Panhandling: A Sneak Peek at Author Prissy Elrod’s New Book, Chasing Ordinary
A still-healing widow reignites an old flame on a trip that would change her life forever.
To be honest, all I really wanted was to go back to folding laundry on a regular Tuesday afternoon. Back to that day when my life was simple and ordinary. But as I sat on the ornate sofa inside the lobby of the Peabody in Memphis, Tenn., nothing was ordinary anymore.
Boone, my husband, had been dead 16 months. Don’t you hate the word dead? Passed? Departed? Vowels and consonants strung together as synonyms for suck.
It was July. The weather was hot, humid and stinking miserable in Memphis. A man I’d come to meet sat opposite me in a fancy, gilded chair and looked nothing like I’d expected. But then, I really had no idea what to expect. After all, I hadn’t seen the guy—my college boyfriend—in years.
His hair was still brown but now peppered with gray around his temples. His beard was well groomed and matched his hair color. He looked scholarly.
The top buttons of his untucked shirt were open at the neck. I was relieved to see no gold chains. His two-toned loafers without socks peeked from beneath his black silk trousers. He had an appealing city look, as though he’d stepped off the cover of GQ magazine. A beautiful smile—the one I remembered from our past—beamed from his tanned face. But it was his ocean-blue eyes that captivated me. They always had.
I watched him watching me. He leaned forward, an elbow on each knee, rhythmically tapping his fingertips together, then stilled them in a tepee formation. The heel of his right foot started rocking up and down. I could tell he was nervous. Maybe more than I was.
I studied his oversized hands, remembering how they once felt gliding over my body. In our silence, his smile broadened. We both stared and waited, neither one of us saying a word. I couldn’t. It was so uncharacteristic of me not to be babbling. But seeing him again was surreal.
I picked up the tasseled pillow next to me on the couch and tucked it behind the small of my back. I cushioned against it and yanked my polka-dot dress over my bony knees. I glanced back up to see his blue eyes boring into me. Oh God! I hoped I looked calmer than my fast-beating heart felt.
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A few months earlier, Dale—that’s his name—had sent me a condolence letter. I answered, and our correspondence began. First a letter or two, then emailing. We would write every few days and share stories of family, friends and work. Soon our email exchange became more frequent. Then it progressed to every day. Before we knew it, we were emailing each other several times a day.
We never once talked on the phone or exchanged pictures. So, technically, one could say we were strangers.
As I read his emails, nostalgia filled my heart. I was transformed into the young girl he once knew. The one who believed—with innocent naivete—bad things happened to others. In those days I was sheltered by a physician father and housewife mother. I believed life was safe, wonderful and certain, as only a tenderfoot would, before the brutality of life knocked me flat.
Thoughts of Dale transported me back to the days when anything seemed possible. And since I had no idea how he looked, my brain pictured the boy’s same face, physique and manner, even though I was communicating with someone much older. The brain, well, it’s a funny thing.
After three months of writing, he suggested we meet in person somewhere between our two cities—Indianapolis and Tallahassee—and try to pick each other from a crowd. It would be fun, especially since we had no idea what the other looked like.
A cat-and-mouse game ensued, with clues and guesses, teases and temptations. Each day he emailed a hint about where our reunion would take place.
I flew to Memphis from Tallahassee, Florida, to meet the boy I once loved, having no idea what awaited. It didn’t matter. I was stepping out of my comfort zone and taking a chance.
My heart raced as I walked off the elevator and looked around the spacious mezzanine level. It was vacant and quiet. There was not a soul on the floor where I stood. As I leaned over the brass railing, I could see over a hundred people below me.
I watched a flock of ducks, hens and drakes splashing and skimming the fountain water.
I studied the tops of the men’s heads. They were short and tall, skinny and fat, and so many nationalities. No one looked like the boy I remembered.
I felt a tap on my shoulder and turned around to find his smiling eyes. We stood motionless, his blue eyes melding with mine. A jazz band was playing the Miles Davis version of “Some Day My Prince Will Come.”
We had both slipped down to the mezzanine level early in hopes of spotting the other first, neither of us wanting to wait 30 minutes longer. After all, it had already been 30 years.
The waiter interrupted and placed a bowl of nuts on the coffee table.
“What can I get you guys to drink?” he asked.
“I’ll have a cosmopolitan, Ketel One and Grand Marnier, not triple sec, extra cold … and bruised, please,” I half stuttered, blurting my order like a crazed alcoholic. I sounded like visiting a bar was something I did often. It wasn’t. The waiter pulled a pencil from his short apron and wrote down my order.
