The Girl in Mauve by Robert Boucheron

     Soon after they married in St. Giles Episcopal Church, Blair and Eric Wolfram bought a house on Myrtle Avenue, on the edge of the historic district. The house was drafty and dark, and it sat on a narrow lot. But it was sound, it had the original millwork, and it came on the market at the right time.

     “It’s a bargain,” said Larry Block, the realtor. “Fix it up, and watch your investment grow.”

     This idea appealed to Eric, a securities analyst with the firm of Xavier, Young and Zwieback. Blair scrubbed, scraped, painted, sewed curtains, covered chairs, and made the most of her decorating budget. The improvement was startling.

     “It looks like something in a magazine,” said a friend of Blair from Junior League. “Could you help me with my living room? It needs freshening up.”

     In this way, Blair started to work part-time as an interior designer.

     Eric worked in the yard. He cut grass, pulled weeds and trimmed bushes. Blair planted bulbs in the fall and annuals in the spring, and she provided design direction. It was her idea to plant box along the front walk.

     “Box is traditional, and it will thrive in the shade of the trees,” she said.

     Laetitia Tharpe, a retired schoolteacher who lived across the street, watched Eric set out the tiny bushes.

     “She turned up her nose,” he later told Blair.

     “Some people object to the way box smells,” she said.

     “I don’t think that was it.”

     “If it’s a matter of taste, never mind. Look at her yard, so overgrown. In any case, it’s a safe bet that we will outlast Miss Tharpe.”

     Blair’s family, the Willikers, went back generations in the area. She had studied art history at the local college and was a member of St. Giles, where she served on the hospitality committee. Eric was a newcomer to Hapsburg, with a college degree from New England and experience with financial firms in New York. They were a handsome couple, everyone agreed.

     They even looked alike, of medium height, slightly stocky, with fair skin and dark brown hair. The same age, their birth dates were a few days apart. They shared a taste for classical music, for simple food that wasn’t too spicy, and for movies that weren’t too violent and ended happily. All that was missing was a child.

     Originally, Eric wanted a son. After eight years of marriage, and five of those years actively devoted to procreation, he would accept a baby of either sex. As for adoption, he was against it. The proposed child must be biologically theirs. Both were under thirty, so age was not a pressing matter. Still, Eric felt that thirty was a milestone, perhaps a turning point. He was old enough to be a father, and to be a father was to be a complete man.

     The couple did have Muffin, a fluffy spaniel with a bow on her head. Blair chose Muffin in the early years of their marriage. Eric would have preferred a German shepherd, but any dog would do. He took Muffin for walks and played tug-of-war with her leash. She had her own doggy bed in the kitchen. She enjoyed being the center of attention. But Eric still wanted a human child.

     Blair felt the maternal instinct to be weak. On the other hand, she always assumed that she would raise a family. Parents on both sides agreed. There was no reason to think she was infertile. It was just as likely to be the man’s fault. Then Blair’s younger sister Joncey had a baby boy, dissolving any doubts that people might have entertained about her sudden marriage to a backwoods character seven months before.

     “The pressure is on,” Blair confessed to her doctor.

     “Why don’t you visit a reproductive specialist?” Dr. Laverne said. “You can afford it. They don’t perform miracles, but at least you’ll know.”

     The Wolframs drove two hours to the big city and made a date of it. They stayed overnight at a hotel with valet parking and a cavernous three-star restaurant on the ground floor. They ordered the steak dinner, with apple pie for dessert.

     The clinic took tissue, blood and urine samples, as well as a semen specimen. The couple filled out a long questionnaire. They were already nervous, and some of the questions tipped them over the edge. They started laughing and couldn’t stop.

     The next morning, Dr. Abbondanza met them in his office, where the sun beamed through vertical blinds onto framed diplomas. He was a ruddy, hirsute man, rather plump, wearing a spotless white lab coat over a silk necktie.

     “You’re both fertile,” he said. “And you’re perfectly healthy. Sometimes, it’s the luck of the draw. Keep trying, and check back in six months.”

     He gave them a brochure with suggestions for technique. Eric called it a sex manual. He kept it in the bedside stand and had fun reading it aloud. Blair would have preferred to sleep. They both learned a great deal about the human plumbing system.

