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January 23, 2023

Reunion

By Michael Price

Matthew Turner loved Cloe Chesterton; that much was certain. He couldn't remember a time when he hadn't loved her. There was that special something ... But then, everybody loved Cloe; everybody knew that.

"Ladies and gentlemen, retail enthusiasts, your attention please ... now modeling the very latest in stunning-only-because-she's-wearing-it, and uniquely fashionable, I'm sure ... your sweetheart and mine ... Miss Cloe Chesterton!"

Twenty-four-year-old Cloe Chesterton coyly backhanded aside the changing room curtain and flounced onto the sales floor, artfully pouty and modelesque, midst a sprinkling of applause and restrained utterances of wow. She was, indeed, a beauteous sight, clad in a lavender-sheer stunner of a summer dress, cut above the knee with a sneak-a-peek V-plunged neckline, store tags dancing playfully from the back collar with each bouncy stride. The entire Women's Apparel vicinity turned to look: about ten or twelve ladies, mostly older, sophisticate types, with a cumulative critical but appreciative fashion eye; and in addition to thirty-three-year-old Matthew Turner and the lone male sales associate, three other men, poking their heads up from behind their respective fashion racks upon Cloe's striking entrance, exhibiting an altogether different type of appreciative eye. Maurice, the sweet-smelling, flawlessly attired, mid-forties sales associate, and trim, nice-looking Matthew approached Cloe simultaneously, as she was affecting her second overtly stylized pirouette to a few lingering sotto voce "oohs" and "ahs."

"My heavens!" effused Maurice.

"Oh, I think we can do better than that," beamed Matthew, a markedly similar summer dress, but pink, draped over one shoulder, and a large designer purse, also pink, crisscrossing his torso, slung from the other. "Cloe, my dear, you are dazzling."

"Thank you," breathed Cloe. She sashayed her way around Matthew, playfully swooshing her skirting about à la Carmen Miranda, the Carmen Miranda of Warner Brothers cartoon fame. "You like, my dove?" she teased, grinning devilishly. "Isn't it simply divine?"

Matthew swallowed hard. "Divine is an excellent word," he managed.

"Might I assume, then, that it passes the rigorous Turner fashion test for tomorrow night's festivities?"

"Oh yeah, rigorous," he laughed. "Some of the more pear-shaped males of the class may not survive."

"Quite exquisite, if I may, Miss Chesterton," gushed the salesman.

"And you most certainly may, Maurice," Cloe curtsied, "you most certainly may. You're such a dear. You're both such dears." And she hugged them both, one per arm.

"Shall I wrap it then, Miss Chesterton ..?"

"Wait, wait!" Matthew unshouldered his dress and pressed it to her body. "I found this one while you were changing, kiddo. Thought you might allow it to look every bit as sensational."

Cloe accepted the dress from Matthew, held it up for inspection, gave it the maybe eyes, and turned over the sales tags. "It's been discounted," she hissed, as if the garment had an objectionable odor. "Honestly, dear boy," she sighed into a charitable smile, gently pinching Matthew's cheek, "I don't know what I'm going to do with you."

Awash with adoration, a certain tenderness painted Matthew's face. "Yeah, that's a tough one," he nodded, accepting the rejected dress back from Cloe. "Shall I take care of that one then," he said, pointing, "while you change?"

Cloe slipped an arm through Matthew's and led him to an unoccupied corner of the sales floor, her eyes perusing the area like a 10-year-old kid with a secret. Leafing through a rack of sweaters, strictly as a diversion, she leaned closer. "I bet we could slip this one into my bag," she whispered past an impish grin, smoothing out her new dress with a free hand, "and walk right out of here."

Matthew drew his head back and sighed. He softened, and gave her a we're in public peck on the lips. "Please, no," he whispered back, looking around. "Not today."

"Aw, why not?"

Matthew forced a grin. "We've been through this, kiddo," he mumbled into her ear. "Not your best idea. Never is."

Cloe grinned back. "Oh, all right," she sighed affably. "You're no fun," she teased, feigning disappointment, followed by a return peck.

"Then I'll just pay for that one while you change," said Matthew, loud enough for anyone within earshot to hear.

"Oh, dove," she said, almost apologetically, walking arm in arm. "That's so sweet, really it is, but methinks this one may be a skootch out of your comfort zone. I'll just have Maurice put it on my account." She stepped into the changing room. "But thank you all the same," she tossed nonchalantly over her shoulder.

"Oh fine," resigned Matthew through the drawn curtain. "We still on for happy hour, though?"

"Of course, you silly man," returned Cloe. "I hardly get to see you anymore, since you became a big movie maker."

Matthew belly-laughed. "In Minneapolis? Yeah right, big movies, babe, huge movies, that's what I do. Making a mint doing the independent movie thing in downtown Minnesota."

"Well ... "

"I'm not that far away."

"... seems like it sometimes."

Matthew summed up his laughter with a single throat clearing. "Shall I wait for you, then?" he said.

"No, you go ahead. It would seem I'm going to spend a bit more money," was the answer. "Don't you worry about me getting around, dove. Five-ish, is that what we decided?"

Matthew smiled, nodded knowingly. "Five-ish is indeed what we decided," he said, turning to leave.

* * *

On August 29th, 1995, The Chesterton family was moved, by Two Guys and a Truck, Inc., into the largest, amenity-laden, easily the most expensive house in an otherwise upper middle-class Duluth, Minnesota neighborhood, directly across the street from The Turners -- mom, dad, and their two young sons. At the time of the move, Matthew Turner was thirteen years of age and his genius little brother, Elliot, twelve. But it didn't take a boy brainiac, or even Matthew -- not exactly an idiot himself -- to conclude, right there and then, that first day, that four-year-old Chloe Chesterton was an extraordinarily beautiful little girl, an enchantress-to-be, effervescence seeping from every juvenile pore, a veritable goddess of an only child. Or, as the blue collar, somewhat under-refined Andrew Turner, father of the two boys, often would refer to her in the succeeding years, "... the neighborhood babe."

