You can't stop love...
|The Commodore’s Cupid
* * * *
Everything seemed gray and lifeless, he thought, as the plane droned on through the dark skies. This trip home should have been a welcome respite from his chronically over-booked architectural firm, but not this time.
The telegram had reached him just in time, explaining that old Commodore Haskins had passed away, giving scant details of the funeral and reading of his will. Not that there was any need for him to attend the reading, he thought. He wasn’t related to the Commodore, who had left a surviving granddaughter to inherit whatever remained.
Still, the Commodore had taken him under his wing many years ago, and had sponsored his attendance at the university—something that would have been impossible because of his impoverished situation those many years ago.
His widowed mother had worked in the Commodore’s household as a maid, and Cliff and she occupied a small cottage at the back of the estate until he left for college. He had demonstrated a gift for math and drawing, and on the recommendation of the old man, he’d majored, and excelled in that discipline in school.
Snapped up by a renowned architectural firm upon his graduation ‘with honors’, he’d begun a long apprenticeship until becoming a partner 7 years later. He now commanded top dollar from some of the most prestigious corporations throughout the country, but it was a mixed honor.
His dream had turned into his nightmare, as he no longer had time for a life of his own, and for several years, his social life had become nothing more than cocktails and canapés—all business related of course. The demands on his life for his expertise was draining his soul, he thought, and he’d now accept any excuse to escape this life for a short while.
The last time he’d visited his home was over 8 years ago, when his mother finally passed away. The Commodore had taken care of most of the details, but Cliff was able by that time to provide for the quality funeral and burial that he felt his long-suffering mother deserved. It only served to remind him, however, of the life that he’d left behind, and when he returned to the ‘big city’, the emptiness of his ‘successful’ career haunted him for its treachery.
Now, he was coming back once more, to a life that continued to taunt him for its simplicity, and happiness. He’d miss the old man, and the countless collaborations that they’d enjoyed.
As the plane landed at the terminal, rain was pouring down in torrents, and once he had de-planed, had still not spotted his transportation. There was supposed to be a sign, he thought, and a limo to the funeral home. He saw none of this but he just shrugged, and thought, ‘If this is how his trip started, what could he really expect from the rest of his visit?’
Soaked to the skin, he flagged a taxi, and instead of stopping at the funeral home as he’d originally intended, he headed towards the motel closest to the Commodore estate. Tomorrow, he thought, he’d get this over with, and simply get on with his miserable life.
The next morning, refreshed from a nice, hot shower, and clothed in appropriate attire, he called a taxi for transportation to the funeral home, just in time for the beginning of the closing ceremonies. As he stood at the back of the parlor hall, he gazed over the sea of heads to find someone he recognized. The backs of heads didn’t leave him too many clues, he discovered, but he didn’t want to interrupt the eulogy by marching in on the assembly now.
The old Commodore had many friends, Cliff noted. The hall was virtually standing room only, and emotions were running high. His own included as the years of experience with the old man had run a deep channel of memories within his mind.
And finally, the university sponsorship that astounded his mother, and left both of them eternally grateful for the gesture. It ensured his visit this final time, to pay tribute to a real ‘gentleman’. Tears began to fall from his cheeks, and in embarrassment, he quickly wiped them away.
One person he was curious about he didn’t see, but with the huge crowd attending, he wasn’t surprised. Lenore, the Commodore's granddaughter, and the ‘thorn’ in his side while growing up, was probably at the front of the assemblage, offering her last respects to her grandfather. They’d grown up together, nearly brother and sister, and she’d presented him with a paradox of enormous proportions on the social scale.
Him, the beggar; her, the princess. That’s how life played out for them, although near the end of his high school years, her attitude began to change towards him a bit. In fact, the day he left for college, she’d come to his cottage, and they’d wandered out to the woods a ways. A short time later, she pulled out a pocket knife. Turning to a large oak tree, she carved out a heart, with ‘LH loves CC’ in it. When completed, she kissed him on the cheek, and walked out of his life.
He learned years later that she’d married the mayor’s son, and soon after had lost track of her. He supposed that was the way things typically went between the classes within his community. The only twist in the story was the Commodore’s sponsorship of his education; in architecture of all things.
You see, the Commodore had opened up an office for Architectural Engineering in the state of South Carolina after retirement from the Navy after World War II. He was his hero; his mentor and his surrogate father. He owed him, big time…
As he joined the long line of viewers at the end of the ceremony, he had cause to reflect on many episodes growing up with Lenore, putting up with her taunting, harassment and teasing. She was two years younger than him, but she’d pursued him relentlessly, humbling him before the rest of his peers. To think back now, she was the reason that he’d achieved as much as he’d had to this day; simply to prove to her that he could. But it was an empty victory, he thought. He had everything now except happiness.
