“Summer Time Blues”
Saturday afternoon, August 3, 1968
“Here you go, Mom. Let me help you.” Thea put the cup to her mother’s lips.
Phil. Her hand jiggled, sloshing the red drink down the front of her mom’s new dress. “Oh!” She needed to take care of her mother, but more than that she wanted to run. Anywhere. She grabbed a wedding embossed napkin and started dabbing. “I’m so sorry, Mom. Phil, you made me jump.”
And he stood there in his suit and tie, hair parted so that little curl turned up on his forehead. “I can see that. I’m sorry, Mrs. Salem, for startling Thea.”
Mom smiled up at him, appearing not in the least upset. My side, Mother!
“I’ll get more. Phil, would you stay with her while I do?” She’d never wanted to speak to him again. Now she requested a favor. It galled her.
Of course, she mimicked in her brain. So easy for him to say. She turned in the direction of the punch bowl. One of them might have said something besides responding so agreeably. Don’t go there. She sucked in a breath, refilled the cup and returned. “Here you are. Not one word, Phil, until she has a sip.” That tickled her mom, and she sputtered on herself. More dabbing with the napkin.
Phil was obedient, at least and remained silent until Mom had her punch. He even accepted the cup from her to put it on the table behind him, while Thea wiped Mom’s mouth with another napkin. “It’s great to see you both. I’m glad you were able to attend, Mrs. Salem.”
“Oh, she doesn’t let much hold her back. As long as she has her wheels, we can get around pretty good, huh, Mom?”
Mom nodded. She didn’t enjoy speaking in public since the stroke. People often didn’t understand her. But her smile remained bright, and she was flashing it at Phil. Knock it off, Mother.
“What have you been up to, Thea?”
Should she say there’d been no one else? Did he even care? “Mom and I have our routines. We keep busy.” So now you know. She heard her mother’s training in her head—We don’t behave that way—and the longer the pause, the worse it got. She blinked and forced her smile to grow. “And what about you, Phil? How is Penn State?”
He straightened his glasses. “Still there. I teach four classes and one outdoor lab where I take students to different battlefields. The rest of my schedule allows me to work on my dissertation. I should get to my boards by the end of school. Might be in time for graduation.”
“I’m happy for you.” Liar, liar. Why’d he have to look so doggone cute with that chin dimple and wayward curl? “It was nice talking with you, but I’d better take Mom home so—” Mom grabbed her hand, pulling her close.
Thea tucked her hair behind her ear and leaned so Mom could whisper. “Oo ga tak wid him. Meye geme hum.”
She shook her head. What was her mom thinking? Go talk with him? Even if Aunt Mel could get her home, she’d not spend time alone with Phil Carpenter ever again. No way. “That’s okay, Mom. No problem.”
Then there was a problem.
Aunt Mel walked over, and Mom motioned for her to listen. The whole while, Thea felt the heat building in her face. What must Phil be thinking? Did she care what he thought?
“I can take your mom home, sweetie. A grand idea so you can talk with your young man. Val says it’s been a while since you’ve seen him.”
“He’s not my—”
Mom patted her hand. Thank you very much.
Aunt Mel blew her a kiss and wheeled her mother, The Betrayer, toward the exit. Thea turned back to Phil. He had a funny smirk on his face. As if he found that hilarious. Just one chuckle, buster, and bam, zoom!
“Would you like to dance, or would you rather sit and chat?” He waited for her answer as if he’d offered her something worth choosing.
She didn’t want to be near him. It was too painful. But if she said or did what she wanted, she’d embarrass the bride, who was her best friend. “Let’s sit.” At least then she wouldn’t have to feel his arms around her.
He led her to a table in the corner of the room. “Would you like some punch?”
She shook her head, thoughts of spilling it on her own dress flashing through her mind.
He sat, resting his elbow on the table, his cheek on his fist. “I thought you’d be a bridesmaid, if not the maid of honor.”
“Maid of honor was Connie’s sister. That was a given. She asked me, but I needed to stay with Mom.”
He glanced at the table. “Oh.”
“But I made the bridesmaids dresses.” Why was it important he know that?
He caught her gaze. “You did? I should have known. You did a fine job, Thea.”
She hated how his approval melted her resolve the tiniest bit. If she wasn’t careful, she’d be headed for more heartache. And she couldn’t afford that again. “So, when did you return for the wedding?”
He pulled his glasses off and polished the lenses with an edge of the tablecloth. You don’t fool me, mister.
“You were already in town?” Why did that bother her?
