Copyright© 2003 by Carlos Malenkov
I found mercy in the concert hall. The prospect of Bach's orchestral suites on original instruments convinced me to blow $30 that I couldn't really afford. I was still paying off hospital bills from falling down those iced-up steps three months before, and hobbling around on a gimpy leg just barely out of a cast made it a bit difficult to get out and around.
Sitting one row in front, about four seats distant diagonally, was an interesting-looking woman. She was a well-dressed dowager, possibly in her sixties, in a red velvet dress that literally screamed money, but in an oh, so tasteful way. The amber pendant on a heavy silver chain infused her ivory skin with a warm glow. Her hair was graying, but upswept in an elaborate coiffe that whispered understated elegance. She had her share of wrinkles, but the way she smiled in my direction warmed my heart. I had been starved for smiles from the opposite sex since... since before my problems began.
"The Baroque era does have a certain charm," she was saying.
I perked up. "You are addressing me, madam?"
"My good man, were I not speaking to you, I would not have spoken to you."
(Well, 'scuse the hell out of me!)
"Apologies, milady. Indeed, Baroque music touches me deeply, and Bach most of all. Certain of his pieces have that dark, smoky quality that soothes melancholia and eases the soul."
"No need to overstate the case. His music is, in truth, both uplifting and sensual. For now, let's just enjoy the concert." She smiled again, and turned around with the casual grace that surrounded her like an aura.
I enjoyed the concert.
"Since you haven't had occasion to introduce yourself, kindly permit me to initiate the gallantries."
She had walked straight over to me in the lobby afterwards and taken the initiative. A bold and decisive woman, that one.
"Behold, I am Mercy de L'Espoir. My deceased husband, bless his soul, was a distant relation to the fashionable, but somewhat overrated poet, Jean-Jacques de L'Espoire. While I have neither talent nor inclination in that direction, I certainly appreciate the fine arts and am most pleased to make your acquaintance."
"It is likewise my pleasure, madam." I took her hand and leaned forward to kiss it. That much finesse I could summon. Reading Balzac and Stendhal had prepared me reasonably well for just such occasions.
"Belisar Freyman. You gaze upon a struggling writer, an unappreciated creator of what will no doubt some day be regarded as fine literature. For now, I eke out a living by various means, both fair and foul, though mostly foul, I reckon. I am likewise a lover of the fine arts."
She smiled as her violet eyes glinted irony. "Modesty becomes you well, mon ami."
We talked for some minutes, standing there in the lobby of the concert hall as clumps of departing music lovers swirled around us. When it came time for her to take her leave -- a uniformed chauffeur handed her into a gleaming limousine outside -- I had an tastefully engraved card clutched in my hand and an invitation to call her.
What was I to make of this? Exactly what could I expect from a woman maybe 35 years older than myself? For that matter, what the hell might she expect of me? Sex? I wouldn't think so, but who could know... I thought perhaps she was just plain lonely, that she needed someone to talk to, someone to stroke her ego, rather than her body. Well, I could deal with that. I had been missing too many meals lately... and was more than a bit lonely myself.
At 30 years old, I had reached the deadest of dead ends. I had been heading toward a promising career in mechanical engineering, but a disastrous relationship put the kibosh on that. Women can be so vengeful at times... and I really should have known better than to get involved with the wife of the Dean of Engineering at Muni Tech. Well, live and learn.
The last decade of my life had been one minimum-wage dead-end job after another, punctuated by meaningless dead-end relationships. Net result: futility, desperation, and meaninglessness.
At one time, there had still been some money in the bank. Then I slipped into a boozing and drugging phase. I awoke in a jail cell in a puddle of my own vomit and only fragmentary memories of the previous six months. No money, no job, no home. It had taken me the last couple of years to pull myself back up to where I was -- minimal subsistence level.
So, what was I looking for? A lover? A friend? A mother? A caretaker?
All of the above, probably. I needed a warm place to lay my head at night, and a warm body to awaken next to. Someone I could talk to. Someone who'd ask how my day had gone when I came home. Someone who'd hug me and share my laughter... and my tears. Someone who'd give me emotional support. Someone who'd care.
Mercy? Yes, I could certainly use a little mercy, and with a capital M at that.
A week later I called and asked her out to dinner.
She was a sympathetic listener and before I knew it, I was pouring out the story of my life. She didn't condemn, judge, or even give advice. She just listened... and when the tears began rolling down her cheeks, she reached out and took my hand. Her touch was soft... and comforting.
