Saturday in The ValleybyDear_Dora©
I was getting ready to drive down through the San Luis Valley, to see a lady who runs a western-themed art gallery in Pagosa Springs, on the other side of Wolf Creek Pass. It was in the middle of the summer, so there PROBABLY wouldn't be snow conditions to deal with, but I always get real nervous driving by myself a long distance like that.
"I can still go with you, Jean," Len, my husband said as I was putting some snacks and a couple of bottles of water in the car. I had already stalled around half the morning, checking that my cell phone was all charged up, making double sure I had the letter I'd received from the gallery with their address on it, putting a blanket in the car (just in case), losing my purse and then in a panic, finding it already in the car, and so-on. Len could see that I wasn't really eager to set out on this trip.
"No, hon, it's okay." I said. "There's no reason for both of us to waste a Saturday getting rid of these stupid pictures!" Len had wrapped several fluffy towels around the two original oil paintings, which had been nicely matted and framed with expensive non-reflecting glass, and carefully slid them into the trunk of our little Audi.
I felt bad enough that Len had been using all of his free time for almost a year working on houses -- first, my mother's, now ours -- trying to get them ready for sale in this lousy market. He still had several half-finished projects here at home, but I encouraged him to play hooky, and maybe get at least half a day's rest if he stayed home. We could do something tomorrow when I got back. I was going to stay that night with my sister, Pat and her husband Bill, who lived in "the Valley." That's what folks who lived there called it, as if there weren't another valley in the whole world. "The Valley."
It was a strong three hours to their house, then maybe another hour and a half over the Continental Divide to Pagosa Springs. An hour maybe to find the gallery and complete our transaction, then grab a cup of coffee and another hour and a half back to Pat and Bill's place.
I was so glad they had offered to let me stay with them. I really couldn't imagine driving another three hours or more to get back home after all of that!
It was eleven before I finally hit the road. Len's worry was always about straight-forward traffic accidents, which was wholly rational, I know, and statistically much more likely than the crazy stuff I worried about. But I couldn't avoid imagining terrible mishaps like getting stranded in a sudden summer blizzard, or having a break-down and being found three weeks later dead by the side of the road. My ability to fret has never been connected very strongly to reality, actually.
My mother had died early last year. It wasn't really traumatic for mom; she had lived independently in her own house right to the last day, and was the same smart-ass fire-cracker she had been all our lives until she actually lost consciousness. Pat and I could never get her to quit smoking or drinking, and she still liked to go up to Cripple Creek to gamble with her clutch of lady friends right up to the end. I would go over to visit her and find her sitting by her open kitchen window, regardless of the weather, watching a golf tournament or a poker championship on the little TV in the kitchen while Fox News blared away on the big TV in the living room.
It was only after she died that I realized that she sat there in order to blow the smoke out the window so we wouldn't catch on that she still had cigarettes squirreled away throughout the house. Scotch, too. Her "friends" would come over and bring her "care packages" of smokes and booze, as if her cruel daughters were somehow neglecting her. When Pat and I went through her things, we found maybe a dozen half-empty packs of cigarettes and several partially-used bottles of scotch and other liquor stashed here and there. We laughed, but it was a tragedy, really.
As I drove along, my mind wandered. It was so weird, feeling so old yourself and having to take care of your even-older parent. All my friends were doing it, too. People were living longer, routinely into their 80's and 90's, but our bodies were still showing painful signs of wear and tear as we entered and passed through our 50's and 60's.
My mom had been just over twenty years older than me, eighteen years older than Pat. I'm sixty now; mom had been almost eighty-one when she died. She had had a good, wild life. She had raised us both as a widowed single mother when that wasn't at all common and society wasn't set up for it, or very accepting of it, either. She had done a great job, I think, if that doesn't sound too vain.
But where did my sister and I get our so-conservative character and our straight-arrow point of view? I was always embarrassed when my own kids were growing up and they had to introduce their friends to their grandmother and her "boyfriend." A different "boyfriend" every time they went over to her house, it seemed. Mom loved a good time, but she had a good heart and loved us kids. And, of course, her grandchildren, too.
We had grandkids of our own, now, and Len and I wanted to move to be close to them, to watch them grow up. But I felt obliged to stay nearby while my mom was still alive, to be sure she was okay and so that someone would be close if she needed help. Pat down in the valley was too far away.