“I’ll have a beer … um, any kind is fine,” Dale said.
The young waiter chuckled as he walked away.
“What was that?” Dale asked.
“Never heard of that kind.”
If he didn’t care what kind of beer he drank, it was no wonder. I started to say so but bit my tongue. As we waited for our drinks, we made nervous conversation. It took me two cocktails to relax.
“Hope it’s OK I made reservations for us over there.” He pointed to the restaurant to our left.
Inside I could see waiters in tuxedos scurrying around the French decor. The name above the door read Chez Philippe, a Forbes four-star, AAA four-diamond designation on the glass window. If he wanted to impress me, he did. Well, aside from ordering that no-name beer.
During our dinner, the conversation was nonstop. On my end anyway. He listened. I was reminded how quiet he was during the years we’d dated. Our romance was germinating over flickering candlelight as we ate filets mignons. I didn’t even like red meat.
“Have you ever seen Beale Street?” he asked.
“Beale Street? No, where’s that?” I hadn’t left our hotel, so I hadn’t educated myself on Memphis. I’d been too busy readying myself to meet him. He had arrived two days before me, so I assumed he had his bearings and our activities planned.
“Let’s go check it out. Go change into jeans.”
I was wearing my brown dress with yellow polka dots and was embarrassed to say I hadn’t packed jeans. Truth be told, I didn’t even own them. Well, I did have one pair, but they were uncomfortable and decorated with rhinestones. I had buried them in my closet with all the other things I never wore.
“I forgot to pack jeans,” I told him.
We left the restaurant and walked along South B.B. King Boulevard toward Handy Park. I was way overdressed, but the blues music coming from all the clubs—not to mention, my martini consumption—made me care not one iota.
The smell of barbecue filled the air. My hand was swallowed inside his as we strolled Beale Street. His hands were so much larger than my husband Boone’s. I was comparing, thinking, remembering as he let go and slid his arm around my shoulder, pulling me even closer.
We walked farther, sharing the curtained memories of our years together and stories of the years apart. I was studying his blue eyes, his laugh and his smile in those first hours. He radiated warmth. I observed his mannerisms, his sense of humor and his interest in the most ordinary things. I was so grateful to be attracted to him.
Dale had planned everything with one exception—his rental car. At least that was what he told me as I climbed into a maroon-colored Buick sedan.
“This looks like an old person’s car,” I said. The words popped out of my mouth before I could stop them. But I was expecting something sportier, a convertible, anything. I sat so low I could hardly see out the windshield.
“I forgot to reserve one, so it’s all they had,” he told me.
I was embarrassed for a nanosecond. “Where to now?” I asked.
“How about an art gallery?” I couldn’t believe he was offering to take me to an art gallery without my asking. Apparently, this man remembered how much I loved art from my emails.
We arrived at the Dixon Gallery & Gardens, the former residence of the Dixon family. Inside we walked around, studying painting after painting, all collections devoted to French and American impressionists and post-impressionists. Two hours passed before I knew it. But I could tell he wasn’t as enthused. I suggested we head out for something different, maybe something he might like more.
“How about Graceland?” he asked.
“Yes, fun, I’d love it,” I said, and we climbed back inside his Buick. But what were we thinking … a Saturday at Graceland? The line was as twisted as a stick of licorice, and just as we were about to get out and get in that line, it started raining. So instead of Graceland, we spent hours sitting inside the car, talking. When my stomach growled, I realized the day was almost over.
The weekend exceeded our expectations in every way. We backslid to how it was during college, when we couldn’t keep our hands off each other. In those days I always worried what my parents would think. In Memphis I worried what my daughters would think. The circularity of life is downright funny.
Sunday crept in too fast. We were like lovesick teenagers again. We both wanted to stay longer, but it was impossible. I was flying to London two days later, and he had a company to run.
As we sat at the gate, awaiting my boarding call, I was wondering what to say, how to end the weekend. The thousand-mile distance made things impossible. What was I thinking when I agreed to meet this man again?
“We’ll make it work, Prissy,” he said, reading my mind.
“Just leave it to me, don’t worry about it.”
After the final boarding call, I pulled out my carry-on lever and walked into his arms. Without a second thought, I stood on my tiptoes and whispered in his ear.
“You should dust off your passport and come to London.”
Excerpted from Elrod’s latest book, Chasing Ordinary. Copyright © 2019 by the author and reprinted with permission of Leather Leaf Publishing