The Legend

Jack had reached that age at which he found himself repeating the same stories over and over again, even adding new details with each re-telling. He couldn’t help it. He had retired and now dreaded becoming irrelevant which is how he had always seen old men who shuffled along, especially if they were using a cane or, worse, a walker. He feared that the time was coming when people would only speak to him out of pity. Telling stories—especially for young, appreciative women—helped him hold back the years, though on this particular Sunday, it didn’t quite work out like he had hoped.

At 11:30 a.m., he and his wife of many years, Victoria, are in the pews of Saint John’s Episcopal Church, and smiling and applauding along with the whole congregation. The children in the choir have reached the chorus of the Beatles’ “All you need is love” and suddenly hold up red paper cutout hearts and start swaying on a cue given by the pretty young choir director. She is in her early 20’s and newly arrived from Virginia. Her clothing is just tight enough to reveal the contours of a body bursting with health. When she speaks to the church, she smiles invitingly. Jack determines to meet her during the coffee social, and he hits upon the perfect story with which to approach her.

He had told the first version of the story earlier that morning after he and Victoria had finished their eggs and coffee at the Georgetown Dinette. The TV was showing an interview with Ringo Starr, former drummer of the Beatles. Jack was handing the money to the cashier, a young black-haired, almond-eyed beauty from somewhere in the Near East. She was looking up at Ringo and that’s when Jack told the early version of this Sunday’s story:

“Back in ’68,” (he didn’t want to use phrases like “when I was young”), “me and my girlfriend were on a Eurail pass and we went to Abbey Road studios in London. When we were taking photos in that famous crosswalk there, I saw Ringo walking into the studio building. He looked our way, we waved, and he waved back!”

The young almond-eyed beauty shifted her gaze from the TV to Jack. Her eyes focused on him and softened; he even thought they moistened.

He remembered that delicious awkwardness back in 8th grade when he realized that the girl who stood in front of him outside of her parents’ house and whom he’d had a crush on, was willing to let him kiss her. After a moment, the young almond-eyed beauty said, “Wow”, and lingered on Jack’s bare story. He felt her fingertips brush his palm as she handed him his change. The story—sketchy as it was—had worked.

Now as he and his wife Victoria mingle with their fellow parishioners after the service and the children choir’s performance, he decides to try the same story on the pretty young choir director. Victoria doesn’t cling to him in these social situations. Though they had met when she was an admiring intern in the PR firm and he a young hot shot a few years older with two big accounts to his name, she had gained in confidence over the years and now wears business attire, speaks with great assertiveness, and has taken to wearing big gold broaches. This morning her suit is a deep red—the color of power. Her hair is cut exactly to frame her face and curves with great precision under her jaw, each strand perfectly aligned with each other strand. She has two successful grown-up kids, her own money, interests, friends, and a book group. She still enjoys being with Jack, but she doesn’t need him the way she used to on that first morning forty-years ago when her pantyhose had bunched up on the bus, her hair had been mussed up by the wind coming down K Street, such that when she blew into the offices of the powerful PR firm, Ruder Partners, she felt like a mess. In that state, she first saw Jack, her new boss. There he was, a young legend, relaxed in his plaid pants and white turtle neck, confident with his athletic good looks and handsome with a tan jumping out from the white clothing that offset it. When he saw her, he walked over, winked his eye, cocked his index finger at her, smiled broadly, and said, “Hi, I’m Jack, you must be Vicky. Bob didn’t tell me such a beautiful woman would be working with us louts!” She was his.

Jack introduces himself to the pretty young choir director who smiles broadly. Though his hair is silver, it’s coiffed silver, giving him an elegant look. His bad teeth are in the back of his mouth so when he smiles, the teeth that appear to the public are white and fresh-looking.

His tan from the week in Nantucket lingers on his skin which is smooth from the ladies’ moisturizer he has always applied secretly at night.

