The fact is, I only met Ellen’s parents a handful of times before I went off to San Diego. When people die, it’s natural to magnify their significance retroactively. I tried. I didn’t have a lot to go on. I observed nothing compelling about Ben and Amanda Walden. Maybe her mother’s eyes were too close together. Maybe her father took too long coming downstairs, to meet me.
I saw them from a distance, working on the lawn or walking past the living room window, when I came to pick up their daughter, and we ate one meal together. Ellen’s mother made a casserole. It was the first day cold enough to turn on an oven.
As I walked up the lawn, fingering the zipper pull on my jacket, I went over the topics I’d loaded for conversation. The mums along the foundation were drying up, going maize-colored. On the porch, the dirt in an empty flower pot was pale and cracked. How is her mother’s broken toe? How about those Yankees? I just got some photos developed of our trip to the orchard, and Ellen running away from me, into the corn maze. I wait at the door. Then there she is. I like her. Her arm is warm, her hand is warm. She kissed my mouth quickly, which surprised me. We were still organizing the kissing then.
At that time, Ellen was temping. She had spent a year studying art history, and hadn’t liked it. So she worked these temp jobs. She worked at a lighting store for a while. She sat under a flock of displayed chandeliers and shaded lights, frosted glass, clean gold and silver. I picked her up from this job so that we could go to lunch—our fourth or fifth date. The place was far outside town, but I had the day off work. I made the drive.
On the outside the building looked more like an airline hanger than a store, with corrugated mud-covered walls and a flat roof. Inside, the spray of light on Ellen’s walnut desk and chocolate hair had DaVinci and ruby gloss.
Ellen wasn’t in a particularly spiritual mood, though. The 10-line telephone system was confounding her. It was only her second day. As we ate, she complained and apologized for complaining. I ate a roast beef sandwich, and a pickle on the side. We sat in a blue plastic booth. She ate salt and vinegar potato chips. I noticed when she crossed and uncrossed her legs. She laughed whenever I joked. She told me about where she went to summer camp, and set pink sweetener packets around the mustard bottle to show where the cabins were.
When I dropped her off, she teased me about the pile of pennies and nickels in the ashtray. “Saving for a rainy day?” she said
“Someday I’ll take you to Paris,” I said.
“I’ll let you know when I’m free,” she laughed.
I watched her go in and turned up the radio before I drove away.