The Summer Wind
She would have liked more time, Iliana thought, standing over Stan’s hard, almost ceramic-looking face at the funeral. A few weeks, months. But there was no time. At least not for Stan. He looked calm nestled in the cream satin, his perpetually red face dulled to a grey peach. Someone had strung a small crucifix around his thick sausage of a neck, rested the cross carefully at the center of his tie. Stan would have ripped it off .
She stepped back and walked away, self-conscious about how much time she’d spent at the casket, holding up the line. She threw a quick glance at his wife and daughters in the front row. Relieved that no one was paying her any attention, she walked out to the lobby of the funeral parlor and leaned against a wall.
“You’re not family.”
A young man sat on one of the overstuffed couches in the hall. His big, dark-suited body incongruous against the pink and yellow cottage roses of the upholstery. She’d seen him inside, at the head of the line of mourners waiting their turn with Stan.
“Not family. I worked with Stan.”
He nodded and looked at her intently, making her uncomfortable.
“Forgive my bad manners,” he said after a long minute. “You just don’t look like a construction worker.”
“Accountant,” she said. “I do — used to do — Stan’s books.”
The young man nodded. “Professional.” He nodded again. “You look it. Professional, I mean. You definitely don’t look like an accountant.”
She exhaled slowly. “What do accountants look like?”
“Shrunken old men, right? Usually Jewish. Glasses. Maybe a cardigan.”
She smiled slightly, glad he’d said “Jewish” and not “a Jew.” She wondered if he had any idea that it would make a difference.
“No,” she said. “In that case, I don’t look like an accountant.”
“You done here? You heading out?”
“I think I am, yes.”
He stood, and she was surprised by his height and by the easy graceful way he moved.
“Come on,” he said. “I’ll drive you. Wherever.”
“Oh, no. That’s not necessary.”
“No, it’s not. I’m offering, though.”
“Really — ”
“The evening’s cooled off, and your little jacket won’t cut it.” He gestured toward the door with a tilt of his head. “I’m right out front.”
She didn’t move. “You must see why this would be awkward or uncomfortable for me.”
He shrugged. “We’re strangers. Sure. But it’s still cold, and I’m safe. Safe as houses, as my grandmother would have said.” He cocked his head to the other side. “I never understood that saying. Are houses really all that safe?”
She smiled, felt tension run out of her. “You’re not family, either,” she said, straightening from the wall and walking with him.
“But I am, actually. Nephew.” He leaned close, dropped his voice. “From the unpopular branch of the family.”
Iliana didn’t know how to hear that, hadn’t known Stan well enough to know about any of the branches of his family. She’d only recognized his wife and children from the photos he’d kept in his office.
“That sounds ominous.”
They stepped into the chill air, and she wrapped her arms tightly around herself.
“Well, only if we’re related,” he said. “Otherwise — ”
“Safe as houses?”
“Exactly.” He steered her to a dark SUV. “You hungry? There’s a nice Greek kitchen not far. A fried cheese like you really can’t imagine.”
She nodded, let him hand her into the plush car. She had a frisson of apprehension at the feel of his hand on hers, wondered about the mistake she was making, but shook it off. And shook it off again when he opened his own door and ducked down to peek at her before climbing in.
She drew herself in. She would not bring Stan’s mysterious, “unpopular” nephew home. Would not make love to him with the stereo blasting Frank Sinatra, Stan’s favorite singer. Would not.
She said it once, and then again.
“Second thoughts?” he asked, pulling into traffic. “Worried about walking off with a stranger?”
“Just thinking. About Stan. Heart attacks are so sudden.”
“They are that.” He parked in front of a tiny restaurant. “You must have other clients,” he said. “Stan couldn’t have been your whole business.”
“I work for a firm. There are lots of accounts.”
He nodded. “So Stan’s death won’t hit you hard.”
She turned to stare at him, but couldn’t see him clearly in the dimly lit car.
“Sorry. That wasn’t supposed to sound so insensitive. I meant this loss won’t hurt your job.”
She nodded. It was true. There were plenty of businesses that needed her to straighten out their accounts, file their taxes.
The fried cheese was better than she imagined. So good, she wished she’d had a serving bowl full instead of the small appetizer.
The nephew watched her eat, sipping seltzer and eating olives. He talked about his mother, Stan’s sister, and her decision to marry a man the family couldn’t accept, and how they’d turned her away. “But not Uncle Stan,” he said. “He never let her go. All these years. He even paid for my college.”
She would, of course, take him home. He wouldn’t fill the empty space left by Stan, not even close. But at least Stan hadn’t died in her apartment, had never been to her place. There would be no ghosts to cleanse from her rooms.
“You ever meet his wife? His daughters?” the nephew asked.
She shook her head. She hadn’t loved Stan, but she almost had, had just decided that she might. After all those lunch meetings in his office, after the whispered phone calls late at night because he couldn’t stop thinking about her. After the first time she noticed that he put his family’s photos in his desk as she walked into the room. Maybe she could have loved him.
And she’d wanted to tell him. But what could he say? She didn’t want him to leave his wife. Why should she make Eleanor pay for her curiosity?
But then Stan had looked at her funny as they’d put their clothes back in order. And then he’d slumped in his chair, called her name and passed out. And then there was this nephew, some small piece of Stan offered up.
She would turn on the stereo and play “The Summer Wind” on repeat until he asked her to change it. There would be no second chances, not for her. But she’d reach out and take what was sitting in front of her.