The International Writers Magazine: Dreamscapes Life Stories
Paul Lerner finished looking over his latest story, “Elaine,” then e-mailed it to one of the online magazines that printed his work. Paul sometimes wondered if he was the oldest writer on the Web. He hadn’t become a writer until after he’d retired.
Later he started doing pieces for an alternative newspaper, then for his local paper, then for a senior paper, after which he’d tried his hand at fiction. After sending off “Elaine,” Paul realized that he’d now written stories about every girl he’d once known, usually having the hero, his stand-in, be much more successful in obtaining the girls’ favors than he’d ever been.
He’d written about every girl but one, Helen. No, wait, he had written about her once, as a kind of minor character in the hero’s struggle to obtain a promotion in his department (he worked for the State of California), which he badly needed to put his two teenage daughters through college. Like the hero, Paul had two daughters; he’d also worked for the State. He recalled that he’d called the girl Rosemary and had described her as being like one of those girls in a movie, who’d become attractive if she’d taken off her glasses and let down her hair. At the end of the story, Rosemary, as at the end of a movie, had done just that and the hero had gotten his promotion; the story, like the movie, was over.
Paul was about to retire. He was 60 years old and had been head of the State’s Health Statistics Branch for a number of years. His State pension should be just enough for the girls’ college and then for him and his wife Ellen to live on if they were careful. He was ready to go. He was tired of the political battles, the office infighting, the endless memos, the useless meetings. He looked forward to doing the traveling that he and Ellen had talked about for the last year..
Helen by this time had surpassed Paul in the State hierarchy, becoming a Division chief. Paul wasn’t surprised. She was as ambitious as she was attractive and this combination made her ascent inevitable. (Not too many attractive women worked for the State), . She hadn’t been as fortunate in her personal life. She’d been unwise enough to marry a politician, a State senator who, like others of his kind, had taken advantage of his young female interns. Paul had lost touch with Helen until a few years ago when they’d both attended a State conference and re-connected. Since then, they’d gotten into the habit of having lunch two or three times a week. Helen told Paul about her problems as a Division chief and about the shortcomings of her latest boyfriend. Paul told her about his problems as a Branch head and about the difficulties of trying to cope with two teen-age daughters.
They were in the cafeteria of the State Capitol cafeteria, a favorite place for them to have lunch. It was far away enough from the State buildings so that no one who knew them was likely to eat there. Nothing was going on between them, of course; still they had a tacit agreement that the fewer the people who knew about their lunches the better.
“So I told him that if he didn’t stop drinking I couldn’t see him any more,” said Helen. She was talking about her latest boy friend, a prominent State official.
“Has he stopped drinking?” asked Paul.
“I haven’t seen him since.”
“That’s too bad.”
“Yes. He’s handsome, charming, wealthy; he has everything. Just one little flaw.”
Paul shook his head. Helen, he thought, must be almost 40 by now. She was still an attractive woman. She’d exchanged her glasses for contacts years ago. Her hair no longer flowed over her shoulders but was done in a fashionable feather cut. She was seldom without some man, but somehow they all seemed to have some flaw.
“Amy wants her own car,” said Paul. Amy was his older daughter, 18, in her first year of college.
“I bet she told you all the other girls have a car.”
“Yes. She’s embarrassed to be asking for rides all the time.”
“You don’t have much of a chance to win that fight.”
“I know. I’m fighting a rear-guard action. Meanwhile, I have to save up some money.”
Helen took a bite of her salad. Somehow, when he was with her, Paul was very conscious of his age. He played tennis three times a week and considered himself pretty fit. Still, he was at least 20 years older than her. He wondered if she considered him a father figure. He didn’t look upon her as another daughter. Abruptly, he said, “I’m retiring at the end of the month.”
She sat up straight, another bite of salad halfway to her mouth. “You’re serious?”
“Yes. I’ve been thinking about it for a long time. I’m putting in my papers next week. You’re the first person I’ve told.”.
“Your pension will be enough? You’ll have to get that car sooner or later.”
“It’ll be close but I think we can manage.”
“Well, that’s a surprise. I don’t blame you. You’ve always hated office politics.”
“I think I finally decided at the staff meeting last week, when everyone was droning on and on. I looked around and thought, What am I doing here?. I won’t miss the office.” He paused. “I will miss our lunches though.” There, he’d said it. He thought she blushed a little, just a tinge of red.
She looked at him. “I’ll miss them, too.” Then she resumed eating. They finished eating and went back to their respective offices..
Paul’s retirement lunch was at a fancy restaurant in Old Sacramento, too fancy for his taste, but he had no say in the matter. He was surprised at how many people came, even people he’d battled with over the years and who wouldn’t be sorry to see him go. These included his department head, with whom he had an uneasy truce, and who now stood up and extolled his great work, then presented Paul with a letter of appreciation signed by the Governor and also a gift certificate to a local department store. Paul was once again surprised , this time by the amount of the gift certificate “You’ll have to go shopping,” he told his wife Ellen, showing it to her.
“We’ll go,” she replied. “We need to get some things for our trip.”
“Where are you going?” someone sitting across the table asked her.
While Ellen went into the details of their proposed trip to Europe, Paul looked over at Helen. She saw his look and smiled, a smile that said she knew he’d be glad when all this was over. Ellen/Helen. Paul had always been bemused by the similarity in names and wondered if it had any meaning. Probably not; just a coincidence. The lunch finally ended. Paul had driven to work that morning. He told Ellen he was going back to his office to pick up a few personal items and maybe say some last good-byes. He gave her the gift certificate and letter for safekeeping.
Paul was in his office. He’d said a good-bye to his secretary Ruth, who seemed unaccountably sad at his leaving. In a cardboard box on his desk he’d put in an array of small things he’d accumulated over the years and pictures of Ellen and his daughters. There was a knock on his door and Helen came in. “I’m glad I caught you,” she said. She closed his door. “I have a little present for you.” She handed Paul a box tied with a ribbon. Paul opened the box. It contained a leather-bound diary and a pen. Both were engraved with his name. “You mentioned you might try to do some writing,” she said.
“Thanks,” said Paul. “They’re very nice.”
She came around the desk and said, “Am I allowed a goodbye kiss?”
She put her arms around Paul and he put his arms around her. She kissed him on the lips. He kissed her back tentatively, than harder. They stayed in that position for what to Paul seemed like a long time. This wasn’t merely a goodbye kiss, he thought. Finally, they broke apart. Paul didn’t know what to say, but he didn’t have to say anything. Helen put a small slip of paper in his hand. “My home phone number,” she said. Then she turned and quickly walked out.
Paul raced across the court and lunged for the ball. He felt something pop behind his left knee, then he was on the ground. His partner and the two guys of the other doubles team came running over. The doctor in the ER said it looked like a torn meniscus, and when Paul saw his regular doctor an MRI confirmed it. He had surgery, then it took about six weeks before he was walking normally. In another few weeks, he and Ellen left for their trip to Europe. The slip of paper with Helen’s phone number stayed in Paul’s wallet. When they returned, he looked at it a few times, then decided not to call.
If I were writing the story, Paul reflected, I’d have kept that slip of paper, then have the hero look at it after so many years and wonder, What if I had? Looking back now after so many years, had that been anything more than a goodbye kiss? Maybe it was his wishful thinking that had made it seem more prolonged and more meaningful than it actually was. And had Helen really given him that slip of paper? Maybe, once he’d started writing stories, his imagination had provided that gesture. After all, look at their age difference. At any rate, this story, whatever had happened, was now over.
© Martin Green March 2011