I was quite the rake back in the day. Cheek bones, good chin, a confident twinkle in my eye... Good hair, too. I wore it longish, brushed out like a mane. Women noticed me, I’ll tell you, and I was a dancer. Play just about anything and I could make a dance out of it. I could lead, too, a good strong lead, and women love a man who can dance and make them look smooth and graceful. Those were the days, I’ll tell you, and there were a lot of good days.
So after twelve years in the Navy I came back home, ready to settled down. Bob Harris had his window and door company for sale and after a couple meetings with lawyers and accountants, I owned it. Meanwhile, I’d been dropping by the Legion and VFW dances to entertain myself and delight some of the eligible women. It was ho-hum for a few weeks, if you know what I mean, but then one night Jazzy turned up. She was lean and limber, she moved without effort, and she appeared to be alone. You expect to see a woman like Jazzy on someone’s arm or with a cluster of young bucks sniffing around but I watched for twenty minutes and she was by herself, nursing a drink and swaying to the music. I decided to give it a shot. She could only say “no”, right?
But she didn’t. She finished her drink, took my hand, and led me onto the dance floor. The band had just begun Sentimental Journey and in less than four bars the magic happened. She was smooth and light on her feet and she could follow my lead as if she knew before I did what I planned to do next. We danced fox trots, waltzes, polkas, and jitterbugs. I even took a chance with a tango and she followed whatever I did.
Her friends call her Jazzy, she said. I could see why. There was a smoothness about her, and a freedom to flow with the music. I suggested we might come together next time and she said she’d like that.
“So. Jazzy. That has to be short for something, right?”
“My full name is Jasmine. Jasmine Toth.”
“Arthur Toth?” I said.
“He’s my father.”
Whoa. No surprise now that no one tried to cut in. Arthur Toth, his wife, and their little girl moved to town some years ago and settled out at the old Wheeler place out on Covey Road where they kept pretty much to themselves. Arthur brought them into town once a week. The little girl was cute and pretty. You couldn’t call Arthur’s wife beautiful but there was something about her that caught your eye. Occasionally the wife and the little girl would come into town without him. Arthur was away on business, the wife would say. No hints as to what his business was, though. Someone discovered he’d been a Navy Seal so it seemed a natural conclusion that with all the gunfire we sometimes heard from the Wheeler place he was no doubt a contract killer for the government. We made it all up, of course, but if Arthur Toth had any hint of these rumores he did nothing to dispel them. He was polite, quiet, and reclusive. No one I knew had ever seen him smile.
“I remember when you first moved here,” I said.
“I was eleven.”
“I guess that’s why I didn’t recognize you. I was about to leave for for the Navy. Ended up being gone over twelve years”
“I was gone, too. Daddy sent me to private school for junior and senior high school, then to Bennington College. I had a nice off campus apartment in Bennington and a part time job so I didn’t come home much.”
We exchanged phone numbers and she went home.
Arthur Toth’s daughter.
Son of a gun.
The next dance night when I rang Arthur’s bell Arthur himself opened the door. He was older than I remembered but trim and fit. Still wore his hair in a buzz cut.
“Hi,” I said. “I’m Wally. I’ve come for Jazzy.”
“Jazzy? You mean Jasmine?”
“You call her Jazzy?”
“I do. A nick-name. Seems to fit her.”
“You think so?” He looked me up and down and then took a step back. “Come on in.” He led me to what looked to be his den or study. Shelves of books along one wall, photos on another, and three big leather chairs. “She won’t be long,” he said. “Have a seat. Drink?”
“No, thanks.” The big chair wheezed as I sank into it.
Arthur Toth backed up to another chair, put his hands on the arms, pulled his legs off the floor so his feet stuck out in front of him, and then lowered himself slowly into the chair. The noise from his chair was more of a whisper. A massive gun cabinet stood behind him, rifles, shotguns, pistols, revolvers, all oiled and glistening behind glass doors. I must have been staring at them.
“You a gun person?” he asked.
“No, I’m not. I appreciate the mechanism, the machining, the precision, and I admire anyone who can shoot well, but no, I don’t care much for guns.”
“I have twenty-seven,” he said. “Those are the best of the lot. I keep the others handy. Different places around the house. Just in case.”
“Just in case?”
“You never know.” He gave me a few seconds to absorb that. “And they’re all loaded,” he said.
“Damn right, and everybody knows they’re loaded. Safest thing.”