     Each had activities that occasionally took them outside the house in the evening. In addition to hospitality at St. Giles, Blair served on two other committees. Eric belonged to a sports club, and he put in a few hours of volunteer work each month, as his firm encouraged. One night in early spring, he slipped on a suede jacket, as it was chilly, and hopped in his truck.

     The truck was a sport utility vehicle which he kept in spotless condition. He drove it to the office, to the shopping mall, and farther afield, but not so far as to require four-wheel drive.
On this occasion, he drove a few blocks to a bar. His idea was to have a drink and look around.

     The Catharsis Café was the one nightspot in Hapsburg with any claim to being avant-garde or in touch with metropolitan culture. It boasted live music on weekends. The classic film posters on the walls, some in foreign languages, lent an air of sophistication.

     The bar was dim. A sprinkling of other patrons sat hunched over glasses, watching television and talking softly. Eric sat on a stool, ordered a beer, and tried to look nonchalant. There was nothing to look nonchalant about. He was about to conclude that the experiment was a failure, when a few people came in, young people who talked loudly to each other. They wore skinny jeans, rumpled shirts, and impractical footwear—oversize boots or sandals.

     One of the young people caught Eric’s eye, a girl in a muted purple shawl. She stood a few feet away in profile, listening to her friends. When she happened to look his way and saw him staring at her, she stared back with wide-eyed exaggeration. When the group moved to a booth, the girl passed him and smiled.

     Eric wished that the group had stayed so he could continue to stare. Was the girl beautiful? What did her smile mean? What would he say to her? He nursed his beer. Suddenly, the girl was beside him, leaning over the counter to get the bartender’s attention. She was calm and lovely. She smiled at him again.

     “Hi,” she said.

     “Hi,” he said.

     “Having a good time?”

     “Sure. Great time.”

     “Okay, now you ask me if I’m having a good time.”

     “Sorry. Are you?”

     “Sure.” She tossed her hair out of her eyes and tugged her shawl. Seeing that Eric was at a loss for words, she laughed.

     “Cat got your tongue?”

     “Hunh?”

     “Never mind.”

     The bartender appeared, took her order, filled four glasses with beer, and plunked them on the counter. The girl was in no hurry to get back to her friends in the booth.

     “I haven’t seen you here before,” she said.

     “I’m new in town.”

     “Is there anything you’d like to ask me? Yes, I’m with those turkeys. No, I don’t smoke. I like country-western music. I have no pre-existing conditions likely to require surgery. Anything else?”

     “That scarf you’re wearing—what color is that?”

     “Mauve.”

     “Mauve.” Eric wanted to ask her to spell it. The girl laughed.

     “What’s so funny?”

     “You are.”

     Eric looked at his hands, as though they might be performing a trick on their own.

     “What’s your name?”

     “Eric.”

     “What do you do, in life as we know it?”

     “I work in investments.” He fished out a business card and gave it to the girl. He always carried a few cards, but until now had never found an occasion to give one away. She read the small black type.

     “What is a securities analyst?”

     “I read about investments and recommend which ones to buy or sell.”

     “Here.” She tried to return the card.

     “You can keep it. I have more.”

     With a slight shrug, she tucked the card beneath her shawl.

     Eric glanced toward the booth where her friends sat. Were they becoming impatient? Should he tell her about the stock pick of the week? The girl turned something over in her mind.

     “You’re cute,” she said.

     She seized the four glasses of beer with a dexterity that implied waitress experience, and glided back to the booth, her long hair streaming behind her.

     Eric squirmed on his bar stool. What was her name? How could he see her again? Why did she say that he was cute? Unable to sit still, he paid his tab and left.

     Fuzzy from the beer and agitated by the girl in mauve, Eric neglected his driving. While maneuvering out of the parking space in the alley next to the bar, he heard a small thump and felt a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach.

     He drove at a snail’s pace through the deserted streets, shivering in the late grip of winter. He parked in his driveway. He tried to assess the damage in the darkness, but was unable to see. He dared not use the flashlight in the glove compartment.

     Blair had gone to bed. As quietly as possible, Eric brushed his teeth, got undressed and slipped into bed. Blair was either asleep or doing a good imitation. Eric’s mind raced. He imagined that he would not fall asleep for hours. Within minutes, he was unconscious.