Even when Len and I traveled to see our kids, I worried all the time about my mom. She was responsible for taking all the various pills that the elderly have learned to live with these days. Myself and my husband included. But, what if she missed some, or worse, took too many? So we got her a cell phone and a "Life-Alert" system, and they made me feel a little better. "Help me! I've fallen and I can't get up!" Mom had never needed it, but I felt so much better knowing that it was there when we were out of town.
Ironically, mom died and left Pat and me her house just as the housing market began to tank. Len had actually sensed the bubble was about to burst, and had persuaded me to get our house fixed up a little and get it sold when my mom died suddenly. Selling our house took a back seat to funeral arrangements and burial details, and estate lawyers and all the rest, and then we had my mother's house to clean out, fix up, and sell. So we were still in OUR house, getting ready now to sell it, now that prices had dropped maybe 30% or more since Len had warned me.
But Len is a champ. I'm retired on a teacher's pension, with bad knees and a bad back, but Len's still working his full-time job, hoping to re-build his 401k a little before he retires. And he spent all his time away from work for three and a half months last year working like a dog in my mom's house, tearing away years of bad decorating decisions and washing off years of cigarette smoke, or painting over it. Now, finally, he's doing the same to our house, and he's never said "I told you so." The wait to sell has probably delayed Len's retirement a year or more, but he has never complained about it.
So he deserves some time off. He doesn't need to drive all day on his Saturday.
Pat and I kind of enjoyed going through mom's stuff. There were lots of photo albums and keepsakes, of course, and we divided them up between us to send to our various kids' families. We laughed at mom's hundreds of pairs of shoes, and her "junk room" full of the knit hats she liked to give to all her friends.
But we each had homes of our own, already full of lifetimes of junk of our own, and neither of us wanted much of our mom's stuff except for a few personal mementos. The rest went to Goodwill or in a garage sale. And all of that took months of effort, followed by months more of hard work (mostly by Len) cleaning up and fixing up mom's house and yard before trying to sell her house.
Pat and Bill were so apologetic about being located so far away. They came up to help from time to time, but it was just impossible for them to manage all the detail's of mom's estate, so it all fell mostly on Len and me. I assured them it was okay, but they felt obliged and kept trying to find a way to even up the deal.
One of mom's many possessions that we inherited, and then found so hard to get rid of, was this pair of original oil paintings which I now had in my trunk. We all had laughed at them for years: they were slightly "naughty" portraits of supposedly American Indian maidens, dressed in very revealing Indian garb, what might be called "boudoir" paintings. They were large and tacky, and my mom loved them. We always teased mom about them, and tried not to be self-conscious sitting at Thanksgiving dinner under a near-naked "Indian" princess.
When Pat and I talked about them after mom died, we just planned to sell them on Craig's List or at a garage sale for whatever we could get for them ... we were thinking maybe $20 apiece, if we were lucky. But Len looked up similar paintings by the same artist on E-Bay and certain western-art galleries, and found that they were selling for eight to ten-thousand dollars each! A formal appraisal verified that.
So began a long learning curve for the Pat and me. It's one thing, it turns out, to have something of great value in hand, but it's something else altogether to try to find that one someone out there who is willing to actually pay that amount when you're trying to sell.
Then, the economy went to hell in a hand basket, and it seemed less and less likely that we would ever be able to sell them at any price. Here we were over a year later, and the two tacky faux-Indian princesses were the only things we had left of moms "estate" to get rid of. They were too valuable to give away, but nobody wanted to buy them.
When Pat suggested talking to this gallery in Pagosa, I was able to persuade them to buy them both for $1500, and we both felt we had hit the jackpot! So here I was driving all the way down there to deliver them and pick up our money, then I would stop by my sister's house, give her her half, and have a nice visit, to boot.
It was almost nine p.m. when I pulled into Pat and Bill's driveway. Their house was set up and away from the Rio Grande, almost in National Forest land at the foot of the mountains. Bill had designed it and had it built for them. It was a terrific single-level pink adobe ranch house, but inside, it was completely modern. You'd never know that they were on septic system and well water, or that their big-screen TV and internet service was provided through satellite.
