Autumn Splendor

“Today we are gathered together to honor the joyous life of Victor Sutton.”

Sitting politely on the front row with my parents, I intently listened to Pastor Browning recount numerous facets of my grandfather’s full life. PawPaw was strong, active, and joyful to a fault, regardless of his circumstances. Admired by many for his bold confidence, he was never reluctant to go after what he wanted. Anyone who knew him was also familiar with PawPaw’s repetitive mantra, “Never wait or hesitate, or sadly, it might be too late!”

I wish I were more like him.

The room was too quiet. There were no smiles. It reminded me of my horrendous fifteenth birthday party. I loved my PawPaw. I also knew him deeply. Instead of being sad, he would rather we all be celebrating. I breathed an impatient sigh. Pastor Browning continued.

“We come together in grief, acknowledging that love often reveals itself even more deeply in times of loss.”

I wondered how much longer the ceremony would last. The air was stuffy, partly due to the large crowd of attendees. The thick odor of old carpet, and years of cut flowers didn’t help either. At least outside it was a sunny Wisconsin day at the peak of fall.

I stared into the dancing flame of the candle beside the casket, wondering if my life might be different if I, like PawPaw, never waited or hesitated. Perhaps that thought would haunt me for a long time.

My cousin Elliott startled me back to the present moment as he tapped my shoulder from behind, handing me a note. Shame on him.

I opened the note–it wasn’t from Elliott. The note read, ‘Look back to your left’. Feigning my best nonchalance, I slightly turned, scanning the pews. He nodded at me with a smile. Great. I figured he would show up, but still wasn’t prepared to see him . . . or her. The last thing I needed was to deal with those twisted emotions on top of my PawPaw’s passing.

When would this service be over? It’s been fun and all, but I really need to scream now.

“Take comfort, knowing heaven will be a place of perpetual reunion.”

Finally.

——————————————————-

 

I busied myself arranging finger sandwiches in the reception hall.

“Hey, Blair!” I turned to discover my friend, Anne, along with five other old friends from Eagle River.

“Hi you guys. Wow, time flies, eh?”

I’d been back and forth from my hometown in Rockford to PawPaw’s cottage several times in the past years, but lost touch with most of the gang after college, except for Anne. We all exchanged hugs and kisses.

“Blair,” Anne said. “We’re so sorry for your loss. We all loved PawPaw. Hey—did you know Colton’s here?”

Oh yeah, thanks to the little note he passed to me in church, I knew. It was unnerving, nevertheless touching that he drove from Joliet to Eagle River to pay his respects.

“Let’s all get together later!”

Hmmm . . . a big maybe. I might be too busy. They said good-bye as I went to another table to adjust a few cookie trays. Staring into a tray of almond macaroon fingers, I searched my mind for a good opening line for the inevitable encounter with the man who used to be my very best friend.

“There she is, with her beautiful ginger hair!”

Nothing like a surprise attack. With a deep breath, I turned to face the still-sculpted, ever-handsome Colton Kingsbury.

“It’s been a while.” His voice, also still sexy. Colton’s black, tousled hair and ice-blue eyes still managed to take my breath away.

“Indeed, it has,” I said.

“Come here,” Colton said, pulling me close for a strong embrace. “I’m so sorry. PawPaw was like a grandfather to me. I’m glad to have known him for so many years.”

The scent of the woodsy cologne on his neck was arresting.

“Where’s Cheryl?” I broke our embrace.

A faint smile crossed Colton’s face.

“She’s not with me.”

Good. I’d rather not see her. It made sense—she never even knew PawPaw.

“So . . . maybe we can hang later?” Colton said, clearing his throat. “I’d love to talk with you.”

I wasn’t sure I was up for talking. Things ended rather awkwardly five years ago.

“May I have your attention, please?” My dad’s voice over the microphone provided a welcomed interruption.

