Character

          “You just can’t go on soixante-neufing your way through life, Porter,” Mary said.

They were sitting on the front porch of her old stone house just after sundown on a warm day in the middle of June:  Porter half parked on the flat, cement banister; Mary facing him on the wooden swing.  Porter, who had been jogging through the park, wore a white sweat band across his forehead and around his thick, white hair which spun in a series of pirouettes up the back of his skull.  It matched his white T-shirt, shorts, socks, shoes, and, alas, the support pads around his knees.  Mary wore a simple frock of a pinkish, floral pattern, faded like her wallpaper.  With her straight, wispy salt and pepper hair and no touch of make up, she still looked pretty, though somewhat akin to a defrocked nun.  She never wore shoes except those lifeless sandals she put on to go to the supermarket or to the library, about the only places she did go these days.  In the long line of Porter women, she had been his No. 1 all time favorite hippy girl, now his No. 1 all time favorite older hippie girl.  Porter stopped by to see her after his jog. A long time ago, and off and on over the years, Mary and he had been lovers.

“Oh, I don’t know, Mary,” he grinned. “I would certainly like to give it a try. Besides, I couldn’t think of a better way to spend my time. Many people do worse. Like going to PTA meetings, for instance.”

Mary looked over at the tall yet impish, slightly fleshy man child straddling her banister and wanted to slap the smart aleck grin right off his face.  At the same time, she wanted to fold him into her bosom and swing him to sleep in the evening breeze.  When she first met him, a real estate agent coming to list her house, she had been the childlike one and he the burly paternal figure.  Her husband at the time was so dimwitted anyway he wouldn’t have known to be jealous of anyone but he was particularly nonchalant about Porter who managed to spend several afternoons a week with her, drinking herbal tea, listening to her feelings of loneliness and guilt, then rising from the sofa, lifting her by the hand, grinning and winking, “Time now for a nap.”

The house having been sold at a nice profit, a new one built on a plot Porter helped her husband purchase, and then the marriage dissolved after a year of cantankerous divorce proceedings (nothing at all to do with Porter), Porter sold their new house to a dippy young couple, sold her the house she now lived in, acquired a condominium for her ex-husband and then disappeared, apparently to reappear in the arms of another hausfrau in distress who had a large house for sale and was in the process of separating from her husband.  As Porter would say, that was the beauty of the real estate business.  After she moved into her current house, Mary lost count.  Now and then, Porter would materialize on her front porch or at her back stoop, sometimes just to say hello and have coffee — she kept a half bag of coffee beans just in case– sometimes to stay the night, sometimes just to chat.  He seemed to be coming around more often.

“Part of your problem, Porter, a problem you continue to deny, is that you have too much luck. I’ve never known anyone who gets so tangled up in his personal affairs as you and then always manages to come out smelling like a rose.”  She reflected on his three bankruptcies, the two alienation of affection suits he won, the charges of tax evasion that were dismissed, the hearing before the real estate board that was admittedly trumped up by a competitor who had also been competing for the affections of the same hausfrau, and the indictment for fraud involving purchase and resale of property repossessed for back taxes, also dismissed.  Through it all, she was convinced that Porter was oblivious to the riskiness of his undertakings.  While the average man might have gone sleepless and gaunt, Porter allowed these events to pass overhead like jets en route to Los Angeles.  His skin remained pure and ageless, his eyes tantalized a female’s curiosity, his hair, thick and alive in tiny winglets, begged a woman to explore.   “I don’t know any other man your age who hasn’t come to some kind of terms with his mortality.   You’re pure grasshopper, Porter.”

“Hmmm.  I take issue, Mary,” Porter smiled. “The last few years have gone very well.  I’ve saved money; don’t drink that much anymore; try to keep the old skeleton and muscle mass in check; wake up looking forward to each day. What else is there?”

“But something is missing, you know that, otherwise you wouldn’t be sitting here on my porch.”  She turned her head to look charming.

“You don’t believe that I come to see you just because I want to see you?”

“No.”

“Mary, Mary, you of so little faith.  How soon you forget.  I do these things on impulse. Tonight, my impulse said, ‘Mary, Mary, go see Mary’ ”

“I don’t doubt you do these things by impulse.  Impulse is your middle name.  It’s what’s behind the impulse I worry about.”

“Okay, let’s assume I am looking for something.  Everybody is always looking for something.  What is it?”

“I couldn’t presume to know what anybody’s looking for.  But I do know what you’re missing.”

“Ok, then, Mary,” Porter laughed, “what is it I’m missing?”

“No, no, you’ll only laugh. You’ll think I’ve gone mindfucking on you.”

“Go ahead, Mary, I promise. I won’t laugh.”

“Well, I think what you are missing, Porter, is character. Character, Porter.”

Porter didn’t laugh. In fact, his face fell. Mary watched his expression turn painful as though he was holding off a gas attack.

Character. That was exactly what his father told him a few months before he died.   The old sour puss died when Porter was forty-nine, the only child of an embittered widower.  Now Porter was fifty-four and he feared he hadn’t done much to change that perception.  But what the hell?  “I am who am,” he relished saying in Biblical lingo. What he did know now was that his joints had begun to ache and he couldn’t drink as much or pop off the couch after an all nighter.

“I told your mother she was spoiling you,” his father grumped from his hospital bed, wobbling an arthritic bone relic in Porter’s face.  “You couldn’t fart without her running over to smell it.  Now you’ve got no motivation to do anything but chase pussy.”

Porter thought his father, Franklin Porter Winfield a joyless crank who preferred to reign behind the giant walnut desk at his law firm as though he were a Supreme Court Justice, when actually all he did was help large corporations cheat the government out of its lawful tax income.  After high school when Porter decided to take a year off to tour Europe in the style of Shelly, Keats and that crowd, the old man threatened to withhold his college money.

“I don’t need your money,” Porter told him at the time in the presence of his tearful, pleading mother.

“You’ll come crawling, big mouth, ” the nasty geezer snarled back.  “You’ll find out how hard it is to make a buck.”

At that, his mother, his sweet smelling, petite sickly blossom of a mother — how little he could remember of her but her scent — faded back into her wheel chair under a shower of tears.   From out of such a magical bud, her genetically engineered blossom peaked, folded and fell in her thirty-seventh year, to Porter’s eternal pain and anguish.

Porter never made it to Europe but he and his high school pal, Jack Trotter, discovered the West, particularly that section that centered around Las Vegas.  For six months, he and Jack parked cars, tried to meet as many women as they could and watched tourists throw away their money at the craps table.  One night in November, Porter told Jack he’d saved enough to take on the town.  He quit he job, got a motel room and studied the nuances of Blackjack, the only subject he could remember studying except for the tedious exam he had to take much later for the coveted real estate broker’s license.  After a week, he had lost all but a hundred dollar chip, not at the Blackjack table as he had planned, but in rolling the dice which he found much more adventuresome.

