Gayla was inside the house before Daniel could cut the engine. “Trudy! Greta!” She burst through the front door, not even bothering to wipe her boots or close the door behind her, with the handkerchief clutched tightly in her fist.
“We’re back here!”
She walked through the kitchen, down the hall and past the study to the formal gallery at the very back of the house. It was a place that used to be her father’s hideaway, a place which used to be her favorite room in the house. Now it was filled from corner to corner with odds and ends—crates of old shoes and clothes, dusty manuals, broken chairs and furniture that needed fixing, old letters piled on top of boxes filled with who knew what inside, things that just didn’t have a place in the living areas of the house. On the walls hung portraits of random people, some well-done and others like children’s drawings, which Widow Masterson had collected at any number of fairs and shops and markets she had travelled to by train over the course of her marriage. For a moment in her life, Mrs. Masterson had loved to travel.
Gayla stopped in the doorway and stared at the faces staring back at her. Those are people, she thought, living somewhere else in the world. Who knows where they are or what they’re doing, or if they’re still alive. But they had life, once; families and friends and secrets to keep.
One portrait in particular always caught Gayla’s gaze and held it. The painting was hung in a large, gilded frame high on the wall above where her father’s writing desk used to be. The woman who posed in it was about thirty years old and sat in the middle of what looked like thick purple draperies piled up on a red clay floor. She was not heavy, but not thin; her body resembled the soft, gently curved grace of the women trapped within Renaissance-era scenes. Her hair was long and blonde, almost white, and cascaded in floating waves behind her back; some strands fell in front of her shoulders and lightly against her face as if there were a gentle breeze cutting across the cold, dark space in which she waited. Her emerald green eyes, framed by full and dark lashes, were wide and stared straight ahead, pupils large and focused like a predator’s on its prey. She sat up straight, shoulders pulled back, her feet tucked daintily together on the portion of rumpled cloth in front of her, her hands clasped gingerly around her ankles and her long fingers, tipped in brilliant red nails, stretched across the tendons on the tops of her feet. Her shoulders were alabaster pale; in the light of the painter’s eye her fair skin almost glowed, and the deep, midnight blue background only emphasized the woman’s luminosity.
Gayla breathed in heavily and exhaled as she turned away from the woman. With all the details Gayla saw when she looked at the portrait, most of them were merely figments of her imagination. The image had been mostly painted out-of-focus; there was no definite separation between the woman’s hands and feet, no jawline to follow from ear to chin, no wrinkles or individual hairs to identify. The only two things clearly and crisply painted were the woman’s eyes. The rest of the portrait was a spectacle of blotched colors which were both distinct and abstract, and some of the pigment choices—probably frowned upon in more traditional artistic circles, Gayla presumed—should have been awkward, but weren’t: streaks of blue were braided into her hair; spring green blades of ghostly grass reached up from the earth to skim her hands and feet; bright, almost fluorescent bursts of yellow flashed from the royal purple fabric on which she sat; behind, in the dark midnight emptiness, lines of red swirled and danced, like fireflies ablaze.
Gayla turned her face downward, somehow embarrassed to be gawking, but peered up from underneath her brows to give the lady another furtive glance. The most shocking and, oddly enough, least apparent characteristic of the portrait was that its subject was naked. Completely, stark naked. But still beautifully innocent. The way her arms and legs were gathered and crossed in front of her covered anything shameful and, because an onlooker was immediately drawn into the penetrating eyes, the woman’s nakedness was always last on the list to be noticed. Gayla studied for a moment the curves of the woman’s shoulder and hip, the arch of her back, the barely distinguishable shadows of her ribs. So beautiful. Gayla wondered who she was. Or who she had been.
“What’s going on, Gayla?” She shook her head, thrust out from the meditation which that portrait always dragged her into, and peered across the room. Trudy was in the far corner with Greta, looking at her expectantly. It appeared as if they were unpacking boxes. They had masses of crumpled packing paper and rags lying at their feet, and their faces and dresses were dusty. Gayla stepped forward toward them, crossing over the ocean of scrap and oddities which lay scattered on the floor.
