Past Imperfect

This past Saturday, I took part in a one hour writing marathon with a couple of buddies from my writers’ group.  It went so well, we kind of took a deep breath at the end of sixty minutes, and went back in for 30 more!  Now, after spending the past couple of days going through the finished product, here’s the story, part of the RIVERDALE collection.  I’ll be submitting it to the group to read and for comments (I hope next week) but you’re the first to see this “polished first draft”.  

Just a couple of things before you begin to read – these stories are all interconnected, but I do not think you must read them all to understand them all.  Any references I make one from another I try to keep non-specific. Of course, not all the stories which are at the “pfd” stage have been posted, and there are some which are not even at that point yet.  And the stories which HAVE been posted are not necessarily in chronological order – mostly because I don’t know what that order would be yet!!!  If you have questions because you don’t understand a reference, do ask.

As always, please let me know what you think (there’s a comment section below) and thank you, thank you for reading my blog!


The buzz in town those first few days was so persistent even Mare noticed it enough to ask Daddy what he knew about a guy named Henry Martin.  Daddy shrugged his shoulders and said while he’d never met him he had heard a few stories about what a great athlete he was in high school. Why was Mare asking?  Mare said there’d been so much talk in the barber shop yesterday that, even though he didn’t like gossip, he couldn’t help hearing the name.  Apparently, Henry Martin had moved back to town.

Daddy whistled, and looked thoughtfully out the window and down High Street.  You can’t exactly see the library from the cafe, but that’s the direction in which he was looking.

Most of those stories Daddy would have heard about Henry Martin were stories my mother told him, stories about watching football games in the afternoon and climbing the Kissing Rock in the evening and maybe coming home before dawn after a very long date.

Henry Martin was my mother’s high school boyfriend, and the perfect choice for her first romantic conquest.  He was the big athlete on campus — football in the fall, track in the spring, hockey when he could, loved a pick-up baseball game if he could find one — and he was, according to my mother, very cute and drove a nice car.  At 15-going-on-27,  I’m not sure which mattered most to my mother but as a complete package, Henry Martin was it.

Not that being a cute athlete who drove was all Henry was, because he was also an outstanding student which is where Miss Elizabeth comes in.  Before she was the librarian, Elizabeth was of course a student, and a very good one.  As a result, she and Henry were thrown together for a lot of school projects, class work, and extra study credits.

It wasn’t so much Henry-asStar-Athlete that put the cracks in the friendship between my mother and Miss Elizabeth as it was, well, puberty I guess is the nicest way to put it.  Once the closest of friends, the kind of friends I think only girls make, the kind of friend who is more sister than anything, the kind of friend with whom you share every secret, every feeling, every hope, it all began to change when Henry and Elizabeth were learning trigonometry at the same time Henry and my mother were learning basic biology.

Things might not have changed so drastically between the two girls however if Elizabeth hadn’t fallen in love with Henry.  I mean, really in love.  Where my mother cared about status and power and — we should be perfectly frank even if she is my mother — sex, Elizabeth cared about feelings and romance and having a relationship with one person, forever.  At 15, it might have been a little too early to say “forever”.  Still, the way Elizabeth and my mother both considered life and considered Henry it seemed inevitable that their friendship was going to change.

My mother was never someone who kept her feelings to herself nor even a whispers and confidences sort of person who shared only with her closest friends.  Even when I was a very little child, she would talk to me about the men in her life: my biological father, the man she married after my father died, then her relationship with the man I call Daddy.  And even after she left town, popping back in and again for visits, I would hear more stories, and understand them more fully, about the newest fellow in her life.

So I think that in some way I have always been aware that it was the difference between lust and love that drove my mother and Miss Elizabeth apart, but it wasn’t until he came back to Riverdale that I understood that these were also the reasons why Henry Martin left town for university on the east coast, and only now, some twenty years on, could come back.

The stories about Henry’s return and what he was doing came flowing into the cafe as such information will.  Henry was back to help his mother take care of his dad, who was in the early stages of Alzheimer’s.  Henry had brought his company with him, some sort of design business, so he was looking for a house he could live in and use for an office for him and two other people who were also moving to Riverdale.  Henry was buying a house, on the road leading to the old mill.  Henry had a girlfriend.  No, wait, Henry had two women working with him and they were each other’s girlfriend!  Henry was joining the Kiwanis Club.  Henry was looking forward to playing baseball in the spring, and he wanted to start fishing again too, as he hadn’t had much chance to fish living in the city.

