At an estate auction, browsing for one-of-a-kind treasures to accessorize the place I was housesitting, a bungalow that belonged to a dear friend who was detained and awaiting trial, I found a Folio Society edition of Leonard Windsock’s first book. I pulled the volume from its slipcase and riffled the pages. Out dropped a piece of stationery, a handwritten letter from Windsock to someone named Misty.
I was tempted to pocket the letter and slide the book back into its protective carapace. But a staff member hovered in the vicinity, an eagle-eyed matron in a severely tailored suit, under a coiffure of blue-gray hair.
“Watch the sticky fingers, young lady.”
I scanned the other titles in the bidding lot. Wouldn’t they look handsome in the oak bookcase beside the rustic stone hearth? An hour later, I was the proud owner of a dozen used books, all but one of which I would never read.
I examined my prize. In my excitement, I had failed to notice the return address on the letter. Did Windsock still live there? Should I write to him? Not a mash note, but a sincere appreciation of his talent, with a brief sketch of the circumstances. To show that all was honest and above board, I enclosed the letter to Misty. For good measure, I added some glossy prints of myself, a spread for a lingerie modeling assignment.
No sooner sent than sorry. What had I done? Windsock would think I was a literary celebrity hound, a famous-author stalker. He might take out a restraining order. I bit my nails and worried myself to a frazzle. The tabloids would have a field day with this.
A scant forty-eight hours later, a response came via first-class mail. It was a handwritten letter much like the one to Misty, on the same beautiful laid linen, signed with Windsock’s trademark flourish. God bless the United States Postal Service! This was in the days before email and texting, but after the telegram era.
Windsock wanted to know if I was an actress, if my bronze complexion and sleek blonde hair were due to “mixed ancestry,” and if Melpomene was my real name.
“Why would a ravishing young woman like you want to hang out with an old geezer like me? I’m past eighty, for God’s sake, bald and shriveled, unable to lift more than a pencil, hard of hearing, legally blind in one eye, and overly sensitive to hot and cold. I have poor bladder control, and I smell like a corpse. Notwithstanding, I want to make sweet crazy love to you.”
This was only the start. Before he passed away, the following year, Windsock would write me countless letters, postcards, notes, and poems, all extremely personal and emotionally searing. It was an extraordinary gift from a passionate human being who was also a master of his craft, a man in the twilight of life who could no longer put his feelings into action, so he put them on paper. If that makes any sense.
I answered at once and enclosed another photograph, a full body nude of me lying on one side, with one hand draped strategically over my womanhood. A photographer friend whose work appeared in Playboy took it as a favor one weekend. Another quick reply.
“I studied the photograph with a magnifying glass, like Sherlock Holmes. I pored over every square inch of your body. I was unable to detect a single flaw.”
We wrote daily. The letters were intimate. Some might call them erotic. In this distant but highly charged way, Windsock and I became lovers.
One day, the telephone rang. Between coughs and gasps, an assertive, masculine voice identified itself as Windsock.
“Get your gorgeous self ready for a night on the town. Drinks and dinner, possibly a canoodle in the banquette. No dancing—I can’t stay on my feet for long. The car will pick you up in ten minutes.”
It wasn’t an invitation, it was a statement. By the time the car pulled up to the bungalow, I had changed into a slinky gown and pulled my hair back in a simple ponytail – my “golden tresses,” as Windsock wrote. The driver beeped, and I stepped to the curb. Windsock was slumped in the back seat with his eyes closed. I gazed at him through the open door. The eyelids rose like a stage curtain going up.
“Is that you in the flesh or an angelic visitation?”
“I’m no angel.”
“Better than my wildest dream.” He cracked a smile. “Get in the car already!”
Our evening together was magical. It was as if I had known Windsock all of my brief life. In fact, I had never met anyone remotely like him, certainly not in the mountainous backwoods of far-southwest Virginia. Buchanan County, known primarily for deer and coal mines, had a sparse population. Windsock had known hundreds of famous people and loved scores of beautiful women. He was relaxed and casual, inclined to be playful. And how the man could talk! All I had to do was lean back and listen.
After that first date, we met at Windsock’s home in the afternoon.
“Late nights really take it out of me,” he said.
Windsock lived in a gracious, two-story house of tawny stucco, with stone trim and a red tile roof. The lawn was manicured, and the trees and shrubs were botanical specimens. Windsock knew that I loved azaleas, so he had the gardener amass dozens of potted azaleas around the front door. I was touched by this gesture. The housekeeper let me in. Mrs. Suarez was a sturdy woman wearing a spotless white apron and with an inscrutable face.
“You are expected. Please to follow me.”
The house was elegant, furnished with paintings on the walls and oriental carpets on the Mediterranean tile floors. Signed photographs of actors, singers, writers, artists, political leaders, and spiritual luminaries lined the corridor like a gallery of stars—or, should I say, a galaxy! Windsock was in his bedroom, a large, cheerful room with a beamed ceiling and a fireplace flanked by two upholstered armchairs. Embers glowed in the fireplace, though it was summer. He sat in one of the armchairs, nearly engulfed by sumptuous brown leather. A low table was within easy reach, and on the table were a decanter and glasses, along with an inhaler and vials for medicine.
