‘The Sweetest Hours’

DRAFT of a Short Story

THE SWEETEST HOURS (commented) Short Fiction by Dennis LoweryABOUT THE STORY [An endnote explains how the story ‘came to be’]

A tired and stressed couple’s plans for a getaway break goes awry because of weather. They arrive at their destination but become snowbound at the place they’ve rented in the country. Their friends and family that were to meet them can’t. So it’s just them… and the undercurrent of falling-out-of-love friction between them that had grown over the past couple of years. Will a screwed up weekend without the distraction of others be the last straw? Or could it be the thing that brings them back together?

“All our sweetest hours fly fastest.” –Virgil

Jenna readied herself, it always came soon after she started… James’s observation, his critique a constant she could count on to make her mad. The only light was from the tall black floor lamp in the corner of the room. It cast light above on the ceiling and in a diminishing circle around it that barely reached where she had their luggage open on the bed. She reached to pull the chain on the ceiling fan above her. Its opaque, frosted-glass, bowl glowed and lighted the bed.

“You always pack too much,” James commented from the doorway.

Jenna didn’t turn from the luggage that lay open on the bed.

“We aren’t moving there,” he said.

He always said that. She added a final pair of pants. Years of packing for trips and vacation, for him, the kids and herself, converged. She snapped the now full suitcase shut. “Next time, next trip, you do it then.” The edge of her voice was as metallic as the sound of the luggage hasps she had just closed. Now she did turn only to find he wasn’t there.

“Have you seen my phone charger?”

Jenna heard him rummaging around in the family room and shook her head. Work, the kids, home and her husband, were all things that required her attention to keep things running smoothly. She was tired but knew her husband worked hard, too. They had both decided a weekend away with friends – the kids, twins though teens, were staying with her mother – would be just what they needed. The hassle of getting things ready was over. She didn’t look forward to the airport and flight, but it was too far to drive in a weekends time.

“The weather forecast for Colorado doesn’t look too good.”

She picked up his phone charger from the night table on his side of the bed and noticed the dust. She sighed; she would have to take care of that when she got back. Another item on her mental list of to-dos.

In the family room, he was standing with the controller in his hand but not watching the weather channel. She handed him his charger. “It’s late March… what’s the deal, winter doesn’t want to give up?”

“I know, but Delta is still reporting the flight’s on time.” He showed her the update on the app on his phone.

As badly as she needed a break, she was unsure about being up to it, but she nodded to him. “Everything is packed so let’s go.”

* * *

An hour later the rare sensation of traveling without their kids was soon obscured by the long TSA line at the airport. An increased security alert lengthened the process and the wait. She looked at her watch; it would be close. She looked up at her husband and knew he was thinking the same thing. “I hope we make our flight.”

* * *

Snow slanted down through gray skies. For the past hour since they had left the airport and picked up their rental SUV it had been thick and more ice than flakes. The roads had been slick with it. James had cursed under his breath each time the tires lost traction, and the Lincoln Navigator gave a stomach-dropping sideways lurch. Even though she knew it irritated him when she did it as he drove, she told him, “slow down…”

Forty miles and an hour and a half later they unlocked the garage door and stepped into the kitchen. He saw the bags on the counter. “Well, at least they were able to deliver the groceries.” He picked up one of the several bottles of wine and read the label. “What’s this wine… this Stella Rosa Black?”

“It’s supposed to be good,” she set her purse on the counter. “My friend Regina says it’s great, and I thought we’d try it.”

Fifteen minutes later James had just finished carrying the suitcases and bathroom bag to the upstairs bedroom when she heard his phone ring.

“I know. I hate it, too. Maybe we can get together this summer.” James ended the call as he entered the kitchen and put the phone in his back pocket.

She turned from putting groceries away. “Who was that?”

“Brian. He and Janet have been stuck at the airport. The storm’s shut it down, and the airlines are canceling all flights.” He shrugged, “they’re going to head back home.”

She nodded as her phone buzzed with an incoming message. She pulled it out and read. “It’s Tracie, and the storm’s also closed the interstate. She’s not going to be able to make it either.”

They looked at each other. James had been looking forward to seeing his best friend. “Well, I guess it’s just going to be us for the weekend.” He looked out the window at the darkening sky and swirling snow.

