Old Towne

Stealing one last glance over his shoulder, he quickly ducked out the door and instantly felt reprieve from the choking, humid stale air contained within the walled pavilion.  Being that the pavilion was on the eastern shore of the spring-fed lake, it offered a gorgeous view of the last trails of light fading quickly over the western cottages and western docks.  He could hear the music of the band fading as he walked away.  The brass, the percussion.  It was still present but fading from his ears and thought just the same.  He was excitedly and hastily trying to loosen his second-hand tie and remove a cigarette all at once and had to give up one venture to be successful at the other.  After the cigarette was lit and a large boulder beside the water was made a seat, he inhaled, exhaled then loosened the tie.

The night had begun with the makings of an ending so completely different from this one.  Actually, backing up, the day had begun without any promise of any ending regarding her whatsoever.  On his morning run though, a chance meeting had changed all of that.  Normally, he doesn’t even go running on a Saturday but for some unknown reason, something had pulled him to the dirt roads that ringed the lake’s cottages like a border some couldn’t cross.

“Back in an hour!”  Robert had yelled probably too far from the back door for anyone inside to hear, but he yelled it anyway.    He charged up the hill that led to the road at a quick pace, just as he had done since he was a child.  Once he hit the road, he went left for the simple reason as yesterday he had gone right.   God forbid he fall into the routine of life that he dreaded and feared so much.  He neared the first corner and switched sides to the other shoulder to avoid being in a dangerous blind spot which scared the hell out of him whether he was in a car or on foot.   The heat of the day became more and more present in the early summer morning as he neared his normal halfway point.  Past the public dock, the road afforded a view of the pavilion where the Cottagers Association held typical summer lake-town events throughout the summer.  Lasagna dinners, youth meetings and movie nights were the norm on never-changing nights of the week.

Traditionally, the pavilion held host to the end of the summer gala that most in the later years of high school and beyond talked about with increasing fervor throughout the season.  It had, in the years of Robert’s grandparents’ youth, been held at the first weekend after Labor Day to mark the official end of another incredible summer for the upper-middle class of this part of the country.

In the years marking the early part of his parents’ marriage and more recently in his own youth and adolescence, the date had progressively moved closer and closer to the middle of August as the aspiring youth of this lake-town sought to move ahead in the world by reporting to colleges and pre-school-year tutoring earlier and earlier.  Rather than see the number of attendees for their beloved gala shrink and shrink, the Board merely decided to move the date up and up.  It was a sort of unconscious battle the board fought with smiled eyes and pursed lips.

Robert, having little to no interest in events such as this, completely forgot about it until on his run that morning.  Rounding the half-way point, he saw what was presumably the decorations committee already well into the routine of hanging streamers, arranging tables and installing kerosene torches around the property.  Having no other knowledge of an event and not hearing rumors of an upcoming marriage or baby, Robert simply assumed the gala was the cause for the decorations.  He thought about this as he completed about three-quarters of his run.

As he ran over the crest of the last major hill he saw a small grey car on the side of the road and judging by the lean to one side and the open trunk deduced that it was probably the victim of a flat tire; another casualty of the ice induced pot holes that remain the only evidence of a winter-time neglect that absorbs the lake town for months each year.    As he neared the disabled vehicle he recognized it to be the family car of a forever childhood friend, Elizabeth McKall.  He slowed his pace and searched for whoever might be around the car.  Not immediately seeing anyone, he walked around the side of the vehicle not facing the road and saw Elizabeth alone and attempting to fix the tire.  He stood there momentarily and took her in with a sense of innocence only years of drifting apart could cause.

They had been friends growing up on the shorelines of the lake and spent summer days and nights playing the ‘red rovers’ and ‘capture the flags’ of our youths.  However, life changes and many of those coming differences occurred for these two over the months not shared while they attended schools in opposite parts of the state.  The start of every new lake season found them growing more and more distant and the time between the letters they sent over the winter months grew and grew.    With these life changes Elizabeth had grown to be a woman whose features hardly went unnoticed anywhere she went.   Robert was in fact extremely attracted to her and the nervousness he felt when he looked at her only added to the ever growing distance between them.  He realized as he stood there looking at her still not noticing him that he, they, never had so much as a conversation so far this season.

