Taking Count

Shay looked like a cross between a monk and a wrestler. Born in Jamaica, his bald scalp gleamed oily as dark caramel. Well over six feet tall, limbs thick and muscled. I would never have guessed leukemia spiraled through him.  

I saw him every weekday on my walk to and from Covington Animal Hospital, where I worked as a veterinarian’s assistant. It paid minimum wage, but was the only job I’d held for longer than three months. Every other week Dr. Wilkins tried to match me up with one of his nephews, cousins, friends’ sons, or single men whose pets he treated. More than once I overheard phone conversations in which the doctor described me as petite, with long straight blond hair and blue-gray eyes; sweet, a little shy, loves animals. Was that all I added up to?  

I could have told him to say that I had a straight, unobtrusive nose and small ears with heart-shaped lobes, that I loved art and anything tiny. But I replied that I wasn’t dating at the moment. Eventually I lied, saying I was already seeing someone. Dr. Wilkins told me I was a born natural at taking care of things. He accepted a lot of charity cases and strays. That explained the reason he hired me.

Doctors had diagnosed me with OCD in my late teens. My main obsession was counting: my steps, number of bites I took, sycamores, calico cats, skunks, crows; tabulating running totals summarized by day, week, month, year, century, and lifetime. All things mathematical intrigued me. I loved to solve equations and work with fractions, decimals, and progressions. The way things added up, how they balanced, the relationship of parts to a whole fascinated me.

Shay lived in an older house on Garrard Street in a rundown section of Covington, one of the few city homes with a spacious side yard. Room enough for a patio with umbrella table, chairs, and an extensive garden.

I turned the corner onto Shay’s street at seven minutes after seven. Shay rounded the corner of his house, broom in hand. He was a sweeper. Brushed off his porch, sidewalk, and patio. Moved everything over the curb and down into the street where it became the responsibility of street cleaners. For the past month I’d walked past Shay’s house. Garrard Street ran long and straight, giving me a while to watch him. People didn’t sweep outside much anymore. They owned blowers that did the dirty work. If I ran across a sweeper, they were usually female, and most often elderly, but Shay looked as natural sweeping as if he’d been born with a broom in his hand.

Normally I walked to and from work on Scott Street, perpendicular to the Ohio River. But since spring had warmed and softened the earth, the water company had begun digging trenches in the street and sidewalk for several blocks. I hated the detour onto Garrard, until I saw Shay. From the very beginning he interested me. Maybe it was his vulnerability, his loneliness. I felt powerless to resist. We spoke a few words as I passed the first week – morning, noon, and dusk. More the second, third, and fourth weeks. I complimented his garden, wished him a good day. With each pass the number of words exchanged increased exponentially. They reached critical mass on the seventh of June. When I passed Shay at noon, on my way to pick up oxtail soup and grilled cheese sandwiches for Dr. Wilkins’ and my lunch, I made a decision. On my return trip I would ask Shay to have dinner with me that evening. His smile warmed me all the way to Wertheim’s Deli. I didn’t count anything until I crossed Fifth Street, six blocks from Shay’s house. My stomach felt like the bowls I held – soup sloshing back and forth as I walked. How could I ask him? What if he declined? Accepted?  

I counted my number of steps from the curb of Seventh to Eighth, from the old Coppin Building to what used to be Woolworth’s, the Bradford pear tree to the star maple. If any interval ended on an odd number, I would not invite him to dinner. They all ended even.  

When I asked, Shay’s face lit up momentarily. “I don’t eat out much.” He did not resume sweeping, but waited at his iron gate. No fence, just a gate, sturdy and ornate. I counted the number of finials, rods of grillwork, and spiral sections.  

“My treat. I got a raise today,” I lied. “What about a cheese ravioli dinner from Germantown?”

