Phoebe Clayton: A Story of Love and Furniture

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The Big Parade

He was coming out of the grocery store, his arms full of paper or plastic, when he saw the people lined up along Main Street. They were three deep in places. Most were standing, some were sitting comfortably in lawn chairs, others were sitting on the curb. Some fanned themselves to ward off the early July heat, others were ignoring it. All of them were periodically glancing expectantly toward the west.

Andy Agnielli saw the balloons, he smelled the diesel fumes wafted on the minimal summer breeze. In the distance he could hear the muffled rumpetty-bump of a marching band. He quickly stashed his bags in the back of his car, knowing the ice cream wasn't going to survive the experience. He went to join the others on the curb. In the fullness of time, which wasn't too much time, the parade was upon them. He gawked and he waved and sometimes he cheered along with everyone else.

There is no purpose to a firemen's parade except to have a parade. It is not even, despite the proximity of this particular Big Parade to the 4th of July, despite the flags and the bunting on display, an essentially patriotic event. Many places have their parades in May or June or August. Some places even have them in September. Usually a politician or two will make an appearance, riding in a convertible next to or following Miss Green Bean or Miss Pork Barbecue, waving to what they fondly imagine to be adoring crowds. But even that isn't really necessary.

What's essential to make a Big Parade is fire trucks: pumpers, ladder trucks, crew trucks, utility trucks, boats on their trailers, tankers, ambulances, all manner of vehicles. Fire companies from miles around send their equipment, polished and spiffy, to show off. Manning the machines are the volunteer firefighters, the guys and girls who put in hours of training, some of it grueling and dangerous. In return they get the privilege of riding the trucks to fires and emergencies in return for no pay and little recognition. Without the trucks, without the firefighters, the parade would be pallid and flavorless. You might as well stay home and watch game show reruns on the teevee.

Even the purists will admit, however, that a parade isn't a parade with only trucks and ambulances and a few police cars and politicians and beauty queens, even though the firemen dutifully blow their sirens and wave to people and make goo-goo eyes at the girls as they go by. If the trucks are the meat of the parade the potatoes are the marching bands from the local schools. They march and they play the theme from "Star Wars" and they sometimes still play "Fanfare for Trumpets." The best ones wear uniforms in styles which haven't graced a battlefield since 1814.

Helping with the marching are the civic organizations: the Lions, Rotary, Kiwanis, Optimists, maybe the Elks and the Moose. The excitement crests when the Shriners put in their appearance, wearing their fezzes and riding their motorcycles and showing off with the best of them.

Topping it off, like the cherry perched atop the whipped cream, there are pom-pom girls. They range in age from pre-school to the upper reaches of junior high. There is no utility to a pom-pom girl other than to look pleasant. They may carry actual pom-poms or they may carry batons. Sometimes all they do is wave their hands. They serve no more useful purpose than a vase of flowers. Agnielli always wanted to hug them, all of them at once.

Firemen's parades aren't patriotic, perhaps, but that statement is meant only in the finicky and literal national sense. The parades are the expression of a community's pride in itself. The hulking vehicles are community vehicles, paid for with a combination of tax dollars, bingo games, bake sales and teen dances. The people manning them are community men and women, who live there and have jobs there. Most of them were born and raised there. They devote their time to doing the training, to keeping up the trucks, and to rushing to fires and emergencies. The civic clubs are the village elders, men and women who raise money for all the good causes anyone can think of, and some that nobody's thought of before. While they do it they're getting together to play cards and have a few beers and maybe do a bit of mutual back-scratching. The marching bands are community kids, and the pom-pom girls are community daughters. We put them on display so we can admire ourselves in the purest and most parochial sense of patriotism.

And so the parade: like Grandma's apple pie the recipe barely changes as the years go by. The trucks pass, lights flashing and sirens sounding. The bands march and play, usually in tune. The Shriners go by, portly men wearing funny hats riding miniature motorcycles, followed by more portly men on full-size motorcycles. The pom-pom girls march, often in step. Dogs howl, singing along with the sirens. Sometimes they run alongside the trucks, enormous doggy tongues hanging from happy doggy mouths, woofing and barking. Toddlers holding Mommy's hand stick plump fingers into mouths full of baby teeth and think "Wow! That's pretty neat!" Hat sellers and trinket salesmen will be happy to sell you things you don't need. You know you'll put them aside somewhere in the back reaches of the closet, but that you want them because you don't want to forget that you went to the Big Parade.

