Monday, November 26, 2018

Two Hearts by Robert Boucheron

John and Rebecca are teenagers in love, but it it too soon to make a lifelong commitment? By Robert Boucheron.

John Shakewell was a slender young man of seventeen with flat brown hair and a will of iron. As a boy, he once built a treehouse using a carpenter's level, a plumb line, and pulleys to raise the scrap wood. The completed structure had a shingle roof, a carpet remnant on the plywood floor, a window you could open, and a door you could lock. The tree fell in a storm, and the treehouse was long gone, but he still had the key to the door on his keyring.

Rebecca Flibbert was the same age as John. She too had brown hair without a hint of wave. She wore it long, with bangs. Good manners masked a quiet determination. To do what?

John and Becky looked enough alike to be mistaken for brother and sister. They both sang in the Hapsburg High School chorus. They performed a duet in the Fall Follies, a Broadway show tune they memorized and rehearsed with Ms. Metzger on piano. The music teacher drilled them in simple dance moves. Becky performed with energy and style, but John was stiff.

He asked her to the senior prom. Abigail Flibbert, Becky's mother, spread the news. Abigail followed it up with details of the gown, which Becky sewed from a pattern, the pre-prom dinner, for which John made a reservation for two at the Silver Spoon, and the post-prom party, which would go past midnight in the basement of Brickfront United Methodist Church.

Becky was mortified. She and John stood in a corridor between classes.

"I'm her only daughter. This means so much to her."

"Don't worry," John said. "Everyone knows your mother."

"Are you sure you want to go through with this?"

"Becky! We have to go to the prom. There's no one I want to take more than you."

"That's so sweet."

The dance and high school graduation went off without a hitch. Abigail expected a proposal of marriage to follow. If the young man had his way, it would, but his parents objected. The youngest of their children, John had been accepted at Virginia Tech for a course in engineering.

"We think you should wait four years," Nancy Shakewell said. Her husband John Senior sat beside her in the living room with the picture window. "Complete your degrees. Once the knot is tied, babies come and all the complications of married life."

"You're both young," John Senior said. "So much can happen in four years. New ideas, new people. A lot of growing will take place."

"You don't approve of her," John said, "or the Flibberts."

"That's not what I said." John Senior glanced at his wife.

As the owner of the hardware store in town, he was conscious of his social position. Joe Flibbert called himself a contractor, but he was really a carpenter and handyman. He was quick, though, not a redneck with a pickup truck and a plug of tobacco lodged in his mouth like a speech impediment, a good old boy with shifty eyes who disappeared for weeks at a time in hunting season. Trip Huckle, for example. And Flibbert knew all about old houses. He restored that Victorian on Myrtle Avenue to its original gaudy splendor, and the newspaper ran a picture story. A likeable fellow, he was a regular customer with good store credit. His wife Abigail was another matter, a busybody of the first degree. About their daughter Becky there was no good or bad report in town, and that was how it should be.

"We want the best for you," Nancy said. "In something as important as marriage, there's no harm in waiting."

"I won't change my mind," John said.

Becky would attend Poindexter College and commute to classes from home. She would have preferred a school farther away, even out of state.

"How would we pay for it?" her father asked.

"It's okay," she said. "My grades aren't high enough to win a scholarship. Poindexter is a perfectly good school. I'm only dreaming."

"Dreams are good, kiddo. Don't ever stop."

"Like the song in South Pacific," Abigail said. "If you don't have a dream, how you gonna have a dream come true?"



John kept in touch with Becky all through college, made frequent trips home to see her, and invited her down to Blacksburg for football games. She was flattered by the attention, at first. After two years of conscientious study, still living with her parents and watching television with them one or two nights a week, she wondered what she was missing.

Her friend Polly had an active social life. Over lunch at the student union, Becky confided. She nearly had to shout over the noise of the cafeteria.

"I'm not getting other offers."

"Of course not, silly." Polly was going through a phase of brutal honesty. "You walk around like a zombie, like you're engaged. No boy in his right mind is going to touch you. In dating terms, you're dead meat."

"Dead meat?"

"Take that boy who was visiting last week. Carter?"

"Carden. The tennis player with the soulful expression."

"Right. He liked you, wanted to ask you out. The minute he heard you were taken, zilch."

"Who told him I was taken?"

"Everyone knows about John."

"You told him."

"It wasn't me. Think about it. Who wants to mess with a jealous boyfriend who knows how to blow things up?"

"That's ridiculous. John doesn't go around setting off car bombs. He studies high-intensity thermodynamics."

"Also known as explosions."

