Spring arrived, like it always does. And, like it always does, it brought light and hope. Annie was in her yard admiring the snap pea seedlings along the front fence when George, her old neighbor from across the street shuffled over.
"I just put a pie in the oven. Think you could help us eat it?"
Annie smiled, torn between wanting to accomplish great things in the garden on her day off, and a longing for a dose of George and Margie's kitchen, where she could sip weak coffee while stepping into a simpler time.
"OH, yes!" she said.
A few minutes later she walked into the Robison's house, with its wonderful fragrance - a blend of pie, sun-dried laundry, and ancient dust. This place was a haven for Annie, where she could walk up the steps any time and know she'd be met with George's familiar greeting:
"Wellll, look who it is!", he said through the screen door, like he was surprised to see her. Like she was the vice president or something. She sat down at the yellow formica table while Margie dished up some bake-at-home frozen apple pie.
"How's the garden?" George asked. They talked about their peas and radishes, which were engaged in friendly competition, and their plans for what to plant next.
"I think I'll try butternut squash, this year," Annie said. "I'm finally learning to plant things I'll eat."
"I know what you mean; we've grown a lot of expensive compost", said George. After a comfortable pause: "What do you hear from Michael?"
"We're sorting out the finances. I'm getting used to it all - I really am happier in a lot of ways, now. He was pretty high-maintenance."
"Yeah, we wondered about that. It seemed like you stopped seeing anyone else after you married him".
George and Margie had been her first friends in the neighborhoood when she bought the old farmhouse 10 years ago. Since then, the cutesy Gold Rush downtown of Nevada City had grown around them, and people walking into town for dinner or a play would stop and chat, and admire her garden. She loved the combination of city and country. And she loved George and Margie; he came over the week she moved in, when she was cursing at a post hole digger for a gate she built; he came bearing just-baked rosemary bread and sage advice.
"Well, I'd probably fill that hole up with water and come back later," he said. "'Course, free advice is worth what you pay for it. . ."
He was a retired teacher - president of what he called "The Tired Teachers Association". His first job had been in a remote part of Washington state in the late 20's, when teachers were offered a house and free credit at the grocer's for coming out. Margie's job was to start a fire in the wood stove early in the morning, and have biscuits baking when the kids started arriving.
Annie loved looking through their eyes at the way things used to be. Their out-of-state kids were grateful she checked in on the Robisons, now in their 90's, but she knew she was receiving the greater gift.
"I'm actually starting to feel happy - I wouldn't have left him, but more and more I'm glad he left. I think I may be too pig-headed to be married."
"Maybe so - maybe too independent," said Margie. "In my day you just got used to it, but now I think people expect more out of marriage. And women can support themselves - that's pretty new. I got lucky with George, here, but a lot of my friends made do in miserable marriages because they didn't see any way out." She squeezed George's hand across the table.
"She's learned to put up with me, thank God. . ." said George, looking smitten and a little shy. Annie felt suddenly too alone.
She emptied her cup and went back to the yard. But the world felt a little warmer, with George and Margie and their weak coffee in it.
As the sunlight began to slant, Sadie got off the schoolbus and ran up with stories of the day's adventures. Annie finished raking up the compost in the fading light and turned, muddy and sweaty, to go inside and start dinner.
Outside the gate was a familiar green Toyota truck.
Just inside the gate stood Michael, with a tormented expression and a bouquet of white roses.