Jocelyne knew her husband Roland quite well, she thought, at least in most respects. That is to say, she knew his habits, his movements, his routines. She knew the foods he preferred, what he liked to drink, and how much and what he chose never to see on his plate. She knew he took no risks with their finances and that he was at the very least an adequate provider. She knew he possessed no harmful habits. And she knew that, when motivated, he was a more than adequate lover.
What’s more, motivating him was an easy matter for her, and always had been. When she wanted him, as she often did, she needed only to become slightly flirtatious, to smile, and appear before him in anything that showed her slender figure to advantage. Whether a short dress or a negligee, it didn’t matter to Roland. Soon enough he would guide her to the nearest privacy, not always their bedroom, and begin to embrace and kiss her. Now that both their children were away at college, this behavior had become more frequent—her signals, his responses.
Their romance began in college. She was just a freshman and he a junior when they met, seated beside each other, purely by chance, at a Bach piano recital. He came to the recital that Sunday afternoon in a dark grey suit with a bold blue and white tie; she, in a pale blue gauzy dress graced along the neckline with a white scarf cinched below her throat by a gold fleur-de-lis. His manners were very reserved and most respectful, though she noticed he glanced repeatedly at her legs, especially when she crossed them. During the brief intermission he inquired without prelude, “You must like classical music?”
“Yes, I do and always have,” she remembers replying and then, wanting for other words, said, “Especially Bizet and Berlioz. And you?”
“I like Bach very much,” he told her, “particularly the Goldberg Variations, their precision when played well.”
As they exited the auditorium he asked her name and then asked if he could call her. She was flattered and gave him her dorm number but wondered why he hadn’t a girlfriend already, for he was a handsome boy. He had intelligent blue eyes, but his thin face was placid when he spoke, even when he complimented her.
After three dates he asked her to date only him. She agreed. The next year he asked her to sleep with him. She declined, then, with precautions, agreed. The year after that, he asked her to marry him. She said yes. By then his asking was only a formality.
Along the way he managed to tell her how pretty she was, how he liked her warm brown eyes and her long chestnut hair with its spiraling curls touching her cheeks and its bangs flirting along her forehead.
All of this was important to her, for Roland rarely offered opinions about anything else.
Their courtship progressed with very little drama from their chance meeting at the recital to a May marriage three years later. She had learned that Roland preferred neither to encounter nor create drama. In the first three years of marriage, they had two children, a boy and then a girl. Both their families were very pleased with them. They both worked hard and saved their money—he as an accounting manager, she as a librarian.
Yet after nearly twenty years of marriage, two children, countless meals together, and many hours of satisfying intimacies—Jocelyne did not feel that she truly knew Roland in anything but superficialities. Mostly he was quiet. His initial reserve did not disappear after marriage as she had hoped. Instead it deepened into the passivity of a stone Buddha seated at the center of a courtyard with life flickering around it, observing everything but saying nothing. It’s his work, she thought at first. Then, No, it’s just his way. And perhaps it was just his way, but his silences disturbed her nonetheless. She feared they indicated some concealed problem that would erupt without further warning to ruin their marriage, though none ever had. Still she tried always to beat the silence down with her own words.
When the children were still at home, their chatter filled the air. But now she felt a deep cistern of silence separated her from Roland. Almost compulsively she poured into it her own words—a torrent of them, anything that came to her mind—people she’d seen at the library, a child’s tantrum that had disturbed the reading room, a utility bill that hadn’t been paid, a checking account statement that she couldn’t balance. Anything, no matter how trivial. She even repeated herself; she knew she did. And he would only say: yes dear, no darling, really, perhaps, who’s that you’re speaking of? And the day would end.
In talking with other wives she knew, at least those with whom she could share intimacies, Jocelyne gradually acquired a context in which to judge her relationship with Roland and found it, in most respects, to be better than those of her friends with their husbands. These men were without exception marred by at least one serious flaw, sometimes more, flaws far more definite and consequential than Roland’s silences. Many of them drank too much, some demanded too much from their wives or expected too much from their children. A few treated their wives and children harshly, even abusively. And one or two were unfaithful, or so their wives suspected. Several women in Jocelyne’s circle were divorced by age forty. And though she cautioned herself not to be—for one can never be certain what life will bring—Jocelyne began to feel superior to her friends even while still being uncertain of Roland’s love for her. Without exception, they told her how lucky she was. Roland’s the perfect husband, they’d say. Good looking, steady, never gets upset. Are we wrong, Jocelyne? Please tell us if we’re wrong. Their opinions of Roland made her feel more fortunate and helped make the silences more tolerable. For even if she had done nothing special to deserve Roland, wasn’t their chance meeting arranged by Divine Providence, which takes charge of such matters as we ourselves cannot know to do? Surely, it was so in their case. Still, she doubted.