After the parade the trucks are parked and the carnival officially begins. Sometimes there's a speech, sometimes a gate symbolically opens. Sometimes the beginning is simply the grills firing up. The visiting firemen... Well, they visit each other. They eyeball each other's machinery with a critical eye. They argue the merits of Seagraves versus American La France or Pierce, sometimes lamenting the passing of Mack. They drink rapidly warming keg beer out of plastic cups. They swap stories, many of them tall, and they flirt with the local girls or boys, depending on gender and preference. Agnielli couldn't begrudge them any of that. Certainly they earned it. They worked hard enough.

The brown-haired girl sat on the edge of a picnic table. She was one of a group of a half dozen firefighters. She held her cup of beer and she was laughing until the tears ran at a stocky, mostly bald man's joke. She wore blue shorts and a tee shirt with the Company 19 logo on it. She had great, expressive brown eyes and a lissome figure. She had a scab on each knee, bruises on her shins, and a smile that made Agnielli think she'd been a pom-pom girl when she had been smaller.

He liked her instinctively. It was like catching a glimpse of an old friend across a crowded room.

The Dunking Tank

Firehouses make a significant part of their disposable annual budgets at their carnivals. The amusement companies work their areas in rotation, famously unexcited about any one carnival or fair. They bring an assortment of rides that includes the ferris wheel and the merry-go-round, some tame roller coasters, and lots of kiddie rides, all of them more or less traditional. The firefighters make almost no money from this part of the carnival. The rides are mere come-ons, meant to show bright lights and music, to draw crowds.

The crowds come for the bright lights and the rides but they stay to eat funnel cake and cotton candy. They stand in line and shell out willingly for barbecue and pit beef sandwiches and french fries and hot dogs. They wash them down with half gallon soft drinks, and then they eat soft ice cream for dessert, which often ends up running down arms as it melts in the summer heat. There are pizza and peanuts, snow cones and chili, all available to tempt the hungry reveler and empty his wallet. A good carnival can be smelled from six and sometimes ten blocks away, depending on the wind. Each food item sold brings with it a large profit margin. The profits translate into new boots and gloves and fireproof coats and helmets and air bottles for the firefighters, and into oil changes and filters for the trucks.

Even more profitable than the food are the games of chance and skill: ring toss, great roulette wheels, balloons waiting to be pierced with darts, over/under tables, sometimes chuck-a-luck or even staid bingo. Once the relatively small investment is made in the games' hardware -- leased from the carny company for the life of the carnival -- everything is profit. Hurry, hurry, hurry! Step right up! Only a dollar!

King of the attractions is the venerable dunk tank. This consists of a steel target on a swing arm. When struck by a baseball with sufficient force the swing operates a trap mechanism that will drop whomever is occupying the seat of honor into a large tank of water. The occupant -- sometimes a local notable, but more usually one of the firefighters -- can count on going into the tank at least once and sometimes a half dozen times in a half hour.

The dunk tank is in practice a game of chance, not skill. Most people can't throw a baseball very accurately, especially at close range. If they could, the dunk tank would be sadly predictable, even uninteresting. That is especially true when the throwers are young men trying to impress each other and the girls around them.

Just to shade the odds a little more, the occupant of the seat of honor by hallowed tradition invites the young fellows to throw wildly by subjecting them to a constant stream of verbal abuse. They belittle their ability to hit anything at all, much less a 15-inch metal disk with a target painted on it. The prospective dunkee is allowed, even encouraged, to comment on the thrower's looks, manner of dress, hair, grooming, shoes, and even odor. The more abusive the verbalization the less likelihood there is of getting dunked. On the other hand, the more abusive the verbalization the more satisfying the occasional dunk becomes to the dunker. The dunking tank, like so much of life, represents a trade-off.