Didn’t sound all that safe to me.
“So how do you know Jasmine?” he said, now we were clear about the guns.
“Down at the Legion last month. She was alone, I asked her to dance. She’s really good.”
“Yeah, takes after her mother. Her mother was a dancer.”
“Caught the cancer. Moved fast, couldn’t save her.”
“Damn. I’m sorry. That’s terrible.”
“No picnic,” he said. “Jasmine moved back home toward the end. She’s all I’ve got now.”
“Not to mention twenty-seven loaded guns.”
“You tryin’ to be funny?”
“I guess I was.”
“Well, I don’t joke about guns and I don’t joke about Jasmine. Don’t do that again.”
“I won’t,” I said. “Sorry.”
Jazzy came into the room then, light and breezy and gorgeous. I clawed my way out of the chair.
“Daddy,” she said. “Don’t go scaring him off.”
“We’re just clearing up a few things,” Arthur Toth said. To me, then: “You a reader?”
“Some,” I said. “Fiction, mostly.”
“Fiction,” he snorted. He waved his hand toward the books lining the walls. “All the great minds, brilliant men and women over the centuries. So much wisdom, true wisdom, captured for us in books. Wasted if nobody reads them. Wasted. But fiction? Well, it’s all made up, isn’t it?”
“Daddy, we’re going to be late.”
“Have a good time, sweetheart.” He said with a surprising tenderness. Back to me, the tenderness gone, “...and don’t be late.”
“The dance is over at eleven. I’ll have her home by 11:30.”
As if he was logging it in, Arthur Toth checked the clock on the mantle.
He came to trust me eventually, even loaned me a book from time to time, and I was careful I didn’t betray that trust. We were in his study again when I told him I wanted to marry Jazzy.
“All I want is for her to be happy and safe,” he said, “and she’s as happy with you as I’ve ever seen her, especially since her mother died. I never want to hear any different, understand?”
So Jazzy and I were married and we had almost thirty happy years. We expanded the window and door company into wall paper, window treatments, flooring, and Benjamin Moore paint. Never any kids but it wasn’t for lack of trying. Jazzy was as smooth and limber in bed as she was on the dance floor but kids never happened. I thought for a while I might be shooting blanks, but tests showed that wasn’t the case. Just one of those things, I guess.
Then the cancer came, the same cancer that took her mother, and in just a few months it took Jazzy, too. Arthur Toth was a tough old bird but he was shattered when Jazzy died. I drove him home after the funeral and burial. Once we were back at the house the facade fell away and Arthur Toth began to cry. I was quite touched that he let me see that. We were in the room with the guns and the books and he’d broken out the bourbon.
“Only two things ever mattered to me,” he said from deep in his chair. “My wife and my daughter. Two of the loveliest creatures God ever put on this earth.” He took a sloppy sip of bourbon. “Treasured every second I had with them. The rest of this,” he swept his arm around the room, “is nothing.”
I waited. Waiting was always a good strategy with Arthur.
“The books,” he said after a while. “The books. I read them all, you know, tried to make sense of it all, some sense of purpose.” His hand fell with a thump on the arm of the chair. “In the end I suppose none of it matters, does it?”
“Maybe not,” I said. In the past, if the mood struck him, Arthur might launch into long, convoluted rambles that suggested a deep disappointment.
“Was there ever a time,” I asked, “a time when you felt valued, that your work was worthwhile, that it might have had a purpose?”
“Jasmine and her mother,” he said. “I wanted long, happy lives for them. I suppose at some level I hoped my work was important but I doubt it ever changed anything.” He stared across the room. “I did some nasty shit, too. Went places I had no business going, did things most people will never do, all supposed to make the world safe for my two girls. Turned out my real enemy was right here at home. Fucking cancer got’em both.”
He poured himself some more bourbon.
“You treated Jasmine well,” he said after a long silence. “She was happy with you. I always appreciated that and I thank you.”
“She was more than I deserved.”
“No doubt about that. Men are such bastards. We don’t deserve good women.”
The bourbon caught up with him and he eventually dozed off in his big leather chair. I stayed for a while, but finally got up and went home.
He shot himself sometime in the night.
Arthur Toth left everything to Jazzy with provision that if she died first it all came to me so I had to sort out both his estate and Jazzy’s. The guns were the first to go, right after I unloaded the damn things. I found photo albums with lots of pictures of Jazzy as she was growing up, family snapshots along with a few school photos. A lot of them were photos of Jazzy and her mom, a striking woman. I could see where Jazzy got it.
