Short Story

Eight Months and Five Men Well – a short story

The biggest surprise about running a retail gift store was the number of folks who came in to sell something rather than buy something; trade rather than pay; and the number of non-profits seeking donations. The symphony guild took the cake; they not only wanted me to sponsor symphony events; they sent me dates.  Shortly after I turned the open sign around on a sunny Tuesday morning, I saw two dowagers heading my way from the parking lot.  Notebook in hand and hats on heads they entered my shop to interest me in tickets to a benefit concert.  How could I say no?  John Denver had always been a favorite songwriter of mine.  To say I hadn’t a penny to my name would not be an exaggeration. Although my business bank account was bare bones, I rationalized the ticket as cost of doing business. I bought one.  One, single ticket; in the best of locations.  The dear ladies murmured many ooohs and ahhhhhs over my cute little shop and made much of the single ticket purchase. They endeavored to interest me in purchasing a second ticket for a guest. Of course, that would increase my charitable donation.

“Oh, but you should go with somebody!” the guild president declared.

“Don’t you know some handsome, eligible young man?” questioned the concert chairwoman. “Honey, if you know someone; ask him!  One doesn’t have to wait for a man to come courting. These are the 80s. You may make the first move. A charming young entrepreneur such as yourself has her choice of the entire realm of men.”

I stood firm.  I alone knew the state of my finances.  I alone knew that the purchase of this one ticket threatened to undo the delicate balance.  My little business was a textbook case of undercapitalization. I was already feeling guilty with the knowledge that I was going to squander this purchase on me and me alone.  I was not going to pass the ticket on as a prize in a loyal customer drawing. I was not going to give it to a charity for the underprivileged. I was going to see John Denver myself. In person.

Wednesday morning following the visit of the two symphony guild ladies, a hail of men broke loose.  I looked up from my cash register to see a very handsome man enter the shop.  He was clad in a sport coat, hair freshly trimmed and blocked, straight from the barber.

“Good morning,” he said.  Sophisticated.  Polished. Not aggressive or ingratiating like a salesman.  I could tell immediately that he was not originally from around here. “My name is Ron Standards,” he paused to see if recognition lit my eyes.  All I could think of was how fitting the name was.  He looked every inch a standard setter. After a moment, he continued, “My mother Harriet was in your store yesterday representing the symphony guild.”  I began to smile as he continued,  “Last night at dinner she talked of nothing else but you and your gift shop.  Since it is my day off, I thought I would come in and see for myself.  Did I catch you at a bad time?”

“As you can see, business isn’t exactly booming.”  I responded, “How did you manage a day off in the middle of the week?”

“By working a 14 hour day last Saturday, and again on Monday.”  He smiled, “U-haul can’t work me past 40 hours without a day off.”

“Busy season for moving?”

“You could say that.  With oil shale pulling out around here and all the businesses closing down, everyone is heading for the big cities and more job opportunities.  I did just the opposite.”

“Headed for this ‘big’ city?”

“Precisely.  I’m actually an air traffic controller. I’ve been working in Chicago ever since I got out of the Navy.  Then when Reagan fired the Air traffic controllers for striking, it was the last straw.  My rocky marriage fell apart. I had no children; so here I am living with mom and dad, warming their new retirement home – and working for U-haul.”

I nodded with understanding.  Hadn’t I just been through a few hard times and rejections myself?  We stood on either side of the display cases for a moment of companionable silence.

“Isn’t it about time for a morning break?”  Ron asked.

“Are you accustomed to taking one at U-haul?”  I asked with a smile, raising my eyebrows.

We both laughed at the absurdity of expecting a break in a one person establishment.

“I’ll go for coffee and be right back.”

He was out the door before I could reply.  Within 10 minutes he was back with a white bakery sack tucked under his arm and two tall steaming styrofoam cups. He passed me the bag. I unrolled two chocolate dipped biscotti from the paper.

“Nothing goes better with a hot cup of coffee than chocolate!”  He said.

I agreed.

“I am afraid I have become addicted to the mid-morning ritual of coffee.  When Mom and Dad built their retirement home, they outfitted the daylight basement with a wet bar and espresso. They love to entertain.”

I took a nibble of biscotti and another sip from my cup.

“Speaking of their new retirement home, Mom and Dad have been urging me to invite a few friends over.  How would you like to come out on Sunday for a swim and sandwiches?”