I'm still not sure how it happened, but later that evening I was riding home with her in a cab. Toward her home. There just happened to be an extra bedroom in her place, she said.
It was a magnificent restored brownstone on West End Avenue, not far from Central Park. The furnishings reeked of wealth... dark hardwood paneling throughout, crystal chandeliers, winding staircases, massive Victorian furniture. The butler greeted us at the door.
Bookshelves lined one wall of the bedroom. Hundreds of leather-bound volumes. I took one down at random. "The Joy of Sex," by golly! I hadn't known it came in such a fancy edition. The handwritten inscription read:
To my own very special Mercy.
With deepest gratitude for believing in me.
The fourposter canopied bed had finely-woven linen faintly scented with lilac. Silk pillowcases. I sat on the mattress and bounced up and down a couple of times. It would do.
There was a faint knock on the door. "Enter," I said.
The door opened a crack and Mercy peeked in and wished me pleasant dreams. She had on a loosely belted wine-colored satin bathrobe that revealed a discreet amount of cleavage and hinted at delicious curves lower down. Very well preserved for her age, she was.
Could that be another sort of invitation? I thought not. Tonight wasn't about lust -- about seeking that particular kind of warmth and comfort -- much as I craved it. It was about respect and gratitude. I wished her a quiet and restful night.
The next morning Mercy had a hearty hot breakfast waiting when I came downstairs. Stacks of buttermilk pancakes with real maple syrup. Crisp bacon. Sausages. Hot crusty rolls. Women of her generation really knew how to treat a man.
As I turned to leave, she opened her arms to me. It was a soft and yielding hug. She melted against my body and I felt the warmth flow between us. I aimed a goodbye kiss at her cheek, but she had turned her head and our lips met. Was it accidental? The heat lingered on my lips all the way to work.
The week after came an invitation to stay over again. Once more I was expecting a restful but chaste night. Following a midnight snack of cheese fondue and chestnuts roasted in the open fireplace... and sparkling conversation, we bid one another goodnight. Was that a wink she aimed in my direction? She did have those dangerous curves to go with her dangerously sharp wit.
I was snug under the covers and drifting off when there was a soft knock on the door. I bade her in, of course. She stepped inside and asked if there was anything she could get for me.
"No, but I'm glad you came. Your presence seems to bring a soft glow to whatever place you're in."
Smiling sadly, she sat down at the foot of the bed, neatly avoiding my feet.
She patted my knee. "My dear, dear boy. I enjoy your company as well. It gets lonely at night for an old woman. Tell me, do you find me attractive?"
I sat up and almost fell out of bed.
She laughed. "Not to worry. I'm not trying to seduce you... necessarily. I have grandchildren nearly your age. All the same, even in my advanced years, I haven't quite lost all appreciation of life's little delights." Her eyes twinkled with merriment, and she suddenly looked like a young girl.
"Heaven protect me from horny old ladies!" Now I was laughing.
She tousled my hair, then paused and caressed my cheek.
"I did have an insane urge to do something rather naughty tonight," she whispered. "It's been so long since... "
We sat in silence for a moment.
"Since?" I had to say something, anything.
"Since anyone touched me in a loving way." She stood up.
"Mercy. You just touched me. In a loving way. With your words. Sleep well."
She clicked off the bedside lamp and I heard the door close as she left.
I spent an uneasy night. More than once I got up, resolving to walk down the long hall and softly knock on her bedroom door. I didn't. Imagine, lusting for a woman almost old enough to be my grandma. Lust? It was something beyond lust. It was need -- screaming, bleeding need.
At breakfast I asked if she had slept well.
"Not particularly. I lay awake most of the night awaiting a knock on my door. What do I have to do, send smoke signals?"
I had seen blushes before, but until that moment I never knew what one felt like. That sudden flush of burning heat in my face, the prickling up and down my spine. I couldn't think of a single word to say.
She smiled and spooned out a second portion of scrambled eggs. To my infinite relief, she abruptly changed the subject.
When it came time to leave, I wondered if I'd be too embarrassed for our usual hug-and-a-kiss. As it happened, it didn't much matter. She seized me by the shoulders, pulled me to her for a hard kiss on the lips, then turned me around and sent me off with an affectionate slap on the butt.
Said butt tingled all the way to work.