He cleared his throat, checked for missed specks on his wireframes and returned them to his face. “I’ve been here for the summer. Figured you didn’t want to see me.”
“You were probably right.” She added the probably to be nice for her mother’s sake. And Connie’s. “Guess you figured this would be neutral territory, and you’d be safe, is that it?”
He got that funny smirk again. “That’s it. Your brother mentioned you hit hard.” Great, another traitor in the family. “But I’ve wanted to know how you’re doing.”
“All you had to do was call.”
“Would you have taken my call?”
Would she? At first, perhaps. But after all this time, nah. “We should change the subject. Tell me about Pennsylvania.”
He relaxed. “Well, there’s a lot more hills. Not flat like here. And the winter is colder. But to have all those historic places so close, it’s amazing.” Now he was sharing his passion, and she saw the Phil she used to know. “I take trips to the sites even without my classes. I walk the areas—Valley Forge blows my mind.”
“I’m happy for you.” And this time she was. He loved reading about all the geographic locales of the American Revolution. Though she wasn’t as big a fan, she’d always enjoyed when he got off on one of his tangents. It brought things to life. He understood the people, those minor stories not shared in history classes.
“Are you sure you don’t want to dance? You used to love to.”
She wanted to say she used to love a lot of things, but he tugged on her hand, and she acquiesced.
He turned her into his arms as the first notes of “Cherish” by The Association carried her back to other times in his arms.
Was there was any oxygen the room? How could he do this? Didn’t it bring back memories for him? She kept space between them, and there was no way she’d rest her head on his shoulder. If she remained stiff, if she refused to melt into his embrace, she stood a fighting chance.
The song ended, after an eternity, and he guided her to the table. “Thea, we’ve known each other too long. You once called me your friend. Could we be friends?”
Friends? All the thoughts and tears and pain screamed at her. Remember what he did! But her heart also remembered things. Things such as how he taught her how to tell a real antique comb-back Windsor chair from a fake. And how he listened and stayed by her when Daddy died. Maybe if she kept the wall partway up, she might handle it. Maybe if she had no expectations other than mere friendship. Maybe if her stupid heart would do its job and not get all crazy the moment he glanced at her over his glasses before he pushed them up his nose. She might have that fighting chance.
“Sure, why not? Friends. We can do that.”
He tipped his head, as if trying to decide if she meant it or was just talking.
“Yes, Phil, I’m willing to be friends.”
He smiled. The cute smile that made her pulse race. Stupid pulse. Friends aren’t supposed to make that happen. Some fighting chance.
This was a mistake. Phil wished he hadn’t let Jerry talk him into coming. He knew he’d run into Thea, and pretending changed nothing. Besides, he hated how things ended between them.
Why’d he push to be friends? Wasn’t that the part that hurt? “If we had punch, we could make a toast to friendship.” He was trying too hard.
She smiled. About time. That phony stuff earlier was worse than her anger.
“Okay, you may get me a cup.”
He stood. The tablecloth and centerpiece moved with him. He caught the bowl of floating flowers but drenched his shirt cuff. The cloth had hooked to his belt buckle. His face heated a million degrees while he untangled himself. A quick glance, and he spotted Thea working to keep her laugh at bay. “Go ahead. I’m still a klutz.”
She shook her head but grinned. “I was thinking it was something I would do.”
That was kind. He tried standing again and found the punchbowl, returning with cups for both of them.
“Thank you.” She held hers aloft and waited for him to clink with her.
“To us as friends, you and me, through thick and thin, may we always be.” He touched her glass with his.
“You still have a way with words.” She took a sip and set the cup back on the table.
“Words are important, Thea. They make us laugh and cry, they can vindicate us, anger us, protect us, change our minds. Words are powerful.”
“You really believe that? What about actions?” Now her hands splayed on the tabletop as if she wanted to push everything away. Had he gone too far?
“Actions are important, too. If I must choose between, I prefer actions. But don’t dismiss the power words wield. What would our world be if John Adams hadn’t lifted his voice in the Continental Congress? Or if Luther hadn’t pinned his to that door in Germany. How many slogans can you recite? Words pack a wallop.”
She raised her hands. “I surrender. Words are powerful. But I still say actions carry more weight.”
“We can agree on that.” He cleared his throat. “So, what are you reading these days?”
“Can’t get away from words, huh?” She winked at him. “I’m reading an Agatha Christie. By the Pricking of My Thumbs. You?”
“I picked up David McCullough’s The Johnstown Flood. It boggles my mind how that happened. I wish he’d write about John Adams. He’s the one to tell that story.”
