“I see you’ve got Joe’s picture on the wall,” I said, getting up to take a better look.
Joe heard his name and stirred under the table where he’d been dozing. “Stay!” ordered Linda, her voice no longer silver bells but heavy metal. This is the voice she was told in obedience training to use with her guide dog. From under the table there came an expulsion of breath, like an old man huffing, and then quiet.
In the portrait, Joe is posed before a fake forest scene, a backdrop of deep, almost violent, bluish green hues. His gaze fixed, he appears at once solemn and yielding, like a bean-bag chair.
“Isn’t he beautiful?” said Linda, her head turned not to me but to the chair where I’d been sitting.
“Are you goofing on me about my beauty question?”
“Not at all. Joe is beautiful.”
Kevin is a counselor at the Center for the Blind and is by profession and personal habit quick to pick up hints of disquiet. Maybe he heard the querulous note in my voice because he chose to interject just then something about how special Joe was, what a good dog he was for Linda. (Kevin does not have a guide dog but prefers to use a collapsible cane. He likes the independence.)
Yes, I said. Joe was beautiful. (The picture reminded me of those mall-shots of kids dressed up and grinning at the camera, embossed with holiday greetings, with “From Our House to Yours.”)
“I knew you’d agree. Now what about some dessert?” Linda slid back her chair and stood. I asked if I could help. “No, you just sit,” she said, removing plates from the table. Linda had cooked lemon chicken breasts and, for me, because I don’t eat meat, a casserole with corn, zucchini, and cheese that was called a “calavazas.” Kevin, the gourmet among us, brought a quinoa-pistachio pilaf with dried apricots. We were playing luncheon musical chairs. Lunch was at Kevin’s next; then it was my turn.
“Can I drop the blinds? There’s a glare,” I said.
Reaching over Kevin’s shoulder, I yanked at the cord. The blinds sang down in a rush. I louvered them, rotating the aluminum slats so that two dozen thin lines of white light poured in a pretty cascade onto the floor. Once down, the blinds cut off much of the fresh air that had come through the open window and it was instantly warmer.
“Better?” asked Kevin, looking nowhere.
“What kind of ice cream do you want?” Linda was at the counter, which was cluttered with dishes and pots, some clean, some used to prepare our meal. Kevin likes strong, freshly brewed coffee and had gotten Linda’s coffeemaker perking. With the aroma of coffee, the shade and the sudden heat, we might have been sitting on the veranda of a Kenya plantation. Suddenly the meal and the heat promised to make me drowsy. I was glad for the caffeine that was coming.
I said any kind of ice cream for me. Kevin said same here. He stood and made his way around the table. It was his job to serve the coffee.
“And it’s a good thing too,” joked Linda. She extracted a pint of ice cream from the freezer and slammed the door. “Because all I’ve got is strawberry, and that’s what you’re getting.”
Kevin smacked his lips together. “O-o-o-o, strawberry’s the best,” he said.
“You bet. Strawberry’s the best,” echoed Linda. She scooped out the ice cream while holding the fingers of her left hand lightly against the rim of the dessert dish so she could feel when the ice cream had reached her point of measure. Kevin was doing the same thing, the tip of his forefinger held inside the cup to catch the heat of the rising coffee.
“You bet,” he repeated, and they laughed.
Over time, the pair has devised a kind of private language, word-games and cue points; sometimes they like to repeat phrases just for the sound and rhythm.
“You know, I never knew how you two met,” I said.
We were at the table again, each with a dish of pink ice cream littered with chunks of strawberry. I dropped a spoonful into my coffee.
“The same way we met you,” said Linda. “Some things are just supposed to happen.”
“No, seriously,” I said.
Linda said she was serious. Then she turned to Kevin. “How did we meet, Kevin?”
Like Linda, Kevin held his spoon in his right hand while his left hand held the dish in place; the fingers of that hand were used to occasionally graze the surface of his dish. This way he could monitor where the ice cream was and how much he had left.
“Remember,” he said, “you asked me to that John Denver concert.”
For her 44th birthday, friends had presented Linda with money to take Joe to a dog psychic. Linda thought it would be interesting for her as well as for Joe, but somehow she never found the time. “And the money lay in a drawer,” she said. “Then I heard John Denver was in town and I like him, so I decided to invite some friends and I also thought it would be nice to invite Kevin. I’d seen him around work, but I didn’t really know him well. The evening was pretty casual.”
“Yeah, but then it turned rocky,” Kevin reminded her, pushing aside his empty dish.
That night the two couples had dinner in a Mexican restaurant and then planned to walk to the concert at Embarcadero Marina Park South, behind the Convention Center. However, over dinner Linda and Kevin discovered they didn’t have much to say to the other couple. After the meal, they lost them in the crowd heading for the concert.
“And we didn’t see them for the rest of the evening,” said Linda.
“And,” added Kevin, “you and I have been friends ever since.”
The pint of ice cream had been left on the counter and was melting. “I’ll put it away,” I said, standing. I tore off a sheet of paper towel, wiped the bottom of the container, then opened the freezer door and stood there, dumbstruck.