On that hot summer moving day in '95, Mrs. Eleanor Chesterton was a very leggy, very alluring, mid-thirties blond, experiencing no difficulty whatsoever in retaining her youthful loveliness. She was, and had been for years, a much sought-after lingerie model for local and regional advertisements, mostly print ads and weekly circulars. Bearing the pleasantest of dispositions if not the sharpest of intellects, Eleanor was born into money -- "minor millions," to which she would casually admit over a glass of wine at neighborhood get-togethers -- to be lovingly and devotedly shared with her husband and daughter for the rest of their lives.

One dark night, late in the fall of 2001, restless and craving exercise, Mrs. Chesterton swan-dived into the deep end of their backyard underground pool. The high temperature on the shores of Lake Superior that day was a few degrees shy of thirty above. The pool had been drained for more than a month. She was 41.

Less than a month after his wife's funeral, Dr. Charles Chesterton -- tenured U.M.D. Literature professor, published playwright, noted Mensa-member, and binge alcoholic -- and a notoriously abusive one at that, not a nice man at all -- drove his car seventy miles an hour across the state line and into a solidly wood-constructed Welcome To Wisconsin sign. He was 50. Ironically, he was sober at the time of his death; brake failure was decidedly the primary contributing factor.

Young Cloe was two months into the fifth grade at the time of her parents' deaths. Matthew Turner, scarcely a year out of high school but primed with rudimentary legal research provided by bookworm brother Elliott, drew up a proposal -- heartfelt, optimistic, yet nowhere near feasible -- to move in across the street with "My Little Cloe" (a pet sobriquet; "it's so her ..." he was fond of saying), to care for her, to be the major influence in her life forever. Not yet twenty years of age, Matthew already held a responsible directorial position at a local television station, valued employment that prompted him to opt out of his freshman year at U.M.D. after only a semester.

As per the Chestertons' will, it wasn't as if any extra wherewithal would be required to maintain Chloe's accustomed standard of living, an issue which Matthew fervently pooh-poohed when the subject was approached in casual, and eventually legal, conversation. Most importantly, he stressed, he was certain he loved young Cloe more than anybody else possibly could, and it was such love and devotion that would only serve to embellish her already fine quality of life.

Of course, he was well aware that a number of other young men "undoubtedly" had similar feelings toward the young princess as he did -- Elliot for one, in addition to a number of other boys, and younger boys, perhaps even boys her own age. But all Matthew really wanted, what was foremost in his heart, as was his ongoing emphasis, was only the best for his Little Cloe, forever and ever, and was certain he was the crowning option as such a provider.

Excluding their chronological ages, the Turner brothers weren't particularly close, and from an interests standpoint -- likes and dislikes, curiosities, and overall priorities -- were about as different as two human beings could possibly be. Elliot was a severe realist, the techno-geek of the family, interested in the inner workings of everything mechanical, what made machines work, and how to fix them or make them better. A voracious reader, he perused technical and "How To" manuals almost exclusively and, for all intents and purposes, was the Turner family general maintenance department from the age of eight.

Matthew, no stranger to the written word himself, far and away the romantic counterpart of his brother, eschewed the extreme non-fiction world of his younger sibling, preferring to fill his waking hours with the likes of Shakespeare, Vonnegut, old movies, and classic television. He was a dreamer, an idealist, and unlike Elliot, lived in a world in which the impossible might, indeed, eventually be overcome, simply by living a good, moral-of-the-story life.

Still, polar opposites though they were, there most certainly was no animosity between them and, whether as solo or synergistic coddlers, they doted Cloe with all the attention and adoration a young lady could wish for from across the street, often in a tacit yet mildly competitive sense, a contest of fraternal one-upsmanship, for the loftiest of her affections.

But Elliot, ever the pragmatist, just a few months out of high school, was Ivy League bound, questing multiple business degrees, and basically estranged himself over the course of the ensuing years, stifling nearly all communication with his family for more than a decade.

Before he left, he made a point of stating that women -- among other "luxuries" -- would have to take a back seat in his grand scheme list of priorities. "'Til we meet again, m'lady," was his uncharacteristically dramatic send-off, kneeling pseudo-chivalrously, kissing at Cloe's hand before leaving Duluth for his freshman year at Brown.

The late Eleanor Chesterton's younger sister Jackie and husband Phil, the newly wedded Honeycutts from the nearby town of Two Harbors, as yet childless, were Chloe's godparents and more than happy to move their work-in-progress lives across the street from the Turners, so as not to unduly disrupt their goddaughter's life. They were good, morally motivated people, loved their young niece very much, and proved to be excellent surrogate parents. And the move promised them, as Cloe was already so assured, of financial stability for the rest of their lives.

* * *

Bernice Fitch, everybody's favorite mother-figure waitress at the local college hangout, Bourbon Street North, delivered a playful pat to Matthew Turner's shoulder; he missed that from the old haunt, always forgot how much.

"Hey, you beautiful lady," beamed Matthew, grasping her hand and squeezing.

"Long time, Mr. Matt." She bent over and pressed her lips to his cheek.

Across the aisle, three square tables had been pushed together, a pitcher of beer per, the remnants of some sort of white frosted cake on a silver platter atop the middle table, crumbs spotting the vicinity, both on and below the tables. An impromptu cheer went up from the ten or twelve men and women, mid to late twenties and up, standing and sitting about, many in cone-shaped party hats.

"What's all that about, Bernice?" said Matthew with a grin.

"Retirement party -- the guy on the end, with the bad rug."

"Ah. Good for him."

Bernice waited for the ovation to die down. "Light beer, Mr. Matt?" she asked finally, still working the Juicy Fruit after so many years.

