“You must help me, Maggie! I'm desperate! I feel so angry! I told him not to take Bitsy to the beach. I mean, Bitsy's not used to the sun. You wouldn't think a dog could get a sunburn, but she does. When she came back her little nose was really pink! George just refuses to pay attention to anything I say. Then, he . . . ”
The beach. Hot sun. Waves lapping on the white sand. Pelicans diving for fish. Maggie struggled to bring her attention back to Mrs. Fortescue and her problems with her husband, George. Was the air in her office stuffy? Why was she having trouble focusing on Madeline Fortescue? Forcibly Maggie brought her attention to her client.
“ . . . so, I just told him I wouldn't stand for it!” Madeline Frotescue stopped and peered over her sparkling purple glasses waiting for a response. But because she hadn't heard most of what it was that Mrs. Frotescue wouldn't stand for, Maggie was at a loss to know what to reply.
“How did you feel about that?” A therapist's standard response. Glancing at the clock Maggie noted thankfully that the session was nearly over.
As the door closed behind her client, Maggie breathed a sigh of relief that was made even greater when she realized that Mrs. Frotescue was the last client of the day. Maggie leaned back in her chair and propped her size five feet on an open desk drawer.
What was happening to her? She had struggled all day to maintain her focus with her clients. Today had been one of the worst of her counseling career.
Anyone might find it difficult to stay focused with Mrs. Fortescue. But the others. Her clients needed and deserved better than they had received from her today. Worse yet, today was the culmination of a trend that had begun months ago.
Maggie sighed and put her feet back on the floor. Absentmindedly, she returned her pen to the drawer, locked the client files in her desk, and, gathering her things, left her office. The still bright sunlight hit her with an almost physical force that caused her to screw up her eyes into a fierce squint. A gentle warm sea breeze stirring off the ocean a few blocks away provided only small relief from the sun's persistent warmth. As Maggie walked slowly across the hot parking lot to her car, the heat of the pavement seared through the soles of her shoes causing her to curl her toes in protest.
Last month she had traded her racy old sports car for this new sedate sedan. Sensible. A sensible car. She was a sensible person. A pleasant home. An established career. Good friends. What more could anyone want? She should be excited about her life. She should be happy.
The car was stifling inside, hot as only a car sitting in the sun on a Florida summer day can become. Unbelievably, suffocatingly hot. The heat rose up to meet her as she opened the door. A living thing, it reached out hot cloying arms and, enveloping her, pulled the breath out of her. Quickly she slid into the driver's seat, opened all the windows, started the engine, and put the air-conditioning on high. Her hands tingled at the touch of the hot steering wheel, causing her to guide the car with only her fingertips for the first few minutes. Ugh!
A few blocks down the street, the air-conditioning began to put a cool edge on the unbearable heat. She rolled up the windows, pushed a CD into the player and settled for her drive home, a condominium in an over-fifty complex only blocks from the Gulf of Mexico.
The median of the Tamiami Trail, a wide multi-lane avenue, was lined with palm trees, their tops tossing now as the wind picked up. As she negotiated the afternoon rush hour traffic, Maggie marveled at how quickly this small south Florida town had grown into a city.
A few giant raindrops plopped lazily on the windshield as she pulled into the carport. She jumped from the car and dashed for the covered walkway leading to the elevator. The afternoon rain was late today, but black clouds behind her ominously promised spectacular rain and pyrotechnics soon.
Her neurotic black cat, Tilly, met her at the door. Maggie turned the air-conditioning down a few degrees. Followed by Tilly she changed her work clothes for shorts and a tee shirt and examined herself in the mirrored closet door. Her normally happy face frowned as serious green eyes gazed back at her from under tousled reddish-blond hair. The white shorts and dark blue shirt revealed a petite, just five feet even, middle-aged woman with laugh lines around her eyes and mouth, pale skin that freckled more easily than it tanned, a still trim body. Critically, she examined her tummy and behind. Plumper than she would like. Oh, well.