To Agnielli's delight, the occupant of the seat of honor on this, the last evening of the carnival, was the brown-haired girl he had seen the day the carnival began. She had been into the tank at least once already. That was no surprise. With enough balls thrown in the general direction of the target there was always that statistical chance she would go into the water, if only by accident.

Her clothing still wet and her hair recently wrung, she was now belittling the throwing arm of a young fellow in his 16th or 17th summer: "I've seen you throw!" she hollered. She had, Agnielli considered, a nice voice, if a bit loud. "I'm not worried! Anybody got a good book? How about today's paper? I'm not goin' into the tank this time!"

The lad threw, a good hefty throw that missed the painted target, though by something under the mile she had recently predicted. His face turned red as his friends laughed and she asked him if he really called that a throw. He mumbled something about not being warmed up, sounding sheepish. He dug deep and he spent another dollar, getting three more balls for another try. He missed on all of them, to general derision, because he was throwing much too hard for the short range. By the abject end of it he expected to miss and he met his expectation.

Agnielli stepped up next and he parted with his own dollar. He approached the length of once-white tape on the ground and the girl immediately laid into him with the sharp edge of her tongue. She could see, she told him and the crowd around him, that he was half blind. He should be wearing a hat to cover his funny-looking hair. Even if he did hit the target it wouldn't be hard enough to dunk her. He should just give the balls to somebody else before making himself look like a goof. How about that 10-year-old over there? He was a better pitcher...

He threw the first ball, a careful, wide 3/4 arm throw, rather than overhand. He threw gingerly so as not to twist his back unduly. The ball came spinning off the tips of his fingers, curved slightly despite the short distance it traveled, and hit the target dead center and at good speed. The girl dropped into the water to general applause.

"Awwww! Cindy got wet!" someone laughed.

"Cindy?" Agnielli thought. Well, there were worse names for girls to carry around. Better ones, too, though he supposed she was stuck with the one she had.

She scrambled from the tank, graceful as an otter. She resumed her seat, pulling her hair out of her face and dripping water. She was wearing her blue firehouse shirt and shorts outfit over a one-piece bathing suit of modest cut. He thought it showed good sense on her part.

"Pure luck!" Cindy scolded. "You couldn't do that again in a million--"

He hit the target a second time, again putting the force into his arm and shoulder rather than his back. She went back into the tank with her mouth open, to more laughter.

She came out sputtering, but she came back for more. "Two in a row!" she said, as she resumed her seat. "Lightning does strike twice! Can you--"

He dunked her again, this time before she had even managed to properly seat herself. He smiled and waved as she took her seat again and she gave him a worried look as he made as though to buy more balls.

Instead, he left the dunking tank for awhile, walking gingerly and a little stiffly. He had done his pitching for the evening and his battered body would be indignant about it in the morning.

For now he wandered around and he enjoyed the carnival crowd. He admired the children with their happy smiles. He admired the young mothers, the fathers shepherding their families, the grandparents with favored grandchildren in tow. Best of all was watching the teenage boys strut and be unimpressed. Their carefully bored expressions told the world they'd seen it all before. Between the ages of 12 and 20 one is not expected to laugh, chuckle, giggle or cheer. Enthusiasm is for chumps. All must be studied nonchalance, occasionally punctuated by a tired sneer. Having a good time when a teenager is just too uncool.

His teenage years safely and permanently behind him, Agnielli didn't mind lacking cool. He wore his contentment like a cloak, his good humor like a high silk hat. He could have a laugh ready at a moment's notice. This was a nice town, he had discovered, and it was full of nice people, even the teenagers. And life was overflowing with risible subject matter that had gone right by him when he'd been half his present age.

He waved to the kiddies as they went by on the merry-go-round and he admired the bravery of the couples on the Ferris wheel. Possessed of an imagination that was often far too vivid, he wasn't fond of heights, especially not when swinging back and forth in a seat that simply felt insubstantial. He watched the boys at the shooting gallery, mentally critiquing their stances and the way they held their weapons. He watched the teenage girls traveling in little packs. He had never managed to figure whether that was for their own protection or to provide sufficient weight of numbers to bring down a fellow they fancied. To stay on the safe side he kept his distance, despite the fact that he was too old and stringy to draw their attention.

