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. 

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