Sunday, February 17, 2019

Sweet Things

     [A short story for today. Love and romance aren’t reserved to the young’uns. We geriatric types enjoy them just as much. Maybe more. -- FWP]

Sweet Things

     It was one of her less satisfactory crowds, but then, it was one of her less inspired performances. She tried to suppress the feeling of pointlessness, but that night the suspicion was too much with her that her time as a performer was drawing to a close. It didn’t help that small venues such as the Tipplers’ Retreat and crowds that seldom exceeded two hundred listeners had become her norm. The sense that her career was drawing to a close seeped into her playing and singing against her will.
     Yet except for a handful, they stayed to the end. That, at least, was gratifying. Her guitar playing was still competent, if not much more. Even when not at its best, her voice could still compel and woo. At sixty years of age, a performer by trade for forty of them, it was something to be grateful for. Probably more grateful than she was.
     She played and sang for ninety minutes, with a single ten minute break in the middle. It was all she had in her. The crowd applauded perfunctorily as she took her closing bow. There was no request for an encore. It was just as well.
     Weakness born of hunger coursed through her as the attendees rose and made for the exit. She drooped and started to totter. Her guitar fell from her hand and clattered against the stage as she toppled forward. A man who’d been sitting in the front row surged forward. A moment later she was wrapped in his arms, her head resting on his shoulder. She moaned her thanks as she lost consciousness.


     She awoke slowly, finding herself in a high-backed chair that was sidled up to the bar. Across from her sat a stranger, presumably the man who had caught her when she fell from the dais. He was of a medium height, perhaps a little taller than she was. He had a trim but broad-shouldered build, a weathered but pleasant face, and a mass of dark brown hair around a prominent Saint Anthony’s bald spot. He wore a navy blue sport jacket over a blue dress shirt, neatly pressed slacks, and black walking shoes. He watched her with open concern. Apart from the two of them and the bartender, Tipplers’ Retreat was empty.
     “What time is it?” she slurred.
     “Isn’t it customary to ask ‘where am I’ first?” he said.
     She shook her head gently and waited for her eyes to focus. “Thank you, I’d forgotten the rules. And thank you for catching me. That hasn’t happened in quite a while.”
     There was still concern in his eyes. “But it has happened before?”
     She nodded.
     “Have you had a checkup recently?”
     “No, I...I’m fine.”
     “I hope I won’t offend you if I express a smidgen of doubt about that.”
     She grimaced but said nothing.
     “When did you eat last?” he said.
     She shrugged. “Yesterday afternoon.”
     He swore under his breath. “That would explain a lot. Do you think you’re able to walk? Safely, I mean.”
     She levered herself out of the chair and stood. Her balance seemed restored. “I can manage from here. Thanks again.” She started away.
     His hand flashed out and took her by the forearm.
     “Nothing doing,” he said. “You need to eat, and right away. Pull up the hem of your gown so you won’t trip.”
     At an earlier time she might have responded with violence. Even ten years before she would at the least have protested his assertion of authority over her. That night she did as she’d been told. She allowed him to wrap an arm around her waist, to lead her out of the bar to a large, dark automobile parked a few dozen yards away, to install her in the passenger’s seat, and to drive her away into the night.


     “Why are you doing this?” she said as the waitress moved away. She attacked her eggs Benedict and candied yams with unconcealed hunger.
     “Shouldn’t I? Have I embarrassed you?”
     “No...well, maybe a little,” she said between bites. “But kindness isn’t something to expect around here.”
     He smirked. “Tough area?”
     “You could say so.”
     “You had a pretty good turnout this evening.”
     She shrugged. “There isn’t much to do in Hamilton on a Friday night.”
     “That’s true of a lot of New York,” he said. “But we had you.”
     The note of warmth in his voice piqued her curiosity. “You’re not local?”
     He shook his head. “I was in town for business.”
     “Where’s home?”
     “Onteora County. About an hour’s drive south and west. I decided to hang around rather than drive back home at once.”
     “What sort of business?”
     “Venture capitalist. I look for new business possibilities that could use more money than they have. If I find one that I like, I give the principals a shot in the arm and take a piece of the action.”
     “A big piece?”
     “Not usually. It averages around ten percent. I want the people I fund to feel a little obligation, but also to remember that they’re largely working for themselves, just as they were before I happened along.”
     “Is that what you’ve always done?”
     “Most of my life,” he said. “I started out as an industrial chemist. I got lucky early on. I patented a process I came up with on my own time, and I was able to license it to a Fortune 100 firm for a big advance and some serious royalties. That gave me choices. I talked with my wife about it. I asked her whether she wanted to be conventionally, boringly rich, or would she be willing to take a little risk? She chose the latter, and off I went.”
     “You’re married?” she said.”
     He shook his head. “Widowed. About fifteen years now.” His face worked. “Ovarian cancer.”
     “I’m sorry.”
     He nodded. She studied him with heightened attention.
     At an earlier time she might have feared him, especially given the way he’d taken command of her. He was big and strong enough to be a threat to a woman her size, and she had no way to defend herself. Yet he radiated a subtle benevolence. He might look out for himself first and foremost as most men do, but there was more to him than that.
     He noticed and smiled. “You should finish your yams. They’re no fun when they get cold.”
     She returned the smile. “I’ve eaten them cold often enough. It hardly matters. I like sweet things.”
     He nodded. “I can tell.”