He asked if I’d split one with him. He couldn’t eat much. When I returned that night, Shay had changed from the T-shirt and shorts of that morning to a collared knit shirt and khaki pants. I counted the tiny pale blue and yellow diamonds of his shirt. He’d set his umbrella table with red and white checkered placemats, coordinating cloth napkins, and two mismatched china plates. An intricate black and white lace pattern decorated my plate. His contained a maroon cityscape against a cream background. Crystal goblets, candlesticks, and silver utensils completed the setting. I usually ate off paper plates and drank out of a plastic McDonald’s cup.

Shay lit the white tapers. Though it wasn’t anywhere near dark, tall overhanging trees and close neighboring houses created deep shade. A small milk glass vase held fragrant honeysuckle, sweet peas, yellow roses, and basil.  

I reintroduced myself with an exaggerated accent. “I’m Savannah. And no I’m not from the South.”

His smile revealed straight teeth, lustrous as pearls. He wore thin gold-framed glasses. Shay took tiny bites and chewed each for a long time before swallowing. His face looked odd without eyebrows and eyelashes, especially vulnerable like a baby born premature. But his skin was the most delicious color of dark caramel. He leaned in to listen and see. Shay caught me tallying the strawberries painted on the umbrella. He didn’t yet know my counting obsession. As we talked I counted the number of bricks visible on his house.

“I love fruit,” he said. “Especially mango, guava, papaya, pomegranate. We’ll have some star apple for dessert.” His eyes were deep-set and shiny as hematite.  

Shay asked where I lived. I described the apartment on the top floor of The Phelps, across from Lytle Park in downtown Cincinnati, where I house-sat for a U. C. professor while he and his wife lived in Crete for a year sabbatical. I’d never owned a place of my own, always lived in other people’s houses. My clothes and shoes filled one suitcase and my life’s work (notebooks crammed with tabulations and calculations) in another. I didn’t need furniture, household goods, books, music, or pets. They were furnished for me, to watch over and use. I took good care of other people’s belongings.  

“Do you own a car?” Shay asked. “You’re always walking.”

I explained that I walked and rode a bus for safety – others’ and mine. I owned a car once, a red Rambler, for twenty days. I couldn’t concentrate on driving when there was so much to count. Cars (by make and color), trees (by genus and species), houses (brick vs. siding, vs. frame), pedestrians (male vs. female). I wrecked the car three times.  

Shay told me he had lost his job and car as a result of his leukemia. His wife left him. She could no longer handle the fear and uncertainty of his illness. She wanted children and stability. He could provide neither.  

I couldn’t believe we were talking about such intimate things. The strain in Shay’s voice made me want to count the goldfinches, grackles, and chickadees in his yard. But with birds, you can never be sure you haven’t counted them more than once. I can’t tolerate inaccuracy.

Since I’d never even heard of star fruit, he brought a plate and a sharp knife outside to show me how to cut it. First he trimmed the brown edge from each of the five ridges that made up the star points, then he turned the waxy yellow cylinder on its side before slicing thin cross-sections of stars. He arranged the stars in large, shallow china bowls with chipped rims, patterned with tiny lilies-of-the-valley. The fruit’s crisp texture reminded me of a Braeburn apple – sweet and crisp with a tart edge.  

“Why do you sweep?” I asked. 

“It keeps me sane.”

Most people might not understand. “With me, it’s numbers. I live to count.”

He leaned and touched the broom handle resting against his house. “It’s all I have left of my mother.”

Her only income was from making brooms after his father died when Shay was five. She couldn’t work her fingers fast enough to fill the orders. Taught him to sweep at the age of eight with a special broom she made to match his height. She believed sweeping akin to prayer. Told him she’d fit through many a tight spot, worked out many a knot in her gut, healed many a wound in her heart by sweeping. Said it reminded her of rocking him in her arms. 

His voice contained such joy and sorrow. How I envied their relationship. I didn’t even know my birth mother’s name.

