Doctor, My Eyes

Just the other day I ran into an old acquaintance, Mac, as he preferred to be known.  Winston Adams Wanamaker, related to the scions of the upscale retail firm in Philadelphia, happened to be sitting in that cheap restaurant franchise, The Waffle Palace.  They are very common around the south and eastern seaboard and are known for their simple menus and decently prepared food.  Denny’s is upscale compared to them.  I used to drive truck years ago and know the value of this venue when one didn’t have money to burn.  Actually, it took me a while to recognize Mac, so much water had passed under the bridge and the man I was staring at looked worn and haggard beyond his years.  But perhaps I was even more surprised he recognized me since I had never been a regular in his social circles and protest movements.  The place being crowded I took the seat opposite his in the two person booth while asking, “Pardon me, would you mind if I shared your booth?”

“Bill, is it really you?” was the reply I received as his face greeted mine.  We held each other’s gaze for a minute, maybe two, before I said, “Long time since I saw you last, Mac.”

“Yes, it’s been a very long time.  How you’ve been?  What are you doing these days?

“Not much these days, living off social security and trying to stay healthy.  What brings you to this place?”

“All the old places are gone.  Can you believe it?  It’s all turned to slum.”  Mac carefully looked around to make sure no one had really heard him.  “I’m surprised the university is still here.”

Yeah, the university.  Back in the sixties the blocks around the campus were filled with coffee houses and taverns and Italian restaurants that served cheap Chianti and spaghetti.  I had dropped out of high school and was working in Wanamaker’s in the city center.  The rat hole of a flat was on Walnut, about midway between the store and the university.  The living was far from easy since the rent was high and the pay was low.  But I could walk a few blocks and find a coffee house where I might, for the price of a beer, get some entertainment and at least a friendly look from some coed who though I must be a student.  Eventually I ran into Mac, a cross between a sort of old school beatnik and social activist.  Civil rights was still big then and the anti-war rallies were about to come into their own.  Mac was in the forefront of it all.

To understand Mac you had to know him a little.  A kid who was heir to a fortune and yet wanted to do “something” for his fellow man.  He was the first man I had met who could give you that feeling of total attention as if you and he existed alone in the world for a few minutes.  Despite my lack of educational status we could talk of Socrates and Plato and a few other philosophers.  He encouraged my studies and even gave me a couple of books on philosophy.  In return I would help with the various committees he chaired or attended.  My involvement was more for the purposes of meeting the coeds.  I could have saved my time, few exhibited more than a passing interest.  Six months later and I was on a bus to join the Big Red One in South Carolina.  I had an appointment to keep in Vietnam.

A few people though Mac and I were friends or that maybe I was interested in his latest exploits.  I would receive the odd newspaper clipping about his latest protest involvement or some project he had dreamed up.  I doubt that anyone kept tabs on my progress through boot camp and AIT and then Vietnam.  After all, I was just one of several hundred thousand of boots on the ground.  I was of minimal importance to anyone including the military.  but I saw that Mac’s exploits gained more prominence in the news.  Sit-ins here, teach-ins there, draft resistance counseling, all the news worthy stories about all the important social movements.  Yes sir, Mac was going to make America safe for whatever the next crusade happened to find worthy of their efforts.  The guys in my squad were both impressed and put off by my association with such groups.  Loyalty under fire counts more than social principles.  Used to tell them I wasn’t really a part of the groups, just looking for girls and that seemed to clear the air.  Matter of fact, that was the truth of the matter.  I mean, you get drafted and you do your duty, that’s about the essence of it.

Once out of the service I lost tract of Mac.  Oh, I new he was still out there.  Heard he had gone to Chicago and the LA and San Francisco and god knows where.  I picked my way through life.  A job here, a job there, no real roots and then a marriage and a child and, well, one has to do for family.  Found myself in San Jose, California working for the telephone company and dealing with a divorce a few years down the line.  By that time the Vietnam was over as was the draft and most protests centered on more local issues or environmental issues.  Years went by as they always do and I heard little about Mac.  Another marriage and another divorce and a bit more moving around until I came back to the city where I had started.  My mother needed me to take care of her, there being no one else.  The neighborhood had changed for the worst.  Families I once knew had packed up and gone for better places.  Even the university had changed.  Armed guards patrolled the campus trying to keep the riff-raft at bay.

By now the day was growing dark as we sat across from each other, Mac doing most of the talking.  “I feel like I am waiting to awaken from some dim dream.  So many people I once knew have gone their various ways, you know?  They just go where they will and I don’t really know them.  What’s happened, Bill?  I mean I kept my eyes open to all that was around me and now, look at the times.  I don’t know what’s left for me.”

“Why did you come back here?  What did you expect to find?”

It was the first time I ever knew Mac at a loss for words.  Words had been his life ever since I knew him.  Silence can be a deadly thing in the wrong hands.  “I don’t know, Bill.  I don’t know.”

We said out good byes and walked out the door together.  I went my way back to my mother’s house and some semblance of a past life.  Where Mac went I couldn’t tell you.  I’m not sure he had any idea of where he was headed.

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I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight

The last of the stragglers had left and now Jeff could get down to the real work.  Most of the repairs he had been doing this last week were superficial.  The old hotel, a relic of the past century and a half had been the first building in this rural tourist trap to have been built with plumbing in mind.  But years of oil lamps had left soot embedded in the paint and wood work.  Then came the electrical wiring with its coarse installation, more an affront to the original craftsmanship.  Decades of abuse followed by decades of neglect, no wonder there was so much to repair and redo each year.  At least those were the thoughts Jeff had every end of season.  “God, I wish I could sell this place for a decent profit.  Not that I haven’t tried.”  He was talking to himself, as usual when making inventory of the repairs needed and the remodeling he could afford.  “Damn historical society stays on my back about keeping this place in repair but they don’t contribute a dime to its upkeep.  Serve them right if this place burnt down.”  Jeff held this conversation each year long about now.  “Fifteen years and what have I got?  Damn money pit.  Costs always going up and never enough help.  I doubt David will show this year.  It’ll be some excuse about his wife and her family.”  Wearily he went from room to room taking inventory.

 

“I brought you a cup of hot tea, Jeff.”  Darcy appeared in the doorway holding a large cup and saucer in her hands.  She was a young girl, barely twenty, at least according to her employment application.  He had been reluctant to hire her but Darcy was the only one who applied for the job.  He was lucky to have John and Ellen these past five years but both had given notice.  They were moving to Florida in the late fall.  Family trouble they called it.  Her mother needed help after her stroke.  Darcy had volunteered to stay and do what she could to help.  Jeff looked up from the clipboard.  “My, you are pretty sight.”  At least that is what he wanted to say.  Instead the usual utterance came from his lips, “Thank you, Darcy.  That’s just what I needed right now.  Put it on the table, please.”  Jeff was thinking that Darcy was becoming a little more attentive to his needs.  Got to be careful, don’t want to take advantage of her.  Nice kid but I’m really too old for her to notice as a love interest.  She set the cup and saucer on the table and then waited, shifting her weight from one foot to the other.

