Wednesday, January 25, 2023

CONVERSATIONS WITH SARAH - Chapter 22


 





 CHAPTER 22


The two of them were standing in front of a Black Jack table, in a casino, where they made a business of taking your money. For a moment Gladys Horner felt like pinching herself. What would Lester think? The notion of putting his dollars at risk, in any amount, on something as fickle as the turn of a playing card had been an anathema to her late husband. To take that same gamble in the tempter’s den, where the odds were all in the house’s favor, would have been beyond his comprehension.

Yet there she was, climbing onto a high stool, sitting next to Jimmy Brooder at the half-circular gaming table, waiting anxiously for the young dealer to deal her first hand. 

Gladys had spent five minutes in the lobby reviewing the notes Jimmy had scribbled on the back of his buffet napkin. Now, try as she might, she was certain she would never remember all his cryptic instructions of when to ‘hit’ and when to ‘stay,’ of ‘doubling down,’ and ‘splitting pairs.’ It was all so confusing. Her only comfort came in knowing he was there with her to lend a hand when necessary.

From the first time she heard of Jimmy’s interest in knowing her, from Angie McDonald of all people, Gladys had sensed herself being nudged in a new, unfamiliar direction....toward places and situations she had never experienced before. After only a few brief hours spent with him she had realized that wherever Mr. Brooder might lead them, it would not be boring. 

In his company she would find exhilaration and affirmation in equal measures, always wrapped in the unexpected. There had been a Big Band double date and now a day at the beach, complete with an introduction to Black Jack. It was so far removed from the staid and predictable life she had shared with Lester Horner.

On the other hand, Jimmy’s return to the gaming tables for the first time in years had raised his own, more practical questions. What ever happened to the one and two dollar Black Jack tables he remembered from years past? The casino’s five-dollar minimum was a little rich for his blood, increasing the likelihood that the fifty dollars he had set aside for the occasion would not last long. But what choice did he have? He wanted Gladys to at least experience the game, the tingling rush of having a stake at risk. If she was going to be there, he ought to be on hand to help.

It took only minute or two for an already jittery Mrs. Horner to learn lesson number one. Black Jack might be a game to her, but it was business, serious business, to the grim-faced young dealer. Gladys learned that when she took an extra few seconds deciding whether to take another card. Her questioning glance had Jimmy mouthing, “Stay”.

Her indecision was enough to elicit the dealer’s curt, “Come on, lady. We don’t have all day.”

Though Jimmy understood the casino’s need to keep the action moving....“Keep the chips rolling” was one way he had heard it described, he was prepared to take issue with the dealer’s unpleasant tone. “Come on, son. Why don’t you cut the lady a little slack,” he suggested. “She’s just learning the game. You’ll get her money soon enough.”

Fifteen minutes later Jimmy’s last chip was riding on the hand in play. When the dealer turned a nine to make twenty-one the Scooter was out of wisecracks and chips. The surly dealer acknowledged his surrender with a pasty grin and undisguised sarcasm. “You folks have a really good afternoon.”

Jimmy’s icy glare was not meant to win friends. “Not so fast, son,” he said. “You can see the lady’s still in the game.”

He was standing behind her when Gladys looked back to ask. “Would you rather be going, I’m ready any time. We don’t have to stay.”

“Hey. The game’s not over. There’s time on the clock. Do your thing, then we’ll go.”

“These are ten dollars each, aren’t they?” Gladys held her two remaining chips for him to see. He nodded, leaving her with a choice to make. “I could play four five-dollar hands, or two ten-dollar. Right?”

“Come on, lady,” the dealer grumbled, earning another nasty look from Jimmy, along with Gladys’ embarrassed smile. “Are you in or not? I have to keep this game going.”

“Okay,” she sighed. “Let’s get this over with right now.” With that she slid both her chips out on the table.

“Are you sure?” Jimmy whispered.

“I’m sure.”

For the next three minutes Jimmy watched from his station behind Gladys. Three minutes and three hands for Gladys and the other player, a young man sitting at the end of the table. Her nineteen was enough to win the first hand, and her twenty dollars had become forty. “I’m going to leave it all there,” she said over her shoulder, deliberately stacking her four chips in the betting circle.

Seconds later she tilted her cards to let Jimmy see a king and a five. Glancing at the dealer’s ‘up’ card, a three, Jimmy was whispering, “Stay right there. He has to draw.”

The fellow at the end of the table had his last chips riding on his hand. When he drew a queen and broke twenty-one he slipped off his stool and started off down the aisle. 

Suddenly it was a two-handed game. The dealer peeked at his hole card, then turned a Jack to go with his three. As Jimmy had said, he would have to draw again. Pulling the top card from the draw box, the dealer slammed it brusquely on the table. It was another Jack and Gladys forty dollars had grown to eighty.

This time Jimmy’s advice was straight forward. “I think you’ve about used up your good luck. Why don’t we go while you’re ahead?”

Gladys was almost laughing as she shook her head. “Let’s do it once more,” she said softly. “It’s kind of fun to see him get so upset.”

“Are you sure?”

“Just one more.”

She pushed her chips, all eight of them, into the circle. By then Jimmy’s palms were sweating and butterflies churned in his stomach. For an instant he remembered the adrenaline rush he once felt settling into his halfback stance, preparing for a big play. 

Meanwhile Gladys appeared totally at ease, as loose as could be. A part of him wanted to look away when she picked up her cards to show him. The dealer was showing a nine as she uncovered first a ten, then an ace. It was a Black Jack, that would pay one and a half times her bet. She had a one hundred and twenty dollar winner. In a matter of three hands her twenty dollars had become two hundred.

Would she take Jimmy's advice and go back to five dollar bets? Her lucky streak was bound to run out. He knew how seductive it could be, believing that Lady Luck had become a permanent companion. Hopefully she would listen to the voice of reason.