Approaching the casket, he looked within, noting that the Commodore hadn’t really changed much since he’d seen him last. The old man had passed with all of the dignity that he’d lived with. In the next couple of moments, Cliff’s life took an odd turn.
Standing there, looking at the old man, he was startled by a small, warm hand slipping into his. Glancing down, he was greeted by a little girl, no more than 3 or 4 years old looking up into his eyes. As he tried to make sense of the situation, she quietly raised her arms in front of him, obviously wanting to be picked up.
He hesitated, under the circumstances it didn’t seem right, but she stayed in front of him, wiggling her fingers up at him, and finally said, “Gum’pa, please…” He picked her up, and nestled her against his face, now both gazing down at the dignified gentleman lying there before them. The little girl hugged his face tightly, and said in a soft voice, “Gum’pa sleeping…” He could only reply, “Yes, sleeping…”
A sharp gasp caught his attention, and as he turned towards the interruption, he found himself staring into the face of his childhood nemesis; Lenore. A grown up Lenore, matured into a beautiful woman, only flawed by grief. Her face now displayed shock and dismay, as she’d begun to chastise the little girl and apologize to him at the same time. Then, she looked at his face, and finally recognized who he was.
“Iffy,” she said, “Is it really you?” The old derogatory nickname that she’d used with him in their youth opened an old wound once more, but he pushed it aside. “Cliff,” he corrected, and put the young lady down. Curiously, the little girl continued to hang onto his hand quite tightly.
“I didn’t think you’d come, you know.” She said, puzzled. Looking at her closely, he replied, “He was a part of my life too, Lenore.” A single distraction was the little girl, jerking on his hand, looking for attention. Finally casting his glance down at her, she surprised him when she asked, “Can we go home now?”
Embarrassed, Lenore tried to shush the little girl, but he dropped to his knee to look into her face. “I’m sure that this has been a busy day for you, my dear; but help your mommy for a little while longer. She needs you right now.” The young lady looked at him for a few moments, as if making up her mind about something, then reached out and hugged him before returning to take Lenore’s hand.
After a few awkward moments, Cliff left Lenore and the little girl to their grief and headed for the estate and the small cottage that he’d shared with his mother so long ago. He had some reminiscing and grieving of his own to do while he was back home. Fortunately, the estate was only about 10 minutes away by taxi, and from there, a walk to his motel. But, his brief encounter with Lenore had brought on a flood of memories, and he found himself embroiled in emotional turmoil once again.
Despite his emotional pain, he still had strong feelings for her, but cursed the moment he’d bumped into her this day. Now, the pain of their separation so long ago returned to haunt him; stubborn fools, both of them, they’d walked away from each other never to return, until now. The Commodore had brought them together once more, but at a terrible cost—and so very, very late…
Shaking his head, he went through the gates of the estate, and wandered back towards the cottage, trying to cleanse the memories of himself and Lenore from his mind. His mother, their times together; good times and bad, all piled up at the entrance to his tortured mind. Instead, his thoughts were of Lenore; years of companionship filled with tempestuous rivalry; but he loved her nonetheless.
The cottage appeared abandoned as he neared it, and his heart sunk as the echoes of what he’d lost rolled over his soul. Tears began to fall from his cheeks as he recalled the last days before leaving for college. That was the last time he’d seen Lenore in person, the last time they’d communicated at any level. Then, the memory of what she’d done before he’d left crossed his mind. The heart, carved into the large oak tree, and the initials on it. He suddenly had the urge to find it again, to see for himself whether it had any meaning or not.
He tried to remember if her husband had been at the funeral, but he couldn’t recall. Was the little girl her daughter, he wondered, or just someone in her care? She was lovely, he recalled—they were both lovely. Again, his heart ached, and he decided that he needed to wrap up his business here, and leave as soon as possible. Even though his life these days was empty labor, staying here with these memories was even worse torture.
The reading of the will was the following Monday, and he made up his mind to expose himself to as little of the local hospitality as he could to spare himself further pain until then, but now, he needed to find that significant tree. Strangely enough, the weather had cleared to near pristine conditions, and it seemed to raise his spirits considerably.
Countering that feeling was the realization that this life was all behind him now, and that he’d soon be returning to the solitary lifestyle he’d left just a couple days ago.