With Jack leaning over his shoulder at the craps table, he shrugged and said, “What the shit, Jack,” with the sad inevitability of a kid about to experience the failure his father so desperately wanted to celebrate in a not so subtle way.

“Here goes. Final shot,” he announced to Jack and several nervous onlookers.

Porter placed his hundred dollar chip on the field and won. He left his proceeds there for the next four rolls on the field and kept winning. His choice now was to use his cash to go home and beg forgiveness or try to win big.

“I think I’ll sleep on it,” he told Jack.  Just as he was about to leave the The Stardust casino, he spotted a million dollar slot machine and inserted three shiny one dollar coins. He pulled the giant arm and watched the fruit bars spin. They came to a halt and fell silent but, as he turned to leave, an ear piercing siren sounded over the din of the casino. He made the papers back home, a fifty thousand dollar jackpot, quite a haul in those days, more than enough to give him a few months more of whoring and exploration. The old man was furious. He brought this up again as he lay dying.

“It was the worst thing that could have happened to you, Porter. It gave you the wrong impression. Push a button, that’s all, and the coins come clinking into the trough.  And now you’ve been bankrupt three times.”

Porter always felt his bankruptcies were merely a function of the cycles in the real estate market, that’s all.  If he could do anything, he could size up a property, price it right, a key asset in a business that was nine-five percent bullshit, tell the sellers what to touch up to maximize their profit, close the deal and leave everybody happy, just as easily as smiling.  He had a knack too of finding “le maison juste’,” one of the few French expressions he had mastered, a gift from Mary, after Flaubert she said, a compliment she conjured up for stumbling upon what she called her “charming little Elizabethan cottage.”  True, after a string of sales, he would take off, sometimes for months, until his cash got low and then he hit it again.

“I’ve never been able to figure out what you wanted from me, Pops,” Porter said tearfully, for he sensed the end was near.

“I’ve only wanted one thing for you,” his father said without telling him what exactly.  “What’s missing is character.  You’ve never developed any character.  No wife, no children, no financial stability, no community involvement, no sure course of action, no commitment to anything. Character, Porter, character, that’s what’s missing.”

When his father died at three in the afternoon, Porter had been making love to Faun, a thirty-two year old former debutante with long legs and an urgent need for daily coitus.  While the rest of the world slaved away, he smiled to himself at that moment, he was getting laid.  He could visualize anal retentive corporate managers holding back an abundance of methane on leather buckets behind their desks, electricians swashbuckling in their tool belts, young doctors prancing down hospital hallways in their starched lab coats and stethoscopes, lawyers grimacing in their deceit and bored psychologists feigning understanding smiles in tiny offices lit by can lights.

At 87, his father had no hair at all, not even a fringe.  He deeply resented Porter’s hair, a reminder somehow of his mother’s favoritism.

“She always took your side,” the old man groaned.  “I was always wrong and you were always right.  Ah hell, what difference does it make.  I’m leaving all my money to charity.  You’ve got your mother’s money to blow.”

Porter didn’t say so then but he had already blown it, many years before.  He felt cheated though that the old man had begrudged him even a tiny stipend.  He actually had been praying for a substantial trust, a last minute change of heart.  None was forthcoming.  He was particularly pissed whenever his father spoke meanly of his mother, that flower of flowers. How could he?  How could she ever had allowed him to yank her from whatever magical garden he had trampled through on his way to the law offices of Smuck and Screw, dominate and devastate her delicate.

He had just visited his father that morning then hurried to Faun’s shaded English Tudor for their two o’clock session.  How she got the name “Faun” remained a mystery.  She was about as innocent as a hyena.  She had square Egyptian eyes, short cropped dark hair and tits that stood as upright and pointed as pyramids topped by rough red nipples of the strawberry variety.  What attracted him most was her sexual hunger and never fully satisfied appetite for just one more bang.  Her orgasms often tallied up to five or six in the allotted hour and a half.  Then at three thirty sharp, she climbed out of bed, dressed and said, “Time to fix dinner for Pappy,” her thirty-three-year old husband who had already reached a state of premature dotage.  Whenever Porter thought about his father’s death, he remembered Faun.  Hah! and fie! on the old bastard.  While Pops searched thick musky law books for phrases he could use to legally commit IRS fraud, Porter was in bed with the soles of Faun’s feet conforming sensually to the contours of his buttocks, watching the swaying pots of tasteless cloth flowers she hung from everywhere in her sprawling ranch home swing in the breezes that blew through the floor to ceiling windows she had custom-made to impress her Junior League friends.  Yet, he still thought of her fondly — how could he forget long tanned legs and moist, slippery womanhood? –, imagined her romping happily somewhere in the suburban forest of another metropolis with a merry rake not unlike himself.  Faun indeed.

He turned back to Mary.  It was dark now. Apparently, she felt some remorse.

“I worry about you, Porter.  I worry about you dying without ever having grown up past age three.  I sometimes think I should go over to that anesthetically spotless condominium of yours, pack up your things, and move you right in here with me.  I’d advance your integrity rating light years ahead in no time a t’all.”

“Your wanting to do that is a compliment, Mary, a real compliment.  It says you still ache for me.  And you know how much I value hunger in a woman.”

“That’s not what I said or meant.  I’m talking about a sense of duty people our age have to set things right, to give something back.”

Porter stood and joined her on the swing.  She turned to him and nestled her cheek into the nave of his neck.  After a while, she said, “Well, enough of me being preachy.  I know how much you hate to be the subject of conversation.  And okay, what the heck, I’ll admit it. Not your point but the fact that I do have needs.  I am after all a healthy specimen of a woman.  Then you and your sense of timing.  I’ve been feeling randy since I woke up this morning.  So let’s go on in, Porter, and take advantage of each other. We can get serious again in the morning.”

The next day after Porter jogged four miles and Mary had performed her wake up ritual, which Porter had yet to witness, he munched on Mary’s homemade granola as she set out her plan from the wicker queen’s chair at the end of the glass kitchen table.

“The way I calculate things, Porter, each of us could have at another  twenty-five or thirty years to live and who knows how many less.  In my family we Foleys tend to live well into our eighties.  And you, unless you take after your mother and die young, you could even hit ninety.  We could live another generation together.  Of course, with your lifestyle, you’ll be lucky to make it another ten.  Eventually, you will have a stroke or be shot dead by a jealous husband, an abandoned paramour or a hotheaded boyfriend.”

Porter nodded, not in agreement, but as if to say, “Go on.”

