“If you don’t exit soon,” Tessa said, “we’ll end up on the floating bridge.”
Duncan began easing the rented van across four lanes of early-morning traffic. “I know.”
“Well, I don’t. So this is how I learn.” Tessa smiled fondly at him before returning to the map of their new city unfolded across her lap. Duncan looked so comfortably American in his white button-down shirt and acid-washed jeans, his shoulder-length hair loose and combed straight back from his face. Her beloved’s head-start on adjusting to their move from Paris to Seacouver was hardly fair, but nowhere either of them wanted to live would be different on that score, after all. Tessa watched the signs change as they left the freeway. “Why does this street have an ‘east’ at the beginning of its name and also at the end? Is it a mistake?”
“Probably not. If you wait a couple of blocks, it’ll change.”
“The grid snarls where the nineteenth-century plats run into each other.” Duncan grinned. “Two of the big land claims aligned their streets with their own shorelines; the third used his compass.”
“And I suppose you knew all of them.”
“Just Doc Maynard, really. . .”
“There!” Tessa pointed. “That’s the café where Martin said to turn left. After that, we should have no more intersections until the Arboretum Foundation building.”
Duncan turned the van. “Is that where you check in?”
“That’s what the instructions say.” Tessa had memorized the sheet that Martin had provided to all of the Sorrel Galley artists who had been accepted to the three-day 1986 Seacouver Art and Wine Festival. While retail stalls were apparently available to any merchant willing to pay, exhibition spaces filled on a juried basis. “I still don’t know how Martin got me in.”
“You got you in.” Duncan took his right hand off the wheel to find her left and give it a squeeze. “The festival committee looked at your work, not his.”
Tessa squeezed back, then let go. “They did look at Martin’s sales numbers, though. I don’t have any customer base in the States.”
“Je touche du bois.” Tessa folded her map absently, by feel, reluctant to pull her eyes away from the trees suddenly clustering along the road. Shade from the dense leaves was not the moot point it would have been under the clouds everyone kept telling her to expect; this late-summer day was already warm, and promised to scorch as the sun climbed higher. Where the trees sifted the light, they also subdued the sounds of the freeway and the city. The van could have traveled a hundred years from the business district, rather than a hundred meters.
Paris had no lack of beautiful gardens and parks, but there was something simultaneously raw and primeval about Seacouver’s. It stirred her imagination.
“Tessa, my dear!” Martin Sorrel reached up to offer support as she stepped down from the van into the crowded parking lot. He kissed her hand, as he often did. “Don’t you look charming for a casual outdoor showing?” Tessa glanced down at her red-and-white shirt, white denim skirt and wedge sandals, wondering whether she had made some mistake. But Martin continued, “I cannot tell you how this hot weather throws off the rest of us here. We just don’t know what to do in it!” He smiled up at her, and then turned to Duncan as he came around the back of the van. “Ah, here’s that man of yours; it’s good to see you again, Mac.”
“You, too, Martin.” Duncan shook his hand.
Tessa reflected that the bow-tie-wearing gallery owner was one of the uncommon short men who never made her feel as if he found her too tall. Like Duncan, Martin was entirely comfortable in his own skin. Tessa hoped she might be that self-possessed someday. Today, she could not help worrying that the jury had meant to assign her exhibition space to someone else.
“You two brought Astérisme, of course?”
Tessa nodded. “We had to disassemble it to move it.” She had designed the sculpture to be modular for that very reason.
All three walked around the back of the van. Duncan opened the doors to reveal layers of sheet-metal cut-outs separated by foam risers. Behind those sat boxes of assorted tools and smaller works, plus a display album of drawings, and the stock of photographic postcards that Martin had advised, from the printer he had recommended. Thrown, seemingly carelessly, against the side were Duncan’s jacket and her sweater — unlikely to be needed in this weather — but Tessa knew they covered Duncan’s sword, carefully placed for easy retrieval, its razor edge buffered by a light sheath.
