tagMatureA Long Night's Climb Into Sunlight

A Long Night's Climb Into Sunlight

byronde©

It was time to leave again. These visits were wonderful in their joy and painful in the parting. I stood and took her small hands in mine.

“I have to be going now. Gotta catch my plane or I’ll have to stay the night.”

The little grey-haired woman used my hands to pull herself up. I saw a wicked little gleam sparkle in her eyes. She pulled my hands around her waist and shoulders, and dropped her arms around my neck. It was a tradition begun years ago.

“I dare say there could be worse things to happen. Don’t you think you could still make love to an older woman?”

I bent and kissed her on the lips. We embraced, this woman and I; she, still pretty after sixty-eight years of living and loving and laughing and crying, and I, a married man with two teenage children. She gently pulled away, looked in my eyes, and stroked the back of my head.

“You kiss better than you did the first time.”

Those few words, from a woman most men would ignore, spoke of so much. Had it really been twenty-two years? It didn’t feel like that long, although the spreading bald spot at the back of my head could give testimony that it had. Tonight, I sit at my desk trying to check over some papers. As usual after a visit with this great lady, my mind keeps wandering from its appointed task to that winter and spring, back home.

The batteries on my headlight were about dead and I still had fifty papers to deliver. Why hadn’t I passed the route on to some dumb-ass kid when I graduated? I was only making ten cents a week for each paper. I had to keep telling myself that the ten or eleven bucks a week was my only spending money. My regular job pay went to buy books and gas for my old Chevy so I could “git myself edgicated”, as Grandpa put it.

I never told my college friends about the paper route. Paperboys were somewhere between twelve and fifteen with pimples and carried a shirt pocket full of pens and pencils to school. As soon as they turned sixteen, they dumped the route for real jobs like delivering groceries or working on one of the farms that bordered the small town of Langley, Indiana. I was the odd man out. After I took the test and got my driver’s license, I got other, better jobs, but I kept the route. In 1967, ten dollars went a long way. All I had to do was put a hundred or so newspapers inside screen doors every morning, and make the rounds to collect on Saturday.

In truth, I didn’t have anything better to do with my time. Mom was always telling my sister that she should only go out with “nice” boys who did well in school. They were supposed to make the best husbands. Evidently, all the other mothers were telling their daughters to find the dumbest jocks in the county and screw their brains out, because the only girl who even said “Hi” to me was Denise Witherspoon. The standing locker room joke was that spoons weren’t the only things Denise withered. It wasn’t that she was ugly or anything like that. The only way I can put it is Denise was just very different. Girls were required to wear dresses or skirts and blouses to school. Denise complied, but added baggy black pants under the dress. Most girls tried to accent their swelling breasts with padded bras. Denise walked around with hunched shoulders and heavy sweaters that effectively disguised any curves she might have had. She wore her short brown hair in dishevelment, wrote morbid poetry in study hall, and made straight “A’s” in everything.

Mom said I would find someone once I went to college. She thought this would make me feel better. How could I tell her that every guy except me had at least kissed a girl? Even if I discounted half the content of the stories I heard, most of them had even felt a real breast. Even through three layers of clothing, touching a girl’s breast was the Holy Grail for any guy. It seemed to be Denise or nothing, so I chose nothing and kept the paper route.

Graduation came and went, and summer burned on through August. I was lucky enough to have drawn a very high number in the draft lottery, so I started pre-engineering at Liberty, a small junior college twenty miles from town. My dad wanted me to go to Purdue, but he didn’t have the money, and I didn’t either. I also was not really sure about engineering. The school counselors had pushed every boy toward the sciences since the Russians put the first satellite in orbit. I liked math and chemistry, but I really didn’t know what an engineer did. I figured I could find out at Liberty, and if I changed my mind, I wouldn’t have wasted a bunch of cash. I was quickly immersed in calculus, basic physics, and, because it was thought engineers should be able to write as well as launch spacecraft, Rhetoric 101.

Going to Liberty also let me keep the paper route. The five-mile bike ride each morning through the tree-lined streets of Langley was a nice change of pace. I could be through by six, have breakfast and still make it to my first class.

