Kind Gestures by S. Webster

Chapter 10

Sue – 12 noon

Lydia breezes in the front door of Framed and asks, “Ready for lunch?”

“Just in time. Let me get my bag,” Sue says.

Sue met Lydia about a year ago when she needed some framing done on an artwork that was outside her usual style of paintings done on large stretched canvases. What Lydia brought in then was a hand-rubbed wood cut that she was showing in an exhibition of abstract figurative artworks and she needed advice on how best to show the work, matted or hinged on a background board that would require a deeper frame. Sue is one of the few people that Lydia bothered to talk to and it didn’t take long before they became friends and started meeting every Tuesday and Thursday at the local diner for lunch.

These lunch dates are filled with conversations about art and how the making and collecting of it has changed in recent years. Lydia’s work was still being handled by two galleries in Atlanta – galleries that cater to collectors of original works. Smaller galleries often sell limited edition reproductions of the original to their customers at a more affordable price. When online direct sales broke into this market and artists started selling their own prints, most of those galleries closed.  Put out of business by the very artists they encouraged to make copies of their work. Now there was a plethora of cheap work out there – what the artists like to call their “more affordable line” as well as their original work. Either way they needed a frame, a way to make it look like art. Sue only has to lay out a selection of colored mat board with wooden moldings and smile.

Sue was quick to grasp that a smile in the South spoke volumes. When they first moved here she got the impression that a smile was rarely received at face value among those raised here and quickly returned to those from somewhere else. And to be honest, as much as she might be in doubt about the sincerity, it was nice being on the receiving end of those smiles and no trouble at all to smile back. It was not insincerity in southern people, just good training – darn good manners. Manners that are harder to come by in parts of the north and with each generation, they are getting more so. Coming here was a gentle step back in time and they had eased themselves into the comforts it offered.

Sue lead the way into Marty’s Diner and held the door for Lydia.

“Hi Honey, sit wherever you want. I’ll be with you in a minute,” Kitty tells her.

“We’d like a menu when you get a minute,” Lydia calls after her.

One of the reasons Sue likes having her twice weekly lunches at the diner with Lydia was for just that reason, being called “honey” or “darlin” whenever the waitress came around. There must be some unwritten rules in how to be a good Southern waitress because according to what she was seeing, to use a customer’s first name would be considered too intimate and perhaps crossing a line, and calling customers “Mister” or “Missus”, or for that matter, “Ma’am”, was too formal and well, too “up north”. But being addressed as “honey” and “darlin” was perfectly acceptable. Everyone in here was called one or the other and deep down Sue liked being a “honey” along with everyone else. Even cool detached Lydia was a “honey” in here.

Meeting Lydia to talk about art, husbands and small town life is something Sue looks forward to.  A good listener by nature, she not only pays attention to Lydia, but the conversations she overhears. What is heard in the diner answers questions she doesn’t have to ask and gives her more information about the people who come into her shop. She’s not nosey. She just wants to know things about her customers that will feed into making the right choices for their homes and her business.

“Here you go, girls,” Kitty says handing the menus to Sue. “Our special is the chicken salad in a panini or on a bed of greens. Cup of cold gazpacho on the side.”

“Sounds good,” Sue says as they make their way to a table in the corner by the front window, away from the door.

Sue takes the seat against the wall so she can keep an eye on her business across the street. Lydia slides into the bench in front of the window so she can watch the other diners.

“What’s Joe doing today?” Lydia asks.

“He’s not going to be in to the shop. He made plans to be on the golf course most of the day and might have dinner there afterwards.”  Sue says.

She continues, “It’s nice how each of us have settled into Oliver, doing the things we enjoy doing and still having time to just sit together in the evenings, talking or watching television – just being a couple. It is exactly how I hoped our life would be when I married him forty years ago. Where did all that time go?”

“Work, raising two kids, building, moving, and building again is where it went,” Lydia tells her. “And add to that, you two have started a business together, one that seems to be working out just fine.”

They place orders for salads, mixed greens for Lydia and a fruit and spinach one for Sue. It is just too hot to think of having anything else today but Sue is thinking about the special panini and chicken salad as she orders her usual. Maybe she will get it for dinner if Joe calls and says he’s having dinner at the clubhouse. She probably shouldn’t do it. So far she has picked up at least ten pounds since moving to Oliver. And in that time she has also developed a taste for sweet tea, the Southern drink of choice.

