THE ARRIVAL OF GRACE

[a chapter excerpt from my book BABY BOOMERS’ LOVE-BETRAYAL, a sardonic romance-noir, on Amazon under my pen name Ben Leiter]

Now, this little love adventure has twists that I still haven’t figured out.

I was maintaining, at The Appletree Nightclub, my usual Garden of Eden on Saturday night. The air was a heavy breath of perfumes and colognes. No more stale cigarette smoke. That was way passé. I could barely hear any of the aimless conversations, because of the constant pulsating disco rhythm beat.

The Pussycat Dolls suggested I wanted a girl just like them, “Don’t Cha?” Jennifer Lopez urged me to hook up with Jenny from the Block.

How’s that for a conflict?

I wish.

I picked up sound bites, next to me, above the din of music, laughter, and clinking glasses:

“So…come here often?”

“No, it’s my first time.” She’s lying, I thought. I see her here all the time, usually half-drunk leaving with some guy at closing.

“Almost didn’t come tonite. Afraid someone might scratch my new BMW in the parking garage next door.”

“You drive a Beemer? What model?”

I’m waiting for him to say, ‘a Z4 with the premium package’ and then, ‘Wanna go for a ride?’

Asshole.

These days, it was a different musical genre. No more Earth Wind and Fire or Gloria Gaynor or Kool and the Gang grabbing a part of your anatomy and propelling you out onto the dance floor… only when the DJ wanted a retro moment. Guess she — yes, she, times had changed — wanted to see if we oldsters could still get our groove on with a little help from our canes and walkers.

Pussy Dolls and JLo would get the blood pumping.

And there was a new development…same sex couples out on the dance floor. The girls dancing together didn’t bother me. We’d seen that since we were teens. It’s just that now they danced together for the slow dances too; real, real close.

The guys dancing — prancing together — well, I had progress to make in that area, I guess; still didn’t look right to me.

A lady in white materialized, a lovely vision at the end of the bar with two other attractive ladies. They all appeared to be in their early thirties, maybe thirty-three or so.

Her white dress color said “church” but the way it was cut and gathered said “cocktail.” She had long black hair, parted in the middle, an olive complexion and a face that glowed. I knew that women wore this sparkly stuff in their make-up to provide luminosity. Because I couldn’t see any make-up per se, I concluded that women and the cosmetics industry were progressing even faster with their false advertising. I wanted to put some of her glimmer into play.

Her eyes were smoky blue, like pewter, and radiated an incandescence which drew me in. I could swim in those eyes. She was someone who stays on your retina.

I moseyed over, smiled, and released my best line. It was time for the “Bill show,” pretending I had a personality.

“Hi, I’m Bill.”

“Hello, Bill. Nice to see you. My name is Grace.”

“Grace? That’s a beautiful name to go with a beautiful face. The only Grace I’ve ever known was my friend’s aunt who was named Grace. She was pretty, from the pictures I’ve seen, with long black hair like you. She died in her twenties from a heart condition.”

Wonder if I can snare her with this empathy move?

She said, “Bill, is this how you open a conversation, talking about dead people?”

We almost lost our potential connection right there, but her eyes had a twinkle and I laughed and we recovered and were on our way.

We chatted more at the bar. I bought her a Virgin Mary, at her request. She said she didn’t do alcohol, interferes with too much.

I pulled a move out from my love playbook that I had not run touchdowns with in a long time.

“Grace, let’s go out to my car and chat. It’s too noisy in here and I can’t hear myself think. I promise to behave and bring you back to your girlfriends exactly like I found you. Okay? Seriously, I’m safe. Here’s my business card. I’m a romantic, but not dangerous.”

“I know,” she said.

What? What did she mean by that? Was my face a rolling teleprompter again, saying everything about me? Had she seen me here before? I looked at her with a slight v-frown and my head cocked.

We went to the door, got our hands stamped for coming back in, went next door to the parking garage, walked down the well-lit concrete ramp, and got into the BabeMobile.

It was a little chilly, so I turned the heat on, and turned on Luther Vandross slow jams in the CD player, and then tried to see if there was anything else I could turn on.

I’m not sure what I had in mind. I felt like I really did want to talk with her. Was my testosterone MIA for the evening?

“So, Grace, tell me more about yourself.”

