• Susan Whitlock

The Archer’s Ball

"Are you coming tonight?" Lucy glanced over at her mother, Hester Mae Dorchester, who was getting a manicure from a small woman with Asian coloring, but pink hair.

She wanted to say no - she would not be coming to a senior citizen dance where she would be pitied by ninety-somethings, all of whom had dates when she did not. She wanted to go home and eat her way through pimento cheese crackers and trail mix. Maybe binge-watch “The Good Fight”.

Lucy could feel her mother’s black eyes drilling into her forehead as if daring her to say no. She noticed her own manicurist wriggling like she was in discomfort from the rising tension between mother and daughter.

"Ouch!" Hester gurgled, yanking her hand back in rescue from the cuticle trimmer gone astray, as Ahnn adjusted her bottom around on the stool. Probably trying to keep it from fleeing this high-octane woman, Lucy thought. She felt that way herself all the time.

"Sorry, please," Ahnn murmured as she gently pulled the woman's paw back onto the melon-colored nail mat.

"I will be there, mother," Lucy whined. "I promised Ms. Wicker I would not only help chaperone the ball, but I would also come two hours early and help her set up."

Lucy heard the pitiful tone in her voice. She loathed it. She had made up her mind to break the hold her mother had over her emotions, energy, and time. Self-improvement books, a local therapist, and yoga were currently being employed to aid in this transformation. Yet here was that nasally whine back with one question from Hester Mae.

The immaculately quaffed senior Dorchester nodded brusquely and headed further down this conversational track, full throttle.

"Good. What are you wearing?"

Lucy lifted her gaze up and out the window, taking her thoughts on a short jog around downtown Long Grove. What to wear to the Archer's Ball? The highlight of the summer season for the Archer Senior Living Center. Both staff and residents would be decked out in their finest. Quite a few would go into attics and cedar chests all over town, borrowing ancient gowns and tuxes from eras gone by. Silver sequins and gobs of tiaras...zirconium studs in old French cuffs...high heels on staff ladies and bejeweled slippers on the tottering, female residents. Little lap dogs with emerald collars or bow ties and plastic, lens-less glasses.

"What to wear, what to wear?" Lucy pondered in a whisper.

"What's that?" her mother demanded. Lucy recognized Ahnn Kim’s brief look her way as one of deep pity in her lovely eyes.

"Would you like a manicure, too?" Ahnn offered Lucy. "I have time if you want, and maybe even a little style for your hair?"

Hester wrinkled her nose up, as though she smelled something bad, and was about to answer for her daughter when the door burst open and in blew the Cavalry.

"Hello, hello, hello and well," the handsome speaker drew this out for dramatic effect before finishing up with his last, "hell - o!"

Before the startled trio, arms akimbo and a grin wrapping all the way around his head stood Baron Tyler. Not his real name; that was Tyler Morris. He dropped the Morris and added the royal title when he bought the little salon parlor in his hometown of Long Grove IL. Chicago had taken him in young and spit him out middle-aged. Handsome and popular and wealthy in Long Grove, he was the high school football star had bombed out as a sportscaster, news copy assistant, used car salesman, and beauty school dropout in Chicago. The big city absolutely hated this guy.

But little Long Grove had held a parade for him upon his return, which coincided with his parent’s fiftieth wedding anniversary and his own opening of the Beauty Bowl on Main Street. He hired a variety of women he had brought back from Chicago and was making a killing, at last, in the land of tints and mani-pedis.

"Hester, my love!" he cooed loudly as he bowed over her half-done manicure and smooched away. "Miss Ahnna Kiminiski, how is your day going, you enchanting minx?"

Turning from Ahnn Kim before she could reply, he opened his arms wide for Lucy, calling to her seductively.

"And who have we here? A long-lost, child cousin of Princess Di or I am a blind man!"

Lucy held her ground, turning and tilting her head to eye him up more completely. The same little frown lines her mother had in spades started to appear around her eyes, but she stopped the frown on purpose. She straightened her posture and remembered that only this morning she had vowed to herself in her mirror that she would not become her mama. She was going to find what she was looking for this year or die trying.

What was she looking for?

Love? Spiritual meaning? Someone to believe in? Someone she could vote for with a clean conscience? Friendship? Sex? A stiff drink?

As she gazed into the sparkling blue eyes of Baron Tyler. looking very much like a darker-haired and middle-aged Paul Newman, she decided that he was what she wanted.

Noting the perfect O of astonishment on mama’s lips, she pretty much waltzed the four or five paces between them and cuddled up into Baron's open arms. With a nuzzle and a "pleased to meet you", blowing into his left ear, for good effect, she put the new Lucy on display for the whole world to see.

She noted that Baron was a smooth one. She could sense he was feeling a big “uh-oh” inside, but what he let show was a sexy sigh of delight and a cool embrace. It was a welcome that would please any woman to receive after making herself so terribly vulnerable. Lucy counted to ten, then pulled back enough to get a better look at him. He was strikingly handsome, tall, a bit of gray sprinkled through his dark brown hair and dressed in metro man chic.

