Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The Best Man

          "If you need a dependable used car, reasonably priced," Cindy said over the phone, "Sam Brownlee's the best man in town to see."
"I know everyone says that."
"It's true, Laura. If you think you'll feel funny seeing him again, forget that thought. Sam wasn't to blame, anyway."
"Your're right."
"Go, girl. You won't be sorry."
That afternoon, Sam Brownlee smiled the instant he recognized me browsing among the fifty or more shiny used cars, trucks, and SUVs gleaming in the sun at his Kar Korner lot.
"Laura?" he said, strolling up to me, hand extended.
"Wow! This is a surprise. And a pleasure." Tall, lean, and blonde with midnight blue eyes, he shook my hand. My heart hit an unexpected speed bump, and my face felt warm. "Looking for a car?"
"I am. And everyone says you're the best man—" I halted. Smiled sheepishly. "I'm sorry. Poor choice of words..."
"How long ago has that been?" he said. "Over a year, probably?"
"Eighteen months."
"Have you seen Rick? He's working in Dexter, but I thought maybe he'd come back. Try to patch things up."
"I haven't seen him since he walked out, leaving me at the altar."
Sam's smile was soft and sympathetic. "His backing down—me, his best man—I had no idea what was going on with him, I swear. When it came to crunch time, he simply walked."
"We eventually talked things through. He said it wasn't me—he just wasn't ready for marriage."
"You were lucky," Sam said. "You could've married the wrong person."
"I know." Then I smiled and said, "You think I could get even luckier buying a used car?"
"You bet! We'll find you something you can trust, I promise."
As we meandered from car to car, I explained to Sam I'd been hired as a full-time teacher in Lancaster. My first full-time job after working three years as a sub. But Lancaster was thirty miles away. I didn't want to move, so I needed something better to drive than the ancient Ford Tempo I now owned. My commute would be sixty miles, round trip.
"Have you done your homework?" Sam asked, as we stood in front of a gorgeous red Ford Fusion. "What kind of car would you like? Have you checked blue book values? How much money are you willing to spend?"
"I'm not sure."
"Let me help. First thing you've got to know is how much money can you afford. Don't budge. Be firm. Or you'll end up with payments way over your head."
"I don't want that."
"Once the money question is settled, we'll find you the best car to fit your needs and budget."
This guy is awesome, I thought. "All right."
We inspected a host of cars—all low-mileage, moderately price cars.
I finally settled on the Ford Fusion that I'd like from the beginning.
After I thought I'd made up my mind, Sam said, "Now's the time when I should tell you to take the car home and drive it around for a few days because I know you'll fall hopelessly in love with it, come back and buy it no matter what the price. But that's not what I'm going to do."
"I'm going to tell you to take it, shop around, and see if you can find a better deal."
"You're kidding? You might lose a sale."
He shrugged. "Remember, stay firm about your budget."
That night I talked to Cindy again on the phone.
"Isn't he something?" she said. "He's not married, you know."
"I'm lookinmg for a used car, Cindy. Not a husband." Then I told her how great he'd treated me. And about the car I liked and his letting me keep it a few days while I shopped around.
"Told you he was the best man," Cindy said.
I spent the next day, Saturday, shopping around, as Sam had advised.
Unbelievably, I thought I'd found a better deal at Larry's Used Car Lot. Chuck, the salesman, said he could he could sell me a Honda Civic that had fewer miles on it and was a newer model than the Ford Sam had loaned me—for less money.
I realized I'd be a fool not to accept the offer.
"But I've got to talk to my boss, Larry, first," Chuck said. When he came back, all sad-eyed, he said Larry wouldn't let the car go for that low price, but I could take it home and drive it for a day or two to see if I liked it.
I smiled politely. "No thanks."
When I drove back to the Kar Korner, I walked into Sam's trailer office—he was alone, sitting behind his desk—and said, "You've got a deal."
"You looked around?"
"I did," I said, and told him about my experience at Larry's.
"That's the good guy/bad guy ploy," Sam said.
I sunk down in a chair in front of his desk. "Let's do the paperwork."
As we filled in the proper forms, Sam kept glancing at me nervously.
I couldn't imagine why. Was he selling me a lemon? Had is conscious suddenly sideswiped him? This couldn't be.
Finished, he leaned forward and laced his fingers on his desk. He seemed hesitant. "Look, I want you to know I'm a reputable used car salesman..."
"The best man, I've heard," I said, and smiled.
"I never ever date customers, but—well..."
My heart sped up, then suddenly seemed to skid, headed for a ditch maybe.
"Would you like to go out tonight?" Sam said.
I grabbed a breath and slowed my heart to idle speed.
A date with the Best Man. Could it be?
I plucked the extra keys to the Honda from the top of Sam's desk and said, "All right. "I jiggled the keys in my palm, smiling again. "Pick me up at seven. I'll let you test drive my new car."

