For One Night of Love
by Ed Newman
Helmsboro, Minnesota, is a town undergoing change... rural, yet slowly being
transfigured by the spread of housing developments and zoning regulations.
The farming has always been difficult in these parts, due to the short growing
season and the hardscrabble land, hence after scratching out a living for
as long as sensible most of the area's farmers have sold out, subdividing
their properties and encouraging their sons and daughters to pursue more
promising careers in other fields. Many have migrated to the Twin Cities,
though others have stayed behind, uncertain what to make of the changes
taking place all around them. Because of its low crime and good schools,
the area has developed a good reputation, attracting many new families into
Jeremy Tanner lived in a farmhouse on the right-hand side of the Helmsboro
Road, often called Old County Two, an old asphalt road that sweeps up and
away from the city below. Situated on forty acres, nearly all of it once
cleared, his grandfather built the house shortly after the Great War, saying,
"First you build the cage, then you catch the bird." His father
grew up on the site and imagined that Jeremey would raise a family of his
own here one day as well. Since his father's death nine years ago the land
has remained neglected, for Jeremy never took an interest in gardening,
nor in any other kind of farm labor for that matter.
In the old days, Jeremy's great-grandfather harvested hay for hops for a
local brewery. The160 acres the Tanners then owned were some of the best
in Helmsboro. His grandparents met at the farmer's market, as did his parents.
But it was hard work, and the Tanners were hard on their women.
Jeremy's mother hanged herself in the barn when he was too young to remember
so that it has been more than thirty years since the house enjoyed the attentive
care of a woman's touch. After his father passed away, Jeremy found employment
as a potwasher and kitchen help at the Northview Country Club. The house
and land were paid for so that his modest wages suited him fine. He had
no career ambitions, preferring instead the cloistered solitude with which
he surrounded himself at home.
Jeremy had not been been a bad looking youth and became what some would
consider a modestly handsome man. What hindered him socially, and disturbed
him deeply, was a nervous condition over which he had virtually no control
and which made him quite self-conscious and socially reserved to an extreme.
He was plagued with muscle twitches and tics that manifest themselves in
a variety of ways that included eye blinking, head jerking and facial grimaces.
They had first appeared in his early teens, and no matter how he tried,
he could never entirely control them. First it would be a tightness in his
shoulder blades and he would roll the blade, and then do it again and, like
a persistent itch, would continue the motion until it became a strange elastic
jerking movement which took all of his concentration to restrain. Once successful
overcoming that tic, the discomfort would show up in his neck, and for several
weeks he would jerk his head, or roll his eyes, or make a sniffing noise
or clear his throat. The variations on this theme were maddening and made
him a victim of cruel jokes in school so that he could hardly bear having
to return each day to the ridicule and insults of his peers. Feeling himself
a freak, he learned to find comfort in solitude.
Over time the severity of these multiple tics diminished and often he showed
no unusual signs at all. However, whenever he experienced stress, the tics
would return. They were especially troublesome in his relations with the
opposite sex, to an extent that he was embarrassed by them. The facial twitches
and grimaces especially shamed him so that he even considered taking his
life because of his inability to control them in the presence of a girl
whom he wanted to please. Many times he wept bitterly because of his condition
until at last, having come to believe that no girl would ever love him as
he was, he resigned himself to living alone for the rest of his life. When
his father died, it relieved him of the burden of having to find a wife
to please his father. He could travel his solitary road in peace.
At thirty-one, he had settled into a routine which more than satisfied him.
Life was no longer a burden for him. In fact, he was quite contented with
the life he now lived, a life of routines and small pleasures. Though his
workday began at noon, he liked to rise early, usually before dawn, to take
long walks, weather permitting, and then to return to his home to draw.
He spent hours walking, observing the evolving countryside, and even more
hours in his room making pictures. Other than his employment, and the few
mundane tasks which all single people must attend -- sleeping, bathing,
washing clothes, paying bills, etc. -- this was the whole of his life.
On the other hand, he never read the papers, nor listened to the radio,
nor did he own a television. (He took his father's TV to the Goodwill two
weeks after the funeral.) He never went out to restaurants, shows or bars,
and only went to the store when it was an absolute necessity. He was neighborly
to his neighbors, but mostly kept to himself and they, knowing well his
preference for solitude, left him to himself, an unspoken contract.
