When the doorbell rang, George Washington Harper was in the kitchen making his morning coffee. It was a ritual that George had no intention of interrupting, with only 30-seconds or so remaining in a process that would result in the perfect cup of coffee.
"Who in heaven's name would be out today, anyway?" he asked himself out loud. He looked out the back window and saw that the temperature on thermometer was still hovering below 20 degrees. Not the coldest it had ever been here in town, but plenty cold.
The whole week had been cold and snowy, and although it was warming up now, that made it worse in a way — what had been fresh, powdery snow at the beginning of the week was now a combination of a layer of icy crust laying atop a layer of slightly compressed snow, that above a nasty sheet of ice at the bottom.
Conditions were perfect for someone to take a couple of steps, hit the slippery ice at the bottom, and fall on their 'keister', as his dad had called it. Just his luck if someone were to break a hip on his sidewalk and sue him for their own stupidity.
The doorbell rang again, only this time it wasn't letting up, as if someone was leaning on it.
A guilty feeling swept over George, as he tried to finish up the coffee. He recalled that he hadn't shoveled the snow off his walk, between the sidewalk and his porch, for days.
"Ridiculous," he said out loud again. He realized that talking to himself was a kind of mental crutch to offset the silent emptiness of the big old house that he occupied alone.
When exactly five minutes had passed, according to his timer, he pressed down the filter of his French press, trapping the grounds at the bottom of the glass enclosure, and poured the deep brown and aromatic liquid into a coffee pot. Thank goodness the bell ringer had finally let up ... at least temporarily.
George wiped his hands on one of the kitchen towels, and turned, heading out towards the front door.
"I'm coming, I'm coming!" he hollered, hoping the intruder would hear him and not start the bell ringing again. Walking down the hall and past the living room, he suddenly heard what sounded an awful lot like handfuls of pebbles being tossed at the front window. Jeez! Whoever his visitor was, he was getting the distinct feeling that there was an angry person awaiting him. Braving the cold, walking through 8-inch deep snow and ice, abusing the doorbell, and now throwing pebbles at his window to get his attention. Definitely an angry or crazy person.
Wait a minute, he thought, where the hell are they getting the pebbles? Digging down through the snow to the driveway to find stones? He revised his estimate of the danger lurking at his front door upward. Maybe I ought to get my shotgun, came the dark thought. In the end, he decided to look first and only get the shotgun if it seemed necessary.
When George gently pulled aside the diaphanous curtains, he was taken aback, and flabbergasted at what, or rather who, he saw.
There, in the snow, in his front yard was a woman. Footsteps in the deep snow revealed that she had walked up to the door and on the porch; and that now she was walking back and forth across the front yard. She seemed to be muttering to herself, and was leaning over, her hands beneath the snow, searching around, George suspected, for more pebbles to toss at the window.
She was tall for a woman, slender, without being skinny, and most people would never guess by looking at her that she was 58 years old — the same age as George. She was not entirely dressed appropriately for the weather. She did have a heavy overcoat on, and she was wearing snow boots, but she was also wearing a skirt that, while not short, left her bare legs exposed. Nice legs, at that, an unbiased observer might add.
George knew that beneath the woolen cap covering her ears against the cold, her hair was a honey-gold color, and that if she looked at him, it would be with pale blue-gray eyes.
In other words, despite the incongruous conditions, George recognized her. He cracked open the door.
"Ah, hmmm..." he cleared his throat, "Linda?" he quietly called out.
Linda, for indeed it was she, straightened up quickly, and looked at George. A handful of pebbles fell from her hand to the ground.
It wasn't exactly a friendly look that she gave him, but rather one that hovered somewhere between angry and determined. She turned and walked back to the door. George had the impression that she was stomping, rather than walking, but since she had to lift her feet up so much to get through the snow, he really couldn't tell.
"George," she said in a firm voice, "we need to talk!"
"The hell we do," George muttered under his breath, at the same time he was nodding his head in the affirmative, not so much agreeing as surrendering to the inevitable.
Linda reached the porch, and stepped up the three steps to the door, where George looked at her expectantly.
"George, are you planning on making me stand here, or are you going to invite me in? I'm freezing."
"Oh, yes, of course. Please come in. I'm sorry, it's just that you shocked me, suddenly appearing at my door." He thought about what he'd said for a moment, and decided that it had sounded rather rude, and didn't really reflect his feelings anyway.
