The Softer Side
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by Arthur Chappell
by Robert Buckley
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Richmond, Dear Park
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The Long Ride Home
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The Nice Guy
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Its Been Going Around
Dancing with the Banshee
The Last Thing You ...
by Robert Buckley © 2010
Where did all the triple-deckers go? The entire neighborhood had been obliterated, all changed; he recognized nothing. Yet, he was standing just outside the square. Bernard fixed the location of the old drug store with the soda fountain in his mind. An entirely new building stood on the spot, a real estate office and a little ferns-and-brass café occupied the street level.
Then where was the hill? It was gone. Had they just leveled it when they put up all these new buildings? An entire piece of his past had been erased. It was disorienting.
He considered the multi-story condominium building that stood where the hill had been, and stepped back and looked up at the rows of windows and balconies. Maybe this is what it is like to have Alzheimer’s – bewilderment that something had been so changed that the memories shattered from the sheer effort to squeeze them back into a space that they no longer fit.
“Sir, can I help you with something?”
He turned to look into the face of the young man. He was wearing a blue service uniform. He was apparently a security man. He was black.
It seemed absurd to Bernard. When he was a kid black people stayed out of the blue-collar Irish-Polish bastion. It was rare to see a black face. By the same token, you stayed out of the colored neighborhoods. It was just the way things were then. If this young man had any idea of what it meant for him to stand in that spot, how everything had changed.
“I used to live here,” Bernard said.
“In the tower?” the young man asked, his tone dubious and his eyebrow cocked.
“No ... not in this building. But here ... in the neighborhood ... a long time ago.”
“I see,” the young man nodded, but still eyed him with suspicion.
“There was a hill ... I can’t find it.”
“More like a big rock ... a big outcrop of pudding stone.”
“I think he means the courtyard.” The voice was young, feminine.
Bernard turned in its direction. The young woman smiled; it was a tight professional sort of smile. She wore dark glasses and held a valise under one arm.
“The architect built the building around it and made it the center of the courtyard. Pudding stone, right? I had never heard of pudding stone before I moved here. Would you like to see it?”
“Ma’am?” the young security man cocked his head toward her.
“It’ll be all right,” she said. “I’ll just bring the gentleman inside for a moment.”
“Thank you,” Bernard nodded. He followed her through the door.
“My name is Sharon,” she said, glancing back over her shoulder.
“Bun ... I mean Bernard.”
“Nice to meet you, Bernard. You said you lived here?”
“A long, long time ago. It was all three-deckers then, very congested.”
“I don’t know anything about the neighborhood’s history,” she said. “It mustn’t be anything like you remember.”
“You can say that again.”
He followed her until they entered the landscaped courtyard. But the hill, if it was the hill, was nothing that matched his memory. Just a sorry dollop of rock. Had it been reduced? When he was a kid it seemed as high as Everest. But then, perspectives change as one ages.
“Did you play on it when you were a boy?” Sharon asked.
Bernard sighed. “Much more than that. It was the only open space around. Just a vacant unused and unusable patch of ground. It’s where me and my friends went for some breathing room. The closest park was two miles away in another neighborhood. You never went into another neighborhood.”
He stepped around it trying to catch a glimpse of something familiar. Then his eyes rested on the shelf that jutted from just below the summit. There was the place he went to keep his thoughts to himself. He recalled reading comic books, trading baseball cards, and ruminating over mysteries with his pals, great cosmic mysteries, such as what girls might look like under their clothes.
And suddenly he was sorry he had come and seen it for what it was, an insignificant blister of rock, no where near as large as it was in memory.
He thanked Sharon and the young security man, and quickly made his exit. Later, in the car, he became frustrated that the streets no longer conformed to the old map in his head, and that he had to keep stopping for oblivious young people, absorbed in whatever witless conversation they were having on their cell phones, heedlessly wandering into the street.
It took him an hour to find his way back onto a highway. It didn’t matter what highway or what direction he traveled. He just wanted to leave the city behind.
Why had he visited the old neighborhood anyway? It wasn’t as if he harbored cherished memories of the place; all his boyhood and adolescence he yearned to leave it behind. He was never one for nostalgia of any kind.
Maybe he was searching for some kind of anchor; that was it. Since his break with Madeleine’s family he’d felt adrift, aimless ... homeless. Madeleine had taken him out of the neighborhood and made a home with him in Maryland, close to her family. Over the years he lost contact with his brothers. They weren’t nostalgic either. For a few years their Christmas cards crossed in the mail, then stopped. He never sent them; Madeleine took care of the social niceties.
No doubt they had moved on. Where? He had no clue.
It was early afternoon and he had gotten ahead of the rush hour from the city. His mind drifted back to Madeleine’s last weeks. In the end, she harbored no nostalgia either, not for their marriage, much less for their college romance. But he remembered vividly the first time she let him slide his hand under her sweater and coddle a breast. How she let him kiss her stomach. It was so much more exciting than even the sex that followed.
The last ten years of their marriage, and her life, they had no sex. No intimacy. Then when she informed him of the onset of the disease that would kill her, she told him in cold, dry language, as if it were a legal requirement and nothing more.