Eventually he drifted back toward the dunk tank and saw that there was a new occupant in the seat, a young man, as yet unsoaked, wearing a Company 19 tee shirt and ugly white shorts that fell halfway down his calves. He was belittling a burly 12-year-old who had a mean look in his eye. "Little League all-star material," Agnielli thought, as the lad tucked his chin and burned one at the target that, had it struck, would have left a dent in it.

He looked around and saw Cindy coming out of the firehouse, her hair damp, her clothes dry. She recognized him as he approached and she gave him a pleasant but wary smile. "I'm done for the day," she told him. "I'm not going back into the tank!"

"It would be more enjoyable to buy you a hot dog than to dunk you," he suggested by way of a peace offering.

"What're you?" She asked. "A professional baseball player? They brought in a ringer on me? Did Yorty pay you to do that?" Her voice was much nicer without an overabundance of decibels, he decided.

"Nope. I'm just a pretty good ball tosser who happened to be wandering by," he told her modestly. "You're a good sport."

"I'll take a hot dog, thank you. You didn't make it easy! The least you could have done was let me finish what I was saying!"

"I'm Andrea Agnielli," he introduced himself as they got into the short line to buy tickets. "My friends call me Andy. I couldn't see an end in sight to what you were saying."

"I'm Cynthia Hodges," she acknowledged. "My friends usually call me Cindy. But I hate it. Andrea's usually a girl's name in these here parts."

"Andrea Doria wasn't a girl," he pointed out. "I'm originally from Italia, where it's a boy's name. And what's the matter with 'Cindy'?"

"I thought Andrea Doria was a ship that sank long before I was born? It's all the 'Cindy' names, not just 'Cindy.' I hate them all, impartially."

"The ship was named after a fairly ferocious condotierre, a mighty sea-farin' man just like me. His middle name was 'Ruthless,' if I recall correctly. You hate all of them?"

"'Cynthia' sounds snooty and 'Cindy' sounds like an insipid blond who drives a Corvette because she puts out, and 'Cyn' sounds like somebody who shouldn't be allowed in church. And there was Andrea Cavalcanti, pawn of the Count of Monte Cristo. So what're you doing here? You're not local. You're just passing through? Here today, gone tomorrow?"

"Not passing through that quickly. And I'm not Benedetto, at least I hope I'm not. And Andrea Bocelli sings better than I do, though not by much and I have better delivery than he does. I've got a project that I'm working on but I've got to see if it's possible to get all the pieces together and make them fit. Otherwise it'll flub. If I can make it work I'll be here for awhile, maybe for years, maybe for good. You can't use your middle name?"

She made a face. "It's 'Lou.'"

"You had cruel parents, Cindy Lou," he sympathized. "I think I'd name you 'Phoebe.'"

They got hot dogs and lemonade, paying with the tickets he'd bought. The dogs were tasty, grilled almost crunchy on the outside, hot and juicy on the inside, made from actual meat that used to moo rather than from vegetable by-product or aged hens and broth. The buns were fresh without being mushy. The lemonades were almost large enough to bathe in.

"'Phoebe'?" she asked, swallowing a generous chunk of hot dog tinctured with mustard and chopped onion, her voice curious.

"From the Greek. It means 'beautiful,' but it's applied to divinities: Phoebis Apollo, for instance. The goddess Artemis also sometimes went by 'Phoebe.'"

"Awww. That's nice. It's not accurate, but it's nice. So what kinda project are you working on, Mr. Agnielli?"

"There's a dead factory here in town that I'm looking at. It's been empty for years. I'd like to see if I can get it running again, but that involves finding out if it's falling apart yet, then why it went under in the first place and then getting it at the right price if I decide to buy. And I've got to find out why the other furniture factories in North Carolina are going under, one by one. And you're right. You're not a divine beauty, but you're pleasant, which is even better. You have a face that's made for smiling. I noticed you the day of the parade."

