It was the ripping lily pad that woke her. Rustling up from the water, roots, stalk and all—a vegetative rocket ejecting from the lake bed—it burst the surface with a roar that bounced from the facade of the paint-pitted boathouse behind her, and echoed southward, off into an infinity of oaks and willows. She came instantly upright on the bench, a final dream-frame crashing to black, the vision ebbing: Terry on a rain-waxed tarmac, sobbing into his wife’s neck, reaching an arm over her shoulder, an arm long, sinewed and copper-dark, to flick at Jared’s hair. Then bending lower, still clutching his lovely wife, to hold Gwyndd’s chin, nickel-small, between his thumb and forefinger.
As she bolted straight on the rough wooden bench, the scalloped hem of her skirt snapped halfway up her thighs while her eyes tried to focus on the levitating lily leaf pad. Pigs don’t fly, she thought, woozy from sun and slumber, and neither should plants, but this one had air above it and at least 18 inches of space below, and there it was, whorled and clapping, water splattering out and away in a broadening arc.
She saw that the remainder of the large lily bed lay unperturbed atop the water, anchored, placid on Lake Carnegie’s western shore. Flowerless platters of myrtle green, the circled leaves were the same shade, she realized, drowsy again, as the coverlet on her empty four-poster at home. She shut her eyes to erase the absurdity before her. In the same moment, as the rising lily pad reached the apex of its ascension—and three drops of water landed on the left foot of her sandaled toes—Jaymie Salliwick fell back asleep.
The lone fisherman on the pier undulating in the water, 20 yards away, watched the woman’s head droop forward again. In her ivory top and billowy skirt the color of fresh blood, she looked to him exactly like a child accidentally locked outside her home while playing dress-up. Her face oval, pallid, with a nose and mouth that could have been applied by an artisan with his smallest brush. Mid-parted hair, straw-yellow, framing her face like parentheses. Arms and legs tiny, freckled and brittle-seeming. The intellectual type, he guessed. But plenty cute. Probably with Princeton. Maybe a wackjob. Or librarian. Same difference.
He cursed again and braced for one final attempt to unsnag his lure, wrapped around that blasted lily pad yonder. Otherwise he’d have to cut the line. Or worse, he thought, and laughed, despite the frustration of it all — would he risk the infamous Jersey alligators by wading into the water over by the drowsy gal?
Fearing for his rod, that it might break if he kept yanking, he switched it to his left hand and spun two loops of monofilament around the other. Planting his feet and rearing back, he found he had better leverage this way, and began tugging, almost mincingly at first, then harder. The line threatened to cut his hand as it came tighter. He pulled once, twice. On his third try, the plant tore from the lake bottom and flew directly at the fisherman. He had to step aside to keep it from socking him in the kisser.
“Hated to have to do that,” he said, loud enough for the woman to hear, if she was playing possum and maybe a tree-hugger. “But this lure, it cost me eight bucks.” He bent to the sodden mass of weed and tangled line. In 60 seconds he had the spinner—with the bronze blade, two feathers and bubblegum beads—freed at his feet on the dock. When he tossed the destroyed lily pad onto the bank, the woman did not stir.
* * *
Last Tuesday morning, just before 10, Jaymie had heard his sneakered feet bounding up the stairs of the Opinion Institute on Nassau Street. Before she could raise her head from the work fanned on the conference table, his favorite headgear — a brimmed canvas-mesh safari hat — spun Frisbee-style into the room, lighting amid the stacks of reports and data.
The head of Terrence P. Crownleigh, PhD., appeared in comic slow-motion around the door jamb.
“Sorry?” Jaymie, who held the status quo to be as inviolable and precious as her person, wilted at whatever may come next.
“Come, woman.” Terry loped to the far corner of the room, threw open the window, then snatched Jaymie’s purse from a chair, dropping the strap over his head, her handbag astride his chest like a rescue dog’s whiskey barrel.
“Let’s go get us huge, sloppy armsful of anecdotal, nearly worthless evidence, huh?” Grinning, he riffed a thumb through a thick sheaf of income surveys that were to be her morning’s chore.
“Evidence regarding.?” Jaymie was fairly sure she was in no mood for whatever this was to be.
“Recession and the locals, baby. We’ll do Route 1. A slice. A segment. North first, as far as New Brunswick. Then back this way, with Princeton as our southern cutoff. Finally, dinner. Then we’ll look homeward.” He paused a beat, his smile widening. “Angel.”
Terry laughed at his joke. Jaymie missed the connection, offering only a puzzled smile.
“What we do, we sound out area business folk. See how they’re doing, when they see things turning around, what they believe’s ahead.” He dashed to the bookcase, reaching for and tossing a small spiral notebook in front of her.
“Only tool we’ll need. We’ll be fast and dirty, babes, throw some mud from the trenches. Car’s out front. See you in two.” He turned to leave, then paused on the far side of the archway, slapping a palm on the wall above, making Jaymie jump. At six-three, he had to lower his head to be seen.
“Get you some sun, kid. It’s win-win. Can’t say no.” He dipped his neck to swing her purse like a pendulum. “I’ve got your life right here.” He laughed and left, drumming down the stairs. The front door slammed hard, the vibration reverberating through the converted Victorian, thrumming up through her feet. She fetched his ludicrous hat from the table. For a reason she couldn’t name, Jaymie Salwick suddenly wanted to do something she never, ever, did. Cry.
