At the Center

By Ron Torrence

Just before I can escape out the door with my daughter for our weekend visitation, Pam, my ex-wife, resplendent in a full-length pastel-blue evening dress, for some reason beckons me to the living room to meet her guests. A waiter circulates with hors d’oeuvres, another with a tray of drinks. I reluctantly step forward in my jeans to face a crowd of formally dressed couples. Her husband, Jack, is nowhere to be seen. Penny pops bubble gum while she waits by the door. A gray-haired man, impeccable in a blue pinstripe suit, heartily shakes my hand.

“Your name’s familiar,” he says.

“Probably from my bookstore.” It dawns on me he’s the Mayor.

He lights with recognition. “On Elmwood? I hear it’s the best in town!” Others nod. I look back with a polite smile. After all, they could be customers. The Mayor begins to expound on the contributions that local businesses make to the city, while Penny and I pretend to listen.

 

Ten years before I’d rowed away from Jack’s long white yacht, with Pam in the bow looking to the shore behind me, while Jack’s wife, Marcia, leaned against the railing to watch us draw slowly away. She’d been complaining about gaining weight, and even from a distance it showed.

“Jack’s doing well,” Pam said.

I reached forward—pulled back, reached forward—pulled back.

“A millionaire at thirty-five.” She shook her head. “Really well.”

“I’m tired of chasing success,” I said.

“Already?” Pam shifted her knees to the left, hands resting on the sides of the boat. She studied me with somber brown eyes. Her frosted hair was swept back immaculately, even for a boating trip.

“It’s just a rat race.”

“It scares me when you talk like this!” She turned around to gaze back at the yacht, which listed gracefully in the small swells. “We don’t have to be millionaires just yet.” She turned back to me with narrowed eyes. “Not everyone moves as fast as Jack. But we mustn’t fall too far behind, either.” She rested, back, arms straight, hands on the seat. Her T-shirt pulled tight over firm, sharp breasts that so often had pressed against my chest when we’d entwined in each other’s arms, but not so much in recent months. “Anyway, what would you do?”

“Open a bookstore.” I rested oars. “We’re water-skiing through life, Pam. Always after a single goal . . . success. Sights, sounds, feelings zip by, and we haven’t the time to notice. I don’t want to wait until I’m an old man to know what flowers smell like.”

“This is all so impractical! Why must you throw away such a good start? You’ll be the CFO in a few years. And now with my law degree,” her eyes bored holes into mine, “what can stop us?”

Pam pointed to the shore just behind me.

“Aren’t we drifting too far?”

“No.” I paddled the right oar slightly. “We’ve come to exactly the spot.”

 

Penny and I turn to leave her mother’s party.

“Could you wait please?” We pause to look back at Pam. “I want Penny to hear this.” Pam looks inquiringly at a maid, who shakes her head. “Jack is still detained on business, but he’ll be out shortly.”

With extraordinary poise she raises her hands to shush the crowd of guests.

“I’d like to announce my candidacy for the U.S. House of Representatives.”

The Mayor, obviously in the know, leads the applause. I glance down to see Penny’s eyes widen in distress.

“Are you all right?”

“I swallowed my gum,” she says.

 

Several years ago I was on a deserted road at 3 AM, after dropping off a woman I’d been seeing some. We’d gotten together more out of mutual loneliness than honest affection and our intimacy troubled me, much as I needed it. I hit the accelerator, figuring I’d had enough gin to try the curves, not enough to screw up my attempt to make them. At forty the first curve came easily. The car pulled for more speed. That afternoon I’d put my last savings into the store to take me into the holiday season. Would a slow Christmas be the beginning of the end of my entrepreneurial dreams? What was I to do with my life then?

I held the second curve at fifty. The third. My tires ate asphalt until the trees melted into a blur at the edge of my headlights.

The fourth curve leaped at me. The wheel yanked at my hand. Tires screamed as I hit the brakes…lights swirled through trees. I clung to the steering wheel,

skidded backwards,

hit the ditch across the road,

to sit in smoke and dust.

 

The waiters appear with champagne. Penny goes to kiss her mom, then backs to my side. We drink a toast proposed by the Mayor.

“What do ya think?” I ask her.

“I’m so proud of her.” Penny shrugs. “But I don’t like these phony people.”

 

About two years after I’d almost killed myself in the car, Pam had called me, terror in her voice. When couples break up but two of the partners switch to each other, the shreds of old relationships can draw back together in a crisis.

She stepped from her Porsche as I pulled in front of Jack’s old house. Jack was away in San Francisco, so Pam had gotten the call from Marcia that was intended for him. We ran through the muggy night to the front door where Pam stopped cold, her hand on my arm.

“Rescue squad’ll be here any minute.”

“We’d better go in anyway,” I said, pushing the door open to step into the foyer.

“Where is she?” I asked.

“We should try the bedroom,” Pam said. Even in the emergency, it ran through my mind how much time Pam had spend here when Marcia was away, and I was busy getting the store open. Many were the nights when she was supposed to be working late at the law office. But that was all history now.

“Children?”

“At summer camp.”

Trembling, Pam led me up the stairs. She stopped at the master bedroom door. I pushed past to peer into shadows. In the dim light from a bedside lamp I saw Marcia, torso on the floor, her legs twisted in covers of the bed above her. Her breathing was hoarse and labored.

