During the 1930s, an artist and reluctant new wife struggles to reconcile her heart's ambitions with the promises she has made.
Cascade, Massachusetts, 1935: Desdemona Hart Spaulding was an up and coming Boston artist when she abandoned her dreams of working in New York City, and married in haste to provide a home for her ailing father. Two months later, her father has died, and Dez is trapped in her marriage to Asa, a reliable and decent man, but one who is eager to start a family. Dez also stands to lose her father's legacy, the Cascade Shakespeare Theatre, as the Massachusetts Water Authority decides whether to flood Cascade to create a reservoir.
Amid this turmoil arrives Jacob Solomon, a fellow artist for whom Dez feels an immediate and strong attraction. As their relationship reaches a pivotal moment, a man is found dead and the town accuses Jacob, a Jewish outsider. But the tide turns when Dez's idea for a series of painted postcards is picked up by The American Sunday Standard and she abruptly finds herself back on the path to independence. New York City and a life with Jacob both beckon, but what will she have to give up along the way?
A graduate of Emerson College's MFA program, Maryanne O'Hara was a longtime associate editor at Ploughshares magazine. Her short stories have been published in Five Points, The North American Review, The Crescent Review, and Redbook, as well as the literary anthologies MicroFiction, Brevity & Echo, The Art of Friction, and Flash Fiction: Youth. She lives near Boston with her family.
At first she assumed he was a hobo. They sometimes hopped off the trains and mooched around town for food. The man on the porch had that same hungry look, but he was clean-shaven, wore a pressed gray suit, and carried a large satchel. A jalopy Dez hadn't seen for months sat in the driveway behind him: black with big fenders and bug-eye headlights, faded gold lettering on the door: Sid Solomon Wares.
Dez remembered hearing Ethel Bentonford in the Handy Grocery, back in September, clucking her tongue. Did you hear the old Jew-man died? He was a nice man, too. I miss the truck coming around. You get to depending on them.
The man on the porch introduced himself as Jacob Solomon. He didn't wear the stovepipe hat his father used to wear, nor the little black skullcap beneath it, but a gray flannel Trilby that he removed and tucked under his arm when she said how sorry she was to hear about his father. He was slight and somewhat self-effacing, at first glance almost nondescript, a person you might describe by saying he had dark hair. But his eyes were keen and watchful as he took in first her face, and then her smock and paintbrush at the instant she realized her brush was about to drip. Then, a small commotion, laughter, cupping one hand under the other to rush back to her studio where he examined her canvas, a winter study of the buildings facing Cascade Common, at twilight.
'If you add a layer of gesso mixed with a little powdered charcoal,' he said, 'you'll get streaky, translucent shadows that will really suit what you're doing, I think.'
His advice was matter-of-fact, confident, and she turned to look more closely at him, to marvel, really, to see who in Cascade could possibly know such a thing. Then she remembered Sid, on his rounds, talking about an artist son. He is in New York. He is in Spain. He is in Germany with his mother's people now, painting who knows what. Great things, that I know. She hadn't paid too much attention to Mr. Solomon—so many people bombarded you with anecdotes about their sons and brothers when you told them you painted. But now she thought about it, she remembered he had also said that his son had taught art classes. In New York.
An hour went by like the wind, an hour that was a back and forth comparing of experiences—where they'd done their training, and with whom, and where they'd traveled. (After New York, it had been Spain, Amsterdam, then Germany for him; she had gone from Provincetown to Paris).
And then, in the kitchen, over a pot of coffee and some stale cigarettes Dez found in a drawer in Asa's desk—while her father napped, while the meringues slowly dried, while the kitchen developed a remarkable coziness it usually lacked—they argued about who was good and who was great. Great was Goya, Jacob said, no question. Goya was the only reason he'd gotten onto that crazy freight boat out of Brooklyn in the first place. ' Oh but they're so brutal!' That amused him. ' But don't you see why? He's conveying everything that's usually so interior, so under the surface. He's a genius at it. And his use of light—.' He paused, lost in thought. ' Well, you'd want to see them in person, of course, color plates can only convey so much.'
He drew deeply on his cigarette, held the smoke, then let it out with a troubled sigh. ' But who knows when any of us will see them again? Things were getting unpleasant all over Europe by the time I left.' He stubbed out the cigarette as Dez thought back on Paris—how close that beloved place was to the unrest they were starting to hear about. You hoped nothing would come of it all—men had surely had their fill of war after the last one. Still, there was that nagging sense of worry.
A thump on the ceiling brought them back to the kitchen, to the cups of coffee, drunk down to dregs, to the saucer Dez had set out as ashtray, gray with ash, Jacob's open satchel sitting by the chair. He had sales to make; she needed to get upstairs to tend to her father. But first, she thought, well, they had to arrange to meet again.