There were the records – dance music – probably belonged to Jazzy’s mother. I kept those. I sold a few pieces individually but finally just had an auctioneer come and empty the place. With that done, I sold Arthur’s house, too.
My own place, without Jazzy, was just a big hulk full of reminders so with the cash I had from selling Arthur’s stuff and then my own house and the business Jazzy and I ran together, I bought into Meadowbrook Village, a retirement community out by the golf course. I never cared about golf but the Country Club sometimes had dances and Meadowbrook Village had community nights with dinner and dancing and there were a lot of things I just wouldn’t have to worry about.
I bought a comfortable two bedroom unit. I’d barely got the last of the boxes in the door when a small, roundish woman showed up with a basket of fruit and a large binder of information about Meadowbrook Village. Said her name was Emily. I emptied a couple chairs and got her settled so I could catch my breath and make coffee. I also wanted a chance to take a leak, brush my hair, and tuck in my shirt, you know, be a bit more presentable. I took care of that while the water was heating in the kettle. Emily just smiled and waited. The coffee was instant and the ginger snaps came out of a box.
Emily explained the services and activities offered by Meadowbrook Village and made sure I saw the brochures for each one. Some activities were free, some charged a modest fee, and she stressed several times that so many things were available and handy right here in the village that I’d probably find I didn’t need to leave very often.
“But I can leave if I want to, right?”
“Of course, silly,” she giggled. “This is your home, not a prison.”
A Meadowbrook Village dance night was coming up on the weekend and since everyone here was of an age I expected some decent music, you know, a tune you can hum, words you can understand, something you can dance to. I was ready for a little social activity, maybe even a bit of carnal entertainment if the opportunity presented itself. Meadowbrook had a high ratio of women to men which should simplify things but it’s a different game when you’re pushing 70. I wouldn’t have given most of these women a second glance forty years ago but now...
Of course, the dashing young rake was history, too. Still pretty trim, considering, but moving a bit slower. And something had happened to the texture of my hair. VO-5 helped some but there was no more flowing mane.
The buffet was a long table of metal trays over Sterno burners. Everything had labels to help people with restricted diets – low carb, low fat, low salt... At the far end though, they had some real food for people who no longer give a shit and I headed down there. I mean, what the hell? At 70? Most of the damage has been done at this point and it won’t be the salty sea food Newburg that kills me.
I found a table with a man and two women already seated. Introductions all around and the usual “new here?” questions along with some gossip about people I didn’t know. Lots of singles at Meadowbrook, they told me. Some folks had come as couples but then the spouses died and they just stayed. Others, like me, came here by themselves.
“Good to see you out.” one of the women said. I recognized her then – Emily, the Welcome Wagon lady. She finished nearly everything with a little giggle, something she did during the welcome call, too. “We have a lot of these social events. It’s nice to be part of a community.”
“That’s right,” the other woman agreed. “And at our age, we can all use a little social life.”
The man – John, I think – emptied his plate and then waddled off for a refill.
Benny and the Step Stones had set up in a corner near the dance floor.
“This is a nice band,” Emily said. “They only play tunes from the 40s and early 50s. Nothing too vigorous for us seniors.” A small hand covered her mouth as she giggled again.
I don’t know why that annoyed me so much except that I hadn’t yet begun to think of myself as a senior. Yeah, I was almost 70 but seniors are at least 85 have begun to decay. I didn’t want to listen to Emily’s giggle all night either so I said I was going for dessert, got up, and never went back. Instead I went to the bar and ordered a gin and tonic.
“I’ll have what he’s having,” a woman behind me said. “New here, aren’t you?” she said as she joined me.
“Couple weeks. Still getting settled.”
“Quite the crowd.” She leaned back against the bar and looked out over the room. “They hold these dinner dances a couple times a month. Always a good turn out. Some people come to eat, some come to drink, and a few of the nimble ones come to dance. This band is pretty good with the old stuff.” The bartender brought her drink and she took a long pull. “Ahh... I’m Helen, by the way.”
“Wally? You look more like a Randolph to me.”
“You want to call me Randolph, go ahead.”
“Are you a dancer, Randolph?”
“I believe I am.”
