IS ‘OLD AND BOLD’ ENOUGH?
They say it’s a young man’s game……winning the fair lady’s hand. If that is true, how can a slightly befuddled sixty-nine year old hope to compete? After all, it is one thing to want her attention, and something very different to earn it.
Small wonder then that our aging Don Quixote, a modern-day ‘tilter-of-windmills,’ finds himself facing the fine line between the boldness his hopeful mission demands……and the cautious approach her fragile confidence requires. Will he have the patience to walk that line?
“You called her what?’
Clint could scarcely believe his ears. He had shuffled from his bedroom to the kitchen that Saturday morning, drawn by the aroma of freshly-brewed coffee---eager to tell of his satisfying time with Elly, and anxious to hear Gary’s appraisal of their double date. Instead, what he found was his brother seated at the kitchen table, brooding and uncommunicative.
Only when pressed did Gary finally blurt out, “I called her Christy, damn it. I just opened my mouth and called her Christy.”
“My God. Did it ever occur to you that you’re too old for this dating stuff? You have to pay attention to get it right.”
“Come on. It was a simple mistake. It could have happened to anyone.”
“I guarantee you something that dumb would never happen to me.”
For the next fifteen minutes Clint tried repeatedly to break through Gary’s stubborn silence---hoping for more details, hearing only grumbling denials.
“Okay. Have it your way,” he finally declared. “I can only speak for myself. Our night on the town was your idea and it was a good one---even inspired. You conned me into it and I’m glad you did.”
“Did you get a good night kiss?” Gary was more than ready to move on to something more upbeat. “How about it, lover boy. Did you sweep her off her feet?”
“What the hell are you talking about? Is an old fossil like me going to sweep anyone off their feet? I think she had a good time. That’s the most I could hope for?”
“What do you mean---you think she had a good time? That sounds like you’re not sure. I’m guessing if Elly had a good time you’d be the first to know.”
“Okay," Clint quietly confessed. "She had a good time.” Did that sound too smug? In the face of Gary’s glum dejection would it only making matters worse? “But it looked to me like you and Claudia were getting along really well. She doesn’t say much. But it sure seemed like she was enjoying herself.”
“She was,” Gary agreed. Turning pensive, he was swirling coffee around in his cup, struggling to reconcile conflicting images of their special night. For an instant he revisited the sight of Claudia watching the movie, connecting with the young girl on the screen. A moment later he was reliving her angry reaction to his single misspoken word.
“You weren’t really thinking of Christy. Were you?”
“Of course not,” came Gary’s unsmiling reply. He retrieved the coffee pot from the counter and refilled their cups. “You may be right, you know. I’m not so sure this dating thing is such a good idea.
"I didn’t ask her out for the fun of it. I had something more in mind, maybe something with a future. Now I'm wondering if it’s too late in the game to be starting down that road.
“You have to remember, I said Christy’s name for forty-some years, especially when things got a little intense. I’m not surprised it popped out last night. It probably will again.” He paused to consider Claudia’s reaction if it happened a second time. “Maybe she’s just too insecure to deal with something like that”.
“Or maybe it’s about dealing with you,” Clint suggested. “You can be pretty intimidating, even to someone who’s willing to stand up to you. With somebody like her, who’s not used to doing that, what would you expect?”
“Don’t make it sound so damn dramatic. It was one word. One time. It wasn’t that big a deal.” Gary’s frustration was ramping up. Why was the fault all his? It was nothing more than a silly slip. Claudia’s reaction had been way over the top.
“So you’re ready to give up. Is that it?” Clint asked. “Like it was all a bad idea.”
Tapping nervously on the table top, Gary’s glance darted from window, to floor, to ceiling. Then looking back at Clint, “Do you remember how much we didn’t know when we were kids? We dreamed about the girls. We chased after them, and they usually ran away. You remember that?
"Then finally, we found the right one---the one who turned out to be a wife and the mother of our kids. And all that, especially in the beginning, was fueled by hormones. Right?”
“I guess maybe some of it was,” Clint grinned. Then on second thought, “Probably more than ‘some of it.’”
“Your damn right it was.” Gary leaned forward, drawn into his subject. “The thing is, we both got lucky. We found the right one the first time. We both know lots of guys who didn’t.”
“And the point is?”
“The point is I’m not supercharged with hormones any more.”
“Well I’m not surprised. But what does that have to do with anything? What does it mean?”
