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May 20, 2024

Place Settings 12

By Sand Pilarski

Chapter 12: Phillie

Our wedding went off very nicely, in spite of Gloria bugging out before the reception ever got started and Ben looking like he wanted to go off in a corner and chew his own leg off. Joe was radiant, and that was just about worth anything. Kind of nice to be worshiped, after spending a few months having to be a cleaning woman to keep the roof over our heads.

I hated that job. It wasn't difficult, it was just ... nothing I ever imagined I would have to do, wiping down desks and vacuuming people's lint off the carpets and emptying office trash bags of fast food wrappers and dirty paper napkins. Once the kids were old enough to handle the vacuum cleaner, I didn't even have to do that at home. Will was always trying to get out of his turn at chores, but by then Gloria was old enough to nag him about it, and seemed to take some satisfaction in riding herd on him.

Why didn't she nail his shoes to the household when he decided to move out -- at eighteen, damn it, the day he turned eighteen -- to go live out in some dilapidated ranch house with a bunch of Mexicans ... and refuse to come home again?

I don't understand him at all. After that one damned day working in the orchards, he just more or less took off and went wild. Wild like a coyote from a trap. He stopped listening to anything I said, got up and went out to the orchards before I woke, came home after I was long gone to my work.

I told him he should come back to live at home, that Joe's place had plenty of room for him, and he shitted off to me like no son should speak to his mother. He called me a traitor, and even suggested that I was some kind of gold-digger -- that for me asking him to come to my wedding and walk me down the aisle to my new life. Our new life, it can be our new life. He could go to college, get a degree, live close to family. But he threw that in my face and said he'd die on a ranch orchard road before he'd become complicit with my schemes ...

Well, I did lose it at that point, and shouted at him, "What did Gloria tell you?"

His reply: "Nothing. What should she have told me?" And then he hung up on me.

He doesn't understand. For that matter, none of the kids do. Fifteen years of my life were spent hiding their father's infidelity. Oh, make that fifteen years of my life that I knew about their father's infidelity. Did he have his affair with Lolo going on before then? I don't know. Only Lolo does. I've never asked her, and she's never offered to tell me, for which I am grateful. I don't want to know.

I was living in Colorado when I first met Tom, finishing up my degree in Education, still at my parents' house with my annoying Vestal Virgin sisters. There was a special art display event at the Colorado Springs Museum, and I went, with a bunch of girls from my classes, mostly because we were bored and needed an excuse to go out and get loaded.

We took notepads with us, so that we could jot down some artists' names and our impressions of their art before we went off to get plastered; the next day we could show our parents our knowledge about the show. I had just scribbled the name and an opinion of my last artist of the evening when I turned to see where my girlfriends were, and found Tom looking over my shoulder.

Had to look up, and he looked down at me from his lofty height, with those odd hazel eyes, not quite orange, but a captivating light warm brown, the eyes of an owl, or maybe a hawk. He didn't look at me -- not my dress, not my hair, not my breasts -- but instead right into my eyes as if he could read me inside my head. He nodded at the painting. "What do you think?" he said.

I said the first thing that entered my mind. "I think I've never seen eyes as intriguing as yours. Do they have a name attached to them?" At that time, I thought that I was a clever young woman and in complete control of any situation with a man I could encounter.

"Tom Melton." He extended his hand, an introduction.

I put my hand into his, but he didn't shake it. He just let it rest in his palm.

"Philomena Haggin," I said, suddenly thinking my name was a silly composite of syllables.

He brought my hand to his lips, kissing the air just above my fingers, not actually touching them to his mouth. "I am pleased to meet you, Philomena." He released my hand then, and I wished he hadn't.

"Philli, really. I never go by Philomena. Too pretentious." Please, I thought, talk to me some more. Call me Philli.

He nodded. "Philli, then. Can you tell me what you really feel about this exhibition?"

"I'm not an art expert," I said, trying to cover the blush rising in my face, "but it seems to me to be a minimal use of pigment on the canvas. Look here, and here -- I don't see any paint, just gessoed canvas. He's letting the black gesso do the work for him instead of a true chiascuro, where dark painted surface provides the ground for an illuminated subject. I see him doing a lot of that with his works here."

"You're an artist, then," he said.

"No, no, I'm not, I've never even tried to paint or draw -- but I know bullshit when I see it, I think."

He raised his eyebrows. "That can be a very valuable trait." He gestured at the rest of the show. "Would you consider taking me on a tour of the rest of this artist's works?"

One of my friends showed up just then, gave me the eye, and tapped on her wristwatch. "Go on, I'll catch up with you guys later," I told her.

