“WANTING” * Fiction * Mike Lewis-Beck

Hilda has it all. She’s 42, mother of bubbly two-year-old Todd, and a professor of intellectual property law, where she has just made a bundle—her share in an inheritance suit deploying ‘The Eustace Diamond Defense’—which persuaded the judge to allow Mrs. Mandolini to keep the family diamonds her late husband, olive oil magnate Giuseppe Mandolini, had lavished upon her.  Besides these personal and professional triumphs, she has just won a weight-lifting trophy at her fitness club, for executing a 190-pound deadlift (second place in her division). She should feel good, even great. But she doesn’t. Why? Because she has no friends. She yearns for a pal, to share confidences and have a glass of pinot grigio. She doesn’t even have small talk, not since she separated from Herbert, thirteen months ago. In their SUV, he talked about gas mileage—endlessly.  In bed, he reported the number of cars he heard passing the house, before he got up for work. He did take little Todd to their baby-sitting coop, but he would just drop him off. Unlike Rick, another dad in the coop, he didn’t even talk to Todd, remarking “I got nothing to say to a two-year-old.” Tonight Hilda will have dinner with Rick, something to look forward to.

Rick’s age 44 and a carpenter. They met when he came to the house to install cherrywood cabinets above the new soapstone countertops. He rubbed the cherrywood, studying it, marking it. Moving around the kitchen he left an old-fashioned scent, English Leather, she thought it was. Before he cut the wood, he wiped his hands on his orange-brown flannel shirt, the kind her older brother, Steve, liked to wear. She and Steve built a tree house in their backyard, then hid out, and told stories about flying to the moon, climbing the water tower, and how many foot-long hot dogs they could eat at the county fair. They talked about where babies came from. Once their mom gave Steve a ‘facts of life’ pamphlet from the Methodist minister and they poured over it. Always, in the tree house, they looked down on the world and speculated about the doings of the folks below. They would camp out there in summers, sniff the clover, watch fireflies, catch the breeze. Her girlfriends would tease her, call her ‘tomboy,’ but she didn’t care. Steve, an army medic, was killed in Iraq. Sometimes now, on her back porch, she would light a camp-candle in Steve’s memory.

*

As she waited for Rick, in a window booth in Paolo’s Pizza, she hoped he would put her at ease, like Steve. She watched him swing open the door, pat the Gondola Boatman totem on its head, and raise his palm to her, as in a high-five.

“Herbert told me you liked anchovies,” said Rick, as they puzzled over the categories on the outsize plastic menu.

“Herbert likes anchovies. I don’t,” answered Hilda. “He never listens.”

“Sorry about the separation,” said Rick. “I understand, from when Wanda and I divorced. It takes time, but you’ll get there.”

“But where do I want to get? I want someone to hunt morel mushrooms with me, in my timber outside of town. Herbert never left his TV Hawkeye football, and Todd’s too little. My colleagues say No, afraid they’ll get poison ivy.”

Rick absorbed this discontent, then said: “How about pepperoni and that red wine that turns your lips purple?”

“I guess I’m complaining.…”

“No worries. I hear ya. You want someone to do stuff with. I used to hunt morels at my grandpa’s, in his woods. Next weekend is Houby Days in Cedar Rapids, peak of the season for these morsels. What about Saturday?”

“Really?”

“Yup. We can have someone in our coop tend to Todd and Ellie. What if I fetch you in my truck and we head out to your woods, say 10am?”

*

You learn how to hunt mushrooms if you are lucky. You learn from a friend, or from stumbling over them. You learn, then you forget, because the season’s short and the year’s long. Still, once on a trail, eyes steady to the ground, the magic would come back to Hilda, like now, walking the trails with Rick. Suddenly, she’d spy dwarf caps, lover heads, sea creatures, all rising up from the green timber, standing by a chorus of May apples. “Here!” she jabbed with her walking stick. “Some lovely Yellows.” She bent over, took out her Swiss Army knife, severed a head, dropped it into her carrier. Seeing a fresh morel, in its prime, reminded her of how they looked like erect penises. She blushed and hoped Rick didn’t notice, as that was not on her agenda.  She concentrated on the left-lip of the trail and told Rick to study the right-side.

