Born in Visalia, California, the fifth of seven children in a tempestuous Italian family, Ophelia Martinelli is fifty-seven and has been a legal secretary in Martinez, California for the last twenty-five years. Small and pretty with shoulder-length brown hair not yet touched with gray, friendly and kind and interested in other people, her voice soft and songful, Ophelia attracts men as clover in full bloom attracts bees, yet she has never married.
She has one child, a daughter, Jean, who is forty-one. Jean has two children, Miguel, twenty-one, and Sara, nineteen; and now Sara has a son, Orion, who is ten-months-old.
“Which makes me a great grandmother,” says Ophelia to the man she is playing cards with at the table between them on the train.
Ophelia is traveling from Martinez to Eugene, Oregon, while the man, Harold Boatman, has been on the train since Santa Barbara and is headed for Portland.
Harold looks up from his cards and says, “That’s impossible. You don’t look a day over forty.”
Harold is fifty-two, the eldest of two children, his parents New Yorkers. He has been married and divorced three times, and is about to marry again. Portly and good-looking with a reassuringly rumbly voice, his close-cropped gray hair turning white, Harold is a longtime insurance salesman. He has no children, though his fiancé, Angela, wants kids, and Harold wants to please Angela, though he thinks he would be happier without children.
“My mother was the same,” says Ophelia, discarding the Ace of Diamonds. “She looked sixty when she was eighty.”
“Good for her,” says Harold, drawing the Jack of Spades. “My fiancé is thirty-seven and doesn’t look much younger than you.” He discards the Ace of Clubs. “And I’m fifty-two and most people think I’m over sixty.”
“What’s taking you to Portland?” asks Ophelia, drawing the Seven of Hearts and discarding the Four of Spades.
“My niece’s wedding,” says Harold, picking up the Four of Spades and declaring, “Gin.”
“Your fiancé isn’t going to the wedding?” asks Ophelia, relieved the game is over.
“Oh she’s going,” says Harold, nodding. “But she’s flying and I don’t fly if I can help it. She hates the train. I hate to fly.”
“I won’t fly,” says Ophelia, shaking her head. “I flew once. Never again.”
Harold takes a deep breath. “Buy you dinner?”
“No thank you,” says Ophelia, shaking her head. “I brought a picnic. I have plenty if you want to join me. French bread, goat cheese, sliced tomatoes, pears, oatmeal cookies, and a thermos of coffee.” She gazes out at the passing fields. “I must have good coffee.”
The next morning, a few minutes before the train arrives in Eugene, Harold gushes to Ophelia, “This has been the best train ride I’ve ever had, thanks to you. Even sleeping sitting up wasn’t so bad.”
“I hope you enjoy the rest of your trip,” says Ophelia, eager to get away from him.
“Can I have your email and phone number?” he asks, nodding hopefully. “Love to see you again.”
“No,” says Ophelia, shaking her head. “Sorry.”
“Oh,” says Harold, disappointed. “Because…Angela?”
“Yeah,” says Ophelia, forcing a smile. “Angela.”
Ophelia is sitting on the sofa with Sara and Sara’s baby Orion in Sara’s depressing little apartment a few blocks from the University of Oregon where Sara was majoring in Psychology when she got pregnant and decided to have the baby.
Sara is short and buxom with long black hair streaked with magenta highlights. She is quarter-Italian, quarter-Irish, half-Mexican, extremely bright, terribly self-critical, and currently estranged from her mother and stepfather. She never knew her father. Having lost her scholarship, she is entirely dependent on Ophelia for money.
“I’m so glad you’re here, Grandma,” says Sara, handing Orion to Ophelia. “I’ve been so stressed out and I haven’t been sleeping and I’ve been eating junk food and…I just want to die.”
“Taking care of a baby is hard work,” says Ophelia, smiling at Orion smiling at her. “Did you ever figure out who the father is?”
“Yeah,” says Sara, plaintively. “There were only two possibilities. I wasn’t sure at first, but now Ori looks just like him. He’s half-Japanese, half-white. The father.”
“Have you told him?” asks Ophelia, making a silly face that makes the baby boy gurgle in delight.
“He transferred to Stanford,” says Sara, fighting her tears. “I texted him and he sent a hundred dollars to my PayPal account, so…maybe he’ll send more. I don’t know. He didn’t actually write me back. Just sent the money.” She shrugs hopelessly. “I don’t know what to do.”
“I thought you were going to arrange for childcare and go back to school part-time.” Ophelia kisses Orion’s forehead. “Do you need more money?”
“I’m just so tired,” says Sara, sadly shaking her head. “Things were working out okay when Carol and Rachel were helping me, but then…” She yawns. “I guess the novelty wore off and they had to study and now they almost never come over. They just…you know…finals and stuff.”
