Should the Dish Run Away With the Spoon?

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By Mary Ann Presman

Hey! diddle, diddle,
The cat and the fiddle,
The cow jumped over the moon;
The little dog laughed
To see such sport,
And the dish ran away with the spoon.

I suspected my mother was turning over in her grave. Here was her supposedly respectable librarian daughter meeting the Trailways Bus from Durango, bearing one Zeke Gramercy, cowboy poet.

I didn’t even know what Zeke looked like, but then he didn’t know what I looked like either.

“Let’s not trade photos,” he said when we were first getting acquainted on heartsafire.com. “I don’t think relationships should be based on physical appearance. Do you?” He had inserted one of those smiley-faced emojis after the word appearance. I took that to mean he’s always smiling.

“How will I know which one is you?” I asked when he telephoned to tell me he had bought his ticket.

“I’ll be the one in a cowboy hat.”

My hometown’s bus station is pretty sad—not really the kind of first impression one would want a visitor to have. This is, after all, Chillicothe, Illinois, not the much bigger and better known Chillicothe in Ohio. The low-slung grey cement block building contains rows of plastic folding chairs designed to discourage sleepovers, plus a wall of chancy vending machines. But with any luck, Zeke would never see the inside of the building, just the concrete parking lot where buses pulled in.   My stomach clenched as the bus arrived in a whoosh of nasty fumes. The hydraulic door eased open and Trailways passengers disembarked, some laden with bulging shopping bags, others claiming various forms of luggage from the baggage compartment.

And then he stood before me—not a John Wayne cowboy, more like Dustin Hoffman—dressed in clean but faded denim and grinning ear to ear. He was much shorter than I imagined. Zeke looked me in the eye, tipped his broad-brimmed Stetson and said, “Miss Karen Halek, I presume?” Then he stuck out his hand.

“And you’re Zeke.” I reached out my hand to shake his. “Welcome to Chillicothe.”

“Thank you.” He held my hand just a moment longer than a normal handshake required. “I’m delighted to actually make your acquaintance in person.”

“Me too. I’m delighted, too. That we get to meet in person.” God help me—where was any semblance of intelligent conversation? “Um, do you have any luggage to claim?”

“No, I’m all set,” he said, indicating the small canvas bag in his left hand.

“Okay then. My car’s over in the parking lot across the street.”

Zeke touched my forearm. “What say we have some lunch and the beginnings of our get-acquainted conversation first? Is there a café near here?”

Uh-oh, he’s having second thoughts already.

“That way, if you decide you aren’t sure about having this cowboy under your roof, I can either find lodging elsewhere or hop the next bus home.”

I wondered if he’s done this before…hopped a Trailways bus to explore a relationship begun online? Maybe that’s something I could ask over lunch.

“There’s La Familia across the parking lot and down a block. If you like Mexican?”

“Perfect. Lead the way.” Zeke swung his bag into his right hand and gently placed his left hand under my elbow as we stepped down off the curb. I tried to see downtown Chillicothe through a stranger’s eyes: gentle mid-May sunshine cast the brown-brick storefronts in their best light, a few blocks of floundering commercial enterprise huddled along North Fourth Street, hoping the economic recovery wouldn’t arrive too late for this Illinois River town.

I felt that Zeke was not looking so much at Chillicothe, but studying me.

I wore a new pair of flats that I hoped looked trendy; I had allowed myself to purchase them to go with a favorite old dress—green looks good on me. My shoes were too new to walk far in, I was glad when we settled into a booth at La Familia.

“This seems like a good place,” Zeke removed his hat, revealing a thick head of salt-and-pepper hair and affording a better look into his friendly grey eyes. He put the Stetson on the seat beside him, then surveyed our surroundings, taking in the walls painted with scenes of burros, Mexican senoras, and children kicking a ball around. Twinkling colored lights festooned a fake saguaro in the corner—La Familia’s year-round version of a Christmas tree. The unmistakable fragrance of sautéed onions and peppers hung unapologetically in the air.

Zeke glanced at the menu, then put it down. “I thought you told me you were forty-one?”

“I am. Forty-one and then some—my birthday’s in August.”

“I know that part. August 27. But maybe I don’t know what forty-one looks like anymore, ‘cause you look… maybe… thirty-three, thirty-four.”

We had established online that Zeke is fifty-nine. He looked every bit of that in the weathered way I imagined cowboys should look.

“Do you want to see my driver’s license?” I asked.