"Although it is a pleasant shock, er, surprise, I assure you," he said closing the door behind her.
Once in the entryway, Linda began divesting herself of her winter garb. George, in his role of 'the good host' took her overcoat and hung it in the closet, set her wet boots onto the boot dryer/heater, and her knit cap on the hat rack.
"Oh, man! It's cold out there!" Linda exclaimed, rubbing her hands together above the heater register in the floor, shivering slightly.
George looked down at her, noting her skirt, a knit sweater over a white blouse, and socks, but no shoes under her boots. He also saw the small scattering of gray hairs on her head, no real surprise at their age. He stifled the urge to reach out and touch her hair.
It struck him, that Linda and he hadn't exchanged more than a word or two in passing for more than thirty four years — since the year they had both married others — and here they were acting as if they had just seen each other yesterday.
He reached into the closet and offered her a pair of slippers which she gratefully accepted.
"You don't really seem dressed for the cold, to be honest," he replied after a moment of silence. Linda looked up at George, who stood about five inches taller than her.
"I was on my way to the office, when I picked up yesterday's mail from my mailbox. I found something in it that I need to talk to you about," as she looked down at herself, "I guess I was in a bit of a hurry. I should have changed into something warmer before I came here."
"Why don't we go to the kitchen and sit down, and I can pour us some coffee. Freshly made. A mild, but flavorful blend?" he smiled a little as he imitated the spiel of the young baristas working at the local coffee shops.
"Sold," she said with a smile, which reduced George's anxiety level a couple of degrees.
As they walked back to the kitchen, Linda, who had never been in George's house before, looked around with curiosity. Everything was clean and neat, not obsessively so, but with that homey feeling. The living room was a formal, even slightly feminine room, with furniture that looked comfortable, although not much used.
The colors on the walls were warm, selected with care by someone with a keen eye for decorating. There were family photos on the walls, showing George and his wife and children in various locations, at various times.
"Oh," Linda gasped when they reached the kitchen, "this is wonderful!"
George smiled, "It was Betsy's pride and joy. I try to keep it as clean as Betsy did; that's not too difficult. But I can't hope to touch her cooking." A look of sadness flashed across George's face.
Linda suddenly looked very serious, and took George's hand. "I want to express my sympathy at your loss, speaking of Betsy. I was very sad when I heard that she had passed last year. We prayed for her and you, both,"
"I appreciate that so much. She was a good woman, a loving mother, and we all miss her terribly," he said with a tone that cut off further discussion.
George steered Linda to one of the bar stool type chairs that were at the end of the island, where the stone counter-top extended beyond the underlying cabinets. It had a single support of its own, creating a sort of 'breakfast bar'. She sat while George got a set of coffee cups — mugs, really — as well as cream and a variety of sweeteners. He poured the coffee, and soon they were sipping the first piping hot mouthfuls.
Linda and George looked at each other for a moment, and George nodded at Linda to start.
Rather than speaking immediately, Linda reached into the pocket of her skirt and brought out an envelope address to her, containing a card, which she placed on the table in front of George. George didn't need to open it to know what the card was.
"George, I want you to tell me the truth. I want you to remember that you are named after George Washington, who couldn't tell a lie, and tell me that you didn't send this card to me."
"Linda, I told you years ago, that the 'George' in my name comes from my maternal grandfather, while the 'Washington' is a family name on my paternal side ... and anyway, that story about the Cherry Tree was written years after he died, by..."
"George, you are trying to avoid the question. Can you tell me you didn't send me this card?"
George started to look at the stove, and the pans that were hanging from the hooks on the back wall.
"No George, don't do that either. I want you to look me in the eye and tell me. Did you or did you not send me this card!"
George drew his eyes back to Linda's — those beautiful blue-gray eyes of hers that he had never forgotten. Those eyes from which tears were falling, gently flowing down her cheeks. He knew one thing: regardless of the consequences, he couldn't lie to her any more.
"Linda, yes, I did send you that card, but..."
"And the other forty-three as well?" she said the incredulity evident in her voice, "An anonymous Valentine's card each year for the past forty-four years?"
Now he was embarrassed; for god's sake, put the way she said it, he sounded like some sort of stalker. No wonder she was throwing pebbles at his windows.
"Yes, Linda, I did. I didn't mean to make you angry, or hurt you..." his words stumbling out now, his fears finally realized as he saw the anguish in her face.