Matthew released her hand, over-acting mild annoyment. "Bernice, how often have you known me to drink anything other than light beer?" he joshed, resting back in the corner booth, the best table in the establishment's French Quarter Bar, the booth he and Andrew Jackson had reserved earlier that day.

"Plenty of times, hon, plenty of times," droned the matronly voice of experience. "Every special occasion from your youth, as if you don't remember." She slid a cocktail napkin in front of Matthew and looked at him flatly. "Or is it her?"

He pretend pondered. "Oh yeah, I remember her," he said, stroking his chin, feeling his face reddening, much to his mild chagrin. Peeling his eyes from the lifer-waitress', he snuck a peek at his watch; 5:10. He chuckled silently. Knowing Cloe Chesterton as he did, Matthew was certain -- as was everyone else, he felt quite sure -- she had never been on time for anything in her life.

"Still carryin' a torch, are ya Mr. Matt?" foxed Bernice.

And yet -- perhaps remarkably, perhaps not -- nobody heard a peep of complaint, ever, from anybody, concerning chronic tardiness or any other possible character flaw Cloe might have exhibited; quite the contrary. His Little Cloe -- "Little" having become a rather blatant misnomer as she swept into legal age and beyond, having inherited not only her mother's extraordinary beauty but her appealing legginess as well -- she would get there eventually, wherever there happened to be at the time, and would be a delightful addition to any gathering, any size or composition, and those kept waiting would always feel the better for it, having the good fortune to ultimately exist in the inspiriting exuberance of her company. Cloe's recurrent lateness was never an issue of forgive and forget. It was normal, even charming, from her.

Still smiling and now quite blushed, Matthew quipped, "Golly gee, young lady, how could you tell?"

Bernice humph-ed playfully at him. "I tell ya, Mr. Matt, if I was about twenty years younger ..."

"You are twenty years younger, Bernice."

The waitress smiled back, warmly. "Shall we start with the gimlets then, hon?"

"Always good to come home, Bernice."

With a well-practiced wink, she walked away.

Bernice Fitch really was an excellent waitress, and perhaps more significant than that, the reciprocally considered adoptive maternal influence for a couple generations' worth of young U.M.D. students. In both roles, over the years, she continually displayed the uncanny knack of knowing exactly what to do when, when to stay away and when to make her presence known, many times without seemingly paying attention, without even looking.

Another lively retirement cheer rang out, the across-the-aisle partiers dominating the room in frivolity. Matthew smiled, lightly drumming his fingers on the table, in cheery observation of the room's locally famous Friday afternoon, end-of-the-work-week happy hour merriments, keeping half an eye on the entrance.

The drive up from the Twin Cities had dragged on longer than usual that afternoon, particularly from Moose Lake on into the Duluth city limits, those last fifty, sixty miles, yet he recalled little of it. In anxious anticipation of the following evening's gala festivities -- beginning with his fifteen-year high school reunion -- he would nurse a cocktail, not get too happy, while waiting for Cloe. Matthew hadn't attended either his five- or ten-year reunions, in large part because he didn't have a date, certainly nobody special enough in his life to consider at the time. Or, as in the case of Cloe, his runaway first choice for the ten-year affair, of legal age to enjoy a cocktail with him and the rest of his classmates -- although her fake I.D. was pretty convincing, he had to admit -- potentially unveiling a situation which might run the risk of teetering at the cliff of awkwardness, a sensibility he had always tried to avoid, with anyone, but especially with her.

"Matty!"

Much of the vicinity recognized the soprano lilt wafting from the front entryway of the place. The retirement party even stopped to look, and led the room in yet another sprinkling of ovation. Smiles radiated throughout, Matthew's leading in sincerity. He shot up from his seat and bounded sprightly ahead, scarcely acknowledging the square-jawed, early-twenties, sharply clad man looped arm in arm with his Little Cloe.

"Matty, my dove!"

Releasing her hold, she enthusiastically threw her arms around Matthew, the type of hug for which Matthew had developed a manifest craving over the years. "You look ravishing, as always, my dear," he beamed, stepping back in adoring approval.

"Thank you," Cloe purred. She had changed into a light-blue sleeveless blouse with white short-shorts, both spotless and creased wrinkle-free, and white tennis shoes, also spotless. The strap attached to a small glossy white purse was draped over one shoulder. Topped off with a matching Minnesota Twins baseball cap, her long blond hair in a white barretted ponytail streamed out the rear of the cap and down the small of her back.

He delicately placed an extended kiss on her lips. Opening his eyes, over her shoulder, he whispered, "What's with the big guy?"

Cloe turned, then back. Overselling girlish embarrassment, "Oh dear, I swear to Robert Redford, I have no manners whatsoever." Then, delighted, "John Weber, I would like to introduce my bestest friend in the whole wide world, Mr. Matty Turner."

The younger man outstretched a hand with the slightest of bows. "A pleasure, sir." His smile was of a professional nature. They shook hands.

"Mr. Weber," returned Matthew.

"John, dear as he is, has offered to act as chauffeur for the weekend," said Cloe, dismissing the driver with a polite wave of her hand. "Wasn't that lovely of him?" John kissed her cheek and backed away.

Matthew masked a puzzled frown. "Offered?" he said.

"Well," said Cloe, emitting a feminine snicker, "I certainly don't want to drive. And we gots ta go in style, don't we? It's your reunion, after all." Arm in arm, they paraded themselves to the corner booth. "And we have so much catching up to do this weekend, I don't want you to be the least bit distracted."

"Of course."

"Besides, he's on the payroll."

"Hard to argue with that," Matthew smiled, handing her into the booth.

Cloe sat, blushing girlishly. "Oh you, always the gentleman. And my favorite table in The French Quarter. You're always so sweet to me."

"One can only try."

Matthew couldn't help thinking, every man in the room wishes he were me, as he crawled into the other side of the booth, snuggling up close to Cloe. Offering an open hand on the table in front of her, he kissed her forehead; she placed her hand in his.