Gayla’s father’s favorite pastime was carpentry. While he was alive he had carefully crafted short bookcases and had built them into the walls of the gallery. But, amid all the clutter now there, the bookcases were barely visible. Sometimes Gayla came into the gallery at night—especially in the nights since Amrid’s abandonment, or on cold autumn mornings which reminded her of her father’s final day—and poked through the books and pamphlets and maps that he had once loved. After carpentry, cartography was his second addiction. He had once excitedly confessed to Gayla, in the quite of a crisp fireside evening, that he had plans to map the entire county of San Joaquin; farms, mines, roads, everything. He told her in quick and animated succession about the hills and valleys and small places that he was sure hadn’t been documented yet; of integrating the area’s history and current existence together on the same map so that cross-referencing wouldn’t be necessary; about how he’d planned to buy special watercolor paints from Japan to finish off his masterpiece. Gayla had listened, wide-eyed, and had anticipated the day when her father would complete such a feat. But he hadn’t lived long enough to see his objective to fruition. Gayla suspected that he had begun planning, maybe even had begun drawing, but it was merely that: suspicions. She glanced at the dimly lit and dusty bookcases as she crossed the room toward her family. Some of the shelves still held things and remnants of things that her father used to love to read and ponder over, things which had life in them because of the life that he had given them. But they were only things, now, and they were dusty, stagnant things with no glow about them at all.
“I have something to show the two of you,” Gayla muttered, remembering the task at hand. She heard Daniel approaching the doorway, huffing a little as his feet shuffled across the floor.
“What have you found, dear?” Greta stood up from leaning over a particularly large and dirty chest. She placed her hands on the small of her back and arched, giving herself a good stretch, before turning full-face to Gayla.
“This.” Gayla waved the handkerchief in the air like a solider declaring surrender.
Trudy reached out and took the cloth from her sister. She turned it in her hands to look at the monogram. “What is it?”
“It’s one of Andrea Palmer’s hand-stitched ‘kerchiefs.”
“Well,” Greta reached out and delicately stole the item from Trudy’s hands. “That explains the initials at least.”
“Why don’t you tell them how you got hold of it,” Daniel said. He was still puffing and slightly sweaty. Gayla made a face at him. For a young man who worked in the fields, he tended to wear down rather quickly.
Both Greta and Trudy flashed glances between Daniel and Gayla, raising their eyebrows. “It was in Amos’ Model-T,” Gayla said.
Greta’s eyebrows rose even further. Trudy grabbed back the cloth and scrunched her face at it, examining the stitching again a little more closely. “Why would it be in Amos’ Ford?” she asked.
“Oh, dear,” Greta mumbled. She clasped her hand over her mouth and looked down at the square of cotton in Trudy’s hands. “Wait,” she said, dropping the hand. “Do you mean to say you went all the way to the Riley’s property to poke around their garage?”
“No, of course not,” Daniel cut in. He looked around for a chair and plopped down on a crate just behind him. The old wood creaked under his weight, but didn’t give in. He pulled his cap off his head, used it to wipe his face, and stuffed it into his back pocket.
Gayla gingerly took the handkerchief from her sister and folded it into a neat square. She smiled and stuffed the square into her pocket. “Mr. Palmer is out to town for the day.” Before either Trudy or Greta could cut in, Gayla added: “Amos was making a house call.”
Trudy’s eye sprung wide and she let out a little gasp. Greta shook her head and found herself a seat on a brass-trimmed traveling trunk.
“No, no,” Trudy said. “Mrs. Palmer wouldn’t do that. Right? Why? Why would she do that? Even if her husband is a rude, ridiculous man, wouldn’t she be fearful enough of him to keep from doing something like that? From… having relations with Amos? Besides,” Trudy threw up her hands, “Amos is far too young for her!”
“You mean, how Cherie is far too young for Mr. Riley?” Gayla chimed in.
“Well…” Trudy thought for a moment. “It’s different. That’s different, an older man with a younger woman…” She looked about her, at the faces looking at her. “Isn’t it?”
“Apparently not, my dear,” Greta patted the girl on the elbow.
“It doesn’t matter,” Gayla said. “What matters is that Mr. Palmer doesn’t know. Even if he does know, even if he knows and is allowing it for some twisted reason, he wouldn’t want it out in the open. He’s a respected businessman in Stockton and all the way to San Francisco. He has a standing to maintain. This kind of thing would hurt his profit, not to mention his pride.”
