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“Be quiet,” said Mandy, her voice a whisper.
“What’s wrong?” asked Ted.
“Just listen,” she said.
Miffed about this interruption to their afternoon lovemaking, Ted’s hips stopped thrusting, the muscles on his jaw grew taut and his thick eyebrows nearly met in the middle.
“Sorry, thought I heard something,” Mandy said, adding half a smile as an apology.
Then it came again, a curious, quivering note, this time loud enough for Ted to hear. They glanced at their bedroom wall as if this might move the sound closer and listened as the squirrel-like chatter morphed into a woman’s voice, clear and high-pitched.
“Just a passerby,” Ted said, resuming movement.
“Forget about your sin…” the voice sang out, not one Mandy recognised. It wasn’t Mrs.Trumbow from next-door, bedbound with arthritis. It couldn’t be Sasha from across the street, whose harsh, off-key voice sounded as if it had never held a tune. Neither was it Kate, Ted and Mandy’s intrepid daughter, who was in Nepal and wouldn’t return for another month.
“The passerby isn’t passing,” Mandy said. The woman could be heard humming loudly from their front yard.
“Can’t you ignore it, for Christ sake?” Ted implored.
Ted’s voice rang of need, a familiar tone now with his dread of becoming old and useless, just another retired man with nothing to do. Mandy stroked his back until the stranger sang out again, trying for a high note, “Give your audience a grin!”
“Maybe I better check,” Mandy said.
Groaning, Ted rolled off and began fanning himself with the edge of the sheet. “I’ll go.” He climbed off the bed, put on his khaki shorts and brown loafers and opened the door. “Be right back,” he said quietly, as if to keep the melodious trespasser from disrupting the intimacy of the bedroom, the candlelight, the rumpled bed with Mandy still in it, the smell of their bodies.
“I’m getting up too,” Mandy said, more curious than she could bear.
“No, stay put. I’ll be right back.”
“Ted—“she began, but he grabbed his shirt off the chair and left.
Peering through the bedroom curtain, Mandy saw Ted in their front yard sculpture garden, standing in front of a woman who sat on their white wicker bench. The woman was in her thirties, or maybe forties, Mandy couldn’t tell. The heavyset stranger was dressed in layers of colourful clothing, more than the warm June weather required. Long skirt, two sweaters—a red rag wool and a green cardigan, as well as several scarves. On her head was a red bandana, tied at the back, where long brown spiral curls stuck out like coiled springs. Ted and this woman were six feet apart, studying each other without speaking, as the Troy’s tall Ganesha statue cast its misshapen shadow between them.
The woman gripped the top of a smooth wooden walking stick she held poised between her legs, as though it were a magic staff awaiting further instruction. Staring at Ted, she raised the end of the stick and pointed it at him, coming within an inch of his face.
Ted took a step back and Mandy heard him ask, “Is there something I can do for you?”
The woman did not respond, and Ted tried again. “Do you need me to make a call?”
Mandy thought of the women from the shelter where she volunteered, all of them destitute or escaping abusive husbands. Recently, one arrived with a black shawl wrapped loosely around her head. Mandy believed the woman was Muslim, but when she removed her shawl it was clear she wasn’t Muslim after all, she’d been hiding her bruised and battered face.
Mandy grabbed a shelter brochure from her purse and trotted to the front yard where she stood next to Ted, who stared at the woman as if he were trying to identify what type of creature she was.
“Hello there,” Mandy said cheerfully. The woman looked at her with a blank expression as she shifted the cane from its menacing position to a safer one across her lap.
“Let’s back off and see if she leaves,” Ted said under his breath, as if the woman were both dangerous and hard of hearing.
“Don’t be silly, Ted.” Mandy said, then spoke to the woman, “You’re safe here. No one will harm you.” Her voice has taken on the tone she used at the shelter, conciliatory, kind.
Ted took hold of Mandy’s arm and pulled her close. “Just what do you intend to do now, Miss Humanitarian? This one doesn’t need any more clothes.”
“I realise that, dear.” Mandy knew Ted was referring to the time she opened her suitcase outside their posh Atlanta hotel and gave a beseeching beggar everything, except for what she wore, dresses, shoes, even pantyhose and expensive perfume. Ted, not a man who could tolerate embarrassment, had watched from the lobby, pretending not to see.
The woman used her cane to sketch circles in the ground at her feet, oblivious to Ted and Mandy. A warm breeze arrived, lifting the ends of her hair and the fringe on her purple scarf.
“She looks so harmless,” Mandy said.
“Looks can be deceiving,” hissed Ted.
“Maybe we should invite her in?” Mandy said, questioning herself as much as Ted.
“Over my dead body.”
