On third Fridays every other month, the city’s French Quarter galleries opened doors to anyone strolling in off the streets, offering wine and hors d’oeuvres free of charge whether you could afford to buy paintings or not. Devin had used to go to them, in the days when she lived on campus downtown, but it had been years since. So she was surprised, and a little excited, when Lamar asked her to go with him. Their first date, if you wanted to call it that; and she wasn’t sure if she did or not. It was something she would have to think about.
Lamar, in the meantime, eagerly looked to the week’s ending. “It’s not just the art,” he kept saying. “Which not all of it is really to my taste, if you feel me. It’s the vibe, though, the people watching. That’s where it’s at.”
He didn’t have to convince her. Thinking of art walks brought back the year she’d moved from the dorms into student housing on Pitt, where her new roommates often dragged her out of the house to be with people, doing normal, social things. Though she’d resented it at the time on occasion, Devin was grateful for it now, even missed it a little.
By the time Friday came the week had grown hot. She met Lamar at his apartment at four, then shortly after he drove them downtown. It had rained in the morning and the ground was still damp.From inside his car she watched steam pour up from the pavement, as if the road itself were evaporating into the air.
As soon as they crossed the bridge to the peninsula, Devin felt the broad expansive mood that came with trips downtown. The sense of possibility so often found in cities, but without the dullness or scale. Trees welcomed with wide arms and shutters beamed stately smiles. It was a small city, not one you could get lost in. Or rather, you could lose yourself in its essence, its flavor and mood. In the mottled light of shaded streets, in the Caribbean colors of its buildings.
“You look nice,” he smiled when they had parked and climbed out into the shade of a tall crepe myrtle.
“Thanks,” Devin said, although in truth he was dressed sharper than she was in his faded denim shirt and dusty grey jeans, dreads tied into a tight topknot at the back of his skull. She, by contrast, had worn a simple grey print t-shirt and cutoff jeans.
Damp pink flowers littered the street underfoot as walked south. Birds creaked in their ears, hiding from the sun. She felt weary in the heat, but upbeat still.
After a few blocks they passed a corner park where an old woman sat at a bench with a giant white mastiff at her heel. They had nearly reached Broad Street when Lamar stopped short. Devin strode on a few steps before she realized he had fallen behind. She turned and marched back toward him.
“What is it?”
His eyes didn’t meet hers, but stared down the cross street they’d just passed to where a man stood, his back to them. He seemed distracted, focused, but she couldn’t see on what till she followed Lamar a bit closer.
Light mustache, pasty skin, pale khakis: a vision of whiteness, as if time in the sun had not darkened him but washed the color right out. Then she knew: the stained hands, the spotted shirt: he was a painter.
The man was Sid Maybank.
“Hello,” he turned, hearing Lamar approach. “Mite warm, ain’t it?”
“You,” Lamar whispered.
The man’s eyes squinted. A hand raised to adjust glasses so spare Devin may not have otherwise noticed them. “We’ve met?”
Lamar was speechless. Devin mined her thoughts for words. “Um, we uh…we’re fans,” she managed.
“Oh yeah?” his voice brightened. A light shone in his eyes that made his shabbiness look superficial.
“We’ve been looking for you,” she went on.
“Oh yeah?” he said again, his wooly voice now wary.
“What I mean is—I—”
“What are you painting today, Mr. Maybank?” Lamar stepped in, saving the moment. He stepped around the canvas to look. “Oh wow, I love the play of light on the leaves behind the flowers. And the way the white pops out against all the green.”
Maybank nodded, pleased, forgetting Devin for a moment. “Osmanthus fragrans,” he said. “Tea olive, as it’s more widely known. A Scent from Beyond the World: that’s what I’m calling this one.”
“Beyond…the world?” Lamar’s brow rose. “That’s…so interesting.”
Maybank chuckled. “Do you smell that?” He pointed to a bush that grew behind the iron fence abutting the sidewalk. Devin wouldn’t have noticed the flowers had he not pointed them out, but there they were indeed. Tiny, humble little things. A tenth the size of the leaves, if that. No complexity, just sprays of pure, humble white.
She stepped closer. Inhaled.
She felt it, somehow, before she smelled it. Or perhaps she’d been smelling it the entire time, maybe for years, without knowing what it was or even becoming aware of it. A sharp, strong, sweet tang. It had been on the air at Hag Island, she realized. It stilled her mind, dulled the anxiety she’d felt since seeing Maybank in the flesh. A scent from beyond the world.
“They don’t flower this time of year,” Maybank was saying. She turned back to him, suddenly aware that he was still talking. “Only spring and fall. They’re out of season. It’s odd. It shouldn’t happen, but somehow it is. And none of the other tea olives in the city are flowering — just this one.”
“Why do you think that is?” Lamar asked.
“I don’t know…but I had to paint it. Lucky I just live a block or two away.”
“Yeah, that is lucky,” Lamar said. He glanced at Devin. His eyes widened and he nodded quickly.
She took his meaning. “Mr. Maybank,” she began again. “We’ve been fans of yours since we saw a painting in Ed’s Diner. A marsh with a dark shadow in it. About this big.” She held her hands up about eight inches apart.
