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Only a bedroom encore could erase the memory of an unforgettable error.

"This Redeems It"

by Joe Buffer


Sir Knight

Vol. 2 No. 5, 1960

     HER NAME WAS Helen, and it had been February 1944. They had met in a cocktail lounge called Dunphy's.
     He had been drinking beer, thinking about a movie maybe, a steak, and then back to sample the four-deep wartime press at the bar. To watch, and try his luck with someone, anyone halfway decent looking. She came in with a friend. They
were both tall, wore hats and gloves, and carried large round boxes that looked like suitcases. They sat across from him at the circular bar. They ordered something with fruit in it, and talked animatedly over things that were of no consequence to him. She was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. He laid his cap on the bar, and walked by them to the men's room for haircombing. He checked his sharply pressed green uniform, with the red sergeant's stripes, increased his shoeshine with a handkerchief, admired his two rows of ribbons that told how brave, foolish, and hurt he had been so far during this war, and then went hopefully back to his solitary seat.
     Minutes later, after her friend was excused to primp and powder, she looked directly at him and smiled. There were bubbles in his bowels, and he felt a blush.
     "Hi, soldier!" she had said.
     "I'm not a soldier!" he had answered. And in saying it he felt childish. The bartender smirked in both directions.
     "I'm a Marine!" he affirmed. "Oh!...Well, that's wonderful. Would you like to join us?" She said it as though it was the obvious thing to say.
     "You bet!" He carried his beer bottle by the neck. She put out her hand for him to shake. It was strong, firm, and soft.
     "I'm Helen!" The smile never dimmed.
     "Joe Baxter!" He leaned against the bar, and fell in love with her. Her girlfriend returned, and was introduced. Her face was a blur. Helen was a vision, complete and removed from anything he had ever seen or experienced. They told him they were models, and worked out of an agency in Manhattan. He knew nothing of fashion, and they were polite about it. Helen encouraged him to change from his beer to his first cocktail. He joined them with a whiskey sour. He sat between them, and was buoyant on clouds of conversation. Their interests were different, but the human rapport was immediate. They asked him about the war, and the Marines. He delighted in telling them about himself. The cocktails helped his flow of words. He told them about Guadalcanal, and the first time he had been shot at. They listened to the story of his first wound, his malaria, and of the patrol incident that had earned him a Silver Star. They enjoyed him, and insisted on paying for the drinks. The three of them were getting tight, as the evening's hunters and hunted slowly began to fill the bar. He was proud of his association with two lovely women, and felt the envy of the technicolored mass of uniform about him.
     The reverie collapsed when they said they had to go. He stood up without bones in his body, and tried to stop the flood that was about to wash away his dream.
     "Helen, please!" he had said. "Don't go home...have dinner with me!" He felt that he looked at her like a whipped cocker spaniel.
     She smiled, took his hand, and said, "Where shall we eat?"
     A basketball was inside his chest, and it was hard to breathe.
     "I feel like yellin' yippee!" 
     "Another sour, and we'd all be yelling."
     She laughed, and then the three of them stepped out into the winter. They said good night to her friend at a bus stop.
     "Let's go to the best place in town...I'm loaded, and happy!" he offered.
     "How about the third best?" 
     They hooked arms, and walked briskly through the crisp, clear evening. Two people caught by circumstance, during a war, both lonely, without common interest, but together.
     There were shrimp and steaks, expertly broiled. They made little impromptu toasts to each other, and drew pictures on the napkins. She told him the truth, that she was twenty-seven, and married. Her husband was a captain, overseas with the Army. This left no impression on him. He forgot it as soon as she said it. He lied to her, and said he was twenty-five. It was easy. He looked it, and after all it was only chronological. She told him about books, the theatre, modeling, and life. He told her about inspections, cowards, heroes, and beer brawls in San Diego. They both sat for what seemed hours, were absorbed by each other, and got drunk.
     He took her home, and in front of an apartment shared with her mother, they kissed. She trembled, with passion or fear, he did not know. Her coat fell from her shoulders with the force of the caress, and he remembered hitting his head while unsteadily reaching for it. She thanked him for his drunken respectability and called him back from the landing. She held the nape of his neck with both hands, and slowly kissed his eyes and lips. Then she retreated behind the lock.
     He told his roommates of his night. They laughed, and said that the young sergeant was already telling old sergeants' stories. Such beauty, and style was reserved for higher brackets than a Marine rifleman, with malaria in his blood, holes in his arms, an elementary school education, and seventy-two whole dollars a month for pay. They slapped him on the back, and let him go back to his dreams.
     He called her, and she accepted. They ate together, saw movies, walked, and joked about the way they met. They fell in love. He wanted her. He asked her. She said it was a matter of timing, the moment was not yet ready to blossom.
     He felt grown up, aware, bright and alive. He was proud of her tallness, beauty, and poise. He anticipated the way people looked at them together. She seemed oblivious to all, except that theirs was a human harmony, within which the major tune was yet to play.
     A month passed before his orders for overseas reassignment came through. He called and told her. She said nothing for a moment, then just:
     "Joe!" Her voice was flat, and without sparkle.
     "Yes, honey!"
     "I love you, Joe."
     He was humble with feeling. "You love me...don't you?" She didn't plead for an affirmative, but asked a question.
     "You know I do, baby!" It was easy to say.
     "Let's spend this weekend in New York, Joe. Sort of a celebration...and a goodbye. Would you like to?"
     "Wonderful, Helen...wonderful...but...dammit...I'm broke!" 
     "I have the money...don't think about that...and I'll make the reservations..."
     "But, honey...!"
     "Shh, darling! I'll make the reservations for us...Mr. and Mrs...I want it that way. I want you!" And then she faltered, and two people in love, apart from each other, on a phone connection, stopped talking for a moment to hold back tears.
     "Thank you, Helen." It was a whimper.

