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GRANDDAUGHTER - DON NOEL


Harry Wilson had the attention of most women at Harmony Acres within days of his arrival. He admitted to 74 years, but his unruly thatch was more black than gray. He was tall, his squared shoulders and ramrod back defying the arthritis that afflicted most others, with an athlete’s chest that showed no hint of descent to paunch.

Women outnumber men, in most American retirement communities, by two to one. Setting aside couples, widows outnumber widowers by an even wider margin. For most, of either gender, any romantic notions more demanding than mild flirtation are like visits to Antarctica, Machu Picchu or Easter Island: memories cherished and burnished, but too demanding to be repeated.

Nonetheless, some stimuli prompt imagination. A man who comes to the dining room looking for company, ready to takes his chances and make a fourth at any table of three, is rare. Harry’s presence was stimulating.

His welcome from most of the men was, understandably, more routine – until the day he was visited by a young blonde bombshell whom he claimed as his granddaughter. At that point, he had everyone’s attention.

The community’s men had coffee and conversation on Saturday mornings. Bald pates sprinkled among grey combovers, they met in a large parlor with comfortable chairs, the air infused with a hazelnut brew, a gathering known as Men’s Joe.

Serious conversations were always preceded by a few remembered-testosterone jokes of varied sophistication. Any ensuing discussion of current events was guarded. Most who could afford retiring here had been leaders of their professions and were correspondingly confident in their convictions, yet reluctant to risk alienating brethren who might hold other views. Harry proved well-read, up on current events, books, films, and theater – but tactful and discreet, overcoming envy by careful understatement, and by drawing other men out.

He also plumbed the depths of the fitness programs. Harmony Acres made good health a fetish; its offerings in the “fitness center” (never called “the gym”) ran from gentle chair yoga and tai chi to a roomful of daunting machines. Harry tried all the offerings, then joined a dozen men who had stationary bikes, treadmills and ellipticals to themselves every morning at six.

Newcomers, in this congenial community, were routinely welcomed at dinnertime. Because monthly fees included a minimum number of meals, “Won’t you join me?” was a no-cost form of hospitality. Harry soon had a two-week backlog of invitations.

“Didn’t I see you at dinner with that new Wilson man?” Alice Hutchings asked Dahlia Roberts in the perfumed beauty salon one morning.

“Harry? Yes, I made a threesome with Regina. An interesting man. I thought I saw you with him the day before.”

“You’re right. Linda invited him to join us. An old-fashioned chivalrous type: Held chairs to seat both of us.” Alice did not mention the way he gently cupped her elbow in the palm of his hand as he guided her to the chair. There had been a time when the brush of a young man’s hand whispered hints of intimacy. The years had all but erased such yearnings, but the gesture had offered a fleeting illusion of youth revived.

Dahlia punctured the illusion. “He held our chairs, too.”

She didn’t mention a hand at her elbow, though, prompting Alice to think she had been perhaps favored. “It’s as though he were systematically sizing us all up,” she observed hopefully.

“And always urges his hostess to invite others. ‘Fill up the table,’ he says, ‘so I can get to know everyone.’ Maybe,” she added, “just avoiding commitment?”

Dahlia, who in fact also remembered a hand at her elbow, studied her freshly lacquered nails. “Widowed two and a half years ago, he said.”

“A handsome man.” Alice gazed into the mirror. Despite the culinary temptations presented by Harmony Acres’ acclaimed chefs, she had managed to avoid flab. Nonetheless, she had to admit that her dimples – once considered charming – had been swallowed by the wrinkles of age. “And can apparently afford to travel still,” she added.

“So I gathered,” Dahlia agreed. “First class, too.”

“And makes a point of speaking a bit of the local language. I invited him to join our French afternoons. He might be interested.”