She didn’t want his attention nor his solicitude. She had planned to divorce him anyway; so what if death made the final decree? She had arranged her will so he could keep the house and dispose of it any way he saw fit, but she would leave everything else to her nephews and nieces. She said if he really wanted to do something for her, he would leave her alone.
One of her brothers told him when she had passed. Her family blamed him for her illness, reasoning that her unhappiness in their marriage had to some way contribute to the disease taking hold and inflicting a fatal outcome. He would not be welcome at the wake or the funeral. So he did not go.
As soon as he could he sold the house, and set out on the road, knowing not where he was headed. Only that he could continue for about a year before the money ran out, he calculated. There was no place to go and no one to go to, so he came back to that earlier home that was now erased. No port there. Stupid, it made him angry at himself. What the hell had he expected to find?
But, where to go now? If there’s no place like home ... there would be no place for him. It was unsettling, more so than he had anticipated. He thought he should be reveling in a newfound freedom, an entirely unfettered life, free of commitment to anyone or anything. Instead it depressed him.
The sun was setting ahead of him. He’d have to pull in to a roadside hotel. But he ached for something familiar and friendly, something simple and comforting.
He thought of his father, and dreary Sunday evenings that weighted him with the sure and certain expectation that Monday would arrive and begin another week of school. He hated school.
His mother worked a late shift and would not come home until well after midnight.
He wondered if his dad sensed his angst. Because more often that not he would say, “I think I’d like a piece of pie.”
That meant going out and visiting a nondescript diner, where his dad would order two slices of apple pie and coffee. And that made Bernard feel important, because kids weren’t supposed to drink coffee, at least kids his age. Maybe his dad understood that too.
And the coffee would arrive in a heavy ceramic mug, beige; it almost matched the hue of the coffee and cream that swirled inside it. And he would wrap his hands around the mug and sip, and for a brief time all the anxiety that arrived on the eve of a fresh week of school would give way to something warm and calming and comfortable.
“I need a coffee,” he said out loud. “Damn, what I’d give for a decent cup of joe.”
Not any coffee would do; certainly not that swill they served in foam cups at fast-food places, or the phony flavored shit the yuppies drank down that was served up by a smarmy noodlehead calling himself a barista.
He exited the interstate and tooled along a secondary road that soon enough left suburbia behind and entered a sparser, more rural stretch. It was getting dark except for the occasional light shining from the window of a home set way back from the road.
Then he entered a junction of roadways that funneled toward a small village. There was a long shack of a building with a couple of cars parked outside. A warm yellow light shone through a series of windows. It was a diner.
He pulled up in front and stepped out of the car. As he approached the entry two men exited and passed him, each giving him a wary look. Once inside he realized he was the only one there.
A waitress looked startled at the sight of him as she passed through a set of swinging doors from the kitchen to an area behind the counter.
“Are you still serving?” he asked her.
She shrugged. “So long as there’s a customer.”
“Good. May I have a coffee please?”
He settled onto a stool at the counter and appraised the pastries kept under a plastic hood.
The waitress brought him a ceramic cup, nondescript beige colored and heavy as a brick. He tossed a single spoonful of sugar into it and poured some cream. He lifted it to his nose and breathed in the steam.
“Ah, real coffee.”
“What were you expecting?” she asked.
“It’s just, I don’t care for that silly flavored stuff they serve these days. If I wanted to taste chocolate, I’d order cocoa. I want coffee to taste like coffee.”
The woman smiled, and drew back an errant strand of red-brown hair that fell over one brow. She was short, no more than five-two, and busty. He couldn’t begin to guess her age ... forties, early fifties. She had applied a dark shade of lipstick haphazardly, but otherwise there was no makeup. Her eyes were clear, almost liquid, a greenish hazel. He thought she must have been very pretty in her youth.
He held the mug in his hands, savoring the weight of it and breathed in the aroma. He raised it to his lips, closed his eyes and sipped. At last, an anchor, something to hold on to.
“Mister, I don’t think I’ve seen anyone enjoy a sip of coffee as much as you just did,” the waitress said. “The last time I saw such a sense of peace come over a person’s face like that, it was my mother’s right after the priest gave her the last rites.”
Bernard blurted out a laugh. “Was it that dramatic?” He grinned, and said, “Would you have a slice of apple pie to go with it?”
“Our apple pie’s pretty good, but this time of year we need to use the canned apples. Do you like blueberry ... they’re fresh ... well as fresh as first thing this morning.”
“Blueberry will be fine.”
She smiled and retrieved a slice from under the plastic hood.
He nodded, “Thank you, dear.”
“We’re generally closed up by now,” she said. “We don’t get much business off the highway, and the locals are gone home for the day.”
“Glad I pulled in when I did. I really needed this.”
“Where you going? If you don’t mind my asking.”
“I don’t mind ... and I haven’t a clue where I’m headed.”
“I remember those days,” she said, and smiled again. “But I was just a girl on the road ... long, long time ago.”
“I suppose you’re going to tell me you were at Woodstock,” Bernard chuckled.
