Breakfast Stories: OPEN Sign

An open sign with an unlit hanging lamp to stylize legendary poet Don Moss's short story, "Breakfast Stories: OPEN Sign".

Joel knew brief little fantasies about other women, of real, but mostly of imagined ones. This one was real, had sat across from him in the same office. Aalis, might as well say her name, was one of four nurses he had to assign patients at the university. These nurses were remarkably organized, well beyond his slovenly habits. Aalis carried herself a little more upright than the others, meant what she said, was the only nurse practitioner among them. He’d not worked with all women before and her manner appealed to him from the outset. He soon learned her manner was polished from her years as a commissioned Army reservist, a Major, no less.

Aalis mentioned she had two young daughters and a husband named Mark. There was something about how she spoke of him that hinted they weren’t doing so well. She didn’t disclose many details, other than Mark was too settled with his job, not pushing for advancement at the insurance company. He was a good father to the girls, and he and family would manage them during Aalis’s Army weekends and when she had longer deployments. Joel had told her his own marriage needed to begin, a curious way of putting it, she thought.

Four years she sat across from him, but for the past two years she’d moved to another campus office, and he wished he saw her more often than an occasional lunch.

One Friday in February she called him and said “Let’s do something after work,” not saying what or where, just that she’d pick him up outside his office at 1800—that’s 6 o’clock, he calculated. She was prompt, as he expected. He eased into the passenger seat and to his surprise she handed him a neatly rolled joint to light. “This for real?” Jo said, looking around with caution. Aalis laughed and pressed in the dash lighter, and they were off, out of the university area, with Jo sitting a little low in his seat, but by the third or fourth passing of the joint he lifted his shoulders higher, the back of his head now resting against the seat headrest.

“We’re stopping here?” Joel asked Aalis, with the glaring bar lights coloring them both red.

“Happy hour,” she replied.

“Been to one of those once,” Jo said.

“Just once!” she exclaimed, though not surprised. “And what was that special occasion?”

“A friend’s dad died and I tagged along to some bar, didn’t drink but paid for his.”

“You’ve lived how many years without happy hours?” she joked, or was she joking?

Aalis didn’t smoke, but handled the joint with obvious skill, no coughing, and with her last turn jabbed the finger-burning roach into the ashtray.

She’d stopped at a bar frequented by guys who worked with their hands, guys who fixed things no one can live without. Country music was playing softly enough that even Joel could halfway make out what people were saying. Neither of them wanted to stay long—the place was thick with cigarette smoke.

Aalis ordered each of them a beer, and this being happy hour, two were slid in front of each of them. Middle-aged and trim, Jo guessed she drank little more than he did. ‘Wasn’t the joint potent enough?’ he thought. ‘And where’d this commissioned Army reservist nurse practitioner get the grass?’ He’d lived without happy hours and had never bought an ounce of grass. He was seeing more of her each minute.

She was staring toward the mirror now, the wall of mirror behind the bartender, staring not at herself or to scan the room, just staring. Jo clicked his first half-emptied glass against hers and she saw his face reflected next to hers.

’Let it happen,’ she thought, leaning toward the distant mirror. She picked up her glass in a silent held toast, fully turning Jo’s way with a slant of her head. He returned her question with a bow of his. The thick smoke brought a small tear to their dilated eyes. `It must be the smoke,’ each thought.

Back in her car, Jo asked, “You OK to get us there,” though he still didn’t know where. “Not far now,” she said, starting the car and looking twice, then again, then turning her head and checking once before to be sure before inching the car back, the bar sign now flashing and probably had been flashing all along, a fitting light show for this twangy bar. ‘Just what part of your brain does pot entertain?’ Joel thought a forgetful instant.

Jo studied the precision in how she turned the wheel until she said, “How can I drive with you looking at me?”

“You drive masterfully, from your hands to your arms to your shoulders to your…”

“You want to get us wrecked, you silly guy!” she said.

