Robert Nowall

Love Dream, by Robert Nowall
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LOVE DREAM

 

by

 

Robert Nowall

 

 

 

 

It was hot and dry and dusty. He felt the sweat drip down his skin when he came into the waiting room. He brushed some dust off his suit jacket after he closed the white frosted glass door behind him. He looked through the frosted glass, but could not see the parking spaces and the street beyond it. A truck rumbled by and he felt it, but didn't hear it.

The backwards writing, black on white glass, read: JUNCTION MEDICAL CLINIC in ornate type. Below that, in smaller type, it read SALLY RIESLING, M. D. This was where he wanted to be.

But should he be? He felt hot, tired, his throat felt rough. He wanted to go back somewhere and lie down. But he told Sally he was coming. He turned away from the glass door and looked around.

The waiting room was empty. At one end, where he stood, was a battered couch and table set, in front of a bookshelf with just a few books in it. At the other end, down the length of the room, were several plastic chairs and some low tables; the tops of the tables covered with old magazines. The whole room was lit in some sort of amber light, bright in parts and dim in others. The dim sound of some sort of country elevator music hung in the air.

To the right was a counter, the kind always found in doctors' offices, with sliding glass windows, and racks containing pamphlets and clipboards for patients to fill out. But the glass windows, blurry transparent, slid closed, and he could see no one behind the counter. Next to the counter was a door, solid and closed.

He felt the sweat on his forehead and in his shirt. He wiped the sweat of his palms on his pants. Nobody around, he though. Was Sally doing well? He stepped over to the counter, and leaned forward, trying to see if anyone was behind it at all---

"Mister!" he heard a voice say. He stood up straight and turned around. The door next to the counter was open now, and a child, a boy, stood next to it, hand on the doorknob.

He smiled. Was this Jeff? he thought. Seven or eight? "Uh...Jeff?" he asked. When the boy didn't correct him, he added, "Is your mother around?"

"She's in the back," Jeff said.

"Well, would you tell her Ben, er, Mister Waterman is here? She's expecting me. I called."

"She's right here," came a voice, from behind the counter. Ben turned again. He caught a glimpse, a white lab coat, crossing across the glass. Then she came out the door and stood before him, white lab coat and faded light blue jeans.

Sally still looked good, he thought. He couldn't see any gray in her brown hair, which was tied up in a neat ponytail. Maybe a few wrinkles around the corners of her mouth, but she looked much as she did when they were in college together. He wished he aged as well; he felt conscious of the gray in his hair and the growing paunch of his stomach hanging over his belt.

"Ben Waterman!" she said, with pleasure in her voice. "What brings you to Junction?"

"Just passing through," Ben said, and took a step closer to her. "I was down the road, and remembered you were here."

"I wasn't expecting your call," Sally said, and smiled. "Complete surprise."

"Well, enough time passed. Is this Jeff?" He bent down over the boy. The boy looked up at him with suspicion.

She looked down, then said, "Jeffrey. Go play in the back room, will you, dear?"

"Aw, Mom, I wanna see who this guy is!"

"I'm Ben Waterman," Ben said, and knelt down on one knee and held out his hand. "I'm an old friend of your mother. You're Jeffrey Riesling, aren't you?"

"I'm Jeff Burke!" Jeff said, with spoken force put on the last name.

"Go play in the back room, Jeffrey," Sally said.

Jeff hesitated, then took Ben's still-outstretched hand in his own and tugged on it. Jeff's small hand felt sticky with some of whatever kids got on their hands. After a second, he let go, and ran off, the door closing behind him.

Ben straightened up and looked at Sally. He twitched his hand, as if to start to wipe it on his suit jacket, then decided not to.

Sally smiled a weak smile. "He's a handful."

"I guess you could write a book," Ben said. "Where is Ian these days?"

She leaned her head to one side and turned away. "Nowhere near here." Then she turned back and said, "So how are you, Ben?"

"Oh, fine, fine." He smiled. "Engineering keeps me busy. It pays the bills. But it's nothing like I expected, going in."

"Life seldom is." She looked at him, then said, "You look a little flushed. Are you feeling all right?"