"So ..." he began.

"Buttons on your underwear!" blurted Cloe.

Matthew took a beat, then laughed loudly, genuinely at first, then longer. "Oh, how I love it -- never gets old," he said, winding down. "You were just a little kid the first time you used that joke on me, me and Elliot. We didn't even get it at first. And I'm pretty sure you didn't even know what you were saying."

"You're so easy to amuse," Cloe grinned.

Matthew gazed longingly around the room. "You know, I've missed this place, this city ... I love you, kiddo, you know that, don't you?"

Cloe smiled warmly. "And I love you, too, silly."

"Yeah."

Nuzzling up close to Matthew, "Shall we order cocktails?" Cloe suggested.

"Already been taken care of, m'dear."

Cloe feigned surprise. "Why Mr. Turner, I do believe you have thought of everything."

"Boy, I sure hope so."

As if cued, Bernice approached the booth. "Gimlets for two, anyone?" she announced, setting two drinks on the table.

"Bernice!" exclaimed Cloe, reaching a free hand for the waitress to squeeze. "Dear, lovely Bernice."

"Always a pleasure, Miss Chesterton," Bernice addressed Cloe, releasing her grip. "Mr. Turner." She smiled at each of them, one at a time. "You two kids enjoy yourselves." And she walked away, keeping a grin to herself.

"Now ..." Matthew started, "if you've no objection, my dear, I would like to propose a toast."

Cloe smiled sweetly, brushed up on him. "By all means, dove." She raised her glass to his.

"To the most memorable of weekends."

"The bestest reunion ever."

"That too."

"The bestest of the bestest."

"Where do I sign, what do I have to do?"

Their glasses met softly and they each took a sip. In silence, he gazed adoringly into Cloe's eyes; she smiled back. "You know," she began finally, stirring her drink with a glistening, white-polished pinky, "this is almost like a little reunion of our own, isn't it?"

"Oh?" he said, squeezing his lime wedge into Cloe's drink.

"You know ... when was the last time you came to see me? About two years?"

Matthew made a face, then feigned the need to think back. "Seven months, thirteen days," he replied at last. Then, referring to his wristwatch, "And four hours and ... thirty-seven minutes." They both laughed. "Happy reunion." Their glasses gently clinked once more.

She placed her hand in his and affected a sad smile. "Oh dove ... sometimes I wish we still lived closer."

"I find myself wishing that a lot lately too, my dear."

"Remember when we were little," Cloe started, fingering her glass, "and we used to run through the sprinkler in the summer? When it was really hot? And how mom used to hate it because I always took my shirt off so I could be like you and Elliot?"

"Fused into my memory forever."

"And how I used to make you play house with me, with my dolls, in the basement?"

"You only had about a hundred of 'em."

"I did not!" she protested, playfully punching him in the shoulder.

Matthew smiled tenderly. "Did you know I didn't mind? Playing house, I mean?"

"Really?"

"Not a bit."

"It was fun, wasn't it?" Cloe paused for thought. "Your brother never thought so, though, did he?"

Matthew answered, "Naw, he hated playing with dolls. He always wanted to play with his blocks."

"That's right! He had a whole bunch of 'em, didn't he? A bunch of different kinds, I mean. I forgot about that. He made some pretty cool stuff. Remember that castle ..?"

"Of course."

"... downstairs? It looked so real."

"I was always afraid I might knock it over if I got too close."

"Like a tiny little King lived in it."

"He musta left it up for about a year. Did you know he even dusted it a few times? It was pretty funny -- I mean, for a little kid, dusting." There was an extended clinking of silverware-to-glass from across the aisle, followed by a rollicking, alcoholically dissonant rendition of For He's a Jolly Good Fellow. The entire bar applauded as the party toasted the honoree.

Cloe smiled at Matthew and whispered, "They seem to be having a good time, don't they?"

"They do."

"They should be," Bernice voiced in a walk-by. "They've been here since one-thirty. You guys doin' okay?"

"Fine, thanks," said Matthew. Cloe smiled sweetly at the waitress as she walked away.

They sipped in silence, holding hands, scanning the shenanigans about them. Abruptly, "Hear anything from your brother?" Cloe finally asked. "Or is that a dumb question?"

"No, uh ..." Matthew sat back, releasing his grip of her hand. "... I think pop got something in the mail ... must've been a couple years ago, now. Pretty sure I told you."

"I don't remember. Tell me again."

Vaguely, "I guess he's doing well," said Matthew. "Something to do with electronics, I think. Sounded good, though, if I remember right."

"I'm so glad." Cloe smiled dreamily. "You just knew he was gonna be successful, didn't you?"

"That's my little brother."

Another big ovation from across the aisle; Cloe waited. Then, "I knew it, too. You could just tell. I think he just needed to get away for a while ... "

"Cloe, it's been twelve years."

"... get a fresh start." She paused, picturing something. She looked back at Matthew, her eyes suddenly afire with vibrancy. "Maybe someday you could make a film about him, dove, about his life. When he gets real rich and famous. That would be so cool, wouldn't it?"

"It would indeed," Matthew agreed, feeling oddly paternal for the briefest of moments. He allowed himself a few moments to pause, change his face. "Very cool," he nodded, shifting focus. He leaned in and began fondling her pony tail. "But tonight, this weekend, I'm more interested in you. In us." He kissed her neck.

Cloe pulled back, giggling. "That tickles, you silly."

"Sorry, m'dear," said Matthew. He took a longer sip, fingered his glass. "So tell me, what else is new in the life of My Little Cloe?"

They held hands. Sounding quite bored, Cloe droned, "It's pretty much same old, same old. I still live downtown, still at the Ambassador, been there four years now -- as if you didn't know but probably forgot." She smiled glumly, then recovered. "Still volunteer at the junior high a couple, three days a week -- love those kiddies, kinda reminds me of us sometimes.

