Priscilla surveyed herself approvingly in the long hallway mirror. Trim for her age—today even svelte, thanks to the high-waisted shaper shorts’ Esther found. A spandex miracle: her 55-year-old tummy looked ten years flatter. Well done, housemate!
The limo man rang again. Be patient, fellow.
With a long day ahead, she’d had her hair done yesterday in a chignon—tight above the collar of her blue suit—that ought to last. Blonde all the way to the roots, thanks to practiced ministrations at Chez Henri. A half-pirouette to look over her shoulder. Esther had helped choose a skirt that wouldn’t hike up in an airplane seat, yet revealed still-shapely legs, with a butt enhanced by the highest heels she could manage.
Satisfied, Priscilla opened the door, handing the man her suitcase and roll-on.
It was ski season, so no seats were available for more direct routes through Denver or Salt Lake. Instead, she would have to zigzag from balmy San Antonio through Houston and Seattle to glacial Helena.
She might have worn an outfit more practical for such a long day: flats, to begin with, layered sweaters, a pants suit. You even saw people flying in sweats nowadays. Never mind; she was out to make impressions. In Montana, she’d get a down jacket out of the checked suitcase. In the meantime, her only concession to cold was in her roll-on: a black V-necked cashmere sweater that, even if deployed might not ruin the effect of a frilly white blouse with more than a hint of décolletage.
With any luck, she might still look good when she arrived for a late dinner with Rob and his bride. And Harry.
Harry, her ex, whom she hadn’t seen in years. A big question mark. So along the way, even if only for practice, she would explore options. Trolling, as Esther put it. Trying out her lures. A competitive angler taking up the sport after long years in an arid desert.
The trip to Rob’s wedding, long planned, might have been ordinary. But two weeks ago, Esther had suddenly announced that she’d accepted Charlie’s invitation of marriage. He would come live with her; it was time for Priscilla to explore other arrangements.
“I don’t imagine rapturous love at our age,” Esther had said. “Not that we’re too old to enjoy sex, but we aren’t teenagers, either. Mostly, it will be comforting to have someone to grow old with.”
“I’d thought…” Priscilla started.
“Housemates aren’t the same, are they? I’ll have someone to cuddle up with. Spoon in my double bed. Someone who has a legal right to be beside my hospital bed, if it comes to that.”
It was hard to imagine Esther in a hospital bed; they were both healthy as horses. They had house-shared for almost two decades. Many people on campus probably assumed they were a lesbian couple, although that had never been the case. They were compatible, and had settled into comfortable spinster lives together. Esther’s Charlie had been no more than an occasional escort.
Priscilla hardly expected to undo the decision, but couldn’t resist. “He’ll thrash around in bed, and probably keep you awake snoring.”
“I’ll get a king-size so we won’t disturb each other when we un-spoon and roll away. And there are ways to fix snoring. If he snores. I don’t know that yet.”
“How soon is all this happening?”
“The fifteenth of next month.” Esther had shrugged. “Sorry not to give you more warning, but Charlie just swept me off my feet. He had honeymoon tickets to Hawaii already bought. That will give you another week.”
Priscilla was confident she could make other arrangements; she’d lived alone before. Harry, the bastard, had left her for a voluptuous student while their son Rob was still in his bassinet. She’d gotten full custody and pulled a few Texas strings to get a faculty appointment here, a thousand miles from Montana. Far enough to discourage Harry from exercising his visitation rights.
She’d brought Robbie up in an off-campus bungalow, but when he became a teenager he’d decided he wanted to live with his father. She sent him north, and accepted Esther’s invitation to share her big widow’s house. There was even a spare bedroom for her peregrinating Rob when he visited during school, and later college, vacations.
She and Harry had long since made a distant peace. His curvaceous student quickly tired of him. He’d been, as near as she knew, a bachelor all this time. They’d sat together at Rob’s law school graduation. They would amicably co-host his wedding festivities—which meant sharing the restaurant bills—and then she’d fly back to finalize plans for new quarters. She’d already scouted an efficiency condo within walking distance of the campus.
Still, it would be lonely after all these years of companionship.
“You ought to look around,” Esther said, the psychology professor speaking, “Growing old alone, a long day’s trip from your one child, may not be your only option.”
