A/N: Long before I discovered FP, I wrote fiction stories and gave them to family/friends as gifts (I stopped doing that a long time ago). The person who I based the fictional Raven Palermo on in a previous life recently passed away and I wanted to honor those roots by bringing the character back for an appearance here. Ironically, Raven's special friend in those stories was Dill Wilson and that became my pen name here for sentimental reasons. Raven and Dill worked and lived in an inn named Briarwood. I don't have the stories (I guess they died with my friend) so the story line here doesn't match up but it's the thought that counts. The real life Raven helped me in many of the same ways fictional Raven helped Dix (Dill). I shall miss her forever.
The Second Palermo
The sound of the doorbell startled Dix as he lay on the couch mindlessly watching the ball game on the television. He walked with annoyance to the front door, clueless as to who might be bothering him as he rarely got visitors.
"Jesus," he said when he opened the door and laid his eyes on what he momentarily mistook as a ghost.
"You're Wil Dixon, right?" the woman asked.
She looked stunningly like Raven Palmero although that couldn't be possible. She had the same wavy brown hair, the same eyes, the same mouth and unique face shape. She was even wearing the same type of flowery summer dress Raven used to, complete with a bright yellow summer hat. She was holding a cardboard box in her arms.
"I'm Ruthie Palermo," she announced. "Raven's niece."
"Jesus," Dix repeated, gawking at her. "You look just like her."
"I get that a lot," Ruthie replied with a laugh that could have passed as Raven's. "Do you remember me?"
"You were much younger," Dix observed.
"Yeah, just a kid," Ruthie laughed. "I saw you at Raven's service."
"I was kind of out of it that day," Dix admitted. "I don't remember much besides trying not to cry."
"Can I come in?" Ruthie asked politely.
"Ah...yeah...sure," Dix replied, stepping back to give her room to enter. "How old are you now?" Dix wondered as he followed his guest into the living room.
"Thirty," she replied with a grin as she turned to face him.
"You're still just a kid," Dix mumbled.
She laughed again and Dix felt like he was being haunted by his dead friend Raven Palermo.
"What are you doing here?" Dix asked.
Ruthie placed the cardboard box on the coffee table and fell onto the couch. Dix took a seat in the easy chair across from her.
"I took the job of getting all my Aunt's belongings together," she explained. "She had stuff scattered everywhere since she really didn't have a home of her own these past few years."
"Yeah," Dix sighed.
"I found this stuff in my grandmother's cellar," Ruthie said, gesturing to the box. "It's mostly what you gave her or things the two of you shared."
"Oh?" Dix asked with surprise.
Ruthie nodded her head with authority. "Journals. Letters. Photos." She reached her hand into the box and pulled out a thick wad of cards rubber banded together. "365 cards, from you to her, one mailed every day for a year," she said with amazement.
Dix stared at the wad with disbelief. "I'm surprised she kept them."
"You sent her a card every day for a year," Ruthie said, impressed.
"It was after the bastard left her," Dix explained. "I just wanted to let her know I was thinking of her during her pain."
"But there was more to it than that, wasn't there?" Ruthie asked, sitting back on the couch.
"What do you mean?" Dix asked innocently.
"I've read all this stuff, Dix," she replied, gesturing at the box.
"That was between her and me," Dix said defensively. "You violated our privacy."
"You were in love with her," Ruth announced. "It's pretty obvious."
"That was a long time ago," Dix said awkwardly.
"Why didn't the two of you ever get together?" Ruthie wanted to know.
Dix slumped back in his chair and sighed. "That's a question that haunts me to this day," he confessed.
"I've been trying to piece together my Aunt's life," Ruthie said. "We were close and I loved her madly but she was still a mystery in many ways."
Dix chewed on his lip for a moment. "Would you like some coffee or something?"
"Iced tea?" She asked hopefully.
"Lemonade okay?" Dix countered.
"Sure," she smiled.
He got out of his chair and Ruthie followed him into the kitchen. She took a seat at the kitchen table and watched while Dix pulled a pitcher out of the refrigerator. The house was comfortable, attractively decorated and relatively clean.
"Tell me about Briarwood,' Ruthie said as Dix handed her a tall glass of lemonade. "That's where you two met, right?"
Dix took a seat across from her with his own glass of lemonade. "That's where we met," he confirmed.
"It was an old inn?"
"Turned frat house flop house commune hang out," Dix explained. "I moved in because it was cheaper than the dorm but not everybody who lived there were Green College students. People were always coming and going. Raven was already there when I moved in, sharing a room with some guy she was crazy over. She had already dropped out of Green by then. She was twenty."
"Why did you become friends?" Ruthie asked.
"Your Aunt had a way of making everybody feel special," Dix smiled warmly.
"Yes she did," Ruthie agreed.
"She made me feel special the first time we talked," Dix said. "She was the one who was special, of course."
"You wrote a story for her there," Ruthie said. "It's in that box."
"She had a journal in her hand the first time we met," Dix recalled. "I was an English major and it was obvious she liked to read and write. She encouraged me and I was so smitten from the start that I sat in my room for weeks banging away on a story for her on my portable Smith Corolla."
"She was Mitch?" Ruthie asked.
Dix nodded sadly.
"I loved that story," Ruthie smiled.
"It really wasn't very good," Dix admitted. "But it captured the essence of her right from the start." He thought for a moment. "I still use Mitch for most of my computer passwords," he said.
Ruthie nodded her head in understanding. "How long did you live at Briarwood?" She asked, studying him with interest.
"A couple of years," Dix said. "The guy left but Raven stayed. Had her own room though," he clarified. "We'd hang out a lot. I had a car and she didn't so I drove her around some."