The tune was Moonlight Serenade. We finished our drinks and I took her onto the floor where I showed her a few of my better moves. When the music finished I gave her my special deep dip. When she stood up again, she was glowing.
“Randolph, I do believe I’ve fallen in love. You’re the first man in four years to show up with some style and a good pair of legs under him.”
“Look around. Tired old men shuffling from one meal to the next. Even the golfers ride around in carts. They were spent long before they came here.”
The band broke into In the Mood.
“Okay, sport,” Helen said. “Let’s see what you can do with this one.”
I warmed her up with a few of the basic jitterbug moves and then showed her a couple of the tricker steps. No aerials, though. I could do aerials with Jazzy because she was so light and limber. Helen wasn’t all that big but she was solid and heavier and you don’t do that stuff without everybody knowing about it ahead of time. We were on the dance floor until the band began to pack up.
“How about walking me home, big fella?”
Why not? The night was clear with just a bit of chill in the air. She had her arm through mine and we took our time.
“So what brought you here?” she said.
I told her about Jazzy and Arthur Toth.
“Oh, I’m so sorry. That must have been awful.”
“Yeah. It’s been a tough year. My time with Jazzy was golden, though. Her father was a tough nut – the only thing we ever had in common was Jazzy and I think that was all he cared about. Anyway, they both died and I was left to sort it all out. Sold my house, too. Too many memories.”
“You think you’ll ever get married again?”
“After Jazzy? No, I don’t think anyone else would do.”
No more talk then. Just a couple folks walking home after the dance.
“Number 47,” she said. “My place. I make a wicked margarita. None of that mixer crap. Real limes and oranges. You up for that?”
Why not? I didn’t have to answer to anyone.
She put some slow tunes in the CD player, whipped up a couple killer margaritas, and before the evening was over she found out I had more than a good pair of legs under me.
She cooked a damn good breakfast, too.
She called me Randy.
I expected some talk of commitment or future but it never came up. It was all in the moment.
“We don’t have to answer to anyone at our age,” she said. “Just enjoy it while we can.”
It’s a really awkward conversation to have with your wife, even if she’s dying but when Jazzy learned how sick she was she told me she hoped I’d find someone to be with one day. I started to argue but she stopped me.
“Look,” she said. “No one knows you better than I do. You’ve never done any of the man stuff. You don’t care about sports, you don’t have drinking buddies, you don’t hunt, and you’re comfortable with women. I’ve always known that. So find someone. You make a woman feel happy and appreciated.”
So Helen was a good companion. We enjoyed dancing, she liked to occasionally cook for someone besides herself, and we got on really well in bed. I didn’t feel even close to being a senior.
We were in Helen’s shower together one morning when the stroke hit. She called 911 and they carried me away. I was in the hospital for about a week. My speech was mushy during the worst of it but with some work it came back. My right arm and hand didn’t work right though and I dragged my right foot. And that side of my face – well, it sagged and didn’t quite match the other side.
Helen came to visit often, both at the hospital and after I was home. She was very attentive, encouraged me to do the exercises to get my strength and mobility back, but the progress was slow. I still shuffled and dragged my foot. My right arm and hand didn’t work right. And then, of course, there was my face. Sometimes when I ate I’d discover something had leaked out of my mouth.
Meadowbrook arranged for an LPN to come in, every day at first, but then three days a week. I got around with a walker and eventually moved up to a cane. Helen came less and less. The good pair of legs was gone and so was the dancing. I think I could have managed a roll in the hay but I suspect she wanted someone with more agility than I could manage. And my lop-sided face didn’t help.
I invited her over one night and ordered in Chinese. I even had a bottle of wine to go with it. She came, picked at her food, drank half a glass of wine, and said she had to go. She never came again.
And why should she? We’d always lived in the moment and with no obligation.
I got a good cane and got rid of that god damned four-footed thing that screamed cripple. With some effort and practice I developed a sort of swagger – no more shuffle. Standing straight, steadied with the cane, I felt I might even swagger well enough to walk outside again where people could see me. And that’s where Emily found me.
“Hi, Wally. Nice to see you out again. It’s been a while.”
“Been a while,” I agreed.
“You look like you’re doing really well.”
“It’s coming,” I said. “Kind of slow, but it’s coming.”
“I wanted to come by but I didn’t want to upset Helen. I know you two are close.”
“Not so much anymore,” I said.
“Oh, I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay. She just needs someone more agile, I guess.”
