August 15
by Bill Booth

Although traces of snow lay on the ground outside, most people would have thought the room far too warm. Flames flickered in a space heater and cast strange shadows on the wall beside the recliner where Mrs. O’Malley relaxed, twirling a lock of gray hair about one finger.

“It’s true, Marge,” she said into the telephone. “Me own daughter Angie told me about it. And Lucy herself said it’s the God’s truth.”

“Well! I would never have dreamed such a thing about Jim Sullivan.”

A moment of silence ensued.

“Poor Lucy … how’s she handling it?”

Mrs. O’Malley twirled the lock faster. “As well as can be expected under the circumstances, I guess.”

“Lord only knows what gets into men sometimes. What in the world do you think caused him to start doing it?”

“Marge, you know as well as I do that men get interested in some things for no reason a’ tall.” The finger twisted faster. “Sometimes it hits them like a bolt of lightning, and it seems they can’t do a thing about it.”

“Yes, but Jim Sullivan always seemed to be so sensible!”

“Lucy said he went to a meeting in Atlanta two months ago. That’s probably where he got involved. For heaven’s sake, Marge, he’s become a philatelist! My ex-brother-in-law was into that a few years ago. My sister finally divorced him after he spent all their savings and took up with a bunch of new friends.”

“Oh, it just makes me sick!” Marge exclaimed. “And poor Lucy with hardly anything except for the clothes on her back. You’d think he would consider her before squandering the little money they must have. But listen, Patty dear, I’ve got to hang up. Got supper on the stove, and George will be home any minute. Thanks ever so much for calling!”

“You’re welcome, dear. Of course I don’t have to tell you not to breathe a word about this to anybody else. Maybe Lucy will get him straightened out before too much damage has been done.”

“Bye now.”

Mrs. O’Malley replaced the receiver in its cradle and contemplated a small water stain in the corner of the ceiling for a short while before dialing another number. If she squinted her eyes just so, the stain alternated from an appearance suggestive of a wrinkled dollar bill to that of a postage stamp. Local news was scarce in the small town of Hahnville, Georgia, and she wanted nothing less than to let any of it pass her by without broadcasting it as far and wide as possible, no matter of how little interest.

***

Marge Lewis tasted her ham and beans and sprinkled a pinch of salt into the bubbling pot, thinking about the news Patty O’Malley had just relayed. It was more than Marge could deal with unshared. Lucy Sullivan has been such a dear friend over the years. Now, at this stage in her life, she has this unforeseen burden to bear. Oh, the enormity and injustice of it all! Marge wanted to talk to someone but couldn’t summon the courage to call Lucy quite yet.

So she called Anna Jackson.

“It’s the truth, Anna. Patty O’Malley’s daughter told her about it, and Lucy said it was true. Jim Sullivan has taken up phil …phila …”

“Philanthropy? Jim Sullivan?”

“That doesn’t sound quite right, Anna. But it’s kind of like that…it involves him spending a lot of money that Lucy gets nothing out of. It’s all for Jim’s own selfish pleasure.”

“Well, who’d have dreamed it? Who’s he giving his money to? All Jim ever talks about are football and NASCAR. I can see them now … driving their old green car into the carport of their little white house that Lucy says needs so many repairs.”

“Now, Anna, no one is supposed to know about this, so keep it under your hat.”

“You know I will. Marge. What do you suppose got Jim started with this?”

“Patty said he went to a meeting in Atlanta recently. I think he met somebody there that got him involved.”

***

Later that day, Anna Jackson spoke with Jean Williams in the parking lot of the downtown A&P. Jean’s eyes widened in surprise. “Jim Sullivan is what?”

“Marge said he has become a philanthropist. But she wasn’t sure that was the right word; and the more I think about it, I don’t think that’s the right word either. She says Jim is into something expensive and immoral. He has shut Lucy off, and he’s involved with somebody in Atlanta.”

“Ommigod, Anna! She must have meant ‘philandering’! Do you think Jim has been slipping around on Lucy?” Jean’s eyes fairly sparkled at this news.

“Well, that sounds about right. I never thought much of Jim’s morals … you know, the way he pretends to be looking at something behind you when you walk by. Apparently, he’s been into his new hobby now for several months. Just imagine! Him being in the Knights of Columbus and all.” Anna leaned forward with both hands on the handle of her buggy before saying in a loud whisper, “Don’t you just know, his new friend in Atlanta is probably some floozy he met at that meeting.”

The ladies watched a passing truck for awhile before they marched with their buggies in opposite directions, heads up and chins out forward, toward their vehicles.

***

A few days later, Jim Sullivan went about his usual routine before going in to work. He shaved and showered while humming Red River Valley — his favorite song — brushed his teeth, then stepped into a pair of dark green pants and pulled them over the tail of a matching shirt with Smith’s Appliances, Heating and Air Conditioning and his name stitched over the left pocket. He glanced reflectively at a stack of stamp catalogs on the bedside table near his pillow, hesitated a few seconds before picking one up, then walked to the dining room.

Breakfast was Jim’s favorite meal of the day, and Lucy had it waiting for him. As usual, it consisted of a mug of dark roast coffee with a couple of eggs over easy, three slices of bacon, and twin pieces of buttered toast — one to eat with the eggs and the other afterward with grape jelly. Lucy sat at the table with him and ate a bowl of plain oatmeal with milk and a cup of coffee.

“Ah, you do these eggs just right, Lucy my love. They make my day!”

“And what does your day look like, dear?” Lucy asked. “Will you be late getting home again?”

Jim glanced up from the stamp catalog lying beside his plate. “It’s hard to say. I have several house calls to make, but you never know when somebody is going to call in with an emergency that can tie me up for a couple more hours.”

Jim sopped his toast in the soft yellow egg yolks and took a bite, lingering over the mellow rich taste.

