When she picked up the phone and the caller said “Jane,” she didn’t recognize Ambrose’s voice. She hesitated and replied, “Yes.” Silence followed. Perhaps he didn’t recognize her voice either.
Adam Dorr, Jane’s husband, had never bothered with caller I.D., even after he became relatively well known. Strangers phoned all the time, saying they’d seen this image or that one and been touched by his work. Adam liked to hear from strangers. Their calls were never inconvenient, no matter the hour, never intrusive. Jane didn’t share his opinion. One night he had interrupted their infrequent lovemaking to reach across her and pick up the phone, the ring tone trailing off into silence as he leaned away from her toward the receiver.
It was not an emergency message from one of their children, as he suggested it might be. Her excitement trailed off into annoyance and disappeared all together as Adam stood in profile in front of the moonlit window, his interest in her noticeably waning as he discussed images and edition numbers. When Adam mentioned the prints, their sizes, Jane laughed and pulled her nightgown around her.
That call had been from Ambrose, Ambrose Gray. A few months later he mounted a show of Adam’s work in his Manhattan gallery. At a recent auction a signed copy of the exhibition catalog fetched a thousand dollars. Jane owned three signed copies but was hanging on to them, hoping their value would increase. Since Adam’s death and the subsequent robbery, his prints, which were seldom available, had doubled in price.
“Jane, this is Ambrose,” the voice said.
“You sound different,” Jane said.
“Same me, just older. Do you remember Hugh Ernst? I sold him the gallery. I’m living in North Carolina now.”
“Asheville,” Ambrose said. “From my window I can see the hotel where Fitzgerald hung out one summer.”
Jane was tempted to remind Ambrose that North Carolina and New Hampshire were in the same time zone. Eleven o’clock in both places. Rather late for phone chat. She was holding the phone and standing in front of the same window where Adam had stood. He had died two years earlier. The memory pained her. Instead of lying in bed watching him, her sullenness growing by the moment, now she wished she could sit up and take him in again, his lovely body naked in the moonlight.
“Do you miss it?” Jane asked.
“The gallery? I keep my hand in. I rent a small space across the street. More painting than photography. I do lots of appraising, estate collections mostly. But the other day a man brought in one of Adam’s pictures. The owner’s rather desperate to sell. He needs the money, and he discovered from the internet that I had represented Adam. The photograph is quite good, and I think it’s genuine.”
“Adam didn’t do that.”
“This is gift. ‘To R.K. from A.D.’ I suppose R.K. is Ralph Kline. Did you know him?”
Jane recalled a thin man, athletic, who drove in one weekend from somewhere in the Middle West intending to ski. Instead of snow, it rained, and the man spent time assisting Adam in the darkroom, and Adam had spent time keeping the man company at the bar at the inn, where he was staying.
“I met him,” Jane said. Ralph had been cold to her. She hadn’t liked him and was relieved that he was sleeping at the inn, not on the fold-out couch in their study.
“Jane, I realize you think I was unfair to Adam, but I wish you would have a look at this picture. I want your opinion. You’re the expert. You catalogued all of Adam’s work. I’ve never seen this image. And, frankly, it’s crossed my mind that there may have been images that existed but were never offered for sale. Ones that were in Adam’s office when it was robbed.”
“Can you describe the picture?”
“I’d rather not. Jane, if you’re available, I’ll send you a plane ticket.”
“Ambrose . . .”
“Business, Jane. I want your professional opinion. By the way, Cheryl Glover has a condo below mine. She would love to see you.”
The hour was late, too late for any more discussion, and Jane hadn’t been away from the village since Adam’s funeral and knew that she needed to distance herself, at least for a while. In New Hampshire cold rain was washing away the snow and bringing out the blackflies. Last year she had carried imported daffodils to his grave and wept, imagining his body decaying under the slurry of damp earth.
“What’s it like there?” Jane asked.
“Glorious,” Ambrose said, and she said she would fly down to see him.
