Metallic legs shot out from a field of wildflowers. Dried, long past their bloom, the flowers rested their heads on the metal frame. Attached to the legs, a cylinder, like a spine, pushed up at an angle, and two tubes, slightly curved, reached away from the cylinder, toward a paved path.
Claire squeezed her bicycle's brakes and squealed to a stop. “Public art,” she whispered, hesitating and studying the structure. She then glanced down at her watch and muttered, "Shoot. I'm going to be late. Gotta keep on schedule."
With her eyes on the sculpture, she pedaled along on the trail. It's about time this town did some beautifying, she thought. Teetering, almost trampling a Chihuahua under her tires, she biked to McArthur's Grocery, ignoring the dog's owner, who pumped a fist at her back.
Resting her bicycle against a garbage can, Claire hobbled inside the store. I need to give up cycling, she thought, even the half-mile ride from my house wears me out. But she soon forgot about her sore legs when she heard the tap-tap of Bernie's cane, a distinctive sound which always alerted Claire that her friend was nearby.
Claire spied Bernie and Maggie shuffling along the gourmet coffee aisle. Loud, Claire thought, Bernie is just too loud. Not in the mood for a chat, Claire slunk behind a display of tomato soup cans.
“Claire’s so compulsive,” Maggie said and Bernie nodded. Neither saw Claire hiding behind the cans.
“She’s a bit much, always rubbing it in when we're late,” Bernie said, leaning against her cane and reaching for a packet of marshmallow gooey-bars.
Claire frowned and shifted, pressing her face against the cans, peering through a tiny triangular gap with one eye.
Maggie sighed. “She means well, I suppose.”
Bernie shrugged, flipping a package of vanilla wafers into her cart. Claire watched her friends as they turned a corner. Bernie’s behind jiggled, rippling her polyester pants, reminding Claire of the coconut-strawberry ambrosia that Bernie favored at Petunia’s Buffet.
Bernie swung her cane, emphasizing something she was saying, as Maggie struggled to keep up, her thin legs looking as if they would snap. The rest of their conversation was lost, except for whispery fragments which drifted toward Claire in a breeze of syllables. They sounded a bit like a foreign language, although she couldn’t name which one.
“Old gossips,” Claire muttered as she stood, her knees creaking. Stumbling, she bumped into the display, knocking over one of the cans. She glanced around and patted her hair, feeling its stiff white ridges, like a meringue, under her fingers.
It made her feel old and she almost sagged. But the tap-tapping of Bernie’s cane launched her toward the door, and she tiptoed out of McArthur’s, abandoning her shopping cart next to a display of hummingbird food.
Tommy, the bagboy, noticed. “Miss Claire, you forgot your groceries.” He padded after her as she fled the store, almost tripping on the curb.
“Oh, Miss Claire. Miss Claire.” His voice boomed, making Alfred Buckley, the retired principal from the high school where she’d taught French, raise an eyebrow as he stepped out of his car.
Claire hesitated. Don’t make a scene, she muttered. Turning around, she flashed Alfred and the bag boy a smile as stiff as her hair, and said, “Oh, Tommy. I didn’t hear you. I just simply changed my mind, that’s all.”
“Well, Claire,” Mr. Buckley said, clearing his throat, preparing for a speech. “If it’s a matter of money...”
Ignoring him, she tapped her hearing aid and backed toward her bicycle. She grabbed the handlebars and swung her purse into a basket decorated with plastic flowers, a purple blossom dangling near the front tire. Her purse teetered, accustomed to the girth of a grocery bag.
Pumping on the pedals, Claire wobbled over a pothole. “He never was right in the mind,” she mumbled as she coasted down a hill, not sure if she meant Mr. Buckley or Tommy. Probably both. Tommy was one of my worst students, she thought, no wonder he’s still bagging groceries. And, Mr. Buckley, well, a complete nincompoop. Never on time, completely unreliable.
That afternoon Claire tried to forget Maggie’s words, but they circled around and around. Even her regular chores--ironing bed linens, scrubbing the kitchen floor--hadn’t soothed her. She leaned against the mop, its wooden handle worn soft with use, and felt raw, as if she too had been scrubbed inside and out. Closing her eyes, she imagined her husband Ralph. “Let it go, Claire,” he would have said. “The chores can wait until tomorrow. Let’s go for a walk to the lake. I can hear the loons calling.”
But Ralph wasn’t there so Claire finished mopping the floor and turned out the lights, the loons forgotten. She had a schedule to keep.
Back on her bicycle, she pedaled to the paved pathway, and, after locking her bike to a tree, sat on a wooden bench. She waited for Maggie and Bernie—the three women walked together every Thursday.
Thinking about them, she ground her heel into the asphalt trail, pretending to squash the words she had overheard at McArthur’s Grocery. She imagined the smashed letters lying at her feet, fluttering with the autumn foliage. A snake of an S, a half-moon C.
"Compulsive, indeed. I'm just precise," Claire muttered, leaning back. Golden leaves drifted from an Aspen. Two of the leaves landed on the back of her pea coat. Slightly damp, they affixed themselves to the fabric.
Claire sighed. "Bernie and Maggie are always late."
She looked at her watch, which still read five minutes to four, the same time she had left her home. She held it to her ear. The ticking had stopped. She reached for the knob, wrapping her fingers around its tiny surface, but it was already wound tight. She pressed the watch to her mouth and closed her eyes. Its cold face, warmed by her lips, was soon covered with mist, lost in a breathy fog.