"Why'd you leave?"
"I graduated from Green and got a teaching job at Hillsboro High," he explained. "Living in a perceived flop house wouldn't be prudent. I hated leaving, especially Raven."
"But you remained friends," Ruthie said.
"I got a dumpy apartment in Hillsboro but I was up at Briarwood all the time," Dix confirmed. "Had plenty of friends there including Raven."
"You weren't from around here?"
"I was recruited by Green on a football scholarship but got injured junior year. Lost the scholarship which is why I moved into Briarwood," Dix explained. "Worked at Denny's nights to finish college."
"Why'd you stay in the area?"
"I liked it," he answered. "I came from a broken home and there was nothing for me back there."
"And you liked Raven," Ruthie smirked.
"And I liked Raven," Dix admitted sheepishly.
"But you two never got together," Ruthie remarked.
"She had no problem attracting men," Dix sighed. "I figured my best chance was to be her friend. I was always there for her whenever one of her relationships went south or she was having family issues. She could trust and depend on me. She called me her third brother."
"A noble but foolish cause," Ruthie commented.
Dix looked at her with surprise. "That's rather harsh," he protested. "I was honored to be her friend."
"But you wanted more."
"Less was fine with me because it was still more than I ever would have had without her in my life," Dix argued. "We had great times together. Movies. Dinners. Rides. We'd go to Sun Rise Lake. Summer Beach at the ocean a few times. She was my companion at a teacher's Christmas party one year. I went to her parents' house with her for a couple of holidays."
"Sounds like you had everything but the sex," Ruthie remarked critically. "Why didn't you just get a normal girlfriend?"
Dix sighed and looked out the window. "I was messed up back then," he said quietly. "Raven didn't judge me or ridicule me. She accepted me as I was and for who I was and where I was at. She helped me develop my social skills and confidence. She helped me get ready for the next stage."
"But with someone else," Ruthie pointed out. "I know that's not what you really wanted."
"Raven made her own choices," Dix said. "She had the right to live her own life."
"Even if she used you?"
"She never used me," Dix said angrily.
Ruthie put her hands up in a defensive 'okay' manner.
"It's hard to explain," Dix said, more calmly now. "It's personal for me. I thought the story died with Raven."
"It's not my fault she kept your stuff," Ruthie shrugged.
"You really shouldn't have read it."
"Do you still have the stuff she gave you?" Ruthie asked. "I see you used to swap journals back and forth."
"Yeah, she'd write for a month or so and then give me the journal and I'd respond and add my observations and thoughts," Dix told her. Then he looked at her for a long moment, trying to figure out if he should ask her to leave or share that secret, personal, and treasured part of his life with this niece of Raven Palermo, his missing friend and forever love.
Dix got up from his seat and put the now empty lemonade glasses in the sink. "Come on," he said quietly.
Ruthie followed him to the cellar door in the small hallway and down the stairs into a small family room area. Off of that was another room which was obviously Dix's office. There was a large old fashioned desk with a swivel chair, several filing cabinets, a couch, a refrigerator, a portable television, and several folding chairs. The walls were covered with sports photos and framed newspaper articles featuring various Hillsboro High athletes. It was clearly Dix's man cave.
Dix pulled a key out from underneath the desk blotter and unlocked one of the filing cabinets. He opened the bottom drawer and pulled out a plastic tub which he handed to Ruthie who was sitting on the couch now. Dix took a seat in his chair behind the desk and watched as Ruthie examined the belongings inside the tub. There were postcards and photographs, journals and stories, letters and cards.
"Raven certainly had a distinctive handwriting style," Dix noted. "Almost like calligraphy. Mine was chicken scratch in comparison."
He watched as Ruthie examined the collection.
"Our birthdays were only a day apart," Dix told Ruthie. "We celebrated them together and later, when we were apart, I always thought about her on our birthdays."
"She wrote you stories too?" Ruthie asked, pulling a couple of folders from the tub.
"Sometimes the same characters as mine, other times her own creations," Dix reported. "Alfonse was a ghost character she came up with. I think he represented all her lost friends. She suffered some huge losses early on. I think she was always searching for Alfonse."
"She looks so young in some of these photos," Ruthie marveled. There were selfies (taken in the days before selfies became vogue), shots of her and Dix at Briarwood, and at the lake and the ocean.
"She was young," Dix noted.
"Why did she leave Briarwood?" Ruthie wondered.
"Board of Health condemned the place," Dix revealed. "She sort of drifted around after that. Back to her parents' house a few times but she was always at odds with her father and conflicted with her mother. Moved in with a girl friend. Lived with different guys. Had her own place briefly. Then she met…..the bastard."
"You mean her husband," Ruthie said knowingly.
"She was convinced she finally found happiness," Dix sighed. "The guy she had been waiting for. The guy she was going to spend the rest of her life with."
"What did you think?"
"I thought she was making the wrong choice," Dix admitted, his cheek buried in his fist, his elbow resting against the desk top.
"Because you were the right choice?" Ruthie asked.
"I've often wondered how her life might have turned out had she made other choices," Dix said.
"But you let her go."
"I couldn't wait for her forever," Dix shrugged. "I was thirty years old. I hadn't been in a normal romantic relationship since I met her. I needed to move on with my life. I was getting along well with a co-worker who seemed interested in me and if Raven was making her choices I needed to start making mine. It was time."
"How did you feel when it all fell apart for her?"
Dix fell back in his chair and groaned. "I didn't feel good," he sighed. "Maddie was my date for Raven's wedding. It was a lovely affair at the Sun Rise Lake Inn.