Men noticed Jocelyne’s beauty and frequently responded to it. When they did, she enjoyed their adulation even as she rejected their advances, for even lascivious praise is praise nevertheless. There was, for example, Gavin Gaines, the husband of her friend Edith. He was the manager of the local country club, Pine Grove. An athletic man in the past, always darkly tanned, with a trim light brown moustache that nearly disappeared at a distance—he had grown portly over time but was no less self-assured. Most of the time he dressed in a brass-buttoned, deep green sports coat with the Pine Grove emblem on its breast pocket—golf clubs crisscrossed below a small pine tree. The wives regarded him as a roué and with good reason. Some of them could base their judgments on personal encounters, though they never confided these to Edith. Jocelyne was one of those wives.
At a Christmas party five years ago, Gavin had asked Jocelyne to dance. He had been staring in her direction since her arrival on Roland’s arm at the Gaines’s home. She had chosen for the party a close-fitting red dress with white ruffles at the sleeves and neckline. While the hem of the dress nearly touched her black pumps, its slit exposed her right leg to just above the knee. Roland liked the dress very much. So did Gavin.
Without waiting for her response, Gavin snatched her by the arm and, clasping her tightly to himself, danced her beyond Roland’s earshot. He was in conversation with another guest. That accomplished, Gavin began to declare his admiration for Jocelyne’s beauty, whispering to her his specific observations and desires while maneuvering her away from the other couples and nearer and nearer the French doors that led to the patio. Jocelyne began to wonder desperately where Edith might be.
“At the country club,” Gavin cooed to her, “I have a private office.” His words were drenched with scotch. “The office has a couch, and only I have the office key. It could all be very discrete,” he promised her.
“Stop!” she said and leaned back from his embrace just as Roland appeared beside them. But before she could say more, Roland, who was well aware of Gavin’s reputation and suspected his lust for Jocelyne, intervened with “May I finish this dance with my wife? You don’t mind, do you?” Gavin released her at once.
As Roland held her, Jocelyne thanked him. “You saved me, Darling.”
“I know,” he said softly. “But we must not allow this to happen again.”
Then there was Tony Galante, the impetuous son of her husband’s barber. Tony worked at the local grocery store where Jocelyne and most of the other wives shopped. Just a boy really, barely half her age, Tony was an amateur boxer with a sculpted body and careless regard for propriety. The other wives loved to talk about him, especially Edith. They even looked for him when they went shopping to enjoy the soft dangers of flirtation.
Tony declared his love for Jocelyne one day while loading her groceries into the trunk of her car. He offered to leave work immediately in order to unpack them for her at her home, where he guessed they could be alone. She declined, telling him that such action would only bring shame on both of them.
“You should go back into the store right away, Tony,” she advised, “before your manager misses you.” In the rearview mirror she saw him glumly pushing the grocery cart back to the store. She wondered if he had made the same offer to any of her friends, perhaps Edith.
At work in the city’s large public library where she was the research librarian, Jocelyne was normally safe from such advances.
The library’s visitors were mostly women with their young children. Mothers came to her desk to ask for recommendations on what books to read to three-year-olds and where to find the latest Dora the Explorer activity books. As a joke children would ask where she was hiding Pete the Cat today.
The few men who came, at least during the weekdays, were retirees, there to read the newspapers, use the public computers, or just look for pleasant ways to pass their day. Encountering a lovely woman at the information desk was an unexpected bonus for them, except for Simon.
Simon was not a retiree but rather a scholar, a young man with spikey blonde hair, a round friendly face, not always clean-shaven, and a graceful body. Probably thirty or thereabouts, Jocelyn guessed. He wore casual clothes, usually in shades of brown, with cordovan penny loafers and beige socks below his corduroy slacks. On his first appearance in the library he marched up to her desk and offered her his business card. A professional researcher of genealogies it declared.
“I’ll need your help rather often,” he stated with a faintly French accent. “I’m just now establishing my business and will use the library for much of my research, to save money, you understand.” Then after a slight pause, he added, “You’re French, aren’t you?”
“Why yes, I am, partly. How did you know that?”
“Your appearance. The nose and the beautiful slope of your cheeks, the eyes, and perhaps the hair a bit also.” He studied Jocelyne’s face more closely, leaning from side to side to take in the full effect of her chestnut curls distressed here and there these days by spirals of silver, before declaring, “Yes, the hair as well. Southern France, I’d guess. Perhaps Provence?”
