“Come on now, hon, I know you can move a little faster than that,” cajoled Gladys, in her usual thin, reedy voice.”
“Alrighty Muffin … yeah … sure,” returned Herman. “Oh poop. Looky, that young thing has already taken our favorite love seat. Guess this here’ll have to be fine.”
‘Yes, this is fine, okay now, um huh.” Herman just needed to sit sooner than later, his left hip doing that sharp twinge thing again that made him less sure on his feet.
Gladys and Herman Gustafson retraced their steps back to Gladys’s second choice of a place to sit. Their near-daily journey to the Stafford City library, adjacent to Garden Hallow Senior Living quarters, afforded the couple a short, weather-sheltered walk.
Gladys and Herman Gustafson considered themselves fortunate to still be of relatively sound mind and body.
One walking cane and a hearing aid between them and careful ambulation were considered extraordinary advantages over their wheelchair-bound, overly-medicated, oft-drooling peers.
Once settled, Herman preferred Sherlock Holm serial mysteries (and despite not being as apt to figure out “whodunit” these days, he still believed trying would keep his mind sharp; as for Gladys, Hollywood rags and their gratuitous pulp on celebrities sufficed. (She had gotten as close as “near-Broadway” herself).
Gladys and Herman’s collective thin-skinned and vein-laced hands couldn’t belie a lifetime’s endurance of labor, and the reading materials they presently held in them bobbed in unison with their sleepy heads. The couple’s alteration between dozing and leisurely page turning, as they leaned into one another by a sunny window, was a reflection’s reflection in a mirror—a picture forever cascading into the past.
“Pardon?” Herman asked, with etiquette toward her reminiscent of a lost generation. His thick white bristled brows, though recently trimmed, still protruded to the rim of his weighted reading glasses. The couple’s library-hushed utterances, the few shared during their lengthy visit, were evenly dispersed between mutual cat-napping.
Their established outings to the library—since their children (really, Tom and Kenny, their two most strapping grandsons) moved them into Garden Hollow—exuded a certain tranquility that only threescore and seven years could secure. Few words were required now. Dreams had already been fulfilled, failed, or just forgotten. Only Gladys and Herman—and the filling of the remaining days that would be granted them—remained.
It hadn’t, however, always been that way.
Sometimes Herman still remembered her.
Certain smells could resurrect the dried sensors in his nose. Lilacs. Yes, lilacs. By the hedge of lilacs, they first had kissed. Or when his gnarled-knuckled hands touched silky fabric, like Gladys’ purple scarf, he might recall the woman’s dress, the way the sun lit off of her bare shoulders that first day when it fell from her body.
And, though that day was also their last, Herman sometimes thought he and the woman had been married as long as he and Gladys had been. It was during these moments, of a memory’s subjugation, that he could slip and call Gladys by another name. At least Herman thought he had slipped.
Herman wanted to believe Gladys hadn’t ever learned of his extra-marital foray, but of it, he knew better. His wife, from the first day they had met on that fire-engine-red trolley car, had often demonstrated a knowledge of him beyond his own. And, over the years, he had come to depend on her anticipation of his every move.
Yet, if Herman wasn’t being entirely betrayed by his memory, she had never as much hinted at his involvement with any other woman. For Gladys, she simply never wanted Herman to know that his improvement as a husband had followed his sin. That it had somehow settled him. And really, in 1928, when they had wed, it was what she had wanted, what she craved—settledness.
But the lustiness Herman encountered near the lilac hedge, their continuing at the hotel room, and the final rushed tumble in her car before he was let off at the airport, hadn’t been the first time Herman had seen her. In ’34, two years earlier, he’d come upon her at a clothing boutique in the town his work had taken him. He needed a tie.
One with the power to impress the prospective clients he was about to pitch. In truth, she had spotted him, as she’d been languidly perusing lingerie across the aisle. Straightaway (she later told him) she had realized her intentions for him. Herman hadn’t required any such power-tie to impress her. She’d already detected a sense of command in his eyes and wanted some of it for herself.
Herman was struck by the chestnut-haired woman’s forthrightness, how she had so swiftly moved to his side, and with a purple-laced bra no-less tangled in her fingers. Though it hadn’t been customary for women to approach strange men, Herman liked it, its nascent adventurousness. Was the woman, he wondered, referring to the color of the tie he was holding, or the under garment she splayed before him?
Before he could respond, she took his hand, pulling it close, palm up, as if about to fill it with her left, pear-shaped breast.
Instead, her heavy-lidded and thick-lashed eyes only smiled at him as she pressed her calling card into his palm, slowly folding his fingers with hers wrapped around them; whereupon she spritely turned on her spiked heels and began marching away, click-clacking down the long marble corridor, leaving Herman standing agape, in the wake of her sent until she was finally out of sight.
She had a calling card? Herman had never heard of such a thing, of a woman.
He tried shaking off the stranger, went on and bought the tie, attended his business meeting, later sweated it out in his hotel room flipping nervously through the bedside Gideon, and, in the morning, headed straight for the airport.
As the plane lifted off, Herman took only little solace in having resisted calling the number on the woman’s card. Back home and returning to a semblance or routine, Herman fought to forget. Still, the lingerie lady came to him in his dreams.
Twenty-four months elapsed before he was sent back to that same city. And, while frantic to locate a spare postage stamp, searching the hidden pockets of his wallet, there, buckled in his seat of the DC-9, Herman came upon the card. He stared at it. He mouthed the sound of her name, and remembered anew her smell, the violet-colored bra tangled in between her fingers, her heavy-lidded eyes, and the form of her body as she strode away from him.