“Why not set up a trial run, maybe a few months will do it.  If at the end of that time either of us wants to call it quits, then we can.  After that, we’ll try three months, and so on.  All you have to do is promise is that you won’t go dipping around on me.  There’s just too much disease these days.  Besides, I’d like to believe our attachment could grow deeper.”

Porter nodded again.

“Well, what do you say?” Mary frowned.

While she had been talking, Porter had been evaluating her slight underbite which he found attractive.  In ten years, he thought, she may begin to take on the facial features of a bulldog.  He also recalled with relish his romp of three nights prior with his old girl friend, Georgia,  that had resulted in his best sleep in months.  Okay, Georgia had grown a bit frowsy.  Mary had added just enough plumpness to her thighs and bottom to give them a fully sensuous quality, like a nude in a Renaissance painting.  Her engorged breasts reminded him of a woman in the later months of pregnancy, or Elizabeth Taylor in her middle years.  Her vulvul valley, thick with lush plantings, felt fleshy, wet and overly ripe, her skin warm, firm, yet smooth, always giving off a patina of some distant floral paradise in the tropics.  He recognized his preference for thick lips, both high and low.  Mousiness, whether between the ears or between the legs, had no appeal.  Besides, Mary expressed her appreciation with loud verbal accolades, unlike many of his wards who hardly moved at all and only occasionally emitted tiny peeps.  He was touched by Mary’s proposal.  After all he had been led to Mary’s front porch by that empty feeling the current lot of crooners liked to wail about.

“I really don’t know if I can do it, Mary,” he said, eyeing her poker face.  “But you know how much I think of you and I keep coming back, don’t I?  I think I might like to try it.  I just don’t want to disappoint you.  You deserve better than me.”

Mary laughed.

“You’re such a fraud, Porter. But I’m terribly fond of you and I think we might have a chance.  If not, I’ll survive.  Let’s go get your things, shall we?”

When they stood, Mary said, “We are all a wasted generation,” then winked at Porter for her illusion to the equally fraudulent and pretentious Gertrude Stein.  He winced.

“Oh, I don’t think we’ve wasted any time.  I’ve enjoyed every minute of it.  I guess I just like, well…” and then he started laughing at himself, “being bad.”

Mary ignored him.  He didn’t get it.  She was well read.  He was not.

As they drove to his condo, Porter felt a moment of panic.  His heart revved up and he felt his head throbbing.  Momentarily, he thought he might throw up.

But going up the elevator with Mary he felt reassured by her presence, so competent, so self-assured.  The allure of her perfume which he wished she would wear more often and in greater amounts caused a tingle up the back of his neck.  He thought to himself that her intelligence and wit erased age lines that might have been scratched into her face by past troubles.  Then, entering his condo, he suddenly felt released, like a butterfly, and wanted to change his mind.  Immediately.  But Mary moved him along, pulling a suitcase out of his main closet, opening drawers, pointing to her favorite this and that.     Porter noticed again an ache in his kneecaps and joined in.  He packed his razor, arthritis balm, aftershave and only one hidden condom.

He left Mary off at her house promising to unpack later.  He had some bona fide appointments in the afternoon and late evening and didn’t return until the sun was about to set.  Since Mary hadn’t greeted him at the door, he began a search and found her seated, cross legged and nude, on a cushion in the middle of her screened in porch with her face raised to the diffusing sunlight, repeating a sound similar to an extended “Om” at regular intervals. His first thought was how firm her breasts had been maintained, that is, for a woman of her age.  He then thought about what she would think of his body if caught off guard, that is, not holding his stomach in and tightening his chest.  Rather than disturb her Porter grabbed a similar sized cushion and placed it beside her.  He undressed, crossed his legs, albeit slowly and somewhat painfully, held open his hands as Mary did and closed his eyes.

He thought it out of character to hum “Om” over and over like an idiot.  After a moment of dispensing with the problems of the day’s business, i.e. he still needed another signature on an offer a buyer wanted to make, his mind floated to the first time he and Mary made love.  She was much smaller then, maybe even skinny.  But her brightness and her underbite excited him.  From there his mind drifted to Faun and her long legs, to good old Georgia, and then unexpectedly to a young woman in his favorite flower shop he nicknamed Smiling Girl, followed by a cavalcade of the faces of other memorable women he had nearly forgotten.  When he felt Mary rustling beside him, he opened his eyes as if out of a deep sleep.  The sky had dimmed to a faded orange.  To his embarrassment he was fully erect.

“Oh Porter,” Mary bristled slightly, elbowing him sharply in the muscle of his arm, “you’re impossible.”

She pushed herself up and moved back into the house.  Porter eyed his magnificent self.  He spotted a box of Kleenex nearby.  Raised an eyebrow.  What a waste of an afternoon surprise.  Naaa, he thought, what if Mary caught him in the act.  She didn’t share his sense of humor.  That would end it right there.  Probably best to abstain.  Maybe Mary was on to something.  If Jack Nicholson and Warren Beatty could be content with a single partner, there was no reason that he couldn’t be the same.

He found Mary again in the kitchen barefoot, still naked under one of her simple smocks.  He resisted a hand up her leg.

“Well, what’s for dinner?” he asked lightheartedly, as if his indiscretion, if that’s what it was, had never occurred.

Mary, unsmiling, thrust forward her underbite ever so slightly.

“Oh, I thought maybe we might go for a stir fry.  Want to help?”

“Sure,” Porter, who liked to cook, said eagerly.

To his disappointment, the stir fry consisted entirely of vegetables: bean sprouts, julienne carrots, peapods, red and green peppers, sliced onions and two colors of zucchini.  Whoever had reintroduced zucchini into the modern diet ought to be shot, he thought.

But Mary’s rendering of the stir fry was not only tasty but filling. After they rinsed the dishes and put them into the dishwasher, Mary asked, “Want to join me for a glass of wine out on the swing?”

So they sat and talked late, about themselves, about politics, about the deals he had working.  When the breeze stirred high in the trees, they kissed and repeated their previous night together.

*                 *                 *

          For the next few weeks Porter again began to think that Mary might be on to something.  On the nights when it was too muggy or raining hard they read together in the walnut paneled room she called her library.  Their togetherness was quiet: a glass of wine, a discussion over the tops of the books they were reading, a moment on the screened in porch listening to the rain and wind.  Porter joined Mary in her morning meditation.  Her bedroom on the second floor faced east, its window hidden from observation below.  They sat side by side on her bed watching the leaves change color as they turned in the morning sunlight.  In the evening, when he could, he sat  cross legged beside her on the screened in porch that faced the backyard and was totally concealed from outsiders by trees and bushes.

