When the doorbell rang, George Washington Harper was in the kitchen making his morning coffee. It was a ritual that George had no intention of interrupting, with only 30-seconds or so remaining in a process that would result in the perfect cup of coffee.
"Who in heaven's name would be out today, anyway?" he asked himself out loud. He looked out the back window and saw that the temperature on thermometer was still hovering below 20 degrees. Not the coldest it had ever been here in town, but plenty cold.
The whole week had been cold and snowy, and although it was warming up now, that made it worse in a way — what had been fresh, powdery snow at the beginning of the week was now a combination of a layer of icy crust laying atop a layer of slightly compressed snow, that above a nasty sheet of ice at the bottom.
Conditions were perfect for someone to take a couple of steps, hit the slippery ice at the bottom, and fall on their 'keister', as his dad had called it. Just his luck if someone were to break a hip on his sidewalk and sue him for their own stupidity.
The doorbell rang again, only this time it wasn't letting up, as if someone was leaning on it.
A guilty feeling swept over George, as he tried to finish up the coffee. He recalled that he hadn't shoveled the snow off his walk, between the sidewalk and his porch, for days.
"Ridiculous," he said out loud again. He realized that talking to himself was a kind of mental crutch to offset the silent emptiness of the big old house that he occupied alone.
When exactly five minutes had passed, according to his timer, he pressed down the filter of his French press, trapping the grounds at the bottom of the glass enclosure, and poured the deep brown and aromatic liquid into a coffee pot. Thank goodness the bell ringer had finally let up ... at least temporarily.
George wiped his hands on one of the kitchen towels, and turned, heading out towards the front door.
"I'm coming, I'm coming!" he hollered, hoping the intruder would hear him and not start the bell ringing again. Walking down the hall and past the living room, he suddenly heard what sounded an awful lot like handfuls of pebbles being tossed at the front window. Jeez! Whoever his visitor was, he was getting the distinct feeling that there was an angry person awaiting him. Braving the cold, walking through 8-inch deep snow and ice, abusing the doorbell, and now throwing pebbles at his window to get his attention. Definitely an angry or crazy person.
Wait a minute, he thought, where the hell are they getting the pebbles? Digging down through the snow to the driveway to find stones? He revised his estimate of the danger lurking at his front door upward. Maybe I ought to get my shotgun, came the dark thought. In the end, he decided to look first and only get the shotgun if it seemed necessary.
When George gently pulled aside the diaphanous curtains, he was taken aback, and flabbergasted at what, or rather who, he saw.
There, in the snow, in his front yard was a woman. Footsteps in the deep snow revealed that she had walked up to the door and on the porch; and that now she was walking back and forth across the front yard. She seemed to be muttering to herself, and was leaning over, her hands beneath the snow, searching around, George suspected, for more pebbles to toss at the window.
She was tall for a woman, slender, without being skinny, and most people would never guess by looking at her that she was 58 years old — the same age as George. She was not entirely dressed appropriately for the weather. She did have a heavy overcoat on, and she was wearing snow boots, but she was also wearing a skirt that, while not short, left her bare legs exposed. Nice legs, at that, an unbiased observer might add.
George knew that beneath the woolen cap covering her ears against the cold, her hair was a honey-gold color, and that if she looked at him, it would be with pale blue-gray eyes.
In other words, despite the incongruous conditions, George recognized her. He cracked open the door.
"Ah, hmmm..." he cleared his throat, "Linda?" he quietly called out.
Linda, for indeed it was she, straightened up quickly, and looked at George. A handful of pebbles fell from her hand to the ground.
It wasn't exactly a friendly look that she gave him, but rather one that hovered somewhere between angry and determined. She turned and walked back to the door. George had the impression that she was stomping, rather than walking, but since she had to lift her feet up so much to get through the snow, he really couldn't tell.
"George," she said in a firm voice, "we need to talk!"
"The hell we do," George muttered under his breath, at the same time he was nodding his head in the affirmative, not so much agreeing as surrendering to the inevitable.
