Gabe Wheeler ran up to Sam with a gift bag.
“Sam, all of us here at Crestwood appreciate you as a neighbor and admire your flying career. Jokes and all.” Gabe handed him the bag with a bottle of wine in it. “Here’s something special.” He faced the audience. “Maybe we should all take a break, have some refreshments and talk with Sam one-on-one; look closely at these wonderful pictures covering so many years. Also, remember everyone, please stick around, in a few minutes we have a lovely young lady who’s going to sing for us. When she finishes she promises to surprise us with another one of her talents.”
“What the hell, Gabe, you’re shutting me down?”
Almost everyone stood up and shuffled back toward the dessert table decorated in garland. A few paper turkeys left over from Thanksgiving were spread out along the back of the table.
“Sam, not everyone finds this kind of thing interesting,” Gabe quietly insisted. “I don’t know what’s worse: being duped with a clever pilot joke or some awful war story that would only upset everyone.”
More people rose from their seats and Sam’s moment was over. He placed a large hand on Gabe’s bony shoulder, saying, “I love ya, Gabe, but I’d like to wring your scrawny neck. I prepared for weeks. That joke, as you called it, was to break the ice. I had a real career for fifty years. Experiences I wanted to share. I was gonna stay until Monday, give one last hand to you jokers, but you’re on your own. I’m leaving tomorrow.”
Sam glanced at the young woman adjusting the microphone, testing the volume.
“Sam, that’s fine, we can handle it. But hey, no hard feelings, I know what you accomplished, and more importantly, you know. This is for the better. You were getting hostile with Marge; getting ready to launch into stories that just scare people. We don’t need old-time nightmares, plenty of fresh ones around here every day.”
“What’s her name?” Marge Holloway scolded her husband loud enough for Sam to hear. Ray’s loud reply ran over the girl’s opening lines of her first song.
Earlier Sam had watched the young woman in the silver turtleneck and long black dress pause in front of his photo board leaning against the wall. Now, he focused on the bright-smiling girl, seated with a guitar. Someone dimmed the overhead lights and the garland and wreath glistened from the colored bulbs strung across the front of the room.
Sam’s anger and disappointment faded with each passing song. In between tunes she talked but Sam couldn’t make out all the words but there was a big warm voice coming from that fine little body of hers.
Her face wasn’t lost on Sam, either—creamy white skin, dark hair to her shoulders. She smiled often as she sang, eyes cast down until a crescendo in the music. Lifting her head, her voice filling the room, the singer’s eyes flashed, a silent explosion and Sam remembered another young woman, a stranger, sitting across from him on an airport shuttle bus one spring evening. The girl’s smile was candid and innocent, her eyes brilliant and fearless. He was accustomed to a slew of looks from women, most related to appetite, desires, high and low. But in this moment, Beauty herself was awake, gazing at the world.
A dozen songs and forty minutes later the young woman finished and the lights came up. The man next to him said, “That’s it?”
“I heard someone say that she’s going to draw us,” his wife answered.
“What?” Sam replied, the couple ignoring him. “Why doesn’t she keep singing? Her voice was warming these old bones.”
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