"Jackie and Phil and the two niece-queens are still across the street from your mom and dad, visit them a lot, baby sit as often as they'll let me ... do you know, little Emily beat me at Scrabble the other day? She's such a smartie-pants ...

"... I miss my folks."

"Both of them?"

As soon as the words left his mouth Matthew was sorry he said it. Cloe stared fixedly at Matthew, softly releasing her grip. "I don't want to talk about that," she undertoned firmly, sliding her drink down the table, turning, facing Matthew directly, hands folded in front of her. She softened. "I want to hear about what you're doing, dove. Your latest film. Tell me -- what new masterpiece keeps you so busy that you can't come home and see me?"

Matthew studied her; her tone of voice belied her uncharacteristic, strikingly serious appearance. Matthew shook his head, wincing a weak grin. "You don't really want to talk about my work, do you?"

"Of course I do, silly, that's what friends do," she said, faux-pleading. Then, with her biggest, girlish smile, "Guess who taught me that, sir?"

Matthew nodded resignedly and absently fiddled with his glass, turning it round and round on the table top. "But it's a sports movie," he started, with a whiff of apology. "Baseball ... I'm not sure if you'd ... get it. Sorry, my dear, but you were never the biggest of sports fans."

"No, no, I like games," spouted Cloe. "Especially baseball."

"Since when?" said Matthew, visibly perplexed.

"I dated a minor league ballplayer for a while, from Superior," said Cloe. "He taught me stuff. Couple years ago. Baseball's fun."

"Ah," nodded Matthew cheerlessly. "Did not know that." He paused to collect himself and his thoughts. "Actually, the more I get into this thing, this film, it's ... it's kind of an overused premise, I think: aging ballplayer, diminishing skills. Used to be this flashy, flamboyant character, and he's still not a bad player, and a helluva good guy, but ... ya know, there's this hotshot kid coming up in the system ... look, it really wasn't my idea, I'm kinda doing a favor for a friend ..."

"Sounds like a great idea."

"... anyway, this kid plays the same position ..."

Cloe patted his hand. "I can't wait to see it," she said, smiling amiably.

"... I mean, it's sorta been done before. And there is kind of a twist at the end, but hey," he shrugged, "a paycheck's a paycheck."

"Money's money, right?"

"I guess."

They sat in silence for several minutes, sipping. The retirement party was breaking up across the aisle, most folks exiting cheerfully, loudly, leaving two middle-aged men facing each other in a hushed but lively discussion over the bill. Bernice stopped by, offering menus; Matthew politely excused her -- ("We'll be dining later") -- and turned back to Cloe. "This minor leaguer ... anything serious?"

"Heavens no," Cloe tittered, touching his shoulder. "Six months, tops. He'd be home for a few days, we'd go out, he'd be gone for a week. Go out, gone for two weeks. Go out, gone -- like that. I didn't like it. And do you have any idea what those poor boys' per diem meal allowance is?"

"I do."

"You do?"

"It's in the movie."

"Oh, I s'pose." She paused. "I mean, he was a nice guy and all. Nice looking boy, too. And you, dove, of all people, know I don't mind treating for dinner every once in awhile, but ... you know."

"I do." At the cliff of awkwardness; Matthew fidgeted silently. They drank.

"Oh!" she blurted suddenly. "That reminds me. Did I tell you about my Gatsby party? No, I couldn't have, silly me, it was only a month ago. Dove, you have never seen so many white dinner jackets in your life." She laughed. "And I even like white dinner jackets. And all that "old sport" jazz ... all night. And the Mia Farrow hair?" She laughed again. "You should have seen me ..."

"I wish I could have."

"... danced almost the entire party. Do you know the Charleston, by any chance?"

"You can teach me."

"It's such fun."

"Tomorrow night, maybe."

"The entire glorious evening -- and morning ..." She displayed a sheepish grin. "... simply divine, the movie, you could just taste the wealth -- it was absolutely delicious.

"Actually, I only read the book."

"Oh no!' Cloe gushed. "You have simply got to see the movie, dove. It's so very good! Let's get it tonight, for after dinner. It is so lovely. Say you'll watch it with me ... please? Tonight? Movie night at The Ambassador?" A great idea came to her. "We could eat in! Oh, this is fabulous! There's this Polynesian place I know that delivers -- really, really good food." Kitty-catting up next to him, she slipped her arm in his, and with a pleading smile, "Please? Say you'll watch it with me. Pretty please?"

Matthew chuckled. "I don't believe I've ever seen you beg, not ever. And I've always wanted to see it, such a classic and all. It'll be a good warm-up for tomorrow night."

"Goodie!" shrieked Cloe, loud enough for most of The French Quarter to turn, look, and smile. "Let's leave now, dove, right now. I'll call John."

Matthew laughed. "Cloe, my car is in the parking lot."

Cloe tittered like a schoolgirl. "Of course, silly me. I'm just so excited. I can't wait. It is so good."

"Just let me flag down Bernice ..."

Cloe reached for her purse. "Dove, how 'bout if ..."

"I'm paying this time -- put your money away."

Cloe drew back, dug out a phone from her purse, held it up to Matthew's face, and with a slick grin, "I was just going to tell John to take the rest of the night off, silly."

"Oh ... right."

"And suggest that I might visit the Ladies' Room before we go."

Matthew felt himself blushing. "Ah ... good idea, both of them." Adding quickly, "But I am paying."

Cloe slid herself out of the booth. "You're so adorable," she said, tweaking his cheek as she strutted by.

* * *

The following evening, Saturday, August 28th -- one day shy of exactly twenty years after Matthew Turner first laid eyes on beautiful little four-year-old Cloe Chesterton -- a hansom cab drawn by a single white and brown spotted horse pulled up to The Ambassador Apartment Lofts at eight-thirty sharp. A white-tailed tuxedoed Matthew hopped down and approached the circa 1920 red-brick building's French double doors, which parted as he reached the top step.

