27 November 2007 | Vol. 7, No. 3

Mr. Cygnus and Miss Lemon

Why did Zeus transform himself into a swan when he sought to seduce Leda? The answer is so simple. He understood the guise that assures a yes from even the most cautious or virtuous of women.

Swans mate for life.

Valerie Lemon was a cautious woman though, strictly speaking, no longer virtuous.

It is cruel to characterize her as an old-maid schoolteacher, doubly cruel, because that is what she was, and what she had never expected to become. Few young girls, if any, visualize their future as a barren passing of years, and certainly not pretty, sociable young women who are intelligent enough to acquire a higher education and who have an inborn zest for life and laughter. Young women like Valerie Lemon once was.

Miss Lemon, as she was known in the classroom, at the age of thirty-nine had the unfortunate experience of overhearing a whispered conversation between two of her sixth-grade boys, insolent, dirty-necked devils that they were, one with pustular spots emphasizing a nose grown too large for its face and the other with astounded eyes. She distinctly heard the taller one say to the other, "She has a Coke bottle stuck up inside her. You ever notice the funny way she stands holding on to the back of her chair."

"Did she swallow it?" asked the hearer, open-mouthed.

"No, stupid. She put it in!"

"Why doesn't she take it out?"

"It's stuck, stupid. She can't get it out."

"How do you know?" the other boy asked.

"Oh," said his knowledgeable informant. "You can tell by looking at her."

Valerie's face and knuckles grew white as she realized why her class had watched her, wide-eyed and respectful, for two whole weeks.

This vicious lie became part of the schoolyard mythology, repeated in later years by older children to younger ones as the latter arrived at the age of sexual nosiness and raucous guffaws. Of course, no Coke bottle had ever touched the tender space between Miss Lemon's legs, nor at that time had any other foreign object except a soapy washcloth doing what it was made to do. Not until later did a soapless hand that was not her own, journey like a knight errant through that warm and humid countryside.

Miss Lemon was far too shocked and embarrassed at what she overheard to pounce on the boys and anyway, corporal punishment was not allowed, but she gave them both, and for good measure their male cohorts, present and future, a hard time every day from then on. Hatred became the mutual bond between Miss Lemon and the rude-eyed boys in each new sixth-grade class entrusted to her teaching skills.

To the town where Valerie Lemon lived, came one late spring day Mr. Randolph Cygnus. He came there because he had inherited a house from his maternal grandmother, an exceedingly old woman whose obituary shocked most of the townspeople, because they believed her to have been dead for years.

Town is too pretentious a word for that little community, for there were few shops, no parking meters, and only two churches. Miss Lemon's house was built on a corner lot beside the dandelion-infested lawn on which stood the dilapidated dwelling now under inspection by Mr. Cygnus. Most of the families on the dead-end street belonged to a younger generation who had acquired a deed and a mortgage as the old owners, one after another, died away.

These young families had children, loud-voiced, squalling, ball-bouncing progeny who cut across Miss Lemon's lawn winter and summer, shouting and laughing, and being a general nuisance. They would all eventually enter the sixth-grade classroom to learn and repeat the legend of the Coke bottle.

From an upstairs window, Miss Lemon followed every movement of a stout man walking around the house next door to hers. He took up a key, opened the front door and stepped inside as if he owned it. Her hand flew to her mouth.

Mr. Cygnus had every intention of selling the ramshackle house when he limped up its weed-choked walkway. The leaves of many years moldered in the gutters. A large broken branch lay atop the roof of the garage; it had lain there a long time. The white paint was peeling, and one shutter hung askew on a loosened hinge. But as he inspected the premises he now possessed—when he reviewed the high-ceilinged sitting room, the big bay window of the dining room, the glassed-in side veranda—he was overwhelmed with nostalgia. These rooms were full of memories. He saw the dining room, not dim and dusty, but flooded with sunlight and conversation. He walked into the kitchen and remembered it filled with pleasant smells: meat frying, pies baking, and had a flashback to the little boy he once was sitting down to milk and cookies. His head was full of recollections of feather mattresses and creaking beds and crickets chirping, a box-like telephone on the wall unexpectedly ringing with a shrill jingle.

