After work on Friday, I decided to head down to the Banke Tavern for something to eat. I didn’t feel much like cooking that evening. It was as if I might disturb the scene of Jack’s visit the night before, that something of his substance remained behind that I wished to preserve intact. The whole thing called for celebration in any event. To save parking hassles I left my car on Court Street, not far from Bob and Lucy MacPherson’s house, intending a pleasant walk through the narrow residential streets to the south of Strawbery Banke. It was a beautiful evening, the start of the fine weather promised for the next day and our trip to the Isles of Shoals. The mid-July sun still rode high in the western sky, warm and bright. My office at the College had been hot earlier, but in Portsmouth the sea breeze blew cool and bracing, rattling the trees and upending their leaves in a flurry of soft, summery greens.
I walked down Court Street toward Prescott Park, then turned right into Pleasant Street. Saltbox houses with while clapboard siding lined the slender sidewalks in that area, some of them stately three-story homes larger than MacPherson’s, others no more than Cape Cod cottages. Except for the automobile traffic on the streets and the sound of a jet ‘plane flying overhead, I might’ve stepped back into the Eighteenth Century. A small park lay just beyond a tiny street that branched off across from one of the larger houses. It was well-shaded and the sparse lawn suffered as a result. I found it an urban setting of natural beauty that I visited frequently on my evening walks. An old woman sat on a lone, sunken bench by the street, a plastic grocery bag on the ground in front of her. Despite the summer temperatures, she wore a grey raincoat that looked two sizes too large for her and a head scarf that flapped in the breeze. I looked at her and felt sad. I imagined a bleak future as her life neared its end, probably in poverty, friendless, displaced by the reckless pace and derailed realities of the late nineteen-eighties. I determined to wave ‘hello’ as I passed by, but she never looked up.
The front door of the Banke Tavern stood open, as it often did in fine weather. I walked in thinking about what I might have for supper. The entry hall was empty, though I could hear muffled voices and the muted clinking of glassware coming from the rooms inside. It was too early for the night life and the Banke Tavern was far enough out of the way that few people stopped there for drinks on the way home from work. Privacy was one of its distinct advantages, to my thinking. I took a stool at the bar to cool off after my walk before going in for dinner.
After a moment I heard a familiar voice in the corridor. Roger Handsworth stepped into the bar. I froze stiff. He offered his hand and greeted me as if we were old friends.
“Nice to see you. I didn’t know you came here,” he said.
“There’s a lot about me you don’t know,” I said, borrowing a line from Jack. I immediately wished I hadn’t. My uneasiness at seeing him overwhelmed me and I scrambled for something more to say. “I haven’t heard from you in a while. How have you been?”
“I’m doing fine, thanks,” he said. “Very busy these days, what with bank examiners and the rest. You?”
“Fine. What are you up to at the Banke Tavern on a Friday evening?”
“I’m entertaining some people from the home office. Auditors, actually. I figured this would be the best place to do it. They were supposed to be here at six. I’ve got a table reserved in the big dining room.” His voice was not only softer than Jack’s but richer, more soothing, the way it was the first time we spoke at Cotburn’s party. “What about you?”
I glanced about nervously. “I was supposed to meet a friend here for dinner, but she bailed out earlier, so here I am.” It was a lie, of course, but it was the first thing that popped into my head.
“I wonder where my people are. Probably hung up in traffic or something.” He smiled, but I suspected he was as uneasy as I. “Can I buy you a drink while we’re waiting?”
“Let’s go sit down where we can talk.”
We walked into the first room on the right. This was my favorite room, cozy and warm, smaller than the others. I loved the colors, too. The salmon walls were trimmed in grey, and atop the great fireplace mantle stood two brass candlesticks, with a pewter charger propped up against the wall between them. It was the room Jack and I sat in that first night after the contra dance. Roger motioned toward a table next to a window facing the street and we sat down. A moment later Peter found us.
“Hello, Anne,” he said. “Can I get you a porter?”
“Yes, thank you, and a menu, please,” I said. The thought of Peter having recognized me in a setting so intimately connected with Jack filled me with satisfaction. He smiled without facing me. I blanched to think he’d never seen me there with anyone else.
Roger followed us back and forth with his eyes, then ordered a glass of white wine. Peter slipped silently away. “Do you know him?” Roger said.
“His name’s Peter,” I said. “He owns the place.”
“Yes, I know. We went to school together. His folks lived just down the street from us when we were kids. I helped him get the money to start this place. Sounds like you come here often.”
“I come here sometimes with Jack Miller. We like it a lot.”
“Me, too. I didn’t know you were seeing Jack.”
“I’ve been out with him a few times, why?”
“Just curious. Where did you meet him?’
“At the High Street Players a little over a month ago. The theatre group in Hampton. We got to talking and one thing led to another. Ended up here after a contra dance one night.”