It had been a long day, and she was tired. “I think I’m going to call it a night. It’s been a long day on the heels of a hectic week.”

James looked for a moment like he wanted to convince her to stay up with him, but then thought, she does look tired. He could see through the large windows that snow was still falling slowly. The flakes became more visible as they approached and then passed through the light of the wraparound deck’s lampposts. “Looks like it’s going to snow all night.” He picked up his laptop case. “Go ahead and turn in… I’m going to read for a while.”

* * *

She looked at the clock on the night table next to the bed and realized she had not slept this late in a long, long time. Fifteen minutes later, showered and with her robe cinched tight, she went downstairs. She followed a pleasing aroma to the kitchen.

James looked up from where he was preparing to dice ham, green and red peppers. On the stove behind him, she could see a full saucepan of sliced mushrooms simmering. On the counter was a container with a dozen eggs and a mixing bowl. “Good morning,” he smiled at her. “Sit…” he gestured at a place setting at the bar. On it was her favorite mug, the one decorated with sunflowers. It had been a mother’s day gift made and signed by their son and daughter when they were in 6th grade.

She pulled the low-backed stool out. “I didn’t pack that.”

“I brought it.” He took the mug to the Keurig on the counter, inserted a k-cup, and pressed brew. With a steamy, jetting, sound the cup filled. She smelled French vanilla, her favorite. He picked up the cup and something else from the counter. Turning he set them in front of her.

She raised the coffee and sipped minding its heat. The page-sized, laminated, thing he had set beside the coffee was face down. She turned it over. Across the top was a picture of a round-bellied man with a short-order cook’s paper hat on his head. In his hand, he held a grill-turner and smiled as he flipped an egg in the air. Ray’s Diner was emblazoned in large blue letters across the top and under the picture was the menu. The plastic lamination was yellowed and cracked in spots.

She shook her head at the memory of it. Leaving her coffee, she walked to the window and stood to look out on the snow-covered yard that sloped down to the lakefront. A few rays of sunlight caught the edges of the ice that formed at the lake’s rim. Off in the distance were snowy peaks. After a moment, she sat at the small window table.

The light slanting through the window profiled her perfectly; her face lit on the sun side and shaded on the opposite—the hair sunshine blond with gray streaks was darker in the shadow. Her teeth flashed, beautiful, white and even, as she chewed on the corner of her lip. He followed the sharp line of her neck into the low collar of the robe. In the white gown, her contours matched the vista outside the window.

In the reflection on the glass, she noticed him studying her. He had returned to his dicing but could tell he was focused on her by the frequent glances.

Watching her in the sunlight was still a pleasure he thought. But he knew what was going through her mind. The worry about so many things—the trivial and some not so minor—had changed the dynamics of their life. And the words said and unsaid were just as much his fault as hers. After a few minutes, he lowered the heat setting on the mushrooms and walked over to the window. The shadow he cast over her as he stood in the sunbeam made her look up. He recalled a line from some author he’d read and said it aloud: “No canvas could prove more beautiful than her flesh.” He handed her cup to her.

She ignored the overture but accepted the coffee. “It’s a beautiful day—just look at that sky. The clouds look like cotton balls right out of the box.”

“Do you remember?”

She turned to him and saw that he had picked up the old menu and held it in one hand.

“That was a long time ago.”

“Yes. But do you remember the first time we met?” She met his look with a noncommittal one of her own, but he knew she hadn’t forgotten. It was still crystal clear in his mind:

He had walked into the café she worked at and found a table where he could sit with his back against the wall.

“What can I get you?”

The waitress had looked about his age and was blond-haired, full-cheeked and full-bosomed. He had liked the way the apron draped across her chest and hips. He had glanced at her name tag and smiled. “Why, Jenna, I’ll have coffee. Is it fresh?”

She had given him a look and tilted her head to one side. “It’s very fresh. I just made it.”

“Then coffee it is. Thank you.”

In a minute, she had returned with a large, white, coffee mug and a pot of coffee. Setting the cup in front of him, she had poured. He had watched the steam from the cup and smelled the richness of just-brewed coffee.

“Would you like to order something to eat?”