With a sigh she wandered through the apartment, poured a tall iced tea and collapsed on the sofa to consider her situation. Tilly settled into her lap after a few circles. Outside the sky darkened dramatically. With a loud clap of thunder, the rain began to pound down. Tilly quivered and tucked her head under Maggie's arm.
Is this burn out? Did she need another vacation? Should she consider another line of work? What would it be? She'd worked hard to get where she was. Going back to graduate school in mid-life hadn't been easy, and establishing a practice had been a struggle. At this point it might be too late to start something new.
For the first time she wondered if she should have remarried. Michael Thompson certainly had been eligible and he had professed undying love and affection. A nice man. Maggie had liked him and felt comfortable with him. He was financially comfortable. Life with Michael would have been comfortable. But Maggie hadn't been willing to settle for comfortable. She wanted more. More what she wasn't sure. But more.
Round and round the thoughts raced through her mind. Finally with a sigh she sat her perspiring tea glass on a coaster on the wicker coffee table and, closing her eyes, leaned back into the sofa's soft pillows. Sighing again, she let the tension of the day drain out. Her body seemed to relax in jerky little creaks. Above her head the ceiling fan droned with a gentle pit-pat of the blades circulating slowly. Outside the rain came down steadily, monotonously.
Maggie wandered through a spacious house filled with pleasant furnishings. The house was traditionally designed and furnished. Small groups of people clustered in the corners of the rooms. Some of the people followed her, holding on to her clothing. She could feel them slowing her progress. The people seemed to want something from her. As she walked, she felt herself growing tired and then weak. As she grew weaker, moving became an effort. She must get out of there. Maggie opened the heavy carved entry door only to find iron bars across the entrance. She turned around and for the first time noticed iron bars on all of the windows. Frantically she struggled from room to room, only to find each opening covered with iron bars. Prison! She was in a prison! She felt weak, heavy, unable to move.
Maggie woke with a start, pushing at the sofa pillows that had fallen on her while she slept. Tilly stirred but slept on. Yuck! What a dreadful dream! She sat for a moment, still as a statue, halfway in the dream, halfway awake, staring across the room, but seeing nothing.
Finally, she shook herself and said aloud, “Oh dear! Oh dear!” Clearly, a part of her psyche felt imprisoned. Had her life become too traditional? Too pleasant? Too predictable? Too sensible? It fit. It made her problems focusing perfectly understandable. If a part of her felt trapped, then, of course, it would be seeking escape by spacing out. Oh, dear!
Briiing! The shrill ringing of the telephone interrupted her thoughts. Briiing! Briiing!
“All right. All right,” Maggie muttered aloud.
“All right. I'm coming.”
Still muttering she picked up the phone.
“Hello! Mom! Is that you?” Allie's voice was clear and close.
“Hi, honey,” answered Maggie. Then, as she became more alert, Maggie squealed, “Where are you? I thought you were in Europe.”
“I am. In fact, I'm calling from my hotel on the Left Bank, in PARIS!” Allie's voice rose with excitement, “You can't believe how perfectly wonderful it is here! Think about anything good you've ever heard about this city and magnify it at least twenty times and you might come close to knowing how marvelous it is!”
Maggie sighed inside herself. Giving a little shake to dispel the dream, she said to her daughter, “Really! It sounds perfect. How come you're in Paris? I thought you were working.” Maggie's daughter, Allie, was a photographer who traveled both in the States and, at times, abroad, making photo portraits of children and their animals.
Allie giggled, “I was. But I finished early and decided to have a few days here to reward myself for being so diligent. And am I ever glad I did! I've been doing le shopping!” Allie paused, then, with concern in her voice, “Mom, are you all right? You sound down.”
“Oh no, I'm fine,” Maggie lied. “Just a little tired. You know, the end of a long day and all that. But what about you? What're you doing up so late?” Checking her watch, “It must be near midnight there.”
“It is late,” Allie said. “Mom, I head back tomorrow. You know, I changed my flight for this stopover and now I have a choice of returning through New York or through Miami . . . ”
“Oh, for heaven’s sake! Please do come through Miami. I'll meet you at the airport.”