“On behalf of our family, I’d like to thank you all for coming to share in the joy of knowing my father. For you locals, and those visiting overnight, we’d like to continue our gathering. So, in true PawPaw fashion, we’d like to invite you all to a fish fry at his cabin tonight. We’ll provide plenty of fish, but if you’re inclined to grab something from the grocery on your way there, we won’t object. Hope to see you there.”

Sigh. I knew I’d be facing Colton again that evening, and he’d have no clue as to why that would be difficult for me.

The temperature dropped as the crisp, autumn air crowded out the day’s sunshine. Donning sweaters and windbreakers, we set up rows of tables into a continuous long line among the Paper Birch trees for one of PawPaw’s famous fish fries. A backdrop for our feast was provided by a collection of plump pine cones nestled among the needles of some Red Pines, along with Sugar Maple and Quaking Aspen trees boasting an array of red, orange and yellow leaves. There was enough fresh Perch, Bluegill and Walleye to feed an army, not to mention a plethora of hot side dishes and fruit salads consuming the tables.

I missed my PawPaw.

Turned out, it wasn’t too bad sitting with Colton and our gang of friends. Sharing great food often lent to warm fellowship. Warm, funny stories emerged about PawPaw, filling the tables with laughter.

“Remember how PawPaw used to tell us not to go swimming if it’s raining because we might get wet?” A wide grin found Anne’s face as she spoke.

“Or,” I said. “When he took a nap, he’d tell us to wake him up if it’s raining, ‘cuz he couldn’t sleep when it rained!”

“Yeah,” Colton chuckled. “And he used to tell us to spit on the worms when we went fishing ‘cuz fish liked juicy worms!”

Inhaling the slightly lemony aroma of the stately pines, I beheld the warm smiles filling the tables. We reminisced about many fishing trips throughout the chain of lakes, failed water skiing attempts, and Friday night demolition derby races. I recalled the summer I first met Colton; his uncle had a cabin in Eagle River too—I was twelve years old. Finding out Colton also lived in Rockford was a pleasant bonus.

Conversations were mostly kept at reliving cottage memories, which suited me just fine. I had no desire to hear about what Colton and Cheryl were up to. Admittedly, I was glad to hear they hadn’t married yet.

Outdoor lamp posts and individual table lanterns illuminated our faces as stars appeared like scattered moon dust in the sky. The crowd thinned out, tables were cleared, and a crackling fire was started for a circle of stragglers.

“Hey, Colt! We should take the boat out.” Two of the guys in our gang egged Colton on to join them for a spin.

Immediate objection flew from my lips as the Benson boys flashed across my mind. The two, wild Benson brothers lived down the road and were notorious for wreaking occasional havoc in the neighborhood. PawPaw used to tell stories of how they’d get drunk and taunt evening bears, or race their go-carts around the community’s circle drive. One weekend, on a drinking binge, they went out with water skis, swamping area fishing boats, and finished by “streaking” through the channel.

The latest community buzz alerted neighbors of the Benson’s new habit of going out on the lake late Saturday nights with their guns. I shuddered to think of Colton and the guys becoming recipients of foolish target practice.

Colton jumped at the opportunity to go out on the lake, and regardless of my concern, my dad granted permission. It was already close to ten o’clock . . . and it was Saturday night.

“Blair, Colton and the guys will be safe.” My dad attempted reassurance. “They’re young men now.”

Young men who enjoy acting like young boys.

 

—————————————————————–

 

The whistle of the kettle atop the black, antique cook stove summoned me to PawPaw’s kitchen. With each step emerged a loud creak as I walked across the faded linoleum floor. My parents went to bed, but despite my exhaustion from the day’s events, sleep evaded me. The guys were still out on the lake.

Grabbing a wool blanket and my hot mug of tea, I made my way to the screened porch overlooking the channel between two lakes. I settled into PawPaw’s favorite shabby chair next to the piano stool that balanced a foot-high stack of magazines, and waited.

The weight of my eyelids eventually prevailed and I dozed off, but managed to awaken long enough to see the blurred clock tick past midnight, then again past 12:30 in the morning. Finally, at about 1 a.m., I was awakened by the idling of the old Evinrude motor. Colton spotted me under the golden glow of the cast iron wall sconce. He hopped out of the boat and ran up to the porch.

