For Old Time's Sake
by Ute Carson
WIND/Literary Journal, Vol. 14, No. 50, 1984

Once more she opens her handbag to let the reflection in her pocket mirror tell her how to smooth a lock to the side of her forehead. "Our next stop is Kirchheim, Madam," the conductor feels obliged to announce to her in person. After all this lady is the holder of a ticket all the way from London. She stands at attention at the window the rest of the train ride ‹ a lady in a green tailored suit more befitting the overcast skies of her northern city than the lush southern German mountainous scenery she takes in with remembering eyes. Reminiscent of the coverlets on the head rests of the inter-continental Pullman car, a blouse collar is tucked over the lapels of her suit. She wears her clothes with leisurely elegance, buttoning her jacket over her slender waist. Only if one approaches her from the right can one detect the silvery cord of the hearing aid running like an antenna down her neck. She is used to wearing gloves.

He stands on the other side of the turnstile ‹ a light trench coat thrown over one arm, leaning with the other on a walking cane. Since his retirement from the bank he has gone back to wearing blue linen work shirts after the fashion of her father. "Old age lets you get away with things," he counters disapproving remarks from his in-laws. His goatee isn't to everybody's liking either, but he feels it complements his salt-and-pepper hair.

The intensity of their greeting is pressed into their handshake. "You look marvelous, Grete." "So do you, Anton." "Your grip betrays the old horsewoman," he adds with some tenderness. They both stop talking after the initial signs of recognition and gaze at one another. Their eyes are windows to their souls. His blue eyes suggest an iris with delicate and transparent petals growing in a moist moderate climate. Lines like crow's feet wrinkle their corners and tell how much he likes to laugh. Her eyes are dark brown and begin to glow with the challenges of unexplored fields. They have the magic power of penetrating surface appearances without shifting their focus from the table top.

At the zebra stripes of the crosswalk where halting cars seem impatient with their gait, he takes her arm. The cafe under the linden tree is just around the corner from the station plaza. They find a shaded place in the courtyard. The foliage of the ancient tree spreads its umbrella over their table and she feels a refreshing coolness which reminds her of dipping her feet in the bucket her grandmother used to collect rain water in. "Tea, Grete?" he asks. She nods. "Of course, what else for a lady who has soaked up the English culture for over half century. I expected you to be as rotund as all of your surviving school friends," he teases her. "You know I would live on a diet of green apples if that ever happened," she retorts slightly annoyed. How easy it is to restore familiarity by harking back to old vulnerabilities. "How have you fared, world traveler?" he continues in a light vein. She rubs her nose, groping for the appropriate reply. "I've had a blessed life," she finally answers. She has an envelope with photographs ready for him to see. One by one, from infancy to middle age, first her children, then her grandchildren are paraded before him. "Rena is the latest to arrive and is my favorite. From her first step on, the world was in her grasp and she keeps on pursuing it with enthusiasm and success." "A chip off the old block, is that it?" he queries. "Yes, in a way," she agrees. "It does give me satisfaction to see one of my offspring follow in my footsteps." "You apparently don't carry around pictures of your late husband," he observes with a grin. "We are still bound by golden chains," she smiles, "that neither tarnish nor erode, but can be melted down and remolded into different forms as eternally as love itself." She reaches for a golden medallion in the folds of her blouse where the image of her husband is encased close to her heart. "I don't really want to see his picture," he grumbles, and so she lets it slide back to its accustomed place. "You know, I once read an article of yours," he continues. "Fred had cut it out and sent it with some other clippings and a note which read, ŒFather, is that not a lady you used to know in high school?' It was an article in an obscure horticulture magazine, something about an airborne algae that attacked palm trees and the plaster of swimming pools," he chuckles. "I never retain fads which are foreign to me but I filed this one under current correspondence . . .just for old time's sake." "Oh, dear, I did take on odd jobs at times just to sustain my writing."

"But what about you, has life been fair to you, Anton?" "More than that," he picks up the thread to unroll what has been woven into the fabric of his years. "I, too, got what I desired ‹ a comfortable, secure life. I was born and grew up in Kirchheim and the mountains have served as a border for my travels and for my professional aspirations. I married, had two sons, was respected and could live out my idiosyncrasies, within limits, you understand." She understands.

A wind is building up, affecting their sheltered mood. "Let's start up to my place," he suggests, "it's quite a steep walk up the slope for folks our age. We'll need to take our time." "Did you ever marry Erika," she wants to know as they wander away from the protection of the linden tree. "Yes," is his answer, "and I married her for love." Just one gulp and the upsurging gall of old jealousy is swallowed once more. "I always thought you made a good couple," she adds. Just then they begin the climb up the cobblestone sidewalk.

