“I was sure you were going to get the manager’s job at the bank’s new branch over on Castle, Don. Maybe it’s because you can’t be spared from this branch.”
“No, Ted, I don’t think I’ll ever be given a manager’s job.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Let’s take our coffees over to the corner table there and I’ll see if I can explain it.”
We’d planned on just picking up coffees to go and to walk back to the bank and have our break in the staff break room. But I wasn’t really in the mood to be back there. The announcement of the staffing of the new Castle branch had come an hour ago.
Ted wouldn’t be the only one who would give me a long face, genuinely or otherwise, and I just wasn’t up to smiling their embarrassment for me away. I too had thought that maybe this would be the time I’d get a manager’s job—that what had been standing in the way just didn’t matter anymore—but it just wasn’t going to happen. I was within five years of retirement now. They’d be crazy to move me up now for what little mileage they’d get out of me in the position before I retired.
“Have you met my wife, Sheila?” I asked Ted when we’d gotten settled.
“No, I don’t think so.”
“Precisely what?” Ted asked, naturally confused.
“It all starts thirty years ago. As it happens, it was on Valentine’s Day—just thirty years ago today. I’ll see if I can condense it to just one cup of coffee, but if I can’t, I’ll stand you the next cup. If we’re late back to work, so what? It’s a slow day, and the bank will be closed to customers by the time we get back anyway. Everyone’s off for home or their sweetheart’s apartment with a box of candy and a bouquet of flowers under their arm.”
Ted didn’t seem to object to the possibility of returning a bit late—at the price of coffee in this place, he was probably willing to risk it for an extra cup someone other than him paid for.
“I was already working for this bank—this branch, even. You know, I’ve been at this branch for over thirty-five years? And I haven’t even managed to move off the line and to a desk. But so what, It’s been worth it.”
“You know that I and the other tellers appreciate your experience, Don,” he said.
I just smiled and launched into the story I had never told anyone else.
* * * *
I was on my way from Kokomo to Wabash for a regional meeting. In those days I’d been identified for promotion and being sent to this regional meeting was considered a perk of the job. I had an old Buick in those days and tires were shot on it. I was driving through Peru on a residential street just across the road from the Wabash river bed and I blew a tire. I was in a foul mood because it was Valentine’s Day and that reminded me of something I’d just done that didn’t make me very proud of myself.
The tires were lugged on so tight that I couldn’t get the flat off to put the spare on. I was sitting just outside a white cottage that was up sort of a hill from the street. A guy—somewhat beyond middle age, it appeared—was raking leaves in his yard and saw my predicament. He walked down to the street and introduced himself as Paul Somebodyorother and asked me if he could help.
“I don’t think so,” I answered. He looked a little sickly, as if he was shrinking a bit into clothes he’d worn into a comfortable shape but that now were a bit too big for him. Other than that, he looked rather like Teddy Roosevelt. He had those round, rimless glasses, a pipe in his mouth, and an open, ready smile. I almost laughed when he told me he was a professor of history at a nearby college—because those clothes, including a tattered suede jacket with leather elbow pads, and the pipe had already screamed “small-town college professor” to me.
“If I can’t get these lugs to move,” I continued by way of explanation, “I imagine they’ll need a power tool. Unless you have one of those . . .”
“I’m sorry, I don’t. But if you have AAA, I have a telephone in the house, and I know who to call to come out and fix that for you.”
“I don’t want to put you out . . . I’m just sorry I broke down in front of your house.”
“If you had to break down, better in front of someone’s house than out in the country, he said.” His smile was warm and his welcome seemed genuine. “Come on into the house, he said.”
We went in the white-painted wooden bungalow with gingerbread trim, across a front porch with inviting benches on either side of the front door. The door led directly into a space that stretched the width of the house, in a space that was cut into three segments. The first thing that struck me was the profusion of bouquets of flowers. They were everywhere. The second arresting aspect about the long room was the incongruity of its appointments. It was as if two people of completely different tastes occupied the space.
