watching the river go by

He answered the phone on the sixth ring. "Hello."

"Ah, Frank, it's Marie. Hey Frank?"

"Yes, Marie. Beastly night we got here, don't we?"

"Yes, Frank. It's just sweltering out there. But still, I have something to ask you. Frank?"

He paused before responding. What could be going on next door tonight? "Yes, Marie?"

"Frank, I'd like you to meet me on the porch tonight. I know it's hot and sweaty out there, but Frank, please meet me anyway. There's something I want to talk with you about." She clicked off the line before he had a chance to object or ask a thing. Well, then, of course he'd meet her.

He washed the dishes, took the garbage out to the curb, watered his three indoor plants: the old aloe, the jade attempting to escape from its pot (noting again that he must transplant her soon), and the wayward tubular begonia. "Here Sugar, tsch tsch... here, Tunie, tsch," he called and the felines dutifully meowed in sync, sitting pretty in front of the dishwasher. "Tsch, my good girls," he said as he presented them with their Fancy Feast and fresh water.

What on earth could Marie be wanting to talk about? It was unlike her, unlike either of them, to ever consider sitting out on the porch on a hot summer night like tonight. That was strictly a spring and fall activity. Must be something big. What on earth?

Fourteen household tasks and an episode of Frasier later, he slipped a bottle of Deep Woods Off into his robe pocket. Bet we'll be needing this on a night like tonight. It was quite nearly ten as he gently clicked the screen door and eased down into the worn cushion of his wicker chair. Not more than two minutes later, Marie's flip-flops characteristically smacked against each wooden stair as she alighted. In one hand she held a citronella candle as the other kept her bathrobe closed.

He watched her walk to her end of the porch, placing the candle on the table between them as she passed, then slipping off her flip-flops and dropping her robe, as he had watched her dozens, maybe hundreds of times before. Once she had settled in her swing, he stood and removed his own robe, folding it neatly across the arm of the vacant wicker chair.

They sat, the breeze tickling their naked bodies, watching the fireflies above the front lawn and the steamboat lights below listlessly drifting on the Ohio River, for quite near fifteen minutes. The damn hound down the road started its howling till a loud slam shut him up. Then he spoke. "Damn mosquitoes. Blood-sucking parasites. Out in legion tonight. Dammit, Marie, what are we doing out here tonight? They are gonna eat us alive."

"Oh, Frank, don't I know it. This is important, though. Here. You better spray some extra, Frank."

"Got it here, ah!" he replied as he slapped a mosquito on his thigh, waiting for that metallic smell, the telltale sign that the damn thing had done its job. "What's going on, Marie?"

She sat back, pushing gently in the swing, taking in the cloud drifting wistfully across the full moon. "Frank, I felt you should know that I'm planning to sell the house. That you have a right to know. You know."

He took in an audible breath and held it. What? She's selling the house? What? "What do you mean, Marie? What do you mean, selling the house? Why would you do that?"

"Frank, you remember my niece Sharon? From down in Zanesville?" He nodded yes, he remembered. "Well, Sharon's been talking to me about the house. Thinks I'd be better off not being all by myself in such a big old house. Says I should consider selling it and moving into Rolling Fields."

He guffawed. "Rolling Fields! Marie! You aren't serious. That's no place for you." What on earth is she thinking and why on earth would she leave her home, the river, this porch, me, ah me, why would she leave me, and this?

"Frank, you know as well as I do that I'm no spring chicken. That house gets bigger every year. What with the mowing and shoveling, the heating and cooling, you know that's all pricey, Frank. It goes up every year. I'm on a fixed income, you know. Aw, Frank, I hate the thought of leaving my house, I hate it. But I think I should face facts. Don't you think so?"

He did not respond, could not respond. Don't you think so? Face facts. He watched the steamboat slowly amble. He slapped another mosquito. He breathed in the aroma of citronella and Deep Woods Off. Is this really the end? It can't be the end. What will happen to her if she sells the house? Ah, dammit, what will happen to me?

He allowed his mind to wander as the breeze raised the hair on his arms and everywhere else. For how many years have we been doing this? When was the first time, back in '74, oh yeah, of course. So much younger we were then. She came over that night, we shared some iced tea on a perfect September evening, I had just gone back to school and her shift was over. It was well past dark and now, huh, who started it? I just know we both were sitting there buck naked enjoying the breeze in five minutes flat.

Oh I bet she thinks I pay no attention to her. I bet she still thinks that. She was perkier then but oh how beautiful she is right now oh how beautiful sitting there like an angel on her swing look how her hair flows all around her oh her hair twirling down there to her roundness I cannot even think about this Frank stop thinking about this you are not supposed to think about Marie's breasts for crying out loud or the rest of her either FRANK STOP THAT

But he couldn't stop. In the space of a moment, it all flew by. Marie on his porch. Marie on her swing, her head back cackling eyes bright with laughter. Marie talking about the chickies at her feeder. How the nuthatch climbed down the trunk of the tree. Her epic battle with the squirrels. The herons on their nest at riverside. The kingfishers screaming down the stream to the open river. Marie. Marie aglow, her robe undone taking the breeze on all of her Marie, oh Marie. My Marie. Marie!

And here came the words of the poem he wished he had ascribed to her, his poem for her, he could recite it as though he had written it himself, the one that ended with

I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

The need to slap another mosquito awoke him from his reverie. Damn mosquitoes! Didn't they have a rule about sitting out here like this in July?

"Marie. Are you sure this is right?"

"Oh Frank, of course I'm sure. What would keep me here anyway?"
This week, my Indie Ink writing challenge is from Miranda at My Eclectic Bookshelf, who admonished me thusly: "Blood sucking, full moon, citronella, howling, and a metallic smell... now go!"

The poem excerpt is from "He Wishes For the Cloths of Heaven" by William Butler Yeats.

This story was inspired by the most-special-of-all John Hartford and his song about a couple watching the river go by together, in a rather nontraditional manner. Please listen to the song. Pretty please. You will be glad you did.
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