In no time he exclaimed: “Check these out. Up from the rot, next to this dead oak.” He opened his Barlow and began cutting loose the protruding tips. He stopped, said: “I feel like the Red Queen, shouting ‘Off with their heads!”

Hilda examined his harvest. “Quite a haul, those Greys. Especially tasty. And you even dress like the Red Queen,” she said, laughing and tugging at his red feed cap.  “Let’s tote these to my place and make a lunch.”

Rick drove them back into town, taking the winding way, a gravel road over the glacial moraine, just outside Solon. His old Toyota pickup made for a rocky ride and a dusty one, since he had rolled his window down. He popped a vintage cassette into the dashboard player—

Jefferson Airplane chasing the “White Rabbit.” He asked Hilda if these mushrooms would make him small or tall. “You are already tall,” she said. Rick closed the window and they travelled in dreams until he pulled into her driveway. “The kitchen awaits. We’ll get these beauties into a frying pan.”

On the soapstone countertop the triumphal hunters sorted their find by color, condition, and size. They paused to admire the blue ceramic bowl, filled with fresh, trimmed, bug-free mushrooms. Hilda sighed. A forest fragrance perfumed the air. She reached for a frying pan, added olive oil and butter, put the stove burner on simmer. Rick grabbed a cutting board, threw mushroom slices into the pan, along with chopped garlic. Hilda tossed in sea salt and, at the same time, placed two pottery plates in the warming oven. The cooking smells riveted them. Hilda broke lose, moving to the fridge for that opened bottle of rosé she remembered. Rick stirred the sauté, took out the plates, loaded them, and plopped them on the counter. Hilda laid down forks, two wine glasses, and a baguette—which Rick tore into. Hilda interrupted, handing him a half-pour of the wine. They toasted to the hunt. Then, they each devoured a serving—or two—of this primal dish. Hilda shouted: “I’m eating earth!” After the second serving, they spread out on the living room’s Belgian carpet and fell asleep.

*

Sunday morning Hilda, between sips of her latte, has been feeding Todd spoonfuls of apple sauce. She’s just put down her Trollope novel—He Knew He Was Right— in order to read a text message from Rick—a silly poem, broken up by typos, followed by an invitation:

 

SPRING MUsHROOMS

risingg up frome the greenm timber.

I sever yo,

split your in half.,,,fffxx5

Morels cute, nextext to a flore of violets.

French butts to tothe pan,

mushroomso simmer.

Morel fllesh, finger fresh.34%%

Istill paste the garlicks on mye fingertips.

I’m a poet, don’t you know it? (maybe with a thick thumb) How about the Arts Fest Concert next Saturday night? Rick

Hilda did not have to think long. She’d had fun mucking about in the timber and had not been on anything like a Saturday night of community music for ages. She texted back:

Hi Rick. Sure. When and where?

*

Rick and Hilda sat cross-legged on his grandma’s quilt, at the south side of the Old Capitol, listening to Iris DeMent sing, “Let the Mystery Be.” The sky dazzled with stars and the air had a spring coolness. The audience, mostly couples or families, was all over the lawn, watching Iris wind down. She finished with a last round of the refrain:

Everybody is a wonderin’ what and where they all came from
Everybody is a worryin’ ’bout where
They’re gonna go when the whole thing’s done
But no one knows for certain and so it’s all the same to me
I think I’ll just let the mystery be.

With that, Iris bowed and the crowd clapped sincerely, as if they were collectively pondering her message. Or maybe they wantrd another song. Iris put her mouth to the microphone and said, “In spite of myself I’m gonna sing you another, entitled ‘In Spite of Ourselves.’”  Popping fingers diminished, as she began. Rick handed Hilda a peanut butter and jelly, on whole wheat, and two fingers of pinot grigio in a paper cup.

