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The Lady sat reading at the third table of the hotel lounge, just visible from the intricate leaded glass doors. The lights were soft and warmly reflected the earthy tones in her long, auburn hair. The evening was young and the large, comfortable room emanated a quiet welcome with its burgundy walls, cream ceiling, and solid wood furniture stuffed with thick, red cushions.
She wore an evening dress that generously revealed her slender, supple frame. Your gaze could not help but drift from her inviting breasts to her smile and then to her eyes, which sparkled like summer moon over black water. Her tender fragrance was unique and well-turned, reminiscent of rain and young roses.
It was early and the few patrons in the room were talking quietly, allowing the soft classical background music to lyrically, poetically settle into their subconscious.
As the waiter brought her drink, she looked up from her book and smiled.
"How are you this evening, Roberto?"
"Just fine, Miss. And you?"
She sighed, "Curious what the night may hold."
As her smile warmed and melted Roberto's heart, she was reminded of the effect she had on him as well as most men. She was distinctly elegant and the kind of woman that easily commanded respect; whether it be her posture, the way she entered a room, or her eyes that made you feel as if your ideas were the finest in the world.
It was clear that she possessed something finer than wit or beauty. You noticed her mysterious richness, like a spark of ethereal celebration waiting to happen; a golden fire of unknown life itself. She had substance, grace, and integrity, all of which were obvious at your first introduction.
The bartenders and waiters all knew her; their words about her were charitable. Although they knew little about her, her recent presence had been good for business and, despite any fleeting speculation, they remained honorable and kind.
As the room slowly filled with customers eager to unwind from the week's stress or to just begin a quiet evening, the Lady sat alone, comforted by the mellifluous words on the page and the occasional sip of her soothing wine.
The lounge was a genuinely dignified place that catered to a more refined crowd of professional men and women. People left their mergers, acquisitions and such talk of success and power at the door, yet carried in their dreams on wings of laughter and hopeful countenance.
The patrons understood that the baser games of success and seduction belonged elsewhere. Yet here most anything was allowed, even condoned, if it was carried out with grace and panache. Voices remained low and bravado was not encouraged.
Clearly, not just anyone was let through the softly illuminated entrance and the doormen, like guardian angels, saw to this with experienced and resolute discretion. The atmosphere was such that, upon entering, people felt as if they were moving into a future that held something ultimately worth having.
Around six, Chris and his two friends entered, then ordered appetizers and beers. They sat at the mahogany bar with its turned corner and elegant brass rail which allowed them to see the door in case any more of their group arrived before dinner. With this strategic view of the vestibule, they could also see the third table and the new and refreshingly beautiful young woman sitting alone. As the Lady did with most people, she also made note of their presence and shape, their demeanor and eyes.
She had seen them before but felt two of them held no particular importance. All three were obviously successful professionals, attorneys perhaps: all handsome and comfortable. As she watched, she found herself taking a moment longer to look away from Chris and, when Chris looked up and into her rich eyes, he felt an unusual blush of warmth and embarrassment if not slight, remote recognition.
Chris smiled at her and turned back to his beer. His body trembled as he felt something profound overwhelm his senses.
"Hey, what's up, man?" his friend asked. "Where'd you go just now?"
"Oh, nowhere," he replied and gulped hard. He stared in to the mirror behind the bar and could see the Lady's perfect reflection and gentle eyes watching them.
"It's her, isn't it?"
"Uh, yeah. Hey, guys, I need to say hello. Will you excuse me? The others probably aren't going to show and I..."
"Go on, man, we're jealous. Go."
"Be here if she says no, will you?"
Chris looked over to see her observing the entire conversation with the amusement of a child and, as if time were upon them, a raw anticipation she felt within her soul.
He asked the bartender for another round and one to include the Lady, excused himself from his friends and slowly, boldly, walked over to table number three. His stride was confident and sure.
"Good evening. May I join you?" he asked as their drinks arrived. He looked at her for a moment and saw that she might be a little older than he. She glowed in the evening light.
"I was hoping you would, and thank you for being so gracious."
She smiled and looked directly into his eyes, kindly saving him from any ambivalence. He returned the gesture as he sat, sliding into the chair to her side. Now, up close, he saw that her eyes were almost the color of his. There seemed an immediate understanding here; an understanding quite large for words. Chris could feel it, as surely as he could feel his own breath.
She offered her hand, "Nice to meet you."
"How beautiful," he muttered to himself. "I'm Chris. It's an honor."
"Thank you for the drink. How did you..."
"I asked the bartender. I also took the liberty of ordering an appetizer."
"Thanks again. I'm afraid I haven't had much to eat today."
