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A Long Night’s Climb Into Sunlight

Category: Mature
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It was time to leave again. These visits were wonderful in their joy and painful in the parting. I stood and took her small hands in mine.

“I have to be going now. Gotta catch my plane or I’ll have to stay the night.”

The little grey-haired woman used my hands to pull herself up. I saw a wicked little gleam sparkle in her eyes. She pulled my hands around her waist and shoulders, and dropped her arms around my neck. It was a tradition begun years ago.

“I dare say there could be worse things to happen. Don’t you think you could still make love to an older woman?”

I bent and kissed her on the lips. We embraced, this woman and I; she, still pretty after sixty-eight years of living and loving and laughing and crying, and I, a married man with two teenage children. She gently pulled away, looked in my eyes, and stroked the back of my head.

“You kiss better than you did the first time.”

Those few words, from a woman most men would ignore, spoke of so much. Had it really been twenty-two years? It didn’t feel like that long, although the spreading bald spot at the back of my head could give testimony that it had. Tonight, I sit at my desk trying to check over some papers. As usual after a visit with this great lady, my mind keeps wandering from its appointed task to that winter and spring, back home.

The batteries on my headlight were about dead and I still had fifty papers to deliver. Why hadn’t I passed the route on to some dumb-ass kid when I graduated? I was only making ten cents a week for each paper. I had to keep telling myself that the ten or eleven bucks a week was my only spending money. My regular job pay went to buy books and gas for my old Chevy so I could “git myself edgicated”, as Grandpa put it.

I never told my college friends about the paper route. Paperboys were somewhere between twelve and fifteen with pimples and carried a shirt pocket full of pens and pencils to school. As soon as they turned sixteen, they dumped the route for real jobs like delivering groceries or working on one of the farms that bordered the small town of Langley, Indiana. I was the odd man out. After I took the test and got my driver’s license, I got other, better jobs, but I kept the route. In 1967, ten dollars went a long way. All I had to do was put a hundred or so newspapers inside screen doors every morning, and make the rounds to collect on Saturday.

In truth, I didn’t have anything better to do with my time. Mom was always telling my sister that she should only go out with “nice” boys who did well in school. They were supposed to make the best husbands. Evidently, all the other mothers were telling their daughters to find the dumbest jocks in the county and screw their brains out, because the only girl who even said “Hi” to me was Denise Witherspoon. The standing locker room joke was that spoons weren’t the only things Denise withered. It wasn’t that she was ugly or anything like that. The only way I can put it is Denise was just very different. Girls were required to wear dresses or skirts and blouses to school. Denise complied, but added baggy black pants under the dress. Most girls tried to accent their swelling breasts with padded bras. Denise walked around with hunched shoulders and heavy sweaters that effectively disguised any curves she might have had. She wore her short brown hair in dishevelment, wrote morbid poetry in study hall, and made straight “A’s” in everything.

Mom said I would find someone once I went to college. She thought this would make me feel better. How could I tell her that every guy except me had at least kissed a girl? Even if I discounted half the content of the stories I heard, most of them had even felt a real breast. Even through three layers of clothing, touching a girl’s breast was the Holy Grail for any guy. It seemed to be Denise or nothing, so I chose nothing and kept the paper route.

Graduation came and went, and summer burned on through August. I was lucky enough to have drawn a very high number in the draft lottery, so I started pre-engineering at Liberty, a small junior college twenty miles from town. My dad wanted me to go to Purdue, but he didn’t have the money, and I didn’t either. I also was not really sure about engineering. The school counselors had pushed every boy toward the sciences since the Russians put the first satellite in orbit. I liked math and chemistry, but I really didn’t know what an engineer did. I figured I could find out at Liberty, and if I changed my mind, I wouldn’t have wasted a bunch of cash. I was quickly immersed in calculus, basic physics, and, because it was thought engineers should be able to write as well as launch spacecraft, Rhetoric 101.

Going to Liberty also let me keep the paper route. The five-mile bike ride each morning through the tree-lined streets of Langley was a nice change of pace. I could be through by six, have breakfast and still make it to my first class.

One Friday morning in October, I picked up my bundle of papers at the corner gas station and found a familiar manila envelope stuck under the string. Inside would be the little card for a new customer. Each card was perforated into postage stamp size, tear off receipts for a week’s worth of newspapers, and had the customer’s name and address at the top. “Claire Smithers, 140 High St.”, read the typewritten entry. In black ballpoint pen was scrawled, “Start Sunday”.

Our town was so small; it was hard to believe I hadn’t heard of a new arrival. Langley intentionally turned away when industry went looking for a home. Most of the people were second or third generation and were quite content to keep their little town quiet and comfortable. It was one of those towns where everybody knows everybody else, everybody has their little cliques, and where everybody watches carefully for anything worthy of gossip. A new resident was worth at least a comment at Heinke Hardware, where I made my real money, but I’d heard nothing.

