Customer Service

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A new story to help bring in the New Year.

Stumbled across the idea for this story last week, talking with a neighbor and his wife. This is kind of tongue in cheek, a not too serious look at changing keys in the middle of a song.

I’ll have a few parting thoughts after the story, so read on!

 

Customer Service

+++++

In the still of the night

As I gaze from my window

At the moon in its flight

My thoughts all stray to you

In the still of the night

All the world is in slumber

All the times without number

Darling when I say to you

Do you love me, as I love you

Are you my life to be, my dream come true

Or will this dream of mine fade out of sight

Like the moon growing dim, on the rim of the hill

In the chill, still, of the night

Like the moon growing dim, on the rim of the hill

In the chill, still, of the night

In the Still of the Night | Cole Porter

+++++

“Customer Service, this is Tracy,” the woman answering the phone said, “how can I help you this evening.”

“Yes, well, I was just down at your store and I think I left a bag of groceries on the check-out stand. Could you check for me, please?”

“Could I have your name, please?”

“Eunice. Eunice Gibson. I was there about an hour ago.”

“Yes, Mrs Gibson, I have your bag here at the customer service desk, just inside the main entrance.”

“Look, there was some butter and yogurt in the bag…”

“Yes, ma’am, I put your perishables in our ‘fridge, and both your bag and the stuff in the ‘fridge are labeled with your name on them – in case I’m not here when you come by.”

“Thank you so much. Is this Tracy?”

“Yes, ma’am, and I’ll be here ‘til six this evening.”

“Well, thank you Tracy. If I can get a ride, I’ll be over as soon as I can.”

“Do you need a ride?”

“I don’t drive anymore, Tracy,” the woman said. “Too old and too stupid for all that nonsense, I suppose.”

“Well, if it can wait ‘til six, I could drop your things off on my way home?”

There was silence on the line for a moment – like the woman was hovering above the plains of a vast indecision – then she said: “You wouldn’t mind, Tracy?”

“Not at all, Mrs Gibson. We have your address on file as 233 Maple Avenue; I assume that hasn’t changed?”

“No, no it hasn’t.”

“Alright, I should see you some time after six, probably around six-thirty.”

“Thank you, Tracy. I appreciate this, I really do.”

“You’re certainly welcome, Mrs Gibson, and I’ll see you soon.” Tomberlin put the phone in it’s cradle and turned to a customer just walking up to her desk. She knew him, and his two daughters, had known him since high school, and she could tell something was wrong; even his girls looked out of sorts. “Can I help you, Tom?”

Tom Stoddard’s eyes were watery, and he looked way beyond out of sorts – he looked genuinely depressed, or worse. “I bought these shrimp last night,” he said angrily, slapping a receipt down on the counter, “and they smell like ammonia – mixed with a healthy dose of dog turds.” Tomberlin couldn’t help it – she grinned, started to giggle, and this seemed to anger the Stoddard even more. “Look, Tracy, I don’t happen to think this is all that funny…”

“I’m sorry, Tom, it’s just that I’ve never heard that particular odor described, well, so perfectly…”

“Okay, but what are you going to do about it?”

“Well, what would you like me to do about it?”

“What?”

“Well, Tom, we can refund the purchase price, cash or store credit, or I’ll get the department head over here and you can go with her and find some fresh shrimp. Your choice.”

“That’s it? No paperwork to fill out, no ‘wait two weeks while we process your complaint?’”

“Simple as that, Tom – no muss, no fuss.”

“I’ll be dipped,” Stoddard said. “Well, guess I’d still like some shrimp…”

Tomberlin nodded her head, picked up the phone and called the seafood counter, told the manager what was going on. “Tom, if you and the girls could just wait over here,” she said, pointing to a spot out of the main line, “someone from seafood will be right up, and I’m so sorry this happened…”

“Certainly not your fault, Tracy. Thanks for helping me sort this out.”

“My pleasure.”

She helped the next woman in line buy a few lottery tickets, waved “bye!” when the seafood manager led Tom and his girls away, then she noticed ‘him’ in the checkout line across from her desk.

But then again, almost everyone in the store noticed him. They always did.

He was Hollywood royalty – or had been, anyway, once upon a time. He’d retired, written his memoirs and discovered he liked writing – and had been writing ever since. Three novels – all about movie studio treachery, torrid, behind the scenes love affairs, and an occasional murder thrown in for spice – and now he was seemingly more famous than ever. He lived on a ranch outside of town these days, but all kinds of Hollywood types came up on weekends to visit him; just now he had finished checking out and looked her way, smiled and came over to her desk.

“Howya doin’, Tracy?”

“Robert! Fine…so nice to see you!”

He smiled. “You still get off at seven?”

“Six tonight.”

“Wondered if you’d like to go out to a movie?”

“You know, a customer left a bag of groceries and I was going to run them over when I get off.”

“You still taking the bus home?”

“Yup.”

He shook his head. “Nope. Not tonight. I’ll be out front at six-o-five.”

“You don’t mind?”

“Tracy, the only thing I mind is you won’t marry me.”

“Robert?”

“Yes, Tracy?”

“If you asked, I missed it,” she said, grinning. This was there long-established routine, and he feigned memory problems next, then muttered his way out the front door, out into the snow…

“You know,” Wilma Brinson said, leaning on the counter, “one of these days you ought to say yes. Just to see what he does, ya know?”

“I’m way to old for him, Wilma.”

“Really? Aren’t you fifty something?”

She laughed. “I sure am, Wilma. Thanks for reminding me.”

“How old d’you think he is?”

“I don’t know,” she lied.

“You two look so good together.”

“Wilma, that man would look good with a dancing prairie dog turd.”

The woman screeched, her laughter sounding almost like a low-flying jet airliner as she walked back to her cash register, and Tomberlin just sighed and turned away. She helped a few more customers then closed her register and cleaned up her cubby, then got Gibson’s groceries together and clocked-out before heading out the door.

She wondered if the bus would be running on time, but no, there he was, in his cinnamon brown Range Rover, looking just like a freshly-minted Hollywood matinee idol. Sunglasses, sheepskin gloves, salt-n-pepper hair freshly groomed. And it would smell – overpoweringly so – of Bay Rum cologne when she opened the door, too.

He was out his door and and jogged round to get her’s, and she squinted, rubbed her eyes when the cologne washed out of the Rover’s interior – the flood almost knocking her over.

He took her hand and helped her up, then closed the door behind her and walked around. “So. Where to?”

“Maple Avenue, down by the old courthouse.”

“Okay. Nice neighborhood.”

“Eunice Gibson. Her husband represented the district in Washington for more than thirty years.”

“Morris Gibson? I didn’t know his wife was still here…I thought she moved back to Georgetown after the funeral.”

“You knew him?”

“Not well, but I gave some money to his campaign when I bought the ranch. He helped me with some water rights issues.”

“Well, let me warn you…she’s still a real firecracker.”

“Oh?”

“Says what’s on her mind. Has a sharp mind, too, in case you were wondering.”

He pulled onto Main and drove through slushy ruts in the wet snow, and she thought he seemed preoccupied. “How’re you doing, Bob? I mean really. Not the bullshit version.”

“Tracy! I don’t think I’ve ever heard you use colorful language before! What’s come over you?”

“Arthritis.”

He laughed, almost whispered “I hear that” – and with more than a little understanding. “What’s the street number?”

“233”

“Ah, better turn here.” He flipped on his turn signal and the Rover slipped in the slush a little – then the traction control system dug in and he powered gently through the turn. “Think it’s gonna get cold tonight,” he said, his voice a little rattled from the skid. “I mean, think you could make it through a seven o’clock movie?”

“Doubtful, but I’m willing to try. What do you have in mind?”

“New Woody Allen flick at the Odeon.”

“Oh, God.”

“What? You don’t like Woody?”

“I can take him – in small doses. Midnight in Paris was good, though.”

“Yeah,” he said, “I thought so too. Just quirky enough to be interesting. Did you like Back To The Future?”

“I liked Michael J Fox.”

“Yup. You’re a chick.”

“So glad you noticed.”

“I noticed, Tracy. Long time ago, as a matter of fact.”

“Here’s Maple; make a left.”

Turn signal on, he paused for traffic then turned.

“It’s the big one, there, on the left,” she said.

“Now that’s a house,” Robert said, turning into the drive. “They don’t build ‘em like that anymore. Mind of I go up with you?”

“No, not at all.”

He parked and set the brake, then came around to her door. “Slippery as eel-snot out here,” he didn’t need to say, then “Be careful” as he took her hand and helped her out into the cold.

She stepped gingerly to the sidewalk, waited for him to close the car door, then they walked up together and stood on the porch, rang the bell and waited.

She was coming down the grand staircase a moment later, but two steps from the bottom she caught her shoe on the runner and started to fall.

“Oh, no…” they heard through the glass, and each watched helplessly as the woman – arms outstretched – fell to the hardwood floor.

He watched her left arm buckle under the impact, her face bounce off the floor, and tried the door. “Locked” he cried, exasperated, and in one smooth motion he stepped back and literally kicked the front door off it’s hinges – then rushed into the house. He got to her side, put his hand on her shoulder: “Mrs Gibson? Can you hear me?”

“Eunice?” Tomberlin said gently. “Are you alright?”

“Well goddamn, sunovabiscuit!” Gibson said, though her voice was detached, almost a distant moan. “My arm hurts.”

He repositioned himself, helped Gibson roll over and sit up; “Oh, Hell’s bells,” he said when he saw blood pouring from her broken nose. “Tracy? Kitchen towel, or even some paper towels?”

“Got it.”

“What’s wrong now?” Gibson said, then she looked up, saw that face kneeling over her and gasped. “Are you…?”

“Robert Rankin, ma’am,” he said, holding out his hand.

“Well, goddamn!” she cried. “Here I’ve been, wanting to meet you for something like twenty years, and when I finally do I have to go and fall on my face!” She looked like she wanted to laugh, then she shook once, and started to cry – just as Tomberlin arrived with several towels, one damp with tap water.

“Here,” Rankin said as he took the moist towel, “let’s see if we can’t clean this up a little bit.” He worked on her solicitously, cooing reassuringly as he cleaned the blood off Gibson’s face and neck. When he finished he dried her carefully, slowly, then reached for her arm, gently ran a finger to the spreading bruise he saw under the distorted skin near her left elbow. “That arms broken,” he said at once, then: “Looks like you’re going to the hospital tonight, young lady.”

“What?”

He held a finger about a foot in front of her nose and moved it from side to side: “Ma’am, follow this finger as it moves, and he watched her eyes jerk erratically as she tried to follow, but he put that hand in his pocket and pulled out his cell phone, dialed 911.

“Yes,” he said when the operator answered, “I’m at the Gibson residence, 233 Maple Avenue, and Mrs Gibson has fallen, broken her left arm and possibly her skull. Yes, we’ll stand-by right here. Okay, about five minutes, and I’ll stay on the line ‘til they arrive.”

“Oh God,” Eunice said, beginning to swoon. “I don’t feel right.”

He was by her side again, held on to her and let her down to the floor gently as she passed out, then he picked up his phone again: “Ma’am, better tell those paramedics to step on it; she just lost consciousness.”

They heard the siren moments later, then saw pulsing red and blue strobes racing down the street. Firemen and paramedics scrambled up the walk and into the house and swarmed over the woman, and less than a minute passed before they had her on a gurney and carried her from the house.