“When the novelty wears off, the baby is still here.” Ophelia holds Orion in a standing position, his little feet dancing on Ophelia’s knees. “I can stay for two weeks, honey. Help you get going again.”
“What if…um…” Sara’s eyes fill with tears. “Do you think we could come live with you until he’s ready for pre-school?”
“You mean move to Martinez?” asks Olivia, thinking Why does this keep happening to me? What is the point of all this?
“Until he’s old enough for pre-school,” says Sara, sobbing. “Or First Grade? I can’t handle this, Grandma. I’m falling apart.”
While Sara sleeps, Ophelia dresses Orion in a cute blue jumpsuit and pushes him in the stroller to the university, the day sunny, a nip of fall in the air.
They stop at a big fountain in the center of a plaza, Orion delighted by the geyser of water splashing down into the pool. Ophelia looks around at the impressive buildings and beautiful old trees and hundreds of students walking and running and biking and skateboarding, and her eyes are drawn to a young man and young woman with their arms around each other, the young woman gazing into the young man’s eyes, a dreamy smile on her face, and Ophelia wants to shout, “Don’t have sex until you graduate.”
She remembers gazing up into Zack O’Reilly’s eyes, Zack the quarterback of the Visalia High football team, Zack saying, “Don’t deny me, baby. I love you. We’ll be together forever. I swear to God. I don’t want anybody but you.”
Her reverie is interrupted by the arrival of a man hanging onto the leash of a large brown dog who bumps Orion’s stroller in eagerness to drink from the fountain.
“Sorry,” says the man, sturdy and good-looking with longish brown hair, his accent British, his blue eyes twinkling as he reins in his dog and smiles at Ophelia. “He’s a sweetheart, though something of an oaf. Answers to Bingo.”
Orion shrieks with glee and reaches out to touch Bingo.
Olivia reflexively moves between baby and dog.
“Fear not,” says the man, grinning at Orion. “Bingo loves children and he’s been well-tested on my grandchildren. Is this your grandson?”
“Great grandson,” says Ophelia, squatting down to officiate as Bingo brings his snout close to allow the baby boy to touch him.
“What a darling little boy,” says the man, looking down at Ophelia. “I saw you from across the plaza and thought, ‘Who is she?’ and had to come see. I hope you’ll forgive my curiosity.” He bows to her. “I’m Jon Richardson. Literature. May I know your name?”
“Ophelia,” she says, standing up and looking into his eyes. “Ophelia Martinelli.”
“Coffee?” he says, gazing in wonder at her. “Café just around the corner. Excellent coffee. Not quite as good as I make at home, but eminently drinkable.”
“I’m sixty-two,” says Jon in answer to Ophelia’s question. “A widower, as they used to say. Five years now.” He laughs self-consciously. “And again, I hope you will forgive me, but my long-shuttered heart opened for the first time in eons when I saw you from afar, so I came closer to find out who you were.”
“And now that you’ve seen me up close?” She gazes steadily at him, having no expectation he will say anything to distinguish himself from her previous suitors, though she likes the tone of his voice, a smoky baritone, and how easily he expresses his feelings.
“Now that I’m near you,” he says, taking a deep breath, “I wonder all the more who you are.”
“I’m fifty-seven,” she says, glancing at Orion slumbering in the stroller. “Not married. I live in Martinez, California. I’m a legal secretary. I sing in the choir at the Presbyterian, though I’m not religious. I came here to help my granddaughter with her baby. She had to drop out of college when she had Orion. Now she wants to come live with me in Martinez until he’s old enough to go to school, which is what her mother did. My daughter. Only she stayed until her children were thirteen and fifteen. So who I am is a mother and grandmother and great grandmother and legal secretary.” She smiles wistfully. “Who are you?”
“A professor,” says Jon, nodding. “A poet, too, but a more successful professor than poet. Father of two, grandfather of three. Owner of large mutt and two cats. Sing in the shower. Not religious, but I do believe in karma, and…I’m thinking I’d like to make a life with you.”
Ophelia laughs in surprise. “How would we do that?”
“You and your granddaughter and this little chap would move into my house that is plenty big for all of us, and we would carry on together.” He shrugs pleasantly. “I know it sounds ridiculous, given we’ve just met and know nothing about each other except what we feel, but…what if there’s a chance we’d do well together? Shouldn’t we try to find out?”
“We should,” she says, nodding. “But slowly.”
“Does this mean I’ll get to see you again?” he asks, surprised and delighted by her acquiescence.
“We could have supper tonight,” she says, offering him her hand. If he says Thai food, I may marry him. “The four of us.”
“Do you like Thai food?” he asks, gently taking her hand.
“Love Thai food,” she says breathlessly. “How did you guess?”
“I don’t know,” he says, his eyes filling with tears. “Just came to me.”