Jocelyne had never thought of herself as being obviously French but answered, “Well, that’s quite good. You’re right again. My paternal grandfather emigrated from Provence.”
Then in grandly serious tones Simon declared, “Your grandpère must have known severe hardships, for no one would willingly leave Provence,” before adding much more brightly, “But now you’re here.”
“I am,” Jocelyne conceded with a slight blush. “How may I help you . . .” she looked down at his card, “Mr. Brûlante?”
“Oh please, that’s too much. Just call me by my first name.”
“Very well . . . Simon.”
“No, no, not quite right. It’s “See-mon,” as one would pronounce it in French.”
“Very well, Simòn, how may I help you?”
“First, tell me your grandpère’s name. As a genealogist I’m perpetually curious about such things.”
“His name was Marcel Trésor.”
“So you are Madmoiselle Trésor?”
“Well, not any longer. I’m married, you see.” With that, Jocelyne held up her left hand to show Simòn her engagement ring and wedding band.
“Well, of course, you are. A woman—un trésor exquis—as beautiful as yourself could hardly be expected to remain single. No one would believe it!”
Jocelyne blushed more deeply this time but quickly recovered to say, “Surely you want to know more than my grandfather’s name.”
“I do, indeed,” Simòn replied and then paused again while looking at her hair and eyes, as if to confirm his earlier judgment.
“Today I need to research Nahuatl names.”
“The Aztec language? Is that what you want?”
“Yes, yes, that’s it. Very good! Very few people would know that. You must be an excellent research librarian.”
“Just a lucky guess, really.”
“J’en doute sérieusement, Madame!” he said, looking into her eyes again. “It’s for a client I’m doing this, you see, one who is a recent immigrant from Mexico. He thinks his family may have been related to Aztec royalty.”
“Wouldn’t he have been wiser to stay in Mexico to investigate that himself?”
“Yes, he certainly would have, but here he is asking me to do it for him. I’m grateful for the work, of course. And I’ll do my best, but resources of the type needed to answer his questions are rather limited here.”
“I’m afraid you’re right, but let me show you what we do have. Perhaps I can at least get you started in the right direction.”
“I truly think you can.”
Jocelyne signaled to one of her coworkers to watch her post for a moment. Then she led Simòn up the stairs to the second floor where the nonfiction materials were shelved. As they walked up the stairs, with Simòn following directly behind her, she had the sense that he was staring at her legs. At the top of the stairs she turned to the left and proceeded to the history section.
“Now let’s see . . . We’re looking for 972 items, Mexican history,” she said while scanning the shelves.
“I’m so glad you’re helping me, Madame,” he said, tagging along behind her through the stacks. “The Dewey Decimal system has always been an utter mystery to me.”
She knew he had to be exaggerating since a genealogist would surely know at least the history classifications, but she replied, “Oh, it’s not so bad if you work with it every day. . . Ah, here we are.”
She stopped abruptly. Following too closely he bumped into her. As he did, he placed his hands on her shoulders to steady both of them and quickly begged her pardon.
“Sorry, I didn’t see your stop signal.”
“I guess I didn’t give one,” she laughed. “Anyway, here are three histories of the Aztecs together on this shelf, as well as several general histories of Mexico just below them. Will this do?”
“These will make an excellent start, I’m sure. Thank you . . . Well, since I can’t call you Madmoiselle Trésor, what may I call you?”
“Oh sorry, I should have told you before. I’m Jocelyne—Mrs. Jocelyne Auger.”
“Auger, so German then? I mean, your husband is German? The logical, quiet type, c’est vrai?”
“Yes, his family came from Germany, but that was many years ago—nineteenth century, in fact. He’s thoroughly American and, yes, he’s rather quiet and very logical.”
Looking at her rather curiously, he replied, “I’m sure he is. There is so much in a name.”
Ignoring the oddity of his response, she said, “Now, you may take these books downstairs to the reading room if you wish, where it’s more comfortable. And when you’ve finished, just place them on one of the carts next to my desk so that they can be reshelved.”
“Excellent. I shall follow your instructions faithfully. Thank you, Jocelyne.” He deliberately gave her name its French pronunciation, which she hadn’t heard since her grandfather died.