“Tracy? You better go with them,” he said, looking at the splintered front door. “I’m going to get this door secured, then I’ll be along and meet you at the ER.”

“Okay, Bob.”

He stood, helped her up. “You know what, darlin’? You’re top-shelf. I mean that…none better.”

She looked at him, nodded her head, but she’d seen it in his eyes from the beginning. The empathy, the pure compassion, the willingness to help, to give. And she was pretty sure he’d just fallen in love with Eunice Gibson. “Thanks, Bob. I’ll see you there,” she said, then she turned and jogged down to the ambulance and stood by the open back door.

He watched her standing out there, snow falling on her shoulders, and he was pretty sure he’d just fallen impossibly in love with the girl. He took out his phone again and called his ranch foreman.

“Bert? You busy? I’m in town, 233 Maple, at a friends. She fell down the stairs as we got here and I kicked in the front door…” He listened for a moment, then: “Yup, one of those old Victorians. Door must be four feet wide, nine tall, looks like solid mahogany planking with a big oval window set in it. What was that carpenter’s name? Higgins? – that’s the one. Look, give him a call, would you? – get him over here as soon as possible. I need to run to the ER. Fine…fine. I’ll stand by ‘til you get here. Yup, the Rover’s out front. ‘Kay…seeya in a few.”

He moved around the entry, cleaned up spatters of blood from the floor – and the bigger splinters of wood, too, then he saw the groceries and ran the bag into the kitchen, put stuff in the ‘fridge before he went out to the porch and waited.

His foreman’s Suburban pulled up a few minutes later, and they lifted the door into place to help keep heat in. “What about Higgins?” he asked. “Did you get hold of him?”

“Yessir. He lives out on the north side of town, snow’s getting’ deep but he should be here in a few minutes.”

“Could you hold down the fort here for a while?”

“No problem.”

“Thanks, Bert. Look, as soon as I know what’s going on I’ll give you a call.”

“Don’t worry about it, sir. You better get going before the roads get too deep.”

+++++

He sat looking across at Tracy, at the calm serenity in her eyes, wondering where such reserves of strength came from, then he looked down at the menu on the table. “I’ve never been here before,” he said at last. “Have you?”

“A few times. It’s diner food, but Donny has become a sort of local institution. Lots of grease and runny eggs, but the chicken fried steak is famous. People come from all over for his cream gravy.”

They’d just left the ER, after the docs took Eunice to surgery to repair her fractured humerus, and when he’d realized the lateness of the hour he thought they’d better grab some chow before everything closed down for the night. This old diner was on the edge of downtown, across from the old railroad station, and it stayed open late year-round.

“Well,” he sighed, “any port in a storm.”

“You should have been a doctor,” she said, looking him squarely in the eye.

“Yeah, probably so, but it was the little things, like failing algebra – twice – that interfered with my application to medical school.”

“Yeah,” she smiled, “I guess that would do it.”

“I meant what I said, Tracy. You know, the whole top-shelf thing.”

“Oh, well, I wish I knew what that meant?”

“They way you didn’t panic, they way you seem to care about people…”

“Hey, that’s my job…good ole customer service, reporting for duty.”

“No, Tracy, that’s not it. There’s something different about you, the way you wrap yourself around people. You care, and it’s not an act; I could feel it as I watched you around Gibson.”

“I could say the same thing about you, Bob. You’re decisive, you know? Most people would’ve looked on helplessly, maybe called 911, but not you. You didn’t hesitate, not for an instant – you saw what needed to be done and did it. That’s actually pretty rare, when you get right down to it.”

“I doubt that…”

“I don’t. I grew up here, but went to a college in Boise. I didn’t graduate; decided to move to New York City, got a job with TWA…”

“You were a stewardess?”

“Yup. For twenty five years.”

“I’ll be damned.”

“Anyway. I’d been flying for a couple of years when I was involved in an accident…”

“A crash?”

“Uh-huh. In Rome. A 707 taking off, lost an engine – I mean it literally blew apart, knocked out the hydraulic systems and the wing went into what’s called an asymmetric configuration. We weren’t quite airborne yet, so the aircraft began, well, almost cartwheeling – but sideways – down the runway. Anyway, what I remember most about the whole thing was how people reacted when the aircraft came to a stop. A few people, a couple of men, a woman I remember, kept it together and helped, but most people simply panicked…or froze up like a deer caught in headlights”

“I remember that one; did many people make it out?”

“Less than half,” she said – her eyes watering. “There were sixty three survivors…”

“Jesus…”

“I remember the captain, during those first few moments, most of all. He was hurt, real bad as it turned out, but he secured what he could in the cockpit and came out, helped get people out the galley door and onto the slide. He pushed me out, too,” she said, pulling down the sleeve on her sweater, revealing old burn scars that, she said, covered her back and left shoulder, “just in time.”

“What happened to him?”

“He got out, but was very badly burned. He died a few days later, of internal injuries.”

“So, what’s this got to do with this evening?”

“You’re one of those people, Robert. One of those who help people find their way out of the chaos.”

He looked at the easy grace in her eyes, then looked away quickly and shrugged. “I don’t know…maybe. What about you? What kind of person are you?”

“I know who I am.”

“I think I fell in love with you tonight.”

She shook her head. “No you didn’t. You fell in love with her.”

He seemed surprised, but didn’t say anything for a while, then a waitress came to their booth and asked what they wanted.

“I hear the CFS is pretty good here,” Rankin said, but when he looked up the girl was staring at him.

“Are you that actor?” the girl asked.

“Well, I’m an actor,” he said uneasily, “or, well, I was once, anyway.”

The girl turned around and called out to the cook behind the counter, “Donny! It’s him!” The cook smiled and waved, and Rankin waved back. “So, yeah, the chicken fried steak is our specialty. We make our own cream gravy, too.”

“Mashed, or fried?” he asked.

“Both, and we got hash browns, too.”

“Tracy? What’ll it be?”

“Chef salad, please. With Italian, on the side.”

Rankin smiled. “Guess I’ll try the steak, with hash browns.”

“Wet or dry.”

“Oh, well…wet as hell, please.”

“Yessir!”

“Oh, what’s your name, if you don’t mind me asking?”

“Becky, Mr Rankin.”

“Nice to  meet you, Becky.”

“Do you ever get tired of it?” she asked as they watched the girl walk away.

“No, not really. It would be worse, I guess, if all the attention stopped.”

She nodded her head. “Understandable.”

“So, you kept flying after the accident?”

“Yup, ‘til I retired.”

“Where’d you live?”

“Boston, a little place on the North Side, above an Italian bakery. It was heaven.”

“Why’d you move back here? Parents?”

“That’s right. What about you? Why Idaho?”

“Far enough away, but close enough, too, I guess. I couldn’t stand LA any longer, but I still need to go there from time to time. So, what makes you think I like her?”

“The look in your eyes when she lost consciousness.”

“But – I was thinking about you. So, what does that tell you?”

“I’m not your type, Robert. I’d bore you to tears.”

“How so?”

“I’ve seen the world, and I wasn’t all that impressed. I like staying at home now, curling up with a good book by the fireplace at night, and I like taking care of customers at work.”

“And you like living by yourself?”

“I do.”

“Never get lonely?”

“My dad’s dogs keep me grounded. And taking care of him can be a chore.”

“How old is he now?”

“Eighty-something. He’s old school, ranching’s in his blood.”

“Does he still run cattle?”

“A few. Not as many as you do, though. Maybe a thousand head.”

“I’ve wanted to meet him, ya know? Just to shoot the shit.”

“Go out and do it, then; most mornings he’s out running hay, but he’s usually in by noon.”

“I reckon. Winter’s are tough out here.”

She shrugged. “I guess. Do you write all the time now, or go out and work the fields?”

“A little of both, but Bert runs things. I think I just get in the way when I go out there.”

“Is that the way you want things to be?”

He chuckled. “You know, Tracy, I grew up in Brooklyn. What I know about ranching wouldn’t fill that coffee cup.”

“Well, Bert’s a top hand. You’re in good hands.”

“You know him?”

She nodded her head. “A little. We dated all through high school.”

He looked at her then, a hard, penetrating gaze. “Oh?”

“We were going to get married. He wanted to work for my dad in the worst way back then.” She sighed, looked back through stacks of memories. “I guess everyone wanted to work for my dad, the kids who wanted to stay here, anyway. I figured out early on I didn’t want to. I wanted all the bright lights, the faraway places, so I left.”

“How long have you been back?”

“Not quite five years.”

“I’m sixty two years old, Tracy. Sixty two, and I’m tired of living out on that ranch by myself. Tired of the superficial types in California. I want a woman to wake up next to me in the morning, to help me write, to think. I think you’re that woman, Tracy.”

“I wish I was, Bob. I really do.”

“Could we date a while?”

She looked at him, smiled. “Why?”

“Because I like being around you, Tracy. You make me feel good inside.”

“We’ve known each other a few years. Why are you asking now?”

“Because I’ve known you a few years,” he said, smiling, then his eyes fell. “You’re not seeing someone else, are you?”

She shook her head. “No.”

“Is it Bert?”

She almost laughed. “Oh, God no.”

“You’re not into, like, women, are you?”

She burst out laughing, an eye-watering, rip-snorting laugh, then took a sip of water while she wiped her eyes with a napkin. “Oh, Jesus, Robert…you’re such a – guy!”

“What?”

“If she’s not attracted to me, she must be a dyke…!”

He looked crestfallen. “You’re not attracted to me?”

“I told you – you’re attracted to Eunice Gibson. You just don’t know it yet.”

“I don’t get it, Tracy. Why do you think that?”

“You’d be good for each other. She’s a real prime mover, Robert. You want someone to help shape your world? You won’t find any better woman around here to help you do that.”

“I…I just…”

“And there’s something else,” she added.

“Oh? What?”

“She needs you, too. Badly.”

“Who do you need, Tracy?”

“Ah…here comes your steak,” she said, and when Becky put the overflowing platter down on his placemat he gasped. “Jiminy Cricket! I wanted a steak, not the whole goddamn cow!”

“This is the small order, Mr Rankin,” the waitress said, perplexed.

“You mean…there’s a bigger one than this?”

“Yessir, but you got to ask for it.”

“Holy smokes. This is enough for three people…”

The girl smiled. “Can I get you anything else?”

“Tums? Rolaids? A cardiologist?”

“At the check-out counter, Rob,” Tracy said.

“Thank God. Well, no, this oughta do, for now.” Becky walked off, grinning in triumph.

“Most of the ranchers around here would send that back,” Tracy said. “Too small.”

“I know. You can work up an appetite out there.”

They ate in silence for a while, then he came up for air. “You know, this is the real deal,” he sighed, letting his belt out a notch.

“Donny’s a good cook.”

“You know him too, I suppose?”

“High school. Two years behind me. He went into the Navy, cooked on a carrier for twenty years, or so he tells it.”

“Well, he can cook a mean chicken fried steak, that’s for sure.”

“He’d love to hear that.”

Rankin looked at her, at the way she said it and he nodded his head, then picked up his phone when it chirped. “Yo, Bert, how’s it lookin’?” He listened for a minute, then: “Sounds good. Did you cut him a check?” Pause. “Alright, just have him bring it by the house in the morning; I’d like to talk to him about building some more bookcases in the study, and some stuff downstairs. Yeah. That’ll be fine.”

