Ron Torrence

Ron Torrence published his first short story at age 50 and his first poem at age 80. Even so his fiction, non-fiction and poetry are pretty widely published. He’s also written five novels and a screen play, all unpublished. Much more to do. His work has appeared in American Writer’s Review, Crack The Spine, The Dirty Goat, Dos Passos Review, Existere Journal, Forge, The MacGuffin, Menda City Review, Nassau Review, riverSedge, Orange Willow Review, Slipstream, Eureka Literary Magazine, Oxalis, Ash, Potent Aphrodisiac, Rockhurst Review, The Tower Journal, Thereby Hangs A Tale, Typo, Sour Grapes, Circuit Traces, RE:AL, Reflections Literary Journal, way station magazine, West Wind Review, Wild Violet, Yellow Mama and Pleasant Living.

LOVE IN THE AFTERNOON

Jessica ran her fingers along the graceful curve of the antique rocker that had caught her eye soon after she’d entered the store. She looked up to see husband, Jonathan, lean over to study a smoking stand. Jessica shook her head with a wry frown. It wasn’t the smoking that attracted his attention, that’s for sure, but the sherry glass coasters on top. At 50 his auburn hair was beginning to show pronounced strands of gray, but the puffiness of his cheeks and around the eyes aged him much more, as well as pointing to the problem if you knew what to look for which, sadly, she’d learned only too well.

She returned to the rocker. It was like the chair that her 95-year-old grandmother sat in the last time they’d talked years ago.

“Grandma the doctor said you need to eat more so you can get your strength back.”

Grandma had rested her gray head against the cushion of her old rocker.

“No,” she said. “My long journey has come to its end.”

Her answer had floated off into the silence of her nursing home room. Grandma’s favorite oriental rug and the rocker had been brought there. Pictures selected from a lifetime were arrayed on the dresser of an otherwise institutional setting, though her eyesight was so bad she couldn’t see them. At the center was the 50th wedding anniversary photo of Grandma and Grandpa standing together.

A few weeks after that visit Grandma died quietly in her sleep.

Jessica studied the handmade construction of the chair. The price tag seemed reasonable for such a nice piece, but the thought of owning it made her want to throw up.

A sudden movement by Jonathan pulled her attention from the chair. He’d looked up from the smoking stand to stare out the front window. Without further hesitation he headed for the door. Jessica quickly joined him on the porch to see him gaze intently at a tavern across the two-lane country road. 

He licked his lips.

“Think I’ll repair to the tavern for a little refresher.”

“Must you?” Jessica pleaded—once again—with a glance at her watch. “It’s only two o’clock. . . ”

“You know how such a warm day dries the throat. A cold frosty will elevate the spirits,” he said, patting the gourd that extended generously over his belt. “No chance,” he began with a smile that quickly faded to a clouded frown, “you’d join me,” his voice trailed off.

“You know better than that.”

He nodded glumly.

“Please don’t do this.”

Jennifer tried to hold him back by the arm. He gently patted her hand as he moved it away.

“Not to worry.” He stepped off the porch to start across the road with a gay wave. “Just a refresher,” he tossed back over his shoulder.

How much more could she endure? She’d first asked herself that question years ago and here she was still asking. Jessica turned on her heel to reenter the store, stepping into a such a profound silence she heard the antique clocks tick. In the center of it all was the antique rocker.

Jessica joined Aunt Anna in the kitchen to help clean up after the family reunion. Jonathan had joined the men on the porch for after dinner drinks while the women at Anna’s insistence had gone for a walk on the beach, the younger children traipsing along with them, the older dispersing throughout the cottage.

“I’ll never forgive him,” Anna had said as she scooped leftovers into plastic containers for the fridge.

“Who?”

“My father, your grandfather,” she’d said sadly, as if dark secrets of the family’s past could now be revealed to Jessica who was 32 and had a family of her own. Jessica had stopped midway in rinsing the plates and utensils for the dishwasher to wait for Anna to go on.

“Mother was such a deeply religious woman. To her drinking and gambling were terrible sins.” Anna vigorously tapped a serving spoon on the side of a container to shake off the mashed potatoes. “But Father liked his booze too much. And, of course, he would never give up his poker games with the boys at the club.”