* * *
Terrence Pelham Crownleigh, whom Jaymie knew to be, by turns, a blisteringly gifted scholar and ribald adolescent, usually scatological, often divine, genteel as lace and abrasive as a Brooklyn hood, is in fact a native of Bucks County, Pennsylvania, son of an Army Corps of Engineers father and securities analyst mother. His resume, at 43, is as long as he is tall, and as robust as the man himself, replete with achievement as astonishing for its breadth as for the speed of its acquisition.
Intellectually ambidextrous, he had confounded the dons of Princeton University since his arrival in 1992, after a stint as resident wunderkind in the Labor Department during the elder Bush’s administration. Jaymie had been Terry’s factotum for the past four years and eight months, by title his research administrator—in reality his envoy to the world at large.
For 60-some hours a week, at the end of which she feels powerless even to enumerate her duties, she was charged primarily to coordinate his responsibilities between his joint appointments in the Economics and Engineering departments. She also managed his commitments to the scholarly and social entities over which he presided, proofed and submitted his papers to professional journals and mass media publications where his work regularly appeared, and, more often lately, scheduled his network and cable news bookings as a “talking head.” In the past several months he had begun to be in demand for snazzy sound bites and insight both piquant and profound. In his limitless universe, Terry Crownleigh is a rock star — and Jaymie is his roadie.
She has been, for the past 10 months, something else as well.
* * *
At 3:30 that afternoon, the sun grew coy, winking behind clouds drifting east. Following Terry’s haphazard hopscotch of the local commercial scene, the pair had, by then, visited a building contractor, a gym, a bookstore, a Wal Mart, a plumbing-supply house, a trade school, and an architectural firm.
Wisecracking that they ought to go slumming for an appetizer, that it would make them appreciate the finer fare ahead later, Crownleigh pulled the cranberry Jeep into a McDonald’s, warning Jaymie never to claim he didn’t take her to the nicest places. They spent 20 minutes with the manager, the stumpy woman and Terry talking numbers, whooping and raucous as Jaymie scribbled data, barely managing to pull him out the door by the elbow when he began coaxing the customers to start a foodfight. They returned to the vehicle under a sky of lowering clouds and the odor of ozone.
In the Jeep, she rubbed the rising gooseflesh on her arms, killed the air conditioning, and opened her window. As Terry headed south, she held his ludicrous safari hat in her lap, slowly spinning it counterclockwise, the smell of him on her fingertips. The daylong wordless dread rose again, higher now, a metallic tang in her mouth. She breathed as deeply as she knew how.
“Say.” she whispered. Still she turned the hat with her left hand, splaying her right outside to test for rain. He looked at her, waiting for more, then back at the road. She stared out her window, and tried to guess how many miles they drove before he spoke.
“Jaymes.” She turned, but it was a false start. Another mile of blacktop passed. There was a sound of a throat clearing; she didn’t know if it was his or hers.
Then he said: “They want me for Interior, kid. Number three spot. Legislative Affairs. Plus economic counselor to the Secretary.”
Jaymie Salliwick watched a woebegone burrito stand go by, set back from the highway, up a gravel slope, two half-circle plywood cutouts over the windows in front. Backlit by yellow light from the inside, the squat building morphed as she stared. It became a face, and the windows a baleful pair of jaundiced eyes.
“Why Interior?” she said, or thought she did. But could not hear her voice.
“‘Internal improvements,’” his laugh aborted to a cough, his airway constricted, his voice higher than the usual baritone. “That’s what Lincoln called ’em. Punched his ticket into the state legislature with that.” He stole a quick look her way.
“Infrastructure. One of your.specialties.” This time she knew she had spoken, but still heard no sound issuing from her mouth.
He nodded. An egg-sized drop of water splashed against the windshield. “Thursday next. And, um, Maggie and the tykes follow in two weeks.”
And then the rain began, but it seemed to Jamie to fall up instead of down. She began to hum a song she was sure she didn’t know. But a picture came into focus too, along with the melody, an image gauzed in grays and blues. Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer. Rain-flattened in a gazebo. A lyric about childhood and youth, nothing. And something. Or something, then nothing.
They made two more stops, Terry becoming irritable when he missed the turnoff for a supermarket he meant to include, continuing on, saying we’ll have to go back, you can always go back, we’ll just hit Target first. Inside, he found the manager on duty in an aisle of the toy department and while they spoke, Jaymie strayed, finding herself in the infant’s department.
An hour later, they emerged from a Stop ’N Shop in Monmouth Junction. Jaymie stood still in the parking lot with her arms folded across her chest until Terry gave up holding her door open. Continuing south toward Princeton, switching his wipers to high, he said: “Know the nickname of that burg?” She shook her head.
“MoJo.” He paused. “Of which you could use a dollop.”
“A girl needs air. A girl needs —”
“Jaymie, look —”
“Don’t,” she said, “Do. Not.”
Terry turned off Route 1, cutting over to Route 27, the rain percussive sheets against the windshield.
“Okay. So. The Blue Point Grill? You the scallops, me the crab?”
* * *
Nine nights later, Jaymie Salliwick woke with a start to the disruption of breaking water. Rough slats of the wood bench were cool beneath her thighs.
By the falling light of a mango and raspberry sunset, she raised her head just in time to see a man, down on one knee on the pier to her left, hoist a largemouth bass from the lake. He lipped the fish, fat and thrashing, extending his arm toward her. A grin grew on his open face. She saw that he was shirtless beneath a riotously-pocketed vest.
Jaymie rose to her feet.
“Have you ever thought of a hat?” she said.
Ewing, a resident of Monmouth Junction, is an aspiring writer whose first two works of short fiction have been accepted for publication. The first will appear in an online literary journal in July and the other in a print journal in October of 2010. Recently he has begun work on a novel.