"I know," Ruthie smiled. "I was there. Outside ceremony. Reception was wonderful."
"Raven looked so happy."
"How did you feel?" Ruthie asked.
"Sad for me, happy for her," Dix admitted. "But I was with Maddie and I had to let Raven go. I needed to stop obsessing about her, thinking about her and waiting for her. She was a married woman. She was moving away to be with her new husband and his new job half way across the country. I had to let go."
"But you didn't totally," Ruthie reminded him. "All those cards you sent her."
"I was married by then," Dix sighed. "I couldn't believe Raven's marriage fell apart that quickly. She wouldn't come home. I knew she was a wreck down there in Texas so I started sending the cards."
"She came home eventually," Ruthie pointed out.
"She wasn't the same though," Dix remarked.
Ruthie sat with the tub of Raven's belongings in her lab. "Can I keep this for a few days?" She asked. "I'd like to read through everything."
"That's personal stuff," Dix protested.
"She was my Aunt, Dix," Ruthie pleaded.
He sighed with resignation and nodded his head okay. What difference did it make now?
Ruthie smiled. 'Thanks," she said, putting the lid on the tub.
"I'll carry that upstairs for you," Dix offered, getting up from behind the desk and taking the tub from her.
Ruthie went up the stairs first. Dix followed trying not to look at Ruthie's backside while carrying the tub of his most sacred possessions - pieces of Raven. Ruthie went into the living room and dug through the box she had brought until she pulled out a blue journal book. She turned to a page and read a passage written by Raven aloud as she stood by the coffee table. "I am missing all my friends and fiends from my former life in beautiful Blue County oh-so-madly. I have my memories though so I count myself fortunate," Ruth read before glancing up at Dix who stood with the tub in his hands. "She wrote that when she was alone and suffering in Texas."
Dix didn't say anything but the look on his face was one of sorrow as he stood in the middle of the room still holding the tub full of his Raven collection. Ruthie turned a few pages in the journal and read another one of Raven's entries.
"I've taken the time to weep with sadness over the death of my marriage which has ultimately taken away everything I believed in. I hope to once again be functioning among the living but I will forever see the world differently and trust it even less."
"He broke her spirit along with her heart," Dix complained.
Ruthie pulled a card out of the box. "This is the last thing she ever wrote to me," she said, showing Dix the cover of an old fashioned New England farm house with the white picket fence in front of it. She opened the card, swallowed hard, and read what Raven had written: "I am thinking (that is enough to send you sensible screaming and running for cover my dear Ruthie) and worse I am wondering (even worse) that I want to have a home, one that is happy and beautiful and shaded by trees. If I am very lucky I will have a cat who will walk all over me. I want to be happy. Please tell me, my darling, who should be there with me? Will you come and visit?"
Ruthie gave Dix a long look. "I'm thinking it was you who should have been there with her."
"It wasn't meant to be, Ruthie," Dix replied sadly. "The choices we each made took us down different paths on alternate life journeys."
"Maybe the paths were supposed to meet up again," Ruthie offered.
"Doesn't matter now," Dix said. "She died."
"Yeah," Ruthie agreed, dropping the card back into the box. She walked up to Dix and took the plastic tub from his hands. "That ruined everything, didn't it?"
Dix didn't say anything as he watched Ruthie walk out of the house with the tub of his treasured Raven possessions. He slowly walked to the cardboard box that Ruthie had brought and picked through the collection that he hadn't seen in more than twenty years. There was no point looking at any of it - everything he had ever said or written to her was forever etched in his heart.
Raven had been dead for six months and just when Dix was finally starting to move on from that prolonged grief her look-a-like niece shows up out of nowhere to reopen the wound and bring Raven back into his thoughts, memories, and broken heart. Opening the Greenville News and Dispatch that unforgettable morning and seeing Raven's beautiful face staring out at him from her obituary was shocking and defeating. Dix didn't know that she was sick and he was heartbroken that nobody thought to call him so he could appear at her hospital death bed to say goodbye and profess his love for her.
Dix had only seen Raven a handful of times in the past several years, bumping into her at the movies or in Donovan's Department Store. She never looked well - painfully thin, her hair bleached out and straw-like, her eyes empty, her voice flat but she was always happy to see him and they would exchange pleasantries and hugs. Dix would feel empty after such meetings, wondering if there was something he was supposed to say to her or do for her. Raven would be 'couch surfing' or 'staying with a friend' or 'living at the woman's shelter' but Dix never asked what was going on in her life that left her in such situations. The last time he saw her she gave him a hug and she was as frail as a rotting fence post but it never occurred to Dix that she might be failing.
He showed up at the last moment for her funeral, sitting alone in the back of the church crushed and numb, unable to comprehend the reality that Raven Palermo was dead and gone. He expressed his sympathies to her family whom he hadn't seen in twenty years after the service and he learned from Raven's sister in law Rhonda (Ruthie's mom) that Raven's body "gave out" from various long term ailments, abuses, denials and strains. Rhonda didn't elaborate and Dix didn't ask any further questions,.
Dix might have seen Ruthie that day - there were plenty of people in church but he only talked to Rhonda and her husband, as well as Raven's mother briefly before leaving the church unable to comprehend how the beautiful and lively Raven Palermo could be dead at fifty, a shell of her former self. And now Ruthie's visit had churned up all those sad feelings of grief and mourning all over again.
Dix took the box Ruthie had left off the coffee table and put it on the floor in the corner of the room. He didn't like Ruthie taking his Raven collection from the house and there was no guarantee that she'd ever bring any of that stuff back. He certainly wasn't going to go looking for her although he had to admit that there was something comforting about Ruthie's presence. She really did look like a younger Raven although her personality was much different.