The central room was a jumble of styles and even of neatness. A maroon leather wing-back chair and ottoman were set by the fireplace. Beside these was a side cabinet with books neatly stacked and a heavy amber-colored ash tray with tobacco ashes in it. This quite evidently was the professor’s chair. Facing it across the fireplace front was a Queen Anne chair upholstered in a garishly colored chintz fabric, which could hardly be seen because of the sewing supplies slung around here and there. The table beside this chair was dominated by a half-filled box of cherry chocolates sitting on a pile of movie magazines. The great divide in tastes held with the other furnishings in this central section of the room. At either end, through wide-door, arched openings were smaller spaces ending in bay windows. To the right of the entry, all was neatness, floor-to-ceiling book cases packed with books on every wall except the bay window, which was draped closed in a white brocade. In the center of this space was a mahogany desk. Obviously the realm of the professor. At the windows in the other small bay alcove, were crinkly curtains in a fantastical pattern and vibrant colors, drawn back to let in the light. Everything in this alcove was mismatched in period, color, and pattern. A phonograph sat on an old sewing table, and the rug on the floor wasn’t laying flat. “Tacky” is the word that sprang to mind, but I also found myself wanting to smile. This obviously was not the realm of the professor. But who, I wondered.
She appeared in the doorway of the center hall leading back into the cottage. She had already posed herself, leaning against a column at one side of the doorway, a Spanish galleon in a glaring Japanese kimono, arms raised over her head. I must have surprised her and she’d forgotten to travel with her castanets.
“This is Yolanda,” Professor Paul said simply, but the rich tone of his voice in saying it made me look sharply into his face, where there was a smile of pride—almost of awe. “I’ll make the telephone call for you in the other room. Everyone knows me here; they’ll come more quickly for me than for a stranger. Sorry about that. Why don’t you sit down and—”
The paths of the two intersected in the center of the room. Seeing them together made me think of Mutt and Jeff, but then I felt my face flush, and I turned my head away, feeling like I was an interloper. Yolanda had bent down and the two were kissing. His hand was on her rump. When I looked back, he was disappearing into the back of the house.
The zaftig Yolanda was bearing down on me, with every possibility that she was going to bear hug me and I’d suffocate in the valley between her heaving bosoms.
“Uh. I have grease on my hands,” I squeaked as I backed away from the Spanish geisha. “Perhaps I could use your bathroom to clean myself up.”
“Sure, sweetie,” Yolanda said with a tinkly laugh. “It’s right down the hall here, past the kitchen, dining room, and bedrooms, at the end of the hall.” Her face was lathered with heavy, white makeup, and no natural eyebrows ever had an arc on them or thinness of perfect line like hers did. And the ruby-red lipstick had to have been applied with a paint roller; it covered a lot more acreage of her face than her lips did. But her smile was infectious, and I couldn’t help but grin back at her.
I scooted back to the single bathroom between the two bedrooms stretching across the back of the house. I almost dropped the soap as, while I was lathering my hands up, my glance went to the picture hanging over the toilet: a framed photograph of the mysterious diaphanously veil-clad and Rubenesque Turkish lady—looking strangely familiar. The woman in the brown-tinted photograph was posed in a rigid, tense stance against a paneled backdrop with her spread arms and head outlined by the handles of knives. Again I smiled—this time at the thought of such a piece of artwork hanging in the bathroom of a small-town college professor’s cottage. The rampant competition of design and colors between the curtains and the shower curtain marked the bathroom as Yolanda territory.
As I walked back down the hall, the voice of the professor reached me. “I’m afraid it will be a while. The auto mechanics here are also Peru’s volunteer firemen. There’s a two-alarm fire at the other end of town. Sally down at the garage says she’ll send someone out as soon as they come in from the fire. Meantime, come and sit and chat. We don’t get much company.”
A Chippendale dining room chair with arms had been drawn up facing the fireplace, and I sat down on it. The benevolent-faced, slightly sallow Professor Paul was sitting in his wing chair and peering at me through his wire-framed glasses. His face was framed with wisps of rich-smelling pipe tobacco smoke—taboo in my own house when I was growing up, but obviously lord of this one—wafted up toward the ceiling. I have never been able to look at a picture of Teddy Roosevelt since without thinking of this quiet, dignified man, sitting there looking ever so comfortable and self-satisfied.
Even as he conversed amicably with me, however, his eyes followed her—Yolanda—around the room wherever she was on the move.