But for his walking, the hours he spent with pen and paper were the hours
he lived for. So absorbed by his picture making was he that he would set
an alarm clock to alert him that it was time to get ready for work. Otherwise
he might easily spend an entire day making tiny, hatch markings for a shaded
background and forget to report to his job altogether. What might seem boring
and tedious to others, Jeremy found relaxing and even stimulating. He was
amazed by his own pictures and by the wondrous spatial illusions that could
be created by the stroke of a pen.
Jeremy did have other distractions. He enjoyed a good book now and then.
And he liked to play a harmonica, especially in the late evening after dusk.
Sometimes he would go out behind the barn and sit on some old crates playing
lonesome sounding melodies that slid away into the vastness of the night.
At one time, too, Jeremy had a dog of which he had been fond, but the dog
had been hit by a car and killed and Jeremy could not bring himself to replace
His co-workers at the country club used to tease him about a nine year old
daughter of the florist who often played in the kitchen while her parents
set up displays for parties. The little girl genuinely like him because
he had shown an interest in her, and sometimes sought him out to show him
some new necklace or bracelet. Jeremy, being sensitive to the others' jests,
always regretted it afterwards. Some of the waitresses teased him, too,
though on one occasion Hellen, one of the older waitresses, publically reproached
Kathy, the worst of the offenders, for her heartlessness. While Jeremy appreciated
Hellen's thoughtfulness, it also embarrassed him. He was ashamed that he
could not speak up in his own defense.
In a certain sense, none of these tribulations really affected him deeply,
for Jeremy knew that at the end of each day he had a refuge -- he could
go home. There, alone with himself, he breathed freely, could be himself.
And in his very heart of hearts, he was happy.
Jeremy's interest in drawing began from earliest childhood when he would
sit on his grandfather's lap and watch him draw pictures of farm animals.
There seemed no end to the variety of funny pictures grandpa could make
-- talking pigs, talking cows, dancing horses, two-headed dogs, snakes with
legs. Jeremy, too, took pencil in hand and began making pictures, crude,
but recognizable as chickens, ducks and the like. Then one day Jeremy learned
how to create the illusion of depth and perspective by drawing an infinity
point and having things diminish in size in relation to the foreground.
He always considered this discovery to be the real beginning of his serious
attraction to making pictures.
Jeremy's skill with a pen was basically self-taught. He once heard someone
say that it takes a thousand bad drawings to make a good one, and he set
out to do just that. After his thousand drawings, he recognized a fluidity
in his pencil strokes that made his lines unusually expressive. He learned
a dozen ways to create shading, and learned to appreciate the nuances that
could be created through sharper and softer edges on objects. He was aware
of his limitations and through constant practice set about to conquer them.
He also learned that there was an elusiveness about certain kinds of beauty
that made it difficult to capture on paper.
At one time the Tanner farm was the only plot of land with a house on it
in that stretch of Helmsboro Road, the nearest neighbor being the Gundersons
nearly a quarter mile away. In the early eighties, the heavily wooded tract
of land across the way was put up for sale. A developer came in, struck
a road through it and built a dozen $200,000 homes out of sight from the
main thoroughfare. The homes were sold to younger families who mostly kept
to themselves. There were some joggers, kids on bicycles, school buses,
and a little ore traffic, but nothing to alter Jereemy's routines. He was
not offended by their proximity.
Then one day, the narrow tract of land that lay wedged between his own property
and the main road was put up for sale. The strip had once been farmed by
his dad; his father leased the land from the county. Allison Creek, which
formed the easternmost border of his property, tickled the four acre piece
of property the full length of its backside. The Helmsboro Road bounded
the property on the other side. It was disturbing enough that the property
bordering his favorite walking place should now be occupied. When he saw
where they determined to locate the house, on the end nearest his own, it
alarmed him immensely.
During one of his morning walks, Jeremy plucked up the courage to discuss
the matter with one of the carpenters who was framing what would soon be
a very large home. The carpenter said the man was a former prosecuting attorney
in the from the Chicago by the name of Frank Martin. "He's a real bastard,"
the carpenter said and Jeremy was disheartened.
