by Maureen Hossbacher
Even in retrospect, Wesley Byrne is disinclined to acknowledge the cliché of his affair with Ellie. He was past forty and starting to bald. Ellie Mattisen, his secretary then, was twenty-five. She had honey-blond hair and green eyes that sparkled like the cellophane grass in an Easter basket. That was nearly 30 years ago. Wes refuses to taint his memories with the excuse of midlife crisis. He simply believed that he had found his one true love in Ellie. Bliss, however, was marred by complications: he was married to someone else, to Kathryn, the daughter of the man whose law practice he was destined to inherit. He also had two young sons and a house that was almost paid for. Still, he was ready to chuck it all for love of Ellie.
But Ellie wouldn’t have him. In the end she said he was a louse to want to divorce his wife. Ellie was a girl with lofty ideals.
* * *
When Ellie is shown into his office she is wearing a stylish white blazer over a navy blue dress. Her hair is short, still blond. She looks at least a decade younger than Wes had anticipated. They shake hands and embrace, cheek barely brushing cheek.
“You’re looking lovelier than ever, Ellie,” he observes. Indeed she is sleeker, more delicate. She still moves with the grace of a dancer, the career to which she aspired but never achieved, as far as he knows.
“I’m still a nut for exercise,” she tells him.
“Well, let’s see what we have, here,” says Wes, relieving her of the leather portfolio tucked under her arm. When they take their chairs on opposite sides of his large, mahogany desk, the clot of nervousness in his chest dissipates. Over the years their only contact has been a string of Christmas cards, mostly hers, sent to his office address. On his few in response, he was careful to write nothing but his signature. Some of Ellie’s included a “Dear Everybody” letter, the last one bearing tidings of the demise of Peter, her second husband, and this is the event which has finally reunited them. Widows are C. Wesley Byrne’s specialty. Though he’s more or less retired and his son now heads the firm, he likes to keep his hand in by assisting with probate matters. As he leafs through the papers Ellie has brought him, she chatters about the incompatible relationship between herself and her late husband’s attorney, which she had already explained to Wes when she telephoned a week ago. His task is merely to tie up loose ends and he does not plan to charge Ellie a fee. From what he sees so far, there is nothing here to challenge his expertise, but he examines each document carefully and mutters a steady drivel of legalese. He has all intentions of detaining her until lunch time and has made a reservation at Gabrielli’s , where the food is excellent and the tables well spaced for privacy.
* * *
When noon finally arrives, Ellie easily accepts his invitation to lunch, as if she had expected it. Heads turn as Wes proudly escorts her through the outer offices. In the crowded elevator she positions herself in front of him, leaning her back lightly against his chest. She is not wearing perfume. Her hair smells like the fur of a fastidious cat. She is taller than he remembers. But no, more likely he is shorter, gravity having worked its way on his aging frame. Unlike Ellie, he has never been a nut for exercise.
Though the restaurant is a short walk, Wes has arranged for his car to be waiting. He wonders whether Ellie will appreciate this, or will she think his ostentation has grown worse with age. Surely she remembers how once he tried to win her by promising that if she’d marry him, she could devote herself entirely to dancing, his money would open doors for her. With exquisite magnanimity, he promised, too, that he would set her free the instant she grew tired of him. Oh, he knew, even then, they wouldn’t have lasted long together, she’d eventually outgrow her dependence on him. Ellie was offended. She said he couldn’t buy her. By that time, of course, a younger and properly eligible rival was lurking in the wings. The first husband. He was a gym teacher or basketball coach, or some such thing, as Wes recalls. He warned her she’d rue it if she married the fool; she was meant for finer things. Ellie said, “You don’t know what the truly finer things in life are, Wes. You don’t understand that money can’t buy them.” Those were her exact words, on the day she left his employ and him. He will never forget the sincerely compassionate smile on her face when she walked out the door.
* * *
At the restaurant Wes begins to relax after a gulp of champagne. Ellie had asked for a glass of white wine. Rejuvenating a bit of his old verve and chauvinism, he ignored that and ordered instead a bottle of Veuve Clicqot. She takes a sip and smiles approvingly. The hand caressing the fluted glass is impeccably manicured. She used to bite her nails. Maturity seems to have wrought perfection.
Ellie says, “I noticed the Wesley Byrne junior on your letterhead. How nice.”
“My son is in court today, or I would have asked him to join us,” Wes lies.
Ellie peruses the menu, selects the broiled sole, claiming,”I have to watch my figure.” She lays the menu aside and asks, “Is your other son a lawyer too?”
“No, Donald tried his hand at acting for a while, but now writes screenplays for television and seems to like that quite well. And then . . . there’s Annie, our youngest–”
“A daughter? I don’t remember you having a daughter.”
“Well . . . Annie was a bit of a surprise to Kathryn and me. She’s in California, at UC Berkeley, working on her Masters in Anthropology, or Folklore, or some sort of combination of those. She’ll be an adjunct instructor in the program next semester, and has her eye on a PhD. She loves school. And your daughter–?”
“Miranda. She’s a dancer. We started her young with ballet but she grew bored with it, said it was too confining. Contemporary dance is her passion, choreography especially. She’ll be doing a residency next month at Jacob’s Pillow in the Berkshires. I’m very proud of her.” As Wes refills Ellie’s glass and his own, Ellie adds, “So you and Kathryn are still together.”
