Thursday, March 31, 2011

The Sunshine Man

         I had desk duty at the library when I first saw him strolling toward me. His face broke into a cautious smile. He was good-looking—lanky with deep brown eyes and a head full of short brown curls. But I didn't recognize him.
"Julie?" he said, stopping in front of the counter. "Julie Hayes?"
I nodded, puzzled. His face blossomed into a brightest smile imaginable. "Dennis," he said.
"Dennis Wright from the track team. "
My hand flew to my mouth. "Oh, Dennis, I'm so sorry, " I said. "Wow—but you look totally different. I mean, you look great," I added, and he laughed before my face turned completely red. "Were are your glasses?"
"Contacts. And I gained a few pounds. Cut my hair."
I couldn't believe the sight of him. In high school he was tall and gangly with unruly curls that fell to his ears and forehead like a mop. But he was the state's best hurdler. "Have you come back to Fairfield?" I asked.
"I'm going to be your local weatherman. Channel Six. "
"When?" I felt my face brighten.
"Starting next week," he said. "Noon, six, and ten o'clock news." He shrugged. "Got tired of drifting around. "
"And I've come for a library card," he said. "The way I devour books, I can't afford to buy everything I want to read."
"You're at the right place." From below the counter I produced an application for him and handed him a ballpoint.
As he filled out the application, my mind drifted back seven years to our seasons on the track team at Fairfield High and the thrill of competing. At that the time, Dennis wore thick glasses and read thick books between his events. Nick, my boyfriend, later my fiancé, pole vaulted and long jumped. I ran sprints.
After Dennis finished filling out the application and I made out his card, he smiled up at me and asked, "You and Nick, married? Kids?"
"It didn't work out, Dennis."
His smile dissolved. "Because of the accident?"
"You could say that."
A mom with three toddlers in tow came up behind Dennis. They obviously needed my help. So I told Dennis I had an hour for lunch at noon, and I'd meet him at the LeClaire Park. He said he'd get something for us to eat; he'd meet me back here at the library, and we'd walked down to the park together.

      At the park, we sat at a picnic table near the band shelter. The day was warm but overcast, a breeze stirring the treetops. I fed the tuna fish salad sandwich I'd brought from home to the ducks. Dennis and I devoured tenderloin sandwiches and ice cream bars he'd bought from a street vendor. At one point, in what I supposed was typical weatherman fashion, Dennis cocked an eye toward the sky and said, "Front coming in from the North. Might get a good April rain later."
"Looks like it."
Then we talked about high school, the fun we had running track. I told him I'd been at the library since graduating from State. "I'm the chief assistant now."
"Congratulations!" Then he added with a shy grin, "You look in good shape. Just like high school."
I felt myself blushing.
"You still run?" he asked.
"Nearly every day. Usually in the evening. Three or four miles."
"Me, too. Whenever I find the time." Turning somber, his brown eyes crisscrossed my face. "Are you going to tell me about Nick?"
"I mean, I know about the pole vaulting accident in college—his pole snapped when he was eighteen feet in the air. Broke his back, but he recovered, didn't he?"
I looked out across the grassy park. "He recovered perfectly," I said. "I can't imagine anyone braver or more determined than Nick."
I explained that he was in intensive care for twenty-two days, teetering between life and death. Nick went from wearing a halo in a hospital bed to a wheelchair, no halo; and after five months in the hospital, he went home. With lots of therapy, he slowly began walking again. He graduated from college a year after his fall, ambling across the stage, fully recovered.
"A miracle," Dennis said.
"You would've been proud of him—I was. He fought so hard."
"You were still engaged?"
I shook my head.
"Look, Julie, you don't have to tell me, it's none of my business, anyway."
"No, it's all right," I said and smiled, eager to prove what I was about to say was true. "I've been over him for a long while." I brushed a strand of hair off my cheek. "Nick fell in love with his physical therapist. They were married after he graduated. They moved out West to where she was from. Oregon, I think."
Dennis frowned in disbelief.
I reached across the table and patted his shoulder. "It's all right," I said. "I'm okay. Honest."
"What about now?" Dennis asked. "You haven't found someone else?"
I shrugged. "I'd gone through high school and college not thinking about other guys, other possibilities. I still haven't, I guess. "
"But you should..."
"And I've been busy."
"'re beautiful."
My face heated up again with a blush. "Thank you." The last person to tell me that had been Nick. "But what's with you?" I said. "Wife? Kids? A weatherman who brings nothing but sunny skies?"
He laughed. "Like today?"
"Seriously," I said.
"Well, I've worked all over—St. Louis, Omaha, Sioux City. But no wife and kids. I never had a chance to settle down. I'm looking forward to finally staying put."
Finished with lunch, we started walking up Main Street to the library, side-by-side, chatting about how little the town had changed. We passed the jewelry store where Nick had bought our engagement ring. What a totally dark, stormy day in my life it had been when I gave the ring back.
When we stopped in front of the library, Dennis said, "Where do you run? When?"
"Duck Creek Bike Path. Usually about seven."
I loved the soft smile that curved his lip. "Would you care if I joined you?" he asked.
I blinked. Was he serious? "I'd be delighted."
"Seven." He said, and squeezed my hand, a tingle shooting through me.
I watched him cross the street, headed for his car. Then he turned and yelled, "Don't forget! Seven!" He tilted his head toward the sky. "Even if it's raining!"
But I didn't care if it rained or not. Dennis had brought a sudden glimpse of sunshine back into my life.
The End
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Tuesday, March 15, 2011

