They want me to marry Buttercup. Now Buttercup is a fine girl and a rising star, and we have had many good times together, but my heart cannot permit marriage to this woman. Buttercup is in need of a stable relationship, they said. And hasn’t she been seen out with me dozens of times? Didn’t my mother write me and say how she saw that picture of me in the newspaper with that attractive blonde? And was that serious? Such a pretty girl and my mother hoped only for the best.
No matter how they threaten and say I’m nothing more than a background guy and how my refusal will not sit well. Six months, they said. Give it six months. So I relented. Yes, I said.
The problem is that I think I am not going to show up for this wedding. I feel terrible about that. I am not the sort of man who leaves a girl at the altar. I have nothing against Buttercup. She is not a bad person. But no one listened to me when I said I didn’t think I could. I mean there may be levels of sacrifice. I have slept with Buttercup, but, and this is important, I have never stayed the night. Never. I always went home. I have an apartment off Fairfax. I could afford better, but it’s quiet, and the windows don’t face the street. If I hear noise from downstairs, they are Russians, and I don’t understand what’s being said so it’s like I hear nothing. If I married Buttercup – well, maybe I’m not swift enough – but it just came to me how I would have to be with her every night. That’s where it comes in, you see, the sacrifice.
My first name is Brion. It’s a made-up name and no need to give the real name, because you wouldn’t know it. But you might recognize my face and say to your friend – didn’t we see him in that movie last night? You probably did. But as to my anonymity – I don’t mind. Tomorrow, I’m supposed to marry this girl. She’s very pretty and don’t think that I do not like girls – because I do. Buttercup is going places. She needs a husband, because it’s family time in her career. That’s what I’ve heard. I’ve been out here in California five, six years. Small town boy marries small town girl. That’s how it’s billed. Buttercup is from somewhere in Montana, and I’m from back east. We laughed about the Montana thing. She left Boise when she was eighteen months old. Lived in L.A. ever since.
Me, now I live thirty-two miles from the Big Apple. I never went into the city by myself. Believe me I could honestly say that the only time I was in the city was when I was eight years old. Thanksgiving Day Parade. Noisy, crowded. My father said who needs it. I didn’t protest and that was that.
My hometown is divided in the usual way into commuters and those like my family who really lived there. The restaurants and what my mother called cute shops were near the railroad station, but where we lived – forget it. Even for the high school proms we stayed close and booked the dances at Highland Inn or Winterview off the highway.
My father worked in the local hospital and my mother in the Knitting Shop. Myself, I never planned to leave this town. Grow up, marry, and die here would have suited me. I had my girl. Rita and I were childhood sweethearts, and I know that is a kind of cliché, but nevertheless true. After high school Rita and I were both going to the community college five miles away and get Associate degrees – Rita in accounting and me in whatever. Afterwards, we would marry. That was our plan. We graduated on the 21st of June. About eleven o’clock at a party at Jack Holcombe’s house when Rita said that it felt like a bird was inside her head and trying to get out. I took her home so that she could take a couple of aspirins and lay down. How could I have known? Rita’s mother said that no one could have. My Uncle Lloyd was giving me crap about the best laid plans and I almost slugged him right in the funeral home. They pulled us apart, and his wife said I was crazy.
I had already given Rita the engagement ring, and I insisted that she be buried wearing it, although my mother and even Rita’s mother said that was foolish. I checked the coffin before they closed the lid to make certain that no one took it off her hand. Almost two years before I paid off that ring.
All this will lead up to how I met Eleanor. I didn’t leave town. My father said to try the Army, but I didn’t. I got a job by accident. Things happen like that. The Pomfrey Factory wanted to become an industrial park. It was a local factory. Pomfreys are a local family. Anyway, the factory was getting a lot of bad publicity from the commuter crowd. The factory grounds were all weeds and junk. I became a landscaper by chance. Our own house had a front yard of white rocks with two pink plastic flamingos until my mother read that this type of decoration was Archie Bunkerlike. She threw the flamingos away. We didn’t have a backyard big enough for anything except the grill. In short, we grew nothing.
Mr. Pomfrey said he would give me the opportunity. That’s because you work cheap, my father said, and Pomfrey was taking advantage of you. I went to the library and took out books on landscaping. I wasn’t going to do anything that my mother could call cute – no flowerbeds or phony bubbling brooks. The town was hilly, and that was good. I wanted trees that had interesting shapes. So that you could look at them on top of hills in winter – and that season was most of our year. See those twisting black branches and imagine I don’t know what – but in summer there would be the leaves. Summer is different and thickly green. Winters for my pay, I did the snow removal and began fixing up two of the old side buildings on the Pomfrey grounds for office rentals. Doing the work by myself I figured I had maybe six, seven, years before I finished.