“No, no. See, that’s a compliment. I’m not questioning your veracity—only making an observation. Take it as a compliment.”

“Okay.” So now I wondered if he really thought I looked younger or if he was just handing out compliments. I’m not what you’d call homely, but I’m not a stunning beauty either. What did he see as he carefully studied me? A tall-ish brown-haired woman a little on the skinny side. “You’re quite the smooth talker.”

“Is that good or bad? What do you mean, ‘smooth talker’?”

I hesitated. “‘Veracity.’ Not too many cowboys come up with ‘veracity.’”

“How many cowboys do you know?”

“You’re the only one,” I admitted. I liked his voice—confident without being a know-it-all. He seemed so at ease—he must have done this before.

“Let’s hope I’ll give the cowboy classification a good name.” He winked at me. “That’s what you librarians do, isn’t it? ‘Classify’ things?”

“Well, kind of. They’re pretty much classified when they arrive. Fiction, non-fiction.”

“What do you think this is?”

“This?” I wasn’t sure whether he meant La Familia or Chillicothe or…

“Our meeting. Taking a chance. Is this for real?”

“I guess we’ll find out.” A waitress came with water and menus. Thankfully, she was not someone I recognized—otherwise, I would have felt the need to introduce her to Zeke. That’s the kind of small town Chillicothe is.

Zeke glanced at the menu. “Are you in a rush? Do you have to get back to work?”

“No, I switched with Eileen so I have the day off.” Eileen Whitcliff had been only too happy to be even a small part of this wild and crazy scenario. She spent a lot of time in the romance novel stacks.

“Hey, that’s great.” He settled back in the booth, moved his shoulders around. “Maybe we can take a little walk around town after lunch. I’m kind of stiff from that long bus ride.”

“I think we should take your bag back to the house first; then we can walk.” This was the arrangement we made online. I have a big old house with lots of rooms—it’s the house I grew up in and where I’ve always lived. No sense in Zeke spending money to stay at the Super 8. It’s not something I’ve done before and I admit it may not be the smartest move I’ve ever made, but hey, I’m a big girl. “After you unpack you’ll know if there’s anything you’ve forgotten. Anything you need to purchase at the drugstore or anywhere.”

I felt the flush in my cheeks. Why did I have to say ‘drugstore’?

“Like after-shave or something.”

“Good idea.” He picked up the menu and began to study it. “What’s your favorite thing at La Familia?”

“The heuvos rancheros.”

“Perfect.”

We were the only customers in the place so our food arrived more or less instantaneously. I tried not to stare at Zeke as we ate, but I more or less devoured his appearance along with my eggs, beans and rice. Zeke had slightly bushy eyebrows but no mustache, no beard, no extraneous facial hair. He sat before me clean-shaven and I realized he must have shaved in the restroom of the last Trailways stop before Chillicothe.

“I used to have a mustache,” he offered, seeming to read my mind. “But a former ladyfriend pointed out mustaches and beards add years to your appearance.” Zeke’s smile is sheepish. “Obviously, I’m well past those years when a boy wants to look older.”

I like that he eats with his fork in his right hand. That seems comfortable to me, even though I have been making attempts at keeping my own fork in my left hand—the way Brandon does. Zeke asks me about the men in my life.

“Brandon is the principal at Chillicothe High. We go out sometimes,” is the answer I had rehearsed and now deliver.

I don’t ask about the women in Zeke’s life. Something in me doesn’t want to know.

Brandon has lived right here in Chillicothe his whole life, and so have I. I know his mom; she comes into the library on a weekly basis—always checking out the latest James Patterson mystery. Brandon’s sister, Peggy, was in my class at Chillicothe High. Brandon and I know almost everything about each other; he likes to say we’re a “matched set.” Of what, I’m not sure.

“What does Brandon think of my coming to visit?” asked Zeke, raising one of those thick eyebrows.

“He’s not real happy about it.” I couldn’t not tell Brandon what I was up to. Surely, in this town, word would get out and then he’d think I was sneaking around behind his back. Brandon deserves better than that.

Brandon is a good person. Good family, good job, and even kind of good-looking. He’s what you might call a leader in the community. In fact, whenever we go anywhere, he leads—virtually. He walks ahead, leading the way. It kind of irks me.

“What’s wrong with this Brandon guy?” Zeke asked.

“Nothing.”

The other eyebrow went up.

“Am I one last fling before you settle down like a proper young lady?”

I bent my face to my huevos rancheros.