"I don't know why they're closing. But if you can get the factory here running again everybody'll be your friend forever. I was just a little girl when it shut down, but the place hasn't been the same since. I saw you after the parade, too. And I don't know if I like you. You should never tell a girl she's not beautiful!"

"Want to have dinner tomorrow?" he asked.

"I'll be in class. Got a test coming up. How about the day after?"

"Tuesday's fine," he agreed.

"You're not gonna buy me another hot dog, are you?"

"My time is your time. You may have another dog if you want it, now or then. Or you can pick a restaurant."

"Someplace where I don't have to look up at the menu, then."

Dinner for Two

Agnielli was prompt picking her up. Cynthia paused and briefly inspected herself in the hallway mirror before she walked out the front door. She decided that she approved, even if he didn't think she was beautiful. It was nice to occasionally dress in blouse, skirt and heels. It gave her a welcome break from her workaday tee shirts, pants and sneakers. It reminded her that she was a girl, a fact in which she occasionally took a certain amount of pride.

She made sure she met him outside the house, as far up the walk as she could. She wanted to make sure not to inflict her mother on him. She was pleased when he held the car door for her. He was wearing a jacket and tie and driving a slightly battered but sparkling clean five-year-old SUV. "The Village Grill's supposed to be the best restaurant in town," she told him. "At least everybody says it is. I can't vouch from experience. Is that okay? Or we could go to Mike's. It's cheaper."

"I haven't been to either yet," he said noncommittally, "so I'll have to trust you. Whichever has the best food."

She took him at his word and went with "best" rather than "familiar" and "cheaper." Mike's was where the firefighters from Station 19 hung out. It was distinguished for its reasonable prices and large portions, rather than for its quality. The most popular item on the menu was the hamburger steak, with Mike's home-made dark brown mushroom gravy, piles of fried onions and a small mountain of fries. Mike kept Tums set out next to the cash register in a bowl like they were after-dinner mints.

The Village Inn had been open for about a year and she hadn't been there yet. Everyone she talked to said it was excellent, the best restaurant in town, if a little pricey. She didn't do pricey well so she routinely stuck with Mike's and with fast food when she didn't live on salads from the grocery store.

She gave Andy directions and there wasn't much of a wait since it was a Tuesday evening. There was a parking place open directly opposite the front door. Inside, the hostess seated them without them having to wait at the bar.

"What do you like to eat?" he asked as he held her chair for her.

"Depends on what day of the week it is. One day I like sea food, the next day I like pork chops and the day after that I'm dying for a steak. This might be a sea food day. How about you?"

"The usual things: owls, chipmunks, anything that's made it onto an endangered species list, things that fit in my mouth..."

"So is Italian food at the top of your list?"

"Most of the time I avoid it in restaurants. When I don't I'm usually disappointed. Most of it's red sauce and too sweet, all overcooked except for the sauce, which always seems to need another couple hours to simmer. I cook pretty well, and if a chef can't cook better than me why should I give him money?"

The middle-aged hostess who seated them was replaced by a young woman in a snow-white blouse and black polyester pants. Her name, she explained listlessly, was Melissa. She would be their waitress that evening. The girl filled their water glasses and presented them with oversized menus inside imitation leather covers. For some reason the Village Grill had a large selection of Caribbean food despite the fact that none of the clientele looked particularly Caribbean. Cynthia ordered cautiously, trying to avoid the expensive side of the menu and anything with "jerk" in its name. It turned out to be a fish night for her.

Andy asked their waitress if the conch fritters were any good and Melissa admitted she had no idea. She'd never tried them and didn't even know if they had any in the kitchen. He erred on the side of caution with roast chicken and some sort of rice dish on the side.

Melissa left them alone and Cynthia took the opportunity to sound Andy out about himself. She was curious about a fresh face in a small town where she'd grown up knowing most of the fellows.

He admitted he had been born in Italy, near Milan. It was an industrial and commercial city in the north of the country. He had come to the U.S. when he was just about to start grade school. His father was an engineer, of the mechanical variety, who had worked for several different companies. That meant Andy had grown up in several different states, all in the north or the midwest. His father had then run his own company for awhile, in Virginia, sold it, and he was now teaching at a university. His parents had divorced before he and his father left Italy. He'd had little to do with his mother since then, despite the fact that she and his father maintained friendly relations. The intervening ocean had something to do with it, he thought.