     Their conversation grew animated. It lasted through what remained of her eggs and yams, three cups of coffee, and a slice of banana cream pie. He kept to coffee as he spoke of the businesses he’d funded and the ones he’d passed by. He got her laughing with tales of “developers” with ideas for products no one in his right mind would purchase, and others who’d “invented” things that had been around for years. Other stories concerned promoters with business ideas he wouldn’t touch, no matter how much profit he’d forgo by turning them away.
     He spoke casually, almost carelessly of his monetary returns. He seemed uninterested in the “big score.” His profits were sufficient to outweigh his losses; that was enough. More than his gains he prized the exposure to what was going on, what ideas were percolating in the minds of adventurous young Americans, and some not so young ones as well. He didn’t regret any of his failed investments, only the opportunities he’d missed by being unaware of them.
     He said nothing about his late wife, the son he’d lost to a road accident, or any other family. It seemed he was alone in the world. Despite her curiosity, she resolved not to press him about it.
     She spoke of her career as a performer, first of the lean years when her band was building a fan base, then of the period when their records were selling well, when venues that would seat thousands sought them out, when photos of her appeared on the covers of pop music journals and women’s magazines. Then came midlife and the falling-out, when her bandmates decided they would no longer “hide in her shadow,” and she found herself alone. He listened without a word, even as she spoke of her pauperized present of one-night stays in cheap hotels when she could book a few venues such as Tipplers’ Retreat in sequence, and of sleeping in her car, her few remaining possessions piled around her, when no bookings were in prospect.
     She told all, held nothing back. He flinched at none of it.
     When she ran down he said “So it’s been hard for a while now?”
     She nodded. “Tonight was one of my better gigs. But I don’t have anything lined up for the future.” She smirked. “Not the sort of business you’d leap to fund, is it?”
     His lips thinned. “It presents what we would call an ‘unfavorable risk profile,’” he said. He leaned toward her. “All the same, your music has immense appeal. Your songs are original and striking, and you sing them with feeling.”
     He looked away for a moment. “Never mind your age. You’re beautiful and you have the voice of an angel. You can keep performing if you want to, even if it’s for small crowds in coffee shops and bars.”
     “Did you go into that bar,” she murmured, “to hear me?”
     He shook his head gently. “No, I can’t honestly say that.” He smiled. “But I think I would have, if I’d been familiar with your music.”
     The surge of warmth made her briefly lightheaded.
     “Thank you,” she said. “That makes the evening worth while. Local bar, small crowd, faint, and all,” she said. “But it would be nice if more such places were willing to book an aging has-been. For tonight at least, it’s back to my car.”
     He peered at her. “You were serious about that?”
     She nodded.
     He locked eyes with her for a long, uncomfortable moment.
     He pulled out his wallet, laid two twenties on the table, and rose.
     “Come to Onteora with me.”


     She could have resisted. She could have protested. She could have excused herself to use the ladies’ room and fled through the diner’s rear exit. She could have started screaming in the hope that the police would arrive promptly enough to save her from abduction by—and immeasurable obligation to—this entirely too benevolent stranger.
     She did none of the above.
     He drove her to her car, helped her gather her few clothes and other personal items, and secured them in his trunk. He drove her back to Tipplers’ Retreat, where she’d left her guitar, and tipped the bartender for looking after it for her. From there he drove them south and west to Onteora County, of whose existence she had known nothing.
     It was nearly two in the morning when he ushered her into Niagara House and rang the front desk bell.
     An old man, tall but beginning to stoop from his years, came forth from the back rubbing the sleep from his eyes. He squinted at her Samaritan. “Evan? What on earth?”
     “Thank you for getting up, Jared,” Evan said. “This lady needs accommodations. I trust you’re not full up?”
     “Not nearly.” Jared turned and plucked a brass key from the board behind him. “Room 21 is available and ready. Assuming, Miss...?”
     “Gail Kristof,” she said.
     Jared’s eyes widened. “The singer?”
     She nodded. “I’m not used to being recognized, even by name.”
     “Well! I never saw you in concert,” Jared said, “but I’ve always enjoyed your music. How long will you be staying with us?”
     Evan proffered a black credit card. “That’s indefinite for the moment. We’ll let you know. Let me—”
     She sensed a last chance, worth lunging for even if she should fall and humiliate herself. She interrupted in her most authoritative voice.
     “Evan,” she said. Both men turned to her at once. “May I suggest another arrangement?”
     His eyes narrowed. “What sort?”


