The 29-Year Old and Her Favor   (fiction)

Some afternoons Verona would hear the hollow pattering echo of a basketball being bounced in the adjacent building's small fenced backyard, at some moments purposeful, at others, aimless, and know it was Nathan.

Once, curiosity had led her to confirm this; peeking through the warped redwood slats of the fence, she'd spied Nathan on the yard's patched concrete, dribbling a basketball between three green plastic trash cans which served as imaginary opponents. Having successfully threaded his way through the court's defenses, he'd loosed a clumsy jumpshot at an imaginary hoop.

As the ball thudded off the old wood siding, Verona had wondered if he ever allowed himself to miss in his imaginary game, or if, like her, he always emerged victorious no matter how fierce the resistance.

Poor thing, she thought as Nathan clambered up to the front steps of his building, he could use some cheering up.

On an impulse Verona reached up to her dresser top, grabbed a thin gold chain necklace and dropped it on the sidewalk below. Leaning out the window, she gave Nathan the same sharp tomboy whistle she'd used to attract her brother's attention.

Nathan glanced up at her and she gestured for him to come beneath her window. After a brief pause, of indecision or astonishment she couldn't tell, he dutifully climbed the additional steps to her building.

"Could you help me?" she asked plaintively. "I think my necklace dropped on the sidewalk."

Following his eyes, Verona realized the unbuttoned sundress revealed far too much of herself in a kneeling position; lifting her elbows from the sill, she asked, "Could you look for me?"

Nathan wordlessly acknowledged her request by crouching down and examining the weathered concrete. A moment later he arose and held up the glittering strand of gold. "Shall I toss it to you?" he asked in an uncertain voice.

Leaning out the window, she gamely extended her arms and then retracted them with a chagrined shake of her head. "I'll probably miss it," she called down to him. "Could you bring it up to me?"

The afternoon reflection of the sun filled the lenses of his glasses with a bright light, and she couldn't help smiling at his hesitancy. "I'll come down," she said.

"No, that's okay," he replied quickly. "Is the door open?"

She nodded affirmatively and then left the window for her kitchen. Opening the refrigerator, she considered the plate of crackers and goat cheese she'd assembled for Tobias with a critical eye.

Sometimes he'd just finished a late lunch with a client, but often he'd had no sustenance all day; hungry or not, he always ate what she prepared and invariably expressed gratitude. A home-cooked meal appeared to be a rarity in his household; though he claimed to eat sparingly, his appetite was always robust at her table. Although Tobias took special pleasure in her Asian-style cooking, after rushing home from her shift at the daycare center she'd opted for simpler fare: goat cheese and crackers with Greek olives and Torani passion-fruit syrup mixed with sparkling water.

Since Tobias is a no show, she thought with fresh exasperation, I might as well put this to some use. Pulling the platter and juice from the shelf, she hastily put it on the table and took down two tall glasses.

At Nathan's tentative knock she dashed to the living room and said, "Come in."

Nathan entered, gold chain in hand, and Verona said, "I'm making us something."

Gripped by the horror of facing a 29-year old woman alone, he dropped his heavy book pack and protested, "I just brought you the necklace."

"I know what it's like to climb up that hill," she said, smiling. "Come on, it's already made."

Nathan reluctantly followed her into the kitchen and watched her drop ice cubes into the glass and then fill them with the flavored sparkling water. Smiling broadly, she handed one to him and then gestured at the tray, saying, "I have a snack already made."

Wiping the sweat from his forehead, he lifted the glass and gulped the cold liquid. "This is better than I expected," he said quietly, and then added, "Where do you want the chain?"

"Do you mind helping me put it on?" she asked. "The clasp is so small I can't even work it."

Verona sat down in one of her dinette chairs and Nathan set his drink down on the table beside her. Gingerly positioning the slender gold chain around her neck, he said in a nervous cracking voice, "I'm probably not any better at this than you are."

