Monday, November 9, 2020

SECOND CHANCES - Chapter 9

         

AN AGING REBEL.......WITH A CAUSE

He was nearing seventy, stumbling along his own uncertain path. Thankfully, however, his cause......his reason to keep going....... was coming into focus. He finally knew what he wanted.

But given his sometimes rebellious history, was “wanting” enough? He must tread softly. There was so little room for error. Then his unthinking misstep sent her running away.

Today’s October Years serialization continues our excursion into the sometimes daunting world of Geriatric Adolescence.



                                              CHAPTER 9 

At the Hilltop Restaurant their reservations were confirmed and the four of them seated. The long, low building was perched on the brow of a steep hillside. From their window-side table the city’s downtown area, covered now in lengthening shadows, spread out before them. Headlights and taillights flitted between tall skyscrapers and over long, arching bridges. In the distance Mt. Hood was framed in the cloudless sky, its summit bathed in the low rays of the evening sun.

They had scarcely settled in when Gary rapped his water glass with a fork to get their attention. Nodding first to Elly, then Claudia, he explained, “I don’t want you ladies thinking this is normal fare for us country boys. This is definitely a step up from our usual McDinner. It is, however, a very special occasion, one that calls for a special setting.” 

Elly reached for Clint’s arm. “Thank you, gentlemen,” she said. “For asking us to be part of your special night.” 

“What he’s trying to say,” Clint said, “Is that you two are what makes it a special night.” He winked at Elly, rather proud of himself for having the courage to make his point. 

The waiter arrived to take their drink orders---a martini for Elly, Seven-Up for Claudia, and beers for Clint and Gary. Minutes later he returned to hand each of them a tall, cloth-covered menu. Hard bound, with its gold-edged pages printed in an ornate scroll, it described each of the many offerings in glowing detail. 

Claudia had never seen such an imposing array of entrees. There were at least a dozen steak choices. The seafood selections filled two pages, followed by a lengthy listing of salads. On the back page were quiche dishes. The name was vaguely familiar. But what was quiche? She was too intimidated to ask. Returning to the more familiar steak offerings, she gulped at the prices and immediately began looking for the least expensive items she could find. 

Beside her Gary was looking on, watching her hurried search and sensing her concern. “Look,” he said softly. “We do this once every fifty years. So for tonight price is no object. It’s our first date, and a good time to test the limits on my credit card. You order whatever you want. Chances are our next night out will be at Burger King.” 

“Does that mean you’re going for the escargot, brother?” Clint wondered. 

“My, that does sound good, doesn’t it?” 

Claudia’s hand covered her wide-eyed laugh. “Yuck. That’s snails. Isn’t it? You’re not really, are you?” 

“Go ahead,” Clint urged. “Get exotic on us. For myself I just can’t get past these steaks.” 

“Claudia,” Elly interrupted. “I don’t think these fellows get out of the house too often. They sound like kids in a candy store.” 

By then Claudia’s embarrassed smile was reflecting her own uneasiness with the ritz and glitz of their dinner surroundings. 

Conversation was put on hold when their salads arrived. Gary continued to glance over at Claudia, flashing a smile, hoping to put her at ease. At one point he rested his hand softly on her leg. Seconds later a tight-lipped scowl conveyed her stern, undisguised message. Meekly, he drew his hand back onto his lap. 

As advertised their meal was tasty and the service excellent. Between them, Gary and Elly kept an informal dialogue flowing, doing their best to draw Clint and Claudia into their exchanges. Finally dinner was capped with a round of creamy cheesecake---filling enough to make their return to the car a slow, deliberate stroll. 

“I don’t suppose that cheesecake was low-cal, was it?” Gary joked, leading Claudia by the hand. 

“I don’t think so,” Elly said. “It feels like I should walk to the theater just to burn it off.” 

“Hey, the cheesecake I can understand.” Clint was shaking his head as he draped an arm over Elly’s shoulder. “But I’ve never known anyone who actually ate quiche.” 

“Well. it’s certainly more civilized than chicken-fried steak,” she countered. 

Heavy traffic managed to defeat Gary’s scheduled fifteen-minutes drive to the downtown theater. It was eight-fifty when they hurried across the inner-city park block to the gray warehouse-looking building that housed the Arts Theater, or more properly, the Northwest School of the Arts Theater. Inside, the lights were already dimmed and a preview was showing as they took their seats. 