Just like that!  My eyes widened. My mouth formed a little o as I took in breath. Would that be considered a date?  I wasn’t sure I wanted to date.  I wasn’t sure I wanted a man in my life messing things up. But, then again, I had said I wanted to get to know at least five men well before I made a final decision.  If they all turned out to be like Tim; well, I could just live without them.  On the other hand; what if they turned out to be different?  What if there were as many different types of men in the world as there were colors? Or flowers?  How would I ever know if I didn’t date?

“Oh,” I finally managed to articulate in surprise, “I can’t do that.” I hurried on with some confusion, “I have to play piano for the choir on Sunday.”

Ron shrugged and responded amiably, “My parents always go to the big Presbyterian church downtown on Sunday mornings.  Where do you go?”

Just as I finished giving him the name and location of my little country church, the door buzzer sounded and another customer entered.

“I’ll be in touch later,” said Ron quietly. With a nod that made me think of a gentleman tipping his hat, he turned and exited the store.

The customer who entered was young and also male. I greeted him and he took a tour of the side shelves and merchandise, perusing the items with interest; getting a feel for the fact that everything I stocked was connected to music or love, or both.  Stopping at the signature composer coffee mugs, he looked up, peered full in my face for a split second and then said,

“I know you from somewhere.”

I bit my tongue to keep from interjecting, “Classic pick-up line.” He certainly did look familiar.  Since he was obviously several years younger, it could not have been high school.

“Steve Bankcourt! That’s who you are!” I remembered him as a lanky teenage customer who used to come through a retail outlet Tim and I ran for 18 months. We shared brief bios to bring us up to date.  I told him that Tim and I were divorced. Most recently Steve had lived abroad with his father from whom he was estranged during high school. In the middle of our conversation, the phone rang. I hastened to grab it before the second ring.

“Hello, this is Adam Grassmick, from the Symphony. I know you don’t know me, but, two of our guild ladies came into your store yesterday. When they reported back to the symphony office they talked to the symphony manager of little else. I was wondering if you would have lunch with me sometime?”

I felt faint and speechless.  I was too much of an introvert for this dating business. In high school I managed to escape by simply marrying the first man who showed an interest.  Now I silently berated myself for answering the phone.  Wait a minute, was I not a business woman? Successful business people answer the telephone when it rings.  They take the call. Somehow, I responded to the voice on the phone in the affirmative.

“How about next Tuesday? I can pick you up at eleven thirty, that way we can miss the main crowds.”

I agreed and replaced the receiver in its cradle.  What had I done?  Leave my gift shop in the middle of the day in the middle of the week?  How could I have said no?  How could I have said yes?  Now I would have to find someone to cover for me; or put out the “gone until 12:30” sign.  I was stunned, my hands were shaking.  Steve turned from the humorous greeting cards he was reading and asked,

“Who was that?”

“Symphony conductor.”

“Symphony conductor?” he moved closer to me and I suddenly felt dizzy as I had in high school, trapped between a locker and the girl’s room, watching the jocks plow forward with their too loud voices and high-fives while I sat unnoticed on the sidelines. Except now Steve was addressing me with interest in that brash, confident, take charge voice of a newly minted 21 year old.

“You know him?”

“I know who he is. I’ve never met him.”

“What did he want?”

“To take me to lunch next week.”

“Ha! You’ve got a blind date!  With the conductor! Your name must be really getting out there!”

I laughed somewhat giddily and told all about the visit from the Symphony Guild ladies on the day before and related the circumstances of Ron’s visit that morning.  Steve chuckled.  All my usual conservative reserve went out the door.  For the moment, I was not tongue tied. I probably said more than I should have.  In fact, it was rather intoxicating to talk to another adult about “me” for a while.  Once my mouth was in motion all the incidents of the previous months gushed out.

“Say,” he said, “What was that other concert the old ladies were pitching to you?  The pops and dinner with what’s her name – Toni Tennille? That’s next Thursday night.  Wouldn’t it be funny if we went together?  That guy that was just leaving when I came in this morning? He’s older than you. I’m younger, that would balance out your dating life real well!  What a plan! You and I could kind of cozy up at the table and make that Symphony conductor jealous.  Poor man, all he can do is conduct! Hey, it’s the guy in the audience that gets the girls!”