Though she didn’t join him in his jogs, he walked with her to the supermarket to select groceries for lunches and dinners.  He was relieved to find that she had not gone completely vegetarian but ate a lot less meat than he preferred.  Always flexible, she allowed him an equal choice in meals but barely nibbled at the meat portions.  They cooked together to the sound of classical music and fifties jazz – the sum of Mary’s record collection.  She refused to switch to CD’s.  She thought the scratches and skips to be inherent in the musical experience.

Mary noticed how he rubbed his kneecaps and hip bones with arthritis medicine every night and suggested acupuncture.  Of course, she added, to really, really, overcome the pain, he needed to completely transform his beliefs and lifestyle, read the Lao T’zu and get in touch with his ying and yang.  Porter tried reading the Lao T’zu many years ago but quickly switched back to easy to read suspense novels and spicy one nighters.  The stinkers gave him ideas, he told Mary, ideas they both could share.

“You don’t need any more ideas, Porter,” Mary told him.  “You have too many ideas as it is.  I can’t keep up with you.  Usually, it’s the other way around.  The old man poops out on you just when you hit your stride.  No, not with you, Porter.  I get the guy who’s still a live wire in his old age.”

“That’s a downer, Mary.  Old age is not necessarily related to chronological age, and you know it,” Porter slightly huffed. “I guess you just got lucky is all.  How many women your age are dying for a hard dick?”

“Your mouth, Porter, I swear.  My mother would have fainted to hear you talk.”

“You’re not your mother, Mary, and you know it.  I’ve never seen you blush.”

At that, Mary blushed.  Porter gave her a squeeze and they laughed together at their predicament.  It was nice to hug a warm, giving body.

Living with Mary, on the other hand, was not necessarily his idea of life on the moon.  In addition to her mild slovenliness, he had to contend with Bolger, Mary’s oversized, loose jointed mongrel, who had been aptly named after the actor, Ray Bolger, who portrayed the cowardly lion in the original movie version of “The Wizard of Oz,” with the innocent looking Judy Garland.

Porter hated animals in the house.  He hated finding their fur on upholstery, spread over the carpet and matted on his suit jackets.  He could visualize worms and bacteria twisting in the atmosphere, their slobbering and other droppings and ejaculations deposited randomly in his living space.  The first week back at Mary’s house he dreamed he was crawling through a mire of oozing slime only to awaken and find Bolger licking the palm of his hand.  Most of all he resented Bolger’s presence under the table, slobbering, whining, begging, nuzzling his leg.  Mary compromised by pushing Bolger outside the kitchen door during meals but he scratched and whined so persistently that Porter let him back in.  Porter nearly gagged at Bolger’s smell, particularly after a rain or when he passed gas.  When he thought Mary was absent, Porter did his best to make Bolger uncomfortable, hoping he might become discouraged, run off and disappear.

During breakfast one morning as Porter toyed with a platter of scrambled eggs, a treat at Mary’s house, and was trying to read the paper, Bolger clapped and slid across the linoleum floor to beg for a bite of the feast.  Porter made a crooked face and quietly whispered, “Go, Bolger, go,” and clapped his hands boldly, sending the oversized, hairy mutt tumbling with a thump against the refrigerator.

“Abusing Bolger again, are we?” Mary shouted from the den.  Porter thought she was still upstairs dressing.

“I can’t raise my head without looking up Bolger’s asshole,” Porter yelled back.

“Oh, it’s quite the view all right,” Mary said.

“I think we ought to build him an all season doghouse so he could make his messes in his own house.”

“That would be like you, wouldn’t it, Porter?  To distance yourself from a loving creature,” Mary’s voice scolded, sounding heaven sent.

“Animals don’t love.  It’s been proven.  They just seek safety and food.”

“A lot of people would take issue with that,” Mary noted smugly.  “You should read Albert Schweitzer.”

“I’ll do that in my next life,” Porter said, taking a swipe at Mary’s interest in reincarnation.

In such moments of frustration, with Mary’s blessing, he visited the pristine rooms of his condominium.  All of his fine furniture stood bright and new in well-lit space against clean walls.  He checked his answering machine, did his paperwork in air conditioned comfort.  Aside from Bolger, he and Mary squabbled about the temperature.  It was true that Mary’s house, a fortress of stone, stucco and brick, was cooler than most drafty modern wood framed homes, and its stand of aged shade trees held off the direct blast of the sun.  But he was used to central air and sixty-eight degrees.  Mary had a single window unit in one corner of her bedroom that she only ran in cases of extreme heat and humidity.  “Who needs air conditioning?” she wanted to know.  “The air, the air, is everywhere,” she sang, echoing a line from the rock musical, “Hair.”  Mary assured him that it was just a matter of adjusting to “natural” conditioning. “Let’s just enjoy God’s air,” was her mantra.  Soon he wouldn’t give it a second thought, she promised.  Think of the environment, the waste of electricity, of taking modern conveniences for granted.  That was Mary’s line.

Porter also cherished his moments back in the condo for the lack of clutter.  Mary was clean in person and kept her kitchen and bathrooms free of gunk.  But the rest of her house seemed totally littered with old books, magazines opened at a certain page, newspapers that needed to be clipped at a later date.  Her basement smelled stale like his father’s sickbed breath.  Once when he moved a sack of newspapers to sit on her sofa, a roach rambled over the armrest and disappeared into the back edge of the cushion.

“Jesus, Mary, look, a roach,” he shouted, pounding his fist after it.

“My, my.  By the looks of you, a person would suppose you’d stumbled onto a rattlesnake.”

“Hey, when they get that big, it means your house is infested.”

“Nonsense.  They come in with the produce.  Besides, I have the house sprayed regularly.”

Porter’s drew back his lip in disgust.  No doubt with an expensive natural concoction purchased at a health foods store that couldn’t kill an ant.

“Let me ask you something,” Mary said, wrapping her fingers around his wrist and smiling over at him. “As a little boy, were you something of a sissy?”

Porter jumped up from the chair clutching his fists. “What makes you think that?”

“Are you going to stomp your foot too?”  Mary laughed.  “Now, Porter don’t get all huffy.  I just pick up little clues.  I don’t see you as a rough and tumble little guy.  You don’t like dogs.  You don’t like getting dirty.  You have this look of being a bit of a scaredy-cat.”

Porter’s face reddened.  His father had called him a little pussy more than once.

“Look, Mary, if you want,” Porter said, looking around, “I’ll be happy to help you with the housekeeping.  This weekend, maybe.  I don’t have phone duty or any open houses to watch.”

“I have my own way of keeping house,” Mary sniffed.  “I know just where everything is.  If you go bulldozing around and scooping things out harakiri, I won’t be able to find anything.  Besides, I like a home that’s comfortable, that’s lived in.”