She stopped the car again, and they had arrived. Some sort of spa it seemed. They entered and Aalis told the woman at the counter her name and the two of them were soon walking down a hall to room No. 4, a bigger room to the back, he’d heard the woman say.

inside the room was all white, white tile floor, neatly stacked white towels and cushions, a large thick mat, white showers and a very large tub or modest pool. Joel, holding his shoulders back, breathing deeply, the brightness blinding. Aalis brought him back with a squeeze of his hand. She had taken off her coat, he noticed. “Let’s shower before getting in.” ‘Getting in,’ he repeated to himself.

Jo asked, “Shower together?” She replied, “No, meet you back here.” Jo knew how to undress and put on some sort of sports attire…but this uniform under his clothing…her hand unbuttoning his shirt.

“You still in the shower, slow poke?” Aalis said, and as he stepped out, she handed him a towel, which he held partially between them, smiled, set it down, took a full breath, a full view of her, as she him, though hers more clinically inclusive. “You show few scars,” she said. “Persistent scars stay hidden,” Jo replied, causing her to look up to his face, as they moved toward the pool-sized tub.

‘How had she thought of this?’ he must have wondered too loudly, as more than their flesh was now exposed.

“I drive by this place commuting to the university every day,” Aalis said, having waded to mid-chest. “Always wondered what it was like inside, couldn’t imagine if ever and with whom I’d give it a try. Stopped once, half expecting one of your notes would be taped to the door.”

Four years in the same office, but when she left, he began leaving her little notes, silly things, secretly serious things about how much he missed her, wondered what she was doing. As months passed, the frequency of his notes increased, not only in what he wrote but where he might place them.

“All those notes,” she said, the thousand doors, under my car’s windshield wipers, the campus mail system.”

Lifting her horizontally, sustaining her buoyancy, Jo started to ask, “What do…”

“…do I wish?” she completed, now eyes closed, “that I find happiness that stays around,” now rolling lightly away and then toward Jo.

“Happiness is finding the right someone?”

“Haven’t gone that far; there’s a first step…”

“…to feel released, to feel opened,” Jo completed.

“To feel…released, open, yes,” Aalis agreed, continuing to sway in his support. “Released from husband or from…” shallow lines showed in her face. Closing her eyes, buoyancy gently pulsing.

Jo eased her to her feet and she lifted and held him out. “And you?” she asked.

“Why’d you plan this for Valentine’s Day?”

“I wouldn’t ask that just now,” she said, dipping his head slightly, “It is my schedule, the class I’m taking.”

“You are the class I’m taking,” Jo replied.

“Here’s your grade,” she said, dipping his head again.

“One last lecture before the test, please, Valentine, Valentine.”

“Jo,” she whispered, “just a coincidence.”

“Pure happenstance, and I thank your schedule,” he said, as she tipped his feet back to the pool bottom. “What is happenstance is Carol being away at a conference. You couldn’t have known…”

“What sort of release?” Aalis said.

“Release from myself before moving on.”

“You mean divorce?” she said, leaning slightly into his hands.

“That legal part’s easy, Aalis.”

“How many years, you two?”

“Moving toward 17, 18…”

“More than my married years, but add the two girls ages, Aalis paused, “…they’ll stay with me.”

Holding on to each other, they turned several times, light in the pool depth, then bobbed toward the shallow end and out toward the stack of towels. Jo picked up one and began drying Aalis. “Softly, not so rough,” she said, picking up the other end of the big towel to dry his chest. Picking up fresh towels, they separated enough to continue on their own. Jo moved toward the bed sized mat. Both hesitated and slowly lowered to the mat, leaning on the large angled cushions head-high as for sunbathing. Jo spread another large towel partly covering them, holding off any words. From some distant room, popular music beat.

“Jo, say more about what you call release.”

“The idea began with those little notes.”

“Around and around, making me think, ‘’who is this man?’ You were always a little weird, but never alarming,” Aalis said.

“Those notes were a start, and the obsession of writing them and placing them grew. This was all after you left the study, but were still somewhere in the multitude of medical towers. Any sort on contact with you became my preoccupation.”

