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Thursday, May. 11, 2006
“We’ll sit at the bar for dinner, if that’s all right,” and like magic we whisked past a herd of people milling about in the restaurant lobby. Ally and I don’t mind sitting at the bar. It has higher chairs and a brass rail for your feet, plentiful plasma TV’s for sports and a considerate person in charge of keeping your beverage full. What could be wrong with that arraignment?

Ally toyed with the chunk of pineapple stuffed over the rim of her fruity drink. “This is the right place to come for a night like this, you know?”

“It is, isn’t it. Like going out on a date. Hell, it IS a date, for that matter.” We were sitting quite close to each other, and doing the long practiced thing of moony glances and smiles. Even a not-so-very-prudish kiss every once in a while. We were easily the oldest people seated around a very large horseshoe bar but it was all about the backseat hijinks over in our little corner.

And the Sox were on the TV closest to us, so just in case I wanted for one more good thing I had only to glance up and there it was. Big Pappi coming to the plate with a man on first, too.

I felt expansive. “Onion rings and a cold longneck, sitting at the bar with a hot looking woman and watching baseball at the same time.” I sighed for theatrics, and motioned for another beer. “Sometimes life can be really good, sweetie.”

Big Pappi must have been tuned right in to my level of karma. He turned hard on the next pitch and planted the ball in the upper deck of Yankee Stadium, starting toward first and watching it fly with that “Hmmm . . . that was interesting” expression he has. And I let out a little whoop and so did the fellas across the way, there was a Bosox tingle in the air and never mind that this is Swampville and well south of the promised land. When you get the call from Mecca and Big Pappi crushes one, you whoop a little.

I turned to Ally and she was smiling, brown eyes alive and beaming on me. “I was wrong honey,” I said. “Sometimes life just gets a little better by the minute. And I‘m lucky too.”

“Lucky how?”

“Well, like how I get to take my wife out for a 26th wedding anniversary to a restaurant with great onion rings and watch baseball. That she doesn’t make me feel guilty for not buying her stuff. That kind of lucky.”

“That’s just because I’m a cheap date. Besides, we went on the cruise last year for the 25th. That has to count for something.”

“Yeah, you running all over the Caribbean buying jewelry. Heh.”

She shrugged, still grinning. “You gave me free reign as I recall. Kept after me about it even. I’d do it again tomorrow.”

We smiled all the more at each other, heads almost touching. The two Bosox fans let out another muted yelp as a solo homer cleared the wall and even the kitchen staff was cheering by now but there wasn’t anything for me but two warm eyes and a hand on the back of my neck.

“Thanks baby, for everything . . .”, and no need to say why, or what for.

It’s hard to work the words “Gracious” or “Elegant” into an account of a long life that ends in a slow death, but that’s the way I’ll remember Ally’s mom in her last days alive. Gracious in a manner of being surprised at the number of flowers arriving at her home, to sit on her mantle and gradually overflow onto the table, the floor. Something to look at in her last hours. Elegant in the way she wanted to go, at her own home, away from the clutter and starchiness of a hospital bed. In the old way, with her children nearby, and her children’s children.

She died on May the first with three of her four children right there. Tired children to be sure, rotating all night vigils to sit by her side and do what could be done, which at the end was very little at all. I could hear it in Ally’s voice when she called that day, me in a hardhat and sweating on the third floor of a jobsite. I could hear the weariness between the sobs, and a bit of the relief as well. The cancer that took her was painful and relentless.

I wasn’t very focused the rest of the day. I didn’t hurry off to comfort Ally, hard hearted as it might sound, because that wouldn’t have been what her Mom was all about in any case. I suppose if she’d been coaxed into articulating such a thing, she might have made a life statement by saying “Get up and go do something productive, provide for your family and never mind about me.” She was a private person and saying such things would have mortified her. Living the example, on the other hand, was easy for her.

About a week after Ally and I were married she told my wife that the door was always open, that after I ran off and left her, Mom would always be there to console. Made it pretty evident that she expected that, too. Betty never had anything but bad luck with the men in her life and eventually tossed the male as a hobby idea and took up photography instead.

I think it took about 20 years for her to warm up to me, but there was a great fondness after that. Maybe it was the longevity, or the grandkids, or me patching her roof, or the fact that we didn’t go out of our way to annoy each other.

I do know that the last time I saw her standing, and called her sweetheart and pressed a palm to her cheek she dimpled just a bit with a smile for me, and a look. Something that said “I’m glad you stayed around for her. It pleased me quite a lot.”

But in the old way, we spoke not at all of it, and busied ourselves with talk of dishwashers and where that favorite plate of mine might be. Because last I looked, it was right up there in the cabinet, and you know I’d like Beth the Eldest to have it.

Later on, or in a little while.

It was that very sense of the surreal part of death on a Monday when the call came from the Tall Dog, the Boss of me. I’d clambered down from the third floor jobsite, tossed hardhat and tool belt into the truck and fired the motor and jabbed a finger at a ringing phone.

“Outfoxed, Tall Dog here. How’s it going, gonna be able to run downtown and do that little thing and make the evil contractor happy?”

It was one of those “Come hold my hand” things, a trifle really. A thing that could easily be done the next day, or the next month for that matter. Some silliness about a mirror in a bathroom and a stick of wood or two. A political thing, where the actual solving of the problem wasn’t one of fixing a mirror but responding to someone’s whim, and quickly.

“Naw, I think not,” I said. I could hear the hint of something from the Tall Dog, it isn’t a righteous thing to do to say No to the boss of you, and I suppose he wanted to know why.

“My wife’s Mom just passed away a few hours ago, and I thought to go hug my wife might be the thing to do for right now. I’ll get to the mirror in the morning.”

“Oh . . . God. God I’m sorry, and . . .oh gee whiz Outfoxed I’m embarrassed as hell for even asking. Is there anything I can do?”

He is a genuine man, and a kind one. A gentleman of the South in every respect, much as my late Mother in law was a complete lady of the South. They never met of course, but there would have been that respectful air of gracious good manners between them, a “Very pleased to meet you” spoken with the charm that only a fine wisp of drawl can make.

“It’s appreciated, and thank you. She was a nice lady, no it wasn’t unexpected . . .” and I gave him the short version of a life lived well.

He breathed in contemplation, the mirror forgotten and responding to whims exposed for what they are, he is a man given to being grateful for his employees and protective of them. It is why I call him the Tall Dog in the first place. “Take all the time you need, please, and we’ll be praying for you and your wife.”

It was a Tallish sort of thing to say, and I told him so, and clicked off the phone.

And pointed the truck east, to my wife and no small amount of grief, and no end to the living that makes grief an occasional thing that brushes by us.

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