Then without fanfare the black and white feature film began. In a matter of minutes James Dean and his story was pulling each of them into their own web of memories and emotions. There was little in the way of whispered conversation during the film---only knowing glances, easy smiles, and an occasional silent tear. At some point Gary managed to capture Claudia’s hand in his, where it stayed until the last credits had faded. 

They emerged from the theater into the cool night air, each of them still engrossed in their own introspective reveries. It was the leisurely stroll through the park block to the car that finally had them returning to the present. 

Taking Clint’s hand as they crossed the street, Elly was ready with her critique. “It’s still a good film. Though I’m not sure if it was the story that I liked, or the way I remember feeling the first time I saw it.” 

“I was trying to remember how we treated new guys at school,” Clint replied, returning to the film’s story line. “I don’t recall it was anything like that. Certainly nothing they’d have made a movie about.” 

“If the new boy looked like James Dean they might have,” Elly countered. “He was quite a young man. He didn’t say much, but he was certainly pretty.” 

“Pretty?” Gary perked up at that, prepared to take exception with Elly’s description. “I don’t think that’s how we rated the new guys in school. As far as being the silent type, you know what they say about them.” 

Elly poked a fist at Clint’s shoulder. “Oh, yes. Mother warned me about that kind when I was just a girl. ‘Watch out for the quiet ones,’ she said. 'You never know for sure what they’re thinking.'” 

“Or if they’re thinking,” Clint offered as they pulled out into the busy downtown traffic. 

Even before they reached the interstate Gary was returning to their earlier talk of James Dean. “You know, Elly. I can’t tell you if the kid was pretty or not. Pretty boys were never my thing. But he certainly did make an impression. You’re right about that.” He paused, waiting for the light to change, before retrieving a long-forgotten memory. 

“I can remember the second time I saw the film,” he continued. “It was during our first on-base pass at boot camp. A bunch of us went to the PX theater. We had some of their ‘half’ beer, the only kind they sold there, and saw the movie. I suppose I paid more attention than I had the first time---probably because I wasn’t so distracted.” His sly little wink was aimed at Claudia. “Anyway, what I remember about that second time was watching a kid who was just as scared and screwed up as me.” 

“Scared?” Elly was not sure she had heard him correctly. “What made you think he was scared. That’s certainly not what I saw. Remember how he stood up to the bad guy in the knife fight. And how he drove in that silly race. He certainly didn’t look scared to me. He always seemed so calm and in control.” 

On the interstate traffic was light and there was no reason to hurry. As Gary eased the Chevrolet past an eighteen wheeler his thoughts returned to the wonder of how a fifty year old film could create such vivid emotions in a sixty-nine year old mind. Though he had never been tested the way Dean’s character was, there was no ignoring his own, less dramatic trials---those pieces of the past he would never escape. 

“Oh, he was scared all right,” he said without looking back at Elly. “He was afraid not to do those things he did. Walking away wasn’t an option. He was with new friends, making new impressions. They expected him to act a certain way. So what else could he do? 

“There are times like that, you know......when there’s no other way out. You just have to put your head down and plow ahead. I can relate to that. I’ve been there a time or two.” Gary lapsed into silence, reliving a few of those moments he could ‘relate to,’ and pleasantly surprised by the warmth of Claudia’s hand on his leg. 

From the back seat Clint took advantage of the quiet to save them from Gary’s morbid introspection. “The chicken race---driving up to the edge of the cliff---was just as exciting as I remembered, even though I knew how it would turn out.” 

He reached forward and tapped Claudia on the shoulder, hoping to draw her into the conversation. “How about you, Claudia? Are you still a Rebel fan?” 

“Of course. I’ve always liked James Dean. I suppose he kind of reminded me of someone.” In the faint half-light of the dashboard instruments Gary could make out her grin. 

“I’ll tell you what did surprise me,” she continued. "I barely remembered the girl’s part. You know, Natalie Wood. I suppose I recalled that she wanted him to like her---but not that she wanted more than that. Watching it tonight it seemed like what she wanted most of all was for him to need her. That’s what she really wanted---to be needed.” 

“How about you fellows?” Elly asked. “Did either of you ever feel like a rebel without a cause?” 

“I don’t know if he had a cause or not,” Clint answered. “But as far as I know we only had one rebel in our family.” He leaned forward to pat his brother shoulder. 

“Me? A rebel?” Gary laughed. “Is that what you’re saying? 

“Well, maybe just a little,” he added. “I know there were times when it seemed like my ‘cause’ was to straighten guys out. Like that was my job. If a guy said something stupid or did something stupid, there I was helping him see the error of his ways. I suppose that got me in trouble a time or two.” 