"Funny," he said, "at the risk of sounding inappropriate, you don't seem the type of person who would neglect anything."
"I'll take that as a compliment," she said and sat back with a soft angelic laugh.
"You know," she continued, "I've seen you and your friends before. But, I'm glad it was you who said hello."
"Yeah, we have dinner once a week, then they go home to their families. They are great guys, but I'm the one who usually walks home alone."
"And tonight?" she asked.
"Tonight I'll stay."
They talked for a while and then, excusing themselves from the crowd, walked down the street. Her arm rested in his and languished in comfortable, familiar embrace. They arrived at a corner bistro where they found a table far removed from the surreal streetlight, the city, the noise, and the restless week.
They ordered a small Italian meal and enjoyed an hour more of conversation that carefully explored the pedestrian and the esoteric, the familiar and the unfamiliar, oddly knowing just how much to expect. They shared the covenant of light laughter and fresh company, after which she sat back, held her wine glass to her breasts and looked up to the golden, candlelit ceiling.
"It's really been lovely," she said as she took a deep breath, "and it is getting late. I must be going soon." As she spoke, he again felt the air fill with liquid, lilting roses.
"May I drop you off?"
"No, thanks, I'll walk." She gently touched his hand.
"May I call you?" he said with a touch of eagerness.
"I think not, Chris. I'll see you next week." She kissed his cheek and, like an apparition, slowly disappeared into the violet evening.
The next morning Chris was awakened by the brisk ring of his bedside phone, bringing to end one of the most restful nights he had ever known. The sleep had been deep and satisfying, and it took several rings for him to remember where he was or the magnitude of what had occurred. He muffled a faint hello.
"Chris, it's your father."
"Oh, good morning, Dad."
"It's past noon, son. How are you?"
He propped up on one elbow and, just as quickly, fell back onto the pillow. The bed remained inviting and he felt heavy and warm.
"Wow. Guess I was tired." He yawned and slowly settled into the conversation. It had been a while since they last spoke.
"Slept so well. What's up, Dad?"
"I was thinking about your mother. I miss her."
"So do I, Dad. But we still have each other."
"Dad, I met this amazing woman last night," Chris interrupted, "It's as if I knew her."
"What's her name?"
"Oh, I don't know." He paused, the deep sleep and memory of last night still in his eyes. "Jeez, Dad, I forgot to ask."
His father chuckled.
"But, I am seeing her next week."
"Good, son." He continued:
"Chris, I was going through some of your mother's things this week and I couldn't find that copy of her favorite poems. Do you know where it might be?"
"No, sorry. But, I can help you look when I'm up in a few weeks. We need to go through her stuff anyway." As he offered these words to his father, he allowed time to pause, to wait, then slowly return.
"That would be nice."
"OK, see you then. Love you, Dad."
"Uh, never mind."
Chris met the Lady the next week and, like an old habit come to life, several Fridays thereafter. They freely talked of form and light, of the sounds of music and poetry, and the rich awakening his life seemed to enjoy upon their introduction. She said little, rather letting him slowly direct the conversation where he was comfortable. There seemed a familiarity among the words, and their conversations became more than the sum of intellect and emotions, more than the sum of experiences. He spoke about his life and eventually to talk of his recently deceased mother. She was touched by how much his father still grieved.
It was easy to speak with her and he opened up much like he had to his own family when he was younger, more innocent, and more trusting. She seemed happy to listen, to patiently wait, and to understand.
One Friday evening after dinner, he asked what she had been reading; why the book never seemed to leave her side.
"Here," she said, "listen."
The dinner candles glimmered in her dark eyes and gave light to the moment. Chris sat back, sipped his Cognac, and watched her fine resolve and focus. As she read her voice was deep and rendered the shimmering words alive and profoundly believable.
She gently touched his hand and began:
"Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherised upon a table;
Let us go through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats...
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent."
As the lines flowed rhythmically, effortlessly, he drifted back to a time when the world was warm and comfortable, and the simplicity of childhood was an embrace, a kiss goodnight, and a sunset on a September day.
"And indeed there will be time
For the yellow smoke that slides along the street,
There will be time
To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet."
Her voice was beautiful but the words alone exulted in magnificent continuance. He smiled to himself as the warm Cognac softened his senses and his eyes filled with slow tears from deep within his heart.
"Oh, do not dare to ask, 'What is it?'
Let us go and make our visit."
Chris drove north that weekend to see his father and help him settle the last of his mother's estate. Their home had not changed much in the year since her departure, nor had his father fully recovered from her unexpected and sudden passing.