Tom interjected. "I'm holding you up from something."

"Nothing important," I told him. "They don't care about the showing, but I am doing this for a course I'm taking to round out my electives before I graduate, so I wouldn't mind taking some more notes. Extra credit, right?"

He grinned with that Tom Melton Grin that was genetically ideal to put anyone and probably any thing at ease and make them jump on board his ship and set sail for wherever the hell he wanted to go. "Extra credit is always good. Could we start at the beginning of the exhibition?"

Of course we could, because it would take a maximum amount of time together. A maximum number of times I would have the opportunity to look into those amazing eyes. A maximum number of minutes to stand beside his tweed-suited shoulder and feel the warmth of his body so near. A maximum number of words I could say to him and know he was listening.

In the wandering course of that evening in the museum, I learned that he had been a business major, and was apprenticing in the Denver office of his company before returning to California to take up his trade, offering advice and designs for new and old businesses.

I confessed to him that although I was an education major, my last semester in practicum had been a nightmare of epic proportions and that I had a lot of reservations about the lofty ideals of teaching to advance the intelligence and productivity of the human race.

"I think that educational ideals were cast in gold around the 1950s," he said, commiserating. "But social mores scattered them in all different directions after that, leaving education as a goal behind in the dust.

"The same with business, really. I just did an interview with a potential client in a town of about 5000; the client wanted to expand up a printing business, but needed a bigger client base to make it work. The problem was, they didn't want to take phone orders or do custom work because their staff wasn't trained for it. 'Train your staff or hire people who can train for the job' we told them, but they wanted to keep it all in the family, and the family members didn't want to take the training."

By that point in the evening, we were sitting knee to knee in the foyer of the museum on a bench, watching people leave. We were among the last, and I didn't want to move three feet out of his presence.

He was something.

He didn't act all puffed up and macho, or hot to trot, just at ease, like he was already a friend. When we left the museum, he saw me into a taxi to catch up with my girlfriends, but he didn't give me his address or phone number or ask for mine ...

All I had was the name of his company, Better World Solutions, and I found the address in the phone book. There was a small cafe that served lunch on that street, and I began to frequent it on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays; I varied my times between 11:30 and late lunch 1 pm to see if I could catch him there.

About the time that the season was changing and I could sit at an outside table -- coat still on, but unbuttoned -- I was about to dive into a Rueben sandwich the size of a mattress, when he came walking down the sidewalk, looking like a million dollars and as comfortable in his skin as a sated lion. He stopped by my table. "Philli!"

"Tom, thank God you're here. Can you join me and have half this sandwich? I had no idea it would be so big."

"A Reuben? I love them, and I'd be glad to. What brings you to this part of town?"

Maybe I lived on the next block. How did he know I wasn't from this part of town? I decided to call him on it. "Why do you think I'm not from this part of town?"

"I looked up Haggin in the phone book. Only one entry, and that's from out in the suburbs."

He'd tracked me, too. I decided that was good news, and chose to be honest. "You're right. I looked up the location of your business, and thought I might run into you again."

His eyebrows arched in amusement. "I like this."

Two waitresses came out of the front of the restaurant like they were running a competition. The brunette first out the door smiled at Tom like she was greeting her best friend. "Can I take your order?" she puffed. "Or would you like a menu?"

"Just tea, hot, and a glass of water, please. Thank you, Brittney."

She rushed away, heading back in the door, but not before the other girl stepped on the outside of her foot, hissing "Bitch" at her.

"Competitive," I observed.

"I tip well," he explained. "They remember that."

"Right. And the luminous smile has nothing to do with it."

"So I'm luminous, as well. This is a much better day than I thought it would be this morning."

We shared the enormous Rueben, and traded phone numbers, and set up a date for the following Friday night. The rest became history, as I married him and moved with him to California a few months later.

And then, last May, he was dead.

And then, in September, I found out that he was an inexplicable idiot and had stopped all his insurance payments last March. No idea why, he never said. No one who knew him had any idea there was a problem, not even Lolo. One day he was just walking along, talking on his phone -- not with either me or Lolo -- and stepped in front of a bus in the middle of a block.

Joe Brady at least has the sense to look both ways before he crosses a street.

Article © Sand Pilarski. All rights reserved.
Published on 2021-02-15
1 Reader Comments
11:51:10 AM
Glad to get the backstory on Tom. I guess what we're seeing is Philli and Lolo were both swept off their feet by Tom, and now each one is moving on to make a more rational world to exist in. Everyone in the story seems to be looking for their place in the world--am I right? I'm just curious to see who makes the right choices and where everyone lands in the end.
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