“You should give those calls to Carl so you can spend more time in the shop. He could handle most of the road work.”

“Yeah, I know. But lots of our customers would rather have me working on their stuff. If they ask for me, I try to oblige ‘em. It’s part of how ol’ Sam Smith has built the business up. And he writes my paycheck.”

Lucy nodded understandingly. “Then I’ll cook a pot roast for tonight. We can eat when you get in, whatever time that is.” She sighed before adding, “It just seems like we never have any time together anymore … since you took up stamp collecting”

Most people considered Jim, for a man of forty five, trim and handsome. He stood six feet two inches, weighed about two hundred pounds, had a full head of short brown hair, brown eyes, and muscular arms. His teeth looked good in spite of wider-than-usual spacing (Lucy said he looked like Earnest Borgnine), and he usually wore a friendly smile.

***

At the store later that day, Jim entered through a side door and walked to the service counter at the back of the room where Julie Smith sat working on accounts.

“Hello, Julie. How’s business?” Jim said passing behind her chair.

Julie didn’t look up or otherwise acknowledge his greeting, which Jim found puzzling but said nothing. Jim went to Julie’s desk and removed a stack of service call notes from a spindle in the corner. While Jim read the notes, Julie rose from her chair and leaned forward, resting her weight on both palms. “Jim, I know it’s none of my business, but if some new interest of yours is causing problems at home, I can recommend a good counselor.”

“New interest? What are you talking about?”

“I shouldn’t have mentioned anything. It’s just that I overheard a couple of ladies in the store this morning. They were saying you and Lucy are having trouble and it’s because of someone you have been seeing … or something like that.”

“Why, that’s about the craziest thing I’ve ever heard, Julie. Lucy and I aren’t having any trouble. And me! Seeing somebody?”

“I just thought I should let you know there are rumors going around.”

Julie went to the service counter to assist a customer who had entered the store while she and Jim talked, leaving him staring into space and wondering what was going on.

***

Lucy switched off the vacuum cleaner and picked up the phone on the third ring. “Hello.”

“Good morning, Lucy, this is Jean Williams. It’s been ages since we’ve talked, so I thought I’d give you a buzz. How have you been?”

“Just fine, thanks. How about you?”

“Oh, I’m doing okay … but are you sure you are feeling alright? I heard you might be having some problems. You know, with Jim being out and about so much. He must not have much time at home these days.”

“Well, yes, he works long days, but that’s nothing new. Why were you wondering about that?”

“Oh, no special reason. I was in the appliance store a couple of times last week and noticed he wasn’t in back. I just assumed he must have something besides shop business that ties up his time.”

“Well, he has to make service calls, and Sam Smith pretty much leaves the store to his daughter Julie. She’s been manager for over ten years and does a great job handling sales and taking service calls. Jim tells me lots of customers just request him personally for their service work.”

“I can understand, uh … why they do that …” Jean commented with a slight pause following her statement. When Lucy said nothing, Jean changed the subject: “Can you believe the cost of a week’s groceries these days? It’s gotten out of sight!”

“Yes, and the price of gasoline makes it hard to travel more than a mile or two from home,” Lucy added.

The ladies rambled on for a few minutes more about the high cost of living in Hahnville before saying goodbye. Afterwards, Lucy sat quietly for several minutes in an overstuffed chair beside the telephone and puzzled over the strangeness of Jean William’s call. Is she trying to tell me something?

***

Back in the repair shop at Smith’s Appliances a short time later, Jim and Carl chatted at short intervals about sports, NASCAR, or politics while they worked repairing various small appliances. The large ones required service calls at home. Jim, however was more taciturn than usual.

“What? No comment about that?” Carl said.

“About what?”

“About what I just said … the president wants to raise taxes on the so-called wealthy in order to decrease the deficit, but everybody knows it’s really to provide free medical care and college educations to illegal aliens. Didn’t you hear me say that? What do you think Sam will do if his tax bracket gets bumped up? He makes a decent living off this place but he’s certainly not wealthy.”

“Yeah, I guess that’s right. I don’t know. What do you think he will do?”

“Well, two things you can count on: One, we won’t get a raise in the next couple of years, at least; and two, he won’t be hiring anybody to give us a little slack here in back.” Carl stood up straight beside the work counter and held up two fingers for emphasis.

“That’s probably true. He might not do that anyway.” Jim focused on a volt meter in his hand while he checked a circuit and said nothing further.

Carl sat down and began taking the cover off a microwave oven. After a few minutes, he said, “I can understand why you may not have much interest in politics right now.”

Jim looked up from his work and fixed his gaze on Carl. “Oh? And why is that, Carl?”

Carl glared intently at the microwave while continuing. “Nothin’ much. I guess you just got better things to do than worry about Sam’s taxes. You know, with all the social obligations you have … and all.”

Jim was perplexed. This was the second time in one day someone had made allusions to his social activities, and he knew something had provoked the loose talk.

“Just what have you heard about my social life that makes you think I have lost interest in politics?”

A slow smile spread across Carl’s face before he looked up and winked at Jim. “Nothing much, man. I can understand a guy gettin’ an itch every now and then. Don’t worry about it.”

***

Lucy prepared a delicious supper that evening – a beef pot roast with potatoes and onions served over rice … one of Jim’s all-time favorites. But he had eaten lightly. He had something on his mind. They watched a movie together on TV before going to bed, but Jim had trouble following the plot as well as going to sleep later.

What are they saying about me? What does Lucy know? How could anyone know? How did they find out? We have been so careful!

In Atlanta, in an upstairs apartment above Angie’s Stamps and Collectibles shop, Angie O’Malley slept restlessly also, wondering when Jim would return to spend another afternoon with the door locked and the blinds closed.