The katana’s presence no longer made her shiver, as it had when Duncan had first explained the one way that immortals like him could die. She appreciated how his tenacity made him bitter enemies as well as faithful friends; she had put together that if the bitterest of those knew or discovered that beheading would kill him, finally and fully, then of course he would have to defend himself. She believed that she understood. Still, the three years since he had shared his secret had not been enough to learn to take it for granted. She wondered how many would be.
“Magnificent,” Martin said, looking at the sculpture in pieces. “A bravura fusion of post-modernism and neo-primitivism. As soon as you’re signed in, we’ll get a flatbed cart from the set-up crew.” He offered his arm to Tessa; she waited until Duncan had locked the van, and then took it. Martin guided them across the busy parking lot to a low, recently-completed building, with vines just beginning to be coaxed up over the arbors defining its entrance plaza. Card tables filled the lobby, identified by handwritten signs for artists, musicians, wineries and vendors. Once Tessa had her ‘exhibitor’ badge, Martin resumed, “You understand that I don’t expect to sell Astérisme here, naturally.”
“Rare is the customer who makes an impulse purchase in the price range you may command, my dear. But they will see it — and you — and the word will spread — perhaps even a reporter — and they will return.” Martin’s gentle smile turned fierce and glinted in the sun. Confused, Tessa looked at Duncan; she found a similar pleased, predatory curve on his lips. “Oh, yes,” Martin said. “To my gallery and your studio both, they will return.”
§ § §
“Souvenirs, you know?” The wiry Marine, distinguished by an old scar above his right eye, winked at Tessa. The lovely woman on his arm had picked out three photo postcards of Tessa’s work after the apparently de rigueur exchange about the noon heat; he paid for them. “Thanks.”
“I hope you enjoy them!” The cards that Martin had prescribed were an event tradition, Tessa had learned. Their steady sales buoyed her confidence, which had been rattled early on by startled glances at the prices on even the most modest of her works on display. She told herself to trust Martin on what the local market could bear, and to stop converting from dollars to francs in her head, as if she could better calculate the economics herself.
When the serviceman and his companion moved on to the next stall, Tessa returned to the folding chair in the shadiest corner of her canvas-covered booth. Her seat was partially veiled by the reassembled Astérisme in the center, and blocked by the table supporting her other works at the side. She picked up her sketchpad and resumed watching attendees pass, mostly, but linger, too, from time to time. The sounds and smells of any large fair filled the air — food cooked and eaten and spilled, opinions whispered and laughed and shouted — without limit and without change, but her canvas walls framed a narrow, shifting visual slice.
She observed individuals, couples and families of almost every description, plus some packs of young adults. Her map showed the city’s big research university just north of the park. It struck Tessa that she could no longer reliably tell which were university students, and which high-school pupils; a decade ago — that long? — she had been in her own terminale lycée year, and the difference had been obvious. Now, they all blurred together. She did not know whether to count herself among them anymore, but she did not know that she had yet come far enough to count herself elsewhere.
“How are you holding up, sweetheart?” Duncan appeared around the corner. He held a bag of take-out food in one hand and a tall, Styrofoam cup in the other.
Rising, she took the cup — and a drink of its ice water — first, then kissed him. “Now, I’m fine. How are you? Has boredom set in?”
“With three stages for music and another for theater? I may hang around all day tomorrow, too.”
“It’s up to you. But now that I know the route, you’re off the hook, you know; don’t stay for my sake.” Tessa handed back the cup of water and took the bag of food; she found a surprising-looking sausage covered in beans, onions and cheese sitting on a roll in a long paper dish at the bottom of the bag. “Just one?”
“I ate mine while I was in line for the water. Sorry.” He widened his eyes and half-shrugged. “There’s been some delivery snafu. Until they straighten it out, there isn’t enough water to stock all the food vendors.”
“Oh, my.” Tessa grimaced. Soft drinks and other beverages were for sale, surely, but hydration had to be a concern on such a hot day. The escalating temperature had already shortened tempers. Thirst was unlikely to improve judgment. “The ‘and wine’ of ‘art and wine’ takes on weight.”
