It was just what he did, night after night, sitting in the faded metal lawn chair next to his father on a sloping timber porch lining Main Street, Amos. His father sighed deeply into the late summer dusk and reached once again into a bag of orange circus peanuts, laughing as the vinyl leather of his wheelchair protested flatulently against his bulk. Dean Steiner was 300 pounds of almost perfectly spherical gut balanced between two below-knee amputations.
Main Street was, as was the case for most Saturday nights, crawling with teenagers in slow moving cars, their progress along the dusty cobbles hindered only by a 30 mile an hour speed limit and the presence of a blue cruiser parked up alongside the grain elevator.
“Waste of time, Virge,” he said, popping a fluffy orange peanut between his sparsely-toothed gums and sucking noisily.
Virgil sighed. At 47, he had long abandoned any prospect of Saturday night socialisation, a scene that had eluded him as surely at 15 as it did today. The oversized, pimply kid with dual hearing aids and strap-on transistor had morphed into a six-and-a-half foot giant. It mattered little that he had outgrown his acne or that his hearing aids were now discreetly hidden in his ear canals. Virgil, the man with thick lips, a hearing deficit and a home life centered entirely on facilitating the ease of his father’s life, had been born to a life of isolation.
He nodded and pretended not to notice the laughter spilling from the yellow Camaro passing on Main. The girl behind the wheel bore an uncanny resemblence to every other teenaged girl in Amos, in part because she was related to most of them, but also because so little had changed in the thirty-odd years since he had left school. Laughter was generally a commodity owned by others. And throughout his life it had been, as often as not, directed at him.
Nevertheless, his D-average Special Ed diploma was framed and held pride of place on the brown panelled wall of the living room, right below the treasured photo of his long-dead mother.
“Sure is, Pops,” he agreed in a voice that bore the deep, tuneless marks of an instrument rarely used. Still, he could scarcely conceal his irritation at seeing the near empty bag of circus peanuts at his father’s side. “C’mon, let’s go in and get some real food.”
Dean snorted. “I ain’t hungry.”
Virgil glared at the bag and rose to his feet. “No, Pops,” he said, “I don’t guess you are. But the doctor said.”
“I know what the danged doctor said!”
“Your sugar is sky high.”
His father crumpled the bag of candy and stuffed it unceremoniously into the side pocket of his wheelchair for safekeeping. “It is what it is, son. Get off my back, will you?” With that, he reached for the toggle on his electric chair and made a surprisingly tidy about face and headed for the screen door.
Dean looked up at his son and smiled wearily. “Look at me,” he said. “I’m half a man, Virge. Can’t drink, can’t smoke – what else I got to live for, huh?”
He could hardly argue with Pops’ logic. Still, Virgil eyed the grayish stumps of his father’s remaining fingers and wondered when the next one would be sacrificed to disease, counting himself blessed for each day he himself had managed to dodge the diabetic bullet.
But then, Virgil had never really taken after his father in much of anything, being as slow as Dean was quick, and tall to the same degree his father was short. Pops always said he took after his momma, but how was Virgil to know? She had died in childbirth, and their two bedroom house bore not a single mark of feminine presence. There were no doilies or frilly curtains, no photo albums or vases or womanly things of any kind. They had no “best” china or pretty glasses, and not so much as a thread of women’s clothing hung from any rail in the house.
“Aw, heck, Virge,” Pops had said, waving his hand dismissively, “we eloped, see? There weren’t no pictures of anything that day. We was outrunning her daddy’s shotgun!”
Virgil thought about this for a long moment, trying to envision the scene. Try as he might, he could not picture his squat, plain father jumping the fence with a woman in tow. And his mother, if her picture was to be believed, was a beauty by any measure with her long limbs and smiling, pale eyes. “But …what was she like?”
Pops fixed his gaze on the black and white photo and shrugged. “She was pretty,” he said, “and tall. Just like you. So hush now, hear? You know I don’t like talking about your momma…”
And so Virgil had accepted the mystery of Dorothy Steiner’s existence and nonexistence as he had accepted most of what life flung his way. His father had raised him from infancy, playing both mother and father to him. Throughout Virgil’s adulthood, his father was more brother than parent. And now, in his disabled state, Pops was playing the child. From Virgil’s standpoint, he had his whole family wrapped up in one person. What was the point of wanting more?
Indeed, the prospect of wanting more of anything had never occurred to Virgil in his life. He was a simple man with uncomplicated expectations, an outlook which had resulted in a satisfying – if adventureless – life.
Until the day a long-limbed lady named Eleanor Watson took the Amos exit off I-70 and stopped by WalMart for a bottle of water… and a bag of circus peanuts.
Few in Amos would claim to know Virgil well, but nearly everybody recognised the giant in the blue polyester vest.