But she continued, "I have a box at home with forty-three, soon to be forty-four anonymous Valentine's cards — which for going on forty-four years, I had hoped and prayed were from you. Why?
"Why did you lie when I asked you all of those years ago?" Linda was tearing, and George was sitting with his elbows on the counter-top, and his hands holding his head, covering his eyes at the same time. He finally looked up again.
"I was afraid. I mean, I was eighteen years old when you cornered me. How could I admit to you, that I had loved and adored you from the moment we met in Miss Pierce's home room, the first day of Ninth Grade?
"You were already so beautiful, and I was just another teenage guy with bad skin. I looked like a geek.
"I remember thinking about it. What kind of pair would we be? The Goddess and the Geek. Beauty and the Blah. Of course I denied it. But I never got over you. Sorry, I never meant..." his words just faded away.
There was a period of silence between them again. Linda, taking the initiative that George could never have taken for fear of offending her, reached over and took his hand in hers.
"George, my sweet George, 'what fools these mortals be', I think the quotation goes." Linda paused gathering her thoughts before she went on. "Can I ask another rather sensitive question that's been bothering me for years?"
George squeezed her hand and nodded his head. "If you loved me, why didn't you say something to me? Why did you run off and marry Betsy?"
George sighed heavily, and followed it with a deep breath.
"When I got back from Vietnam and was discharged from the Army, I was going to find you and tell you just how I felt about you. I guess that a person who has to confront the possibility of dying, as I did in the war, loses fears about other things. I figured that the worse that could happen would be, you'd tell me you weren't interested, and I would just have to accept it and get on with my life.
"That wasn't what happened. I came home, and decided to go to the Valentine's Day dance that they used to throw in the Rec Center downtown. I was hoping I'd find you there, and I'd confess to you it was me sending you that card from your 'secret Valentine', and we would arrange a time to talk in a little more private setting.
"Best laid plans of mice and men, or Murphy's Law strikes again, or something like that, because when I arrived at the dance, you were there alright, but you were with Mark Dawson. I asked around, and a couple of the people I knew told me that you and Mark were 'an item'. So that wrapped it up for me, and I left, and went home."
Linda looked at George and shook her head, a sad look on her face.
"Oh god, George. My parents made me go out with Mark to the dance, and a couple of other times, because his parents were friends of my mom and dad. But we were never out alone, and we certainly weren't a couple. At least not then.
"I never knew that you had been at the Valentine's Day dance, or that you'd seen us there. I didn't even know that you were home until I saw an article in the paper, talking about what a hero you were, how you had a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star.
"I cut the article out, and I looked up your medals — I'd never known how brave you were and the danger you had been in until I read about it in a newspaper!
"When I realized that you had been home for a couple of weeks, I was going to show up at your parents house and see if I could get you to take me out. By then, though, it was too late. That very morning I read an announcement in the paper that you were going to get married to Betsy.
"George," Linda asked, after a brief pause, her voice sounding choked, "if you loved me, how could you marry someone else?"
George stood up for a moment, letting go of Linda's hand. He picked up the pot and topped off his coffee. He looked at Linda, his eyes asking her if she wanted more, to which she shook her head no.
He sat again, and took a moment to gather his thoughts and memories from thirty-six years earlier. He looked down at the table before he started speaking.
"Betsy was a distant cousin of mine — but my folks and her parents had grown up together and had been pretty close. I had met her a couple of times, but she and I weren't close at all."
He looked up again at Linda, her face showing that she was completely focused on what he was telling her. This time, he reached over and gently took her hand.
"I can still see it in my mind: I had been out interviewing for jobs that day," he continued, "and when I got home, my parents, Betsy and her parents, were all sitting around the living room talking. It seemed that Betsy had made a big mistake, and gotten pregnant by some bastard who took off as soon as he found out about her condition, leaving her in the lurch."
He paused again.
"I'm sure you remember how it was back then, at least for us living in small-town America. An unmarried mother was pretty much considered a whore, and it left a stain on her, and her whole family. Her reputation was ruined." George shook his head slowly back and forth twice.
"Not like it is today, is it? Nobody would think twice about it today. And I'm not sure that is a completely good thing either.
"Anyway, I was depressed that you were on your way to getting married to another man; and maybe I was just mentally exhausted after leaving the Army. Suddenly I was on my own, forced to make my own choices. I don't know, maybe there were a whole lot of reasons that I was feeling down.
