by Keddy Outlaw
Day upon day, year after year, it got worse. The women he met shopped desperately for marriage candidates. One woman told him she knew on the very first date whether the specimen at hand was husband material. Shawn grew older and remained alone. The lapses between small bursts of dating activity grew longer and longer. His value as a marriageable commodity increased.
Concurrent with Shawn Hammermill’s idiosyncratic allergy to women’s marriage agendas was a cold vein of fear that he was not capable of love, that he was doomed to solitude. He heard other men speak of the Rule of Three — that if by the third date, you can’t identify a strong attraction, you better move on. Moving on became his trait, and he rarely got past that portentous third date.
One woman who had known Mr. Shawn Hammermill for years without getting pushy was Ms. Lacey Spooner. At age thirty- three, she was once divorced and had about her a certain veneer of plucky independence. She lived in a house at 10 Marigold Lane, not far from Shawn’s apartment. It was a lavish house intended for the extended families of days long past, and she had filled its rooms with renters from the University’s International program.
As Shawn administered the University of Albany’s graduate housing office, he had placed many students at Lacey’s residence, fondly referred to by the students as Marigold House. Into the dull space of a lackluster afternoon in early November, where Shawn pretended to be busy at his desk, but was actually reading a computer club newsletter, came the full-bodied voice of Lacey Spooner. “Hello? I stopped by to invite you to Thanksgiving dinner.”
Shawn looked up in surprise from his pretend paperwork and rose from his chair in automatic courtesy. The lean, healthy-looking woman smiled at him expectantly.
“Well, Ms. Spooner, how kind. I hardly know how to respond.” Hearing a tone of mockery in his words and deciding she had a relatively safe desperateness factor of only about 65, whereas most single women her age factored at 80 or 90, he allowed himself to divulge a few personal facts. “Actually, I usually spend Thanksgiving with my parents, but they moved to Florida this year.”
“Perfect,” she said, “because this will be an orphan’s Thanksgiving feast. You know, because all my students have no place to go. You are more than welcome to join us.”
Shawn felt a need to deflect some of her enthusiasm. “Oh, but, you see, I may end up elsewhere, as I will be taking the whole week off. May I let you know later?”
“Oh, sure! Maybe you could bring a desert? But even if you show up the last minute, that’s fine. Just join right in with the rest of us strays!” With that she turned on her wooden-clogged heels and departed, leaving Shawn to ponder on his inclusion in the category of stray personages. He listened to her loud shoes clip-clop down the corridor. There was something about Lacey Spooner that he found disarming.
Shawn had a trio of extra-curricular interests that he drew upon for social contact and personal development: canoeing, computers and architectural model building. Through all of these, he regularly met bands of single women who had been advised to seek out men in special interest groups. Canoeing was the worst; his club was subject to a laughable imbalance of the sexes as women always assumed the group would be full up with brawny, macho outdoor types. These women paid their dues, came to a few meetings and maybe even a trip or two, only to drop out shortly thereafter, disappointed by long, wet afternoons in the company of other shrieking females whose manicures and hairdos were easily wrecked by rowdy white water experiences.
His computer club wasn’t as overrun with women, though those that came to the monthly meetings were often patently helpless, in search of likely assistance with the mysteries of HTML, etc. Then there was the Miniatures Association, at which Shawn was often the only male present. However, most of the woman there were true Betty Crocker types, married, spoiled, and devoted to the expensive hobby of building doll houses. Shawn disliked dollhouses, but allowed himself to overlook that in order to grant himself the discounts and educational opportunities that came with membership. His current project was a Victorian house, built four-sided, with none of the rooms left open as in a dollhouse.
Shawn knew just what he planned to do during Thanksgiving, no matter what he’d told Lacey Spooner. He would hole himself up in his apartment and ignore the holiday all together. It would be a relief not to have to attend his parents’ holiday meal. Surely thirty-seven years of familial Thanksgivings had been enough, especially when his lack of wife and children so heavily contributed to his mother’s teary-eyed state. She often exhibited a form of nostalgia for future generations that only increased in proportion to her consumption of pre-dinner sherries.