He had worked the same job in the same store for decades, stocking shelves at the Amos WalMart where his placidity, height and brute strength had not gone unnoticed by fellow associates. He did not read well since printed numbers and letters never sat still for him, but early on in his WalMart career it was decided a man like Virgil had his uses: Heavy goods arriving in the garden centre? Call Virgil. Need someone to hang streamers, change lightbulbs or reach an impossibly high shelf? Call Virgil. Cleanup in aisle two? That would be a job for Virgil… not that he was store janitor. He simply accepted whatever task was assigned him with equally measured longsuffering and a placid silence that endeared him to some and moved others to ridicule.
Over time he had worked his way through a lengthy succession of team leaders and managerial staff, most of whom were considerably younger than he was. In his thirty years, he had never been put forward for promotion. Not that he minded. From Virgil’s point of view, the less he had to interact with others the better he liked it.
Oh, he had watched his fellow employees either move on to greener pastures or grow bald, fat and bitter with stress. He had seen girls age from high school through marriages, parenthood and eventual grandparenthood. He smiled in shy congratulation at their successes and hung his head in contemplative silence at their failures, acknowledging the peaks and troughs of other lives without judgment. His coworkers professed varying degrees of happiness in their chosen course. Still, Virgil marvelled at the deep parentheses bracketing their middle aged mouths and the creases and crows feet brought on by smoking, age and poor life choices.
He figured he could not avoid the plague of age. But whatever disruption from his particularly uninteresting status quo he could avoid, he did.
Which is what made his behavior all the more surprising that October morning he met a tall, elegant lady bent double in the candy aisle, investigating the shelves with sharp grey eyes and muttering softly to herself, “…circus peanuts… circus peanuts…”
Virgil couldn’t help but smile at the mental image of this fit, healthy lady stuffing back a handful of stiff, orange marshmallow. She, with her closely cropped salt and pepper hair and tidy, gray pantsuit, seemed decidedly at odds with circus peanuts. “Can I help you find something, ma’am?”
Her head swung round in surprise, and she proceeded to unfold to her considerable height and faced him, very nearly eye to eye, with a relieved smile.
“Oh, yes, please!” she breathed, her silver eyes dancing merrily in the white glow of fluorescent tube lighting. “Do y’all carry circus peanuts?”
“We do,” he replied, moving down the aisle and indicating a central shelf. “They’re right here.” Virgil handed her a large bag of candy. “Here you go,” he offered with a timid smile. For a man of his age, Virgil possessed the pubescent tones of a voice not often used, a voice punctuated by breaks and cracks in an embarrassing array of tones. To his own ear, he sounded precisely like a flock of geese that refused to fly in formation, and so was pleased to use it as little as humanly possible.
The lady cocked her head and examined the package, turning it over in her hands while she checked the price marked on the shelf, searching for the best value.
Virgil cleared his throat and sought his deepest register. “We have the off brands that are a little cheaper,” he said, “but these ones are Brach’s. My dad claims they’re the best.”
“Oh, they are,” She agreed, gifting him again with a toothy grin before leaning in to whisper, “I’m just trying to find a bigger bag.” She reached for a second bag and tucked them both under her arm. “I’d like to say they weren’t for me, but they are. I’ve been hooked on ’em for years.” Her admission was accompanied by a roll of her eyes while she patted her spare, flat stomach. “I keep hoping if I eat enough of them, I’ll finally put some meat on these bones.” She gave a breezy laugh and touched Virgil’s sleeve with her long, square-tipped fingers. “As you can see, my experiment has failed completely!”
Virgil’s broad lips split wide in a odd marriage of smile and grimace, revealing a row of crooked, white teeth. “There’s worse problems to have,” he blurted awkwardly, backing away. “Anyway – uh, glad to help.”
“Why, thank you -” she craned her neck to read his name tag, “Virgil.”
Ducking his head in silent acknowledgement, Virgil breathed in the clean scent of her peppery hair and the very nearly palpable cloud of Chanel No. 5 that engulfed him in that instant.
He didn’t know much about women. In fact, he knew nothing all. But Virgil knew fragrances. He wondered if in a previous life he had been what the French call “A Nose”– Someone who spent their life analysing fragrances. (Although, admittedly, that bit of trivia was more or less the sum total of his knowledge anything French, and he had no actual belief in reincarnation…)
He did, however, have a peculiar memory for scent. He knew a red rose from a yellow, and a yellow from a white. He knew his Folger’s from his Maxwell House same as he knew White Linen from J’Adore.
Chanel No. 5. Even dead men knew that was Marilyn Monroe’s perfume. Oh yes, Virgil knew this one, even if WalMart didn’t stock it.