He had cupped the mug in his hands and savored the aroma. “No, I’ll enjoy just the coffee.” A chime, perhaps a timer, had rung from the direction of the kitchen. As she turned at the sound, he had added. “And the ambiance.” She had looked back at him and watched his eyes scan the room. They had been the only ones in the restaurant. She had smiled. “I’ll check with you in a little while to see if you need more coffee or if you’re ready for something to eat.

“Please do, Jenna.”

As she walked away, just before entering the kitchen through the swing doors, she had turned her head to look over her shoulder at him. He had raised his cup as if toasting her. The café had started to fill with people in for a quick bite or coffee on their way to work. Two other waitresses had come in, and he now saw the cook behind the order window moving back and forth. No doubt from grill to oven to a prep table. White and green server tickets had started to fill up the wheel in the order window. Jenna had come by with two armfuls of heaping plates. Eggs, toast, and bacon for the two men seated at the table next to his. She placed them on their table with a smile and then had stepped over to him.

“More coffee?”

“Yes, please.”

She came back with a pot of coffee as full and freshly brewed as the previous. She had leaned over, picked up his mug, and poured setting it down in front of him.

“You sound British.”

“I am.”

“I thought the English preferred tea?”

“Many do… But I much prefer your coffee.”

He had seen that she heard the inflection on the word your, and she had smiled in acknowledgment. Her smile was the loveliest he had ever seen. He had been about to say something, probably foolish when the harsh bark of, “Jenna, order up!” interrupted the moment. Her smile had dipped to a grin as she nodded to him and then went to take care of her customers.

He had watched her go as he quickly drank his coffee, blowing on it to cool each sip. He had lost track of time. Not waiting for the check, he had left her a dollar for two cups of coffee and a dollar tip. The next morning, very early; he had been her first customer again.

“I’ve come to love your coffee.” He had greeted her.

“I hoped you would come back,” she had come from behind the counter bringing a cup and coffee pot with her. He had sat at the same table from the day before, and she poured for him. “I love to hear you talk.”

The thread of a song playing had reached him as he looked up at her entranced by her smile. “What song is this?”

Her smile, perfect lips with fresh lipstick, had broadened. “It’s a group called, The Baby’s… the song’s ‘Isn’t it time…’” The order bell had rung right then, and she had turned from him. She sang softly on her way to the kitchen.

Thirty years… how does it go by so fast, he blinked the memory away. She was still quiet. He studied her profile again. The years had added lines and flesh to her face, as it had to his, but she was still beautiful.

* * *

That night was cold but spectacular. In the navy blue sky, the stars glinted like diamonds on the dark background. The moon above reflected icily on the water of the lake as they walked. Side by side, their arms kept brushing with each swing.

She had spent much of the day reading and thinking. Through the large bank of windows in the family room, she had seen him outside walking the lake. She knew that was his way of sorting through his own thoughts. He had come in to warm up periodically but had always gone back out. She had joined him to tell him dinner was ready.

“Walk with me for a while.”

As they did, she thought about what had happened that morning at breakfast. “Why did you keep that menu?”

His laugh was deep. “You ask that as if I was silly to keep it.”

“I didn’t mean it like that.”

His arm brushed hers again. “I ate breakfast at that diner every day for a month before I got up the nerve to ask you out.”

“Why’d you take so long? I think you knew in a few days that I really liked you.”

He slowed their pace and looked down into her eyes. His confident look and direct manner had been what she liked most about him. He had never equivocated or dodged a direct question, but somehow over the years, they had stopped actually talking about their feelings and what they wanted from life as they grew older.

“Because I loved you so deeply.” He looked up at the moon and nodded as if to check it was still there then back at her. “I still love you, but I don’t know what’s gone wrong.” He shook his head and scanned the lake as if looking for something out there, on the water, that would tell him. “I’m afraid to find out because if I do, it might be that you’ll say you don’t love me anymore.” He stopped, and the wind that had been a chill caress grew stronger and colder. “I’m no longer the good-looking young man you met in that café so long ago.” He turned back to face the path to the cabin. “It’s getting colder. Let’s go eat some dinner. I want to check out that wine your friend recommended.”

Where the slope pitched higher toward the cabin, when his hand brushed hers, this time, she took it. He might not be the fit young person he once was, but then neither was she. Though older he was still strong and she felt it in his firm, gentle grip.