     THEY JOURNEYED to Manhattan that Saturday morning. The next day was to be an eternity away. They had lunch, cocktails, dinner, and saw the last show at the Diamond Horseshoe. He spent her money self-consciously, and then they went home to their room, seventeen floors above the concrete jungle, to begin the final analysis.
     He waited for her, as she sat on the edge of the bed.
     "I feel like a bride...with you." She smiled the words and turned off the bed lamp. She caressed the firmness and youth of his shoulders with her fingertips. "Make love to me, dearest, please!"
     He did so, quickly, without preliminaries. Brutally, with lust, and without consideration or respect for feeling. He did so through inexperience, inadequacy, and hunger, and momentarily he thought he was doing right. He spent his energy for self-satisfaction, and lost the grace, and beauty of an unforgettable moment. He had failed in the face of maturity. A warm, tender, compassionate body fell from his sacrificial altar, and floundered about in the futile seas created by her own passion and circumstance.
     "Joe! Oh, Joe!...You were so crude!"
     He had dampened the fire, and cheapened their existence together. He wanted to cry, and tell her that he was a child-man. It was too late. They went back to Jersey on Sunday morning, their weekend only half over. They were close in mind and yet strangers in body.
     "I'm sorry, honey," he finally said. 
     "Don't be Joe. It's my fault...not yours. I was selfish...and I wanted something to remember...and perhaps something to look forward to. Do you understand?" He didn't then.
     "I feel awful! Sorta strange, y'know?"
     "I still love you, Joe."
     "And I...I love you, baby!" They both lied. They knew that this was goodbye, and it was.

