks to her apartment. She took a shower and changed into pale pink flannel pajamas and white socks. She glanced down at herself and thought she looked like a blushing rabbit. She went back to the card table and folding chair, turned on her lap top to check her emails, then resumed work on her clay horse. At midnight, she rubbed her eyes, threw a damp cloth over the completed creature, and went to bed.
The next day was a library work day, typical, coping with a few cranky patrons and decisions concerning budget woes and overdue books and tapes. Joy was not in the mood at all for the evening ahead that Leah had planned for her.
At six-thirty, she changed from her work clothes to jeans and a cranberry shirt. She would wear anything but brown. She decided against earrings, she had no interest in even attempting to interest this guy. Brian. Brown loving Brian. What a nut.
When she walked into The Pitfall, she said hi to the bartender and then looked around. There he was, decked out in brown. A tan t-shirt showing its middle from a parted, brown zippered jacket. At least it isn’t leather, she thought. She watched him for a few minutes as he sipped a dark ale and read a folded over newspaper. He didn’t look up. She didn’t exist in his present world, which made her wonder just what this guy was made of.
She took a deep breath and walked over to his table where she plopped her large purse and pulled out a chair to sit down. He looked across at her. She looked at him. “Well?”
His eyes were fastened on hers but he was silent.
Joy folded her arms across her chest. “Okay, I’ll start. I want you to know that I don’t appreciate this. You giving Mike a deal on your car, getting me to meet with you, that’s a little strange and underhanded, don’t you think?”
He continued to look at her.
“Do you speak? Come on. You could at least offer me a cup of coffee. A beer.”
He looked into her fiery eyes and then waved to the bartender. “Could we get a beer over here, please?”
“Why did you choose a beer? I might have preferred a coffee.”
“You need a beer.”
Joy huffed and then the beer was placed before her. She stared at it and then drank half of it in a few swift gulps. She looked at him as she set the tall glass down on a coaster.
“So,” she said, “I heard you like brown.”
He looked at his jacket and down at his shoes. “I guess I do,” he said.
“You know,” she began, “it’s pretty obvious that you have some peculiar tendencies. Have you ever contemplated therapy?”
He smiled. “Maybe I like having peculiar tendencies.”
He’s impossible, she thought and silently cursed Mike and Leah for asking this of her. And then she silently cursed herself for agreeing to it.
Joy watched him looking up at the soccer game playing on the huge TV screen. That inattention was insulting, but she had to admit, this guy, Brian, was one very good looking man, brown hair and all. While she was studying his angular face, he suddenly turned back to look at her.
“So what’s your name?” he asked.
Joy half gurgled a response. “You don’t know my name?”
He looked at her, not a glimpse of any emotion revealing his thoughts. “Unfortunately, I’m not psychic. But I could try to guess if you want.”
Joy frowned. How, she wondered, could someone who looked so put together be so dense? “I don’t like my name,” she said, “but it’s Joy.”
He placed his newspaper down on the table. “What’s wrong with Joy? It sounds perfectly fine to me.”
“I don’t like being an emotion, a feeling,” she said.
“Another beer?” he asked.
“No, no thanks. But you were right, I needed the beer instead of more caffeine. It hit the spot.”
He smiled and went back to watching the soccer game.
She watched him thinking how ridiculous this was. Why was he wasting his and her time like this?
When he glanced back at her, she was staring at him.
He smiled. “Are you okay? Can I get you something else? Would you like a sandwich or something?”
“No,” she said as she sat up straight, her back to the wooden chair. “But I have to wonder, Brian, why you wanted to meet me when all you do is watch TV.”
“Well, come on. What’s all this about?”
He looked at her then leaned forward. “My name isn’t Brian.”
Joy’s body went rigid with an adrenalin rush. “What do you mean?”
“I mean that my name isn’t Brian.”
“Well then, who are you? Why did you carry on with me like this? You’re wearing brown. You’re not Brian?”
He smiled and shook his head no.
“Oh my ….” Joy looked around at the other people in the bar. Where was Brian? The room was dimly lit, she saw no one in brown, no one alone. “This is ridiculous,” she said, “who are you?”
He tilted his body to one side and reached for his wallet. “Let me see,” he said, “well, my license says I’m James Cullen. Jim.”
“Jim,” she said, “just Jim?”
He smiled as she looked at his license and then he put it away. “Yup, just Jim.”
“So, you’re not an accountant for the state?”
He hesitated. “Is this like where’s Waldo?’
Joy grimaced. “Do you know Brian?”
At that point, she looked around the room again, catching only a glance at a man in brown hastily leaving the bar.
Joy put her hands over her face and moaned. “This is awful.”
“It’s not funny,” she said, and then found herself sitting there for the next hour explaining the entire situation and about half of her life. There was the divorce of her parents when Joy was eleven - the forced sale of the home she’d grown up in. There had been apartments and people she resented as part of her parents’ new lives, and a couple of more than disappointing romances of her own. Joy was left mourning the trust she’d once known.
Jim studied her now somber face. “I think you need a get-a-way,” he said, “a few days on Martha’s Vineyard.”
Joy listened. “Why Martha’s Vineyard? I haven’t been out there in years.”
“Well then, it’s time. I’ll show you around. I live there, in Oak Bluffs, with a direct view to the harbor where the ferry comes in.”
“You live there?”
“Sure. Why not?”
“I don’t know. It just seems like a place to go for a few days.”
“That’s the invitation,” he said with a smile.
“But you live there.”
Jim nodded. “Yes, I do.”
“What do you do there?”
“Other than enjoy every moment of it, I’m a photographer. I do weddings, calendars, postcards, newspaper shots for a national press. I capture life.”
Joy was silent. She captured life too, she realized, in her clay sculptures.
“So,” he said as he looked into her eyes, “will you come out to my island?”
Joy looked at him and smiled as she heard herself reply, “Maybe. Yes.”
“And you’ll stay,” he said with a completely serious voice and expression.
Joy looked down at her folded hands then up into his very appealing face. “We’ll see,” she said.
- - -
I write short stories, novels, and formerly wrote for two Massachusetts newspapers. I am also a painter, selling my work for almost twenty years in Quechee Vermont. It's all fun :>)