The following story is a guest submission by Steffany Willey.
She eyed me from across the gleaming expanse of the kitchen. “I put your things upstairs Pop. I knew you wouldn’t want them down here — you know, tonight.”
I’d been staring at the glass end table where I’d left my stack of Golf magazines to go to the bathroom. The next few days I’d catch up on them. I guess they were clutter.
Derik was outside with the car kids — “parking attendants,” he’d corrected. Tonight was the client appreciation event they’d been planning for months as we later learned. We’d been invited to our grandson’s tenth birthday on Sunday, and unaware of tonight’s doings we’d bought our tickets when the rates were lowest and arrived two days early. I guess that accounted for the daughter-in-law’s coolish reception. Of course, we should have let them know when we’d be arriving, so I guess that was thoughtless.
We were laying low then, hanging out in the guest suite reading. Finally, my wife flopped her book on the bed. “I don’t know about you, but I’d just as soon catch up with the Browns tonight than stand around with a drink in my hand acting delighted to be here. They won’t mind. They’ll be too busy.”
I agreed. It didn’t sound like fun to me either.
She went on: “Schmoozing over cocktails and battered squid with a hundred people we’ve never met?” A breath. “We did tell Barb and Jake we’d get together this trip since we didn’t last time.”
“Fine with me. Give ’em a call.”
Just then, though, while Emily was rummaging for her phone, we heard them on the stairs, the pair of them. A knock and there they were bearing a box with a bow. “It’s an early birthday present,” the daughter-in-law said holding it out to me and eyeing my pants — khakis.
I looked at my pants. Were they full of mud, holes? Was the barn door open?
“Open it,” she said. “I thought you might like to wear them tonight. I put one of Derik’s shirts — a Bugatchi” she intoned with a glittery smile, “in your closet. You probably didn’t …”
“Oh Cheryl,” my wife quickly chimed in. “We already made plans for tonight with our old neighbors, the Browns. You remember them, Barb and Jake? We should have said.” How easily the lie flowed, sliding off her tongue like silk.
“Oh.” She looked stunned, then relieved. “Well … if you’d rather.” She looked to my son, who’d been guzzling a Coke but had snapped to attention.
“Dad, all the county movers and shakers will be here. Chamber of commerce people. Local business owners. Some you probably at least heard of. I think Senators Karns is coming and some delegates and probably the county exec — it’s a networking opportunity.”
Since we no longer worked and now lived four states away, the local networking arena seemed like of the worse kind of gathering, a collection of conniving people strutting their stuff followed by a round of windy speeches.
“It’s OK Derek. If they don’t want to be here…”
“You sure?” He was looking back and forth between us.
“Well, Derek, we told them we’d meet up with them this trip,” Emily said, “And when we called, tonight turned out to be the only time they had.” She was a master.
“OK then. I guess.”
I thought they looked disappointed, Derek at least. I felt bad. Of course, if they really wanted us here, they would have invited us.
Our friends did turn out to be available, so we were on. With the day still early, I saw Emily off to the mall in the rental car. I’m glad we had to get it despite the cost, but as much as I hate shopping she was not even down the driveway before I regretted being stuck here. They’d farmed out the kid for the day then wound up with us.
A catering truck had pulled to the back of the house, and I moseyed inside to see what was happening. And there in front of me stood the most gorgeous woman I had ever seen. She stopped me dead.
”Hello,” she said, “I’m Angelique. The caterer.”
She was stunning. Lovely. Breathtaking — at least she took mine. “Hi,” I managed. She wore jeans and a peach-colored sweater — maybe you’d call it coral — and high heel black sandals. She wasn’t young I didn’t think — fortyish maybe, with an easy, warm smile. I didn’t want to stare but couldn’t stop. She must be used to that. What must that be like, being used to that?
“We’re here early to set up the tables and chairs,” she said.
The food would be light, small plates, Emily had said. Tapas. Not food you ate standing up balancing a glass of merlot. The tables and chairs leaned against the wall. Behind me a crew was lugging in cases of liquor. Angelique was directing traffic.
“There’s plenty of room though,” she mused. “So that won’t be a problem.”
You might say that, I thought. It was a cavernous floor plan, where all the rooms ran together in one huge open space. The kitchen set itself off with a half-wall so that almost everyone was in view most of the time. And, yes, it could accommodate a hundred people this time of year with the terrace doors open.