My mother said that I was decent looking and in truth girls were after me. But none of that took. I paid my mother room and board and bought things for the house like the new refrigerator. And one afternoon, of course, I came home and there was this woman and her daughter Eleanor. Eleanor had been four years behind me in school and that meant that she was invisible to me. Eleanor used to stutter. My mother said that when she was a girl in school there were many girls and boys too who stuttered, but that seemed not to be true anymore. Eleanor talked carefully as if English was not her first language. Her mother was advised to send her for singing lessons. So Eleanor went into the city regularly and knew her way around subways that were a mystery to me.
Look, I knew I was being set up. Eleanor was a decent-looking girl and maybe even smarter than Rita, but we didn’t have any history. This was how it went – Eleanor was going to add dancing lessons to her singing lessons. Dancing lessons at a studio not in the city but about ten miles away. Evening lessons. The neighborhood was not good. Could I be persuaded to drive her? Once a week, every week. My mother was nodding. Eleanor suddenly had trouble getting words out. I felt her embarrassment and said sure. She sat beside me in my car every Wednesday evening. We didn’t talk. I put the radio on to make it easier for her. The only thing I asked – and that was to be polite – was what kind of dancing was she going to take. Modern dance, Eleanor said. I hope to do something with my music, she added in a soft voice. Why not, I said. I heard Eleanor sing at a Christmas pageant, and she had a good voice. I don’t claim to be a judge, but she could sing.
Did you ever sit in a car on a cold night with nothing to do? I went inside the studio. They had a room where you could sit and watch. Eleanor wore a black thing that showed off her figure. Six people in her class doing a lot of leaping around. She might be the best, I thought.
My mother suggested that I take Eleanor to the movies on a Saturday night. Go on, she said. You can’t sit around this house all the time. I was reading a tree nursery catalogue. Last year the Pomfrey Factory won an award for county beautification, and Mr. Pomfrey’s picture was in the local paper. A shame, my father said, the way he took credit for that. Saying that he thanked his workers – what workers? It was you, only you. I said I didn’t mind one bit and that only made my father angrier.
I took Eleanor to the movies at least twice a month. We never made out or anything. After the movies, we’d stop for hamburgers and she’d talk a little about her hopes. The stage or the movies. I said that sounded real good. The truth is that sometimes I’d sit there and not really listen.
Eleanor’s mother and my mother thought that something was going on between us, but there wasn’t. I sat through her twice a year recitals at the Legion Hall, and went with her to her cousin’s wedding.
Eleanor called on the telephone. You wouldn’t think that would come as a surprise to me, but Eleanor never called me. Mostly she didn’t like to speak on the telephone. She found this advertisement in the newspaper. An audition, she said. Some kind of an open audition in the city. She wanted to go, but not alone. It would be the scariest thing she had ever done, she said. She had appeared in public but only here in town. She needed me to go with her.
I had to get the day off from Mr. Pomfrey, and he was none too pleased, although my attendance record couldn’t be faulted. I went into the city with Eleanor. We took the train. The city was like I remembered – crowded and noisy. If I lost sight of Eleanor, I wouldn’t know which way to turn. I was impressed that she did. We took the subway and then walked. We had to stand in line at the audition. Seemed like a hundred million people. There was a cutoff point in the audition line but we were in front of that spot. When her turn came, I told Eleanor to take a deep breath and pretend that she was back in town and singing for people she knew. I knew right away that it wasn’t good enough.
The man called me. Next in line. Go ahead, Eleanor whispered. I danced. I leaped like tree branches. Tree branches black against the sky. And that was how I went to Hollywood. Like I said I never became a star or anything, but I made a decent living. Eleanor, I heard from my mother, married Jack Holcombe. My mother said that she saw my picture in several magazines. Yes, I said, that was me.
Buttercup and I celebrated our twelfth wedding anniversary here in Hollywood. I bought her a diamond broach. You shouldn’t have spent the money, she said. What’s money for, I said, if not to spend on love?
Bette Pesetsky is the author of two short story collections, Stories Up to A Point and Confessions of a Bad Girl. Her stories have appeared in Paris Review, The New Yorker, Vogue, Ontario Review, and other magazines.