“No, you are. You have the knowledge and passion. You should do it.”
“Change my dissertation into a novel? I don’t have that talent. But I hope I do a faithful job with what I turn in to the board.” She gazed at him with an openness he’d missed for so long. For a year. Could he keep his heart under control and not let her twist it to bits again? Well, he was the one who brought up the friend word. He only had himself to blame.
“What other safe topics shall we cover?” She glanced away as she spoke. It was still hard for her, too.
He was foolish to think they’d merely talk because of this neutral setting. It was a wedding for goodness’ sake. It might have been theirs. “Who was that dancing with your brother?”
“Oh, that’s Hien Wheaten. She was married to Mike Wheaten before he was killed in Vietnam. Aunt Melanie brought her back with her. Beau fell for her like a ton of bricks. They’ve just started dating, but you can bet it’s serious.”
“She seems nice.”
“Oh, she is. I’ll enjoy having her for a sister-in-law.”
“Aren’t you rushing that a bit? You said they’d only started.”
She waved her hand. “Not really. They’re the only ones who don’t know how this ends, and I kinda think they do. When you see them together, you’ll understand.”
He searched for another safe topic. “Where are Connie and Jerry going for their honeymoon?”
“They’re heading to French Lick. It’s only for a few days. I’m surprised Jerry is leaving the paper as long as he is. But I expect his mom will put out a bare bones edition to keep it running until he’s back.”
He nodded. French Lick, Indiana was a popular honeymoon destination. “Thea, I don’t leave for another week. Do you think we might go out?” What was he saying? His mouth was spouting things without checking with his brain. Say no, say no.
She paused, her thumbnail to her teeth. “I don’t know.”
“We could meet for a coke at the café. That should be simple enough.” Why didn’t he let this go?
“I guess. Or, would you prefer to come to dinner tomorrow after church? Do you still go to church? I saw your dad but not you this summer.”
She caught him again. “I was afraid we’d run into each other, so I’ve attended a little place in Peru.”
“Oh, yeah. Well, since you don’t have to duck me now, you can come back.”
He chuckled. “Guess that’s right. Should I bring my dad to lunch? Otherwise he’s by himself.”
“Yes, bring him. Mom will like it. Hien and Aunt Mel are coming, too.” She glanced around. “Did your dad attend the wedding? I didn’t see him.”
He shook his head, remembering his father waving from the porch. “No, he wasn’t up to it. But he won’t miss church tomorrow, so we’ll be there.”
“And you can meet Hien.” She gazed at him a moment and then drummed her fingers on the table. “Maybe I should be getting home.”
“How are you going to do that?”
A funny expression crossed her face. “If Aunt Mel took Mom home in the Tank. And she rode here with Hien in the Mustang. That means Beau’s going back with Hien, and I don’t have a ride.” She hopped up. “Oh! And Aunt Mel can’t get Mom in the house by herself. I need to leave.”
“No problem, I can drive you.”
She didn’t wait for him but headed past the tables.
Stupid, stupid, stupid. Just like before. Was it possible to be only friends? Could his heart take it again if it wasn’t? Well, he wouldn’t strand her at the reception. He followed her to his car.
She stood by the door waiting for him to unlock it.
Which he did. Even held it for her, too.
She climbed in.
But it was more than that. It was like she’d crawled inside herself. Withdrawn, just when they’d found a patch of common ground. Suddenly they were back to a year ago, her so worried and closing him out. His only choice was to take her home.
He pulled in the drive.
The ladies sat beneath the old Sycamore tree, one on a bench, the other in her wheelchair. They laughed about something.
Thea barely let him stop before she hopped from the car, racing toward them. “I realized you wouldn’t be able to get Mom in the house. I’m so sorry, Aunt Melanie.”
“Oh, honey, we knew you or Beau would be along. We found some shade, and I brought out glasses of lemonade. We’re having a grand ol’ time.”
Phil noticed Thea didn’t relax, but as least she stopped panicking. “I probably ought to go, unless you need me?”
Thea flashed him the grin that ripped his heart from his chest. “Yes! Please! Phil, can you help Mom back into the house? It’s easier with a man to get her up the steps.”
Funny how Mrs. Salem’s smile drooped at Thea’s words. Still, she didn’t stop the plan.
“Sure. Tell me what to do.”
He and Thea worked as a team and got her mom on the porch.
“We’ll take it from here, Phil. Thanks.”
And with that, Thea dismissed him. Again.
She really didn’t understand the power of her words.