With an almost imperceptible shake of her head, Anna fell silent. The rustle of waves on the shore outside was the only sound.

“I had no idea,” Jessica said. “They were simply our nice gramps.”

“You were just kids. And it was never talked about in the family. Different sides were taken you see. Your mother was the oldest and such a great beauty! She was always dad’s favorite. Besides, you were always a bit of dreamer. A lifetime of acceptance would never do for you. But for Mother it was a deep wound that troubled her all her adult life. And he refused to give in, not even just a little bit!”

Anna snapped the lid shut on the last container as if that were that.

Some months later Jessica found the old anniversary photo from the party she’d attended as a teenager. She remembered how her grandparents had stood in front of the fireplace before an admiring family (ironically at the City Club where Grandpa played his poker with the other businessmen). The photo showed how a benign-looking gray-haired couple, after 50 years together, stood without touching—not an arm on an arm, not a hand holding a hand—the four inch space separating them, Jessica now knew, shouting out their bitter discontent.

Jessica browsed distractedly among the variegated chairs, tables, cabinets, an array of ticking clocks, paintings, artifacts of all kinds. The remains of an assortment of human moments frozen in time. She paused to examine an old trunk that had promise as a coffee table. But faced with all these antiquities from how many other sad pasts, she was in no mood to decorate for a future intolerable to contemplate.

Why had it taken so many years to come right out and say that to herself.

Intolerable.

But doing something about it seemed paralyzingly hard.

Jessica looked through the front window at the tavern.

If only she could prick this! Slash it with a knife

She left the store to cross the street but her pace slowed as she neared the door. What’s the use? She knew the drill—Jonathan would leave when he was ready. But like the tide of a mountain stream the momentum of life carried her into the dank beer smell of a dimly lit bar.

Jonathan was at the bar of course. Deep in conversation with the bartender of course. He was sure to have downed two drafts already and the bartender was just pouring another. Neither of them took the slightest notice of her.

As if clicking off a movie she’d seen once too often Jessica slipped outside. What would Aunt Anna say about that little dreamer now? She wandered up the short street of antique shops and old homes. She came to the one country store. She entered to buy a Diet Coke. Braced with a cold sip she went back outside to turn down the only intersecting lane, which was made up of a few old homes and an old barn that had been converted into an equipment repair garage. Several old plows, two rusted tractors, and some ancient harvesting pieces populated an adjacent field overgrown with weeds.

As she walked slowly through the drowsy warmth Jessica was tormented by the voices of the recent past:e

“You’re the enabler.”

“Get him to a treatment center!”

“Form a loving circle.”

“He’s just a fun-loving guy.”

“Never saw him drink so much he fell down.”

(Well, she had!)

“Let Dad have his fun,” son Rick.

“Mom you’re almost fifty! When will you have a life?” daughter Sara.

Jessica put her hands to her ears. No avail, no avail. Year after year to no avail! Shushing the voices for the moment she continued to the last house on the lane, surely the oldest in the village and long since abandoned. The front suggested a once cheerful face now overgrown with weeds and vines. The rest of the house had crumbled, the top floor long since collapsed, leaving only a chimney still standing tall.

She paused in front of the old house to look down the lane which trailed off into the fields toward a farmhouse just before rounding a distant bend. Jessica stood, mesmerized by the solitude in front of her. Like these old houses, like a clock in the antique store that had ceased to tick, round and round her life had gone. A carousel with the calliope silenced always returning to the same spot.

Fifty in two days, was the substance of her life simply decay?

So different than the path she’d set out to pursue. From an early age she’d been an avid reader. People began calling her “that serious girl”. In high school she wore round framed glasses and hung out with fellow brainy kids. Albert Camus was a topic then, and she fell in love the man and his philosophy. She envisioned herself sitting in a Paris Café, beret at a sexy angle, discussing rebellion over wine and cigarettes.

“A woman philosopher?” her mother’s face had actually blanched. Father simply sniffed disdainfully as he turned a page in the financial news, as much attention as she would ever get from him. But she was too determined to let their absence of support stop her, and off she went to college, ever the dreamer Aunt Anne had so admired.

It was only after years of therapy that she understood her father’s indifference. He simply didn’t want her. He’d wanted a son to follow his footsteps into the family law firm. A daughter was of no use to him. A woman attorney was unthinkable.