From behind the curtained window of her bedroom, Valerie watched him walk into the house and then out of it. She watched him pull at the drainpipe to test its fastenings. She saw him extract a knife from his pocket and pry at the cellar door to determine wood rot. Like a spy observing an enemy camp, she watched him push, pull, pry, prod, and kick. She wondered where the man's wife was, and scowled because she did not want new people next door. The dead woman had been a neighbor since Valerie was a little girl, the best sort one could hope for, her existence confirmed only by a single electric light going on in the evening and later going off. Never, not even when Valerie's parents were alive, did the old woman trouble anyone to borrow a cup of sugar or gossip an idle hour away.

As Mr. Cygnus continued his inspection of the house and grounds, he became increasingly enamored of the idea of moving there. He had spent many childhood summers with his grandmother but he was amazed that his memories were so vivid. Wasn't there a pear tree in the backyard, he wondered and hurried to look. He was disappointed not to find one. Discovery of a broad stump overgrown with grass brought back his jolly humor and he decided right then and there to keep the house and plant a new pear tree. "Sentimental fool," he called himself admiringly.

Mr. Cygnus was at an age where his eyes watered in a brisk wind, and the bones in his legs forecast atmospheric change as well as any barometer. It had been a long time since he bounced agilely out of bed in the morning. Do not infer from this that he was old. He was, he was prone to point out, in his prime. Suffice it to say that he was not quite sixty.

He was a widower. That much was known about him. He smoked very large, very smelly cigars. That was obvious as the nose on your face. But gossip is a small-town pastime, and other hearsay was repeated with authority.

He had been a military man, it was rumored, and was retired. Another report had it that he had been a schoolteacher in Africa and was retired. Both these particulars were true.

Others were not. That his wife had been sickly for many years before she died. That he had inherited her money and was an extremely wealthy man. That he had an artificial leg. All false.

One afternoon soon after he installed himself in his new home, Mr. Cygnus went up and down the dead-end street introducing himself to his new neighbors, not staying very long anywhere. This may have been a military habit, a reconnaissance of the enemy. Or it may have been more kindly meant, a throwback from his time in Africa when neighbors needed to know and help each other.

At any rate, since Valerie's house terminated the circle-like route he had taken—walking up one side, across the street and back down the other side—his round culminated at her house and there he stayed longer than anywhere else.

They soon discovered she was the small child he remembered running around on the next-door lawn, those summers he spent with his grandmother.

"You always had a large hair bow," he laughed, "and droopy drawers."

Miss Lemon wasn't sure if it pleased or embarrassed her to be remembered in such detail. The hair bow she had forgotten, but she did recall her home-sewn pants and the elastic band that seemed always to be giving way. Yes, she remembered the pear tree too. No, she did not remember what year it was cut down. She offered him a cup of coffee and he accepted, leaning back and lighting up a cigar without asking permission.

It was nice to have a friend. It was nice to have a gentleman caller. It was nice that the house smelled of cigar smoke. It was all so nice.

Especially now that spring was in the air, and summer, lonely summer, on its way.

She invited him over for dinner three Sunday afternoons in a row. She told him about her dull work, though not the ghastly story of the Coke bottle. He sympathized. He was a good listener, though he related little about his own person.

Yes, he had been in Africa, gone for a short visit, but stayed ten years. He described himself as a sentimental old fool, and mentioned in passing that despite his soldiering life, he was a faithful man, and believed that marriage was for life.

These small confidences pleased her and she made much of them in her own mind. She had long been a rather unkempt, introverted person, but now spruced herself up, thinking more about the clothes she selected in the morning, and bathing more frequently.