One Friday morning in October, I picked up my bundle of papers at the corner gas station and found a familiar manila envelope stuck under the string. Inside would be the little card for a new customer. Each card was perforated into postage stamp size, tear off receipts for a week’s worth of newspapers, and had the customer’s name and address at the top. “Claire Smithers, 140 High St.”, read the typewritten entry. In black ballpoint pen was scrawled, “Start Sunday”.

Our town was so small; it was hard to believe I hadn’t heard of a new arrival. Langley intentionally turned away when industry went looking for a home. Most of the people were second or third generation and were quite content to keep their little town quiet and comfortable. It was one of those towns where everybody knows everybody else, everybody has their little cliques, and where everybody watches carefully for anything worthy of gossip. A new resident was worth at least a comment at Heinke Hardware, where I made my real money, but I’d heard nothing.

I did know the house. High Street was the last street on the west side of town, and 140 was a huge house that sat alone at the end. I’d delivered papers there up until spring. Mr. Leland had passed on in April, and the house was put up for sale. It was a big barn of a place, and in better days, had been one of the nicer houses in Langley. On Sunday morning, I ran up the ten concrete steps, quietly opened the screen door, and slipped the paper inside. Most customers expected to find their newspaper on the sill when they opened the front door, and I didn’t think Miss or Mrs. Smithers, whichever she was, would be any different.

The town criers were a little slow, but they didn’t fail in their task. I was between bites of french toast when Mom said, “the old Leland house was bought the other day. Gladys says the woman used to live in Springfield until her husband divorced her. She says the woman has a son in the army and a girl somewhere in Georgia.”

Gladys was a teller at the local bank, and gleaned juicy tidbits of gossip from every customer while she counted their money.

“Yeah, I know. Her name’s Claire Smithers. I started delivering her paper this morning.”

“Did you see her?”

“Mom, there aren’t a whole bunch of people up at five on Sunday morning. Just the town cop and me, and I’m not sure he’s awake. Old Harold’s car’s always sitting behind the feed store at that hour.”

“I suppose not, but I’d sure like to know what she looks like.”

“As soon as I see her, you’ll be the first to know. Why are you so interested anyway?”

“Gladys says she’s most likely a beautician; she says you can always tell by the way they take care of themselves. I wondered if she’s going to open a shop. It’d be nice for Sadie to have some competition. Somebody who knows how to do more than give perms and bleach jobs. Might make her lower her prices a little, too.”

The old house certainly had room for a beauty parlor, but I saw no sign of any such thing when I delivered the paper on Monday. There was also no sign on Tuesday morning, or Wednesday, Thursday, or Friday. If Mrs. Smithers was going to open up shop, it probably wasn’t going to be in her house.

My last class on Friday ended at four, and I was home by five. Mom was fixing dinner when I walked into the kitchen for a snack. The bag of potato chips caught my eye, and I edged toward the shelf.

“Don’t go filling up on chips and pop. I’ve been cooking this roast all afternoon, and it’s really tender. I put in onions and carrots, just like your dad likes.”

“I know. I smelled it when I walked in the front door. I just need a little something to tide me over. You know I always love your roast.”

“OK, but just a few.” She turned around from the counter. “Oh, you’ll never guess what I heard today.”

I munched on a chip, waiting for the answer I knew would never come until I asked, “What?”. Yep, there it was. Mom cocked her head. She was waiting.

“What?”

“You know Doris, down at Burnett’s Grocery? Well, I stopped in for some potatoes to go with the roast, and what she told me just froze me in my tracks. You know, you think you’re too far from the city to have such things go on right under your very nose, but then you find out you aren’t. Honestly, I wonder what this world’s coming to. First, it’s the communists; then it’s the hippies, and now -”

“OK, what’d she tell you? Harry Jackson got caught coming out of Bonnie’s house again?”

“Nooo. Much worse than that, although I don’t know why Jenny puts up with his carousing like she does. No, Doris said Mrs. Smithers isn’t a beautician at all. Never has been. Shows you that Gladys isn’t right all the time, like she thinks, doesn’t it? No, she writes books. She writes those romance things. You know, the raunchy ones with the half naked man and woman on the cover?”

“Well, I’ve seen them up at the drugstore, but never had the urge to read one. Anyway, what’s wrong with that? Somebody has to write them.”

