First published in The Sock Drawer. October 2020.
Folk drawn together by age and circumstance, redefine themselves in the company of others.

 “What are you drinking?”
   Darla Tipper’s voice startled Harry. “A Limited Release Malbec from Biltmore Estate,” he told her. “Mary Lee and I sampled it the last time we were in Asheville. It’s the only American-grown Malbec.” As Marketing Director, Darla had given Dr. Lewis and his wife the Townsend Retirement Village tour ten months ago.
   “I’m not much of a wine drinker,” Darla confessed. Her Bachelor’s degree was in business, her Master’s in social work. Her job involved more than marketing.
“We bought a case. Never even opened the box.” He leaned back and gently swirled the liquid in the glass. “Smells like fresh blackberries. Probably great with spicy foods.”
   “How is it for breakfast?” Darla came to work early and saw him on his patio. “It’s 6:30 in the morning, Harry.”
“As my friend Pastor Ron used to say, ‘It’s noon somewhere.’” He made eye contact.
   “A little early for a courtesy call, isn’t it?”
   “Some folks in the Village are worried about you.”
   “If you email me their names, I’ll pass them on to my daughter. She keeps a list.” Harry sighed. “My name is at the top. I’m a trained therapist; I know when someone is in trouble….”
   Darla noted the almost empty bottle. “Save a bottle for Thirsty Thursday.”
   Some folks—those more mobile and vocal than the average Townsend Village resident—gathered in the gazebo on Thursday nights to bitch and sample wine. As a psychologist and trained family counselor, Harry understood the therapeutic value. His wife, Mary Lee—recently retired as CFO of International Engineering Solutions—thought the idea sounded “tedious.” Her cancer returned before they could find out.
   “We only bought a case. There might not be any wine left by tomorrow night.” Harry thought it best not to mention the 155-bottle dual-zone cooler he’d bought at Costco before moving in, or the 600-bottle chiller in his son’s basement.
   “Is that your plan? You’re going to drink yourself to death?” Darla and Harry met a decade ago while serving on the Habitat for Humanity Board. She was more candid with him than the average resident.
   “I can think of worse ways to go.”
   She glanced at her watch. “You’ve counseled dozens of suicidal people….”
   “Hundreds.” He corrected.
   “And how many did you encourage to do it?”
   “Only one.”
   “I beg your pardon…?”
   “I counseled one of my clients to take her own life.”
   “And did she?”
   “Yes. The next day.”
   Darla tilted her head. “Did you regret that advice?”
   “Not for one instant. Ever.” He focused on his empty wine glass. “Our situations aren’t analogous. My client battled a debilitating disease robbing her of all motor control. I’m grieving the loss of my wife of forty years. My client chose to act while she was still capable. I applauded the idea.” He refilled the glass. “If I work at it, I’ll get over my grief. She didn’t have that choice.” He picked up the wine. “I’ll keep you posted on my progress.”
   When Mary Lee’s cancer returned, they’d been proactive. She took early retirement. Harry closed his practice. They put their house on the market and began searching for a retirement community where life would be easier: no yard work or home maintenance, a weekly cleaning service, snow removal, and a continuum of care in case of long-term illness.
   Things happened quickly. Their house sold within hours of being listed, for more than their asking price. They used part of the proceeds for the buy-in at the Village and booked a ten-day Baltic cruise, something on Mary Lee’s bucket list. Four days into the cruise she was hospitalized in Oslo. A week later Harry flew home with her ashes and made arrangements to move into the cottage alone.
On Thursday, Darla knocked on Harry’s door after supper, still dressed in her work clothes. He wore baggy orange cargo shorts, sandals, and a pale blue aloha shirt with glowing orange pineapples.
“You haven’t been out for a week.” Harry didn’t deny it. “We’re going to Thirsty Thursday. Grab a bottle of wine and glasses if you don’t want to drink from Dixie Cups.”
The idea appalled him. He selected a modest Australian Shiraz and two Waterford Crystal wine glasses and followed her to the gazebo.