“And a large glass of sweet tea,” she orders to go with the spinach salad.

Lydia thinks “sweet tea” is nothing but sugar in a glass and asks Kitty, “Can I get a coffee and glass of water with lemon?”

Their drinks arrive. Sue unwraps her straw and sinks it down into the sweet tea in a glass full of ice. She knows Kitty will keep an eye on it and fill the glass every time she sees it begin slipping toward the half full level.

Lydia sips her coffee, scans the diner, opens her sketchbook and asks Sue, “How’s the business doing?”

“You know with all these cheaper limited edition prints in the “galleries”, Sue says making air quotes with her fingers. “ It is like paying for a good calendar picture. Anyone can buy them and then replace it in a few years with something new and trendy.”

“Put the old one in a garage sale and someone else will buy it, not for the original cost, of course, but it goes to a new home, sometimes needing a new frame which is good for us,” Sue says.

Lydia lays her sketchbook down on the bench beside her as Kitty approaches with their salads and then refills their glasses, “Need anything else?”

“No, we’re good here. Thanks, Kitty,” Lydia says.

“I’ll leave you the bill then. Take your time, honey. It is so hot out there, no need to rush,” Kitty says.

Sue smiles at Lydia rolling her eyes when Kitty turns to leave and continues where she left off. “And another way to put something on a wall at little cost is to make your own collage art. The standards of quality are questionable in mixed media pieces so who is going to say it is “bad art”.

“Of course,” Sue says, “those who can afford it will invariably choose an original artwork and place it where it can be seen and admired. The business end of art is good for both of us Lydia, you get to make it and let your galleries take over. I just have to smile and put a frame on it.”

Lydia uncaps her pen again and says, “I can only hope that my work is not hung on magnolia wallpaper, Sue.  But once I deliver it to the gallery, it’s out of my hands. I simply start again

For Lydia, watching the people in the diner who catch her eye visually – their body language, facial expressions and posture – all of it feeds into ideas for paintings. She keeps her sketchbooks small and mostly hidden from view. Lydia doesn’t see her fellow diners as people, just gestures and forms, more of what they are than who they are. She continually makes quick sketches and notes filling her journals with personal actions and private moments that have no meaning beyond form. Anyone who comes under Lydia’s scrutiny and pen are reduced to lines edging empty spaces. There is little time in her self-imposed routine of making art that allows for Lydia to see anything else in the people she watches. Just these hour- long breaks twice a week out of her studio is all she has to even look at them, let alone know them.

Sue is impressed how quickly Lydia can get the gestures of anyone who interests her without attracting their attention. She doesn’t have much time to perfect her own figure drawing skills but never misses the life drawing classes sponsored by the Art League. For years the models had to be partially clothed and because it is the South, some still stay that way. The completely nude models are young students with young bodies selected from the volunteers in university fine art programs. It is easy money for them and modesty is not an issue. Sue wishes there were older full figure models. All that bulk and curve and shading of folds and creases would be so much more interesting. But for now it would be unacceptable to the majority of those supporting the life drawing classes.

Thinking about this, Sue looks across the diner at Veronica and Terry from the dress shop. Veronica would be perfect, she thinks. She is very close to huge and strains the chair she is sitting on. A booth would be out of the question for Veronica. She would never fit into the space between a fixed bench and table. Sue notices that Lydia has already captured Veronica’s profile and has moved on to Terry. She looks between the sketch and Terry and wonders why Lydia bothers. Terry is simply not that visually interesting to Sue. She is just another youthful looking body with more style….more something that strikes Sue as something less than real. If the word ‘vacuous’ could be translated into a physical characteristic, then that is exactly how Terry appears to Sue. She doubts Joe would see Terry the same way. Most men wouldn’t. Terry is a very attractive woman and sitting opposite Veronica, she is even more so. Sue is listening as hard as she can to what they are talking about and only picks up bits here and there.

“We can order that dress in her size, but not that color,” she hears Veronica say.

“… won’t be happy……”, or something like that, Terry answers.

