Authors: Sandra Kitt
The Color of Love
To my parents, Ann and Archie, who gave me pride and taught me to have a fair heart.
EAH DOWNEY WALKED GRACEFULLY
down the oak staircase while sipping from a half finished cup of coffee. She was alone in the house and, for this morning at least, was grateful for the solitude. The silence was like a vacuum, safe and hermetic, buffering her against a night spent with bad dreams. She’d just finished her morning shower and had donned underwear on skin that was still damp. Properly awake now, her mind was preoccupied with the presentation she had to make that morning. That and the fact that her sister, Gail, had not come home the night before nor had Leah heard from her. It was not an unusual occurrence but sometimes a disturbing one.
Leah walked into the den, located beyond the back of the stairwell and just before the kitchen, where all her work of the previous night still lay spread out over desk, chairs, floor, and propped against the walls. She stood thoughtfully as her gaze scanned the pads of paper with their rough thumbnail sketches and layouts, hastily colored in with markers. She was totally focused on the dozen or so ideas while mentally organizing the commentary she would use to accompany each one. Seeing the artwork fresh after several hours of sleep and rest, Leah could instantly tell which ones would be part of the presentation and which she would save to rework for future projects. Her concentration was a good counterpoint to any temptation to review the dissatisfaction of the previous night. With efficient quick movements she separated out the good stuff that she would finish at her drafting table after she got to work.
Heading to the kitchen for another cup of coffee Leah pulled free the towel which she’d turban wrapped around her head during her shower. As she absently finger tussled her hair to loosen the thick strands, she heard a key turn in the front door of the three-story brownstone. Her sister’s voice could be heard down the narrow hall.
“I’m in the kitchen,” she called out, refilling her coffee cup.
The early morning quiet of the large house was shattered with Gail Downey’s arrival, with her clanging arm bracelets and tapping heels. Leah turned to face her sister as Gail appeared in the kitchen doorway looking every bit as fresh and pulled together as when she’d left for work twenty-four hours earlier.
“Who’s that man in front of the house?”
“There’s some white man sitting on the steps to the basement. Who is he?”
Leah Downey looked at her sister in confusion. “I have no idea. Why didn’t you ask him?”
Gail looked impatient. “Because he didn’t look as if he’d understand a rational question.”
“You mean you were afraid,” Leah teased.
Gail sucked through her teeth. “Not of some white man. Unless he’s crazy.”
Leah headed toward the living room, opposite the staircase at the front of the house, with Gail right behind her. Standing close together, they looked through the curtains out the window to the street below. There, sitting on the steps, was a man. He was seated almost in profile to their point of view. He sat with his body hunched forward as he stared at the ground. He wasn’t a derelict. He was dressed in clean jeans and sneakers, and a casual white shirt was visible under a dark blue windbreaker. He had about two or three days’ worth of beard on his face. His hair, although a bit long, was slightly rumpled and out of place.
Leah noticed all of this in a few seconds and knew there was no danger. She remembered him. The man now seated in front had been standing in the middle of the street as she and Allen had arrived at her house the night before. Allen had collided into him.
Leah turned to her sister. “You’d better go shower quickly if you don’t want to be late for work.”
“And what about him?” Gail asked, pointing toward the silent figure. “We should call the police.”
Leah thought for a moment as she peered at the preoccupied man again. “What for? He’s not bothering anyone. Just go get ready.”
“Is the Suit still here?” Gail asked sarcastically, turning away from the window, already losing interest in the stranger.
“You know Allen never stays the night. He’s either allergic to the sheets, or to me. Anyway, I sent him home. I had work to do.”
“What on?” Gail asked, hanging up a jacket in the hall closet.
“Editorial presentation. Cover art for next month’s list. I’m designing the lead five book jackets.”
“Up again all night?” Gail asked.
“Just a little after two. I got a few hours’ sleep.”
Gail made an impatient sound. “They’re not paying you enough for this.”
“You’re right,” Leah readily agreed, drinking from her coffee. “But I don’t get the praise or the raise until I do the work.”
Gail picked up her heavy tote from where she’d dropped it next to the base of the stairs. She stepped out of her shoes and bent to pick them up. She eyed her sister’s coffee cup. “I hope there’s more of that. Did you make breakfast?”
Leah smiled as Gail began to climb the stairs. “I’m not having any, and you don’t have time.”
“Oh yes I do …”
Gail slammed a door upstairs, and the sound resonated for a second down the stairwell. Slowly Leah turned around and made her way back to the window. She hugged herself and imagined that the early hour and Gail’s unceremonious arrival would have stirred the man by now and he’d be gone. Bending forward, she lifted the sheer curtain panel and looked out. He was still seated on the steps. Leah turned sideways and leaned her shoulder against the window frame, and watched him.
She had no idea why she did. There was something about the slope of his broad shoulders, lowered head that began to make her curious about him, and concerned. She’d experienced somewhat the same thing the night before when Allen had bumped into him, but there had been no reason to think more about him. But right now he seemed so thoroughly alone, so out of place on her doorstep, that it seemed unkind to make him move.