Shay handed me the broom. The pads of his fingers had worn the handle shiny. He rose without another word, and went inside. I squinted to see past his back door, but could only discern an opening that must lead to the basement. A network of six gnarled cacti and nine succulents, mostly dried carcasses, obscured the two windows. I turned to face his lush yard: a grape arbor, rose garden, herb garden, cutting garden and vegetable plot. Four mimosas, two cottonwoods, one each of tulip poplar, sweet gum, pin oak, and catalpa formed the perimeter of his side yard. The interior held smaller ones: fringe tree, hawthorn, and smoke tree. I thought of counting annuals vs. perennials, low-growing vs. tall, tabulating the colors. But I was worried about Shay. His hands shook and he looked unsteady on his feet.  

He returned, carrying a smaller broom. “Stand up. I’ll show you.”

From behind Shay encircled me with his arms, and gave me the broom. His hands covered mine. His skin felt like the soft underside of a puppy’s ear. He smelled like coconut. Later he revealed his use of the sweet oil to camouflage the chemo’s metallic odor and counteract its effect on his skin. Shay told me very little about his leukemia. I wanted to know more, but honored his reticence.  

“Like so.” He swung the broom for me, removing his hands after I learned the progression. “It’s all in the shoulders and wrists. Lean into it. Don’t sway the broom. Let it lead you. Take your time. There’ll always be something to sweep.”

I worked toward the street, struggling not to count my broom strokes.

“Yes, that’s it. You’re finding your rhythm.”

He came around in front of me, looked up and down my length. “I was your height when I was eight. This should fit you.” Again he placed his hands over mine on the handle. “I’d like you to have this broom.”

I’d never received such a gift, nor given one. His hands remained, warming mine. I didn’t dare lift my eyes to his, or speak. In and out I breathed while counting the diamonds woven into the pattern of his pullover.  

“Savannah, may you always sweep well.” His voice was soft and thick as syrup.

Every nerve ending prickled. I wanted to count something – the lines of his hands, the rings of his knuckles, the joints of his fingers.  

He stiffened and sat down hard, his face lowered. I didn’t understand why he seemed embarrassed that I’d seen him in pain, but I thanked him for a wonderful evening, and said I needed to get home. Thoughts of Shay kept interrupting my counts on the way. I neared the Suspension Bridge across the Ohio River, and began once again to tally its blue braided steel cables.

*   *   *

A few days later Shay asked me to have dinner with him. He fixed some of his mother’s favorite Jamaican recipes: cream of pumpkin soup, vegetable rundown, sweet cassava pudding, and hibiscus iced tea. I’m not a venturous eater, so I was afraid I’d hurt his feelings if I couldn’t eat what he’d taken so much time to prepare. But everything tasted delicious. He’d Americanized them just a bit, mostly tamed down the spices. I asked what kinds of fruits grew in Jamaica. He described ackee, naseberry, tamarind, and stinking toe. The color and depth of his eyes intensified as he talked about the flowers and trees he missed: lobster-claw, jacaranda, Poinciana. I wondered why he hadn’t returned once divorced, once he’d found out about his cancer.  

After dinner he asked me to tell him the story of my life. I told how I went from foster home to foster home until a couple adopted me. Afraid they’d send me back, I hid a lot of my compulsive behaviors from my adoptive parents. I recounted my troubles in school, my inability to concentrate on anything but counting, how I’d never kept jobs long. If I was typing, I counted letter, words, paragraphs; verbs, nouns, adverbs, adjectives; vowels vs. consonants. I reveled in the relationships of measurement – length vs. width, height vs. depth. My idea of fun involved solving equations, developing formulas, recording and analyzing sequences of numbers. I spoke of my latest preoccupation, The Divine Proportion, found in art, music, nature, DNA, the solar system, the Pyramids, and the human body. Using one of his sunflowers I described how every seed head grew in an ever-expanding spiral pattern of fifty-five clockwise seeds followed by eighty-nine counterclockwise, growing from the center out, packing the seeds in the most efficient angle.

I told Shay about my one extravagance – that I collected objects an inch or smaller. Things like a rose quartz seahorse, agate marble, jasper tortoise, pewter windmill, cloisonné peacock, porcelain panther, and hematite heart. From my pant’s pocket I pulled my tiny white horse with black patches.  

