Laying there on the living room couch, thinking pleasant, even hopeful thoughts of Gladys Horner, Jimmy Brooder was in an altogether unfamiliar space. That she was on his mind was nothing new. She had long ago taken up residence in a corner of his cluttered memory closet. It had been her presence there, and the sight of her every Sunday at church, that had first prompted him to ask for Hank Rolland’s assistance.
He had approached his friend knowing the odds of winning Gladys’ company for a double date were probably too slim to calculate. Yet he had charged ahead, toward what might be his last chance. And now there he was, just days later, reveling in the reality of her surprising response.
True, she had not offered her outright acceptance of his roundabout invitation....the one routed through Hank, then Angie McDonald. Instead, it felt like she had dared him to do his own asking. At least that was how her blunt declaration sounded to him....that she would not consider a date with him until he spoke for himself. According to that logic it was time for Jimmy Brooder to step up on his own behalf.
Unfortunately, what the prim and proper Mrs. Horner appeared to be asking was, in Jimmy’s mind, tainted by uncomfortable recollections of a much-earlier invitation gone sour. It had taken him a long time to get over her high-school rejection. In truth, the hurt of it had never been fully expunged.
His memory of that brief encounter remained, painted in contrasting shades of humbling humiliation. On one hand he recalled the apparent ease with which Gladys had dismissed his request. On the other he still sensed the tempting urge to wipe the mocking smirk off her boyfriend’s face. Fortunately, by the time the blunt reality of her rejection had registered, the logic of rearranging his rival’s face had faded.
But that was then, a half century earlier....before the fifty-one years he had spent with Karen, before Kevin and Kelly, the twins who had made them a family. For all those years there had been no need for a Gladys Horner in his life. Yet, stubborn recollections of that time survived....tucked safely beyond conscious retrieval, only rarely bubbling to the surface.
That, however, seemed to be changing. There, since Karen's passing, in the midst of his new and lonely life, those ‘Gladys thoughts’ had become more frequent. Even more surprising, it appeared he might have tweaked her interest just a bit.
In his own under-the-radar manner Jimmy had set things in motion, with the stated intention of gaining her company for the Big Band concert. Only days before the notion of phoning her would have been unthinkable. Now, in response to her intriguing challenge, he was preparing to follow through.
“It was nice of you to call, Mr. Brooder," Gladys answered when Jimmy identified himself. "Was there something particular you had in mind?”
She was not surprised that he was calling. If anything, she wondered why he had waited until Thursday, four days after their Sunday morning exchange. Still, expected or not, she had already decided he would have to make his own case. She was not prepared to do the heavy lifting for a too-timid Jimmy Brooder.
“Well yeah, I do have something in mind. You know that.”
“All I know is what you tell me. And so far you haven’t told me a thing.”
“But you said.” He stopped short, realizing she was not prepared to make his task any easier.
Switching the phone to his other ear, he elaborated. “Look, when you left the other morning, at first I wondered if you were mad. Then, when I thought it over, it seemed like you were saying you’d be willing to go to the concert.”
“Oh, I’ll be going to the concert all right. I go every year. I never miss it.”
“I see. I guess I thought, after what you said, that you might......”
His words trailed off, leaving his timid question hanging in midair. He paused, taking in the truth of it. There was no need to blame her. The fault was in his own eagerness to accept her earlier remarks as encouraging.
“I’m sorry,” he finally said. “It sounds like maybe you said one thing Sunday morning and I heard something else. I should have known better than that.”
Perhaps Jimmy thought that was the end of the matter. Gladys, however, was waiting to have her say, beginning with a rather unexpected disclosure. “Jimmy Brooder, I watched you play sports in school. You played them all, better than anyone else. And in all that time I never once saw you give up, even when some of the others fellows did. That’s right, isn’t it?”
“I suppose so,” he replied softly. “It seemed like that’s what we were supposed to do.”
At that moment Jimmy was still processing the surprising revelation that she remembered his high school exploits. He always assumed she had never noticed that. Still, though it was nice to hear, what did it matter now? “Besides," he added. "That stuff came easy. This time it’s not about giving up. It’s about being realistic.”
“Realistic? You mean that asking Hank to ask Angie to ask me is your idea of realistic?”
“Come on. I thought it was a good idea....the double date thing. I asked Hank to give me a hand. Obviously that didn’t work out. So let’s forget about it. Just pretend it never happened.”
