Below you will find the short story, “Shelter Given,” that I entered into a bunch of contests a few months ago. By way of information, the scene happens about halfway through my first novel. The characters, Mitch and Lara, show up in my other novels as well. (Mitch in Double Dirty and Spectre in the Sun; Lara in My Plus One and The Olivia Express.)
Enjoy . . .
Mitch woke on Christmas with a ringing headache. A well-heeled, recently acquitted client gave him a very good bottle of Russian vodka; Mitch drank it nearly dry. He carefully stepped from his bedroom into the bathroom and stood in front of the toilet. Pulling the front of his pajama bottoms down as he lifted the seat, he was surprised how little he let out; he had been drinking all night. Dehydration, he thought. He couldn’t remember the last time water touched his mouth. Melted ice cubes didn’t count for much. Mitch flushed the bright orange, stained water away and lumbered over to the sink.
Enough sunlight was filtering through the winter clouds that he left the vanity light off. He knew he looked terrible and did not require the added illumination to confirm what he already felt. Mitch ran the tip of his tongue across the front of his teeth. They felt textured, almost fuzzy. Keeping his left eye closed to cut the tunnel vision, he reached for his electric toothbrush and squeezed out a ribbon of toothpaste. The shock of the sweetness and the mint was both overwhelming and pleasant. The toothbrush cycled through four sets of 30-second-long intervals; two minutes later, one very small portion of his body felt better.
Mitch pulled on his cashmere robe, Lara’s gift to him when he celebrated his sixtieth birthday last February, and tied it gently across his sour middle. He headed for the kitchen: coffee, yes; food, no. The thought of poached eggs on toast, his usual breakfast, caused his stomach to cramp. He coached himself to think only of the coming coffee. If some sustenance had to come to mind, let it be plain oatmeal, he asked.
The unbleached scalloped-edged filters were just about impossible to pull apart given his current state. After some fumbling and counting out scoops of coffee, Mitch retired into the living room. From where Mitch lay on the couch, he could smell the hot bitter scent floating over from the kitchen. He had one leg up and the other flat on the floor. The grounded foot served as some physical insurance to keep the room from spinning. This was not the first time he had employed this technique in the aftermath of many too many.
When the gurgling from the small appliance tapered off, Mitch pressed himself up with his elbows, paused to glean some stability, and then stood. Reaching up for a mug, Mitch thought of Lara again. She helped him pick out the kitchen cabinets when he remodeled four years ago; right after her husband, Will, succumbed to Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Thinking back to that afternoon, Mitch felt a vein of shame open up and trickle out into his consciousness.
The substantial upgrades to Mitch’s bachelor pad were paid for by the slew of clients who sought out his legal representation after an acquittal in a nationally publicized case. Mitch wasn’t ashamed of the money he earned or the fame he had acquired; he just wished that he hadn’t been so self-absorbed to have forgotten about Lara’s recent loss when he dropped the high-end cabinetry catalogue in front of her and asked if she like the cherry or the bird’s-eye maple better. Lara had smiled selflessly and pointed to the maple before sliding the glossy catalogue back to him.
It wasn’t until he saw the tears on her cheek that his thoughtlessness stretched out between them. In the wake of this, Mitch decided, regardless of his years of silent attraction toward her, Lara needed a friend—maybe even a father figure, not a man 20 years her senior chasing her widowed skirt.
And Lara wore her skirts well: mid-thigh, right above the knee, mid-calf. She was about the only woman he knew who practiced law in a skirt suit. Mitch was close to certain Lara knew this peculiarity set her apart. People didn’t describe her dark blond hair or her red leather briefcase. The court officer need only say, “The one there, in the skirt,” to a forgetful client, and she would be found.
While Lara was known superficially for those skirts. Those who had the chance to spend any time with her found themselves groping for words to describe how she made them feel: her aura infused the surrounding air with warmth and sensuality.
When Mitch was within an arm’s length of her, he was pulled into her atmosphere. He believed that Lara invited him, without saying a word, to be vulnerable. It seemed to Mitch she had no expectations. Instead, she took a childlike interest in every new and revealed layer. She allowed Mitch to be himself—or whomever he wanted to be—and he had become her friend.
And didn’t friends protect each other? Was Mitch’s warning to Sean to leave her alone outside the realm of reasonable?