I had called them on my cell phone and told them I was going to be late (after I called Len, of course!) They had waited dinner on me. It was skinless chicken breasts baked in a green enchilada sauce, with some wild rice and beans, and I was so famished, I'm afraid I bolted their delicious food.
We were sitting around talking at the breakfast-bar between the kitchen and their "great room," when Bill said, "Jean, there's something we ... I mean I ... wanted to ask you if you could do for me. With me, actually!"
Pat gave her husband a significant look which was lost on me at the time, and poured us all big mugs of coffee, and set out little bowls of flavored yoghurt with walnuts in it for dessert. As we each sipped at our steaming mugs, I said, "Sure, Bill! You know I'd do anything for you guys!"
"Well," Bill said, looking suddenly uncomfortable after a strong start, "this wouldn't be so much for US as it would be for ME, actually."
Pat said, "It WOULD be for US if Len had come along!" and I was more confused than ever.
"What is it, Bill?" I asked.
He seemed to screw up his courage, and just sort of blurted out, "I want you to go to bed with me tonight, Jean!"
I just looked at him. I took a little bit of yoghurt on my spoon and tasted it, sipped my coffee, looked at Pat to see what her expression was (she was watching me intently) and looked back at Bill. "Say again, Bill?" Len and I often joked about losing our hearing, occasionally answering questions that the other person never asked or mis-hearing one another with hilarious results. I was sure I had not heard my brother-in-law correctly.
"Jean, come to bed with me tonight!" Bill repeated. "Pat's okay with it -- she'll sleep in the guest room!"
Again, I just looked at the two of them. Neither one was smiling at all, so I thought maybe it wasn't a joke after all. "You can't be serious!" I said.
"I am totally serious, Jean! You know I've always thought you were a terrifically sexy woman!"
"Gee, thanks, Bill, but, you know, I'm still married! Remember Len?"
Pat jumped in. "If Lenny had come with you, we would ask you BOTH to swap tonight! You know I've always thought Lenny was a hunk!" Len hated that Pat called him "Lenny," but he had admitted to me several times when I caught him watching my sister that he thought Pat was very sexy. He always added hastily, "But I definitely got the sexier one!"
The idea was so off the wall, I wasn't outraged so much as flabbergasted.
It's weird how the mind works. I had several lines of thought running top-speed through my head at once, and I was trying to marshal my thoughts before I said anything I'd regret later.
The most-conscious level up on top was my certainty that I was going to tell Bill ,,, well, both of them, I guess ... no way in hell, but nicely.
But I'm ashamed to say that not very far below that, I was thinking, I'm sixty, for Christ's sake! Why now? Both couples had been married for nearly forty years; I'm not interested (am I?), but if I were, wouldn't it have been more appropriate, more FUN, like thirty years ago? Twenty? Even ten?
I couldn't imagine taking my clothes off in front of another man than Len. I felt so comfortable with Len seeing me naked. He seemed to love the roll of fat I'd accumulated from my hips down under my belly, he caressed my chunky thighs every morning and kissed my cellulite! How mortifying it would be to get naked with Bill and then have him back out when he finally got a glimpse of me, with red stripes over and under my arms from my too-tight brassiere, my saggy old tits (although Len still seemed to really like them!) hanging down, my flabby, limp butt? I would die!
And Bill was no bargain, either. He had a pretty good gut, he was balding, I knew he had a partial, and, like my mother, he smoked. Could I really enjoy HAVING SEX with this old man?
Why was I even thinking about all of this? It was just a stupid idea, forget all of that other stuff, mainly because I was happily married, and I loved my husband.
I was just about to tell the both of them that I thought I should go stay at the Movie Manor when the cell phone in my purse went off, sitting out in the living room a dozen feet away. I actually breathed a sigh of relief, and hopped up to get it, my hands shaking with anxiety and my head shaking in disbelief.
The little window said it was Len calling.
"Len! You okay?" I asked. Should I tell him what Bill had said? What purpose would that serve, right now, anyway? I'd tell him, for sure, but not right now, I just had to extricate myself out of here with as much dignity as I could salvage. And we'd all just have to try to come to terms with this awkward moment later. Much later.