     HE LEFT Two days later. They never wrote. The months for him turned into an atoll of volcanic ash, called Iwo Jima. He was blooded again, and remained whole. A year later he came back for the test of civilian life. He plodded through the initial series of experimental employments. And now, after six short years, with a stature acquired through relative experiences, he was driving to her house. This was curiosity, combined with sentiment. This was the fitting together of a mental puzzle, with pieces of mature understanding, and analysis. This was ego satisfaction, to show off tailored worsted, a car, and small success. This was also necessary. He knew this, as he walked up the driveway to her house.
     The little girl who answered the bellring had jam on her chin. "My daddy isn't home," she said, rubbing her bare feet together, and absent-mindedly toying with a single pigtail.
     He smiled. "Is your mommy...?" 
     "Yes?" said the woman walking toward him from the hallway. "Ramona, go down the street, and play with Shirley. Go on now! And don't come back till I call you."
     The little girl skipped away, singing to herself.
     “Yes?" she said again, at the door. It was Helen at thirty-three, in a housecoat and curlers.
     "My name is Joe Baxter, Madam, and I'm working my way through college." He laughed, and took off his panama hat.
     "Oh my God! Joe! Well what...! I'm so surprised I don't what...!" She placed both hands over her breasts, and made the standard gesture of surprise.
     "Same guy...different uniform!" He sounded pompous.
     She opened the door. "For heaven's sake, come inside!"
     They stood looking at each other, trying to capture the rightness of the moment.
     "I just...I just don't know what to say."
     "As they say in the movies, 'Don't say anything...just let me look at you'!"
     It was a cue for them both to laugh.
     "You still drink beer?"
     "How about one?"
     "Great!...How've you been, Helen?"
     "Fine, Joe...you look wonderful." 
     "Thanks." And they walked to the kitchen. The house was middle class, and well furnished.
     "Little girl yours?" 
     "Unh huh."
     "She's a doll. What do you call her?"
     "Leave it to you to pick an extra special name."
     "I've always liked extra special things, Joe." She turned to him from opening the can, to watch a reaction. He had been looking away.
     "What've you been doing with yourself for the past few weeks?" He chuckled, and drank his beer. She sat across from him. There was a trace of gold in her teeth, and the edges of her nostrils were slightly red, but beauty was still there. It would always be a basic part of her. "Same husband?"
     "Yep, same! Different house. Mother dead. One child. Three year old car. Husband works the standard forty-hour week. He wears a white shirt, and I pack his lunch. We owe money. I have a flower garden, and a barbecue. And there's my six years. Where are yours?"
     He told her.
     "That's interesting, Joe. I'm happy that you're doing well."
     "So am I. Y'know...I've often wondered about you, Helen." 
     "Memories are playthings, aren't they?"
     "I guess so."
     "You work in Philadelphia, did you say?"
     "You surely didn't drive all the way today for this surprise...did you?"
     "I had bank business in Newark." 
     "Then you thought of me, and were curious..."
     "Yes, Helen."
     "Want another beer?" 
     "You haven't married?' "No."
     "Are you in love?'
     "Whoever knows?...You know!...Like what's that?"
     "You're right."
     "What time is it, Helen?"
     "It's 12:30, Joe...have you had lunch?"
     "No, I haven't, honey. But tell you what. Forget the beer. I'd like a real drink. Got any whiskey?"
     She went to the cabinet, got a half full bottle, and glasses. "Ice or what?"
     "Let's chase it with water...like we knew how."
     "Okay! You're the customer."
     "I just happened to think, Helen, I called you honey...just a while ago."
     She laughed. "Don't fret, Joe. My husband calls waitresses 'honey'. Sometimes even salesgirls, and most other members of our fair sex. I think it's a throwaway with most men."
     "Speaking about your husband...what would he say if he walked in right now?"
     "'An' who in the hell's this guy'?" she mimicked. "But don't worry. He won't be home for hours yet. He's working at his little jobbie. God bless him."
     "So I'll ask you. Are you in love? Y'know, happily married, and all that bit?" He tilted the chair back, expectantly, glass in hand.
     "Joe," she said, after a large sip," the two hardest things to explain are love, and a happy marriage. I'm not ducking, but they're both sort of unique in their own way."
     "Well! C'mon, Helen. You still haven't answered me."
     "I'm sure I'm bored to the same degree as most housewives, only it's a little harder for me...'cause, well perhaps, I feel that I'm a little more intelligent and perceptive than most. Lyman is a little stuffy, but he's good to me. That's his name, y'know."
     "I'd forgotten."
     "We never discussed him. You'd think I'd have married a Jim, or Bob, or something...plain name type. Ridiculous thought." She drank again.
     "How about a Joe?" 
     "You're hilarious."
     "You still haven't answered my question."
     "All right, Joe. I've got the average conventional marriage. I'm disgusted! I'm frustrated! He falls asleep in front of the TV every night, with an empty can of beer, and I've got three lovers staggered around his working hours. You can be number four! I'm real great! Well? Answer Okay?" She stared at him without expression.
     "I'm sorry, Helen. I've just got a big goddammed mouth. Looks like I'm always saying, 'I'm sorry' to you..."
     "Are you?" She smiled. "Since when?" Then she filled his glass. 
     "You're still lovely, Helen. You always will be. I never saw you in a housecoat and curlers before. Guess most guys never think of those things before they get married." 
     "We're a nation of mental virgins! Haven't you heard?" 
     "Clumsy people wallowing in our own propaganda. Don't I sound clever?"
     They both laughed.
     "You've graduated, Joe. I knew you would. You may now go to the head of the class."
     They clinked their glasses.
     "And you can write 'I'm bitter' on the blackboard, one hundred times."
     "C'mon gyrene...get off."
     "OK, honey." And they laughed again.
     The easy laughter stopped. "What're you thinking of, Joe?" 
     "Married people! Most are jokes. Big jokes!"
     "Think we'll survive? We're all hypocrites y'know. It's part of our civilization...or heritage. Take your pick."
     "You'll never go over at Town Hall."
     "Guess not. I can't even say that to my neighbors. 'But, daahling, don't be so horribly middle class!'" she pantomimed.
     "Hmph! Grand! Y'know, you see some old people with nothing but consideration for each other. Then, you see most of them with big, stone faces, neglected minds, and slipping around life burdened with their little eccentricities. Makes me wonder."
     "Pretty observant, Joseph. I'll buy you a drink on that."
     "Don't throw it away, Helen. I'm serious! I don't want to be like that...forty years of marriage, and all they've got to talk about is their constipation, their operations, and who won some crummy ball game in 1923."
     "It's your turn for the blackboard," she said jokingly, filling their tumblers again.  "People...most people, don't work at anything, Joe. It's so easy to be average, they accept! They accept the bad breath in the morning, the silent meals...lack of ideas. They just conform to the home magazines, and lose themselves in that propaganda you mentioned."
     "I guess I'll just have to get used to adjusting girdle buckles...weekold nightgowns...rings in the bathtub...cold chicken, and stimulating conversations about gas and electric bills. Scares me! Yessiree!"
     "If it happens, Joe, work at it." 
     "I promise, mother. Cross my heart."
     "Here's to us. Here's to the war. And a short gulp for the Marines. Deal?"
     Their glasses chimed again. "Yeah, an' here's to love! All bowlegged women, an' pigeon-toed men. An', well, here's to all love! Let's all be able to walk away from it." 
     "It's too late for me."
     They continued to talk. They drank. They reminisced, but never about themselves. The subject was too obvious. The bottle became empty, and their conversational spirits vibrated about its emptiness. An hour went by.
He began thinking of whiskey sours, penciled tablecloths, cold winter nights, and...that night!...And how beautiful she still was..."Why the hell doesn't someone play some damn music?" he thought.
     "Well, Joseph?" she said, breaking his trance.
     He went to her. "Helen?"
     "Yes, you may." \
     "May what?" 
     "Take two giant steps..." 
     "I'm going to kiss you!"
     She was quiet for a few seconds. "Please do," she said.
    He reached up, pinched, and removed a curler with his left hand. An auburn lock fell over her temple. Her eyes were moist. His free hand pulled her close, then reached in to encircle her nightgown. Her flesh was firm. Her body had never lost its fullness He dropped the curler, and slowly pulled the gown over her shoulder. They continued to stare at each other. Her body was slightly tense. He leaned over to kiss her ears, and neck. Her mouth was open, when their lips met. He felt her fingers dig into his shoulders, and the small of his back. They held together fiercely, grasping, and touching. Her eyes were open, as he opened his. He held her firmly, with his thumbs over her breasts...
     "Helen!...Helen, I'm going to love you!...Love you!... Do you hear?...Do you?"
     She looked at him calmly, but her body was shaking, "I want you to!...Now!... Do you hear that?... Do you?"
     "Take those goddamn things out of your hair...please!"
     They embraced again.

