a short story by Sha’Tara
Call it a day in the life, hey? OK, a couple of days, whatever. I drove 300 miles for this. Cancelled plans. Re-scheduled jobs. You be the judge whether I was a complete fool, or whether lady luck and Jove were vying to entrap me, set me up, or bless me with something I’d spent over half a life avoiding.
Approaching, and just as I expected, there’s Lady Ruthledge in full evening regalia leaning casually against the front entrance door frame of her sprawling mansion. I slow down to negotiate the rather tight curve in the old drive and pull up in front of what was once the garage and chauffeur’s living quarters. Strange to see only two other cars in the vicinity. Am I that much too early? As Lady R is certain to remind me, “How gauche, my boy.”
“Well my boy, congratulations. You’re late by one whole day.”
“Well, good evening to you too, Diane. Impossible, I’m early actually my dear. It’s 18:33. Dinner, said the invitation, is at 21:00, promptly.”
“Ah, the invitation. Dinner, my dear boy, was last night. You haven’t changed, have you.”
“Changed? Am I supposed to have changed?”
Sardonic smile times two. Diane and I go back a few years. No, a few years more than that, thank you.
“What day was the dinner party last year, Sims my boy?”
“Saturday. Saturday evening.”
“As it was the year before? And before that, yes? You can remember that much, can’t you?”
“Yes, yes, of course I can remember. It was always Saturday. How well I remember. Those girls you imported from Paraguay or Taiwan or Bosnia, wherever. Damn, I sure do remember.”
“Fine, stop remembering so well for a moment and tell me what day this is?”
“Day? Of the week? Sunday.”
“But the date said, July 6th.”
“What do you mean, exactly? You sent me a date, I came on that date.”
“You came on a number on a piece of paper? Weren’t you coming to a party, and aren’t my parties the greatest parties in the county, always?”
“Sure they are. Oh, sure. Yes! Dammit, yes. Mind, heart and body twisting best.”
“Who in their right mind has parties on a Sunday evening?”
“Exactly. Well, do come in. There are leftovers, and I’m sure Letta will rustle up something for you. Hungry?”
“After driving over 300 miles like a bat out of hell, non-stop? I’d say so.”
“Then say so. I’m afraid all my guests have left, hangovers and new-found loves thankfully gone with them. But who knows, there may be one or two still lingering about in the upstairs rooms or hanging in some closet. I don’t keep the maids on weekends anymore, what would be the point?”
“The point? I don’t know. Sure, what would be the point?”
We enter the dining room to sit at a table that would have made the Knights of the Round Table and King Arthur blush with envy. Two servings waiting under cover.
“Well, there you are. Sit. And dig in, as the plebes say. I’ll keep you company while you eat. As I was saying, there may still be a couple of guests about, and perhaps you can help me dig them out. If they’re back to standing shape, maybe a bit of dancing and singing later? Some drinking and love making?”
“Ever the master manipulator and tease, Diane.”
“Exactly. My specialty. Is the wine to your taste?”
Between mouthfuls. “The wine? Excellent. Of course.”
“Yes of course.”
So it went, all through dinner. Just the two of us, Letta having left the room to attend to her kitchen duties. Just Diane Ruthledge and I. Talking. Just small talk. She sat opposite me, watching me eat, smiling when I let show how much I was enjoying the wine. Ah, the wine. I should have remembered the wine. Well, I did, but I did not want to. You know what I mean.
“More wine, dear?”
“Dear? What happened to ‘my boy’ and ‘my boy Shims’?”
Am I slurring words? Dimples betray a repressed smile.
“How were the veal cutlets? Still palatable, I hope?”
“Excellent, excellent. Never tasted any better.”
I felt very thirsty, so I drank more of her marvelous wine. Local, she said to me once. I only serve local wine. That, I will not import. I drank local wine, more local wine, and each time I wanted more. She served more but now I could not tell whence it came. It just seemed to appear, one bottle, another… then she was sitting next to me. Smiling. I had the presence of mind to realize I was totally, astonishingly, famously, utterly and irretrievably drunk. Drunker than Bacchus at his inaugural bacchanal. On wine of all things. Past the point of feeling shameful I tried to get up, staggered, sat down, and watched the room begin to rotate, and if I moved my head, it would wobble. It was the earth spinning in space. And it wobbled – another scientific theory proved beyond any doubt. By a computer programmer. I heard something.
“Sims, listen to me.”
A voice talking to me from space; from another planet. A voice I once knew but cannot place.
“Lisssssssssten toooooo meeeeeeeee!”