Jane hung up and returned to the window. Moonlight paled the water in the pond between the birches. She had been twenty when Adam had appeared in her father’s hardware store to buy enough paint to change the color of the study in the modest Colonial he had just acquired. Real estate transactions in the village were quickly known to all. “The Miller house,” Jane’s father said, adding that Sam Miller had been fond of brown. “A brown study,” Adam answered, pausing as if he expected Jane’s father to laugh. He did not, and Adam went on to say that the other rooms needing paint would have to wait until he could afford to hire someone better with a brush than he was. Buying a house had severely reduced his bank account.
Having completed her sophomore year at college, Jane was helping her father at the store. “Think you can hire a painter this summer?” Jane’s father asked. “Not until August,” Adam answered, aware of Jane, balanced on a stepladder, a duster in her hand, looking down from a shelf of lighting fixtures.
“Janie’s a good painter,” her father said. “She’d probably be willing to start now and settle up later.”
“Yes?” Adam asked. “Yes,” Jane said. She climbed down and shook his hand. “I’m Adam Dorr,” he said. “Jane Moffit,” she said.
“Waiting to buy furniture, too?” Jane asked. She had shown up to begin work, a warm day for early June. She was already uncomfortable in her flannel shirt and painter’s overalls. Adam wore a T-shirt, very tight on him, khaki shorts, white socks, and red tennis shoes. She followed him from room to room. One of the bedrooms had a bed and a chair, the other no furniture at all. Empty the bookshelves in the study except for a couple of cameras. A card table and two folding chairs filled the dining room. In the kitchen Jane found a small selection of glasses, plates, pots and pans.
They painted the bedrooms first, French blue. Adam inquired about college. Despite her father’s wishes that Jane study nursing, she was majoring in humanities. She might teach or go to law school. Money was a problem. Adam told her that he was a photographer. He was renting studio and darkroom space on Susan Street. Jane asked if renting on Main Street wouldn’t be better for a photography business. Adam smiled and said he didn’t shoot weddings and events like that. Photography wasn’t his business. Art was. Jane didn’t know much about art and photography, but she knew enough about money to understand that Adam, despite depleting his bank account to buy the house, had some.
He also had long blond hair and smooth skin tanned from several weeks in Florida. Behind his wire-rimmed glasses, his eyes were blue. His T-shirt, flecked with paint, called attention to his biceps and deltoids. She was aware that he was studying her, and, as the western light lengthened, she studied him. She hoped the excitement was mutual.
“What are you thinking?” she asked. They were nearly finished with the second bedroom. All the windows were open, but heat enveloped them. Sweat soaked Jane’s shirt.
“I think you should take off your clothes and let me shoot a roll of film.”
“Of me, you mean?”
“But I’m a mess.”
“That’s the point. You’re tired and dirty. I’ll get a camera,” he said.
When he returned, he found her holding her bundled clothes against her chest.
“I’ve never done this before,” she said.
“That’s why you’ll be good at it,” he said. He stretched out his arms, and she gave him her clothes, in doing so she wondered if she indicated consent, surrender, or was requesting his patience and understanding.
“What should I do?” she asked.
Adam suggested she stand at the window and look out, which she did. The camera clicked several times while he moved around her. Then he suggested that she lean over, her hands on the window sill. More clicks. Then he suggested she turn slightly. He moved around her again. Finally he lay on the floor, pointing the lens up at her.
“Finished,” he said, setting down the camera, but lying there, taking her in. She turned her back to the window and concealed only her uncertainty of what Adam felt. Jane knew very well what she felt.
“No you’re not,” she said. “Now it’s your turn.”
Adam laughed. “Naked, you mean?”
She stared back. “Yes.”
He stood up, took off his shirt, untied his tennis shoes, pulled off his socks. Hands on his waist, he paused. “I hope you have more in mind than window shopping.”
“Definitely,” she said. He loosened his belt, tugged down his shorts and underwear. What Jane observed left no doubt as to Adam’s feeling.
“First . . .”
She knew the questions. She pressed her hand against his mouth. “Yes, I’ve done this before. No, I won’t get pregnant.”
