Follow by Email

Friday, May 29, 2020

Power

Hello, y'all. Been doing some fishing. Literally, of course, at Marrowbone Lake just north of Chez Merrique in The Nations. But also figuratively, casting out onto the Internetz, the Cloud, all around, and into a couple of liquor boxes where I stash my decades of prose, poetry, and foolishness. I found:

Power

               by Scott Gardner Merrick

It was Wednesday night, June 25th. Alan Hargrove and Bruce 
Davney were taking a leisurely dinner by the water at Sunday's, up in North Miami Beach. It was a rare occasion for Alan: he very seldom dined with potential business associates. It was not his style.

But he and Bruce were old friends, of the sort who can go for years without thinking of one another and then bump into each other and find themselves as familiar as ever. Besides, Bruce didn't know that he was a potential business associate.

Alan's wife, Bernice, was off chasing the final chapters of her latest harlequin novel somewhere in California. The Key Biscayne mansion was empty, except for Maria, the ethereal maid, whose presence Alan was prone to acknowledge in much the way that he might acknowledge a telephone or a clock. She performed a valuable role: she made his life easier and more orderly; but her presence contributed nothing toward making his huge home feel less lonely.

Not that it didn't feel lonely when Bernice was home: Some time within the past year, Alan and Bernice had settled into a terse relationship which could best be described as "peaceful co-existence." The worst part of it all? Alan didn't seem to care.

But this night, Alan didn't want to be alone. Not tonight. The whole day had been just a little off-balance, "a quarter-bubble off plumb," his old man would have said. His father was part of it, Alan knew. His dad had passed away five years ago on June 25th, and in the intervening years Alan had turned the date into something of an "unholiday." Every year, he worked very, very hard at pretending that June 25th didn't mean much.

To compound the day's confusion, the air-conditioning at the office had been acting weird all day. For an hour the room temperature would be chafingly cold; then the climate control would take a break for an hour or two, allowing the temperature and humidity in the otherwise elegant high-rise offices to climb to unbearable levels. Then the air conditioning would shift into high gear again, and all the perspiration that his body had manufactured during the "sweltering phase" would mercilessly chill the richly tailored cotton clothes which clung to his skin, making him feel encased in them, trapped.

His cat had responded to the temperature changes by bouncing off walls during the cold spells and then reclining exhausted, his little pink tongue hanging out of his mouth, panting in the heat, sprawled atop Alan's ebony desk.

Finally, Alan had texted the vet to have Earl Scruggs picked up and carted away to be boarded overnight. Earl's presence in Alan's office played an important role maintaining his slightly offbeat image in a world in which every advantage is a crucial one. It wouldn't do to find him dead in the office tomorrow.

Midmorning, Sam McMillan in New York tendered his resignation as head of the corporation's holding company for a group of New England television stations. He had given no prior indications of his intention to bolt; and fully half of the rest of Alan's day was spent in conference calls, choosing an interim successor.

The other half of the day had flown by in the usual frenzied, scatter-bomb flurry of decision-making activity. By the end of it, an uncharacteristically harried Alan Hargrove knew that he would spend the first two hours of tomorrow frantically trying to absorb and turn to his advantage the ramifications of not a few of the decisions he had made today.

He was tired. But when his thrice-postponed get-together with Bruce came up for a fourth rescheduling, he decided that he could mix this particular business with a little recreation. He personally called to invite Bruce to dinner, offering him his choice of restaurants.

"Sunday's" it was, and here they sat.

The Reggae band was moseying off the bandstand.

The patio bar at Sunday's takes up half the long narrow floor-space from the wall of the building to the edge of the seawall. The two men occupied a high table by the water's edge. Alan was the older: he had bright gray, immaculately-styled hair and a full, gray mustache. He was dressed elegantly but casually in fresh white cotton pleated baggies and a white linen jacket. The collar of his pale blue silk shirt was open to the light breeze.