Walking past the house, he moved into the small copse of trees in the rear, dominated by a large oak tree. Oddly enough, the pathway to the tree was still worn, although the area surrounding it was unkempt and overgrown. Everything seemed smaller now, for some reason, but the warm moist air was actually comforting, and once again, memories of growing up with Lenore flooded his mind.
Yes, the heart was still there, carved into the skin of the giant oak, timeless. He traced the outline of the letters; ‘LH’, ‘loves’, ‘CC’, and wondered again what that actually conveyed. He had left for college, and she had walked away into another life. The ache in his own heart began anew, and tears filled his eyes.
It was so quiet here, he noted. Only the soft, warm wind caressed his face now, fragrant with the scent of damp leaves and grass. Almost womblike, he thought. His tormented mind wandered… His reflection was interrupted by something entirely unexpected; the sudden feel of a small, warm, hand slipping into his, and a little voice asking, “What’cha looking at, mister?”
Startled, Cliff glanced down to see the same little girl that he’d encountered in the funeral home. Looking around to see if she was with someone, he saw nothing but an empty path leading to the cottage. Still holding her hand, he squatted in front of her, and was about to ask her name. Suddenly, he heard a frantic female voice calling out, “Eve! Where are you? Please let me know where you are!”
Giving the little girl a reproving look, he queried, “Eve?” She dropped her eyes and responded, “Yes, sir?” “You really should tell her where you’re at, my dear.” He scolded her gently. “Yes, sir,” she mumbled, and called out.
In a few moments, he spotted the woman rushing past the cottage and headed towards them near the big oak tree. Lenore still looked wonderful, he thought, even with her face creased in concern and grief. As she neared the pair beside the tree, she slowed down, a look of bewilderment on her face.
Finally, Eve let go of his hand and rushed back to Lenore, telling her “Mommy, he found your heart on the tree.” Lenore was looking at him now, her face turning red. Finally, she smiled, despite the tears rolling down her cheeks.
“He always told me you’d come back to this spot, Cliff. The Commodore never gave up on you.” She shook her head and continued. “I gave up once, four years after you’d left home. I thought you’d come to your senses and come back to me, but after a while, I realized what a fool I’d been over so many years. I’d given you nothing to come back to.”
He’d stood up to face her while she was talking, and then stepped closer. “And your husband?” he queried. He watched as her face fell, and she hugged Eve a little tighter. Finally, she said, “He never lived long enough to see his daughter. A bar fight three months after we were married, one of many that he’d been involved in, put an end to his life.” She added, “It was a fight over a woman…”
“The Commodore never condemned me for my foolishness, only urged me to be patient. He always told me that he and his great-grand-daughter would bring you back to me. I’m really sorry, Cliff, but he put those thoughts into her head as she grew up.”
He held his feelings inside, but he drew up enough nerve to invite them both out to dinner that night to discuss the events of the past several years. Eve was delighted to be included in a ‘grown-ups’ meal, and ran to him once more. She could be addictive, he thought, and smiled.
* * * *
The reading of the will took place as scheduled, and Cliff had taken a taxi to the law offices, where he found several of the Commodore’s relatives inside, including Lenore and Eve.
As the assets were distributed amongst the group, Cliff thought about the past couple of days spent wining Lenore, and dining both ladies, wondering what he’d missed over the years of loneliness. His feelings for Lenore had never subsided, and the company of the delightful Eve lifted his heart each day they spent together.
Finally, the executor spoke his name, much to his surprise. “To Clifford Carlson and Lenore Haskins, I bequeath the following, subject to certain conditions.” He then activated a small recorder.
‘Hi, Cliff, sorry to meet you again under these circumstances, but you know how it goes; it’s the only way out of this world. I’ve put a lot of effort in your education, and you’ve made me proud. I’ve followed your passage through college and your career, and I’ve been mightily impressed; so much so, I’d hoped that you’d one day consider taking over my Architectural Engineering Firm when I retired. There’s been a small change, but I’m still convinced that you and my grand-daughter have Karma to fulfill. So, I bequeath my firm to Lenore Haskins, provided she can convince Mr. Carlson to take over the control of its assets and future business under her ownership; and if that happens, many thanks to Eve, my little cupid.’”
Cliff smiled, for the first time in years, and looking at Lenore he saw the same joy in her eyes. He knew now what he had to do to recapture his life and his happiness. Eve responded to his smile, and ran over to take his hand once more, followed by Lenore, who now had a question on her face.
“Lenore, will you take Cliff…?” he whispered. “Oh god, yes!” she blurted out, and threw her arms around him, crying into his neck.
There was no doubt now, Cliff knew he’d finally come home.