Watching the two of them Sue thinks how girls learn to pick their friends when they come into their teens. If you are pretty, plan on being popular, want to dress in short skirts and bounce around a ball field for the boys, you will not want the competition of a pretty friend.  Pick the ordinary looking, sweet and adoring friend to be seen with most often. She will be the one your mother always has something nice to say about, the one that will be agreeable and not even dream of being interested in the boys you like. Sue knows all this because she never was a cheerleader but was always a friend of one. Funny how Terry makes her remember this about herself and without even knowing Terry, she likes her less than she did before.

“Did you say Joe is on the golf course today?” Lydia asks, putting away her sketch book and bringing Sue’s attention back to their own table.

“Yes.  He needed a day off after spending the weekend working on frames and yesterday in the garden picking the last of the heirloom tomatoes. Would you like some more?” Sue asks.

“Sure,” Lydia says. “They are lovely in this heat. Easy to just slice up and top with cottage cheese. Does he still have basil to spare?”

Sue thinks and says, “I will bring you a box Thursday of tomatoes, basil and whatever else he has way too much of. He always plants so much more than we can eat.”

“Time’s up for me,” Lydia tells Sue. “It is back to the studio. I really needed to get out of there today. It’s always the same when I start something new, anxious to start and then wonder where it’s going.”

Sue laughs and says, “Better than a red geranium. Right?”

“For sure. And it is your turn to buy,” Lydia says as she picks up her sketchbook and bag.

“See you Thursday,” Sue calls after her, now thinking again of the chicken sandwich she is definitely going to order.

Maybe she will just stay here and have another glass of tea. Sue finds it hard to get moving today. It is the heat, the humidity. It saps her energy. She glances again at Veronica. It must be especially hard for her, Sue thinks. She heard that Veronica has problems at home with a husband in poor health. Her dress shop is just down the street from Framed and Sue has never been inside. >From what she sees in the window, only those interested in what to wear to the prom would go in there. Sue can’t think of any reason why she would go into Veronica’s shop.  She would feel so out of place, silly even, being in a place like that. If Sue is going to get to know Veronica, it will have to be in the framing shop and so far that has not happened. But Sue looks forward to when it will. Veronica looks like someone who would be interesting to know.

She notices how well Veronica dresses her large frame. Today it is the usual loose-fitting shoulder to ankle dress, this one in a deep smoky gray with a long light weight necklace that might be made of paper. Sandals that are a short step up from Burkenstocks fit onto her large swollen feet with toenails painted in that dreadful dark maroon, vampirish looking polish. Her straight dark hair is pulled back on both sides and clipped with bright red plastic jaws. Dark rimmed oversized glasses sit on her nose and she peers through them at a spinach salad that came with assorted chopped dried fruits, pecans and blue cheese piled on top. The pita wedges were already gone, dipped into the dressing on the side and chewed slowly with eyes closed. Now it was pretty much down to spinach bruised by repeated piercings of the fork. Sue knew what Veronica’s plate looked like because she had one just like it in front of her.

She notices that Terry is having a different salad topped only with tomatoes and olives. A large order of fries sits between them. Terry selects one and waves it around a bit to make a point about something she is saying before popping it into her mouth. If Sue was sitting in Veronica’s horrible shoes right now, looking across at Terry, she would truly hate that woman. Yet she is probably a very good salesperson in a shop like Veronica’s. Terry would have a way of making whatever anyone tried on seem a perfect choice. Make the customer feel special and nice looking in whatever they chose. She always seems so fresh, even in this heat. Not a hair out of place, makeup perfectly applied. Hell, her lipstick is still on, unmarred by the traffic of one greasy fry after another. There was so much more about Terry to dislike than there was to like. She was the kind of woman that just seemed all surface. Conversations would only be about how she looked. It would be hard to get past that and into what the woman might think.  Does she think? Sue just can’t believe there is much thinking at all going on in that pretty head.

It isn’t long before Sue has made up her mind that whatever Terry is talking about, is not worth sitting around here listening to. She picks up the bill, leaves a tip and heads toward the cash register where she has to clear her throat to get Tony’s attention off Terry and take her money. He’s a nice kid but at nineteen Sue thinks Marty’s son is more hormones than anything else – cute, nice, friendly, but all hormones.