A couple of days went by and Dix was trying to get back onto a normal emotional plane hardly paying attention to Ruthie's box still sitting in the corner of the room. It was summer but he passed on teaching summer school this year, opting to teach one on-line college course instead, content on spending most of his days vegetating and thinking about Raven.
The doorbell rang, pulling Dix away from his lap top at the kitchen table. It was early on a sunny summer afternoon as he made his way to the front door, which was open because of the nice weather. He saw Ruthie Palermo through the screen door, standing on the front porch with the plastic tub in her arms. She was wearing khaki shorts and a flowered blouse, tied at the waist to expose her navel, along with sandals.
Dix was relieved that Ruthie had returned his prize possessions. "Come in," he said, opening the screen door and taking the plastic tub from her grip. "Thanks for bringing this back. Do you want your carton box?"
"No, you can keep that stuff too," Ruthie said.
"Really?" Dix asked with appreciation as he put the plastic tub down on the coffee table.
"All of that stuff is between you and Raven," Ruthie said. "You're right, it's personal to you. You should keep it."
"That's awfully nice of you."
"Would you show me Briarwood?" Ruthie asked bluntly.
Dix looked at her with surprise. "Briarwood?" he asked with confusion.
"I'd really like to see it," Ruthie said hopefully.
"God, I haven't been there in years," Dix realized. "I don't even know if I remember how to get there."
"Please?" Ruthie said.
Dix thought about it for a moment. "Okay," he agreed. "Do you have time now?"
"Sure," she smiled gratefully. "Let's go!"
Dix laughed and grabbed his car keys from the corner table. "Okay," he said, leading her to the door.
They didn't talk much in the car as he drove them to Greenville, past the Green College campus and into the hilly woody section of Northern Greenville. Dix went on memory and instinct trying to remember the correct turns to get to Briarwood. The area looked familiar in a sort of old movie way but in some ways it felt like he had never been in this area before. He managed to find the old dirt road that led to the former inn turned flop house on top of a hill.
They passed several private property and keep out signs, ignoring all warnings until finally pulling into the brushy overgrown yard in front of the wrecked building that was once Briarwood.
"Jesus," Dix said with surprise when he saw the decapitated condition of the place where he once lived.
Most of the windows were removed or smashed out. There was a huge hole in the roof. The front porch was sagging from the rest of the building. Trees and other growth had taken over the structure and the old barn behind the house had fallen in on itself.
"I guess we can't go in," Ruthie deadpanned as she got out of the car.
"The place was condemned twenty-five years ago for a reason," Dix remarked as he left the car too.
"Which one was Raven's room?" Ruthie asked.
Dix squinted in the sun and pointed to the last second floor window on the right. "I'd see her sitting in the window many a time," he sighed.
"Where was your room?"
"Third floor, rear," Dix reported.
"I knew about this place but my mother never brought me here," Ruthie recalled. "Said it wasn't a good place for a kid. Aunt Raven would talk about it often though."
"It was a magical place during a magical time," Dix sighed.
They walked around the building exploring the surroundings. It was eerily quiet and still, like a graveyard.
"There used to be a garden back here," Dix recalled when they were behind the house. "Flowers. Vegetables. It was quite large and impressive. Raven was always out here working in the dirt." He could almost see her kneeling there where the garden used to be and his knees almost buckled as he sighed heavily.
"You okay?" Ruthie asked.
"Your aunt was such a witty, intelligent, beautiful person," Dix lamented.
"I know," Ruthie said warmly.
"I'm still struggling with her loss," Dix admitted.
"Me too, but she'll always have a place in our hearts," Ruthie said.
"She was one of those people who made such a huge and lasting impression as a kindred spirit, so full of life with that caustic sense of humor and that wit she was endowed with." He was staring off into the distance "She was so passionate and so deeply loved, a sweet angel who forever touched my soul."
"I know," Ruthie said again with understanding. "You loved her."
"Everybody loved her," Dix said, wiping a tear from his eye.
"You loved her the most," Ruthie pointed out.
"What happened to her?" Dix asked, turning to face Ruthie. "How did her life become so tragic?"
"Aunt Raven had her demons in later years," Ruthie sighed heavily as she took a seat on a fallen log not far from the ruined barn. "You're right. She was never the same after her marriage failed. She came back here a different person. My father was really frustrated with her because she could never settle down or decide what she wanted to do with her life. She lived with her parents for a while but they were always at odds. She'd leave, move in with some guy, then come back when that didn't work out. She couldn't keep a job. She had no direction. No goals. She seemed to be defeated. My mother felt she was having mental health issues but the rest of the family didn't want to deal with any of that."
"I knew something wasn't right," Dix sighed as he took a seat next to Ruthie on the log. "But there was nothing I could do about it."
"She burned some bridges and my father said he was practicing tough love and that's why she was on the streets or couch surfing or in the shelter," Ruthie continued. "It was very sad. I took her in a few times but she would disappear without saying a word and stay gone for months."
"That's so depressing," Dix remarked.
"What happened to your marriage?" Ruthie asked after a pause.
Dix shrugged. "I guess it just didn't work out," he confessed.
"Why?" Ruthie challenged.
Dix gave her a funny look. "It wasn't because of Raven if that's what you're trying to get at," he said defensively.
"You sure?" Ruthie asked.
"I loved my wife," Dix stated strongly.
"You loved Raven too," Ruthie remarked.
"I wasn't married to her," Dix replied. "We weren't together."
"It is possible to love two women at the same time, you know," Ruthie told him.