It took a few seconds for him to realize he had no reason to be offering advice. Gladys was on her feet, raking her stack of twenty chips into her purse. Then, with her widest smile, she looked across at the still-scowling dealer. “Thank you for being so helpful," she said. "I certainly appreciate your generosity.” Then, turning to Jimmy, “Where do we cash these in?”

Monday, January 23, 2023

CONVERSATIONS WITH SARAH - Chapter 21



 




                    

 CHAPTER 21


From the casino Hank and Angie followed the access path leading between a pair of oceanfront homes and down a long flight of stairs to the beach. On a smooth, gray driftwood log at the foot of the stairs they sat down long enough to take off their shoes and socks. From there, with shoes in hand, it was a short hike through warm, soft sand to the hard-packed surface that paralleled the surf.

“Isn’t this nice,” Angie grinned. Reaching for Hank’s hand she pulled him toward the distant headland that marked the end of the sandy strand. “The tide’s not all the way out yet. But there are lots of rocks and shells along here. And hopefully some agates.”

It was nice, Hank told himself, at least compared to the commercial madness of the outlet mall. For a few minutes they strolled along the wave line, walking to the unhurried rhythm of the surf.... dodging an occasional wave, scanning the sand for shells and agates. Then, just as Hank settled comfortably into the pleasant pace of their trek, Angie’s unexpected question sent them off in a very different direction.

“Have you ever been to Cabo San Lucas, in Baja Mexico?” she asked. “It’s a lot like this, in a warmer, more touristy way.”

“Never been there.”

“There are so many wonderful spots like that, all over the world, places to see and visit.” Angie was warming to her subject, swept along by pleasant visions of what might be. “I miss the trips Harold and I used to take. He always had a way of finding the most interesting, out-of-the-way places.”

A few steps later she paused, frowning as she offered her unexpected apology. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t be going on like that about him.”

“Why not? He was your husband. That’s certainly allowed. It’s not surprising that you’d want to remember the good times you had with him. I do that all the time, about Sarah that is.”

With that opening, Angie plowed ahead. “What were the favorite places you remember from your trips with Sarah?”

Why was she nudging him toward that ‘Sarah’ space, he wondered. Once there, he was apt to spend the rest of the day. “To begin with, we didn’t travel all that much. What I remember about the few trips we took isn’t so much about the places we went. It’s more about the things we did together, by ourselves or with the kids.”

“So where were the best places you ever went? The really special ones. Places you might want to see again.” Angie had pulled them to a stop. Standing barefoot on the hard sand, facing each other, she had set aside thoughts of agates and sea shells. “There has to be someplace that stands out.”

“That’s hard to say,” Hank answered, sifting through half-faded recollections he had not visited in a very long time. “We really liked Yellowstone. That was with the kids. We saw the geysers, and bears, and buffalo. All the tourist stuff. That was fun. And of course, there was Disneyland. We did that a couple times. I still have one of those silly mouse ear hats. Sarah found it in the garage, just a few weeks before.....” He turned away, looking off toward the surf, where hazy sunlight reflected off splashing waves, creating shiny rainbow-tinted spray.

Angie waited a moment, giving him time to return to the present. “Have you been to Europe?” she asked. “It is very nice. Especially England? That’s my favorite place. Everything about it was green and picturesque, and so historic. You couldn’t turn around without bumping into some place where something had happened, usually a long time ago.”

Surprisingly it was Angie who turned quiet, letting those well-remembered good times wash over her....recalling how special it had been. “Harold always promised we’d go back. But we never had the chance.”

Starting off again, she reached for his hand. This time he did not resist. Then, stopping to poke at a half buried shell with her toe, she looked up to say, “We could do that, you know.”

“We could do what? I didn’t hear what you were talking about.”

Her response was little more than a whisper, as though she wanted him to hear, but feared his reaction. “I was saying that we could see England or Europe. You and I. We could go wherever we wanted to go, and see whatever we wanted to see.”

Without a reply Hank started off down the beach, leaving Angie standing alone. What was he running from? Was it her simple statement, her declaration of what they could do together, or was it the assumptions she was making? Stopping at the upper wave line, where the wet, hard-packed surface gave way to soft sand, he was gazing down the beach when he felt her hand on his arm.

“I’m not sure what you’re driving at,” he said, turning to face her. “I sure as hell can’t afford to go running off to Europe or someplace like that, even if I wanted to.” His grim grin was not meant to inspire her confidence. “You see, I’m not a world traveler. Sarah and I thought in terms of a week at the coast, not doing Europe.”

About then Angie was trying for a calm and reasoned approach. “I hope you realize,” she began. “This isn’t about money or what you can afford. It’s about seeing some of the most amazing places in the world....about seeing them together. Wouldn’t that be nice?”

“Maybe you didn’t hear me.” She flushed at the intensity of his icy glare. “I said I don’t have that kind of money.”

Apparently it was time to make her point in a different, more direct manner. Tugging on his arm, Angie pulled herself up against his shoulder. “You don’t have to have the money,” she said calmly. “I do.”

Shrugging away her grip Hank was on the move again, with Angie in pursuit. What was the lady thinking? Did she honestly believe he was the kind who would live off a woman? Not a chance, even if he craved her attention, which he certainly did not. That kind of crazy talk had to be nipped in the bud.

He pulled up short and turned to face her approach, stopping so quickly that the shoes she was carrying swung against his hip. Recovering her balance, she felt his grip tightening on her shoulder. Looking up to face him, the sight of his darkly earnest stare had her turning away.

“Angie, we have to talk.” There was no anger in his words, only hard, serious intent. “Actually, I need to talk. You need to listen.”

For months, in the course of her open and obvious quest for his attention, Angie had seen Hank Rolland when he was frustrated, and frightened, and befuddled. Never once had she witnessed the stern, unyielding determination she was seeing in his eyes. There was nothing to suggest that he would be put off.

“What is it?” she asked timidly, afraid that she already knew his answer.