“Don’t let it get cold, Jeff.  Can I make you a sandwich?  You look a little famished.”  Her voice was soft and sweet.  The guests were always taken by surprise by her voice.  Very soothing and reassuring.  She could charm the angriest customer and have him eating out of her hand.  Yes, she was a treasure at that.

“Thanks, I ‘ll take a break now.  Not really hungry at the moment, just a bit frustrated.  So much work to do.”  Jeff sat in the chair and lifted the cup to his lips.  Between sips his eyes wandered over the sheets on which his lists were made.  Then it occurred to him that Darcy was still standing by the table.  “Oh, forgive me, I’m lost in thought and forgot about you for the moment.  Don’t let me keep you from anything.  Really, the tea is good and it was very nice of you to think of me just now.”

Her eyes appeared to sparkle a little at his words and her smile widen a little.  Then she disappeared through the doorway.  This was the last room to be inventoried and he made two more notes on the paper.  Twenty bedroom in all, five with sitting rooms attached.  Each of the five had attached baths and six of the large single rooms had shared baths.  The other nine shared a communal bath.  The hotel was behind the times and not likely to catch up anytime soon.  If the historical society had it’s say it never would.  Of course none of society members ever patronised his hotel.  No, it wasn’t fashionable enough for them.  All these thoughts were distracting him from his work.  Jeff finished his tea and then took the cup and saucer down to the kitchen.

 

As Jeff stood in the kitchen looking over his notes he began to divide the crucial repairs from the nonessential and then order them by cost of materials.  Then he looked at the nonessential repairs and estimate their individual costs.  David’s wife Anne had been arguing for less spending so that she and Dave could have a larger share of the income.  Every year at audit time she would accuse Jeff of hiding profits and padding expenses.  Anne kept pushing Dave to sell the property.  Jeff would have been agreeable but finding a buyer was the problem.  The exit off the interstate was over ten miles from the hotel and most folk seldom took the old county highway that bordered the property.  Even the bank was skeptical that anyone would want to buy the place knowing the investment needed to pay off the mortgage and put in the upgrades needed to attract the kind of business that would pay for the capitalization needed.  Jeff looked at the lists and began to juggle figures in his head.  “This place is a trap, a quagmire.  We need another ten good years at least to get those mortgages down enough for me and dave to get out even.  Then what?  This place is the only job I’ve ever known.  I’m thirty eight now.  In ten years I’ll be almost fifty with no prospect of a job.”  The thought was not a pleasant one.  Twelve years ago he had a girlfriend but she saw the future and wanted no part in his sacrifice.  Now he rarely looked at any woman with any kind of longing.  No, it would be useless, a tease that would only make me more miserable.  These thoughts came often enough to torment him but as he turned back to his lists they went away, not far.  No, never far enough to leave him some sense of peace.

 

Darcy appeared at the entrance to the kitchen wearing rubber gloves and holding a mop, bucket, and an assortment of brushes and sponges.  “I’ve done the ballroom, want to check?”  She had that grin of accomplishment.

“No, I’ll take your word for it.”  The girl worked hard and Jeff didn’t want to insult her.  Besides, even a half-assed job would have done for this season.  Jeff studied his lists for a moment.  “I need to repaint the walls in the shared bath as well as seal around the tub and sink for rooms ten and eleven.  Would scrub those walls and areas now?  I know it’s asking a lot of you but I’d be thankful.  I need to go to town and pick up some paint and other supplies.  I’ll be back in two hours.  Need anything?”

“How about another bottle of Clorox and some more oil soap?  I’m close to being out.”

“Sure thing.  See you in two.”

 

The old truck seemed to take forever to clime the grade to the hotel, the engine was huffing and puffing like a fat athlete out of training and not likely to see the vim and vigor of youth in this world again.  Year ago Jeff would curse the vehicle for its perceived shortcomings.  Now he excused to truck for its poor showing by saying, “At least it’s paid for.”  He parked the truck around by the back entrance and started unloading the bed.  Several five gallon buckets of paint were in the bed along with a cardboard box of electrical and plumbing materials.  Darcy surprised him by coming out the back door and grabbing one of the buckets of paint.  “Let me take that.  Why don’t you take the box into the kitchen for me?”

She just smiled and said, “Ok.”

Jeff hoisted a bucket of paint in each hand and made his way to the kitchen.  Then he returned to the truck for the third bucket.  Each year the ritual was the same, new paint cut with water to stretch it out.  As long as the walls were clean the thinned paint would look presentable and would not have to be removed for five years.  He always did the paint removal in the spring when the windows could be left open longer to remove any chemical smell.  There were a few hours of daylight left, that would reduce the need for electricity, keep it to a bare minimum.  “I wonder how handy she is with a paint roller?  I’ll ask.”

 

He found Darcy in the pantry moping the floor and wiping the walls with a solution of water and borax.  It was her idea, said it kept the cockroaches to a minimum.  This girl has common sense, he thought.  “Hey Darcy, ever do any painting with a roller?”

“Sure, what me to help?” was her answer.  He liked the way she always had a smile on her face.  Not a big grin but that pleasant smile that reassured him all was well in her world.  “If only I were ten years younger.” the words escaped from his lips.  His face turned red at the prospect that she has heard him.  Instead she merely smiled and finished what she was doing.

 

Jeff was in the kitchen with one bucket of paint opened.  He hard poured half of its contents into another five gallon container and was now adding water to both buckets.  Then he poured about a gallon of water in each bucket and was mixing the one using a drill and metal rod with a spiral on the end.  Jeff transferred some of the contents to a gallon bucket then grabbed a tray, a brush, and two rollers.  Darcy followed him up to room nine.  The paint was quickly poured out a little at a time as the two worked together.  Jeff felt a weight lift from his shoulders as they refreshed to walls in the bathroom and in both suites.  Her help made it possible to actually finish three suits for the afternoon.  Both had sprinkles of paint on their clothes, arms, and faces.  He washed her face off and she did likewise, a feeling of intimacy rose between them like a shared secret.  they went back to the kitchen where Jeff washed out the rollers and the brush, then sluiced off the pan and washed out the gallon bucket.  Darch had gone into the pantry and then the refrigerator.  Shortly she began to cook a simple meal for the two of them.  Jeff had the idea that it would be good to take one of the bottles of wine out of the cellar and split it between them.  the feeling of tiredness was beginning to wash off them as if a gentle rain had caught each in the open.  It felt good, Jeff thought.  I feel human again.  Darcy served the meal and the two ate, not as individuals, but as a couple enjoying the remains of the day.

 

While Darcy washed the dishes Jeff made a pot of coffee and found a quarter bottle of brandy.  “It’s a nice finish to the day.” he thought.  That girl is really something.  I hope she comes back next year.  Jeff poured the coffee and added the brandy.  then he took the cups into the main salon and set them on a small table in front of a couch and upholstered chair.  Darcy followed and sat on the couch.  Jeff served her and then sat in the chair with his own cup.  Brandy has a way of taking the edge off the evening, making conversation easier and perhaps a bit more truthful.  “Darcy, when are you going back to school?”  the question was innocent enough.

“I may return for the winter session, I don’t really know.  I’m not sure school is right for me right now.  Did ypu ever get that feeling, Jeff?”

