apples and roses continued.

If she closed her eyes Lana could remember how she had felt standing next to Brad at the jewelry store. "Stunning doesn’t even come close Dan. If the ring was any simpler it would be harsh but it’s not. Imagine walking into a breathtakingly beautiful ice cavern where all the sunlight is shining in from above and illuminating a tropical lagoon.” In Dan's mind he was thinking he owed Lana forty thousand dollars. This was why he called Lana. For conversations like this. "That's good, brilliant even. Interesting imagery. Keep going." 

“Brilliant is a good adjective for the ring. It’s also bold, understated, elegant and perhaps a touch whimsical but you have to be standing next to Brad to see that. By itself it’s really not that special but as soon as he touches it you see things you’ve never seen before. And I am not a real diamond fan.”

A surge of creative energy burned through Dan. “I love you Lana, I love, love, love you. If I wasn’t already married to the woman of my dreams I’d marry you. Whimsical. That could be Brad’s middle name as far as you’re concerned. I’m going to tell you something and you can do what you like with this information. Brad loves you twice as much as he loves anyone or anything else.”

Lana gave the house next door an acidic look. Sure Brad loved her. He loved her so much he was going ring shopping with Michelle and choosing diamonds for Gretchen. But she didn't want to argue with Dan. “He loves himself more. And Brent of course.”

“He does not love himself. You don’t either. You both love Brent.” Never had he been so sure of his convictions. Hearing the words aloud made him realize how true they were.

“How can Brad be a hedonist and not love himself?”

“Because he’s more of a masochist and a perfectionist than he is a hedonist. Who are the ancient Romans or Greeks or whoever that pursued a life of instant gratifications? The eat, drink and be merry types?”

“The Epicureans?”

“That’s them. Brad is two-thirds that. Perfection in food and drink. Then he starts unraveling because just like you, he loves to learn. You and Brad could be professional students and you would love it. If the two of you were in school together, there’d be no stopping either of you.”

“I don’t like school. I think I might even hate it.”

“Lana, Lana, Lana, you’re like Brent. You haven’t discovered what makes you burn intellectually. You’re like Natalie that way. She could have easily been a surgeon.”

“I think she might be too afraid of it.”

“It’s too removed for her in one way and it’s too close in another. She’s really like her father in a lot of ways." He clapped his hands together, the noise made Lana jump. In the kitchen Dan tossed a glass in the air. Adrenaline screamed through his veins but he tried to keep his voice calm. A new painting came to mind. He wrote Lana's name on a sheet of paper and started sketching. "I just had a lightbulb moment Lana. Your mother would have been better for Brad and Natalie than Rita and Rita would have been a better mother for you."

"You're probably right. I love Rita."

"She loves you Lana. She would be delighted to have you marry one of her sons. She and Dr. Summerville both would, him more than her if anything because I know how he feels about you and Brad getting together. You could make him the second happiest man in the world just by showing up on Brad's arm Christmas Eve. You know, if you could be a dentist, that would really help Brad."

Feeling guilty Lana looked at her book. She should really be studying. "Where did that come from?"

It was hard to keep his enthusiasm in check. He opened the refrigerator and shut it again. "This is something I pulled from a conversation with Natalie. She thinks that Brad needs to talk about school. We try to talk to him about it but we don't get half the shit he's talking about. Brad is a funny guy. He has so much wonderful and fascinating information. He has the answers before people even come up with the questions. People listen to him for a minute or two, their minds start wandering and they forget he’s a walking talking encyclopedia with a great sense of humor who can present things to all sorts of audiences at many different levels. He needs a smart audience, an intelligent audience, a patient one. Someone who cares about him and his ideas. They don’t need to know the answers to his questions, he just needs to know they’re out there listening and all this stuff about dental margins and periodontal tissue is really going to help make a difference someday."

"I think that right there is your case against Brad and Gretchen. And you are his audience Dan, Natalie too. Jim would be if he was around more and if Rita would let the two of them work things out. Why is Uncle Dave not the audience? He’s already a dentist."

"Dave is just like Jim, afraid to put his heart on his sleeve and let the world know how much they care. You can totally tell those two are related. What do you want to bet Dave leaves everything to Brad in his will?"

“I wouldn’t bet on that. I could see him leaving it to all his nieces and nephews, just Brad, Brad and Brent or even Brad, Brent and Natalie. Build a case for Dave and Gretchen."

"I can see it. He can dance, he can party, she could do wonders for that little house on the lake and shit, if she hadn’t gone out with Brent I bet it really could go somewhere, it all comes back to that doesn’t it?"

"Unfortunately."

"Get back on track, this was going so well."

"Build a case for me and Brent."

"Not for all the tea in China. It can’t be done."

"I love him."

"And he loves you. You are the only woman I know of where he is one hundred percent true gentleman because you are his lady. Around you he’s dashing and romantic and perhaps even a Chinese Dragon slayer just like around him you are soft and dreamy and willing to show him your heart and soul. Absolutely positively under no circumstances can I see the two of you together in a dating type of relationship."

"Why do you and Natalie work?"

"I can see through the armor to the lovely sensual woman buried under all that corporate bullshit. I don’t care if she wears unfeminine suits or flirts with some nerd in the purchasing department or gives away the ranch. Natalie knows I need to have women as friends just like she needs male friends. Neither of us is jealous. Why do you think we work?"

"You ebb and flow with each other. You’re willing to suffer public humiliation on the basketball court and most importantly, you can laugh at yourself, laugh at other people and everyone can come up laughing together. You’re the only man I’ve ever seen flirting with Rita."