Soon after returning to her post, Jocelyne noticed that Simòn had positioned himself in the middle of the reading room, facing her direction, with a stack of books beside him. Occasionally he would look up from the depths of the Nahuatl lore opened before him and smile at her. After their initial meeting, Simòn came to the library regularly, Tuesdays and Thursdays, always stopping by her desk to say hello, often asking for more assistance—German names, Hungarian names, Poles, Czechs, and Russians. What did she have? Could he see it? He was always very busy now, lots of clients, he said, wishing to open the graves of their ancestors to peer inside. And all in such a hurry for answers, despite the fact that those answers had for so many generations now slept peacefully and would continue to do so unless he, Simòn, could awaken them. And for that, he required her help.
On the fourth Tuesday after Simòn’s first appearance, Jocelyne was returning to her desk, walking through the reading room. She passed by the table he always used. His things were there, strewn about, but he was gone. Probably in the restroom, she thought. Then she glanced down at the books he’d chosen to see if she could anticipate what nationalities he might ask her about next. But rather than books on genealogy, she saw several books on French antiques of the eighteenth century. She stopped. A slip of notepaper protruded from one text, presumably marking his place. Nearby were two small books of his own—a handbook of French phrases and a paperback Larousse French-English dictionary. There was also a notepad with an elegant old fashioned pen beside it, dark blue with a gold quill and pocket clip, the type of pen with a screw cap. On the yellow pad he’d written in broad blue ink a list of French names with addresses, probably sources of antiques he’d found in the books. And below those names he’d scribbled her first name over and over again with elegant flourishes, finishing at the bottom of the page with Je t’aime beaucoup, Jocelyne.
She quickly looked in the direction of the restroom but didn’t see him. Then she marched back to her post, the impact of her heels resounding on the tile floor. Once at her desk she removed the telephone directory from a drawer and began to scan through the white page listings for “B.” She found no listing for “Brûlante.” Next she flipped to the yellow pages and scanned the listings for antiques. Her finger stopped abruptly at one. She sat upright on her swivel chair while thinking to herself, Brûlante, burning, burns. She swiveled around to the phone and dialed the number. The line rang three times before switching to a voicemail message spoken by a voice already familiar to her but without any trace of French accent. She hung up. Finally, though she was certain she already knew the answer, she turned to her computer and punched up the library’s webpage. Clicking on the tab for “Staff,” she read below a photo of herself—“Jocelyne Trésor Auger, BLS—Ohio State University, Research Librarian.” She looked back into the reading room, and there he was again, smiling at her.
The following Thursday Simòn came to her desk with an especially urgent request. “Jocelyne, don’t you have a Welsh collection here?” he asked. “I mean a collection of materials from local families pertaining to their Welsh heritage?”
“Good. I thought I’d read that somewhere. May I examine the collection?”
“I’m afraid it’s not available today. You see, the collection includes items that still belong to the original families who lent them to the library, so the room in which they are stored is only open to the public on special occasions. But much of it is viewable on the library’s webpage.”
“I’ve already tried that. No luck. But surely I’m special enough by now to view the collection, am I not?” he pleaded, smiling playfully at her. “I mean, if you were with me, no harm could come to the material, now could it?”
“It’s not permitted, as I said.”
“Please, this client is most anxious and is willing to pay me generously. Other genealogists have deceived him, and I think your collection may have just the answers he seeks.”
“No, I mustn’t.”
“But I promise to be quick. If what I’m seeking is there—and I’m nearly certain it is—we’ll be no more than twenty minutes, with your cooperation, of course. You can’t get into trouble for a mere twenty minutes, now can you?”
She hesitated, took a deep breath, and then said, “Oh, all right. Let me check. But no more than twenty minutes. Wait for me here.”
Jocelyne left her desk, entered the library’s windowed main office, spoke a few words to the head librarian who nodded her approval. She then returned carrying a key dangling from a large black fob embossed with the number 312 in silver.
“Follow me,” she said. “We’ll take the elevator to the third floor.”
In the elevator Simòn murmured to her, “I really appreciate your doing this, Jocelyne.”
He was standing closer to her than he ever before, except when he had knocked against her that first day. In fact, his elbow was touching her arm now as the elevator crept upward.
Its door finally opened onto a dim hallway lined with pictures of local dignitaries and punctuated by the doors of three unlighted rooms. Jocelyne walked to the farthest door and unlocked it, stepped inside and switched on the lights.
“The Welsh collection is right over here,” she said, pointing to a shelving unit that stood by itself in a corner of the room. Simòn quietly closed the door behind them.
“What family name are you researching? I hope it’s not Jenkins,” she laughed. “Half the town is named Jenkins.”
“No, not Jenkins,” he said in a darkened voice. “It’s Berwyn. Not many of those, I’ll wager.”