What did he see in her? she wondered. Her shape was a little softer, a little rounder than what modern times called for in a beautiful woman. She felt suddenly aware that her hair was pulled back plainly in a rubber band. Not a scrunchy, but a thick, blue rubber band taken off the bottom of a bunch of daisies she had bought herself yesterday. The hair thus held, however, was an enchanting shade of chestnut. She had been told by a kind girl in gym class that her light brown eyes had flecks of gold in them that made them shimmer like they were lit from inside. And they were enormous, her best feature by far. Her eyebrows needed serious shaping, so she accepted Baron’s offer of "the works" a few minutes after they sized each other up.

Baron asked her name - and as she gave it as a slow, dimpled smile began to grow and grow across her countenance.

"Lucy Dorchester," she found herself proud to tell him for some reason, "I am Hester's daughter. We are going to the Archer's Ball tonight and came in for a little ‘fluffing’ up."

"Fluffing up, is it?" Baron chuckled as he wrapped his hand around hers and entwined their arms, leaving the bewildered Hester and Ahnn Kim in their wake. He took her over to another chair and told her to wait right there. He called someone named Betsy who, he bragged to her, was not due in for another two hours - for Lucy, he had asked her to come in early.

“Betsy is my best all-around stylist,” Baron told her.

As he saw her getting hair, brows, manicure, pedicure, and a quick massage “on the house”, he explained that it was his pleasure to do all this for the daughter of his favorite customer. He relayed his admiration of her for giving her time to make so many of their elderly citizens happy. And, did she have a date for this soiree?

She explained that she was a chaperone and so had no date. He smiled and insisted that she could not take on such a job stag.

“I would be happy to escort you to the Archer's Ball; help pour the sherry and pick up the streamers after - if only you will say yes and be my date.”

You never know what a day will hold. This day, and many days to follow, held Baron. Held him very close to her. Days turned into weeks and the weeks into a few months.

Lucy gained the confidence to explore herself and her town. To search for a better job and a much better boyfriend. To buy a dog and to visit her mom just a bit less than she had in the past. She found a new place to buy clothes and added bicycling to her daily routine, the new white pup in tow.

Four months after Hester's lovely funeral, Lucy packed up a van full of her favorite things and Fergus, her West Highland Terrier, and headed for Chicago. She was twenty-seven the day she stepped on the accelerator and headed out of Long Grove, her heart pounding in excitement. By faith, she left her childhood home - landing in a new apartment, a new job, and all manner of surprise endings.

*

While that capricious town may have hated Baron, it thought the world of Ms. Lucy Dorchester. Chicago spent the next fifty-three years wining and dining this daring heroine. It brought her laughter and challenges. The Windy City employed her in various jobs, finally offering the one that brought her completeness as an editor at Kaplan House in the non-fiction department.

The swirling years brought her love, too. He was a few years her senior, and a highly sought-after heart surgeon. Steady, funny, and handsome he proved to her exacting heart that he was head over heels in love with her, so she accepted his proposal after only eight months of dating.

Her marriage to Aaron Schumacher produced three sons of whom they were exasperatingly proud. Each graduated college and made their way in the world with exuberance and moderate successes. There were always at least two Westies wandering through their vast apartment and grandchildren arrived, eager to be dandled and doted over.

At last, they spent their energy. Their physical health dwindled in sync after fifty years of marriage. She quietly watched as Aaron searched the area for assisted living that was affordable, close to the kids, and kept in mind their love of city life. But the hunt was hard, even with all their planning and saving. The boys offered to help, but they knew that was the wrong way to go. One spring evening, he broached the subject again with Lucy.

“I know just where I want to retire,” she responded.

“Well, well, do tell,” he snorted out a laugh over coffee. “Why have you been keeping this a secret while I searched high and low for our next home?”

“I needed you to get the city out of your system,” Lucy replied in her soft contralto.

“I am certainly there,” he chuckled again.

“OK, are you ready?” she dramatized. “The Archer Senior Living Center in Long Grove Illinois!”

Jumping up from the couch, she got their laptop and returned to his side at the low coffee table. Beside him, the screen came to life. She plugged in the address and Archer came up in living color.

Newly remodeled and updated with assisted living apartments and nursing home rooms for later in their journey, the facility now boasted a small hospital on site for those suffering from an illness or in need of hospice. An all-in-one answer to their living arrangements in this slowing time of life. And they could comfortably afford it.

The plans began unrolling, like a new carpet that just fit the room. The boys agreed that it was the perfect distance away—not too far to visit any time needed or wanted, but far enough that their folks still felt in control, autonomous.

The new apartment was so much smaller, that they had a moving sale beside an Archer’s parking lot. Furniture, knick-knacks, tools, and one of their cars sold within minutes on their second Saturday in Long Grove. Old friends Lucy had all but forgotten came by, looking wrinkled and gray as she—but were soon recognized by the way they laughed or chattered.

