The change in the weather was a springtime sudden mood swing. No one was ready for the rain. A few years now in LA and in the mountains, we’d had hot, dry spring seasons, followed by forest fire summers. This year, there had been a few more showers in the evenings than we were used to. Then one afternoon out of nowhere, the sky filled with clouds that seemed to have gathered in a moment before a storm of biblical intensity opened up over Park Heights.
I was at Mrs. Markova’s house, halfway through my Green Machine workday’s delivery route, when the downpour started. I sat with Mrs. Markova at an uncomfortable wrought-iron table and chairs, in a little atrium addition at the side of her house where the walls and roof were greenhouse glass. We drank apple tea from delicate porcelain cups ringed red-brown with ancient stains. She had been telling me a story about her circle of Bohemian artist friends in Moscow in the Sixties—this was before she had defected to the US—a story that involved an awkward amount of casual sex. All at once the rain was hammering down on the atrium glass, and we couldn’t hear each other even if we shouted. We retreated to the kitchen, where Mrs. Markova poured out two small glasses of vodka, one of which I would refuse, as usual.
“I like this rain very much,” she said, drinking down first her vodka, throwing back her head as she did it, then doing the same with the one she had poured out for me. “It makes me think of a poem. Do you know this poem? ‘Je suis comme le roi d’un pays pluvieux, Riche, mais impuissant, jeune et pourtant très vieux.’”
I knew that Mrs. Markova had been a famous poet in Russia, and in the US as well, after she and her husband had come here. “Did you write that?” I asked.
“In French?” she smiled. “No, no, that’s not me, it’s Baudelaire. The poem says, ‘I am the King of a rainy country, Rich but powerless, both young and very old.’ But it sounds better in French, doesn’t it?”
“Everything does.” There was a brief lull in the conversation and I took my opportunity. “Unfortunately, Mrs. Markova, I really have to go. I’ve got a few more deliveries and you’ve put up with me for too long.”
“Backwards, of course,” she said. “It is you putting up with me.”
“Not at all. And thank you for the tea.”
Before I could get away, she took hold of my arm with surprising strength. She really was a tiny woman, but it was like there was more force of life in her than in most people. “You have not told me about meeting a boy.”
I blinked rapidly. How did she know? “Well,” I said. “Nothing’s really happened yet, but I guess I did meet someone.”
“Ah, I knew I was right. I thought, today Tess is different, there is more lightness in her. ”
I laughed. “I like him. We’re going on a first date, more or less, tonight.”
“Oh yes,” she said. “This is very good. So good for you. I’m happy.”
As long as you’re happy, Mrs. Markova, I thought sarcastically—an uncharitable thought that I shook off, instead saying, “It’s been a while. I’m a little nervous.”
“If you are nervous, he is terrified,” she said.
“I doubt that. He’s a cool customer, this one.”
She gestured at me, head to toe. “You are a lovely, perfect girl, even if you think maybe not so much. Trust me to say this, he is in chaos inside, all of today before coming to see you.”
“Yeah,” I nodded. “You’re right, he’d better be in chaos inside.”
“There, now that is acceptable attitude for first date,” Mrs. Markova said, sounding pleased with herself.
My next delivery of the day was the Mayfair Bed-and-Breakfast. Actually Mona had mentioned them that morning, Jenny and Karen. Apparently Jenny had called in the day before to cut their order in half, and she had sounded miffed about it, so I was supposed to do a little spying to see what was going on. I think I had suggested to Mona that she just ask Jenny herself, but Mona had shaken her head and left me to my work without another word about it. I recalled there was some kind of history between these three women. Small towns. You can’t escape the melodrama.
I drove cautiously through the crazy rain from Mrs. Markova’s house to the bed-and-breakfast. The Roadmaster wasn’t always my best friend in bad weather. Thankfully, Jenny and Karen’s place has a veranda out front, where I took shelter after lugging the box of groceries from the back of the car to the front step.
Jenny answered the doorbell, which was odd—it was always Karen who came to the door, to the point that I’m not sure I’d even met Jenny before....