Linda reached the porch, and stepped up the three steps to the door, where George looked at her expectantly.
"George, are you planning on making me stand here, or are you going to invite me in? I'm freezing."
"Oh, yes, of course. Please come in. I'm sorry, it's just that you shocked me, suddenly appearing at my door." He thought about what he'd said for a moment, and decided that it had sounded rather rude, and didn't really reflect his feelings anyway.
"Although it is a pleasant shock, er, surprise, I assure you," he said closing the door behind her.
Once in the entryway, Linda began divesting herself of her winter garb. George, in his role of 'the good host' took her overcoat and hung it in the closet, set her wet boots onto the boot dryer/heater, and her knit cap on the hat rack.
"Oh, man! It's cold out there!" Linda exclaimed, rubbing her hands together above the heater register in the floor, shivering slightly.
George looked down at her, noting her skirt, a knit sweater over a white blouse, and socks, but no shoes under her boots. He also saw the small scattering of gray hairs on her head, no real surprise at their age. He stifled the urge to reach out and touch her hair.
It struck him, that Linda and he hadn't exchanged more than a word or two in passing for more than thirty four years — since the year they had both married others — and here they were acting as if they had just seen each other yesterday.
He reached into the closet and offered her a pair of slippers which she gratefully accepted.
"You don't really seem dressed for the cold, to be honest," he replied after a moment of silence. Linda looked up at George, who stood about five inches taller than her.
"I was on my way to the office, when I picked up yesterday's mail from my mailbox. I found something in it that I need to talk to you about," as she looked down at herself, "I guess I was in a bit of a hurry. I should have changed into something warmer before I came here."
"Why don't we go to the kitchen and sit down, and I can pour us some coffee. Freshly made. A mild, but flavorful blend?" he smiled a little as he imitated the spiel of the young baristas working at the local coffee shops.
"Sold," she said with a smile, which reduced George's anxiety level a couple of degrees.
As they walked back to the kitchen, Linda, who had never been in George's house before, looked around with curiosity. Everything was clean and neat, not obsessively so, but with that homey feeling. The living room was a formal, even slightly feminine room, with furniture that looked comfortable, although not much used.
The colors on the walls were warm, selected with care by someone with a keen eye for decorating. There were family photos on the walls, showing George and his wife and children in various locations, at various times.
"Oh," Linda gasped when they reached the kitchen, "this is wonderful!"
George smiled, "It was Betsy's pride and joy. I try to keep it as clean as Betsy did; that's not too difficult. But I can't hope to touch her cooking." A look of sadness flashed across George's face.
Linda suddenly looked very serious, and took George's hand. "I want to express my sympathy at your loss, speaking of Betsy. I was very sad when I heard that she had passed last year. We prayed for her and you, both,"
"I appreciate that so much. She was a good woman, a loving mother, and we all miss her terribly," he said with a tone that cut off further discussion.
George steered Linda to one of the bar stool type chairs that were at the end of the island, where the stone counter-top extended beyond the underlying cabinets. It had a single support of its own, creating a sort of 'breakfast bar'. She sat while George got a set of coffee cups — mugs, really — as well as cream and a variety of sweeteners. He poured the coffee, and soon they were sipping the first piping hot mouthfuls.
Linda and George looked at each other for a moment, and George nodded at Linda to start.
Rather than speaking immediately, Linda reached into the pocket of her skirt and brought out an envelope address to her, containing a card, which she placed on the table in front of George. George didn't need to open it to know what the card was.
"George, I want you to tell me the truth. I want you to remember that you are named after George Washington, who couldn't tell a lie, and tell me that you didn't send this card to me."
"Linda, I told you years ago, that the 'George' in my name comes from my maternal grandfather, while the 'Washington' is a family name on my paternal side ... and anyway, that story about the Cherry Tree was written years after he died, by..."
"George, you are trying to avoid the question. Can you tell me you didn't send me this card?"
.... There is more of this story ...