“No, can’t say as I have.  I’ve always worked here ever since I can remember.  My father owned this place and left it to david and me and I have always done a lot of the work since I was sixteen.  I used to dream about college but Dad never had the money and besides, he needed my help just to stay even.  David use to help out but he went into the military, got married, and then found a job in New York.  I don’t think he has lifted a finger in the last eight or nine years when it comes to this place.”

“What keeps you here, then?”  The question seemed so natural and almost innocent that Jeff was taken aback.  He breathed in and then let out his breath.  “Dad had some idea about making money so he took out mortgages when the economy was growing.  Now we can’t sell this place for the money owed, so I’m stuck trying to keep one step from bankers.  Two bad years means foreclosure and me and David will have to make up the loss.  I wish I had another option but there is none.”  Jeff took a few more sips of coffee and felt the brandy expand in his oral cavity, then it hit the back of his throat and coated his esophagus on the way down.

“When I interviewed I saw you felt trapped, chained to this place.  That’s why I took the job.  I felt your need.  silly to say that and yet it’s been a habit of mine.  Being able to feel what others feel, almost able to read their minds.”  Jeff gave an embarrassed look at that statement.  “You’re a good man, you know.  You just need a decent chance in life.  I guess that fits so many people but I really feel that in you.” Her eyes were focused on her cup as she sipped the last of her coffee.  “I feel a kinship with you, Jeff?”

By this time Jeff was feeling overwhelmed.  The words can haltingly, almost crudely.  “Look…I’m old, you know…I mean…I’m thirtyeight and your what…twenty?  I mean…I know I’m the last person you should even think about.  I have no future…I have nothing, really.  Nothing…”  His voice trailed off as if his words were the last words of a dying man.

“I know more about you than you think.  I lied about my age, by the way.  I always do.  People like to hire the young and innocent, not someone who is twenty six and has no regular plans.  In a way, we are both alike.  I’m lonely for the right man just as you are for the right woman.” Darcy rose from the couch and went over to Jeff.  She slid her arm around his neck and she sat on his lap and held his gaze in her eyes.  “I’m your baby tonight, be my man.”

Straighten Up And Fly Right

Stevie lit the last of her cigarettes and expelled a blue haze of smoke up towards the ceiling, watching the green, red, and blue lights mixing the colors of the hazy atmosphere that hovered over the bar. The thick smokey haze hadn’t dimmed to volume of noise from the Wiritzer in the corner as the contents from it’s bowels bellowed off the wooded walls and dance floor. She watched Ryan as he drained another bottle, he almost fell off his stool with the effort of a man one bottle short of a twelve pack.  “Hit me.” Stevie yelled to the the bartender as she placed a five on the counter.  A tumbler with gin, tonic and ice was pushed before her a minute later, the delay caused by last minute orders before closing time.

 

Dan was efficient behind the bar, doling out the drinks, collecting the cash and making change.  As the evening wore on he went from good listener to a mechanical ear that heard grunts and groans, responding in kind.  The patrons tipped, the boozers didn’t, he could live with that.  “Just another fact of life.” Dan would say to those who cared to listen.  “My feet ache, I think they’re swelling.”  the comment was said to no one in particular.

“Soak them in hot water for ten or twenty minutes.”  The voice came from the general direction of Stevie.  She was looking at him with that basic concern women tend to have in general.  The mother hen instinct.  Dan smiled and looked in her direction.

“Thanks for the tip, I was going to do that after I close up.  Got a new box of Epsom Salts.”  He never figured Stevie as one who might care if his feet hurt or not.  Delores, the redhead at the other end of the bar, was more worried who was buying the next round.  These thoughts were whirling around his head as he picked up the empty glasses and placed them in the sink.  He would wash them later.  The empties he threw in the trash, that would be emptied after he closed the doors.  Closing time was always a bigger chore as the bright lights he turned on hurt his eyes and his feet felt swollen, stretching his shoes to the straining point.  “God, I wish I had a woman to help close the place.”  His outburst had become part of his closing routine.

 

John, Dan’s partner, had opened the cafe at six for the breakfast crowd.  His wife, Jan, did the cooking and by the end of lunch retired to her home while John tended the early crowd.  Usually these were men stopping in for a beer after work before heading home to wife, family, and dinner, not necessarily in that order.  Sometimes Big Jim, the sheriff, would stop by with one of his deputies and sip a bottle of beer together while discussing the general social and criminal situation of the county.  This was a small town and off the main route, a man could have a sense of privacy here and Big Jim expected it so.  Dan came in at four.  Together him and john would check the stock and accounts although the formal accounting was reserved for Sunday when the cafe and bar was closed.  The two local ministers of the baptist and congregational churches would object to any extension of business hours into their day.  Parishioners were expected to refrain  from strong drink on the sabbath.

 

By seven that evening Delores had come in and perched on her stool.  Dan would have to listen to another variation on her problems and the husband who didn’t understand and the children who wouldn’t mind.  Come eight and most of the thirty or so regulars would be in residence as there was very little to do in town and any other form of entertainment was over two hours away.  Outside of religion there were only three forms of entertainment in the town.  Dancing, pool, and skee-ball, all held in the bar.  Dan never considered drinking a form of entertainment, at least not after his teenage days of obligatory beer guzzling and whisky foolishness.  Fact now was that Dan never touched a drop.  For ten years he had watched people pour alcohol of one kind or another down their throats and had seen the results first hand.  As he has said to one patron who asked why he never drank, “Serving drunks has taken all the enjoyment out of it.  It just don’t seem important anymore.  Hazard of being a barkeep, I guess.”

 

Meanwhile Dolores as drinking more heavily than usual.  She was also more animated and inclined to talk to herself, raising her voice with each drink she threw down.  Jeff came in and shouted, “Hey, whose suitcase it that outside?”  Delores raised her head and in slurred speech yelled back, “It’s mine, asshole.  You got a problem?”  The conversation stopped immediately.  If it weren’t for the jukebox the sound of silence would have been heard for the first time that day.  All eyes turned towards Delores.  “What are all you looking at?  Huh?  Why are you staring at me?  Why?”  Her defiant stare tried to shield her from the prying eyes of the crowd.  Then she nestled her head into her arms on the bar and started sobbing.  “Richard threw me out.  That pompous bastard!  He threw me out.  He said I had to straighten myself out.”  Delores was sobbing harder now.  The people in the crowd were looking away, embarrassed to watch a woman suffering in public.

 

Dan picked up the receiver from the cradle and dialed his partner’s number.  “Hello, John?  Would you call rev. Hightower?  Yeah, we got a problem with Delores.  I think she’s going to need some help.”  He put the receiver back on the cradle and looked over at Delores.  One of the woman, Janey, was trying to sooth her, whispering something into her ear.  Once you cross the line in a small town there is no where to go but the big city.  “Well, I won’t miss her.” Dan said quietly to himself.  He filled three orders, took the cash and gave back the change.  It was still early and his feet were starting to hurt.