"Oh my," gushed Cloe, still grasping the door handles. "Don't you look handsome, Mr. Turner."

Matthew smiled adoringly at the lavender-dressed beauty posed before him. "You really didn't leave me much choice now, did you, Miss Chesterton? I didn't want you to be embarrassed being seen with me all night."

"No chance."

Cloe stepped outside, allowing herself to be embraced and kissed. Matthew closed the doors behind her with a gentle click and stepped forward, offered an arm, and they processioned down the walk, gazing dreamily into each other's eyes.

"Oh dove!" gasped Cloe, realizing the hansom cab. "You did all this for me? For us?"

Matthew snapped a mental picture of her lovely face, so as to never forget it. "As a very special friend of mine once said to me, 'we gots ta go in style, now, don't we?'"

Cloe performed her finest southern belle curtsy. "Why, I do declare, Mr. Turner, it is simply divine."

"Cloe, you are ..." Matthew leaned over and kissed her softly, then leaned back. "... speechlessly beautiful ... the dress, your hair, you're just ..."

"Thank you, my dove. So much."

It was a typically humid late summer evening in Duluth as dusk drew nigh, a mostly cloudy, starless night, and Matthew's tux was more than a bit warm-fitting, beads of perspiration already dotting his forehead. But having experienced many exact-same days of his youth in northern Minnesota, he was well aware of the potential for the evening to turn quite cool once darkness fell over the shores of Lake Superior, where Shoreline Hall was located, on the shores of Duluth's local rendering of Pebble Beach.

Matthew escorted Cloe into her seat, climbed in next to her, and kissed her cheek. Then, turning to the man holding the reins, "To the park, John, if you would."

"John?"

John Weber turned in his seat, doffed his taxi-hat, and smiled. "Good evening, Miss Chesterton."

"John!" Turning back to Matthew, Cloe, flushed with bliss, kissed Matthew more passionately than she ever had, thought Matthew, as the hansom cab moved. "I don't know what to say, this is all so wonderful. But John ..? how ..?"

"Ah, my dear, where there's a will ..." Matthew squeezed her hand. "I so wanted this night to be special, in every way."

"Well, you most certainly are off to a grand start, I must say."

"May I pour you some champagne?"

"Oh my, champagne, too ..."

Matthew reached back and presented a bottle of champagne and two fluted glasses from behind the seat. He poured, and set the bottle back. "A toast, my love?"

"No, let me," blurted Cloe. "You've done so much already." She smiled a loving smile. "To the bestest, the absolute bestest reunion in the whole wide world."

"I will definitely drink to that." And they did.

It was a ten minute ride along the scenic Lake Superior shoreline to venerable old McCarthy Park, the oldest and largest park on the outskirts of the city, a ride during which they held hands and sipped champagne, in ecstatic, mostly silent, pleasure. There was a string quartet playing at the south end of the park, the massive great lake providing the dazzling backdrop. A crowd of about thirty or forty appreciative spectators had assembled.

Cloe leaned forward. "Stop for a moment, won't you John?" she said. They stopped up close to the music, at the side of the road, parked in a space that might have been reserved especially for them. Matthew refilled their glasses.

"They're very good," said Cloe finally, nuzzling up to Matthew.

"That makes it all worthwhile." He kissed her cheek.

They sat and listened for several minutes. "This is all so lovely," she purred. "The music ..."

Suddenly, her eyes widened. "Wait a minute ..." She searched Matthew's eyes. "Worthwhile? What did you do, dove? You didn't ..."

The contentment in Matthew's expression was easy to read.

"You did this, too!" She threw her free hand around him, spilling slightly, taking no notice. She kissed him hard on the lips. "I'm absolutely 'paralyzed with happiness.'"

"Ah, Daisy Buchanan, from last night's movie, I like it," nodded Matthew. "I guess that must make me Gatsby."

He wanted the moment to last forever.

They sat and listened until dusk, sipping and snuggling close, idly chatting. Following a final round of applause for the musicians, John took them directly to Shoreline Hall, where Matthew's fifteen-year high school reunion was already in full swing.

"I do hope we're fashionably late enough," Matthew drolled, handing Cloe down from the hansom cab.

"'Paralyzed with happiness'," she managed, teetering a bit on a high heel touching ground. "Oopsy," she giggled.

Matthew couldn't have been more pleased with how the reunion unfolded. As expected, he reacquainted with many people he hadn't seen for years, many who, like himself, had long since moved away from the Duluth area, returning to relive old memories. In high school, he had been one of those kids who really didn't fit in with one particular group, no bosom buddies from any, but was generally well-liked and maintained acquaintance-type friendships with many fellow classmates. He had immersed himself in the school's audio-visual department, developed his own work-study program, and spent most of his free time helping out in the A.V. room, where he met a divergent assortment of students.

"It's amazing how many kids," he had once told Cloe, years prior, "-- shy kids, outgoing kids, theater kids, nerds, anybody, in our hallowed halls -- pop out of the woodwork on the mission of making total asses of themselves in front of a camera. You can't believe how many jocks assume they're the second coming of Marlon Brando."

Lots of hands to shake and hugs to hug.

He was a little surprised -- although later, upon reflection, he realized he probably shouldn't have been -- that Cloe seemed to know almost as many of his classmates as he did; quite well, apparently, and vice versa. And he even felt a tinge of melancholy, even slight disappointment, when he introduced her to a couple of steadies from years gone by, that she displayed not one iota of jealousy. But such feelings faded quickly, as the mood of the room and specialness of the evening won out and, merged with just enough alcohol, Cloe was the perfect companion for Matthew's "bestest reunion ever."