The first time he smelled it was when a sample card had fallen from the rack of Vogue magazines. A teenaged Virgil had absentmindedly scooped up the white card embossed in black letters and pocketed it, fully intending to discard it when his shift was over. As it happened, he forgot all about it until he was clearing his pockets to launder his jeans at the end of the week. The frayed rectangle had not weathered its pocket journey well, but Virgil took no notice of its curling edges and deep creases. He never judged books by their covers.
And besides – he was curious.
When he was sure Pops wasn’t looking, Virgil had peeled open the sample and buried his nose between its scented leaves. His eyes drifted closed for but a fraction of a second, just long enough to imprint the scent, but not so long as to draw attention from his ever-watchful father.
This was a scent so divine Virgil was struck by the absurd notion it should have been wearing wings – long, soft white wings. It was the fragrance of red lipped angels fluttering just beyond his reach. Virgil, a pimply kid with hearing aids and great, clumsy hands, knew without doubt that to smell an angel was as close as he would ever get to feeling the brush of her wings.
Chanel No. 5 was laced with a pheromone that struck a 16-year-old Virgil in the most private regions of his flesh. It evoked a response in him so immediate, so shocking, his face heated with shame. With a furtive glance at his father, Virgil had carefully closed the sample and jammed it in his back pocket.
And now here he stood, thirty years on, his modest soul transported to its most salacious moment in time by olfactory recall…
Of course, Virgil had no idea what pheromones were any more than he could have explained gravity, though the effects of both were equally compelling.
And as sure as he knew a jump from a third story window would end badly, Virgil knew he should never allow himself to be caught up in the orbit of any woman wearing Chanel No. 5.
Which was exactly where he was now, caught in the tractor beam of a lady in the first frost of her autumnal years and possessing the good-natured assurance of a life lived happily. As she continued to talk, he clung to the perverse notion that she wasn’t particularly attractive. She was too tall, her hair too short, her laugh too loud and her familiarity with his person, he being a total stranger, was completely out of order. She had eyes too pale – not even a real colour, actually, kind of a translucent grey, like badly polished mirrors to reflect his own awkwardness.
Pragmatic Virgil was not a man given to flights of fancy. He mentally dismissed the woman out of hand.
The rest of him, however, was not listening. It sent out a distress call in the form of a deep scarlet flush that crept from his collar up to his ears, staining his cheeks and setting his forehead alight.
Ho Lord, he thought, realising suddenly that the lady’s lips were still moving and he was expected to say something intelligent. Or intelligible at the very least…
“…goodness, you ARE a tall drink of water, aren’t you?” the lady was saying, seemingly unaware of Virgil’s discomfort and his taxi-cab ears hotly advertising his unwilling and uncomfortable interest. She just kept right on talking, thrusting the bags of candy into Virgil’s hands while she stepped back and proceeded to rummage through an oversized and highly disorganised purse in search of –
“AHA!” She cried triumphantly, producing a slightly rumpled white card with black lettering and exchanging it for the bags Virgil was holding for her. It read simply: The All Tall Club of Great Bend, Eleanor Watson, President, along with her contact details and all links to social media.
“Name’s Ellie,” she said, smiling again and giving him a friendly wink. “Ellie Watson. I run a tall club over in Great Bend. Thought you might be interested…”
She proceeded to tell him that, at 6-foot-2 she had always struggled to find people she could happily socialise with, terming herself something of “a freak of nature.” Short men were intimidated, and tall men were practically always already attached to women of perfectly acceptable height, and quite a few of them had married very short women. (As if there weren’t enough short men out there in search of shorter mates, right?)
“I call ’em the ‘Mutts and Jeffs,'” she harrumphed good-naturedly, following it up with a surprisingly youthful giggle. “But I guess opposites attract, right?”
Virgil agreed. And though he had never heard of Mutt or Jeff, he made a vague mental note to find out who they were. He smiled his way bewilderedly through her one-sided conversation, nodding in what he hoped were the appropriate places. “…not a singles club,” she was saying, “…plenty of couples there…” And “Good Lord, I’m too old to date!” and, “Why would I want to look after an old man for the rest of my life…?”
In all of his own life, Virgil had never seen a woman talk so much. His hearing being what it was, he found he had to do a whole lot of lip reading. He was a very skilled lip reader, actually, but Ellie Watsons lips were moving at such a frenzied pace and his own senses were in such a state that his train of thought left the station and derailed about three paragraphs in.
Being railroaded was the only possible explanation for what followed.
He had no clear idea how it transpired, and if he replayed the conversation in his own mind, Virgil was at a loss to say at what point he found himself agreeing to go along to a meeting of the All Tall Club on Friday night. “We’ll be learning to Salsa,” Ellie said, and Virgil’s eyes shifted for the nearest exit. “But you can just watch,” she was quick to add. “It’ll be fun!” He found himself nodding dumbly. “But no pressure…” Virgil shook his head in the negative, as if the idea that anyone could ever take advantage of him was utterly ridiculous.