Sunday, July 15, 2012

First Date

Tray in my hands, I eased into the booth in the company cafeteria and sat opposite Andy, my new best friend at work for the past month. Rookies on the job, we both worked as computer programmers for Holland Graphics. Looking up from his crossword puzzle, he said, "Wendy, are you all right?"
"Does it show that much?"
"Your mouth's drooping."
I stared at my burger, apple, and carton of milk on my tray.
"Just got an e-mail from home, " I said.
"My ex-boyfriend from college got married."
He looked at me cautiously. "Is that good or bad?"
"Good," I said. "I mean, I'm happy for him, but...I don't know...the thought hurts a little."
Andy offered me a soft smile. He has the deepest brown eyes. "Want to tell me about it?"
"It's been almost two years..."
"Tell me anyway."
I plucked my food off the tray and set everything on the table. "All right." I explained that when Tom and I met as seniors in college, I thought—Bang!— this is love at first sight. I'd found my soul mate. But one night, after about three months, Tom told me if I was thinking marriage, he wasn't the marrying kind. "'But you're lots of fun to be with,' he said. 'A very good sport.'"
Andy shook his head. "What a jerk."
"So Tom and I broke up. " I blew out a long breath. "When I think about it now, I realize he simply wasn't interested in marrying me."
Taking a big bite of his sandwich, Andy said, "The guy must've been crazy."
Surprised at that, I flushed a little.
Then Andy surprised me again, saying, "How about after work, we take a walk down by the river at LeClaire Park? I'll buy popcorn, and we'll feed the ducks. "
"I'd like that," I said.
"You look like you could use a little sunshine right now."
At LeClaire Park, five o'clock in the afternoon, Andy and I strolled along the sea wall with a pipe railing that ran parallel to this stretch of the Mississippi River. Paddling in the river, ducks followed us quack-quack-quacking! along the wall as we tossed popcorn to them. Eventually, we halted and bent to prop our elbows on the railing.
"So after Tom bailed, " Andy said, "why didn't another guy didn't latch on to you?"
"I decided to give my social life a rest. Graduate. Find a job."
"You haven't dated at all?"
"I've kept busy other ways. I like to read. I can knit up a storm. I work out three times a week." Then I looked at Andy curiously. "How about you? Do you date? Certainly there's been romance in your life."
"Several times—but I'm still looking."
I dumped the last of the popcorn over the railing for the ducks and dropped the cellophane bag in a nearby trash barrel. As we ambled along the bike path, Andy said, "When I was a kid, I wanted to do something exciting with my life. Like becoming a riverboat captain."
"I took dancing lessons. I wanted to be a star. But those dreams faded when I didn't even make show choir."
Andy pointed at a wrought-iron park bench under the shade of a giant maple tree. "Want to sit?" he asked.
When we sat down, his right arm looped the back of the bench but didn't touch my shoulders. Still, despite sitting in the shade, I felt an amazing warmth spreading through me. We saw a couple—teens, maybe—meandering across the grassy park. They stopped under a tree and kissed.
"My first kiss," Andy said, "was from Mary O'Leary. Ninth grade hayride, Halloween night."
"Tenth grade for me." I was surprised I was going to tell him this. "My front porch. After the Sweethearts Dance. His glasses poked me in the eye."
We both laughed. I loved the way his smile tugged his lips into a soft upward smile. I couldn't remember ever, ever feeling so at ease with a man and sharing memories like this with him.
Finally Andy said, "How about a Maid-rite? It's nearly supper time."
"All right. Haven't had a Maid-rite in ages."
When we stood, I don't know how it happened, but somehow, quite naturally, our hands found each other, and our fingers lace. Then I said ruefully, "Have you somehow cleverly tricked me into a date, Andy Blake?"
"I think so..." he said, and smiled again. "At least, I've been trying to."
 A little breeze blew my hair in front of my face. Andy reached out and brushed the wisps aside. My heart shivered.
"But if you don't want to call this a date—" he said.
"No, no," I said, and squeezed his hand. "Friends on a first date—I can't think of anything more romantic."
The End