“Should I have brought that instead?” Duncan teased.
Tessa rolled her eyes and bit into her peculiar sandwich. “Good,” she allowed; really, delicious for take-away at a fair. Of course, hunger made the best sauce. She preferred sitting down at a table to enjoy a proper meal, with all its preparation and customs, but sometimes you had to make do.
Duncan set the water on the ground by her sketchbook. He sat on her folding chair, put his hands behind his head and kicked out his shoes toward Astérisme.
Tessa supposed that he had been on his feet today as often as she had been off hers. As she ate, she watched him look up at the sculpture’s spiking, then rolling, metal trellis. “Do you see something new from that angle?”
“I know there’s something new in every angle.” Duncan grinned. “It’s hard to be an impartial audience when you not only hear the artist talk about her work every day, you love her terribly.”
“Amiably?” They both laughed. Duncan dropped his hands, set his feet flat on the ground and leaned forward. “Seriously, Tess, it makes me feel the same way it did when you first showed it to me in your studio. Connected. As if nothing is entirely lost, just . . . rearranged. It doesn’t surrender anything to its setting.”
“Martin said that he would tell me when he found out which works took ribbons.” Tessa reached for the cup of water, and then decided she wanted a napkin before touching anything but her food; there were some in the bag. Gesturing with her lunch, she asked, “We aren’t going to start doing this regularly now that we’re in the States, are we? Grabbing whatever food whenever?”
“Asks the woman who hasn’t cooked all week.”
“Hey! I was on a deadline.”
“I know.” Duncan grinned. “And no, I don’t think either of us will let real meals slide. But if you don’t like your chili-dog—”
“Chili-dog?” Tessa pulled away from his outstretched hand and took another bite. “I think we can make an exception for these.”
§ § §
“Excuse me,” Tessa said. “I think you’re about to lose your hair clip.”
The tiny young woman looked up with a start. That jolt freed the crescent-shaped fastener that had been slowly slipping down her long, straight, brown hair since before she dropped behind her friends for a closer look at Astérisme inside Tessa’s stall. The limp remains of curling-iron-induced waves and hairspray shellac did not keep the plastic clasp from flying across the booth.
When it landed at Tessa’s feet, she picked it up and stood to hand it back to its owner. The woman looked like a house sparrow, Tessa thought, all brown plumage, acute angles and hollow bones — although that impression receded before a pink polo shirt and denim overalls hemmed into shorts.
“Thanks.” The bird-girl blushed and began to fix her hair, using the barrette as a comb. “Banana-clips never want to stay up. I guess I don’t use enough mousse.”
“Gravity may be against you, in any case. Not to mention the heat.” No quantity of hair product could withstand the inevitable sweating under this afternoon’s beating sun. Tessa smiled, but kept her teeth hidden so she could not be misinterpreted as laughing. Her hair also fell flat without assistance; she looked forward to the day straight would be chic again, as it had been while she was growing up. “Perhaps a headband?”
“Yeah, headbands work.” The girl sighed. “I’ve been trying to glam up a little, though. I start college next week. How’s this?”
“Very nice.” Tessa reminded herself that college-age in the US matched the start of university in France. Could this girl really be that young? Or could she herself really be this old? When the girl had first stepped into her stall, Tessa would have guessed that they belonged to the same generation; apparently, she would have been mistaken. “Congratulations on school. Do you have a major?”
“Oh, goodness, not yet! I’m thinking early childhood education, maybe.” The girl chewed her lip. “Please forgive me if this is rude, but you’re not from here, are you?”
“I just moved from Paris.”
“France? How exciting!” The girl’s blue eyes gleamed. “What’s it like?”
“Like? Home.” Tessa laughed. “Seacouver seems exciting to me! Perhaps it’s all in our perspective.”
“I suppose.” The girl sounded doubtful. She dropped her eyes and glanced around the booth again. “Maybe I should say, I’m only looking, not buying.”