“It’s about us. About your talk of traveling, and the plans you’d like to make for us.” 

Taking her arm Hank led them away from the surf, toward a sandstone outcropping at the upper edge of the beach. Trudging barefoot through the deep sand he was asking himself why Sarah’s calm advice seemed out of reach just when he needed it most.

Steering them to the lowest part of a wide boulder, Hank motioned for her to sit down. Then, planting himself directly in front of her, he went looking for the words to explain his dilemma. “There is no way I could do something like that," he began. "Taking off with someone I hardly know, living on her money. Actually, her husband’s money.”

 Bold and brash Angie McDonald had suddenly turned red eyed, sad, and vulnerable. Her nose wrinkled and she was squinting to hold back the tears.“Maybe I’m going too fast,” she murmured. “Is that it?”

“I suppose that’s it. At least part of it. I’m just not ready to be thinking in those terms.”

“I understand.” There was a hint of relief in her voice as she sought to soothe his reluctance. “Why don’t we forget about such things for now and enjoy our day at the beach? That would work, wouldn’t it?”

“Yeah, it would.” There was more to be said. But it was not the time for that. Instead he would settle for a quiet afternoon, just the two of them.... comparing agates gleaned from the sand and watching noisy youngsters splashing in the waves. With unconvincing smiles disguising unspoken words they would limit their conversation to light and airy observations and an occasional lame joke. 

For the rest of their time on the beach, and during the long drive home, Angie took care not to incite another of Hank’s defensive retreats. On her doorstep she was happy enough to settle for a brief, but close embrace as they parted.

Friday, January 20, 2023

CONVERSATIONS WITH SARAH - Chapter 20







 CHAPTER 20


To the casual observer it might have looked like any other late-summer morning on the Oregon coast. At Lincoln City, midway down the state’s long coastline, the prospect of a sunny afternoon was tempered by the bank of low clouds that stretched across the blue-gray Pacific horizon. That was normal enough, given the coast’s unpredictable weather patterns.

Yet on that Wednesday morning, as he drove through the wooded coast-range mountains Hank Rolland sensed nothing normal about the day ahead. The Oregon coast had been a favored destination for young couples long before he and Sarah began visiting there during their college years. Whether on long stretches of sandy beaches or in the hidden nooks and crannies of the towering Pacific City sand dunes, ‘the coast had always been a special place for special times with special people. 

But that was then, Hank reminded himself. Those had been the confident days of young love. At that moment he was confident of only one thing. The day he envisioned with Angie McDonald was sure to be a different sort of normal. 

It was just after ten o’clock when they pulled into the nearly-empty casino parking lot on the north edge of Lincoln City. The day was young and the four of them were anxious to be on their way.... though each of them stepped from the car armed with their own very personal expectations of what the day might hold. 

Angie McDonald had left home that morning intent on nurturing her growing connection with Hank. For her, their day together would hopefully bring them a step closer to something more permanent. 

Hank, on the other hand, would be dealing with a very different set of priorities, beginning with the most elemental of all his unresolved questions. Was it right to even consider someone else taking Sarah’s place? Was that what she had intended? And if so, could that someone possibly be Angie McDonald?

While Hank mulled the unlikely possibility of fitting Sarah and Angie into the same answer, Jimmy Brooder was in the back seat with Gladys, facing his own stubborn questions. Based on their Big Band Night together she seemed comfortable enough in his company. Yet, in one sense it seemed to him that they might never be alone,  just the two of them. 

No matter where they were or what they were doing, Jimmy could not shake the intimidating presence of Lester Horner, Gladys’ late husband, lurking in the shadows. It was a hard thing for a competitor like Scooter Brooder....facing off with the specter of someone he could not see, who had been for Gladys what he could never be.

There in the parking lot the four of them stretched their legs and considered the day ahead. By then Angie and Gladys had already decided the couples would be going different directions. The plan was to meet again at the casino for a one-o’clock buffet lunch.

While Hank stood quietly to the side, reminding himself how different his morning would be if he was with Sarah, Angie had turned upbeat, hoping to generate some enthusiasm in her obviously unenthusiastic partner. 

“Don’t be such a sour puss,” she chided, picking up on his dour hesitation. Motioning past the row of ocean front homes toward the Pacific horizon she said, “We’re at the beach, for heaven sakes. It’s a beautiful morning and we’re going to have such a good time. The outlet mall is bound to be fun. There are so many shops, so much to see. And I know you’ll like the used-book store. Maybe you’ll find a treasure or two there.”

By then Hank had her arm, steering her around to the shady side of the car. Wearing the resigned half-smile of someone who had little say in the morning’s itinerary, he nodded his apparent acceptance of Angie’s ambitious schedule, still wondering why Sarah had not warned him this was a bad idea.

Leaning against the back fender, Gladys was quietly assembling her own version of a morning’s outing for herself and Jimmy, absolutely confident that it would be different than the serious shopping excursion Angie had in mind. 

“If I remember correctly,” she explained. “Mr. Brooder likes to walk. He told me that he walks an hour or so every day. But he’s not a fan of walks in the sand. So instead of a leisurely stroll on the beach I think we’ll stretch our legs with a walk downtown. There are lots of interesting shops and a couple galleries. If it’s open, there’s even a nice museum.”

Jimmy Brooder’s first response was a broad smile and affirming nod. A quiet walk with Gladys, just the two of them, was all he wanted and more. So what if touristy souvenir shops and stuffy art galleries were not his favorite venues? He could cope with those distractions if that earned him two or three hours of her company.

“Let’s get on with this. Shall we?” Jimmy suggested. “Let’s see if Lincoln City is ready to deal with four old musketeers.”


         ~~~


The Lincoln City Outlet Mall was a quick five minute drive south of the casino, though on a normal summer weekend it might have taken thirty minutes to negotiate the bumper to bumper traffic. Spread over four square blocks of what had been a sand dune only five years before, the forty-plus shops offered a bit of everything, and Angie expected to see them all. 