The watch had been a gift from Ralph. It had survived him, and she had assumed it would continue to live, ticking long past her own death. She knew it would be silly to try to fix it; the jeweler would laugh behind her back, like Maggie and Bernie, at her compulsiveness. She felt herself droop and sat up straighter, taking off the watch and tucking it into a pocket. “It’s just a watch,” she whispered. Yet her hand shook. “I will not cry. This is ridiculous.”
To distract herself, she studied the tree bouquets lining the trail; orange blended with yellow. She stared at them, filling her eyes, trying to convince herself that this is what mattered, the march of nature, not some silly watch.
Her eyes moved beyond the trees, and she again noticed the sculpture. She pushed against the bench and stood. She limped, sore from fleeing McCarthur’s Grocery in a rush, and rolled her hips. When Claire reached the structure, she placed a hand on each arm and rested. She ran her fingers over the metal. It chilled her hands, yet its smooth surface seemed reassuring, soothing. New, she thought.
Sunlight filtered through the aspen behind her and covered the artwork in a yellow haze. She sank against it, hovering in its frosty embrace. At her feet, the wildflowers bobbed their heads with a breeze, pushing away from the structure and then settling against it. Looking to her right and left to make sure she wasn’t observed, she joined the flowers and sat down.
She wondered what Ralph would have thought of this new addition to the trail. He hadn’t been one to appreciate art. Not like me, she thought, and crossed her arms and squeezed her mouth into a tight fist.
She sat there for a while, allowing her superiority to sink around her. The structure became her throne.
Then felt a longing to see him that made her shudder. She slumped and closed her eyes, no longer the queen of anything, only an old woman sitting on a metal object. When she opened her eyes, she imagined he was standing in front of her, his arms resting on his belly, a cigar clenched between his teeth.
He had laughed, quite loudly, embarrassingly so, at the only art event Claire had attended with him. The event, an art auction for one of Ralph’s many community groups, had been held in an old barn converted into a restaurant for the night. The exposed beams were wrapped in red and white like giant candy canes, as was fitting for the season, and the waitresses wore strands of silver tinsel in their hair.
Scattered across the room, easels displayed watercolors and oil paintings. They reminded Claire of islands, each one unique, as she traveled from easel to easel. She hovered around an enormous painting of flowers, their red blossoms so real she resisted the desire to reach out and stroke them. She wouldn’t have been surprised to find them scattered across the floor in front of her.
Nearby sat a display of sculptures, too modern for her taste, but she appreciated their crisp lines and, like the metal object on which she now sat, found their starkness reassuring. Ralph had wandered up to her and wrapped an arm around her shoulders. He whispered something in her ear--forgotten now.
She remembered that he had liked the red flowers, but only studied them for a moment. His eyes roved around the room as he puffed on his cigar. Then he reached out and tapped the ash against an object just out of Claire’s vision.
Someone gasped. “Sir, please,” a man said. “Look what you’re doing.”
Claire turned around, finally noticing the sculpture that Ralph was using as an ashtray. She guessed it was supposed to be a flower, but the undulations around its top did resemble an ashtray.
She glanced at Ralph, whose big face turned red. Soon his laughter couldn’t be contained and Ralph exploded, his voice booming. Claire joined in, unable to scold her husband. Even the lecturing stranger chuckled, reluctantly, of course, and quietly, but Claire heard him nonetheless.
“Art? Ashtray? What do I know?” Ralph said. Then he grabbed Claire and waltzed her away from the red blossoms and ashes.
That had been long ago; no one had grabbed Claire for a dance since. She doubted anyone would dare, but occasionally she wished someone would. She wouldn’t mind having an arm wrapped around her waist. She closed her eyes and bowed her head.
Nearby a man cleared his throat. Claire opened her eyes, feeling drowsy, and looked around. A man wearing a gray uniform watched her. She wondered if she shouldn’t be sitting on the new artwork. Well, of course, she shouldn’t, but she wasn’t going to admit that to a stranger, particularly one that looked like a janitor.
She stared at him, noticing that he leaned against a garbage can, and then said, “Yes, may I help you?”
“Well, ma’am, I need to get this can in place. So if you don’t mind…” He picked up the garbage can and walked toward Claire. Confused, she stood and teetered away from him. She took a few steps, then turned around.
He lifted the can and slid it into the object on which Claire had been sitting. It locked into the arms with a clicking sound. He rattled it, making sure it was secure, and pushed a plastic liner inside of the can. He smiled at Claire and jogged down the path toward an idling truck.
“A garbage can holder?” Claire mumbled, staring at her public art. She staggered back to the bench, feeling foolish. What a stupid old woman I am, she thought.
But then she heard a voice in her ear, whispering. At first the words were unintelligible, then quite clear. It was a deep voice with a sing-song quality. “I’d like to fill your world with red blossoms.” Laughter slithered in and out of the words, and she felt an arm slide around her waist, tugging at her. The sensation vanished, leaving her with a satisfied feeling.
Then Maggie and Bernie shuffling toward her. Bernie waved her cane and Claire stood. She slipped her hand into her pocket and found the broken watch. She remembered the laughter and the painting with the red blossoms, but most of all, she remembered the ashtray-art.
She lifted the watch over her head and threw it toward the garbage can, where it swished out of sight. She smiled at her friends.
Erin Fanning is a freelance writer who splits her time between the woods of northern Michigan and the mountains of central Idaho. She is the author of Mountain Biking Michigan and articles that have appeared in magazines like American Profile, Oregon Outside, and Quiet Sports. She is currently working on her first novel.