Porter had to agree.  When he wasn’t worrying about bugs or dog hairs, he did feel comfortable.  He felt free to walk barefoot, free to stretch out, free not to pick up before he went to bed.  He felt comfortable making love to Mary, free to full enjoy each itch and buzz of pleasure without checking out how Mary was doing, free to let go without worrying about his performance.

Mary’s house in general had a well-worn, comfy feel.  Yet amid the clutter there was also a certain sense of majesty, of antiques, of old, original oils on the wall.  His diggs looked a bit too clean and lean, a might trashy-contemporary, decorated with prints in metal frames.

“You see, Porter,” Mary went on, her face waning towards the maudlin.  “I’ve come round to thinking that this modern world has gone too crazy and confusing for me.  I know this sounds pedestrian and over simplified but I’ve decided all I can do is dig down in my own little space and live there as deeply I can.  I’ve decided to turn inward and see what I find.  I can’t keep up with all the changes and requirements and the fads and fashions expected of we women nowadays.  And what’s the use; when I did, I’d plod home, tired, anxious, hollow inside.  This is where I can be me,” Mary finished on the verge of weepy, a condition Porter could not abide.  Tears, snot and slobber.  Oh brother, the “me” word.  What about me?  For me, for mineMy life.  Porter thought she would have been over that by now.  For god’s sakes.  That was a ’60’s thing.  Move on, Mary, he wanted to shout.

“I wish there was something I could say to help you feel better,” Porter mumbled, wanting to get on with it.

“There’s nothing you can say, Porter.  It’s what you can do.”

“What can I do?”

“Hold me, Porter, that’s all, just hold me.  Do you think for one minute that I started making love with you because I just wanted to relieve myself?”

Possibly, Porter thought.  In fact, he often hoped so.

“No. What I really wanted, and I’ll bet this is true of most of the women you’ve been involved with, what I really want is that little moment afterward when you hold me.  I just want to be held and loved, to be close to someone I care about and who cares about me.  Oh, I know we felt differently back then.  Have at it.  Shake the foundations.  Rock the sky.  Well, it just didn’t pan out.  It was a fad is what it was.  At least for me.”

Porter took a deep breath.  What he really wanted to do was to exit — “tout suite,” another one of Mary’s Frenchified expressions.  But he reached over anyway –why not? — pulled Mary towards him and let her nestle herself again against his chest.

Once the feeling of panic dissipated, he did allow for a moment of peace.  Harmony, he thought.  Harmony.  Serenity.  He could use some of that.  Since he moved in with Mary, ten days now, he had generally enjoyed a sense of harmony.  For the last few years he hadn’t been sleeping very well.  His dreams flickered wildly in confusing sequences and he woke with his heart pounding at each pause.  At Mary’s, except for that one nightmarish incident spawned by Bolger’s lactating tongue, he slept from the moment his eyes closed until Mary sat up on the edge of her bed in the morning and he could hear her bustling around in the room.

The numbers rolled across and down the calendar far faster than he expected.  He woke one morning suddenly alarmed.  He could make business decisions licketly-split.  But these kinds of things… In a few days, their time together would reach the point of the review they had decided upon as their first peer review.  But what would he do about Smiling Girl?  He hadn’t broken the ice with her yet.  She kept coming to mind, unfinished business.  Georgia too, still an object of desire.  The others.  What to tell them while keeping them on his string?

Porter had no real idea about what had transpired in Mary’s life in the past twenty years except superficialities.  He knew she had given up her job at the telephone company, that her mother had died and left her some money, and that she had little to do with her two brothers, both former all-state basketball players, both lawyers.  But her bitter tears seemed to premise major disappointments in matters of love, friendship and world affairs.  He knew Mary had a few lady friends but she was not the kind of young old  bag to sit around and yak yak about her feelings half an afternoon over lunch with similarly inclined rejects competing for air time.  Between their brief meetings now and then he assumed she had made a fundamental decision to withdraw and was inviting Porter, so it seemed to him, to join her in a new enterprise.

Porter had changed over those twenty years too, he reflected that day on his morning jog.  Most of his male friends, his drinking and fishing buddies, had found a wife and were trapped in the grind, and miserable.  Once in a while they took an afternoon off to play golf or tennis with Porter but their conversations centered around making money rather than the sensual arts and chasing women which remained foremost in Porter’s thoughts.  His latest hausfrau or cutie, as he called the younger ones, were of no interest to them.  At some point, they just stopped asking. So he found little in common with them.  He often went to the movies alone or for long walks.  The long walks, rather than any impulse to be fashionable or healthy, led to jogging since he could only observe the trees and the birds, sunrise and sunset, for a few minutes before getting bored and feeling the need to strike out again.

His jogs seldom followed the same route.  His legs leading the way, Porter sensed something out there in front of him, an excitement that he would stumble onto, a grove of trees hiding a dark, cool mystery.  The only constant was a park circled with a jogging path that Porter frequented to observe and meet striding Dianas perfecting muscle tone.  Sometimes during stretching exercises on the bar or during cool down either he or she would comment on the weather or a style of running shoe and a new, though usually brief, relationship would begin.

Porter’s aches and pains had signaled a tangible physical change.  But the onset of middle age had also brought him an unexpected benefit.  In his early forties he made it a practice to snip the whities from his body hair until it became evident that if he continued snipping he would have no hair at all, high or low.  While pure white hair made some men look old, it gave Porter a glamorous glow, obfuscating the wrinkles in his forehead, the slight sagging under his eye, the bluish marbling of his nose, and the beginning of a droop under his chin which neither jogging or stretching exercises seemed to retard.  At a bar or in an outdoor café, he stood tall in a navy blazer and striped tie, finding to his amazement that, instead of being ignored as he aged, he seemed to be gaining celebrity status.  The bar patrons looked up when he strode in, stopped, smiled and looked around as if he had plans to meet someone there.

As a younger man Porter preferred older, broken in women, slightly world worn but aging well, women like Georgia who lived in grand style on the other side of the park opposite Mary in a fantastic antebellum home at the middle of a three acre piece of property smack in the middle of town.    Even so, he was certain Mary and Georgia had never met.  Different circles.  Georgia had been around to say the least.  Four husbands, each of them wealthy and a long list of lovers, one of whom was her divorce lawyer who, like  Porter, benefited from the perks of his dubious profession, often collecting his fees in the flesh.  Georgia was a full, sensuous woman who tended to be slightly overweight from time to time but her desirability was seldom at risk.  She loved to start drinking in the late afternoon and threw her whiskeys back neat until the wee hours but the booze never seemed to affect her ability to please and be pleased.  She had the shocking laugh of some kind of squawking tropical bird.  Her drinking, even as well controlled as it was, could get old, Porter admitted, but she was always ready and it only took a phone call with little follow up, flowers, a small gift or a bottle of Remy to rustle up her attention.  Porter’s main criticism was how disinterested Georgia seemed in maintaining her elegant home.  Flower gardens were practically nonexistent and she left the house as she found it  surrounded by a messy stand of spreader bushes and in need of a paint job.