“So, you’ll be there then!” There was a slight pause in the conversation, and suddenly Ellie’s pale eyes were fixed directly on his own.
Virgil’s realised that, while this was more statement than question, he was expected to respond in the affirmative. His tongue felt like it was wrapped in cotton, and he must have nodded. The bright pleasure in Ellie’s smile fairly scorched him. She gripped the sweaty meat hook that was Virgil’s right hand and shook it soundly in her own cool palm, sealing the deal and surprising him by not shrinking from the slippery contact. “It was real nice meeting you, Virgil,” she said again, “I’ll see you on Friday!”
Virgil stood transfixed in the candy aisle as she ambled her way to the front of the store, casting him a backward glance and a friendly wave from her position in the Express Lane before disappearing from view. She and Chanel No. 5 were finally gone.
And then he breathed. His train of thought slowly returned to the platform, dented and battered and with only two working wheels, chugging black smoke and wheezing to a proverbial stop.
Railroaded. That’s what he was. Drugged and railroaded, hogtied and strapped to the tracks by the sweet-smelling fast-talker that was Eleanor Watson.
What had he agreed to again?
Oh yeah. Tall Club. Salsa. No pressure…
Virgil turned on his heel and made a beeline for the restroom.
If talking was an Olympic event, Eleanor Watson would be a 10 time gold medalist. Champion of the world. And she knew it.
But knowing it and being able to stop it were two completely different things.
In the parking lot, Ellie slid into the white leather seat of her ’65 Mustang ragtop and laid her forehead against the steering wheel, utterly mortified. Had she really called that poor man “a tall drink of water?” It sounded like the cheapest of pickup lines. It was not even an expression she knew that she knew. It had just sort of tumbled from her nervous lips, like so many words tended to do.
She cooled her cheeks with her ice cold palms and mentally reminded herself of all the reasons she had been single for so long. Saddled as she was by her stellar height and a mind-numbingly talkative personality, Ellie was larger than life by anyone’s estimation. She felt sometimes as if God, in assembling her, had decided to sweep up all the spare parts he had lying around after having distributed every ounce of grace and dignity to the the remainder of the human race.
Her formula for repelling men was tried, tested and unfailingly true:
PHYSICAL ATTRACTION + CRUISE DIRECTOR POSITIVITY ÷ NERVOUSNESS – INTERNAL FILTER
= CHATTY CATHY DRIVING A VERBAL STEAMROLLER
In the space of five minutes, Ellie would leaf through entirely too many pages from her book of life to be considered socially acceptable. Conversations would be riddled with self-deprecation and overshares to the point that any potential partner would be utterly convinced she was not worth the trouble. Or the noise, for that matter…
Half of her hoped for Virgil’s sake he would not be there on Friday.
Her other half , the half holding the keys to the wrecking ball and quite realistically expecting the worst, simply knew he would be.
Virgil, on the other hand, was less sure. Sitting beside Pops on the front porch that night, he put his father in the picture.
“Tall club, eh?” Dean Steiner chuckled and reached for the potato chips. “Didn’t even know they existed.”
“Me neither.” Virgil declined to comment on the fact that his father had never stood above five-foot-six before he lost his legs. The very idea there were clubs for tall people was as remote an idea from Pops as the man in the moon. He stared numbly down at the wrinkled business card in his hand and shrugged. “Don’t see much point in it, really,” he mumbled.
Pops nodded in sage agreement. “Besides, Great Bend is pretty far away anyhow. Seems like a long way to go to teeter around a dance floor.” He puffed out a quick bark of laughter as the image of it struck his funny bone. “God Aw’mighty, Virge, what a sight that would be! A bunch of left-footed trees swaying to the music and trying to find a beat!” Dean began to sway in his chair, bouncing along to the rhythm of the the conga line he saw dancing through his imagination. “Aaaa – da da da da da… DA! Da da da da da… DA!”
Virgil felt himself flushing even as he smiled along with his father’s mockery. Pops was right. It was a joke. Tall club was a joke. Learning to dance… well, that was so lame it didn’t even qualify to be a joke.
He sat back and stretched his legs out in front of himself, folding his arms behind his head. Main Street was quiet tonight on account of it being a week night, but the ever present police cruiser rumbled slowly along the cobbles. From behind the wheel, the Sheriff raised his hand in greeting but kept on rolling.
“Heya, Mick!” Dean called, raising his hand and toasting the Sheriff’s health with a potato chip held aloft.