“What was that all about?” Tracy asked.

“Had Bert get Ronnie Higgins out to fix that door. He couldn’t match the stain, so’ll have to get back over to refinish the wood in the morning.”

She nodded, “That was nice of you.”

“That door is priceless, and I knocked the hell out of it. Solid mahogany, too. Don’t make ‘em like that anymore.”

“They don’t make a lot of things like that any more, I guess?”

“No. Reckon that’s true.”

“That’s what I like about living here. I think people appreciate what we had, what we still have, and they’re not willing to let go just yet – simply in the name of progress, anyway.”

“And I’m not from here, am I? I’m the rich outsider.”

“You do like to reduce things down to a framework you understand, don’t you?”

“But that’s it, isn’t it?”

“No, not really. Look, Bob, I like my life, don’t really want to change anything right now. I’m comfortable, and I’m with people all day long, so I’m not lonely. I help them, do things for them, and when I get home I just want to lean back and wrap up in my cocoon. I don’t want, or need, anyone to take care of…”

“What if I wanted to take care of you?”

She laughed, because he still didn’t get it. “You want a woman to take care of, go back to California, or get a dog? The women around here are pretty self-reliant.”

“What does that mean?”

“Another word for someone who wants to be taken care of is lazy. Not many lazy folk left around here. They tend to move to the city, get on disability, or welfare. Life’s hard out here.”

“I see.”

“People are different, Bob, out here. Self-reliance isn’t just some tag-line from a John Wayne movie. People live it, because there’s no one else you can count on when the chips are down. There’s yourself, and maybe family, if you’re lucky, anyway. You can afford a foremen like Bert, and to hire people to get what you want done, but that’s not really the way life is out here. It’s not the way I grew up.”

“Sounds like you resent me – in a way.”

“No, I just can’t relate to you, the way you live. And I don’t feel like I need to live that way. Like I said, I’m comfortable – with where I am in life. That doesn’t mean I don’t like you, or that I don’t want to go out to a movie with you every now and then. I does mean I don’t think we’d be a good fit. I think you’d be unhappy with me after a few weeks.”

“How’s your salad?”

“You know? Not bad. You gonna make it through that side of beef?”

He nodded, then shook his head. “No way. One more bite and I’m off for a triple by-pass.”

“They’ll box it up, if you like.”

“Can I drop you at home?”

“Could you? Not sure I want to wait for the bus this time of night, not out in that snow…”

+++++

She was behind the customer service desk the morning when Tom came in again.

“Tom? Did the shrimp work out last night?”

“Hmm, oh, they were fine. I just wanted to apologize for yesterday. I was rude, and there’s no need for that.”

“You look sad, Tom. What’s up?” His wife had passed a year ago, ovarian cancer, and he’d had a hard time ever since, and his girls were still off on holiday, hanging protectively behind their father.

“My dog,” he said, his eyes watering. “Had to put her down night before last.”

“Oh, Tom,” she said, taking his hand. “I’m so sorry.”

He started crying, and she motioned to a floor manager to watch her desk, then came out and walked with the girls over to the Starbucks in the far corner of the store. She sat him down, waited for the darkness to run it’s course.

“Which dog? Lucy?” she said a while later.

“That’s right.”

“She was one of Brigit’s, wasn’t she?”

“Yeah…”

She pulled out her phone, dialed her father’s landline.

“Dad? You mentioned Sally was going to have a litter? Oh, she did? Yeah? Well, Tom Stoddard’s here. Yup, that’s right – Lucy, one of Brigit’s. She passed last night. Oh? Okay. He’s having a tough time – yeah, with me at the store right now. Okay, I’ll tell him. Thanks, Dad.”

“What was that all about?” Stoddard said.

“Dad kept a couple of girls from Brigit’s last litter; one of those had a litter last week, and Dad’s got three females not spoken for.”

The change was instantaneous, and complete – even his girls looked excited. “One of Brigit’s granddaughters? Is that what you’re telling me?”

“That’s what I’m telling you. He mentioned he’s got one that looks like a clone of Lucy – think you could run out and and take a look?”

He stood, made as if to run for the door but stopped. He grabbed Tracy by the waist and pulled her close, kissed her on the lips – then sprinted for the front door. “Thanks!” he yelled, just as the three of them cleared the door on their way out to the parking lot.

“Your welcome,” Tracy whispered, as she made her way back to the customer service desk.

+++++

Rankin and the carpenter, Ron Higgins, finished looking over the repairs to the Gibson house’s door, and he thanked the man for his work then walked through knee deep snow down to his Rover. Checking his phone, he made a few calls then drove the few blocks to the hospital and walked to Gibson’s room. A knock on the door, a cheery “come on in,” so he slipped in quietly, peeking his head around the door before he stepped fully into the room.

“Hello,” he said, looking at Gibson’s bruised, raccoon-like eyes.

“Hello, yourself.”

“I just wanted to drop by, see how you’re doing. Also, I’ve had a carpenter over to fix your front door.”

“My front…why?”

“I’m afraid I kicked it off it’s hinges when you fell, made quite a mess of things.”

“Oh?”

“Yes. The way you hit the floor, well, I was afraid you’d really done some damage and I guess that got the adrenaline flowing.”

“I guess I should be grateful you were there. I shudder to think what might have happened had no one seen me fall.”

“Well, we got your groceries put up, so you should be in good shape once you get home.”

“My, my. So, you were with Tracy?”

“I was at the store, she told me she needed to drop some things off at your house after she got off, and as it was snowing pretty good I offered to drive her over.”

“That was sweet of you. Damsels in distress? Is that your thing, Mr Rankin?”

He laughed. “Not hardly.”

“Are you two dating?”

Again he laughed, though he shook his head this time. “Not hardly.”

“Tracy’s a nice girl, but she’s been different since she got back. Not quite herself.”

“Oh? How so?”

“Hard to put my finger exactly on what I’m getting at. I’d say she’s more resigned to her fate than she was before she left. Like she’s seen death, and is waiting for it to come for her.”

He stared blankly at the woman, wondered how much she knew about Tracy’s accident. “Do you know her well?” he finally asked.

“I used to, yes. Quite well. Her mother was a close friend, and I watched Tracy grow up over the years. Her father was always one of the big movers and shakers in the valley, I guess you’ve figured out by now, so big things were always expected of her.”

“Oh?”

“In another age, perhaps, she would have understood these expectations, moved to secure her family’s legacy. As it was, she became the rebel. The loud music, the late night parties, and she developed a reputation, if you know what I mean.”

“No, I suppose I don’t,” he said, suddenly despising this sanctimonious woman.

“Oh, she became quite the little slut, then she was – poof – gone. First to Boise, then off to New York City and jetting around the world all the time. Her mother was quite embarrassed by the whole thing.”

“I see.” He looked down at his watch and sighed. “Well, I just wanted to drop by, tell you about the door. It has a fresh coat of varnish on the inside; too cold now to tackle the exterior, but we’ll get it come springtime.” He turned and moved to leave – “If I can lend a hand with the door, give me a shout.”

“Thank you, Robert.”

“Good day,” he said as he left the room, and he shivered when he was out of view, felt like he’d been cornered in that room by a rattlesnake – though he’d heard just enough to wonder what the hell was really going on with Tracy Tomberlin.

‘What is it,” he wondered to himself, “about this girl that’s so captivating? She’s just cute as any gal in Hollywood I’ve ever known, but that’s not it. No…there’s something deeper going on, like  she’s found some kind of inner peace.’ He thought about books he’d read about finding such a place, notably Hesse’s Siddhartha and Ullman’s And Not To Yield, but they were no help. No, she was an enigma, hiding behind that desk helping people – when it was she who more than likely needed help.

His help.

And he was as suddenly determined to get to the bottom of all this.

He picked up his phone, found the number for the Tomberlin ranch and called, spoke with her father. A few minutes later he was headed south out of town, heading into the unknown. Searching, he knew, for what might prove, in the end, to be completely unknowable – yet he felt powerless to ignore the call he heard from this woman – powerless to ignore the hold she already had on his heart.

+++++

Deke Tomberlin put the phone in it’s cradle and chuckled.

“What the devil is that girl up to now?” he sighed. First Tom Stoddard in full blown grief over the passing of that dog, now Rankin, that silly actor – who everyone in town said was in lust with his daughter. Everyone said he’d been after her for months – to no avail – and he wondered why.

He felt her on his thigh just then – and reached down to scratch behind her ears.

Sadie moaned, looked up with grateful eyes and let him scratch away, then he patted his thigh, bid her to come up on his lap – and she wasted no time springing up. She put her paws on either side of his neck and looked him in the eye, reading his mood, then she put her face on his right shoulder and sighed.

“I think you hate this snow about as much as I do, don’t you, girl?” He cupped her head and scratched for a while longer, then ran his hands down to her shoulder and felt the lingering wound.

He’d gone into the hay barn two weeks ago to load the wagon and a rattler had struck out at him, but Sadie had intercepted the strike in midair. Yet somehow the rattler recovered, for a moment, anyway, and managed to get off a weak, ill-timed blow – and Sadie had taken a few drops of venom in a shallow wound. He’d killed the snake, stuffed a couple of Benedryl under her tongue and loaded her in the pickup, then gotten her to the vet’s office in record time, and while the wound turned black a few days later, the vet debrided the area and pronounced her fit as a fiddle.

And of course, that’s when Sally went into labor.

Now he had seven Springer pups writhing around in their whelping box, in addition to Sally, Sadie and Max. He’d decided to keep a male this time, as Max was getting on now, so he had three males and three females to find good homes for. Tom Stoddard was a natural – and as the man’s two daughters had loved Lucy more than anyone could have hoped, he had reason to think he’d be a good match once again.

He looked up, saw Stoddard’s old Ford coming up the drive and put Sadie down.

“Come on, girl. Company’s comin’,” he said as he walked over to the entry off the kitchen mudroom. He layered up: two sweaters and a heavy jacket, then walked out into the swirling snow – Sadie by his side, a stately, calming presence.

Stoddard stopped behind his pickup and got out, the girls followed and Sadie walked over and sniffed the strangers’ ankles, her stumpy tail barely moving. A few sniffs and the tail started beating away, then she fell in beside Deke as he came over to shake hands.

“Sorry to hear about Lucy. What got her, if you don’t mind my asking?”

“Kidney failure, came out of nowhere.”

Deke nodded. “Thirteen years, about right,” he sighed. “You think you’re ready for a pup?”

“I think without another pup around the house I’ll up and die, Zeke. The girls graduate this summer, and I’m going to be alone for the first time in thirty years.”

“Well, I reckon puppies are cheaper than women. Still, have you considered finding a wife, giving that whole thing a go again?”

“Nope. Never will. Just couldn’t, you know. Jill was the love of my life, and I’m not going to sully her memory by taking another woman into my life.”

“Oh?”

“Well, lookin’ around this place, I sure don’t see a new woman around here…”

“Nope, but then again, I’m almost eighty. Sarah was seventy five when she passed. You’re what? Not even fifty? You’ve got twenty five years until you’re where we were when Sarah got sick. That’s a lot of livin’ you’ve yet to get around to. You might want to give that some thought, you know.”

“Yeah, okay.”

Deke noticed the girls looking at their father just then, the concern in their eyes, and he wondered what they thought. “Well, you wanna stand out here and freeze our asses off, or head over to the Hilton.”