When he reached his forties the older women he knew or met later on seemed to be, well, a bit too much older.  It showed.  He found himself catching the eye of a younger crop of women he called Cuties.

Usually, the Cuties fell in their late twenties to early thirties, young enough to retain a look of freshness, but old enough to have been slightly singed.  Having been burned by two or three gents in or near their own age group, they gravitated to an older man of experience, men of depth and warmth, like – well, maybe guys sort of like…like Porter.

That’s how Porter evaluated it.  And that’s how he explained to himself his attraction to Smiling Girl and her apparent attraction to him.

Every Friday afternoon he was in the habit of rewarding himself with a small but expensive luxury, a visit to his favorite flower shop, The August Moon.  On that day between four and six all flowers went on sale for half price, cash only please.  The August Moon specialized in exotic flowers and  in so many varieties Porter needed close to an hour to select to arrange his weekend bouquet.  Even on sale, some of them cost five to ten dollars a stem.

“Cut flowers in the summertime are such a waste,” Mary groused as she poked around her geraniums with a garden fork.  Porter had offered to help her weed and prune and knelt beside her tucking the weeds and clippings into a bag.

“I know, Mary, but it’s quite an event.  You never know what flowers you’ll see poking up at you.  I have a hard time limiting myself,” Porter said.  “It’s like an afternoon for you, rummaging through all those old jazz albums in the second hand record shop.”

“Yes, I know,” Mary said absentmindedly, thrusting her underbite forward.  “But when you have flowers in your own garden to pick…”

“Nothing against your flowers, Mary, but I’ve seen them all before, and I like a surprise every now and then.”

As they talked, Porter watched a spider hanging below a spirea bush enfold an unfortunate flying creature and wrap it carefully in its arachnidian tissue.  Mary turned to him and smiled as magically as one of the sunrises she must have swallowed whole.

“It’s so nice to have you help me, Porter,” she said.  “Now take that bag of garbage in the kitchen and the clippings and dump them on top of my compost pile.  Hold your nose!”

Despite Mary’s constant reminders of wastefulness and the environment and Indian tribes in the Brazilian jungles, Porter continued to visit The August Moon.  Wandering through the vases of exotic flowers, pulling a stem here, a stem there, he could keep his eye on Smiling Girl largely unobserved.  It was one activity that carried no guilt, no past lore.

One Friday afternoon not long before he appeared on Mary’s porch, he looked up from a vase of gardenias and suddenly there she was arranging a basket of spring flowers for a well dressed older woman highly pleased with her selections.  Now that’s an arrangement, he nodded to himself, speaking not of the older woman or the contents of her basket but at the sight of Smiling Girl moving so lovely and lightly from here to there, up and down and through the aisles of the shop.

Over the summer, he learned these things about her:  Her name was Janet Miles.  She had an MBA, had worked for a Fortune 500 company in the investment department, and had joined the ranks of those disenfranchised souls quick to discover that the pursuit of money for money’s sake led to an empty bed on Saturday mornings.  She was in between things and her eyes glazed sad.  He picked up these facts little by little from his old pal, Nancy, the shop’s long time owner and a sex buddy from the early days.

Porter particularly noticed the softness and natural color of Smiling Girl’s thick, moist lips as they shone in the soft light.  She wore simple dresses or skirts and sleeveless blouses accented with a pearl choker, tiny earrings and a narrow banded watch.  Most importantly, every time he caught her eye he thought she blushed and smiled.  Porter also noticed she seemed to go out of her way to serve him, edging slowly in front of Nancy to be first in line.

“Let’s see what you picked out for me today,” she’d smile, slipping along side him, whisking back thick shining black hair from her face with both small, pretty hands.  “Ah, the orchids.  Aren’t they different?  I’d never seen this kind before.” Then she’d smile again and turn her face as if asking to be kissed.

Yes, the orchids, Porter thought.  How like them she was.  Her skin glowed with that kind of porcelain purity and smoothness.

Just that Friday after his moment in Mary’s garden Porter visited The August Moon ten minutes before closing.  Nancy had left to make a last minute delivery and the two gay flower arrangers, their pony tails bobbing side by side, waved goodbye to him as they brushed past.  Only Smiling Girl remained.

“Just in time,” she smiled shyly from behind the counter, her hands laced together behind the back of her dress.

Porter felt like the ape at the zoo.  Nothing he did, no movement, no facial expression, could escape her smile.

“I’m having a hard time deciding,” Porter said.  “I feel like I’m in one of those contests in a department store racing against the clock to grab anything I can carry.”

“Oh, take your time, Mr. Winfield, really.  You can have a few minutes after I lock the door.  Did you see the hibiscus in back behind the case.”

Porter looked through the glass case into a nook where they kept the deliveries.

“Sort of,” he said, squinting.

“Wait a minute.  Let me lock up and I’ll show you.”

He browsed up and down the rows of flowers still standing tall in their bins for the big Saturday rush.  He could hear the closing of the front window blinds, the turn of the front door bolt, the clanking of the chain lock.

“Now,” Smiling Girl said, “follow me.”

He walked with her around the glass case into a little nook lined with pots and bins full of flowers.  The hibiscus flowered a dark pink and they bobbled eagerly at the center which instantly brought numerous sexual fantasies to mind.

“We just got them in,” she pointed.  “Aren’t they exciting?”

Porter lifted a stem up into the air to inspect it.  “Marvelous,” he said, sniffing the blossom, then turned directly to face Smiling Girl’s eyes not more than a small hand’s distance from his own.

Smiling Girl did what she did:  she looked directly into his eyes and smiled.

“Mr. Winfield.”

“How about Porter.”

“Porter, may I touch your hair?  I just think that would be nice.  Would it be a bother?”

Before he could speak, Smiling Girl ran her fingers slowly up the back of his neck into his hair.

“Porter, I’m just crazy about you,” she whispered into his ear so sincerely he felt his knees wobble.  She lay her head against his tie and hugged him deeply.  He liked her perfume, whatever it was.  How light she felt, something lifted by a breeze.

Porter was unable to think of anything to say.  So, oddly, and against his very nature he blurted out, “Uh, Janet, uh…you see, I’m trying to be an honest man.  It’s a matter of character.  I have to be getting home.  We’re going out, you see…”

Janet stepped back as though Porter had slapped her face, but she swallowed the blow and quickly reconstituted herself.