Though Shawn thought of himself as a hermit, his job and hobbies brought him into constant contact with people. He intended to test the outer limits of his ability to be alone by spending a week off unfettered by human interaction. It was a delicious prospect, one that filled him with the anticipation other men might have for a week with a Marilyn Monroe lookalike. He spent the days before Thanksgiving in a fit of bureaucratic tidiness, leaving no file pending, no paperwork undone. He dismissed the invitation from Lacey Spooner with only the slightest hesitation.
* * *
Deciding on the first Saturday of his week off to stock up on groceries, Shawn headed to the local Price Chopper. Lacey Spooner also went to the Price Chopper that day. She happened upon Shawn in the meat department, where he stood debating the wisdom of trying to cook a small turkey for himself.
“Hi, Mr. Hammermill! Shopping for a turkey?”
“What? No, I’m just looking. Good protein, though, for your food dollar.”
“Sure! Mine weighs twenty-two pounds. Hope that will feed everybody! Have you decided whether you’ll be joining us?”
“Probably not.” Shawn clamped tight his lips, deciding there was no need to invent other plans. Let her wonder what they were. He would not be one of her stray ducklings.
“Too bad. There’s someone coming I thought you’d like to meet. Your secretary told me you’re into model making. Well, one of the foreign students, Van Phung, has a brother who is coming in from Boston, and he’s going to show us his short film about the miniature American colonial village he built from toothpicks. Or is match sticks? I forget. He won some award for it, and it might be fun.”
“Hmmm, yes, I think it was toothpicks — if it’s the project I’m thinking of. I read about it somewhere.” Despite himself, Shawn felt a flicker of interest.
“Well, we probably won’t look at the film until about 6 o’clock. So, if you want to turn up late, that’s fine. Come have some pie and coffee with us.”
A tall, blonde-haired young man appeared suddenly and tossed a big bag of potatoes into Lacey’s cart. “This is Hans,” Lacey said. “He volunteered to help me today. This will be his first American Thanksgiving! He is from Germany.”
“Shawn Hammermill, nice to meet you.”
“But I met you at the housing office last summer, didn’t I?”
“Probably so,” Shawn sighed, ever tired of his University persona.
“See you later,” Lacey crooned, tagging along behind young Hans, who took over the grocery cart and steered it with propriety. Shawn heard Lacey laughing over something Hans said. He slowed down the progress of his own shopping so he would not catch up with them again. But he met them in every aisle and finally he dashed to the register with his selections, including half a pound of deli-sliced turkey. He forgot the cranberry sauce, one of his favorite condiments, and had to stop at another grocery store before he headed home.
There was something about Lacey’s husky voice that appealed to him. Was her friendly tone genuine? How did she handle having all those young people under one roof? As far as he could remember, her house plan had shown no separate landlady’s apartment. Such arrangements made Shawn shudder. He had always lived alone, even in college, where his parents had paid an extra stipend for him to have a single dormitory room. Perhaps being a single child had spoiled him immeasurably, Shawn reflected, but, if so — it was too late to change now.
Twelve years ago, there had been one young woman he actually spent the better part of a year with, shuttling back and forth to each other’s apartments for nights of passion that eventually died under the hard light of everyday existence. Her name was Carole, and when Shawn refused to try a living-together-under-one-roof experiment, she quickly moved on to new hunting grounds. A year later she had married a lawyer and moved to Schenectady. Shawn wondered how Carole’s husband accommodated her taste for pink frilly flounces on all the furniture, or if she had changed her decorating profile in order to be a Wife.
* * *
Saturday night he completed the porch railings on his Victorian house model. Sunday he began to paint the trim on the house, and played for hours with some new flight simulation software. Monday morning the phone rang and he did not answer it. He was wrapped up in reading a new computer book. He had heard that one mark of an introvert was their reaction to the sound of a phone ringing — a grimace, and not wanting to answer it, whereas an extrovert would smile at the sound and leap for the phone. Since his parents had moved to Florida, the phone rang less often and Shawn liked it that way.