And Yolanda was perpetually on the move, sailing in circles around Professor Paul’s wing chair, a galleon to his small tug. Looming and filling the room with jolly talk and laughter. I could see her always welcoming her guests, albeit few and far in between, with touching and swallowing within her bosomy embrace. Smelling of the tantalizing spices of the Orient and spreading great blotches of violent red lipstick on cheeks—not to mention her pressing on everyone within her aura giant-scale, still-warm chocolate chip cookies, like she was me. Smiling through her porcelain doll makeup, raising my concern that the whiteness would crack under the strain of a smile.
But of course it didn’t, as Yolanda gave the impression that she always was smiling and laughing, filling the room with life so that when she left the room momentarily, a great exhausted fog of a hush fell and Professor Paul took on a slight look of panic—until she was there once more and the fog lifted and all was right with the world.
She sailed back into the room, a plate of little heart-shaped sandwiches of undetermined reddish filling, patting her shiny, jet-black hair, pulled severely back to a tight bun at the back of her head, with her free hand. When Paul interrupted his conversation to take a puff on his pipe, she launched into a “did you hear about . . .?” enticing secret or two about various people in the entertainment world that she must have gotten out of the movie magazines smothering the table beside her chair. But for the period of time I was there, she uttered not a single unkind remark about anyone she mentioned.
Like the first impression of the mish-mash of furniture that assailed my eyes when I had entered the house, Professor Paul’s wise-owl solidness and quietude set against Yolanda’s theatrical exuberance left me gasping for air but feeling strangely happy.
“You must stay for lunch,” Yolanda declared. “It will be hours before that fire dies down.”
“Well, maybe not hours,” Professor Paul said. “But, yes, you must stay.”
“I really can’t impose.”
“The professor has to eat at regular times,” Yolanda countered. “And it’s no trouble. I’ve fixed more than enough.”
I soon discovered that, other than those cookies, Yolanda was the godawfulest cook in the world, having no sense of what should go with what—or be served to a human. This was evident as soon as I saw the table she’d laid in the dining room. But I approached her dinner table is if on a Christmas morning, in utter awe of what incongruous presents lay there. And immersed in a marvelous conversation with the two that haphazardly and bizarrely skipped topics on Yolanda’s whim, I found that I had wolfed down what I would not touch at home.
After lunch, the professor and I came back into the living room while Yolanda sang “Wonderful, Wonderful, Copenhagen” in a deep contralto and bounced pots and pans off the kitchen walls. We settled down in our chairs, and Paul, with a twinkle in his eyes, said, “I’ll bet you wonder how Yolanda and I got together. Never saw two people more unalike, did you? I’ll bet you’ve already pictured us in bed and laughed.”
“I . . . umm . . .” I stuttered, search for just what to say in answer to that—I had, in fact, envisioned them in bed and gotten a chuckle out of that. Luckily, he didn’t need me to answer.
“Well, I’ll tell you, Yolanda is a real vamp in bed.”
Somehow I had not doubted that—although I almost chuckled again that anyone used the word “vamp” these days. Still, I had a very good idea what he meant by that.
“You know,” he continued, “Yolanda and I don’t really have friends here in Peru. Oh, I have many people who know me and give me respect—I always have gotten that. But it’s a small town. And you’ve seen how Yolanda is.”
He looked sharply at me to see my response, and I somehow felt that the rest of my time with this couple could go either way, depending on what I answered. I couldn’t fathom why Yolanda wouldn’t be taken as an instant friend by anyone she met.
“I think she’s marvelous,” I said. “A breath of fresh air.” I probably would have said that anyway but I suddenly realized that this was exactly what I felt.
The professor smiled. I’d passed some sort of test.
“In smallish towns like Peru it’s naturally hard for an outsider to fit in,” the professor started his story. “When Yolanda arrived here—how she arrived—meant she had several strikes against her that were telling. I was born and raised here and came back here to teach college. I was well into my forties and not married. I had a respectable position, and widows and spinsters were throwing themselves at me, although I pretended not to notice. And then the circus came to town.”
He paused then and took a puff on his pipe.
“You know that Yolanda is almost twenty years younger than I am.”
I didn’t come up with a good response to that before he continued. I couldn’t have even begun to speculate how old Yolanda looked under all of that pancake makeup.
“And highly sexed too.”
He gave me a wink, and I tried not to gasp. What he was saying and what he looked like, sitting there in his chair and looking so professorial were at opposite poles.
“Yolanda had been married before, which was a strike against her right there with the mothers of Peru, and, worse, she may or may not even have been divorced before we came together.”