Mandy pulled away and sat beside the woman, studying the ground instead of her face. She’d recently attended a seminar on respecting cultural differences and had learned that some cultures avoid eye contact. Perhaps this woman, ethnicity obscure, was one of those.
Ted leaned against the trunk of the sycamore and watched, arms crossed, lips a tight line. When his posturing failed to get Mandy’s attention, he stomped inside, door slamming behind.
“I’m Mandy. What’s your name?”
“Candace,” the woman answered.
“Do you go by Candy?”
“Only among friends,” she said, fingering the tip of Ganesha’s trunk.
“Sorry. We’ve had a rash of robberies in the neighborhood so my husband’s a little jumpy,” Mandy lied. “I volunteer at the shelter downtown. Have you been there?” She slid the brochure across the bench and Candace scrutinized the cover. A well-dressed lady with a wide grin had her arm around another woman, who didn’t look so pleased, nor so nicely dressed.
“Guess which one’s homeless?” Candace said, sliding the brochure back to Mandy. “I have a place to stay. Just needed a break. Gets crowded there this time of day.”
“I see,” Mandy said, and Candace looked at her then, a direct gaze, and Mandy looked back, searching for the despair she expected to see. But Candace’s broad face had a settled look to it, calm and secure, perhaps even wise, causing Mandy to lose sight of the next step. She rested her back on the planks of the bench and looked toward the house. Ted’s large form could be seen behind the bedroom curtains, the fingers of one hand grasping the edge of the fabric.
“Aren’t you awfully hot with all those clothes on?” Mandy said to Candace.
“Layers help keep you cool, don’t you know that? I’m sure as hell thirsty though.” Candace tugged at the assembly of scarves around her neck.
“Let’s sit out back in the shade.” Mandy stood and looked directly at the bedroom window. Ted dropped the curtain and moved away. “I’ll bring you something cold to drink.”
Candace shrugged and followed Mandy through the side gate into the backyard.
An orderly grove of broad-leaf maples shaded the grassy quarter-acre lawn. Below the overhanging limbs was a redwood gazebo where Mandy and her daughter had enjoyed many tea parties. A small but elaborate fountain featuring a sculpture of Diana with her bow babbled in one corner. The large, kidney shaped swimming pool was installed when Kate was a child.
Candace kicked off her sandals and sat by the pool. She touched the water with a toe then slid both legs in, hiking her skirt up high on her broad thighs. Candace was full-figured and dark compared to Mandy, a slim greying blond whose skin burned easily, and in the seclusion of the backyard she moved with a confidence Mandy found disarming.
“Isn’t it pleasant? I love to come out here this time of day,” Mandy said, making a gesture over the expanse of her yard.
Candace’s gaze moved from the water to the maples, to the pots of fire-red azaleas hanging from the porch and rested finally on the Diana statue. “Not bad,” she said.
“We worked hard for it,” Mandy said, noticing her freshly clipped grass.
“What do you do?”
“I stay home, but my husband was in real estate.” Feeling a need to explain her contribution Mandy added, “I raised our daughter.”
Mandy wished she were. Knowing no stranger, Kate would converse with this woman, be unperturbed by her oddness, while Mandy could sit back and listen. “No, she left last fall. Out travelling the world, volunteering.” Mandy changed the subject, realising how inane this must sound to someone who probably didn’t have money for bus fare. “What would you like to drink? Are you hungry?”
“What do you have?”
“Iced tea, and I could make a sandwich for you.”
“Roast beef?” Candace asked, suddenly interested.
“I don’t have roast beef, but I could make you a nice club.”
Candace nodded. “With mustard.” She began to hum contentedly and exercise her legs in the pool, as though relaxing in her own back yard.
In the kitchen, Mandy threw together a sandwich, half afraid Candace might do something awful, like behead the irises with her cane or steal something, although there wasn’t much to steal out there. Perhaps she’s up to something worse, Mandy thought, wishing she’d asked Candace if she needed to use a bathroom before leaving her alone. But when Mandy returned carrying a tray with the club sandwich, a handful of chips, two oatmeal cookies and a glass of iced tea, Candace was in the same spot.
Mandy put the tray on the deck and sat on a pool chair.
“Mustard?” Candace asked, lifting an edge of the sandwich.
“It’s there, under the lettuce.”
Candace consumed her food without pause. Mandy wondered how long it had been since Candace had eaten a decent meal. She also wondered what Ted was up to. Probably in his office getting ideas for next afternoon’s amorous manoeuvres, sex being his latest hobby. Last week, he’d asked Mandy to watch an explicit video with him. Not wanting to seem prudish, she’d agreed. But the women were her daughter’s age and the men had erections that alarmed, rather than excited her. Mandy watched for a few minutes, then left, refusing Ted’s apologies. She drove to the mall, paced the corridors like a mall-walker, and didn’t come home until it was time to make supper.