Her colleagues at school noticed the change. The myopic eighth-grade teacher even said, "She's rather pretty nowadays, isn't she?" The others laughed in his face.

Miss Lemon began to wonder what it would be like to go to bed with Mr. Cygnus, and he, of course, wondered along similar lines, though more imaginatively.

Eventually they found out, each getting a surprise. She was surprised and relieved to find he had two good legs of his own and no artificial limb to unharness. He was surprised, and a little jolted, to discover she was a virgin.

Now that Miss Lemon knew what sex was like, she began to wonder about marriage. She had once been keen on getting married. The idea now regained its attraction.

Mr. Cygnus turned up on Miss Lemon's doorstep every Sunday at eleven, a newspaper under his arm. How easily habits are formed. Mr. Cygnus sat on the flowered sofa and read the newspaper as she bustled about in her old-fashioned kitchen.

Together they ate the dinner she had prepared alone. She stacked the dishes to be washed later. When the meat and potatoes, vegetables and dessert were all sufficiently digested, about the same time it takes before one can go swimming after a heavy meal, they proceeded to her bedroom to perform for each other as in an ill-rehearsed play, and not a very interesting play at that. Still, they were doing neither more nor less than most people do when they close their eyes and practice this intimate act, and however badly it is performed, it is usually better than nothing. This was Mr. Cygnus' opinion, and perhaps Miss Lemon's too, who at any rate preferred habit to surprise.

For surprise does not always imply a happy event such as the discovery of two good legs instead of one. Surprise is more often related to something breaking or leaking or getting lost. It almost never means a birthday party or a simultaneous orgasm. So believed Miss Lemon, and she may or may not have been right.

She did however wonder, "Is this all there is to sex?" Though feeling guilty about being ungrateful for friendship, she couldn't help thinking, "I was expecting rather more." At the same time, Mr. Cygnus was looking shrewdly at her, thinking in turn, "She needs loosening up."

One Sunday he brought with him a bottle of whisky, saying, "I like a drink before and after a heavy meal. It's good for the digestion."

Who could find fault with a digestive? Certainly not Miss Lemon who had not yet found fault with any suggestion made by Mr. Cygnus.

They nearly burned the house down that afternoon, quite literally. Mr. Cygnus' cigar rolled off the small ashtray where he had placed it. The tip was still live, and it ignited a small book of love sonnets lying face-down on Miss Lemon's bedside table.

She saw the flames, and half-heartedly urged him to lift his face and notice them too, then thought that perhaps she'd rather he didn't stop what he was doing. He had heard her call out his name, but that was no more than to be expected. Soon after, he noted the flames himself and leapt to his feet to put out that particular fire, no real harm done. Miss Lemon was giggling like one of her sixth-grade girls, whether from whisky or the newness introduced into their lovemaking is debatable. At any rate, Mr. Cygnus was right. She did need loosening up.

"Randolph," she said, making his name sound like the sweetest of endearments.

Sex! The force that makes the earth whirl round and sometimes makes it stand still.

His visits continued. Some time later, indulging in the post-coital flow of confidences that women in love find so indispensable and men, in varying degrees, put up with, Miss Lemon propped herself on one elbow and asked him about his late wife.

"Alberta?" he said, leaning back on the pillow, puffing and pulling at his cigar. Miss Lemon now catered to his smoking habit by putting an ashtray on the bedside table. "She was a fine woman."

"Did you have children?"

"Children," he repeated, as if he was not sure what they were. "No, we never had children."

What a relief for Valerie.

"Tell me about her." Women in Miss Lemon's situation can't stop themselves from poking and prying.

"Oh, there's not much to tell. She was an educated woman like you, attended Kenyatta College. Very handsome. In fact, one of the most beautiful women I've ever seen."

Valerie ruminated these two news items, wondering if her education was comparable, since her beauty surely was not.

"Where did you live?" she asked, stroking his broad, no longer so firm, chest.

"In Africa. In Kenya."

"Oh, how exciting."

