Plush green fools me into believing that I have been transported to a mountain retreat. I face away from the street, ignoring the occasional rumble of a passing vehicle, keeping the gardenia plant on the table fully in view. The begonias, nearly overgrowing their pots, frame the perimeter. Cold smooth wood under my feet; chilly iron against my back; the occasional squawk of a blue jay; the gently swaying branches of a flowering bush, past its bloom but still lovely.
I only need to close my eyes, breathing long and slow, and I am again in Arkansas surrounded by the gentle rise of the mountains. I stand outside a makeshift market constructed from four by eights and plywood, with piles of organic vegetables for sale, bring your own bag. It's 1988. I am alone in the height of the season, for reasons I no longer recall. Perhaps my first husband, who dragged me to Arkansas, had taken a short contract in Little Rock. Perhaps he was on tour with one of the theatre companies for which he freelanced. But there I found myself, a city girl, in Newton County, Arkansas, with only a group of faded hippies and organic gardeners for company.
I trace the outline of a potato and ask the stand's proprietress what kind it is. She tells me that it is like a Yukon Gold, buttery and sweet, good mashed. I put it down and select a few tomatoes and a late-season bunch of lettuce. She tells me I can eat the tomatoes like apples, and I nod. I give her a couple of dollars and get back into my Nissan Sentra, following the road down to our small house in town.
No one has come to my home-office while I have been away. I'm not surprised. I haven't done much law work since leaving Kansas City in July of 1987. My promised job with the AG's office fizzled with the AG's indictment. Chester's position with the Arkansas Opera vanished with a new General Manager who hired an entirely new staff. We landed in Jasper in a rental house and he took up contract work. I got a part-time gig as the county counselor only because there were four governmental lawyer positions and, before me, only three lawyers. They greeted me with subdued enthusiasm.
That day, I put my vegetables away and decided to drive to Murray Valley. Past Parthenon, a town so small it barely exists, along the paved road along the East Fork of the Buffalo River, Murray Valley lies on one side of Mount Sherman, flanked by a mountain which has a name, but now, twenty-five years later, I cannot remember it. I've lost other names, including one of the two women to whose home I drove that day.
But I have not forgotten them, nor the quiet drive to their house, nor the calmness of the summer surrounding me. Only the occasional bird call, brief twitters, break the stillness of the warm morning air. The trees on either side of the highway rise with a quiet confidence. They grew before my birth and would survive my death, they whisper. My eyes sweep up the lean trunk of the tallest of them, which does not need to speak but merely stands confidently on the ridge as I drive past.
I almost miss the driveway. It happens, in the mountains. In the city we want you to find our driveway, cut boldly through the neat squares of lawn flanking the street. We place statues at either side of the entrance and tile placards proclaiming the numbers of our addresses. But in the country, a driveway serves as the last barrier between the sanctity of home and the harshness of the outside world. The letter carrier doesn't even traverse that last stretch, but stays a respectful distance away, leaving your mail in a box at the driveway's end.
This driveway, on this day, has barely parted the lush growth of trees and undergrowth. I pull onto the gravel and park beside a pile of stones. I do not lock the car; I toss my keys under the seat.
One of the women whom I have come to visit stands on the stone stoop. She has short black hair and wears a sleeveless white blouse and knee-length pants. Her skin has deepened to its summer color of something just shy of walnut. Her smile widens as I get out of the vehicle and she calls, "We've just made tea, come on up". Without waiting for me, she goes back into the house, and I follow.
Everything about the house says comfort. Rustic woods, heaps of quilts, vibrant pieces of stained glass, cedar trunks and punched tin on the ceiling. One large room, with a loft, and each function of the room defined by the positioning of its furniture: the inviting table, the poster bed, the wicker chairs, the wide windows. Though it is June, the house feels cool. I sit down and pull a mug towards me. They did not know that I would arrive, but there is always a mug on the table, awaiting company.
The two women sit close together. The second, heavier, more rounded, with long red hair twisted in a leather clip, crinkles her eyes at me. She asks if city life had got me down, that I'd come slumming in Murray Valley. We laugh. Jasper has under six hundred residents and can scarcely be called a city but I know what she means. I tell her that my husband is away. She leans forward, and places one of her hands on mine. Hers is a bit gnarled, mostly from honest labor but possibly from a bit of arthritis. She tells me that if I ever get tired of my husband, I can come and live with them. I think she means it.
We drink our tea and then walk a little on their land. They sit above an unsullied sweep of mountainside, and we cannot even see another house. I fill my lungs with long draws of freshness. I tie the laces of my shoes a little more tightly and venture down a steep slope with the leaner of them, the dark-haired one whose name has slipped into time, holding my hand. She wants to show me something.
We dip our hands into a small stream of water and pull a couple of flowers from a scrubby little bush. We look at a grotto that someone has built, then climb back up to the house, quietly talking about who that someone might have been, and whom the grotto might have been intended to honor, with its stacks of carefully balanced stones. When we get back to the house, my companion's partner has made lunch. We eat in the kitchen, at the table for four, with light streaming into the house through the gauze of the embroidered curtains which flutter when the breeze rises and lie still when it falls.
After we have eaten, I decide it is time to go home. They stand close on the stoop as I walk down to my car. In that year, 1988, these two women had been together for more than a decade. Their stance seems natural, comfortable, almost careless. They wave as I carefully back around a broken kennel that someone has left near a tree. My last sight of them, as I pulled out onto the country road, was of two radiant smiles, two bodies seemingly melded into one, a lean arm slung around muslin-clad shoulders and the summer sun glinting on their shining hair.
My coffee has grown cold and the newspaper has been read. As far as I can tell, our nation took one step backwards and two steps forward this week. Though others might disagree, I like to think progress towards full equality for everyone is always a good thing. As I take another sip of wretched, dank coffee, I strain to remember that other woman's name. One was Carole, I know, but I just cannot recall the other. I wonder if they are still together, in this golden summer, so many years later, or if, like me, they have moved past that marriage and live with one another in their Murray Valley cabin only in my memory.