On Tuesday, he sat down to an updated word processing program and quickly mastered it. Facing the blank computer screen, Shawn dared himself to try writing a story. Writing seemed a likely interest for a loner, but every time he’d tried in the past, he had realized how full of people most stories were, and how little he knew or understood people, except perhaps himself. Yet, all he knew about himself was how complex and enigmatic he was, even to himself. This time Shawn was determined to get further than a few sketchy paragraphs.
All day he tried to write stories about men who lived in proud solitude, but they seemed too self conscious. After a quick walk through lightly snow-dusted streets and a supper of three slices of Albany’s best pizza, he rummaged through his life once more for fictional possibilities. He wrote one passage about the cruelty of teenage male badinage that pleased him, painful as the memory was of those years before he took up canoeing, when his muscles were undeveloped, and he’d had the reputation of being an egghead.
When Shawn woke on Wednesday, he involved himself with the model house, skillfully painting the tiny gingerbread trim. But the itch to write asserted itself once again. He returned to the computer. This time he invented a character very different from himself, a woman no less. Though he called her Rebecca, he realized he had based her on what he knew of Lacey Spooner.
This Rebecca figure made his fingers tap in a happy word dance, and when he was done, there were three pages describing a joyful woman who was truly independent, who made no claim on men, but found them gathered around her like bees to the hive. That night, he dreamed he tried to hug Lacey. She stopped him, firmly holding him just two inches short of body contact. “I am not your savior,” she told him. He woke feeling bleak, and realized Thanksgiving had arrived. He wished he could go back to sleep and change the end of his dream, but full waking consciousness was plainly upon him.
Over coffee, Shawn surveyed his plans for the day. He would call his parents, of course, and then he could continue to putter with his projects as he had all week. But nothing appealed to him, and he lay on the couch remembering the vivid reality of his dream — Lacey’s curly hair, and the strong grasp of her hands stopping him from hugging her. The compulsion to hug her had been so strong. He eyed the phone, considering whether he should call Lacey and accept her invitation to dinner.
When the phone rang it startled him. It was only his parents. His mother cried for a few minutes, upset over her memories of Shawn as a small boy in knee pants. When the bland voice of his father came on the line, asking him what his plans were for Thanksgiving dinner, Shawn surprised himself, saying “Oh, I’ll be going to a friend’s house, to what she calls a gathering of orphans.”
His father passed this message on to his mother. Her hysterical voice burst on to the line again. “Shawn, you’re no orphan! What is this nonsense?” He managed to pacify her, and got off the phone feeling relieved the conversation was over.
He looked in the refrigerator and found the deli turkey he’d bought was all dried up. That did it. He’d have to go to Lacey’s for something to eat. Was hunger a valid reason to go? Ah, but what kind of hunger, a probing, analytical voice inside him droned. Perhaps he should try to write about hunger, he thought. Draining the last of his coffee, he went to the computer and wrote some more, still not sure he should go to Marigold House for dinner.
He wrote about the most constant hunger he’d known in his life, the hunger to be alone. He wrote about how sweet it was to walk in the door of his apartment and reunite with its solitary pleasures. Just as he was rhapsodizing over the infinite universe of solitude, he felt a simultaneous urge to flee from it. His stomach rumbled ominously. It was three o’clock. He hurried to shave, dress and leave, headed for Marigold Lane.
On the way there he realized he would be arriving empty-handed. All the grocery stores and restaurants were closed. Finally, he spotted one restaurant with signs of life. It was a Chinese buffet place. The door was locked, but he knocked and finally a small elderly man came out. “All closed. Family celebration only.”
“Is there anything I could buy, anything at all?” he pleaded. Inspiration hit him. “Fortune cookies, even!”
“Ah, yes, perhaps so. Wait here.”
Arriving on Lacey’s doorstep with a large box containing twelve dozen cookies, he felt foolish but oddly whimsical, too. “Thought you could use a few novelty desert items? To fit in with the international theme, you know.”