I laughed at Steve’s outrageous scenario. There were times I thought Tim had been born smug and mature; interested only in attaining social status.  Tim pursued the status of country clubs, smoking rooms, mistresses and thick wines. If Tim had been there he would have elbowed me, or kicked me in the ankle, or glared at me to make me shut up.  Instead I jabbered on like a reckless juvenile. I was delirious with the succulent irony of suddenly being sought after. But was I sorry to have crossed the bounds of good sense and decorum?  In return Steve shared his idea of a romantic date.  Having lived in Europe with his diplomat father he said, he was well acquainted with higher level social customs and state dinners.  Casting formalities aside, he preferred  to grab a couple of blankets, a single burner camp stove and a pan, and drive to a state park to make hot chocolate and watch the stars. Steve’s young and cavalier attitude and speech had the zest of adventure. He must have seen my eyes shining with interest.

“Hey, what time do you close Friday night?”  he asked. “Bring your tennis shoes to work. I’ll bring the blanket and hot chocolate.  We’ll go star gazing.”

As he was going out the door, he turned back around and called to me, “Be sure and buy those tickets to the pops concert.  I’ll pay you back.”

The weather was perfect on Friday evening.  I closed out the register, vacuumed the plush carpet and changed to my hiking clothes. 21-year-old Steve Bankcourt picked me up at 7:30 in his jeep.  We drove for 25 minutes and then took the cutoff to a scenic route, finally ending up at Artist’s Point overlooking a valley. I felt as safe and friendly with him as if I were hiking with my younger brother. Steve had been to Europe alright.  He had lived in Europe, attended official dinners with his ambassador father. He had also hefted a backpack and taken a walking tour from France through Germany and Switzerland, staying at hostels along the way. I was fascinated by the stories and experiences he had to share.

Sunday morning dawned bright and clear as a day off should be.  At church I rehearsed in the back room with the choir, then taking my place at the baby grand for the introit, looked out over the small sea of familiar faces.  I nearly started from my piano bench.  On the third row, next to the aisle sat Ron Standards; conspicuous because of the shortage of single men in our little congregation.  He was appropriately dressed in sport shirt and sport jacket, sans tie.  Still, he jumped out of the crowd due to his above average handsomeness.  Somehow everyone figured out immediately who he was there to see.  They welcomed him warmly with handshakes and animated nods of the head.

Afterwards I introduced him to a beaming pastor and the three other single adults; two women and one man.  We singles went out to brunch together.  I had never been in such well mannered company. Questions of interest were asked around the table. No one seemed in a hurry to interrupt.  Gentle laughter flowed in response to witty remarks or erudite observations. Before parting at early afternoon, Ron made arrangements for me to come over the following Sunday for sandwiches, a swim, and a screening of his favorite classic movie; Casa Blanca.

When the sun came up Monday, I had a wholly different perspective.  Yes, business was bad.  My shop teetered on the brink of extinction, but now I had something to look forward to. I was in a knot of anxiety over the noon appointment with the Symphony Conductor and a tizzy of excitement over what to wear to the John Denver concert, ten days hence. Meanwhile, there was now a pops concert on the calendar for Thursday night.

The blind lunch date with the symphony conductor turned out to be pretty uneventful; except that I fell madly in love.  I could not shake the impression that here was my perfect match, my ideal counterpart.  Our birthdays fell within the same year; just a few months apart. He was prematurely graying, yet professionally pomaded and coiffed so as to look distinguished from both front and back. I guess that is important if one’s backside is always turned to the audience. We talked of music and found we began on the same wind instrument in high school.  Music dominated our lives.  He also was recently divorced.

For Adam, his divorce had been unequivocal.  She had an affair. There was no denying it. The marriage was irretrievably broken. The divorce was final.  As a new member of the community he expressed his eagerness to get on with exploring and enjoying the world of professional, music loving singles.  “That’s why I gave you a call at the first opportunity,” he explained. “I  could tell anyone with a gift store like you have, focused on music, must have a great heart for music.”  I radiated agreement. He was right on that point. My sixth sense went all tingly inside.  Could this be my soulmate? The thumping of my heart was quieted by my concern as he gave the details of his divorce. How could he do that?  How could a creative, musical soul just get over it? Where was the bleeding heart and the spirit wrenching lament? He was so decisive and matter-of-fact.

In the course of our lunch conversation, Adam asked me to give a brief and reciprocal bio of my former relationship. I did. Then I concluded with my current status, “I have just moved back in with my parents. Tim is living in our old house with a female roommate.  I guess, I guess, since he is not remarried, the door is still open for reconciliation?”  I said this with some hesitancy.