After Darla introduced him as the newest resident, she sat down and enjoyed a glass of Harry’s wine before excusing herself. After she left, he passed the remains of the Shiraz around and listened. The conversation reminded him of group therapy except no one looked to him to heal anyone. Later, for the first time in weeks, he slept through the night.
   When Darla appeared at the door again the next Thursday, he showed her the wine carrier he’d found. Inside he’d placed four glasses, and two Napa Valley wines: a Franciscan Estate Cabernet Sauvignon and a Rutherford Ranch Merlot.
   Harry and Darla drank a glass of each and passed the remaining wine to the appreciative folks around the circle. The lively conversation focused on the benefits of comfort animals. Nobody asked him what he thought as a therapist. Harry appreciated that. He didn’t notice when Darla left.
   The next Thursday Darla texted Harry that he didn’t need a chaperone; she was going home. Your loss he texted back.
   At the gazebo he opened a pair of South African whites: a Groot Constantia Chardonnay and a Cape Point Sauvignon Blanc. Bill Henson President of the Resident Council confessed, “I feel guilty drinking your good stuff.”
   Dorothy Shrunk added, “I grab anything on sale that has a nice label.” Dot started drinking well before her arrival. Her lipstick was erratically applied, and her shoes didn’t match.
   Edith Prince told him, “None of us knows shit about wine.” Edith had been forced by Northeast State University to retire at 70. She still taught Business Writing as an adjunct professor at a local private college.
   “I could make recommendations.”
   After that night Thirsty Thursday sessions began with a ten-minute lesson highlighting the vintages Harry brought followed by best buys that could be found locally.
The quality of wine at the weekly confabs improved.
   Thursdays Harry never varied from his self-imposed two-glass limit, preferring to remain sober until safely back in his cottage, at which time he would drink himself to sleep.
   The first Thursday in August, ten weeks into his residency at Townsend Village, Darla stopped by after lunch wearing a simple black dress and heels. Typically, she wore jeans and Keds in the summer, unless she was giving tours.
   Harry motioned her into the air conditioning. “I can’t stay,” she said, “but there are some things you should know.”
   “You are now number Four on the Townsend Village list of Most Eligible Males.”
 Harry laughed until he realized she wasn’t joking. “What…?”
   “Officially I don’t know this list exists because it, and its female counterpart, are sexist and offensive. But….”
   Harry nodded. “There’s probably no good way to stop it.”
   “Until recently, I got a kick out of the exercise. ‘Should Bennie Koonz be number one because he’s the best dancer and still owns a controlling interest in the county’s largest Ford dealership, or should he be in the seven- or eight-spot because with his Alzheimer’s he can’t remember a woman from one day to the next?’”
   “I see the problem.”
   “No, I don’t think you do.” She sighed. “When you moved here, you were number fifteen out of nineteen. Three of the men you beat out were in their late eighties and ready to move to the nursing wing, thus becoming ineligible.”
   Harry considered this information. “What was wrong with me?”
   “Your wife just died, and you hadn’t had a change to grieve. Plus, you had a PhD and analyzed people for a living.”
   “Both are still true. What changed?”
   “You’re a hermit the rest of the week, but on Thursday nights you appear human. If the ladies knew you could dance or play euchre, you’d be Number One.”
   “I’m not ready to enter the dating pool.”
   “I know that. Some women might not.” She motioned to her car idling at the curb.
  “I’d better go. My ex-husband’s father died. Visitation starts at two o’clock for family, 3:00 for everyone else. I’m going to split the difference and show up at 2:30. The funeral is at 5:00.”
   Over the years Darla had shared some details of her ex-husband’s abuse and her ex-father-in-law’s white nationalist leanings. “How long have you been divorced?”
   “Three years.”
   “Considering the circumstances of your separation, nobody would blame you if you didn’t go.” Darla had been hospitalized. There was a restraining order.
  “Frank’s still my son’s father, and Ralph was his grandfather, for better or worse.”
   “Of course.”
   At the gazebo, Harry opened the evening by telling the group, “Wollersheim is a regional winery in Prairie du Sac, Wisconsin. Mary Lee and I visited three times a year: the summer tasting tour, release day for their Ice Wine, and the vintage Christmas celebration. These wines were dear to my late wife; I’ll let them speak for themselves.” He uncorked four wines: Ruby Nouveau, Ice Wine, Prairie Blush, and Prairie Fumé.
   Harry ignored his two-glass rule. He encouraged others to share their favorite places. Finally, Bennie Koonz the former car dealer spoke for the group, “I wish there was a way to thank you for tonight.”
   “Well, there is one thing.” People stopped packing up. “I understand there’s a list that identifies eligible bachelors.” The gathering got silent. “If my name is it on, could someone remove it? I’m not ready to be single yet.”
   Next Thursday, routine restored, Harry brought two reds from Portugal and spoke briefly on each. Darla made a token appearance. Finally, Edith Prince, the retired professor spoke up. Edith spent an hour each day in the village’s swimming pool. She was athletic, outspoken, and articulate. “Harry,” she said, “you used to be a therapist. Would you be offended if I asked you a question about human behavior?”
   He set his glass down. “Ask away.”
   “Well, actually, it’s a little personal.”
   He leaned in. “Are you going to talk dirty?”
   “Well, no….”
   “What you say in the gazebo stays in the gazebo.” He motioned to the people in the circle. “Can everyone agree on that? We keep Edith’s remarks confidential?”
   “I thought this was a cheap wine and bitch session,” Jeffry Kaufman said. He’d moved to the village a year ago and still struggled with retirement.
   “That’s changed,” Bill Henson responded. “The wine’s gotten better, and the conversation, too.”