"Not as exciting as you might think. We lived a simple life. We both taught at the district school. Alberta was a qualified schoolteacher. I wasn't, but I knew more than the children I taught. And I was doing it for free since I had my military pension."

"Was she a missionary?"

He laughed. "No. I would never take up with that kind of woman."

"Wasn't it a lonely life for a white woman out there in the bush?"

He turned his head and looked at her so sharply that her hand stopped stroking his gray-haired chest.

"Alberta was black. Hasn't local gossip passed on that information?"

"No," Valerie said, shocked despite herself. Hopefully she inquired, "Did you love her?"

"Of course I loved her."

He looked so angry she was taken aback, and quickly smoothed over her foolish words by asking, "How did she die?"

"You do ask a lot of questions, don't you?" he said, sitting up and easing his legs over the edge of the bed. "Don't you have any real ashtrays in this house? She was mauled by a lion."

Mr. Cygnus continued his Sunday afternoon visits. He never dropped in during the week. Drawing the curtains aside, Miss Lemon could see him raking the yard, scrapping flagging paint, sawing dead limbs. When he was not outdoors, she imagined him busy inside the house, checking the plumbing or putting up wallpaper. When he saw the curtains flutter, he waved. She dropped them like a hot potato. She didn't want him to think she was spying.

He never asked her over to his home. "It's a mess, as you can imagine."

Imagine she did; she was quite good at it.

She offered to help him clean and polish, but he refused. "You've got plenty of work yourself." She wanted to insist, but did not dare. Mr. Cygnus had a way of stating things with finality.

They lived in two different worlds. During the week they were strangers. She was at school and he might as well have been on Mars. On Sundays he rang her doorbell, and they resumed the cozy intimacy of food and bed.

She sometimes asked, "Tell me about Kenya." But he never did. He was quite close-mouthed, saying that he had no tales to tell, that his life was not interesting. So to keep silence at bay, Miss Lemon talked about her uninteresting life, and he punctuated her monologue with "Umm" and "Oh" and "You don't say".

Their bedroom capers had settled down to regularity and habit. There were no more surprises.

No matter that the visit to the bedroom is dull, as long as it is made on schedule. Sunday afternoon at three o'clock in the case of Valerie and Randolph.

Obliquely, she brought up the subject of marriage. Mr. Cygnus first ignored her hints, then pretended she was joking.

She persisted, and he told her he might not be staying on after all. The house repairs were nearly finished and he expected to clear a good profit. The initial charm of the house had palled, small towns were confining, and he had thought of returning to Africa.

She was not deterred.

Finally he was obliged to say in a serious tone. "I told you before, Valerie, I believe that marriage is for life."

"So do I," she agreed. He scowled.

The school vacation flew by. Miss Lemon had halfway taken for granted that she would return to the fall term as a married woman, or at least properly engaged. "I'm worried about gossip, Randolph." She brought the subject up cautiously.

Mr. Cygnus did not seem to understand.

It had never entered her mind that they did not have the same view of their future; they had harmonious views on so much else.

She imagined overhearing one colleague tell another that Miss Lemon was engaged to be married, and how in love she was. "You can tell how happy she is just by looking at her." And the other would reply, "Well, she certainly deserves happiness."

And it would rid her forever of the stigma of the Coke bottle, if she returned to school with an announcement of her forthcoming marriage.

School started. Always of a suspicious mind, she thought that she was the topic of every low-voiced conversation. She was desperate to salvage her reputation, though really no one questioned it. No one knew or even cared about what had been going on Sunday afternoons in her bedroom.

But when in the name of politeness, while waiting for a staff meeting to start on Wednesday morning, she was asked how her summer had been, she told them all in a fit of nervous embarrassment that she was engaged, or practically engaged, to be married. Nearly all the women congratulated her. Some of the men showed astonishment, others snickered.

On Thursday afternoon, when she came home from school, she saw Mr. Cygnus burst out of his house as she turned into her own yard.