Loneliness contributes to both physical and mental ill health among the elderly, a phenomenon understood by geriatricians. Harmony Acres was busier than a Girl Scout troop, a beehive both organized and spontaneous. Two groups gathered in each other’s living rooms weekly for wine and cheese and conversation, one in French, one in German. Harry Wilson was invited to both, confessed to passable fluency, and said he might drop in someday soon.

As the gossip sized up the new man, it also prompted introspection. Whatever their flirtations, seductions or yielding might once have been, most of the women dressed well and groomed carefully in hopes of nothing more exhilarating than companionship. An even remote prospect of anything more complicated was unexpected – but hardly unwelcome – titillation.

Business went up at the salon. Many of the singles, and even some of the wives, had their hair done on the mornings they were to dine with Harry. “We finally had dinner with him last night,” Phyllis Quimby told Alice. “I told Chuck we should invite him soon, or we wouldn’t get acquainted until he’d gotten to know every widow and divorcée in the place.”

He was a listener who deftly led others to talk about themselves. “I never felt grilled,” Alice said, “but by the end of dinner he could have written my biography, if he’d taken notes.”

Mrs. Quimby’s Chuck (Charles on the stylized nametag most residents wore) spoke to Harry as they mounted their machines one morning: “I can’t recall any new arrival here who went about meeting people as methodically as you. Do you remember all the names, too?”

“Oh, sure, Chuck. I spent most of my life in sales, y’know; took a mnemonics course.”

“Very impressive. You should run for office!”

“No way, brother. I’m a homebody now.”

False modesty, Quimby said to his wife. “Homebody hardly describes a man everyone wants to know better.”

Then one midweek evening in June, Harry appeared in the dining room with the prettiest young woman anyone could remember seeing at Harmony Acres. They chose a table for two.

She was surely still in her twenties. Her shoulder-length blonde hair framed a cherubic face with blue eyes and cupid’s-bow lips whose muted red seemed un-lipsticked — perhaps, some men imagined, nibbled to that color. She was, as the women phrased it, “well-endowed”. “Stacked” was the word heard at Men’s Joe.

She engaged Harry in dinner conversation that was animated but soft enough that even people at adjoining tables couldn’t catch the drift. Harry smiled at a few neighbors as they left the dining room, but didn’t offer to introduce her. The two were last seen headed down the long, quietly carpeted hallways toward his apartment.

Although retirement communities are much like small towns, they differ in that no one goes to work; there is ample leisure for conversation. No fewer than three women next morning phoned Millie Stevens, in the apartment next to Harry’s, to ask if she had noticed the visitor.

“Notice? You could hardly miss her,” Millie told all callers. “She arrived in a flame-red little sports car, one of those sexy European models with a kind of growly sound. Harry must have been expecting her, because he was out in a flash showing her where to park and helping put the top up in case of rain.”

“How long did she stay after dinner?”

“Oh, I have no idea. I’m abed by 9. They may have watched television for a while; I noticed the flickering light.”

“Any idea who she was?”

“I’d love to know, wouldn’t you?

That almost universal wish was satisfied at week’s end: Quimby braced Harry at Men’s Joe. “That was a good-looking visitor you had early this week.”

“Isn’t she a looker, Chuck? My granddaughter.”

“She’s the one with the red Miata?” Peter Miller, a psychiatrist, had spent most of his adult lifetime admiring small fast cars. “That’s a man’s car,” he added, having also spent his career fathoming the fantasies of a mostly-male clientele. “In our day a young woman wouldn’t have piloted a hot little number like that.”

“Probably not,” Harry allowed. “But she’s not a schoolmarm, y’know. She’s a trial lawyer down in Manhattan. I gather she’s likely to make partner with Carlisle and Gossett.”

“One of the city’s best,” said Herb Warner, who’d lawyered with a competitor. “And I’ll bet she gets a jury’s attention better than I ever could.”

Everyone within earshot murmured agreement.

“A jury’s attention, and ours,” said Quimby with a grin. “You’re a lucky man, Harry. Not all of us get such rapt concentration from our grandkids.”