“Hey there. Why are you still up? Are you okay?”

“No! I’m not okay. Look how late it is!”

Colton wrinkled his forehead as he rubbed his chin.

“Are you mad at me?”

I blinked back tears, hesitating.

“No, it’s just—so late.”

We stared at each other for a long moment before Colton folded his arms in front of him, flashing me a knowing smile.

“Blair Sutton, you were worried about me.”

Pursing my lips, I shook my head, frowning.

“It’s been a long day. I’m going to bed.” Gathering my blanket around me, I shuffled inside the cabin without looking back. As Colton turned to tend to the boat, I heard his faint words.

“Good night, beautiful.”

I pulled the lace curtains together across the window over the brass bed and plopped down, drawing my grandmother’s quilt close. Staring into the dark room, I was relieved Colton was okay, but also furious he continued to see right through me after all these years.

I doubted he discerned I’d fallen in love with him though.

 

————————————————————————–

 

The gentle tap on my window gradually beckoned me from my slumber. I figured it was a bird. Tapping continued until I finally heard a whisper.

“Wake up, sleepyhead, it’s me.”

I sat up, pulling open the lace curtains, shielding my eyes from the morning sun.

“Colton, what are you doing?”

“Get dressed. Before I leave shortly, we have to do a lap around the circle drive together . . . for old time’s sake.”

I squinted back at Colton, pulling at my sloppy t-shirt.

“C’mon, Blair. I need to talk to you. Besides, I brought you a caramel latte.”

My favorite.

“Okay, give me a minute. I’ll be right out.”

I pulled on a shirt and some jeans, brushed my teeth, and grabbed my sweatshirt.

Colton and I walked up the driveway toward the 1/2 mile stretch of pavement circling the neighborhood, with an array of colorful trees inhabiting the center. We sipped our coffee and walked, making small talk, as we spotted a couple of chipmunks and a gray squirrel scavenging for their morning breakfast.

Colton finally heaved a heavy sigh, clearing his throat.

“Blair, I’m sorry things got so weird between us after I met Cheryl.”

I hesitated a moment before speaking.

“I understand Colton. If I were Cheryl, I wouldn’t want to share you either.” A noted smile swept across his face.

“So, you go back to Joliet today, eh?” I asked.

“Nope. I go back to Rockford.”

A slight chuckle escaped my mouth. “What do you mean?”

“I mean, I moved back there two months ago. That’s what I wanted to talk to you about.”

My heart skipped a beat as I looked at Colton, dazed.

“So, you and Cheryl moved back. . . “

“Blair,” Colton said, stopping mid-stride. “When I said yesterday Cheryl wasn’t with me, I meant we’re no longer together.”

Colton continued as we resumed our pace.

“It took me a while, but I realized I was never in love with her. I was in love with the idea of her. The most important thing I learned was–she would never be my best friend.”

Colton slipped his hand in mine as we continued walking. I swallowed hard, replaying Colton’s words in my mind while relishing the warmth of his hand. As we reached the cabin once again, Colton led me out to the end of PawPaw’s dock. Leaves of red, gold, and orange gently waved at us from across the channel as the trees reflected across the smooth, still water.

Colton turned to face me, taking both of my hands in his. A strange heat flushed my face as I met his gaze.

“Blair,” he said. “PawPaw always said to never wait, or hesitate, so . . . there’s something I need to do.”

Colton pulled me closer as a small cloud of butterflies landed in my stomach. He cupped my face with both of his hands and whispered.

“I’ve wanted to do this for a long time.” He pressed his lips against mine in a slow, deliberate kiss.

As I leaned my face into his chest in a warm embrace, Colton gave me a squeeze.

“Blair, am I too late?”

My eyes flickered up to meet his as tears blurred my vision.

Wrapping my arms around his neck, I pulled his face to mine . . . and kissed him right back.

 

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