Slowing down, down. Lights going out, candles snuffed, lamps dimmed, extinguished. Sound of waves washing over shale.
I wake up frightfully late the next morning. Unfamiliar surroundings, large four poster bed. Blankets, spreads and sheets twisted as a sea surface caught in a Caribbean typhoon. Perhaps I’m exaggerating, but don’t blame me for that: you expect it, don’t lie. And you want more. You want to know, you know – “What Happened, and What Happens Next” – so predictable.
Slowly I turn my head. There is the definite indentation of a body having laid beside me. Who? Couldn’t remember. There’s a breakfast on the side table. One look and I’m off to the bathroom. Thank God for toilet bowls. After that hellish purge I remember the wine. Red. Red everywhere. Red lips locking onto mine, eternally demanding satisfaction. Whose lips? Hips? And all those other parts coming together in the definite form of a potential woman? I stagger out of the bathroom to encounter a woman struggling to undo the effects of the typhoon over the bed.
“Er, hmmm…” I hear myself say and suddenly I feel, not pleasantly or lasciviously nude, but vulnerably naked.
“Oh, sorry Mr. Dearborn. I thought you’d left. May I help you dress?”
I realize it wasn’t a question after all. And now she is being very thorough.
“You’ve done this before I gather.”
“Will you turn around please? I have to tuck your shirt in.”
“Ok, fine. Have me your way. This is Monday, yes?”
“No sir, this is Tuesday.”
“Tuesday sir. This is the day. The auction is this afternoon.”
“I believe Mrs. Ruthledge is waiting for you downstairs.”
“Thank you, uh…”
At the foot of the stairs:
“Sims dear boy, are you going to grace us with your indulgent presence finally?”
“Come on Diane; I’ve got a splitting headache. The sun’s too bright.”
“That’s the dining room light dear. High clouds today, no sun. But no rain either, I wouldn’t stand for it, not today. Do you need some refreshments? A light lunch?”
Again those dimples, the repressed smile.
“Please don’t mention food. Not now, not today, maybe not ever. What’s that about an auction? The maid said something about an auction.”
“Selling the place, dear boy.”
Ah, that I caught. A difference in her tone. And an unfamiliar shrug, just a touch of apparent defeat in slightly sloping shoulders. I hear vehicles approaching. Diane has a tear, one tiny pearly tear, hanging at the edge of each eye.
“What is this all about Diane?”
“That’s it Sims. I’m done for. Broke. If I’m really lucky today, I’ll break even. Gone. Gone with the wind. Romantic, isn’t it.”
“Why didn’t you tell me sooner? Maybe I could have done something.”
“Make me look like an incompetent, having someone else manage my affairs, Sims? No, I had to take it to the end, take the plunge all at once. This is an all or nothing world. You can’t just go down gradually. So I threw one last party. The staff stayed on to help knowing that it was unlikely there’d be any extra money from the auction to pay their salary. I don’t even know how to say ‘thank you’ to them. I really don’t.”
And suddenly I saw her. I saw, not Lady Ruthledge, but Diane. A pretty, vulnerable petite brunette with waist-length hair brushed straight down. In a plain, knee-length blue dress and slippers. Tears running down her face. And suddenly, just as suddenly, I realized that I loved her. That I had always loved her. Not the Princess and Queen of Ruthledge House, but this woman, this… Diane. I walked up to her and took her in my arms just as her dam of pent-up sadness, of helpless fear, of sorrow and shame to be the one to witness her family’s downfall, broke, shattered.
I let her cry on my chest as an army of professionals, buyers and onlookers filled the yards and took over the house. I held her as each member of her staff came over and kissed her goodbye, wiping their own tears. I held her as I guided her through the grass to my car, opened the door for her and placed her in, fastening her seat belt.
We’ve been together five years now, married for two of those. I think she’s getting used to the idea, but who really knows with a Ruthledge? She’s certainly good to me and I think she loves me, as much as her state of mind will permit. There’s a piece of her heart missing, a hole that I know I can never fill. Too much of me is the rescuer—a bad spot to be in, and too much is too completely unlike her. And I must admit, being of that part of the world, I haven’t given up on other women: they’re still there, as available as ever. Don’t you love her? You’ll ask, and why don’t you respect her? And I’ll tell you I do love her, of that there is no doubt. And I do respect her. The reason is, she lets me have my way and doesn’t express resentment. And I let her have her way.
Any other way and we would be at each other’s throats and we’ve both seen enough hell for one lifetime: that we have in common, if nothing else.