Over the weekend they muddled through the many boxes of hastily stored items. Occasionally Dad would stop to rest and reminisce and Chris allowed him the proper space and time. He knew his father would speak when he was ready and to rush him would be to alter the course of his grief and healing.
The foundation his parents had provided Chris served him well, but his character was now being tested with the passing of time and unexpected circumstance. The turn of events now placed Chris as his father's sole source of strength and it became an obvious and welcomed time for them to build and redefine their relationship in his mother's absence.
With his wife gone, Dad now seemed more willing to reach out and fill his sudden, horrible void, to confront his sorrow and to talk. Chris knew that time would eventually heal his father's pain and, even in this tentative uncertainty, he remained devoted.
After the weekend with his father, and now feeling strong and renewed, Chris drove back to town alert and happy. The memory of the time he spent at home juxtaposed comfortably with his life and present thoughts. The morning was golden and the early sun emerged in liquid nets of new light bringing forth crisp fall colors. The air brought a kind of refreshing truth and soothed his mind, offering contentment.
He found he was being carried along with a current of joyous anticipation and, as the miles passed, he grew more and more eager to see the Lady and resume their conversation. Each mile mounted a fraction of visceral triumph as the journey moved closer to his meeting on Friday at the now familiar third table.
On that day he showered and dressed after work in thoughtful preparation of their evening rendezvous. He was eager to tell the Lady about his weekend. He wondered again what it was that his father had wanted to say and decided that he would probably ask when they next spoke.
In the short walk between his office and the hotel, he pictured the Lady and her eyes, her gentle scent, and her endearing love of poetry. His thoughts briefly turned toward his mother and, comforted by this pause, he imagined her to be in a better and more peaceful place.
Entering he double doors he was greeted by the bartender and, in turn, was hailed by Roberto who gestured him aside. As he walked toward the bar, Chris glanced at table three expecting to see the familiar, graceful figure but, instead, saw only a small rose and her book of poetry. On it was a note addressed to Chris that simply said.
"I am glad you are happy. I can go now."
Roberto noticed him hesitate, pick up the book, and carefully read the note twice.
"Miss Autumn said to make sure you got this, sir."
Chris looked up and stared.
"Autumn? Did you say Autumn? Roberto, that was my mother's middle name."
It was quite possible that, at this moment, Chris suddenly slipped across an invisible line, a remnant of thought, a path that had always separated him and protected him from what he felt and what he would have preferred to feel. It was possible that, just now, in the presence of everyone and in the presence of no one, he had undergone a subtle, but magnificent sliver of transformation. Now, finally, he understood.
Holding the book to his breast and close to his heart, aware of every tingling breath he took and the profound substance of the moment, he thanked Roberto and walked quietly alone into the abstract and forgiving evening.
Early the next day Chris phoned his father.
"Dad, I've been walking most of the night and I need to ask: Just what was it you tried to tell me the other day?"
His father hesitated a moment, cleared his throat, and continued softly.
"Son, do you remember how, as a little boy, you were always asking for a sibling?"
Well, a couple of years before you were born, we had a daughter."
"Chris gasped, "Oh, God, Dad. I didn't know."
"This is hard for me, son. Let me finish." He took a breath, fought back a trespass of tears, and continued.
"She was born early and they said her lungs were immature. In those days there was not much that could be done and she lived only a few days. Naturally, your mother was devastated.
"There was a proper funeral, I saw to that, but your mother was inconsolable and didn't attend."
Dad thought for a moment, then went on.
"It was a beautiful service. I remember the air was thick with warmth and the most sweet and unassuming rain..."
"And roses," Chris added.
"Yes, Son." His father paused.
"Yes, I placed a bouquet of new roses on her casket before she was buried. It was difficult time and we had always felt that it was best to not tell you. I am sorry.
"After she passed your mother was very depressed. I didn't know what to do, but I wanted so to remind her of my affection, my constancy. Your mother always believed that people were measured by their kindness and their capacity for devotion. That is what drew me to her.
"Anyway, I bought her a book of poems and she kept it with her always. She loved that book. Damn thing is, now I can't find it. Do you remember?"
"It was Eliot; T.S. Eliot," Chris smiled. "Hold on, Dad."
He opened the book the Lady had left and, as his heart sang with sorrow and joy, he read the inscription:
"to Marguerite Autumn, with all my love, Edward."
"Yes, son. That's it."
He turned a few pages and went on.
"And would it have been worth it, after all,
After the cups, the marmalade, the tea.
Among the porcelain, some talk of you and me
Would it have been worth while?"
Chris could hear his father crying quietly.
"Dad, what was her name?"
"We named her Autumn."
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