The younger man, Bruce, was a stocky, jovial, clean-shaven, frizzy-haired brunette. He wore a tailored navy blue suit, and he still wore his conservative tie, pulled loose at his open collar.

Their table was too small for their dinners, but that minor inconvenience seemed to bother neither man. (The tables opposite the bar were really meant for the placement of tropical drinks, not the service of full meals.) They just jammed their crab legs all into one basket and nestled the empty one under the other.

As Bruce tossed the final empty claw into the basket, the last pink traces of a spectacular sunset were fading into twilight out across the Intracoastal Waterway. A tiny speck of yellow flame (the remnants of a cooking fire over in Oleta State Park?) teased its skinny reflection over the calm waters.

The quiet was undermined, slowly, then completely shattered by the approach and passing of a massive speedboat. When its ragged fury had subsided, Bruce remarked, "Those frigging Cigarettes shouldn't be allowed out on the inner passage."

"Really," agreed Alan, absentmindedly.

"I'd sure like to have one though."

"I guess."

"I'd probably drive the thing right through your living room."

"Yeah."

Bruce leaned in toward his companion and spoke as if to a child, "Alan, Alan, dear...you're time-traveling again; come back, come back. Oh no," his voice got smaller and farther away, "Auntie Em, Auntie Em, is that you? I can't hear you, you're so far away, away, away." His normally gruff voice waxed tinier and tinier.

There was still no response from Alan, and Bruce gave up. The corporate mogul was staring off into the crowd. The younger man peered off in that general direction, trying to see what it was that had captured his host's attention. A few seconds after a lovely cocktail waitress--who was working a station of tables near the bandstand--disappeared into the interior of the restaurant, Alan looked at Bruce as if only an instant had passed since he had last spoken.

"What?"

The blue-suited man smiled, "She is a pretty one, I'd have to agree." He tipped up the last red swallow of his Rum Runner and set the plastic cup inside its empty predecessor. He pulled off his company blue tie and took a moment to roll it neatly before placing it in his jacket pocket.

"Who," said Alan.

"Ah, a man of few words. Is that how you got where you are?"

Alan smiled, "And where is it that I am? Stuck out on a fishy-smelling remodeled wharf with a cocky young off-duty technology executive, drinking underpowered fru-fru drinks and belching the last of an, okay, admittedly decent dinner. That's some accomplishment."

"Oh no, oh no. Good try but no banana, Top Banana. No changee subjecto: tell me what it is that you see in that shapely blonde with the three buns."

"I know not whereof you speak." Alan finished his own drink and motioned to their waitress, a slightly undernourished redhead with an endearing smile. After the formalities of paying the check, the two were standing up and stretching their legs and preparing to walk out the door when the rustle of a brush across a snare drum declared that the Reggae band had not been taking a break: they were done for the night, and the stage now held a tidy little jazz quartet. Lights dimmed, and the mood of the place shifted from raucous to mellow.

"Do you have anywhere to be?" asked Alan.

"Not really, unless you count crawling into bed with my delicious bride of six weeks and continuing my research into the probable basis for the Kama Sutra. Of course I have somewhere to be, you dope. Rita will have me Bonny Johnny on a shingle if I don't walk through the kitchen door in a relatively sober condition in," he consulted his wristwatch, "just under twenty-five minutes." "How about just one more drink with a potential employer." It was not a question.

"Huh? Damnit, Alan, you do have a flair for timing, don't you? What the hell are you babbling about now?"

"Come sit with me for ten minutes and one drink and I'll tell you," smiled Alan. "It won't cost you anything, except maybe a little sleep, and then I promise that I won't even suggest the possibility of another drink or another minute. You'll be home with your lovely wife in time for "The Cosby Show."

He led the way to a table near the bandstand.