“A PBJ? This the best you can do?” She smiled, displaying a just-right gap between her two front teeth.

“When I was in the merchant marine I lived on peanut butter.” Mocking himself, Rick pretended to throw an anchor overboard.

“Sounds mysterious.”

“Like Iris said, ‘let the mystery be’. Look up. Bet you can’t find the Big Dipper.”

“Everyone can find the Big Dipper.” When she turned to speak Rick could only see a moonlit face.

“OK,” he hesitated.  “Tonight Venus is retrograde, meaning bad luck.”

“Not for me,” countered Hilda. “Catch the moon.” She poked at the sky with her thumb. “A crescent, but backward. My Czech grandmother had a chant: ‘Young, young moon, your crest is golden, bless me with money.’”

“When you wish upon a star…” Rick let out a Judy Garland version. He dropped his voice. “Who’s allowed to count the stars?  Only an unmarried person.”

“Start counting then, Mr. Bachelor Buttons.”

“For luck, you have to begin on the right. You are the first star on my right, with twinkles in your eyes.” He touched her neck and kissed its nape.

“You shouldn’t do that, Rick.”

“That’s why it’s called ‘necking.’” Rick could not resist the bad pun.

“Sorry. I’m not in this for that.” Hilda rose, brushed off her blue denim shirt, then extended a helping hand. “Please take me home.”

*

Hilda had good workouts at Muscle Bound, the gym near her office. She did weights there, and usually trained with the men, but today decided she should join up with the women. After all, they were her direct competitors in the meets, including the powerlifting contest in a few weeks. She always started with stretches, alternating her arms down and across, toward her toes. Then waist twists, a few pullups on the overhead bar, before she turned to the barbells. She favored free weights; she liked the gnarly feel of the grooves in the steel handles. After a set of Arnie standing presses and high-rep half-squats, she would do four sets of the day’s powerlift. Today the deadlift, her specialty—beginning with 75 pounds, then 125, then 170, then 190. Next came some belly dancing moves to loosen her hips, as warmup to a maximum effort—200. Sweat soaked her jersey. After three deep inhales, she even caught a whiff of it. She was about to dive for the bar, when someone shouted, “Hey Hildie, that’s some wiggle you got in your get-a-long.”

Startled, she glanced over. She did not like being called ‘Hildie.’ She recognized a law school colleague: Beatrice—Beat for short. “Didn’t know you pumped iron, Beat. What if I’d dropped this puppy on my toe?”

“Yeah right. No chance,” said Beat. “I haven’t lifted since The Price Wars. Just back at it. How about catching a brewski after the showers?”

This rowdy invitation put Hilda off her game. It had been months since she’d had any back and forth with Beat. She toweled the sweat on her brow, then flipped the towel at a weight plate. “Where for the beer?”

“George’s. They got Red Hook on tap.”

“Red Hook?”

“Ya. See you there when the big hand’s on the little hand.”

*

At George’s, they took a front table because Beat wanted to watch the ‘cute farmers’ from Rainbow Fields. “They’re winding down the lettuce season, black-seeded Simpson. The crew boss, Harriet, picked so many hours she threw a disc, like you’re liable to do with the deadlift BS,” said Beat. Hilda’s eyes widened. She shook off her green corduroy jacket and tossed her flat cap, before applying Carmex on her calluses.

Sadie appeared in a tee-shirt covered with clowns. “What you havin,’ you two?”

“Pint of Red Hook,” said Beat. “And one for my pal.”

“No thanks,” said Hilda. “Give me a Guinness, in a bottle, room temperature.” Sadie went off for the beers. “What’s with the Red Hook?” she asked.

“A beer my buddies like,” answered Beat. “I’m taking your temperature about dumping Herbert.” She placed her Birkenstocks next to Hilda’s Converse, under the table.