I did know the house. High Street was the last street on the west side of town, and 140 was a huge house that sat alone at the end. I’d delivered papers there up until spring. Mr. Leland had passed on in April, and the house was put up for sale. It was a big barn of a place, and in better days, had been one of the nicer houses in Langley. On Sunday morning, I ran up the ten concrete steps, quietly opened the screen door, and slipped the paper inside. Most customers expected to find their newspaper on the sill when they opened the front door, and I didn’t think Miss or Mrs. Smithers, whichever she was, would be any different.

The town criers were a little slow, but they didn’t fail in their task. I was between bites of french toast when Mom said, “the old Leland house was bought the other day. Gladys says the woman used to live in Springfield until her husband divorced her. She says the woman has a son in the army and a girl somewhere in Georgia.”

Gladys was a teller at the local bank, and gleaned juicy tidbits of gossip from every customer while she counted their money.

“Yeah, I know. Her name’s Claire Smithers. I started delivering her paper this morning.”

“Did you see her?”

“Mom, there aren’t a whole bunch of people up at five on Sunday morning. Just the town cop and me, and I’m not sure he’s awake. Old Harold’s car’s always sitting behind the feed store at that hour.”

“I suppose not, but I’d sure like to know what she looks like.”

“As soon as I see her, you’ll be the first to know. Why are you so interested anyway?”

“Gladys says she’s most likely a beautician; she says you can always tell by the way they take care of themselves. I wondered if she’s going to open a shop. It’d be nice for Sadie to have some competition. Somebody who knows how to do more than give perms and bleach jobs. Might make her lower her prices a little, too.”

The old house certainly had room for a beauty parlor, but I saw no sign of any such thing when I delivered the paper on Monday. There was also no sign on Tuesday morning, or Wednesday, Thursday, or Friday. If Mrs. Smithers was going to open up shop, it probably wasn’t going to be in her house.

My last class on Friday ended at four, and I was home by five. Mom was fixing dinner when I walked into the kitchen for a snack. The bag of potato chips caught my eye, and I edged toward the shelf.

“Don’t go filling up on chips and pop. I’ve been cooking this roast all afternoon, and it’s really tender. I put in onions and carrots, just like your dad likes.”

“I know. I smelled it when I walked in the front door. I just need a little something to tide me over. You know I always love your roast.”

“OK, but just a few.” She turned around from the counter. “Oh, you’ll never guess what I heard today.”

I munched on a chip, waiting for the answer I knew would never come until I asked, “What?”. Yep, there it was. Mom cocked her head. She was waiting.


“You know Doris, down at Burnett’s Grocery? Well, I stopped in for some potatoes to go with the roast, and what she told me just froze me in my tracks. You know, you think you’re too far from the city to have such things go on right under your very nose, but then you find out you aren’t. Honestly, I wonder what this world’s coming to. First, it’s the communists; then it’s the hippies, and now -”

“OK, what’d she tell you? Harry Jackson got caught coming out of Bonnie’s house again?”

“Nooo. Much worse than that, although I don’t know why Jenny puts up with his carousing like she does. No, Doris said Mrs. Smithers isn’t a beautician at all. Never has been. Shows you that Gladys isn’t right all the time, like she thinks, doesn’t it? No, she writes books. She writes those romance things. You know, the raunchy ones with the half naked man and woman on the cover?”

“Well, I’ve seen them up at the drugstore, but never had the urge to read one. Anyway, what’s wrong with that? Somebody has to write them.”

“No they don’t. I don’t know why some women read that trash. They’re all full of sex, that’s what they are. A woman should be happy with her husband, and not want to read that stuff. All it’s good for is…well, the women who read them start thinking they’d be happier with somebody else. Probably causes lots of divorces. Probably why her husband divorced her.”

“And if they’re so bad, how do you know so much about them?”

“Sadie has them down at the beauty shop. I had to wait for a chair one day, and I started reading one. I stopped when this tall, blonde guy started taking off the woman’s clothes. It was pure filth. The book even talked about her bre-… her bosom. I mean, the woman was married and everything, This guy was her stable boy, and she just jumped in bed with him.”

“Well, I suppose some women like to read them.”

“Sadie does, all the time. She keeps going on and on about how they make her feel.”

“And how do they make her feel?”

Mom doesn’t blush often, but she did then. “Let’s just say she’d like to find one of those blonde guys.”

She told the same story to Dad that night. Between gulps of roast and potatoes, he mumbled something about a naked woman jumping in bed with him. Mom slapped him on the arm.

“Shush. You’re teaching your son bad things. You’re doing better than the average, anyway, at least according to my magazines. I just hope she doesn’t put anybody in town in one of her books. If it was me, I’d die of embarrassment.”

“Don’t think you’ve got much to worry about there”, chuckled Dad. “Not unless you get a whole lot hornier’n you were this morning.”