His one big surprise: Timothy London -- who, if Matthew had a best friend in school, was probably the guy -- showed up ten-thirtyish with their sophomore English and Drama teacher, Miss Trudeau, on his arm. As attractive as ever, she had never married ("color me capricious," she shrugged) and Timothy had "befriended" her the summer after graduation; they had been "together," and still in Duluth, ever since. A men's room confab between the two old school pals concluded with, "Who cares how old she is? Look at her."

Cloe allowed herself to get as tipsy as Matthew had ever seen her, which wasn't bad at all, and she attempted to teach the Charleston to Matthew and a few other dancer wannabes around 11:00, to Arrowsmith's Walk This Way -- a class favorite -- of all music. Matthew drank soda most of the evening and suggested, after referring to his wristwatch, at 11:45, they might "beat the midnight rush."

"Good, I could use some air," said Cloe.

They said their good-byes and exited the hall. As Matthew had anticipated, a slight chill had merged with the day's humidity; he placed his jacket across Cloe's shoulders.

"You're so good to me."

"Let's walk a bit, shall we?"

They walked slowly and carefully along the shoreline, slip-sliding their way along aptly named Pebble Beach, hand in hand in the sliver-of-a-moonlit night, engaged primarily in stale small talk.

"You okay, dove?" asked Cloe.

"Sure. Why?"

"You seem kinda quiet."

"Oh. Sorry. I don't mean to be." He checked his watch.

Cloe yawned. "What time is it, anyway?" she asked.

"Almost midnight." They came upon an abandoned pier, directly across from The Shoreline Bandshell. "Here, let's go this way."

He led her onto the pier. They walked to the very end and stopped, surrounded on all sides by water, where they gazed out dreamily upon the massive lake. Matthew checked his watch once more, and exhaled deeply. "Cloe, there's something I want to say. I've been meaning to ... I mean, this has been on my mind ... Boy, I thought this might be easier ..."

"Matty, you're acting weird." Matthew reached into his inside suit jacket pocket, draped over her shoulders, and produced a small jewelry box. Cloe gasped. "Oh my God ... what ..?"

"I think you know, kiddo."

"Oh, dovey, what are you doing?" she gasped again, clasping a hand over her mouth.

"I think we've both known this moment has been in the works for a very long time." Matthew swallowed hard and smiled softly, his eyes moist with romance. He produced a diamond ring from the felted box and descended to one knee. "My Little Cloe, darling girl, I have adored you from the instant I first set my eyes on that lovely face of yours, an emotion that has only become more impassioned through the years as I've watched you blossom into the exquisite rose you are today. And if such a thing is possible, my love for you has only grown deeper these past few years, as you've reached the splendor that makes you who you are, further confirming my long-standing affection, as I now openly avow my eternal love, devotion, and unconditional faithfulness to you."

"Oh, dove." A single tear rolled down her cheek.

Matthew's eyes pled love. "Cloe, my love, my best friend in the world ... and I'm afraid this part isn't particularly creative, and I apologize for that, but ... will you make me the happiest man in the world and say that you'll marry me?"

Their teary eyes were transfixed with each other's ...

"Cut!"

... and abruptly became unglued. Cloe swung her head around wildly, losing her balance. Matthew caught her, narrowly saving her from falling into the lake. Together, they looked around them in the darkness.

"How'd I do? Was that about right, my brother?"

"Elliot?" Matthew stood up with Cloe still in his arms; he searched for the source of the voice.

Out from behind the bandshell stepped Elliot Turner. "It's not exactly my field of expertise," he droned.

Cloe squealed, "Elliot!"-- and ran enthusiastically to him, stumbling off the pier and onto the beach, spinning up pebbles in her wake, Matthew close at her heels.

* * *

"You look different in a goatee."

"To you," said Elliot to his brother, "I'm guessing I look different, period."

"Older -- duh."

"It's been a while."

"Distinguished."

"Thank you, big bro, I'll take it."

The following morning, Sunday morning, Matthew and Elliot arrived at Bourbon Street North just as they opened the doors, 10:00 sharp, and sat themselves at the same corner booth in The French Quarter, the only people in the room that early, having agreed to meet over Bloody Marys and brunch. Cloe had invited herself too, of course, energized as she was with Elliot in town, but the brothers wittingly led her to believe it was to be a noon-time threesome, let her sleep in, allowing themselves some time to iron out a few rather major family wrinkles beforehand.

"Well, I'll be ..."

"Hello, Bernice."

She kissed Elliot's cheek. "Long time, Dr. Elliot. Lemme buy one for ya."

The previous evening's festivities had taken both a physical and an emotional toll on Cloe: a combination of Matthew's reunion and its inherent components, the truncated marriage proposal, and foremost, the return of Elliot -- all amplified by a little liquor on the side -- had collectively worn her out. By half past midnight, despite the excitement, she could scarcely keep her eyes open; Matthew called John and had him take them home.

Cloe had allowed herself to be escorted to the doors of The Ambassador. "Thank you, my dear Matty, for such a wonderful evening. It really was lovely," she said, and kissed him sweetly on the lips.

"Tomorrow, then? Noonish?"

"I'll probably be late."

"That's okay."

Elliot had graduated from Brown in less than three years with a double major, Business and Electrical Engineering, with honors. It took him a little more than two years to earn his M.B.A. from Harvard's business school, only because he was already working full-time for a firm specializing in electronics research the entire time; he was very good at his job, receiving a "Most Valuable Nerd" gag award at the company Christmas party one year. He had been out of graduate school and living in suburban Connecticut ever since.

"Married?"

Elliot shook his head. "Been busy."

"Kids?"

"Very funny."

Matthew swallowed a strawful of Bloody Mary, chased it with a swig of beer, and looked stiffly at his brother, the previous night's startling encounter still all-too fresh in his mind. "And now for the million dollar question: what are you really doing here?"

Elliot's pensive look was an act. "Just thought the time was right."