You'll Like My Mom

 I stood motionless in the aisle of the otherwise empty high school auditorium, listening to the woman playing Irish songs on the piano, which was off stage in the orchestra pit.
I eased down the aisle, closer to her. She was totally focused on her music, which now slowed to a haunting melody everyone recognized, "An Irish Lullaby."
She must have sensed my presence. She stopped playing and suddenly spun around on the piano bench to face me. "Oh! I'm sorry." She jumped up in surprise.
"It's all right," I said. "That was beautiful."
"I shouldn't have—"
"It's all right," I assured her again. "I'm the assistant principal here—Charlie Wainwright. And you're—? I should know your name."
"Maggie—Margaret Sullivan. My daughter, Kathy, has the lead in the musical. I was waiting for her after practice. But she must've ducked out, and I couldn't resist the piano—" Maggie shrugged helplessly. "I really must leave."
Probably my age, middle forties, with hair still black and the figure of a cheerleader, she scooted by me for the exit. She was a local celebrity. She reviewed movies for our newspaper and often appeared live on local TV with a review. Her husband, a National Guard pilot, had died a hero in combat some time ago.
Before I'd become assistant principal, I'd had her daughter in tenth grade PE. We'd become great friends. The next day, Kathy came up to sit across from me in the cafeteria at lunchtime. Eying me, she said, "Mr. Wainwright, you're a bachelor, right?"
"That I am," I said.
"You should check out my mom. She's the hottest mom in town."
I felt my eyebrows arch.
"She has two complimentary tickets to the play," Kathy said, "but she's not going with anyone."
I smiled. "Maybe your mom wouldn't like this, you trying to fix her up."
"Don't be silly. Sit next to her. Talk to her. You'll like my mom. I mean, really."
I spotted Maggie Friday night at the first performance of the play. Hundreds of kids and parents milling about, she stood by herself in the hallway during intermission, studying the program, and I approached her.
"Mr. Wainwright," she said, her blue eyes wide. "Nice to see you again."
"Charlie," I said. "Beautiful performance. Kathy's marvelous. "
"Thank you." Then sheepishly she said, "I should apologize about the other day. I hadn't played in so long. We don't have a piano at home any longer. I couldn't resist the urge."
 "No need to apologize." I cleared my throat. "Is there a vacant seat next to you?"
"I had an extra ticket, but I gave it away. I have to run."
She whirled and bolted away into the crowd, avoiding me again. My shoulders sagged. I felt like a schoolboy who'd lost his last chance to win the girl.
The play closed Saturday night to thunderous standing ovations. Later, parents sponsored a pizza party in the cafeteria for the cast and crew. I found Maggie along with other parents opening the cardboard pizza boxes and separating slices with a pizza cutter. I elbowed in next to her. "Need help?"
She gave me a crooked smile. "Mr. Wainwright, you're everywhere."
"Charlie," I said. "Being everywhere is part of my job—where ever students gather."
Kathy swung by, snatched up a paper plate and a piece of pizza, and gave us a gigantic smile. "See you two have finally met. Be home early, Mom." And with a wink she swept away.
My eyes locked on Maggie's.
"Do you know what that's all about?" she asked.
"Um, I'm not sure. Maybe."
"We better settle this."
Maggie dragged me off to an empty table in the corner of the cafeteria, where we sat across from each other. "This is embarrassing," she said, her face flushing. "Kathy will be graduating this spring, then going off to college, maybe finding a career on stage. She thinks—well, she thinks..."
"You'll be left alone."
"Exactly. She's been planning for me to meet you, and then when we met by accident, I nearly—well, 'freaked,' is what Kathy would say."
I smiled. "She thought we would sit together at the play opening night."
Now it was Maggie's turn to smile—full, red lips curving. "She said a tall handsome stud would be sitting next to me. But I gave my ticket away to an elderly neighbor lady whose granddaughter is in the chorus."
I couldn't resist telling Maggie this: "Your daughter told me you're the hottest mom in town."
Maggie rolled her eyes. "Oh, Lord. What is my seventeen-year-old thinking?"
"You're hot, I'm a stud."
Maggie leaned back in her chair. "Mr. Wainwright—"
"Charlie. Please."
"Charlie, I'm not hot. I'm a widow who has is quite happy with her life."
"I understand," I said. "I often feel the same way—happy with my life. But sometimes I think there's more. Maybe I'm missing out."
Maggie slid her chair back and stood. "I try to dodge those feelings."
We went back to helping with pizza.
After the cast, musicians, and stagehands devoured all the food and drink in sight and started leaving, I grabbed fifty-gallon trash bags from the storage closet in the kitchen and began dumping the pizza boxes into the bags. Maggie said, "Looks like you need help this time."
"Thanks," I said, and started filling the bag Maggie held open. "What are you doing with the rest of your evening?"
We shuffled along to another table littered with empty pizza boxes. She glanced at her watch. "It's all ready ten o'clock."
"I know where we can get a drink. Or coffee."
I dumped more cartons into her trash bag.
"Where would that be?"
"The Shamrock Lounge," I said. "There's an old piano in a corner. Saturday night, the place will be crowded, but you'll be able play till closing time. Maybe beyond. Think of what you're missing."
"You're very persistent, Mr. Charlie Wainwright."
"If we don't connect, Kathy will be disappointed. A stud and the hottest mom in town—striking out."
"Did Kathy really say that about me—the hottest mom in town?"
"Indeed, she did."
No answer from Maggie.
The trash bags full, I tied the tops in a knot and shoved the bags against the wall. When I turned to Maggie, I saw that she was talking to Kathy, who was apparently getting ready to leave with her friends. Hugging her mom, Kathy shot me a knowing smile over her mom's shoulder.
A moment later Maggie stepped up to me and said, "I told Kathy to take my car. Are we finished here?"
"The custodians will do the rest and lock up. We have a date?"
Her smile was warm, her blue Irish eyes sparkling. "You seem to be one of those feelings I can't dodge, Charlie."
Kathy was right. I liked her mom. I mean, really.

The End
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