“The Hilton?”

“The puppy shed,” Deke said, winking at the girls.

They all laughed. “Lead the way, Deke.”

The ‘Hilton’ was the newest, and arguably the nicest, building on the property. Tiled floors and walls, central heat and air conditioning, there were kennels for ten dogs, two tiled whelping boxes and facilities to wash and dry dogs of all size, and another larger room off the main to handle bovine emergencies. They walked in, shook snow from their clothes and boots, then sidled over to the nearest whelping box.

Sally lay curled on the floor, seven squirming puppies sucking away on her breast.

“See that one, second from the top?”

“Yup.”

“If that one’s not a near twin of your Lucy, I don’t know what is.”

Stoddard leaned close, looked at the pup. When he stood up there was tears in his eyes, but Deke was watching Rankin’s Range Rover as it pulled up to the main house. “You stay here a minute. That Rankin fella just pulled up.”

“The actor?”

“Yup.”

“He still after Tracy?”

“Yup. Mind if I bring him in here?”

“Hell yes, but do it anyway.”

They laughed as Deke put his coat on again and walked out into the howling storm.

Sally was looking up at Stoddard when he turned back to the litter; she seemed to be measuring him against memory for a while, then she lay her head back down and closed her eyes. The door opened a moment later, and a wave of icy air surged into the room – Sally looked up and yawned, then plopped her head down again, clearly annoyed with the universe.

“What’s this?” Rankin said as he came over and looked down at the brood. “Springers?”

“Yup. And Robert, this is Tom Stoddard. Tom? Robert.”

The two shook hands, and Stoddard introduced his two daughters. “This is June, and this is Judy,” he said.

“Twins?” Rankin asked.

“That’s right,” Stoddard said. “They graduate this year.”

“Ever taken drama class?” Rankin asked.

“Last year,” June said. “It was real fun.”

“Think you’d like acting?”

“Oh, yeah,” the girls said in unison, and he laughed, then he looked at the two Springer females: “Are these two sisters?” Rankin asked Deke.

“Yes, that’s right. You like dogs, Mr Rankin?”

“Been a while, but yes. Damn, they’re gorgeous…”

“Yup. We’ve been breeding Springers out here since right before the second world war. Good field dogs, not bad with cattle, too.”

“You hunt with ‘em?”

“Yup. Lots of pheasant, even a few quail along the creek beds.”

“Lots of rattlers, too, I imagine.”

“Yup. Lots of rattlers.”

“Ever lose one?”

“What? To a rattler?”

“Yes.”

“No. A couple of close calls, but Springers are about as quick on their feet as any breed out there. Sadie here got hit a few weeks ago, didn’t you girl.”

“In this snow?”

Deke and Stoddard just chuckled. “They hay-up this time of year, Mr Rankin,” Stoddard said. “That hay barn of yours has at least fifty rattlers in it right now, unless Bert has put some cats in there at night.”

“Is that what they’re for?”

“You got any snake-proof boots?” Deke asked, pulling up a leg on his khakis.

“No? What brand are those?”

“Danner snake-proof boots. They’ll last you more than a few years; good in mud, too.”

“Wonder if Amazon has them?”

“I wouldn’t know,” Deke said, frowning. “I reckon Phil down at the dry goods store has your size, though. So, what could I do for you today, Mr Rankin?”

“It’s Bob, please.”

“Okay, Bob. What’s on your mind?”

“I wanted to talk to you about…uh…what about these pups? Are they for sale?”

“Sometimes.”

“What does that mean?”

“You know, Bob, I tend to look at Springers as being about two steps higher than most humans on the evolutionary scale. My pups go to people I know, and trust, to not only take care of them, but who know a little bit about love, too.”

“Oh? And, so, what’s the punch line?”

“I don’t know you, Bob. You’ve been my neighbor for five years, and I don’t know you. Now, is there anything else you need to get off your chest?”

“I wanted to talk to you about Tracy?”

“Oh? What about?”

“I’ve just heard a few things, things that don’t sit well with me, and I wanted to get to the bottom of it.”

“You ask her yet?”

“No, sir.”

“Well, her life’s her business, not mine. You have something you want to know, I suggest you ask her first. If she doesn’t want to talk about it, then I’d guess it’s probably none of your business, too.”

“I see.”

“There’re a lot of busybodies in this life,” Stoddard said, “and more than a few in town, too. I doubt there’s one among ‘em that can tell the difference between a good apple, and a rotten one.”

“Bob,” Tomberlin added, walking towards the door, “there’s another way of lookin’ at Tracy.”

“Oh?”

“Kind of an old saying, and you may have run across it before, and it goes something like this: if a frog had wings, it wouldn’t womp it’s ass every time it hops.”

“I don’t get it,” Rankin said. “What’s that got to do with…”

“Some folks never do, Bob. Some folks just can’t learn from their mistakes. They keep askin’ ‘what if’ and ‘why me’ until their ass falls off…”

+++++

His house was something else. At least that’s what folks who came up from LA said.

All made of logs and milled pine, with granite here and there, his home was fifteen thousand square feet of pure sybaritic bliss – every convenience known to man woven into a tapestry of excess that had, frankly, bothered him when he contracted for it’s construction. The guest wing alone had five bedrooms, five baths, it’s own indoor swimming pool – as well as a small gym – while his side of the house was even more extravagantly appointed. The kitchen would have been ample for a small restaurant, and he had over five hundred bottles in his cellar.

So what, he said.

He’d been married once, thirty years ago, though they’d not had children, so he was it – the end of the line. There was no one in line to pass the torch to, no one waiting to take over after he was gone, and he looked around this monstrosity, and he’d been wondering what would become of it after he was gone. It would go on the  market, he assumed, and some tech mogul in Silicon Valley would scoop it up – it was, after all, less than hour from Sun Valley – and that would be it. There’d be parties out on the flagstone terrace by the pool and people would talk about how this had been built by that actor, ole What’s-his-name, and people would look around blankly, wondering who the hell ole What’s-his-name was – before tossing down another Campari and soda.

So, maybe that’s why he’d done what he’d done. Why he’d begun thinking about the day after tomorrow more and more.

He looked across the valley at the Tomberlin spread, at lights glowing in the little ranch house. Why had he not been over to Deke’s house before? Why hadn’t he introduced himself? Maybe he figured that, being an outside, he wouldn’t have been welcome? But no, that didn’t ring true – yet that’s what he’d made of his life out here. He was alone, and he was an outsider – and a few months ago that had begun to bother him…more than bother him.

He picked up his phone, called Bert, his foreman.

“Bert? Can you come up to the house? I just want to bend your ear about a few things. Sure, come on in, door’s open.” He walked to the kitchen, poured another scotch and water and walked out to the living room, warmed himself by the fire for a minute, then went and sat at the piano. He started winding his way through Cole Porter’s Night and Day, then drifted into Begin the Beguine, his melancholy mood inflecting the progression of notes with an unnatural, sleepy beat.

“That’s nice,” he heard Bert say a few minutes later, and he turned around a little at the voice.

“Go fix yourself a drink, Amigo.”

“Yessir.”

He sighed, worked his way into In The Still Of The Night, lost inside the music for the moment, then he heard Bert sit down by the fireplace and stopped. “Enough of that nonsense,” he said as he picked up his scotch and went to the sofa.

“Bert? What am I gonna do with this place? When I’m gone, I mean.”

“You won’t need to worry about that for a while, will you, sir?”

“No, I reckon not just now, but it’s been bothering me.”

“You need to find a good woman, have a couple of kids.”

“Plenty of women out there, Bert. Few of ‘em are worth a damn, especially when it comes to someone my age.”

“You still thinkin’ about Tracy?”

“Night and Day, Bert.”

“Damn. She too old for all that.”

“I think that’s what she said, just last night – as a matter of fact.”

“Oh? Well, she probably thinks you need a woman who could have some kids with you.”

“I did everything but get down on one knee, Bert. Asked her to move out here, told her she’d make me happy.”

“You ask what might make her happy?”

“Can’t ever get her to open up about things like that.”

“That’s Tracy. Still waters and all.”

“You dated? In high school?”

“Guess she told you that?”

“Yup. Has she always been this way?”

“No sir, not always.”

“Did something happen?”

Bert looked away, took a long pull from his drink. “Not my place to say, sir.”

He looked at his foreman, appreciated his integrity. “Okay.”

Bert relaxed, looked at Rankin. “There’s not an evil bone in that girl’s body, sir. I’d kill anyone who tried to hurt her.”

“Does she know how you feel?”

He laughed a little. “Only since second grade, sir.”

“Oh, so this is a new romance, huh?” he asked, laughing too.

“I’m not in love with her now, sir. Got over most of that by the time she moved to New York, but she’s one of those people you just can’t shake, not completely.”

“I can understand that. Let me ask you something, Bert. I visited Mrs Gibson in the hospital this morning, and she as much as called Tracy a slut, at least back then. You know what that’s all about?”

He nodded his head, took another pull from his drink. “Yup, sure do.”

“Something that happened in high school?”

Again, Bert nodded his head. “Yessir.”

“And it’s not your place to say? Is that about the size of it?”

“Mr Gibson. I think he tried something. Tracy left after that.”

“I see. And Mrs Gibson? She had something to do with her leaving?”

“Yessir.”

“Figures. Uh, Bert, about a month ago I revised my will. Assuming nothing changes, if I die tomorrow the ranch goes to you…”

“Sir? No…”

“Bert, shut up and listen, will you?”

“Yessir.”

“I don’t talk about shit like this often, and this’ll be the only time you hear this from me. Like I said, I don’t have any family, any kids, and, well, over the past couple of years you’ve become like a son to me. You’re about the only person I trust, and the only person I’ve respected more than you, well, he’s been gone a while. I don’t want this place to go to some city-slicker, but neither do I want you to get a hold of this place and sell it off. I want you to keep it, work it the way you have for me, build it up into something special, something worth passing on.”

“I don’t know what to say, sir.”

“Well then, don’t say anything. Just don’t start calling me ‘Dad’ – or some such bullshit, alright?”

“You ready for a refill, sir?”

“Yup. Maybe one more.”

When he came back a minute later he looked at Bert again. “What about you? You dating anyone now?”

“Yessir. A gal at the bank, for a few months now.”

“Looking serious?”

Bert nodded his head. “I hope so.”

“She’s special?”

“Solid, sir. Not a mean bone in her body.”

“Ah. Like Tracy.”

“There isn’t anyone like Tracy, sir.”

“No, there isn’t. There sure isn’t. Well, why don’t the two of you come up to the house for dinner this Friday? I’ve been wanting to ask a few folks for dinner, and that might be fun. Sound like a plan?”

“Yessir. She’d love that, been a big fan of yours for years.”

“Good. I’ll look forward to seeing you both. Say around seven?”

“Yessir. Thank you sir.”

+++++

He looked across at the Tomberlin spread again, ignoring his scotch, his hands hovering over the keyboard – and he turned, reached for his phone. He pulled up Tomberlin’s number and called it again, waited for him to answer.

“Deke? Bob Rankin again, across the way. How’re you this evening?”

“Fine, Bob. What’s on your mind?”

“Well, it seems Bert has a new lady friend and I’m going to have a little dinner for them here at the house this Friday. I wondered if you’d like to come over for supper, maybe have a scotch or two around the fireplace.”

