“That’s 32 feet of white tablecloths, Alex. It looks like you've set out all the canvas for an old four masted sailing ship.”
Alexandra Williams narrowed her eyes at her husband but before she could say anything, she heard Sophia’s husband laugh. Now it was Christopher’s turn to endure the look while she said, “Why don’t the two of you go away? I don’t need you for any of the heavy stuff anymore. Go talk about fishing or tools or something.”
“You don’t have to tell me twice,” David said and made a quick escape with Chris close on his heels.
“Don’t say it,” Sophia said as she entered the giant sorting room of Sophie’s Cove. The Tuesday afternoon tea group had long ago outgrown the store’s Book Nook. Despite overloaded shelves in most of it, the sorting room still had enough space left over for the ever growing crowds that gathered for tea at Sophie’s Cove. Not in a mood for anyone’s advice, Alexandra spread her arms, palms up and, looking heavenward, said it anyway. “Men!”
Sophia smiled. “I’ll lay you odds, girl, that right now our husbands are in a similar posture and uttering the single word women.”
“Probably,” agreed Alex. “The inability of the two sexes to understand one another is a common malady for which we at Sophie’s Cove offer the only cure.”
“Tea,” Sophia said.
“Exactly,” Alex said. “If not for us providing a regular escape for the women in town to gather without their men, the divorce rate would be off the charts.”
“I suspect,” Sophia said, “that the men are as grateful for our contribution to marital harmony as are the women.”
“Undoubtedly,” Alex said. Standing back, she put her hands on her hips. Looking at the four tables, each eight feet long and covered in a white table cloth, she said, “I suppose I could start placing the tables in some arrangement besides end to end. It is beginning to be a bit much at 32 feet.”
“I trust your judgement, dear,” replied Sophia. “All the ladies have commented on the improvement your little touches of Southern charm have added to our get togethers. Every week we seem to become more and more a big happy family.”
The corners of Alex’s mouth turned down a fraction. “Wasn’t always so.”
“No,” agreed Sophia. “I regret to say that even here on this beautiful coast where we should be able to abolish every negative thought and every bias, there are still those that cannot let go of past prejudices. I wonder, do you suppose that, if people like that spent a few years in the Arizona desert and developed a farmer’s tan they’d feel compelled to chop off their arms?”
Laughing, Alex said, “Or maybe they could run around naked and get a deep tan all over and get some rhythm.” Then she paused and sighed. “Not everyone thinks as deeply as you, Sophia. They will let others think for them or let one bad experience with someone different decide for them what a whole group is like. And raising the white daughter of my deceased best friend has been especially difficult for some to accept.”
“Well,” Sophia said, “we don’t have to worry about that anymore. People with thoughts like that have long since taken their tea and antique buying habits elsewhere and good riddance.”
“I hope so, but sometimes I’m not so sure.” Alexandria shrugged. “I don’t know. Maybe I’m just being too sensitive.”
Changing the subject, Sophia said, “I see you have all the place settings set along the side boards so people can help themselves. The candles and magnolia blossoms floating in clear bowls are beautiful and, my gosh, the scent in here is amazing. And you have coconut cakes too. Made with your grandmother’s recipe I assume.”
“Of course,” Alex said. “And Suzie ordered the flowers especially for our get togethers and donated them as a surprise.”
“That’s so Suzie. Oh, Alex, everything is so wonderful. It’s breathtaking. Have you given any thought to what we will do with the overflow, hon? You know last minute friends and family visiting our regulars will want to come along.”
Alex gave a final look to every detail of the tea. Pride on her face, she said, “I’m counting on that. The elderly ladies here in town are getting a lot more attention from daughters and granddaughters now that word of the teas at Sophie’s Cove has made its way out into the wider world.”
The conversation was light in some quarters of the table, heavier in others. Here, a granddaughter was the high scorer in last Saturday’s basketball game. There, a granddaughter was pregnant and the boy had dumped her and everyone had tried to tell her but was she ever going to listen, oh no! Through it all, Alexandra had proven herself the master of her mighty ship of state. No one’s tea cup had gone empty and no one ran short of grandma’s coconut cake or scones or clotted cream or strawberry jam. It had all gone off exactly as Alex had planned it and at last she had allowed herself to settle into a chair at the far end from Sophia. She had just cut into a piece of coconut cake and had it halfway to her mouth when she froze.