     By daylight, he found a small dent in the side of his truck, with a scratch in the finish. It was on the passenger side, down low. Eric fretted over this first blot on the purity of his vehicle. He could not tell Blair about it. He could not take it in for repair, as that would tip her off.

     A week passed. Blair noticed that her husband was preoccupied. It was not like him to have moods or to keep secrets. He loved to narrate the incidents of his day, heedless of whether anyone was interested. Now he was taciturn. Twice at dinner he seemed not to hear what she said. He spent less time fussing over his truck.

     On Thursday, Eric went back to the Catharsis Café. The girl in mauve might be there. He wore his suede jacket and sat on the same stool. The girl and her loud companions failed to appear. The bartender remembered Eric and talked in a sympathetic way. He wore a black bow tie and a mustache.

     “Business is slow,” he said. “Everyone seems a little down tonight.”

     The next morning, Eric was gloomy. They were at breakfast in the one sunny spot that the house could muster. Blair had hung bright wallpaper here and yellow curtains in the bay window. Eric crunched cold cereal while reading the weekly Vindicator, though he had already seen it. Blair laid a hand on the newspaper.

     “Sweetheart, what’s wrong?”

     Eric stopped crunching for a moment then scowled. “Nothing’s wrong.”

     “You seem out of sorts. Did I do anything?”

     “You? Not at all. It’s the office. Xavier is on my back.” He snapped up the paper, threw his cereal bowl in the sink, where the spoon clattered, and dashed out the door.

     Perplexed and sensing a threat to her marriage, Blair sought out Father Theodore Percy, the rector of St. Giles. Hands folded in her lap, she told him as much as she knew. She gazed out his office window, where the pink, wavy glass gave her the sensation of drowning in a sweet, alcoholic drink.

     “Do you think he’s seeing another woman?”

     “I don’t know.” Tears of frustration welled. Was the frustration with Eric or with herself?

     “Would your husband have any reason to be jealous of you?”

     It took a second for this question to register. When it did, Blair shook her head vigorously.

     “I don’t suppose you told your husband that you were coming here today.”

     “No.”

     Father Percy sighed.

     “What should I do?” Blair’s voice rose in a sob.

     “Mrs. Wolfram—Blair—I suggest that you try a bit of marriage counseling. It’s nothing to be afraid of, quite the opposite. And it needn’t go on for months. The key is for both of you to go.”

     “Could we come to you?”

     “If you like. Have I met your husband?”

     “I don’t think so. He rarely comes to church.”

     “Then it will be a pleasure.”

     Blair took more trouble than usual over dinner that night. She had set the table by the time Eric got home. For his part, having reflected on that morning’s outburst, Eric took a conciliatory posture. He arrived with a bunch of daisies from the florist. It was rare for him to bring flowers. Blair made much of them, found a vase, and installed them on the dining table as a centerpiece.

     Both were on their best behavior. They lingered over coffee.

     “I saw Father Percy today,” Blair said cheerily.

     Eric was instantly on guard. He did not care for organized religion or the old-fashioned rector, though he could be lured into St. Giles for musical events.

     “On the street?”

     “I went to see him at his office.”

     “For the hospitality committee?”

     “No, for us. He suggested that we both see him for a brief talk. I’d like to, actually. Will you come with me?”

     “Let me think about it.”

     That was all she could get for the moment.

     The next Thursday, Eric went back to the Catharsis Café. It was now early April, and the weather was mild. Still, he wore his suede jacket. Shreds of cloud drifted across the nearly full moon, and there was a hint of rain. The warm night breeze felt fecund.

     The bar was crowded. His stool was taken, so he moved to a vacant one. Before he had a chance to say anything, the bartender drew a glass of beer and set it before him.

     Eric felt at ease in the hubbub and gazed around with frank curiosity, swiveling on the stool. The girl in mauve was absent. This was not going to ruin his evening. He was going to drink in the scene as he drank his beer.

     This resolution lasted until the girl entered. She was with the noisy group of young people and wore her shawl. Eric’s eyes fastened on her at once. She was unaware of him. The group stayed near the front of the bar, laughing and shouting. When they drifted in his direction, Eric swiveled away. There was nothing to look at behind the counter, just rows of glasses. He hunched his shoulders and waited. Trailing behind her group, the girl paused by the silent figure.

     “Eric?”