He felt the sweat make his shirt cling to his body, and thought his legs could use a rest. No, he thought, but he stopped himself from saying it. "I think so. It's been kind of a long day just getting here."

"I was surprised to get your call," Sally said. "Well, surprise is too light. I mean, I haven't seen you since your graduation."

"We've kept in touch." Ben shrugged. "Christmas cards and all."

"Once a year."

"I'd send a birthday card if I knew your birthday." He smiled. "What kind of guy would I be, if I drove through your town and didn't stop?" He did not plan on driving through at all, but he was close by, by chance. Close enough to make the trip. He swallowed, and said, "It's been a long time, Sally."

"Too long." Her face took on a more serious expression. "Are you sure you're all right?"

"Couldn't be better. Well, maybe not in tip-top shape, but it's been a long drive and a long day."

"No not that," she said. She took a step closer, almost onto his toes, and reached up and grabbed his chin. "Stick out your tongue."

"What?" he said. But the open mouth seemed to satisfy her. She reached up and pulled his eyelid back a little. "Ow!" he said, and stepped back. "What's that for?"

Now her expression was serious. Very serious. "It's a good thing you dropped by, Ben," she said. "You're pretty sick. I'll know more when I examine you, but you need to rest right now."

When she said that, he felt the need to sit down. His legs felt like they were about to give way. "Sick?" he asked, with just a little bit of question in it.

"Yes, sick," Sally said, and grabbed his arm. In one step she swung him into one of her waiting room plastic chairs. He sat down heavy into it, so quick and so heavy the chair groaned. He panted for breath.

Sally bent over him and looked in his eyes. She pulled a little flashlight from a pocket, and shined it in his eyes, then his mouth. "Yep," she said. "You're sick, all right."

He coughed. His throat was sore.

#

There was a dim amberish light in the room when Ben woke up. It hurt him to move, even a little. He took a breath, and coughed, and coughed, and coughed, as if his lungs were coming up his throat. A cold, he realized. A heavy cold. It was all too familiar, all back to the sore throat from---yesterday? How long?

When he stopped coughing, he looked around, with his eyes alone as much as possible. It hurt to move. Where was he? He recognized nothing. The room was small, just enough room for the uncomfortable cot he lay on, and a little space left over for a chair and table next to it. To his left was a bookshelf, along almost the entire wall, empty of books.

To his right was a door, with a large glass window in it. The amber light came from the window. He could see nothing outside it. It hurt his head to look at it.

He lay under a rough-feeling blanket. It covered him up to his neck. The blanket felt rough on his skin, like sandpaper. His skin? He lifted the blanket; he was naked underneath it. But he couldn't, for the life of him, remember taking his clothes off.

He let the blanket fall down to his waist, and wondered what happened. After Sally looked at him, things were blurry. He remembered being helped into an examining room. She poked and prodded him in a number of ways. At some point, he nodded off. But he didn't remember how he got into this room, or what happened to his clothes. Did Sally take them off? Did he? Where were they?

He tried to take a breath, and went through another cough spasm, worse than the first, maybe. He was hot and sweaty and felt lousy. But now he was awake, wide awake.

Another glance at the shelves showed two books he missed before, tucked down in a corner to one side. They were just in reach, and with a little lean-up and stretch, he grabbed them. Then he looked at them. One was a Bible, a small, thin-paper gilt-edged edition. The other was a guide to the Bible, a thinner-but-taller book, printed on normal paper. He put the guide down on his chest, on the blanket, then opened the Bible at random.

It was no good. There was no light other than what came in through the window. That shined down in front of him, rather than from the back where he needed it to see. He tried turning the book and squinting, but it didn't work---then, from nowhere, a hand came up and took the book from him. "You're too sick to be doing anything but rest," he heard Sally say.

"Sally?" he said, and coughed again, but not for as long. "'Scuse me," he said.

"S'all right," she replied, and moved into his view as she sat down in a chair next to the bed. "You used all your energy getting here. You're pretty sick."

"I didn't notice." He looked at her. "Uh...how did I get here? This room, I mean. After your waiting room, everything's a blur. You examined me."