“This was my first one. I found it when I was only eight, in an abandoned flower bed.” When I held it in the palm of my hand, I felt how vibrant horses were, the energy they generated when they ran.

Shay asked if I carried the horse with me every day.  

“Not always him. I pick a different miniature each morning, like putting on a pair of earrings before you leave the house.”

He laughed in deep fully-felt tones that made me want to join in. “Why?” 

“They’re my hidden good luck charms. Anytime of the day, I can hold them in my pocket with no one the wiser. Or I can bring them out, look at them.”  

I balanced the horse standing erect in the palm of my hand. Shay touched the curve of the horse’s head.

“Because they’re so small?” he asked. 

“I think so. It makes me happy to look at something so tiny, so contained.” I leaned the horse against the umbrella pole.

When he asked where I found them, I said everywhere – at the beach, underneath bushes, in parking lots, antique shops, toy stores, flea markets, on the Internet.”

“How many do you have?”

“They’re the only thing I don’t count. And I give them away.”  

I described how I’d recently joined an online club of miniature collectors. Randomly we mailed a member one of our collection and when that person received it, they reciprocated with one of theirs. They’re only loaned. At some point, one of the exchangees returned their loaned piece and when the loaner received it, they followed suit and mailed the other’s back.  

“How cool,” he said. “So you never know when you’ll receive one, or when you’ll get yours returned?”

“Exactly.” I told him how the club members never met, their only contact was to receive and give miniatures by randomly selecting name and addresses from the website.  

“Like a secret society.” When he grinned, the skin of his forehead furrowed like waves upon a shore. “But aren’t you worried you’ll lose your favorite pieces?”

“I’ve never lost one yet. They always come back. It was hard to send them out when I first joined. But now I love to mail my most treasured ones.”  

I tried to explain how scary and yet exhilarating it was to let them go. But I never gave up my horse. He was my cornerstone.

Shay looked directly into my eyes while I spoke, disconcerting at first. But they held such candor and compassion it became easier to meet them. I described the homes I watched over the years. He needed words, not so much their meaning, but their sound and flow. When he stiffened, or pressed his lips together tight against the pain, I talked faster, inventing things to make the stories longer, funnier.  

“I don’t want to keep you if you need to be somewhere,” he said.

“No, I left enough food out for Brutus, the cat where I’m house-sitting. He’s big, fat, and yellow.”

I described the west and south view of the city from my apartment. The kitchen faced the old Guilford School, Lytle Park, the Ohio River, Kentucky. A little balcony off the living room looked uptown, giving me a birds-eye view of Christ Church Cathedral – twenty spires, fourteen turrets, thirty-one finials, and forty-seven arched windows lit from within.

“What would you like to count now?” 

“Maybe the number of times you’ve blinked your eyes, scratched your arm, or touched the tabletop.”

“How can you do all that counting and talk at the same time? Can’t you use that in some business; turn your curse into a blessing?”

“I haven’t found a way. It’s the odd things I want to count, things there’s no good reason to.”

Silence fell, surprisingly comfortable. Dusk settled around us. Eleven crows congregated in his neighbor’s sycamore, chattering like a clutch of women gossiping.

I asked what kind of work he did. Painting houses, he said, but painting canvases was his passion. “Anything that has to do with color makes me happy. My mother encouraged me to paint. She believed color had the power to heal.”  

Shay said he spent hours looking at color wheels, studying gradations and intensities. Color relaxed and grounded him, the same as sweeping. His mother insisted he attend college in the United States. She’d saved a considerable amount of her income from broom making, but he’d received a full scholarship to The University of Cincinnati’s Art Academy. There he met his wife, Camelia. His voice, sounding her beautiful name, fell like a stone through water.

I asked a question about his herb garden, to distract him. He said his mother swore by remedies using herbs such as arrow root, bissy nut, chainy root, spirit weed, and shame-a-macka.  