“That’s easy for you to say,” Priscilla replied. “You’ve just snapped up the only bachelor we know.” The circle of friends with whom they shared games of bridge and occasional movies or concerts or dinners were mostly happily married. There were no bachelors even close to her age in her English lit department, either.
“Some people meet at those happy hours.”
“The bar scene? That’s a younger crowd, Esther.”
“There’s computer dating nowadays; I’ve read about it.”
“So have I.”
“Well, how about your ex, Harry?”
“The one who dumped me for a bimbo?”
“That was a long time ago, dear. Pride goeth before a lonely old age.”
She had to admit that Esther had a point. She hadn’t seen Harry since that graduation a decade ago, but he’d still looked good then, still the man she’d fallen in love with. And he didn’t seem to have another woman in his life. “All right,” she said. “It’s not unthinkable. But even if I’d have him back, he may not be interested.”
“Only one way to find out,” Esther had said.“You’re going to see him at the wedding. There are subtle ways to see if he’s an option.”
“Flirt with my ex-husband?”
“Nothing that obvious. Just be warm and friendly.” Esther made it sound easy. “And by the way, airports aren’t a bad place to meet new people. You might do a little exploration on the way up north.”
“Flirt with strangers?”
“Of course not. But chat a few up. Bolster your self-confidence. Practice. You might find”—she gave Priscilla a smile of amused cunning—“unexpected alternatives.”
So here she was, scouting the territory. She made a quick circuit of the boarding lounge, trying to look casual, and found an empty seat next to a nice-looking man with no wedding ring. Business suit, blue shirt, paisley tie, receding hairline, well-trimmed salt-and-pepper beard. She wondered how many men grew beards to distract from thinning hair?
Harry had shaved on the nights they had sex, came to her smooth as butter. She’d been slow to notice, during the later months of pregnancy, that he started shaving before going back to the office for vaguely-defined “extra duties”.
“Great morning, here in Alamo country,” she ventured to this bearded one. “What inferior climate are you traveling to?”
She’d successfully prompted an amused smile. “Chicago. The Windy City. You?”
“Montana. Big Sky country, but Deep Chill country in January.” Might as well be direct. “You have family in Chicago, or business?”
“No, I’m not a family man. Sales convention. Home’s here. You?”
This was going better than she’d hoped. “I teach English at the university. Headed to my son’s wedding. He’s lived up there with his father for years.” She hesitated, then offered a hand. “I’m Priscilla.”
“Jim. Manufacturing equipment. Lathes, presses.” He reached into a pocket, and offered a business card. James Holcomb, Sales Representative.
Congratulating herself on her foresight, she exchanged cards. She hadn’t had a business card in years, but an instant printer had made some up for her overnight. Priscilla Caron, PhD. With her university phone and email.
“Caron. Nice name. French?”
“My ex-husband’s name, actually. I kept it mostly for my son’s sake, so he didn’t have to struggle with a different name at PTA meetings.” If this James Holcomb had missed her availability, he must get it by now.
“What does he do? Your son, I mean.”
“A lawyer. With the ACLU.” There, that should be a test.
“You must be proud of him. Our civil liberties need defending.”
Test passed. She wanted to explore this man further, despite the beard, but the boarding process was well along. “We’d better get on before the plane leaves without us.”
She’d decided first class would be worth the money on a long day like this. He was in first, too, but two rows up. Her seatmate was a young mother with a placid baby. The breakfast was good. She hardly got past the headlines in her New York Times before the descent into Houston. James Holcomb, she could see, had the Wall Street Journal.
He waited for her at the head of the jetway. “Enjoyed talking. May I phone you sometime?”
“I’ll be back midweek.” She hoped that sounded interested but not over-eager. She couldn’t quite imagine being kissed by a beard.
“Great. I’ll give you a call. Hope the wedding goes well.”
Esther, that sly vixen, would be pleased to hear about this first cast.
The leg to Seattle was a tight connection, so there was no time to reconnoiter the boarding lounge. On board, the man in the window seat looked about the right age. Graying hair, clean-shaven, pink apple cheeks, tweed sports jacket, tieless Oxford shirt with bold blue stripes. The Sports Illustrated in his left hand obscured his ring finger. He looked up as she buckled in.
“Good morning,” she offered. James Holcomb had gone so well that she felt emboldened. “Long flight ahead of us. I’m Priscilla Caron.”