“What’s your old man going to say about me being here?” Candace asked.
“He’s busy, don’t worry about him,” Mandy said, suddenly afraid Candace could read her mind.
“Don’t trust them,” Candace said.
“You’ve had trouble with men?”
Mandy smiled. “I’ve been married so long I’ve learned to ignore the problems.”
“You would be an idiot to leave this place, no matter what he does. Besides, you’d have to make your own money. You wouldn’t last a week out there—fancy woman, get your hair done every week, French nails.”
“I’m capable of making my own money.”
“Good luck with that one,” Candace said.
Years ago, before Kate, and Ted away on an extended work trip, Mandy had fallen for the young man hired to build their back porch. The love affair was so intense that Mandy believed there was enough passion between the two of them to last a lifetime. But she was a married woman and he a self-employed carpenter. She ended the relationship as if it were a meaningless fling, unsure if she did so because of her marriage or because of his lack of money. As the years passed, she came to attribute her choice to the complex and uncontrollable weave of things that undermines most decisions and she had no regrets, at least not many.
“You ever use this pool?” Candace asked.
Mandy stared at the water, constructing an image of her ex-lover in the blue-green surface, imagining him looking up at her, his face shifting with the water’s slow movement. He’d be in his late sixties now, but still ruggedly handsome. She flushed, feeling a hint of the old excitement.
“Do you?” Candace asked.
Mandy looked up. “Of course.”
The truth was she could not recall when she’d last swum. When Kate was young, she spent time in the pool, giving her daughter lessons. But as the years passed, Mandy swam rarely and always in the shallow end. Getting in seemed like too much effort, changing into her suit, washing her hair afterward. Sometimes, the water felt too cold when she tested it with a toe, or there would be too many leaves on the surface. By the time Kate moved out, the only activity the pool saw was its bi-monthly cleaning by a hired crew.
“You’re so pale,” Candace said. “Bet you never swim.”
“I use sunscreen,” Mandy said defensively.
“Sure be nice to get in,” Candace says, adding a sigh.
“Did you wear a suit?”
“Never wear a suit.”
Mandy wasn’t sure if this was a statement or a threat. “Maybe some other time,” she replied. But before the words were out Candace was stripping off layers of clothing, her skirt, sweaters and scarves forming a colorful mound beside her. Mandy jumped up and pivoted in a quick circle, peering over the privacy fence for Mrs. Trumbow and at the windows of the house for a glimpse of Ted.
“I don’t think you should skinny dip here. Too many nosy neighbors,” Mandy said.
“Come on,” Candace said. “You could use some fun, with a husband like that.”
“He’s fun,” Mandy said, wondering if she should holler for Ted.
Candace was down to a greying wife beater and baggy plaid boxers. She cocked her hip and gave Mandy a ferocious grin. “Then get naked and jump in. You don’t want me swimming all by my lonesome do you?”
Mandy felt powerless to stop this. Nobody listened when she said no. Ted turned mean, or would pout. Kate was nice about it, but ignored her mother and invariably got her way. Who knew what this stranger might do?
“All right, go ahead. For just a minute,” Mandy said. “I’ll stand guard.”
“Come on, fancy pants,” Candace said. “You’re uptight. Swimming will loosen you up.”
Realising her tension was as transparent as Scotch tape made Mandy even more ill at ease. Forcing a smile, she stepped to the pool and stuck a foot in. The water felt remarkably cool for such a hot day. “I wonder what my daughter would say?” she said, thinking Kate might be proud if she took Candace’s suggestion.
“I wonder what your old man would say,” Candace said, staring at the back entry.
Mandy startled, nearly falling in the pool, as Ted stormed through the screen door onto the back porch. He looked at Mandy, then to Candace, then back at Mandy. “What in the hell’s going on out here?” he asked.
“Nothing dear, we’re just cooling off,” Mandy said.
Candace whispered, “Don’t let him scare you, they never do anything when another woman’s around.” But she had a death grip on Mandy’s upper arm, as though seeking an ally in case she was wrong.
“Don’t worry, he’s harmless,” Mandy said, patting Candace’s hand. She stared at Ted, seeing concern make its way through his anger. He looked so timid, like a man who believed courage was a thing of the past, nothing his aged self could ever embody again. So much fear now, Mandy thought, yet so little in their lives to be afraid of.
She unhooked Candace’s hand from her arm. “Come on, girl,” she said to her. “We’re going swimming.” As she reached to unbutton her blouse, Ted’s expression shifted from trepidation to astonishment.
Following Mandy’s lead, Candace shed her final layer, kicking loose the boxers and pulling off her shirt, exposing large, sagging breasts. Mandy stood in her white bra and panties, looking at Candace’s nipple rings, bright gold in the sun.
“Dear God, what is this world coming to?” Ted muttered.