It’s a little strange hearing your parents talk that way, you know.

I enjoyed Saturday, because I got to collect for the week’s papers. It was a little tough in the cold of winter, but the rest of the year was great. My customers were familiar faces on predictable people. Mr. West would never have anything less than a ten, so I made sure I had plenty of change. I also knew I’d have to chase down Jerry Holloway somewhere between the hardware store and the bank, because he always went out of his way to be gone from home on collection day. Catching him had become somewhat of a game over the years, but I was winning more and more. The older subscribers were the best. They were always happy to see anybody, and I could be sure of a cookie and iced tea in summer or cocoa when it was cold.

On Saturday morning Mrs. Smithers’ house was as dark as every other morning that week. Since hearing what she chose as an occupation, I was becoming as curious as Mom was. What kind of woman wrote about sex? It would seem she couldn’t write about things she hadn’t experienced. I kept seeing this picture that was very like the women in the slick magazines Dad hid in his closet. She would have long black hair, very large breasts and wide hips. Her mouth would always be parted to show her teeth. Sometimes she would lick her upper lip, and her eyes would be dark and seductive.

I swung down High street in anticipation. The big house showed signs of life now. There was a light shining through the kitchen window, and the front blinds were up. My hand was poised to knock when I saw the note taped to the screen door.

“Paper boy, the money is in the jar.”

Between the screen and entry doors stood a jelly jar with forty-five cents. I dumped the change into my bag, tore off the little ticket from her card, and dropped it in the jar. On my way down the steps I saw the open garage door I’d missed on the trip up. So much for meeting the sexiest woman I’d ever seen, or thought about seeing anyway.

The next week was the same, and so was the week after that. I faithfully delivered the paper each morning, and every Saturday, collected my money from the same jelly jar. I was beginning to wonder if Mrs. Smithers was really a ghost. Nobody in town had seen her since she moved in, and the tongues were wagging with possible explanations.

“She’s just weird. I mean, what could you expect from a woman who does that.”

“She’s probably a person who likes her privacy. I’ve read that most authors like to be alone, so they can think. You’d have to be alone to think up the things she writes.”

The funniest, in my opinion, was that she was having an affair with Ned Bowen, the real estate agent who handled the sale of the house. Dad just laughed and said, “The only things she’d get from old Ned are a recipe for chocolate cake and which colors go with mauve.” Ned was sixty-three, had a bad heart, and was considered gay by most of the male population of Langley.

Our first meeting wasn’t really a meeting at all, because she didn’t see me. The sun wasn’t yet up when I walked up her steps with the Thursday morning paper. The living room lights were on, and I couldn’t help looking in.

Mrs. Smithers looked about forty or maybe a little older; at least she looked a little older than Mom. I couldn’t see all of her face, but what I could see was kind of pretty. I didn’t really spend much time looking for the color of her eyes or her hairstyle, although I did note that her hair was light brown and hung in waves down to her bra strap. I know this because she only wore the bra and a pair of bikini panties. She was turned slightly away from the window and was watching the news on television. Her hands rested on narrow hips that started from a full, but not really fat, waist. She had the same dimpled thighs that Mom had, a little tummy that pushed out the front of the panties, and her breasts hung lightly in the lace cups of the bra. I’d seen Mom in a bathing suit, and like any red-blooded teenage boy, I’d secretly read every one of Dad’s stag magazines. Mrs. Smithers was smaller-breasted than Mom and a lot smaller than the magazine ladies. Afraid of being discovered, I quietly opened the screen door, and eased in the paper. When I looked through the window on my way off the porch, she was gone.

For the next couple weeks, I was careful to approach 140 High street as quietly as possible. I crept up the steps as if walking on eggshells, just in case Mrs. Smithers was parading around in her underwear again. Sometimes the living room lights were on, but she was never there. Every Saturday, the same note directed me to the same jelly jar between the doors.

November hit with a vengeance for all the beautiful summer days we’d experienced. Snow fell on the fifth, and the temperature dropped to just below freezing. This kind of weather made me question the sanity of pedaling a bike all over town at five in the morning. Collecting was worse. I had to remove my gloves to make change, and after about an hour, my fingers would be numb. I’d have to stop and stick them in my armpits to get them working again.

The Saturday morning before Thanksgiving found me pedaling through six inches of fresh snow that made a continuous crunching sound when my bike tires broke the crust. The temperature was all of ten degrees. I dropped off the last paper, and headed for home, a big cup of coffee, and some eggs before making my rounds to collect.

By eight, the town was actually beautiful. Every naked branch wore a white, velvet cloak, and the air was so crisp it seemed as if just moving would cause it to shatter. The bright sun turned everything into a blinding glare of glittering ice crystals. There’s a certain thrill in being out on mornings like that, and the cold didn’t seem to matter as much. Most of my customers were staying close to their furnaces. Even Mr. Holloway was home.

