As Oliver made himself comfortable, Mr. and Mrs. Anderson, who were sitting in the same pew a little farther down, nodded and smiled at Oliver. He nodded his acknowledgment, and was about to focus on the sermon, when Maria, who was seated next to Mrs. Anderson, leaned forward and smiled at Oliver. She wore no glasses, and wore her black hair down; it framed her tanned face and made her white smile seem even whiter. She wore a simple light blue dress, which enhanced her blue eyes. Oliver raised his eyebrows, nodded, and smiled in appreciation.
From time to time throughout the sermon, Oliver attempted to catch another glimpse of Maria, but Mrs. Anderson seemed to own precisely the size and shape of head to prevent glimpses. During one of these attempts, Oliver saw Miss Jenkins across the aisle smiling at him and preening a bit. He smiled weakly at her, sat back in the pew, and attempted no more glimpses for the rest of the sermon.
After the sermon, Oliver exited the pew and waited for the Andersons and Maria to file out to him, but they exited the pew the opposite way toward the center aisle. Seeing this, he quickly shook hands with Mr. Teeters, went around the front of the sanctuary to the center aisle, and began to work his way toward the Andersons through the crowd trudging down the center aisle and exiting the center sanctuary doors. He just managed to slide past a wide stump of a woman and was about to extend his hand to tap Mr. Anderson on the shoulder when he felt a hand on his arm.
“Oh, hello, Oliver!” said Miss Jenkins. “We saw you sit across from us with Mr. Teeters. Did he catch you in the narthex?”
“Oh…uh…yes…yes, he did. We decided to sit together.” Oliver’s eyes darted from Miss Jenkins to the Andersons who were slowly moving down the aisle. He saw Maria’s beautiful mane of black hair, but not her face.
Miss Smith leaned into the conversation. “Well, we missed you. I was just telling her,” she gestured with her head towards Miss Jenkins, “how naughty it was of Mr. Teeters to steal you away from us.”
“Yes, but it wouldn’t do to be impolite and refuse to sit with Mr. Teeters.” Oliver bounced on the balls of his feet with impatience and smiled tightly. The Andersons were approaching the sanctuary doors with Maria.
Miss Jenkins placed her hand on Oliver’s arm and said in a hushed voice, “I caught you sneaking a few peeks at me during the sermon.”
Oliver chuckled nervously, “Yes, well can you blame me? Ladies, you’ll have to excuse me. I see someone in the narthex that I must speak with before they leave.” The Andersons and Maria were now at the door. He still saw only her beautiful mane, but then Mr. Anderson said something to her, and she turned to him and smiled at him in profile. Then they were through the doors.
“Oh, you go right ahead,” said Miss Smith. “We’ll be right behind you. Maybe we can talk a little more later.”
“Yes, that would be nice. Good evening, ladies.” He began to worm his way through the crowd, and finally made it into the narthex, but he saw the Andersons nowhere. Quickly, he made his way out the church doors, and saw the Andersons headed for their car with Maria.
“Mr. Anderson!” shouted Oliver.
Mr. Anderson paused with his hand on the handle of the rear door of his four-door sedan, which he was preparing to open for Maria. He turned to face Oliver and smiled.
Oliver walked quickly to the trio with his hand extended. “I…uh…I…uh…I wanted to thank you…uh…for the soup bone. Heh, heh, you’ve never met Bayo, but he’s one of your biggest fans.”
Mr. Anderson smiled. “Oh, think nothing of it. Those bones just go into the trash otherwise.”
Maria faced Oliver now, and his eyes never left her while he spoke to Mr. Anderson. “Well, still it’s a favor…and I just wanted to…to thank you.”
“It’s no trouble at all, Oliver. Well, we’ve got to be going now.” He opened the door, and Maria made a move to get into the car.
Oliver spoke to Maria now, who stopped and faced him again. “I…uh…I noticed that you’re not… uh…wearing your glasses.” Mr. Anderson went around the car and opened the door for Mrs. Anderson.
Maria beamed her smile at Oliver and said, “Oh, I just wear those at work. I don't know why, but something in the kitchen sometimes bothers my eyes if I wear my contacts. Maybe it's just the heat.”
“Well, it certainly is a difference…uh…I mean…with your hair down and no glasses…and that dress. I thought you were pretty at the restaurant, but tonight…you look just…stunning.” Mr. Anderson got behind the wheel of the car and closed his door.
“Well, thank you, sweet talker,” said Maria.
“It’s easy to talk sweet when I need only to relay facts.”
Mr. Anderson started the engine, and Oliver grabbed the handle of the door as she got into the car. He said, “You know, I never got your last name. What is it, if you don’t mind my asking?”
“Manning. And where is Mr. Manning tonight?”
She smiled her enchanting smile at him, then said, “God knows,” as she closed the door. Oliver stood with a slight look of disappointment on his face as Mr. Anderson pulled out of the parking lot and onto the highway.
“Well now, Jenny,” he said to himself. “There’s a match for me, complete with flame, if she weren’t married.” He walked to his truck and sat in the cab. He looked at himself in the rear view mirror and sighed. Then he shrugged his shoulders, started his truck, and shook his head a little as if he were trying to clear it, then pulled out of the parking lot and headed for home.
While Oliver attended church, the creature occupied himself with various pursuits. He found a large beetle of a variety he’d never before seen. He played with it for a while, but soon killed it and flung it outside the radius of his tether. Next, he amused himself by winding his tether around the flagpole. He ran round and round the pole until all of the rope wrapped tight around it and he could do nothing but run round and round the opposite way to unwrap it. He did that twice.
But then he hit on a project that occupied him until evening: climbing the tree. The lowest branch was too high for him to reach even if he jumped. However, while the trunk was large, it was small enough for him to get somewhat of a hold on it with his arms. That, along with the craggy, strong bark provided him just enough hand and foot holds to enable him to scooch up the trunk with his arms and legs until he reached the lowest branch. Even so, once he released the grip of one hand on the trunk to hook an arm around the lowest branch, he invariably fell or had to jump from his precarious perch, which he usually did with a curse. His arms and legs were fairly well scraped and scratched at the end of what seemed his twentieth attempt.
After one particularly frustrating attempt, which landed him flat on his back twitching with fury, he saw Oliver’s truck turn onto the gravel road. He quickly hid behind the tree, and as the truck pulled in front of the house, he sat behind the tree where Oliver could not see him.
Oliver got out of the truck. He noted the tether leading behind the tree, but thought nothing of it. He called to Bayo, and the dog came running and entered the house with him.
After Oliver went into the house, the creature recommenced the siege on the tree. He whined or growled or cursed or did all three at each failure, but he kept at it until one time, he managed to hook his arm around the large branch, then quickly brought his other arm over and interlocked his fingers so that he hung from the branch a little more than three feet from the ground. He gave a triumphant “Hah!” then curled his lower body up to the branch and hooked a leg around it. Then, with considerable exertion, he pulled himself up on top of the branch and straddled it like a horse. Scratched and battered as he was, he glowed with the accomplishment.
Despite the initial difficulty, the tree was an excellent climbing tree, with good strong branches in just the right places for easy ascent. The further he ascended, the more the tree engulfed him, so that, were it not for his tether, no one would know he was up there. And yet he could see out of the tree perfectly.
“This is great,” he said to himself. “It’s almost like a fort.”
He went as high as his tether allowed, which was enough for an interesting climb. He explored every possible route up, but soon, he settled onto a low branch of the tree made to cradle a young boy, and watched the sun go down to usher in twilight.