Oct/Nov 2021  •   Fiction

The Collar

by Rebecca Pyle

Artwork borrowed from Unsplash.com

Artwork borrowed from Unsplash.com

She had made a collar from a freshly laundered chair's doily, once hand-crocheted from a creamy half-rough, half-soft almost-twine, turned by her into a fancy collar by simply splitting it, then stitching it to her high-necked blouse's neckline circle of ridge. She'd worn it for days to catch his eye while she helped serve lunches each day in the vineyard's over-august dining room. But she was so tired of food, food of all kinds, in the California heat, all she thought about was things other than food, which made her look as if she was thinking of being anywhere but there, which probably made even the unusual collar look accidental. And he did not seem to notice, did not change in the way he ordered his food. His order, each time he came to the restaurant, every day, was King Oscar mackerel on lettuce, pickles on the side.

Do you have the chili pepper flakes, he said. (He always said this.)

She only nodded, always, because chili pepper flakes, which she also liked on food, were not to be talked about, were only worth bringing, in a container she made sure to turn with its shaker-handle to its right. Presuming, of course, he was right-handed.

And this was the end of their conversation each day, except for the thank yous, which dissolved, as thank yous do, into the air. They then wafted, the thank yous, toward the clouds, the high puffy wispy ones, which told you they were grateful for their own being by being light and so high, bright, a many-shaded white color (which, like white's shadow cousin black, was also a chameleon among colors). (She had over-studied art, once.)

So it was a surprise when she found a note from him on the small table. What would it say? Nothing, really, she saw: only the words Thank You. Underlined.

Gardening was her next assignment, as if the collar made from the crocheted chair-top doily, turned into dressy collar, had signaled to all she was at the end of her time in the restaurant. In the very warm vineyard restaurant's garden, the fussy, strange collar, of course, would have been preposterous to wear. The garden was in a dependably over-warm part of the countryside—humid, all through summer—but to many, even most, this increased its charm: scents of all the plants were very strong. People did not know it, but what they came to botanical gardens most for were their strong, confusing wafts of scent. At high noon it was beginning to become strong; at four in the afternoon only those who worked in gardens all day, almost every day, could weather the intensity of the aromas. To them, the aromas eventually became barely noticeable; they soon only noticed when the scents were missing, in all indoor places except a greenhouse. Even dirt has a wondrous smell in summer heat; it smells like molasses and raisins, if even a little bit of peat moss has been incorporated into the dirt. Even the plainest dirt has, she learned, a dull spiciness to it, under the sun in summer; and the smell of happy plants, she learned, is high and tart, acerbic, as if with its scent it is asking the world a question.

Did you remember to lock the storage shed, he had asked her, three weeks ago, and that question had only made nagging sense, as the vineyard's storage sheds, all knew, were never to be left unlocked. There were paintings in one at its sloppy north end, paintings upright and leaning into each other. Since World War I, other garden workers had told her (doubt in their expressions, voices: but it was, they said, what other workers had told them). World War I, she thought, when so many had come home dead—or almost had died—on the war's front, whatever special hell that was, and those paintings, surely, could have cheered some of their houses. But instead soldiers dead or alive went back to their towns in Europe and America, and these paintings had stayed in the American, Californian, shed, and there were whispers of Pissarro and Morisot, the girl painters no one wanted, French names that sounded morose and dull-blue in her head, and cheerier talk of Gauguins, but maybe not, and laughter, because Gauguins were too perfect and valuable to be remaining in these sheds, though perhaps, she thought, this was just what most artists would have wanted: time-capsuled for late debuts. Waiting for new reveal, spectacular surprise showing; as perhaps she in her way had been wanting to be someone in a painting, herself, by attaching that crocheted doily from a vineyard restaurant's armchair to her own blouse, hoping to look like a painter's subject. Because she deserved to be painted? Because it had taken effort to stitch the collar to her blouse? Because she had dared, even, to steal? No, she thought; it was to try make a man see her as a work of art, herself.

Eventually it happened that he, who was twice her age and not a painter (unless this was something about him she did not know yet), asked her to to go with him to a dinner party, not at his vineyard, but at a neighboring vineyard down the hill. He had no one else to take, he said, since his wife had gone off with the Swiss.

Of this, the Swiss, she knew nothing. She did not even know the wife's name, or the history good gossip would have told her. That he was older, of course, made him a mystery to most of the younger ones who worked there. She did not know how to dress, which made the idea more interesting as the date approached: what she wouldn't wear, or would. Not the collar; it had served its purpose. She would wear one color, she decided, all one color, with dark shoes; but she couldn't decide on the color and went to thrift stores for ideas. A coral would be good? Or russet? Yes, russet. A grape color like a color on a brave art museum's walls. A color no one else would dare to have on their walls.

She didn't know it, but he was partially color blind, more aware of shadows and brights than tones in the rainbow's peacock show-off tail. She also didn't know he was averse to time. He pretended all things blended together: the past and the future and the present, too. There were rumors he'd sung opera, performed in all sorts of roles in unbelievable, showing-off costumes, but she knew those stories weren't true as soon as she heard him whistle and sing while he sat on the banks of rivers to fish, and she sat, bemused (fishing was a dull activity), beside him. If he had ever been a singer in operas, there would have been a brave quickness in each tune. Yet, in the way he described all things—the past, the present, and the still-to-come—there was a stage-master sense, as if he had to quickly draw you in, get you beyond the predictably bad set decorations.

It was no surprise, he said later, he'd fallen in love with her, though he knew at once the hand-crocheted collar circling her young throat was the very doily missing from a maroon brocade chair upstairs in the east sitting room. Where, he said, his mother had liked to sit. There, her expression very blank, and she quiet, as if someone were there, painting her. He knew it was a maroon chair, he said, because she'd always called it her marooned chair, where she waited so patiently. For rescue.