Over the summer, the house took form, shape, substance and color. Although
it proved not to be as enormous as he originally feared, its gables and
terraces, cornices and a half dozen columns gave the house a feeling of
grandeur. Occasionally, an important looking man would arrive in a large
expensive car to inspect the progress. Jeremy surmised this to be Mr. Martin.
From his bearing, while Mr. Martin did not appear to be a large man he seemed
excessively stern. Jeremy decided he had no inclination to meet him.
One morning, Mrs. Martin arrived with him. They stayed for a long time in
the house. When they came back outside, Mrs. Martin walked lethargically
to the back of the house, her head tottering idly from side to side as she
walked. Her hands were balled fists. She faced away from the house and walked
aimlessly across the newly seeded yard until she reached the half-stagnant
little creek, not more than a hundred feet from the door. She seemed surprised
by the boundary and stood looking past it as if perplexed, scanning the
overgrown fields, farmhouse, dilapidated barn and outbuildings that belonged
to the man next door who's property curled about theirs. The blare of a
car horn beckoned her and she returned to Mr. Martin with hurried gait.
By the following month the Martins had taken up residence in their new home.
Mr. and Mrs. Martin took no interest in meeting their neighbor and Jeremy
likewise felt no compulsion to welcome them. If called upon to say hello,
he would do the right thing, but in nearly two years he was never in a situation
that required it, which suited him fine.
Frequently, during his morning walks, Jeremy studied the house. There was
a bleakness about the place. Mr. Martin would leave quite early in the day,
often before dawn. He left alone. The middle door of their three-car garage
would open and his midnight blue Lincoln Continental would slide out to
be coerced into heading out toward the road. During the day the drapes remained
perpetually drawn. Jeremy thought it strange the way Mrs. Martin kept herself
shut in all the time. At night as well, whatever light there was in the
house was kept tightly shut in. Though the grass was occasionally tended
by a boy who came from somewhere to use Mr. Martin's ride-around mower,
there were no other efforts on the part of the Martin's in this regard.
There were no flowers; there was no garden. He began to surmise that there
was illness about the place.
Then one afternoon everything changed. It was a Thursday -- Jeremy worked
six days a week with Tuesdays or Thursdays being his day off -- and a hot
one at that, hot for early May. Jeremy decided to walk the full length of
Allison's Creek to Hunter's Pond, which was down on the other side of the
Pendleton Road. He was carrying a sketchbook, as he often did, leaving the
house in a rather absent minded way, caught up more or less in his own thoughts
when the unusual sight of a woman sunbathing in the Martin's back yard caused
him to hesitate for a moment. She was lying face down on a large white beach
towel, her legs extended, her arms up so that her elbows pointed out away
from her, her honey colored hair cascading over her forearms. Though she
had on a pair of blue denim cut-offs, her back was bared, her green cotton
halter having been unclasped. Jeremy, temporarily immobile, studied her
uncertainly until he decided to proceed with his walk and pretend he didn't
notice her. As he was passing where she lay Jeremy took a sideways glance
hoping to find she had not observed him. To his dismay she had turned her
head around, facing him, so that it was apparent she was following him with
her eye, half-concealed by tresses and shadows. She was less than forty
feet away from him and by her slenderness and the tautness of her skin it
seemed the woman was but a youth, perhaps no more than eighteen or twenty.
It so surprised him that he could think of nothing else for the rest of
his walk, regretting only that he had not clearly seen her face.
The next day he was astonished to learn that Frank Martin and his wife were
members at the Northview Country Club where he worked, and that Mr. Martin
had a daughter who just returned home from a private school in New England.
Two bus boys were talking about it. Later, one of the parking lot attendants
remarked on it while picking up a bite to eat in the kitchen saying that
her name was Alyssa. Jeremy did not mention to them that he lived next door
to the Martins. In fact, what these others found exciting -- for they insisted
she was a very attractive girl-- he, found almost unsettling. Her presence
endangered his routines.
For the next few weeks Jeremy began to pay more attention to the house again.
He noticed how much the lawn had filled in since first being seeded. The
shrubbery, too, had filled out noticeably. And while there were still no
flowers, the atmosphere was considerably altered by this new presence, unseen
as she was. And at night, before getting ready for bed, he would sit in
his living room with the lights out, watching to see whatever sight the
Martin house would yield.