Amos was a nice town. Everybody knew everybody, and everybody’s business was everybody else’s. That fact had both its advantages and disadvantages, Virgil supposed, but it was a decent place to live. It was a warm evening for October, and the sound of cicadas filled the air. Sun was setting behind the grain elevator, casting the tin man water tower into relief against a coral sky.
What more could Virgil want from life than what he had at that very moment? He had a peaceful life. An uncomplicated life. He had steady work, got on well with his father, and between his checks and Pops’ disability, they never lacked for too much. Virgil would never be rich, but he had never wanted to be. Enough had always been enough for him.
Virgil closed his eyes and sighed. His fingers idly stroked the business card he had wedged in the gap between his middle and index fingers, and, as though she were a genie drifting on a vaporous stream from the card itself, the face of Eleanor Watson appeared in his mind’s eye. Her eyes were dancing with laughter.
He could… he could almost smell her, she was that real.
His eyes flew open and Virgil brought the business card to his nose. She was there.
Enough had always been enough for Virgil. Always.
But now he felt itchy and restless and annoyed. Bored even, and Virgil, a man with quiet ways and no expectations suddenly discovered that he wanted… something. He wanted more. But what? To teeter around a dance floor making the biggest fool of himself? To hear laughter at his own expense? He was plenty used to that. He was big and slow, he couldn’t read to save his life, he was half deaf, for God’s sake, and he had always stayed at square one in his job. Of course people laughed at him. Why wouldn’t they? He was practically a walking advertisement for ridicule.
Enough should be enough. Nothing had changed. He didn’t want to meet people, tall or short. He didn’t want to have his hearing confused by a room full of strangers talking, music blaring, unable to tell which lips he was meant to be reading…
He looked at the card again and slowly turned it over, his blood running cold and hot again at what he saw.
The rear of the card was embellished in a most personal work of art – the blurry relief of red lips, blotted lipstick, stained the rumpled card.
It was a kiss.
It was an invitation.
It was a promise.
In Virgil’s mind, in that moment the notion took shape and crystalized in the form of silvery eyes and salt and pepper hair, a pair of red lips talking faster than he could read. They were telling him that for Virgil, at least, enough would never be enough again.
He had never been a praying man, but Virgil Steiner believed in God.
At least, he hoped there was a God up there to hear his prayer that the floor open up and swallow him, because he wanted to die right there on the spot. And if in that very moment he could have simply vanished, forgetting the All Tall Club, Ellie and a lipstick stain, he would happily have accepted nonexistence.
God, though, had other plans, for Virgil stood rooted to a perfectly firm spot of floor just inside the sliding room divider with a death grip on his iced tea.
The function room at the Great Bend Community Center gleamed dully beneath the cheap sparkle of a glitter ball and red disco lights, but for Virgil, clad in his scratchy new shirt and jeans, the mood was anything but festive. He counted himself lucky he had arrived late. A normal-sized couple identified as “Juan and Carlita” were demonstrating basic Salsa moves for the class, encouraging them to swing their hips as they rocked forward and back.
He felt the bass line drumming through him, saw the hips swaying, and knew automatically that he had made a ghastly mistake. Virgil didn’t sway. He didn’t make fancy moves with his two left feet. Heck, he could barely hear.
It was Junior Prom all over again. He had spent that night holding up a wall of bleachers in a shadowy corner of the gym, his new hearing aids abuzz from the painful confusion of noise and conversation that swirled around him. Virgil had watched the dancers in brooding silence from the space between his lowered brows and his raised punch glass until he could bear no more and stalked off home. In the rain.
Tonight, instead of a powder blue rent-a-tux, Virgil had invested in new Levis and a navy polo shirt for the occasion, buttoned straight up to his neck to spare the world any possible glimpse of chest hair. His hairiness was an almost constant source of mortification for Virgil. As if being tall were not enough, he had become, over the years, a veritable ape.
He mentioned these grim facts to God as he began offering up another prayer in favour of his own demise.
But then he spotted a vision in turquoise separating herself from the group of dancers and heading his way, her lean face split from ear to ear with the widest pink smile he had ever seen. “Well, THERE you are!” her lips were saying as she closed the space between them, reaching out and taking one of his hands in both of her own. “I’m so glad to see you, Virgil! Goodness, I was afraid I had scared the life out of you the other day, chattering away like a loon! Heck, I didn’t even have a decent business card to hand you -“
Virgil flushed violently at mention of the business card. Had she known it had been used to blot her lipstick? Stuffing down the image of that titillating autograph in red, he cleared his throat and forced himself to smile. “Naw, you didn’t scare me,” he muttered. She hadn’t scared him, actually. She had terrified him.