“This Friday, you say?”

“Yes. We’re going to meet up here around seven.”

“You know, that sounds good to me. Count me in.”

“That fella out there today, Stoddard? Could you call him and give him the invite, those two girls, too?”

“I will. But you’re sure you want the girls to come?”

“Yes, certainly.”

“Well, if you’re sure.”

“Never more, Deke.”

“We’ll see you Friday night, then. ‘Night.”

“Good night, Deke.”

He rang off, looked at his phone again, and pulled up her number. He hit send, and crossed his fingers.

“Hello,” he heard her voice say and his heart skipped a beat.

“Tracy?”

“Robert?”

“I need a date Friday night. You free?”

“A date?”

“I’m having a little wing-ding here for Bert and his new gal. I have a feeling things are getting serious between them, and, well, I just wanted to throw a party for them. I’ve invited your father and a few of his friends, but it just wouldn’t be complete without you here. So yes, I’d like you to be my date.”

“Who’s cooking?”

“Why, me of course.”

“You?”

“I do know how to cook, Tracy.”

She giggled. “I’m sure you do, Robert. Look, I’m off Friday – can I help?”

“Sure. I was going to the store around nine, pick up what I need then. Could I swing by and pick you up?”

He heard her thinking, calculating, then: “Nine sounds good, Bob. I’ll be out front, nine sharp.”

“And I’ll be there, at eight fifty nine.”

“Thanks, Bob, seeya then.”

“Night.” He rang off, pulled up his contacts and dialed another number. “Matt? Bob Rankin here. I wonder if you’re free this Friday night. I’m having a few friends over, and you might liven things up a bit.”

“Well, I, uh…”

“I think they’ve got about 2 feet of new powder at the Roundhouse, in case you want to head up for a few runs.”

“I’ve got to be in London on Monday.”

“You can catch the five thirty out of LAX on BA.”

“You still have the Falcon?”

“Can you manage to find your way to Santa Monica? About ten Friday morning?”

“Look, this isn’t for a bunch of Hollywood bozos, is it?”

“Nope. Locals, ranchers for the most part.”

“Oh, well, that sounds fun. Count me in. So, ten o’clock, Friday, Santa Monica?”

“Be there, or be square.”

“Oh, mind of I bring a friend?”

“Hell, no. Bring two.”

“Ben’s in town too. Can he come?”

“I don’t know, can he?”

“Okay, Bob,” Matt said, laughing, “sounds good.”

“Night.”

He pulled out his wallet, looked at the receipt from the diner last night, found the phone number and called.

“Donny’s Diner, this is Becky.”

“Becky? Bob Rankin. I think you served me the biggest chicken fried steak in human history last night…”

“Yes! Robert Rankin! How are you?”

“I’m still full. Uh, look, about that guy, Donny? Is that the fella behind the grill who waved at me last night?”

“Yes, that was him.”

“If he’s there, think I could talk to him?”

“Sure, hang on.” She heard her calling his name, whispering ‘It’s Robert Rankin, for you!’ – then he heard all kinds of commotion as the man ran for the phone.

“Hello! Mr Rankin?”

“Donny, I was wondering what you and your gals were doing Friday night? I’m having a party out here…”

“Oh, gee, I’m sorry Mr Rankin, but we don’t do catering.”

“Well, gee, I was going to ask if y’all wanted to come out for a party I’m throwin’ for my foreman…”

“For Bert?”

“Yup.”

“You don’t want me to cook?”

“Not unless you want to. I was planning on cooking.”

“Well hell, I’d do anything for Bert. How ‘bout me and the girls come out and just lend a hand.”

“How ‘bout y’all come out around seven and have dinner, take the night off? How many folks can I count on?”

“Five alright, Mr Rankin?”

“You got a wife?”

“Six, then. Is that okay?”

“Okay, that’s Donny, party of six?” They both laughed. “See you then, Donny.”

“Yessir, and thank you, sir!”

“Night.”

He looked at his phone, at the time, then thought about the next call long and hard. “Every fire needs fuel,” he sighed, then he pulled up the hospital’s number and entered the number. “Eunice Gibson, please,” he said to the operator, then he waited, listening to the ring on speaker.

“Hello?”

“Mrs Gibson, this is Rob Rankin. I just wanted to see how you’re doing this evening?”

“Why Mr Rankin! I’m fine, just fine. Thanks for calling…”

“So? How’re they treating you? Letting you out anytime soon?”

“Tomorrow morning, I think. Assuming I can, well, I…”

“I understand, Mrs Gibson.”

“Eunice. Please, call me Eunice.”

“Well, Eunice, assuming you feel up to it, I’m having a few friends over Friday night, kind of a dinner for my foreman and his gal.”

“You mean Bert?”

“Yes ma’am. Dinner, cocktails, some music, and I wondered if you’d feel up to coming out?”

“Well, Robert, I’d love to. I hate to ask, but I may need a ride.”

“I’ll have someone pick you up around six-thirty. Think that’ll work out?”

“A quick question? Shall I dress for a casual event?”

“Eunice, might you dress a little more seductively than that?”

“What?”

“You’re a most attractive woman, Eunice. I’d love to see the effect you have on some of the guests that will be here.”

“Oh?”

“Oh, yes.”

“Oh, I see,” she cooed.

“Eunice? See you Friday.” He rang off and called his housekeeper, then his pilot, and filled them in, then picked up his scotch and walked back to his Steinway. “Yup, it’s a Cole Porter kind of night,” he said as he started in on In The Still of the Night again, but he shifted keys – from major to minor – and he liked this new vibe. He tossed a little Brazilian beat into the flow and shook it up a bit, and with his eyes closed he swayed in the new rhythm – a little smile coming to life as his fingers danced through the night.

+++++

“You’ve never been out to the house?” he asked Tracy as she climbed up in the Rover. He waited until she was buckled in, then closed her door and walked around.

“No,” she said, though he knew she didn’t need to say why.

“Oh, well. I talked to the grocery manager yesterday and ordered most of the things I think we’ll need. She said to just come on in and they’d help load things up, but I thought we’d make a walk-through first, maybe pick up a few things – just in case.”

“Okay. Do you have a list of things you’re making?”

“Not really. Thought I’d shoot for something between Oscar Meyer hot dogs and The Four Seasons.”

She laughed. “My dad thinks hot dogs are the best thing on earth. What did you order?”

“A couple of beef tenders, some shrimp and lump crab meat for starters, stuff for a caesar salad, and I’m going to make a couple of bourbon-fudge-pecan pies.”

“You are – going to bake pies?”

“I am.”

“Do you, uh, like to cook?”

“I do.”

“Do you like being deliberately vague?”

“Yup.”

“I see.”

“Good.”

She laughed, shook her head and looked out the window as the Rover pulled into the store’s parking lot. “It feels like I just left this place,” she sighed, her breath frosting the glass.

“Maybe because you did?”

“Yup.”

“Maybe you need to take some time off. I mean real time, not just a day here – a day there.”

“Not on my paycheck, I don’t.”

“I can imagine.”

She looked at him then: “Can you?”

“I worked in restaurants and clubs in New York City for years, then moved out to LA and did it again for a few more years. I was in my thirties before I made a real buck, so yeah, I know where you’re at.” He pulled into a space near the front, set the brake and came around for her door.

“You know, you don’t have to get my door. I’m a big girl, can manage that by myself.”

“Oh? Well, yes I do have to. Sorry, but I’d hate myself if I didn’t.”

“Well programed, aren’t you?”

“You have no idea. I have a biological need to worship women.”

“All women?”

“Uh-huh.”

“Oh, well, glad I’m nothing special.”

He held her as she got out, but he didn’t let go of her hand just yet; neither did he say a word. Instead, he simply looked into her eyes…

And, unaccountably, she felt herself going weak in the knees.

“Come on,” he said after he finally let go of her hand. “Lots to do, not a lot of time to do it all.”

‘Now what the hell was that all about?’ she said to herself as she fell in beside him. They got a cart and walked the aisles; she pointed out a few things her father liked and he picked up a couple of cases of Budweiser longnecks.

“Funny, I wouldn’t have taken you for a beer drinker?”

“Funny? Well, you don’t know me all that well, do you?”

An assistant manager was waiting for them at the customer service desk and he settled the bill, then a couple of kids rolled carts out to the Rover and he helped them load it, then he gave each a twenty. They smiled, said thanks, and he walked around, opened her door.

“That was nice,” she said. “Ostentatious, but nice.”

“I give ‘em something every time I have a big load like this. I think it’s fair, not an empty gesture.”

“I didn’t say empty…”

“‘Ostentatious’ is empty, Tracy. I’m not into either.”

“What are you into?”

“Do unto others, if you know what I mean.”

He helped her up, then stood in the Rover’s open door. “You okay?” he said at last.

“Yes. Why wouldn’t I be?”

“Well, the hard part comes next.”

“Let’s go, then.”

They drove out in silence, and Tracy felt a sudden tension building between them as she watched the town slip by. When they got out to the house he backed into the garage, and it took them a half hour to get everything unloaded and put away in the kitchen. When they were finished he asked if she’d like a tour of the house.

“A tour? By any chance, do you sell tickets?”

“Haven’t had much call. So, wanna take a look around?”

“Sure, lead on, oh master of mine.”

“You’re impossible,” he smiled. “But I guess you know that.”

“Yes, it’s something I’ve been working on – for years.”

“Well, practice makes perfect.” He took her to the guest wing first, showed her a room, then the pool and the gym, then he backtracked to his side of the house, took her to his bedroom.

“Wow, this is almost like a monastic cell, only bigger,” she said as she walked in. “Not what I expected.” There was a small library off the main room, four walls lined floor to ceiling with books, and with a single overstuffed chair on the slate floor – flanked by a reading table and two lamps. “You like to read, I take it?”

“I do, but it’s a risk nowadays.”

“A risk?”

“Yes. I find, when I’m writing, anyway, that quite often I imitate styles of the author I happen to be reading at the time. Sometimes I think it’s an unconscious process, other times I’m not so sure.”

“Who’s your favorite author?”

“The one I happen to be reading at the moment.”

She laughed at that. “If you had to pick one book in here as your favorite, which would it be?”

He walked over to a shelf, more like a case, really, and this case had a locked glass door protecting the books inside; he entered a code, opening the case, and he pulled out a book and handed it to her.

“Meditations? Marcus Aurelius? I remember the name.”

“Just another old, dead white guy.”

“Patronizing, aren’t we?”

“Sorry. Succeeded Hadrian in Rome, colloquially known as ‘the Philosopher King.’ Richard Harris played him in Gladiator.”

“Ah. Killed by his son?”

“Possibly, but I’d almost say that version is conjecture. Anyway, the empire hit the skids after his death, dissolved into decadence and corruption.”

“Kind of like America, huh?”

“There are parallels, but more differences than similarities. Personally, I’d say we have a way to go to equal the Romans, at least as far as out-and-out debauchery is concerned.”

“Not if you listen to my Dad. The second coming is at hand, at least in his worldview, it is.”

“Lot of people feel that way. Did he go to college?”

“Yup. Dartmouth.”

“So, he’s not stupid. Why do you think he feels that way?”

“You’ll have to ask him. Do you? Feel that way, I mean?”

