‘Still nothing can set off your heartbeat as when you return yourself to your past.’ Harry Chapin.
Jean Winston, Master of Ceremonies for the tenth annual Artemis Literary Awards live from Masonic Temple in Detroit, Michigan, steps up to the podium, an audience of tuxedoes and designer dresses fall silent: “The nominees for Best New Book are Tom Lankton for the hilarious novel about Hollywood The Code of the Coocoo’s Nest, William Miller for his romantic novel Post Sunrise, and finally James Sibelius for his swash-buckling, seafaring book A Range of Opportunity, the envelope please.”
Technical difficulties with the envelope Jean, “I never leave home without it”, uses a finger nail file extracts the card, “The winner for Best New Book of 2015 James Sibelius A Range of Opportunity.”
Thunderous applauds, whistling reverberate throughout the auditorium.
James Sibelius walks through a tangle of tables and chairs to the podium, shaking hands as Fanfare for the Common Man blasts from loudspeakers. Smiling, Jean hands the award, a plaque with a bronze medallion, to Sibelius. Applauds subside, somewhere in the crowd, “Atta boy James!”
“Wow!” Sibelius runs fingers over the raised image of the Greek god Artemis, “I would like thank my agent Melinda, Book Brothers publishing, all the researchers at the Maritime Museum, library staff, friends and family having the courage to understand…,” then intense look into television cameras, “… thank you Milada.” Seconds pass, then an ear to ear smile and a hand shake with Jean before walking off stage.
Sibelius is in conversation with Tom Lankton and William Miller as I approach, Mr. Miller is speaking, “…what figure of Ancient Greece I’d love to meet, hands down the priestess Diotima for I would…”
“Pardon me gentlemen; Mr. Sibelius my name is Hugo Carmody with the Toronto Star I am here to write an article on your book and the award you just won, do you have time?”
“It just so happens I have other business to attend, do you know of the Sweetwater bar next-door?”
“Excellent, I can meet you there in, let’s say an hour.”
The Sweetwater is a mix of tuxedos and blue collar, full of energy; I locate a table near the bar and begin reviewing background notes on Sibelius, most importantly, in big, block letters and a circle around it: WHO IS MILADA. Sibelius walks in smile unabating still wearing tuxedo, loose bow-tie, and award in hand. Sibelius slides onto the seat across from me, “Sorry I’m late Mr. Carmody”
“Hey no problem just going over notes but please, Hugo. Can I get you a drink?”
“Please, scotch on the rocks, thank you Hugo.”
“Waiter a scotch on the rocks for the talent here and I will have a pint of Molson.”
“Very good sir,” the waiter floats off to fill the order.
Eyeing the caramel colored drink before him Sibelius takes a big swallow, “Aaahhh, that’s what I like about the scotch!”
I immediately get down to business, “Congratulations Mr. Sibelius on winning the award for your book A Range of Opportunity, what’s next.”
“A historical fiction, romantic novel with sleuthing between the wars set in Hart, Michigan my mother’s hometown. By the way please call me James.”
Acknowledging the request, “Ok James, sounds interesting have you started on it yet?”
“Just a rough outline at this time,” Sibelius replies.
After letting him know I look forward to its’ publication I read from notepad, “So you write your first book and the literary world takes notice bestowing you with the Artemis Award and with just a handful of personal articles published in the Ventura County Star, the L.A. Times, how did you get your start and,” dramatic pause, “who is Milada?
I can see the wheels turning in Sibelius’ mind he begins, “When the 1980’s end so too a decade of parties and relationships of no meaning, I have no bearing. I begin my third year working for Jaffe’s Camera and Video a mom and pop store in Ventura, California with four locations October, 1993. One afternoon I am busy transferring Kodachrome slides to VHS tape brought in by a customer of the WWII battle for Iwo Jima. Not only is this history but aboard one of the LSTs my father watches marines go in, with blinders on and excitement in the air I commence.”
Sibelius takes a good swallow of scotch stares at the glass then resumes, “Whilst deep in the South Pacific store supervisor Craig approaches, ‘…and back here we have our video transfer expert James, excuse me James,’ I turn square into Milada, ‘this is Milada Plevennik she is our new printer at the Buenaventura Shopping Mall.’ Still lingering in the past, I note her fair skin, smile framed by thin lips, and coquettish stance hands clasped below her waist; I extend a hand ‘Pleased to meet you.’”