Adam nodded once and looked at me quizzically for a moment. We discussed a few other subjects; business in general for me, the community, the current successes of the symphony. Somehow he seemed a bit more detached than he had at first; the conversation cursory and obligatory.  Adam drove me back to the shop; opened the door of Cinderella’s coach and bid me good day, saying he needed to get back to the office.

I was hooked; on the symphony and its conductor.  I began to wish that Tim was remarried so I could quit waiting for him to come to his senses.  I gazed longingly on the phone each moment of every day and opined that it did not ring.  I promptly joined the symphony guild. I went to the pops concert Thursday night and focused on the back of the conductor’s head, mesmerized by every move, every motion.

At work on Friday I could think of nothing else.  I posted my souvenir program from Thursday night’s pops concert on my communication bulletin board between the practice and lesson rooms. I could certainly do that without suspicion or censure.  It was a slow day; probably a good thing since I kept going to the board, taking the program down and memorizing every detail of the picture and conductor’s bio that graced the rear of the folder.

I wrote in my journal.  I wrote tomes in my journal. I speculated.  I wondered if he was thinking about me as much as I was thinking about him. How could he not see that I was the perfect match for him?  I looked up his address.  I drove by his very modest and neat home.  I could see exactly what my domestic taste would do to exude hospitality.  I knew the members of his orchestra would love me.  How could they not?  I would know and anticipate their every need and mood and interest.  I had built my business on anticipating the every need and mood and love language of musicians.

Eleanor and Richard Standards were model hosts. Ron followed in their footsteps.  When I arrived for sandwiches on Sunday as arranged,  I found that he had exercised restraint in his description of their retirement home.  It was anything but a cottage. The floor plan was designed with an emphasis on entertaining and comfort. 4,000 square feet spread over three levels, garnished liberally with decks and sunrooms gave a whole new meaning to, “I’m living in my parents’ basement.”  The basement itself was a spacious, fully furnished apartment complete with wet bar, kitchenette, and an entire wall of sliding glass doors.  In summer, Ron demonstrated, this glass wall of doors could be folded completely away to provide access to dressing rooms and an indoor / outdoor cocktail lounge for a large company of guests.

A gracious greeting from Ron’s parents and the sight of a baby-grand piano on the main level made me feel at home immediately.  A brisk spring breeze prohibited sunbathing, we cut the swim short and commenced watching the movie. All in all, it was a thoroughly enjoyable Sunday; a sorely needed relaxation before addressing the new week of business stress.

Monday late morning I was sitting in the back room dividing my interest between my journal and a Dakin plush toys wholesale catalog when I was abruptly interrupted by the jangling of the bell.  It was Steve Bankcourt.

“Hey,” he said, loudly and self-consciously, “Sorry I missed the concert Thursday night.  I have come to do penitence.”

I smiled at his word choice and bit my tongue to keep from responding, “Yeah, I’m out an extra $20 bucks, where were you?”

He carried a large bag of fast food with Burger King emblazoned on the side and two 16 oz. soft drinks.

“We should probably take this in the back room.”  He said.

We sat up to my book-keeping counter on folding chairs, unwrapped whoppers and mopped mustard and ketchup spills with french fries.  I stopped at half a burger while Steve was wadding up the wrapper from his first.  Wiping my hands quickly, I headed toward the front as the buzzer sounded.  It was Mrs. Smith from Mrs. Smith’s Country Cookin’ next door.  She was there to tell me about the upcoming merchant’s association meeting.

“How’s business?” she asked. “I noticed a number of folks coming and going last week, several young men too!”  She winked as she took out the directions, map to the meeting and the agenda. Our conversation was lengthy.  We discussed a few particulars and what advertising strategy we wanted to present to the association. While we were deep in information to be included in the ad jingle, Steve slipped quietly down the back aisle and out the door.  I never saw him again.

I made it my goal to go beyond the call of duty in the symphony guild.  In a group of 20 active women, I was the youngest by half.  Many were retired.  Many of the women had never worked a day in her life outside of the tennis and health club. I worked everyday of my life and still carved time to meet with the ladies and design publicity and plan special events.  Adam often attended the opening of the meeting to cast the vision.  Once he stayed for the entire planning session and sat right next to me. We spoke to each other only once.  I was too tongue tied by his nearness.  He was graciously giving his attention to the chatter and outmoded ideas of women old enough to be his mother or grandmother. At one point the guild president raised an idea I did not totally understand or agree with.  I didn’t want to interrupt her, so I merely penciled a question mark by that line item on my notes. Adam pounced immediately, “What does this mean?” He insisted I share my thoughts with the group.