     He hadn’t looked uncomfortable before that, but the tension in his face and the set of his shoulders had become unmistakable. He drove through the darkened streets with great care, as if he were braced for an unpleasant surprise. Perhaps the surprise he feared was to come from her.
     He pulled into the driveway of a large home in a neighborhood of similar houses, killed the engine, and turned to her.
     “You’re sure about this?”
     She nodded. “You’re alone. So am I. I don’t like it much, and from what you’ve told me I suspect you don’t either. I can’t offer much, Evan, but I can keep you company and keep house for you. My cooking isn’t haute cuisine, but it’s usually edible. I can clean, do laundry, and all the rest of it as well as anyone. I’ll happily do that for a warm, safe place to sleep. And if you’ll throw in a couple of meals a day,” she said, “I’ll play and sing for you whenever you like.”
     “Please, Evan?” She reached for his hand. He did not resist her. “Could we just try it out?”
     You’re the best man I’ve met in forty years. Please don’t turn me away.
     After an eternity he said “All right.”
     He led her into the house, up a flight of stairs, and ushered her into a small bedroom he might have been using as a guest room. There was a neatly made queen-size bed, a large dresser, and a capacious closet. A spare chair stood in the far corner. Illumination came from a lamp mounted in a wall sconce above the bed.
     “Is this all right?” Evan said.
     “I’m sure it’s a lot more comfortable than the back seat of my old Chevy.”
     He grinned mirthlessly. “Let’s get your stuff out of the car and get you settled in. I’ll give you the rest of the tour in the morning.”
     “What time do you usually get up?”
     “Never fear,” he said. “You won’t wake me.”

     But she did wake him.
     She’d slept for perhaps an hour when she woke to the sound of his sobs. The wall between her room and his wasn’t substantial enough to dampen the sound. Her many nights spent sleeping in her car had sensitized her to such noises.
     She got out of bed, pulled on an oversized t-shirt, and slipped out of her room and into his. He seemed to be asleep. Even so he was plainly weeping in the darkness. Some tragic dream, perhaps a memory of his wife and son, had come to torment his slumbers.
     She carefully pulled back his bedcovers, slid under them, and slid her arms around him.
     It took about a minute for him to awaken. His eyes immediately went wide. He gasped, “Gail...what...”
     “Shhh.” She pulled him snugly against her and rested his face on her shoulder. “It’s all right, Evan. Go back to sleep.”
     To her relief, he did.