"I feel like I do a disservice to Maddie thinking like that," Dix admitted.
"Your feelings for Raven must have affected your marriage," Ruthie said.
"Maybe subtly," Dix confessed, guilt in his voice. "Maddie said I was never truly committed. Always waiting for something."
"So she stopped waiting for you," Ruthie determined.
"She was really into her career," Dix explained. "I was content with Hillsboro High and coaching here. She was always looking for the next job, the next promotion. She got her Master's. Moved from Hillsboro High to St. Anne's Catholic School. Then Sun Rise Lake School for Boys. Blue County Community College. And when she got offered a prestigious position with a quality private school in Newport she was ready to pull stakes and move."
"But you weren't," Ruthie guessed.
"Maddie turned into an intellectual snob but I was just a football coach," Dix said. "I was happy here. I didn't want to leave."
"So she went anyway," Ruthie realized.
"With the kids who thought Newport sounded glamorous," Dix sighed. "I see them during school vacations and they'll be up here for two weeks in August before football season starts."
"You stayed here because of Raven," Ruthie theorized.
"She died three months after the divorce became final," Dix revealed, staring at the ruined Briarwood. "How ironic is that?"
"Were you going to go find her?" Ruthie wanted to know.
"I was hoping we would finally find each other," Dix replied, his voice cracking.
Ruthie didn't say anything for a while as they both sat in the stillness of the dead Briarwood with their own thoughts.
"I teach at St. Anne's," Ruthie finally said. "I guess your wife had already left by then."
"She was only there for a couple of years way back when," Dix said, looking at Ruthie with a grin. "So you're a teacher too."
She smiled. "A noble profession, wouldn't you say?"
"Why the Catholic school?" Dix wondered.
"Why not?" Ruthie countered. "I like it there. I like the values and culture."
"That's nice," Dix smiled.
"Thanks for bringing me here, Dix," Ruthie said as she glanced around the property. "I just wanted to put a place to the stories."
"Why did you look me up?" He asked. "I'm sure there were plenty of other people you could talk to about your Aunt."
"I was intrigued by what I found in that box," Ruthie said. "I loved the way you wrote to each other. There was clearly chemistry and affection between the two of you. I wanted to know what it was that Raven found so special in you."
"She was the one who was special," Dix replied.
"She thought you were special."
"She made everybody feel special."
"But it was different with you," Ruthie argued. "She didn't keep everything other people gave her."
"Well, our story didn't have a happy ending," Dix said, staring at Briarwood.
"It's still the best love story I've heard in a long time," Ruthie said.
"A tragic love story," Dix remarked.
"Sometimes those are the best kind," Ruthie noted.
That sounded like something Raven would have said and Dix threw Ruthie a surprised look.
"What?" She asked innocently.
"Nothing," Dix said.
Could it be that a small part of Raven Palermo lived on through her look-alike niece? Dix laughed to himself knowing that it wouldn't matter anyway. He had twenty two years on her and Ruthie surely saw him as an old man of her father's generation. He would forever be caught in a time loop of the Raven Palermo who was younger than Ruthie was now when she married the bastard.
"We should probably get going," Dix announced, standing. "This is private condemned property."
"I guess," Ruthie said reluctantly as she stood too.
They quietly walked around to the front of the building and they reached Dix's car.
"So long, Raven Palermo," Dix said with reverence.
"We should have spread her ashes here," Ruthie remarked.
"Where were they spread?" Dix asked with interest.
"My father spread them in the garden in my grandmother's back yard," Ruthie reported. "We had a private little family ceremony."
"That's nice," Dix replied, although it really struck him as sad, lonely and final. Raven Palermo was gone, blown away by the wind.
They both climbed into the car and they gave Briarwood one last look before Dix fired the car to life and slowly drove out of the yard for the last time.
"You okay?" Ruthie asked after a few quiet miles of driving.
"I'll survive," Dix sighed.
She peered at him. "Do you remember me?" She wanted to know.
"Sure,' Dix smiled. "You were at your grandparents' house a few times when Raven and I stopped by."
"I remember Raven and some guy playing dodge ball with me and my brother," Ruthie said.
"That was me," Dix confirmed. "And of course you were a very impressive flower girl at the wedding."
"My moment in the spotlight," Ruthie laughed. She glanced at Dix. "I remembered you when I saw you at Raven's funeral."
"Because of the limp," Dix guessed. His gait was never the same after shattering his kneecap playing football at Green.
"I'd like to think I remembered you because you were nice to me."
Dix smiled and the rest of the ride back to his house was relatively quiet although occasionally he would point out somewhere he and Raven ate or visited and Ruthie would tell a quick story about something she did with Raven too. Dix pulled the car into his driveway in Hillsboro and they both climbed out of the car.
"Well," Dix said warmly. "Thanks for bringing the stuff back."
"Do you think I could come in?" Ruthie asked.
Dix was caught off guard by the request. He assumed Ruthie had finished her check list and now that she had read everything Raven had written and seen Briarwood she'd have to further reason to chat with him.
"I'm not sure if that's a good idea," he said.
"Why not?" Ruthie practically pouted.
"Ruthie, I'm old enough to be your father," he pointed out.
"So what?" Ruthie asked. "Jesus, Dix, I'm thirty, not thirteen." Again, that was something Raven would say with the same type of exasperation in her voice.
"It's just weird for me," Dix admitted as they both stood in the driveway looking at each other.
"Because of Raven, you mean?"
"Not just that," he said.
"Because you're recently divorced?'
"And I know your family," Dix replied. "Trust me, they would not be thrilled to know I was hanging out with you."