*****

She seemed rather fixated on maintaining her independence over this vehicle and as such obviously hadn’t gone for help or borrowed a phone call from the house about a quarter mile down the road.

“Goddamned tire!” she pronounced at the very second she turned, sensing someone else in such close proximity.  With a surprised look intermixed with instant embarrassment she jumped up and excitedly, perhaps because there was now another set of hands or due to the unexpected encounter with a friend she hadn’t seen in a while, or both, put her arms around him and practically squealed with delight.

“Robert!  Oh Robert, how are you!” Elizabeth beamed.  “Goodness, please excuse my current state!  I was out to pick something up from the store and this tire just went flat.  I practically went off the road trying to maintain control!”

“Hi, Elizabeth.  I know, dear, are you ok?”

“I am, I am.  I just can’t seem to get this fixed properly.  It’s embarrassing really.  A grown woman not being able to do something as this alone.”

“May I try?”  Robert said, in an attempt to sound cool and knowledgeable.  Robert was thinking this whole situation really was like something you would see in a damned movie.  He laughed, almost out loud at that very thought and began to work on the tire.

“So what are you doing?  I mean, I see you’re running and all but I mean in general.  How are you doing?” inquired Elizabeth.

Robert, being socially dismissive at times, not by birth but by choice due to his quiet nature wasn’t sure how to answer at first.

“Hand me that there, please” he asked while pointing at a nut.  “I’m doing fine, just fine.  This summer has been going quickly.  I start back up at State in a few weeks.”

With the exception of the all too quick embrace which started off the ‘conversation’, this was going more like two parties sharing an elevator ride than the first meeting in over a  year of two people who used to have sleep-over’s as children.

“Oh Robert that is lovely.  How is it there?  Are you studying to any law, you know, to be a police officer one day?” she asked, a reference to an interest he had once as a child, years ago when they still spoke.

“Lord no.  I’m in accounting.  It is actually quite terrible though” he replied, being overly honest with her, and himself, for the first time in a long while.

“’I’m sorry” she said, adding “I’m sure you’ll figure it out.  You’re smart!”

“Yeah.  I hope so” he responded in a manner that was anything but reassuring.

Robert was finishing up, packing the tools and the flat when Elizabeth suddenly burst out “So I suppose I owe you a dance tonight then, at the gala I mean!”

Without even realizing what he was saying, Robert replied quickly “Yes, I think that would be an excellent way of thanking me.”  Jesus Christ, he thought.  He sounded like one of those goddamned Clark Gable characters that says the all too perfect lines, and the girls just swoon.  What was he doing?  He didn’t even plan on going to the damned gala.  He was even closing her door for her.  What the hell was happening to him?

“Ok, Robert.  Thank you again.  Really.”  Her smile was gorgeous.  It was full and real and genuine.  It was the kind of smile that when presented changed immensely the shape of her also gorgeous eyes.   “See you there tonight then.  Bye.”

“So long, Elizabeth.  See you tonight then.”

And that was that.  The rest of the run home was spent dissecting the conversation, with the primary focus being the last few minutes before she had driven off.  He decided it best to just drop it and instead focus his efforts on gathering the required elements of a suitable wardrobe for the evening.

He heard his mother call something to him, exactly what, he wasn’t sure as he ran down the yard, past the front porch and into the lake to cool off after his run.  He walked slowly back up the field-stone path to the porch onto which his mother by now had made her way.

“How was your run, dear?”