Lacey hooted in delight. “Why not? Come in, come in, Mr. Hammerhill.” She had on a long green dress and chunky brass beads. A smudge of flour dusted her hair. “I’m in the middle of making gravy. Let me introduce you to everyone and then I’ve got to get back to the stove.”
“Please, call me Shawn,” he said. Now that he was a guest in her home, he was anxious they be friends.
Twenty minutes later, sitting on the living room floor with a group of international types, Shawn felt his usual reaction to parties settling in, one of detachment. Last night’s dream came back to haunt him and he fell into a reverie, snapping back to the conversation only when he heard mention of the dreaded marriage word in connection with Lacey. “What?” he asked the Peruvian girl at his side. “Is Lacey getting married?”
“Oh, no,” she laughed. “But Hans has asked her, and so has Juan Mario Rodriguez over there. So have some others, probably. Green cards, you know, they all want green cards.”
“I thought we weren’t going to talk about green cards today,” Lacey said, arriving in the room. She sunk down into a small space left on the crowded couch across from where Shawn sat. “No green cards and no ‘C’ word talk!”
“What is the ‘C’ word?” Shawn asked.
“Computers!” Lacey whispered. “That’s all anyone talks about around here half the time. But not on Thanksgiving, please!”
Shawn followed her into the kitchen later. She soon put him to work, juggling covered dishes in and out of two microwaves. The students wandered through, someone always wanting Lacey’s attention or opinion. He found himself wishing they were alone, a disconcerting thought. Seated next to the Peruvian girl at dinner, Shawn was quiet, feeling no compulsion to return her flirtatious banter.
After dinner, the crowd gathered in the living room to watch short films. Someone set up a laptop projector. Pie and coffee would come later. “And fortune cookies, too,” Lacey laughed, “enough for everyone to find good fortune ten times over.”
Shawn was pleased when Lacey sat next to him on the floor. Her leg brushed his, but then she moved it politely away. Shawn stopped himself from moving closer. He noticed Hans sulking across the room. But all these men were so young, in their mid twenties or younger. Surely she could not be romantically involved with any of them. Then it dawned on Shawn that if Lacey was desperate for marriage, she could have married any one of the candidates present or past. This gave him great ease. He lowered her desperation score considerably and casually threw his arm around her. She flashed him a sweet smile and allowed her shoulders to relax against his arm.
The miniature colonial village film was amazing. The Vietnamese visitor from Boston also showed a film about a domino competition, where all the dominoes fell in synchronized motion upon each other in great waves like marching soldiers in parade. Everyone cheered and laughed at their progress.
Shawn lost Lacey during the desert hour, when the women gathered on one side of the room and men on the other. No one took a fortune cookie from the big bowl Lacey set out on the table. It’s the thought that counts, Shawn told himself, superstitiously grabbing one on the way to the kitchen with his empty plate. Alone in the kitchen he broke the cookie in half, almost breaking a tooth on its shiny hardness. He folded open the fortune. “Your children will prosper,” the message read, and he crumpled it in his hand and stuck it in his pocket.
Lacey came in the kitchen, trailing a line of girls behind her. “How do you like my worldwide family of children?” she asked. “Aren’t they great?”
Shawn could only grin, feeling dizzy at the sight of her warm smile. If he were the man of this house, would they be his children, too? But such thoughts were foolish, and he wondered if it wasn’t time to go home.
“Oh, stay a little longer, Shawn, why don’t you?” Lacey said when he suggested leaving. “Most of this crowd is going to another gathering. The house will be empty and I wouldn’t mind some company.”
An hour later, the house was flushed of its boarders. Shawn helped Lacey in the kitchen, glad to be there, but wary, too. What had come over him? He felt the usual pull towards home. But more strongly, he felt a magnetic pull to the woman at his side, so energetically at work in the soapsuds at the sink.
