“I am surprised not to see Diane Bill’s picture here,” Phil said. He stood in front of one of the glass front cabinets that Derby Milicance had placed against the wall of his living room. He said it loudly because he was speaking to Derby who was in the kitchen checking the casserole and putting the final touches on the salad. Philip was a large man and when he spoke loudly, his voice boomed like a gong.
The five cabinets each contained artifacts, craft items, and photographs from a place where Derby had served. He had served tours with The Service in Alaska, South Dakota, Washington State, and Arizona. Phil worked with him in Arizona. After Arizona the Service had transferred him to another agency in DC. For Public Health Service Commissioned Officer assignment to another Agency, especially to another Agency in DC, was a career death watch.
Of all the places Derby had served all of them were better than the place of his current assignment. When Phil worked with him, South Dakota was a heaven watered by ambrosia; Arizona was a frypan of despair.
Three of the cabinets had a photograph of a woman on the third shelf from the top, right at eye level in the center of the shelf. Each of these photographs was composed to include some feature of nature. In each, the woman and the landscape seemed to balance one with the other. It was almost as if the photographer had selected the woman’s wardrobe and found the perfect natural lighting to bring unity to the photograph. Every item in the glass cases had its space, and sometimes a small lamp to halo it apart from everything else. The photographs of the three women were each spot-lit.
“Who’s Diane Bill,” Sarah said. She sat at the immaculately set table.
Derby came through the archway from the kitchen carrying a tray of three salad plates. He was a slender, slight man, like Philip an engineer. Even for this informal dinner he had invited Philip and Sarah to, he wore an iron creased shirt and iron creased blue denim slacks. Each plate on the tray contained lettuce and spinach, with perfectly quartered slices of purple onion, bell pepper, tomato, and cucumber arranged in symmetrical layers. Each salad was dressed with precisely 1½ tablespoon of dressing.
“Dinner is served,” he said and lay one of the salad plates with a waiterly flourish in front of Sarah, dipping slightly at the knees. He stepped around her to the right of the place he had set for Philip, dipped and lay one of the salad plates between the forks and the knife and spoon. He walked around the table and served his own salad before pulling out his chair and sitting down and squaring his chair to the table.
“That’s some collection of stuff, you have here,” Philip said. He came to the table, scraped his chair out and sat in it. “I like that picture of the Window Rock especially.” Window Rock was one of the pictures that did not have a person in it. The rock arch was frosted with snow and a glint of the late winter sun peaked under it.
Derby made a little grimace, whether at the scraping of Philip’s chair, Philip’s elbow on the table, or the word “stuff” was not clear. It could easily have been all three. Philip did not see the grimace, but Sarah did. To her it seemed Derby’s grimace was at the reference to the Window Rock.
“Well,” she said, “Who is this Diane Bill Phil doesn’t see?” She picked up the far left fork with her right hand and looked across the table to Derby.
The grimace again, which, again, Sarah saw and Phil did not. He was chopping his perfect quarter slices of tomato, pepper, onion, and cucumber, holding them with his fork and scraping across the salad plate with his butter knife. “A nurse who worked in the Office out in Window Rock,” he said. “I thought she and you were making a story,” he said to Derby.
Derby shrugged. “She didn’t want to marry me.” Phil remembered that Derby had been married before. He wondered if one of the three women pictured, or maybe all of them, were Derby’s Xs.
“Oh, that’s sad,” Sarah said.
Derby shrugged. “Her loss,” he said. He changed the subject, “That picture of Window Rock took me two years to get,” he said. “I must have walked up there from the office or from the house a thousand times and took ten thousand shots before that one.”
“Well it’s a nice one.” Sarah said.
“What’s the news from out there?” Derby asked turning to Phil.
“Same old Same old,” Philip said. “Messy as ever.”
Derby smiled. “Shithole as ever, you mean,” he said.
“What?” Phil said. He had come to this dinner expecting to hear the accolades of Arizona. Derby’s reputation was that the only way to get him to speak nicely of a place was to get him reassigned elsewhere.
Then he saw, behind Derby, in the center of the third shelf of the cabinet with all the Navajo and Zuni memorabilia, in a spot lit by a single lamp, a vacant space, an emptiness. He had not noticed it before, but now the bright halo of that lamp framed Derby and his sneer in its dark umbra.
Posted in response to the Ragtag Community daily prompt quest.