Friday, January 13, 2023

CONVERSATIONS WITH SARAH - Chapter 17

 





 

 CHAPTER 17


Having given it his serious consideration, in the end Jimmy Brooder decided against wearing his one suit to the Big Band Concert, though in fact that had never been a serious option. It was a dark blue, ill-fitting thing, at least twenty years out of style. Beyond a doubt it was better suited for funerals than first dates. Though in fact, if it ever did come back in style he would surely be the last to know. 

Instead he settled on the same slacks and dress shirt combination he favored for church, with the last minute addition of a sports coat borrowed the previous winter from son Kevin. Although it too was a bit out of date, the light-brown tweed, with its leather elbow patches, was the best he could manage. Finally, outfitted in that finery, he had stepped up to Gladys Horner’s door at six fifty-five, five minutes ahead of his scheduled seven o’clock arrival.

“Oh no, don’t tell me you’re one of those,” Gladys said, standing in the doorway. Her half-laughing observation had Jimmy wondering what he was being accused of.

“One of what?”

“You’re one of those ‘early’ freaks, aren’t you?” She stepped aside, motioning him into the entry hall and beyond to the formal, tastefully decorated living room. “I should have warned you about that.”

“I thought you said seven o’clock.”

“I think I said between seven and a quarter after. Anyway, I told Angie we’d be ready by seven fifteen.” Gladys was edging towards the hallway, anxious to complete her preparation. “But she knows I’m always late. So they’ll be here sometime after that. Anyway, have a seat. I’ll be ready in a few minutes.”

Suddenly alone amid the stiff and imposing furnishings, in what felt to him like a funeral-home waiting room, Jimmy sensed an uneasiness about Gladys' “have a seat” instructions. A lifetime of accepting furniture as functional, rather than fashionably decorative, had not prepared him for the formal elegance that surrounded him.

Choosing an impracticably straight-backed chair he sat down, perched on the edge of the seat, unwilling to settle back. He had no idea what style or label described the ornate and expensive furnishings that surrounded him, only that they were obviously intended to be admired rather than used. 

Leaning forward, he peered around the corner of the room into what seemed to be a dining room, a very formal one, the kind where one was expected to know which fork went with which course, and spills of any sort were forbidden.

On the wall at the far end of the entry hall, a cluster of photographs caught his attention. He stood and crossed the room for a closer look. A grouping of six portraits, arranged in chronological order, portrayed the Horners, their son David, and later a pair of grandchildren. He recognized Gladys, along with Lester, in various stages of youthful, and not so youthful, adulthood.

“Checking out the rogue’s gallery, I see.”

Jimmy had not heard Gladys' approach. He turned to find her standing behind him, buttoning a multicolored vest over her blouse. A second glance confirmed his first impression. Gladys Horner was indeed a pleasant sight to behold....short and slender, almost delicate, at least compared to Karen, who had filled out in her later years. As usual Gladys wore her gray-streaked hair mid-length and straight. From a few feet away her tiny, rimless glasses were scarcely noticeable.

“My, you do look nice, Mrs. Horner.” Jimmy Brooder was not normally given to such flattery. Yet the occasion, and her appearance, seemed to call for the truth, along with an added touch of reality. “I expect you’d be more at home with those uptown dandies we’ll see tonight than an old frog like me.”

“An ‘Old frog?’ I was just thinking how nice you looked. I’m just hoping I’ll know how to act in public on a gentleman’s arm. It’s been a long time.”

“In that case we’ll be coping together,” he answered, certain that no one would be ‘coping’ more than him. “I have to warn you. I haven’t spent much time in such rarified company.” He stopped short at the sound of the doorbell.

“Are you ready?” Hank Rolland asked when Gladys opened the door. “It’s time for us old folks to take on the big city.”

“We’re ready,” she replied, turning to Jimmy. “Aren’t we?”

It was a fifteen minute drive to downtown Tanner. For each of those minutes Hank tried his best to tune out the ladies’ rapid fire dialogue. Angie was half turned in her seat to facilitate her conversation with Gladys, who was in the back with Jimmy. More than once Hank was struck by how much they sounded like giddy schoolgirls, giggling with an anxiety neither of them was willing to admit.

At a stop sign he caught a glimpse of Jimmy in the rear view mirror. That was enough to produce his own grin, watching his friend distance himself from the ladies’ pointed critiques and catty judgments. At that moment it appeared that Jimmy Brooder was miles removed from his comfort zone.

Hank found a parking space only two blocks from the theater, accepting that as an auspicious beginning to their night on the town. As they approached the milling crowd in front of the Elmore he watched with bemused interest as Angie moved into a ramped up, high-alert mode....with her social antenna deployed. Nudging Gladys, she nodded to the couple in front of them.

“I thought they’d split up,” she whispered when they were out of the couple’s hearing. “That’s what she told Clara. At least that’s what Clara told me.” With her hand over her mouth she leaned closer to Gladys. “I believe there was something about his secretary. Apparently they’ve sorted that out.”

