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. 

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