A BEAUTIFUL LIFE • by Patricia O’Donnell

The bell rings when a person enters the store, the sound light and musical. Like sunlight, it cuts through the shadows in the open room to the desk at the back. Nils has a small lamp lit on his desk but, on this sunny day, leaves the overhead lights off. The front windows give enough light to illuminate the prints and paintings for sale in the small shop. He pulls his mask more securely over his lips and nose, and nods hello at the woman. She wears a mask also, as the sign outside asks people to do “in consideration of others.” No one else is in the store. He returns to his book.

She is young, and under her long shirt he can see the swelling of her stomach. Curly dark hair hangs over the smooth brown skin of her face, as she looks down at a box of prints. From what he can tell, she must be ready to deliver soon.

He closes the book, a Norwegian mystery, and opens his computer. Since there’s a potential customer, he will look as if he’s busy. She’s the first person to enter the shop in an hour. It would be nice if she bought something, so he could feel like his time there was worthwhile.

He thinks back to when his wife was pregnant. His daughter lives with her mother in Sweden now. She must be… he thinks… twenty seven years old. It was that long ago that Erika swelled out a blouse like that. She had been beautiful, like this woman seems to be, though in a different way. Sometimes it seems as if everything that happened to Nils happened a long time ago, and he can’t remember any of it. He does remember that he and Erika were already not getting along when she was pregnant. They were living the adventure of moving to the US, trying to complete degrees, but nothing was working out like they’d planned.

The woman moves to another table, to prints from the Renaissance, matted and covered in protective plastic. She is taking her time, studying each one. She is planning for her new baby’s home, he imagines; feathering the nest. He does remember Erika’s frantic need to make a place for the baby, creating a nursery of sorts in their tiny apartment. She hung bright draperies surrounding the crib in a corner of their bedroom, and a paper origami mobile dancing above it. They hadn’t planned for a baby in this, their first year of graduate school. Erika couldn’t finish her program. After Nils completed his degree in Art History, the place they could afford in San Francisco, where Nils found work, was in a neighborhood that frightened Erika. So different from her neat neighborhood in Sweden. It was horrible, she said; it would not be possible for her to live a good life there, a beautiful life. And that’s what she wanted for their daughter, a beautiful childhood like she had in a village in Sweden. And that’s what their child finally got, with only the occasional visit with her father.

The woman brings a group of prints over to the window and lines them up on the sill, studying them. She leans down, with difficulty. He appreciates the care she is taking, the thoughtfulness. He hopes she has a room for this baby, not a corner of the bedroom where she sleeps. He hopes she and the baby’s father are friendly to one another, are patient and kind. He hopes she will get a print framed and hung by the crib so her baby will grow up to be an artist. He hopes by the time the baby is born there will not be a pandemic, and everyone they love doesn’t have to wear masks and stand apart from people, but will hug and sing and be joyous.

When it is nearly time to close, the young woman finally takes the prints back to the rack. She brings one to the desk where Nils sits. He says hello, and thinks she is smiling behind her black mask; her eyes squint as if there is a smile. “You found something you like?” he asks. She nods. “Yes, this,” she says, with an accent he can’t identify through her mask. She sets the print carefully on the counter: a beautiful Madonna and child by Crespi. As she does so, he sees her hands are ringless. Her shirt looks thin and cheap; her jeans frayed in a way that is not fashionable. Plastic sandals on her feet. “How much?” she asks.

He wraps white paper around the print, and slides it carefully into a paper bag. “Nothing,” he says. He motions to her stomach. “It’s for the child. May it have a beautiful life.”

At the door the woman stops and turns. She pulls down her mask to smile at him. It is a luminous smile, a smile of hope for the future. “Thank you,” she says, and leaves the store. The sound of the bell lingers behind her.

Patricia O’Donnell is Professor Emerita in Creative Writing at the University of Maine at Farmington. Her book Gods for Sale won the Serena McDonald Kennedy award. Her books include the novels Necessary Places and The Vigilance of Stars. She lives in Wilton, Maine, with her husband Michael Burke.

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