For his part Hank wanted nothing more than to have their mind-numbing shopping excursion behind them. For two and a half hours he traipsed from store to store, tagging after Angie like a patient puppy dog, while she poked and handled one item after another, driving harried sales girls crazy with endless questions about merchandise she had no intention of buying. 

When at last they returned to the car Hank carried her single purchase....a pair of gaudy ‘designer’ sneakers, with varicolored laces. Although Angie was absolutely certain that her treasure, at a ‘super-discounted’ sixty-nine dollars, would have cost twice as much in Tanner, Hank found that hard to believe.

Locking her package in the trunk he slipped behind the steering wheel, muttering his silent thanks that the morning’s shopping was finally behind them. He was exhausted, short of patience, and ready for a leisurely lunch. Except......Angie had other ideas.

“Wasn’t that fun,” she gushed as he pulled out on the highway. “And because we hurried along like that, we still have time to stop at the glassblower’s shop before we start back.”

“Are you sure?” Where did she find the energy, he asked himself? For a glassblower of all things. 

The craftsman’s studio was only a short drive from the mall. Once there Hank was surprised to find that Angie had stumbled onto something that actually interested him. The glassblower, a shriveled old fellow with more lung power than Hank would have imagined, was blowing multicolored glass balls....similar to the Japanese fishing-net floats that occasionally washed up on Lincoln City beaches. 

It was a fascinating thing to see, better by far than watching Angie haggle with an overmatched sales clerk. By the time they left the old man’s studio she had captured a special memento of their day at the beach....a single package tucked carefully in her purse.


         ~~~


By one-fifteen Jimmy and Gladys had made their way back to the casino. Seated on a bench just outside the second-floor Lucky Dollar buffet restaurant they waited for Hank and Angie. Their friends were late, but that seemed not to bother them at all. After their long morning walk a comfortable wait on the padded bench suited them just fine.

“A walk like that didn’t used to wear me out,” Jimmy observed as he leaned back against the wall. “Look at me now. A couple hours, a few miles, and I’m bushed.”

“I’ll bet it was good for both of us,” Gladys said. Her sandals were off and she was rubbing her feet. “Next time I’ll remember to bring some walking shoes. There’s no need to worry about being stylish around here.”

Though he was not expert on footwear, stylish or otherwise, Jimmy’s spirits were buoyed by her disclaimer. “I’m not sure about your shoes," he replied. "But I am glad to hear you talking about a ‘next time.’ That’s definitely a step in the right direction.”

Gladys could not remember the last time she had allowed her teasing grin and mischievous wink to see the light of day. Displays like that had always bothered Lester. He would have called it “flirtatious,” unseemly for a woman of her age and station. Without stopping to consider the why of it, Gladys realized she rather enjoyed the liberating liberty of being flirty, even at her age. Besides, there was no sign that Jimmy Brooder objected in the least. 

“Of course, I’d have to be asked,” she reminded him. “But if I am, I’m sure there will be a next time.”

“In that case you can bet on it. I’m just hoping that means the two of us can be on our own for a change. I think we’re past the chaperone stage, don’t you?” He was preparing to expand on that idea when the sight of Hank and Angie coming down the corridor toward them brought him up short.

“Sorry we’re late,” Hank said. He nodded in Angie’s direction as he explained, “My friend had some serious shopping to take care of. Lucky for her, she had me along to lend a hand.”

Angie’s reply was directed at Gladys. “Don’t let him kid you. It was not nearly as bad as he makes it sound. Besides, some things just take time. You know that.” Then to Jimmy, “Are you two ready for lunch?”

The mid-week luncheon clientele had moved on, leaving the Lucky Dollar Buffet nearly empty. Though it offered a comfortable, unhurried setting, where the tired travelers could report on their Lincoln City morning, in at least one respect the Lucky Dollar would prove unlucky. Each of the half-dozen Keno tickets Jimmy played during the course of their lunch was a bona fide unlucky loser.

After a quick trip through the buffet line, they returned to their table. There, while the others busied themselves with their meals, Angie turned instead to a not-so-concise account of her morning’s shopping. Though the fancy sneakers had been left in the car, she was eager to show off her most prized purchase....a small set of wind chimes in the form of a clustered mobile, constructed of colorful rippled-glass slats, interesting to look at and presumably a delight to hear.

“Isn’t it beautiful,” she gushed as she carefully spread the delicate treasure out on the table. “Every set he makes is absolutely unique. No two are alike.” Not surprisingly, the eighty-nine dollar price tag was there for everyone to see.

Jimmy took a moment to handle one of the thin slats. “You wouldn’t dare put this out in the wind. A twenty mile-an-hour breeze would break it to pieces.”

“Well, of course you wouldn’t,” Angie explained. “It’s meant to be hung inside, in front of a window, where the sun can shine through the colored glass. You should see it, the way the colors keep changing. It’s really very effective.”

“How practical is a wind chime that can’t be left out in the wind?” Jimmy had more to say, until he felt Gladys’ grip on his arm. Her tight-lipped frown needed no translation.

“For heaven sakes,” Angie continued, reaching for Hank’s hand. “It’s not about being ‘practical.’ It’s to look at....and be my souvenir of a very special day at the coast. It’s my remembrance.”  Then, glancing first at Gladys, then Jimmy, she asked, “So tell us, what do you two have to show for your morning on the town?”

“You mean besides sore feet?” Jimmy teased. “I have to tell you, it takes some doing to keep up with this lady. She was going a mile-a-minute.”

Gladys was not about to let his exaggeration go unchallenged. “Oh please. It wasn’t that bad at all. We had a very nice time. And Jimmy was very helpful.”

“You mean I stayed out of the way?”

“You know exactly what I mean.” She reached over to jab his shoulder. “You helped make it a very nice morning.”