The outcome of that particular meeting was that I would take the task of designing the program for the annual children’s concert; an eclectic selection of classic movie soundtracks.  The concert would feature an appearance by E.T., some famous Disney animals, and a number of volunteers making up a menagerie for “Carnival of the Animals.”  I am no artist, but I do have a flair for design and concept.  I commissioned my multi-talented cousin to put my ideas in parchment and ink.  In return, I promised him a season pass to the Symphony. I knew just where to find one.

Before I dated Mac Arthur, and before Elliot Carter, and while I was enamored with the conductor, I dated a scholar.  I call him a scholar because that is what I liked most about him: his education and knowledge. I never found out just exactly why William showed up at our little church that Sunday in May.  I had never met him.  Neither had the other two single adult women, or even our pastor, for that matter.

I could listen to him and ply him with questions for hours.  He could read and translate in seven ancient languages.  A true academic geek, he was more at home in a Greek text than he was in social conversation. Perhaps my friend Barb set me up with Elliot just to dislodge me from William.

One would have thought Barb would enjoy William since she was always on the lookout for the gifted and talented and William had an extremely high IQ and a terminal education.  Barb knew William was socially inept. I thought he was just a diamond in the rough; a kind of guy rose ready to open under the proper feminine encouragement.  My other friend, Candi, said as much, “Don’t you kind of think of Will as being hidden gold that you have to dig for?” she asked.  Will pursued.  He showed up at my office one day at closing time and drove me 79 miles in his pickup truck just to take me to his favorite Chinese restaurant. Trouble was, he didn’t tell me where we were going.  He said it was a surprise.  As a result, I missed a music rehearsal and ended up feeling woefully irresponsible.  Our long intellectual conversations during the ride to and from dinner were mind nourishing for me.  William showed up at my office early the next afternoon with a bouquet of yellow roses.  “See,” he said, “They are yellow; a symbol of friendship.”

While Will was at the office that day, he invited me over for steak dinner to show off his hospitality and domestic skills. I told him I couldn’t come Thursday as he requested, because I was going to the symphony.  He asked if he could take me.  I declined.  The next afternoon, shortly after lunch, I once again saw him cross the parking lot toward my gift store. He came in the door and, oblivious to customers,  straight behind the counter without pausing. He wrapped me in a bear hug.

Then Will drew from his breast pocket an envelope.

“Guess?” he said.

I could not.

Opening the envelope he presented me with a raft of symphony tickets, one for each concert the entire season.

“Since you won’t let me take you,” he said, “I decided to do the next best thing and insure that you always get to go.”

I hardly knew how to respond. Was he trying to make me feel guilty?  Wonder of wonders, I could attend all the concerts without worrying each week how I was to pay for it! I thanked him profusely, but managed to keep the point of sale counter between us as he stood waiting expectantly for a kiss or a hug or something.

Thursday night I sat off to the right side in the first come, first serve, general admission seats. My ticket was paid for, but I still had to be there early enough to grab the best of the general admission seats, as close to center as I could get.  William arrived a few minutes before curtain and took the remaining available seat five spaces over.  I barely had time to nod as the orchestra began tuning.  Adam entered the stage in the light of the follow spot and my gaze was instantly riveted. I had never heard our orchestra play better. The dance between the conductor’s baton and percussion; the fluidity between director’s nuances and string section was mesmerizing.  My auditory fantasies were interrupted only by the onset of intermission and Will’s tug on my elbow.  I chafed as my attention was drawn from reverie to conversation.

“The violins are lovely tonight,” began Will.

“Yes,” I nodded while searching the milling audience for signs of other acquaintance or renegade performers popping in side doors to confer with guests. The violins were lovely, despite a few intonation problems in the Rondo. My thoughts were racing.  If Adam’s parents were in town, he would certainly come into the auditorium to greet them.

“I have never seen so many bass viols in one concert.”

I looked at him with some surprise.  Tonight there were only three.

“I play guitar myself.  Do they ever have guitars in the orchestra?”

“A classical guitar duo is on the schedule for February.”