Mitch climbed up onto the stool at the breakfast bar. The cool of the granite—in graphite gray, Lara suggested, so as not to overwhelm the pattern in the maple—cut through the elbows of Mitch’s robe. A 2009 Top Lawyer mug, filled with hot coffee, sat under his nose. He’d received two dozen of them, personalized, four years ago to hand out to clients and colleagues. He had a dozen in their original box in the garage, some at the office, and a few at home.
Looking to his right, he saw the bright blue bag on the counter top. Lara’s gift: a simple round gold chain with a bezel-set diamond from Tiffany’s. It was an indulgence he was willing to make even absent a romantic relationship. They were friends, after all, she his only real one. He reached out, hooked his finger around the black satin cord, dragged the bag toward himself, and pulled out the box. The stiff hinge of the velvet box had an internal spring that popped the top open with a satisfying click. The necklace was an elegant and beautiful piece. He extracted it from its angled resting place and felt the metal warm in his hand. Smooth and slippery. Weaving it through his fingers, he could picture the stone sitting right below the hollow of her neck.
Lara had needed his help, he told himself: She had come to him. His efforts were nothing more than an attempt to ensure her security. By her report, he had failed.
The coffee had cooled, and Mitch drank it as he rewrapped the gift. He felt hunger pangs and knew the residue of vodka could only handle the coffee for so long before yielding a new toxic mix in his gut. Even so, he opted to bathe before eating.
He hung his robe on the hook outside the glass-enclosed stall. Organic products only, she had advocated, explaining that one should never put on his body something that he wouldn’t put in his mouth. Every time he showered, he considered—if only for a flash moment—tasting the soap: goat milk, honey, lavender, and sage. Perhaps delicious enough to slice and eat on a water cracker.
Dressing in loose jeans and a black V-neck Merino wool sweater, Mitch wanted to know where she was. Home, and probably alone. He would call, extend the invitation again. They’d had such a nice day together last year. She should come.
At three o’clock, Mitch couldn’t stand it any longer. He sent her a text: Please come.
He kept refreshing his phone, waiting for her response. Three minutes shy of a half an hour later, it came: Why?
His reply: Because my tree needs you.
Then he tried again: Because I need you.
Her assent: Give me an hour.
The sun set in the hour he waited for her to arrive. His time to script the best words to fill the abyss that separated them was limited. By the time he saw her headlights coming down his long driveway, he had at least decided how to begin. He opened the door before she rang. She was holding a small box; it was tied up in a bow. While he could have credited her gift to him as a sign that he’d already been forgiven, he wouldn’t permit himself to shrink from what he intended to say: It had become more than a simple apology. He took a long slow inhale before opening the door. She was just mounting the first step as he did.
“Merry Christmas, Lara,” he said. “Come in.”
Once fully inside, he saw she had been crying: Her eyelids were puffy; her eyes were bloodshot. The usual muted green of her irises had altered into a kaleidoscopic emerald.
“Thank you, Mitch. Merry Christmas to you,” she said.
Mitch had started a fire in the fieldstone fireplace that was, according to the real estate agent who sold him the open-concept house, “architecturally featured” in the center of the living room. Mitch knew Lara loved a fire. Last Christmas, she reluctantly confessed how she would frequent the local ski area just to sit by the fire in the après ski lounge. Lara tipped her head back, laughed, and added, “And I don’t even ski.”
Lara moved into the living room and dropped the bag on top of the square coffee table. She perched herself on the edge of the stone shelf and close to the screened flames.
“I brought you a gift,” she said.
“I see that,” he said. “I have one for you, too.”
“In the blue bag? On the counter?” she said, pointing across the open room.
“Yes. Would you like to open it?”
“I would,” Lara said, “after what needs to be said.”
“I’ll go first,” he said, holding fast to the lead-in line he wanted her to hear first and with clarity.
“All right, Mitch, I’m listening.”
Mitch watched Lara cross her left leg over her right. The hem of plaid wool skirt rested just above her knee. She was wearing lightweight tights or dark hose; he couldn’t tell which. And then, there were her boots.
“I’m sorry, Lara. I am sorry for trying to do something for you that you ought to have done yourself. I thought I could help, and I didn’t. I let you down. For that, I’m sorry.” Lara tipped her chin to the right and nodded. He wasn’t done; and he knew she could tell. “When you first came into my life, I didn’t quite know what to make of you. Your spirit and your energy gave me something that has taken me years to define. But I think I know now. You, Lara, have given me hope. Not optimism, not a good feeling about the future. Hope.