“Save a bottle for Thirsty Thursday.”

Photo by Posawee Suwannaphati on

   Harry told Edith. “These folks can be trusted. What did you want to know?”
   She spoke deliberately. “My ex-husband, when he was still my husband, cheated on me. He got caught. I forgave him. He cheated again. I divorced him. That was twenty years ago. We’ve kept in touch….” Several women groaned. “He’s married and divorced twice since then. Now he’s asked me to join him for a weekend at our favorite Door County Inn.”
   Harry kept his expression neutral. He leaned forward to suggest he’d carefully considered what she said. “So, what’s your question?”
   “Can a man change?”
   “No,” responded a chorus of women.
   “Don’t get me started…,” Lucille Snook added. Her face flushed, and she stopped packing her wine glasses. She pulled her husband back into the lawn chair beside her.
 Harry motioned for silence. “If you’re uncomfortable with the topic, here’s your chance to leave.” One couple, arguing in hushed tones, fled. “And let’s close the bar.” Some refilled their glasses before putting the bottles away, but no one objected. They huddled up their chairs.
   “Let’s address Edith’s concern.” He turned to her. “You’ve already answered the central question, though it’s not the question that you asked.”
   She shook her head. “What do you mean?”
   “You asked, ‘Can a man change?’ The obvious answer is, ‘yes.’ History is filled with examples of males who have turned their lives around. Comedian Tim Allen comes to mind. But I think the question you’re really asking is, ‘Can my ex-husband change?’ And you’ve already answered that.”
   Edith shook her head, as if clearing it. She’d been drinking steadily. “No, I haven’t.”
   “Of course, you have. If you believed he’s changed, you wouldn’t ask the question.” Harry paused. “You also shared that he cheated on you, and it cost him his marriage. People can learn from experience, but he’s married and divorced twice since then. He’s repeating past mistakes.”
   “If he doesn’t want to change, why would he ask me to….”
   “Maybe he needs to feel desirable again.”
   Edith exhaled. “And when that happens…?”
   Harry sat up. “He’ll hunt for his next conquest, confident that he can always come back to you.”
   “Or maybe he thinks he won’t get caught this time,” Jeffrey suggested.
   “Oh, he can’t be that stupid,” Lucille suggested.
   “People convince themselves of stupid things all the time.”
   “Like me,” Edith confessed, “thinking this time it won’t hurt as much.”
   Harry raised his eyebrows. “Maybe he’s changed.”
   “No. I don’t think so….” Edith touched his arm. “You’re right, Harry. I knew the answer but wouldn’t admit it.”
   “Once a snake, always a snake,” Lucille reassured her.
   Harry opened up the topic to lively discussion, but he shut it down promptly at 9:00. “It’s getting to be bedtime.” Walking back to his cottage alone, he replayed the conversation in his head. That felt good.
   Midafternoon the next Thursday, Darla appeared at Harry’s door in high heeled sandals, beige tailored slacks, a cream-colored blouse and dress jacket. “Your Marketing Director uniform?”
   “I’m the marketing director even in a t-shirt and jeans.”
   “But today you own the title.” Harry grinned. “Well done.”
   Darla noted his cargo shorts and the red aloha shirt with blue parrots. “You’ve dressed up, too.”
   “My Crazy Old White Guy uniform. Easily identified stereotypes save time and unnecessary conversation.”
   He offered her iced tea, and Darla followed him into the kitchen. “What will you wear tonight at the gazebo? Your therapist’s uniform?”
   “What do you mean?” he asked as he poured the tea. “Am I in trouble?” He motioned to the couch in his living room.
   Darla shook her head. “Just the opposite.” She pursed her lips. “Last Monday a group asked the Village bus driver to make a wine run to Costco. They wanted more selections than the grocery store offered.”
   She watched his reaction. “Tuesday, Dorothy Shrunk told me on the QT that the eligible bachelor and bachelorette lists have been discontinued.” Harry remained quiet.
  “Then yesterday seven potential residents joined me in the dining room for a free lunch with some Townsend Village Volunteer Ambassadors. When I mentioned Thirsty Thursdays, Edith Prince corrected me. ‘We don’t call it that anymore. It’s Therapeutic Thursdays.”
   “No, it’s a good thing. Today Bill Henson, the President of the Resident Council, talked about the virtues of Townsend Village at the Rotary Luncheon. He described living here as being surrounded by a large extended family. He mentioned an informal gathering held every Thursday night where people can share good wine, and I quote, ‘minister to the emotional needs of others.’” Darla raised her eyebrows. “You’ve been nominated for sainthood.”
   “I’m not a saint.”

