Justin stopped with his foot on the bottom step and he looked up into Mary's face, framed by the screen door.
Mary opened the door, stepped out onto the porch, and stood there, wondering if the shaking she felt was just on her insides or whether he could see she was trembling like a leaf.
The silence between them stretched as taut as a banjo string.
It was Mary who broke it.
"If you're here with Watkins' products, we have a regular salesman," she said.
Justin grinned and dropped his kit on the lawn. "Hi," he said.
Mary smiled cautiously. "Hi."
Two steps and he was beside her, and then she was in his arms. And then he kissed her.
The kiss lasted perhaps five seconds. Just that long. Count Mississippis: One ... two ... three ... four ... five.
In those five Mississippis, Justin made the two best decisions of his life.
Mary's head was spinning. For some reason, she suddenly remembered a girl at school named Shirley Sinclair who, if she got very excited, would keel over and pass out. She guessed she was as close to that feeling now as she'd ever been in her life.
So, while Justin was savouring their first kiss in two years, all Mary could think was:
"Please, God, just don't let me faint ...."
The kiss ended before either of them wanted it to. Mary pushed herself back to look up into his face and catch her breath. She was sure she must be blushing - her face felt on fire - and she was grateful his arms were still around her.
"Pull yourself together," she thought.
"Welcome home," she said.
"I finally feel home," said Justin.
He could not take his eyes off her. In the two years they'd been apart, he thought he had kept alive a clear picture of her face. His memory was superb, and in fact he'd been worried that he might have idealized her beauty, that he might have remembered her as being far more gorgeous than she really was.
"What? You're doing that thing again. Staring. I hate that," said Mary.
"I thought you couldn't be as beautiful as I remembered, but you really are. More, in fact."
"That's nice of you to say, but stop staring." She didn't think she'd tell him just yet how well she'd remembered those blue eyes and how two years hadn't dimmed the colour one bit.
"So ... umm ... do you want to go for a walk?"
"I'll check with my mother," said Mary, and went back inside. Justin sat down on the steps and lit a cigarette.
"This wasn't how things were supposed to go," he thought.. "Nothing like this at all."
Helen was in the kitchen, She'd heard the front door open, but thought little of it - travelling salesmen were always about and Mary could more than handle saying "No" to any smooth talker.
Mary came through the doorway and Helen looked up into her face - and immediately began drying her hands on her apron. "Mary Lou? What is it, dear?"
"It's Justin. He came home. He came ... here."
Helen stopped wiping and looked closely into her daughter's face. Then, carefully: "So ... ."
"So he wants to go for a walk."
Helen nodded. "I suppose you should go, then. I'm sure you'll have lots to talk about."
"I won't be long," Mary promised.
Helen smiled softly. "You take the time you need, dear. Are we expecting him for supper?"
"I don't know. I suppose it depends."
"I suppose it does," nodded Helen. "You can tell me when you come back from your walk."
"Will Daddy be home ...?"
"You don't worry about your father. I'll speak with him. Now, go. Goodness knows you've both waited long enough for this."
Arnie Carson paused to check his camera bag for film. Four packs left. He might still make something out of this day. He paid for his tuna sandwich and tomato soup and left the downtown Edmonton diner.
It was a crummy way to make a buck, taking snaps of likely-looking passersby and flogging the photos to them, unseen and undeveloped. Most folks just dusted him off; some swore at him. One lady had hit him with her pocketbook and demanded he give her the film pack from his camera or she'd call the cops. He'd had to do it - he didn't have a business license. That little encounter had cost him a couple of bucks.
He headed down to Jasper Avenue, the heart of downtown. His photographer's eye swept the street, looking for the sure bet - a young guy with a beautiful dame, some sap who wouldn't want to look like a cheapskate in front of the lady.
Someone would come along, sooner or later. He settled in, sitting on the bumper of a parked car, and waited.