“A time or two?” came Clint’s incredulous challenge. “Damn. It seemed like I spent half my time bailing you out of hot water.” 

“And you know how much I appreciated that, brother.”

“Yeah. Except you’d never admit that you were the one who stirred things up in the first place.”

“Are you saying I had a stubborn streak? A need to be right?” 

There was little humor in Gary’s soft laugh. “I suppose that might have been. Now you take brother Clint. He was never the kind to raise a fuss about anything. He’d just let things run off his shoulders and move on. Never did give a damn what anyone else thought.” 

“Is that right, Clint?” Elly asked, clearly enjoying her success in getting the brothers to open up. 

“I suppose it’s a difference in temperament. It seemed like Gary was always bucking the system. Tilting at windmills. He must have got that from our dad. For the most part I tended to go my own way, like our mom. What do they call it now, ‘go with the flow’? That was me, I guess. ” 

“Is that still your motto?” Elly wondered. “Go with the flow?” 

“It’s still a part of me. If you don’t care what someone else thinks, why pick a fight about it? The thing is, by the time I got into management I had to learn some new ways. But no matter how often the front office tried to straighten me out, being pushy never came naturally.

“On the other hand, even when I’m ‘going with the flow,’ I like to see where the flow is going.” Clint was shaking his head as he remembered. “That kid in the movie, the one who drove off the cliff. If I’d known that’s where the flow was going, I’d have tried to change course.” 

They continued on through the dark night, down the interstate toward Tanner. Before long Gary’s passengers had grown silent, though he was not sure if they were lost in their own thoughts or simply dozing. It had been a good night, probably better than he had hoped for. From all appearances the others had enjoyed it just as much. 

From the beginning he had been certain the James Dean connection would appeal to Claudia. Remembering her schoolgirl fascination with that iconic young man, it was not surprising that the photo on the back page of the Sunday entertainment section had caught his eye. Now he was counting their return to Rebel Without a Cause as an inspired idea. Their first extended visit in fifty years had been all he hoped for, and more. 

Still, there was no escaping the irony of Claudia’s involvement. He had taken her to see James Dean, to let her renew a familiar and pleasant acquaintance with the young man she had idolized as a school girl. Instead, only a few minutes into the movie, she had been caught up in Natalie Wood’s character---living out the young girl’s growing attachment to the angry rebel, the boy she hoped might need her. 

Pulling into the fast lane to pass a line of slower cars, Gary eased back to the center lane and reached for Claudia’s hand. She pulled away long enough to lace her fingers in his, then rested her right hand on his. Without looking he knew she was smiling. So was he. 

At the North Tanner exit they left the freeway to drive through town on Main Street. As they approached the city center Elly spoke up. “You can just swing by the Heights and drop me off if you’d like. That would save some time.” 

“What do you think, brother?” Gary asked over his shoulder. “Does that sound like an good idea to you?” 

“You know, it’s been a long time since my last date,” Clint replied. “But if I remember right that’s my job, taking the lady home.” 

“Are you sure?” Elly asked. 

Gary did not wait for his brother’s response. “He’s sure. I’ll just drive to our place. You two can go on from there.” 

In the Harris driveway they took a few minutes for goodbyes. To Claudia’s surprise Elly was asking to exchange phone numbers with her. With that bit of business completed, Clint motioned Elly to his pickup. It was just after midnight when he turned back on to Main Street, driving south towards the Heights. 

As they waited at a stop light Elly finally interrupted their unnatural quiet. “You are surely the quiet one tonight,” she observed. “I know the wheels are turning. Can you tell me what you’re thinking about?” 

“I’m just trying to figure out how this happened. And how unexpected it has been,” Clint replied. He chuckled softly. “In my whole life I’ve never once stopped to wonder what it would be like---being a sixty-eight year old guy, coming home from his first date with the prettiest girl in school.” 

“There you go again. Putting yourself down. I wish you’d stop that.” 

“I’m not ‘putting myself down,’” Clint protested. “You’re always fussing about that. The fact is I have a pretty good idea of who I am.” 

He let that declaration settle a moment and realized he was unwilling to hurry away from where it led him. Pulling into the parking lot of a closed and darkened service station he coasted to a stop and turned off the ignition. 

He could see her face in the dim half-light as he picked where he had left off. “The thing is,” he said. “For as long as I can remember, I’ve seen myself fitting into a certain niche. 

