A January Tale

I was sitting at my desk the other day, watching the snow fall outside, when the RealPlayer offered up a Roberta Flack tune. That reminded me of this piece, which originally ran in January 2008. I’ve polished it a bit, and the ending is different.

It was a snowy late afternoon in January 1975, and I was at The Table in the student union at Minnesota’s St. Cloud State. Most of the folks who spent their between-classes time at The Table had already headed out into the snow. The only other regular remaining was Laura, a woman who’d joined us during autumn after moving to St. Cloud from a city about sixty miles north.

I don’t recall what we were talking about that afternoon. It could have been my health – I’d been in a serious auto accident in October. Or we might have been discussing her progress in disentangling herself both legally and emotionally from her marriage to an abusive husband (a circumstance commonly mentioned today but one that was not much talked about in 1975). Whatever it was, we were intent on the topic. I knew, however, that it would soon be dinnertime at my parents’ house, and I needed to either go home or call them to say I wouldn’t be home for dinner.

My guess is that we’d been discussing her dilemmas, as I remember reading on her face that she was not keen on the idea of making her way to the house a few blocks away that she shared with, oh, maybe ten other women. So I dug a dime out of my pocket, walked to the phone on the wall a few feet away and told my folks to set another place at the table. Swaddled in winter garb, we headed out to the parking lot, where we cleared about three inches of snow from my car, and then we drove to the East Side.

I think my folks had met Laura before, most likely at the hospital after my accident, but even if they hadn’t, they greeted her warmly, as I knew they would. I don’t recall what we ate, but it was a pleasant meal. As dinner ended, Laura suggested we go for a quick drink at the Grand Mantel, the downtown bar where we and our friends frequently gathered. Sounded like a good idea, I told her, but there was still three inches of snow on the sidewalks – adjacent to the house and along Kilian Boulevard – and it needed to be cleared.

She offered to help. So we bundled up again and spent twenty minutes shoveling snow, with the streetlamp on the corner casting a honey-colored glow onto the snowy sidewalk and street, onto the snow that continued its leisurely descent to the ground, and onto us. When we were finished, we got into my old Falcon and headed across the river to the Grand Mantel, where there were only a few other folks taking refuge from a winter evening.

I don’t remember what we talked about as we sat there sipping drinks – Scotch and water, if I’m not mistaken – but we likely danced around the topic of whether the two of us were ever going to be a couple. I was still fragile in all ways from the auto accident, and she was still linked – however tenuously and unhappily – to another. So I’m certain we talked of other things and left the heavy issues to resolve themselves. But there was no denying the attraction.

Roberta Flack’s “Killing Me Softly With His Song” played on the bar’s sound system. She said, “That’s from the record I gave you, isn’t it?” I nodded. She’d given me Flack’s Killing Me Softly album while I was homebound in November. “The other song is on there, too, right?” And I nodded again.

She took a fountain pen out of her purse and grabbed one of the napkins on the table, with one of the four quadrants displaying the Grand Mantel’s name and logo. Carefully, she unfolded the napkin and wrote on an empty quadrant the opening words from that other song:

When you smile, I can see
You were born, born for me,
And for me you will be do or die.

She blew on the napkin to dry the ink, then folded it and gently tucked it in my shirt pocket. Not much later, we left. When I got home, I put the napkin in a shoebox I used for keepsakes, where it still is today.

The wish written on that napkin never came true. Laura and I remained friends through our college years and saw each other occasionally for about fifteen years after that, but we’ve since drifted apart, the way people sometimes do. The Roberta Flack LP is gone, too, but I’ve got the CD, and I listen to it sometimes. When I do, I almost always think about Laura.

The first time I ran this piece here, I closed with Flack’s “No Tears (In The End)” from that same 1973 album because I thought it had a better groove than “When You Smile.” It does, but I still should have closed with the song that Laura quoted. Here’s Roberta Flack’s “When You Smile.”

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One Response to “A January Tale”

  1. Mark Thompson says:

    Nice…

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