“Oh, sorry.  You don’t wear a ring.  I’ve been thinking that you keep looking over at me, trying to catch my eye…”

“And I have been looking at you,” Porter said, surprised again at the words out of his mouth.  “All the time…lots.  This other thing, the thing I’m speaking about is a recent thing, not an official thing at all, but something there anyway, something that has to be honored…”

“You don’t know how often I think of you, Porter, the fantasies I’ve been having about you, about us together…”

“Fantasies?” Porter choked, and began coughing.

“Are you ok?” Smiling Girl asked patting his back.

“Sure…” Porter croaked.

After his bronchi clutched into a lockdown, he swallowed several times until they finally decided to ease up.  Porter leaned against the counter where the flowers were arranged.  Smiling Girl stood in front of him at attention.

“Look, Janet, I don’t think you know much about me.  I’m…I’m probably not the best kind of guy for you to get involved with,” he said earnestly, deceptively.

“I don’t care what kind of guy you are.  I think you’re probably okay.  I have a good feeling about you.”

“You do?”

“Don’t act so surprised,” she smiled.

“It’s just that people want to try to change me, to make me a better person and I…”

“Oh gosh, Porter, I wouldn’t change a thing, not one hair, not one wrinkle.  Who would ever want to make you better?”

Mention of the word “wrinkle” brought Porter back on his feet.

“Oh, you know.  These things do seem to come up in people’s lives, I suppose, now and then… Even so, I do have to go now.  I’m so glad we had this moment,” he said.

Smiling Girl took his cash and wrapped six hibiscus stems in plum colored tissue paper.  “Here,” she said, scribbling on the back of his receipt, “if you should ever have an overwhelming desire to get in touch with me, here is the phone number at my apartment.  Of course, I hope to see you here again.”

“Thank you.  Of course you will” Porter smiled back at her, stuffing the receipt into his pocket with his change and folded bills.

Smiling Girl walked to the front door and unlocked it.  She swung around to face him again and smiled.

“I hope you’ll come back.  I hope I didn’t embarrass you,” she said.

“No, I, enjoyed the moment,” Porter said, looking down at her.  Then he bent over and kissed her softly on the lips.  She started to reach for his neck but he held her tiny hand gently back.  “Hey,” he said as he walked down the sidewalk, “keep me in your fantasies, will you?”

Smiling Girl turned her head sideways and upwards and blushed.

*                 *                 *

          Both Porter and Mary knew the second month of Mary’s plan was about to end.  He was learning to “practice” meditation with Mary without “dragging along the sexual connection” as she called it, and she had agreed to keep Bolger upstairs during meals.  Bolger’s response was to build mounds on Mary’s carpet.  One room, the living room (the parlor, Mary called it), was set aside for Porter to keep as tidy and dust free as he wanted.  The rest of the house was Mary’s domain.  Some nights they were both so exhausted from just living through the day they simply fell asleep side by side.  If Porter happened to find a free moment in the morning or late afternoon he snuck home to Mary’s house and delivered her of her smock, like it or not.  More often than not after these forays Mary would sit up on the carpet, or the sofa, or the swing, or other point of attack and sniff that she at last knew the true meaning of the word, “kamikazi.”

Porter had to admit that the pain in his joints was almost nonexistent.  His evenings at home with Mary and their walks to the supermarket comforted him.  His overall restlessness, the urgency that had placed him on Mary’s porch, had subsided.  “Harmony,” he kept telling himself, “to be in harmony with oneself and with nature.  That’s what’s it’s all about.”

The night before the last day of their allotted time Mary was out late at the library listening to a female poet.  When she returned, Porter had set the alarm, laid out his jogging shorts and was snoring in a ball on her side of the bed.

That next morning Porter dressed as quietly as possible.  He let Bolger out into the backyard and filled his water bowl on the stoop.  He moved to the downstairs hallway where he performed ten minutes of stretching exercises.  He crossed into the living room and opened the lamp table drawer to search for his driver’s license.  He pulled out and fastened his wristwatch, scooped up some coins and his wad of bills as booty in case he got mugged, and closed the drawer softly.

Outside the front door a tea colored light edged up over the tops of the trees.  Porter walked to the park and once on the jogging path quickened his pace until he calibrated into a slow trot.  His mind opened slowly that time of day and he had gone over a mile before he began to think of what he might say to Mary.  Felt uplifted by it all, he would begin.  Feeling a little confined, yes, but enjoying the peacefulness.  Nice to know someone waited for him at the end of the day, nice to find the familiar, the comfortable fit.  Proud to have stuck to it.  Even had developed a tolerance for old Bolger.  Had gotten used to the idea of recycling his diet cola cans.  Had been thinking about his own compost pile.  Might want to put his condo on the market.  Being in a committed relationship would probably would add years to his life.  That’s what the ragazines were selling these days.  May have learned the true meaning of love.  Felt mature at last.  Those kinds of things.  TV talk.  Type of stuff he used to snicker at.  Many thanks were due.

Porter rounded the half way mark of the jogging path and began to meet other runners and walkers in various degrees of consciousness, some lost in their earphones, others talking to themselves, groups of two or three older women gabbing far too intensely for him that early in the a.m.  As he neared the crest of a hill, the light of dawn showered its raiment over the park.  Porter always felt this moment as acutely as the original jolt from his alarm clock.  His eyes finally opened and he could see.

The first thing he saw was the pay telephone.  He backpedaled to it, jogging in place, wet as a puppy, upright as a defendant in a trial might stand before a judge.  Go ahead, idiot, ruin everything, he said to himself. Hurt Mary again.  Be selfish.  Relapse.

After a minute of hesitation he started out again increasing the pace of his jog into a full run and distracted himself by concentrating on his feet striking the asphalt path.  He used the space to empty his head and when he arrived at his starting point he faced a choice in the form of a fork on the path:  the left fork led to another spin around the park and thus to Mary’s house, the right fork to his condo where he parked his sparky red Mercedes 560 CSL convertible inside an enclosed one car garage.  While staying at Mary’s he had eschewed this cherished luxury in favor of walking.  His condo was only eight short blocks away and he did not want to expose his “auto,” as he called it, by parking it on the street in front of Mary’s place.

Porter leaned to the left continuing to balance the pros and cons of his situation, the constant nagging question of whether to allow nature to lead him by the hand into old age, or fight off the cycle of life to its bitter end.  True, his body was giving in but his mind did not know that yet.  Beyond that pickle was the ever present bane of the confirmed bachelor — loneliness.  Since he preferred the company of women to that of the tawdriness of men, women naturally came to mind when forming a picture of days and nights to come.  The bodies of women were so much more interesting than those of the old guys he glimpsed in country club communal showers.