I about fell off Mrs. Smithers’ porch when I didn’t see any note. All of a sudden, I was shaking like one of the brown, curled leaves that refused to fall from the oak tree beside her drive. What do you say to a woman you’ve seen in her underwear but never met? The screen door sounded like a can full of rocks when I knocked. I was starting the second knock when the entrance door opened.

“Yes, may I help you?”

Her voice was the slow, smooth, honey of the old South. Except for the way she was dressed, she could have walked off the screen of any Civil War movie I’d ever seen. She looked about like any other woman in town. Her hair was pulled back in a ponytail, and she wore a sweatshirt and jeans. I wasn’t certain what I’d expected to see, but I thought she’d dress differently, being a romance writer and all. The glasses hanging from a pearl chain were the only thing that hinted she might be anything other than a housewife.

“Young man, may I help you?”

It’s really embarrassing to be caught staring at anyone, but is even more so when you realize your mouth is hanging open. I snapped it shut, and tried to smile.

“Uh… I’m Jerry Wingate. I’m here to collect for the paper.”

“You look rather old to be a paper boy.”

Now was the time for an intelligent, but casual, comeback. It’s frustrating how they always occur to me about an hour after they’re needed.

“No Ma’am, I’m your paperboy, really.”

“Well, you also look half frozen. Come inside while I get my purse.”

I stood on the doormat that saved her ivory carpet from the snow on my boots. She’d done some decorating since I’d last seen this living room. Clean cobbles gleamed on the fireplace front in the flickering light of the flames. A large, overstuffed couch and two chairs huddled around the fire. Where old Mr. Leland had kept his ancient upright piano sat a huge bookcase full of books. I could picture her reclining on the couch at night, a book in one hand and a cup of coffee in the other. Somehow, it seemed fitting that she should be in a luxuriant robe and satin bedroom slippers.

“I swear, if I’d known it would be this cold, I’d never have left Georgia. I’ve lived in Indiana for twenty years, and it still chills me to the bone. How do you stand it?”

“I don’t know. I wear thermal underwear. That helps.”

Obviously, I wasn’t keeping up my end of the conversation. My brain was thinking of that morning when I’d seen her through the window, and it kept saying really stupid things. I was starting to feel like the thirteen-year-old who should have been standing here.

“I tried them one time, but they itch like the very devil. Now I just wear sweatshirts and stay close to the fire. Here we go. I believe I owe you forty-five cents?”

The weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas vacation were hectic days of classes, work, and shopping for presents. On Saturdays, I collected and got to know Mrs. Smithers better. She liked to talk. I suppose it was because she didn’t know anyone else in town. My classes were a favorite topic. Since she was a writer, I always had to tell her about my last rhetoric assignment and the topic of my next.

Calculus and physics were becoming more difficult. I’d expected this since Langley High didn’t offer much more than algebra and chemistry. I just hadn’t anticipated how much harder they were to become. Rhetoric came easy for some reason. English had been one of my favorite classes, but we hadn’t written very much other than book reports. I was now writing papers on many different subjects, and was finding that I liked the class more as time went on.

The Saturday before Christmas finally arrived. School had adjourned until the New Year. I would be able to work most of the days between the holidays and make some much-needed tuition money for the spring semester. I had a writing assignment that was troubling me but I thought I had a way out of my predicament. I told Mrs. Smithers about the assignment.

“That’s an interesting piece to have to write. Why don’t you finish it up, and let me look at it after Christmas. I’d enjoy reading something you’ve written. Would Thursday night be all right?”

There would be no problem getting it done before then, and I said as much. I started my research the next afternoon. On Christmas Eve, the pages were filled with words, the spelling was all checked, and I’d read it through for grammar three times. I didn’t want a real author to find some stupid mistake. I put the typewritten pages in a folder and went downstairs to join the family. Sis and I complained when Mom hung up the stockings, but secretly, we both knew it was a tradition that we’d really miss when it stopped. Dad’s eggnog was as potent as ever. Mom didn’t condone drinking by her children, but she allowed one transgression a year, starting with one’s sixteenth birthday. Sis turned in after one glass. I made it through two before the bourbon kicked in and I started to feel sleepy.

Christmas morning dawned on new snow, carols on the radio, and gifts under the tree. It was a great day, but as night drew near, I started feeling nervous. Tomorrow, Mrs. Smithers was going to read my essay. The cockiness of yesterday was rapidly being replaced with fear of ridicule. Sleep came with difficulty; waking was more difficult. I was a little late running my route, and I’d hear about that on Saturday from at least half my customers. They were never up when I delivered unless I happened to be late. My afternoon nap used up some time and eased the strain a bit. After dinner, I drove to Mrs. Smithers’ house.