“Do you have time to spend with me?”
“I'll have time! Let me know when to meet you. I'll be there. I can't wait to see you. I'm so happy!” Maggie's heart felt light. They chatted for a few more minutes and said good-bye. Maggie danced into the kitchen, suddenly hungry. Humming a little tune, she made a fast dinner, while her mind raced with preparation plans and anticipation.
A slender young woman tugging a large wheeled bag and wearing a tote bag on each shoulder struggled through the heavy glass door exiting customs. Allie! At last! Allie! Maggie ran forward. After a hug she took a tote bag and stood back to give her daughter a maternal inspection. What she saw caused her to smile with love and pride. Allie. Medium height, slender, with shoulder length blonde hair worn simply and brushed to one side. Direct blue eyes looked back at her from under straight dark brows. Allie was a lovely young woman stylishly dressed in dark slacks, flat shoes and a lightweight linen blazer.
Allie returned her appraisal and with dancing eyes said, “I love your hair.”
“Thanks. That's a great outfit! Paris?”
“I can't wait to hear all about your trip. How was the flight? Did you meet anyone? Did you shop?”
Walking to the parking garage, they chatted. They piled the luggage into the spacious trunk of Maggie's sensible car and Maggie thought how nice that they didn't have to struggle to fit it in. That's something to be said for this car.
Reading her thoughts, Allie said, “Nice car, Mom. Lots of room. How's mileage?”
“Surprisingly enough, better than with the sports car,” Maggie said with a wry grin.
“What? Don't you like it? It really is very pretty.”
“Oh, Allie. It's so sensible! It isn't nearly as much fun as my old one,” Maggie complained.
Allie grinned, “Nothing wrong with sensible. Look how easily we got all this luggage in.”
After a silence Maggie exclaimed, “I almost forgot! How's Gabe? Where is he? In a kennel?” Gabe was the Jack Russell Terrier who had adopted Allie last fall during their adventure in California.
Allie chuckled and said, “Gabe's absolutely wonderful. He's staying with Max. You remember Max? Well, he and Gabe have become friends.”
“What about you and Max? Are you seeing much of him? How d' you feel about him?”
With a little laugh Allie said, “Yes. I see him fairly often. It's great fun going out with him. He's so spectacularly good-looking. Heads always turn. But, there's something missing between the two of us. I think he must be more in love with himself than he could be with any woman. It's fascinating watching him pass a mirror!”
Maggie grinned at her daughter, “He certainly is something to look at. I suppose it'd take an amazing amount of character for him not to be a little impressed with himself.”
Allie was silent for a few minutes, gazing out the car window. She said, “Look at that fellow,” gesturing to a stately blue heron perched on a tree limb. “He's just about as elegant as any creature could be, but he seems to manage it without becoming obsessed with himself. That sort of unselfconsciousness is wonderful. He doesn't do anything except be who he is, and he does it perfectly. Being instead of doing. We humans could take a lesson from him!”
Maggie agreed thoughtfully, “Yes, that’s so.”
Allie’s face was turned to the passenger window as they approached Costa Mira, “Mom, I can’t believe that this town has grown so far out into the everglades. When will it ever stop?”
Maggie agreed, “Don’t know. But it just seems to keep going.”
“You know, each time I’m back here, I have a harder time putting it together in my mind with that little town we moved to . . . how long ago was it?”
“Well, let’s see. You were eight when we moved here. It must have been about twenty-four years ago. Not really such a short time.”
“Yeah, I guess. Even so, you must admit it has changed a lot. When we first came here there were only two grocery stores and those really weren’t supermarkets. There was only one traffic signal in the whole town. I don’t remember any fast food restaurants and there were no buildings taller than three stories. Now, just look at it!”
Maggie gazed through the windshield at multi-lane streets, huge intersections, all with traffic lights and left-turn lanes, fast food establishments in every block, the tops of tall condominium buildings lining the beach that could be seen from this busy street, and agreed with her daughter, “Yes, honey, you’re right. It has happened very quickly.”