“Even with the musicians,” she muttered. “I don’t know where they’ll want to set up.” Then: “I suppose all they’ll need is chairs. Your wife said it’s a quartet.”
“Sir, would you mind if we set up some of the tables here?” She meant right where I was standing. ”I have to leave, and I don’t want them left wondering what should go where.” She meant the staff.
What should go where, I pondered, my brain a mass of dangling neurons. She was staring at me, waiting. “No, please, go ahead,” stumbled out of my mouth. I left my face warming. A 65-year-old blushing over a pretty woman. I wondered who she thought I was. I wondered if she’d be coming back tonight.
“Here, let me help,” I said to one young man as he grabbed the end of the sofa, obviously waiting for help.
“We can get it sir,” he said.
“No, I’m fine,” I insisted and hoisted this behemoth piece of furniture, shocked at its weight. An all too familiar muscle seized in my back, setting off a demon nerve that regularly reveled in doing me in. We managed the small distance, and I let my end down and forced a smile that I hoped didn’t look like someone in the throes of a stroke.
“Anything else?” I said, idiot that I can be.
“I guess that chair,” he said with hesitation, “but, sir, we can get it.”
I was already there. It felt like the base was filled with cinderblocks. Where in the hell did you buy furniture that heavy? Too late to save me, others swarmed in, and I quietly crept to the stairs and up to the bottle of ibuprofen and the heating pad I always packed.
Except for that occasional issue I feel years younger than I am. I keep in shape swimming and jogging and riding my bike. Unlike most men my age, I have all my hair, which by the way was only graying — not gray — and looked, I am told, distinguished. In fact, I have more hair than Derek. Emily said I could be taken for Derek’s older brother. With heat and an NSAID I’d be good as new in an hour. Maybe. The downstairs action was suddenly too interesting to miss.
Vehicles came and went: a florist, my son, his wife. I’d seen the catering truck depart but it hadn’t as yet returned. Emily turned up lugging Macy’s bags.
She noticed the heating pad. “What did you do?”
“Helped move the sofa. And that chair.” She knew which one I meant.
She sighed, a gust of frustration accompanied by the look.
“I’m OK,” I offered. “Better.”
So with time to kill and no van in sight and my son and his wife scratching at checklists, I let her talk me into a stroll through the neighborhood. It was the kind of place where a half hour at a decent pace bought you a remote ogle of maybe a half-dozen homes — well, mansions, crowing homes that had imposed themselves on land that ten years earlier had breathed on its own.
Twenty minutes into the walk the catering truck breezed past. ”I guess we should get back,” I said.
Inside the place was humming, food in the ovens and the serving staff organizing. Sadly, however, no Angelique. My wife poked about, lifting lids and peaking into the ovens, the staff politely standing by, hands folded. I hurried my youthful self up the stairs and into the shower.
“Maybe we should stay for this shindig,” I called out through the steam.
“It’s too late Pops.”
“Just for a little while.” No answer. “The food smells great!”
”So does Mickey D’s.”
I peered out. ”You’re kidding, right?”
“The Pub.” A local eatery.
“Maybe they really did want us here.”
A different tack. “We should support them. Maybe they feel we aren’t supporting them.”
She glared at me through the mist. “It’s too late, Brian! They’ll be waiting for us. Probably already are. You know how Jake is.”
In the gift box were dress Dockers that fit great. Thoughtful. I would thank them tomorrow. I decided to pass on the Bugatchi, which I imagined she’d appreciate — a catsup stain might undo her entirely. I pocketed the car keys, and we slipped down the back stairs and out the service door. The back of the truck was open, and I took a hard look inside, hoping for just a glimpse, but it was empty. I could feel wife’s questioning eyes. Then we passed a second, smaller van as we exited the neighborhood. She was behind the wheel. For just a split second our eyes met in, I thought, a secret smile. My heart skipped a beat.
The next morning we endured a lengthy recap of the evening. They were pleased with themselves, happy that just about everyone invited showed up. Of course, that was a sure thing with politicians — an opportunity to work the room cheap.
“Oh Pop,” my daughter-in-law said, handing over a slip of paper. “The caterer left this.”
Please thank your dad for helping with the furniture. I hope it wasn’t too much. He’s a trooper.