"Yes, I did." She smiled. "I helped you into the exam room, then helped you here. You fell asleep when your head hit the pillow."

"Er...my clothes?"

She chuckled. "You're not embarrassed, are you? I'm a doctor, you know." Then she said, "They're in the exam room. I'll get you a robe or something, if you want one. But you're not going anywhere. You're too sick."

"Uh, shouldn't I be in a hospital or something?"

Sally frowned. "First off, you're not that sick. You've got a bad cold, that's all. You'll be better with rest. And, second, I could transfer your to the county hospital, but, well, since you're a friend of mine, I'm putting you up in my back room for awhile." She handed him a clipboard and pen. "You need to sign this."

Ben turned it to the light and squinted. It was a standard doctor's office form, with all the questions about medical history and such. Some things were already filled out, he saw. He looked at Sally.

Sally said, "I know your background so I inputted that when I printed it out. You aren't allergic to anything, are you? No pre-existing conditions or sensitivity to drugs or recent illnesses, nothing I need to know about?"

Ben glanced at the questions and checked off several spots, then signed on the line. "Nothing I can think of. I don't go to doctors much. Sorry."

"Not at all." Sally took the clipboard back and put it on the table. "I would treat you anyway, but it's important to get these things signed, so they tell me. Is there anybody you should get in touch with, say, a secretary or significant other?"

He couldn't see her face when she said that. "Huh? Uh, no. Nobody. I'm kind of on vacation right now. I don't need to report back for two weeks. And, uh, it's been awhile since I've, uh, dated anyone I need to call."

Sally bent down. Her hand felt cool on his forehead. "You're still running a fever. I prescribe bedrest, but here's something that will ease some of the symptoms and let you rest."

She removed her hand and reached over and picked up something, then pressed it in his palm. "Put this pill in your mouth," she said, "then drink this and swallow." She handed him a cup.

Ben put the pill onto his tongue, then sniffed the cup---water? something else?---

then held it up to his lips and swallowed, one gulp. It wasn't water, but he couldn't place the taste. Some kind of medicine?

Sally smiled. "That'll take care of you."

"What?" he asked, but felt sleepy before he spoke. He lay back and closed his eyes.

#

Ben was still on the cot when he woke again. Now at least he knew where he was. The congestion was thinned out and he didn't feel as hot and sweaty as before. The blanket was up to his neck again. The light from the window was dimmer---or maybe he was more used to it?

But how long? He sat up, and felt woozy, and slumped back into his pillow. It took awhile for the swirling lights in his head to fade. He could breathe, a little raspy, but without coughing.

When he could, he looked down at himself. He wore pajamas now---Sally must have dressed him. They were his own pajamas. She must have gotten them from his luggage in the rental car out front.

Past his covered feet, he saw his luggage, two suitcases and a briefcase. One was closed, one was open. He nodded. But his head hurt a little, even from that. It looked like he was in for a rest. He needed one.

The door opened as he thought about it. He looked up. It wasn't Sally---it was Jeff, her son. He made an effort to sit up, and said, "Hello, Jeff. Where's your mother?"

"Mom's out on a call," Jeff said. "She'll be back by dinner."

Ben leaned forward and groaned. "Oh...what time is it? And shouldn't you be in school or something?

"It's summer!" Jeff said. "School's out."

Ben nodded agreement, then felt his bladder override his aches and pains and tiredness. He sat up. "Uh, where's the bathroom?"

"Uh..." Jeff pointed to the door. "Next door."

"Thanks," Ben said, and was up and out the door. He found himself in a hallway. There were doors all along, one on either end and three on each side. The door to his room was open. He looked both ways, pressure mounting on his bladder.

He made a guess, and guessed right. It was a small room, with a toilet and sink and shower stall. He went in and closed the door.

He didn't know how long he was in there. His bowels acted up and he took his time. He looked around. From the clown-shaped soap dispenser and some toys in the sink, he guessed this was Jeff's bathroom. One of the other rooms, behind one of the other doors, must be Jeff's as well. Which door led to Sally's room?