With her hair pinned up and her dress unbuttoned, her neck and shoulders were already exposed; despite this clear view, or perhaps because of it, one end of the chain slipped from his hand and dangled between her breasts. Undone by his clumsiness, Nathan instinctively reached for the loose end. At the unexpected touch of cold chain on her sensitive flesh, Verona emitted a short squeal of surprise, and in his shock, the chain slithered from his fingers.

"I'm sorry," he murmured, and Verona had to stifle a giggle at the embarrassed misery in his voice. "It wasn't your fault," she reassured him. "I startled you." Assuming he still held one end of the chain, she said calmly, "Just lift the necklace out and we'll start over."

But the thin gold strand had lost itself somewhere in her bra; manfully following her instructions, Nathan reached down her dress and gingerly groped her in search of the chain.

Red-faced at how her instructions had played out, Verona said, "That's okay, I'll find it."

At that instant Nathan located the chain dangling from the front clasp of her bra, and with tense relief reported, "I got it."

His careful extraction was halted midway, however, for one end had snagged on the bra clasp. Anxious to free the chain, he yanked the loose end hard; other than lifting her breasts in ribald unison, this served only to lock the tangle even tighter. After several increasingly desperate attempts, his relief slid back into misery and he murmured what had become obvious to them both: "It's stuck."

Aghast at how a playful idea had blossomed into a comedy of errors, Verona said, "Just let go of it, and I'll take care of it later."

She felt the chain twitch and then heard Nathan swallow hard. "I can't," he announced solemnly. "I'm caught." Extending his hand in front of her, Verona saw that the other end of the thin gold chain had knotted around his index finger.

"I guess when I tugged it. . . " he explained miserably.

Alive to the absurdity of the situation, Verona gave a sharp laugh and said, "Well, things happen in threes, don't they? Let me have your hand."

Nathan dutifully obeyed, and Verona tried loosening the golden tangle. Unable to see the knot clearly without her glasses, she attempted to slide it off his finger; but the thin chain had tightened in a sort of slip knot, and she could not work it over his finger joint.

"I don't want to tear your finger off," she announced lightly. "This is quite a pickle." After a bemused pause she said, "Close your eyes."

Nathan dutifully shut his eyes and Verona splayed open the front of her sundress. Thinking, it's nothing he hasn't already seen during my sunbathing, she exposed the front of her bra and tried to undo the clip. But the fine chain had managed to ensnare both sides of the clasp, and without her photographic lupe or reading glasses the knotted chain was simply a glittering yellow blur.

After a moment of fruitless effort, she gave up trying to undo the bra and sighed, "Well, it's a real tangle." Pulling the front of her dress closed, she said, "I'm going to stand up, okay?"

Arising from the chair, she turned like a dancer beneath his arm to face him; he opened his eyes, and Verona gave him a chagrined smile as he took in her proximity. He was only a bit taller than her, and she looked into his abashed brown eyes. "You're right," she said. "You are worse at this than I am."

His blush immediately deepened and Verona said, "I'm joking, it's not your fault." Taking on a businesslike tone of voice, she said, "Now you're going to close your eyes again, and I'm going to slip the tangle over my head. Then we'll get the chain off your finger. Okay?"

Nathan nodded and closed his eyes. Verona dropped her dress to her waist and then began wriggling free of the entangled bra. Watching Nathan's eyes for any flicker of cheating, she worked the bra over her bust and smiled to herself, thinking, Not exactly what I had in mind when I invited him up.

Freeing herself was slower than she'd imagined, for the frilly black lace formed a surprisingly inelastic constraint. Bound by the golden tether between her bra and his finger, Nathan's hand lifted in tandem with the bra's upward progress. She'd just managed to extricate one arm when the entry bell in her living room buzzed loudly, startling them both to alertness.

Verona froze, wondering if it was Tobias. Did he forget his key? But why ring downstairs, when the broken lock left the entry door accessible? He would show up right now, she thought in a flush of panic; how do I explain being half-naked with the kid next door?

Realizing that Nathan was admiring her expanse of bare flesh with wide-eyed abandon, she blushed a deep crimson and ordered, "Close your eyes." Apparently too awe-struck by her predicament to obey, Nathan could only blink in nervous confusion at her exposed charms.