"Then what?" she asked. "What'd you do when you grew up?"

"The usual boring stuff. Went to school. Got a degree. Joined the Marines. Got out. Got a job. Made some money. Retired."

"Retired? You're... what? 35?"

"Just turned 32. I've had a hard life. I've spent the past year living in a little house down on the shore, mostly fishing. Sometimes drinking beer and scratching myself. Occasionally thinking."

"And you thought about raising a factory from the dead?" she asked. "Doesn't that take a bunch of money?"

"My own and what I can finance, most likely. And lots of time and attention." He shrugged. "We'll see how it works out. It may come to nothing, not happen at all. At this point it's no more than an idea and I might end up doing something else entirely. Maybe I'll become a hobo or join a commune or learn to drive a truck. Maybe I'll become a Doctor of Philosophy and hang out my shingle and philosophize. I've got lots of productive years left, lots of things I've never done. Some of them are even worth doing. But you're much more interesting than I am. Better looking, too. How about you?"

She waved a hand, dismissing the subject of herself. "You sure called that one wrong. I'm boring to the core. You'll be disappointed. Born here. Raised here. Never been much of anywhere else but here. Joined the fire company when I was 15. Graduated high school, couldn't afford college so I worked some, waitressing and retail and landscaping, until I had a bit put aside. Now I'm going to junior college part-time at age 24."


"Criminal justice, since I couldn't think of anything better. I had a fantasy I might become a lawyer. Now I figure maybe I can get accepted to state Highway Patrol if I get good grades. They're pretty picky."

"Why's law school a fantasy?" he asked.

"It takes money to go to school," she explained. "My parents are divorced, too, and my Mom works retail. I can't see loading myself down with debt, so I go as cheap as I can. When I run out of money I work some more. I'm about to finish my two-year degree after only seven years, but it'll be mine, free and clear."

"Good for you. That's a rare approach these days. Do you still see both your parents?"

She shook her head. "My dad's the one who's out of the picture. He quoted Davy Crockett to my Mom and left the both of us. I was maybe four or five. She was searching for Mister Right back then so I can't blame him for walking away. Once you get married you should stop looking and concentrate on what you have, in my not so humble opinion. Mother's always on the hunt. She can't help herself. It's like an obsession: the next one's going to be better than the one she's got."

"'I am going to Texas and you can go to Hell,'" Andy quoted. "And that was it? He just walked away from you? That'd be hard for lots of people to do."

"Look around you. It happens more often than you'd think, just maybe not with the warning. I've got four good friends in the same boat. From what you just told me it happened to you. And I can't really blame him. Mother discouraged him from keeping in touch. She was done with him and she didn't make it a secret. So he put lots of miles between them when he was discarded."

She had a bit more wine, then continued, even as she wondered if she was confiding too much too soon. Normally she didn't blab about her personal life, especially on a first date. But for some reason she pushed on relentlessly: "I don't like her very much, even though I feel sorry for her. She's more like a combination room mate and bad example than a quote 'mother' unquote. The firehouse is where I feel at home. It's where I go when things go wrong or right, when I'm really happy or really miserable. It's my real family, kind of like having 20 or 30 brothers and sisters."

"That happens sometimes," he agreed. "I often felt like that in school and in the Marines. Except that I always had my father to go to as a last resort, regardless of how screwed up anything else might become. He's like the rock of Gibraltar."

"Lucky man," she said enviously. "So why do you say I'm not beautiful?"

"That bothers you?" His voice was mildly surprised. "It really shouldn't. Beauty is perfection. It can be boring and it's often forbidding. You're neither boring nor forbidding, so you can't be beautiful by definition."

"Telling tall tales is an art form around here, you know," she said, warningly.

"I seldom tell tall tales," he told her piously, "and when I do I always preface them with 'There I wuz...'"

She looked at him doubtfully, trying to discern how firmly he was pulling her leg.