"They like you," Ruthie laughed.
"Yeah, as Raven's pal, not yours, the next generation."
"The Second Palermo," Ruthie giggled. But then she turned serious. "Dix, can we continue this conversation inside?" She requested. "It's hot in the sun."
Dix hesitated for a moment but then acquiesced and motioned for her to follow. They went into the house this time through the side door which entered into the kitchen off the breeze way and Dix gestured for Ruthie to have a seat at the kitchen table again. He pulled out the pitcher of lemonade and poured two glasses, handing her one before sitting across the table from her with one of his own.
"I feel like I already know you," Ruthie told him as she sipped on her lemonade.
"We just met."
"Yes, but I've read everything you and Raven ever wrote about each other," Ruthie commented.
"That was a long time ago."
"Have you changed that much?" Ruthie wondered.
"In experience, outlook and maturity," Dix reasoned.
"But have your core values, ethics, beliefs and character altered that much?"
"Probably not," Dix admitted.
"Well, I like that guy," Ruthie announced.
"You must have plenty of guys your own age that you identify with and hang out with."
"Not really," she admitted. "I'm kind of a loner, actually."
"I find that hard to believe," Dix replied, taking a sip from his glass. "A beautiful, talented and interesting young woman like yourself? You probably have the guys lined up."
"I'm not like Raven in that regard, Dix," Ruthie revealed. She studied him for a moment. "Were you really a virgin back then like the character in all your stories?"
Dix nearly spit his lemonade out of his mouth like in some lame situation comedy scene. "Jesus, Ruthie," he gasped.
"Was your wife the first woman you slept with?" She asked quietly.
Dix felt flustered and embarrassed but Ruthie was looking at him with such innocent eyes of wonderment that he immediately felt comforted and unashamed. "The first and only," he confirmed.
"Wow," Ruthie replied. "That's amazing. How old were you when you did it for the first time?"
"Thirty-two," Dix answered truthfully. "About three months after we started dating. I sent your aunt a postcard with a split cherry on it with no explanation."
"I know she had to be happy for you," Ruthie remarked.
"I wanted it to be with her," Dix said. "But I finally came to the realization that it was never going to happen. Maddie was interested in me. She was the first woman who expressed an interest in me in that way."
"I'm sure she respected your values and was honored to be the first," Ruthie remarked.
"It had nothing to do with values," Dix groaned.
"Why'd you wait so long for then?" Ruthie asked, seemingly fascinated by the topic.
"Because sexually I was all messed up," he answered. "I had a father who cheated on my mother and belittled me, telling me I'd never be the man he was. I had a mother who drank too much and used me as her emotional surrogate. I had a sister who liked to grope me. My self-image, self-confidence, and sexual norms were all hosed up. I was shy and embarrassed and I used football as my mask but I really was clueless when it came to women and the more time went by the more afraid I became. Raven was the first person who didn't give a shit about any of that stuff. She just wanted to be my friend."
"I'm a virgin," Ruthie announced suddenly.
Her proclamation caught Dix off guard and left him momentarily speechless. It was not the type of confession he was expecting to hear from her.
"Uh...oh..." he said awkwardly, getting up from the table to distract himself by putting the glasses in the sink.
"So maybe you can understand why I could relate to that character in your stories," Ruthie said as she stood from her chair.
"I guess," Dix said, keeping his back to her.
"And why I'm attracted to you," she added quietly.
Dix turned to face her and he gave her a questionable look. "Ruthie," he said. "I'm glad you've honored your values and beliefs all this time," he said. "It says a lot about you…..."
"I thought Aunt Raven's wedding was the most wonderful thing I ever experienced," Ruthie told him. "All those flowers. Her gown. The music. The minister with his lovely words. So many happy people. I thought to myself 'This is what love is all about."
"She was a radiant bride," Dix fondly remembered, resting his back against the kitchen counter and folding his arms across his chest with a sentimental smile on his face.
"So I was disillusioned when it didn't work out," Ruthie sighed. "I remember lying in my bed listening to my father rant and rave downstairs in the living room about how much of a bastard her husband was for doing that to her. It made me wonder if anything was real."
"It was just one marriage," Dix said.
Ruthie reached the counter and turned, resting her backside against the lower cabinets while standing next to Dix. "My parents raised me with strong values and ethics," she said. "We went to Church every Sunday. I attended Sunday School and Youth Group. I believed in the purity of marriage."
"So that's why you've waited," Dix said with understanding.
"Not really," she replied honestly. "Almost getting raped on Prom Night was a bigger reason."
Dix heard the pain in her voice and he gave her a sympathetic look. "I'm really sorry, Ruthie."
"I became cynical about men and sex and dating and the whole nine yards," she said.
"I guess we were kind of alike," Dix admitted. "Like me and football."
"I concentrated on my studies and my family," Ruthie said. "Every time I saw Aunt Raven she was with a different guy but she never seemed happy and I just didn't want to go through all that. So I lived a happy life without worrying about men and sex. I got a job at the Catholic School because it was safe and non-threatening. I had a few innocent romances but nothing so serious as to take us to the bedroom."
"I'm not sure if you should be telling me this, Ruthie," Dix said.
She ignored him and kept on talking. "As my virginity persisted, I was able to develop and grow and appreciate men more than I might have otherwise because I was always observing them and wondering about them. I wasn't always happy being the only virgin among my peers. Sometimes I felt like a freak like you used to write about but I was also proud of it."
"And now you're feeling like its time," Dix realized.
"I'm thinking you're in my life for a reason," she replied.
"Because we both loved Raven Palmero," Dix said.