Cedar is expensive. It endures all weather conditions but the growth of a cedar tree is laboriously slow. He had to have it to build his house which is perched between two crests like a bird's nest anchored in the fork of a tree branch. He piles some fresh slats on the burning logs in the fireplace before leading her to the room that has always been mostly his home office, he calls it. At a bay window they linger to view Kirchheim down the grassy incline. She pushes back an onslaught of images and faces him. "How does one do it after all these years?" her expression determined and lucid. "One picks up where one left off, as if half a century hadn't intervened." But he does not want to be rushed. It is not that he fears failure, but he bargains for time to soak up her presence awhile longer.

When she finally sits down, he squats down next to her chair, watching her roll down her stocking. What he really wants to see and touch are her calves which he remembers as round and firm. He feels the loose flap of skin covering the tight muscle and is enthralled. Glancing up at her from so close a range he sees tiny bumps and swelling interlaced with creases and wrinkles the hallmarks of the flow of her time. It is burdensome to raise himself from the crouching position. "Old age, Grete dear, wouldn't be so bad but for all its inconveniences," he confesses. Movement has been stiff and painful since his hip operation last fall. She tries to be helpful, reaching for his arm. Zigzagging down a ski slope, coming to a halt, drawing a circle around her, he used to smile, conquering, invincible. Neither of them really believed then that there would come a day when their bodies would no longer obey their commands. "Why, Grete, I would like to know, have you never come home no visit, no letters?" "That's a tough question to answer, but let me try. Once I spent a winter vacation in Vermont, in the north- eastern United States. It was late in the winter months, the sun of the new season already shining but the ground was still heavy with snow. The farmers had started sapping their maple trees. You see, I felt no need to return here before. The time of my harvesting is only now."

Who is to say what is more beautiful, the sprouting sapling turning its fresh buds toward the sun or the knobby and gnarled tree, giving fruit and providing rest. When they had first made love in their teens, they had shaken like aspen leaves, limbs entwined and nearly uprooted by the newness c that encounter, learning what it means to be a man and a woman. Now like leaves falling upside down, their edges wrinkled by the dryness of autumn they sway back and forth firmly grounded in their individual identities, and more aware of each other than youthful love ever left room for. Snuggled up against each other, her back cupped by his chest and arms, he coaxes, "Continue, I know it will work." To which comes a giggled reply, "a little spit will do the trick for me." The sap begins to flow, through the bark fresh green squeezes forth, and petals of a rubicon rose open up in rebirth with a spicy aroma of wilting flowers, shaft barren of foliage exposed to the forces of a northern wind.

She never liked to linger at the edge of the bed. Her children used to say that she vaulted into action as soon as the first chirping of a bird could be heard in the morning. She now feels like paying attention to her disheveled hair, freshening her make-up. Her tailored suit would fit her mood. She is ready for all the bygone places. She already smells the musty halls of her former high school where faces of teachers and students change from year to year but where the atmosphere of old will have stayed on in the cracks of the walls, behind blackboards and under the bicycle shelter. She has a foretaste of firm, salty, crusty bagels she will buy at the bakery adjacent to the schoolyard. Munching, she will stroll the way back to the house with its unkempt garden overgrown with weeds and unpruned fruit trees. Surely in its thicket some wild berries will bring back the flavor of her youth. At the brick house on the corner between Friedrichstrasse and Mandering she envisions her friend, Karin, tugging at her bicycle in the shed. "I want to ride Sultan today," she'll yell. "Who will be your pick?" She will hear the town hail's clock strike the hours, she will know where she is supposed to be, what she has to do and how much time she has left. Anton, she realizes, is one of her stops in all the harvesting she still has to do. Not to mention the disappointment she will have to live through when faced with a broad well-cemented canal where once a creek flowed and paper boats were launched from muddy banks.

"Let's not get up yet," it's Anton's soft coaxing voice. He brings two flannel bathrobes one green, the other crimson. She would like to resist his pleading and be on her way. Why doesn't she throw off this soothing languor? Perhaps for old time's sake, she suppresses her assertiveness and does not allow her desire to send her off to recapture the past on her own. She sinks back into the chair next to the fireplace. The kindling wood and slats are burned to ashes. But the big logs, the support of the fire, are smoldering with a deep glow through and through. A warmth envelopes her and all her limbs slacken. The rising smoke befogs her and she leans back in comfort and repose. "Tea, Grete?" "Yes, please, Anton." For long hours they sit and talk, swinging back and forth between yesterday and today, never touching on tomorrow except when during silences their stares become fixed on the fire that alternately lures, fascinates and warms them.

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