When Ben came out, he felt better...but his legs wobbled as he walked. He walked, as well as he could, back to the small room.

Jeff followed behind him. "Did you find it okay, Mister?"

"Yep, I found it." Ben leaned against the wall. He noticed a picture he didn't see before. A group photo...Sally, a much-younger Jeff, and a handsome hunk he figured must be Ian. Ben did not know him. Sally married him, and divorced him, after she graduated. But he knew the marriage lasted just long enough to produce Jeff, no longer. Ben pointed to the picture and asked Jeff, "Your father?"

"That's him," Jeff said. He's never around. Mom says we should respect him."

I wonder why, Ben thought, if he's never around? Out loud, he asked, "Do you miss him?"

"I guess so," Jeff replied. "Are you going to be around? We could play something."

"Er, maybe when I'm better. Right now I'm here because I'm sick. Your mother's a doctor."

"Yeechh!" Jeff replied. Was it "yes" or an expression of disgust? Then Jeff added, "It's kind of a pain."

Ben nodded, and took another step towards his room. Jeff said, "Y'know, mister, Mom told me to leave you alone 'cause you're sick."

"And she meant it!" Ben and Jeff both turned and looked. Sally stood at the door at the end of the corridor. She strode up to both of them. Jeff cowered away from her. Ben leaned back.

"Jeffrey," she said, her arms crossed across her chest. "I told you to leave Mr. Waterman alone. He's very sick and needs his rest."

"Aw, Mom," Jeff said.

"Go to your room and wait for me there." She pointed. Jeff turned and walked away. He opened the door at the other end of the hallway and closed it behind him.

Sally turned to face Ben, with the same crossed arms and cross expression. "You should be in bed."

"I, uh, had to go to the bathroom."

"Hmm." Sally uncrossed her arms and stepped over to Ben. "I'm not surprised. It's been about two days."

"What time is it?"

"Just after four in the afternoon. You've been here since yesterday morning." She felt his forehead, then sad, "Lean on me. We'll get you back to bed."

Ben leaned against her, feeling her strong muscles push against him, guiding him. When they got to the door, Ben said, "Wait a minute, wait a minute." He ran his hand along the inside edge of the door, found what he wanted, and flipped the switch. A bright neon light, from a fixture he did not notice before, shined down from above. He blinked.

"It'll come off when I leave," Sally said, as she swung him around to the edge of the bed. "Your fever is down but you need to rest."

"I've been out for a day," Ben said. "I feel all right."

"You don't look it. Let me examine you." She sat down opposite him, back in the plastic chair. She felt his forehead, looked in his mouth, then put an end of a cold stethoscope to his chest and thumped.

"Aren't you going to take my temperature?" Ben asked.

"You're not that sick," she said. "You're better, in fact. Your fever is down but you're still congested some and you're weak as a kitten. You need food. I'll bring you something. But lie down right now."

Ben said, "Your son told me about Ian."

"Oh?" Sally said, with coolness, "What did he tell you?"

"Just that he's never around. I'm sorry."

"Don't be." Sally straightened up. "Ian...couldn't handle things. Our marriage broke up right after Jeff was born." Then she said, "I know I was mad at him, but I can't condemn him. He sends child support. With that, and with what I make here, we get by. I love my life and my job and Jeff and that's enough." She sighed.'

"But wouldn't be better if Ian were here with you?" Ben asked.

He regretted asking the question once he saw her face. "No, it would be better if you didn't ask questions." She stood up, and stood in the door. "Stay in bed. Get some rest. I'll be back with something for you to eat." She put her hand on the wall and turned the light out.

Ben stretched out and reached for the blanket. He said, "Er, Sally, the light from the window."

"Oh? Well, I can do something about that." She reached up and pulled down a window shade he didn't notice before. Then she closed the door and the darkness swallowed him.

#

Now it was night and Ben was half-asleep, half-awake. Too much rest did that to him, threw him off. Now he couldn't sleep. It was a deep dark he lay in. The window shade covered the window and the slight lines of light around the edges didn't bother him.