And then one day, it wasn’t just information about Henry, but he himself who came into the cafe. He’d been back for maybe a couple of weeks and seemed to have gotten a lot done, putting his roots back in our ground.  He got the place buzzing a little that morning, with the customers who knew him offering welcomes home and shaking his hand and the ones who didn’t know him frankly looking as if they’d like to.

Henry Martin was indeed a good looking man with the build and assurance of the still-popular athlete.  He was wearing jeans and a henley jersey and looked comfortable in his skin, aware of the eyes watching him but seemingly not caring.  Daddy introduced himself, letting Henry do the same.  It was an odd moment, like Henry knew Daddy had been my mother’s, well, with my mother.  Of course he did because we don’t keep a lot of secrets in Riverdale, and Henry’s mother would have been sure to tell him some of ours.

Daddy is also a man of great assurance.  His body may be failing him a little, but he knows where his strengths truly lie and uses them.  The two men exchanged small talk, sizing each other up, but I could see that they were enough alike that they were liable to become buddies, maybe even friends.  Of course, like most men, they didn’t engage in sharing mutual experiences, as it were, which made the road to friendship easier.  And too, the fact that my mother wasn’t around probably helped although at the back of my mind, I wondered if their friendship would come as easily if their shared history was still in town, was Miss Elizabeth.

You know, the funny thing about Daddy and Henry becoming friends is that I saw Daddy in a new light.  Henry was the first person to become part of our world who only knew Daddy as a man with physical challenges, sometimes in a wheelchair, sometimes with very weak arms and hands.  Henry accepted Daddy just as he was and the chair like it was normal.  And if sometimes he had to pour his own coffee like other cafe customers, that was just fine with Henry.  It’s not like I have ever babied Daddy really, because he wouldn’t’ve let me, but I always walk a fine line, trying to keep the heaviest and bulkiest work out of his way.  Seeing how Henry just accepted Daddy’s life as his normal made me see I probably should too and let him carry as much more of the burden of the cafe as he can, while he can.

During the first few weeks Henry was back in town, I made my usual semi-weekly trips to the library to borrow books and visit with Miss Elizabeth and never once did we talk about Henry Martin.  I waited for her to bring up the subject, but she never did.  She had to have known that Henry was in town but just as always, refused to join in the gossip herself even as the chatter would have gone on all around her.  At the very least, she’d know that just like everyone else in town, Henry would have been coming in at least to the cafe occasionally for coffee and pie because you cannot live in Riverdale without enjoying pie sometimes but she never asked me about him.

Anyway, for weeks you could tell the whole town was waiting for Henry to meet up with Miss Elizabeth, but probably no one more than Jake Riley.

Jake was the assistant football coach at the high school when my mother, Elizabeth and Henry were there.  Not too many years older than his players, Jake got to  know them all pretty well, he understood them in ways that the married, father of three, Coach Byers just didn’t get any more.  Jake saw with very clear eyes the triangle that was developing between my mother, Henry and Elizabeth and then had to sit back and watch it all blow up, wait for what pieces might come falling to the ground and see if he could pick them up, maybe put them back together.  As it turns out, there wasn’t so much of an explosion as a long exhale of very hot air, as my mother ran away for the first time, and Elizabeth and Henry changed study partners.  Even after my mother came back to town the summer before their class graduated there were no fights, no nasty scenes but then neither were there any real friendships left.

Now it’s time for the Lions Club annual barbecue which raises money for the skate park and the library, and that meant Miss Elizabeth was there pouring lemonade and serving salads and generally helping out on behalf the library.  As a Lion in good standing, Jake was part of the group of men huddled around the smoky grills trying to look like they weren’t going to burn much this year.  Everyone in town seems to come out to these events, supporting each other’s fundraisers, having a good time with friends and neighbours, so it made perfect sense that Henry came too.

If you know what the word frisson means, it is the perfect word to describe the feeling in the crowd watching Henry as he got out of his SUV, walked past the skate park at the end of the Lions’ field, towards the picnic area under the big red maple trees.  It was as if we all took a collective breath and could only slowly let it out as Henry approached.

No one could figure out who to look at first – Miss Elizabeth or Henry.  Daddy and I, along with Mrs Busy, had the best viewpoint I think, working the pie tables. They were set on an angle to salads and lemonade table, where Miss Elizabeth and Mrs Busy’s sister were, and directly opposite the grills which meant that I could also see Jake, watch his face when Henry and Miss Elizabeth finally said hello.