Mary pulled the charcoal half-jacket over her white blouse and did up the middle button, suddenly grateful for the earlier job interview; she looked her best. She smoothed the puckers in her blouse, checked her hair in the mirror, and added a tiny matching charcoal hat to the ensemble; it was jaunty, almost (but not quite) a beret. A "Tam", they called it. She grabbed her pocketbook off the chair in the hall and opened the front door.
"My mother says she doesn't need my help, and to go with you if I want. So where do you want to go?"
"You're from here. You pick."
"Well, there's nothing much to see around this neighbourhood. It's getting all built up, and they've run the highway through so a lot of old houses and trees disappeared. So I'll tell you what: Let's go downtown and window shop."
"Fine by me," said Justin.
The two headed towards the bus stop. Somewhere along the way, her hand fell into his, and she smiled inwardly.
"His palms are all sweaty," she thought. Then: "Good."
Considering the question that hung unanswered in the air, the conversation on the trip downtown was inconsequential: what she'd been doing, where she was living, his train trip across Canada to get here, her parents' move. Everything, and nothing.
They got off the bus at a park near the North Saskatchewan River and walked down to a path near the water. There were benches along the way for young lovers to sit and whisper to one another or old people to perch and feed the ducks and geese. They found an empty one and sat.
A few ducks swam idly over, waited, saw there would be no reward, lost interest, and paddled off in search of an old woman in a babuschka or an old man in a fedora with brown paper bags full of breadcrumbs.
"Time to bell the cat," thought Justin.
"Here it comes," thought Mary.
"So, I didn't write," said Justin.
"Really?" Mary grinned feebly. "Who notices these things? But yes, now you mention it, you didn't write. At all."
"The thing is ..." Justin began. His rehearsed story was so convincing: Top Secret assignment ... no chance of communicating ... wish I'd been able to ...
... but in that earlier kiss, the first decision he'd made was to tell the truth.
" ... I could have and just didn't. And it wasn't because I didn't want to and it wasn't because I didn't think of you every day - I did."
"So ..." Mary was relieved that he hadn't come up with the "Top Secret" story that Meryl Pasternak had gotten from her Jimmy, and which had exploded in his face. Mary would have been out of the park and back on the bus home so fast he'd have needed one of his airplanes to catch her.
"So the thing is ... I never imagined you'd wait for me. Or that you cared, at all. Or that you'd want to hear from me."
"But you came for dinner. We went for ice cream. I let you kiss me. Why would you think I didn't care?"
"Well, lots of girls let the boys kiss them on the way overseas. Some guys collected them - called them "Farewell Kisses". You know, "Let's go, boys, see who can get the most "Farewell Kisses"!" That kinda thing. I'm not saying you're easy or anything --," Justin stopped and spread his hands, in a "... you understand?" gesture.
But Mary didn't. "So you thought I was just being ... what, kind?" Mary was mystified.
"Well, yeah. I mean, look at you. You're beautiful. You're smart. You're funny. I bet you walk into a room and every guy turns to look ..."
"Oh, come on ..." the protest was automatic, but the truth was, it had happened, and she couldn't fail to be aware of it.
"I've seen it, just walking down the street. And the thing is ... girls like you don't end up with guys like me. You end up with the rich guy, or the tall, dark, and handsome type. I'm none of those things. I'm a baker's son from Vancouver," he said, simply. And to Justin, that said it all. "Don't you get it?"
"No, I certainly don't get it," Mary snapped. "Who makes this "decision" about who I end up with? When does it happen? On my birthday? Which one? And do I get my choice of several tall, dark, handsome, rich fellows? Because I'd like to have some say in the matter. "
Justin waded in cautiously. "So ... you'd have picked me?"
"I did pick you, silly. Two years ago."
"Why?" Sincerely baffled.
"Why did you pick me? Why did you come all the way here instead of Vancouver, and go to all the trouble of finding my parents' new house -- . How did you find their new house, by the way?"
"Ah. And here you are. Why?"
"Well ... I guess ... because I love you."
"And I guess I love you, too."