Like A Lover

Paul had his hopes set on Catherine. His desire for her love and affection was strong to the point of obsession. If he could be the wind nothing would have pleased him more than to run his wind breeze like fingers through her hair and caress her cheeks.  Not that Catherine really encouraged him affections.  I think the most dreaded curse I woman can utter to a man is “Let’s stay friends.”  In the beginning I tried to warn him but some people can’t take a hint even when it is delivered by a two by four.  This would be love affair began about ten years ago when we were out of college and living in the city.  Paul was a structural engineer working for an architectural firm and I was an electrical engineer working for one of the local television stations.  Neither one of us could afford a three bedroom apartment, not that we needed that many rooms for ourselves but single apartments were as scarce as hen’s teeth.  So Paul and I, along with an acquaintance from the television station (he was a copy writer) found a three bedroom walk-up in a not so fashionable section of the city.  Beggars and not very well to do young men must take what they can afford.

 

The social scene for us low men on the totem pole was limited.  Gala’s were for the more established men and women, those with more fashionable addresses and incomes to match.  Paul’s firm was having some sort of celebration, something to do with winning the contract for the new addition to one of the major Art Museums and for some reason I found myself with an invitation to the posh gathering.  I would believe that someone had confused my name with one of the “personalities” at the television station (our names were similar but not exact) and no I had a free “meal ticket”, all the champagne and scotch I could drink.  I rented a tux for the evening and since Paul was expected to be part of the “help”, we went together.  Like all young men we had our expectations of a grand and glorious evening.  There would be excitement and celebrities and music and booze and fun and gaiety.  Well, two out of six ain’t bad if you’re a baseball slugger, celebrities and booze, even if it was the cheap stuff, the booze I mean.  For Paul, it was like walking into Valhalla.  Catherine was a young assistant to the curator in charge of the eighteenth century period of fine arts.  If i recall correctly she was about two years our senior and cut an impressive figure.  That long black gown gave her that slimness that actuated her height like a tall willow reed next to a pond.  The long blonde mane she wore with that slight bit of fullness and touch of curl gave her appearance a most appetizing and elegant arrangement.  I had the distinct impression that she was use to driving men mad and Paul had that look.

 

Paul was pressed into service to explain the plans, entertain the wishes of the public, for this was a most civic affair, and generally station himself at the model.  For this service he was granted on glass of champagne and one orderve.  But I could tell that he was captivated by Catherine.  I mean, who wouldn’t.  On the other hand I was free to roan in search of future contacts.  The station personality with whom I was confused did not show, something about a live broadcast for some great news event of little consequence.  It was most embarassing to be led up to the dias and have to explain that I was not he, that bright shining personality, but an electrical engineer of no account.  After that I was shunned in general.  However, Catherine saw the humor in the situation and lent her beauty to the beast, as it was.  She asked me to escort her around so as to ward off the married wolves.  Thus I had the envy of almost all males including those whose wives had accompanied them.  The next morning’s papers were full of speculation as to who was this unworthy person.  And I had not forgotten Paul.  We drifted over to his station ans she engaged his services to explain the project.  Paul was practically beaming with pride as he explained the structural engineering of this modern embarrassment to architecture.  Well, yes, I have never liked the modernist or extreme modernist designs.  But that is neither here no there.

 

As we walked around the floor interacting with the myriad of public guests of various stripes Catherine and I talked a little about who we were and what brought us to the big city.  Her voice had that sultry quality, almost Lauren Bacall in register and phrasing.  “I come from a family that has always had an interest in the arts.  I double majored in art history and English literature,  that’s how I landed this job with the help of my father’s contacts.  Father teaches art history at Amherst and my mother is a writer for Reader’s Digest.  I write some of the literature for Dr Bigelow, the kind that goes to the museum’s patrons and the societies that sponsor exhibitions every year.  It’s really very dull work and even duller partons and social matrons.”  I told her that I write a little, mostly non fiction technical work, but every now and then I attempt a bit of short story fiction.  “Other than that, I’m a rather dull man.”  Catherine laughed at that expose.  Along about eleven I excused myself from her company citing the need to start work early.  “We’re installing new equipment for remote broadcasts.  I think the first one will be at the opera.”  She was impressed by that knowledge and smiled as I left.

 

Paul came in about one that morning and promptly woke me up. “I’m in love, I’m in love.  For the first time in my life, I’m in love.  And do you know who my object of affection happens to be?  That beautiful and gorgeous woman, Catherine!  Think of it!  I’m in love with a vision of loveliness, a goddess.”  My own opinion was that it was not love so much as another four letter word we used to use to apply to our affairs in college.  After half an hour of such declarations of madness I kicked him out of my room.  I needed my sleep, not his attempts to justify a little chit chat.  As I drifted off to sleep Paul was still dancing around like the proverbial schoolboy.  My alarm went off all too early that morning but I quickly got dressed.  Paul had dropped off to sleep on the couch, still dressed in his tux.  Oversleeping was his affair, perhaps his boss would take last night in consideration.

 

Being the junior engineer, I was given task for all the remote broadcasting set-ups and even became the impromptu sound engineer.  The only advantage was that I had one or two days off during the week.  The disadvantage was that being a “professional” I wasn’t paid the high union scale nor the overtime that went with it.  But there was the promise of advancement in the industry and even opportunities in other industries.  Thus began my weekly foray into the world of art.  The city had quite a few museums dedicated to art and science.  The Soho section was home to numerous galleries for art and antiques, a taste I had acquired from my mother.  Not that I could afford much in the way of objects d’art, but I could look.  One day in a small gallery I bumped into Catherine, literally.  I did not see her nor expected to see much of her in my limited social circle.  “Hello, Bill.  What brings you here?”

“It’s my day off and I usually spend my time visiting these galleries or museums.  Aren’t you working?”

“Actually, I am.  Dr Bigelow sends me out to scout the galleries for new talent.  This piece, for example, has promise.  What do you think?”

I replied, “I don’t think much of the more modern examples of art.  I think I’m stuck in the eighteenth and nineteenth century as far as style.  I suppose that makes me seem a bit stolid in your eyes.”

Catherine smiled, “No, not at all.  I’m a bit of a throwback in my field.  But I just can’t afford a few million for a good collection.  Why don’t you come to the museum next time and I’ll take you on a private tour and we can lunch with one of the patrons.  I’ll tell them you’re a critic and they’ll pick up the tab.”

“Sure, how about next Wednesday?”

“Fine, it’s a deal.”

“By the way”, I continued, “we’re broadcasting La Boheme next Saturday, the opera’s premier.  Care to sit in the booth with me?  All the tickets have been snapped up, not even standing room.”

“Why Bill, that’s a great idea.  I’ll be there.  Where shall I meet you?”

 

Saturday evening came and Paul was at home.  He had been moping around lately as if the world might come to an end.  I had not seen Paul look quite so dejected since the home coming queen rejected his offer of a date.  “What’s the matter Paul, why so glum tonight?”

“I tried to ask Catherine out tonight, you know, that real nice blonde who works for the art museum?  Well, she said she already had plans for the evening.  Bill, I’ve been trying to get her to go out with again for a month now.”

“Suppose I’m to blame for tonight, she’s going to the opera with me tonight.  I’ve got the broadcast to do tonight and I offered her a seat in my booth.  I am sorry to steal your date.”