“You know exactly what it means.” Gary was laughing softly. “It means I’m not a horny ole toad anymore. I’m more like a old frog, waiting to be kissed by the princess.”
“I suppose that’s probably more true than not. But you just ran the princess off. At that rate you’ll be waiting a long time.”
Gary paused to consider his brother’s half-joking observation, asking himself why they were making fun of something that felt so real. What made the truth of it so hard to face? “I know we’re not too comfortable talking about it. But the fact is, we’d both like to feel that way again. Wouldn’t we?”
A self conscious grin spread across Clint’s face. He considered that possibility for a few seconds before nodding, “Yeah. I’d like that.”
“Right. Me too. I’d like to be with someone who wants to be with me---who’s willing to show it. I was thinking maybe Claudia was that person. Now I don’t know.”
“Are you saying you don’t like her any more because she got upset when you called her Christy? Is that any reason to walk away from something good?”
“Hey, it’s not that simple. Of course I like the lady. But it’s about more than just liking or not liking. I really don’t know how much of this drama I can put up with.”
“So what are you going to do?
“I’m going to watch you do the dishes,” Gary said. “Then, at ten o’clock I’m going to drive over to cousin Sarah’s. Hopefully, Claudia will still be there. If she is, maybe she’ll let me take her home. Beyond that we’ll just have to see.”
At nine fifty-nine that morning Gary Harris was standing on Sarah Cummins’ front porch, pausing one last time before pushing the doorbell. They must have seen him drive up. Unless, of course, Sarah had already taken Claudia to the bus depot.
He chided himself for not having a better plan, or more precisely any plan at all. He had spent the last half hour rehearsing his greeting, hoping to start off on the right foot. At that moment, however, everything depended on Claudia’s willingness to even speak to him. There was only one way to know if she would. He reached out and pushed the buzzer.
He heard the footsteps approaching from inside. The door inched opened until Gary was face to face with the smiling, gray-haired matron. “You’re Sarah,” he said. It was half question, half statement.
“That’s right. And you’re Gary Harris. I’ve seen you around town. Won’t you come in?”
Gary closed the door behind him and took a moment to glance around the compact living room. “Looks like you’re a cat person,” he observed. It seemed that every flat surface in the room held a stuffed, carved, or cast cat---in all sizes and colors.
“Oh yes. I’m into cats. But I can’t have real ones. They make me sneeze. So I collect these.”
Then it was down to business. “Look, this is kind of awkward,” he explained. “Is Claudia here? And if she is will she even talk to me?”
Whatever Gary was expecting, it was not Sarah’s broad smile. “She is here,” she nodded. “And I think she’s settled down enough to talk to you. Let me see if she will.”
He reached for Sarah’s arm. “Will she let me take her back to Lawrence?”
“You’ll have to ask her about that.”
With that Sarah disappeared down the hall toward a back bedroom. Alone in the front room Gary waited, surrounded by dozens of cats, every one of them seeming to stare at him, watching as he squirmed.
Finally Claudia emerged from the hallway, approaching timidly with her gaze riveted to the floor. Only when she stopped in front of him and looked up could Gary see her red, swollen eyes.
“Hello,” she said in a barely-audible whisper.
“Hello yourself. I’m glad you’re still here. I was afraid you might have gone on the bus already.”
“The bus doesn’t leave until two-thirty.”
“Lucky me. That means I could take you home. If that’s okay with you.”
“Are you sure? It’s a long drive. Do you really want to?”
“Of course I want to. That’s why I’m here.”
Claudia’s stare was focused on something over his shoulder, possibly a cat. For long seconds it seemed as though his words had not registered. “Are you sure?” she asked again.
Gary’s patience was wearing thin. It was time to move beyond their walking-on-eggshells standoff. “Am I sure?” he repeated. “Is that your question? If so, I want you to listen to me, Claudia Hafner. This is getting old.”
Reaching out to grasp her shoulders, his voice was louder than before. “I’ll tell you what. If I did what I wanted to do, I’d wrap you up in the biggest bear hug you’ve ever had. I’d hold you so tight, for so long, that it would scare the bejeebers out of you.” He was grinning like a schoolboy. “So I won’t do that. But I will take you home.”
Through her embarrassed laughter Claudia was nodding her acceptance. Her wide-eyed grin was like a tonic, sweeping away the fitful doubts that had plagued Gary’s largely sleepless night. He took her face in his hands. Resisting the urge to kiss her he simply said, “Thank you.”