"When my folks and Betsy's parents asked me to consider marrying her, so that her baby would have a father, I thought about it. Betsy was a beautiful woman, she was kind and gentle, and didn't deserve to be the object of scorn. After I considered it for a time, I said yes I would, and that was that."
He looked back at Linda again. She was shaking her head slowly, a look of anguish on her face.
"George, I really wasn't..." She stopped mid-sentence, and just shook her head again.
He nodded before he continued, "The idea was that Betsy and I would get married ASAP, before she was showing, and we would stay married long enough to give the baby a name, and a father.
"If anyone cared, they would count up the time between when we were married and when the baby came along, and they would wink and think to themselves, 'those two got a little jump on the baby making'. But no one would think that I was covering up for someone else — they would figure that the baby was mine and Betsy's."
Linda nodded at that as well, "I did. When I heard that you were a father, it never occurred to me that she might not be yours."
George sighed again before resuming his tale.
"So we were only supposed to be married for a year or a little longer. After the baby was born, Betsy and I would quietly divorce, for unspecified reasons. All neat and clean. Only things never work out that way.
"I remember that first night together on our honeymoon — in Niagara Falls, if you can imagine anything as corny as that — Betsy came into the room in a sexy, black negligee, and we were really alone together for the first time. She came up to me, and hugged me so hard that I could hardly breathe. Then she looked up at me with tears in her eyes, and said, 'George, you are my knight in shining armor; I know how much of a sacrifice you're making by marrying me to save my reputation.
'I promise you, for as long as we are married, I will do everything in my power to be the best wife to you that a man has ever had. I will do whatever I can to make you happy and content'." George smiled gently at the memory.
"And she kept her promise. She was a marvelous cook and she kept the house neat as a pin. She exercised to keep herself trim and attractive for me. She dressed well. And every night of our married life together she was prepared to make love, if I wanted to, any way that I wanted.
"She was a loyal wife, who I never had cause to doubt, and she was always cheerful, and her greatest happiness was just to be together with me. She was a great mother to our children, and one of the sweetest, kindest people you could ever know.
"Of course, by the time Sandy was born, the whole idea of getting a quiet divorce went out the window. Even if I could have left that little girl without her father — because by then I knew that I was her real father — a thousand other things kept me together with Betsy. There are obligations and responsibilities that develop in a marriage, and to be honest, by the time a year had passed, you were married as well, so what was there for me, outside of the marriage I was in?
"In any case, Betsy and Sandy hadn't done anything to deserve being left on their own. I would have never been able to look at myself in the mirror if I had just dumped them. I would have dishonored them; I would have dishonored myself.
George looked over at Linda, before speaking again.
"Betsy was sitting next to me on our bed one night, maybe six or eight months after Sandy was born, when she asked when I was going start the divorce proceedings. She was looking straight ahead, and I could tell she was trying not to break down in front of me.
"I put my arm around her and pulled her close, and said to her, 'Why would I do that do the woman and family I love.' She turned to me with that smile on her face, and nodded. She never asked me again.
"A couple years passed by and George Jr. was born, a couple more and our little Alice joined us. We were a family, and I think as much as anyone's, a happy family. We raised our children to be good people and responsible adults. A lot to be proud of.
"I had everything that a man could want in his marriage, except one thing: I was not passionately in love with my wife. Now, don't take me wrong — I loved Betsy. I loved her more than you would a brother or sister, or parents. I had respect and admiration for her. She was easy to be around, and I surely miss her companionship. But I never loved her with the intensity that she loved me.
"It's sad, in a way, but for me that spark that make two people into one, that makes them soul mates, was never there.
"And that's why I continued to send you a Valentine's Day card every year — hoping in my own way to let you know that there was at least one man out there, whether you knew who it was or not, who loved you beyond reason. So now you know the whole stupid story of your old friend George, who has remained stupid for all of these years. And all I can hope is that I haven't damaged your marriage with my stupidity as well."
For several minutes, two old friends sat together, finishing their cooling coffee, both silently reflecting, thinking their own thoughts.
"George," Linda started, "You don't have to worry about Mark and I. We've been divorced now for just under a year."
He cast a sharp glance in her direction, the unspoken question hanging in the air.