They both sat on the bench, Justin staring at the ground, Mary out at the ducks on the river, an awkward silence growing as they realized the enormity of what they had just admitted. Finally, Justin had to say something. Anything.
" So, uh ... do you want to go window shopping now?"
"Oh. Okay. Sure."
Arnie looked East on Jasper Avenue. Early afternoon shoppers, mostly. It was getting a bit brisk - the sun had ducked in behind some clouds. Great for shooting, if only he could find someone to shoot.
He saw them about a block away, a young fellow in a light blue shirt, obviously ex-military from how he carried himself, and a gorgeous babe in a charcoal suit. Perfect. He leaned back against the mail truck at the curb and steadied his hand, following them in his viewfinder as they got nearer. He waited until they filled the frame, and just as the young guy looked at his girl, Arnie tripped the shutter.
"Ho-ho-hey, young fella, hold up a second. I have just taken what I guarantee will be a beautiful picture of you and this gorgeous young lady. A keepsake of your afternoon together, a snapshot of this lovely day and this handsome couple. How about it? Would you like to purchase a copy of this photograph for posterity?"
"How much ...?"
"Well, now, I wouldn't think with a beautiful young woman like this, price would be much of an obect. But even if it was, you're in luck. It's Monday afternoon, I'm tired and it's getting chilly and I'll give you a deal. Two dollars."
"A buck fifty. I have to pay for the film, and then there's the chemicals and the darkroom and ..."
"Okay. A buck fifty." Justin peeled a one dollar bill off a fairly thin roll, then fished around for a couple of quarters. He dropped them into the photographer's hand and said, "Now, how do we get this picture?"
Arnie gave Justin a pen and a notebook and told him to write down his address. "I'll send it to you the second it's dry," he promised.
"Sure," said Justin, and he winked at Mary. "You do that."
As he walked away, Justin said to her, "There's a buck and a half I'll never see again. He probably never even had film in that camera."
They walked on for about an hour after that, looking in store windows , not really saying much of anything. There was a television in the window of an appliance store, a giant, flashy display with the appliance itself hulking in the centre, a massive mahogany cabinet around a glass screen that looked for all the world like the lens from a giant's spectacles. In the display, a black and white photo was taped to the screen to simulate what the picture might be like, had Edmonton had a broadcast signal.
Mary admired some dresses, new for the summer season; Justin got distracted over a display of fishing rods in a sporting goods store window. They stopped for ice cream.
A spot of chocolate dripped down the front of Justin's shirt. Mary saw it and dabbed at it with her napkin. Justin looked down at her. Here was the second decision he'd made in that kiss:
"So, I guess we ... should get married ..."
Mary nodded. "I guess so."
"I have a ring. Would you ... like to try it on?"
"You carry a ring with you?"
"I bought it this morning. I didn't know how this was all going to go. But I thought I needed one. In case I did. You know, ask you. To marry me."
Mary nodded, as if such a thing made perfect sense. Justin reached into his pocket.
The box was black velvet. He opened it and held the box out to her.
It was, she always said, the most exquisite ring she ever saw. It wasn't fancy, but that wasn't Mary. It was white gold, with a single diamond in a simple, plain setting.
"May I?" she asked.
"It's for you," he said.
Mary slipped her friendship ring off, and this ring on.
It fit perfectly. (It has always fit perfectly. It has never once been off her left hand since that day in 1945, not even for a moment.)
"It's beautiful," she said. "It's perfect."
They kissed, and walked arm in arm in silence for awhile. Now and again, she would fan her fingers in front and admire the ring, sometimes with a sigh, sometimes with a disbelieving giggle.
Finally Mary spoke.
"I guess we have something else to do," she said.
"I guess when I made you unhappy, I made them unhappy," Justin said.
Mary nodded again.
Justin said, "Well, let's go home. If I can make it right with you, I can make it right with them."
Mary smiled. "Okay. I'm sure they'll be fine." But she looked worried.