Later that week, Adam bought two sets of sheets, which over the summer needed frequent washing at the village Laundromat. A hammock strung between the birches at the pond proved unsatisfactory, but an air mattress ordered from the L. L. Bean was very satisfactory. Afterward, they soaped themselves in the pond, dried off, and sometimes enjoyed themselves on the air mattress again.
Jane turned twenty-one in August. Adam was thirty-one. “Don’t go back to school,” he said. “Let’s get married.”
The photographs Adam took in the bedroom were some of those he carried to Ambrose’s gallery. “Quite appealing,” in Ambrose’s opinion. He held one up, glancing from it to Jane, who had accompanied Adam to New York. “How old were you?” Ambrose asked. “Almost twenty-one,” Jane said. “Lovely,” Ambrose said. “Sexy and complex.”
Having two children had thickened Jane’s figure. On the other hand, Adam, an avid gym user, hadn’t changed very much. If anything, he was even more handsome. Jane didn’t like to travel with him. It made her aware of how other women looked at him and how much he liked it. One day he who had so casually said “Let’s get married,” could just as casually say, “Let’s get divorced.”
Jane was sitting at the kitchen table, drinking her second cup of coffee, trying to work her way into the crossword puzzle in the morning paper. A southwestern rat, five letters—Jane didn’t know, but Adam might have known. He’d photographed there, small towns in Arizona and New Mexico, a couple of weeks each winter over several years. Adam had invited her to accompany him, but after her father died she’d taken over the store, and though those weeks weren’t especially busy ones, she stayed home. Usually Adam met up with some other photographers, people who had known each other for a long time. Ralph Kline might have been one of them. She couldn’t remember if Adam had mentioned him or not.
The phone rang . “Janie, Cheryl. Sweetie, I didn’t wake you, did I?”
“I’m not like Adam. I’m an early riser,” Jane said.
“Oh, sweetie, are you still grieving?”
“No, I’m just lonely.”
“Well, we have the cure. Last night after Ambrose called you, he called me. I do wish he’d give a hoot what time it is, but anyway I can’t wait to see you. My guest room is small but comfortable. In fact my whole apartment is small but comfortable.”
“What about Byron? Won’t I be in the way?”
“Sweetie, what do you remember about him?”
“Yes, six feet five. I have a lot more space since he left.”
“I didn’t know. Are you all right?”
“Better than ever. Thank goodness I never agreed to marry him. It’ll be you and me, unless you count Ambrose. After a few cocktails he tends to drop in. When I turned fifty I gave up the hard stuff, but Ambrose is sixty-five and acts thirty-five. His liver must be exhausted.”
“He wants me to look at one of Adam’s photographs, or one that might be something Adam did. You haven’t seen it, have you?”
“Ambrose never shows me any pictures, just himself. I have seen a photograph of you in his apartment. I go there sometimes.”
She and Cheryl discussed arrangements and schedules. “You’ll like it here,” Cheryl said. Later in the day Jane found the ticket confirmation in her e-mail. First class from Manchester to Charlotte. A commuter plane from Charlotte to Asheville. Since 9/11 Jane had only flown a couple times, once to Florida with Adam, once to Atlanta to visit their son, who had since moved back to Boston, where his brother lived. Jane had never flown first class. The fare surprised her, but Ambrose could afford it.
Jane wondered if he and Cheryl were lovers. Was lovers even the right word? Didn’t lovers imply frequent . . . frequent what? Trysts? Trysts, my god. How out of touch am I? Jane asked herself. In fact, couldn’t people be lovers without having sex at all? Maybe friends with benefits? Or did that refer to younger people, members of a generation who didn’t think that older people had sex. The couples in Viagra commercials, approaching middle age, were . . . well, actors, not real people with real lives about to sleep with each other.
When Jane first met Ambrose, she supposed he was gay. You’re wrong, Adam informed her. He named several women with whom, according to Adam, Ambrose had been involved. Perhaps involved was the word Jane was looking for. Were Cheryl and Ambrose involved?