His fear became a bolt of shock when she slid a hand up his furry arm and slipped her fingertips under the sleeve of his shirt, gripping his bicep. For a woman like Eleanor Watson who probably touched people for a living, her long fingers around Virgil’s suddenly tense bicep probably meant nothing to her at all. Neither did the soft cloud of perfume that engulfed him as she leaned in and spoke close to his ear. “Liar!” she said, then smiled into his eyes and gave his arm a little squeeze. “But you’ll have to excuse me, sweetie,” she confessed, “handsome men like you make me so nervous I can’t seem to stop myself talking! I’m like one of those sets of wind up dentures, clattering on and on and on…” With that she threw back her head and laughed, looping her arm companionably through his own and leading him further into the room.
Virgil frowned. Had she just called him handsome?
As they approached a knot of people in the corner, she fairly shouted over the music,”Hey, look, everybody! Here’s the guy I was tellin’ y’all about!”
Oh Lord, what had she said about him? With rising panic and a heart that was beating a path to his throat, Virgil struggled to make eye contact with the other All Tall Club members. All he could think was that he wanted to be sick then and there, but with Ellie still clinging to his arm, there was no escape. He hoped the room was dark enough to hide his beet red ears and the sweat beading his brow.
“Everybody, this is Virgil,” chirped Ellie, “Virgil, this is everybody…” As she spoke, she gave Virgil’s arm the briefest squeeze of reassurance. It was a move that most likely meant nothing to a confident, touchy-feely lady like her, but for Virgil – well, that was another story.
Ellie’s touch had brought his arm into brief contact with the side of her breast, setting light to the flash paper that was Virgil’s tattered nervous system.
Caught between sensory overload and the sweet-smelling wrecking ball that was Eleanor Watson, Virgil froze like a deer in headlights. He must have mumbled a greeting or nodded, but for the life of him he was aware of nothing but the rushing of blood through his ears.
Ellie had called him handsome.
Handsome! The woman was clearly insane. After all, he owned a mirror, and was pragmatic in the extreme about his own looks and the lack thereof. Which led him to only one conclusion: Ellie was flirting with him. He didn’t understand it, couldn’t account for it, and harboured a secret suspicion that she was maybe even setting him up for some kind of joke…
But whatever the reason for her attention, Virgil liked it. Oh, he liked it a lot. So much so that he allowed her to drag him into the uncharted waters of conversation with perfect strangers, and he even found himself enjoying the experience. And before he knew it, Ellie had manoeuvred him into a quiet corner of the room, where they sat at a folding card table.
She asked questions. All sorts of questions, about life, about work, about what little he knew of his family. He learned she was an elementary school principal contemplating retirement now that she was nearing 60. But what on earth would she do with all her free time? Besides, there were her kids to think about.
“You have kids?” Virgil asked.
Ellie grinned. “I sure do. Around 350 of ’em, K through five.”
“Ah,” he replied with a deep nod to conceal his relief.
She sighed and sipped her Pepsi. “I love ’em. I do. Part of me wishes I would have had my own, but then, another part of me is pretty happy to see them go home at the end of the day…”
Private though he was, Virgil found Ellie easy to talk to. She was direct. If she wanted to know something, she just flat out asked him instead of dancing around a point and making oblique references that Virgil had always found bewildering to decipher. She said exactly what she thought. He knew where he stood with her. Or, at least, he hoped he knew.
So, when the evening was winding down and “Juan and Carlita” (who, Ellie had informed him, were just John and Carla from over at the dance academy) were packing up their disco ball, Ellie asked Virgil out and they agreed to meet for dinner the next night. And the night after that. And the night following…
Over the course of three months, Virgil burned up the road between Amos and Great Bend, and had clocked an alarming number of minutes on his cellphone. He even upgraded his calling plan, or he would have to sell his truck to pay the bill.
For a man who had never strung much more than ten words in a row, Virgil found that with Ellie he was never short of conversation. It was as if he had been hoarding each and every random thought from all the years of silence until he met her. Granted, there was no talk of love or any sophomoric mention of being soulmates, but Virgil couldn’t shake the notion that they had been friends forever.
And while no tree is felled by a single blow, Virgil felt himself falling as Ellie gradually chopped away at his insecurities.
One night, when they were watching To Kill a Mockingbird and Ellie enthused over the prose of Harper Lee, Virgil confessed. “I can’t read, Ellie. The letters. It’s just… too hard.”
Ellie sniffed. “Dyslexia is not illiteracy, Virgil.” She stated the fact with a breezy positivity that both chided and cheered Virgil in the same breath. “Why do you think they invented audiobooks?”(Thwack!)
“I can’t believe I’m dating a teacher,” he said a few weeks later, setting aside an indecipherable wine list. “El, I’m dumber than mud.”
Ellie picked up the wine list, noting it was printed in an scripted font that even she had difficulty reading. She made no mention of his dyslexia, but asked casually, “What’s 3,548 times 63?”
“223,524” he replied without hesitation.