Ben thought of turning the lights on and reading, but, still, he didn't have the energy. True to her word, Sally brought him a light dinner---six half-slices of toast with orange marmalade spread on them. It satisfied his light hunger, and after that he slept---but just for a few hours.

Now he slept, dozed, and was wide awake a few minutes after, wide awake and thinking, dreaming...dreaming of Sally.

Then Ben awoke from dozing and felt something warm slip against his body. "What?" he said, and started to get up.

"Shh!" Sally whispered. "Lay back. Just let me lay against you."

Ben put his arms around her and held her against his chest. Her head fell against his chin. He couldn't see her at all; he didn't hear her come in. "But, Sally, why?"

"Let's just say that when you asked about Ian, it made me think." She squeezed him. "I'm alone, Ben. It's been a long times since I've been with anyone." Then she said, with the hint of a laugh in her voice, "I know you always wanted to."

Ben couldn't deny it. It was true. But, now, she was here in his arms, and he could--- "What about your son?"

"He won't hear us. These rooms are soundproof."

"But...I'm sick."

Sally did chuckle aloud at that. "You're all right. You'll be well in the morning. And you'll be gone and there might never be another chance."

"But I didn't mean---well, I mean, I might be so sick you might not, er, be satisfied by it."

She laughed, then. "I'll take a chance." He felt her press against him. "You can't say you can't. I can feel it."

It was true. There wasn't a way out, even if he wanted one. So he sighed and pulled her close. She raised her head and their lips met.

#

Ben woke, on his back, staring up at the ceiling in the dark. It was a moment before he remembered what happened. Sally was gone. He was in bed, the same rough blanket, the same dirty pajamas. It was as if it were a dream...

Then he wondered if it was a dream. Last night, it seemed so real. But now he was alone. Now he doubted.

He got up and went to the door, but as he put his hand on the doorknob he held back. Instead, he felt for the light switch and turned them on. He blinked until his eyes adjusted.

The room was bare as he remembered. The empty bookshelves were still empty. The Bible and Bible guide lay where Sally put them. His suitcases and briefcase were where he last saw them.

The cot lay there. The blanket was at its foot and the mussed-up pillow at its head. The blanket and single sheet covering the mattress, well...they were mussed, dirty, stained. Stained from what he and Sally did...or just stained from his being sick on them for days?

His pajamas were dirty...same thing?

Could it be a dream? He shook his head. It all felt real. There he was, holding Sally in his arms as he always wanted to. But was it real? Could he, in his sickness, dream something like that? He felt fine---the congestion lingered but that was it---but could it be something built up by his subconscious out of his imagination and desires?

Sally would know---yes, Sally would know. He bent down, felt around in his open suitcase, and pulled a robe from it and put it on. Yes, Sally would know. He opened the door.

#

The door at the far end of the hallway, the one Sally came in when Ben was with Jeff in the hall, led to a kitchen. It was a small kitchen. A stove, a refrigerator, a crowded counter between them, a table in the middle, cabinets on the walls. Almost not enough room to move. Sally was there, at the stove. She wore an apron over her white doctor's coat and her jeans. She worked on things in several pans. Next to her coffee dripped out of a machine into a pot on the counter. Sally turned to him and smiled.

Ben raised his arm and finger, as if to speak to her. But Sally spoke first. Still smiling, she said, "Morning, Ben. I thought you might be up and around this morning. Care for breakfast? I can't offer much more than bacon, eggs, sausage, toast, and cereal. Oh, and some sliced fruit."

Ben lowered his hand. "Uh...yeah. Yes. I'm hungry. I'll eat with you. I'll eat whatever you're having."

"Sit anywhere." Sally turned back to the stove top. Ben looked over to the small kitchen table across the room. It was round and white-countertopped, and four chairs lay around it.

Three places were set. Jeff sat at one, placing him between the two empty seats. He ate cereal with one hand and propped his head up with the other. Ben slid into one empty seat, where he could look at Sally. Jeff glanced at him, and said, "Are you feeling better, Mister?"

"Uh, yes, yes I am." Ben smiled at him. "Thank you."