“Nope; simplistic answers to complex problems lead to dead ends. Anyway, you can get out to the deck from here, and there’s a soaking pool…”

“What’s that room over there?” she asked, pointing to a door off the bedroom.

“My special room,” he said, grinning.

“Special? How so,” she said as she walked over to the door. She tried the knob, found it locked. “Don’t tell me…it’s your dungeon…like in that Fifty Shades movie…”

He chuckled at that. “Kind of, but not quite,” he said as he came over. “You want to see? I mean, really, really want to see what’s in there?”

“Sure,” she said, her voice sounding anything but.

He entered a code and the door clicked; he pushed it open and walked inside, and lights came on automatically as he entered the room.

There were shelves everywhere, several rows of shelves along two sides of the room and more freestanding in the middle of the room, and she walked over, looked at the contents arrayed neatly on them. “Models?”

“Yup. Airplanes, but mainly trains, for the most part, and buildings too.”

“Buildings?”

“Yup. I make stuff over here, on this desk,” he said as he led her to the back of the room. There was a twenty story building under “construction” on a worktable that stretched along two sides of the room, and a couple of railway passenger cars scattered in pieces along another portion of the tabletop.

“You build model trains?”

“You want to see?”

“Yes,” she said, now very curious indeed, and he led her over to a small door set between two shelves; it was unlocked and he turned on more lights, led her down a small stairway. He turned on more lights and he heard her gasp… “Good grief!? Is that New York City?”

“Yup. Circa 1940.”

She looked over a model of the city, guessing there must have been at least a hundred skyscrapers in view, and literally hundreds of smaller buildings everywhere she looked. There were elevated railways between tenement buildings, long passenger trains pulling out of tunnels, heading for bridges or other tunnels that led out of the city, and she looked at a street scene – an open air market of some sort, detailed right down to horse-drawn vegetable carts and sides of beef being carried into ice-houses.

“Bob…this is incredible. How long have you been working on this?”

“Hard to say. Some of the buildings I started on when I was in grade school, some of the trains, too, but I just kept collecting as I went along, waiting until I had a place where I could build all these things, and then put it all together.”

She kept walking around, looking at little nooks and crannies…

“Some of these scenes are really quite funny. Almost comical.”

“Meant to be. Some are scenes out of my childhood, others are more like wishful thinking. A child’s wishful dreaming. Everything you see is a memory.”

“So…this is like revisiting your childhood?”

“No, not ‘like’, not at all. It IS my childhood. I come down here to turn off the real world, to get away from all the noise. I bask in memory’s glow, lose myself for hours on end – in what was.”

“And what should be?”

“Nope. Not that kind of escape. I’m not rebelling against all the changes that have taken place during my life. Hell, I’m really pretty happy with most of what’s happened, but…what’s that old saying? Don’t sweat the things you can’t change?”

“It’s taken me a long time to get there, Robert.”

“What? Accepting change?”

“Yeah. In a way.”

“Like what, for instance?”

“Is there someplace we could sit for a minute?”

“Sure,” he said as he led her around a corner to a small sitting area – that overlooked Central Park.

“This really is incredible. You’ve got to bring Dad down here…he’ll flip out.”

“I will.”

“So. Let me see if I have enough courage to talk about this stuff.”

“Tracy? If you don’t feel comfortable talking to me, I’d rather you didn’t.”

“What?”

“Just that, Tracy. If you don’t feel you can trust me, don’t. Another old saying: when you feel doubt, there is no doubt.”

She nodded her head again. “Can I, well, can I trust you, Robert?”

“With your life, Tracy.”

She nodded her head. “I thought you might say that.”

“Oh?”

“After the other night. You talk like someone obsessed, or in love.”

“Pretty much the same thing, don’t you think?”

“I don’t know. Maybe.”

“Have you ever been in love, Tracy?”

“Once.”

“And? Was it an obsession?”

She shook her head. “I don’t think so – at least I didn’t then.”

“And now?”

“Sometimes I think it became something like that, for a while, anyway.”

“What changed?”

“He was a pilot, for the airline. But he was in the reserves, was called up for Desert Storm.” He saw her lips quivering, an eyelid tremling, and he knew she was close to the edge.

“He was killed?”

She nodded her head – just a little – then looked away. “It was stupid. He was in Frankfurt, and his jet lost power on take off. Crashed a few miles from the airport, ejected, broke his neck. Died a few days later.”

“And what are you not telling me?”

“We were engaged. I was pregnant.”

“Uh-huh. And?”

“I tried to kill myself.”

He just looked at her, willing her to go on, to let it all out, but she was looking at the floor now, trembling like a leaf.

And he went to her, pulled her up into his arms and held her, held her as the wave broke. He cupped her head, stroked her hair, whispered in her ear.

She nodded, tried to pull herself together.

“The baby?” he asked.

“She passed. I miscarried, and she just left. Things fell apart.”

“You continued to work?”

“For the most part. I went back to school, thought about getting my degree. I stayed in Boston, ‘til Mom got sick.”

“Mind of I ask you a question?”

She looked up at him, her eyes a reddened estuary of tears, and he took a handkerchief out and dabbed her eyes and cheeks – then, without thinking, he kissed her once, gently, on the forehead.

She looked at him still, her eyes almost at peace now. “Why do you think you love me, Robert? You don’t even know me?”

“It’s the way I feel when I look in your eyes,” he said, his voice a hoarse whisper. “I don’t need to know you, Tracy. What I need most is, well, that I want to get to know you. I want to spend the rest of life getting to know you. Does that make sense?”

“Not really. What if you don’t like what you find?”

“That’s the gamble, isn’t it?”

“You were married once, weren’t you?”

“Yes.”

“Did you feel the same way about her?”

He shook his head. “I’ve never felt the way I do when I’m around you.”

“You think…do you think you really love me?”

“If love is wanting to be with you, to take care of you, to let you take care of me, to spend every waking moment of every day with you by my side, and for the rest of my life, then yes, Tracy, I’m in love with you.”

“Did you say you wanted to get married?”

“I did.”

“Would you mind asking my dad tonight?”

“Ask him what?”

“Ask for my hand, things like that.”

“Did I miss something?”

“Yup. I think I just said yes, somewhere in there, anyway.”

He laughed. “Tracy?”

“Yes.”

“When you’re sure, let me know.”

“I’m sure, Robert.”

“Wait’ll you spend a day with me in the kitchen before you say that.” His phone chirped and he dug it out of his pocket, saw Bert on the line and hit the button. “Bert?”

“Yessir. Did you say they’re coming into Friedman?”

“Yup. Got a text a few minutes ago; they’re east of Mountain Home, in their descent, so running about fifteen minutes late.”

“Okay. I’m here now; should I just run ‘em out to the house?”

“Unless they want to grab a few runs.”

“You have everything you need for tonight?”

“Yup. Tracy and I ran by the store this morning.”

“Oh? How’d that go?”

“Fine. Let me know when they’re down, what they want to do.”

“Yessir.”

“Later.”

“Is Bert picking up someone?”

“A couple of friends coming to dinner.”

“Hollywood friends?”

“Yup.”

“Oh, God.”

“Yup.”

“Do you like stirring the pot, or are you just sadistic?”

“I’ll let you know.” He stood and helped her up, but he held her by both hands and looked into her eyes again. “You think, maybe in time, you could love me?”

“I’ll let you know.”

“Guess I deserved that one.”

“Yup, you do.”

“Mind if I tell you that I love you?”

“Yes, I do.”

“Oh?”

“You have to kiss me first, and not one of those brotherly kisses on the forehead. I mean…”

He was on her in an instant, and when she came up for air a few minutes later she looked at his lips for the longest time, then into his eyes: “If you tell me you love me right now, you better goddamn well mean it…”

He leaned in, bit her ear gently before he whispered – and a moment later she had him down and pinned to the floor. She was staring into his eyes just then, then she took off first her sweater, then her blouse, before she started doing things – weird and wonderful things – with her mouth and hands.

He was laying still a few minutes later, looking at her drifting by his side, and he could just see the part of Brooklyn he’d recreated on the layout just above her head, the little street where he grew up, where once upon a time he’d dreamed a dream that had felt a little like this moment, and he was pretty sure just then that dreams could come true, with hard work, and a little luck, anyway.

“Don’t ever leave me, Tracy,” he said softly, and while he didn’t want to sound like he was pleading, he knew that’s exactly what he was doing.

Because sooner or later, that’s what every woman he’d ever known ended up doing, and he knew he wouldn’t survive if it happened again.

+++++

Everyone was in the living room – except Matt and Ben, and Eunice Gibson. They were en route from Sun Valley, with Bert and Maria driving them after a quick stop to pick up Eunice on the way.

Deke and Tom Stoddard were over by the window, looking out over the valley to the Tomberlin ranch across the way, while Tom’s twin daughters were behind the piano, playing a hunt ‘n peck rendition of Chopsticks. Donny and his wife, as well as all the diner’s waitresses, were gathered in a corner, looking around the living room in wide-eyed wonder, while Bill Higgins, the carpenter who’d fixed Gibson’s door, was with his wife in Rankin’s study, with notepad and tape measure, taking measurements for new bookcases. They returned to the living room a few minutes before seven, just as Bert’s Suburban hove into view, charging up the drive ahead of a cloud of swirling snow.

Rankin and Tracy were in the kitchen, getting ready to set out huge bowls of iced shrimp and cocktail sauce, as well as sautéed crab canapés on sourdough toast, so, when Bert and his girlfriend Maria came in they started setting stuff out on the bar that separated the kitchen spaces from the living room. Matt and Ben followed a moment later, still dressed in their ski clothes, and a sudden hush fell over Donny’s waitresses and Stoddard’s girls. Hushed whispers and nervous giggles ensued, words like The Martian and Batman drifted across the room while they walked over to Rankin and gave him a hug.

“Ah, my favorite yankees,” Rankin said –

“Ah, our favorite cowboy,” they said.

“Need to shower?”

“Nah,” Matt said. “I enjoy smelling like a goat.” Ben, however, was already headed for the shower. He, of course, liked to brag about showering three times a day, so Robert wasn’t too surprised.

Then Eunice Gibson walked in, and he was surprised.

She was wearing an outrageously sexy LBD, complete with black stockings and sky high heeled pumps. He looked admiringly at her legs – while she looked past him at Tracy Tomberlin – and the look she saw in her eyes was like watching liquid ice coalesce to form rigid daggers of hate.

Tracy, on the other hand, had just laid out a platter of canapés and was turning to look for Bert and Maria – when she saw Gibson. Her face turned red, her lip started quivering – again – then she turned and looked at Rankin, molten fury beginning to boil to the surface.

Rankin looked at the platters on the bar and decided to lay out more shrimp, then went over to Gibson. “Eunice? Let me take your coat,” he said as he leaned over and kissed her cheek, whispering in her ear: “You look absolutely divine! I could eat you up right here!”

She absolutely glowed when he took her coat, and as she walked over to Tracy she seemed to float in the afterglow of a personal victory.

“Good evening, Tracy,” Gibson smiled.

“Eunice! You’re looking, well, much better than I expected. How’s your arm?”

“Ah, the joys of oxycontin. I can’t remember anything ever hurting as bad as this.”

“Did they have to put a plate in?”

“Yes,” she said, holding up the black fiberglass cast. “Six weeks in this moronic thing…at least…”

“My, how fashionable. I’ve never seen a black cast before.”

“It is, isn’t it? I think so too.”