“You’re right. Almost five hours. Seems less because we jump time zones. Alex Chapman.”
She glanced pointedly down at his magazine. “Is Seattle a home game or away?”
He got it. Gave her a grin. Nice smile, good wrinkles at the eyes. “Home. You?”
“Transit. I’m headed to Montana. My son’s wedding.”
“I can empathize. We just married off our oldest daughter.”
We. Our. Didn’t sound promising, but might as well be sure. “The father of the bride presides, and the wife does most of the work?”
“Exactly. My wife had organized our younger one’s wedding last year, so she’s gotten good at it.”
Oh, well. Nice man, though. They chatted over a not-bad airplane lunch. She had a glass of wine, and accepted a refill, after which she accepted a pillow and tipped back for a nap without finishing the Times. If her mouth fell open a bit, no matter; no point in keeping up appearances with this one.
She wondered dreamily if Rob’s bride’s family had organized the wedding she was heading to. He’d said it would be informal, presided over by a justice of the peace. He had reluctantly allowed that she could share tonight’s expenses, “if that makes you feel more like the mother of the groom,” he had said by email. The modern way.
She’d finally phoned and made him talk about his bride, who was only a few years younger than him, in her late twenties. Patti, with an ‘i’. He e-mailed a photo; she was a pretty young woman.
The boarding gate for the flight from Seattle to Helena was blessedly close to her arrival lounge, so she had time to look around. There was a man with a square jaw, interesting face, intent on the scene through the plate-glass window, no ring, but wearing an inappropriate yachtsman’s cap that probably covered a bald pate. She might check him out later, but a bald man wouldn’t be her first choice.
A few seats away was a man with a dark jacket and open white shirt, ruddy complexion, not many age lines. A Donald Trump look-alike, with an obvious toupee. The only thing worse than a bald husband might be one who took his hair off when he came to bed.
A bit farther on was a more likely candidate: tall, long face, high forehead but a thick, tousled shock of black on top, a black turtleneck under his plaid lumber jacket. She studied her ticket until he moved enough that she could see his hand, then sat down next to him. “Excuse me. Are you familiar with this flight? Is it really almost three hours to Helena?”
A nice, friendly grin, not an overly dominant male. “I can tell you’re not from Montana. We’re Mountain Time there, Pacific Time here. Have to reset your watch. What brings you to God’s country?”
“A wedding. I’m a college professor in San Antonio.”
“All the way from Texas? I’m at the College of Technology here. Branch of Montana State.”
“You’re a computer man?” She’d try a light-hearted line: “I occasionally call the local rent-a-geek when my desktop gets sick.” It might be nice to have one’s own geek.
A big smile etched the lines of his face. “I teach a night course, the basics, to people of our generation who feel left behind. And do some more sophisticated consulting on the side. You staying long?”
This was going well; he was obviously interested. “Just a few days. U-Texas frowns on missing classes.”
“It’ll be dinner time when we arrive. Are you booked?”
“I’m sorry.” She tried to make a face that said really sorry. “My son’s meeting me. Pre-wedding dinner.” She decided to make her status clear. “My ex-husband and I are picking up the tab. A place in Helena called Dante’s Creative Cuisine. Do you know it?”
“A bit pricey for what it offers, which isn’t all that creative, but not infernal, either.” Nice; a geek who knew the classics.
“I’m Priscilla Caron, by the way.”
“Bob Brainerd. Where are you staying?”
“My son’s a Robert, too. He booked me into something called the Staybridge Suites.”
“Good. Best place in town. Would I be out of line to call you there? For breakfast or lunch or whatever?”
A bit too pushy? Looking for easy conquests? Or maybe, like her, trying out companionships. “You’re a bachelor?”
“Widower. My wife died two years ago.”
“It’s taken a while to get past that. But I’m beginning to think about growing old alone.”
“‘The days grow short when you reach September’?”
“‘And the autumn weather turns the leaves to flame’.”
A geek who knew the classics and classic love songs, too. Promising.
“Now, about that lunch. Tomorrow?”
“I’m sorry. I just don’t know the plan. The wedding’s tomorrow afternoon.”
“Breakfast, then. The Staybridge has one of those godawful help-yourself-to-corn-flakes things, but there’s a bakery just around the corner. Serves a morning meal that’ll last you through the wedding. What time?”