“Easy to explain, Chuck. She’s trying to learn Japanese, and I’m coaching her.”

“I didn’t know you spoke Japanese.” A dozen men were by now paying close attention. “I don’t think any of us did.”

“My late wife Emiko was Japanese. We met over there, when I was a GI.”

“You learned the language to woo her?”

“Exactly. Yorokunde, dekimashita. Luckily, I did fairly well. Honto ni jozu zha nai, keredomo warukunai, ne? To be honest, not exactly fluent, but not too shabby, either.”

“I’m impressed. But your … uh … granddaughter doesn’t look at all Japanese.”

“No, you’d never guess, would you?”

In this small town, no Internet was needed for Harry’s explanation to go viral. More of his DNA than his wife’s got to their daughter, he explained, so she too was a blonde. When she grew up to marry a Swede, Scandinavian genes overwhelmed the Far East’s. The girl was named Emily, a variant on her grandmother’s Emiko, but never learned the language.

Now she was planning a trip to look up that side of her heritage. Intending to fly in a month or two, she had come to visit her grandfather and get tips about Japan in general, and about finding her grandmother’s roots.

An elaborate story with a fairy-tale feel, it raced around Harmony Acres with a velocity that might rival her Miata’s, probably with embellishments. Not everyone found the account plausible, though, even if Harry did speak what sounded like Japanese.

A few days later, when the Miata again appeared in Harry’s parking area in late afternoon, there was an early rush to the dining room foyer. Pierre, the headwaiter, offered tables, but most people found reason to wait a few minutes. There was perceptible jostling for positions where Harry might have to introduce them as he brought the young lady to dinner.

“Glad to meet you,” said Dahlia Roberts, one of the doubters, when they at last arrived. “I understand you’re learning Japanese from your … uh … grandfather.”

Hai, so desu. Hajimete wa, amari jozu dewa nai, keredomo … ” A huge smile. “I’m really a beginner still.”

A few others managed to be introduced, and to find the linguistic waters equally impenetrable, before Harry had Pierre escort them to a table for two.

“It could be Hottentot, for all I know,” Dahlia said to the Quimbys when they found themselves at table together. “Do you buy the granddaughter story?”

“Well … ” began Phyllis.

“Oh, c’mon,” said Chuck. “Are you supposing a man his age has a twenty-something girlfriend?”

“Probably the fond wish of every man in the place,” Dahlia said with what she hoped was a sly smile. “Present company excepted, of course.”

The speculation was hardly silenced when three neighbors heard the red roadster leave just after dawn the next morning. Word of that went viral, too.

“Really!” Dahlia said to Phyllis when they were together at the salon later that day. “Your sweet husband pooh-poohed my skepticism, but you have to wonder.”

“There’s probably an explanation.” Phyllis leaned on the adverb, more inclined to Dahlia’s agnosticism than her husband’s professed confidence in the granddaughter story. “I’ll get Chuck to ask.”

That proved unnecessary: Harry took the initiative at the morrow’s Men’s Joe. “I gather that my granddaughter’s dawn departure woke some people up the other morning.” He was sorry to have bothered the neighbors, he said – seeming blithely to assume that the throaty muffler was the only stimulus to community chat.

His granddaughter had stayed over, he explained, because she had an early morning flight

to Washington, to explore a government job so hush-hush she couldn’t tell even her grandfather. Harmony Acres was fifteen minutes from the airport, and her condo was more than an hour in the opposite direction, so she spent the night on his sofa.

“I’m a sound sleeper myself,” he told Chuck. “Didn’t even hear her get up and tiptoe around. First that I knew she was on her way was the same thing that woke the neighbors. That little car is on the noisy side, y’know? A smoky voice that millennials are fond of. I’ll have to teach her not to gun it around here.”

Management had heard about his granddaughter’s overnight stay, he confessed. “I guess that’s against the rules.”