Ellie nodded. “Exactly.” Ellie ordered them a nice bottle of Chardonnay, and the subject of Virgil’s IQ was effectively closed. (Thwack!)
He attended a PTA meeting with her and admitted, “I don’t like smiling much because of my teeth.”
She gave him a puzzled glance. “What’s wrong with your teeth?”
He flushed. “They’re pretty crooked. Pops said it was either hearing aids or braces, so…” he shrugged.
“Smile for me, V,” she commanded, using the pet name she had hung around his neck on date number three.
Virgil smiled awkwardly, pulling a face and making her giggle.
“Are all teeth present and accounted for?”
“Clean? Nice pink gums? No bad breath?”
“Lord, I hope so!”
Ellie nodded as if it was all settled then. “I like your smile, V. It lights up your whole face. Don’t hide it!” (Thwack!)
He could feel his world tilting with every strike of Ellie’s axe, and his slow fall in to the unknown was the sweetest sensation Virgil had ever known.
The night she served him dinner at her house, Ellie said, “Good Lord, V, unbutton that top button! You must be choking!”
He brought a defensive hand to his throat and a flush stole up from his collar to announce his discomfort. “I – I’m just too – well, too…” He was at a loss to tell her his body hair ranked somewhere between Sasquatch and a silver-backed gorilla.
That she stood there looking immaculately elegant in a soft violet sweater and pearls did nothing to untie his tongue, but her mouth curved in a warm smile meant just for him. “Here,” she offered, brushing aside his calloused fingers with her own smooth hands. She slid open his top button and pulled the collar away from his burning neck, wilfully ignoring Virgil’s wildly convulsing Adam’s apple. “So you’ve got a little chest hair,” she fairly crooned, running her thumb along the furry crest of his collarbone. “As it happens, I like it just fine…” (Timberrr!)
That was the precise moment Virgil knew he had been in love with Ellie ever since she had first steamrolled her way into his life. In the candy aisle of WalMart, of all places!
Virgil clasped Ellie’s hand and planted a kiss in the center of her cool palm, very near tears and with words unsaid bursting through his mind, formulating on the back of his tongue…
But too late.
Over the top of her head he spied a familiar photo framed in silver hanging on Ellie’s living room wall. It was of a long-limbed woman with pale eyes, impossibly beautiful. It was a photo he had seen every single day of his life. But why did she have a copy of it?
Looking into Ellie’s eyes, he knew. He knew even before he asked.
“That picture,” he whispered. “Why… why do you have it? Did you know her?” he asked.
Ellie glanced over her shoulder at the black and white picture and laughed. “Of course I know her!”
He shook his head in disbelief and took a step back. “But… but she’s dead,” was all he could think to say.
“Who? My mother?” she laughed, clearly not understanding that Virgil’s heart had just dropped through the floor. Ellie turned toward the kitchen, straightening the frame as she passed. “I sure hope she’s not,” she said, heading into the pantry. “I just had lunch with her this afternoon!”
By the time she returned to the living room, Virgil was gone.
Virgil couldn’t decide what upset him more: The fact he had fallen in love with his own sister, or the fact his mother was still alive.
He didn’t know how he got home, or how he managed to do so without killing himself along the way, since each and every telephone pole had held out the perfect opportunity to end his pain for good. He did recall pulling over to be sick between Great Bend and Amos every time he thought of explaining things to Ellie.
The remainder of the night he had spent parked in his driveway, alternately sobbing and raging at his own stupidity, contemplating the injustice of why his mother abandoned and never contacted him, and ignoring the repeated calls and text messages from Ellie that lit up his phone for a good three hours before falling silent.
He needed to talk to Pops. He had no desire to.
In truth, Virgil just wanted to go to bed and sleep for the next four years. Or forever, whichever came first. He wanted to rewind the clock to the moment he had chosen to help Eleanor Watson find her circus peanuts in the candy aisle. The instincts that had served him so well for so long had been overridden that day and every day since, and this is where it had gotten him: Alone. Miserable. Knowing now what he had always been missing in life.
He decided it would have been better not to know. And if he had not been precisely happy before he met her, at least he had not been in pain.
His relationship with Ellie had made him and destroyed him in the space of three months, and she didn’t even realise it. He decided she never would. If they were siblings, what he felt for her… well, it was about as wrong a feeling as a man could possibly feel.
At sunrise, Virgil finally dried his eyes and made his way inside to face Pops. And to face the truth, for the first time in his sad and miserable life.
Pops greeted him with a wide smile. “Well, look what the cat dragged in!” He was already awake and in his armchair, drinking coffee and watching the morning news as usual. “I didn’t hear you drive up.” When Virgil continued to stand dumbly in the doorway, Pops set down his coffee cup. “Geez, Virge, you look awful. You ok?”
