“LAST DAYS AT THE CAROUSEL”
The cars at the stop sign on Highway K were backed up at least a half a mile. It had been a year since
Samuel had been in the area. He drove up from Chicago to his old hometown once a year for the class re-union. Each year the traffic on Highway K grew thicker and thicker as new sub-divisions sprouted like stubborn thistles on either side of Highway K. In the early years the only buildings in the area had been the elementary school , a few farms and the small drive in called the Carousel.
Samuel was 78 and it had been 18 years since he had lived in the area. He pulled his black Cadillac into the driveway carefully, to avoid throwing up any gravel. He parked as far away from the little drive-in as possible so that no one would park beside him. He sat in the car for a minute and then opened the door and walked toward the drive-in, slowly so as not to scuff his shiny black shoes. Right next to the entry door was a large hand printed sign. CLOSING THIS FALL FOR GOOD. Samuel stopped in front of the sign and just stared at it. He shook his head and walked in the door. He ordered a coffee from one of the teenagers behind the counter and went to the far booth and slid all the way across the plastic seat to be closer to the window.
Samuel looked out the window and could just make out his vague reflection. Beyond that he could see the thick traffic and the sub-divisions all the way up and down the highway.
He was in very good shape for his age. Willow thin with a full shock of grey hair. Hawkish though. He had his fathers look, and Samuel wasn’t very happy about that Either way there it was staring back at him.
If the teenagers in the drive-in would have cared they would have noticed that the old man sitting in the corner must be wealthy. He had arrived in a new Cadillac and he was impeccably dressed. He was wealthy. They should have worked the tip.
While living in the Milwaukee suburb of Pewaukee for the first sixty years of his life he had gotten very lucky. Samuel had a class mate that thought cell phones would be the next big thing. He brought Samuel along with him and he had been right. The classmate had died of leukemia at 42 and Samuel had bought out the fledgling business and made a fortune. He sold the business when he turned sixty and moved with his wife, Betty to Chicago.
He then started a small cell phone company in Chicago and though it was never as successful as the first one it kept him busy and still made good money. Eventually he sold that company as well. He bought a big place in Arizona for the winter, and lived the high life in Chicago all summer.
Isabella had walked in and sat down across from him without him even being aware of it. He turned slowly from his reflection and smiled.
“Hi Samuel,” she said with a quick smile of her own.
“Isabella,” he replied.
She had thick white hair that virtually sprang from her head. Isabella was 72 and though wrinkled and old still had that rebellious beauty that Samuel would never forget. She was dressed as though she had just come from her garden. There were smudges of dirt on her baggy clothes.
“Can I get you a coffee,” he asked?
“I think a vanilla custard with rainbow sprinkles.”
“Why didn’t you just say the usual,” he asked and grinned?
He went to the counter and came back with the custard which he slid in front of her. Then he went back to the counter and pulled several napkins from the small silver dispenser and brought those to her as well. He slid back into his seat and looked at her.
“I was thinking,” he said, “ah just now.”
“What were you thinking Samuel,” she asked and he wondered if she were teasing him.
“I was thinking about the growth out here,” he said.
“I guess because I stayed here,” she said, “you know, saw it everyday, I guess, I haven’t noticed the changes as much.”
“Yeah,” he agreed and turned back to his reflection. “For me its like seeing something get destroyed. It seemed like coming out to the country back then. Huh! Three miles from the metropolis of Pewaukee. But now.”
“That was very deep for you , Samuel,” she laughed.
“So, anyway,” he said as he turned his head back to face her. “How have you been for the last year, Isabella?”
“I see your still favoring your back,” she said ignoring his question.
“Oh, it’s fine,” he said waving his hand towards her in dismissal. It still bothered him. “Don’t change the subject Isabella. How are you doing?”
She smiled and looked down at her fingers that were entwined on the table. “Oh, I’ve been fine. I spend 98% of my time at home watching one grandbaby or the other.”
“He’s still Robert. You know Robert,” she said. “What about Betty? How’s Betty?”