“She even had an elixir for a broken heart,” he said. “You make a tea by steeping yarrow, bay leaves, borage, lavender, and basil with a dab of honey. I can’t say it works.”

I responded without thinking. “I’ve never been in love.”

Shay sang me a slow, sweet lament his mother used to sing. She never revealed what the words meant. They sounded more like keening than actual words.

We talked while darkness gathered, until bugs began to bite. Shay said he hated for me to walk home in the dark, and asked if I could catch a bus. I replied that the number eighteen bus brought me between twenty-two and twenty-seven steps from the Phelps. He walked me to his wrought iron gate, but did not accompany me to the bus stop. I could see he wanted to.

I didn’t take the bus. For years I’ve walked in the dark. No one’s ever bothered me. Maybe all my numbers wove a web around me which others couldn’t break.

*   *   *

We spent many evenings together. Sometimes he’d invite me; other times I’d invite myself. Our lives entwined like the spearmint and snow-on-the-mountain in Shay’s garden. We made a pact. When together, no counting and no sweeping. We slipped up sometimes. He’d pick up the broom propped against his house, and take one or two strokes before he realized what he’d done. Or I’d find myself mouthing a number before comprehending I’d counted the notes of St. Ben’s bells. Sometimes he rushed inside to hide the fact that he couldn’t keep food down. Every day I brought him a few cans of Ensure. He always thanked me and wanted to pay for them, but I’m not sure he drank them. Each visit I brought a different miniature to show him. As he’d hold it in his open palm, I’d tell where I found it, and why I kept it, before returning it to the depths of my pocket.

We had our rituals. When I first arrived, he walked me through his garden, pointed out newly bloomed perennials, annuals that had reseeded. One night he ruffled the pale green and creamed-edged pineapple mint, and raised his fingers to my nose.  

“See how good it smells?”

I cupped his hand and inhaled. His warm skin smelled of pineapple, coconut, the sun and the sea. “Look how large your hand is compared to mine.”

Shay looked at his palm as if I’d shown him something he’d never seen. “I believe it’s the exact size of your cheek.”

I closed my eyes as he touched his palms to my face. Against his hand, I flicked my tongue.

He withdrew. “Quite the little cat.”

I asked if Shay liked cats. He questioned why I wanted to know, a suspicious look on his face. I told him about the skinny cat I found by the back door at the animal hospital. I named her Maggie the Cat after one of my favorite movies, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Dr. Wilkins said he’d have to put her to sleep if no one claimed her. Shay couldn’t say whether he liked cats or not. He’d never owned a pet. Nor had I.

For two weeks I seeded Shay with details and anecdotes about Maggie the Cat, until I arrived with her in a carrier and a bag of food.  

“I wondered when she’d show up,” Shay said.

“She can stay outside.” 

“She’ll tear up my garden.”

“And keep mice away.”

I sat the carrier on the patio. Shay opened the door and Maggie slinked out. They connected quickly. I knew they would. I’d lied about Dr. Wilkins putting her to sleep.

Mornings when I passed, Shay’d be sweeping, Maggie’d be trying to understand the broom’s motion before pouncing on the straws. Shay gently swept the cat out of his way. 

*   *   *

I never learned Shay’s age. He was five years older than me, I decided, making him thirty-four. His mother had died a few years earlier. One of her regrets was never having a daughter or granddaughter to pass on her broom-making techniques. She said it would be sacrilegious to teach Shay. I asked if he had any pictures of his mother. He placed his hand over his heart. “Only here.”

He tried to hide the fact that he couldn’t eat any more by cutting food up and moving it around the plate. Part of me wanted to force the issue, demand he eat, ask was he trying to starve himself to death. I began watching his face more closely while we ate, and realized either the way food looked or smelled sickened him. But he seemed to enjoy watching me eat.