The bell buzzed insistently again, and she hastily resumed her Houdini-like struggle to escape the black lace and gold entanglement. One hot-shame moment later she was finally able to squirm the bra over her head; tossing it to him, she stage whispered, "You work on that and I'll see who's downstairs."

Lifting her sun dress to her shoulders, Verona restored her dignity with a prim tug and then tip-toed into her bedroom to peek out the open window. A rotund man in a suit and two women in their Sunday-best dresses were standing expectantly on the sidewalk. As she watched, the man leaned forward and pressed another button, sounding the buzzer in her neighbor's apartment.

Tip-toeing back to the kitchen, she whispered, "Jehovah's Witnesses."

Nathan had successfully freed the necklace from one half of the clasp, and was working on loosening it from the other half.

Sliding his passion-fruit drink to him, Verona said, "That looks like pretty hot work."

He gazed up at her with widened eyes and smiled sheepishly. "It's amazing how tangled this got in just a few seconds."

"Hmm," she murmured, and watched him peer deeply into the knot. Bending down to examine the tangle herself, she impulsively turned and kissed him, a good, soft, rounded kiss that left him speechless. Sitting down across from him, she adjusted the bamboo clip in her hair and said lightly, "I usually kiss the boy before he sees me naked."

Concentrating deeply on the knotted bra clasp and chain, he murmured, "I'm really sorry about that."

"Don't be," she said. "Strange things happen, and this is certainly one of them."

Relieved by her aplomb in the face of their mutual embarrassment, Nathan sat up and slowly untangled the gold necklace from the lingerie's small clasp. "Next time I need any work done on a bra, I'll call you," she said, and he reddened anew. A moment later he pulled the necklace free and then carefully folded the diaphanous black lace into a neat triangle.

As he set to work on the golden knot around his finger, Verona said conversationally, "You'll be a senior next year, right?"

He nodded, and she asked, "Looking forward to school being out?"

Nathan's brows knitted in a frown and he sighed, "Not really. Either I have to help my parents at the restaurant or I have to stay with my sister."

"I know the feeling," she commented. "Both my parents worked, too, and without a car I really couldn't go anywhere. How about basketball?" Interpreting his shrug to mean he wasn't skilled enough to join a team, she asked, "What else do you enjoy?"

"Reading, I guess," he answered noncommittally.

"Me, too," Verona said with measured enthusiasm. "What do you like?"

"Mostly sci-fi and mysteries," he said.

"Have you ever read Dashiell Hammett?" she asked.

Shaking his head in the negative, Nathan cautiously pulled one end of the chain through the knot.

"You live in San Francisco, you have to know about Sam Spade," Verona said. Arising, she went to her living room bookshelves and pulled a paperback from her collection.

Returning to the kitchen, she set the book down by Nathan and watched him free his finger of the chain.

"Do we dare try again?" she asked mordantly. He shrugged embarrassedly, and she answered her own query, saying, "Sure."

Sitting down, she folded her arms protectively over her bust and Nathan again strung the thin gold strand around her neck, this time successfully attaching the clasp on the third try. At her urging, he stayed long enough to finish his passion fruit drink and try a goat cheese cracker and Greek olive; as she maintained a light conversational tone, his gaze strayed from her eyes to her brown skin as if drawn by an irresistible force. Mumbling polite responses, his embarrassment growing with each betraying glance, he finally arose and thanked her far too profusely for the refreshment.

Handing the novel to him at the front door, Verona said with an ironic smile, "It's nice we got to know each other a little better today."

As he eyed her wonderingly through his black-rimmed glasses, she added, "Maybe you could share some favorite books with me. We could trade. That would be fun, wouldn't it?"

He nodded, his shaggy hair bobbing politely, and a keen grin broke across his face. Then with an energy she'd never witnessed in him before, he grabbed his pack and bounded youthfully down the stairs.


Excerpted from Verona in Spring, copyright © 2008 Charles Hugh Smith. All rights reserved in all media.


Copyright 2008 Charles Hugh Smith all rights reserved in all media. No reproduction in any media in any format (text, audio, video/film, web) without written permission of the author.

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