“Betty’s the same,” he laughed, “and you’ll see her tomorrow anyway.” He shifted uneasily and looked out the window again and then slowly back at her. “Come on Isabella, this is Samuel, tell me what’s going on. I can see it in your eyes.”
“You know I can remember when your name was just Sam,” she said and smiled coyly, “When did that change. I mean it did change, right. I just can’t seem to remember when.”
“That has nothing to do with how you are, though. Does it?”
“Well, you asked it once and I answered. What do you want to know.”
“We meet here once a year for how long?” he said, “it’s never just fine, for either of us. Is it?”
“What’s the real reason you need to know,” she asked?
“You know that it’s because I care about you,” he finally said. He reached across the table and briefly touched her hand but pulled it back just as fast.
“That’s actually very nice of you Samuel. I’m glad you care,” she replied.
“That sounds a little sarcastic Isabella.”
He turned back towards the window and watched his ghost like reflection outlined by the new developments across the street
“So your happy then,” he asked?
“I’m very happy. Thank you for asking. Robert and I have settled in. Old age does that. We’ve gotten used to each other. Comfortable. You know what I mean,” she asked?
“Humph,” he grunted and turned back to face her. “I’ve never gotten used to Betty.”
“Well, you have to be happy with yourself Samuel. Betty really has nothing to do with it.”
He looked back at her.
“You know I’ve been in love with you ever since high school, Isabella.”
“I know you think that Samuel,” she replied
“All day I think and dream about what it would have been like if it had been me and you instead of you and Robert,” he said. “I’m sorry but I just can’t help it.”
She didn’t reply so he turned and looked back out the window.
“Do you ever think what it would have been like if we had been together? You know, living in Chicago instead of Pewaukee, the theatre, the restaurants, all that kind of stuff,” he persisted.
“I’ll be honest. I used to think about it all of the time. Now I only think about it when you ask me once a year,” she replied.
“Oh,” he said and turned back to face her again.
“Wait a minute Samuel. Don’t take that harshly,” she said. “I used to think about it, like I said, but Samuel it got to hurt to much. I was here. It’s where I was living the life that was here for me to live. You were in Chicago. It was different worlds. You understand Samuel?”
He looked back at her. “What would it have been like though? If we had. Would we have gotten along? Would we have stayed together forever, you know, and been, well , happy?”
She smiled and didn’t answer. Isabella turned and looked out the window. From where he sat he could just make out her reflection in the glass. The reflection looked like the 18 year old Isabella he remembered from high school. Whisper thin, almost gaunt, beautiful.
“First of all, we wouldn’t have got together in high school.. You went off to college and you were in love with Betty. Remember? So, our feelings developed after we were both married. Can you think of what it would have done to our families if we would have left them? What would it have done to Robert. What would it have done to Betty?”
“It is complicated.”
“Very complicated,” she sighed, “or maybe a dreamy flirtation?”
“It was more. Well, I know how I think it would have been.”
“How Samuel. How do you think it would have been,” she asked as she reached across the table and let her fingers flitter across his knuckles before pulling them back.
“For one thing,” he said. “I would have taken you to Europe once a year. France, Italy, we would have seen it all together. You would have loved it.”
“You did go, with Betty, a few times if I remember.”
“Betty hated Europe.”
“I’ve never been on a trip like that,” she said. “I’ve actually only been out of the state a few times.”
“Really,” he said, “I didn’t know that about you.”
“Well, we went to Europe. Like I said Betty hated it.”
“Samuel,” she said, “ do you remember a couple of years before you and Betty moved to Chicago?”
He arched his eyebrows and replied, “maybe, what?”
“We, you know as couples, we went to visit that guy that Robert met on the fishing trip,” she said, “he lived up by Kewaskum. Somewhere.”
“Oh yeah, how could I forget?”
“We drank a lot,” she laughed, “at least you guys did. I guess that was usual for us all back then. After the visit, and the drinks Robert drove by that corn field and we decided to steal some corn.”
