HomeSouthern VoiceA Score Lower Than My Age

A Score Lower Than My Age

by Jayne Moore Waldrop

“You need to get rid of that Cadillac. It makes you look old,” Maribelle says from somewhere behind my head. She holds the clippers in one hand and a comb in the other. She says I need a haircut, too.

“I am old,” I say. “A car won’t change that.”

She ignores me, or maybe she didn’t hear.

“You need a sexy car. Like an SUV,” she says.

Maribelle is my older sister. She’s been telling me what I should do for as long as I can remember. Usually I listen. Not so much while I was married – I preferred the sound of Joanie’s voice. I can still hear the way Joanie said my name, how she talked to our children as she put them to bed at night. The low, guttural exhale as she released into sleep. Joanie’s voice is gone, and so are the kids. They’ve grown up and moved to Louisville. They have lives of their own. So I’m back to listening to Maribelle.

Just now, she answered the door in a flowery, bright pink outfit. Joanie called them patio pants. Pretty fancy for a Saturday morning at home, but what do I know? I’d never second guess Maribelle on matters of style. She’s usually right, head to toe, never a hair out of place. Her house is perfect, too. Makes me nervous I’ll track something across those all-white floors.

She led me out to her patio, overlooking the ninth hole of the Murray Golf and Country Club, and motioned for me to take a seat in one of the metal chairs. She removed the blue-striped seat cushion and pulled the chair back so hair clippings wouldn’t land on the glass tabletop. Maribelle likes to cut hair outside so it won’t get all over the house. Too hard to sweep up. Light’s better out here, too. Maribelle’s almost 80. Better if she can see when she cuts hair.

I miss the barbershop – the heavy red leather chairs, the smell of shaving cream and Barbicide – but Maribelle cuts my hair for free and does a pretty good job. She taught herself how to cut hair when her boy was little. She was a real estate agent, not a hairdresser.

“I heard you took that Ford girl out to eat Friday night,” she says. She waits for me to confirm. I nod, slightly, fearing she’ll nick my skin.

“News travels fast,” I say.

“Now, Charles,” she starts in, with a familiar tone. “You know she’s too young for you.”

“And you know I hate to eat alone.”

Maribelle makes a sound, something between a sigh and a grunt.

“She’s a pretty girl, but it makes you look foolish. And makes her look like she’s up to something.”

“What do you mean by that?”

“Everybody knows you’ve made a lot of money. I’m just telling you to be careful.”

“Misty’s just good company. Don’t worry about it.”

Sitting behind a plate of food, at a table by myself, is the loneliest part of my day. I avoid it if I can. When the kids were home, dinnertime was busy and loud and warm. I came home to smells of cooking food, the sound of the Nightly News, kids sitting around the table doing homework. Joanie and I would have a drink while they finished their lessons, and she would have a cigarette. Everyone smoked then. God, I wish she hadn’t. What started as pneumonia was the beginning of a short, brutal fight. Lung cancer. She tried hard, but she didn’t have a chance.

I’ve missed her in every way. Unexpected ways. One day I realized I hadn’t washed the sheets in the six months since she passed. I’d never changed sheets in forty-two years of marriage, so it never occurred to me. That night I cried when I went to bed, smelling fabric softener instead of her faint trail of perfume and cigarette smoke. All of her had left the room. Her scent lingered in her closet. I didn’t give away her things for a long time.

When word got around that Joanie was gone, the casserole brigade of older women, widowed or divorced, mobilized to help with the first meals. I had plenty of food, every type of chicken recipe ever printed in the Methodist church cookbooks: chicken and rice, chicken and broccoli, chicken and dressing, chicken soup. Each woman who brought a casserole looked so lonely, so hungry, like she wanted to be invited in, asked to sit at the table, to eat and talk with somebody. Now I understand. I pick up a lot of restaurant tabs just to have someone across the table from me. Friends, cousins twice removed, even the janitor who cleans my office buildings. We may not speak the same language, but we smile a lot and give it a try.

Last night with Misty felt different. As we ate dinner at Clymer’s Steakhouse, she seemed as interested in me as the food on her plate.

“Where are Peter and Roxy now?” Misty had said. She’d known the kids in school. About the same age, I guess.

“They’re both in Louisville, married. Peter’s got two kids and Roxy’s got three. They’re here for Christmas most years.”

“I saw Pete at one of our class reunions, maybe the ten year, but I haven’t seen Roxy since we graduated from Western,” she said. The waiter stopped by and refilled Misty’s water glass. She drank more water than wine.

“Did you say you’d been living in Memphis?”

She nodded.

“I went there right out of college to work for an accounting firm. Decided to move back when Dad got sick, so I hung out my shingle. I figure people in small towns need an accountant, too,” she said. “My parents need me. You may not remember but I’m an only child.”

She paused for a minute.

“What was your wife’s name?”

“Joanie.”  My throat tightened. I hadn’t said her name out loud for a long time.

“Right. How long has she been gone?”

“Two years.”

“Cancer?”