“Please do look! You’re entirely welcome.” Tessa returned to her chair in the corner and picked up her sketchpad. “I’m Tessa, by the way.”
“I guessed.” The girl pointed at the pasteboard sign — ‘Tessa Noël: Fine Art Sculpture’ — hanging from the rear tent rod. “I’m Alexa.”
“I’m pleased to meet you, Alexa.”
The girl grinned. Then she walked all the way around Astérisme one more time, her hands behind her back. Fully assembled, the steel and brass structure almost touched the ceiling of the little tent, towering over its slight observer. The components extended in curves and planes from an interlocking core, a filigreed welter of lines that seemed to intersect from some angles, but not others. “What does the title mean?”
“It’s an astronomy term.” Tessa hesitated. Pressing for public reaction was rarely wise; and, usually, she was content with her own assessment and Duncan’s, other critics be hanged. But she remained unsure where her efforts fit at this festival, if they fit at all. If Alexa could ask about Tessa’s accent, Tessa could ask about Alexa’s response. “Before I define it, how does the sculpture strike you?”
“Oh, I like it!” Alexa exclaimed. “It’s strong and pretty. But what’s totally awesome is how it changes depending where I stand, like it’s only real as long as I see it, and it keeps, um, inviting me on. It’s also, like,” she searched for a word, “everywhere? Like a map of everywhere?”
“Thank you.” Tessa hugged her sketchbook to her chest to stifle a sudden urge to kiss the girl’s cheek. She often wondered whether the meaning was really there, autonomously intact inside a piece, for anyone to see and touch. It sounded like this one was, and that was more than enough. “An asterism is a pattern of stars seen from earth. That is, there’s no objective astronomical relation between them, just whatever links we choose to impose.”
Alexa’s brow furrowed. “Like constellations? What we see is what we get?”
“Constellations are asterisms, but not all asterisms are constellations. The sculpture is whatever you find in it.” Tessa smiled. “For that major — have you considered art history? You may have a knack.”
§ § §
“There you are, Tessa!” Martin appeared at her side as she threaded her way toward one of the music stages. “Mac said you might head this direction.”
“He recommended this direction.” Tessa switched, from one hand to the other, the bamboo fan she had purchased a few booths back. She let Martin take her arm before she resumed walking down the lane between rows of assorted stalls, waving her fan in an attempt to budge the muggy evening air.
After a supper of take-away Chinese food, Duncan had insisted she take an extended break from the booth to see the festival. She had permitted herself only bits and snatches throughout the day. Now, as the sun hovered just above setting in the same way that it did in Paris at this time of year, she realized that there was no way she could reach everything in one visit. Even so, she had now seen crafters selling jewelry, soap and puppets; businesses promoting dentistry and finances; scouts, congregations and sports clubs; gourmet food and fast food; and of course her fellow fine artists.
“Martin,” Tessa asked, “how does the festival decide who are ‘crafters’ and who are ‘fine artists’? Is it on the application, or do they just—” she waved her fan “—make it up?”
“I believe it has as much to do with stamping badges as furthering the cause of the muses,” Martin chuckled. “But yes, there is a different application for the juried divisions than for the retail vendors. Speaking of which, that’s why I came to find you. Now that they have finally solved the water delivery problem — I drove off-site for some; I don’t know why more people didn’t — the committee has been able to get back to important things. They are distributing prizes now.”
“That explains why I didn’t spot ribbons on any of the stalls I passed.” A few works had taken Tessa’s breath away; surely they would be recognized. However, a few others had struck her as so trite and inept that she wondered how hers could appear in the same category — and then she wondered whether that were hubris, a novice preening over veterans. “Did you see those magnificent Day of the Dead mural panels?”
“Yes, indeed,” Martin said. “But—”
Thunderous applause drowned him out, and he held his peace. They had reached the back of the seating in front of an intimate stage, currently held by a guitar player with a short, iron-gray beard. A flock of small children danced in front of the stage, but besides theirs, no chairs stayed empty long.