“You and I and Robert ran down to the corn field,” she said. “Betty wouldn’t go. Thought we were acting stupid! Stayed in the car.”
“She still thinks I’m stupid.”
“Anyway we were deep in the field and Robert had started walking back to the car. He saw police lights way in the distance on the highway and yelled back. “Stay down I’ll be back.”
“He ran to the car and went squealing off, just him and Betty. Well the cop was after someone else of course and went flying by. We were rolling around laughing our hands full of corn. Didn’t even know that it was nothing but field corn. They were back within 5 minutes.”
“Not before I had kissed you.”
“It was the first and last time I had ever kissed another man since I had been married to Robert. I don’t know if it was because it was so taboo or it was real passion, but the kiss was magic.”
“For me too,” he said and reached for her hand again. This time she pulled away, but gently.
“So to answer your question about what it would have been like if we had been together, well maybe it would have been like that kiss, or maybe not.”
They didn’t speak for some time and Robert sipped his coffee.
“So is Betty still angry with her sister Ruth,” she asked. “I know that last year at the re-union Betty told me that she had decided to never talk with Ruth again.”
“She’s mad at everyone all the time,” he said. “Her and Ruth are talking. Betty still hates me.”
“Samuel,” she asked, “was there ever a time that you can remember when you and Betty were happy?”
“You know, in the early years when the kids were home, I thought we were happy, but maybe it was just me. I don’t know. You know what Isabella?”
“What Samuel,” she asked?
“We barely say one word to each other anymore. Not one. I tried to think back of what I could have done to her.”
“Did she know that you loved her?”
“That’s a strange question to ask,” he replied then paused. “You know I never missed her birthday,” he stated.”
“I don’t know Samuel, but a woman needs to know.”
“Hey I forgot we always eat. Can we eat?”
“In a minute,” she replied, “did you know this is the last year for the Carousel? It‘s closing this fall. Soon.”
“Saw the sign. When exactly?”
“When it gets cold. Just like it has forever. When it gets cold. Just this time forever.” she said.
“It’s very sad. Not only have we been coming here every year before the re-union. I can’t remember how long even, but the place has been here for as long as I can remember.”
She looked around at the interior of the small drive in. There was a counter with a grill and two big custard machines behind the counter. The narrow seating area was made up of four low white plastic booths with a white formica top on each table. There were no walls in the seating area. It was floor to ceiling glass. A canopy, tattered from years in the wind, jutted twenty feet in front of the restaurant. The canopy at one time had been navy blue but was so faded now it was hard to find any blue.
For years the place had been very popular. On the weekends they had old car shows. Every man in town that had never grown up drove their cherished old cars out. The parking lot would be packed with classics and the people oggling them.
“It’s hard to believe that we won’t be sitting here next year. We’ll have to find a new spot,” Samuel said.
There was another long pause with both of them looking out the window remembering the old times there.
“I’m going to get a pizza burger and fries,” he stated, “what about you?”
“Hamburger, no cheese, no onions one pack of ketchup, black coffee, small.”
“There again! The usual!“ Samuel slid along the plastic seat and eased up to go order the food. Isabella slid over to the window and stared out the glass. She could remember the kiss in the corn field like it was yesterday. The kiss had been so gentle. He had barely brushed her lips, or so it had seemed and yet it had sent shivers through her. Shivers she still felt. She could still see the corn waving back and forth in the warm evening.
“Here you go,” he said as he slid the paper wrapped hamburger and small coffee in front of her.
“Oh, and here’s a napkin,” he added as he set it down next to her hamburger.
“Thank you,” she offered as she reached for the burger.
“So why are they closing,” he asked?
“Whom,” she asked?
“The Carousel, silly.”
“Mobile Station,” she responded as she watched large slow drips of grease fall from his burger to the white formica table top.
“There’s a Citgo just up the road past the golf course,” he replied, “how many gas stations do we need?”
She laughed> “They do seem to have one every half mile or so.”
“Well, it’s a shame. I’m going to miss this place.”