Henry walked up to the Lions’ wives running the cash table and paid for the barbecue.  He chatted with the women sitting there, nonchalant and apparently completely unaware of the looking, the whispering from the picnic tables behind us, then went to get his food, exchanging greetings with a couple of people along the way, waving to a few more already seated and enjoying their meals almost as much as the floor show.

I knew that Henry and Jake had already had their first meeting since Henry’s return.  They apparently had bumped into each other at the Riley Brothers’ store a few days before and had had a good chat according to Mrs Busy whose sister’s eldest daughter’s boyfriend worked there.  Mrs Busy told Daddy and I that the boyfriend reported much talking about football and fishing but nothing about either my mother or Miss Elizabeth.  So when the two men met up over a plated hamburger, extra onions, their handshake and smiles were warm and friendly, much as we had expected.

If it had been a movie, you would’ve heard the romantic music building up in a suspenseful way but there’s no question that Jim Allerbeck’s sound system playing  Elvis’s “Hound Dog” gave its own special meaning to the moment.

Taking his tray on down the line, Henry slathered a lot of mustard on his burger, picked up his utensils, and slid down to salads and lemonade.  I don’t know if we all were expecting fireworks or what.  Well, I wasn’t, because fireworks is just not Miss Elizabeth but even I thought there would be something when they first laid eyes on each other.  But it was, well, nice.  They were both maybe a little awkward for a moment or too, like do you offer to shake hands or should there be a hug or something.  For a moment, it was neither, as they just stood there and smiled.  Then Henry seemed to make up his mind, and started to walk around to Elizabeth’s side of the table.  She met him half way, at the short end, and those of us just watching got our sort-of-romantic-movie-moment when they hugged each other, warm and full-bodied and very friendly.  Emphasis on friend.

I turned my head away from them and watched Jake for a moment and knew I’d been right about him all along.  He suddenly turned his head and caught me staring at him and smiled at me.  I know I sometimes spook Jake but this time he didn’t seem to care.  Maybe he knew that Miss Elizabeth and I sometimes talk about things other than books.  He just shrugged his shoulders and offered me a half wave with his spatula, took another quick look at Elizabeth, and went back to his grill.

I have often thought that Jake was a changeling in the Riley family, sort of like I  sometimes thought about Darby.  Sure they did the manly Riley things like hunting and fishing, watching sports and drinking beer, hanging out over endless fix-it projects that were hardly ever actually finished.  But Darby was the true loner amongst his family, often preferring to head out on his own, maybe to swim in the river, maybe to read a book on the riverbank.  Jake too likes books and movies that don’t feature heavy ordinance and not all of his meals have to feature something he caught and cleaned himself.  Sometimes he even asks for extra vegetables!

This side of Coach Jake might not have been visible to his football players, but it was the side of him that noticed when one of those players was breaking the heart of the smartest and one of the prettiest girls in the school.  It was the side of him that noticed her making her way through the last year and a half of high school, followed her university career through judicious run-ins with her parents, followed her new career when she returned to Riverdale to run the library.

Although I believe that the worst regrets are for those things we have left undone, there can be pretty powerful regrets for those things done.  In this four-sided triangle, it seems to me my mother had her regrets and ran away from them while Miss Elizabeth stayed to face hers.  And while Henry also ran, when he was ready to face his imperfect past he came home for family and himself and seems to be proving himself a stayer.

It’s Jake though who I think avoided the worst regrets because he neither did something which would have lead to hurt and damage, nor left undone what he wanted most to do.  You don’t have to see people the way I do to know that Jake gave away his heart to Miss Elizabeth a long time ago, back when he could not act on it.  And now that he can, does.

Living in a small town there are indeed few secrets so of course lots of people know sometimes Jake asks Miss Elizabeth to have dinner with him and she likes to share her favourite books with him but no one seems to have thought there was too much more about an apparently confirmed bachelor and the spinster librarian having the occasional evening together.  But I know both Miss Elizabeth and Jake Riley very well and that these two stretch out the meaning of occasional quite liberally, so I watched them at that barbecue.

Whatever reasons there may be for living single lives since high school, there was a look about Jake and Miss Elizabeth that spoke of being together, not just two people sharing a space at a picnic table.  Even without a romantic music cue.



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