He moves laboriously and picks the morning paper from the wedged-in spot between the hedges he and the paperboy have politically agreed on after a number of quarrels, and sits down to a cup of black coffee to wait on Carole. He drifts off to sleep. He dreams that he and Carole are young and that she has decided to stay and that Stephanie comes to live with them in a house by the water. Both Carole and Stephanie float in his dream, wearing diaphanous white dresses that remind him of church and angels. He is dressed in all black, tall, thin and haunted looking. Black tie around his neck, decorated with green neon skeletons, mouths agape in the terrible manner of Munch’s “The Scream”. He is trying to speak with them both, trying to tell them that he is sorry he can’t say the words they desire to hear. But the closer he gets to Carole’s diminutive figure, the more she floats away, until only Stephanie is left. Stephanie stands next to him for a moment, her height comparable to his six-foot frame and he wonders at her self-composure, at the fact that he has fathered her. He reaches a hand to touch her face, so like his own. He opens his mouth but before he can empty the words into her ear, she pulls back from him, just like Carole. In his sleep he lurches from the chair and clutches his heart that pounds rapidly with nervous flutters. His forehead, beaded with a cold sweat, sinks into the beige, short pile carpet that decorates the living room floor. He stays there for quite some time, too anguished to move.
Stephanie was all for the ties. She thought her father bought them for fun and encouraged him to wear them whenever he met any of her teachers. Her mother was not so impressed. She squinted at the one that showed the Eiffel Tower awash in crimson and gold.
“Dempsey, are you all right? I’ve never seen you wear a tie like that before.” He watched her wrinkled nose and the way her eyebrows raised as if looking and smelling a distinctly malodorous object. He laughed. They had not exchanged pleasantries for some time. He found he liked the attention the ugly ties engendered, good or bad.
Dempsey opens the door to a flurry of movement and stares down at the small woman of sixty, dressed in lilac, his favorite color. He thinks, after all these years she still remembers. He holds the door briefly and wonders if he dares to embrace her but she beats him to it and throws her body into his arms, even as there is a possibility of snooping neighbors. He hugs her as tightly as his arthritic arms will allow and breathes deep her scent. Luxuriates in her touch. Soft, sweet, powdered. Changed yes, but still the same.
The first time he saw Carole, Dempsey kept glancing over in the next lane where she was with her girlfriends, laughing and drinking beer. When it was her turn, he noticed her face, plastered with drunken intent but so good-natured, so inviting, that he had to smile. She was much younger. He could tell even from a distance. Without thinking he walked over and watched her bowl a perfect strike and collapse on the floor with the giggles as her friends screamed in disbelief. He was near enough that a few more paces didn’t make any difference and before he had a chance to analyze why he desired to, his hand reached down to help her off the floor. There was no hesitation on her part but she did appear flustered.
“You’re welcome. Do you bowl like that all the time?” He felt stupid.
“Nope, only when I’m drunk.”
“I see. I think I might have to try that trick.”
“Well, you need to be very, very careful. Not everyone can handle it.”
He felt self-conscious. Her friends were staring. He could smell the beer on her breath but chose to concentrate on her eyes, which were light brown and soft, set within medium hued skin, the color of rich toffee.
He smiled then, knowing very well the extent to which his teeth, beauty and height attracted women.
He sat her down but came back to chat with her three times during the course of the night. The most he recalled of their conversation was that she was witty even while drunk.
“You look good,” he now whispers hoarsely. The sight of her, still loving, still Carole, chokes his insides and makes him think of dying soon.
She stands back, searching, his face, his body. He watches her mouth. In the old days she would have told him he looked good too, “good enough to eat.” But she doesn’t say that to him today. Her lips fold together and she remains quiet. She moves forward and touches the tie before she hugs him once more.
“Thanksgiving 1987,” he murmured in her hair.
“You sent this tie to me for Thanksgiving 1987.”
The lower half was shaped like a turkey, feathers cut in a wide arc, dropping just at the belt line. The neck was long and painted red while the head, thimble-sized, sported an enormous, bright yellow beak. The eyes, plastic bubbles with small black dots, moved whenever he moved. In captions above the turkey’s head were the words, “gobble, gobble.”
He spent Thanksgiving 1987 alone at a tavern on Montgomery Street, not to far from his home. The waitress asked if the “gobble, gobble” meant that he ate pussy. He still remembered his reaction, strong righteous indignation on the outside and a stiff dick in his pants. He went home alone to watch late night television and think about Carole and why she cursed him with ties.
They sit in the kitchen under bright fluorescent lights and he serves her Earl Grey tea and toast with orange marmalade. He went to the store to look for strawberry preserves, her favorite, but he forgot his glasses and refused to ask for help. The small lines around her eyes and mouth are distinctive, as are the fine gray hairs that sprout from her forehead and fan about her oval face. Her hands, once plump, now thinner and wrinkled, grips the cup tightly and he can see that she is as nervous as he is about this tête-à-tête. He leans back in his chair.
The last time he saw her was memorable because they fought. She stood in front of him in a pair of jeans, so perfectly formed and fitting to her narrow waist and thighs that all he wanted to do was grab her and pull her to him. But her eyes were agates, boring hotly into his skin and their heat was not the same.
“If you didn’t want to be with me, why the hell couldn’t you tell me?”
“Carole, you need to calm down.”
All of a sudden she stopped. Her chest had been heaving, her hands gesticulating all over the place, her eyes, frantic with anger. Now she was still.