“I know I’m not special in that way. I think you give hope to every person whose path you cross. Not every person will be able to discern it—be able to assign a word it to. It took me years. I apologize for interfering and for not letting you know how much you mean to me.”
Mitch considered his offered explanation thoughtful, despite being terse. He could have ended there, leaving Lara to regard his brevity as a sign of selectivity in speaking. She had seen him deliver enough closing arguments; she might have been satisfied with what she’d heard. While Mitch hadn’t planned to reference Sean, the monologue seemed less persuasive without the stark contrast. So, he continued.
“Lara, it pains me to picture you offering this hope and any recipient being dismissive—maybe even ungrateful—toward you. And I think it pains you, too. You might not recognize it, but I have seen it, sensed it in the aftermath. When you are not appreciated for all you are, it settles on you, and you carry it with you.
“That’s why I tried to help. I simply could not stand knowing Sean didn’t appreciate the hope you give. You were a plaything to him, or even worse, fodder for his ego. It was never about Lara. It was about what he could get from Lara, how he could manipulate and mold Lara into what suited him.
“And before you try to correct me and tell me how I don’t know, let me assure you that I do know. He is, in many ways, just like me, or rather, like who used to be before I came to really appreciate you. He doesn’t deserve you. I’m not sure anyone does, but certainly not him.
“My efforts to help you out of this—maybe even more accurately ‘force’ you out of this—were not for you. They were for me. I simply couldn’t stand his ignorance, his failure to recognize your worth. He is selfish, and his selfishness could never step aside long enough, even for a singular moment, to allow him to see you for who you are. I know who you are.”
Mitch watched as Lara wiped her one falling tear away. In that singular moment, Mitch ached with the idea of her reaching out to him, burying her face in his chest, and—as he’d seen before in the darkness of movie theaters—confessing that she’d loved him the entire time. Mitch scolded himself in the thought: His imagined scene would have been exploitive. Lara had been used enough already. “Ridden hard, and put away wet” had been the phrase ringing in his head for the last two months. Even though Mitch was aware of the phrase’s equestrian roots, he knew the real reason it haunted his thoughts about Lara, over the last two empty months, was because of its common usage: a way to describe a promiscuous woman’s appearance after illicit sex. Mitch had to remind himself that the point of mentioning Sean was to draw the comparison: to shine a light on Sean’s egregious treatment of Lara as both an indictment of him and a way to overshadow Mitch’s own misdeeds.
There was nothing left to say. Mitch heard Lara draw a heavy sigh.
She wiped her tear-dampened index finger on the side of her skirt and said, “Well, Mitchell Bradford, that’s about the nicest thing anyone’s ever said to me. Thank you. I accept your apology.”
“And you understand my thinking?” he asked.
“I’d say what I just heard was more about your feelings than your thinking,” she replied. “But regardless, I understand something. I’m not yet ready to agree with it, though I will take the matter under advisement.”
“And?” he asked, hoping to hear her reflective thoughts on their relationship.
“And, I’d like to open my present,” she said as she stood to retrieve the bag.
He’d not hear from her today.
Lara repositioned herself near the fire. The small blue bag was in her lap. She handed Mitch his gift and said, “You go first.”
Mitch pulled at the edge of the ribbon. It had been tied in a way to cascade off the slate gray box once loosened. Mitch lifted the lid off with a finger and his thumb and saw a similarly sized black velvet box. Extracting with the same two digits, he looked up and smiled before cleaving it open. Inside, he found a gold tie clip with a small inlaid diamond. It looked vintage.
“Lara, this is lovely. Where did you find it?” he asked.
“It was Will’s,” she said. “I gave it to him for his thirtieth birthday.”
Mitch knew refusing to accept the gift would be both futile and hurtful. He expected Lara usually knew what she was doing.
“Thank you. I will cherish it,” he said.
“I’d rather you wear it; cherishing it does no one any good,” she added.
“I’ll wear it and think of you, and of course Will, too,” he said.
“ I know the two of you only spent a short time together, but he liked you. He’d be happy I gave it to you,” she said, smiling with her eyes. The usual lines at the corners were not visible; the swelling had filled them.
“Your turn,” he said.
Lara took a deep breath and said, “Tiffany’s, huh? It better be, because it’s not kind to make it look that way on the outside only to bait and switch on the inside.”
“No bait and switch. See for yourself.”