“So you called to tell me that you’re giving up on your own idea. Is that it? It seems to me you could have done the same thing by not calling at all.”
Gladys Horner’s normally-quiet manner was falling victim to her own frustration. It was harder that she expected, steering a reluctant Jimmy Brooder back to his own plan.
“So tell me, Jimmy. What was it that turned your good idea bad? Was it because I didn’t accept Hank’s invitation, the one I heard about from Angie? Or was it because I wanted to hear it from you?”
“In the first place, I didn’t call to tell you I’m quitting. And I’m not saying it’s a bad idea.” That much came easy. Would he be able to explain the rest of his dilemma?
“I am saying that it’s just not realistic. I got to thinking about how it would be. I’ll bet you were doing that too. The Big Band Concert is the closest thing to high society that Tanner has to offer. All the big wigs will be there. They’re your friends and I’m sure they have certain expectations about Gladys Horner and the company she keeps. Just imagine what they’d think if you showed up with me.”
Jimmy would be waiting a while for Gladys’ response. With the phone tucked against his shoulder he walked to the kitchen to warm his coffee. She was still on the line, faint shuffling sounds confirmed that. In all likelihood she was planning her retreat, perhaps prompted by thoughts of arriving at the Big Band Concert with Jimmy Brooder in tow. Who could blame her for that.
He took no pleasure in frightening her off, but it was time to face the facts. She understood better than anyone how out-of-place he would be in her social circle. He was about to follow that line of reasoning to its logical conclusion when Gladys cleared her throat, ready to rejoin their conversation.
“Jimmy Brooder, you are too frustrating for words.” He was not hearing the timid retraction he expected. Instead, an in-charge Gladys Horner was making her point.
“You’re right," she continued. "I do know those people and how they think. And I’ll tell you something else. The ones who matter to me know that if I show up with someone, it’s because that’s who I want to be with. The others can like it or lump it. But, of course, I can’t do that if no one invites me.”
How long had it been since Jimmy felt the need to provide his own pep talk? Perhaps it was as far back as his college football season, when getting ready for a big game meant reminding himself what was at stake. Now, in the face of Gladys’ transparent invitation, almost daring him to invite her, he was back in that space, commanding himself not to let the moment pass, even if it was more intimidating than any linebacker he had ever faced.
“You don’t remember,” he began, settling back on the couch with the phone cradled against his shoulder. “But I tried that once before. Asking you to a movie, I think it was. I’m not sure about that part, but I’ll never forget how it felt when you let the air out of my balloon. It took a long time to get over that. And here we are now, fifty-some years later, and that’s still the part I remember. That’s why having Hank help me out seemed like a good idea.”
“Do you really think I’m that senile?”
“What does that mean?”
“It means I certainly do remember the time you asked me out. And yes, it was to a movie.”
“Wow. That’s a surprise. Especially when you consider all the guys who were asking you out back then.”
“How could I forget? We were right in the middle of the Senior Hall. I was walking with Bruce Randall and you ....”
“Oh yes,” Jimmy interrupted. “Good old Bruce. He was your guy that week, wasn’t he. I remember how it was back then. We used to take bets on who would be your next month’s fellow.”
Ignoring his laughing complaint, Gladys pressed on. “What I’m saying is that no one else would have dared ask me out while I was standing there with another boy. I remember how that struck me as rather strange....and very conceited.”
“If you’re saying my approach was sort of unorthodox, I’m sure you’re right. Though it must have sounded like a good idea at the time.”
He paused to consider her lighthearted admission. It was good to know she actually remembered. But that was then. It was time to consider the here and now. They were still talking. That was a hopeful sign. But more to the point, it was time to respond to Gladys’ not so subtle hints.
“So here I am,” he said, switching the phone again. “Ready to try again. Hoping this time doesn’t hurt so much.”
“And I would like us to go the Big Band Night, you and I, along with Hank and Angie. If you’re willing to be seen in the company of an old plow horse like me I think it would be a really good time. Would you do that?”
“Good for you, Jimmy Brooder. That was very impressive. I will admit though, I’ve never had such a hard time prying an invitation out of anyone.” Gladys was on her feet, pacing across the room, pleased at how things had worked out. “But now that it’s done, I’d have to say it was a good idea you had.”
“And you’ll go, with me?”
“Of course I will. I’m looking forward to it. Just like you, I expect to have a very good time.”