She hesitated. So sudden. She’d come fishing, and found herself being offered bait. “I don’t know how late we’ll be tonight. Is nine too late?”
“Perfect. I have no morning class.”
Suppose Harry suggested breakfast? Never mind; might be good to show him there was competition. “Why don’t you give me a call at 8:45, just to be sure I’m alive and well?” She took out one of her new business cards, and wrote her cell number on the back.
“Terrific.” He gave her that big grin, framed in smooth-shaven wrinkles, and looked up at the gate. “Good lord! I was so intent on you that I didn’t hear them announce boarding. There’s no line left; we’d better get aboard. Where are you seated?”
“I’m halfway back. I’ll touch base when we land, to be sure you haven’t changed your mind.”
A college student had the aisle seat; they exchanged pleasantries, and the girl went to sleep. Priscilla bought a martini when the cart came around, and tried to put her mind in neutral by leafing through the airline magazine. It wasn’t much help: the featured piece, which went on for eight pages, was titled “Staying Well in the Later Years. Eat well, exercise, cultivate companionship.” An essay full of bromides: Have someone, preferably a spouse, who will cheer you up when you’re down, get you out to see a doctor when you should, offer bedside encouragement to help you get past serious illness.
She tried to imagine Harry in that role. Harry, who’d let her endure a hard pregnancy while he sought conquest instead of companionship. Maybe he’d matured. Bob Brainerd, in the back of the plane? Seemed attentive, but she knew hardly more about him than about the bearded but pleasant James Holcomb. Harry was at least a known quantity.
And herself? How would she handle a new husband ‘in sickness and in health?’ She’d helped Esther through a few bouts of flu and bad colds, but she hated illness and was an impatient nurse. She’d have to work at caregiving. The inexorable years ahead would demand that she give care, or be given. Probably both.
The flight attendants had darkened the cabin. She put the magazine away, turned off her reading light, and looked out. The early full dark of northern winter; stars and a waxing moon to illuminate snow cover. Not many houses, nor even cars on what must be the Interstate. Reminders of a sparse population. After twenty years in San Antonio, returning to Montana would demand adjustment, if that were to happen. A vast plain of unknowns, as impenetrable as the landscape below.
She lingered at the head of the jetway to let Bob Brainerd catch up, and they walked together to the baggage claim. Rob was there, waiting for her. “Maybe tomorrow,” she said to Bob, and hurried to give her son a warm hug and kiss.
“Welcome back to Montana, Mom. Who was that?”
“Just a man I met on the plane. A professor here.” She wondered if she should have introduced them, and decided she had handled it right. “Are the others at the restaurant?”
“They’ll be only a little ahead of us. You’re almost on time. What does your bag look like?”
He found it, and insisted she get out the down jacket. “It’s twenty degrees out there, Mom.” They held hands walking out to the car, each with a suitcase in the other hand. He looked terrific, his father’s good looks.
A fifteen-minute drive on the Interstate and then a dozen dark, mostly one-story Montana city blocks. “You know that Dad has Parkinson’s, don’t you?”
“No!” She thought back. “He seemed fine when you finished law school, but that was ten years ago.”
“Eleven, actually. I began to notice it a few years after that.”
She could remember knowing only a few Parkinson’s patients, none close friends. Her imagination failed her. “He’s. . . handicapped?”
“He’s a stubborn man. He can still feed himself, but only very basic nutrition. Can plow himself out, once he gets into his pickup. But I worry that he’ll fall, getting out to the garage all alone on canes.”
“Yes. I got him one of those medic-alert bracelets, but he won’t always wear it.”
“Same house as always?”
Harry’s house—their house, long ago—had been a mile out of town, high enough that one could imagine seeing the Missouri valley over to the east. A quarter-mile long driveway from an unpaved road. “The highway’s paved now?”
“And the driveway. But still a steep pitch.”
“There aren’t more neighbors now?”
“A few. They try to look in on him.”
“I phone most nights. Patti and I go out Sundays with a bucket of Colonel Sanders’ chicken and a tub of mashed potatoes and gravy. His favorite meal. Probably his best all week. He ought to have someone living out there, though.”
A purposeful comment, or casual? She hadn’t yet mentioned her pending upheaval in Texas. She tried to read Rob’s face, but it was too dark. “He’s getting worse?”