     THE BED was damp with perspiration, when he arose. He looked at her body. Her beautiful body, he thought. Her eyes were closed, as he fumbled clumsily for his clothes. He reached over, and covered her with the sheet, then kissed her tenderly. She did not open her eyes.
     "Thank you, Joe...Thank you, darling," she said.
     "Did I make you happy?...Did I please you?...
     "Yes...Oh, yes."
     "I've gotta go...You know that."
     "Yes." She turned her back, and let the sheet fall over her elbows. He kissed her shoulder. "I adore you...I always will..."
     "Leave quickly...Please." Her voice was small, and plaintive.
     "I don't feel cheap...Do you?" There was no answer, "Goodbye, Helen."
     There was still no answer.
     He discovered he had forgotten to put on his tie, as he got in the car. His shirt was now wet through, with the continued fever of his resolved energies. He thought of her back. The closing of verbal doors with no more to say. The dark red hair, askew on the pillows, the freckles, the hollows of her shoulders, the soft, satisfied outline of her beneath the sheet. It was 3:40. He would be back to Philadelphia before dark. He turned on the ignition, and put the car in gear. He looked at the house to see if she was watching through the curtain.
     She was not.
     "Goodbye again, honey," he said to himself, as he drove down the street, that was somehow brighter than before. He felt full, complete, and proud.
     He would never return. They both knew that.

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