“I shall see about attending that concert.”

I nodded and excused myself.  I would never make it to the restroom and back in time.  I headed in that direction anyway. Under cover of a large knot of people, I curved around and stopped across the auditorium, waiting for the lights to dim so I could safely return to my seat. I felt like a sweaty palmed, conniving juvenile. How was I to avoid him after? I sorely wanted to find out where the symphony performers were going to wind down after the concert, but I really didn’t want Will hanging around.  One of my new single friends had a long term friend who was a second violinist with the symphony.  If I could somehow make contact with this violinist, she would be glad to give me inside information on the location of the party. She was avidly interested in following her conductor’s social life. She would want me to be at the party.  She would help further my friendship with Adam.  How would I be able to do that if I was glued to Will?

There was not a chance.  William saw me to my car.

“Are you sure you don’t want to go out for iced tea or something?”

I declined.

Then, feeling I had been harsh, I accepted Will’s dinner rain check for Saturday. He cooked the steak on a grill on his apartment deck along with potato spears in tinfoil.  When the meal was hot he served it on the dinette table.  I reached for my fork and my hand stuck to the table. I peered a bit more closely as William shuffled back to the cabinet for salt and pepper.  Drizzles and smears of honey still remained on the table top from some previous meal. How long ago?  I wondered. My appetite was gone but I made some half hearted attempts to consume meat and potatoes. Will chowed down, belched appreciatively and then once again drew out an envelope.

“I watched your face at the concert Thursday night.  General admission tickets are not good enough for you.”

My head was spinning.  When had I ever heard such tender selfless words?  How did they  come from the mouth of the same person who was so inattentive to the details of cleanliness and social manners?

“Here is a set of reserved seat, center-second row, tickets for the season,”  he concluded.

“William!” I protested, “You can’t do that!”

“Oh, but I can!” he said gallantly. “Bringing joy to you is my ardent pursuit.”

I sputtered, “You already bought me season tickets, you can’t just go buy me another set.”

“Oh, but I can and I did,” he said, stating the obvious.

“What do you want me to do with the others?”

“Whatever you want!” he said magnanimously, almost theatrically, “They won’t take them on trade-in.”

I thanked him, a little flustered at the awkwardness of the situation. I felt I ought to give him the other set of tickets.  I think he expected me to give him the other set of tickets. I did not want to do that.  In that way I would always have a sort of tacit date for every performance. The whole thing was awkward. Sure, we would not be sitting together; but he would be there at intermission and before and after the concerts. Gracious as the gift was, I felt I was being manipulated into his company. Guiltily I took the tickets home and placed them on my dresser next to the first set.

My friend Marta and I spent some time on a beach by the lake the next day. We chatted about mutual acquaintances and had a bit of girl talk. I told her about the honey or syrup or whatever it was on the table the night before at William’s. Mentally, I inserted Will’s name as number three on my “five men I know well,” list. I also revisited my list of must-haves in a man and added one more: attends to details of neatness and cleanliness.

A few weeks later I once again made a walking tour of Ron’s deck and poolside, this time minutely choreographed with background music and descriptive narration. Ron was my natty and dashing escort on this improvised runway for the Symphony Guild spring fashion show. Adam Grassmick escorted the newly recruited oboist. Even I was captivated by her flaxen, elbow length, straight hair and turquoise eyes; how could he not be?

FROM RETAIL TO NEWS

My arrival at the radio station coincided with the demise of my gift store and the onset of Autumn. The leaves were changing. I was changing.  Whereas the trees were going to sleep for the winter, I was just changing course from music oriented retail to music on the airwaves. It seemed very providential that I had begun recording local musician interviews months before.

Adam was seen regularly around town with a variety of eligible and beautiful young women. I interviewed him.  I interviewed them.  I sang in a community Messiah chorus that supported one of the pieces in the symphony holiday repertoire. After every rehearsal I watched him leave in the company of a different female or two; each performance with a different invited female guest.

Five months after I broke off the accelerating relationship with William, Candi drew my attention to a newspaper notice. Will had obtained a marriage license.

Oh Great! One of my former suitors was married and I was still spinning my wheels trying to be in the right place at the right time in order to connect accidentally with the conductor; and the conductor was aggressively playing the field. Of course, it probably looked to the watching world, if anyone was watching, that I too was playing the field.