Jessica turned to walk a few paces back toward the main road only to stop again.

She knew full well what knocked her off the gender bending pursuit of a professorship in philosophy. It came in the form of a smooth talking unbelievably good looking faux intellectual named Pete who swept her into a dreamscape of artists, actors and musicians that only a big university could provide. And six months of all the sex and passion a romantic heart could want, replete with talk of, yes, the Paris cafés and writing of novels (her) and composing of songs (Pete).

Of course Pete never wanted to use condoms. Love would hold them together no matter what. So when the inevitable happened not a month before graduation, he simply disappeared. There she was barefoot and pregnant, so to speak, and in a deep dark hole of guilt and degradation that lasted for years. A couple of good friends took charge of her. They arranged an abortion, which only made the self denigrating hole darker and deeper, and provided the moral support to keep her from hurting herself. She shucked her dreams of Camus and philosophy like a treacherous path that had led her too far way from where she was “supposed” to be.

Enter Jonathan and his sweet smile that had so charmed her when they were young college graduates. When he seemed to open a doorway to regain a happier life. His jovial personality and good looks enabled him to be a quite successful salesman, which he still was.

And what did she do instead? Ultimately managed a small insurance company office! Settled for something mediocre to fill up the time. But her mind never shut off. She never stopped reading voraciously. Philosophy of course, but science, too, and literature. Not that anybody in their social crowd ever had a philosophical thought. To them science meant hi-tech business where you could make a real bundle.

And as Jonathon was out drinking more and more, and going to sleep earlier and earlier, she read more and more. Jessica pursed her lips, realizing that without living people to talk to, her reading had enabled her to converse with some of humankind’s greatest minds instead. Looking at it that way, her life hadn’t been such a carousel after all.

Jessica approached the tavern to be greeted with the all-too-familiar sight of Jonathan, blinking in the brilliant sunlight. Pudgy as she was slender, he tripped down the steps toward her.

“What can I buy you?” he slurred with that sweet smile once again.

But that sweet smile now seemed more like the façade of the old house she’d just stood in front of. Only a trace of the style and grace of years ago and now fronting an inner life of decay and ever-increasing ruin. Bathed in the afternoon light she stood on the curb of this old town staring at Jonathan. The years of struggle and despair fighting his alcoholism rose up so intensely she thought she’d vomit. Instead she continued to stare at him, finally absorbing the entirety of what he’d become.

Jonathan’s simile faded as he realized, this time, she wouldn’t respond to his offer.

“How  about that rocker? I noticed you were fascinated with that old rocker . . .” His voice trailed into the nauseating wheedle he used when trying to defuse the slightest sense of anything wrong with their life together. If she would just smile everything would be all right.

Jessica’s heart leaped right into her throat at the vision of her gray head leaning back in the rocker, as if he’d just offered her a coffin to sit in for the rest of her life.

“Not this time!” she retorted.

Jessica spun on her heel, leaving a bewildered Jonathan in her wake, to head down the main street. She turned on the lane past the old homes, past the crumbling facade of the last house. Giddy and light headed as if she’d just jumped off a bridge, she set out on the long walk to the distant house at the bend. She had her credit cards and enough of her own money set aside. She’d call a cab from that house, no matter the cost, and set out to recapture the life she’d set aside so many years ago. She had no illusions – this was going to be very, very hard.

As she trudged away from life with Jonathan her thoughts emerged with each step. After years of solitary struggle the little dreamer had fought her way back to remerge. But youth was all about marching for causes and painting placards. At mid-life it’s about fighting for one’s own identity.

Sure, it wasn’t just her parents who thought a woman philosopher was some kind of mutant duck. Almost everyone thought that, especially the male professors in philosophy departments – she was no naïve fool. What about Simone de Bouvier, her existential idol? Or Iris Murdoch? And Susan Sontag and Joan Didion – talk about influential.

So take that doubters! 

In the previous turning point of her life she’d hitched her life to a charming man, subjugating her own sense of purpose to his because she’d totally lost self confidence. The result was heartbreak and misery. Now Jessica was marching toward what she’d left behind.

This time she’d place the bets on herself.

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