At Maggie's home Allie went from room to room, inspecting Maggie's latest decorating additions and changes, exclaiming over new guest room colors and a new bedspread in Maggie's room. Maggie had chosen a light palette for her decor. Soft aqua, lime green and pale yellow against soft, deep white furniture. She stepped out through French doors to the balcony that Maggie had furnished with lounge chairs and a small table, “I love this balcony. The view of the lawn and all those palm trees is just perfect. It calls to me each time I”m here. Very peaceful!”
In the office-guest room Allie stopped at an easel in the corner, its work-in-progress turned toward the wall. “Mom, What's this? You've taken up art? May I look?”
Maggie nodded her permission and Allie turned the painting to the room removing the drape from the easel. She stood in silence examining the medium-sized painting. Brilliant colors playfully defined a stylized cat glaring out from the canvas.
Maggie tried not to fidget while her daughter contemplated her work. It's only for fun she told herself. It really doesn't matter whether anyone else likes it or not. Even so, she did want Allie to approve her work.
Just when the silence had become unbearable, Allie said in a hushed voice, “Mother! This is amazing. I didn't know you were so good. I'm not an expert, but I know a little about art and I think this is quite wonderful! Have you shown it to anyone?”
“No. No, I haven't. Who would I show it to? I'd be too embarrassed. Really, it's just for my own amusement.”
Allie raised her eyebrows and said in the slow, quiet voice she used when she was very serious, “That may be, but we need to find someone to look at it.”
Maggie started to demur, “Oh no, really I . . . ”
Allie interrupted, “Mother, this is not a time to be modest. This painting is very good. I think it might be marketable. We need to get an opinion. We need to find out what to do next.”
Maggie sighed and said, “I'm flattered that you like it. But, I did these just for myself, as a way to relax after work. They're sort of funny, really almost cartoons. I can't imagine that anyone would consider them art.”
“Them! You mean there're more than this one! How many are there? Oh, please, let me see them!” Allie's quiet voice rose in excitement.
With a look of resignation and without a word Maggie opened the closet door and dove into the corner, leaving only her behind visible, wiggling as she wrestled with the closet's contents. From the depths of the closet came a series of sounds: grunts, scraping and rustling noises, oohs, ughs and squeaks. Finally, Maggie emerged, her hair more tousled than usual, dragging three canvases behind her.
Allie took the paintings from her mother and propped them up on chairs and bureau tops around the room. Then she took Maggie's hand and pulled her to sit down beside her on the bench at the end of the bed. “Just look at them objectively. Imagine you've never seen them before. Look at them as part of a series. Look! Tell me. What d' you see?”
Maggie sat beside her daughter and tried to see what Allie was seeing. Four raucous animal faces stared back at her from the canvases: the nearly finished cat, a dog, a pig and a fish. Maggie looked at first one painting and then another. She saw only her own rather primitive style. She saw only the memories of what she had been experiencing when she painted the pictures. Each one carried a secret story, a story of her deepest thoughts and feelings, coded into the painting, each stoke a memory. “Allie, honey, I appreciate . . . ”
Allie squeezed Maggie's hand, “Shh, for just a moment, Mom. Just keep looking. Try to see what I see.”
Maggie sat quietly, willing to humor this daughter whom she loved above all else. As she looked from painting to painting, she began to see some of what Allie saw. It almost was as if her focus changed and she saw with new eyes. After a long silence she said slowly, “Well, maybe I do see them differently now. Maybe they have possibilities. But, you know, they're very primitive. A serious art person probably would just laugh.”
“More the fool he,” Allie said. “But, I don't think we'll find anyone who'll do that. They may be primitive, but that's just it. It gives them their freshness, their uniqueness. It makes them what they are. They're so alive! They're perfect!”
Excerpted from "Maggie's Art: A Maggie McGill mystery" by Sharon Burch Toner. Copyright © 0 by Sharon Burch Toner. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.