For an instant Hank was aware of his own wonderment, watching Gladys’ casual display of affection. Clearly she was at home in the company of their unpolished, sometimes gruff friend. A moment later Jimmy’s own embarrassed blush was punctuating that reality. 

But Angie was still looking for an answer to her own question. “What kind of treasures did you find downtown? What do you have to remind you of your day at Lincoln City?”

By then Jimmy was ready to accept Angie’s challenge....to register his thoughts on a morning with Gladys. “Truth is," he began. "I didn’t need to buy anything to remind me of that. We were only gone a couple hours, but I have a whole bunch of good memories about the time we had and the company I was keeping.

“And we had some good laughs too,” he continued. “Actually, quite a few of them. Especially at the second art gallery.” A sideways glance at Gladys caught her with her hand clamped over her mouth, holding back her own laughter. 

”Have you ever seen a whole wall of paintings done on black velvet,” Jimmy asked. “Every one of them of Elvis Presley, in some of the most unlikely poses you’ve ever seen? That’s all there was. Just Elvis. There were a couple dozen pictures and every one of them was different. We had some laughs there, I’ll tell you.”

 Jimmy turned away from Gladys, biting his lip, determined to keep a straight face. A second later they each lost that battle at the very same time. While Hank and Angie looked on, Gladys slumped against Jimmy’s shoulder and the two of them were lost in laughter. Across the aisle a dour-faced couple glared their apparent displeasure at the raucous intrusion.

“I guess you had to be there,” Jimmy finally stammered, straining to regain his composure. “The whole Elvis thing was so bad. If you took it seriously, you’d have probably cried. We just broke up. The lady at the counter was staring daggers at us, but we couldn’t help it.” 

Retreating to his half-cold coffee Jimmy added, “Anyway, that’s what we did this morning. Those are the memories I’ll be taking home.”

Angie had waited patiently through Jimmy’s disjointed account and still she had not heard an answer to her question. She was not above trying again. “But what did you buy?”

Jimmy turned to Gladys. “We did buy something, didn’t we?”

“We certainly did,” she replied. “You bought me a cotton candy. It was the first I’d had in ages. I’d forgotten how good it was. Probably not too healthy, but very good.”

“That’s all?” Angie was not ready to accept that. “All that time, and all you got was cotton candy?”

“Jimmy already told you, we had lots of silly laughs. What he didn’t tell you was how dumb some of his jokes are.” Gladys was grinning again, apparently remembering one of his weaker offerings. “All in all, it was the best morning I’ve had since I can’t remember when.”

By then Gladys had recalled the rest of her story. “And he says he’s going to teach me to play Black Jack this afternoon. Can you believe that? Cotton candy and Black Jack in the same day.”

“Black Jack?” Hank was finally joining the conversation. “I am impressed. I was hoping to talk Angie into a few minutes at the slot machines. But it sounds like she has other plans.”

“We can do that,” Angie offered. “But first I’d like to have our walk on the beach. According to the tide tables, low tide is at three-thirty. We don’t want to miss that. They say the beach from here to Road’s End is the best agate hunting around. Let’s take our walk, then we can come back to the casino. They’ll have their chance to take our money, I promise.”

       After a round of desserts and a second cup of coffee both couples were ready to be on their way. Arrangements were made to meet in the casino lobby at five o’clock for their return to Tanner. With that decided, Hank and Angie started down the outside stairs toward the beach path, while Jimmy and Gladys took the escalator to the main casino floor. 

Wednesday, January 18, 2023

CONVERSATIONS WITH SARAH - Chapter 19





 

       CHAPTER 19


It was just past eleven o’clock that evening when Hank closed the garage door and walked through the utility room to the kitchen, still basking in the welcome relief of having weathered his ‘date’ with Angie McDonald. At that moment it felt like one of those life-events he was glad to have in the rear view mirror.

Yet there was no escaping the surprising irony, the comfortable realization that things had worked out better than expected. He remembered pausing at one point during the evening to recall Grace’s advice that he accept Angie for whom she was.

That counsel, which he had tried his best to ignore when it was first offered, coupled with Angie’s apparent willingness to let him proceed at his own pace, had allowed the two of them to coexist....to settle into a unexpectedly-amiable space. Twenty-four hours before he would never have agreed to a day at the beach in her company. By the end of their evening together he was hesitantly endorsing the idea.

Still, though he had grown more comfortable in her company, nothing had prepared him for the anxious prospect of standing side by side on Angie’s front porch, preparing to say his good-byes. The motion-sensing porch light was illuminating the space as he offered her his hand. A moment later she brushed his extended hand aside and reached up to grasp his shoulders. He had tensed, lest she pull him to her. Instead she drew herself up against him.

She turned her face up to his and for one surprising instant Hank reacted as he always had. In the blink of an eye Angie had won both his eager attention and the kiss she wanted so badly, at least until he realized what was happening. A moment later he backed away to pull her into a close cheek-to-cheek embrace. At that point, try as she might Angie had not been able to find a way back to his lips.

Now, standing in the relative safety of his own kitchen, he was left to make sense of it all....from Angie’s insistent attention to his own apparent acceptance. Beyond that, of course, there was the startling shock of their kiss....that brief, mind-bending instant when he felt his own desire matching hers. As much as he wanted to disown that moment and the way it had felt, the bittersweet tingle of her aggressive affirmation remained.

Under more normal circumstances his next step would have been entirely predictable. He had news to report on, a Big Band Concert. There was so much he wanted to share with Sarah. Except....how could he tell her of an evening spent with someone else, an evening that ended with an unscripted, altogether furtive kiss?

His halting approach down the darkened hallway to where Sarah sat waiting for him had the feel of an errand he would rather avoid. Standing in the doorway he was momentarily aware of how the unlit computer room was bathed in a dull, but colorful dimness that took the edge off the midnight darkness. 