"Build a case for your dad and Rita and your mom and Jim."

"How do you always come up with these ideas?”

“I started hanging around this cute little redhead. She gives them to me. Don’t tell my wife, she’ll kill me.”

“Very funny Dan. Okay, this is my best shot at getting my mom and Dr. Summerville together. My mom loses a ton of weight, she looks a lot like Gretchen when she's thin so she and Jim have a good sex life. I take that back, they’re lovers. She’ll put a flower on his breakfast tray and a linen napkin under his croissant. They travel the world together and send back thoughtful uniquely inspired gifts from out of the way places. My dad and Rita are a little tougher."

"I’ll do them, nice job by the way. Your father abandons his intellectual pursuits and Rita tones down the golf and exercise. She puts on a few pounds and he becomes a civil engineer or goes into politics. If he choses politics Rita will raise insane amounts of money seemingly without effort. The very far right and just left of the middle vote for him. Rita works in his office at home. She'd be a dynamite manager, I guarantee it."

"Did you know my dad used to be a civil engineer or did you just make that up?"

"I just made it up." His hand holding the pen hesitated. "Are you kidding me?"

“No, before we moved here, years before, when we still lived in Ohio, my dad was an engineer for a utility company that has been bought and sold so many times I don’t even know what the name is now. He wanted Brad to be a civil engineer more than anything."

"Is this just some yarn you’re spinning?"

"It could be but it’s not. My mom went back to work, my dad went to back to school and worked part time as a free-lance consultant. He’s still on a bunch of boards."

"That doesn’t surprise me a bit. No wonder you’re so dang smart. Is that where he gets all his money from?"

"A lot of it came from his parents who were killed in a car accident when he was in seventh grade. His grandparents had a fair amount. I think a lot of why he’s so stuffy is he was raised by them and since he was an only child he didn’t have any brothers or sisters to help him out."

"I had no idea. I feel a bit differently about him now. How’d he get from engineering to English?"

"I’m sure I haven’t been told the entire story but there was some sort of personnel conflict at work. Not long after that my dad hurt his back, he was out for a while recovering from that. He came back to this fight about the dam on the far side of town. About half the people sided with him and about half sided with the other guy. There was a huge row over it, my dad told us he didn’t want to work at a place where they were needlessly endangering the lives of others. I don't remember any of this but Gretchen says she remembers my dad coming home and my mom crying about him not having a job. My dad walked off the job, signed up for school, and has been teaching ever since."

"Do you think your dad did the right thing?"

"I think so but I’m probably biased. Looking back I think it was a good career move but I think personally he suffered for it. He doesn’t mind people not liking him so much as when people don’t listen to him just because they don’t like him. He told them the dam was going to break, they didn’t listen and it did and I think that really hurt him."

"You know, I think your dad might be a lot more like some of the people next door than I ever realized. He’s so well educated and well rounded."

“He’s very well rounded. My whole family is."

"You’re not. And if they would just exercise and eat right and if the Summerville’s would only attend concerts and plays and charity balls, the world would be a much better place."

The word charity reminded her of the sketch he was working on. "How’s the picture coming along?"

"Magnificently thanks to you. This is going to knock Brad’s socks off. I have got to show you this when I am done. I don’t need to get behind his eyes anymore because I’m going to play a little game with my audience. Lana, this is the best thing I have ever done and it’s so exciting. Get this, Brent walks into Brad’s room when he is studying. Or is he studying? He has a book out in front of him and he appears to be reading but there’s something else the viewer can see that makes them think his attentions might be elsewhere. It’s a nice sunny day, the windows are open, Brad's nice tidy apple orchard is just starting to bear fruit. This is a red painting, but it's a soft red one. Brad’s hair, Brent’s hair, their roof, your crimson maple tree, the apple, the rose and your hair. It’s red, but red that has been tempered and softened. It’s a living red, a giving red, can you feel it?"

"I think so. The weather is not hot. It's not cold out and the images are crisp but the people are..., well blurry is the word I want to use, but I’m sure that’s not exactly it."

"Whimsical Lana. The people are whimsical. You have a glimpse of them, not a snapshot, but you can see into their minds and their hearts. No one can see anyone else."

"I thought Brent was in Brad’s room."

"But all he sees is his back and you can’t see his face. Just a tiny bit of hair. The painting is done from your perspective although you’re only about an inch big. Just a glorious free fall of hair and your hand resting on your cheek as you build castles in the sky. Innocent. The painting is innocent."

She had the most bizarre sensation of being in the painting he was talking about. There was something magical about the way Dan was consumed by his work. "I have a name, a title for the painting. How do you feel about Red Innocence?"

"I love it. The contradiction. How do you feel about A Blush Of Innocence?"

"I don’t know, something about it doesn’t feel right. Ask Natalie."

"If she tells Brad this is for him I’m going to be upset. As soon as it’s done it’s going over to Brent’s place. I wish I could work on it over at Jim and Rita’s but Brad would immediately know it’s for him. Lolly girl, I hate to cut this short but I need to go. Natalie is back and I know she's not feeling well. I love you."

"I love you too, toodles Danny boy."

Almost absentmindedly Dan set down the phone. He opened the door to the kitchen and looked down at his wife who was putting her running shoes away. Something in her eyes made him decide against asking how the run had gone. Instead he put his arms around her, kissed the top of her head and gave her a hug. Silently he made a promise to himself. He was going to get Brad and Lana together if it was the last thing he did.

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