“He never talked to me.” She gripped the mole skin patches on her elbows. The beer arrived, along with a basket of pretzels. “Why are you talking to me now, Beat?” She chugged half her Guinness. Beat chugged her whole beer and wiped her mouth on a plaid sleeve.

Hilda said: “You. Queen of Torts. Office at the other end of the hall. You never knock.”

Beat wolfed a pretzel, before she shoved her choppy brown bob. “Lesbihonest. I’m out of the closet. I thought maybe we could be friends.” She unfolded her glowing pearl hands. Hilda marveled she could maintain such skin tone, since the dumbbells she used had no sleeve coats and appeared abrasive as hell. But here Beat’s palms were, an offering of friendship.

“Why me?”

“I watched you stride to the Department Chair’s office, so in charge, wearing your Harris tweed suit and a red ascot, carrying that old cowhide briefcase. Plus, with that skunk strip down the middle of your hair, you had the look of a Modern Major General.”

“That was my grandfather’s briefcase,” Hilda interrupted. “That day you saw me I had successfully executed the Eustace Diamond Defense.” She reflected on the elation that gave her and felt glad Beat didn’t mind the gray streak on top.

Beat had more to say on the ‘Why’ question: “You are in the woods, a living rock—

camping, making fires, hunting mushrooms—I heard about that from Rick.”

“You know Rick?”

“We walk our dogs in the park over on Mormon Trek. Both of us have hounds. He told me you were one lonesome lady.”

“What else?” Hilda felt apologetic about the bluntness, but that was her.

“He said you went out a couple times but it didn’t click.”

Hilda clinked her glass against Beat’s. She clinked Hilda’s back. “Our glasses are empty. Want another round?”

“If you do,” answered Beat.

Hilda motioned to Sadie, who sped over, pad and pencil at the ready. “Sadie, what are those clowns about on your shirt?”

“Circus stuff. Circus coming to the fair next week. You like it?”

“Yes. Real down home. Could you please bring us two more beers?”

“You bet.”

They both, these two colleagues and lawyers, watch Sadie walk away, as if she were going on a Mission Impossible.

Hilda blinked first. “Tell me, Beat. How does it feel to be—as you put it—

out of the closet?”

“I feel free. Myself. Meeting new people, especially the farmers at Rainbow, who like to joke, raise hell, and dig in the dirt. Alison and I were together. She harvested turnips and studied philosophy. We argued into the night about the Stoics, the need to ‘do the right thing.’ We huddle ‘round her fireplace and obsess on ‘the meaning of life’ and how women aggies can make a big difference. We adopted two cats, Fred and Adele—named after the dancers— and made them chase string. Then she met Carmen. You know how that goes.”  Hilda last week heard Herbert had met someone else, a chiropractor named Millicent. But that was different from what happened to Beat: Hilda really didn’t like Herbert.

“I do—and I don’t—know how it goes,” answered Hilda. “Let’s meet once a week, have a beer, and chat. You talk philosophy to me. I’ll tell you about mushroom hunting. We can take turns buying. I might even try a Red Hook.”

“A great IPA.”

“Oh, no. I hate IPA.”

 

—About the Author—

Mike Lewis-Beck writes from Iowa City. He has pieces in American Journal of Poetry, Alexandria Quarterly, Apalachee Review, Aromatica Poetica, Big Windows Review, Birdseed, Blue Collar Review, Columba, Cortland Review, Chariton Review, Eastern Iowa Review,Ekphrastic Review, Frogmore Papers, Guesthouse, Heavy Feather Review, I-70 Review, Inquisitive Eater, Pennine Platform, Pilgrimage, Seminary Ridge Review, Southword, the tiny journal and Wapsipinicon Almanac, among other venues. He has two books of poems, Rural Routes, and Shorter and Sweeter, both published by Alexandria Quarterly Press.

Check out his previous story with us, “Car With Cake”!