But, there it was again, as ever present as destiny, perched inside a little blue open air stall atop a slender pole — the public telephone.  He spotted it up ahead and thought to look away but as his body drew him closer and he approached the damn thing, his legs involuntarily gave way to a slow jog, a walk and finally a halt.  He stood before it again like a convicted felon awaiting his sentence.

Porter knew his emergency stash of cash and coin hung stuffed in the right pocket of his shorts, cash for crooks, coin for suddenly important telephone calls.  He could hear the coins jingle as he ran.  His hand, by habit he supposed, reached instinctively into his pile of change and he quickly located two quarters.  He yanked out his wad of bills and sifted through the tens, fives and ones until he found the receipt:  “Janet Miles, DE5-8977.”

You idiot, he said out loud as he dialed.  The telephone rang seven times and he was feeling relieved that she might not answer.  He could see the fruit bars spinning on the slot machines of yore falling into place one by one.  He was hoping for an apple, an orange and a lemon.

“Hello,” she mumbled.  A row of pears.  He could hear a distant siren screaming in his heart.

“I guess I woke you,” he said in a gravely voice.

“Oh, yeah.  Who’s this?”

“Ah, Porter.  Porter Winfield.”

“Porter!  It’s you!”

Ah, how he liked her enthusiasm, her immediate acceptance.  How he liked the fact that she made him feel welcome without complaint.

“Porter, why are you calling?” she asked.

“I was thinking maybe I could come over in a little while.”

“Oh my gosh.  I’m still asleep.  I mean I’m not cleaned up or anything.”

“Me either.  I’m out jogging.  Maybe we could get cleaned up together.”

“Oh, Porter.  Don’t say things like that.  They scare me, I mean….”

“You think I might be a pervert or something.”

“Oh no, it’s just that, when you’ve imagined something for a long time, and then it really happens, it’s just a little scary.  You are direct.  I will say that.”

“Is that a problem?”

“Not particularly.  Unless you are a dirty old man.”

The word “old” stood out.

“I have been accused of worse.  But I know what you mean.  You don’t know how scared I am.”

He thought of Mary and her underbite.

“You?  Scared?  Good, I mean, good that I’m not the only one who’s scared.  It’s basically knee knocking, your calling me, I mean, out of the absolute blue, your voice, actually speaking to me, little ole Janet Miles, the flower shop clerk, over the phone and not in the store…”

During the moment when neither of them spoke, Porter watched squirrels running up and down trees, dogs huffing along side their masters and mistresses, redbirds alighting, sparrows jousting, cooing doves cranking their necks along the tops of newly mown grass blades.

“Porter?”

“Huh?”

“You want me to fix some breakfast?”

“Oh, you don’t have to.  But, then again, that would be dandy.”

“I don’t have to be at work until noon.”

“Any bacon?”

“Yeah, lots of it.  Jumbo sized eggs, too.”

“Aha!  I guessed right.  A pleasure seeker.  Were you expecting me?”

“How did you know? ”

“Just did.”

Smiling Girl quickly gave Porter her address.

“That’s not too long a jog.” Porter said. “I may end up driving though.”

If you have a red Mercedes 560 CSL you might as well use it to the max.  That was Porter’s take on it.

“Of course, I’d walk a thousand miles today just to see you .”

“Not so early in the morning, Porter,” Smiling Girl laughed.

“Remember I’m not quite awake yet.”

As soon as he hung up the telephone, Porter began to feel remorse.  Why had he called?  Why was he doing this to himself?  How impulsive!  Maybe he should call her back?  Say, oh-oh, I suddenly remembered that…  Better yet, pretend he never called at all.  Maybe she would think it was all a dream.  She did seem awfully groggy.  Or, stop buying cut flowers at The August Moon.  Hide if he saw her in public, or just play dumb.  O lord, whatever happened to loyalty, commitment, promises, vows?

This line of speculation led Porter to break into a jog down the hill and he leaned left to sprint around the bend to Mary’s house.  The sun was now fully bloomed and he felt it on his face and shoulders.  Perhaps a tiny vessel imploded in his brain or adrenalin spontaneously let loose throughout multiple organs.  A mindless euphoria spread with each pump of his knees.  His body was simply telling him something again, that was it.  All two pistons were in perfect harmony.  Perhaps his moment had come, not to grow old and retreat, but to live, if not for a month, then for a day or only an hour, not as a boy or a man, but just as plain old Porter Winfield, age 54.  The excitement of the decision he was about to make, whatever it might be, seemed to lift him into the air and give him wing.

As his legs drew him onward, out of the corner of his eye he noticed Georgia’s antebellum mansion.  Then Mary came to mind.  Her underbite.  His legs suddenly felt heavy and a damper pressed down.  The confusion that had plagued him throughout his rumpled life made him almost dizzy.   Mary, Smiling Girl, Georgia, Faun, Deidre, Sandy.  An entire collage of old lovers spread before him.  Cad.  Rake.  Ne’er do well.  Scumball.

Of course, he reasoned slowing the pace, truthfully, if neither Mary nor Smiling Girl worked out, he could just fire them both, start over again from scratch, as he had many times before and be relieved of this burden.  Or give good old reliable Georgia a ring.  She seemed so grateful when he called.  Could be the sauce that made her seem so, but then again…  Or he could enjoy the excitement of living with Mary and have an affair with Smiling Girl on the side which would be the most familiar way to go, a situation he was used to dealing with.  But then again…and again…

Ahead lay a true “fork in the road.”  How often had he heard that?  The expression had never fully hit him as it did now:  Left to Mary’s house, or right to his condo, or perhaps a knock at Georgia’s tall, ornate, very substantial front door.  No, she was a late sleeper.  You didn’t want to wake one of those.  Even Georgia had her limits.

As Porter approached the actual divide in the jogging path, his father’s gnarled fingers shook at him from every branch.  Mary’s underbite snapped at his ankles.  Janet Miles eyed him from the shadows.  Georgia was sleeping off the night before.

It was not until he looked up and found himself fifty feet or more down the right fork did he realize that his body had made the decision for him.

“Now that’s Character,” he shouted loudly and with a hard, capital “K.”  “Now…that’s…the… real… thing…,” he huffed, pumping his knees as high as he could, the soles of his leather running shoes plopping randomly against the asphalt.  “I…am…who…am…”

“Impulse!,” he shouted.  “Smiling Girl!  Orchid Lady!  La belle juste’!”  Or something like that.

He ran so hard, so recklessly, that birds and leaves and animals large and small of every kind and shape scattered in all directions before him.