True to its origin as a school for working women, Poindexter required each student to prepare for a career. Becky chose teaching. English was her field of study, but Foreign Languages held out the possibility of expanding horizons, interesting people, and travel. With some French under her belt from high school, she took Italian. She applied for a semester abroad in Bologna and was accepted with a partial scholarship. She obtained a passport, a medical checkup, and some shoes and blouses that she hoped would pass muster in Italy, the land of fashion.

Then Joe Flibbert fell from a roof he was repairing. He would be unable to work for several weeks, putting a strain on the family budget. Becky had to cancel at the last minute.

John tried to be sympathetic, but secretly he was relieved. He disliked the semester abroad, though he could not have said why. He and Becky worked summer jobs to help pay for college. Travel was out of the question.

"Did you ever want to live somewhere else?" Becky asked.

"No. It never crossed my mind."

"Not even for a few months or a year?"

"Virginia is good enough for me."

"I'm not criticizing our beautiful commonwealth. Travel broadens a person, gives them a wider outlook. I'm curious, that's all."

"Maybe I'm the stay-at-home type."



Their fourth year of college, John made a weekend visit to Hapsburg. It was early spring. Both he and Becky were on track for graduation. He had received a job offer from Amalgamated Metals, which now owned the Hapsburg Iron Works, normally referred to as the foundry. They arranged to meet at the Hickory Pit, a barbecue joint popular with the high school crowd. The outdoor table where they sat was stained by sauce and carved with initials. At this time of year, the place was deserted.

"I can't wait," John said. His eyes were bright. He dug in his pocket, and his hand shook with excitement. He nearly dropped the little box. Inside was a diamond ring.

"John! You shouldn't have! It's gorgeous!"

"I had to guess your size. Try it on."

Becky slipped the ring on her finger, where it fitted snugly.

"The moment has come." John kneeled on the concrete. "Rebecca Flibbert, the girl of my dreams, and I mean that literally, will you marry me?"

"Do I have a choice?"

John's face fell.

"Of course, I'll marry you. What else have we been waiting for?"

They threw their arms around each other and kissed. On such a cold day, no onlookers were around to comment. Gerald the cook and Dot the waitress watched from the glassed-in serving booth. He shrugged and she sighed.

"Read the inscription," John said.

Becky tugged the ring off and peered inside. It was engraved in flowing script.

"Two hearts beat as one," she read aloud. "That's so sweet."

Like a machine set in motion, the wedding plans lurched ahead. Abigail Flibbert was beside herself with eagerness and worry. She had to go on medication.

The Shakewells saw that their son would go his own way, with or without them. A small house was for sale, in need of repair but ideal for newlyweds. They offered to help finance it. As his contribution, Joe Flibbert sawed, hammered, patched, painted, overhauled the plumbing, and replaced the light fixtures. The house was transformed.

At the end of May, in the lovely stone church of St. Giles Episcopal, amid a riot of flowers, Father Percy pronounced the young couple man and wife. From the reception, John and Becky drove barely a mile to their honeymoon cottage. Everyone left them alone for two weeks. Then John started work at the foundry as a designer of industrial compression fittings.

He walked ten minutes to a nineteenth-century brick mill converted to offices. The third floor was an open loft with huge windows, drafty and bare. His first day on the job, a coworker named Malone accosted him.

"So you're the hapless new guy. You were hired to replace Roudabush. That was his desk. Maybe you'll find something in it, a secret stash."

"What happened to Roudabush?"

"He bailed. The company is going under, and anyone worth a damn is trying to get out. Rats from a sinking ship."

"What about you?"

"Years of seniority. I'll be the last one left on deck."

"You're not worried?"

"Not a care in the world. My family owns a business. I can always sell widgets."

Despite this assertion, Malone looked rumpled and weary. He smoked in the toilet and drank coffee all day, a vile liquid from a vending machine in the break room. John tried it and spat out the first sip. John's boss Calloway was upbeat, and the work was challenging. John flexed his newly acquired engineering skills and brought a thermos bottle of coffee to work.

Becky would start teaching in the fall in the public schools. She had qualified for high school, but the only opening in town was a sixth grade class. Meanwhile, she adapted to the role of wife and homemaker, with frequent advice from her mother. In the hot weather of July, she grew sullen. In August, as the school year dangled overhead like a sword of Damocles, she abruptly disappeared.

When he returned from work that evening, John found a note.

"I'm sorry, but I just can't go through with it. You know exactly what you want, and you've been super. I need to go find myself. Love, Becky."

John felt blind-sided. He located a bottle of scotch, a wedding gift they had stowed for some future occasion, and opened it. He got drunk. The next morning, he called in sick at the foundry. As the haze wore off, John saw that Becky's flight would reflect on him. If he told his parents, maybe they could manage the news. Better them than Abigail Flibbert.

Becky covered her tracks. No one knew where she went or how. She called her parents from a pay phone to reassure them. Her mother answered.