“It’s just the way of the world Samuel. Everything changes.”
They ate in silence for some time before Samuel asked, “How’s Robert’s drinking?”
She looked down at the table. “Well, there’s much more to the story about Robert now.”
“Oh,” he replied.
“He won’t be at the class reunion tomorrow,” she said.
“He’s never missed.”
“Never the less,” she said, “he won’t be coming.”
“Well, anyone can see what’s wrong. He weighs over three hundred pounds, he smokes two packs of cigarettes a day, drinks buckets, diabetes, let see what else?”
“Hey, I always liked Robert. I’m sorry Isabella. I mean it.”
“He can’t really walk that much anymore. We have a walker for him, and a nurse to give him a bath. I would, I’m just not strong enough.”
“I’m sorry, Isabella,” he said.
“It’s okay. Let’s not talk about Robert for awhile.”
They both looked back out the window. Finally Samuel turned and looked back at her.
“Do you remember in high school? You were sixteen and so beautiful. I danced with you at a school dance and asked you out for the next Saturday. I had just got my license and I had that two tone bronze and cream four door 56 Chev. I was so proud of that car.”
“I seem to remember something about that,” she giggled.
“We talked for hours and then you asked me about sex. You know what I thought of sex.”
“I tried to impress you and said sex didn’t mean much to me. No, I was the kind of guy who wanted to get to know a girl for herself first,” he said and laughed quietly.
“You were probably just worried that you would get some girl pregnant and end up in a trailer park with four kids and a job at Allis Chalmers,” she said.
“Keep to the story. So after awhile we start making out. You had on a mini skirt and your legs were so smooth in those nylons,” he said.
“You were getting pretty heated up.”
“Well, I laid you down on the seat and started trying to ease my hand up your leg. As I got closer you looked up at me with those huge brown eyes and said,” he stopped, “and said what? Do you remember?”
“I said, didn’t you just tell me that you wanted to get to know me first?”
“Stopped me dead in my tracks. I was crushed. I hated myself for having said that earlier, but somehow I thought maybe I had been had,” he laughed.
“Why didn’t you ever ask me out again? I always wondered that?”
“I met Betty. She didn’t say no on the first date, and I kinda went crazy,” he replied.
“How long have we been meeting here each year just before the re-union,” she asked?
“I don’t know exactly. Forever. A long time anyway,” he answered. “But back to the earlier subject. I’ve been thinking about that date for thirty years.”
“Do you remember the song,” she asked?
He smiled. They talked about the song every year and even on occasion quietly sang it together at the drive in ,giggling like kids the entire time.
“Oh lord won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz? Janis Joplin. The song on the radio. On that date,” he stated with conviction.
“That was the first time we heard it together, but it was so funny. It was both of our favorite songs at that instant.. What are the odds,” she asked?
“Do you remember that bar years later?”
“Of course,” she returned.
“You with Robert. I was with Betty. We didn’t even know we were going to be there. We said hi, but you were with some other friends. So what do you know?”
“The juke box starts playing the song,” she said.
“I walked over, with brass balls and asked you to dance, and you said yes. We went out there and couldn’t dance to that song. There’s really no music. We started to laugh so hard I thought my sides would break. Everyone was looking at us like we had lost our minds, especially Betty and Robert,” he said. “That was funny.”
“Our secret song,” she said.
They were both quiet for a time. Lost in their thoughts.
“So,” she started, “I’m not going to the re-union this year either.”
He didn’t reply for awhile. Samuel twisted carefully using his hands on the plastic seat, and slid closer to the window. He could still see his dim reflection. “What,” he asked?
“You bastard,” she sobbed quietly as her head fell into her hand.
“It’s Robert. Robert needs me,” she said as she wiped her eyes with her sleeves and looked back up at him.
“Isabella, Robert made his own bed. He could have taken better care of himself.”
“No Samuel, no,” she said slowly, “we made his bed.”
“What,” he asked? He gripped the edge of the white table top with both hands. “I made his bed? I ate his cheeseburgers and praline ice cream? I drank his Miller Lites and smoked his Pal Mals?”
