Return of the Orange Virgin

Chapter Eighteen—The Valiant Buffet

Harry Profitt Pease looked sideways into the mirror, hunting for a place to part his hair; clippings from a do-it-yourself haircut clung to the sink’s porcelain sides. He doused himself with Lilac Vegetal, then wrinkled his nose and tried not to breathe. That evening was an illustrated lecture—a slide show—at the Valiant Trust Memorial Institute Free Library. Alma Nightingale was a known regular. “What the hell. Why not. I’ve got her washer for her, haven’t I?”

The slide presentation on the Holy Land was a grand old standby of the Valiant’s biweekly offerings, usually wildlife and nature oriented. Often someone from the Audubon Society would give a talk on bird watching, a park ranger from the wildlife preserve an illustrated nature walk. The spectacle of green foliage up there on the beaded screen in the reference room on an icy winter’s evening with the Nor’easters howling past in the Bay of Fundy made Alma Nightingale dream of donning her silk with the tropical flower print.

Reverend Murtry from the Methodist parsonage had actually been to the Holy Land but had run out of film. He filled out his slide show with stock shots available at the tourist kiosks: grainy cliffs of Masada in rotogravure orange alternated with Kodacolor transparencies of the Via Dolorosa, Bethlehem, and tract housing in the Golan Heights. Rev. Murtry had typed out his commentary. The lights were dimmed and by the light of a lamp on the lectern he started a cassette player. He had prepared a tape with music and automatic pulses to advance the slide carousels while he gave his full attention to the narrative. The Reverend rattled his script and checked the audience. There was no audience. The convivial knot of Friday night regulars had clustered at the refreshments table—coffee, fruit punch and cookies, the Valiant Friday buffet. Abandoning his slides to continue without him, Rev. Murtry joined the throng. Perhaps Mrs. Gladstone had spiked the punch.

A bright young couple from away was tied up in an intense conversation with Alma. More circumspect and less outspoken when sober, Harry caught a snippet of conversation while cruising the refreshments table. “...full of charming, picturesque, bearded people whom I want never to work on any major appliance again...” Jaws snapped shut as they caught sight of him. Aware of Alma’s earlier acquaintance with Harry, they were inquiring as to any other jack-of-all-trades available locally. They were looking for a fixer learned in the ways of automatic household washers and dryers. Harry vaguely remembered doing some work for them the previous summer. Even after forty years, he was proprietary about Alma and moved right in.

Harry’s approach to the huddle of small talk generated a ripple effect. This was a problem of ventilation. The Valiant Trust committee had argued quire reasonably that taking down the storm windows in the spring was only inviting trouble—a building after all, was sort of like a bottle of wine. Unbuttoning one’s edifice to let it breathe with the advent of the warm months, taking down the storm windows for other than routine maintenance, say every five years or so, was borrowing trouble. The summer gales caused weather damage to exposed interior casements, in the knockabout trip down the bulkhead hatch to the Valiant Memorial Trust’s basement snuggery some panes were inevitably broken, requiring replacement. The exterior double glazing thus stored acquired a layer of dust and needed washed before being put back in place for the winter when it would be discovered they had shrunken in the dry of the cellar and had to be painted and caulked about the seams when re-hung.

Despairing of fresh air, early each spring Mrs. Gladstone herself popped the storms from the clerestory windows at the opposing sides of her office space that welcomed borrowers and book returners as they climbed the three steps from the entry foyer.

Enough fresh air for one librarian and the occasional browser, this was not enough for the Friday enlightenments plus Harry. Harry’s body heat was cooking the emollient of his afternoon as he trod manfully toward the cookies and fruit punch in a vapor haze of Seadog beer, grass and sweat. The pallid figures clustered about the paper covered library table stopped their talk, held gestures uncompleted.

Lo! Conan the Barbarian has come to wassail at the gates, thought Joyce Gladstone (Mrs.), librarian, suppressing a titter.

Harry noticed the quiet of the usually chatty Friday night crowd and guessed it might be him. Were these, his friends and neighbors, sending him a not-so-subtle declaration that he did not belong here? They looked like the little figures architects put into their models. Tiny elongated people interspersed with shrubberies and trees made from sponge, dyed green with painted shadows to suggest a sunny afternoon.

Was he out of place?

Harry was not a regular communicant at the Valiant Trust’s Sabbath-eve menu of uplift; he was getting the transparent treatment. Admittedly bad timing for a raid on the goodies but he was nursing a hangover and wanted to go home. He didn’t feel like staying for the show, besides after the lectures the buffet was so picked over it was hard to do it any heavy damage.

Joyce Gladstone caught the whiff of Harry bearing down on her and charged right on with a cheerful determinedness, hoping to cut him out of possible intrusion by keeping the conversation bright, up, happy and busy. She turned her back on the circle and it tightened defensively, as if wolves prowled outside their campfire.