It seemed odd to park my car in the drive instead of leaving my bike on the walk. It also seemed odd to be dressed in casual clothes instead of the heavy parka and ski pants I’d worn that morning. I knocked on the door.

“Hi Jerry. Please come in.”

The room smelled of bayberry with a hint of wood smoke, and Mrs. Smithers smelled of lilacs. Her small Christmas tree blinked at me with a hundred tiny lights.

“Here, let me take your coat. Have a seat on the couch and we’ll get started. I hope the fire isn’t too warm.”

She sat at the other end of the plush velvet couch and opened the folder. The soft crackle of the fire was the only sound in the big house other than the pounding of my heart. Mrs. Smithers looked up at me occasionally and smiled before going back to my essay. After a couple of minutes of this torture, I started to fidget. She looked up and said, “Don’t be nervous. I’ve never seriously injured another writer before.”

Somewhere, I judged it about half way through, she giggled. A little later, she giggled again, and then again. By the time she closed the folder, she was grinning from ear to ear and trying in vain to suppress the laughter that shook her chest.

“Jerry, may I ask when this happened to you?”

This was going to be difficult. My assignment had been to write about my first kiss. The teacher’s instructions had been met with whistles and giggles from everyone in the class except me. I’d never kissed anyone except Mom and a couple of aunts. That wasn’t the kind of kiss the teacher wanted us to write about. I decided to be honest.

“Well, uh…actually…it never happened.”

“But your title says, “My First Kiss”. It’s a little trite, but doesn’t that mean it should be about what happened to you?”

“Yes, well…I’ve never kissed a girl.”

“Then where did all this…this…stuff come from?”

“Out of the stories in my dad’s magazines. I figured the men who write the stories must have really done it. I read some, and then wrote them in my own words.”

Mrs. Smithers had the deepest, loudest laugh of any small woman I’d ever known. I don’t know how she managed to laugh for so long and still breathe. By the time she stopped, I felt about an inch tall.

“Jerry, I’m sorry for laughing but you’ve a lot to learn about different types of writing. The stories in men’s magazines are fantasies. They’re what men want to believe could happen if they could just find the right woman. What you’ve written is a man’s fantasy seen through the eyes of, well… not a boy, but almost. Any good English teacher would give this paper a failing grade.”

Now I was not only an inch tall, I was embarrassed by my inexperience and gullibility, and was going to fail Rhetoric. I got up and reached for the folder.

“Now, sit back down. The writing’s pretty good; you just don’t know what you’re talking about. Come on now. Sit down. I want you to read something.”

She got up from the couch and walked to the bookcase. After running her fingertip over the covers of a few paperback books, she selected one and thumbed through the pages as she walked back to the couch.

“Here, read this page and the next.”

As I read, pictures flashed in my mind. The deck of a sailing ship, the whine of wind in the rigging, the heaving breasts of a woman wrapped in the captain’s arms, all were as vivid as if I were watching a movie. She melted into a limp body shaken by shivers of passion when he kissed her. The captain lifted her to his chest and carried her down the stairway to the cabins below. At the end of the second page, I looked up at Mrs. Smithers.

“Well, what do you think about that? It’s all about a kiss, just like your paper.”

“I never thought kisses did that to women. Mom doesn’t do that when Dad kisses her. She seems to like it, but – “

“And that’s my point. Romance novels are fantasies for women. They’re fantasies that women like to read so they can imagine themselves in the captain’s arms, or in the gardener’s cabin, or anywhere but scrubbing the bathtub. They’re not real.”

I turned the book over to see the author’s name.

“Well, whoever Abigail Winston is, she sure can make it seem real.”

“Why, thank you.”

“You wrote this?”

“Abigail is my middle name, and Winston was my grandfather. It has a nice ring, don’t you think?”

“Why don’t you use your real name? I’d think you’d want people to know you wrote this book.”

“Romance novels aren’t considered real writing by some publishers, and they won’t even look at a serious work if the author is known for romances. Lots of us use pseudonyms. When I write my great novel, then I’ll use my real name.”

“OK, if I shouldn’t write this assignment like Dad’s magazines, and I shouldn’t write it like your romance novel, how should I write it?”

“You write it like you feel it. Your teacher wants to see if you can make…is it a man or a woman?”

“A woman, Mrs. Randall.”

“Mrs. Randall wants you to make her feel as you felt when you had your first kiss. That’s what writing is all about, making a reader feel what you want them to feel, see what you want them to see, and hear what you want them to hear.”

“I’m going to fail then, because I don’t know any girls who’d kiss me.”

“Oh, I think you might. You know me, don’t you?”

Of all the weird things that had happened in my life, this had to be the most unexpected. I could do nothing but stare. She had to be putting me on. Any second now, she’d laugh, and I could get out of here.

“If you’d rather not, I’ll understand. I’m old enough to be your mother. It’s just that your writing is pretty good. You only need a little research.”