I noticed that he very carefully wasn’t mentioning the “married” word concerning his relationship with Yolanda. I also noticed how delicately he had worded the “came together.”
“And then, as far as the good citizens of Peru were concerned, there was the circus.”
“The circus?” This was really getting interesting! He’d just mentioned that, and I’d let it breeze by. But now he’d brought it up again.
“Yolanda and I met right here in Peru, But I was from the town and Yolanda was from the circus—Barnum and Bailey’s, which at that time wintered in Peru. And the town people and circus people just didn’t mix.”
My thoughts instantaneously went to the photograph above the toilet in their bathroom, and I was 90 percent sure who the woman in that photograph was.
“I was driving the Wabash River road one twilight, and I saw a young woman, dripping with water, trudging along the side of the road. So, I pulled up alongside Yolanda. ‘You’ll catch your death of cold walking around sopping wet like that,’ I had said. She came over to my car door and smiled and laughed that tinkly laugh of hers—she has the most marvelous laugh, don’t you think?”
I readily agreed.
“That’s when she told me that death had been her intent—that she was the knife-thrower’s assistant—and wife—at the Barnum and Bailey circus. Her husband was jealous of and brutal with her and she increasingly was afraid he’d purposely kill her with those knives during practice or a performance some evening and try to foist it off as an accident. So, she’d decided to throw herself in the Wabash and drown. But when she’d tried to do that, she’d found there wasn’t enough water running in the Wabash to properly drown herself—that most of it was ice. Well, I started laughing then, and she gave me a peculiar, almost hurt look. I repeated what she’d said to me—the irony that she was afraid her husband would kill her for so had tried to commit suicide. And then we were both in stitches. I told her to climb into the car. She did, and I brought her home, here, dried her off. Her clothes were dried days before we ever got out of bed again. And she’s been here ever since.”
At that point I was laughing also.
“And I bet you wonder about our sex life too; how we manage,” he said.
I hadn’t been, I started to say. But that wasn’t true, of course I had been. But once again he launched into that without invitation.
“It was great from the beginning—the best thing that ever happened to me. She was patient—and very well informed. And it’s still good. The dried up prunes of Peru can ostracize my Yolanda all they want. We’ve had twenty good years, and that’s a fact. I don’t need the widows and spinsters of Peru. I’ve got Yolanda. And speaking of . . .”
Yolanda was back in the room again, Professor Paul was beaming like he’d won the lottery, and she was flopping into her Queen Anne chair and pulling the kimono—in a quite unsuccessful attempt—over her chest.
“I should check with the garage,” the professor said. He struggled out of his chair and moved back into the corridor to the back of the house.
Yolanda and I sat for a few moments of what would be silence if she weren’t now humming a tune from the opera Carmen. I irreverently wondered if she could butcher Country and Western too.
He was gone longer than I expected, so, just to be saying something, I said, “You know, you have the most beautiful smile. It lights up the room. It’s amazing how your husband’s face becomes animated when you appear.”
“I need to smile,” she said. Then she wasn’t. “I need to smile for Paul. Someday, maybe soon, I think I will stop smiling. Perhaps forever.”
A cloud must have passed over the house at the moment, as the light dimmed and I felt a chill in the air.
“You know Paul didn’t have to go make a telephone call. We know the mechanics will come straight here as soon as they are able. Paul had to go back to the back, to the bathroom. He had to give back his lunch. He can’t hold down food for very long anymore. It’s only a matter of months now.”
“I’m so sorry.” I couldn’t think of anything else to say. And I was sorry. So very sorry. I had met what was probably the perfect couple, and now I had learned how fleeting their time together—their happiness with each other—was.
“Ah, some music, I think. and it is time for my dance,” Yolanda was saying, the smile flashing across her face again. She jumped up and moved into the alcove that I already knew was her domain alone.
I didn’t have to be told that Paul was returning, down the hall.
“It shouldn’t be long now,” he said when he returned.
I felt myself give a little gasp. It took me a couple of seconds to realize that he was talking about the mechanics coming to fix my flat tire.
For the next twenty minutes Paul and I sat and watched Yolanda, free of her kimono and dancing, almost in place, the space in the alcove being severely limited, Isadora Duncan style in several layers of diaphanous scarves that, by intention, I was sure, hid nothing. She had put a scratchy record of someone I took to be Enrico Caruso on her phonograph. The sun had come out again and lit up Yolanda’s curvy, full-bodied figure as she swayed to and fro on the crinkled rug in her alcove.