True enough, his colleagues in the Saturday fraternity said. Although Harmony Acres allowed live-in nurses or aides to care for those with post-operative needs or those near the end of life, such arrangements were permissible only in larger units with two bedrooms and baths – and had to be made in advance.

“Not likely to happen often,” Harry said. “But I wonder if I should have opted for one of the cottages with a spare bedroom and more privacy. Maybe I should explore moving.”

That chat among the men fairly rocketed through the community. Harmony Acres had a dozen free-standing residences, split-levels with enclosed two-car garages where a snappy red convertible might be all but unnoticed, especially if retrofitted with a quieter muffler.

Living in those units meant walking through the weather to come to meals and events in the main building. Several long-term residents, grown older and frailer, had recently moved into apartments in the main complex. It didn’t take long for someone to look around and share the word that there were two cottages vacant.

“If he expects his ‘granddaughter’ to stay over often,” Dahlia Roberts told her friends, using both hands to make the air-quotes unmistakable, “I’ll bet he opts for privacy.”

So it was with some disappointment that she and many watchful others could discern no hint that Harry was exploring a move. Regina Travis managed to cudgel from a friend in marketing that both cottages would soon be leased to newcomers, and that no current resident had inquired.

Meanwhile, the “granddaughter” came back from the nation’s capital, no one the wiser about the outcome, and her visits to Harry continued. Over the next several weeks, he made a point of inviting the Quimbys and several other couples to join him at dinners with his Emily.

Her dinner companions regularly compared notes and shared their observations with anyone who asked, which meant almost everyone. She had entertained them with snippets of what must have been Japanese; made careful-lawyer remarks about her life at court; and declined anything but vague talk of Washington appointments. She seemed stubbornly to avoid being drawn into remembrances of growing up in the extended Wilson family – if indeed she had.

“Wouldn’t you think,” Dahlia Roberts grumbled to friends, “that she’d jump at the chance to talk about the family? She’s supposed to be going to Japan to meet relatives, but did anyone hear her mention the grandmother Harry claims she was named for?”

Although such skepticism was hardly unique, the small-town gossip diminished over the next month, even as the blonde beauty’s visits became if anything more frequent.

Then a court reporter for the Daily Trib stumbled into two bits of news about her: The attorney general of the United States mentioned her when asked about a U.S. district attorney vacancy; and she asked a judge to delay a trial to accommodate her forthcoming travel.

There it was on page one: “Prominent Upward-Bound Young Lawyer Seeks Roots in Japan.” The accompanying feature story – easily the best-read newspaper story in Harmony Acres that month – ended the speculation.

“Atty. Emily Anderson has been studying Japanese with her grandfather Harry Wilson, a Harmony Acres resident, in preparation for a trip to find her grandmother’s family in Kyoto, Japan.”

The article was accompanied by a full-color photo of Harry and his granddaughter in his apartment poring over a page of Japanese hieroglyphs, taken by a Trib photographer who had somehow managed to come and go without anyone’s noticing.

The women of Harmony Acres – especially the single women, including even skeptics like Dahlia Roberts – were delighted. The beauty shop was suddenly overbooked. Some who had declined to join the foreign-language soirées decided it might be worth a try after all. A few widows audibly considered working out at the fitness center at the crack of dawn – to challenge, they said, any assumption that exercise machines wouldn’t appeal to the fairer sex.

The men’s reactions were more complex. Those who got to Men’s Joe before Harry the following Saturday confessed ambivalence at having the mystery of the blonde bombshell solved.

“For reasons I can’t quite explain,” said Chuck Quimby, “I’m feeling some disappointment to know that our friend does indeed have a smashing granddaughter.”

“Of course,” said Peter Miller, the psychiatrist. “A little male fantasy is a welcome diversion from the cruel facts of advancing age. It was fun while it lasted, wasn’t it?”

And they agreed: It had been fun.



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