Yet in many respects nothing had changed; the house remained as shut up
and solemn as before. Sometimes there would be movement behind the curtains
in the upstairs corner room which had, until this time, been perpetually
in darkness. He guessed it to be Alyssa's room, and he wondered how long
she would remain with her family. A week? A month? For the summer? Not that
anything would come of it. Jeremy knew where things stood on that score.
He was committed to his aloneness.
If he were totally honest with himself, however, having a girl next door
excited him. True, he preferred the safety of the familiar and was afraid
of these unknown territories, but seeing her stirred his emotions, and while
it frightened him, it also exhiliarated him and though he would not admit
it to himself, each time her saw her it was his deepest wish to see her
again. The first few weeks he saw her only from a distance, either when
leaving for work or when she was leaving to go somewhere in the Martin's
white Buick. But he never spoke with her.
One day, while he was returning from the back of his property, a little
girl from the development across the street careened off the road on her
bicycle and took a spill in the ditch, throwing her face into the handlebars
so that her lip was badly cut. She was no more than eight and it terrified
her so that she was screaming, feeling she was in the middle of nowhere,
the taste of blood in her mouth and blood on her hands when she put them
to her face. Jeremy rushed out to the road and picked her up to carry her
back to his house. Alyssa, having heard the girl's screams, also ran to
the road, arriving after Jeremy had begun carrying the girl up the driveway.
After walking the girl's bike across the road, Alyssa went up to the house
and knocked on the side door. Through the screen she could see Jeremy, seated
in the kitchen, holding the girl on his lap and applying a wet rag which
had been wrapped around an ice cube. "Come in," he said.
"I'll keep an eye out," she said. She turned to face the road.
The girl's mother arrived soon after and Jeremy helped load the bicycle
into the back of the station wagon. "Thank you. Thank you very much,"
the woman said several times and then she was gone.
Jeremy and Alyssa were standing together about ten feet from the garage.
Jeremy studied her cautiously. She was much taller than he originally thought.
Her shoulder length hair had been pulled back and pinned in place with a
yellow crescent-shaped comb revealing the smooth curves of her neckline.
Her mouth was drawn tight but not in a tense way, and when she spoke her
teeth were white and perfect so that he was embarrassed by his own teeth,
which were a little crooked. She had light blue-grey eyes, like pools of
mist and she averted them whenever he looked her full in the face.
"Can I fix you something to drink?" Jeremy said. As an afterthought
he added, "The house is kind of a mess but you can come in if you like."
Alyssa looked back toward her own house, then followed Jeremy into the kitchen.
"I'll be right back," he said while walking backwards out of the
room. "Help yourself to the fridge. There's glasses in the cupboard.
I have to change my shirt." The shirt had been stained with blood.
She seated herself in one of the wooden chairs which was set around an old,
scratched up wooden table. A pile of bills, catalogs and assorted envelopes
with special offers for credit cards, magazines, and the like lay on the
corner of the table next to an orange, spiral-bound sketchbook. On the cover
of the sketchbook a date had been written with a black felt-tip pen in the
upper right hand corner. Without thinking she picked up the sketchbook,
opened it to the first page and looked at the picture there, a detailed
drawing of a hand. It was a man's hand, but it struck her as being a gentle
hand, and it surprised her that the emotion of gentleness should be associated
with a picture of a man's hand, or that emotions should be evoked in a simple
drawing of a hand at all.
Leafing through past two or three more illustrations, she stopped to study
a page filled with sketches of butterflies. The detail was such that she
imagined him sharpening his pencil after every stroke.
Jeremy startled her when he returned to the kitchen. She was absorbed in
the drawings and hadn't heard him enter even though the floor had creaked
loudly. As soon as she saw him she closed the sketchbook and placed it back
where she found it.
"That's all right. I don't mind," he said. "They're nothing."
"No, they're very nice," Alyssa said.
Jeremy didn't know what to say and his cheek was twitching so that it made
him uncomfortable. When he remembered they had never been introduced, he
said, "Uh, my name's Jeremy. And you are...?" Even though he already
knew her name from the country club, he didn't want her to know.