Broken bits of streetlight filtered through the drawn blinds. The digital clock glowed a bright red. The hard drive back-up was bathed in a luminous blue. And all around the room tiny standby lights added their spark of illumination. Together they combined to reveal the faint image of the pale white canister, perched silently on the shelf beside the television.

It was time to talk to Sarah, to tell her of his evening with Angie. Would she be hurt or disappointed? Would she understand his motives.... of helping Jimmy Brooder, and other reasons even he could not so readily identify.

Standing there in the near darkness, a half hour removed from Angie’s kiss, a part of him wanted to hear Sarah’s reaction. Another part was afraid of what he might hear. There was no avoiding the damning truth....it had not been Angie’s kiss, but their kiss. And no matter how it felt after the fact, there was no denying what he had felt at the time.

There in the doorway, having come to visit Sarah, Hank paused to reconsider. Perhaps by tomorrow morning he could set his own anxious questions aside and have time to explain. Everything about it would be better then. He needed to wait. Turning around, he started down the unlit hallway to his bedroom.


               ~~~


As it turned out the right time to tell Sarah was a long time coming, on the other side of a fitful-night’s sleep. It was next morning when, filling his coffee cup for a second time, Hank pushed his newspaper aside and started down the hall to the computer room. For ten minutes he focused on meaningless emails, then logged on to his brokerage account, something he rarely did on a weekend.

Only when he signed off the computer and settled into his recliner did he pause to look up to Sarah’s Clabber Girl tin. Even before he said a word she had his complete attention. Finally, having set aside his first impulse....to apologize for his momentary ‘good night kiss’ lapse....he was ready to go directly to the heart of the matter, to the one question that spawned all the others.

“You have to help me out, honey,” he began, staring directly at the diminutive clabber girl on the side of her canister. “Is this a part of you talked about....the 'moving on' you said I must do? I’ll admit, our night at the concert was okay....not as bad as I expected. But I’m still trying to figure where Angie fits in. It seems like whatever the right thing is, it ought to feel better than it does. I’m hoping you can help me understand. Okay?”

For the next half hour Hank sat quietly, doing his best to clear his mind, grabbing at each passing thought long enough to confirm it was probably not Sarah’s response. More than once he paused to remind himself that he would know her truth when he heard it. It was sure to ring true and positive.

Every one of the thoughts that flooded his mind, even the ones that fueled his doubts, seemed to end with a question mark. It was nearly time to get ready for church and still he sat expectantly, waiting for Sarah to make sense of his evening with Angie, and what it meant for a future that included ‘moving on.’ 


          ~~~


Perhaps it had the look of a chance meeting.... two friends who just happened to be in the same place at the same time. In fact, Grace Carson understood it would be her best opportunity for an unhurried, unabridged report on Hank Rolland’s night at the Big Band Concert. 

While others prepared the sanctuary for the Sunday service or attended one of the two adult classes, she was in the church kitchen....brewing coffee and tea for the after-service social hour. If Hank followed his normal routine he would be arriving early to sneak a cup of coffee before the worship service.

Though she was expecting him, Grace was too busy to notice when Hank entered the room through a side door. Moments later she looked up from the serving tray of cookies she was arranging to find him standing at the coffee maker, filling his cup. She waited without a word, knowing he would be edging her way....perhaps to talk, certainly to swipe a cookie.

A moment later she gave his hand a playful slap as he reached for a brownie. Wiping her hands on her apron she leaned back against the counter to ask, “Well?”

Well what?”

“How did it go?,” she asked, offering a mocking scowl as Hank helped himself to a chocolate-chip goodie. “Don’t you have a report for an interested observer?”

He was not prepared to offer the details she was hoping for. Instead she would have to settle for the same sanitized version he had provided Sarah. “It was good,” he said. “You were there. I saw you. Didn’t you think the Pops sounded better than ever? For a bunch of folks with day jobs, I thought they were great.”

“Hank Rolland, you know very well I’m not talking about how the band sounded.” For an instant he was reminded of a playful Sarah. “I happen to know you were very anxious about spending an evening with Angie. In fact I’d say you weren’t looking forward to it at all. I hope it was better than you expected.”

“It was fine. We were with Jimmy and Gladys. That made it easier. More fun. I’d have to say the two of them seemed to hit it off pretty well.”

“That’s nice. But how about you and Angie?” She was pressing now. What choice did she have if he was unwilling to volunteer his own details? “Are you still afraid of her?”

“Afraid? Who said I was afraid of her?”

Grace followed him down the counter to the sink, where he rinsed out his cup. “I thought that’s what I was seeing before, when you talked about a night out with her. It sounds like maybe that’s changed. Eh?”

Had that changed, Hank asked himself. It was no time to be trading snappy jokes about something he had yet to sort out to his own satisfaction. “We got along just fine,” he finally said. “Of course she’s a little more pushy than I’m used to, but after a while I didn’t notice that so much.”

That was enough to win a new smile from Grace. “So maybe she had it right after all. Is that what you’re saying?”

“She had what right? What are you talking about?”

“About Angie, of course.” Grace edged closer, offering what seemed to be a more confidential tone. “She stopped in here a few minutes ago. I must say she was sounding awfully smug, telling Connie about her ‘wonderful night’ with Hank and how much she enjoyed it.”

Pausing, Grace was weighing her words, perhaps unsure how to continue. “She especially wanted Connie to know how affectionate Hank could be.... and how she hadn’t seen that coming.” Grace was looking straight into his eyes as she added,  “I must admit, that surprised me a bit.”

“How affectionate I was? My God, I spent half the night keeping her hands off me. She was the one always holding on to me. How could she say I was the affectionate one?”

“I have no idea.” Grace’s laugh was a bit forced. “I can only tell you that she sounded pretty convincing. She was especially upbeat when she told Connie how you insisted on another date, that you were lobbying for a day at the beach. All in all, she made it sound like a very successful Big Band Night.”

“She said that? That a day at the coast was my idea?” Hank ground a fist into his palm as he offered his complaint. 