“Fine, mom.  Just fine.”  And for the second time that day he lost control of his tongue; “Hey, guess who I ran into today?” Without waiting for the guess, he excitedly retold the story of his chance meeting with Elizabeth McKall and his plans to attend the gala.  This struck him as odd once again because he rarely shared personal portions of his life regarding members of the opposite sex with either of his parents, or anyone for that matter.  The joy she shared in return was real but so was his concern regarding how he came to be in this situation in the first place.  It was as if twice today someone had hijacked his thought process then eventually his words.  Maybe he could just not go tonight?  Yeah.  That’s what he would do.  Just simply not go and if asked by Elizabeth or anyone he could say he wasn’t feeling well.  But what if, what if, she truly did want him there and something so much more happened than just a dance.  What if at the conclusion of the gala they got in that little gray car and drove off somewhere real nice and were happy and grew old and had grandkids one day?  Maybe that was her intention all along.  He couldn’t be sure.  There is never any way to be in matters of the mind and heart.  Sure, with one of those you can be sure, but not when it seems they are working against each other for the apparent goal of working against you.   He thought about this intently as he smoked a cigarette after first going inside to gather a cup of coffee and return to the front porch to watch the rest of the lake wake up.

He asked to borrow the car to take the 25 minute ride into the nearest town in order to find shoes, a neck tie, and shirt that fit.  He didn’t bring any of those items to the lake for the summer; they simply weren’t needed when days were spent canoeing and swimming and nights were spent in no planned fashion.  His dilemma of a suit was taken care of by his father’s ability to over pack for any possible scenario at the encouragement of his overly cautious mother.  Finding the items was easy.  He went to a second-hand store and was back before dinner.  He hated the days of the summer when for no reason short of a natural disaster or act of God, he had to be more than out of eyesight of the water.  Robert loved the lake and loathed missing an opportunity to spend any amount of minutes by her shore.

Dinner was light fare that evening as his mother and father had planned on eating the offered meal at the gala.  His nerves were what kept him from taking anything more than a piece of buttered bread down.   Robert wasn’t programmed for these types of events or situations.  He was at home on the water; not in a suit and tie, smiling fraudulently at people whose names he wouldn’t remember come morning time.  It’s interesting in knowing this that he chose a profession such as an accountant then.  This was his dilemma.  What he wanted and his parents and society wanted were often two real and varying outlooks and endings.  Despite all of this though was the underlying idea that tonight could have an outstanding ending.  This thought pulled him along as he walked the shoreline and through yards of people he had known his entire life toward the pavilion with his tie loose and jacket thrown over his shoulder.  It was a warm night, typical of this time of the year in this part of the country.  He chose to walk the shoreline rather than the road because of the breeze offered up to the residents and properties by the openness the water created on the lake.

The sound of the band grew increasingly loud and inviting as he made his way towards the function.  He planned his arrival to be well after the dinner was served as he knew not too well many people there.  He didn’t have a date and realized his only option for a seat would be with his folks and their friends and while they were all nice enough, Robert didn’t want to spend the entire meal either justifying why he got into the school he did or defending why his school wasn’t as good as someone else’s kid.

When he finally walked up to the door and purchased a ticket for two dollars, the sun was just beginning to be shielded almost entirely from the mountains which surround the lake.  The majority of the tables had been removed to clear a spot for what would be the dance floor.   Pictures of the lake, galas and regattas past adorned the walls and gave conversation pieces to the residents and guests in attendance.  Robert first spotted his parents and being the good, grateful son that he wanted to be, approached them with a smile and his hand ready for multiple handshakes from his dad’s golfing buddies.  Pleasantries were exchanged and well wishes were given and returned.   Realizing he hadn’t gone into the circle of acquaintances via the bar, he politely excused himself and made his way there, ordering a whiskey and water as he did.  Drinking ages at these functions were hardly enforced as within this community, laws were foreign things that were suspended in the summer months and only things real people with real jobs and real problems needed to worry about.  The first drink was actually pretty good and his mood was just so that he quickly ordered a second one and while waiting for it to come, allowed his eyes to wash over the large room from end to end.  He was making it seem as if he weren’t looking for anyone or anything in particular but Elizabeth was on the forefront of his mind as she had been since their meeting this morning.  Not seeing her inside and needing a reason to go outside in order to have a cigarette, he weaved through the crowd, holding his drink close he found the door that led to the large deck interconnected with a dock which sprawled far enough to fit about 40 happy party-goers.