Entering the crowded theater foyer the foursome paused long enough to decide that they would pass on the wine bar, then made their way through the shoulder-to-shoulder throng toward the theater itself.

An usher checked their tickets and motioned them to the right-side aisle. Eyeing the letter-labeled rows as they moved toward the stage they soon found their places....a few seats in from the aisle. Once seated Hank and Jimmy scanned the ornate room, taking in the elaborately-sculptured ceiling and gilded decor, while all around them patrons filtered in, making for their seats.

Meanwhile, with the lights still turned up, Angie continued her ceaseless people watching, even tracking patrons on the far side of the large room. It seemed that no one escaped her scrutiny. When the house lights finally dimmed she was still peering through the half-darkness, continuing her whispered play-by-play account to Gladys, while silently expressing her displeasure with Hank’s apparent disinterest.

At last it was show time. For the next hour Tanner’s best musicians, along with a handful of imports from Portland and Seattle, transported enthusiastic concert goers to another time....an era well-remembered by some, ancient history for others, yet enjoyed by all. Then, as the strains of “Take the A Train” faded into the crowd’s appreciative applause the curtain dropped, signaling an intermission.

With Angie nudging him from behind Hank slid past the fellow seated beside him and stepped into the aisle. For the next few minutes the action would be in the lobby and Angie was determined to be there. While she toured the room, making casual, ‘accidental’ contacts at every turn, Hank found a piece of wall to lean against. 

After a few minutes he spotted Grace Carson stepping from the wine bar. Her questioning, raised-eyebrow grin was asking how his night was going. His eye-rolling nod in Angie’s direction provided his answer.

Back in the theater Jimmy had confirmed that Gladys would rather spend the intermission right where they were. He stood to stretch his legs and looked down to ask, “Pretty good, eh?”

“It was very good,” she replied, nodding toward the outside wall. “That couple over there was even dancing in the aisle. It’s been a while since I’ve seen that.”

“Yeah. Looked like they got caught up in the music. We could do that too, you know. We might give it a try. Probably help us unwind a bit.”

“You’re serious, aren’t you?”

“Of course I am.” He knew at once he would not be selling her on that idea. Still, it was fun to watch her squirm. “When I hear music like that it’s hard to sit still. My toes start tapping and next thing I know I’m ready to dance. As I remember, you used to be a dancer, a good one.”

“And so were you. But we were kids then. We’re not now.”

“How would you have known I was a dancer?” Jimmy asked. “You certainly never hung around long enough for me to ask you. Near as I can remember there was always some guy out there hanging on to you for dear life.” His unexpected wink offered a glimpse of Jimmy Brooder she had not seen before.

In fact, during the course of their evening together Gladys was learning more than a few things about her quiet, normally-shy friend, including the increasingly-apparent fact that once in his comfort zone, he was neither quiet nor shy. More to the point, in every way, he was so different than Lester. Although that might take some getting used to, it was by no means a bad thing.

“Anyway,” Jimmy added. “If you’d like to dance we can do that. Just let me know” A moment later, to her surprise, he reached down to take her hand. “But I understand that you have an image to protect. So we can pass on that if you’d like.” With a gentle squeeze he dropped her hand.

“Don’t be silly,” Gladys protested, unwilling to be painted with his ‘image’ brush. “It has nothing to do with that. If your memory was as good as you think it is, you’d remember I was always a slow dancer. I was a ballad girl. You know....Pat Boone, Frankie Avalon, Bobby Vinton.”

“I see. You mean ‘slow and close,’ eh? I do remember that’s what your kind of guys liked. No wonder I never had a chance. After all, you had a thing for the pretty boys.”

“Pretty boys?”

Jimmy reclaimed his seat, leaning closer to better exploit his unsubtle teasing, and hoping she would accept his humor. 

“That’s what we called them," he continued. "If you were like me....wrapped up in Eddie Cochran, Jerry Lee, and the Big E, that’s how your kind of fellows looked to us. They were pretty, bland, and harmless. For the guys I hung out with, the ‘badder our heroes were, the more we liked them.”

Gladys edged closer, wanting their conversation to remain private, especially his ‘bad boy’ talk. “And you wanted to be one of thosebad boys?’ Was that it? Was that how you thought of yourself?”

“I’m not sure you remember how it was in those days,” Jimmy explained quietly. “If the ‘good guys,’ and especially the ‘good girls,’ wanted nothing to do with you it was a lot easier to settle for being a ‘bad guy’....even if you weren’t really all that bad.”

“I don’t think I understand.” Gladys was literally whispering in his ear. “You were the best athlete in school. Lots of girls wanted to know you. You didn’t have to pretend to be macho. You were.”

All around them people were filing back to their seats. It was time to end their whispered stand off, yet he had still not made his point. “You’re right,” he nodded. “I was a jock. But that’s all I was.” 

Reaching out, with a finger under her chin he tilted her face up, until he was looking directly into her eyes. “I had nothing else going for me. Nothing. 

"The thing is, whether you’re talking about then or now, there’s one thing that hasn’t changed a bit. I’d rather be liked for who I am, than for what I can do. Okay? Now let’s enjoy the show.”

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