“Doesn’t Alma look pretty,” said Joyce. “You always had good chemistry, you and Alma, Harry. Don’t put her off. She’s going to ask you to fix her washing machine. Do it Harry... for me? It’s such a little thing to ask. I’m not comfortable with this stuff yet.” She nodded at the tableau of the Valiant’s Friday-nighters. The familiar faces had a snapshot quality. Reverend Murtry tinkering with his slide projector, Bobby Farrell waving his finger—they had been having a sports conversation Harry recalled—pressing home some fine point about basketball statistics with the Rev. while sneaking a peek down the front of Harriet Hopwood’s dress. Mrs. Gladstone blinked and stared blankly from vacant, puzzled eyes. “Was I speaking?” she asked Harry. “Distinctly thought I heard myself talking. Strange.” She turned back to the circle; the stockaded wagons parted to welcome her.

There was a splash as a ladle fell into the punch bowl. “Land’s sakes, can’t take me anywhere.” Alma’s voice. Harry turned; she was dabbing at a stain on her silk print dress. There were small movements and the sounds of lungs being filled as respiration resumed. A tentative guffaw, most likely Bobby Farrell, and then conversation broke out as the party restarted itself. A continuo of manly resonances, hesitant hushed chirpings, percussive shufflings and rustlings and the staccato cough of a smoker coming in from a quick toke joined the counterpoint of Alma Nightingale’s crystal glockenspiel as with a susurrus of silk she stirred the ice cubes in her tureen of pink citrus soup. The group was realigning itself with small talk. Their unconcerned random chatter broke through Harry’s haze. Harry tried concentrating but the ebb and flow of people in their huddles and clusters made him dizzy.

He cut Alma Nightingale out from the herd and focused on her. Just how much had he had to drink today? Hmmm... figure it tomorrow, count the empties. He made an effort to bring his eyes into focus. He tried walking and found he needed to maneuver by shifting his center of gravity, letting his feet follow, stiff-legged. The room was swimming and to keep from falling over he had to balance on a very fluid pivot dead center in the middle of his hips. Damn! He wasn’t that drunk. Funny how the beer catches up with you all at once. Harry had reached that plateau where the accumulation of alcohol gets the body drunk but leaves the brain alone to try to sink buckets from the free throw line of social ruin. He’d feel his balance start to go and his lower body would shuffle forward, trying to keep centered under the wobbly load.

“Still dreaming about a girl from high school, Harry?” Harry turned to see a pig hopping up on the window seat next to Alma, claiming a warm depression vacated by Mrs. Gladstone. Harry stared. The pig was a spotted china with a tight brushy tip to her tail that hinted at purebred bloodlines. “You wouldn’t have a cabbage left in your truck, would you?” the pig added.

“Huh?” said Harry. “Oh, yeah. Sure.” He shook his head to clear it and the pig was no longer there.

*  *  *

The Orange Virgin was scheming. The Fata Morgana, Orange Virgin, etc, etc., had discovered a minor petulance. She fought it off but it persisted. “We live on the bow wave of perceived time. Time is a comforting figment, a subjective place humans have dreamed up to give superficial meaning to their paltry lives. Everything is all there and a glorious moment it was. We can never live it at once. We are merely writing its catalog as it unfolds. Merrily we roll along.” She spoke to a cat that lolled in the sun at her feet. The two were high atop a turreted tower to observe the progress of an excavation far below. One of the gardener’s boys had gotten a bad bite transporting the swans to a corral on the river as they readied to drain the moat. The Orange Virgin entertained hopes that the swans might also attack the diggers, Lamprey and Tawse, at their pick and shovel work.

“The shovel, a useful instrument,” remarked the Orange Virgin. “It asks little in the way of affection, has no moving parts and runs on dried out crusts, cheese rinds and yesterday’s ale.” Some time had passed since her interview with El the sky demon in the cellars of the Hotel Taft and, after the manner of time passed beyond recall, there remained an air of melancholy tempered with a vague unease. “And speaking of useful instruments, I shall require much pocket change, eh sweet puss?”

The Orange Virgin wore a checked flannel shirt and a culotte with hiking boots. “Aha! Money—that is the answer.” Morgana’s big gray tomcat gave a burraow, bleep, bleep, rubbed affectionately against her ankles then, seeing a gloriously fat horsefly buzzing, forgot the moment and was after it in a pell-mell dash up Morgana’s tresses and off the top of her head. Suspended over nothingness high above a hard ending on the sun-caked mud floor of the moat 30 meters down, he gave with a miaow as if in farewell to a foolish, pampered life. “Not yet an end for you, my pretty, a panoply of voles, moths and milk filled saucers lies yet ahead, sweet puss,” said the Fata Morgana. She snatched the cat from the air. “Follow the money. Remember this.”

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