Pam and I scrambled to her side. As we pulled her up, her head flopped back like a doll. We grunted from the weight…she must have gained fifty pounds since the divorce.

“She said it was sleeping pills.” Pam nodded to a bottle on the night stand.

“The whole bottle?”

“I guess.”

“I don’t know what to do,” I said.

“Me neither.”

“I think we should try to wake her up.”

I motioned for us to walk, but Marcia’s legs dragged limply behind us. We propped her on the bed. I slapped her face. It was like hitting a sack of flour.

Penny and I edge to the door. Pam, surrounded by well-wishers, is oblivious. I squeeze Penny’s hand. “Ready for some pizza with your shopkeeper Dad?”

She smiles. “You’re just like Great-Grandpa.”

 

Earlier that year a Mercedes 450 SL double-parked in front of my store. Jack got out, leaving wisps of exhaust in the frigid air behind him. In a fur-collared overcoat, he looked like an affluent bear. He came in to look over the aisles of books thoughtfully. Smiled when he saw me.

“Minding the store, I see…”

“Always.”

“It’s bigger than I expected,” he said.

I shrugged. “It’s taken years, but I seem to be over the hump.”

He squinted around at the shelves. “Making any money?”

“More than I expected.” I glanced out at his still-running car. “Want a cup of coffee?”

He checked his watch. “Thanks, but I have a meeting.” Yet he unbuttoned his overcoat. “Plan to build a chain?”

I shook my head. “This is all I need.”

He frowned. “Sounds a bit dull for a man with your talent.”

I brushed my fingers over Stegner, Steinbeck, Stendhal on the shelf beside me. “Why do what you do?”

He laughed. “It’s not the money anymore. I have everything I want.”

“Then why keep trying for more?”

He pushed hands in pockets to lean against a shelf. “Money’s my report card.” I leaned against the shelf on my side to hear him out. We studied each other.

“Was a time when you were a great finance man.”

“That was years ago.”

“Like riding a bicycle…you’d still be good at it. How about being my chief financial officer? I’ll pay any salary you want.”

I stared at him incredulously.

“Why ask me now?”

“Need to step up the pace, otherwise I’ll get stale.” He examined his large but immaculately manicured nails. “I plan to double my business in two years. You could figure out how to finance it. I want to work with someone I trust, rather than hire a stranger.”

“Thanks for the vote of confidence, but I left all that behind.” I looked at him quizzically. “Besides, wouldn’t it be a little awkward?”

He looked at me through narrowed eyes. “Your reluctance is because of Pam then?”

“I don’t have any feelings about it anymore.”

“Even though we jumped the gun, so to speak?”

“Whatever,” I mumbled with a shrug.

He buttoned his overcoat.

“Maybe you’ll reconsider.” He reached to shake my hand. “At least think it over.”

“Like I said, this bookstore is everything I want.”

Jack shook his head. “I don’t understand where you’re coming from.”

 

As I reach for the doorknob to at last leave the party, Penny clutches my arm. Jack—his face a death mask—steps through the door of his study. He passes us with dazed eyes, closely followed by two men.

“He’s handcuffed,” Penny hisses, her fingers digging into my arm.

Jack stops abruptly at the entrance to the living room, where the party has turned into a celebration for Pam.

“I’ve been arrested.”

Astonished faces turn to him.

“I want to go on record in front of all of you.” He glares about angrily. “I’ve never committed fraud. I’ll fight this until my innocence is proven.”

The room is a tableau. Even the waiters stare at him.

“It’s politically motivated,” the Mayor blurts out hopefully.

Pam clutches the Mayor’s arm to keep herself from falling.

 

Sometimes, like this evening, after I’ve closed up my little store I simply sit in the office to listen to the voices of the books speaking from their shelves. When I’m overly tired, I drift into that space between asleep and awake. I imagine myself compressing into particles that pass through a membrane leading to the center. Always to the center. There, I sit cross-legged to look up at Grampa’s fringe of white hair around a bald head.

“In 1920 Rockefeller wanted to open a refinery here.” He leans back to reminisce, cigarette burning in yellow-stained fingers. “City fathers blocked him. Otherwise our town’d be big as Cleveland.”

“Were you a city father, Grampa?”

He smiles. “My friend Sam Nagle and I camped on Pervis Island in 1890. Other than Indians, we were the first people to stay out there overnight. Even made the front page of the paper.”

“Wow!”

“Our city’s changed a lot since then. Once we were the largest freshwater fishing port in the world. A hundred fishing boats went out each day.”

“Gosh. Are you sad Rockefeller didn’t come?”

“Oh, there would have been more money to be made. But I did pretty well, as it was. And instead of a great huge city, we have a nice town.” He reached down to ruffle my hair.

“But we’d be so much more important…maybe we’d have a pro football team!”

“We’ve had good industry, but not too much. A good population, but not too much.”

“You were a businessman, weren’t you, Grampa?”

“Owned my own store for thirty years.”

“Is that how you became a city father?”

He chuckles. Takes a puff on the cigarette just before a long ash tumbles onto his tie. “Want to hear more?”

“Yeah!”

 

——————–

At the Center is Ron Torrence’s 29th published short story. His non-fiction has also appeared in numerous publications. He lives in Northern Virginia, with summer time spent on the shores of Lake Erie in Northwestern Pennsylvania. His life is fueled by two passions: his family, four “kids” ranging from 42 to 16, and his writing, which is all about discovery.


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