“Have a seat,” said the raspy voice.
The room breathed a wonderful aroma of old furniture, freshly washed linen, and talcum powder. A classic patchwork quilt draped the four-poster bed and velvet curtains were drawn back from the windows. A massive oak desk occupied one corner. Beside it stood a bookcase crammed to overflowing. More books were piled here and there. Windsock gestured to the piles.
“I work a few hours here every day,” he said. “These are author copies, and these are first editions, mostly gifts from my writer friends. This huge wicker basket is incoming mail, requests for interviews, requests to republish, offers for foreign rights, offers for film adaptations, fan letters. Bah! At my age, what do I need with all that?”
The desk was a mess, stuffed with papers, jars of pens, an ancient typewriter, and a stack of magazines, with a clearing in the middle. So maybe he really did use it.
“I write love letters to you on that desk,” he said.
“I can’t keep up with all the new books being published,” Windsock said. “Anyway, how many of them are worth my time? I’m rereading the classics.”
One of the classics was the Leatherstocking Tales by James Fenimore Cooper. Windsock felt that Native Americans were the authentic heroes of our country and that we ought to connect with their ancient ways.
“We should become blood brothers,” he said.
Quick as a wink, he snatched a penknife from the desk and a bottle of rubbing alcohol from the table beside his chair.
“Here, swab the blade with this to sterilize it. You go first.”
I pricked the skin on my wrist and drew a tiny scarlet drop. Windsock grabbed the knife from my hand and slashed his forearm.
“Oops,” he said. “Maybe I overdid it.”
We pressed our bleeding skin together and murmured an oath about the sacred bond of eternal friendship. Windsock was paler than usual and the flow of blood from his arm showed no sign of stopping. I rushed to the bathroom for a towel, wrapped it around the wound, and pressed. He closed his eyes and moaned. Was he privately enjoying the moment, or was he about to faint?
“Should I call Mrs. Suarez?” I asked. “She could phone the emergency medical unit.”
“Wait a couple minutes. My circulation isn’t that hot, so maybe the bleeding will let up.”
After a minute or two, I checked. The blood had slowed to a trickle.
“Maybe it was an accident, maybe it wasn’t,” he said. “Either way, it shows how much I love you.”
Windsock often got frisky. Pretending to reach for the book I was reading aloud to him, he would brush his hand against my breasts. Or shuffling to the bathroom on my arm, he would “accidentally” trip and fall against my thighs. Mindful of his physical condition, I was forced to invent ways to deflect his advances without hurting his feelings. It was a balancing act.
“Does it bother you when I get romantic?” he asked.
“It’s very flattering. How many girls can say that Windsock is so madly in love with them that they have to fight him off?”
This answer pacified him. Although he was reluctant to admit it, our relationship had an element of fantasy. His letters to me proposed sexual activities that were impossible for him to carry out in real life. I never had the heart to object. Once, he startled me.
“I feel sorry for you,” he said.
“Why should you feel sorry?”
“Because you’re not getting any. If I were a few years younger and fully in command of my faculties, I could show you a good time, instead of only telling you about it.”
“You make me happy just as you are.”
“But you’re still human. How do you deal with desire? How do you channel your sexual drive?”
“Exercise! I jog in the neighborhood, and I ride a bicycle. Plus I have ballet class and yoga class on alternate days. That’s how I stay so firm and bouncy.”
Windsock refused to believe that any other man could be my lover. It was impossible! If I casually referred to young male friends, men my own age, he became jealous. Forgetting his own exploits, he dismissed men in their twenties as “wet behind the ears.”
“What do they know about love? Or about life? How could they satisfy a woman in her prime? A goddess—Melpomene!”
“They can’t. That’s why I keep coming back to you.”
“Hmph!” Windsock crinkled his eyes and pouted.
One day, Windsock met me at the door. By some inexplicable combination of circumstances, “a schedule glitch,” Mrs. Suarez was away, the cook had the day off, the driver was on vacation, and the visiting home health care aide had failed to show up.
“I’m famished! I managed to drag myself out of bed, wash and get dressed, but that took all morning. I didn’t venture into the kitchen because I’d only hurt myself. I found a box of animal crackers. They were stale.”
“I could whip up something. Scrambled eggs and toast? How about a fresh garden salad and a croque-monsieur?”
“There’s no food in the house. Or if there is, it’s past the expiration date. I’ve been thinking about a solid meal at a fine restaurant all day.”
“The one where we had our first date?”
“My treat. You’ll have to drive, since I gave up my license years ago.”
Watching his every step, I walked Windsock to my Volkswagen Beetle. A light rain began to fall as we shuffled along. Though I dislike driving in the rain, especially at night on twisty back roads, I was more concerned about my escort.