Her last name was Michaels and her family traced itself back to Palestine.

I said, “Do you mean Israel?” I knew Jewish history. Learned a lot from Judith, a former girlfriend.

“Well,” she said, “It’s Israel now, but it was Palestine when you were born and before that, it went by many other names. It’s easiest to call it the Holy Lands because three main religions claim it.”

“Okay, okay. Sure.” I’m not here for a religious debate.

I leaned toward her, looking into those eyes, almost lost, while I put my right hand on her left knee, just where the white silk dress ended. She smelled so clean, like Irish Spring soap and talcum powder together.

“William,” she said softly, “I’m old-fashioned. Let’s talk. That’s what we came to do, right? You promised;” — a pleasant tinkling laugh, a wind chime. I felt a summer breeze.

“Whatever you are looking for, I don’t think you’ll find it there,” she said looking down at my hand poised for an upward expedition.

I moved my hand back to the steering wheel, but still ready for call to duty.

“Do you ever pray, Bill?”

That’s an odd question, sitting close here in my car. Unless she’s trying to pull the “Ms. thoughtful — sensitive — move” on me?

“Well, yeah, sometimes.”

“There’s this prayer that Annie Lamont, a California writer, resorts to when she needs help,” she said. “You could use it if you need to. Annie calls it ‘The Great Helping Prayer,’ or something like that. Want to hear it?”

“Sure,” I said, not sure at all.

“HELPhelphelphelphelp.”

“That’s funny,” I said. “You’re funny,” as I slipped my hand back to its former beachhead on her leg, ready to move.

“No, William, that wasn’t permission for foolishness. Behave.”

We then talked stuff. For me, that meant I started a routine about the weather, the Washington Redskins, her favorite drink, the latest hot Hollywood movie. Grace cut me off when I started babbling on about all the heavy rain we’d been having.

“All in all, Bill, how’s life treating you? Really. Happy?”

I wanted to tell her.

“Grace, honestly, I’ve got more than I deserve, but I’m always chasing something. You know, like it’s just over the hill and I can’t quite make it out.”

“Ever stop and think what it might be?”

She has such kind eyes, I thought.

“Oh, maybe for a minute or two, but I shut it down before it gets scary. Knowing me, I assume it’s a skirt, but. . .”

“I sense you may be full of anger? Why is that?”

I did a double-take at Grace with a frown. Now, it felt like she was nudging a bruise. Full of anger? Where does she get that? It’s better than being full of shit, isn’t it, like some people I know.

Now I felt disappointment in Grace. She was trying to poke some spot of regret right under my ribs. Well, she is a woman.

I excavated a crooked smile.

She sensed my reaction and said, “Well, what are your dreams like at night?”

“My dreams?”

“Yes. Your dreams.”

I leaned back against the headrest and closed my eyes and sighed, “You know, the usual, I guess. Remembering old friends and the different people I used to be. Why do you ask about dreams?”

She said, “Sometimes dreams are the place memories hide when you are wounded.”

The conversation was taking a wrong left turn so, “What do you do, what kind of work?” I asked.

“I’m a counselor.”

“Really? I mean, who do you counsel?”

“Lots of people. It’s fascinating. I love trying to help. People make everything so complicated, but it’s not. Just life. You’re on this short trip and have to do the best you can, maybe a little more.”

“What brings you down here tonight?” I said.

“I was supposed to meet somebody.”

“Did you?”

“Yes. We met and he left the nightclub.”

“A boyfriend?”

“No. Just a good friend.”

“Well, I’m glad. I enjoy talking to you, except for that anger comment. You have a calmness about you. You make me feel like something wonderful is going to happen. I’ll bet you’re really good at that counseling thing.”

“Yes. Been doing it a while.”

Then, “Bill, I need to go back inside and use the ladies room, okay?”

“Oh.” I reached for the door handle, stopped and dove into my coat pocket.

I pulled out another business card like the one I had flashed earlier to reassure her. “Can I get your number, Grace?”

“Sure, it’s 202–884–2327.” I wrote it on the back of the card with my gold Cross pen which I pulled from the inside pocket of my expensive sports coat. The shiny pen performed 24/7 sentinel duty, always ready.

Grace isn’t giving me a lot to work with here, but at least it’s a D.C. number.