“Smiling, eyes sparkle under fluorescent light she grasps my hand, ‘Hi.’ Awkward moment of silence then Craig and Milada are off to the other locations I return to those slides of historical nature”
“So there’s no attraction.”
personnel cutbacks, one location closes, video transferring slows, and I relocate to the Buenaventura Shopping Mall for sales training, the same store where Milada prints. The first few months are business as usual however, like the old silk hat brought Frosty to life being in Milada’s company has a strange affect on me.”
Scribbling notes I stop, “How so?”
“Well Hugo, at this point a relationship was the last thing on my mind and it may be far-fetched but when introduced a subliminal seed in her handshake, or the air she exhales, her flirtatious smile, or hazel-green eyes passes into me,” Sibelius radiates hands clasp surrounding his drink, “Her presence acts like a grow light events by nature take over.”
Interviewing authors is always educational, “A-ha, Ok. What do you mean events by nature?”
“The process of courting someone is governed by rules and regulations, I mean you just cannot walk up to someone and say let’s hit the sack. Well, you can to facilitate prostitution or one a night stand. Work talk transitions into upcoming movies, what happened the night before, and weekend plans. Similarities are discovered: we both like the cartoon Animaniacs, we drive Volvos hers a 1982 DL mine a 1980, both of us nicknamed Thumper after the Disney character in Bambi. The latter I’ve always felt a ploy but never question.”
Sibelius is relaying quickly I break in to catch up, “A ploy?”
“I mean, what are the odds of two strangers receiving the same nickname for the same reason; Milada is an intelligent woman for her age.”
“That would be?” I ask.
“She is twenty and I, 36. I believe she knew before I did what the outcome will be.”
A waiter looking like he is going in ten different directions rambles by, Sibelius grabs his arm, “Waiter, I would like another scotch on the rocks, the Toronto Star is paying.”
“Yes sir, does the Toronto Star wish for anything?”
“No thank you.”
The waiter biffs off and is back before one can say Ticonderoga ten times, Sibelius continues, “Most nights after work we go separate ways one evening we break from tradition stopping at her car she occupies the driver’s seat deliberately leaving the door open I hunker down looking up, the evening sun accentuates her strawberry-blonde hair.”
Sibelius is a rapid fire word machine I interrupt, “Is Milada opening up to you?”
“Yes.” Sibelius pauses then glowingly continues, “We talk into the evening every word she speaks my heart pounds an ancient delirium the urge to kiss grows I lean in she pulls back her right eyebrow climbs her forehead triggering an intrigued, yet trusting expression. The two of us draw closer; I drive home drunk.”
“So there is a deep connection developing,” I query.
“One I did not knowingly recognize, I was succumbing to a desire older than civilization.” Ice cubes clink to the bottom of an empty glass Sibelius goes on, “A few weeks later I am at home listening to Soul Food to Go by Manhattan Transfer and mistaken the words ‘… do you believe in jazz…’ for ‘…do you believe in chance…’. Suddenly, the refrigerator door opens a light shines, on her day off I place my business card with the question, ‘Do you believe in chance?’ on the printer keyboard; euphoria, self-confidence are overflowing.
“You’re subconscious at play, eh?”
“Very much so Hugo, the next day an elevated eyebrow and her response, ‘No, chance meetings don’t happen.’ I knew what next I do when a co-worker requests to borrow a four VHS tape documentary on baseball. I am falling in love the adoration stimulates; I intentionally take in one tape at a time over two weeks staying long enough for light conversion but saying no more than ‘Hi’ to Milada who is always busy printing.”
“So you’re teasing her,” I press.
“No I wouldn’t say tease more like building a foundation we’re testing how serious each are, affection builds for one you love when parted from them. One cool California evening Milada takes me home and across the Volvo’s dashboard dried, red rose pedals I inquire as she reaches my domicile, ‘I see you like roses?”