“No they don’t. I don’t know why some women read that trash. They’re all full of sex, that’s what they are. A woman should be happy with her husband, and not want to read that stuff. All it’s good for is...well, the women who read them start thinking they’d be happier with somebody else. Probably causes lots of divorces. Probably why her husband divorced her.”

“And if they’re so bad, how do you know so much about them?”

“Sadie has them down at the beauty shop. I had to wait for a chair one day, and I started reading one. I stopped when this tall, blonde guy started taking off the woman’s clothes. It was pure filth. The book even talked about her bre-… her bosom. I mean, the woman was married and everything, This guy was her stable boy, and she just jumped in bed with him.”

“Well, I suppose some women like to read them.”

“Sadie does, all the time. She keeps going on and on about how they make her feel.”

“And how do they make her feel?”

Mom doesn’t blush often, but she did then. “Let’s just say she’d like to find one of those blonde guys.”

She told the same story to Dad that night. Between gulps of roast and potatoes, he mumbled something about a naked woman jumping in bed with him. Mom slapped him on the arm.

“Shush. You’re teaching your son bad things. You’re doing better than the average, anyway, at least according to my magazines. I just hope she doesn’t put anybody in town in one of her books. If it was me, I’d die of embarrassment.”

“Don’t think you’ve got much to worry about there”, chuckled Dad. “Not unless you get a whole lot hornier’n you were this morning.”

It’s a little strange hearing your parents talk that way, you know.

I enjoyed Saturday, because I got to collect for the week’s papers. It was a little tough in the cold of winter, but the rest of the year was great. My customers were familiar faces on predictable people. Mr. West would never have anything less than a ten, so I made sure I had plenty of change. I also knew I’d have to chase down Jerry Holloway somewhere between the hardware store and the bank, because he always went out of his way to be gone from home on collection day. Catching him had become somewhat of a game over the years, but I was winning more and more. The older subscribers were the best. They were always happy to see anybody, and I could be sure of a cookie and iced tea in summer or cocoa when it was cold.

On Saturday morning Mrs. Smithers’ house was as dark as every other morning that week. Since hearing what she chose as an occupation, I was becoming as curious as Mom was. What kind of woman wrote about sex? It would seem she couldn’t write about things she hadn’t experienced. I kept seeing this picture that was very like the women in the slick magazines Dad hid in his closet. She would have long black hair, very large breasts and wide hips. Her mouth would always be parted to show her teeth. Sometimes she would lick her upper lip, and her eyes would be dark and seductive.

I swung down High street in anticipation. The big house showed signs of life now. There was a light shining through the kitchen window, and the front blinds were up. My hand was poised to knock when I saw the note taped to the screen door.

“Paper boy, the money is in the jar.”

Between the screen and entry doors stood a jelly jar with forty-five cents. I dumped the change into my bag, tore off the little ticket from her card, and dropped it in the jar. On my way down the steps I saw the open garage door I’d missed on the trip up. So much for meeting the sexiest woman I’d ever seen, or thought about seeing anyway.

The next week was the same, and so was the week after that. I faithfully delivered the paper each morning, and every Saturday, collected my money from the same jelly jar. I was beginning to wonder if Mrs. Smithers was really a ghost. Nobody in town had seen her since she moved in, and the tongues were wagging with possible explanations.

“She’s just weird. I mean, what could you expect from a woman who does that.”

“She’s probably a person who likes her privacy. I’ve read that most authors like to be alone, so they can think. You’d have to be alone to think up the things she writes.”

The funniest, in my opinion, was that she was having an affair with Ned Bowen, the real estate agent who handled the sale of the house. Dad just laughed and said, “The only things she’d get from old Ned are a recipe for chocolate cake and which colors go with mauve.” Ned was sixty-three, had a bad heart, and was considered gay by most of the male population of Langley.

Our first meeting wasn’t really a meeting at all, because she didn’t see me. The sun wasn’t yet up when I walked up her steps with the Thursday morning paper. The living room lights were on, and I couldn’t help looking in.