Evening now, Jane sat at the kitchen table again, the radio turned to NPR. She allowed herself two glasses of wine a day. She sipped her first glass, a pinot noir from the bargain rack at the state store. What did Cheryl mean, Ambrose ‘showing himself’? Then much to Jane’s surprise she imagined Ambrose in full manhood positioning it between Cheryl’s legs. Jane felt weak, her tongue stuck to the roof of her mouth, stomach aswim. For the first time since Adam’s death, she wanted sex.
West, in the hazy distance, mountains rose higher and higher. The guide dog, a brown shepherd, lying in the aisle near the bulkhead row, whined as the plane swooped and swayed through turbulent layers of air. The airport was small, only one other plane on the ground.
“Quaint, isn’t it?” Cheryl said. She and Ambrose both hugged her, Cheryl longer than Ambrose, handsome with his leather jacket. Jane’s imagination had given him dark hair, but it was gray, thick, and curled slightly at the ends. He left them at the baggage carrousel while he retrieved his car.
Cheryl stood with her arm around Jane’s. They had been friends for thirty years. Cheryl and her husband had moved to New Hampshire from Connecticut and bought a house on the lake, a house from the 1920s that came with bad plumbing, mold, peeling paint, and high taxes. Jane, who sold real estate part time, was the agent and volunteered to help Cheryl redecorate. The children were in school until three. Jane and Cheryl took long lunch breaks, drank wine, and eat sandwiches made from left-over lobster, roast chicken, or filets. Jane complimented Cheryl on her menus. Cheryl complimented Jane’s painting skills; Jane recounted the events of the day she and Adam had painted the bedrooms. He asked you and you just stripped off your clothes? I couldn’t do that. Why not? Jane asked. Other men had seen me naked. At least Adam wanted more than sex. My wanting it took him by surprise.
“You look great,” Cheryl said, leaning over and kissing Jane’s cheek. “How’s the widget business?”
“I sold it.”
“For a good price?”
“For a fair price.”
“Such fun that summer, sanding and painting, stripping floors, peeling off linoleum. Seems like a century ago.”
“What’s the house look like now?”
“You wouldn’t recognize it. Pink stucco.”
“The town’s changing.”
“It changed us, Larry and me.”
“Where’s he now?”
“In California, Palm Springs. He manages a country club.”
“What about the blonde?”
“He left me. She left him.”
Jane lifted her suitcase from the carrousel. Ambrose’s car was waiting at the curb. Blue sky, dogwoods and redbud trees in full flower. “Nature welcomes you,” Ambrose said over his shoulder. From the backseat Jane tried to figure out from the way Ambrose and Cheryl spoke to each other or looked at each other whether they were involved with each other or not.
They lived downtown in the Grove Arcade, a restored Art Deco building, shops on the first floor, offices on the second, then three residential floors. Ambrose stopped his car on the wide sidewalk and aimed his remote at the gate to the underground parking. “Gays used to cruise this block for pick-ups,” Ambrose said. An odd fact to start off with, Jane thought.
Passes were required to access the residential levels. The elevator stopped on the third floor, where Cheryl lived. Pots of peace lilies decorated the hallway. Cheryl unlocked her door. Ambrose followed behind Jane and carried her luggage into the guest room. Jane stood admiring the high ceiling and ductwork.
“Cocktails at five,” he said, bowing and shutting the door.
“Sweetie,” Cheryl said squeezing Jane’s hand, “I’m surprised you agreed to visit. Have you and Ambrose made up?”
The motif was black and white: a white couch, a black rug, black and white photographs on the walls, the enormous television screen a black mirror. Jane looked away from her reflection.
“From the beginning Ambrose praised Adam’s work and wanted the exclusive right to represent it. Then, for no apparent reason, Ambrose wrote Adam a letter cutting him loose, dismissing him. Ambrose wanted to move on, fill the stable with some fresh ponies. Never mind that Adam’s work was selling. Never mind the years Ambrose had represented him. I was disappointed with Ambrose, but I didn’t feel the anger Adam felt.”
“Ambrose returned all of Adam’s work, and Adam never tried to sell another picture. How much was the cancer that wasn’t diagnosed yet and how much was anger, I don’t know. Adam retreated. I’m sure of that.”
“So you ended up with Adam’s work.”