“Eunice?” Rankin said as he got back to the kitchen. “What can I fix you – that goes well with morphine, anyway?”

“How about a scotch and soda, minus the scotch?”

“Comin’ right up.” He went and poured her a Perrier, garnished it with lime and took it to her. “Do you know Tom Stoddard?” he asked.

“You know, we’ve never met,” she said, and he took her by the good arm and led across the room, to Stoddard – and Deke Tomberlin. Deke turned and looked at Gibson – and his face turned to pure admiration.

“Deke, Tom? May I acquaint you with Eunice Gibson? And if she doesn’t have the best goddamn legs in the valley, y’all need to go get your eyes checked.”

He turned and left the three of them in open-mouthed speechlessness, smiled and winked when he saw Tracy staring at him.

“I see you’re not going to be content to just stir the pot tonight,” she whispered when he got back to the kitchen. “You’re gonna toss in a few sticks of dynamite too, aren’t you?”

“Why, Tracy? What makes you say such a thing? Oh well, time for me to tickle the ivories,” he said as he walked over to the Steinway.

“You play?” she asked as he came up to the twins – who were staring up at him now in wonder.

“Were you that actor,” June Stoddard asked as he asked to take the seat.

“I was, yes,” he said, “but that was a long time ago. Are you taking piano lessons?”

“Yes,” they said in unison. “Do you play?”

“A little. Do you know Cole Porter?”

“Does he teach piano?”

“You know, I think he did. How about the Moody Blues?”

They both shook their heads and he started a soft rendering of Are You Sitting Comfortably, singing in a remarkably clear tenor. By the time he let Merlin cast his spell they were hooked, and Donny’s waitresses and wife came over and stood around the piano, mesmerized by the song – and his voice. Tracy watched as Eunice turned and looked at Robert, and she too walked over, with Deke and Stoddard following her like Pointers on the scent.

‘He’s playing at Merlin tonight,’ Tracy thought, ‘and he’s playing with fire, too.’

He finished Comfortably, then launched into Cole Porter’s I Get a Kick out of You, doing his best to sing Porter’s lyrics – and not Mel Brooks’ somewhat less appropriate version – which happened to be his favorite, then Ben came in and watched him before sitting by his side.

“Can you take it from here, Ben?” – and he saw that all the women were almost drooling now –

“You feeling like this is a Cole Porter kind of night, Bob?”

“You know it, Ben.”

Who of course started in on My Heart Belongs to Daddy – while he looked at the twins.

“Let’s go check on those tenderloins,” Rankin said to Tracy as they made for the kitchen, then, after he grabbed some tongs, on out to the deck. He lifted the lid on the smoker, checked the meat with a thermometer. “Another ten minutes at this temp,” he said, then he checked the foil packets full of roasting vegetables. “About ready for the finishing touch,” he sighed as he poured a mixture of melted butter, soy, lemon and grated ginger into the steaming bags.

He shut the lid and turned to her. “Do you know, you have the most incredible eyes in the universe?”

“Do I?”

He leaned forward and ran his tongue along her eyelashes – and the shiver that ran down her spine nearly caused her knees to buckle – then he kissed her – once, and deeply – on the lips.

“You do that again,” she purred, “and I’m going to have to clean your clock again.”

“Promises, promises,” he sighed – before he kissed her again.

“You’re playing with fire tonight, Robert.”

“I’m running low on matches; think you could…”

“Light your fire?” she smiled. “Count on it, bucko.”

“I am. Say, did you know that oxycontin releases inhibitions?”

“Robert? No. Whatever is it you’re…NO? Listen, I don’t like her, but…”

“My guess is her husband, the congressman, tried to put some moves on you back in high school. And she’s been trying to put you in your place ever since.”

Tracy looked at him, her eyes full of questions. “Who told you?”

“No one. I was visiting her the other day, and among other things she called you a slut.”

“She – WHAT?”

“So, who do you think’s hornier? Your father, or Tom Stoddard?”

“Robert? What are you going to do?”

He leaned over and whispered in her ear again, and she turned bright red, then burst out laughing.

+++++

Ben was in the middle of Anything Goes when Matt came in, and when one of the waitresses sidled up next to him, Ben drifted into Let’s Fall in Love. She was kind of cute, Robert saw, and he observed Matt had noticed, too. He caught Eunice’s eye and motioned her to come to the kitchen.

“You’re looking pale, Eunice. How’s the medicine holding up?”

“It hurts, Bob. What should I do?”

“Has it been four hours yet?”

She looked at the clock on the refrigerator door. “Is that time correct?”

“Yup.”

“Four hours in about twenty minutes. Should I wait?”

“Hell yes, but we’ll be sitting down for dinner then, and taking that stuff with food ought to help prevent stomach upset.”

“Oh, thank you for keeping an eye on me.”

“My pleasure.”

“You really like my legs?” she asked, but he was looking at Tracy just then – talking with her father by the fireplace.

“Do I like your legs?” he asked. “Are you kidding? If I was twenty years younger, darlin’, I’d like to help you curl your toes.”

She brightened, turned beet red. “Anytime you want to try, just let me know.”

“Really?”

“Um-hmm,” she cooed.

“What’s with Deke? That man’s been staring at your legs ever since you walked in the room.”

“Oh? Has he?”

“Has he? Eunice, the man’s drooling. I mean positively drooling, every time he looks at you.”

She turned and looked at him; Deke was standing next to Stoddard now, staring at her legs.

“See what I mean?”

She did. And she was now an even brighter shade of red, too.

“Well, I’ve got to get our dinner off the grill right now, but how ‘bout I put you next to him at dinner? Think you could, well, handle that?”

She turned and looked at him, her eyes a sleepy kind of sexy – then she licked her lips.

“Yes, Eunice. I think I’m getting green with envy.”

“Good,” she said, then she turned and went back to the living room.

Tracy met him at the smoker. “Mission accomplished,” she said. “I think he’s about ready to explode, matter of fact. How was she?”

“Like a piranha. A hungry piranha.”

“Oh, God. My poor father.”

“Are you kidding? They’re going to be perfect together.”

“Uh, you’d better remind Matt those girls are seventeen.”

“Eighteen, last month.”

“You checked?”

“Of course. Matt’s a good friend. Besides, he’s getting ready to cast a movie next month, and he needs twins. Girls, as a matter of fact. And guess what, they took drama last year.”

“You mean, you planned this?”

“Of course not. What makes you say that?” he said, lifting the lid to the grill, the air filling with dense, hot smoke.

+++++

“Damnit all, Mr Rankin,” Donny said from the far end of the table, “this is the best goddamn steak I’ve ever had in my life. What’s your secret?”

“I plug the tenders with garlic, then let them sit in a marinade of orange zest, soy, honey and ginger. Once the tenders are on the fire, grind a bunch of fresh peppercorn all over everything. Smoke until the meat hits 165, and that’s it. Deke? How’s yours? Too well done?”

“No sir. This is the perfect steak. Hope you don’t mind if I borrow your recipe, though.”

Tine, one of Donny’s waitresses was sitting beside Tom Stoddard, and she apparently had matters well in hand, while Matt was talking to the twins about his next project. Ben was talking to Bert about the merits of mixing alfalfa with summer grasses, though Eunice had barely touched her filet – she seemed preoccupied with something under the table, and Deke seemed a little preoccupied, too.

Indeed, Deke wiped a line of perspiration from his brow, his eyes crossed a little.

“Deke, you pull a muscle this afternoon,” Rankin asked.

“Oh, Bob, you have no idea.”

“I hate it when things stiffen up after the sun goes down.”

“Do you?” he grimaced. “Well, I know just how you feel.”

“Yes, well, the trick is to just let things go, try not to hold back.”

“Oh?”

“Yeah, just stretch out that leg – then let her fly, maybe give it a little rub to get the circulation going again.”

“Oh, God…”

“Eunice? Think you could help him massage that out?”

“Certainly, Bob. Deke, where’s it hurt?”

“Oh, GAWD!”

“Tom? How’s your steak?”

“Just great.”

“You know, there’s a big hot tub out back. Maybe you could take the twins out there, relax for a while before you go home.”

“Wish we could, but we didn’t bring bathing suits…”

“Matt, could you show ‘em where I keep the spare bathing suits?”

“Dad? Could we come too?”

“There’s plenty of room,” Rankin said. “Enough for a dozen or so, anyway,” he said as he handed Eunice a spare napkin. Deke’s eyes were hooded over now, his breathing deep, while Eunice looked around the room, smiling and contented. “Eunice? How’s that arm? Feel like a swim?”

“Hmm?”

“Want to sit in the hot tub for a while? Or would you like some dessert?”

“If you’ve made those bourbon-pecan pies,” Matt said, “I ain’t goin’ nowhere.”

“Well, I’d better get to slicing,” Rankin said. “Donny, can you give me a hand?” They walked to the kitchen, and Tracy did as well.

“I’d say mission accomplished, one more time,” she said as she got some dessert plates out from the cupboard.

“Yes, a sticky situation.”

“What is?” Donny said.

“How’s that wife of your’s, Donny?”

“Hmm? Oh, fine. What can I do here?”

“Could you slice a few pies?”

“Sure could.”

“Great. I always make a mess of it. What do you think? Think your wife would like some time in the tub?”

“I dunno…I think she’s had to much to drink?”

“Ah, well, maybe she could just dip her toes?”

“You wouldn’t mind?”

“Hell, no,” Rankin said as he took the first few slices out to the table. “I just asked her,” he said when he came back to the kitchen, “and I think she’s ready.”

“Ready?”

“For some hot tub fun, Donny!” he added as he and Tracy carried the last plates out to the table. ‘Yup,’ he said to himself as he looked at Eunice, ‘things are heating up nicely…’ He looked around the table as he sat, and said, “Well, bon appetite, y’all…dig in!”

Donny’s wife chimed-in first: “This is so good!”

“It’s the pecans,” Rankin said. “Have to soak ‘em for a few hours in bourbon, then I take ’em out and roll ‘em in honey. That seals in the bourbon, helps give it a little kick. Eunice, you be careful now.”

“If it was baked, there’s no more alcohol,” she said knowingly. “Not enough to hurt, anyway.” She took a bite, and sighed. “This is heavenly. Where’d you get this recipe?”

“Oh, I just looked at a few and combined the best of this, a little of that. You like it?”

“It’s so rich, but so light,” she said.

“Just like you, darlin’,” he said, and he watched her turn red again. Deke seemed to look up at that, his eyes taking on a possessive note, and Rankin smiled. “Deke, think you can convince Eunice to hit the hot tub?”

“Well, I don’t know about that…”

“Dad? Robert’s got something downstairs you really need to see.”

“Oh, no,” Matt said, grinning. “We’ve lost Robert for the night.”

“What’s that?” Deke said.

“Come on, Robert, let’s show him…”

“Show him what?” Eunice said. “Can I come, too?”

“Yes, Eunice,” Rankin said, “I think you need to come.”

“Ooh, goody. I love a surprise!”

Rankin stood. “Matt? Think you can herd all these people down to the hot tub?”

“Sure. Is the pool heat on?”

“The indoor pool is set at 85, the outdoor at 75.”

“Splendid!”