Mrs. Smithers looked about forty or maybe a little older; at least she looked a little older than Mom. I couldn’t see all of her face, but what I could see was kind of pretty. I didn’t really spend much time looking for the color of her eyes or her hairstyle, although I did note that her hair was light brown and hung in waves down to her bra strap. I know this because she only wore the bra and a pair of bikini panties. She was turned slightly away from the window and was watching the news on television. Her hands rested on narrow hips that started from a full, but not really fat, waist. She had the same dimpled thighs that Mom had, a little tummy that pushed out the front of the panties, and her breasts hung lightly in the lace cups of the bra. I’d seen Mom in a bathing suit, and like any red-blooded teenage boy, I’d secretly read every one of Dad’s stag magazines. Mrs. Smithers was smaller-breasted than Mom and a lot smaller than the magazine ladies. Afraid of being discovered, I quietly opened the screen door, and eased in the paper. When I looked through the window on my way off the porch, she was gone.

For the next couple weeks, I was careful to approach 140 High street as quietly as possible. I crept up the steps as if walking on eggshells, just in case Mrs. Smithers was parading around in her underwear again. Sometimes the living room lights were on, but she was never there. Every Saturday, the same note directed me to the same jelly jar between the doors.

November hit with a vengeance for all the beautiful summer days we’d experienced. Snow fell on the fifth, and the temperature dropped to just below freezing. This kind of weather made me question the sanity of pedaling a bike all over town at five in the morning. Collecting was worse. I had to remove my gloves to make change, and after about an hour, my fingers would be numb. I’d have to stop and stick them in my armpits to get them working again.

The Saturday morning before Thanksgiving found me pedaling through six inches of fresh snow that made a continuous crunching sound when my bike tires broke the crust. The temperature was all of ten degrees. I dropped off the last paper, and headed for home, a big cup of coffee, and some eggs before making my rounds to collect.

By eight, the town was actually beautiful. Every naked branch wore a white, velvet cloak, and the air was so crisp it seemed as if just moving would cause it to shatter. The bright sun turned everything into a blinding glare of glittering ice crystals. There’s a certain thrill in being out on mornings like that, and the cold didn’t seem to matter as much. Most of my customers were staying close to their furnaces. Even Mr. Holloway was home.

I about fell off Mrs. Smithers’ porch when I didn’t see any note. All of a sudden, I was shaking like one of the brown, curled leaves that refused to fall from the oak tree beside her drive. What do you say to a woman you’ve seen in her underwear but never met? The screen door sounded like a can full of rocks when I knocked. I was starting the second knock when the entrance door opened.

“Yes, may I help you?”

Her voice was the slow, smooth, honey of the old South. Except for the way she was dressed, she could have walked off the screen of any Civil War movie I’d ever seen. She looked about like any other woman in town. Her hair was pulled back in a ponytail, and she wore a sweatshirt and jeans. I wasn’t certain what I’d expected to see, but I thought she’d dress differently, being a romance writer and all. The glasses hanging from a pearl chain were the only thing that hinted she might be anything other than a housewife.

“Young man, may I help you?”

It’s really embarrassing to be caught staring at anyone, but is even more so when you realize your mouth is hanging open. I snapped it shut, and tried to smile.

“Uh... I’m Jerry Wingate. I’m here to collect for the paper.”

“You look rather old to be a paper boy.”

Now was the time for an intelligent, but casual, comeback. It’s frustrating how they always occur to me about an hour after they’re needed.

“No Ma’am, I’m your paperboy, really.”

“Well, you also look half frozen. Come inside while I get my purse.”

I stood on the doormat that saved her ivory carpet from the snow on my boots. She’d done some decorating since I’d last seen this living room. Clean cobbles gleamed on the fireplace front in the flickering light of the flames. A large, overstuffed couch and two chairs huddled around the fire. Where old Mr. Leland had kept his ancient upright piano sat a huge bookcase full of books. I could picture her reclining on the couch at night, a book in one hand and a cup of coffee in the other. Somehow, it seemed fitting that she should be in a luxuriant robe and satin bedroom slippers.

“I swear, if I’d known it would be this cold, I’d never have left Georgia. I’ve lived in Indiana for twenty years, and it still chills me to the bone. How do you stand it?”

“I don’t know. I wear thermal underwear. That helps.”

Obviously, I wasn’t keeping up my end of the conversation. My brain was thinking of that morning when I’d seen her through the window, and it kept saying really stupid things. I was starting to feel like the thirteen-year-old who should have been standing here.

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