   “Obviously.” Darla finished her iced tea but didn’t move. “I met a guy online. A vet. Three tours in Afghanistan. He’s got issues, but there’s chemistry. I was wondering if you’d….”
   “Recommend a good couples counselor?”
   “I thought maybe you could….”
   “That’s a bad idea. I’d rather stay friends.”
   “But you’re doing Thursday nights….”
   “That’s not counseling. I simply listen and help people talk through their issues.”
   Harry gave her names of the best therapists to deal with her abuse issues and her friend’s PTSD. “Trust might be a problem.”
   After Darla left, Harry retreated to his wine collection and selected a Molly Dooker Shiraz Blue Eyed Boy from South Australia and a Faust Cabernet from Napa. He changed out of the cargo shorts into slacks but kept the parrot shirt.
   After people shared their wines that night, Harry suggested they talk about grief. “The topic has been on my mind.” Others murmured agreement. “At its worse, grief makes you feel like you’re the only person in the world suffering like this,” he told them. “You aren’t. Grief is just the natural response to any loss.”
   “It doesn’t feel very natural to me,” someone called out.
   “‘Natural’ only means that everybody experiences it when something or someone they love is lost. For example, I grieve the death of my wife.” The group became unusually quiet. “Others grieve the loss of good health or employment, the death of a pet, diminished financial status, the sale of your house.”
   “Hell,” Bill Henson blurted out, “that’s everyone in the Village. We’ve all stopped working and sold our homes. We all have health problems….”
   “Shut up, Bill,” his wife Lucille said. “That’s Harry’s point.”
   “But here’s the problem,” he added, “when you’re surrounded by grieving people, you get arrested in the past. Nobody can live that way and be healthy. You need to deal with the grief. You need to do something.”
   “Like drink more wine?”
   “Not exactly, Jeffrey. Alcohol feels like relief, at least it does for me. It slows the brain, dulls the emotions, but it also leaves feelings unresolved.” He motioned to the group assembled. “In contrast, sharing grief over wine with friends is cathartic. Thursday nights have helped me climb out of the rabbit hole I fell into after my wife’s death.”
   “You could be our therapist.”
   “I’d prefer to be your sommelier or your friend.”
   “Let’s go with friend,” Edith Prince suggested. “Anyone can be the sommelier. Maybe, instead of doing a wine talk, you could do a ten-minute therapy talk, like you did tonight, then allow other people to share.”
   “Nobody expects you to solve everything,” Bill added.
   “That’s a relief.” Everyone laughed.
   After the group broke up, Edith approached him. “How would you feel about walking me home?” He realized this was not a casual question. Her cottage was on the opposite end of the village from his.
   “I’d be honored.”
   They walked at first in silence, but as they approached Edith’s cottage, she took his arm. “Do you remember the night I asked you if men could change?”
   “Of course. You were considering an invitation from your ex- for a weekend getaway. You hoped that he’d changed his cheating ways, but you finally realized that was unlikely.”
   “Would it surprise you to know I went with him to Door County?”
  “Not really. I’ve been in this business a long time.”
   “You’re well preserved for your age.”
“Thank you.”
   Harry made note of her flirting. She was an attractive woman.
   “You helped me understand that I’d been hurt by Mark because I’d trusted him. I reasoned that I’d be hurt again only if I trusted him again. So before the trip I made it clear that I was only going for the scenery and the sex. I had no intention of ever letting him back into my life romantically.”
   “And how did that work out?”
   “The scenery was as beautiful as ever, and the sex was better than the Saturday night fish boil but not as good as when I thought he loved me.” Harry and Edith stopped in front of her cottage. “I realized because of him I distrusted all men.”
  “That’s why you went to Door County. So settled for the devil you knew, rather than risk some unknown who might hurt you even more.”
   “Is it that obvious?”
   “No. Most people think relationships are about intimacy. They’re more about risk.”
   “Exactly, Harry. I knew you’d understand.” She leaned over and kissed him on the cheek. “Let me know when you’re ready to take the plunge. I’ll take you swimming, or buy you coffee, or treat you to a movie. No Door County trips or sleep overs until we know each other better.”
   Harry watched her cross the few steps to her cottage and disappear behind the door.
  “What just happened?” he muttered as he headed home, but he had a pretty good idea he knew.


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