* * *

“Vegetarian Osso Buco with Asparagus-Mushroom Orzotto…” he looked up from the dish she’d set in front of him. He took a forkful and tasted. “This is delicious. Jenna, you still make the best I’ve ever had.”

She sat down across from him with her own plateful. Two large glasses of wine were on the table, and she lifted hers and sipped. “I like this.” She tasted again and set the glass down. “Regina was right.”

He drank from his glass and nodded. Picking up his phone he pressed a button, and she heard music begin to play, classic soft rock from the 70s and 80s, from the portable Bluetooth speakers he always brought with him when he traveled.

They both ate quietly with just the sound of fork and spoon and the pouring of more wine to break it up. As the music pulled memory after memory from her, she thought about what he had said down at the lake. “I remember…” she hesitated.

He paused in opening the third bottle of Stella Rosa Black. They didn’t usually drink this much, but the bottles seemed to just empty themselves. He took her glass, filled it, and handed back then filled his own. He didn’t say anything but just watched her; giving her time and space.

“I remember every single day you came in that greasy-spoon diner I worked in.” Her smile, perfect lips with fresh lipstick, formed over the rim of her wine glass. “After a week I’d go home and pray that the next morning you’d still come in and that…” she paused to drink from her glass. “I prayed that would be the morning you would ask me out.”

He looked at her and didn’t reply. She wondered if he had expected her to say that she still loved him and that everything was fine. It, their relationship, felt like it wasn’t, but she couldn’t tell him because she was unsure if that was really the case. Maybe it was just that they had fallen in a rut.

Two glasses of wine later the third bottle was empty. It sat there before them along with all the words unsaid that should be. The music still played, and her heart was full of all that the songs brought back to her. He stood and came around the table to take her chair. As she stood, her breast brushed his arm, and she felt a low-shock tingle of anticipation. He led her into the living room where the scent in the air was of cedar burning in the fireplace; it’s crackling sound accompanied the music.

His arms went around and held her tight, and she felt her breasts flatten on his chest. God how she loved the almost forgotten feeling. Their first real kiss in a very long time was deep as their tongues explored and tasted. The tips of her breasts stiffened under silk as a flush of excitement coursed through her. She shifted her shoulders left and right brushing the tips on his chest. He unbuttoned her blouse as she did the same with his shirt. Soon they were on the plush rug before the fire and discovered that their bodies still fit perfectly. Her still strong legs wrapped around his waist pulling him in deeper. They kissed, and it lasted an eternity — she had never felt anything like it with any other man. She realized that some part of her was awakening. Something she didn’t even know had been asleep. James had always made her feel things she never had before.

He held her close looking into her eyes. She saw the flicker of red embers, the bed of the fire, in his eyes. “Sometimes we need to remember how our love started… how it felt. So we can sense it again… so we can make it a living part of us.”

Jenna hugged him tighter and felt his bare flesh on hers. Their hearts beat in rhythm, as she heard the next song begin. It was that song he had asked about that morning in the diner. She smiled as she nuzzled her face into his neck and sang softly, “I’ve had visions of someone like you in my life…”

He pulled away to gaze into her eyes. The wind rattled the window with a spray of ice and sleet. Silently he thanked the storm.

She smiled at him. “I still love this song…” she kissed him softly on the lips. “And I still love you.”

They both knew that no matter what… that the love was still there, and that’s all they needed. That all they had ever needed.

Endnote from Dennis

A friend had asked me for a story about a short trip: a wife with her husband, that involved wine, a fireplace, and snow. You just read the draft of what I came up with for her [at some point it will be further edited or folded into a longer story]. Disclaimer: this is a work of fiction.

PLEASE READ: This--below--is where intelligent comments are exchanged and threads of meaningful and thought-provoking discussion can take place. Some of my favorite stories I've written started with such exchanges and through them I've met some truly wonderful people. This comment section is a place where it's almost old-school in that responses--if one is needed--may not be immediate but will come. Kind of like postal mail correspondence, an easier pace that allows thoughtfulness and not knee-jerk fingers flying over keyboard replies, or something that comes out as top of mind, a stream of conscious superficiality. I hope to hear from and interact with you on anything I've written that sparks a thought or urge to comment.

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