Paul looked at me with questioning eyes.  I knew what he was thinking, how did I rate.  “Look, the premier is sold out.  You have to have money and connections for tonight or know the recording engineer.  That’s all.  It’s not like we’re sitting fifth row center.”  My explanation didn’t have quite the effect I expected.  He was downcast now as if I had punched him in the stomach.  “Hey, maybe next time.  Why not ask her to Sunday brunch?  Tell you what.  I’ll ask her to brunch tomorrow and you show up with me.  How’s that?”

“Yeah, ok…yeah, I’ll tag along.”  Paul sounded unconvinced and not particularly happy.

I had not told Paul much about my relationship with Catherine.  Just a friendship, nothing special.  We meshed well during the outings to galleries and antique stores.  She was a beautiful woman but she never evinced an interest in me as anything more than a friend and perhaps a convenient friend, at that.  I never took it for more than that.  she struck me as a woman who might marry one of those partons of the museum, perhaps as a trophy wife.  Not that Catherine was a shallow person but that she seemed to know her “worth” in the world.  So the opera passed in the usual way.  I was preoccupied more with the recordings and any possible problems, both visual and aural than I was with my companion.  Those close to the booth must have been smug with the knowledge that I had a beautiful woman dressed in a costly evening ground in my booth.  Most recognized her from all the other functions she attended for the museum.  I think I detected a touch of envy from a few of the men.  After the performance as I was gathering up the equipment with the help of one of the union people, I mentioned the possibility of having brunch the next forenoon.  “Why Bill, I’d love to.  Where shall we meet?  Wait a minute, I know.  There’s a little cafe on Third Avenue, Le Aurora Cafe.  It’s a marvelous place.”  I didn’t mention bring Paul along.

 

Paul and I found a nice table located outside.  The sun was warm and the light breeze brought the sent of jasmine from the tree next door.  I though I detected a bit of disappointment in the eyes of Catherine.  “I hope you don’t mind, Catherine, I invited Paul to brunch with us.”

“Oh no, not at all.”  Catherine was very good at not skipping a beat when faced with a change in plans.  I think she practiced that social manner.  Paul started to ask questions of her.  How did she enjoy the opera?  What did she think of the engineering booth?  And so forth.  I tried to quickly attract the waiter and get our orders started and have the coffee refilled.  Catherine was parrying his questions like a fencing master parrys with rapier.  I stepped into the conversation.

“Catherine, what new exhibits are coming up this month?  I was hoping for something from the French period, maybe Carrot, for example.”  She shifted the conversation into art and the doings at the museum.  I was surprised that she could hold forth so long and so well.  Then the food arrived and she could fein the need to occupy herself with eating.  After the meal she had another cup of coffee and then announced that she must go.  I got up and said something about needing to get myself a paper.  I met her at the corner briefly.

“Sorry about Paul, I didn’t know.  It won’t happen again.”

She simply said, “It’s all right.  I’ll see you Wednesday if you have the day off.”  I nodded in response.  Then I walked back to the table with the Sunday edition in my had.

“What we you and Catherine talking about?”

“Oh, that.  Nothing special, just a new gallery that opened last week.  She wanted to know If I had seen it.”

Paul looked at me suspiciously.  “Are you dating her?”

“No, just sometimes I run into her at one of the galleries or antique stores.  That’s all.  I’ve never asked her out, really, except for last night at the opera and that was hardly a date.  Just a professional courtesy.”  Paul turned and walked away, lost in his own thoughts.  I could have sworn I saw one or two tears in his eyes.

 

After that Sunday Paul never mentioned Catherine by name again.  About two weeks later Catherine told me that Paul had succeeded in getting her alone.  “It was such a terrible scene, really.  He was so insistent.  Kept saying how much he loved me and wanted to be with me.  Begging me to love him, be with him.  He wants me for his wife!  Imagine that!  What a contemptible fool!”  She calmed down after a few minutes.  “Bill, I hate to speak ill of your friend but he won’t let me alone.  Please don’t take this the wrong way but Adrian Bolton, that nice society lawyer, well, he talked to Judge Deavers and now there is a retraining order against Paul from bothering me.  Oh Bill, I just didn’t know what else to do.  Can you forgive me?”

“Catherine, it’s not my affair.  I don’t know what’s come over Paul.  You know, the first time he met you he said he was insanely in love with you.  What can I say?”

 

Two months later Paul moved out of the apartment.  He had found another job in a different city a thousand miles away.  That was the last I ever saw of him.  Like the wind, perhaps his love, as it might have been, moved on across the land.  Three months later Catherine had announced her engagement to that not so young social lawyer, Adrian Bolton.  She still works at the museum but I seldom run into her in the galleries or antique shops.  I did meet Catherine’s replacement as Dr Bigelow’s assistant.  I bumped into her in that same gallery, she was looking for the next artist for the museum’s modern wing.  Short and cute with medium brown hair and a pleasant face and sturdy body.  We had a cup of coffee together.  Irene doesn’t sparkle like Catherine does, but I prefer her down to earth style.

So Many Stars

Julia once told me, “Dreams are the stars and only come out at night.  There are so many stars from which to choose.  I wish I knew which one is right for me.  Just so many stars, so many stars.”  Wistful dreaming of a young woman, I suppose, but as good an analogy as any these days.  Our need for the ‘right’ dream is a part of human nature, the part that seeks hope in the futures.  I say futures because for the most part our lives intertwine with the lives of others.  When one is fourteen one rarely acknowledges such an occurrence.  Such is the twilight zone of youth.

 

I went off to war, such as it was then, while Julia went off to college.  Perhaps if I had actually liked school and bothered to study and obtain good grades that would be acceptable to a number of colleges and universities I would have had a different dream in life.  She was accepted to a small liberal arts college in upstate New York.  Her dreams were different.  “Jack, I want to study literature and art.  Maybe learn French and spend a year in Paris.  And maybe I’ll find a man I can love and who loves me.  I want to share his life, see him become successful.”  My dream was much simplier.  Get through my service commitment, find a job, and buy a decent used car.  I never could see as many stars in the heavens as Julia.  True, I had fantasies but I knew these were not common dreams that would ever come true.  And her dreams always left me feeling wistful and I envied her ability in school and her imagination.  “Jack, I know my dreams will come true, i feel it in my heart.”

 

That first summer I spent in boot camp and advanced training before I was posted to Ft Benning for three months.  Julia and I exchanged a few letters, about one a month.  Army life is a drag, dull and dreary for the private with little money and little time to spend it.  But she had her first full time summer job and was able to save a tidy sum for her first year at college.  Freshmen were put upon then, all the rules and the on campus dorms, each with its wicked witch guarding the door to paradise.  “Jack, the upperclassmen ignore us and the lowerclassmen are such immature jerks.  I thought it would be different when I came here.  Got a paper due, have to cut this short.”  I was looking forward to Christmas break and seeing her again but no such luck.  My dream just turned into a nightmare.  End of November we headed to the far east and jungle warfare school, often referred to as the course on how to survive K-rations.  Christmas I received a card from Julia with a few scrawls inside.  “Hi Jack, back here of break and so many parties to attend.  Hope you are well.”