"I'm so relieved to hear your voice. Were you abducted? Should I call the police? Joe, it's Becky! She's alive! Oh, my heart - I feel faint."

"Give me the phone, Abby. You there, kiddo?"

"Dad, I'm fine. There's nothing to worry about."

"It was an impulsive thing to do. Cruel in a way."

"To John? What about me?"

"Were you unhappy? Did he mistreat you? Because if he did..."

"Nothing like that. I felt trapped. It would be cruel to stay."

"These things are never simple. Whatever you do, be careful. Stay safe."

"I will. Love to you and Ma."



In the small, conservative town of Hapsburg, the affair caused a stir. A rift opened between the two families, and people took sides. Joe Flibbert still bought supplies from Shakewell Hardware, where he had an account. He dealt with Ernie Watkins and avoided eye contact with John Senior. The story had no developments, and talk petered out. Other things happened - the bustle of autumn, the start of the school year.

John nursed his resentment. He learned to cook and fend for himself. He adopted a beagle and named it Snap. He taught Snap to howl on cue. They howled together in the kitchen.

Picture postcards arrived at irregular intervals, each from a different place. Becky never gave an address or a phone number. She wrote brief messages.

"Now I know why WV is called the mountain state" was the first. John threw it in the trash. He retrieved it the next day. It showed a wooded mountain range with wildflowers in the foreground.

"Ohio not that different from VA, flatter with more clouds" was the next postcard. Becky visited Cleveland, which was "gray and gloomy" and Chicago, which "must be the loudest city on earth." She worked her way west, with zigzags. John collected the cards in a shoebox. He reread the messages, looking for a clue.

At the end of the year, despite a shrinking work load and employee attrition, management promised the annual holiday party would go forward.

"A little boost for morale," Calloway said. They were in his private office conducting a six-month review. "You're doing great work. The Goochland job got excellent feedback. Hang in there, and next year is bound to see an improvement."

"Does that mean a raise?"

"Quite possibly. I wouldn't spread it around, but management wants to retain good people. And you're a keeper, John."

At the party, Malone drank too much. He was married, but there was no photo of his wife and children on his desk. John displayed his wedding photo.

"There's this roadside place where I hang out," Malone said. "Cheap beer, loud music, and gorgeous girls. Looking is free, but touching will cost you, if you get my drift."

"Not interested."

"Aw, come on. Single, good job, decent address, and available. A young stud like you would make out like a bandit."

"I'm still married."

"Have it your way. Bar snacks on the house. Thursday is karaoke."

In January, executives in a distant state declared the foundry obsolete. All employees were laid off with two weeks' notice. Malone stood on a chair and read the memo aloud.

"We regret that world economic conditions force the closure of the historic Hapsburg plant. As conditions improve, rehiring will start with current employees. Please update your address and check back with us in the months ahead."

Malone waved the memo in the air, wobbled, and nearly fell off the chair.

"A show of hands, all those who believe this crap."

Calloway was no help. The day of the memo, he left town, transferred to Alabama.

"The managers knew about the closure long ago," Malone said. "They got cushy new jobs as a reward for sticking it to us."

John scrambled to find work in his field within commuting distance. He dressed up, visited offices, left resumes, and followed up with phone calls. He was professional and polite. No one was the least bit interested.



To fill the time during his job search, John puttered with woodworking and machine tools - a table saw, a lathe, a drill press. Some were hand-me-downs from his father, some he scavenged, and some he got for nothing at yard sales. He converted the shed to a workshop and added a heater. He built a small chest and gave it to his parents. They showed it to friends.

"Your son has talent," said Margaret Howe. "Something like this would sell."

John tried his hand at a rocking chair. His father displayed it at the hardware store. A couple visiting from out of town bought it. He made a table to match Mrs. Wolfram's bedroom suite. She aspired to be a decorator.

"The finish is perfect," she said. "You really caught the style."

John stopped sending out resumes and visiting front offices. He put away his good slacks and dress shirts. After a few comments about looking scruffy, he let his beard grow. He wore blue jeans, work shoes, and cheap flannel shirts, clothes that could take a beating.

He bought fine hardwood that was on sale, experimented with glues and finishes, and scanned woodworking magazines. One was called The Joiner. A customer lingered in the shed to chat.

"You need a sign so people can find you. I drove around until I heard the table saw."

He made a wooden sign for the street: "John Shakewell, Joiner."

Months passed. His hands became rough, covered with nicks and stains. He took off his wedding ring during the workday. Finally, he put it in a drawer. Snap the beagle was good company, except when the whine of machinery made him nervous. John ate Sunday dinner with his parents.

"Don't let your engineering skills get rusty," his mother said. "They'll come in handy someday. Are you getting enough to eat?"