Damn, she was serious.

“I don’t know what to say.”

“You don’t have to say anything, Jerry. You just have to hold me in your arms and kiss me. It might be easier if we stood up.”

It was like trying to figure out how to pick up a cactus, except instead of worrying about sticking myself, I was worried I’d touch something I wasn’t supposed to be touching. After a few moments of reaching and then pulling back, I dropped my arms to my sides.

“Mrs. Smithers, I don’t even know where to grab.”

“You never grab a lady, Jerry. You hold her gently in your arms. We like that…a lot.”

She took my hands in hers and pulled me to her.

“Just put this arm…around my waist…and this one…across my shoulders…and now I’ll put my arms around your neck. See, it’s not so hard, is it.”

I was looking down into her eyes, beautiful brown eyes that sparkled, deep eyes that pulled me into their depths until I started falling. She smiled and little wrinkles formed at the corners. Her eyebrows bent in concern.

“Jerry, are you all right?”

“Yes, Mrs. Smithers, I’m OK. I’ve just never been this close to a woman before.”

“Don’t worry. I won’t bite. Are you going to kiss me now?”

I bent my face quickly to hers and bumped her nose with mine. She pulled back, rubbed her nose, and giggled.

“You need to take things just a little slower.” She gently cocked my head. “Turn your face a little, and I’ll do the same. Now just put your lips against mine, very gently.”

I’d always suspected that kissing was overrated, because the guys talked so much about it. They tended to exaggerate everything having to do with girls. My first thought was they hadn’t said half enough. My second thought…well, I really didn’t have a second thought. I was too busy experiencing the incredible softness of her lips, the brush of her nose against mine, and the feeling of her breasts against my chest as she pulled herself into me. Five seconds before, I didn’t understand why everybody made so much out of mashing their faces together. Now, I wanted to keep kissing Claire forever. She let me savor the sensations for a few more moments and then pulled her face away.

“So, was that like you read in your Dad’s magazines?”

“No. Mrs. Smithers, that was…I don’t know how to say it.”

She pulled herself against me in a little hug.

“You’d better figure out how to say it if you want a good grade. And please call me Claire. Mrs. Smithers makes me feel ancient. Now, go home and write about how it felt, bring it back when you come to collect, and we’ll see how you did. Oh, I’d better wipe off that lipstick or your Mom will have a fit.”

Claire liked what I wrote. She suggested I change a couple of things, but said it should do well just as it was. She was right. I got the paper back on Friday with an “A”. The scribbled comment was:

“Mr. Wingate, this is an excellent piece. It is not often that I get swept up by anything my students write, but this work is a wonderful exception.”

That paper marked a change in my life. Reading anything now meant looking for the things Claire pointed out when she looked at my assignments. Our friendship grew closer that day. At first Mom was hesitant about me seeing Claire. After they met, she understood our relationship, and accepted, if not condoned, my evening trips to 140 High Street. Rhetoric assignments were given on Friday and due a week later. Our “editor’s night” was Wednesday at seven. Claire would have coffee and cookies. I’d show her the latest assignment, and we’d discuss it. She had a way of rewording the things I learned in class into language that I could understand.

May was almost gone, as was the second semester and Rhetoric 102. I was certain my teacher had a touch of sadism coupled with chronic insomnia. My final assignment had to have been dreamed up by such a person with too much time on their hands. The three thousand words were to describe an evening sunset in a rainstorm.

I banged away on my old typewriter every night. Passages that seemed brilliant in the writing became wadded up balls of frustration upon being read. On Sunday night, I tossed the beginning. On Monday night, I put it back and changed the ending. By Tuesday night, I was sick of proof reading, but was satisfied Claire wouldn’t find too many things to change.

My meetings with Claire were bright spots in my life, and I was happy as I walked up her steps. I was happy when I knocked on the screen door. The woman who answered the knock took all that away.

Claire looked old and tired. She didn’t even speak; she just motioned me in. The light robe swirled in a spiral around her naked legs when she turned and walked back into the room.

The living room was surreal in the flickering light of two candles on the mantle. Claire was slumped over on the couch. I heard the soft “tink” of glass tapping glass, the same tink I heard every time Dad poured himself a shot of scotch.

“Claire, what’s wrong?”

When she didn’t answer, I crossed the room and sat beside her. The vodka bottle on the coffee table was about a fourth gone. A crumpled piece of paper lay beside it. Claire picked it up and handed it to me.

Telegrams were rare in Langley, but I’d seen one like this before. I didn’t have to read the whole thing. The words “killed in action” jumped off the paper and screamed in my face. It was the same telegram the Marine Captain had brought Jack’s mother.

I suppose it was some innate sense of hospitality that caused Claire to lean forward and tip the vodka bottle at another glass. The look in her eyes when she handed the glass to me was of unspeakable pain. Her face turned back to the dead coals in the fireplace. We sat silently in the half-light until the mantle clock chimed the half-hour.