“That really burns my butt. That was her idea from the start. She was the one pushing for it. She managed to get Jimmy and Gladys all excited about it. By then I couldn’t see what it would hurt, so I went along too. But it sure as heck wasn’t my idea.”

Grace had his arm, nudging him through the Fellowship Hall toward the rapidly-filling sanctuary. 

“Well, however it happened,” she said. “I can assure you that by the time folks get back in here for the Social Hour everyone in the place will know how Angie McDonald swept Hank Rolland off his feet. By then we’ll have heard how he’s ready to pursue her all the way to the Oregon coast, just to keep her interested.”

“Man, oh man," Hank growled. "This is going to be harder than I expected. I asked Sarah about that this morning. Even she didn’t have an answer.”

“You asked Sarah?”

Grace’s mystified scowl was enough to remind Hank. How could Grace possibly understand what ‘asking Sarah’ was about? 

     “Yeah, I’ll tell you about it sometime.” With that he started off toward the sanctuary. 

Monday, January 16, 2023

CONVERSATIONS WITH SARAH - Chapter 18







    CHAPTER 18

    The Tanner Pops Orchestra was back on stage, ready for the second half of its program. In a matter of minutes the audience was caught up in the infectious rhythms of a Benny Goodman set. As the drumbeat introduction to “Sing, Sing, Sing” filled the room a handful of enthusiastic couples were heading for the aisles, dancing to the pulsing beat. Those bold ones were an eclectic bunch....old timers refusing to act their age and fresh-faced youngsters dancing their herky-jerky hip-hop steps to a bebop beat.

Meanwhile Hank had settled back, swept along by one familiar tune after another, pleased to see Angie finally turning her attention to the music, instead of him. That pleasant respite lasted until Benny Goodman’s moment in the spotlight ended, and she heard the nostalgic introductory strains of Glenn Miller’s “In the Mood.”

“That’s the best dance song ever.” Her head was on his shoulder as she whispered in his ear. “Don’t you think?”

Hank nodded his timid agreement, then shifted to the other side of his seat, leaving her head without support.

Yet in spite of Angie’s irritating aggression, by the time the Pops had taken their last encore and the curtain had fallen, Hank was prepared to admit that it had been a good night, something worth doing. After months of long and lonely stay-at-home nights, and days spent dreading an evening with Angie, he was willing to rate their unlikely double date a success. 

As always the music had been outstanding. Beyond that he had enjoyed watching Jimmy and Gladys get acquainted. Even the company of a ‘not-trying-so-hard’ Angie McDonald had been more comfortable than he expected. But how was he to know that she still had a surprise or two up her sleeve?

The four of them were leaving the theater, making their way through the slow-moving crowd on the front sidewalk. Though Hank had repulsed Angie’s repeated attempts to hold his hand, he could not very well repel her arm in arm departure. As usual she was greeting friends and acquaintances in passing. Then suddenly she pulled him to a stop beside a pair of elegantly dressed matrons, ladies Hank had never seen before.

With no introduction at all Angie turned to address the women. “It was the best Big Band Night ever.” The surprised ladies blinked, perhaps wondering who the intruder was. Without missing a beat, Angie turned to Hank asking, “Don’t you think so, dear?”

Dear?” Where had that come from, he asked himself. And why in front of perfect strangers?


        ~~~


Downtown Tanner traffic was tied in a predictable knot. Home-bound concert goers were stacked up at every stop light. Honking lane changers had brought four-lane thoroughfares to a near stop. Once over Missionary Hill, on the south edge of the business district, Hank returned to his conversation with Jimmy. While the two of them exchanged impressions of the concert the ladies were carrying on their own conversation, at least until Angie reached over to tug on Hank’s arm.

“Don’t you think that would be fun?” she asked, sounding for all the world like Hank ought to know what she was talking about. “I’ll bet we’d have a wonderful time,” she continued. “We could take the whole day and do it right.”

“What are you talking about?” Hank slowed to turn on to Tanner Heights Boulevard. “What would take a whole day?”

“Gladys and I were just wondering about a day at the beach. Maybe some weekday, when it’s not too crowded. Doesn’t that sound like fun. We could go to Lincoln City. You can remember when that was a double-date kind of thing. Can’t you?”

They were nearing the country club, not far from the turn off to Gladys’ house. By then Hank had been overtaken by his own haunting memories. Of course there had been double dates to the coast, as Angie was suggesting. But what he remembered were the days he and Sarah, his coed sweetheart, spent at Pacific City on the sprawling sand dunes and at the family’s river-front cabin.

From their first days together the Oregon coast had played a role in their growing connection. In light of those special times was it at all proper to consider a day at the beach with someone else? What message would that send to Sarah? Before he could answer his own question, thoughts of another conversation had intruded.

They had been Grace Carson’s parting words as the two of them left the church two nights before. On the front sidewalk she had pulled him to a stop to make her point. “Hank, the lady really likes you. You can’t doubt that. Even if the way she shows it makes you uncomfortable.”

As hard as it was to accept, he could not deny his friend’s assessment. “After all, it’s not her fault that she’s different than Sarah,” Grace had continued. “Why not let her be who she is and just enjoy your time with her?”

Having spent the last few hours in Angie’s company, Hank was forced to admit that Grace’s advice had proven correct. In the course of the evening he had grown more comfortable in the lady’s conversational company. As long as she kept her aggressively overt affection to herself they were getting along just fine.

Somewhere along the way it had dawned on him that Angie was essentially a ‘reporter’....judging everyone and everything in her path, recording her impressions of the world around her and giving voice to all she saw. 

What he had witnessed during their evening together was simply Angie being Angie, right down to her irritating need to be touching as she talked, and sometimes when she was not talking. What Hank had first interpreted as sexual aggression, he was now inclined to accept as a natural extension of her unrestrained conversational style....irritating, but less threatening than he had first assumed. 