“And how is Kathryn?”
“Oh, thriving, thanks. She had heart surgery a few years ago, but she’s in excellent health now, knock wood. She let her hair go gray after that, when she discovered her feminist consciousness — or I should say when our daughter, Annie, discovered it for her. The result of all this consciousness raising is that Kathryn went back to school. She was a nurse, you know, when I met her — LPN. Now she has her RN and she works part time as a hospice nurse. She enjoys it.”
“Really. Sounds grim, but of course it is a special calling.”
“Well, it’s part time, and a lot of it involves setting up care plans and monitoring the aides. She’s especially good with families, with helping them cope, you know. And then there’s her cat breeding business, a joint venture with a neighbor friend. At the moment our daughter’s room is serving as the nursery for six Abyssinian kittens. Abyssinians are a noble breed, you understand: it would be unthinkable to shunt the little dickenses off to the basement.”
Ellie laughs in the most endearing way. “Heaven forbid!” she exclaims. “Miranda wanted a Bengal kitten once. The breeder wanted Nine Hundred Dollars!. We ended up with a pretty tabby from the local animal rescue.”
* * *
By dessert, they are mellow enough to speak of the past. Ellie murmurs, “We had some wonderful times together, didn’t we, Wes? I was so infatuated with you. And lord, how you spoiled me.” She nibbles a chocolate truffle. “Mmmm . . . this is positively evil.”
“You can afford the calories,” he assures her.
“Thank you,” she says. “Believe it or not, I still take dance classes just to keep in shape.. Now that I think of it, I was pretty pudgy in the old days, wasn’t I?”
“No, Just pretty.”
“And I thought you were the suavest thing on two feet.”
She is bolstering an old man’s ego, but Wes savors it, tells himself there’s a morsel of truth at the core of her blarney.
They linger over coffee. Espresso with a dash of Anisette. She used to like that. Still does. He orders a second for her, but not for himself, heeding the inner admonition that another dose of liquor-laced caffeine could be lethal.
* * *
When they get outside, the afternoon is brilliant and warm, the trees along the avenue newly sprouted into full, green bloom. And the scent of urban Spring, fresh and musty at the same time, is very strong. Ellie removes her jacket, drapes it over her arm. She suggests they walk back to the office, where her own car is parked. Wes obliges, tells his driver to go.
They stroll along wordlessly for a minute, until Ellie says, “Remember the Comerford? That was such a lovely old hotel. The bar, with all that etched glass and those wonderful chandeliers. Last time I was in town — oh, a couple of years ago — I was meeting a friend for a matinee and I thought we could meet there, but it didn’t exist anymore, I discovered.”
They have stepped from the curb and Wes is guiding her across the street, as gentlemen do (or used to) with his hand gently touching her waist. Through the thin fabric of her dress, the benefits of regular dance workouts are revealed to him. Wes is not sure whether it is this contact, or the residual effects of the champagne, or her mention of the Hotel Comerford that is causing the stirring in his loins. The Comerford was once their trysting place. “Yes, it’s been torn down,” he says. “Not too long ago. Three, four years, maybe.” He had watched its demolition on the evening news telecast. His wife, Kathryn, was sitting across the room, on the antique chair with the needlepoint seat, her bare feet resting on its matching footstool. He stole a glance in her direction. Their old cat Bonkers, since deceased, was sprawled down the length of her jeans-clad thigh. Kathryn, oblivious to the TV, was holding an open paperback in one hand and scratching the cat with the other. It occurs to him, now, as he strolls along with Ellie, that he hasn’t seen a dress on Kathryn in years, and that includes her nurses’s whites: polyester tunics and trousers.
Too soon they have reached Ellie’s car. Wes knows she is going to kiss him goodbye, and she does . . . on the cheek. He finds it curious and vaguely disappointing that the touch of her lips is not unsettling. The last time she kissed him goodbye, he wept.
It is not his habit to work past noon, but when Ellie departs, Wes returns to his office. He leans back in his comfortable leather chair and hoists his feet up on the desk, the way he used to do, when he was younger. And suaver.
Wes sighs. Loneliness suddenly grips him, like a cramp in his heart. He would love to be able to tell someone about this day. About the way Ellie looked. How she hinted that a cinder of his former charm glimmers yet, if only faintly. The telling, however, would require an empathetic listener, a confidant possessed of sensitivity and insight. Ordinarily, that would be Kathryn.
Encapsulated in his soundless, dustless tower, Wesley Byrne stares out his office window at a familiar battalion of buildings, the heads and shoulders of the city, standing stiffly at attention, like the pipes of a silent calliope.
About the Author:
Maureen Hossbacher is the author of the poetry chapbook Lesser Known Saints (Finishing Line Press). Her fiction is included in The Next Parish Over: A Collection of Irish American Writing (New Rivers Press). She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from City College of New York and taught writing as an Adjunct Lecturer in the CUNY system for 20 years, primarily at Hunter College. Retired from teaching, she’s now at work on a novel. A member of Irish American Writers & Artists, Inc., she participates in the organization’s twice monthly salons in NYC, reading her poetry and fiction and occasionally hosting.