She smiled and said "Alyssa Martin," and he said he already knew
her last name was Martin because her folks had lived next door for almost
two years, to which she said, "Of course," with a laugh. Her face
lit up when she laughed and Jeremy tried hard not to stare at her because
she seemed so alive and warm and pretty when she smiled, but he kept looking
at her face and then at her bare arms and the way she held her slender hands,
slightly curled and at rest.
Again Jeremy's mind went blank so that he became self-conscious and didn't
know what to say.
"I'm sorry," he said at last.
"Oh, I don't know," he said, feeling stupid.
"Look, I have to go. But I'd like it if you wave or say 'hi' or something
when you walk past our place and you see me." After standing up she
said, "You're really good. Your drawings are really nice."
After dark that evening he went out behind the barn and played his harmonica,
thinking about things he hadn't thought about in what seemed like ages.
It was as if something had been awakened in him that he thought had died.
He watched the sky deepen from royal blue to ultramarine as the stars awakened
to perform their silent night dance. Crickets chirped in the barn and peepers
trilled from the marsh. And from time to time a firefly in solitary flight
zoomed past, seeking a mate by sending fluorescent signals to the grassy
As another came past, he noticed a response from the weeds hardly a yard
from his shoe. The male firefly hovered, signalled excitedly and, upon seeing
the double flash from below, dropped instantly to the ground. Jeremy smiled
at the thought of being a lightning bug. It all seemed so simple.
When he returned to the house he left the lights off and took his seat next
to the window that he might see the silouhette of the Martin house. Ten
minutes passed. He was tired. He ran his fingers through his hair in the
dark, listening to the peepers and crickets. He wanted to see her, to make
contact with her, to keep contact with her. Her world seemed so far away.
He hardly knew her, but she said his drawings were good, and that must have
meant she liked them. He watched the window which he believed was her room.
The house was all darkness, and he imagined her there in her bed, knew she
must be in there, and he thought about what she had said. She had said,
'I'd like it if you wave or say hi to me' and she meant it. She must have
meant it or she wouldn't have said it. And at this he leaned forward and
flicked the light switch on and off twice, on and off, on and off; and he
smiled. "Hi, Alyssa," he said quietly.
Jeremy thought of her every day after that. At times it seemed that she
was in some way part of his every waking thought. He woke in the morning
thinking of her. He couldn't help think of her on his walks. He daydreamed
her while working so that his hours on the job were lived on another plane.
The frustrations that touched others had no effect on him whatsoever. Most
of the time.
There were times when he reflected critically on his situation. He was setting
himself up for a fall he told himself. He should be careful. She had not
really indicated any kind of recipricocity of feeling, and he knew virtually
nothing about her. She had been nice to him, but she may be a nice person
who would be kind toward anyone.
One night he came home late from the country club and instead of turning
on the lights he took his seat in the dark by the window, watching the house.
It must have been an hour or more, until he reached over and flicked the
lights on and off, twice in a row in rapid succesion. "I'm thinking
of you. Did you see my signal?" To his surprise, the lights flashed
on and off in the corner room which he had taken to be hers, once, twice,
three times. He didn't know what to do. He had signalled, she signalled
back. She had been watching, just as he had been watching her. His heart
beat against the inside of his chest. "I love you, Alyssa," he
whispered, and his lips trembled.
The next day, Jeremy decided he would call her on the phone. There was a
small alcove with a private phone which was available for use by the bus
boys, waitresses and kitchen help, and Jeremy spent half his break period
staring at the buttons, stirring up his courage. When he heard the phone
ring at the other end of the line, he almost hung up. After the fourth ring,
a woman's voice answered. "Is Alyssa there?" he said. When Alyssa
came to the phone her formality made him feel she was annoyed so that he
suddenly froze. After he identified himself, she said, "I'm in the
middle of something right now. Is it important?" He muttered something
about how he was sorry to have bothered her, and that he hoped he would
see her around, but he was devastated afterwards and for the rest of the
day felt suffocated by the dark mood which fastened itself to him.