The aforementioned shelves were to Alexandra’s back. On the other side of the table, where there were no shelves, the items that were to be kept were stacked in boxes from floor to ceiling. Pricing them all was going to take years and Sophia was fine with that.
The pathway to the swinging doors that led onto the floor cut through the stacks of boxes in an angle to Alex’s left. Whatever had captured her attention Sophia could not yet see and no one else had yet noticed.
Alex plopped her fork back onto the plate and bolted from her chair. “Women only!,” she said and pointed back toward the showroom floor, “Out!”
“Good,” came a deep voice as a rough hewn, barrel chested man with a head full of white hair appeared. “I’m interested in only one.”
“Oh my God! Howie!” It was Gwendolyn Pierce whose husband of fifty years had died only six months previously who spoke, one hand held to her chest.
Turning to where the woman sat next to Sophia, he said, “Gwenie.” Their eyes firmly locked on one another. He made his way around the table as Gwen rose from her chair. Taking her in arms big as tree trunks, he kissed her full on the lips.
And she kissed him back. Bent backward as if she’d rediscovered her 20 year old body, she threw her arms around his neck and held the kiss until Alexandra recovered from her shock and decided she was determined to not yet give up the command of the ship.
“Sir,” Alex said, “I’m going to call the men in here to have you forcefully removed if you don’t leave right now.”
Ignoring her, the couple held the kiss until Alex said, “Okay, that’s it,” and took out her cell phone.
Gwendolyn managed to get both hands between herself and ‘Howie’ and, using all her strength, drew back enough to take a breath.
“Don’t you dare call anyone,” Gwendolyn said. “I’ve waited 52 years for that kiss.”
Alex put her phone on the table with enough force that Sophia was grateful modern electronics were tough enough to endure even the above average hostess’s indignation. “Well,” said Alex, “If you two don’t start acting your age, I’m going to throw a bucket of ice water on you. Remember where you are Gwen.”
“And your recent loss,” said 65-year-old Stephanie Clark with a sniff.
“I say let them go at it,” said Stephanie’s 85-year-old mother with an impish smile.
“They’re right, Howie,” Gwendolyn said, giving ‘Howie’ a slap on the chest that had as much effect as it would have had on a slab of granite. “You had your chance 52 years ago and you didn’t show. You said six months. I waited for 18.”
“I know, I got back six months after you married Ronnie,” said Howie. “I always liked him. He was a good man and I was happy for you. I went off to make a life for myself. I always kept track of you though. The two of you made a good team, Your businesses did well.”
“Excuse me!” Alexandra had turned to face the couple, hands on hips. “If you don’t mind, the rest of us would like to finish our afternoon tea. You two can get caught up later or go find a quiet corner somewhere so the rest of us can get on with it.”
“Hush, Alex,” said Stephanie’s mother. “This is getting good. Stephanie, get the gentleman a chair.”
“Mother . . .”
Stephanie sighed and rose from her chair. “You know, mom, there is still that assisted living option so don’t get too bossy.”
“I’m sure you’ll do well in a place like that, dear,” said Stephianie’s mother. “I’ll miss you.”
“Never mind,” Alex said. “I’ll get it.” Turning to the shelving where there were some extra tables and chairs leaning in readiness, Alex took a folding chair, one of the few that had no padding, and slammed in down next to Gwendolyn’s chair and, giving the man a final glare, returned to her chair to sulk. Suddenly remembering the manners she’d been raised with, she made an effort to regain her composure and proceeded to eat her coconut cake and drink her tea.
“So, dear,” Stephanie’s mother said while looking at the man, “tell us how you managed to let this beautiful woman slip through your fingers so long ago and what serendipitous circumstance of fate brought you back to her in our horribly misnamed Golden Years. And, please, leave out none of the juicy details.” She then put strawberry jam on her scone, some clotted cream on top of that, and took a delicate bite.