Then, as if on cue, Sarah walked into the room carrying Claudia’s overnight bag. With a wink for Gary, she said, “It sounds like we won’t have to wait for the bus. Is that right?”
Claudia took the small suitcase. “Gary’s taking me home.”
“I’m glad to hear that. You two are certainly old enough not to get sidetracked by a lover’s spat.”
“How about that, Claudia?” Gary asked, trying for eye contact she would not allow. “Is Sarah saying that we’re lovers......or just ‘old’?”
Ignoring his nonsensical question Claudia gave Sarah a last hug. Then, hand in hand, she and Gary walked to the car.
Once on the road their all too familiar silence returned. Again it was left to Gary to create some degree of communication. He wanted to put her at ease. But how would they ever make a connection if she was unwilling to take part?
This time, however, he was prepared to take matters in his own hands---in his own straight-forward way. At the first posted rest area they came to he pulled off the interstate and parked.
While Claudia waited, wondering what he was about, Gary made no move to get out of the car. Instead he sat staring at the steering wheel, breathing deeply, as if preparing for some great exertion. Finally, when the flood of thoughts would wait no longer, he spoke up.
“Claudia, I will never say anything bad about Christy. She was my wife, the center of my life for a very long time. She was the mother of my children and my best friend. Losing her hurt more than anything I’ve ever known.”
He moistened his lips and finally turned to look at her. “But she’s been gone almost two years. I got to the point where I was ready to move on. It felt like I had to. It was either that or wither up and die. But I didn’t know where to start.
“Then, at the reunion, there you were. It was absolutely out of the blue. I had no idea I’d see you. Yet, when I did it was the best surprise I could imagine.”
Claudia looked as though she wanted to speak, but he held up a hand to stop her. He needed to have his say while he could. “The few times we’ve been together since then only made me more sure that my first impressions were right. I want to know you better. That’s where I was trying to take us, until last night, when I made a stupid mistake.
“It was not because I was thinking of Christy. I wasn’t. You must know how it is. For forty-some years a really special time, with a special person, always included her name. So there I was last night, in a special moment with a special person, and my brain just kind of short circuited. I can’t even guarantee it won’t happen again. If it does, I hope you’ll understand.”
He paused, wondering if she had heard what he wanted her to hear. “I told you then,” he continued. “That I won’t push you---that I’ll take it slow. I meant that. You can probably guess how hard it is for me not to show you how I feel. But I’m afraid if I tried it would only scare you more. So I won’t do that.”
He flexed his shoulders. “Still, I want you to know that I’m serious about us and what we might have together.”
“How can you be so sure?” Claudia whispered. “Maybe it is that easy for you. Or maybe you’re just so impulsive that you don’t realize what you’re saying.”
He sensed the returning tenseness, now tinged with frustration. “That’s baloney,” he countered. “I feel what I feel. I can’t change that. I don’t want to.
"It’s what I felt when I saw you walk across the room at the reunion. I saw dozens of ladies that night. Only one made me feel that way. That’s because I already knew how I felt about her.”
“Then what does it mean when I’m so frightened of things going wrong---of you leaving again.?” Her eyes were reddening. “What if I could never get over that?”
“It means that you’re being you. That’s who you are. We can work with that. The worst thing you could do is try to be like me. That wouldn’t be you at all. So don’t try.”
“Can you be that patient?”
“I’m sure going to try. But I need the same from you. I’m almost seventy years old. That’s pretty old to be in the courting business. But I know what I want, who I want. All I’m asking is the chance to show that I deserve her.”
Their Friday night outing to Portland had ended late, so Elly Warren had no qualms about sleeping in the next morning. Over the newspaper her light breakfast took longer than most mornings. After that, a few housekeeping chores were in order. As a result it was nearly ten o’clock before she walked to the small garden shed in the corner of the back yard.
She was by no means a serious gardener. The landscape service sent two men around each week to do the heavy work. Although she rarely spoke to them---they were marvels of hard work and efficiency. For her, gardening was mainly a welcome relief from the housework she found so distasteful. Though in truth her housework amounted to little more than damage control between the housekeeping service’s weekly visits.
However, the morning was warm and sunny, perfect for light gardening and quiet reflection on the events of the previous evening. It had been a good time---low-keyed when compared to the social times she had spent with Mike, but nevertheless satisfying.
Truth to tell she was a bit bemused by Clint Harris’ vague, even inexplicable, attraction. He was nothing at all like Mike. His calm, poker-faced expression seemed to hide more than she might ever know about him.