Candace exploded into a loud, raucous laugh that could be seen moving all the way down her bare body. A cool breeze hit and Mandy wrapped her arms around herself, feeling the tingle of goose bumps. Then Candace took her hand and they walked to the shallow end of the pool, side-by-side down the three steps into the water, moving slowly, holding hands. The water was chilly on Mandy’s legs and when it was time for her belly to go under she stopped.
“Don’t stop now, it’s just getting good.” Candace let loose of Mandy and went underwater.
Shivering, Mandy took a deep breath, brought her hands together above her head and dove in. She cringed as she entered the cold water, but her body acclimated quickly and a lithe, sensuous feeling ensued. Mandy found herself regretting all those excuses, her hair, or not having shaved her legs, or years before of being on her period, that had kept her out of the water for so long. She touched the bottom, surfaced, then twirled around twice like a solo synchronized swimmer and executed a slow but correct crawl the length of the pool, coordinating her breathing with her strokes as though she’d spent hours swimming instead of doing whatever she did do with her time, all of it forgotten as the water held her and displaced not only her weight, but her aches and pains and her customary reticence as well.
When she reached the far side of the pool, Mandy grabbed the edge, shook her head and laughed out loud. She turned to Ted, he was walking toward her with a towel in hand, the corners of his lips up but his eyebrows pointing down—making him seem upset, but at the same time, pleased. Mandy recalled him looking this way when Kate was small and would jump off a swing at its highest arc, or later when she went on a date, all dressed up to show off her lovely body.
Candace approached the end of the pool in a slow dog paddle, and then rolled onto her back, her hair spreading like lush, dark seaweed. Her voluminous form floated effortlessly, face nearly flush with the water.
“Are you ready to get out?” Ted asked Mandy.
“You aren’t upset?” she said.
He shook his head, smiling. “I forgot how much you like to swim.”
Candace floated next to Mandy, reached for the pool edge, and with effort, pulled herself out. She gathered her hair and squeezed a steady stream of water onto the deck, then stepped forward and snatched the towel from Ted’s hand. She walked to a grassy area where the sunlight still blazed through the leafy trees, lay the towel down and dropped onto it.
“Ted, could you get me a towel?” Mandy asked. Ted looked from Candace to his wife and then hurried back to the house, returning with another towel.
“That felt wonderful,” Mandy said to Ted. He bent down and the deep furrows of his face disappeared as he helped her out of the pool. She stood still, eyes stinging with chlorine, as he rubbed dry her back, her arms and thighs, her feet. Then he wrapped the towel snug around her torso, covering her breasts and hips, and Mandy used a corner of the towel to wick out her ears.
“It’s been a long time,” she said.
Ted moved a wet lock of hair from her face.
“Remember the trip to Mexico when we took Kate?” Mandy asked. “She must have been only five or six.”
“I remember. She was scared of the water then.”
“Me too. I was deathly afraid of the ocean. Still am,” Mandy said.
“You took her out there though, remember? Way out, on your shoulders.”
“I’d forgotten that part.”
“Not me,” Ted said.
Candace rose from her spot in the sun and started to sift through her pile of clothes. She dressed, and Ted and Mandy looked away until they heard her footsteps on the deck.
“Can I get you anything?” Mandy asked.
“Nope, I’m out of here.” Candace left through the gate without another word, her walking stick making a steady tap on the driveway.
“She was harmless, just like I thought,” Mandy said. “What were you so worried about? That she’d take me away with her?”
“She’s not your type.”
“What about you? I saw you staring at her.”
“How could I not?” Ted said. “Jesus, that woman had no modesty.”
“Candace, her name is Candace.”
Ted nodded. “I didn’t find her unattractive, if you want the truth.”
“She was beautiful,” Mandy said, putting her arms around Ted’s wide shoulders, feeling the bulge of his belly push into the flatness of hers and the dry fabric of his shirt against her moist skin.
“Take this off,” she said.
“Why not? It doesn’t always have to be your idea.”
Ted pulled his shirt over his head without undoing the buttons and let it fall to the ground. He reached behind Mandy and his big fingers fumbled as they worked to unhook her wet bra.
Mandy helped him, savouring the scent of sunlight, if sunlight has a smell, in the warmth of Ted’s chest. Then she led him through the back door and into the bedroom, and as Mandy lit the candle and Ted took off his shorts, they heard their uninvited guest leaving the neighborhood, singing the same strange song, heading in the same direction from which she had come.
Beckie Elgin grew up in a zoo in Iowa where she learned to speak wolf. Since then, she has raised three human children and returned to school to obtain her MFA in Creative Writing. Beckie has published both fiction and non-fiction. She lives in the utopian town of Ashland, Oregon, surrounded by steep mountains, towering trees, and wandering minstrels.