Watching the older lady with gratitude, Howie waited while she prepared her treat. “It’s simple really,” he said. “Stupid kid. I was messed up with too many nights of alcohol. My father worked himself into an early grave providing for us while grieving over the loss of the love of his life. The night of the prom I had just taken Gwenie home and was hurrying to where some friends of mine had a keg. I took a corner too fast and hit the guardrail. Took out the passenger side of the car. If Gwen had been sitting there five minutes longer than she was, I’d have killed her. I needed to get away and get my crap figured out.”
“You told me six months,” Gwen said.
“It took 24,” said Howie. “I was a bigger mess than I thought. Especially after dad died. If I’d been a better son, maybe we could have had time to grieve over mom together and bond again.”
“And I quit waiting,” said Gwen. “I thought you’d given up on me . . .”
“. . .”and Ronnie accepted that I was always going to have feelings for you and that we’d been intimate. He thought I’d learn to love him too. He said I had a heart big enough for that. He was right. I loved him dearly. Still do. We have four awesome children who are still running the businesses in Eastern Oregon and Southern Idaho. I miss him, something fierce.”
“As well you should,” Howie said. “Like I said. I always liked him. His family had never let their money ruin their humanity. They kept dad on through all his problems. Ronnie’s dad even tried to get my dad to ease up and spend more time with me but he couldn’t. If he wasn’t buried in work, he’d start mourning mom and drinking. So, to stay sober, he worked all the time but that meant he didn’t have time for me. It took me years to come to grips with that. It’s probably best that it worked out this way. I doubt I’d have been the man for you Ronnie was.”
“Perhaps,” agreed Gwen.
“So, I was always good with my hands and . . .”
“That’s true.” Gwen said.
Howie turned red beneath his dark and weather beaten skin, “And I first went to work on the Washington state ferries and then the Alaska ferries in the engineering department. Running big diesels. I then worked up to bigger and bigger ships until I was working on the biggest container ships. I saw the world and all that. Almost got married a few times but never quite managed to see it through.”
“Because no one was like your Gwenie,” said Stephanie’s mom.
“I’m sure that was part of it, ma’am,” Howie replied. “But a lot of it was my love affair with the sea. Whenever I started feeling sorry for myself or letting the guilt and shame overcome me, I’d go up on deck to put things in perspective.
“Here I’d be, a tiny part of this massive ship. But this colossus was but a tiny blip on the ocean, you know? And from there I’d think about how this massive ocean was but a part of this giant planet that was nothing but a speck in the vastness of space. Who was I to put all this energy into my little problems? I’d hang pictures in my cabin and here and there down in engineering. Pictures taken from the Hubble telescope for instance. The crew called me Spaceman sometimes but I didn’t care. It was humbling to remember how small I really am. And you know the most humbling part? That in all this vastness was this wonderful woman who had loved me once. So, when I heard of her misfortune because of Ronnie’s death, I wondered if I would have the guts to see if she still had feelings for me. I know it’s only been six months and this might be unseemly to be here now but, well, here I am.”
Sophia smiled at the thought of such love and picked up her cup. Finding it empty, she was about to rise and fill it when she noticed Alexandra sitting in her chair as if made of stone. She was looking back along the aisle Howie had just come through. Turning to her left, Sophia saw a tall well built black man appear. He wore black horn rimmed glasses and was returning Alexandra’s stare. Neither person seemed to know anyone else was in the room.
“Oh!,” Howie said. “I want you to meet Griffin. He is the grandson I only just discovered I have. His father is from the son I didn’t know I have. It’s all very convoluted but DNA doesn’t lie. Of all the ladies I almost married, Griffin’s grandmother came the closest to getting me to close the deal. Wonderful lady from Cape Town.”
Sophia took how all the women around the table were taking in the sight of Howie’s grandson with open admiration. She took a special interest in how Griffin and Alexandra had still not broken eye contact and how Gwendolyn, who had been holding tightly to Howie’s hand, had suddenly snatched her hand away while glaring at his grandson.
Great, thought Sophia. Just when things were going along so well.