Limping though he did, he caught up with her at her front door and marched with an angry face indoors with her.

"Why, Randolph," she said. "It's Thursday."

"What is all this nonsense, Valerie," he asked grimly, "about you and I having become engaged to be married?"

"Well," she said, "well."

"And what's more, Valerie, I have never given you any hint or promise of marriage."

"Well," she said again, drawing herself up to her full height, which made her nearly as tall as him, "if you have deceived me, I must ask you to leave my home."

"I haven't deceived you," he said in a not unkind but severe voice. He laid his hand on her shoulder. She jerked away.

"Listen to me. Listen carefully. We have shared companionship and sex. That's all. We have never promised each other anything."

"But," she said, "but."

"No buts about it. Understand this once and for all, Valerie," he went on, "I believe that marriage is for life, and I have been married."

"But your wife is dead."

"But I'm not."

She gaped at him. "Get out of my house."

During the rest of that week, Mr. Cygnus rang her front doorbell several times, but she refused to answer. She went to school and stood before her class, saying the same things she had been saying for twenty years.

She told her colleagues that she had broken off the engagement. She hinted that she had found out something that made marriage to him impossible.

"A strange woman," they said of her, wary of her jerky nervousness, now worse than ever.

Late Saturday morning, he went to her kitchen door and knocked. She opened an upstairs window and leaned out, worn and wan, clutching her old brown housecoat at the neck. Her face screwed up in a malicious mask, she hissed, "Go away, nigger lover."

In a suspended moment of disbelief, he looked at up her with hurt and astonishment, then turned sharply on his heel and limped away. She closed the window with a bang. That was the last time she saw him.

On a Sunday morning some weeks later, from the same window, she watched a stranger in a business suit leading a young couple and two small boys around the premises of Mr. Cygnus' house. Not until then did she understand that he was gone.

She continued to go to work and held her head of untidy hair high. She stood in front of a roomful of sixth-graders and hated them, the girls too now, as well as the boys.

Some of the parents remarked on her slovenly appearance and absent-mindedness, but the principal turned a deaf ear. Her pupils had always advanced to the seventh grade with the required knowledge and skills, he told them. "Some children do better than others, of course, and there are those who will not do well no matter who teaches them. Miss Lemon grew up in this town and has taught here for twenty years." He added, "We cannot fire her on the grounds that she does not bathe every day."

The complaints ran out in the sand. She never knew of them.

Miss Lemon continued to teach at her school and to live in her house. She never spoke to her new neighbors next door. Her house became the most rundown one on the block. Summer grass was unmown, autumn leaves not raked.

She lost her train of thought in the middle of a sentence. She was often distraught. "What do people say?" she worried, but they said, in fact, very little.

It would have solaced her to know that before the year was out, no one but her would have any memory of Mr. Cygnus' brief sojourn in the house next to hers. The adults of the little town, having problems of their own, bills to pay, cars to wash and meals to cook, forgot such things quickly. And the children never had and never would have any personal interest in Miss Lemon apart from the invisible Coke bottle.

About the author:

Janice D. Soderling was first-prize winner in the Short Fiction 2006 and finalist in "Family Matters" 2007 competitions, both at Glimmer Train. She was runner-up in Our Stories summer 2007 competition.

Her poetry can be accessed at other online sites: The Chimaera, Contemporary Sonnets, Lucid Rhythms, Innisfree, Apple Valley Review, Umbrella, Loch Raven Review, The Barefoot Muse, and Autumn Sky. Print journals with her work include the Malahat Review, The Fiddlehead, and Event (Canada); Acumen, Staple, and Other Poetry (England); the Cumberland Review, Tar River Poetry, and Beloit Poetry Journal (USA).

For further reading:

Browse the contents of 42opus Vol. 7, No. 3, where "Mr. Cygnus and Miss Lemon" ran on November 27, 2007. List other work with these same labels: fiction, short story.

42opus is an online magazine of the literary arts.

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