“I may be fragile,” he said, “but I won’t melt.”
“Are you sure? We could phone for take-out, or I could dash to the nearest convenience store for a snack.”
“Enough procrastination. I’m starving!”
I settled him into the passenger seat and fastened the seatbelt over his thin frame.
“Don’t fuss over me,” he said.
Secretly, he enjoyed the attention. I got in and drove. By this point, rain was falling hard.
“It’s coming down in buckets,” Windsock said. “Slow down on the curves, you’re making me seasick.”
The restaurant was known for its view as much as its menu. Perched on the brow of a hill, it offered a panorama through a wall of plate glass. Parking, however, was a challenge. The place was popular, it was Saturday, and I couldn’t find a spot. In those days, handicapped accessible parking at the entrance was neither required by law nor considered fashionable. As we cruised, a car pulled out ahead of us. I immediately claimed the vacant spot, which was as far from the door as possible. Windsock looked at the slick pavement and puddles.
“I don’t think I can make it from here,” he said. “Also, I forgot to put on shoes.”
Sure enough, he was wearing slippers, which would get soaked. Wet feet were a risk we could not afford. I made a split-second decision.
“I’ll carry you.”
I got out and walked to his side of the car. He held out his arms as if to embrace me.
“All that strength training and body toning has to be worth more than a pretty picture,” he said. “Let’s put it to good use.”
I leaned in backward. “Wrap your arms around my neck and your legs around my stomach. Cling to my back like a baby possum.”
“Are you sure you can do this?”
“I know I can.” Hoisting my precious burden, I kicked the car door shut. Only at this point did it occur to me that I was wearing high heels.
We staggered across the asphalt. I tried to sidestep the puddles and cracks, while hooking my arms under Windsock’s stick-like legs. I was afraid he would slip off, and all this effort would be wasted. Worse, I could see the headline in the morning newspaper: “Author Dumped in Parking Lot by Bimbo.”
As we reached the door, a man in a tuxedo had the presence of mind to hold it open. It was the maître d’. The look on his face was priceless! Without missing a beat, I charged through.
“Table for two,” Windsock shouted, inches from my ear.
We collapsed on the nearest seat, which happened to be a plush sofa in the lobby. As I panted from our mad dash, Windsock giggled. By the time Maurizio found us a table, with a spectacular view of the rain-soaked valley below, we had calmed down. On our way, Windsock nodded to acquaintances and growled at an old friend. We ordered cocktails, and under the table where no one could see, I wiggled out of my ruined shoes. Barefoot amid the glitter and live piano music, face-to-face with the man I loved, I felt on top of the world!
The rest of the evening passed in a blur of champagne and anecdotes. Windsock was in rare form, as he regaled me with stories from his past, including a romantic escapade with a movie star whose name I had better not disclose. As he reported what they actually said and did, things you never read in biographies, even the unauthorized ones, I was agog. Later, I wondered how he remembered in such detail something that happened so long ago. I don’t even remember what I ate that night in that fabulous restaurant.
During our year together, Windsock grew increasingly absent-minded and querulous. His handwriting grew thin and shaky, and the love letters tapered off. He sensed that his frail body was finally giving out, and the struggle to carry on was taking its toll on his mind. The way he expressed it was indirect.
“You lack education,” he said.
“I graduated from Buchanan County High School, in Grundy.” I was wary of contradicting Windsock, since he was right, but something in me rose up.
“Don’t be ridiculous. A proper education, as in the liberal arts.”
“I own several editions from the Folio Society.”
“Reading all those great books won’t make you a better person, but it can enlarge your outlook. Maybe one person can’t know everything, but if you don’t even know what you’re missing . . .” He trailed off, unable to complete the sentence.
“I think I see what you mean,” I said.
“I’ll be your tutor, your personal instructor, just as you are my muse. A fair exchange?”
“I’m the luckiest girl in America. Where do we start?”
I had a vague idea that Windsock wanted to introduce me to the great philosophers, or teach me about world history, or show me the glories of literature. Instead, as we sat by the hearth in his bedroom, I took over his rereading of the classics. Except that I was reading them the first time and aloud. If I stumbled over a word, he corrected me. If I asked him to explain a passage, he did. Sometimes, as I droned on without understanding a word of what I was saying, he fell asleep. But on the whole, our afternoons together were unique, a lifetime learning experience. Windsock was a one-man university, and I was his adoring student.
The real lesson in all this was Windsock himself. Here was a man who knew how to live! The way his eyes lit up when he was fully engaged revealed the fire within. Like a relay runner passing a torch, he imparted that fire to me. Now, standing tall, like a statue in a harbor, I raise the torch!
About the Author
Robert Boucheron is an architect in Charlottesville, Virginia. His stories, essays and reviews appear in Bangalore Review, Digital Americana, Fiction International, Lowestoft Chronicle, New Haven Review, Poydras Review, Short Fiction, and other magazines.