Robert made his way to one side, the end of the deck closest to the door and took in the scene.  It seemed for the time being at least, that the people in attendance who more closely matched him in age were outside, smoking and drinking and putting on the perception of having the time of their life.  Tied at the leeward side of the dock was a Chris-Craft about 18 feet in length and looking too neglected to be legal for a boat of that beauty.  Robert was giving serious thought to elbowing his way through the overly-loud crowd, jumping into the front seat, starting her up (he could see the keys still in the ignition) and taking off with her for the night when a familiar voice sounded from across the night air.

“Robert!  Oh I am so glad you made it!” exclaimed Elizabeth, “Come here, come here!  I want you to meet some friends of mine from school.”

Smiling and trying to appear accepting of his fate of being thrown into awkward social situations, he moved toward her all the while careful not to spill what was left of his liquid relief.  He was immediately introduced to three guys and two girls.  If after this point in the night Robert had stopped to do some simple math, something all too easily accomplished for an accounting major, Robert would have realized he was now in a crowd of friends, three girls and three guys who had arrived together.  Putting this information into his head now could have and would have in fact changed his entire approach to the evening as it was about to occur.

Robert did not stop to think about this though.  It wasn’t intentional, he was just allowing his thoughts to be carried away by the sound of the band, the feel of the whiskey and the way the summer dress fell around Elizabeth’s shoulders.  Besides, the term ‘boyfriend’ or ‘girlfriend’ hadn’t been mentioned once and none of the group had been in physical contact as of yet.

After they had all finished their cigarettes and a sufficient majority of the group of seven ran out of drinks, they moved inside; back into the noticeable change in temperature and back to where the band and the alcohol and loudness was.  Folding chairs lined the walls and the dance floor was growing in size.  The band was surprisingly good and it wasn’t until Robert found out from an overheard conversation that he realized why; the board had spent good money to have them come up from Philadelphia, a two hour drive, for the night.  As he wasn’t much of a dancer and hadn’t had enough to drink in order to gather the courage to ask, he was content in watching the men’s cups and women’s handbags as they all took to the dance floor and danced as a group for almost an hour.  At the start of a slower set of songs, the need for cooler air and more cigarettes won over their desire to stay inside.  The group pushed their way politely towards the deck as Elizabeth grabbed Robert’s hand and pulled him toward the bar.

He went along with her, happily.  He ordered them both whiskey and waters and looked at her smiling as her mind was somewhere else, looking over the crowd.   Just then, his mind was hijacked again.

“I’m glad you got that flat today.  I mean, well, I’m glad I ran into you.”

Laughing, she turned towards him and with locked eyes that seemed to last a split-second too long, replied “Me too, Robert.  Me too.  It’s been far too long.”

He looked away, feeling his face turning red.  He wished like hell those drinks would just show up already.  He needed air.

“What’s wrong?” asked Elizabeth, sensing a change in him.

Nervously smiling, he responded “Nothing.  Nothing really, I swear.”

Awkward silence.  Then, awkward speech.  “Hey Elizabeth!  Remember those sleepovers we used to have where we would try to stay up as late as possible to wait for my parents to fall asleep so we could sneak out and go for walks?”

“Yes of course, Robert.  I liked those!   Oh, they were lovely!” she said, her eyes matching the sadness of her voice, remembering the moments past.

They were.  Robert thought about them more and they were lovely.  The drinks appeared in front of them and some change was thrown into the tip jar.  They went to rejoin the friends outside and stepped out into the air and Robert enjoyed the effect it had on him.  Once again, if Robert had been paying attention to the clues around him he would have caught the look one of the young men he had so recently been introduced to after he and Elizabeth came outside smiling a little too big.  He didn’t though and thus, continued down the path of which he was too quickly consumed.