A white button down shirt with an open collar drapes his frame which still retains some of his former athletic conditioning—nearly flat belly, rounded calf muscles, traces of protruding pecs. He’s foregone the blue blazer because this more ‘caj’ look takes off a decade. A fuller version of himself used to stand center stage behind a lectern giving rousing presentations all across the country about exciting new products and hot companies to audiences that lapped up every word until they were lathered into a frenzy. He no longer strides across stages and his audience has dwindled to his wife, grown-up kids, and old colleagues at cocktail parties but he can still tell a pretty good story because he practices his memory-building exercises at home.

The pretty young choir director wants to make a good impression on her new congregation, and so she makes every effort to make Jack feel fascinating. She looks at him with great sincerity, ready to receive his wisdom, her body leaning on one foot like someone at the beginning of a seduction. The stage is set, and Jack launches into his story, using the children who sang “All you need is love” as the entry point:

“Back in ’68, I was travelling on a Eurail pass,” (he drops the girlfriend detail because describing himself as being single feels more virile), “I visited the Abbey Road Studios in London. I was taking photos of the famous crosswalk there when I saw two guys sitting on the wall out in front. It was Ringo and George.” He pauses there for effect. He’s added George to the story because young women—in his experience—really love “Here comes the sun” and the very romantic “Something” both of which were written by George. The pretty young choir director gasps, puts her hand on her heart and bends over, and then stands back up and puts her palm on her forehead to emphasize her astonishment. “Wow, I can’t believe it!”

Encouraged by her reaction, Jack immediately resumes. “I went over to them, and we started talking. They were really friendly and had heavy Liverpool accents. They were recording the ‘White’ album and seemed stressed out about something.” He can see that these details impress her. “There was another guy and I had him take a photo of the three of us. Then Ringo and George got up and went into the studio building.” The pretty young choir director stands there in stunned silence. His story has worked again; the casual use of names at the tail end was especially effective in making the famous musicians seem like his buddies. She regains her composure, touches his forearm and exclaims, “I HAVE to see that photo! Sometime when you are free!” Jack remembers the beautiful blonde girl in 11th grade who had approached him after class and, with blush in her face, asked him if he would come over later and he knew her parents were away. Of course, there was no such Abbey Road photo, but he has succeeded in getting an invitation from the pretty young choir director.

Jack finds Victoria who remarks, “What a nice young lady and a great addition to the church’s children’s program.” Jack nods, feeling a rush of energy. Young Jack is alive again.

After Church, Victoria has a Latin Zumba for Silver Sneakers class followed by her book group that is reading a New York Times bestseller on empowering women in business around the world titled, “When the Lioness Roars”. Retired Jack usually goes back home at this point and naps, but Young Jack has decided to amble around the neighborhood. After all, he’s feelin’—and lookin’—good.

By mid-afternoon, he is sitting in Saxby’s coffee shop on 35th St. near Georgetown University. It’s alive with a group of athletic young women from one of the Georgetown sports teams who are chatting animatedly at the table next to his. He notices that two of them are wearing retro Beatles t-shirts.

After his story’s effect on the pretty young choir director, he feels confident.

He leans over and asks, “Where did you get those great t-shirts?” Several of the athletic young women turn to him and smile, “That store on M St. across from Dean & Deluca”. “Are you a Beatles fan?” he asks. “We love them! Our dads listen to them all the time!” Undeterred by the parent reference, Jack takes to the stage.

“In the summer of love,”… he changes ‘1968’ which he now feels is too ‘historical’, to the ‘summer of love’ which is retro cool and lets the athletic young women know he knows something that they should know. He gives the same performance as he had to the pretty young choir director. The athletic young women turn their bodies to him and gradually become engrossed, some lean forward, arms resting on their knees, breasts moving up and down with each breath. He reaches the end of the story such as it is, but he doesn’t want to leave the stage. He notices that one of the athletic young women has a button on her gym bag with the words ‘Legalize It’ superimposed on the photo of a marijuana leaf. So he adds the following to the story: “We were talkin’ about music and the problems they were having in the studio, and Ringo pulls out some rolling papers and George had a plastic film can with weed in it,” (when he uses the word ‘weed’ several of the athletic young women smile at each other), “so they light up and we’re sittin’ under this tree, talkin’ music and tokin’ away…”