The musician leaned from his stool toward his microphone. “Well that’s a right nice welcome, ladies and gents. For my second piece tonight, let’s wander over to Chicago and bring back some blues!”
When the new song ended, Tessa and Martin joined in the ovation. Tessa glanced around for a place to rest and listen. There was no room in the designated seating, but perhaps one of the nearby food vendors had some picnic benches; she didn’t need to see to hear.
“Oh, good,” Martin said as she turned. “We really should be getting back to your booth.”
“Look, Martin!” Tessa read the sign: “Rico’s Chili-Dogs!”
“Chili-dogs?” he repeated, as if he had never heard the word.
Well, until today, neither had she. Tessa strode off — curious, not hungry. Approaching the vendor’s stall, however, she realized that the noisy gathering in front was not just awaiting food orders. Two adults in line exchanged an alarmed look and pulled their children away. People milled about and pointed.
A uniformed policeman had a stern grip on the arm of a skinny, red-haired adolescent who replied glibly as he was accused of pilfering by the restaurateur. “Gee, officer, I have no idea how that could have happened! You all saw me, didn’t you?” the kid appealed to the crowd.
A pack of young men — some in university t-shirts — were laughing and heckling the officer for not getting the better of the boy. Their nonsense encouraged the apparent juvenile delinquent even as it must have aggravated the policeman.
Tessa came to a halt and frowned, puzzling out the raucous shouts.
Martin caught up with her. “Let’s take the other way around.”
Tessa nodded. But before she could move, she recognized the bird-girl, Alexa, tugging on the arm of one of the rowdy young men. He had a beer bottle in his other hand; the grip in which he held it was not for drinking. Tessa shivered despite the stubborn heat, overtaken by memories of the summer of 1968; she had been nine going on ten, and the landmark student riots beginning that May had set off what had seemed to her like the end of the world. Paris had shuttered itself. President de Gaulle had fled to West Germany. Grown-ups had never again seemed as dependable and authoritative as she had believed them to be before that season of strikes and barricades.
Here and now, Tessa saw in an instant that the foolish — probably drunk — young men were getting increasingly carried away with their petty mockery, egging on each other and the red-headed boy. While one threw some paper trash toward the police officer, the man in Alexa’s grip turned the tables on her and yanked her in to him, laughing. The sound Alexa made was too quiet for anyone to hear; the pain on her face was impossible for Tessa to ignore.
“What are you doing?” Martin asked.
“We may need medical help,” Tessa said over her shoulder, stepping forward. “Use the phone booth by the stage.”
Just as the trash-thrower improved his aim and red-haired boy broke the grip on his arm and disappeared into the crowd, Tessa reached Alexa and the hooligan holding her. Tears streamed down Alexa’s face, but her expression had set in defiance, not fear. Tessa said, “Let her go.”
The man gaped and did just that. Alexa stumbled forward; she squeaked in pain when she bumped her wrist against Tessa. But when Tessa extended her arm to steer Alexa away, the man grabbed Tessa’s arm and twisted.
“Oh, for goodness—” He had youth and strength on his side. She had a clear head, long experience of such pathetic creeps . . . and Duncan’s refinements to her technique. With an elbow, a shoulder and a heel, Tessa had the oaf on the ground and her sandal on his throat.
He rolled over and vomited.
Tessa shook her head.
“Are you all right?” Alexa asked, her eyes wide. She cradled her right wrist in her left hand.
“I think that’s my line. Just a sprain?”
“Okay, not ‘just.’” Tessa looked at Alexa’s wrist, then reached protectively around her shoulders. “Let’s get you to the Foundation building. I think that’s where the medic is.”
“Excuse me,” a different uniformed officer appeared in front of them. “I have some questions for you.”
“Can it wait?” Tessa asked. She looked around and realized that although a few must have run, most of the young men had fallen into line when the officer’s back-up arrived. Some looked shamefaced; some denied that anything had happened. The one who had hurt Alexa was not the only one throwing up. “She’s injured.”