“Because I have to warn you—I didn’t come prepared to unleash fifty shades of grey or purple or any other color on Chillicothe.”

I forced myself to look up then and Zeke is grinning. I giggled, relieved.

The waitress brought the check; Zeke paid and I left the tip. Then we headed back to my car so I could take Zeke to my place. I realized whatever qualms I may have had were dispelled by our friendly lunch. Zeke had been smart to make that suggestion.

“This is quite a place,” Zeke commented as we turned in the short driveway at 432 River Street, the only address I’ve ever had except when I was a short distance away at Knox College in Galesburg.

“It’s been in the family for generations, my father’s family—my mother was from Waukesha.”

The big yellow house sits comparatively close to the street so it’s more imposing than its tall two-story structure might otherwise be. There are old photos depicting more front lawn, but when the blacktopped street replaced a country lane, something had to go and with the river on the other side, it was our yard that got short-shrift.

“Must require a bunch of upkeep,” Zeke observed.

“It does that, but the rent’s free—so it kind of evens out,” I pointed out, reluctant to get into the struggles of stretching a librarian’s salary over heating bills when a severe winter hit.

I spent most of my free time the week before in a cleaning frenzy, so the front hall gleamed when we entered, a long expanse of honey-colored oak. Even though I usually go in the side door, I wanted Zeke to get the full effect, so we went in off the wide sweep of the front porch, through the double doors—or at least, the one that still opens.

Zeke let out a low appreciative whistle. “Even more impressive inside.”

“I’ll show you your room,” I said, and self-consciously led him up the stairs to the front bedroom where there’s a view of the river over the trees.

“Thanks very much, ma’am.” Zeke doffed his cowboy hat in a kind of exaggerated bow.

“There’s a bathroom right across the hall.”

“This’ll do very nicely. Will we be sharing the bathroom or can I dump my toothbrush and stuff in there? These old houses don’t usually have multiple bathrooms.”

“Uh, no. I sleep downstairs and there’s a bath down there.” I’ve learned it’s cooler in mid-Illinois summers to sleep in what was probably once a maid’s room at the back of the house; it helps keep air-conditioning use to a minimum. “I’ll be downstairs when you’re ready to go for that walk.”

I left Zeke to settle in and scurried downstairs to change my shoes. The brown Bass sandals I live in from May through September don’t make much of a fashion statement, but they’re much more comfortable than the new green flats.

When Zeke reappeared downstairs, we decided to leave the car in the drive and just walk the mile or so into downtown. It was a perfect day, sunny and clean after a dreary rainy week.

“This is a pretty town,” Zeke offered, as we passed by the still-operating movie theater.

“It is, isn’t it? And, thankfully, it’s too early in the season for the sandflies that can be pesky along the river over summer.”

“I guess no place is perfect, but Durango comes close.”

“I’ve never been to Colorado, but it looks beautiful in pictures.” I, of course, googled Durango after beginning to trade emails with Zeke.

“It is. Colorado is spectacular, and Durango is one of its prettiest towns,” he said, managing to make it sound matter-of-fact, not boastful. He walked beside me, and then once again nonchalantly took my elbow when we crossed the street.

I showed Zeke the library where I work, still in the antiquated Carnegie building downtown. “Should we go in and take a look around?” he asked.

“Not today.” He would be on display the minute we walked through the front door and I didn’t want to put him through that just yet.

“Is there a place to get an ice cream?” he asked, and so we headed around the corner and down the block to Anderson’s. Just as we were about to go in, out came Brandon.

Of course. How did I think I was going to get away with showing Zeke around town without running into Brandon? He would be making an effort to be visible, and there are only so many square blocks in this town.

“Hi, there,” Brandon said to me while looking Zeke over.

“Zeke, this is my friend Brandon. Brandon, this is Zeke.” I didn’t think last names were necessary. Brandon looked a little taken aback at being described as ‘my friend.’ There was an awkward pause.

“Nice to meet you,” Zeke stuck out his hand to Brandon.

“Likewise,” said Brandon, hesitating just a moment before shaking Zeke’s hand, while giving me a look that said “Really?”

Another pause.

“I’m just giving Zeke a walking tour of Chillicothe’s downtown,” I said, filling in the open space.

“Thought we’d get some ice cream,” Zeke offered.

Pause.

“Well, you’ve come to the right place.” Brandon sort of, kind of, stepped aside.

“Thanks.” Zeke again put that sturdy hand of his under my elbow and did a neat sidestep to get us by Brandon, then held the door open for me so we could escape into the ice cream shop.