The bones of his skull and face became so prominent it hurt me to look at him, so I concentrated on his onyx eyes. But even they’d turned distant in the past week, as if he existed half in this world, half in the next. More than once he’d drifted away – eyes open but clearly in an altered state. I pretended not to notice, continuing with my story or petting Maggie, counting down the seconds.

*   *   *

Near the end of the summer he invited me inside his house for the first time. Judging by the dead plants in the windows, I expected his interior to look run down and dreary. I assumed he was ashamed for me to see it.  

“I told you I love color,” he warned, switching on the kitchen light.

He’d painted the walls and ceiling graduated shades of tangerine, mango, apricot; the windows and door frames rich terra cotta. I pictured him on a beach with the sun gleaming his skin. He walked me through his rooms, each a study of color. Several times he stopped and stood still. I waited close behind him, praying he didn’t fall. He tried to hide the fact that he needed to steady himself against the walls as we walked.

His furnishings were sparse and simple in crisp shades of violet, fuchsia, turquoise and lime – solids everywhere, not a stripe, plaid, or floral to be found. From the bedroom closet he pulled his canvases: children building a mud dam across a creek, goldfinches in a puddle, a snake sunning on a flat river rock, and a woman climbing a tree with heart-shaped leaves the size of her face. “Blue Mahoe,” he said. “The only place in the world they grow is Jamaica and Cuba.”

“Why don’t you hang these? They need to be seen.”

“By whom?”

I was sorry I asked, but wondered if he’d ever exhibited his paintings. How I wanted one for myself. No, I wanted them all, to look into over and over again. He used vibrant colors in unusual pairings, and he left something slightly askew in the proportions between live and inanimate objects. The calculated incongruities rendered his work perfect.

“Here’s my latest.” He showed me charcoal studies of winter trees, and traced the outline of bark. “Look at the framework. The skeleton that is in no way dead.” The painting detailed the intricate network above and below ground, how the roots balanced the crown.  

Shay motioned toward his paintings. “These are all yours.”

Unable to speak, I picked up a small canvas of sun transformed through an old, thick window. Molten-gold on a coral carpet. Its beauty soothed me.

Back outside, petting the cat in his lap, he told me his latest round of treatments had been unsuccessful. “There is nothing . . .” More and more often, he stopped mid-sentence with fingers sunk in Maggie’s neck fur. I pretended not to see his pain, launching into comments about his work and suggesting he teach me to paint.

“Savannah?” He always pronounced my name in a way I’d never heard it said before, elongating the vowels, emphasizing the wrong syllable, until it sounded like an exotic bird or rare orchid. “I have a week or two left.”

I needed to count. Though I wanted to look away, I held his gaze. A few of his eyebrow hairs had grown back like strings of honey. He’d lost weight over the summer and his muscled arms had softened to ropes. I’d begun sweeping for him.  

His oncologist advised him to go into Hospice. I heard his words, but couldn’t believe someone still so alive could be that close to death.

“My mother visited me in a dream last night,” Shay said. “She handed me a broom, and held her warm hands over mine on the handle. The way she did when she first taught me to sweep.”

“How lucky you are. My dreams are nothing but an endless parade of things to count.”

“Will you take care of Maggie and my house?” Shay turned toward his garden, but it looked as if he saw another time and place. 

I counted the bricks behind Shay, the strawberries on the umbrella, the seconds I felt ticking through me.

“I want it settled.” He placed his hand over mine.  

Shay had already told me he had no living relatives, and that his will left everything to me. I tried to swallow the lump in my throat. Did I want the responsibility of ownership?

Finally I said, “Taking care of things is what I do.”

Shay sat Maggie the Cat in my lap, went inside, and returned with a mango and something that looked like a moldy grapefruit, plates, cloth napkins, his camera, and a knife. He explained that the strange globe was called an ugli, a grapefruit and tangerine hybrid that many years ago was found growing wild in Jamaica. His hands shook as he peeled off the lumpy, loose skin and separated the inside segments like an orange. They tasted exquisitely sweet with just a touch of tang. He bit off the end of a segment and sucked the juice from it, keeping his eyes closed a long time, his lips squeezed tight. I caught myself counting the number of diamonds in the metal grid tabletop, the lime wedges on the placemats, the paisley swirls of his shirt. His fingers moved over the surface of the mango, past patches of gold, yellow, red and green. He said he’d decided to save the mango for his morning smoothie. In a Vita-Mixer he concocted the best blends of pomegranate, pineapple, and papaya juices.