 

Into the second half of her freshman year I was into my year of hell.  My dream was survival, count off each day on my reverse calendar and make it through the year.  Her letters were shorter and fewer during that time.  Towards the end of my tour she started writing about the new stars in the night sky, the new possible dreams.  “Dear Jack, I must tell you that I found out I have little talent for art.  I’m good at drawing but poor at composition.  It’s time for me to change my major.  Besides, all those old dead white men and their stories are boring me.  I want to read the exciting fiction of the future authors.  I want to see and feel the other cultures that our own culture has suppressed for so long.  I’m leaving at the end of my spring session.  I want to take the time off and find myself.”  I had about a month to go when I got hit.  It wasn’t a bad wound but it was inconvenient.

 

The question became, what was my next dream?  I was now a corporal recovering from my wound.  Another year to go before that my big decision.  Do I stay or do I go, and if I go, to what?  The only skill I had at the moment was carrying a rifle.  The captain said I should re-enlist.  He would promise to get me into some sort of job training.  What would I like to be?  Take a week or two and think about, go visit some of the specialist groups and talk to them.  “I’ll arrange it.” he said.  I became a heavy equipment operator in the Engineers, seemed safe enough.  One day I found a letter in my box.  “Dear Jack, I’ve been living in a commune.  Everyone is so understanding.  We spend our time growing our own food and sharing the chores.  Some of the men are jerks but the women are very supportive of one another.  We’re on our way to a peace rally, we are fighting to war in Vietnam.  Have you left yet?  You must get out and stop supporting the government’s war against women and children.  You could come and join us.”  There was more about a few of the people in her commune.  David was so brave because he opposed the war and wouldn’t register for the draft.  And Paul have been arrested for leading a sit-in held in the local draft office.  all these heroes were so brave, at least to her.  And she was going to have Paul’s child.  Meanwhile, Paul had been arrested for the arson of an Army recruiter station.  He would face ten years in the federal penitentiary.  But she would wait and they would then live their dream.

 

Finally the day came when I would have to pay for my training again.  We were shipped out to Vietnam where we were needed to do all manner of work.  I found myself being dropped onto small hill tops so I could grade landing strips for helicopters and observation planes.  A platoon of us would be ferried into the new area where firebases were to be established and an infantry company was assigned to protect us.  You’d think I’d be safe.  Four months later own hill top was over run.  Several companies came to our rescue, if you can call it that.  Half our engineer platoon were killed, most of the rest of us were wounded to one degree or another.  The original company assigned to us took very heavy casualties.  During the night I lay concealed in the brush i looked up.  Most of the stars were gone.  The next day they evacuated what was left of us.  The return to semi normal began but the road would be long.  Some officer decided that I deserved a couple of medals and I didn’t dispute that point.  I already had a new dream.  I dreamed that I would recover sufficiently to start civilian life.  I dreamed I could put these hard years past me.  I had not heard from Julia for over a year.  I figured she was busy raising a child and doing what she needed to wait for Paul.  Besides, I didn’t have her address and her father wasn’t speaking to her.  Her mother would have given it to me but I couldn’t see the need.

 

A year after I left the service my mother forwarded a letter from Julia.  She had addressed it to me at the base where I had last served and thanks to the slow efficiency of the service and post office it had been sent to my “official” address, my parents’ house.  I was working for the gas and electric company operating a backhoe and occasionally articulated loader.  The boom in housing tracks assured work for many of us returning veterans for the next decade or two.  Not exactly my dream job but it would do.   Julia wrote, “I’ve had a miscarriage and Paul was angry.  Said I wasn’t taking proper care of myself.  He will be released from prison but I really don’t want to be around him.  Paul has become bitter, he feels his sacrifice was in vain and no one really cares.  I left the commune, the once friendly and hopeful people have become selfish and greedy.  They are more worried about their future now.  I’m not sure what to do now.  All my dreams never turned out the way they should.  I can’t go home, Dad is still angry with me and Mom is of no help.  Oh sure, she manages to send me a little money now and again and I have a drudge of a job.  I get by but that is about all.  All those dreams, what happened?  The sky is black at night.  Maybe it’s just the big city lights that have killed all the stars, I don’t know.  Think of me sometime.”

 

I had a week of vacation left so I talked to my boss and the following Friday I was in my pickup heading for the city.  There wasn’t much to go on.  Not sure about the address, it was almost six months old.  But maybe I could find her.  Heavens knows what I could do for Julia.  We had never been sweethearts.  she was the dreamer and I was the realist, not much in common for more than a friendship.  Hell, I almost forgot what she looked like, funny how time does that to people.  But I tried to figure which neighborhood would fit her circumstances.  It was Wednesday the next week when I stopped in at a cafe for lunch near the local university.  Julia was waiting tables.  She looked at least five years older than her age.  I only recognized her because of the name tag she wore.  I asked for coffee and a a sandwich.  I don’t think she ever really looked at me.  The bright light in her eyes had gone out and she was going through the motions of taking orders and ferrying plates from the counter to the tables.  I asked her when her shift ended and she gave me that irritated look of don’t bother me, you jerk.  “Julia, it me. Jack.  Your old friend from the neighborhood.”  She stood quite still for several minutes looking at my face with that quizzical look of non belief and surprise.  I thought she was about to flood the room with tears.

“Jack.  Is it really you?  My god.  You look so different.”

“Yes, it’s me.  So when do you get off?”

We spent half the night catching up on old times and all the water over the dam.  Gradually I could detect the old light come back into her eyes, life started to blossom again.  “So what do you want, Julia?”

She turned her face away from mine and stared deeply into the wall.  Maybe five minutes passed before she turned to look directly into my eyes.  “I want to dream again.  Do you think there’s a chance?”

I wished I had an answer.

 

As Time Goes By

The world seemed more innocent then compared to today, even when it was on the brink of a great world war.  The difference between good and evil was less subtle, more black and white.  A kiss is still a kiss, a sigh is still a sigh, the fundamentals of loving as time goes by.  We look back on the past we never knew with rose colored glasses.  The hopes of our future realities lie buried in the disappointments of our past.  Let the dreamer beware.  Preston Wallace traded in such stocks of the future, the market of hope, charity and change.  His religion was the church of the impossible dream, redemption through struggle, salvation through accomplishment.  His only mortal sin was that he never truly believed, that bit of Scottish ancestry held him back, made him doubt in the wee hours of his sleep.

 

I met Mr Wallace at a seminar he was giving.  The woman I was dating at the time and who shall remain anonymous to protect me, a woman scorned and that sort of thing, had dragged me to this circus of happy feelings.  It was a small group, perhaps twenty some odd individuals sitting on oversized pillows arranged in a circle with a small mat in its middle.  for a small introductory fee of ten dollars a piece and fifteen dollars a couple, we would be introduce into the world of the eternal sunshine mind of existence.  I must admit that his entrance was masterful.  Preston was one of those men who are blessed with that eternal thinness that accentuates their average height.  High cheekbones, not too broad forehead, and delicate chin gave him that aura of great intelligence and wisdom.  Dressed as he was in a thin cashmere turtleneck top with white flair legged trousers, might have been a silk blend, for the legs, when he walked gave a sense of animation to his bare feet.  One had the opinion that here was a man in tough with his feminine side and completely comfortable with such feelings.  But the image projects was more force of personality rather than charisma, although the rich baritone voice certainly suggested as much.