"You know, you might have made a mistake idolizing Raven so much," Ruthie told him. "Putting her up on the pedestal may have blinded you from some of her faults."
"I never said she was perfect," Dix said defensively.
"Did it ever occur to you that maybe her husband had a reason to leave her?" Ruthie asked.
"No," Dix said forcefully. "Because there was no reason for him to do what he did to her."
"Raven could be eccentric, stubborn, and difficult," Ruthie said. "She often performed outside the box."
"And he knew that before he married her," Dix pointed out. "He knew who he was marrying - or at least he damn well should have."
"He was a junior executive starting out in a major corporation," Ruthie said. "Maybe Raven didn't like playing the role of the corporate wife."
"He walked out on her, Ruthie," Dix complained. "Didn't he pay attention to the vows he recited on their wedding day?"
Dix abruptly left the kitchen and Ruthie followed. "I'm not defending the guy," She said. "But I saw Raven being difficult with my grandparents many times. Confronting my father over stupid stuff. Making it hard for anybody to help her."
"Please don't speak badly of the dead," Dix said, falling onto the couch.
"Didn't you ever have a fight with her?" Ruthie wondered, taking a seat next to him.
"I tended to avoid fights with her," Dix admitted, throwing Ruthie a sly smirk. "I generally placated her. Said yes to everything. Let her have her way all the time."
"Because you didn't want to lose her," Ruthie frowned.
Dix nodded his head yes.
"That's called being a doormat, Dix," Ruthie remarked.
"I was lonely and desperate," Dix replied. "I let her use me all she wanted. I didn't care. I loved her and being with her was my only focus and salvation."
"Wasn't there anything she did that bothered you?" Ruthie quizzed.
"She dumped out on me a few times," Dix admitted. "Left me in Denny's when some of her friends came in. Stood me up a couple of other times. Ignored me when she was with whatever guy. But I always forgave her." Dix looked at Ruthie and shrugged. "I know it sounds pathetic. But I had already lost football. I had no family to speak of. Raven was the only thing I had in my life. I couldn't endure losing her."
"I don't blame you," Ruthie said, offering him a sad smile. "She was my aunt and I loved her dearly. I kept forgiving her too. For the money she never paid back. For all the times she left without saying goodbye. I even forgive her for dying on us."
Dix stared at Ruthie for a long moment. She may have looked like Raven but she really wasn't like her at all. Raven told him the story of how she lost her virginity when she was fourteen, out in the backyard with some neighborhood heart throb not knowing her parents were at the hospital with her dying grandmother. Raven was remorseful about the dying grandmother part but Dix couldn't believe she had sex for the first time when she was fourteen. He was twenty-five or twenty-six when Raven told him the story and he was still a virgin then.
Dix reached out and brushed away a stray strand of Ruthie's hair from her forehead. She smiled gladly and stared at him. He wore his graying brown hair in a seventies style - long in the back, thick on the sides, and full across his forehead. He had a neatly trimmed beard with shades of gray in it. He wasn't handsome by any stretch but his eyes were full of innocence and beauty. His nose had been broken a few times playing football which added to his ruggedness even though he was a high school English teacher with wire rimmed glasses and tweed coats.
"All the men in my life are older than me," Ruthie told him.
"My father. My grandfather. My Uncles. Even my brother. I'd rather be with older men, truth be told."
"Ruthie," Dix sighed, gently reaching his hand out and tipping her chin up to meet her eyes. "It would be a mistake."
"Because I'm damaged goods," he said.
"I don't care about that," Ruthie insisted.
"I'm a middle aged divorced guy still in love with your dead Aunt."
"I have two teenaged kids."
"I work with teenaged kids every day," she smiled.
"Your father would kill me."
"He's not like that," she said. "At this point my parents are praying I'm not gay. They just want to see me happy."
"I doubt you would be happy with me."
Ruthie blew out her breath. "Now you're sounding like the Dix from thirty years ago when Raven first met you," she remarked. "Don't you see me as a second chance with Raven?"
"You're not Raven."
"There's some of her in me," Ruthie replied.
A blush crossed Dix's face. "Let's not turn this into some sick psycho analytical perversion."
Ruthie laughed. "Too late."
Now that was something Raven Palermo would say.
"Dix, I want to have sex with you," Ruthie announced point blank. "Probably just as much as you wanted to have sex with Raven. Don't you see? It's the same thing for me."
"No it's not," he said nervously.
"You're my Raven," she revealed. "You're the one that I want. I knew it as soon as I read your stuff."
"I didn't write that for you," he lamented.
"I know that," she replied. "But I read it and it felt like it was meant for me."
"It was between Raven and me," Dix sighed.
"Raven's gone, Dix," Ruthie said. "I'm The Second Palermo."
"It wouldn't be right," Dix said quietly, looking down.
"Aren't you attracted to me?" She pouted.
Dix looked at her and sighed. "I think you're beautiful," he said. "You look just like Raven did thirty years ago when I first met her. When you first showed up on my porch, it was like seeing a ghost."
"I just can't," Dix said heavily.
"You're making this way more complicated than it needs to be," Ruthie complained. "We're both consenting adults. We're both old enough to make our own choices. I know you're lonely. I am too."
"That's no reason to…"
Ruthie raised her hand and gently covered Dix's mouth to stop him from saying anything. She looked deep into his eyes with a knowing look. "We both know," she whispered. "Why deny it? Why fight it? Why not just accept it. The fate Gods have spoken."
Dix's uncertain eyes searched hers as she gazed at him with confidence and certainty. She slowly and cautiously leaned in until her lips landed on his and when he didn't pull away she pressed her lips hard against his, sending tingles through both their bodies as she wrapped her arm around his waist.