“Nope ... hitchhiked right past it. Thought I’d go to San Francisco, but somehow I ended up in Saskatchewan ... for seven years. Had a baby and came home with her.”
“My wife just died,” he said, amazed at himself that he had told her, but it didn’t seem at all unseemly that he should share his story with her. She made him feel comfortable, despite only having just met her fifteen minutes before.
“I’m sorry to hear that,” she said.
“We hadn’t been close for a long time; she had made up her mind to split, but her illness kind of overtook those plans. Still, I wish it hadn’t happened.”
He took a bite of the pie and nodded. “This is good.”
“I’m Cindy,” she said.
“I bet they called you Bunny.”
He flashed a toothy, blueberry-stained grin. “Yeah, Bunny, but not for a long time.”
She came around the counter and sat on a stool separated by one stool from his.
“So, Bunny, you got any kids?”
“No ... and no family. But you said you’re a mom.”
“A daughter. She’s married ... lives over in England.”
“Marry a serviceman?”
“No, she married a guy who came from there. They met in school. They have three girls.”
“You must get over to see them.”
“No ... not much. His family and I don’t get along ... the kids are little shits.”
She laughed when she said it, but he noticed her eyes had nearly brimmed over.
“That’s too bad. I’m sorry.”
She shrugged. “It’s okay. I know how to get along ... alone. I can feel as sorry for myself as I want.” She smiled again.
He finished the pie and drained the mug.
“Cindy, I take it you have nothing holding you to this town. Feel like taking a road trip?”
“Are you asking me to run away with you, Bunny?”
“To where? Just curious ... never mind the fact I don’t know you from Adam’s uncle.”
“I don’t know ... wherever we end up.”
“That’s liable to be just as good a place as right here.”
“Yeah,” he nodded. “I suppose. Well, just the same, I better get on the road to ... nowhere. Any motels nearby?”
“Not for a long stretch. You could ... stay with me.”
“I live two doors away. It ain’t much, but it’s mine.”
“Like you said ... you don’t know me.”
“Oh, I think you’re probably ... a gentleman.”
He laughed. “Probably?”
She took the mug and plate and placed them in a plastic tub behind the counter. She motioned for him to follow her as she flicked off the lights and held the door for him. He waited as she locked up.
“You can leave your car here,” she said.
He followed her to a ramshackle ranch house that seemed to sag toward one end. She unlocked the front door and gestured to him to follow her.
The place was comfortably cluttered with pieces of mismatched furniture.
“The couch looks comfortable,” he said.
She shrugged, “I guess, c’mon ...”
He followed her along a short hallway to a bedroom.
“I don’t bother making the bed,” she said, then turned and looked up into his eyes.
He nodded and thought the bed was the most beautiful one he had ever seen.
“I ... I haven’t slept with a woman ... must be ten years. Hell, I don’t know if I even could ...”
“Shhh!” She put her finger to his lips. “That’s about the same for me, give or take a random trucker or salesman I’ve invited in to scratch an itch.”
“Well, if it’s just an itch, I guess I could take care of that.”
“No, Bunny, not just an itch. I’ve been waiting for you ... it likely sounds like I’m crazy, but I’ve been waiting for you. I kinda knew it from the way you drank your coffee. I’ve been ... I dunno ... I just so need to ... connect with ...”
She slid her arms around his waist and pressed her face into his chest.
He clasped his arms below her shoulders and held her a moment. His nose burrowed into her hair behind her ear, then he kissed her neck.
Their clothes piled onto the floor and he walked her backward toward the bed until she fell back onto the piles of sheets and comforters. Like kids they shimmied their way beneath the covers, then he allowed his hands to explore her nakedness. Her belly was warm, her shoulders cool, her behind a great round globe, creamy soft to the touch. Her breasts obeyed gravity’s law and splayed to either side. He kissed her nipples and made them harden. He let his palms linger on her hips and squeezed the folds of flesh around her belly. She didn’t seem to mind; she giggled.
Her fingers thrummed his cock, a tender, rhythmic percussion, as she trailed kisses down his chest and over his stomach. When he realized she had taken him into her mouth he closed his eyes and shuddered at the sensation that awakened long-neglected needs.
He mounted her awkwardly on aching knees, but plunged into her like a teenager, lifting himself and locking his elbows so he could watch the ripples that reverberated over her belly with each thrust.
Her eyes were wide, intently watching him as he intently watched her. He wanted to hold off; he wanted her to come first.
“Cindy ... please!”
Her body answered with a tremor, and then another as she keened toward the ceiling. Then came glorious release and the rush of his fluids inside her.
Shaking, he lowered himself onto her. She began to kiss his face, his neck; she nipped his earlobe.
He lay beside her, making maximum contact, as they settled into a coddling languor.
He kissed her shoulders.
“Stay here,” she said.
The next day he negotiated with the owner of the diner, settled on a price and bought it. He dared Cindy to let him fuck her over the counter ... as a way of christening the place. She declined ... in the morning. By closing time, he had worn her down.
He found his anchor. He was home.
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