“Yes. It was fast. I didn’t know what hit me.”

“I’m sorry. I remember her. She was room mother for our class. She always brought chocolate oatmeal cookies. The ones with peanut butter.”

“That was her favorite. One batch made enough for the whole class. She could get out of the kitchen faster.”

A memory of Joanie flashed through my head, young, smiling, stirring the bubbling chocolate-and-peanut-butter mixture in a pot on the stove, dropping spoonfuls onto wax paper for the cookies to set up. The kids licking spoons and waiting for the sweets to cool.

“I always thought Joanie was pretty, and she looked happy. Some of the moms were no fun at all, but she was,” Misty said, laughing. A few lines appeared around her eyes when she smiled.

“She was a lot of fun,” I said.

Misty’s questions surprised me. Most people don’t speak of a dead wife by name. It’s part of the awkwardness. Then, when someone actually says her name or asks me how I’m doing, the words take on a flatness as they’re spoken, phony and stiff from a sense of obligation or manners. But Misty’s clear voice, remembering my Joanie, made contact like a defibrillator paddle, delivering a jolt of energy to my numbness.

I was always part of a couple. Life with Joanie wasn’t perfect, but I knew where I belonged – with her – and I miss that. I’m still figuring out how to be alone, but I’m not sure I want to. She pumped me up when I was low, and she made a big deal when there was something to celebrate. Steak dinner and coconut cake, my favorite meal. She welcomed me into our bed on winter nights, saying she had warmed up the sheets for me. I remember waking to the touch of her small, soft hands running across my skin. There’s nothing like someone pulling you close in the middle of the night. I miss that connection to another person, another life.

“How short do you want it over the ears?” Maribelle asks.

She’s been talking, but I haven’t heard much of anything.

“Same as always,” I say.

Maribelle moves to the front and faces me as she starts clipping my eyebrows. Long, overgrown eyebrows make men look old, she says. Next she goes after the hairs in my ears. I do my own nose hairs. At home.

“Have you put together a new foursome?”

“Yeah, we think we’ve got someone.”

My golf foursome of 27 years lost a guy a few months ago. Prostate cancer. Damn, he was a good man. Known him all of my life. We’ve been looking for someone who wants to join our Thursday morning tee time. I’m still playing pretty well, when my shoulder behaves. When it doesn’t, I get a shot of cortisone. My score’s usually lower than my age. Those young guys can’t say that.

“Anyone I know?” Maribelle asks.

“Don’t think so. They moved back here after he retired. Wife’s got people here.”

Her lips tighten a bit when she hears that the new man has a wife. I know my big sister. She hasn’t given up, even though Clinton’s been gone almost ten years.

She changes the subject.

“Do you need any tomatoes? Those vines are hanging full.”

She points to the edge of the patio, a jungle of potted gardenias, hibiscus and tomatoes. Once a week she mixes up a concoction of compost water and some kind of fish meal. Smells to high heaven but her plants must love it. She’s got so many tomatoes that she supplies half of Murray. Every Thursday morning, as we make the clubhouse turn, she stands by her back gate, wearing gold sandals and armed with four small brown paper bags full of tomatoes. She’s always hoping we’ve found our new man.

Maribelle hands me a mirror to check the haircut.

“Looks great, as always,” I say, without looking. I stand up and flick stray hairs off my shoulders, as she brushes a few from the back of my shirt.

“How much do I owe you?” I say with a wink. She rolls her eyes. We tease each other. Always have.

“Come over and eat supper with me tonight.”

“Thanks, sis, but not tonight. We’re trying out our fourth man, after the heat of the day. We’ll pick up a sandwich at the club.”

We hug and I walk over to my not-sexy old car. I’m not convinced Maribelle’s right, but the thought of a new car is growing on me. Maybe it’s time. I confess there’s nothing like the feel, the smell of a new ride.

As I pull out of Maribelle’s driveway, I think about tonight. I want more than a sandwich with the foursome.

I turn into the parking lot of the old Premiere Video store and stop the car. The store closed a few months back. Not enough business to stay open. I guess times have changed. In the window, a forgotten poster still hangs, advertising the Classic Movie Vault. The poster advertises “From Here to Eternity,” with Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr in that beach scene, the skin-to-skin kiss that shocked the world. Seems like yesterday.

I reach for my cell phone, and for a second I can’t think of the password that unlocks the damn thing. Then I remember. August3. Our wedding anniversary. I scroll through numbers until I find the name Misty Ford. A name unlike any woman I know. All Berthas, Ethels, or Sues. Old names. Never known anyone named Misty before. Even the name sounds young.

I touch the name. The phone calls her.

“Hello,” she answers, with her 40-year-old voice.

“Misty? It’s Charles. What are you doing for dinner tonight?”

Jayne Moore Waldrop is a writer, recovering attorney, recent MFA grad and eighth-generation Kentuckian. Her work has recently appeared or soon to be published in New Madrid Journal of Contemporary Literature, Kentucky Monthly, Luna Station Quarterly and Kudzu. She lives with her family in Lexington.

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