One tall gentleman slightly bowed in the back, but otherwise seeming in tremendous shape for his years, grabbed her up in a bear hug and tried to swing her around in the air!

“Baron!” she shouted with laughter. “Put me down immediately.”

He did—not immediately, but soon. Introductions were made to her sons, Aaron, and the most recent Westie, Shamus. They pulled up some lawn chairs and down they plopped for some catching up.

“To think,” Baron crooned in his velvety vocal, “you are just in time for the Archer’s Ball!”

“You’re kidding me…” Lucy was stunned. “They still have the Ball each summer?”

“Of course,” Baron assured her, patting her hand, and gazing into those light brown beauties he had told her he loved long ago. Lucy saw Aaron’s discomfort at Baron’s affectionate manner.

“Do you live here, too?” Aaron asked. He took his wife’s hand from Baron’s and slid it under his own.

“Oh no,” he answered, “I bought a little house on Raymore Road after I sold the salon five years ago. I am still fit enough to mow the lawn and keep up with it all,” he bragged, winking at Lucy.

She went pink in the cheeks with all his flirting. She squeezed Aaron’s hand and sent him a little smile that asked for patience as she humored Baron. She felt sorry that he was still living alone after all these years. They finished their conversation with nostalgia and a settled gladness. It was silently agreed that this friendship could grow again and include her husband and sons.

The weeks flew by as they settled in, getting used to the new grocery stores and shops and salons. As years ago, the day of the Ball Lucy found herself getting her hair and nails done at the new Hair Fair, where Baron’s old salon had once served the town. She had purchased a new, green gown with topaz rhinestones around the collar, enriching the brightness of her eyes. Aaron had a new black sports coat over a shirt that was a lighter shade green of Lucy’s dress. Lucy noticed, with amusement, the distress he displayed at the tie she asked him to wear.

The boys brought their wives in on their arms, having picked them up in a limo rental that was stocked to the gills with Lucy’s favorite champagne.

And as she danced and reminisced about her mom and that first ball so long ago, Lucy felt safe in the circle of her life. The aches and weariness that so often fought for her attention were forgotten in the warm night air and the beautiful music. The twinkling lights around the outdoor dance floor and the scent of lilacs in the breeze rejuvenated her.

As Baron approached their table towards the end of the night, looking shy and not himself at all, Lucy gave Aaron a little kick under the table. He gasped and swore, and she gave a nod in the direction of Baron, sending him a look that asked for yet more forbearance. She saw him stare at this intruder, oozing jealousy over his Lucy, his girl.

Lucy saw under Baron’s jovial greeting that there was a fragile hurt and loneliness in the man. Over fifty years of marriage gave Lucy the ability to wordlessly make Aaron see it, too. She noted his relaxing body language and when he nodded slightly back, she knew he got the message and would behave.

“May I have this dance?” Baron asked. Lucy thought she heard a slight tremble on the word dance. She smiled her “yes” and rose to take his hand.

They took the dance floor, and as they did, the band stopped what they had been playing - as they had been tipped to do – and took up their old song, the one they first danced to decades ago.

“I only have eyes for you,” Baron half sang, half hummed in her ear.

Oh, the Archer’s Ball!

Bringing assorted oldsters and chaperones together for a night of romance and old-world charm, over and over through the years. How many couples had swayed here in the moonlight? How many remembered the years of their youth, and how many looked forward to the years that remained?

Pulling back just slightly, as they had in his salon so long ago, they got a better look at each other, and they smiled as one. There was still a little thrill of an electric attraction for her.

Am I the woman who stole his heart as a girl, and then jetted off to a life without him only months later? Lucy wondered. Had he ever forgotten her, or ever tried to replace her with another?

“I have always held you in my heart as ‘the one’, never imagining I would get a chance to hold you in my arms just once more,” he said. It was as though he had read her mind. “I have held you in my heart, a heart that is now failing me. It misses beats and needs stints. I feel it slowly loosening its grip on life. But I don’t mind so much now. I have my true love in my arms on a beautiful summer night and am dancing with her like when we were young.”

Lucy thought he was just about to ask for one more, chaste kiss when there was a tap on his shoulder.

Aaron deftly slid her out of Baron’s arms, claiming the lady who belonged rightfully to him. And there, under the stars and the bright summer moon, Baron watched her waltz away again for the last time. To the silvery music of the Archer’s Ball.


BIO

Susan Whitlock lives in southeastern Kansas with her husband of 45 years and a mob of interested, furry onlookers. She recently retired from case management and is enjoying this new season to write. She loves gardening, family, friends, and the amazing universe she is currently traversing. She had many poems published as a teen; in 1998 Grit Magazine published her short story, Rain Dance. She is currently looking for a publisher for her first novel, The Coincidental Inn, and is writing a second novel.

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