"No, it didn't have anything to do with your cards, either. Mark never opened any of them, and I put them away without his ever seeing them. No, our marriage didn't die a dramatic death; it just died from boredom and inattention. Plus a deficit of real love.
"We were never able to have children — we never tried to prevent them, but I never conceived, either. To be honest, it must not have been very important to either of us, because when I think about it now, I realize that we never even made the effort to discover why." She seemed a little surprised herself at the realization.
"I tried to be a good wife, but I think that Mark always knew, always felt, that there was a part of me that could never be his. He was a good husband. He was witty, charming, always a lot of fun to be around. He was a great provider. He was never cruel or abusive in any way. Our love life was fine — Mark was a considerate and attentive lover — but it was limited to having sex, not making love. At least on my part.
"In truth, Mark must have loved me an awful lot for our marriage to have lasted over thirty years. Then, last year, he announced that he wasn't going to put up with another cold and snowy winter. He was moving to Florida where he could golf almost any day of the year, and go deep water fishing, and not worry about shoveling snow from the driveway. I could come or stay. My choice. I don't think that he was terribly surprised when I decided to stay.
"Even at that, Mark was still kind and generous in the divorce settlement. We were both civil, and I'm financially well enough off that I really have no worries for the rest of my life. Which is not to say that I'm giving up my work any time soon," she concluded with a smile.
"Maybe if we had children, I would have felt more like a couple — like a family — but that just never happened."
Linda suddenly stood up from the chair.
"George, just wait here for a moment. Let me get something and I'll be right back."
George listened while Linda walked back down the hallway, and heard her as she opened the coat closet in the entry, rummaged around, and walked back. When she re-entered the kitchen she had a twinkle in her eye. She approached her seat, but before she sat down again, she handed George an envelope.
"Go ahead, George. Open it." She smiled at him as she waited. George took the envelope, which wasn't actually sealed, so he reached in and pulled out a Valentine's Day card. He opened it and read —
I have loved you and adored you since the first day we met, in home room in Ninth Grade. If I'm right, for forty-four years you've been sending me Valentine's Day cards, and I've decided that it was time for me to take a chance and send you a Valentine's card too. If you feel like I do, let's stop wasting time. I love you, I want to spend the rest of my life with you — I don't want to wait another year, another day, another minute.
With all of the passion of my heart and soul,
While George had been standing at the counter reading the card, Linda had moved behind him. Her arms wrapped around him, and when he finished reading and put down the card, he turned towards her in the chair until he could get his arm around her waist as well. Then their mouths searched out each other's, until they were united in a kiss — a kiss with the passion and intensity that came of over forty years of self-denial.
Linda's hand stroked through his hair, as his hand caressed her back and shoulders, reaching up to her neck, then down to gently cup her ass, then caressing her back again. Linda's hands finally came to rest on George's shoulders and they finally broke apart, still in each other's arms, but close enough to see each others faces.
Their lips touched again, and George was completely taken in the warmth and moistness of Linda's. He couldn't stop himself as his tongue slipped out and began exploring her lips. Linda, for her part, began to search out his tongue with her own, until they were sharing, touching and tasting each other's mouths.
Linda groaned. "I think that we should retreat to the bedroom," she whispered into his ear, as she tried to seize his earlobe gently with her teeth.
"After you, my love."
Suddenly Linda stopped.
"Oh George, can I use your phone for a minute?"
"Sure – there's one over there," he answered, pointed at a portable phone in its cradle under the cabinets.
He started to leave to give her some privacy, but Linda came back with the phone, and took hold of his arm.
"Just calling in to let them know not to expect to see me today," she explained.
"Hope you're not going to get in trouble for playing hooky."
"I doubt it," Linda grinned, "I own the place, and the boss can play hooky when she wants to."
While they stood together, while Linda gave her staff instructions for the day.
"And Sam, go ahead and lock up when you leave tonight. I won't be coming in at all today. Maybe not tomorrow either. Oh no – nothing wrong, just some long overdue catching up to do. Fine. OK. I'll call in to check. Thanks."
She put the phone back into its cradle, and turned her face back towards George, which resulted in another deep kiss as they walked arm-in-arm back to the bedroom.
The master bedroom, like the rest of the house, reflected George's sense of order. No clothes just thrown on the floor, the bed made, everything neat and tidy despite George living alone. George saw her look of approval.
"Betsy," he stated, "got me into a lot of good habits. Every morning make the bed, for one thing."