I could feel Brandon still watching us through Anderson’s window but Zeke nudged me down the counter so we could view the flavors on display. He stopped when we got pretty much out of sight of the window. “You okay?”

“Sure. Sorry, I should have known that would happen.”

“If you’re okay, I’m okay. No skin off my nose.” Zeke turned toward the case; “Hey, look, they’ve got an honest-to-god strawberry. I love strawberry.” He grinned happily. “What are you gonna have?”

 

I had done some careful planning about where to go with Zeke. I knew there was a track meet in Canton beginning at four-thirty that afternoon so Brandon would be out-of-town—he went to all the athletic events he could possibly attend. I figured Zeke and I would stay in town and do the fish fry at the River Inn for Friday night’s supper, and save our fancier dinner for Saturday night when we could drive down along the river to Peoria. With Brandon at the track meet, he wouldn’t just happen to walk in on us at the River Inn, which was a short drive from my house on the north side of Chillicothe.

But it’s a small town. “Hi, Karen,” said Marlene, who enjoyed her role as River Inn hostess. She and her husband Ward owned the place. “Just the two of you?” She eyed Zeke with obvious curiosity.

“Could we have that booth furthest from the bar?” I asked, pointing.

“Sure thing.” Her look said I get it. You’re not fooling me, honey.

Zeke and I followed her sashaying hips to the most remote corner of the place, where she deposited us along with a pair of laminated menus. “The Deep-Fried Cod is our Friday Night Special for just 9.99. All you can eat, includes fries and coleslaw,” she told Zeke. “Enjoy.” She smiled at him and winked at me.

“Are you ashamed to be seen with a cowboy?” Zeke asked, seemingly amused by my attempt to park us at a table where we would escape notice.

“No. It’s not that.” I searched for an explanation. “I just don’t want you to have everyone staring at you.”

“It’s okay, I’m used to the spotlight.”

“You are?”

“Sure. I told you, I’m a cowboy poet. I get up and spout nonsense in front of bunches of people—sometimes in a bar, sometimes in a book store, sometimes even in a library.”

“I could never do that.”

“That’s fine, as long as you sit in the audience and applaud.”

It was easy to imagine Zeke entertaining a crowd. “I hope I get to see you perform sometime.”

“Me too.” Zeke grinned at me, then picked up the menu. “Do we even need these things, or are we having the fish fry?”

“It’s pretty good,” I admitted.

“You a beer drinker? Should we order a pitcher of beer?”

“Why not?” My sense of adventure seemed to call for some sort of alcoholic reinforcement. What do they call it? False courage, maybe. I didn’t know what I expected to happen before the night was over, or even what I wanted to happen. Stumbling across the heartsafire.com website had made me curious. And even though I’ve lived in this town all my life, and had the security of Brandon as an escort just about whenever I wanted, I had come to realize I wasn’t happy with our relationship. I wanted something more.

Our waitress turned out to be Shelley, another Chillicothe native, who deposited a couple of glasses of water while studying Zeke, the stranger in town. “You two ready to order?” she asked, leaning over the table to display her considerable attributes to best advantage.

“We’ll have two orders of your famous fish fry, and a pitcher of your finest ale,” proclaimed Zeke, carefully keeping his eyes on Shelley’s eyes.

“Okee-doke,” She didn’t need to write that down—just stuck her pencil behind her ear and sauntered off.

Our beer arrived almost immediately, followed by the cod served on sturdy thick oval-shaped white diner plates.

“I think they have these same kind of plates at the place I go for fish-fry in Durango,” Zeke marveled. “Must be a requirement. Plain food, plain plates. No pretense. I like that.”

There was so much I wanted to know about Zeke. And the more I was with him, the more I wanted to know.

“How come you took the Trailways bus here? Don’t you have a car?” I asked as I vigorously salted my fries.

“Yeah, I have an old Jeep. But it’s not totally reliable so I didn’t want to take her on a long road trip. I suppose I should trade her in, but I’m kind of attached to her.” He took the salt shaker from me and went after his fish and fries, even giving his glass of beer a sprinkle. “Besides, I like to ride the bus.”

“You do?”

“Yup. I can look at the scenery instead of worrying about driving. And I love the other passengers—they’re invariably interesting, great fodder for any kind of writer.”

I decided not to ask Zeke if he was a repeat customer with heartsafire. This had all the makings of a new beginning for me, and I hoped it did for him.