Shay snapped pictures of Maggie licking the empty ugli rind, and of me rocking her like an infant in my arms. He set up his tripod and captured poses of me, him, and Maggie the Cat. I snapped photos of Shay kneeling in his garden (I had to help him up and down), beneath his mimosa tree staring up to the sky through its branches.

He removed a tiny box from his pants pocket and handed it to me. I opened it to find a miniature pen and ink sketch of Maggie the Cat splayed out in the grass.

“Something for your collection.” 

I couldn’t believe how he’d compressed so much intricate detail onto such a small area. I reached inside my shirt pocket, enfolded the miniature spotted horse in my hand, and brought it out. After looking at it one more time, I took a deep breath, and extended it to Shay. 

“I’d like to give you my horse.” I placed it in his palm, the color of fertile soil.

“Are you sure?”

I nodded yes. “It will be your good luck charm.”

He rubbed the horse’s belly, saying it looked like one of the wild ponies on Assateague Island, that eat salt marsh grass which causes them to drink excessive water, giving their bellies a bloated look. Shay had visited the barrier island off the coast of Virginia and Maryland on his honeymoon. He touched the horse’s mane before slipping it into his breast pocket.

It was eleven forty-five. I didn’t want the evening to end. I could have sat all night talking, listening, laughing under the stars and sliver of moon. The sweet, autumn clematis glutted the air. Maggie alternated between Shay’s lap and mine, purring as we pet her. How I wished we could freeze our remaining moments together.  

He handed me a bag of red peppers he’d picked. “Probably the last bunch for this year. The cooler weather’s slowed them down.”  

I opened the paper bag to release their essence.

“Sweet,” he whispered. “Like you.”

I hugged one arm around his waist. It felt as if our bodies hummed. He cradled my head, his fingertips tickling the lobe of my ear. When he began to shake, I helped him to his chair at the umbrella table. Maggie leaped into his lap. He repeated that he needed sleep. I asked if he’d let me stay the night.  

“Maybe tomorrow.”

“Can I help you inside?”

“I want to nap here under the stars awhile.”

I patted Maggie’s head, kissed Shay’s crown, and made myself walk away from the table, past his mother’s broom, toward the street. He remained seated.  

Outside the gate, I turned back to wave. The knife glinted alongside his hand.  

Shivers coursed through me. I hugged the bag of peppers against my chest. Imagined the sun warming their skin and Shay’s hands as he’d held them. It would take twelve steps, six to eight seconds to reach him. But he’d made it clear he wanted me to leave. Couldn’t I respect his wish?

As I headed for the corner, I reached into my pocket to touch the tiny box that nestled Shay’s sketch. I tabulated the number of front porch steps and streetlights as I walked north toward the Suspension bridge, envisioning my miniature horse nuzzling Shay’s chest, and a matching feral horse galloping along a Jamaican bay.  

KAREN GEORGE's books include Into the Heartland (Finishing Line Press), Inner Passage (Red Bird Chapbooks), Swim Your Way Back, (Dos Madres Press), The Seed of Me (Finishing Line Press), and forthcoming The Fire Circle (Blue Lyra Press). She's received grants from Kentucky Foundation for Women and Kentucky Arts Council, and her work appears in Naugatuck River ReviewMemoirLouisville ReviewPermafrost, and Still. She holds an MFA in Writing from Spalding University, reviews poetry at http://readwritepoetry.blogspot.com/, and is co-founder and fiction editor of the online journal, Waypoints: http://www.waypointsmag.com/. Her website is: http://karenlgeorge.snack.ws/.

The Adirondack Review