Paul sat, entranced, watching her every movement. I could tell that, for him, this was as good as sex. And I had to admit that it was moving me in that direction too.
The ring at the front door broke the spell—for me, at least. Although Yolanda gave me a brilliant smile and blew a kiss to me as I stood by the door, ready to follow the auto mechanic down to my car, she continued her dancing.
Ever the good host, Paul saw me to the door and gave me every appropriate wish of farewell and a good onward journey to Wabash. But all the time I could tell that his attention was still connected with Yolanda and her sensual—yes, I’ll have to say it was sensual—mid afternoon dance. He never took his eyes off her.
Two blocks from the house, I stopped at the side of the road, and I sobbed for a good ten minutes before I could go on—without fully knowing then why I was crying. When I stopped, I put the car in gear, and then I laughed half way to Wabash.
* * * *
“Did you go back to see the—?”
“No, I couldn’t,” I said, interrupting Ted’s question. Our coffee cups were empty—and had been so during most of my telling of the story—but neither one of us seemed to be antsy enough to rise from the table and get another one.
“I wanted them to stay the way they were. The only way I could do that was never to go back.”
We sat there in silence for several minutes, still with no interest in that second cup of coffee.
“But that story . . . I don’t understand. You were going to tell me something about the bank.”
“If you’d met my wife, Sheila, you wouldn’t have to ask,” I said. “I was thirty when I took that trip to Wabash. I had just met the most fascinating girl, ten years younger than me.”
“Sheila or someone else?”
“Sheila. Although I was permitted to take the trip—I was already registered for it—the bank manager at that time had given me an ultimatum. He’d learned about Sheila. You see, Sheila was a pole dancer at a local strip club. In those days that just wouldn’t do—a bank official couldn’t be involved with a stripper younger than him. It didn’t matter that Sheila considered herself a dancer above all else and that it was all she was doing in the club. And the announcement today shows that it still won’t do.”
“You stayed with Sheila? You picked Sheila over promotion?”
“Not at first. When the bank manager told me it was promotion up the line or a pole dancer, I went to Sheila and broke it off. When I left for Wabash, she was running alongside the car, sobbing and telling me that she’d be anything I needed her to be—anything that the bank demanded of her—just if I didn’t leave her. But I left her in the dust.”
We sat in silence for a few minutes. Ted could tell that I needed to compose myself.
“That’s why the story of Yolanda and the professor is important to this,” I said in a low voice when I could control my emotions. “They taught me not only what is important in life but also how fleeting life is. I didn’t actually make it to Wabash. Half way there, I woke up to why I had cried and then laughed when I left Peru. I turned around and drove straight back to Kokomo, stopping only long enough to buy a red velvet, heart-shaped box of chocolates and a dozen red roses, and begged Sheila to take me back. Then, when she said she would, I went to the bank manager and told him he could stuff his promotions.”
I stood up then, and so did Ted, seeing that I was ready to return to the bank. At the door of the coffee shop, he laid a hand on my forearm, and I turned to look at him.
“But now. Twenty years later. The pole dancing.”
“Oh, Sheila almost immediately went to work as a dance instructor. She now owns three modern dance studios and let’s others do the dancing.”
“But then. The bank. Now . . .”
“I never told any of the managers at the bank that Sheila found a job that even they could respect. I almost lost the best thing in my life for job promotions. Yolanda and professor taught me what priorities are in the realm of love. But they also taught me how easy it is to lose the best things in life—even when you stumbled into finding them. Not telling the bank is my form of atonement for almost being an idiot. And you and the other tellers need not feel sorry for me. With Sheila I’ve gotten the best of the deal. At the end of a work shift, bank managers have to stay and go over the books. I get to go home to Sheila.”
I let Ted go back to work on his own. When he had left the coffee shop, I walked down the block to a florist shop and picked up the dozen red roses I’d ordered. Then I went straight to the car, where I’d already placed a red velvet, heart-shaped box of candy and a CD in the trunk. The CD had been a real find. An old recording of Enrico Caruso’s. Sheila had asked me what I’d like for Valentine’s Day and, after thinking a few moments, I’d said there was nothing I’d like so much as to see her dance a dance of diaphanous veils for me in our living room to an old recording.