I like beer—especially with fried fish—but I was careful not to drink too much; I wanted (a) to be able to responsibly drive us back to my place, and (b) be fully aware of all that was happening. I knew as the night progressed, I wouldn’t want to forget a moment. We lingered over supper, neither of us in a rush.

But when we got home, as soon as we were inside the door, Zeke pulled me to him and gave me a lingering kiss. I succumbed, happily. “I hope you don’t mind,” he said. “I’ve been wanting to do that all night.”

I answered by kissing him back. He was stronger than he looked, solid. With his arms around me, I somehow felt totally embraced. Cared for.

“Let me show you where I bunk,” I said, and led him back through the kitchen to my room.

 

This wasn’t a routine tumble in the hay, which is what I kind of felt sex with Brandon was. This was an occasion to remember—the difference between just plain sex and truly making love. Zeke began with tender kisses on my eyelids, then caressed my shoulders, kissed my breasts, as if opening a gift. He was unhurried, seemingly intent upon relishing every moment. The sweetness of the exploration made the culmination all the more exhilarating. I don’t have a lot of experience, but I’m not a total babe in the woods either, and that was definitely the best love-making I’ve ever experienced. At the ripe old age of forty-one. Imagine.

I know there was a smile on my face the next morning. I reached over to Zeke and opened my eyes at the same time. But he wasn’t there. Probably went upstairs when I started to snore. I slipped into my nightgown and quietly went to find him, padding upstairs in my bare feet.

The door to his room was open, and Zeke was… gone. The bed was made—did he even sleep in it? Was the sex that bad? Maybe he just went to get us coffee. But there was no sign of his bag. Then I saw it—propped up on the dresser. A note. Uh-oh, this was not good.

It wasn’t just a note, it was a poem:

Dear Karen, sweet librarian

Who could have guessed such a joyful night

Would present me with this fearful plight?

What should have been just play

Hooked me more than I can say!

So I face a predicament

Be a part of your experiment?

Stay, enjoy the rest of our weekend

Wondering if we would see each other again?

I’m so sorry, but I must depart

I’m too old to risk a broken heart.

My heart dropped. I sat on the bed with Zeke’s poem clutched in my trembling hand. Now what?

I could fall back on the bed in a melodramatic fit of sobbing. Or I could not do that.

I rushed downstairs, took a quick shower, threw some things in a small suitcase, and was at the Trailways bus station within a half-hour, forty-five minutes, tops.

“When is your next bus to Durango, Colorado?” I asked Bernie, the single employee stationed in Chillicothe.

“Popular place,” he commented.

“Where do you think you’re going?” a voice behind me asked.

I turned, and there stood Zeke. “The next bus isn’t ‘til 10:30,” Zeke said, a little sheepishly.

“Oh, good. I’m in time.” I put a hand on his arm as if to detain him.

“What are you up to?” he asked.

“I think I’m running away from home.” I kissed him then, right in front of Bernie and everybody. Well, in front of Bernie—there wasn’t anybody else at the station.

“Are you sure about this?” Zeke looked skeptical.

“No, I’m not sure. How can anybody be certain about something that’s happening so fast? But I am certain I will regret not taking a chance on us. Shouldn’t we? Won’t you at least let me see what Durango looks like?”

I could see Zeke turning matters over in that heart of his. Mine beat rapidly, awaiting his decision.

“If you’re too old for a broken heart, I’m too old to pass up what could be the best thing that’s ever happened to me,” I implored.

An eternity elapsed. Then…

“We should take your car, y’know.” Zeke kissed me back. “Then if we felt like stopping to neck, we could do that. Whenever we want.”

“Sounds good to me.”

Zeke picked up my suitcase and his bag.

“Bye, Bernie,” I said. He looked like it was the most normal thing in the world when I followed Zeke out the door to the parking lot.

“Why don’t you drive?” I suggested. We got in the car and kissed some more. Then Zeke turned the key in the ignition and pulled out of the parking lot.

As I sat back in my seat and we drove out of Chillicothe, it didn’t feel like I was running away from some place, as much as it did I was traveling to a new place.

_________________________________________________

Mary Ann Presman is a retired advertising copywriter who worked for the Rockford Public Library in one of her previous lives but never ran away with a cowboy poet. She is working on a collection of stories, “The Good Dishes,” some of which appear in or are forthcoming from Slippery Elm Online, Adanna Journal, Kippis!, Oasis, and Sweet & Saucy Stories from Galena.

Featured image by Natalie Rhea Riggs on Unsplash

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