Carla Sarett

Posted on August 29, 2011


Ophelia’s Present

Every October, as leaves start to change color, the town of Wayne holds a street fair with live music, food from local restaurants, and the usual jumble of crafts and ribbon belts. By local standards, it is well attended—it even brings visitors from other towns in Pennsylvania. And so, a few years back, my friend Constance Doria joined me for a lazy afternoon of strolling, window-shopping – and wedding talk.

“It’s really hard to get away from weddings, isn’t it?” asked Constance.

Indeed, the wedding motif repeated itself in storefront after storefront –invitations, rings, gowns, and, lastly, a wedding cake. The cake was tall with a bride and groom on the top, layers of snowy-white frosting, two names written in sugary-pink script.

“Now that’s a serious wedding cake,” I said. “The groom is even wearing a tuxedo.”

Constance recoiled in horror. “I hate that look—that is just so stiff and formal. I don’t want a traditional wedding– I want something different, outdoors. Maybe Valley Forge Park does weddings– I think Drew would really like that. I could wear something loose and flowing.”

The Drew in question was a cold fish named Drew Anderson, about the last man I could imagine getting married in a park—if the woman was unlucky enough to marry Drew. Drew was a corporate type who would want his friends comfortable, with fine quality scotch. I imagined that a chicken dinner would suit him fine.

“I think the Wayne Hotel does weddings.” I hinted. “And it’s historic.”

“Drew’s very spiritual, you don’t know about him. We share that,” was her opaque reply. Constance had met Drew at a New Age yoga studio, one of many that had sprouted up in the suburbs of Philadelphia.

“I suspect there’s a lot I don’t know about Drew,” I said—but Constance ignored my innuendo. To her, he was the moon and the stars.

She said, “He’s not superficial at all. Anyway, I haven’t mentioned this to anyone, but I think we’ll be engaged soon. I saw a box in his closet. I have a hunch it’s a ring.”

“Well, it’s been two years, sounds about right,” I said. I might have added that Drew and Constance were not that young, either.

“It will be two years in December, it’s not yet,” she quickly corrected me.

It was a warm lovely afternoon. We drifted past the old churches until we came to the tip of the Main Street, where is a small shady courtyard, easy to miss.

In a small store window were stone and wooden angels—some for the garden, others for the fireplace, some suspended in mid-air, wings fluttering. As we entered, a tall older woman greeted us and returned to reading—she had left the door slightly ajar to admit a thin stream of light. A charming bronze girl with a harp sat beside her, as if guarding the store.

We snaked around the dense maze of angels, careful not to topple any. And at the very back of the store, almost behind a curtain, we found a small painting – by today’s standards, tiny, about the size of a book.

The painting showed a woman outdoors, her hair blowing, her style informal, laughing, as if standing still were too much bother. Everything about her suggested motion and life and sunlight. At the bottom were the words, The Wedding Present, in an ornate golden script, at odds with the painting’s linear style. The girl in the picture seemed to be the owner, younger.

“This painting is amazing. If I could paint, this is how I’d like to paint,” I said and stopped myself.

Constance said, “Wow this would be a great gift for Drew. I’d love to get something really special and unique.”

The tall woman replied, in a crisp educated voice, “It’s an important work, but it’s not for sale at the moment.” Her authority implied that she must own the store.

The word “important” is typically applied to well-known artists or, at the least, artists of historical significance. This particular signature was unknown to me – and I had a fair knowledge of painting. Whoever had painted it had faded into obscurity.

The owner seemed evasive when I asked. Eventually, she said “There are only a handful of pieces by this artist.”

I have a romantic side. I had to ask, “Was the artist in love with you?”

“Oh, in those years, I had many admirers,” she said, distracted. Judging from the painting, she had been a great beauty, and was even now, someone you would notice.

“I hope that you didn’t break any hearts,” I joked or almost joked, since hearts are surprisingly easy to break.

“No, but there are different kinds of heartbreak,” she said, and added, “But the artist had a good life, it was a good story.”

“Except that he never used his talents,” I added. “That’s a terrible waste.”

She shrugged, “That had nothing to do with me. Life has trade-offs.”

“Maybe he would have made a different trade-off if he’d won you,” I argued stubbornly, maybe even childishly.

Constance said, in her sweet way, “I can feel that he saw something in you, something deep, maybe.”

The woman said nothing, and then, “I was never that way really, that’s just what people wanted to see. I wasn’t adventurous. I was completely terrified of life.”

“People can be adventurous and terrified at the same time, almost like stage fright,” I suggested.

“You may be right. In fact, I think you are,” she conceded with a sympathetic smile.

“Well, we all see what we want to,” I said.

Before we left, Constance diligently wrote down the names and prices of a variety of items so she could decide later. She left empty-handed.

We had walked a few minutes when we met a suntanned Drew Anderson with a young woman. She wore a bright yellow shift, her hair in a sleek ponytail, country-club style. Her tote bag was covered with pictures of little bumblebees and was monogrammed.

“Hey, fancy meeting the two of you,” Drew said, casually. “Nice day for this, that’s for sure. Some good bands, too.”

Constance forced a laugh and introduced me. The woman’s name was Kristine, also from the yoga studio.

Kristine removed over-sized white sunglasses, revealing a face much younger than Constance’s. She spoke in a high-pitched squeak. “We bought you a fantastic birthday gift, you are going to just love it, love it, love it! We bought it last week, but I won’t spoil the surprise.” She pretended to pout. “Or have I already?”

I said in a flat tone, “I hate surprises.” Drew and I moved in the same professional circles and it was best not to say too much.