He returned home late that night, his stomach queasy and the muscles in
his shoulders all bunched and tight. The Martin house was all darkness when
he passed it before making the right turn into his own driveway. Long after
shutting off the engine he remained in his car which was parked on a strip
of gravel that runs alongside the garage and up to the barn. He was staring
out into the field, half conscious, his mind hovering over various impressions,
naming them and drifting on. Disappointment. Frustration. Shame.
The soft clunk startled him. Alyssa had rapped on the passenger door window
with her knuckles, then lifted the handle. The door, having been locked,
did not yield. Jeremy reached across the seat, opened it and Alyssa, wearing
a red silk, quilted robe with a black lining, slid into the car.
Their eyes fought to discover one another's secrets.
"You don't have to say anything," Alyssa said. "I understand."
Jeremy remained silent, wrapped in resistance, staring off into the twilight.
"I knew you'd be confused," Alyssa said, her voice cracking.
He knew she was fighting tears now. They were both fighting tears.
"I'll be all right," he said. The sinking feeling had passed.
"Don't take it personally," she said. "You don't know how
things are with my family."
Jeremy reached his hand out and she clasped it between her hands, resting
them on her lap. Her head was bent so that her hair fell forward, hiding
her face. Several minutes were passed in solemn silence. Jeremy felt as
if they were the most beautiful moments of his whole life, and it struck
him almost strange that such a passive act could so profoundly move him.
"Why are we so scared to show our real selves?" Jeremy said. "It's
like I have all these feelings, and it's like I don't even know what to
do with it all."
"You really are sweet," Alyssa said softly, still harboring his
Jeremy closed his eyes and listened to her breathing.
"I have to go," she said quickly, returning his hand and opening
Jeremy got out of the car as well, watching the shadow figure of Alyssa
race across the lawn, silouhetted against the half moon risen above the
trees. In a short time he saw the flash of lights from her room, on and
off, three times. He went inside and returned his own double sign. His last
thoughts were of her as he passed into sleep.
There were many nights of signals after that. Jeremy lived for those moments
where he was in contact with her, even if only by the brief flashing of
lights which had come to symbolize the embodiment of all things bright and
wonderful and hopeful and pure. Sometimes he would exclaim, "Let there
be light!" as he flashed, with rejoicing, the signal to her. At other
times, it was with anguish, for it seemed the day would take a thousand
years to pass before he should again see her sign. These were the most difficult
nights, and in the pain of longing he wondered if it was worth it, for surely
no good thing could come of it in the end and he believed he understood
that it really is possible to die from a broken heart.
The night it happened he'd already made ready for bed when the phone rang.
"Jeremy?" She spoke so softly he had difficulty hearing her, but
he knew it was her. "Can you come here tonight?"
Jeremy answered voicelessly and she, not hearing, said, "Jeremy?"
"Yes," he replied, and he hung up the phone.
He dressed in haste, hitching his belt and buttoning his shirt as he strode
down across the yard. The back door had been swung open with Alyssa standing
just inside, wearing again the red silk robe, her face colorless. As Jeremy
stepped inside the door, the girl flung herself against him, burying her
face in the nape of his neck. While her urgency frightened him, the scent
of her equally intoxicated him so that he was bewildered and uncertain,
even afraid. His shirt became damp with her tears, first on the left and
then the right side.
"It's all right," he said to her, trying to sound comforting.
"I'm sure things will be all right."
She said nothing and continued to cry, pulling away from him and seating
herself on a low couch that stretched along the wall, crying into her hands
with her elbows propped on her knees. There was a lamp on somewhere in the
house which presented just enough light to suggest outlines for the furnishings
in that room. Jeremy placed himself at her side. With his right hand he
stroked the back of her head, running his hand over her hair.
When at last she was able to speak, she said to him, "You mustn't make
any noise," and he knew someone else was in the house.
Finally, she stood up and, grasping his hand, pulled him to his feet. She
led him toward the hallway, down the hall across plush carpets, past woven
wallpaper and tapestries, toward the back of the house, toward the room
he had dreamed of where paradise must lay. Without a word she led him, and
he followed, believing anything was possible. When they reached her room,
he followed her inside, and she closed the door behind so that they were
standing in absolute darkness, her hand tightly clasping his, restlessly
squeezing and releasing. He did not know that in the corner of the room
lay the dead body of her father.
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