“You’re right about that, but I think you’re still in luck.”
“I’m nearly sure of it,” he said.
Concentrating on finding the correct resource, she hadn’t looked back at him as they spoke.
“Well, as I recall when the collection was assembled, there was information regarding some early settlers in the area with that name.” Jocelyne knelt down and selected from the bottom shelf a slender text with a scarred black leather cover. “Here, I believe the Berwyns are mentioned in this volume.”
When she rose and turned to him, Simòn was standing quite close to her again, so close that she couldn’t extend the book to him but had to keep it pressed against her bosom. He took it from her without so much as a glance at it, for he was staring into her eyes instead. He laid the book on the small reading table next to them, all the while gazing at her.
“I’ll wait outside,” she said and started to step around him, but he seized her arms.
“Don’t go, Jocelyne. Let me show my gratitude,” he whispered and kissed her on the mouth.
Immediately she pushed him away. He stumbled backward a step or two while she stepped backward herself, now with the back of her left hand covering her mouth.
“Stop! You must never do that again!” she hissed.
“But I thought you’d be pleased. I really did.” His face reddened for just a moment. “I thought . . . Are you sure we can’t be something more than just librarian and patron?” he asked with a cloying sweetness in his voice as he stepped toward her again.
“I’m quite sure,” she said resolutely and then added, “Mr. Simon Burns, Rare Antiques, Monday—Wednesday—Friday, 9 to 4. Isn’t that who you really are?”
He stopped. His eyes widened and his face grew pale.
“How did you know that?” The French accent was gone.
“A name says so much, just as you once said. Finding your real name blew the smoke from my eyes, so to speak.”
He was silent for a moment, head drooping, but quickly raised himself up again, as though struck by indignity, then marched out the door.
They had been in the room such a short time that the elevator hadn’t moved and so must have opened for him as soon as he pressed the call button, for she heard its chime and the sweep of its doors opening and closing. She knelt down again and placed the black leather book back in its home.
A few minutes later, after she’d returned to her desk, Simon re-entered the library and walked slowly toward her.
“Yes, Mr. Burns?” she said matter-of-factly as he leaned over the desk toward her.
“I just want you to know,” he said, sotto voce, “that I apologize . . . and that I really do love you.”
“But I don’t love you, Mr. Burns, nor do I love Simòn,” she responded in a cold, flat tone. “I have a husband and I love him.”
“Oui, et c’est notre malheur, Madame Auger.” He turned and quickly left, looking back at her only as he pushed through the library’s double glass doors.
That evening it was Jocelyne’s turn to be quiet at the dinner table. The question of whether to tell Roland about the incident with Simon/Simòn kept tumbling in her mind. She imagined a roulette wheel constantly spinning with its ball never able to come to rest, clicking instead continuously over the numbers and colors. What will it be: rouge ou noir?
Suddenly, Roland’s voice pierced through her perplexity. “Are you all right, dear?”
“You’re so unusually quiet this evening. And look worried to boot. Did one of our college scholars flunk out?” he asked with a chuckle. “That could save us a lot of money, you know.”
“No.” She smiled before adding, “Neither of them called either, not even for money.”
“Problems at the library, then? One of the old geezers there make a pass at you? Can’t blame him if he did.” Now Roland laughed.
She smiled again and then lied. “No, no passes today. Just a down day, I suppose. Nothing specific. And you? How was your day?”
To her surprise he began to recount several circumstances that had him on edge—a new accounts payable clerk who wasn’t working out and a supplier careening towards bankruptcy. He even went on to explain solutions he was considering.
When the meal was finished, he continued to talk, about successes now. A promotion might be coming. She brought coffee to the table. He especially liked savoring a cup in the evening, even in the summer. She was quiet again while he sipped. She had turned on the radio in an adjacent room so that Rachmaninoff was now helping fill the silence. Then he reached for her, touched her hand with his. It was hot from holding the coffee.
“Shall we leave the dishes for a while?” he asked, looking at her intently. This was his signal.
She raised her eyes to meet his as the euphoria of relief engulfed her. “I’d like that very much,” she said to him. To herself she mused, I will tell him about Simon/Simòn, but later, much later.
Carl Parsons serves as a Master Gardener for the University of Tennessee Extension office and contributes essays on botanical subjects to Hey, Smokies! on-line travel magazine. He has also served as an associate editor for Heater, a crime fiction magazine. His stories appear in Spillwords Press, Foundling House, The Raven Review, and his poetry has appeared in Literary Yard and Plum Tree Tavern. Born in Parkersburg, WV, he now resides in Kodak, TN.