When they sat down with amaretto-laced coffee at the long dining room table, empty now but for the bowl of fortune cookies, Lacey sighed a weary little sigh. She took a sip of her coffee and seemed to perk up. Their eyes met. She giggled. “How can we resist it? Let’s open all the fortune cookies and see how many fortunes there really are! It’s always seemed to me they use only a dozen slogans.”
“Just don’t eat one, they’re kind of stale,” Shawn warned her.
“You tried one already? What did it say?”
“Something about prosperous children.”
“Do you have children?”
“Why, no.” Didn’t she know he was an eligible bachelor?
Lacey cracked open her first cookie. “Your children will prosper!” she read. “Sounds familiar, huh? It looks like my theory is right.”
They opened several more, sorting the little strips of paper into piles of sameness. The prosperous children were winning by a long shot, threatened only by a rising pile of long journeys across water.
When their hands collided in reaching for the very last cookie, Lacey said, “You take it. Go ahead.”
“No, you,” Shawn countered.
“Oh, we’ll both open it. Come on.” Their hands pulled on either end of the cookie.
“Make yourself available for love,” they both read, Shawn blushing.
Lacey arched an eyebrow coyly. “That’s a new one! Well, I have no argument with that. How about you?”
Shawn’s defenses rose up in caution. He seemed not able to speak.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” Lacey said. “I didn’t mean to get personal.”
“Well, why shouldn’t you? Let’s be personal,” Shawn said boldly, reaching across the table for her hand.
“That’s nice. You know, I must say, I’ve always thought of you as not available for some reason.”
“Well, I’m not married.”
“I know. But you don’t seem available.”
“Available for what?”
“Roller skating, going to the moon, I don’t know,” she laughed. “After all, I’ve called you Mr. Hammermill all these years.”
“Yes, you have. I am a bit of a loner,” Shawn admitted. “Not available about describes it.”
“Oh, sorry,” she said, a reservoir of sadness surfacing in her sympathetic eyes.
“You don’t have to be sorry. I may be a loner, but I do talk to people. I talk about computers, student housing and various other sundry things.”
“Tell me about some of those sundry things. Minus the computer talk, please!”
Somehow they just kept talking. Lacey was such a good listener. Shawn felt like his mouth was engaged in an unfamiliar, vigorous aerobic activity. He told her about his long ignored desire to write, his architectural models and today’s ridiculous phone conversation with his moody mother. He even admitted to his marriage paranoia. Lacey told him she had sworn off marriage and he found he truly believed her.
Hours later, some of the students trickled back into the house. Shawn saw that it was midnight and rose to leave. He asked Lacey to take a drive north to the Adirondacks on Saturday. She agreed to go, and Shawn’s stomach pulsated with joy. Somehow he thought he would easily get past the Rule of Three with Lacey. Maybe on Sunday she would come with him to his Miniatures meeting. In the meantime, he felt an urgent need to return to solitude and reflect on all this tumultuous change. He hugged her goodnight, and was relieved to see that his dream of her refusal to hug him did not manifest itself.
Driving home, he let his mind return to a routine hum, sorting out what he could and couldn’t accomplish in the small bits of coveted solitude left in his vacation week. It was important not to have silly expectations about Ms. Lacey Spooner.
But all day Friday, he found himself returning again and again to the small strip of fortune cookie paper curled up on top of his antique rolltop desk, the one he’d abandoned after getting a computer. The fortune fell behind the desk and he scrambled through dust bunnies to retrieve it. Finally, he taped it to a small piece of green cardboard and propped it against the lantern clock on top of the desk. “Make yourself available for love,” he whispered, to the mirror nearby, and to the clock with its delicate brass hands, ticking, ticking.
Keddy Ann Outlaw is a mixed media artist, blogger, book reviewer and retired public librarian. Her poems and stories have appeared in various literary journals, Papier Mache Press anthologies and other collections. During the summer of 2011, her solo collage show was featured on the Caladan Gallery website. Her work is also available via taostaos.com and Saatchi Online. Outlaw lives in Houston, Texas with her husband.