Within seconds, the blonde waitress was asking them what they would care to drink. Bruce sat there and watched something change in Alan's demeanor, in the way he sat, or was it the way he spoke? The older man seemed to be sitting a little straighter, which was a feat, since Bruce knew no other man who stood or walked, or sat, with such unselfconsciously upright and balanced posture. And Alan's speech seemed laced with some kind of unnatural tonality. Pleasant, it was, but almost too controlled. Almost too pure.

What was happening, Bruce wondered. The very air surrounding the table seemed to have become charged with electricity. As quickly as the moment was noticed, it passed. Alan and Bruce were just two businessmen, seated too near the band--even if it was a quiet sax, a stand-up bass, a piano and drums--for the conversation that ensued.

Alan came right to his point, declaring over the music, "I want you to head my Southern Corp Data Manipulation Operation, Bruce." His bright green eyes fixed upon the younger man, and then wandered back toward the band, as if nothing important had been said.

Stunned, Bruce studied him. How can this man hold such power over people, he mused. Alan's right hand moved up to his thick gray moustache, and he straightened the right side of it away from the edge of his mouth. He glanced back at Bruce and smiled, "I'll pay you twice what you're making at IBM and I'll move you into a Corporate condo, South Beach, Biscayne, the Grove: you name it. Hell, Bruce, Rita'd be bored in Boca inside of a year, anyway." It was his turn to lean toward his companion. "You'd be a fool not to take the job." His right forefinger tapped the tabletop, once, twice.

The drinks came: two "Miami Vice." The slushy red swirl of the Rum Runner was layered into the creamy white Pia Colada.

Neither man's attention faltered, despite the fact that the beautiful girl knelt down after she delivered the cocktails, to ask if she could get them anything else. The question never left her lips, perhaps because she was an unnaturally sensitive young lady.

What she saw was this: an intensely agitated, though admittedly handsome, middle-aged man in white with an extravagant gray moustache drilling with his own eyes two little holes into the eyes of a brown-haired executive type in a blue suit. She stood up and backed slightly off, feeling uneasy, but sensing that she was doing the right thing. Her gaze lingered upon the older man as she did so. What would it feel like to fall under the beam of those steel-gray eyes?

"Just say `Yes,'" stage-whispered Alan.

"My God, Alan," said Bruce, nearly shouting, after an awkward moment in which he could not organize his thoughts. "You can't expect me to answer you right now, you son of a bitch! I have a life, for God's sake. I have seven years in the company, I have a new wife, I have a condo mortgage and a pension plan, and a dog, for Christ's sake, a fucking dog! You offer me twice the pay, old pal, but there's a lot more to consider than that." He sat back into his chair and glared at his drink. Suddenly the band was much too loud and he felt the beginnings of a nasty headache.

"Listen, Alan," he said, "I don't want this drink and I can't give you an answer. I hope you understand that I don't mean to demean the flattering implications of your proposal, but..." he sat back up, "can we just get out of here?"

Alan threw back his head and laughed. He reached in his pocket and pulled out a small ring of only two keys with a tiny horseshoe attached to it. He tossed them toward Bruce. They landed with a muffled clatter on the table.

"Here," he said flatly, "take the Jaguar." When Bruce made no move toward them, he reached for the keys with one hand and his companion's hand with the other, and placed the keys in the younger man's hand. "I don't want to make your decision difficult, Bruce. I respect completely you or I never would have made you an offer like this one," he added, "will end up being." It was his turn to settle back into his wicker chair. A slight but genuine smile stole over his face, cutting neat little dimples into his smoothly shaven cheeks. "But, hey. If you call me before noon tomorrow with an affirmative response, like, keep the Jag."

Bruce stared at the keys in his hand, then set them quietly on the table top. "I'll take a cab, pal," Bruce said. "But if I do decide by noon I'll hold you to the amendment." He stood up and slapped Alan on the back, a little too hard, as he was leaving. Alan sat there, basking in the smooth, round music from the quartet, smiling, sipping his Miami Vice.

By the time he finished the first one, the band had completed its first set. The world at Sunday's hovered momentarily in a pleasant limbo between live music and the house tape player. He smelled cocoa butter.