Maybank laughed. “So that’s where that ended up—that old hole in the wall? That was one of my paintings-in-a-tree. I leave them in trees every Christmastime for people to find, with a message for them to donate to charity in return.”
“That’s very admirable, sir,” Lamar said.
“Very admirable,” Devin repeated. “So…do you know anything about it?”
“Well, it was plein air, like all my stuff, I think maybe from the lagoon side of a barrier island. Can’t remember which.”
“Not the painting, the shadow,” she broke in. Maybank stared at her.
Her cheeks filled with blood, and for a moment she doubted if they’d seen anything at all. Maybe their minds were filling in gaps that weren’t there to fill. Seeing ghosts in wind-wavered moss. But then he spoke. His voice was hoarse, his stance now haggard and spent.
“So. You’ve seen it too, then.”
* * *
Maybank kept quiet. He watched the two of them, mainly Devin, not with suspicion but curiosity. The wrinkles by his green eyes deepened and the light in them shifted. He folded his hands. His bearing grew even more rumpled.
“Tell me what it is,” Devin said at last.
A mockingbird in one of the palms or oaks overhead trilled, piped, burbled.
“You’ve seen it, haven’t you? I mean… You’ve seen it.”
Maybank looked away. “I’ve seen it,” he said. “Yes, I saw it. I don’t think it saw me. Never even knew I was there. It seemed distracted. Hurt, maybe. Hovering over the marsh like it was looking for something lost. I thought it was sad. Suffering.”
She took in the words, but noted something else, too. A dull edge in his voice. As if he knew that nothing he could say would help her.
Devin felt numb. She’d spent hours planning what to say to him, what she would ask. She’d pored over every word, practicing in her mind. Now the rehearsed words fell away, and her mind seemed empty.
“What…what is it?” she finally spoke. It was all she could think to ask.
Maybank didn’t look at her, but at Lamar. Their eyes met and Maybank nodded, as if seeing something in the young man he understood.
“That painting,” he said. “It’s not the only time I painted that thing. I always wondered if someone would ask, if someone would see it for what it was. Not just random shading, but something else. Something inexplicable. If they asked it would mean that they’d seen it, too. But no one did. For a long time, I was disappointed, but now I’m glad. Because there isn’t any answer to give.”
Her jaw clenched. Anger fizzed behind her eyes, but she closed them and it fell away. Her body was lead. “I thought—if I found someone else, someone who knew—I thought—”
Maybank looked at her again. “There is no answer,” he said sadly. “Not here, anyway. Not yet.”
“What does that mean?”
His hands spread. “I don’t know.”
He held her gaze. They stood that way for a long moment, as if a red cord ran taut and flowing between them. The light dimmed, though the heat did not lessen. A bead of sweat ran down her collarbone. It was hard to breathe.
A no-see-um shrilled in Devin’s ear, and she swatted it away. The cord was broken.
“I have to go,” she said. “We have…a thing.”
Maybank flashed a sad look. “I’m sorry I couldn’t help. I hope you find what you need.”
Her lips twisted in a smile. She turned, holding Lamar’s hand, and they crossed the street again.
* * *
No more clues. No more leads. Lamar felt relieved, though he didn’t want to convey that to Devin. He tried, instead, to be supportive, consoling.
He could tell it wasn’t working as the night unfolded and they passed from gallery to gallery. Early evening light danced in streetfront windows, in champagne glasses, on the brushstrokes of oil paintings, but not in Devin’s eyes.
“I guess it’s just a mystery,” he said as they left a photography exhibit.
“No, it can’t be,” she snapped. “We must have missed something—the flowers, remember? He said it was blooming out of season. He said it was a miracle.”
Lamar winced. She was grasping at straws now. Part of him understood it, but it pained him to see. “Look. Devin. I believe in miracles, okay? I do. But I don’t see how this has anything to do with what we saw in that marsh. And—and—look, climate change. Okay? The plant’s just off its cycle because the weather is, too.”
“But he said none of the other tea olives were blooming in the city.”
“He says, yes. But maybe he’s wrong. Maybe he hasn’t looked far. There’s no way to know that without counting every tea olive on the peninsula. Do you really want to do that?” he pleaded. Her eyes shone at him. “Because I don’t. Devin, I just want us to enjoy our night. I don’t want to do this anymore!”
She didn’t look away, but there was something broken in her gaze. “Fine,” she said after a while. “Just—just quit then. I guess, with everything else that’s happened tonight, I shouldn’t be surprised.”
She hadn’t slapped him, but Lamar felt the sting in his cheek anyway. “That’s not fair,” he said. She shook her head.
It was golden hour. The art walk was drawing to an end. Sun lit up Devin’s dark hair in a way that took his breath away, even in the wreck that this moment was. The magic hour, he knew she would call it. It felt like anything but magical now.
They walked silently north back up the residential streets. When they reached his car, the broken look had gone from Devin’s eyes. She looked only sad now.
“I’m sorry,” she said.
Part of him wanted to accept it. To let these two words heal the night. To lean in and kiss her. But another part of him couldn’t. His mouth formed the words before he knew what they would be.
“Sorry about our fight?” he asked. “Or for how you’ve been using me?”
She stared at him, eyes darting back and forth between the two of his. He waited, but she didn’t answer.