"After twelve years?" spat Matthew. "Exactly what was it that made this the right time? That made that the right time?" Elliot smiled, but said nothing. "You kinda ruined what should've been our happiest moment, Cloe's and mine, our finest hour."

"I know."

"I maxed out three credit cards, just to make last night the most special night for Cloe."

"I'll be happy to reimburse."

"That's hardly the point. And not what I meant."

"I know. I get it."

"Well ..." Exasperation painted Matthew's face. "... why? Why then? How then?" He surrendered his arms out to his sides. "... you know. You knew. How did you know ..?"

"It's my business to know."

"What's that supposed to mean, it's your business to know?"

"No, no, I mean, it's my ... business." Elliot paused to collect his thoughts, what to say, what not to say. "Look, after Harvard, I -- and an old crony of mine from the undergraduate days -- we started our own business. State-of-the-art electronics. Surveillance equipment, strictly cutting edge stuff, stuff nobody's even heard of yet. It's a big deal, Matty, a lotta call for that sort of equipment, in ... certain circles."

Matthew tried to think. "Like government circles, you mean? Are you talking about government contracts?"

Elliot smiled, what Matthew perceived to be, as devilish a smile as he had ever seen cross his brother's face. "Not quite, he said." He gulped at his drink, licked salt from the rim of the glass.

Suddenly, Matthew's eyes widened with awareness. He sat back in the booth. "Oh, oh, oh, oh, oh ... stupid me, I get it." He stared at Elliot incredulously. "So my little brother spies for the bad guys."

"Matthew, there's a lotta money ..."

"Oh, of course, the highest bidder, right? Anyone who'll pay? Elliot, that's disgusting."

Elliot tightened his lips. "A lotta money," seeped through.

"Wait a minute ..." thought Matthew aloud, "Oh man ... I really am an idiot. You've been spying on me, haven't you? That's how ..."

"Matthew ..."

"Haven't you!" Elliot nodded, "yes"-ed with his eyes. "How the hell ..." Matthew continued, then stopped.

Elliot read his brother's mind. "It's too hard to explain, it's complicated, very technical, how it all works. You'd be bored with it all."

"Thanks a bunch."

"Look, not here, not now, okay?" He paused. "But state-of-the-art, really cool stuff. Maybe someday ..." His sentence drifted off.

"I see." Matthew reorganized his thoughts. "So ... what? In your spare time, you thought you'd keep secret tabs on your brother?"

"Actually, you guys were easy."

"You guys?"

"You weren't the only one I was watching, listening to."

"Pardon me?"

"Cloe ..."

"Cloe! That's even worse!"

"I'm sorry, but I had to know."

Matthew leaned closer. "It's illegal, Elliot, you could go to prison," he over-whispered.

Elliot slapped on a meek grin. "You gonna turn me in, big brother?"

"How're you boys doin'?" asked Bernice, stopping by.

"We're perfect," said Matthew without looking up; she walked away quickly, looking the other way. More people started filing into The French Quarter, sitting at tables nearby.

"So ..." Matthew began.

"Buttons on your underwear," he grinned, pointing at Matthew.

"Shut up, Elliot." Matthew continued slowly. "Might I assume, then, from your exquisite timing last night, and today's ... fascinating revelations ... that I'm not the only one in the room with designs on the future of one Miss Cloe Chesterton?"

"I plan to make her my wife."

"No shit."

"That's why, last night ..."

"Yeah, I get it, I get it." Matthew summoned up his finest sarcasm. "Okay, here's kind of a good question: Do you love her? And if, by chance, the answer to that question happens to be yes ... how do you know? Because see, little brother, I do -- I do love her -- and I know this because I've actually been living in the same state for a few years."

Elliot looked hard at his brother. "Would you kill for her?"

The stare-down was a draw. "Would I kill for her?"

"Because, see, I would. Did."

"What are you talking about?"

Elliot averted his eyes, gazing past Matthew, searching his memory. "Dr. Charles Chesterton."

Matthew felt his head shake ignorance. "What about him? He was terrible."

"September 20th, 2001."

"What about it, Elliot?"

Elliot looked back at Matthew, expressionless. "Weren't you ever curious ... why his brakes didn't work that night?"

Matthew felt a sudden chill; he felt quite cold, quite pale. He swallowed hard, tried to talk, but no sound came out.

"Matthew?"

Matthew pried his eyes from his brother's, tried to picture it. Looking back at Elliot, stunned, "You? You ..." "... fixed his brakes, so to speak, yes, I did. You're right, Matthew, he was a terrible, terrible man, and something had to be done. And I'm the one that did it. I saved Cloe." He sipped at his drink, waited for Matthew to say something; he didn't. "He would've killed her, eventually, you know."

Emerging from his shock, Matthew didn't know what to say first. "Does Cloe know?" were the words he chose.

"Of course. It was her idea."

"What?"

"I swear. After her mom died ... she knew. She knew she was in trouble. We talked it over."

Matthew was no longer at a loss for words. "And you came up with murder?!"

Everybody in the vicinity turned to watch.

"Probably more like man-two ..."

Matthew was beside himself. "Oh for Godsake, Elliot ..."

"... man-one, tops ..."

"... gimme a break."

"... time served, either way, I'd say. It's what she wanted."

"But she was only ten!"

Even Bernice looked.

* * *

Matthew would remain single until he was fifty. He married a Twin Cities actress half his age, a lovely woman who he'd cast in one of his films. They had two children -- one of each -- and they lived their lives happily together.

A week after the reunion, Cloe and Elliot flew to Las Vegas ("I've always dreamed of coming here," she said) and were married, alone. After the "ceremony," the couple lived in Elliot's palatial estate in Connecticut, where they remained childless, family distant, and insanely wealthy.

And they lived ever after.







Michael Price
1958 - 2016

Article © Michael Price. All rights reserved.
Published on 2016-03-07
Image(s) are public domain.
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