“Dempsey, you were in bed with that woman. I know you were.”
“Carole, we’re both single. We said, we said...” He searched for words but the rigidity of her stance suddenly frightened him.
“It’s all right, Dempsey. You’re right. We did say that we weren’t going to hold each other back from seeing people. We did say that.”
He wanted to reach for her and tell her the truth, to beg her forgiveness but he didn’t. He watched her pick up her coat and turn slowly to the door. She never glanced at him again. And he never told her that there was no other woman. Worse, that the thought of anyone one else in his arms, in his bed, made him limp.
“Are you happy with... your husband?”
Carole hesitates before she speaks. Setting the cup down, she folds her hands in front of her, finally nodding.
“Yes, I am.” Dempsey can tell that she doesn’t want to hurt him but Carole doesn’t lie when it comes to important things.
“It took me a while to get over us, but he’s good to me. He loves me and lets me know that.”
Dempsey clears his throat. “I loved, love you too.” He feels the heat flood his face. For a moment he thinks that he might start to cough but he fights the reflex with all his might by concentrating on her beauty.
“Then why did you leave? If you knew I loved you?”
She reaches and touches his hand, covering his fingers, gripping them. Hurting him and loving him at the same time. The warmth she sends reaches inside his heart, coating it with the slow-fire burn he always feels in her presence. For the first time in a long time he notices a stirring in his groin and blinks. Even now he wants her.
She says simply, “I wanted to stay but I was too afraid of life with you.”
Seeing the puzzlement in his face, she continues.
“Dempsey, do you know how beautiful you were? Every time we went out there were women. They passed you notes, smiled. I couldn’t stand the fact that they all wanted you so much.” She shrugs. “I knew it would be just a matter of time before you decided that I wasn’t good enough. You’d leave me for one of them.”
“No. That’s not true.” His voice was forceful with the knowledge of its truth, today. No other woman ever compared to Carole. No matter what he did.
“You could never say you loved me or that you would stay. Never.”
Words, long held, escape his mouth without thought of ramifications. Looming death shrouds the fear, makes the flow easier.
“Carole, I loved you. I would never have left you.”
Tears are at the corner of her eyes and one slowly drops on her cheek.
“Thank you, Dempsey.”
“No, thank you, Carole. For all the happy moments. For all the memories that are with me now. They make this part, this last part much easier.”
She leans forward and kisses his forehead, aiming for the middle line, a wrinkle that stretches the length of his brow, deeply etched and exposed.
Suddenly, Dempsey feels better, as though he has accomplished some great task. He has to ask.
“Carole, why the ties? They’ve been crazy over the years, wonderful, yes, but crazy.”
A brief smile turns her face into the young woman he met in a bowling alley more than twenty-five years ago.
“I wanted to make sure you thought of me.”
She sends a curious glance in his direction, eyebrows cocked, head tilted to one side.
Dempsey flashes his own grin and starts to recount some of the situations he has found himself in with the ties. It made no difference to either one of them that his stories were mostly of other women and missed opportunities. Carole giggles, covering her mouth, and at one point accuses Dempsey of lying.
At lunch time she rambles through the kitchen cabinets and refrigerator to find something to prepare. They settle on grilled cheese sandwiches and chicken soup and to oblige her, Dempsey makes a pretense of eating.
“You know what the worst part of getting old is?” She asks this with put-on sparkling eyes because she wants to make him laugh.
“What?” he asks in an equally cheerful voice.
“Getting gray hairs, everywhere. Even on your cochee.”
Dempsey was used to Carole. Making jokes at the most importune moments, at funerals, in the middle of making love. He sat back in his chair and laughed until real tears fell from his eyes. He thought that he never wanted her to leave or the day to end.
Stephanie calls. And it is all easier because Carole remains in the background, touching his hand, holding his fingers to her cheek.
“Dad, Dad, I know you hear what I’m saying. Why did you stop taking your medicine? I called the doctors’ office and you haven’t been in for your chemo treatments either. What’s going on? Why are you doing this? Do you want to die?”
Dempsey replies but can’t explain why all this fuss isn’t worth the effort. That he has made his decision and it is only a matter of waiting. He hears his daughter’s fear and for the first time in her life, he feels the urge to comfort her with more than merely the obligatory murmured words of a distant father. He considers for a moment telling her the truth.
“Stephanie, I need you to listen to me.”
He begins to talk to his child. He closes with, “Stephanie, I love you, very much.” He hears her through the telephone, the soft gasps as she tries to catch her breath. Pictures the red swollen eyes and the tears coursing down her cheeks, salty and sweet, running faster and harder because he has never said those words to her before, not in all her thirty years.
When it is time for Carole to leave, he kisses her. Not like a friend, but with passion. And she returns his kiss, tongue pressed to tongue. A woman of sixty and a man of seventy, the heat between them, unmistakable, raw, still.
Dempsey knows she will return to him again and again before he dies, in his dreams, in the moments before dawn, in the long, interminable days that stretch ahead.
Later, he stands and waits for the nurse as she climbs the stairs to his home. She seems surprised and pleased that he is waiting for her and smiles, a small tentative smile that reminds him of the first day they met, when she was all sunshine and he was all resentment. He returns her smile and watches as hers broadens and lifts the weary corners of her eyes. He wonders if she will accept his invitation for a cup of tea or coffee before she leaves.
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QLRS Vol. 2 No. 1 Oct 2002