“I missed seeing you and the routine I’d built there, but didn’t miss those other nurses.”

“All of them?” Jo asked.

“Just Pamela and how she thought herself so hot. Any interest in her?”

“Not the least, I’m lactose intolerant,” he said.

“Lactose…hah, yeah she was top-heavy and was proud of it, in contrast to my extreme…in high school the girls called me my brother’s name,” Aalis said.

“Girls must brag on their genetics as much as guys,” Jo said.

“Every bit and more, but you know, my daughters never went hungry,” Aalis said, surprised at her words.

“Pams don’t turn my head,” Jo said.

“OK, enough poking fun at nurses,” Aalis pretended to scold. I was glad when you arranged all four nurses have lunch together and try to talk things out, that is, between Pam and me. Not much was said—don’t think I ate a thing—that broke the tension or at least set it out in the open, where we could joke a little about how we didn’t care for each other. Never had this sort of tension working with male docs.”

“But what you call release, say more.”

“I was proud each anniversary Carol and I had that we’d been together another year. Annually that feeling regenerated. But the relationship couldn’t keep running only on that one fuel. She was to finish her studies and then our life could commence, but her studies went on and on. Those notes to you were the start of a release from that life, a freeing. Let’s not wreck that with an ordinary affair, whose virtue’s captured in a condom.”

“Captured in a…God, Jo! You…” Aalis said, sliding the angled cushion to the side, placing her head on his chest.

“Will I be billed for this diagnosis?” Jo asked.

“Hush, I want to listen; I didn’t bring a stethoscope,” Aalis said, adjusting her head position.

“What do you hear?” Jo asked.

“Too many lub-dubs,” she replied, “it’s just by ear.”

“Just by ear,” Joel silently mouthed.

“I read lips, you know,” she said as sternly as laughter allowed. She blinked to regain control and placed a hand professionally on his shoulder, head to chest, listening until his breath, at least, slowed to near normal. She was smiling, now, a small victory smile. “You breathe from your abdomen; glad you don’t puff out your upper chest—so many guys need to show off.”

“So many guys?” Joel asked.

“Yeah, Army docs have qualified nurses do much of their work, including physicals, have listened to many rapid hearts.

“With a stethoscope, I assume,” Jo said.

“With a stethoscope,” Aalis assured him. “That was then, this is…” shifting her right shoulder into the mat, his chest now her pillow, left legs crossed.

Counting his breaths, Joel stared at the bright ceiling until forcing his eyes shut, holding them shut until he joined her in sleep.

First awake, Aalis, alarmed, said, “Jo, we have to dress, get moving,” shaking him awake.

“Am I still dreaming?” he heard himself say.

“Get up,” Aalis said, feeling for the first time any need of clothing. “What time is it?”

“Too late to hurry,” he said, arm held high, fingers spread.

Aalis, standing now, began to wrestle into her clothing, each item resisting, Jo, amused, cheering her efforts.

“Come on, get moving,” she said, grabbing his hand and pulling him to his feet. “You even know you have nothing on?”

“I never over-dress,” he replied, looking around for his things.

Soon in the hall, passing the counter, a woman—was she the one who checked them in?—nodded approval as they passed into the parking lot.

Inside the car, doors shut, key in the ignition, Aalis caught up with herself. Quietly they sat until she asked, “Should I have called?”

“Should I have answered?” Jo replied.

“Should…” Aalis began, looking at herself in the rearview mirror, then toward Joel. “I’ve got a weekend of Army and haven’t eaten since lunch yesterday. Was to report for duty after 2000, but any time before morning muster will serve. You hungry too?”

Recipe:

Hours before dawn, persist until you find a place with a lit OPEN sign; the coffee will be mild but plentiful; the grill warm, the menu familiar; at this hour, no one quite the same.

* * *

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More from Don Moss: Breakfast Stories: In a Box, Breakfast Stories: Toast, FrenchSHORT STORY: “James (Continued)”