     “How did you know my name?”

     “You told me, silly.”

     “I forgot. How are you?”

     “Just fine. And you?”

     “Fine.” He was unable to think of what else to say.

     The girl smiled. She looked exceptional, cast in a finer mold, especially her chin. The man on the stool next to Eric abruptly left, without a word or a backward glance.

     “May I join you?”

     “Sure. What about them?” He indicated the group. Absorbed in their argument, they had taken possession of a booth.

     “They’re big boys. They can take care of themselves.” She sat on the stool facing Eric. She was so close. He was excited.

     “Can I . . . may I buy you a drink?”

     The girl laughed. Eric laughed, too.

     “Okay, big spender.”

     Eric raised a hand and waited patiently, like a child in school who wants to be excused. The girl clinked a spoon on his bottle to get the bartender’s attention.

     “Hi, Charles. Same as him.”

     A glass of beer appeared before her, and Charles discreetly vanished.

     “Here’s mud in your eye.” She drank off half the glass. Flecks of foam remained on her upper lip.

     “You must be thirsty.”

     “Not anymore.”

     “Do you come here a lot?”

     “Often. The phrase is: ‘Come here often?’ Not really. Thursday with the guys, the traveling debate team.”

     “I just started. Thursdays.”

     “I know. I know all about you.”

     “You do? Like what?”

     “You’re married—the gold ring on your left hand. You have a desk job, working with investments. You gave me your card. You have a nice house, with big trees in the yard. No kids, but that could change. A dog or a cat, or both, but a small dog is likely. You keep in shape at the gym. You drive a Toyota or a Hyundai, a nice, sensible car.”

     “Pretty good, except for the car. It’s an SUV with four-wheel drive.”

     “Really?” She was interested.

     “Dark blue with a tan vinyl interior.”

     “Does it have custom decals, pink plastic windshield wipers, and floodlights on top like bug antennae?”

     “No, I don’t go in for that stuff.”

     “Stereo?”

     “It’s okay. It won’t break your eardrums. Four speakers. My CDs are classical, folk, country.”

     “Sounds like a dream machine.”

     “Want to see it?”

     “What are we waiting for?”

     Eric led the way out of the bar, and the girl slipped her hand into his. They turned into the alley where he was parked. Taller than the other cars, it gleamed in the moonlight.

     Eric led the girl to the passenger side and opened the door. She climbed in. He walked behind the vehicle to the driver side and climbed in also. His heart raced and he felt giddy. He had no idea what would happen next.

     “Nice,” she said.

     “Thanks.”

     His mouth was dry. Hands on the steering wheel, he stared straight ahead at a rough brick wall, the side of a building that had been torn down. There was a rustle beside him as the girl slid closer. He smelled her, a faint perfume mixed with human musk and beer. He turned his head and lifted his hands from the wheel.

     The girl was beautiful. Her shawl was black in the moonlight. In slow motion, he took her in his arms, as she took him in hers. Their lips met. They kissed for a long moment.

     And what a kiss it was! The more delicious for being stolen, forbidden, with a girl Eric had barely met, whose name he didn’t know. She disengaged and tossed her long hair.

     “This is too easy,” she said. “We should know better. Like teenagers on a hot date, parking. Eric, you’re a sweet man. I know we could have a wonderful time, but it would be wrong. Not for the reason you think, or maybe it is. I don’t know. If you were less sweet, it would be less wrong, but then I might not want you so much. Twisted, no?”

     Eric was stunned.

     “Go back to your wife. Tell her you love her. She’ll never know how lucky she is.” The girl opened the door, got out, and leaned back in.

     “Bye, Eric. Have a kid, have two. You’ll be the best daddy on the block.”

     She slammed the door and walked away, swinging her hips without mercy.

About the Author: Robert Boucheron is an architect in Charlottesville, Virginia. His academic degrees are Harvard B. A. 1974 and Yale M. Arch. 1978. His articles, book reviews, short stories and interviews appear in Atticus Review, Bangalore Review, Bloodstone Review, Conclave, Construction, Digital Americana, Grey Sparrow Journal, Lowestoft Chronicle, Montreal Review, New Orleans Review, North Dakota Quarterly, Origami Journal, Outside In Literary & Travel, Poydras Review, Short Fiction (UK), Slippage.