The older woman and her Australian shepherd sat beneath a birch at the dog park. While her own dog, Speckles, raced through the meadow, Kate approached the woman. Kate had entered the park after her, and Kate recognized something in her gait–the way she held her elbow out, the tilt of her head, her long legs and slim build. Funny, the things that stay with a person from childhood.
It was harder to find the Celeste she’d known nearly fifty years ago in the woman’s face, but the light in her eyes was the same.
“I think I know you,” Kate said. “Celeste, right?”
“Yes, I’m Dr. Templeton,” the woman answered. “Were you a student? A philosophy major?”
“No, no,” replied Kate. “But you knew my grandfather, and you spent time with me, long ago.”
It had been during the spring of fifth grade, the season for the school’s annual Mother-Daughter Tea. In second grade, the first year that Kate came to live with her grandfather, she had been permitted to skip the formal event; Grandfather sensed that it was too soon after her mother’s passing to subject her to such a tradition.
The next year, and the year after that, he escorted her. He looked so dapper, with a felt hat, a tie, and red suspenders, that she endured the torture of a dress, with a scratchy slip underneath, tights, and shiny shoes.
In fifth grade, the tea landed during a time of her grandfather’s closed door. Kate schemed: When all the girls filed out to form the line to greet the arriving mothers, she would duck aside–she’d bring her play clothes in a bag–and she’d race to the meadows. She and Baron would spend the day at the beach. No one would miss her. That was a fact.
But the week before the event, her grandfather opened his door.
“Suppose it must be close to time for that tea party,” he said.
She tasted dread, and her feet grew heavy.
“Of course I can’t take you.”
She hopped, just a bit.
“But I know someone who can.”
He said it in the way that meant, this is how it will be: no resistance, no questions.
“What do you want to wear?” he asked. “Do you need money for the salon?”
She said she’d wear her black slacks, a white shirt, and a tie.
“I suppose you’ll want to be borrowing one of mine then,” he said. He opened the door to his room, and she followed. It felt warm and dark with the shutters drawn against the spring sun, and it smelled oddly delicious–like books and black ink. His bed was half-covered with open notebooks and sheets of paper, save for a little nest of his pillow and covers in the corner. He led her to the closet, where inside the door hung all his ties. She fingered them. Wool. Polyester. Cotton. At last she settled on a black silk tie, with embroidered butterflies on it–pink, purple, yellow.
“Your mother gave me that,” he said, sliding it off its hook and gently placing it around her neck, where the silk felt cool and liquid. “She always had impeccable taste. Like you.”
Kate looked away.
“Can I show you something?” her grandfather asked. He took a notebook from his bed and read to her a poem about a willow and the moon.
“It’s sad,” said Kate.
“I’ve been working out, very unsuccessfully, what suffering is about. What do we gain? What purpose does it serve?”
“When I hear that poem, I feel soft here,” Kate said, bringing both hands to her chest. “When I’m sad, it makes me soft. It makes it easier to love other people, don’t you think? Even those who are mean to us? When I hear that poem, I can love everyone, like the moon does.”
Her grandfather kissed her on the top of her head, then motioned her out the door, which he closed after her.
The next week, the night before the tea, a tall young woman arrived when it was getting dark out. She wore her chestnut hair in a loose bun, and tortoiseshell glasses low on her nose. Grandfather’s door remained closed.
“I am Celeste Templeton!” she said. “I’m one of your grandfather’s doctoral students. I am here because he has asked me to be your escort tomorrow, and I want to make certain that is acceptable to you.”
Celeste suggested a trial run, so, with Kate’s help, she made a pot of Darjeeling, a platter of cinnamon toast, and a bowl of peeled and segmented tangerines. They practiced holding out their pinkies and laughing discreetly behind their napkins, even when they told the most outrageous jokes. And then, just to get it out of their systems, they pretended to be cowboys at a bar so they could drink tea out of jars and throw their crumbs to the floor and laugh until the tea came out of their noses.
“I like being a cowboy better than a lady,” said Kate.
“Me, too,” said Celeste.
The next day, when Kate, in her black slacks, white shirt, and black silk tie embroidered with butterflies, stood in the line to greet the arriving mothers, she found that Celeste had dressed to match, wearing the same dapper style her grandfather always had, even down to the felt hat and the suspenders. They sat at a small round table near the window with a faculty wife and her daughter, who was in the gifted program with Kate, and who might, on occasion, be called a friend. They talked about books, about cellos, about hawks, about where to find the best pollywogs, about which trees in Ratchet’s Forest were most climbable, and about the purpose of suffering. And all three of them thought that Kate’s answer, that it makes it easier for us to love others, even those who have been mean to us, was a good one.
“I remember you,” said Celeste Templeton in the dog park. “We had a most delightful tea together, didn’t we?”
“That we did!” laughed Kate. “Do you remember what we wore? I was such a Tomboy!”
“And I was such a Butch!” laughed Celeste. “Still am, when the mood strikes. I was sorry to hear about your grandfather, though it was so long ago, now.”
“Not so very long,” said Kate, thinking that the decade of grief had only just ended. “You were very important to me,” Kate said softly. “You gave me something–showed me something. Thank you.”
Celeste gestured across the street from the park, to a small gray house surrounded by flowers. “I live there,” she said. “Maybe some afternoon, you’d like to come visit. I would imagine you have all sorts of questions about your grandfather, and with you, I would be happy to share.”
Prompt for May 9: “Establish, within the first couple of sentences, your character’s desire. Put them in a situation that conflicts with that desire. Tell us how it works out,” from StoryADay.org
Author’s note: I like the technique of thinking about the prompt before I go to sleep and waking up with a story. Even if it doesn’t fit the prompt, it points in a direction I enjoy going and might not have thought of without the prompt. Guess that’s why it’s called a “prompt” and not a “dictate.” Also–as I’m sure you can tell–this is turning into a novel (or at least a collection of inter-connected short stories, what John Keeble calls “sprung fiction”), rather than isolated short fiction.