“Yes, of course I remember. I never forget the ones without the nerve to phone me right off. Did the purple tie end up working for you?”
“It hadn’t proffered the sale I was shooting for, at least not then, anyway.” Had it been two minutes or two years since their encounter at the clothing boutique?
“Herman?—you did say that was your name, right? Herman.”
“Yes?” He liked hearing her say his name.
“Do you have the nerve now?”
The flower shop she owned was two blocks from the hotel Herman stayed in two years earlier and was the same hotel he was checked into presently. The room’s only distinction this time was the absent gold-edged bible. And, as he exited room 113, made his way to the flower shop, he gave no notice to his surroundings. Dreaminess inhabited him instead.
A muted bell sounded his entrance, as his eyes first fell upon sunlight slanting through blinds, onto tulips, daffodils, carnations, and roses of several colors. The sun’s rays also illuminated the profile of the woman’s body stationed behind the counter—highlighted the protuberance of her bust, the ripeness of it nearly in hand that fateful day.
A myriad of flower scents tickled his nose to the point of a resisted sneeze. Then Herman saw the Lilacs, how they dominated the entire opposite side of the shop. The color of her dress matched the Lilacs.
“A deeper shade might have been more effective,” she said, moving toward him and reaching to smooth the tie she instantly recognized. Herman’s brain skipped at what his conscious mind hadn’t previously noticed, at what her’s clearly had. Her referring to his tie—the tie—caused time to skew even further, his dreaminess to deepen.
Then she took Herman, wordless, by the hand, and led him out the rear of the shop, to a high-hedged, immaculately landscaped courtyard. The square-trimmed hedges were towering purple lilacs. There was the choice of a roped hammock at the sunny corner of the yard but she opted instead for the shade, the grassy patch nearest her favorite hedges, where the morning’s dew still remained untouched by the sun.
When she stopped, still facing away from him, she remained silent, and stood for a drawn-out second, her visage shrouded in shadow. He could see her reach to her chest before it fell from her shoulders, the purple silk dress, and then watched as it slid down, catching a moment at her hips before falling to the ground.
She stepped out of it, bringing her bare body into the sun. She then turned slowly, letting it illumine her, broadcasting her comeliness. As she moved back into the shade, closer to Herman, he noticed her painted toenails—of course, he thought, of their color.
Herman reached to unbutton his shirt as she began unbuckling him below before each pulled the other down to the earth. It was still morning. The beginning of their spent day. And as the minutes and hours were consumed his enchantment deepened the fissure that was already established within him. A room had been constructed, its inhabitants dwelling there forever.
“All finished?” Gladys asked.
“Um huh, yeah … good as usual, Muffin. Yesiry.” Herman excused himself from the table to fetch his cardigan sweater. Gladys, as always, began clearing away their lunch dishes.
“Give my regards to Roger, could you … tell ‘em I’m sorry for his loss.”
“Sure will, ubetcha honey,” Herman returned, before also fetching his cane and leaving to meet up with his new friend. When Roger came to Garden Hollow, he and Herman discovered their mutual hankering for playing Checkers—an evolving habit preferable to Solitare that helped break up the afternoon.
When Herman discovered Roger’s empty place in the activity room, he went to his apartment. He gave a one-knuckled tap on the already cracked open door before poking in his head.
“Roger?” It was the second time Herman had entered his new pal’s quarters. The first time he had ended up helping him unpack. They had shared a good laugh at their clumsy attempt to wrestle a fitted sheet onto Roger’s mattress, the both of them suddenly realizing that in all their years neither of them had ever done it before.
Now, he found Roger weeping, sitting in his recently-deceased wife’s favorite chair, its threadbare surface matching his own worn skin. The lazy boy had come with Roger, from the home he and Madeline had inhabited prit-near sixty years. A damp handkerchief was clenched in the hand that also held a brass-framed photo, whose black and white exposure revealed a serious-faced groom and a precociously smiling bride.
“God, how I miss her,” was all Roger managed to emit between abruptions of silent sobs. Herman went to sit at his side.
“You live with someone as long as we have Herman, and you can’t figure out how to get on without them…” Because agreement with Roger was Herman’s natural inner reaction, he felt fear. He knew he needed to be the first to go, before Gladys. Because she could better survive his no longer being there. Herman then got a closer look at the wedding picture Roger was clutching, causing his own failing vision to commit a double-take as he groped for his spectacles in his sweater pocket.
Her eyes, their length of lash, their heavy-lined lids, the contour of her chest, were unmistakable. The pears he partook of, the hips that once straddled him, and the lips that had hungrily mouthed him—the ones he and Roger had shared. Finally, absolute confirmation … lilacs. The bouquet of them she held at her waist.
In his delirium, Herman thought he could smell them, as flashes of her flesh erupted from his ancient memory as poignant as the day the images had been etched into it. Roger’s Madeline had been his Madeline! So ‘Madeline’ was her name! Yes! Of course, Madeline!
Time seemed to bend for both men, each having lost something so real. For Roger, it was the defining of nearly his entire history, the sum total of his adult life, and for Herman, the dewy fragments of a memory, of another’s intensity enveloping him, the scent of lilacs he would take to his grave.
Herman and Roger sat as long as Roger’s weeping held them. There, in the living room, devoid of Madeline’s once shared anima. Finally, after Herman fetched a glass of water for Herman, the both of them, side by side, made their way to the activity room. Checkers, the best of seven games.
When Herman returned, he was not surprised to discover Gladys in her chair, lightly snoring, a bulky family photo album open across her lap. Seeing her there warmed Herman with peace and an unspeakable sense of awe. She was alive and he knew how much she loved him. How she was breathing, at least a little longer, for him.