"Ruthie," Dix muttered with worry.
"It's okay," she assured him while moving her mouth against his and kissing him with passion.
Dix wrapped his arms around her and pulled her against him while she opened her mouth and welcomed the touch of the tip of his tongue against hers and she began to slide hers along his. Dix moaned with pleasure and they both began to explore the other's body with their hands.
"Can we go upstairs?" Ruthie panted through their groping and kissing and touching.
"I…..I…." a flustered Dix stumbled.
"Don't think about it, Dix," Ruthie advised.
Dix let out a whimper and Ruthie broke from the necking, pulling back to examine him.
"Sorry," he whispered through his hard, breathing as he looked sheepishly into her eyes. "I feel like I'm the virgin here."
Ruthie giggled as she took him by the hand, standing and pulling him to his feet too. "Come on," she ordered as she led him toward the stairs.
Dix didn't argue as he followed her across the room and up the stairs.
"Where's your room?" Ruthie demanded desperately as she kicked off her sandals and began to unbutton her blouse.
Dix gestured toward the master bedroom at the end of the hall and Ruthie skipped that way as she tossed aside her blouse and did the same with her bra. She stopped in the doorway and removed her khaki shorts and panties and Dix realized that he had never been with a naked woman other than Maddie before. He tried not to think about Raven as her look-alike niece giggled and pranced naked into his bedroom, throwing herself on his bed. Was this a fantasy come true or a nightmare about to be realized? Dix wanted to be present for Ruthie but he kept thinking about Raven – and Maddie too. In many ways, he was a virgin all over again.
Ruthie laughed when she saw Dix standing in the doorway gawking at her as if he was in a trance as she lay prone and naked on the bed waiting for him.
"Dix?" She asked. "What's wrong?"
"Aren't you nervous?" He asked. "Apprehensive? Afraid?"
She chuckled. "Sounds like you are."
He blushed like a teenager.
"I'm ready, Dix," Ruthie told him breathlessly. "Please don't make me wait. Please don't make me suffer. Please don't torture me. Just make love to me is all I ask."
Dix had no idea what the right thing to do was. He was lonely and sad, mourning and grieving, lost and alone. What would Raven think about all of this?
"Dix," Ruthie pleaded.
He slowly removed his shirt, kicked off his sneakers, and snuggled out of his jeans, hesitating for just a moment before pulling his briefs down.
"Oh, wow," Ruthie said with approval.
He floated naked across the room and lay half on top of her, his lips finding hers.
"Are you sure?" He asked one more time.
"Yes," she answered enthusiastically.
Dix realized this was it. It was really happening.
"Briarwood," he heard Ruthie whisper before they both become lost in the ecstasy of their shared passion.
Dix had only made love to one woman in his life so he was nervous as he and Ruthie began their naked foreplay. She was a virgin and he didn't want to hurt her so he proceeded with gentleness and caution and it was Ruthie who soon took control of the situation, becoming aggressive even as a novice and soon Dix needed to change his attitude in order to keep up with her.
What followed was some surprisingly assertive, physical and even wild sex as Ruthie became unleashed and Dix relied on his twenty-two years of experience with Maddie to satisfy, educate and fulfil Ruthie's quest for total womanhood.
When it was over, Dix slumped on top of his younger lover to catch his breath and to snuggle when he realized that a tear was rolling down his cheek. Ruthie reached up to brush it away and Dix noticed that her eyes were welling up too.
"Did I hurt you!?" Dix asked, trying not to panic.
"No, No," she assured him. "It's not that."
But more drops were streaming down her face and Dix rolled off of her. "What's wrong?" He asked with concern.
"We just had some awesome sex, Dix," Ruthie told him. "Believe me, nothing's wrong."
"But why are you crying?"
"Don't ask so many questions," she requested, wiping some more tears from his face.
"I wasn't sure I'd be able to satisfy you," Dix confessed.
"Did I please you?" She worried.
"Of course," he answered, giving her a kiss.
"Did your wife ever cry after sex?" Ruthie wondered.
"She laughed a few times," Dix deadpanned.
"Are you crying for Raven?" Ruthie asked gently.
"I don't know," Dix sighed. "Is that why you're crying?"
"I'm crying because I'm happy," she said. "It's a mix of relief, contentment, and post-orgasmic satisfaction."
"I've spent half my life working to overcome my fears, insecurities, disappointments and loss," Dix said. "Maybe that's why I'm crying. Because you remind me of how far I've come since those days."
"I didn't jump into bed with you to be a one hit wonder, Dix," Ruthie said as she wrapped her arms around him. "I plan on being in a fun and intimate relationship with you for a long time."
"Can you accept my limitations?"
"Just as you accept mine," Ruthie replied. "There's no reason to over-analyze any of this."
"I just don't want to screw it up," Dix said.
"I don't know if I'll always get a little choked up after sex but it's pretty overwhelming to have such a wide range of emotions spilling out in post-climax ways," Ruthie told him.
"This is a powerful experience for me, Ruthie," Dix admitted. "After all my failings, disappointments and loss, this feels like a serious achievement in intimacy and passion. I never thought I'd feel like this again."
"It's okay to get a little misty-eyed because that is what will ultimately bond us," Ruthie predicted. "That and Raven, of course, and to me, that's worth a few emotional tears."
Dix leaned and kissed her. "Briarwood, Part II," he said happily.
"The Second Palmero," Ruthie agreed with contentment.
"I still love the first Palmero, Ruthie," Dix confessed.
"I know," she replied. "And it's okay. I still love her too."