The door of Saxby’s opens suddenly and a loud voice calls out, “Georgetown soccer—the bus is here.” The athletic young women start to get up and grab their bags, slowly coming out from the fog of his amazing Beatles story. They say how great it was to meet you and one asks “can I give you a hug?” Jack gets up, and she pulls herself to him. He can feel her young body breathing against his, filling him with the desire for life. He even senses that she holds him for a little extra-time. Stepping out of Saxby’s, Young Jack is fully energized. He remembers the song “Born to be Wild” which was playing in the ballpark the night he pitched the winning game for the college championships. In the afterglow, women whispered in his ear, a few slipped him their phone numbers. He felt he could have had anyone and anything he desired. Today, that feeling is alive again so Young Jack strides around the neighborhood, breathing in new life, free from the cage of his aging body.

After an hour of active walking, he is back in the Georgetown Dinette where the day began, eating a cheeseburger and trying to wash it down with a cold can of an energy drink. He hasn’t had red meat in a while because his doctor warned him about cholesterol and salt as he’s reached “that age” but today he hasn’t.

He looks around the room. This is not a great crowd. But there is a soft beauty tending to her child in a stroller who is well within ear shot.

Hamid, the owner, walks in and smiles at Jack and the soft beauty and then looks up at the TV which is re-broadcasting the Ringo Starr interview. He asks aloud, “Jack, didn’t you meet him?” The soft beauty looks up at Jack.

Young Jack begins with an easy swagger. The summer of love, Abbey Road, Ringo and George all appear and one after another the heads in the dinette turn to follow the story. Soon, he’s ambled to that part where he, George, and Ringo are rolling doobies. Now, everyone in the dinette is listening—the ‘weed’ detail seems to have cross-appeal.

The soft beauty’s eyes open a little more with each new detail. She gradually becomes entranced. Even her hand holding a spoon with baby food in it stops moving though her infant is gesticulating.

She is enthralled, appearing to him now like a young woman waiting for her lover to take her away from this mundane and measured life.

He wants to take her into a new young life of endless possibilities, of summers of love, of being eternally blissed out, so he continues and adds to a story that never really happened.

“Ringo and George invited me down into the studio. We were pretty buzzed by then. We went down the stairs into one of Abbey Road’s control rooms. There were several engineers who were working on a track and peering through a glass window. I looked in and saw a guy in the cigarette haze with headphones on, playing a potato-shaped bass. I thought, “Wow, that’s Paul McCartney.”

All of a sudden Hamid exclaims: “The next thing you’re going to tell us is that you met John Lennon!” Laughter erupts in the dinette. Jack looks around bewildered. He can’t continue. He’s forgotten where he is in the story. He can’t make out what people are saying between the laughs; he doesn’t hear well anymore in public spaces. Gradually the guffaws subside into a few coughs and giggle aftershocks. The narrative is broken. The eaters return to their meals, turning their backs on Jack and his legend. The hum of previous conversations resumes. The story is a flop.

Victoria appears outside on the sidewalk talking animatedly on her phone. She waves to him to come out so she can take him home. When Retired Jack gets up he feels his bones creaking, and the muscles in his lower back pulsing with aches from the day’s exertions. He struggles to pull himself upright but is still slightly bent when he reaches the door. Turning the handle, he glances over at the soft beauty. She looks up from her child and gives him a smile but the corners of her lips only turn up a little, and there is a pained expression in her eyes. Retired Jack knows it’s a smile of pity.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Hillary Chapman taught school for many years and then wrote four history books. His story, “The Death of an Idealist,” was chosen as alternate by the Saturday Evening Post for best short fiction of 2016. He has also written songs for the Nashville market.

 

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