“Forget all that.” Daniel stood up and dusted off his backside. A cloud of powdery grey lifted from his pants and dispersed into the warming air. “What I want to know is how you knew what you were looking for. How did you know Amos’ car would be in the Palmer’s barn? And how did you know that he’d have the handkerchief in there?”
Gayla shrugged. “I didn’t know the handkerchief would be there. That was just a stroke of luck. I was originally only going to take the special atlas he keeps in the glove compartment. But the handkerchief is much better, don’t you think?” She beamed at her audience as she absently patted her skirt pocket. “Besides, do you really think all Cherie and I talked about when we visited one another was dolls and dresses and boys? There was plenty that her mother thought she was clever enough to hide from us.” Gayla allowed a little snortle to escape her nose. “She thought we were too self-involved to take notice of her, or to pay attention to how oddly she acted around the Riley’s, especially the way she’d turn pale and quiet when Mr. Riley unexpectedly brought his son over for dinner, and how Amos would pale the same way, and how they’d look at one another but never speak.”
The far-off, clamoring rumble of a tractor engine starting up for the day echoed in through the thin-paned windows. The sun had fully risen. The workers were preparing to begin their chores.
“How long?” Greta asked. “How long have they been going on like this?”
“Cherie told me she first suspected things last year when Amos—um, how do I put this?—when he declined her adoring advances. After she did some digging, as Cherie is prone to do, she found out his affair with her mother had begun at least since Amos’ sixteenth birthday.”
“What?” Daniel blurted. Gayla spun around to look at him. He was holding a hand firmly against his forehead as if his brains were about to fall out of some hole that had managed to manifest itself there. “But he’s nearly nineteen now. Almost turning twenty!”
Gayla smiled broadly. “Exactly.”
Greta shook a finger in the air at nobody in particular. “So you mean to say this has been going on for nearly four years and Mr. Palmer doesn’t know a thing about it?”
“Not as far as Cherie and I could tell.” Gayla shrugged. “As far as we know he’s completely clueless.”
The room went quiet. Each individual in the room pondered within their own mind the significance of the history between Mrs. Palmer and Amos Riley, and both the opportunities and risks which that knowledge laid out for them.
Greta’s laughter filled the empty space left behind as the tractor, engine now warm and purring steadily, puttered off and away toward the main road. “Oh, my,” she giggled. The others looked on, staring at her and between one another. They soon found themselves infected by her cheerfulness and began smiling; Trudy’s rosy mouth, though tightly closed, curled up into a dimpled grin and a roil of giggles escaped. She hid her amusement behind her small hands, looking over at Daniel for reassurance. He was unabashedly smiling, his teeth sparkling in the dim light and the apples of his cheeks pushing his eyes closed from beneath.
“I’m sorry,” Greta went on, wiping her eyes with her apron. “It’s not right for me to laugh. But…” She rolled into another gear of uncontrollable chuckling. “What a real mess! I mean a truly, sincere, awful mess! Can you imagine what that family tree would look like? Imagine if Mrs. Palmer became pregnant and Cherie ended up marrying Hubert? And then the baby they’d have?”
They all laughed harder.
In the midst of the fun, Gayla felt a presence at her back. She turned. Her joviality abruptly vanished when she locked eyes with the predacious woman hanging on the wall. The twinkling of an idea came to her and then retreated, like the flicker of a star on an overcast night. Her skin tingled in anticipation but the notion refused to manifest itself. There was something there, she thought. Something important.
“What?” Trudy said at her sister through small, snickering huffs.
Gayla shook her head and turned away from the portrait. “I guess it’s just… it’s just not that funny after all.” Gayla maneuvered herself between the neatly arranged junk and moved toward the open doorway. She stared at the floor as she went, mouth slightly agape. Before disappearing into the hall she turned back toward her family. “It’s just not funny that Cherie has to put up with a secret like that, with a family like that, and then be forced to marry some codger she doesn’t even know, much less like. No wonder she stole Amrid away from me. I’d want to get away, too. And, if he was her only chance, how the hell can I blame her?”