After the tempo of the current musical set picked back up, they all agreed to go inside.  By this time, Robert had sufficiently lubricated his mood with whiskey-and-waters and was ready to dance.  He moved onto the dance floor, whose current inhabitants were growing younger in age as the older participants in the gala were starting to put on suit coats, gather handbags and say their goodbyes while moving toward the exits.  They danced together for what seemed like a blur of time and songs.  After too little time, the tempo of the music began to slow yet again.  Gathering courage he didn’t know he had, Robert looked into Elizabeth’s eyes in a manner he had never done before and inquired about that dance.  She smiled politely, and while looking back at her group moving outside, agreed, but said she had to excuse herself for “just one moment.”

Now, if Robert hadn’t been so concerned with bending down and retying a shoe that didn’t need it in the first place, he could have possibly seen Elizabeth outside talking to one of the men.  He would have noticed the way he was holding her arm and the way it seemed that they were arguing.  He would yell and she would have her head down, she would talk and wildly move her hands and arms about, mostly back in the direction of Robert while the other guy looked frustrated out across the water.  Finally, Robert would have noticed the way she paused, after a compromise was reached, in the doorway to fix her dress and apply a not so genuine smile before reentering the pavilion.  Robert would have taken these observations, along with the information gathered earlier that night and concluded as any rational person might, that this man was in fact Elizabeth’s boyfriend.  He would have realized this fully and not tried what he was about to do.  First though, they danced.

She came back through the door and Robert smiled to her and neither one said a word because they were both suppressing feelings, and if they spoke, they might accidently and unintentionally disclose those feelings.

The number was a slow, sweet one.  Robert held her close; his hands on her hips wantingly, yet, respectfully.  His moment was fast arriving and for the last time that day, something took over him that he had never felt.  The final notes of the song were playing slowly, their volume fading as they did.  She pulled a half step back and looked into his eyes.  He looked into hers.  What happened next over a few seconds seemed to take an eternity to transpire.

Robert noticed an incredibly slight smile purse over Elizabeth’s lips as he moved his head ever so slightly toward hers.  She, in return did the same.  Robert moved his lips apart in a manner that for an observer who had been kissed just once in their life could not possibly been mistaken for anything else but what it was; a deepening desire and attempt to initiate a kiss.  He, on her signal began closing his eyes so subtly that before he knew it, there was only black.  For a fraction of a second, one of those fractions in one of those moments that only happens a few times in one’s life, it seemed as if nothing could ever possibly go wrong ever again.  It was one of those instants that in its own existence lasted an eternity but in memory was over too quickly to even seem to have happened.  Then, the flash came.

The frighteningly violent action of being hit with so much force, a blinding light is brought across your vision and you are instantly dizzy with fear and pain and confusion.

If Robert had been more versed in the ways of women and the looks they gather before a certain event, he may have noticed the look in her eyes and the way she shut them wasn’t one of desire but the way someone looks when they are defeated or accepting of a certain fate.  He would have known the smile and the way she was opening her mouth as he was moving closer wasn’t an attempt to kiss him entirely, but her movements to say “No, Robert we shouldn’t.”

You see, as much as she wanted to, and as much as he longed for her, there was still the other man.  There was still society’s expectations and rules regarding love and with whom you can share it with and under which circumstances.  In some ways and in some days you have to be with someone.  Not because it is what your heart truly desires but because circumstance and chance and chains of events have led you to that person and the security, not to be confused with happiness, has lulled you into the acceptance of that person being  ‘the one’.

All of this and all at once was the realization Robert was having after the flash as his body was moving toward the ground as his legs quit holding him upright.  This realization was burned into his mind as he lay there, searching Elizabeth’s face for an answer he wasn’t prepared to read in her eyes.  The music had stopped, a crowd was forming.  Robert’s face burned with embarrassment and rage and hurt.  His cheeks were wet, first with blood then with the formation of tears.  He pushed away any attempts at helping him to his feet.  He walked, slowly with an ever quickening pace toward the nearest exit.  The music started again before his body crossed the threshold and he looked over his shoulder, toward Elizabeth one last time but his gaze was not to be returned.  She was nowhere in sight.

—James Albright