I could see her processing that information.
“Well, I – ” She hesitated, and then: “There’s dance this Saturday. You feel like going?”
“Don’t dance much these days.”
“We could just have dinner. Benny and the Step Stones are playing again.”
Good old Benny.
Emily came by and we walked to the hall together. She settled me at a table not far from the band. Across the room I saw Helen chatting up another man at the bar. Good for her, I thought. Still at it.
Emily produced a little elastic thing to hitch my cane to the chair so it wouldn’t fall and clatter.
“Can I get you a plate from the buffet?”
“Thanks. Not a lot, though. Some pork or beef, some rice if they have it, and something green.”
She bustled off to the buffet and I watched her go. Not bad. A little round and soft, but not bad. She returned with my plate and a glass of water.
“I’ll get you something from the bar if you’d rather...”
“No, this is fine.”
“I’ll be right back.”
I watched her walk away again. Not bad at all. Could be fun.
She came back with her own plate, giggled as she sat down, and began to chatter about who knows what. Every now and then she’d giggle for no apparent reason. I decided she was either happy or nervous. Or both. Didn’t matter. She didn’t seem to be put off by my sagging face or my fake swagger. I was really itching to see if I could at least keep up with a slow tune so when the band began Moonlight Serenade I asked Emily if she’d like to dance. She was out of her chair in a flash. I used Emily to steady myself, and we walked out to the dance floor. If I kept the steps small and held her firmly, it actually worked. She let me dance close, too, and it felt good.
A couple dances, though, just about wore me out and I said I ought to call it a night. Emily walked me back home, she on one side, my cane on the other, and all the time employing my fake swagger. We stopped at my door.
“I’ve got some box wine and some records out of the 50s,” I said. “Want to come in for a while?”
“Yes, I’d like that.”
I sent her to get the wine and the glasses while I dug out three LPs and put them on the record changer. The first was Frank Sinatra.
“I know you can get this stuff on CDs now but somehow the old LPs have a mellower sound.”
“I know,” Emily said. “It’s nice to hear the crooners again.”
We clinked the glasses, sipped a bit of wine, then put the glasses down so we could hold each other and sway to the music. We danced through three songs, then sat on the couch to sip the wine. She was on my left and close, thighs touching. I put my arm behind her head and she hunched down a bit so she fit under my arm. Her head was on my shoulder. That left my right hand to maneuver my wine.
It was nice, just sitting there, holding this woman who seemed to enjoy being held. And that could have been enough. We were both old and lonely, after all, so why not comfort each other?
“It’s been such a long time since anyone held me like this,” Emily said.
“A long time. I dream about it sometimes, dream I can feel the warmth, the skin, but it’s always fleeting.”
“Were you ever married?”
“For a short time, years ago.”
“He hit me,” she said. “A lot.”
“I left one night when he was drunk. We were in Nebraska but I had a friend in upstate New York, a friend he didn’t know about. I bought a bus ticket and went to stay with her.”
“Pretty much. A lawyer got the marriage annulled. I don’t know how, but he did. I never trusted anyone enough to take that chance again, so aside from a few very occasional dates that was it.”
I wanted to hug her then. People who have been treated badly need hugs. My right arm got around to her other side but then flopped down onto her breast. And my fingers twitched. Emily giggled.
“What are you doing?”
“I wanted to wrap you up in a hug but my hand seems to have other ideas.”
She pressed my hand to her breast and it became still.
“Now I’m having a few ideas of my own,” I said.
“I don’t think I’m nimble enough for the couch, though. And if we end up on the floor I might never get up. But I do have a perfectly serviceable bed in the other room.”
“You’re not just teasing, are you?”
“I don’t tease,” I said. “Come on in, bring the wine and the glasses. I might even find a candle or two.”
“Are you sure?”
“I’m never sure of anything. I had a stroke a few weeks ago and thought I was going to die. Now I’d like to share my bed with a woman again. You want to be held. It’s a win-win.”
She stood up then and helped me off the couch.
“Go find the candles,” she said.
A free PDF of David Chase's 3 act play "As Fair As You Were" can be downloaded here: http://www.plays4theatre.com/bookdetails.php?pr=800
His novel, "Grants Ferry" is available on Amazon here: http://www.amazon.com/Grants-Ferry-David-Chase/dp/1477538313/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1370166826&sr=1-1&keywords=grants+ferry+by+david+chase