 

Preston entered the circle at the prescribed time, punctuality matters in this line of business, and facing the east, sat down in the most graceful manner into the infamous yoga pose of the lotus.  Arms best outward with hands outstretched and the first two fingers meeting the thumb gave testimony that a master was in our midst.  A minute of silence with his eyes closed brought a sense of peace to the group.  Without opening his eyes he began to speak. “I am Master Rumi.  Let peace enter into your mindfulness of the moment.  May the spirit of light enter your consciousness.  Allow tranquility to rule your soul.”  Master Rumi allowed us another minute to take it all in, then he rose as gracefully as he had sat.  He was now wearing the benign smile all mystics wear in public, beaming his spiritualness as rays of eternal sunshine.  In short, the man was good, he was very good.  Now some of you may be wondering why I have a sardonic tone to my writing in this piece.

 

When I was a young man seeking truth, as all good young men always do, I went through the years of encounter groups and personal routh groups, and ,well, you name it.  I came to know them very well.  They gladly took my money and time.  But that was it.  There was no exchange of goods or services of value.  I had to find my own way through this spiritual life and they merely impeded my progress.  But all that aside.  Personal growth comes from within, not from without and certainly not from some yogi or swami or other such teacher.  Back to our story.  Preston, pardon me, Master Rumi, had added a few new twists to the presentations and group exercises.  I was impressed for the man had a natural and intuitive feel for things of the spiritual world.  that aquiline nose gave sensuality to his spirituality while the long thin fingers punctuated the points made by the ease of his voice.  Words flowed as if from a spring, bubbly but never hurried and carried a sense of cosmic laughter.  I could have been converted on the spot.  Was he an Elmer Gantry reincarnated?

 

Marie, my companion, was lost to the experience.  Our initial meeting had seemed fortuitous at the time.  My acquaintance with John Allen had been the basis for an invitation to their dinner party in the city.  My role in these affairs is more that of the gadfly.  Every dinner party of any rank needs a gadfly or two, not too many or us ruffins will be fighting in the salon and upsetting the antique relics, both human and nonhuman.  Marie was a designer friend of Rose, our hostess, and in need of a male escort.  Back in my salad days we never worried about civilities, but since I was deemed interesting and available, well, I was elected.  And in this world of social progress we had gathered for the obligatory meeting that established our reason for existence on this planet.  John was a lawyer and a damn good one.  And honest, I might add.  For a very modest fee he would read over the contracts I had to sign as I made my living.  It is understandable that many of his guests were other men of the law as well as businessmen and a few other professions.  I had learned to carry my business cards as it was always good form to exchange them with strangers.  Mine read: International Spy and Assassin and had a 1-800 number, the White House, actually.  Either you got the joke or avoided me.

 

Back to the party.  I must say that Marie was not a great beauty.  Her figure was trim to the point if thinness but not quite the anorexic look.  The face was moon shaped and the eyes and nose and mouth were pleasantly arranged, the chin suggested some strength but not aggressiveness.  She claimed to be a natural blonde and her skin had a sort of natural tan, if you know what I mean.  One might call her pretty but never beautiful.  The other asset she displayed was the willing expression on her face that gave hope to batchelors such as I of enjoyable times.  For the most part, John told me later, by way of Rose, that Marie found me interesting.  Me?  Not intriguing, not endless fascinating, just interesting?  So much for my business card.  Still, I’ll settle for interesting and made the first of several dates.  So the mating dance begins, or at least the seduction phase.  I am not much of a seducer and perhaps that is why she was never too willing on our initial dates.  I was beginning to think I had failed at reading faces and body language.  Then the seminar, such as it was.  Willing was written all over her face but the message was not for me.  And I was not the only male or female to read her lips, so to speak.  Preston, I mean Master Rumi took a cordial interest in Marie.  His female assistant was, understandably less cordial.  Obviously Master Rumi could burn a candles at more than both ends, just don’t ask me how.

 

At the end of the session Master Rumi, now Preston, invited the two of us to stay for tea.  His assistant, Anne was her name if I recall, was not exactly the gracious hostess.  On the other hand, since I was among the chosen she made friendly gestures towards my welfare.  Like a good hostess she inquired: “What do you do for a living?”

“I am a writer by trade.”  I never know a professional writer, that is, one who hangs out a shingle and a sign that says open for business.  No editor or reader ever flocks to my door asking me to write a novel just for them.  Sometimes I get lucky and write something that actually sells and puts pennies in my grubby paws.”

Anne was amused at my forthrightness but not really by my humor.  I would have expected her to ask if Marie was my wife or at least my intended, but I sense that Anne had been through this kind of affair before.  “How long have you known each other?”  This woman could go for the jugular.

“Only a few weeks.  I met her at a dinner party given by the John Allen’s.”  Perhaps I could impress her with my social connections, such as they weren’t.  “Marie is a decorator to the social elite.”  Anne merely smiled and asked if I would like more tea.

I escorted Marie home that evening, she was floating like a wispy little cloud after her tete-a-tete with Preston.  Normally she is courteous to invite me up for coffee but tonight she was ‘too tired and worn out’.  She would take a bath and recover her spirits.

 

Three days later Marie called me.  “Bill, you can’t believe what has happened!”  Actually I could and in graphic detail but since children might be reading I will spare them my imagination.  Preston was so impressed with my aura and spirit that he has decided to offer me private training.  Of course he extends the offer to you as well.  He believes you could do with a bit of refreshing.  It might help your writing.”  Everyone’s a critic, even fake spiritualists.

“Yes, Marie, I will accompany you.  I think it absolutely amazing that this has happened to us.”  I made note of the date and time.  “Yes, I will pick up you in my car.”  I gathered that I was the sacrificial lamb for Anne.  Somehow she must be distracted while Master Rumi worked Maries spirits into a frenzy and I could imagine what those spirits would look like.  But again, children may be present so I must keep my imagination to myself.

 

After the third session Anne decided to confide in me.  “I’ve been through this before but Preston doesn’t keep these women this long.  I don’t know what hold Marie has over him.”

“Well, she’s not my Marie, never was.  And the hold is simple, it’s money.  She has a trust that assures her an ample living with many top notch amenities.  I suppose Preston is trying to convince her to part with some of it.”

“Yes, I’ve seen the checks, I’m his bookkeeper and office assistant, and chief cook and bottle washer.  Truth is, I think he’s in love with her.  I think he’s trying to get her to marry him.”

“Tell me more about your boss, and might I add love interest?”

“Ex love interest.” I detected a note of bitterness, the scorned woman.  “Preston used to be a used car salesman until they fired him.  The sales manager caught him with his wife.  He’s a very good salesman but he can’t keep a dime or his, ah…”

I interrupted, “Yes, I know the part of anatomy.  Continue.”

Anne blushed for a moment.  Well, while he was unemployed he attended a few free classes or seminars in spirituality.  That’s how I met him.  I was younger then, much thinner and far more pretty.”  Anne was a little taller than Marie and at five feet nine could hold a little more weight on her frame without showing it.  She had one of those rectangular faces, reminded me of that actress, Lee Remick.  Where Marie was late twenties – early thirties, Anne was middle forties.  Or so I would have guessed.  I think she would have been called cute until her mid thirties, judging from her features.  Her lips would have been thinner then and embossed with an infectious smile.  Her voice held charm, the real kind, not the affected typs so many try to project.  “So now what will you do?  Will you wait until he finds out that marriage to her would stop the trust money.”