Mitch heard the click of the velvet box top and watched Lara’s eyes settle over the necklace. “I’m glad I didn’t wear the turtleneck I picked out. Put it on me?” she asked, looking up at him.
She pivoted on the fireplace shelf and piled her hair on top of her head. Mitch could see the remnants of a red splotch at her hairline. His sisters and his mother had these “stork bites” as well; the birthmark ran on the XX chromosome pairing in his family.
“Done,” he said, dropping his hands into his lap.
She turned to face him. The diamond sat exactly where he envisioned it would: just below the inverted triangle indentation of her throat.
She reached up and fingered the bezel.
“How does it look?” she asked.
“Thank you, Mitch. I love it.”
He nodded. He wanted to tell her that he loved her. Instead, he asked, “Did you get Chinese last night?”
“No. I didn’t feel like going to pick it up. I had what was in the cupboard.”
“And gin,” she said. “You?”
Mitch pointed to the tall, thin, nearly empty bottle near the fridge.
Lara said, “Elite?”
“How’d you know?”
“I learned the Cyrillic alphabet in college.”
Mitch saw the lettering in red on the side: элит.
“Impressive, though I probably could have translated the ‘t,’” he said.
“Three-Legged Frog delivers here, don’t they?”
“Yes, they do,” he said. “You don’t want to go out?”
“Not with my eyes all puffy,” she said.
“You were crying?” Mitch asked, trying not to sound patronizing or surprised.
“All day,” she said.
Lara stood, stepped around the coffee table, and leaned down.
She kissed Mitch on the cheek and said, “Over you. Over the thought of you. Over my disregard for you as my friend.”
She stood back up and pressed her lips together. Mitch could see she was as close to broken as someone could get. The sadness in her eyes and the roundness in her shoulders reminded him of her appearance that stifling August day at Wharton’s Funeral Home four and a half years ago.
They needed levity, he decided.
“You do know we can’t get the scallion pancake,” he told her.
“I know. How come it tastes good in the restaurant and then so nasty when you get take out?”
“Just one of the many questions the universe forces us to face,” he said. “Should I get the usual?” They had eaten at Three-Legged Frog dozens of times. He ordered the six; she stuck with the four.
“Yeah. Can I fix you a drink?” she said.
“What are you having?” he asked.
“Do you have Rose’s?”
“I do, but you’re not making a gimlet out of the Elite,” he said.
“It’s palatable straight?” she asked.
“You tell me,” he replied.
Lara poured out a small amount and tasted it. She said, “Not bad, but do you have what I really like?”
“I picked up a bottle yesterday,” he said.
“You knew I’d be here today?”
“No, I hoped,” he said. “I’ll call this in,” he added, holding up his phone.
Mitch dialed and was promptly put on hold. He watched Lara. She put four ice cubes into a short glass and poured her gin over them. She emptied the rest of the vodka into the glass that she had tasted from and then, looking up at Mitch, she asked, “Ice?” Mitch nodded and held up three fingers. She dropped three cubes in and brought it to him. They lifted the glasses, silently toasting.
Mitch saw Lara at the bookshelf, searching for the stereo remote.
“Can we listen to this?” she said, holding up the Rolling Stones’ “Rolled Gold.”
“Sure, it’s an hour until the food arrives,” he said.
“Great, we can dance up an appetite.” She turned on the stereo and slipped disc two into the thin slot. She clicked the up arrow, stopping to display “12” on the front of the stereo.
The lead-in, with the twangy lead guitar, was overlaid with scratchy sounds of a slide working its way up and down the strings of the other lead guitar. When the odd sound from a percussion instrument kicked in, Lara asked, “Do you what that is, Mitch? It sounds like a drum stick being dragged over something textured and hollow.”
He was watching her flip through the liner notes.
“It’s not listed in there. It’s a guiro,” he said.
“A guiro. It looks sort of like a rocket made out of wood with tapered ends,” he said. “It’s got evenly cut grooves carved into the side. It’s played by running a short smooth stick up and down the spine.”
By the time he was done explaining, she was singing along with Mick Jagger.
He asked, in the pause between verses, “How do you know the words to this? It came out years before you were born?”
“My dad had good taste in music,” she said as she swung her hips from side to side, lifting her heeled boots alternately. She was still looking at the five-by-five booklet in her hand when she added, “Some of the songs on these CDs weren’t on the original.”
“You listened to this on vinyl?”
“It was the mid-seventies, Mitch. Eight-tracks weren’t even around then, right?”