Ron Standards was also playing the field.  He called every two or three weeks to ask me to meet him for lunch. We made a stunning couple and had found that power lunch restaurants were a kind of stage where our first hello turned heads and fired the imagination of those around us. There we could bring each other up to the minute on our dating lives, share laughter and insights and, well, network.  If it is true that it is easier to find a job while one is still employed; it is also true that it is easier to find dates when one is dating.  Ron and I both sensed this, at least subconsciously and we used our solicitous friendship to the max.  Ron stayed connected with the Symphony through his very capable mother.  Young, eligible, guest conductors lodged at his parents’ spacious house. When the elegant Mrs. Standards called on Ron to entertain the distinguished guests, he in turn called on me. There were a couple of evenings he pulled in my drive after 30 minutes notice, and whisked me off to dinner in his father’s Lincoln wedged in the front seat between the 39 year old driver and a 30 something symphony conductor candidate.

Ron brought word that Adam was beginning to chafe at the small-town-ness and was candidating in larger venues like Seattle and Salt Lake City.  I was almost too busy to care given that I was at that time learning the ropes and nuances for radio and news editing.  Besides learning the job, there were coworkers to get to know.  To be specific, there were three single males;  Charlie in the Morning, P.M. from the afternoon, and tall, tan Mac Arthur.

My good friend introduced me to Elliot.  She was more than a good friend; she was my minister’s wife and she had taken an interest in the romantic activities of my life.  Barb wasn’t one of those fried chicken and mashed potatoes on Sunday sort of minister’s wives.  She had a life of her own.  She taught gifted and talented students in the local high school.  At the high school she met other like-minded staff members; adults who were on their way to success and the top rung of the ladder simply through following a vision of education.

Actually, the blind date Barb arranged turned out to be our second date.  The first Sunday of Advent, Barb greeted me with,

“How’s your love life?”

I smiled wryly and answered, “I can’t seem to get anywhere.”

Since Barb knew all about the conductor, and had personally met Ron and William, this brief response told all.

“Would you consider a blind date?” she asked with enthusiasm, and then continued, “our school faculty party is a week from Friday.  The assistant principal is just the neatest guy – about your age and single.  When we were talking in the lounge on Thursday, he mentioned that he did not have a date. I told him I knew someone.”

“Well, thanks – I think.”

“He has his own house!”  she said with some emphasis. Seeing that I had not yet completely bought into the idea, she continued,

“In his position as assistant principal, he needs a female counterpart, particularly for social settings.  That someone might be you.”

Barb asked permission to give Elliot my phone number and arranged for me to accompany him to the staff and faculty Christmas party.

All in all, I was pretty open to this new development. In the beginning of my singleness, I had resolved to get to know at least five men. On the chance that one true-blue soul might exist out there, I had determined to say yes to the eligible men who crossed my path.  Elliot would bring the grand total to five. Perhaps I was on the precipice of new discoveries and a new life for me was about to begin!

Elliot called that night.  Although the party was 10 days away, he wanted to get together for dinner that very weekend.  I suppose this was to check me out ahead of time to make sure I would not be an embarrassment at the faculty dinner.  Yet, I certainly did not read that reason in any of Elliot’s expression or behavior.   On the phone he was delighted to find that I lived, and had grown up in the same end of town as he.  In fact, we graduated from the same high school only one year apart.  What I had not told him on the phone was that I knew full well who he was.  I knew what he looked like.  I had seen him play character parts in school plays.  My best friend knew him moderately well. She had a crush on him when we were sophomores.

Elliot arrived promptly; glowing and well scrubbed as a school boy on his first date.  He came in to meet my parents, assisted me with my coat, escorted me to the car and held the door. I had to keep reminding myself not to relax in the embrace of his solicitous care.  I was wary of men who had it all together.

Miraculously, Elliot had never heard of Tim!  Although Tim would have been insulted, I was relieved. Here was someone who knew who I was now.  No boxes or labels of who I used to be.  No memories of who I was with Tim.  No knowledge of the girl nerd from high school. Elliot was someone with whom I could start fresh, be me, bloom big.

The flowers arrived before I got off work the next afternoon, waiting along with them was a music cassette and a hand-written note, “I hope you enjoy the music. These are some of my favorite artists and selections. Looking forward to this Friday.”

On our way to the faculty dinner the next week, Elliot asked “Ever played tennis?”

“Not really,” I responded; thinking that my few times attempting to volley with my brother or dad probably didn’t count.