Jeff turned his attentions back to his cereal. Ben looked around. There were small bowls of fruit at each place. Ben picked it up, picked up a fork, and ate. Sliced bananas, grapes, some melons and cantaloupe. It felt good on his tongue. He said, "It's good.

Sally laughed. "I just get the store stuff," she said. "Except the bananas."

"It's good anyway." He went back to eating.

The breakfast on the plate she put in front of him was scrambled eggs, three strips of bacon, and two pieces of toast. Sally put another plate, an identical meal, at the remaining place setting and sat down. There was a cup of coffee at the plate already. Jeff finished off the last of his cereal and said, "Can I go?"

"Jeffrey," Sally said.

"Sorry, Mom. May I be excused?"

"You were going to play with Jimmy this morning, weren't you?"

"Yep...yes, Mom. His mom, uh, well, she'll watch us all day."

Sally nodded. "Then you can go."

"Thanks, Mom." Jeff got up and ran around the table, hugged Sally at his level, then ran off.

Ben watched and listened, bemused.

After they heard the last of several doors slam shut, Sally turned to Ben and said, "It's summer. What can you do? I can get some filing done unless someone drops in."

"What about me, Sally?" Ben asked.

"You can amuse yourself." She sighed. "You're well enough to move on now, if you want. Maybe one more day of rest, but you could go now."

"Mmm." Ben finished off his plate, then said, "I think we need to talk."

"Oh? About what?"

"What happened last night."

"That's an odd way to put it." She finished her own plate, and leaned forward on her elbows and looked at him.

It made him uneasy. "Well, I know, you know...and you know I know."

"That's even odder," she said. "Or would that be 'more odd?'" She shook her head. "What do you want to say?"

Ben said, "This is hard. Last night, something happened, and I want to---I just want to be sure of my facts before blurting out something---something embarrassing."

Sally nodded. "Go on."

"This morning---" He shrugged. "I'm sorry, Sally, but it's starting to seem like it was some kind of dream. A great dream, if it was a dream...but if it wasn't a dream..."

Sally frowned. "And you want me to tell you what happened last night, Ben. Right?"

Ben bobbed his head in a nod.

"Would you think it good or bad if I told you nothing happened last night?"

Ben felt his face redden in a blush. "It would be the worst thing that could happen to me." He looked at Sally, remembering...the sweat on her skin, the taste of her mouth...how good it felt. He shook his head. "Sally, I'm sorry. Very sorry."

Sally nodded again, then said, "Let me say this. If what happened did happen, let's say it was just two old friends giving comfort to each other---in passing." She smiled. "And this old friend won't try to hold the other hold friend if you go on."

Was that confirmation? Ben said, "This old friend is looking for something more than something in passing."

"Does he think he can get it here?"

"Uh, maybe."

Sally shrugged, then got up. She went to the counter, to the coffee pot, and filled hers again, then returned to the table. "I'm not going to give you any coffee," she said. "You still need rest."

"Something liquid would be nice." He felt conscious of his thirst.

Sally got up again, opened the refrigerator, and pulled out something. She handed it to him as she sat down again. He looked at it. It was a juicebox. He looked up at Sally. She shrugged. "All I've got right now. Later I'll make some tea." Ben pulled the straw from the box side, pulled the straw from its wrapper, shoved it in, and sipped. Sally sat down opposite him once again.

As he sipped, Sally said, "Maybe we should look on what happened just as something that happened. No strings, no attachments."

"You make it sound like a vacuum cleaner," Ben said. He reached the end of the juice and sucked, trying to draw every last drop out.

Sally sighed. "Let's not dance around it anymore, Ben. Tell me what happened. What you think happened. Outright."

"Okay." Ben took a deep breath, coughed a couple of times, then said, "Damned cold." He took another breath, and said, "I was in bed last night. I was going in and out of sleep. Then you climbed into bed with me and we had hot sex. Great hot sex. Then I fell asleep and when I woke up it was morning and you were gone." He looked at her, and said, with some heat, "Did it happen? Or did I just dream it?"

Sally sipped her coffee, elbows on table, both hands holding the cup. After a sip and a swallow, she said, "One more day of rest for you, and then you move on. Back to your life. Back to where you should be."