"Before Paris stole her away," he explained patiently, "Menelaus probably didn't spend a lot of time looking at Helen, at least not once the honeymoon was over. Men get used to perfection of feature. We may even get used to it too easily. Once we get over being stunned all we see is the person underneath. That's why God made personalities and Man made divorces. When Menelaus wanted a good time he'd probably send for a favorite slave girl or a courtesan, somebody with a sense of humor who knew how to sing and play cards and tell jokes, which I gather Ye Faire Helen didn't. So you should enjoy being pleasant. Beauty fades, pleasant is there for the long haul."

She gave him a doubtful look. "You just tried to tell me I don't want to be beautiful. Do you sell used cars on the side, too?"

"The fact that you're not classically beautiful doesn't mean you're not attractive," he told her patiently. "Far from it, in fact. Your features are very pleasant, but for true beauty you can't have a turned up nose. Your face is slightly too round. You show a bit too much gum when you smile. And if you were mine I'd spank you for that ridiculous tattoo on your calf."

"Oh. Well. Thank you most to death, sir. If I were your what?"

"Girlfriend. Sweetheart. Lover. Wife. It's a desecration to put a cartoony picture on skin like that. Tweety Bird, fergawdsake? I'm surprised you didn't turn into a pillar of salt or get carried off by demons."

"I was 18. My friend Diane got one and I went with her. It costs a lot more to have them taken off than it does to have them put on, and getting them put on isn't that cheap. But I warn you, I'd take grave offense at any attempt to spank me."

He shook his head, getting her misinterpretation of his point. "I only have the urge to do you metaphorical violence. The person or persons unknown who marked you for life, that's a different story. It's like whittling your initials into the Piet? What's a good horse whip go for these days?"

He paused to take a sip of his beer, then went on, his voice patient: "Perhaps I miss a point or two, but to me it doesn't make sense to add flaws to the flawless. There's no reason to gild refined gold, like the man says, or to paint a lily. You have lovely hair and large, very expressive eyes and beautifully shaped lips. Your hands are lovely, despite the fact that you've barked two of your knuckles. You have an eye-catching figure and you're graceful in your movements. And there may be laws against having skin that perfect. Shall I get a guitar and sing to you?"

"You already have, except for the guitar. And you are very nice looking, too, I might add," she added politely.

He shrugged. "Middlin' looks, a naturally hangdog expression, enough intellect to get by. But it's a disadvantage for a man to be pretty so it's just as well. Why aren't you married?"

"Why, Mr. Agnielli! This is so sudden!"

He smiled and she liked his smile. It transformed his face. He was right about the hangdog expression, but when he grinned he looked like a boy caught in the middle of doing pleasant mischief. "I'm merely curious at this point. I'd have thought a pretty girl like you would be busy living happily ever after."

"Meaning a small town girl in her middle twenties is edging into the maiden lady category," she translated. "I'll soon be slightly stale and start to wither. You're being very polite."

"Your translation of what I said didn't sound very polite. And I wasn't even aware that I'd said it in the original. I chose my meaning well, but apparently I chose my words poorly. Either that or you're putting your own meanings on my words. I'd hardly consider a pretty girl of 24 to be an old maid."

It was her turn to shrug. "But I can be, if I want. Getting married isn't the most important goal in my life. It may not even be in the top ten, or even the top twenty.

"Maybe I grew up to be my mother, only in reverse. Maybe I've become the anti-Mother, inoculated against her ways by years of daily exposure. Instead of trying to take all the men in town for a test drive to find out which one is Mister Right, I grew up to be real finicky. I'm not real good at putting on airs. I figure when I do meet the right man I'll know him and things will work and no lesser man will do. I won't have to stalk him. I won't have to lie in wait for him. I won't have to pounce. I won't have to take him for a test drive, either. So far I haven't met him but I'm not worried. I've got lots of friends and I'm never lonely and I usually have a good time."

"I guessed that from your face. Your eyes say you've got a happy soul. Shall we linger over coffee or go for a walk?"

"Walk. I think I ate too much." She had barely noticed the process of filling and emptying her mouth.

She waited while he paid the check and left more tip than their indifferent waitress rated. When they walked into the evening air he took her hand. It seemed a natural thing to do.