“You will,” he said with enthusiasm.

He said it with such surety.  How did he know? He wasn’t demanding or dictatorial; just confident.  I wasn’t sure I wanted to yield to his certainty.

“No, I won’t.” I said to myself.  I was determined never to become the clone of a man again.  Really, there was nothing amiss in what Elliot said.  It was not demanding.  It was an assurance that it did not matter if I played tennis right now or not.  He was confident that I would be a quick learner and that I would grow to love the sport as he did.

Elliot did not confine his conversation to tennis.  In quick succession I was introduced to our state representative’s wife who was head of the English department; the P.E. teacher; a balding football coach and the choral music director. Expertly guiding me with a hand gently placed in the small of my back, Elliot stopped to make introductions and chat with the Head Principal. As we stood there, Barb passed close behind me in the crush of the crowd, “You two make a great couple,”  she said in my ear.  “I can tell he likes you.  He is really pleased to have you here.” And I was proud to be there; pleased to be in the company of a man who attended to detail, who presented me to others with respect, who engaged in intelligent conversation with each faculty member.  Elliot gave me just enough information on introduction to make it possible for me to follow the discussion and not feel left out or relegated to the sideline.

Back at home, I stayed awake trying to sort out a plethora of mixed feelings. The Carter family was an established institution in my community.  They were active in long range planning for the local university.  They were founders of an annual tennis tournament which was growing in popularity. If I had not been able to please Tim, I knew I would never, ever be able to live up to Carter family expectations. Actually, Elliot had made no demands; he just showered me with thoughtfulness.  He liked me from the start.  I should be flattered, of that I was sure.

Mac Arthur came for dinner one night the following week.  My parents really liked him and they were always happy to have him over for a meal. Truth to tell, I liked him too. He was one of the reasons I said yes so quickly to the blind date with Elliot.  Mac was my favorite of the three single guys at the station. I will not deny that I thought he was the most eligible of the lot. We had an excellent friendship. He dropped by once or twice a week for dinner.  I guess, when I agreed to attend the faculty party with Elliot I was subconsciously thinking, “One more, I just need one more man to get to know well and then this relationship with Mac will take off.”

I could hear Mac’s ancient car labor into our driveway and creak as Mac opened and then slammed the car door.  He knocked at the side door which opened immediately into the dining room where Elliot’s latest flower offering dispensed beauty and fragrance from the center of the table.

“Woah! These are beautiful!  Where did the flowers come from?  Did somebody die?”  He joked.  I told him about my blind date to the faculty party with Elliot.

“He must really like you!” responded Mac meditatively. “A guy would have to be really swept away to send someone flowers like that”

I leaned against the kitchen cabinet, crossed my arms and then laid my left hand alongside my face in thought.  What was Mac saying?  Would he send me flowers if he liked me enough?  I watched as Mac pulled himself up to the table. Mom and I delivered the remaining two steaming serving bowls and seated ourselves. By the time we had napkins in our laps, Dad and Mac were dipped up and obligingly passing the food our way.

Suddenly, I saw my mistaken thinking.  All along I was counting Elliot as number five. Having crossed him off my list, I was now ready to meet Mister Perfect. Elliot was not number five. Mac was number five. I stared at him across the table as he chewed. Mac was number five.  I knew him well. Mac had never been swept away enough to send me or anyone else flowers. Mac was number five.

After the dishes were done, after Mac had gone for the night, I retreated to my dad’s den. There, second shelf from the top, where the old physical education books from Dad’s coaching days were double stacked, I found what I was looking for.  Tucking the book under my arm, I made a beeline for the basement. With any luck, Mom still kept the outdoor equipment in the closet behind the hot water heater. My hand found the smooth surface of the contoured wood and travelled downward, stroking strings that were still intact. Supple leather, barely worn wound the handle.  I lifted it from the bracket and gave a few experimental strokes through the air in the basement. The racket felt good, like it belonged in my hand.

Mom called down the stairs, “Is everything alright down there?  I’m going to bed.”

“Sure, Mom.  I found what I was looking for.  Just going to be down here for a few minutes.  Good night!”

I sank into the discarded overstuffed chair and began to read, “In tennis the scoring begins with love.”

“The server will announce the score before serving, saying first his score and then the opponent’s.”

“Love. Love,” I said dreamily, swatting the air.

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Putting One Foot in Front of the Other, Hiking for Life!