“No,” said Virgil, “I’m not.” With that, he crossed the room and plucked his mother’s photograph off the wall. “We need to talk,” he said with a soft spoken authority Pops had never heard before.
Pops eyed his son warily, reached for the remote and switched off the TV. Virgil had changed. Overnight it seemed he had become a different man, taller, leaner, stronger somehow. And Dean Steiner, who hated change anyway, felt a little frisson of fear course down his spine. Virgil knew. Somehow, he knew…
Virgil’s lips twisted as he looked at the photo in his hand. How had he never noticed the likeness to Ellie before last night? It was plain as day. They could have been sisters, they were so similar. He tossed the framed photo into his father’s lap and sat himself stiffly on the sofa opposite.
“I want the truth.”
“Aw, come on Virge -”
Virgil said nothing. He just waited.
After a long long moment, Pops bowed his head and picked up the dusty photo frame and sighed deeply. “She called herself Dorothy Jones. I only knew her a couple days…” He seemed to drift off for a minute or two, wiping dust from the frame, turning it over in his hands. “She was a married woman, Virge. Already had a bunch of kids.”
Virgil sighed like a wounded animal and buried his head in his hands. He had been hoping… hoping it was not true. At length, he asked, “How did you meet?”
Pops leaned back in his recliner and looked at the crumpled form of his son. There was no candy-coating he could do to fix things now, so he was blunt. “We met in a bar, Virge. It was late. She was drunk, and I was… well, let’s just say I wasn’t in a wheelchair then. Said her husband was in the Army and had been away for months and months. ‘Nam, I think. She was lonely. And sloshed. And… well, one thing led to another and we spent a weekend together. Nine months later, she shows up on my doorstep with you in her arms. Said her husband was a good man, but not a forgiving one, and that he was due back in a week. And she had all them kids to raise. And, well, it was 1969… It was more than she could take. So… I took you in, Virge.”
All the stories about Pops and his mother outrunning her daddy’s gun, all those tales that never quite rang true now made sense. How could his father have possibly explained all this to him when he was a kid? Virgil hated that his father had lied. But he understood why he had.
With head in hands, Virgil felt the tears welling again and willed them back.
“You’re my son, Virgil,” Pops said quietly. “You were the best thing that ever happened to me, even if I never said nothing like that before.”
Virgil acknowledged his father’s words with a nod and kept his face buried. “Pops, Ellie is my sister,” he blurted on the wave of a sob.
“What?” His father leaned forward, wishing for all the world he had his legs back so he could get closer to his son. “Whaddya mean, she’s your sister? That’s impossible!”
Looking up, Virgil swiped at his eyes. “It’s the same picture, Pops… Ellie has the same picture.” He collapsed against the back of the sofa, exhausted. “It’s her mother, too.”
Pops was quiet for a long moment. So long that Virgil had to open his eyes to see if he was still there. In the end, he said, “Hell, Virgil, this picture ain’t your mother, buddy! I found this old thing in a junk shop over in Russell. It’s just a picture, man. It was closest I could get to what she looked like. Ellie ain’t your sister, man. She ain’t your sister!”
In that very moment, Virgil heard the sound of a car door and leapt to his feet, fairly running to the door.
She was there, hollow eyed and rumpled and sleepless, on the other side of the screen. “Are you ok, V?” she croaked.
Virgil pushed open the screen door and Ellie threw herself into his arms, raining kisses on his forehead, his face, his neck. “I was so worried,” she said between kisses. “I was looking for your pickup in every ditch -”
When Virgil finally found her lips, she tasted like circus peanuts.
They were wed at the courthouse on a Wednesday. Neither wanted much fuss, but the teachers at Ellie’s school insisted on at least a small evening reception at the country club. Ellie was radiant in her silver lace dress and low satin heels, and Virgil beside himself with joy in his dark suit and tie. Towering over the wedding guests, they were a beautiful couple by anyone’s standards.
Only three of Ellie’s five siblings were able to make the wedding.
Ellie’s mother, an imposing widow dressed in pale blue and wielding her bejewelled cane like a weapon, seated herself next to Dean Steiner’s wheelchair. As Ellie and Virgil turned to leave the reception, she reached for his hand.
“I’ve thought about that boy every single day of my life,” she said, misty eyed.
Dean gave her hand a squeeze. “Well, they’re too old for kids, anyway, so that’s something, eh, Dorothy?”
Jane Watson sniffed and straightened her spine at mention of the name and all it reminded her of.
“He’s a good man, Jane. The best kind. It don’t matter no more where they come from. They make each other happy, and that’s enough for me.”
Jane smiled through her tears. “Thank you,” she said, so softly he almost imagined he had heard it, before her family crowded around her and swept her away once again.