I reached for my door handle again. “Let’s go back, then. Maybe we can slow dance,” I pleaded.

“No. I’m going in and use the ladies room and I’ll see you back at the bar. Just sit here a minute and relax. We’ll meet up.”

“You sure?”

“Yes. I can handle it, no problem. It’s up the ramp and take a left. There’s a security guard at the top of the ramp. See you.”

As she got out of the car, I heard delicate silver bells announcing her departure. Of course, it was the open-door chime of the car.

I turned to my favorite radio station, WHUR, and caught Eric Clapton’s “Tears in Heaven. Unusual. WHUR always plays Soul and R & B.

I knew Clapton’s personal story behind that song. Shook my head after the tragic lyrics. I need to get back into a party mood.

I showed my stamped hand to the guerrilla-bouncer at the front door, slid up to the bar, and waited.

No Grace.

The other girls were there. So, “Excuse me. Did you see Grace come back in?”

“Grace? Who’s that?”

“You know, the woman with the black hair in the white dress who was standing here with you.”

The leader said, “She wasn’t with us.” They looked at each other and shook their heads.”

“You can buy us a drink if you want,” said diluted pupils, shouting over the music.

“I saw her come back and go towards the restroom,” the other woman said. “Didn’t see her again.”

Well, I wasn’t going to let Grace slip away. Besides, nothing as interesting as her was going on, just the two barflies trolling for men.

I approached guerrilla-man, identified myself with a five dollar bill, and explained.

He referred me to the DJ who multi-tasked as manager of the security cameras. I repeated the same form of I.D. She gave me a sympathetic look and let me join her and her purple hair in the DJ booth. She rewound the last fifteen minutes of the security camera facing the restrooms.

There! I saw Grace enter the ladies room. I watched and waited. There was static and a short flash-break in the tape. Then the tape continued. She didn’t come out. I rewound the VCR and looked again.

Nope.

Well, I do have the phone number, but looks like she dumped me and maybe it’s time to head home. Seems like a shame because it’s only midnight, early. It feels later. My energy’s flagging. I’m growing tired or old. Probably both.

***

I planned to sleep in the next day but awoke instead to see dawn bleeding into the sky over the neighborhood trees.

For some reason, I went to Mass. This only happened two or three times a year. It was worth paying for the occasional church visit, via the offering, to stay in touch with my religious roots. I liked re-connecting unless I got one of those ignorant sex-and-money sermons threatening me with hellfire like I was still one of their medieval peasants.

Bad luck. Today’s sermon said no sex for me and more money for them.

I had planning meetings all day on Monday with the sales staff. On Tuesday and Wednesday, I was in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania advising a small firm on networking their PCs for invoicing purposes.

***

Back in the office Thursday, I called the number on the card. I wanted to go looking for Grace. I could always exit, any time. Exiting was my own personal art form.

“This is Children’s National Medical Center, Valerie speaking. How may I direct your call?”

“I’m looking for Grace Michaels who’s a counselor there.”

“Do you know what unit she’s with?”

“No. Sorry, just counseling.”

“Let me check my directory…She’s in our Children’s Oncology Center. Would you like me to connect you?”

“No. No. I’m her brother from out of town and I wanted to surprise her. Is she working today?”

“I’m sorry, sir, I’m not allowed to give out that information. You’re her brother and you don’t know her unit? Let me connect you to her supervisor, Mrs. Butler.”

“Yes, please.”

Then it felt like two minutes of Muzak, except it wasn’t. It was a Sesame Street jingle with one of those weird characters singing, the one obsessed with chocolate chip cookies. It wasn’t the red one, Elmo, with the squeaky voice.

“This is Mrs. Butler. I understand you’re looking for Grace. Who is this, please?”

“I’m Bill Peters, her favorite cousin. I’m from out of town and I wondered if she was working today. I wanted to pay her a surprise visit.”

“I see. Grace has never mentioned you. And, you don’t talk like Grace.

Talk like Grace?

“Mrs. Butler, I’d really appreciate your assistance. I’m from New York City and don’t get down here often. I’ll only take five minutes and then we’ll arrange more time later. I’m here for three days on federal contract work.”