     The morning was upon them too soon for her taste. She would have happily remained in his bed, merely holding him, for several hours more. A man’s embrace was a pleasure and a comfort she had been too long denied.
     His eyes opened. She smiled. His face worked. He slid out of her arms in silence, arose and pulled a robe from his closet, and slipped out of the room. She waited until she heard the sound of running water, rose, and descended to the kitchen.
     He came down the stairs a few minutes later. His persona of the night before, authoritative and decisive, was absent.
     It’s my turn.
     She looked up from the skillet and donned as unstressed a smile as she could produce.
     “Good morning, Evan. The coffee’s ready.”
     “I did mention that I can cook, didn’t I? Making coffee is one of my other skills. Have a seat, this is almost ready.”
     He seated himself at the dinette table. She’d already set out two place settings, a dish of butter, and a small pitcher of milk. Presently she toted over two plates laden with jelly omelets and home fries. A moment later she added a toasted English muffin to each plate. Mugs of hot coffee followed. Rather than sit, she pulled open the refrigerator and peered inside.
     “Strawberry, raspberry, cherry, or peach jam?” she said. “I put strawberry in the omelets.”
     “Peach,” he said, barely audible.
     She extracted the jar of peach preserves, brought it to the table, and seated herself. “Done. Milk for your coffee?”
     She added milk to each of their mugs, seated herself, and bowed her head over her folded hands.
     “Father, bless this repast,” she intoned, “and accept our thanks for all Your blessings, especially those that arrive unexpected in our times of darkness. In Christ our Lord, Amen.” She looked up and grinned. “Well? Dig in!”
     They ate their breakfasts in silence. When both had finished she collected the dishes, rinsed them and put them into the dishwasher, reseated herself, and took his hand.
     “You look a little shaken, Evan,” she said. “Want to talk about it?”
     “I didn’t expect...what you did,” he said.
     She nodded. “I know.”
     “Woman’s prerogative,” she said. “It’s what we do. Are you objecting?”
     “No, it was sweet of you.” He looked away. “It’s been a long time.”
     “You told me last night.”
     “What are we doing, Gail?”
     She shrugged. “Making one household out of two.”
     He snorted, some of his composure restored. “That’s terse.”
     “That’s how you have to talk to rock musicians,” she said. “They have short attention spans. But would more words change it into something else?” she said. “Or did you want to lodge an objection?”
     “To which?”
     “To both! But I didn’t expect—”
     “You said that already.” She chafed his hand. “I wanted to, Evan. From much earlier in the evening, to be honest. But it’s your home. If you don’t want it to happen again, just say so, and it won’t.”
     “No,” he said, “I do want it. But what now?”
     “Well,” she said, “I took a quick look around the house before you came down. It looks pretty clean, so I don’t think there’s much to do about that just now.”
     “Yeah,” he muttered. “I have a cleaning lady who comes in on Wednesdays.”
     “Hm. You didn’t mention that last night.”
     He scowled. “I had a lot of other things on my mind at the time.”
     “So do you have an agenda for today? Appointments or anything like that?”
     “No,” he said. “My day is open.”
     “Well, then,” she said, “have you showered?”
     “Uh, not yet.”
     “Want to join me?”
     “Why not, Evan? I want to make love with you. Would you rather do that while we’re still dirty?”
     He opened his mouth, closed it again.
     “Or maybe,” she said, “you don’t want to do it at all.”
     “No!” he said. “I mean, I do want to. But this is pretty sudden.”
     “I’m sixty, Evan. How old are you?”
     “Sixty-two,” he muttered.
     “Are you getting any younger? ’Cause I’m not.”
     He scowled and looked away.
     She rose and pulled at his hand. “Come on. Time to shower. Then we make love. Then maybe we shower again. I like showering. Especially when I have someone to wash my back.”
     “Gail,” he said, “this is serious.”
     “Damn it all, I know that!” she said. “And whether we go upstairs, turn on the shower, and get in together or sit here and agonize over it, time is passing that we’ll never get back. That’s as serious as life gets. So what are we waiting for?” She stood with her arms akimbo. “Have you decided I’m not good enough for you?”
     “Great God in heaven, Gail, of course you’re good enough!” He rose and took her in his arms, and she pulled him close. “You’re a fantasy come to life. I can’t quite believe it’s really happening.”
     She nodded. “I can’t quite believe it either, but it is. Last night I was ready to give up on music, life...everything. Instead I fainted and fell into the arms of the best man I’ve ever met. The man I want to spend what’s left of my life with. That’s you, in case you were wondering. So we’ve each got a fantasy to get over.” She frowned. “Evan what?”
     “What’s your last name? I’m not sure it’s proper to make love with a man whose last name I don’t know. Is it a secret? You’re not on the run from the law, are you?”
     He laughed. “Hardly. It’s Conklin.”
     “Evan Conklin,” she said. “I like it. It suits you.”
     “I should hope so, after sixty-two years.”
     “Any middle name?”
     He grinned. “Now you’re asking a lot.”
     “Come on! Mine’s Amarantha.”
     “Really? Gail Amarantha Kristof?”
     “Mom was a hopeless romantic. And a bit of a ditz. So what’s yours?”
     “That works. So shall we shower?”
     “First things first,” he said, and kissed her.
     A long, blissful interval later she said “You should have waited till I’d brushed my teeth before you did that.”
     “Didn’t bother me,” he said. “I like sweet things.”     


     [Copyright (C) 2019 by Francis W. Porretto. All rights reserved worldwide.]


Linda Fox said...

How - unexpected.

And, perfect for a Valentine's weekend.

Michael Stone said...

That was lovely!
Thank you!

Sam L. said...

Story, lovely, one (1) each. Why yes, I was in the service.

Amy Bowersox said...

That was beautiful!!! Would that there were more men like Evan in the world...and more women with the perceptive nature of Gail.

Heilong said...

Great writing, Frances. Believable and it move along at a right smart clip.

John said...

Very nice.

Tracy Coyle said...

I like!!

HoundOfDoom said...

Great work as always, i really like your writing style.

daniel_day said...

Congratulations! And thank you.

MrGarabaldi said...

Very good story, add to it..