Leah finally let the curtain drop into place and turned toward the kitchen. For whatever reason the man on her stoop brought to mind the man in a recurrent dream. Except that her dream was always one of terror and the man in it was always trying to reach her, to hurt her. Her dream was a nightmare that was too close to the real thing and a stark reminder, in the dead of night, of being mugged at knife point two years earlier. Leah had never been able to figure out the pattern, to pinpoint the word or action, the person that set into motion the terrifying adventures of her sleep state. But the dream happened often and always left her feeling defenseless … and angry.
She jumped at the interruption on her thoughts. Her sister’s unexpected loud command only added to her general edginess. She’d had the dream again last night. She turned her head and called back. “Yeah?”
“Can I borrow your black and white short dress? You know, the one with the square neckline?” Gail yelled from the floor above.
Leah frowned, puzzled. “You’re going to wear that to work?”
“Of course not to work. I think I might need it for the weekend.”
The weekend? Leah didn’t ask. She shrugged. “Sure, go ahead. It’s almost seven-thirty.”
“I’m almost ready.”
The door slammed again.
The sound was a reminder to Leah that she herself was still in a robe. She set a mug and napkin on the small kitchen table and the one remaining English muffin for Gail to find. Then Leah left to go dress for work. She’d planned on leaving early, knowing that if she could get to her office an hour before anyone else, she’d have more than enough time to finish her boards for the eleven o’clock meeting. And she didn’t want to give Mike Berger, the other art director in the department, a chance to claim any of her ideas.
As she approached the stairwell, she remembered the man in front of the house. For a second she checked her motion, tempted to have another look at him. But as she climbed the stairs to her bedroom, all the details of having seen the stranger for the first time the night before came back to her anyway.
Allen had come home with her after work, and they were going to have dinner together. He’d bought a bottle of wine at the corner liquor store. The late September evening had been mild, and children were still playing street games in the twilight. Teens hung around stoop fronts playing boom boxes and talking. Allen had been telling her in boastful details about his new promotion when he’d collided with the stranger now sitting on her front steps. The wine bottle dropped and smashed on the sidewalk, spraying Allen. He had cursed and blamed the man.
“You dumb ass,” Allen had exploded. “Look what you made me do!”
But the man was not paying attention. He lifted his left hand, maybe in apology, and mumbled something incoherent. He was wavering somewhat unsteadily on his feet, his attention on the kids playing in the street.
Leah had grabbed Allen’s arm, afraid that, in his anger, he might retaliate against the man. “Allen, forget it. He’s probably drunk,” she’d said as she pulled him away.
But Leah had stopped momentarily and looked back at the man in the street. He’d moved awkwardly, reached out, and grabbed hold of the lamp post; he’d held on as if it was the only thing in the world he had to sustain himself. He’d given no indication, as a matter of fact, that he was aware of what had happened around him. Perhaps he wasn’t. He had sad gray eyes. Hurt eyes.
Leah came back downstairs dressed in a calf-length off-white knit skirt, worn with a long tunic sweater in the same color and fabric and belted at the waist. Gail had designed the outfit. Leah had combed out her hair so that her thin face with its high cheekbones and pointed chin was framed. Mascara, blusher, and lipstick were all the makeup she ever used. She’d accessorized with one wooden bracelet, unlike her sister’s half-dozen silver ones, and low-heeled boots.
“Put orange juice and cereal on the grocery list,” Gail said from the kitchen.
Leah shook her head, mildly annoyed. “You put them on the list. I don’t eat cold cereal.”
In the den she piled all the artwork together under her arm and, on her way to the kitchen, carefully placed all the work in her black portfolio. Gail, now in a fresh outfit, sat finishing the English muffin. Leah put her empty cup in the dishwasher and began wiping the table.
Gail glanced at her quizzically. “What’s the rush? I’m not finished yet.”
“I am,” Leah announced.
Gail merely shrugged. “I suppose that’s a subtle hint that it’s time to leave for work.”
have to leave soon. You’re on your own. You never tell me your schedule or what your plans are anyway.” Leah began wiping off the table with a damp sponge, making wide, energetic strokes and forcing Gail to sit back out of the way.
Gail frowned at her. “Boy, are you in a mood. What did Allen do to you last night? Or didn’t he?”
“I told you I was up late working.”
Gail chuckled. “Before or after he left?”
Leah signed and tossed the sponge into the sink. She turned to lean back against the edge and crossed her arms over her chest. Hoping to distract her older sister, she asked, “And where were you last night?”
Gail made an indifferent gesture with her shoulders and stood up. She smiled at her sister, but Leah could see that the smile held neither coyness, humor, nor teasing.
“Out. You don’t need to know about last night. And I won’t be here for the weekend.”
“Oh,” Leah responded blankly. Allen was going to be away, too, visiting his folks in Philadelphia. She was suddenly aware that neither her sister nor Allen had asked her to accompany them. Already Leah was feeling a bit lonely and excluded.