"I'm fine, hon! I missed you, but I had a great day! I just wanted to tell you that Pat called me after you did earlier, and said they were waiting dinner on you. I was wondering how it went?"
Wondering how dinner went? "Uh ... fine, LEN," I said, emphasizing my husband's name to let Pat and Bill know I had hold of my life-line here. "We had a nice meal, but actually something just came up, and I think maybe I'm going to go stay at the Movie Manor tonight!"
"Oh. Well, that's why I really called. Bill talked to you, didn't he? He asked you to sleep with him, didn't he?"
"Uh-huh," I said, my mind trying to get back to level again. What did Len know, HOW did he know about what Bill just said?
"Jean, Pat and Bill told me months ago that they wanted to swap spouses. I said I thought not, but they said, well, it was mainly Pat who insisted, that they needed to ask YOU, that it wasn't fair for only me to make the decision for both of us!"
"You knew about this?" I said, my voice sliding higher with every word.
"Yeah. I guess I should have told you. Pat asked me, BEGGED me, not to say anything to you until they had a chance to talk to you themselves. Then, this evening, Pat called me and said they were going to ask you tonight. She said Bill was going to ask you to sleep with him while you were there."
Len's words slowly replayed through my mind. "When Pat asked you if you wanted to swap before, you said 'I THINK so?'" I asked, incredulous.
"Well, yeah. I mean, what the hell? We're all old, Jean! Who's going to care? The kids are gone, neither of you girls needs to worry about getting pregnant, nobody's gonna get a disease. It's nobody's business but ours!" Len said. "Why not? I think it might actually be kind of fun. You know, naughty!"
"Who is this I'm talking to?" I yelled at the phone, holding it at arm's length like some kind of snake. "Are you out of your mind, Len?"
"Settle down, Jean! Bill and Pat aren't insulting us! They're actually being very flattering!" Len said, calmly. "You don't have to do this, if you really don't want to. Just tell them no, politely, and try not to be all offended and freaked out about it, okay?"
"You want to, don't you, Len?" I asked, realizing what he had been trying to say to me. "You want me to do this just so you can boff my sister?"
"C'mon Jean, of course not. Pat and Bill are not just family, their our friends! You know as well as I do that if Pat and I had wanted to 'boff' one another, we could have found ways to do that years ago! But that didn't happen!" Len said. Somehow his reassurance made me doubt it for the first time. His signal was starting to break up. "Oo oh head an oo ought oo aunt ight. Er aiee oo know I love you, and it will be fine. Don't go to the Movie Manor! I'll oont ack oo noor eep! Just talk to them! Relax and oy oo elf!" then the signal collapsed altogether.
I just plopped down on the sofa, folded my phone and set it down somewhere, and stared out the dark windows at the stars I could see there. What the hell was going on? I felt like the odd man out.
"So?" my sister said. "What did he say?"
"You know better than I do, apparently," I said. "I think he said that if I wanted to sleep with Bill, I should just go ahead!"
I was just quiet for a moment, trying to think what to think. I opened my phone up again, and called my own house.
"Hi, Jean!" Len said. "I lost you!" Ironic words, I thought. "Talk to me!"
"Len, can you come down here tomorrow? I think we need to talk this out!" I said.
"Sure, if you think need me!" my husband said.
"Yeah," I answered, "if you don't mind. This is an awful lot to get my head around!"
"Hang in there, hon. Tell Pat and Bill I'm on my way. Just stay there, and try to be civil to them! They didn't mean any harm! And don't go to the Movie Manor!"
"You still surprise me, Leonard. You know I love you!"
"I love you too, sweetie! Have fun, I'll see you tomorrow," he said, and before I could ask exactly what he meant by "have fun," the line was dead.
I closed the phone again, and turned to see my sister and her husband watching me intently. "Len'll be here in the morning. I think we all need to talk. Really!"
I got up and gathered up my coat and purse off of the couch. "Len said I should stay here with you two tonight -- he promised me you wouldn't attack me in my sleep! I'd like to take a hot shower and lie down, if you don't mind!"
Pat jumped up and showed me to the guest room, saying, "Ah, c'mon Jean, don't be like that! Of course we want you to stay here. And you've gotta know you're safe here with us!" She steered me by the elbow, although I knew quite well where the guest bedroom was. She was all nervous and chatty.