“Y’all have fun. Eunice…Deke, follow me.” He led them to the main staircase and down to the train room, then he opened the door…

And the room filled with the deep rumble of a locomotive, a conductor calling out “All aboard!” Then across the room a headlight came on, then all the windows in the passenger cars lit up – and all New York City’s lights came on, then her street lights . The sounds of people on sidewalks, cars and trucks rumbling down streets, and the room shook as the 20th Century Limited pulled out of Grand Central Terminal…

Deke and Eunice, even Tracy – who’d never seen the display come fully to life – looked on in awe. Street cars ran, subways crossed town on an elevated line, and Long Island Railway commuters crossed bridges over the East River.

“My God in heaven,” Deke muttered as he came over. “You built all this?”

“Yup,” Rankin said, his eyes full of pride. “Started when I was seven years old.”

“This is impossible!” Deke added, his eyes taking on a faraway, searching look. “I always wanted to do something like this…”

“Come with me,” Rankin said, and he led Deke and Eunice to the next phase of the project in the next room. The bare bones of the next expansion had been formed in this room, but nothing was visible aside from markings where future tracks would be placed.

“What is all this?” Deke asked when the scope of the project became apparent.

“Three main lines will leave New York, come through here on their way to Chicago, over there. In the next room, down here,” he said as he walked across to the far room, “the lines will continue, on to San Francisco and LA.” He turned on the lights in the last room, revealing another bare bones layout – though the Rocky Mountains were complete, and all of the track had been laid. “So, I was wondering. What I need, Deke, is another set of hands. Interested?”

“What? What do you mean?”

“I need help. Wanna come over, anytime you feel like it, of course, and help out?”

“Are you serious?”

“Yup.”

“Well, hell yes, I’d like to help out!”

“Outstanding! Well, look, there’s something I need to ask you.”

“About Eunice? Are you interested in her?”

“Are you?”

“Well,” Deke began, “I didn’t think so a few hours ago, but right now, well, I’m not so sure.”

“I think you two look good together.”

“You do?”

“Yup. But I need to ask you about Tracy.”

“Tracy? What about Tracy?”

“Well, she wanted me to ask you, well, for permission, for us to get married.”

“She what? Oh, did you ask her?”

“I did.”

“And she said yes?”

“She did.”

He looked away, wiped a tear then turned back. “Well, Robert, you have my permission. When? When do you think you’ll tie the knot?”

“Soon as we can, I reckon. No time like the present,” he said as he looked at this room full of his past – and maybe his future, too.

“No, I reckon not,” Deke said, clearly thinking about that woman in the other room.

“So, what about the hot tub, sir.”

“Oh, I don’t know. I think I ought to get on home.”

“Well, Eunice needs a ride, in case you want to take her – into town.”

“Does she, now?”

“That’s a fact.”

“Hmm.”

They walked back to New York City, to Tracy and Eunice still standing trackside – looking at men’s obsessions and laughing at the folly of it all, perhaps – but looking in awe nonetheless at what had been accomplished – so far.

And Eunice looked at Deke as he came to her: “Deke, what about you ‘n me? Want to hit the hot tub?”

“I was thinkin’ I’d drive you home now, Eunice.”

“Oh?”

“Yes, before it gets too late.”

“Oh. Well, alright. Let me go get my things.”

They all walked upstairs together, and while Rankin helped Eunice on with her coat he leaned close and whispered in her ear. She smiled, kissed him in the cheek, and Deke walked her out to his truck. They watched him drive down to the main road into town, but he didn’t turn that way. No, he turned to the other way, and drove on to his house, and Tracy turned to him just then and smiled.

“I’m curious,” she said. “Did you have all this planned out?”

“Who? Me?”

“Yes, you?”

“Well, one more more piece of the puzzle I want to help into place.”

“Oh?”

“Those girls.”

“Tom’s girls?”

“Yup.”

“Is that why you invited…”

“Yup.”

“I didn’t want to ask, but what did you say to Dad in the other room?”

“Oh, I told him I could use some help. With the next phase of the railroad.”

“Oh.”

He smiled. “And I asked him about us.”

She turned to him, looked into his eyes. “And?”

“Oh, all he seemed to want to know was when and where.”

“When and where?”

“Where we’re going to do it.”

“Ah. Well, we’re going to do it in there,” she said, pointing to his bedroom, “right now. I think he’s going to miss this performance.”

“I reckon we better tend to our guests first, don’t you think?”

“They can manage for a little while.”

“Oh, well, okay – if you think so.”

+++++

He went out to the pool deck a while later, saw Matt and Ben still talking to the twins, this time with Tom listening carefully, so he walked into the hot tub grotto and found Donny and his group sipping wine with Ronnie Higgins and his wife. He walked over and dangled his legs in the water, and noticed they were all staring at him now.

“How’s your evening been?” he asked.

“Just something else, Mr Rankin,” Donny said.

“Like some kind of dream,” Donny’s wife added.

“Oh? Well, I hope this isn’t the last time I see you all out here. Matter of fact, Tracy and I have decided to get married, and we’ll probably have some kind of reception here. I hope you know you’re all invited, but we’ll get invitations to you soon.”

There were congratulations, invitations to come to the diner – “Anytime! Anytime at all!” – and Rankin basked in their glow for a while, then walked out to see how things were going with the twins.

“So, what do think, Matt? Find them an agent yet?”

“Yup.”

“I thought they’d be perfect for the parts,” he added. “You too, I take it?”

“Yup.”

“Tom, once you get to know Matt a little better, you’ll see he can speak more than one syllable at a time.”

“Yup. Figured that one a while ago. Plays it pretty close to his vest.”

“He does at that. If it gets too late, Tom, just bunk out in one of the spare bedrooms.”

“Thanks, Mr Rankin. Appreciate your hospitality.”

“My name’s Bob, Tom. Ben, I’m off to bed. Think you can shut things down?”

“Yup.”

“God, it’s catching.”

“Yup,” all five of them said.

“Monsters…I’ve created monsters…” he said as he trudged off to the kitchen, then back to his bedroom. She was still there, waiting, and he’d never felt happier.

So, let’s speak of endings.

Right after graduation the twins, the twins flew to Boston and started on Matt and Ben’s latest movie, about two girls – twins, of course – at Boston College in the sixties. Tom Stoddard was nervous as hell when he watched them leave, but he busied himself training his new pup, Lucille, for the coming bird season. Tina, the waitress from Donny’s place, started spending nights once the girls left, and Tom started putting on weight. Too many chicken fried steaks, he said.

Becky, another gal from the diner, moved into one of the spare bedrooms at Rankin’s place. She still worked evenings at the diner, but worked mornings at Robert’s helping clean house. She’d developed a crush on him, a bad one, and was biding her time, waiting for an opening. Who knows, she thought from time to time, maybe she’d have to make an opening?

Eunice Gibson? Oh, where do we start?

She developed an oral fixation. And Deke had never been happier.

Most days he finished up work in time for lunch, then he showered and drove over to Robert’s. He was concentrating on the western lines in the far room, modeling the Feather River run the California Zephyr made on it’s way into Oakland, and when he finished up what he was working on he’d get in his truck and drive into town, where he’d find Eunice – upstairs in garters and stockings and heels – ready and waiting.

Robert got his snake proof boots at the dry goods store, and had an early breakfast most days at Donny’s. When he walked the sidewalks downtown, the locals said ‘Howdy’ when he passed, and he finally began to feel like he belonged.

And Tracy still worked the customer service desk, still took care of people who needed taking care of, which is why, of course, she decided to marry Robert Rankin. They set a date for next Christmas, and she could hardly wait. She still had her apartment, of course, but she spent most nights at his place, and she didn’t care if people talked.

One night, when she was over at her father’s after work, he was sitting at the piano playing In the Still of the Night once again, and he remembered that night. The night he’d decided to change keys, the night he shifted from a major key, to a minor. The same music, but different. The same life, yet nothing like it was.

Just a little shift. So funny. So unexpected.

He looked across the valley, looked at the Tomberlin ranch and smiled as he played, then he felt a gentle tugging on his socks and reached down, picked up the little Springer and held her close.

(C) 2016 adrian leverkühn | abw | adrianleverkuhnwrites.com | this is a work of fiction, and although there are slight inferences to a few real world characters sprinkled about, these references in no way represent any events, real or otherwise. hope you enjoyed.

+++++

So, celebrities and model railroads. You’ve heard of Rod Stewart, I reckon?

rsrr-4

Yes, that Rod Steward. Maggie May and all that…

rsrr3

Turns out he’s into the hobby. And not in a small way. His efforts formed the basis of Rob Rankin’s obsession in the story.

rsrr-1

He said of this article in Model Railroader that it meant more to him to be in this magazine than in any other fan or music magazine. Odd, don’t you think?

rsrr2

Kind of interesting, nevertheless. The effort fills the third floor of his house in Beverly Hills.

Anyway, I worked on this tale thinking about the various keys of life, and how we need to change up from time to time, shake things up a little.

So…Happy New Year! Keep warm and drive safe.

And we’ll see you next year. Thanks for reading along.

Aa

10 thoughts on “Customer Service

  1. Keeping the memories alive, I suppose, for another generation. Not a bad thing to do. His music is so off the top excellent, I can’t imagine he could give the world more of himself, but it looks like that’s just what he’s done.
    Just got a couple of Illinois Central coaches in the mail from Walther’s today; really pretty, almost – not quite – as fine as the Empire Builder’s paint. Have the Budd / Wabash Bluebird cars on order, and can’t wait to see those. Looks like late Spring til those ship, though.

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  2. The detail on the the out of the box models these days is amazing. I built, a couple of years ago, a 1/35 scale German Tiger I, based on a picture I saw of one attached to the Großdeutschland division during the Kursk battle on the Eastern Front. It took about 6 months, with brass sheet metal parts, individual track links, turned metal barrel, ect. Out of the box, these railroad models gave just as good detail, at a finer scale, at a price, that while expensive, isn’t outrageous. That’s a win for cheap Chinese labor, I suppose.

    I found an article about Neil Young and Lionel. Apparently one of his sons is autistic, and the model trains are one of the things that pulls him out of his shell.

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  3. A lot of folks don’t understand working on something like that for six months, yet I think working on something like that for six months is part of what makes the affair so satisfying. I watched one girl at my neighbor’s Christmas display; I think she was autistic, or very similarly impaired, and I was amazed at her response. It’s just another interesting thing about the hobby; it’s ability to pull you in, take you back, or perhaps even to places one’s never been before.

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  4. So many overlaps. My mind is trying to meld the images and events of the past few weeks with Customer Service. Atkinson’s Market? The ranch somewhere between Bellevue, Picabo, and Silver Creek? Did you know Bruce and Demi donated the Mint to the Fools? Adam West has been hosting an exhibit of his art in Ketchum. And you can still get a Papa Doble at the Casino. Railroads played a major role in the valley, although their influence is fading. It was the Harrimans who offered room 206 as a writing studio (room and board included). I can’t identify Eunice, but she could easily be an amalgam of several? You would enjoy the writers conference but it is almost impossible to get even a tie down during Allen and Co’s gathering in July.
    You had fun writing this one didn’t you.

    http://www.idahostatesman.com/entertainment/arts-culture/arts-blog/article123915749.html

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  5. I did…I do…because there’s a universality to this one. It could be taking place almost anywhere out west. I think this was about insiders and outsiders, trying to fit in, make things work. A clash of cultures. Kind of like our world today, ya know? Still, I’d love to come back to the valley – while the sun still shines.

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