“Hmm. I thought he spent most of his time at the Winnacunnet Inn in Hampton. I ran into him there a couple weeks ago.”
“I’ve only been there with him once. The Players go there after rehearsals. I don’t like it too much.” The Winnacunnet was convenient to Hampton College and it was a fun place to be, all full of laughter and the smells of beef sandwiches, beer and tobacco, but I seldom went there, even for lunch. Somehow I couldn’t reconcile the raucous cacophony of roaring voices against the clamor of sporting events on the television set above the bar with my need for calm and quiet. I thought of it as Karen Nellis’s place more than anything else. Outside of rehearsals, Jack was always looking for ways to get away from the Players.
Peter returned with our drinks.
“So how do you know Jack?” I said.
“I met him soon after I got transferred to the trust department at the bank,” he said. “Three years ago. He came in with his father one day. I helped them set up some family financial arrangements.”
“So what do you think of him?”
“He’s a sharp real estate man. Definitely knows what he’s doing. He’s a little awe-inspiring, considering his success. But it’s all family money.”
“I mean personally. Do you like him?”
He shrugged. “All our contacts have been business. Just about everyone likes him. He’s very amiable, compared to other business people. And a skilled negotiator, too. Good eye contact. He always gives the impression he’s listening to everything you say, even if he thinks you’re full of it. Other than that, I don’t know him very well.”
I got the impression he might be jealous of Jack and for the first time I entertained the thought that Roger might like me after all. Instinctively I sought to hold that sentiment and sue for information. “How’s Maureen?” I said after allowing myself to indulge in another one of our characteristic silences.
“Good,” he said. “Did you know she’s being considered for a transfer to New York?”
A rush of excitement ran through me, though I tried hard to conceal my surprise. “When did that come up?”
“Just last week. It’ll be a promotion for her, if it goes through.”
“It doesn’t seem to bother you.”
“Why should it? I put her in for it. She deserves it.”
“Won’t that interfere with your plans? I mean, you wouldn’t be able to see her very often, would you?”
“It’s not final yet. We’d still be working together a lot by phone. She might be managing a new branch office.”
“Good for her,” I said. “How does she feel about leaving?”
“She has relatives in Westchester County,” he said. “She’s actually looking forward to it. I’ll let her know you asked about her.”
What made him think I could possibly want my name mentioned to Maureen Fischer? Then it occurred to me he had no idea of the depth of my resentment toward her, that he might assume I approached life with the same level of sincerity as he. We sat for a moment in silence again, barely making eye contact. We tried small talk, but to no avail. I became aware I was still letting Maureen dictate the terms of my happiness, then crushed the thought with the memory of Jack’s body pressed against mine, of ecstatic self-abandonment under the vault-like ceiling of my hayloft bedroom. The image hung in my mind, as thick and sweet as a warm summer meadow.
It was after six-thirty and we were into our second drinks when two men in grey suits and an attractive, impeccably groomed woman in blue serge appeared in the doorway. The woman shook her head back and forth, speaking to the men in unintelligible tones. Her smooth, nut-brown hair, cropped just at the shoulder, swung out of synch with the rest of her body as she moved.
“Ah, my people are here,” said Roger. He sounded relieved and promptly got up.
“Sorry we’re late,” said one of the men. “Been circling around these back streets for half an hour trying to find this place.”
“Please excuse me,” said Roger. “It was nice to see you again, Anne.” His eyes met mine and I could see he meant the words. Then he turned on his heels and moved off. For an instant, I felt the urge to call out to him, to hold on to the moment, but it passed as quickly as it had come.
I drank another pint of beer and lingered over dinner. Emerging from the murmur of voices coming from the large dining room, I could hear Roger’s baritone, first laughing aloud, then dropping into more serious tones. I marveled at the seeming ease with which he approached his colleagues, a side of him I hadn’t experienced. Once again, I found my mind overrun with competing and confused thoughts. After I finished eating, I caught myself staring at the fireplace. My eyes dropped, narrowing, then moved across the room to the window and the golden tones of evening outside. I’d fallen into a mire of self-pity.
That night I was tired and I’d drunk too much at dinner, so I went upstairs to bed shortly after I got home. The sheets still smelled of Jack’s earthy cologne, a potent reminder of our time together. As I lay on my back, waiting to fall asleep in the damp evening air, I thought of our trip to the Isles of Shoals the next day. My whole perspective on life changed as I allowed the reality of my position to suffuse my mind with the sense of reassurance I’d missed at the Banke Tavern. That comforting, in-the-bag feeling came up again, as nourishing as the chowder I’d made for him. For the first time in months, I felt at peace, that whatever happened, I’d been spared the lonely fate of Martha Crowley or Marjorie Phelan. I pulled my grandmother’s old quilt up around my shoulders, flipped over onto my side and began losing consciousness.