Ben said, "You're not going to give me a straight answer."

"I won't let you build your life around it." She furrowed her brow, and said, "No, Ben. Nothing happened last night. You were dreaming."

So it happened, he thought. But he said, "So it was a dream."

Sally shrugged.

"Well, then, I'll stay one more night and go in the morning." He hesitated, and said, "Do you think that dream, er, will happen again?"

Sally put her coffee down. "I think you've had enough. I've got to get to work and you still need rest. Go back to your room, Ben."

"I'm bored," Ben said. "I can't sleep forever."

"And there's no need to help you along with medication." She smiled. "I'll bring you something to read."

"Newspapers, if you've got 'em." Ben frowned. "How long have I been here?"

"Three days, now. You needed rest." Sally stood up and, one by one, picked up the dishes and silverware, piling them in an uneven stack.

Ben stood up. "I could help with that."

Sally sighed as she picked up the last dish. As she carried the stack to the sink, she said, "No, I can take care of myself." She put the stack in the sink, and put her hand on the faucet knob, then sighed again, and sagged a little over the sink. Without turning around, she said, "Look, Ben, I'll think about what you said. But, to put it your way...this friend has a life of her own, a life all her own. She doesn't want to break it up, and she doesn't want her friend to break up his own life out of some misguided idea. You understand."

"Yes. Yes, I do. This friend will also do some thinking. But he doesn't think anything will change." He stopped himself, then added, "This friend already knows he loves you very much."

Sally turned to look at him, then turned back to the sink. She turned the knob and let the water run over the dishes. But she made no effort to scrub or clean them. Ben tiptoed away, his own thoughts heavy on his mind.

#

There were no more visits. Sally stepped into his room with a pile of magazines and newspapers and left. In between reads, he napped. Neither the reading material nor the dreams during his naps were more interesting than his thoughts.

Was this the end? The next morning Ben stood in the clinic waiting room. The room was empty and silent, just as it was when he arrived. His suitcases and briefcase were all packed and standing next to him. He wore the same shirt and pants he wore when he arrived---Sally washed them and returned them.

Jeff came into the room and said, "Thanks for coming, Mister."

"Thanks? What for?"

"Mom seemed kind of, well---happier, with you here."

"Happier, huh," Ben said, and looked up at Sally, standing at the open door that led to the back rooms. She must have heard. "Were you happier, Sally?" he asked.

"Maybe." Sally looked down at Jeff. "Mister Waterman is leaving now."

"Oh." Jeff seemed disappointed. "Will you be coming back, Mister? We never did get to play anything together."

"Well, Jeff," Ben said, "I've got business to attend to." He looked at Sally, and added, "In a month and a half, my job will bring me down this way. Maybe we can meet up again."

"That'll be good," Jeff said. He looked at his mother.

Sally bent down a little and looked into Jeff's face. She said, "Now, Jeffrey, we can't expect Mister Waterman to drop everything just to come by." She looked at Ben, then added, "Now say goodbye to Mister Waterman."

Jeff looked at Ben, then ran over and hugged him, the grasp of his hug reaching just waist high and not all the way around. Then he ran to the open door and was gone.

Sally turned to Ben. "Did you mean that?"

"I did. Back in a month and a half." Ben grinned. "Then your friend and my friend can get together and talk about where their friendship is going."

"My position hasn't changed, Ben."

Ben shrugged. "Neither has mine."

"Well, then, the two of them can still get together." Ben took a step and held out his arms. Sally stepped into them. They kissed. It was not a passionate kiss, just a kiss between two old and good friends.

Before letting go, Sally said, "Just so you know...I love you, Ben."

"I love you, Sally." Ben let go. She nodded, and spun on her heels and went through the door to the back rooms, closed the door behind her, and was gone.

Been looked after her, then bent down and picked up his luggage, all three cases at once, and carried them one-handed through the clinic door. He read the writing on the frosted glass. It still said SALLY RIESLING. Maybe, he thought, maybe he could talk her into someday putting WATERMAN next to her name. Someday. But now it was time to go.

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