He heard a soft feminine voice say, "Excuse me, sir."

Turning, he felt his world change again.

He heard her speak magic words, "Mr. Hargrove?"

Her pale fair skin glowed soft pink in the subdued light, so that she seemed to be blushing all over; he would discover later that the effect was mostly due to a mild sunburn. Still, the rosy tip of her nose was unbearably cute. Her full, expressive lips formed a small smile.

He was at a complete loss for words.

"Um," she continued, "you have a phone call, sir. Would you like for me to bring over the remote phone?"

"Yes. Please," he managed to reply.

He must have been staring goofily, because the girl allowed a hint of an upturned curl to qualify her polite smile, as if she might be saying to herself, oh, brother. She turned and walked back toward the bar.

Her walk was the most sensual thing Alan had ever witnessed.

It was not lewd, or calculatedly sexual: the waitress simply moved like a cat wanting to rub up against a leg. Her dark blue satin shorts flattered her soft curves, and her long shapely legs seemed to caress each other lightly as they carried her away from the table. He could see now that her golden hair was really quite long; piled up on the back of her head, not in a "bun," as Alan had judged, but loosely, recklessly, so that renegade wisps of it betrayed its length.

She stood on tiptoes at the bar to retrieve the receiver from the charge-cradle on the shelf beside the service bar. Her shorts rode up slightly and he glimpsed an edge of the pale skin where her bikini bottom must live when she sunbathed. He felt a tingling down between his legs. He smiled to himself and looked away. Easy, boy, he thought to himself.

"Here you are, sir." There. The scent of cocoa-butter again. Her voice was like the ringing of soft bells. He never did this. He was never like this. This was not him. He felt himself losing control, and he told himself to regain it.

"Thank you. You're incredibly beautiful. Will you have a drink with me after you finish work?"

Alan had no idea that he was going to say that, and the only one taken more by surprise by it was the waitress. She did blush now; and--there it was again--that tiny trace of amusement stole into her expression again. This time it was accompanied by a crinkling of the eyebrows.

She decided. She smiled broadly, "Maybe. Here's your phone call," and she was gone.

He hit the "talk" button on the telephone, not believing himself.

"Hello, this is Alan."

"Alan," he heard, "this is Bruce. I want to apologize for my abrupt departure. And to tell you how flattered I really am by your offer."

"I didn't make it to flatter you, old friend. Listen. I'm well aware that many people might assume that a close business relationship like the one I suggested could ruin a friendship. But if you want, I can write a self-destruct clause into your contract: the first breath of weirdness and a juicy severance check floats from the ceiling of your office down into your 'in' basket. Bruce. I know the personal risk, here. I just need someone I can trust. Do I have to beg? I'm begging...pleeease, Massa Bruce, suh, pleeeease take my money..."

"Stop groveling, Mr. Hargrove, sir, I'll take your money. But I'd rather have a nice little Lexus than that ostentatious Jaguar you offered me. Navy blue, for old time's sake. Loaded. Now, go home to your castle. I'll call you at the office around two tomorrow. Jesus, do I have some talking to do. Do me another favor, please, Alan. Keep this under wraps until I can cleanly release from my IBM commitment?"

"Okay, but don't keep me hanging long, all right?"

"I'll have a priority schedule for you by the afternoon tomorrow when I call. Promise."

"Good. Night, pal. And, hey, thanks."

"Thank you, Alan. And I mean it. Hey. Go home. You don't get enough practice drinking in public to be out this late. You're okay, aren't you?"

"Yeah. I haven't even started this slushy pink and white mess you left on the table when you stalked off," he lied. "Probably won't, even."

"Good. Night." Click. Dial tone.

Alan switched off the telephone and set it down on the table beside him. What was he going to do? He couldn't stay around here for four hours waiting for a cocktail waitress. He had to think.

"Would you like a fresh drink, Mr. Hargrove? That one looks like it's seen better days."