Eight-tracks had been around. In fact, Mitch’s father had one installed in Mitch’s first car for his twenty-third birthday in 1976. Making the point could come off as pedantic and would definitely draw attention to the two-decade interval between their births.
She was dancing. As she did, she explained, “We’d listen to this album and another, by the Bee Gees, on Saturdays as we cleaned up the house.” She started signing again. “They’re transcendent, you know,” she said, interrupting her performance.
“Lyrics. This song was written in the late 1960s, as a commentary on what felt like a looming apocalypse. But the words are true of any crisis, don’t you think?”
Mitch knew she was thinking of the crisis she was in. He didn’t want to talk about it. At all. Before Lara could cue up “Wild Horses,” Mitch located the remote and pressed “eject.” There was no way he could stomach watching her sing that song as some sort of anthem sent out to Sean.
“Hey, I wanted to listen to another song,” she said in an uncharacteristic juvenile tone.
“But I have a song for us,” Mitch said.
He turned his back to her so she couldn’t see what CD he was selecting. He stealthily popped the soundtrack to “Saturday Night Fever” out of the case and could already picture the tall young Italian-American in the white suit coming down the street.
The funky guitar and rhythmic drums kicked in and Mitch saw the recognition on her body. Lara was moving as if she had been schooled in the discos of the 1970s.
“Come on, Mitch, I know you were in your prime when this came out. You must know how to groove to this.”
“Don’t make me put on my double-knit, plaid bell-bottoms and shame you,” he teased.
Lara drew in close to him and they danced without speaking. She seemed lost in the precision of her movements following the percussion line and aware of the small variations in the riff. Throughout, she sang the back-up vocals obviously more comfortable in signing alto than falsetto.
The song faded and Lara said, “I think I might actually be sweating gin.” Her cheeks were pink and, despite the earlier crying which had changed the texture of her face, she looked happy.
“How about we slap some ornaments up on the tree while we wait on the food?” he suggested.
“All right. I’ve got to take these off,” she said, leaning down to unzip her boots. She kicked them under the coffee table, took another long sip of gin, and asked, “The ornaments?”
“In a box, behind the tree.”
Lara opened the box and alternated between handing Mitch one and keeping one for herself. With the alcohol beginning to take effect, Mitch was impressed that he and Lara were spacing out the ornaments evenly. They hadn’t devised a plan as to how to decorate the six-foot Frasier fir; they hung the individual loops on scattered branch tips without speaking.
Lara broke their silence upon pulling out the paired peacock and peahen, saying, “Seems about right. He’s all flashy, and she’s reedy brown. Nature’s way to protect the babies as she hides with them in the underbrush.”
Before Mitch had time to interpret her commentary, the doorbell rang and signaled Mitch’s mouth to water. At the door, he gave the young driver a $20.00 tip: It was Christmas.
Lara and he drank and ate and then drank more. Close to midnight, she said, “I’m tired, but I can’t drive home after all these festivities.”
“Stay, you can have my bed,” he said. “I’ll take the couch. Just let me brush my teeth and get into my pajamas.”
Lara was slightly slouched at the breakfast bar when he came out in his bathrobe.
She looked up and said, “That blue is nice with your eyes, Mitch.”
“This is the greatest robe I have ever owned, Lara.”
“Too bad you had to wait until you were sixty for me to give it to you.”
“The room’s ready for you. I changed out the sheets,” he said. “Good night, Lara. I had a nice Christmas with you.”
Lara slid off the barstool, took a moment to steady herself, and got within an arm’s length of Mitch. She smiled, reached up with extended fingers, and touched his gift to her.
“Good night, Mitch. Thank you for your bed and for my necklace. I love it. And, I love you,” she said.
Mitch gave her a perfunctory nod.
He said, “I love you, too.”
Lara turned on her heels and pointed herself in the direction of his bedroom. Mitch watched her sway down the hall.
Mitch lay down on the couch. The embers from the fireplace glowed; their light reflected off the top of the low coffee table. Empty food boxes rested next to two empty glasses.
Mitch picked the black velvet box off the table, pried it open, and pulled out the tie clip. He pinched its end and clamped it over the lapel of his robe. Resting his open palm on top of it, he looked to be pledging allegiance. Perhaps, in some way, he was.
Mitch closed his eyes and let one foot land flat on the floor. He was physically stabilizing himself—for the second time in one day. The room was spinning again.