“All right, Mr. Peters. Grace is working today until 5:00 p.m. Report to the front desk with an I.D. She’s scheduled with sessions all afternoon, so please be brief.”

“Yes, Ma’am, I will. Thank you very much.”

***

I bought the flowers, six roses, in the lobby shop of the building next door at lunchtime.

I’d just show up at the hospital and see what I would see.

I followed my MapQuest instructions exiting our K Street garage, underneath our “for show” K Street building address. I took New Hampshire Avenue north to 16th Street and then up to Harvard where I made a right and let it run into Michigan Avenue. I stopped at 111, right in front of the hospital and turned into the visitor’s parking lot.

I went inside to what they called the Atrium Welcome Desk. Very glassy, airy and bright. Good for kids.

I was directed to the third floor and waited.

A tall, well built Black woman approached me, on guard. “Hello. Are you Mr. Peters, Grace’s relative?”

I said yes and she gave me a peculiar look and then she added, “I’m Mrs. Butler. I’d better escort you back. Grace is in a counseling session, as I told you. Please be brief.”

She frowned at the bouquet of roses I held. “Follow me this way.”

We walked down a clean, carpeted, well-lit hallway with offices and meeting rooms on either side. One was labeled “Peanuts;” another “Dr. Lucy.”

On the Dr. Lucy door, there was an 8 1/2 by 11 picture-cartoon of a dark-haired girl in a white coat with a stethoscope, holding a football. The bronze nameplate holder on the wall next to the door said “Grace Michaels, Counselor.” Then I looked again and I noticed that the cartoon girl, with the mischievous grin, had her long hair parted in the middle.

We entered the room further down the hall with a dancing dog pasted on the door. He displayed large ears and an unnervingly humungous smile. I already knew the name of that room.

As we approached, I could hear Grace’s voice, but couldn’t see her. She was on the other side of a small room divider which had big cartoons of a cookie monster, a green frog and other children’s friends.

I could hear giggles from little ones and as they came into view I saw them sitting in little yellow plastic chairs with thick legs. They all had bald heads, appeared tired and pale, but were smiling.

Grace’s voice was reading about somebody named Sam and whether or not he wanted green eggs and fried ham. Normally, I’d say no, I don’t want any, but if Grace was cooking…?

I came around the five-foot-high room divider.

She was a fifty/fifty Black woman; over fifty years old and fifty pounds overweight. She carried her weight well. The face was heavenly, but not my Grace. I could tell she’d been very attractive years ago before heavy-calorie soul-cuisine weighed in.

“Grace?” I said softly.

“Hi,” she said, with her gentle fingertip voice. “Were you looking for me? Guess you found me, didn’t you.”

***

Finally, my long, awkward three minutes was up as a drought overtook our conversation. I guess Grace can look different from what we expect. Heellllooo?

Don’t ask me. I couldn’t figure it out.

Mrs. Butler had assigned herself guard duty in the hallway, outside the door.

As I turned to leave, Grace’s eyes flickered to blue and then back to brown. But really, how would that be possible? I need to see my optometrist. It’s been more than three years.

She said, “Nice seeing you, Bill. I hope you find who you are looking for. A lifetime can be a very long time. There’s love all around you, if you’ll let it in,” as she swept her hand at the watching children with the big eyes.

My head was in a fog as I returned to my parked car. The sunny afternoon had turned into a sky of steel wool.

I opened the door. An Irish Spring smell wafted towards me from the passenger seat. I wasn’t Irish and the leaves were falling from the trees. Leftover Grace from last Saturday night?

Down in between the two front seats peaked a white bird’s feather. Damn pigeons. I don’t remember leaving the window open? I looked at the front and back windows. Closed. Hmmm. Never saw a white pigeon feather like that. Six inches long?

I know this thought was strange and I almost laughed out loud when it entered my head. I wanted to ask somebody. Aren’t Guardian Angels supposed to be of the same sex?

I answered myself. Doesn’t matter, I don’t believe in them anyway.

Just for laughs, I put the feather inside the cover of my old college Bible from the University of Dayton.

###===

[Also published under the pen-name of Ben Leiter at Amazon, a memoir, CITY MANAGEMENT SNAPSHOTS: ON THE RUN. True stories of murder, suicide, betrayal, a Nazi, a communist spy and a monkey on the loose.]

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