The officer escorted them to a picnic table intended for enjoying chili-dogs. He spoke on his two-way radio, signaled for them to stay seated, crossed to the alley between rows of booths and raised his hand to shield his eyes against the setting sun.
Martin found them. “This is not the variety of excitement on which I had planned to end the day, I must say.”
The officer returned, escorting a brisk woman with feathered dark hair and the traditional white lab coat and black bag. “I’m guessing I’m here for you,” the doctor said to Alexa, revealing an apple-cheeked smile. “Hold still, and I’ll just— does that hurt? Good! That means everything is still connected in there.”
Tessa rose to get out of the doctor’s way.
“Wait!” Alexa exclaimed. The doctor froze. “Tessa, you’re not leaving, are you? I mean, not yet . . .”
“No one is going anywhere for now,” the police officer said. “Among other things, one of these young men alleges that you ladies assaulted him.”
Tessa sighed. If this came up on her visa renewal, she was going to be extremely annoyed.
§ § §
Dark had dug itself in by the time Tessa returned to her exhibition booth. She lit her way with a flashlight borrowed at the Arboretum Foundation building, where law enforcement had decided to sort out their witnesses and suspects before taking anyone downtown. Many of the little tents had been struck, and most that remained standing had been cleared of everything that made them interesting. It was a ghost town, now; in the morning, it would be a metropolis again.
“Hi.” Tessa turned the flashlight on Duncan, who sat patiently on the folding chair, next to the empty table, in the middle of her otherwise bare stall. He wore his jacket and held her sweater. “You packed Astérisme?”
“Hi, yourself.” When he stood, she walked slowly into his arms and held on hard. He held back, kissed her temple and said, “Martin filled me in like you asked. I wish you would’ve let me come get you.”
“Somebody had to watch the shop.” Tessa rested her head on Duncan’s shoulder. It had been the longest day; she wanted to go to sleep and not wake up until the festival was over. “It’s strange. When I met the girl this afternoon, at first glance, I thought, she’s not much younger than me. But she is. Then this evening, when I saw those idiot boys acting out, I thought, they’re such children! But they’re not.”
“You wanted to protect her.”
“Yes, but . . .” Tessa’s motivation had been in the moment, with Alexa, but it had also defended the frightened child she had once been herself, and shielded the children she would never have. “I felt like I was the one adult present, and I had to live up to it. Ridiculous, no?”
Duncan stroked her hair. “No.”
“But I didn’t have to get involved. I could have walked away.”
“No, sweetheart, you couldn’t.” His smile was in his voice. “I love you.”
“I love you, too.” Tessa closed her eyes and knew again that this was home: neither Paris nor Seacouver, but these arms, this heart. This was safety and adventure, passion and contentment, everything she could give and more than she should ask. Alexa’s youth, with her whole life open ahead of her, had raised echoes of some choices that Tessa had put behind her, roads she could not travel again; it was not the sound of regret, she decided, but just the creaking of settling more securely into her own skin. After a while, pragmatism crept back through her adrenalin crash. “Astérisme?”
“I waited as long as I could. I figured you wouldn’t want to take it apart in the dark.”
“I could take it apart blindfolded.” Tessa stepped away, silently planning a rigorous inspection of every piece in the morning. “But you’re right; that was the practical thing to do. Thank you. Can we go home now?”
Duncan held up her sweater. She reached out, but instead of just handing it over, he unfolded it and supported it with both hands like a salver.
Tessa lifted the flashlight. A red ribbon sat in the center. Second place, fine arts, sculpture division. She picked it up with her free hand. “I forgot all about this.”
“They didn’t want to leave it with me, but they didn’t want to hang around all night, either. Martin is giddy.” Duncan shook out her sweater and held it so she could put it on without dropping the flashlight or the ribbon. “Congratulations.”
“You know what this means, don’t you?”
He nudged her toward the path to the parking lot. “That they recognize and reward great art?”
“Maybe.” Tessa gave Duncan the flashlight so that she could hold his other hand without letting go of her ribbon. “But I was thinking that it will be a whole year until I can take first.”
— End —