“In school I mainly tagged along after Gary. I raised a little hell and had some fun, tried to stay eligible for wrestling and did my best to stay out of serious trouble. In the service I was just a peon---did what I was told. Then I came back home and pretty soon I was a husband and father. At work I learned to be a supervisor, then a manager. I’m proud of how all that worked out and thankful too.” 

“As well you should be.”

“But I never once pretended to be more than what I was. In school I gawked at the country-club girls, like all the guys did. But I never expected to date them. We learned to be realistic about things like that” He reached out and touched her hand. “That’s what makes this so hard to believe---that I’m sitting here, talking like this and liking it so much.” 

Elly took his hand. Shrugging her shoulders. she was looking to chase the tension. “I don’t know what to say. Except that who we were fifty years ago is not who we are now. And I for one am glad of that.” 

Nodding his agreement, Clint started the pickup and pulled back on to the street. Moments later he turned up the hill toward the Heights. As they approached her house he was once again on anxious, uncertain ground. How was he to end their special night together? What was proper? What did she expect? His mind was churning with those questions and more as he led Elly up the sidewalk to her front porch. 

The street light at the corner of the block cast bright light and harsh shadows across the yard. At the front steps Elly took his hand. “Thank you, Clint. I had a wonderful time.” Standing on tip toes she reached up to softly kiss his cheek. A moment later the door closed behind her. 


              ~~~


Meanwhile, back at the Harris house Gary watched Clint drive off toward the Heights. He could think of no good reason for he and Claudia to hurry on to cousin Sarah’s---not when they were finally alone. Instead they sat quietly in the darkness of the Chevrolet, each wondering what to say, until Gary ventured his question. “Tell me, as first dates go, how did this stack up?” 

Claudia laughed at that. “You know very well I’m no expert on dates---first ones or otherwise.” She paused for a moment before adding, “But, I had a good time.” 

“Something you’d care to do again?”

“We certainly wouldn’t have to go all the way to Portland or spend a fortune on dinner. But yes, I think I would. Though next time we could probably do it on our own, without the chaperones.” The white of her smile confirmed her teasing words. 

“Hey, I thought you and Elly hit it off pretty good. Did it feel that way to you? She even asked for your phone number.” 

“It was a lot better than I expected. She’s not nearly as stuck up as she used to be. I don’t suppose she’ll ever understand the likes of us---folks who don’t have lots of money. But that’s okay. I was worried we wouldn’t get along, but we did. ” 

What now, Gary finally asked himself. Was it time to take her home? “Look,” he said. “I don’t know where this leads. I just want you to know that it feels right being with you. It’s something I’d like more of. But I promise I’ll do my best not to push too hard.” 

“Thank you,” she whispered. “It was a very nice evening. I enjoyed it. But you’re right, I need to go slow, to be very sure. There’s a part of me that’s still afraid of being hurt.” 

“That’s my number-one priority. Not hurting you. You can bet on that.” He tugged lightly on her sleeve, coaxing her across the seat to him. His embrace was loose and hopefully nonthreatening.

His first impulse was to kiss her. Instead, he leaned close to her ear. “Please, Christy. I ...” 

Claudia stiffened and jerked upright as Gary replayed his own words. For an instant Christy’s name echoed in his ears. “Claudia. I’m sorry,” he pleaded. “It was just a slip. A stupid mistake.”

Pushing herself back across the seat, Claudia was suddenly in a command mode. “Take me to Sarah’s. Now. Please.” She was biting her lip, though he could not tell if she was holding back tears or anger. 

“Claudia. Please don’t let this ruin......” 

“Take me to Sarah’s. Now!” 

“Claudia....”

“Don’t say anything,” she shouted. “Just drive.”

Gary did as he was told, driving the few blocks in silence. He stopped in front of Sarah’s home and before the engine had died Claudia was scrambling from the car.

“Claudia. Please. You have to get home tomorrow.”

“Don’t you worry about that,” she said grimly, without looking back. “I’ll take the bus.”

“I’ll be here at ten o’clock,” He shouted. Who cared if he was waking up the whole neighborhood? “I’ll take you home.”

Claudia stopped to face him, apparently with an reply. Instead, she burst into tears. Pulling her coat tightly around her, she turned and ran to the front door. 


1 comment:

  1. I didn't see that coming. Everything was already so precarious for Gary and Claudia and then he made that irreversible slip. I'm eager to see how this plays out.
    I liked the reflections on "Rebel Without a Cause" -- they give some valuable substance to the story.

    ReplyDelete