“Jerry, do you know what the A Shau Valley is?’

“It’s a place somewhere in Vietnam, I think. The paper said there’s a battle going on there.”

“No, it’s not a place. It’s the latest crack in this screwed-up thing I call my life.” Claire’s chest heaved and she sobbed. “Dammit, it’s just not fair. What did I ever do that was so horrible as to cause all this?”

“Claire, I’m so sorry. I wish there was something I could do.”

I wasn’t prepared for the snap that bit so deep and hurt so much.

“No you’re not. You pity me, but you’re not sorry, not any more than Harry was sorry for divorcing me. Nobody’s ever sorry. It’s not their life that gets ripped to shreds. Their husbands haven’t ever accused them of being a nymphomaniac in court, and then started sleeping with a woman ten years younger. Their friends haven’t ever stopped speaking to them because they happen to write books the same people keep locked in their nightstands. Their daughters didn’t refuse to talk to them after the divorce. Their sons… sniff, their sons… sob, the little boys they raised…they’re still…”

Claire threw her glass into the fireplace with all her strength. She screamed and the heavy glass ashtray followed it and exploded with a sharp ping into flying shards of glass. She was reaching for a small ceramic figurine when I caught her hand. She immediately began to fight my grasp. I finally wrapped my arms around her and held her tight to my chest.

“Claire, don’t do this.”

She sagged against me, put her face on my shoulder and began to cry. Mom seldom cried. Sis cried all the time when she lived at home. Neither of them had ever cried like this. I sat with her until the almost animal wails died away to shuddering sobs, then sniffs, then only quiet, deep breathing.

“Jerry, I’m so sorry. I told myself I wasn’t going to do this tonight. I wasn’t even going to answer the door. When you knocked, I realized I had to have someone to talk to. You’re the only real friend I have in this town. I didn’t mean to blame you for everything like I did.”

“I know you didn’t. I understand how much you must hurt inside.”

“I can’t figure out how I’m supposed to feel. Tony’s gone. I know that and it’s tearing me apart. I need to hurt someone or something back, but I can’t without hurting myself even more.”

“If I were Tony, I wouldn’t want you to do that. I’d want you to miss me, but I’d want you to go on being the person I’d loved and needed. I’m sure he’d want that too.”

I could see the tears welling up again. Claire’s lower lip quivered as she spoke.

“Nobody loves me… and nobody needs me, not now, not since…since Tony’s gone.”

I don’t remember thinking about it; the words just spilled out.

“I love you.”

Later in my life, I began to understand the power of emotion over mortal flesh, but I first learned of that power that night on Claire’s couch. She smiled through lips twisted in anguish, and then kissed me. She kept kissing me while she pushed me back on the couch. I realized she was lying on my chest and gently pushed her up.

“Claire, I -”

“Jerry, don’t. I’m not drunk. I know you love me, in a special way. I love you in that same way. I just need to be needed again, if only for tonight. Please…need me.”

Before I could answer, her lips found mine again. I felt them part. Her small tongue slipped over my upper lip and teased it open. A slight suction pulled at my mouth as her lips softly mouthed mine. On one so inexperienced as I, the effect was beyond comprehension.

Her arms released me and she raised to her knees. A tug and a slow shrug left the robe lying in a soft mound on the floor. The soft candlelight turned her naked body a warm, glowing pink. I felt fingers opening the buttons on my shirt and pulling the tail from my pants. The same fingers opened my belt buckle and carefully unzipped the fly.

Claire stepped off the couch and slipped off my penny loafers. Her slender fingers pulled my jeans off my legs, and slowly traced back up my thigh. I felt her fingertips slip under the waistband of my shorts and pull them off. She lifted my legs to the couch, and lay down on top of me.

I’d had erections since I was thirteen, and Dad had explained things a little. He didn’t explain the exquisite sensations I was feeling. Everything about Claire was incredibly soft and sensuous. Her small breasts flattened on my chest when she inhaled my lips. I felt soft hair against my cock. Claire seemed to be molding her body to mine. I wasn’t sure what I should do. I started gently rubbing her back and she sighed into my mouth.

As with many experiences that are so moving at the time, the memories have become blended into a feeling that is difficult to relate. I remember being at ease and stroking her hips. I have flashes of feeling her nipples brushing my chest. The feeling of soft curls brushing my shaft are as vivid today as they were then, as is the warmth and wet softness of her kisses and tongue.

Claire was breathing heavily but she kept her lips against mine. The hand that had been caressing my neck and face slipped over my chest, and then between us. Fingertips found me and gently stroked over my length. A soft hand circled me. I felt Claire rise slightly and move forward. An unimaginable softness met the head of my cock. The hand slipped it through the softness and I felt warmth and a slippery wetness. Slowly, ever so slowly, with small in and out motions, Claire sank over me. It was like a wave of heat slowly drifting down my shaft. Heat, wet heat, and a wonderfully soft, rippled snugness shot waves of sensations to my brain. Instinctively, I pulled her close and thrust my hips up. Claire caught her breath in a tiny gasp.

