Chapter 15 – Tete-a-Tete
We will allow President Hipp to proceed with the implementation of his plot against the wife of his bosom without disturbing his concentration, and we will follow Lily Cloudee as she walks along the sidewalk from the potting shed, right at the corner, and down the long shaded pavement to the college entrance. She’s visited Emilia Greeter many times. Although the two women attend different churches, and for most of their lives have aligned themselves with different denominations, and although one of them does not leave her home, the two women still have shared confidences and tea, tears and recipes. Lily straightened the sewing bag on her elbow, and tapped on the Greeters’ door. She heard a lyrical voice waft through the house: “Come iii—iin!!”
Strains of happy music greeted her. “Ah! Clementi! How nice,” thought Lily. “I will work on that satin pillow sham without doing any damage.”
Emilia was delighted at the unannounced visit. Both women were happy when guests dropped in, as long as it was between the hours of 10:30 and 5:00, and not over lunch. Such were the unwritten social rules of Greenfield – sensible and generous. Many drop-in visits like this occurred in the town, from the highest echelons of domestic power to the lowest student housing.
“Lily! I hope you can stay for a bit!” said Emilia, and hugged her friend.
“I thought I’d do a little satin stitching while you play,” Lily replied. “It’s such a lovely day, and the view out your picture window is an inspiration for my sewing.”
“It inspires me when I play,” noted the pianist, and she settled herself back onto the bench that Lily had embroidered for her, in roses and ivy. “But everybody knows that.”
After a few minutes of music, Emilia asked, “Are you making anything for the rummage sale?”
“Oh yes. A few baby blankets, and a layette set. I’m almost done. How about you?”
“Billy wants to make more CDs of my playing, and sell those. It’s ridiculous.”
“Why? You play beautifully, Emilia! Everyone knows that.”
Emilia plunked all ten fingers on the keyboard in a cacophony of sound. “Exactly. Everyone hears me play. Anybody that wants a small concert can hear it for free any day of the week. Just come sit in the garden and listen! Why should anybody pay for it?”
Lily had no reply to this logic, and melodious quiet ensued again. Finally, she thought it might be time to gingerly approach her topic.
“Are you enjoying having Billy home?”
Emilia smiled. “Yes, of course. It bothers Ernest to have him so undecided about his future. He was a bit angry at first, when Billy came home. But he’s young.” Here Emilia stopped in her playing, but the damper pedal held the notes in midair. “I think he’s trying to decide what to do.”
Lily nodded. Emilia played again.
“Did he dislike tax work so much? I know it’s not very fun, as work goes, but some people like it.”
“I never thought it was a good choice for Billy,” Emilia replied. “He has more spirit than that, more creativity. I’ve watched him while he was at that firm, and he never talked about his work, or his office. I think he disliked it there.”
Lily shifted in her chair, and stuck her finger with the needle. “Ouch!”
“You okay?” Emilia asked. “No blood on the satin, I hope!”
Lily sucked on her finger. “No, I’m fine.”
Sunlight filtered flickering through the pine trees and onto Lily’s lap. She drew a long, thin thread through the satin. Slowly, she said, “Emilia –“
The music hesitated and came to a leisurely pause. “Lily?”
Lily looked up at her friend and their eyes met. “Does Billy have friends at work? Does he ever talk about them?”
“No. Not that I recall. Why?”
“No girlfriend back in Atlanta?” She smiled. “I’d think a handsome boy like Billy would have a string of girls following him around.”
“He did mention some girl a couple of years ago. They went out once or twice. I don’t think anything ever came of it.” She turned the pages of her music, looking for a new piece. “I wish he’d find someone. Perhaps that would help him settle down.”
“But he would tell you?” Lily asked carefully.
“Well, yes, I think so. I don’t think he’d keep it from us. He knows we’d be thrilled. Unless he picked some loathsome female with tattoos up and down her legs.”
