Recap of Chapter 12: Adopting a puppy is harder than Haze thought. Crowley was a terror until Jake came to the rescue. While she slept in, Jake cleaned up, made coffee and pancakes, and even hatched a better plan for living with a puppy. Jake playfully carried Haze off to the bedroom when she offered to demonstrate her idea of an after-breakfast dessert.
Haze dragged the broom across the studio floor yet again, corralling a barely discernible pile of dust into the dustpan. Then she stood at different positions assessing the room. The tiered display looked perfect and she had Jake to thank. He was the one who made the divider that separated the studio from her personal living space. It was pure genius that he also designed a way to make the divider double as a display for the smaller pieces.
She straightened the corner of the canvas closest to the window. Then she stood back and squinted at the entire display. It jolted her when Sydney’s signature ring chimed. Haze turned and motioned her to come in.
“Hello, hello,” Sydney said, whisking into the room. She stopped and looked around. “It looks perfect!” she said. “Well, almost perfect.” She turned her back, fidgeted with the bundle in her arms, then turned around to reveal her surprise. “I brought this to round it all out.”
“Oh, wow!” Haze said, coming closer. “It’s beautiful!” She was staring at a long length of silk fabric in red, orange and gold hues. “Where did you get this?” she asked, running her hands across the smooth surface.
“It’s from my trip to India,” Sydney said. “This is part of a sari that I wore as I toured all over the country. I thought it would look spectacular in this room to set off your artwork.” She arranged it artfully on the window seat cushions. “There,” she said with satisfaction. “It will keep people from sitting here uninvited and hopefully bring you good luck. Lord knows it brought me some great memories.” She winked. “But that’s a story best told over a bottle or two. Today, it’s about your debut as an artist on the Open Door Studio Tour.”
Haze gave her a squeeze. “It’s perfect!” she said. “Thank you.”
Sydney studied Haze’s profile. She looked stressed and tired. “So,” she asked, “how are you feeling?”
Haze nervously nibbled at her cuticle. “Oh, you know. A little obsessive. A little stressed.”
Sydney grasped Haze’s shoulders. “Look here,” she said, turning her as she made each point. “You’ve done everything you possibly could to get ready for this. You created beautiful artwork that is displayed perfectly; you’ve created a flow in this room so visitors can see everything without tracking through your house; you’ve ordered antipasto platters from Creekside Cellars, which are safely chilling in the refrigerator alongside a wonderful sampling of wine; you’ve priced everything on cards—hell, you even had disposable masks made with your artwork on them. There, on that table, you’ve displayed pamphlets right next to the bundles of greeting cards you had printed and priced for sale. You’ve thought of everything.” Haze was nodding to everything she said. Then Sydney turned Haze to look directly at her. “There is nothing more to do. So, right now, you are coming over to my house for the annual Toast to the Rut.” Haze started to shake her head, but Sydney interrupted. “Ah-ah-ah, I will NOT take no for an answer.” She turned Haze toward the door. “March.” She clapped her hands, “Crowley, come-on, Boy. We’re going over to Auntie Syd’s house now.”
Crowley came lumbering into the studio, tail wagging. He had taken to Sydney immediately and they became fast friends. The trio headed around the hedge and into Sydney’s welcoming home. They settled in the cozy living room, where a fire crackled to ward off the sudden mid-September chill.
Haze curled her legs underneath her and grabbed a throw pillow for her lap, settling into the comfort of Sydney’s couch. The fire cast a warm glow into the room, crackling pleasantly behind the screen. Crowley tracked Sydney’s every movement as she fetched two brandy snifters and poured a generous portion in each.
“To the rut,” Sydney said, settling into her own seat opposite Haze. Crowley curled up with his muzzle on her feet. “Prost!”
“Prost,” Haze chimed, sighing at the smooth flavor of the brandy.
Just then, a bull sounded off with a loud bugle. “And right on cue,” Sydney said. “I never get tired of that sound. It is the epitome of masculine prowess and so primal, all that posturing and taking command. And, of course,” she said gesturing toward the window with a sweeping arm, “the entire theater production is on display from our front row seats.”
They both gazed out the window where a huge bull was corralling his herd of cows into one big group. Sydney raised her glass to the elk. “Here’s to ambition—his and yours.”
“It is ambitious, isn’t it?” Haze said. “Only here for one year and already I’ve put myself literally on the map. The tour map guides people right to my front door. Do you think I’m overconfident?”
Sydney laughed, “Ridiculous! There’s no such thing! If you don’t promote yourself and your considerable talent, who will?”
Typical Sydney response: confident, uplifting, exactly what she needed to hear. Haze smiled as she stole a glance around the room where she had spent so much time this past year. This room is where she was introduced to the annual ‘Heathens Holiday.’ It was where she shopped with Sydney and her friends for an online love connection, landing on Jake (and looked no further). Time and time again, it’s the first place she ran to share her triumphs and follies. Truthfully, it’s where she’s felt most at home since moving to Evergreen and she was grateful every day for landing next door to this wonderful woman.
“I know I’ve had good sales and good reviews in the galleries,” Haze said, “but do you think it’s pushing it to be part of this tradition after only one year here? You know, is it cheeky?”
“Oh honey,” Sydney said, shaking her head, “if you’re asking me if you’re being too bold—too ballsy by inviting hoards of art lovers to your studio to peek at your display of talent, you are asking the wrong woman.” She flipped her hair haughtily. “I do not have a modest, demure bone in my body. And for damn good reasons.” She sipped her brandy, squinting across at Haze. “You are a talented, smart, young and beautiful woman. Why do you think we’re such good friends? It’s because I recognize you as a kindred spirit—as one of the good ones. I don’t brook fools or empty vessels. I don’t collect friends of poor quality. I don’t invite people into my life who aren’t worth my time.”
Haze smiled thoughtfully.
“Hear me on this,” Sydney said in a lecturing tone. “You are worth all the good things that life has in store for you. You are part of my tribe, my girl, and don’t you forget it.”
Honored, Haze placed her hand on her heart, then raised her glass. “To the tribe!”
The next day, kick-off day of Open Door Studio Tour was a whirlwind of activity, with many visitors and affirmations. By the end of the weekend, the wine was gone, the guests had cleared three platters, all the pamphlets had been snatched up, and the greeting card bundles were a huge hit, with orders for more. Napkins and empty cups were scattered about the room and there were more empty spaces than art on the displays. Late in the afternoon on Sunday, Haze finally slumped into a chair, exhausted, yet satisfied with the great outcome. The community had embraced her work. More importantly, the community had embraced her.
She looked up to see Jake coming up the path, holding a bouquet of flowers. He was laughing at something with Sydney, who held a bottle of champagne. Crowley was prancing alongside, having spent the day at Sydney’s house. Tears welled in Haze’s eyes. This ragtag group heading toward her bearing gifts is what love looks like. She wiped her face and opened the door with a bright smile.