She began to move back and forth and to rock her hips up and down. A million years of instinct fought its way from the back of my brain and willed my body into the motions of coupling. Claire and I became joined as one entity, a being melded of grief, love, need, and the healing of touch. Inexperience made my actions uncoordinated; Claire’s passion taught my body the rhythm of caring and sensuality between a man and a woman.

Just when she began to shudder, I can not remember. The memory has faded to a blur of slippery softness that contracted around me. She began to moan, then a tiny cry slipped through her lips. Her rocking motion stopped for a moment as she pushed me deeply into her body. I felt her hips grind down over me, pushing me deeper still. The second cry was louder and higher. Claire raised and pushed down again, then again. She began to pant and raised on her hands. I saw her breasts begin to bob as her hips rocked quickly up and down. Suddenly, a tense feeling started deep in my belly. I gasped and thrust back. The feeling became stronger and rolled over me in waves. Claire cried out, raised herself upright, and squeezed her breasts with both hands. I felt my cock press against something deep inside her before everything exploded. Surges of semen pumped through my shaft, and Claire shook uncontrollably. I thrust up to feel the rapid clasping of her body around mine. As quickly as it had happened, it was over. Claire lay down on my chest, and I held her.

The kiss was soft and long, but somehow this seemed right to me. It matched the feeling of her body against mine, the feeling of slowly slipping from her body through the wetness of our passion, and the newfound intimacy between us. I felt a tear drop on my cheek and opened my eyes. Claire closed her lips and buried her face against my shoulder. We lay like that, just holding each other, and touching softly. I felt more tears against my skin. Her words were only a whisper, but they said more to me than a shout.

“Thank you, Jerry, for being here. Thank you for understanding.”

It was early morning when I let myself into the house. I had just enough time to change before heading to the gas station for my papers. As I pedaled my bike through the deserted streets, I realized the pleasure of this early morning trip through town had lost its appeal. That afternoon, I started looking for someone to take over the route. Tommy Bushlin was twelve, needed a new bike, and was overjoyed at the prospect. After a week of shepherding him through the route and introducing him on collection day, I signed everything over.

Mom had questioned me about my late night. Before I could answer, Dad put his hand on her shoulder and said, “He’s a man. He can choose his own hours now.” I don’t know how he knew, but I’m sure he did.

They brought Tony home to the cemetery outside Atlanta in an aluminum casket. I stood beside Claire as the rifles fired the salute. She accepted the folded flag from the young lieutenant and hugged it to her breast. We walked back to her car and I held open the door. Claire smiled the smile I’d grown to love, and had missed since the telegram turned her world inside out.

“Jerry, I don’t know how to thank you for staying beside me through this. Not many young men would have.”

“It’s easy to help a friend when they need you.”

“Jerry, I’m selling the house and moving back here. Now that Tony’s home, I want to be near him. Sandy’s trying to get back on friendly terms, and asked me to move in with her and Jack until I can find a place.”

I croaked my question around the lump in my throat.

“Can I write to you.”

“I’d be angry if you didn’t. I’ll send you my new address, and if you’re ever in Atlanta, you’ll always have a place to stay.”

She kissed me on the cheek, sighed, and gave me a big hug.

I sit here in my study, remembering those days of my youth, when my life was centered around school, a paper route, and the house on High Street. I switched my major to Journalism in my sophomore year. I never made it to Purdue. I finished my degree at Ball State.

Mom was right about me finding a girl, but she’d never have guessed how. I was walking to a class, my senior year, when a voice yelled, “Jerry, is that you?”

I didn’t recognize her at first. The black pants under her dresses and baggy sweaters had changed to a mini-skirt and well-filled, tight top. That scraggly short hair was now brushed to a burnished sheen that cascaded over her shoulders.


I bought her a cup of coffee and we caught up with each other. It seemed only polite to ask her to dinner. We were married a week after we graduated. Her teaching job provided the income to get me through my masters. Now, I teach Rhetoric 101 to beginning engineering students, and am trying to finish my third novel. The first two sit in the bookcase behind my desk, right beside every paperback ever written by Abigail Winston. I don’t read them anymore; the paper never was much good, and they’ve yellowed and become brittle with age. About once a year, I do read the hardbound volume that sits beside them. The author is a good friend of mine, and has several other novels in print. I have those too, but this one is special. It’s a novel about depression and rebirth titled “A Long Night’s Climb Into Sunlight” and the author signed it for me on the day it was published. The feminine handwriting says, “To the man who pulled me from my darkest hour and helped me be me again, Claire Smithers”.

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