We all stood still. Drew said, “We’re on our way to meet some friends of Kristine’s–great seeing you.” They waved, leaned their heads towards one another, and locked hands. We watched them walk away.

“That was really really strange,” Constance said. “I feel sick.”

I tried to keep it light, even though I too felt sick. “Forget it. One day, you won’t remember that you knew Drew. That’s what happens.”

I did not believe a word of what I said, but what else was there to say?

That autumn was a hard one and many stores closed. And corporate layoffs began, too. Drew Anderson lost his marketing job and his condo, and in, short order, Kristine. Word was that he took the loss of Kristine very hard.

Reputations are mysterious. It is unfair that a man without luck suddenly seems less handsome or clever. But so it was with Drew. His blog, once admired, seemed trite and his conversation, more so. Women no longer swooned when they met him. Everyone agreed that Constance had escaped a bad fate.

Constance kept her thoughts her own and refused to talk about Drew ever again—and for that matter, weddings. She bought a house, out where there is little traffic– and sent charming invitations for a house-warming party.

I knew what I wanted to buy her: an angel, from the store with the angels. An angel was the perfect gift for Constance Doria. But by the time I returned, the store was about to close: cherubs were scattered on the street, crates beside them. Instead of the owner, I saw a pleasant-looking older man with a young woman—they looked almost comically alike, in khakis, polo shirts, and boating shoes.

“I’m sorry you’re closing,” I told them.

The woman shrugged, philosophical, and continued packing. “Thanks–look around. If you see something, my dad can help you.” She moved quickly–she wanted to be done.

Her father extended his hand, “Frank Tripp, glad to meet you.” He had the graceful manners of the older generation, which makes you feel comfortable in an instant.

I found Constance’s gift at once–the bronze girl with the harp. As I held the bronze girl, I saw the painting, in the back. I pointed to it. “Are you selling that one? It’s so fresh. It is absolutely an amazing painting, it’s truly amazing.”

“No, no, that one’s mine,” Frank Tripp said. “This is my wife’s wedding present to me. We let our daughter have it for a while, but we’d never part with it.”

“So is that your wife?” I asked.

“Yes, that’s Ophelia,” he said, thrilled to have her.

“You knew the artist?”

Frank Tripp laughed, “Well, yes, I married her—my wife, Ophelia, painted this.” His daughter looked amused as she listened and then went continued packing.

I was lost. “She told me someone else, a man I thought, had painted this—that’s why I asked. I was here before and that’s what she told me.”

Frank Tripp took in my words. “I guess she meant she never painted like this again. She was very different in those years. I guess everyone is, at the start, at the beginning. We all expect the world to be one way, and then it’s another.”

“Depends on where you start.”

Frank agreed, “You have a point.”

“I’d like to hear her story, if you don’t mind, that is,” I said. “I love that painting.”

His daughter signaled her approval—and after a pause, he began.

“Ophelia was fearless as a young woman. She climbed mountains without guidebooks. She never worried, not like ordinary people do. We met when we were young and we didn’t have the up and downs or the doubts of other couples. We knew from the start we’d be married. Ophelia had always wanted to live abroad, and so we moved to Mexico.

“We had a little boy—and we named him Sammy. From the moment he was born we knew something was wrong. Back then, no one knew much about these things. All we knew is that Sammy couldn’t be without Ophelia. He wouldn’t let go of her–even if she looked away from him, he’d scream and shriek and he couldn’t stop. But when he was in her arms, he became a little angel, and he was the sweetest little boy in the world. And, took him everywhere with her, and she slept with him, and she sang to him, and she made him his clothes, and she painted him pictures of sheep and dogs and clouds.

“People tried to convince Ophelia that Sammy had to be treated, that he wasn’t normal, but she became angry. She could not bear the thought of how scared he’d be without her.

“Maybe it was a housekeeper, maybe a vicious neighbor, or maybe a stranger who stole Sammy in broad daylight. The case dragged on for years, with Ophelia as the only suspect. Everyone gossiped that having such a troubled child was a burden. Why people like to imagine evil in others is beyond me—but it wore Ophelia down. She began to avoid people, she kept the shades drawn.

“A few years later, Sammy’s body was found with many others, all children. The killer had kept them captive and then abandoned them. But he kept records of the children’s names, and so we knew it was Sammy. We left after that. “

I put my hand on Frank’s and I said, “Thank you for telling me about Sammy. He will be in my heart forever now. Will you promise to tell Ophelia that?”

Frank did not let go of my hand. He knew that I would and I trusted him as well.

“And after you left Mexico?” I asked.

“We moved back here, we built a life, a good life. And she continued painting, after a while.”

“But she said there were only a handful of these paintings,” I said, confused.

“That’s true. There are only a few in this style, signed Morris—that was her maiden name. Her later work took a different turn.” Frank mentioned a New York gallery that represented Ophelia Tripp –some museums as well.

“Of course, that’s why I didn’t know the signature. I’d never have connected the two artists—they’re so different,” I said.

We both turned now to the picture of young Ophelia on the verge. With the door open and the afternoon light streaming in, I saw Ophelia’s work with greater clarity than I had earlier.

Ophelia had to abandon this way of painting. Even as she worked, she must have realized that her style would be labeled old-fashioned, even backwards-looking. No serious art gallery would have exhibited it, and Ophelia needed to be taken seriously. She had worldly ambitions—that was clear. She had to make her way in the world. She had made her trade-offs, as all of us do. Besides, Ophelia probably had little patience for the world she had once painted.


Carla Sarett is a Ph.D. and has worked in TV and film. She began writing short stories, for reasons unknown, 2010. Her short stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Every Day Fiction, Scissors and Spackle, Eric’s Hysterics, and Lost in Fiction.

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