"Look at him, Nancy," his father said. "All that exercise is filling him out."

Meanwhile, postcards arrived from St. Louis, Topeka, Bismarck, and Billings. John glanced at the pictures and added them to the shoebox. How was Becky supporting herself? Did she stay with acquaintances, an endless chain of young people? Did they smoke pot and talk about politics? A view of water came from Seattle. Then the postcards stopped.



In October, a postcard came with a photograph of the Space Needle. "Will be in Hapsburg next week and want to see you. Will phone. Love, Becky."

The old emotions surged like an attack of nausea. John tried to make out what Becky wanted. Reconciliation? Money? If it was understanding, she was out of luck. The phone rang that evening.

"Hi, it's Becky. I'm here. I need to take care of some odds and ends."

"Odds and ends?"

"Paperwork, visit my parents. It would be great to see you."

"Okay."

"How about the Hickory Pit? After work?"

"Five o'clock, then.

"Thanks. See you."

John's mind raced. How to explain how much life had changed? Maybe the Flibberts told her. He hadn't talked to them since Becky left, but Abby would know.

John pulled up at the barbecue joint in a used van. He had bought it for his business and traded in the car. Becky was seated at an outdoor table, facing away. Few others were there on a weekday, and nobody they knew.

From the van, John took a minute to spy. In a silvery sweater and black slacks, Becky looked much the same. The emotions of the day before had ebbed. Now he felt wary. He hopped out.

"You haven't changed a bit," he said.

Becky was startled. She didn't recognize him for a second. Then she smiled in an artificial way. She had picked up some polish.

"Hello, John. You grew a beard."

"So, here we are."

He sat at the table and placed his hands on it, as if at a conference. He had washed, but they looked bad. A cut on his left thumb was a dark red gash, and his nails were ragged. His head and shoulders were powdered with sawdust. He had forgotten to brush off.

"I owe you an apology," Becky said. "I walked out, and that was wrong. At the time I was desperate. I didn't know what to do."

John nodded. After so many angry monologues, he didn't know what to say. The autumn air was warm and dry, not raw as on the day he proposed. Wisps of smoke blew their way. The smoke stung his eyes.

"I learned something over the past year," Becky said.

"Fourteen months."

"It's time to correct some mistakes and move on."

"Mistakes?"

"John, you're a sweet man. I loved you, and I'll always be honored that you asked me to marry you. But we shouldn't have."

Involuntarily, he frowned. He felt slow, out-maneuvered, dimly aware that while he was racked by feelings, she was coolly calculating. She waited for him to speak.

"What do you want?" he said.

"A divorce. No property settlement - you keep everything. I'm willing to pay the legal bill. Luckily, we don't have children."

"Lucky for them."

"I contacted an attorney here, one who does no-fault divorces. I gave her my address in Seattle. Here's her business card."

"Do I have a choice?"

"Look, John, think what you want about me." Becky placed her hands on the table and leaned in slightly. She still wore her wedding and engagement rings.

"I did nothing wrong. You abandoned me."

"I said I'm sorry." Becky slipped off the rings and held them in the palm of her hand. "These belong to you."

John crossed his arms over his chest.

"Please take them."

He stared dully past her. Becky set the rings on the table.

"You'll find someone else, John, someone who loves you as much as you love her. It will happen. Think of the future, not the past." She was tense, impatient to be gone. She turned her head. Her hair was professionally styled.

John felt disgust, a reminder of the nausea from the day before. Also, he was tired from a day of physical labor. He read the inscription in the diamond ring: "Two hearts beat as one." He took a deep breath.

"Becky, you're the only woman I ever loved. The only woman I had sex with, even. I wish I could say it's over, goodbye, have a nice life. But that's not how I feel. I will always love you. That's not a promise, it's a fact."

He paused. She sat poker-faced.

"As for divorce, you're clever. You tell me only what you want, and you expect me to believe it. And those damn postcards."

"I was trying."

"You were teasing."

"That's not true! You suffered, and it was all my fault. Is it my turn to suffer? How will that fix things?"

"What you mean is: how do you get out of this commitment?"

"Good for you, John. You scored a point. Feel better now?"

"No. This is a waste of time." He stood.

"Fine." Still seated on the bench, she pulled her shoulders back and straightened her spine.

"Maybe you'll win in court. That still won't make it right. I will fight you every step of the way. That is a promise."

In heavy, steel-toed shoes he stomped to his van.

3 comments:

  1. Quite believable. People change, hearts are broken.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Well written and plausible - growing up can be cruel,
    Many thanks,
    Ceinwen

    ReplyDelete
  3. A good slice-of-life story. I think John should just let her go and find someone who appreciates a Joiner.

    ReplyDelete