“Be careful what you say Samuel.”
He was silent for a minute and then slid back to face her at the middle of the table. “Wait a minute, just wait a minute. Let’s back up. What’s wrong here Isabella,” he asked?
“You wait,” she spat.
“Isabella you wait. If you don’t want to go to the re-union. Well, that’s fine I guess, but I don’t want to fight with you. We’re just out having a burger together. That’s all.”
She sighed and glanced out the window. “Is that all it’s been? Just having a burger together?”
“Robert’s dying,” she said.
“He dying,” he asked?
“That’s all you have to say about the subject,” she asked?
“Everybody dies, I guess.”
“He’s dying quicker that the rest of us Samuel.”
“I feel responsible for all this,” she started, “don’t take this the wrong way. I wish I had never met you.”
He said nothing for a minute or two. “That’s a bombshell,” he said, “this is like in business. I go to meet a customer thinking this guy loves me and he cancells my hundred thosand dollar contract over coffee.
“It’s not like business, Samuel. Everything isn’t business.”
“Okay,” he said, “tell me what this is really about.”
“I loved Robert,” she said, “and then you came along and twisted it all up.”
“Twisted,” he said, “I just kissed you in a cornfield.”
“Just kissed me? To you that kiss wasn’t a promise. To me it was. I lost a little of my love for Robert and he knew it for the rest of his life. I bet Betty did too.”
“We’re just friends, Isabella. We’re not killing people. Just flirting a little.”
“Maybe you were just flirting Samuel.”
“I don’t even know what your talking about, Isabella. You never stopped me. We’ve been doing this for 50 years.”
“Did you ever think of what effect it had on them,” she asked?
“Isabella, on who? I mean do you remember us ever having sexual relationships? No. Because we didn’t.”
“That’s just so you Samuel.”
“What’s that mean?”
“I had a song for us too,” she said quietly as she glanced at the window then looked back at him.
“Nights are forever,” she muttered .
“Hall and Oats. How would I know?”
“So, you didn’t know that, and what we did had no effect on Robert and Betty? Right? Right Samuel?”
He slid quickly over towards the window and felt his back pull. He grimaced. She noticed but didn’t say a thing about it.
They sat like that for a good five minutes. Finally she gathered her purse to her and started to get up. He reached up and gently took her arm.
“Isabella, your making to much of this. We were just friends.”
“I think I understand Betty a little better.”
“Give me five minutes for fifty years,” he asked?
She looked at his hand then into his eyes. He let go of her arm.
“Go,” he said, “go take care of Robert then.”
She continued to look at him for a few seconds and then turned and walked out.
Samuel slid back to the middle of the seat carefully sliding his legs first to protect his back. He slid the rest of the way over to the edge and gingerly got to his feet. He walked to the counter. He waited for some time and finally a pimply faced fifteen year old boy ambled over as disinterested as a cat on a hot day.
“I’ll have a half and half with pecans and jimmy’s. Light chocolate sauce.”
“What’s a half and half,” asked the boy?
“How long have you worked here.”
“Just the summer, why?”
“Nothing, I just thought everybody new what a half and half was. I’ve been ordering it that way for a long time,” Samuel explained. “Half Chocolate custard, half vanilla.”
The boy didn’t bother to reply but started to build the small Sunday. He handed it to Samuel.
“Thanks,” Samuel said. He walked back to the booth. He slowly ate his Sunday with the plastic spoon as he looked at all the new developments up and down Highway K . His reflection kept pushing its way into his field of vision and he focused at it. He saw his father staring back. When he finished he licked the last bits of Jimmy’s and ice cream off of the spoon and let it rattle back into the cup.
Samuel eased his way back out of the booth and walked out the door. He noticed that it was already starting to cool down. He walked to his car and carefully eased himself in back first. He pulled out of the parking lot and onto the busy street.
“Oh lord won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz, my friends all drive Porches, I must make ammend,” he sang quietly as he drove away.
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