Anne looked surprised for the moment, then the started to laugh and I saw traces of the infectious smile.  “How do you know her trust stops if she gets married.”

“John allen is her lawyer, knew the family.  He’s the one who drew it up.  When I started to take her out he cued me in.”

“Oh, that’s too precious for words.  In answer to your question, No, I’m not going to wait.  I saw the signs, I know we, Preston and me, can’t go on.  I’m tired of this spiritual thing, tired of the charade.  I’ve been out interviewing and think I found myself a bookkeeping job in the business district.”

“Do you have somewhere to stay?  Living in the city is a bit expensive.”

“Oh, don’t worry.  One of the pigeons from last week is going to rent me a room for a couple of months.  A real nice man.  If he’s a gentleman I just might stay longer.  Besides, thanks to your Marie I’ve got some money saved up.  Preston will never know what happened to it.  You know, Karma’s a bitch.”

 

 

An Ordinary Life

Small towns are populated by ordinary people who lead ordinary lives.  It is a plain truth.  Small towns rarely ever stay the same, most decay, their reason for existence forgotten.  Their populations drift away, the young looking for work, the old die off, petrified of change.  A few small towns grow a little, perhaps lay claim to having a Walmart in their midst, although Walmart build on the outskirts of these towns and collapses what had been a viable block or two or three of businesses.  Or perhaps the interstate came through, boosting business.  Of course that only works for a few small towns that grew a little larger.  These small towns may have been large enough to have their own high school, maybe a graduating class of fifty.  Local farms with local services for farmers.  Maybe five thousand inhabitants making a living, making a home, making a family.  Paul Johnson was one of those inhabitants.  He went to war an eager youth.  He came back a quiet man.  His father ran the local machine shop and repair business.  That’s where he went to work each day save Sunday.  Religion serves those who serve, or so it is said.  You could find Paul sitting with his mother and father four rows back on the north side of the aisle.  They were Lutherans as were there forefathers and foremothers.

 

In small towns most people rise early, there’s work to be done and best be about it, right Paul?  Right, he’d say, got to open early for the farmers, they get here round seven and don’t leave till six or sever, maybe.  “I got John Greyson coming in this morning with a mower blade that busted on his side mounted hay mower. Got to braise the two pieces together strong enough to get him through the haying season.  Them blades ain’t cheap, you know.  Yes sir, they ain’t cheap.”  He pushed the two sliding doors to each side opening the two story work shed for business.  Paul then drove the two ton truck with its welder and tool boxes on the sides into the parking lot.  Guess I’ll have some time later to go out to Frank Buck’s place later this morning.  He’s got a grain auger that needs welding.  I’ll collect those saw blades that need sharpening, he can collect them when he comes in to pay his bill.  Here comes Dad with the thermos now.

 

After fixing Greyson’s mower blade Paul will go on over to the high school.  Half a dozen boys, all farmer’s sons, want to learn how to weld.  They’ll learn on the Lincoln welder on his truck.  It may cut into his business but Paul doesn’t mind.  There will always be business, they say the town is growing.  Yes sir, that’s what they say.  Later Paul heads on over to the Buck farm.  Frank is waiting.  “Howdy Frank, got here as soon as I could.  that senior welding class took a little extra time this morning.  You know Duffy O’Malley boy, don’t you?  Well, dang fool touched one of the weld seams with his bare hands.  Burned it pretty good.  He’ll have a scar but he’ll live.”

“Them O’Malley boys always were fools.  Just like their father.  I don’t think he’s be right in the head since the war.  Do you?”

“Frank, I can speak ill of Duffy.  He saw some hard times in the Solomons.  I never speak ill of a man who did his duty.  So let’s drop it here.  Okay?”

“Sorry, Paul, I forgot.

 

Work done, Paul driving back to town with the half dozen saw blades to sharpen, Duffy didn’t have it any rougher than the rest of us on the island, he just took it worse.  Maybe if he could stop drinking.  Naw, I doubt it.  Hold on steady, Paul, ain’t nothing you can do about it.  Shame, really.  Drinkin just makes it worse.  I’ll stop by the shop and pick up Dad.  I’m getting hungry.  Wonder what’s for lunch.  As if I didn’t know.  Cold butter milk and sandwiches with the leftover beef roast.  I hope Mon doesn’t start trying to fix me up with girls again.  Just not ready for marriage, that’s all.  Just not ready.

 

Many years have passed.  The O’Malley boys had graduated and become roust-a-bouts in a Texas oil field.  Both have rebelled against their father.  Got married young, spawned a couple of children, and then divorced.  Both drink too much, fight too much, the excess of youth one might say.  Neither one has been back to see their mother.  Neither one came back for the funeral. Duffy’s old Hudson was found mangled beyond all comprehension, no real idea of what happened.  Paul stood by the widow at the grave yard.  The VA paid for the plot at the edge of the cemetery behind the church.  He was a Catholic but the Lutherans were tolerant.  Paul wondered at the service.  An honor guard from the VFW, a flag folded into a triangle, a small flat marker with the Marine Corps emblem carved in it.  A gift from Paul lest anyone in town forget.  Would it have made a difference in duffy’s life if he had been awarded one of the silver stars given to him?  Duffy was the one who dared to act and save three of his comrades.  The Captain said he had been the brave one.  Yes, he had gone out and dragged Duffy back to the aide station.  But that was after Duffy got the other’s back, when he dared a second time to save just one more.  Duffy didn’t know the man was dead, his wounds had been for nothing.  Maybe duffy felt cheated of his reward.  I don’t know.  Would a medal have made a difference?  Does a medal cover the scars a man gets in a war?  He pondered these thoughts until they men started shoveling dirt over the coffin.

 

It’s almost the turn of the century.  The town is down to a dozed families.  All the businesses have left.  Many of the houses are abandoned, sold by the children who will never visit again.  Only the main highway receives any maintenance, the side streets are reduced to patches of concrete and rubble.  Wooden buildings have borne the brunt of the weather, termites, and fire.  Most have collapsed into heaps of rotten board or piles of ashes.  the few brick buildings on main street sit with roofs collapsed.  Some have worn down brick standing, ready to burst apart.  Others suffer from the leaning tower of Pisa syndrome.  The church is boarded up, no services, not even a funeral, has been held there in twenty years.  The life of an ordinary town has been grown down by erosion and indifference.  Paul spends part of his day tending the graves in the cemetery.  To his knowledge none of Duffy’s children or grandchildren have been to visit the gravesites of him or his wife.  A traveling nurse comes to see him once a month and continues to urge him to seek a retirement home.  Doesn’t anyone look after him?  The daughter of an old friend, Frank Buck, brings him groceries every week.  But she is getting up in her years and may not be able to continue in the future.

 

So Paul waits, as he did on the island.  Waiting for death to advance, to charge his position.  Meanwhile there are graves to tend.  the dead can’t do it for themselves.  It is his last call to duty.  This is his command and he will defend it against all the weeds and developers.  Well, what developers?  The town is no more and it’s out in the middle of nowhere.  Just like the island.