Still, he was honest and apparently without guile---traits she had come to prize. Although he was generally unwilling to make himself noticed, she had witnessed his decisive effectiveness in the course of their foundation meetings. All in all Clint Harris was an interesting challenge. She looked forward to knowing him better.
Armed with a pair of pruning nippers and a pail Elly moved through the flowering plants along the back fence, removing faded flowers and dead stalks, pawing carefully among the branches of the rose bushes to avoid the painfully-sharp briars. She was thoroughly engrossed in her work when she turned to deposit a handful of clippings in her trash pail and nearly bumped into the rotund figure standing silently behind her.
“My God, Tom,” she exclaimed. Stumbling backwards, she covered her mouth with her free hand. “What are you doing here? You could scare a person to death.”
“Hey. Don’t be mad.” Though he was taken aback by her obvious fright, Tom Berry had clearly enjoyed the last few minutes---watching Elly at work, taking in her slender grace and easy movements.
It was not simply that she looked good for her age. It was how well she measured up to the ‘Elly’ image that had taken up permanent residence in his mind. Even in grubby jeans, sloppy sweatshirt, and heavy gloves she remained a faithful representation of the school girl who had captured his heart.
“Hey, we’re neighbors. Remember? I expect we’ll see each other from time to time. You know, like when I’m out for my walk.
“When was the last time you went for a walk?” she laughed. “Before this morning?”
“Well, I’ve been thinking about it for some time. They say it’s very healthy.” He followed her across the yard as she carried her nearly-full pail to the trash barrel at the corner of the house. When she returned to the rose bushes he was right behind her. A few seconds later his impatience had won out.
“Well?” he finally asked.
Elly looked back over her shoulder. “Well what?”
Tom tugged his oversized shirt down over his belt. “Come on,” he laughed. “It’s not a top secret. Is it?” Noting Elly’s puzzlement he elaborated. “Last night. Your big date.”
Deliberately she set the bucket down and stepped back to the lawn. Peeling off her gloves she unconsciously fluffed her hair before looking up into his face. “It is not a top secret, Tom. But I don’t feel the need to discuss my social life with anyone else.”
“Did you have a good time?”
Her exasperation was showing. “Why don’t you listen? I just said I’m not going to talk about it.” She slipped on her gloves and returned to her work, hoping he would lose interest and leave. “Please excuse me. I have to finish these roses.”
“I wish you wouldn’t get so uptight about things. I’m just an interested observer.”
A moment later she straightened up. He was still there, with the questions still on his face. “What do you expect me to say?” she asked.
“I’m just curious about how it went. After all, when the lady I’m trying to impress has a date with someone else, naturally I’m curious.”
“I’m not so sure that ‘date’ is the right word for last night. I spent an evening with three friends. I had a good time. We all did. And I certainly don’t feel any need to apologize for that.”
“I understand. I’m always glad when you have a good time.”
Tom took the pail from Elly and started off to the trash barrel to empty it. She could not help but note his slow, plodding shuffle---rocking stiff-legged from one foot to the other, all the while straining to maneuver the mass of excess weight. Moments later he returned with an empty pail and a new question. “Are there any more dates on the horizon?”
“Tom Berry,” she grumbled. “You’re worse than my dad, back in school, when you'd pick me up for a night out. I don’t know about any more dates. No one has asked me. And, if they had, that’s my business.”
“Calm down.” His grin mirrored the unspoken satisfaction of knowing that she remembered their long-ago school days, when Old Man Beyers’ gruff interrogation was the standard price to pay for an evening with Elly.
“Look, I only wanted to know if anyone has asked you to the Fireman’s Breakfast tomorrow morning.” There was no hiding Tom's self-confident grin as he explained, “It’s at Tyler Grade School, to raise money for their reading program. It goes from eight-thirty to eleven. I’d like to have breakfast with you, if you would join me.”
“Eight-thirty---on Sunday morning? That’s my sleep-in day.”
“Okay. Then why don’t I pick you up at nine-thirty. That would work. Wouldn’t it?”
“I suppose I could manage that.”
“Great.” Tom nodded, savoring his modest victory. “I’ll be here at nine-thirty. That means I’d better get moving now. I need to get my Portland business taken care of today. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
Elly watched as Tom walked back toward the street, scolding herself when the word ‘waddle’ flashed through her mind to describe his plodding exit. Then, returning to her gardening, she wondered again about his unexpected invitation, asking herself what harm could come from a simple breakfast at a crowded school event