He looked up at her. His former resolve was nowhere to be found. "Alan," he said. "My name's Alan. What's yours?"

She smiled and the blood flowed out of his legs through his toes.

"Candace. Candace Collins."

Candace smiled and reached past him to retrieve the telephone. The heat from her body stole through her white t-shirt, warming the skin of his right forearm, a gentle burn. She lingered, it seemed to him, a fraction of a second longer than the task required. They had not yet touched, but when she straightened back up, her left hand settled to rest weightlessly upon his right shoulder, like a small bird settling from flight. She spoke.

"Listen, Mr., um, Alan, I mean. I'm first off tonight, but even at that, it could be a couple of hours before I'm free. Would you rather make it another night?"

What was this electricity all about? Why was the air once again charged with dazzling, dancing fields of energy?

"No," he spoke his decision before he was aware of making it. "No, I'll wait. There's nowhere I have to be for a while. I'll just have a beer and listen to the band. They're really quite good, aren't they," he added.

She removed her hand from his shoulder and smiled brightly, as if pleased with his decision. "Yes," she said. "What kind of beer do you want?"

For the next few hours, Alan nursed two draft  Guinness and listened to the saxophone telling him that he was making a big mistake, but one that he wouldn't regret, because (the sax sang to him) there is no mistaking powerful attraction, and attraction may be the first tentative clue that something else more important exists, beyond the distances, between two strangers. It's late but the night is young, whispered the music.

At some point--it seemed as though he had been waiting for ten hours--she sat down beside him. Her knee unselfconsciously touched his, and it seemed to him that at the point of contact something drastically important was going on. He was amazed. He hadn't felt like this since...since when? Since Bernice in Palo Alto? Had it been that long, over fifteen years since he had let himself experience the mystery of wanting someone else? Really, mindlessly, wanting? It seemed hardly possible, yet there it was.

Now he found himself overwhelmed by such a heightened sensitivity that the touching of hands was elevated to an act of lovemaking. His was the rarified state of being that is natural only to adolescents or to people impossibly, deeply, freshly in love.

"I have to tell you something," Candace was saying. He snapped out of his reverie. It seemed that long minutes had passed, but she had only just sat down.

"I have to tell you that I just noticed your ring and that I don't go out with married men."

His ring. A simple, thin gold band.

He lied again. (How could he have done otherwise?) "I have to tell you that I only wear this out of habit. My wife and I have been separated for six months." It was only a half-lie, albeit an intentional, calculated one, "She's out in California." There. Truth, that much of it, carefully placed to substantiate the lie.

The girl positively glowed with the raw brilliance of unspoiled youth. Most important, she was guileless enough to accept his story. "Whew," she beamed, "that was a close one. Do me a favor? Break the habit. Will you take it off?"

Is this how easy it is, he thought, slipping the ring off his finger and dropping it into his inside jacket pocket, to shed a decade and a half of attachment? He rubbed his ring finger with his thumb. It felt naked, but in some subtle way he liked the feeling.

"Will you take me somewhere else for that drink?" Candace leaned toward him, and he inhaled her clean fresh breath. She did not smoke, he noted. He almost fainted from her nearness.

They made it out of the restaurant, passing into it from the pier side and then out through the double front stain-glass doors. They reached the Jag. He unlocked her door. There was a warm breeze whipping around them, and she turned to him, lifting her face up to his, touching, slowly, her full lips to his. Their arms wrapped around one another until they were embraced tightly all up and down the length of their bodies, kissing deeply, drinking one another.

Once they had separated, only by fraction of an inch, “I knew we would fit,” she sighed.

There is absolutely no explanation for why two such complete strangers should so quickly become lovers.

copyright 1997 by Scott Merrick: the novel’s working title is The Web. Inquire within.

 


No comments:

Here's another COVID song. Sing with me...

I finally got a take on this I like and it's only the one track, but I welcome any submissions to add to it. Just record any way you can...