By the time they pulled into Gladys’ driveway Angie was in a full blown sales mode, prodding Jimmy to offer his assessment of their ‘day-at-the-beach’ idea.

“I’m not really into long walks on the beach,” Jimmy offered. “It usually means a shoe full of sand, with nothing much to show for it.” 

That hardly sounded like an unqualified endorsement, until he added, “Of course, they do have a nice casino at Lincoln City. They usually end up with my money, but at least my feet are clean. And it has a great buffet restaurant. So I may not go jumping waves with you, but I think we ought to give it a try.”

There, parked in front of the Horner garage, Gladys and Jimmy made no move to leave the car. Like Angie, their eyes were on Hank, awaiting his response. Was he buying into their hopeful idea or simply buying time, looking for a way out? They wanted his vote to make it unanimous. Was that going to happen?

As he asked himself those same questions, Hank felt their stares. In the course of the last few hours he had managed to shed the tense anxiety he had carried with him to the theater. Even more surprising, it felt as though he and Angie had managed to find a patch or two of common ground.

“Okay,” he laughed, turning to Angie. “Why don’t you ladies work out the details. Let Jimmy and me know the ‘whats’ and ‘whens’ you come up with. Does that work for you, Scooter?”

By then Jimmy Brooder had Gladys’ hand in his. “Sounds good. Let’s do it.”


        ~~~


From her front steps Gladys and Jimmy watched Hank drive off into the night. There on the brightly-lit porch Jimmy was suddenly aware of new and distracting concerns. It had been more than fifty years since he last found himself in that space.... alone with a lady on her doorstep after a first date. No wonder he felt his chest tighten and unsettling butterflies churning in his belly.

Though it appeared he had something to say, he was obviously reluctant to step forward. In a matter of seconds Gladys realized she would have to take the conversational lead.

“It was a very good time,” she said. “I’m glad we went.” Turning ever so slightly toward the unopened door she paused, waiting for his response. What she finally heard was his timid question.

“Look, do you have a minute? There’s something I need to know.”

“Of course.” She took a moment to unlock the door, then turned back to him. “Why don’t we go inside? I’m sure by now we have some of my neighbors wondering. A couple of them are the kind to be peeking though their blinds. Let’s give them something more to chew on.”

Once inside Gladys waved Jimmy toward the living room, but he seemed not to notice. Instead he stood in the entry hall, hands in his coat pockets, once again taking in the tasteful opulence and wondering what made him think he belonged there.

“So what is it you need to know?” Gladys asked, jerking him back to the present. “You said there was something.”

“Yeah,” he nodded. For a moment his gaze was hijacked by an elegantly upholstered chair.... oriental in appearance, its wooden arms covered in iridescent mother of pearl. Finally, turning to her, “It’s about this coast thing. I just want to be sure Angie’s not talking you into something you’d rather not do.”

This time Gladys would not take “no” for an answer. Tugging on his coat sleeve, she pulled him toward one of the two living room sofas. “Please have a seat, Jimmy Brooder,” she insisted. “This may take a few minutes.” While she pulled her own arm chair closer, he did as he was told.

“Our friend Angie can be very persuasive,” she began. “We both know that. But let me assure you there’s no way in the world she could talk me into something like that if I didn’t want to do it. Do you understand? And I hope that’s true for you too. If you’d rather not go, you need to say so.” She paused long enough for a smug little grin to arrive. “Now, does that answer your questions?”

“It answers one of them. But only the easiest one of the bunch.” He could have chosen to dance around the edges of his nagging doubt, perhaps even stalled for a day or two. But at some point it had to be faced. Why put it off?

“Gladys, I went to the concert tonight hoping it would be a good time for you. I wasn’t sure I could make that happen, but that’s what I wanted.”

“And you did. I enjoyed myself very much.”

Were they speaking the same language, he wondered. It was hard to know for sure. “I’ll tell you what," Jimmy continued. "I suppose ‘enjoy’ wasn’t exactly the word I was looking for. Were you having fun? That’s what I’d like to know. When you say you enjoy something that sounds so proper, so kind of luke warm. I think I could tell you were enjoying yourself. But I’m not so sure I saw you having fun.”

“It was a good time,” she repeated. “Like I hoped it would be.”

“But was it fun? Was it ‘let yourself go and soak up the good times’ kind of fun? That’s what I was hoping for.” 

He leaned back on the sofa, taking a moment to wonder what gave him the right to critique her notion of ‘enjoyment.’ “Here’s my question. Would a day at the beach be your idea of fun, or something to be endured, something you’d 'enjoy'?”

“I’m afraid you lost me there.” Gladys was shaking her head, trying to understand. They were seventy-four years old, for heaven sakes. Why was he talking about “fun?” That was for children. 

“It’s been a long time since I thought about having fun. I do what needs doing around the house, work with my ESL friends and help out at the church, and every couple of weeks I have lunch with some of the girls. I enjoy most all of those things, but I don’t remember doing any of them for fun.”

Jimmy was tempted to carry on, to explain what he wanted her to know about him. But on their first date, after one brief evening together? Probably not. Hopefully there would be time for that later, and if there was not, what did it matter?

Pushing himself to his feet he started toward the door. “Maybe we can go there some other time. Right now I should be on my way.” He paused to make one last point. “Anyway, no matter how you describe it, I hope you had a really good time tonight. I know I did. And I hope a day at the beach is something you want to do, not something you got talked into."
      “Trust me. No one twisted my arm.” Squeezing his hand one last time, Gladys held the door for him. “I’ll call you as soon as Angie and I get the details worked out.”

How should a seventy-four year old fellow, a rather timid one at that, end a first date? For days Jimmy had looked forward to their time together. Yet never once had he considered saying his good byes. Turning his gaze from the floor to her eyes he managed a soft, “Thank you. It was really nice.”

A moment later he was behind the wheel of his pickup, scolding himself for not being bolder, yet knowing he was not ready to face her likely rejection of a proper good night kiss.