“You’ll see. We’re here. Try not to look shocked.”
It was good to be warned. There were a dozen people at the table, Patti’s parents and siblings, the best man and maid-of-honor. Harry sat at the end, humpbacked, sawing apart an oversized shrimp. Two canes were hooked on the edge of the table. His chin rose only slightly in what seemed an effort to look up when Rob introduced her.
“This is my Mom, everyone. Twelve hours in planes today to get here.” Harry looked pale, badly shaven, skin sagging. “Let me introduce you.” Clever Rob started clockwise around the table from Harry. She shook hands or gave the ladies a half-kiss on the cheek, finishing with a former-wife peck on Harry’s forehead when they got back to him.
He obviously couldn’t have raised his face for a real kiss anyway. “Nice to see you,” he murmured. The voice was weak, hardly a whisper; she had to lean in. “Thanks for coming all this way. Robert appreciates it.”
The seat they had saved was next to him. She hurried through a catch-up bowl of hot mushroom soup, just right for a cold night. Then the meat came, with a steak knife. “Do you mind?” Harry asked. She reached over to cut a few bite-size pieces for him.
“Thank you. Need help now and then. Good flight?”
“Flights, plural.” She described the route and timetable. “I guess you don’t travel much anymore.”
“Haven’t been out hunting fossils in years.”
He’d been a paleontologist. She glanced at the canes. “I guess hiking up and down canyons would be hard.”
“Can’t even float the river anymore.”
They had courted in his small boat. He’d enjoyed rowing, oars being almost enough on the meandering Missouri, but with a putt-putt outboard for coming back upstream. She would usually sit in the back, trailing fingers in the water, but rowed sometimes. She wondered if she could manage that now. He must not even have a boat anymore. “You miss that.”
She ate, not wanting to keep the others waiting for dessert. The waitress took her plate as soon as she put the knife and fork neatly together, and Harry pushed his plate away to be taken too. “Steak’s tough,” he said.
His voice was so frail she wasn’t sure she’d heard him right. “It seemed tender to me.”
“No, I mean hard to eat. I eat mostly soft foods.”
“Rob says he brings you fried chicken and mashed potatoes.”
“Drumsticks. I can manage those. The caveman in me.”
Ah, she thought, difficulty speaking didn’t mean difficulty thinking. He’d taught her archaeology and paleontology. “You told me they hunted bison.”
“Yes, but ate with their hands.” A hint of a grin in the sagging face; he managed a wink. “Until the damned Europeans brought forks.”
She leaned aside to let the waitress put their desserts down. Flan. “They brought custard, too,” she said.
“And rifles. Mixed blessings.”
The waitress brought flutes and poured champagne. She looked up to catch Rob’s eye. He nodded: her move. She stood, glass raised. “To Rob and Patti. A long life together.” A chorus of hear-hears. Harry managed his glass all right. Patti’s father rose. “In Montana,” he added. They all laughed and drank again. She clinked her glass with Harry, then let silence fall between them.
Rob broke in at her shoulder. “You’re half-asleep, Mom. Let’s get you to your motel.” Everyone stood, and she went around see-you-tomorrowing while Rob helped Harry up on his canes and to the door. “Wait,” he said, “I’ll bring the car. Don’t want either of you slipping on the ice.”
She insisted Harry get in front. It took a while. He swung his legs in and parked the canes next to him. Robert handed her into the back seat. It was only a few blocks to the Staybridge; when they arrived he helped her out and opened the trunk. While he got her luggage out, she opened Harry’s door. “Good night, Harry. See you at the wedding.” He turned toward her, unable to get his head up, and raised a hand in acknowledgement.
Rob was already at the desk checking her in; she sent him along. “Get your father home before he collapses.”
She was exhausted, but sleep wouldn’t come. The last few hours were so unexpected. The whole day had been.
She got up to rummage through her toilet kit to find a sleeping pill. Would it put her subconscious to sleep too? Deter REM sleep? She wanted her brain to sort it all out overnight. Nonetheless, she drank the pill and got back into bed.
What was it Esther said this morning—which seemed years ago—with that big wink? “Unexpected alternatives?”
Indeed. Breakfast with Bob Brainerd in the morning. She smiled, and let sleep overtake her.