“Ugh! I know!” Lily interrupted. “What are girls thinking these days? When we were that young and pretty, we were careful with our skin.”
Emilia examined her friend’s face over the black edge of her baby grand. “Lily, why do you ask?” And she leveled a steady, inquisitive gaze at Lily’s eyes.
Lily was caught. Her friend had noticed something in her voice, in her tone, in her movement perhaps, and she’d been given away. Now she must choose her words delicately.
“It’s just that I’d heard he had a, um, a friend, a girlfriend,” she said.
“Really? Who said? I didn’t think anyone in town knew any of Billy’s friends in Atlanta. Unless it was Sam and Athena.” Emilia leaned forward. “Does he have a girlfriend? Did they say?”
“Oh, it wasn’t Sam or Athena. It was just one of those Greenfield rumors, you know. Tuppence Tea Room talk.” Here, Lily sewed more assiduously. Emilia frowned.
“Well, if it’s gossip, I hope it’s not the harmful kind.”
Lily sighed, and stopped with a French knot. “Emilia, I’m afraid it is.”
Emilia felt a different knot tighten in her stomach, and the room seemed to dim. She hated bad news. And no news is worse than bad news about one’s children. She sat silent, waiting.
“There’s gossip that Billy is home because of a woman in his office,” Lily began.
“A woman!” Emilia knew that when people talked of a woman, instead of a girl, the tone of the gossip had worsened considerably.
“—of a woman, and an inappropriate relationship,” finished Lily.
“Is that all of it?” asked the worried mother. She wanted nothing held back. She wanted it out, so she could examine the ugliness of it, and determine what to do.
Lily fidgeted in her chair. “No.” She folded her pillow sham and sat straighter, looking at her friend. “There’s talk of a baby.”
“Well, a baby on the way. Not a baby born.”
“I thought so too, Emilia.”
And both women, for a brief second, considered Billy’s handsome looks and broad smile, and wondered if it were quite so ridiculous as they exclaimed.
Lily’s heart hurt for her friend’s sadness. “Emilia, I only came here because I wanted you to know. If I were in your place, I’d want to know. It’s so horrible when gossip is whispered everywhere except into the ears that should hear it.”
Emilia stood and walked to the window. She did not care to show her tears. “Who is saying this, Lily?”
“Oh, Emilia, you know how gossip is. The person you hear it from is not the person who started it. Not even close. I don’t want to cause hard feelings in town by saying any names.”
Her friend turned to face her. “You would tell me the horrible gossip, but not tell me who I should thank for it? What good is that?” And then her face flooded with tears that she couldn’t hide.
Lily rushed to her friend. “No, no, Emilia!” She laid a hand on her arm. “Telling you the gossip was necessary. But I’m afraid of doing worse damage if I repeat names. It’s such a dangerous thing, you know.”
Emilia sniffed, nodded, and turned to sit on the couch near her. “I suppose so.”
“We must combat these rumors,” Lily stated.
“Talk to Billy. Ask him if there is any shred of truth in this gossip.”
“Truth! You think there might be truth in it?”
“I didn’t say that,” replied Lily. “But he’s the only one who can tell you why such things would start. It’s the best place to begin." She sat beside Emilia and put her arm around her. “He must be asked. He should know what’s being said.”
Emilia looked down at her hands. Her fingers were long and lithe, the nails very trim. Bluish green veins branched across the tendons. They were strong hands, not beautiful, but agile. Loving, mother’s hands. A single gold band graced her ring finger. Lily smoothed over these hands with her own.
“I’ll ask him. I’ll find out,” the mother said.
“Good,” Lily replied. “Good. It’s the best way to begin laying this rumor to rest. And it will give you relief of mind.”
She kissed her friend lightly on the cheek, stood, gathered her sewing, and left without another word. Emilia Greeter cried for ten minutes alone, and then dried her cheeks.
Lily Cloudee left the Greeter home, but her work wasn’t done. She turned right at the college gate and walked quickly down the sidewalk toward Highland Circle.