‘Yes,’ quickly adding as if more important; ‘now I know where you live,’
“I counter, ‘Let me know when you want to stop by I’ll leave the bedroom window open,’ elevation of the eyebrow and a stimulating beam flashes my way. You know Hugo,” Sibelius leans in, “of all her beauty that eyebrow and smile excites me most. Love’s poison, if you will, spreads. One evening while engrossed in James Michener’s Centennial I get an idea to sneak into the parking lot at work and place a long stem rose and note on the windshield of her car. Aroused, I imagine eyebrow action as she turns over the note in her hands, a tender smile while inhaling the rose’s heady scents wondering who.”
“But why not just hand it to her,” I query.
“The hunt for love is stimulating you see, the rose on her windshield is like food in a trap, it draws her attention, she inhales the roses’ fragrance, SNAP!, she is captured. However, Milada is sharp and quickly concludes I’m the guilty party handwriting recognition don’t ya know. There is no turning back now.”
Suddenly, from behind Sibelius, “Atta boy James!” echoes above the low roar in the tavern. We both look in the direction from whence it came unable to determine the accolades originality.
Smiling he continues, “Our first date is spent under the warm California sun at the J. Paul Getty museum nestled in the hills above Pacific Palisades, California. Do you know of the Getty Museum Hugo?”
“No,” I reply.
“Are you married?”
“Ten years next month,” I answer with pride.
“Congratulations, if you two ever get the chance to visit you won’t be disappointed.”
“Thank you I will keep it in mind.”
“Part of the museum is the Getty Villa there Roman, Greek, and Etruscan antiquities wait but it is to the Outer Peristyle we rest under the portico with its’ relics of the ancient world panoramas of English Ivy, roses, bronze Roman Sculptures, and a 220’ long reflecting pool. I raise my camera and focus suddenly the viewfinder fills with vivacious hazel-green eyes and a perfect set of white enamels. CLICK! In this stimulating, romantic setting of a sun bathed Roman Villa our first kiss a long, passionate kiss; we break off, ‘Well hello,’ I say softly so as not to upset the ambience Milada licks her lips reciprocating, ‘Hi.’ We repeat Rodin would be proud. On that sunny afternoon our fate is sealed as the warm Pacific breeze encircles, our souls fuse.”
Sibelius is silent hanging on the memory a sip of scotch lubricates he says, “One Sunday morning at work, unexpectedly, Milada seductively suggests we stay after hours in the store.”
“Did you accept the offer,” I ask hoping the answer yes.
“How could I say no to those eyes, her coquettish outlook, but when she raised the eyebrow as an exclamation point I was a goner. But let me tell ya Hugo, the torture of waiting all day!”
Deep inhale, long, slow exhale brings a mischievous expression to Sibelius’ face, he continues, “With no one else around, under dim, night lights we bath in each other’s nakedness and sweat, her long, fine hair is silk across my skin, it is heaven. Then, noises from outside, at the door Milada presses ear I behind her the idea of discovery excites instinctively my hand slides up to Milada’s breast massaging, she turns into me. Entangled in our afterglow at her car her lips are delicious and responsive and it is agreed this a onetime adventure as neither want to be caught with pants down, don’t ya know. Work takes on an indelible, vibrant meaning.”
I pause a moment taking a sip of Molson, “Wow!”
Sibelius is rolling, “Nerves push the heart faster than the Volvo I drive to her apartment for Christmas dinner with the parents and a few friends, 1994. Knock, knock, knock a moment pause the door creeks open Milada’s curvy, young figure is illuminated in the door frame, eyes sparkle, amorous smile; from behind a dozen red roses I announce, ‘Merry Christmas.’”
“Introductions complete all gather in the living room sharing food and drink, one of the guests wants to know from where I hale.
“‘The Midwest,’ I answer.’ “
“’Bbbrrr,’” she responds.
“Ya know Hugh, I am amazed everyone associates the Midwest with only winter but I roll with it and describe snow drifts reshaped by strong winds, howling storm doors, ending with condensation and mold on the kitchen bay window caused when cold outside air clashes with warm, moist inside air.”
“A moment of silence then, ‘Wow, I get such a great picture you should be a writer.’ Some know at the age of 10 writing is the course, it took me until the age of 36.”
For clarification I ask, “So from that minute description your writing started? Surly you had some inkling of wanting to write one does not pick up pen and paper and kaboom a book spills out, not everyone is a Mozart.”
“Well Hugo, in my youth I scribble notes of teen parties, trips with friends, gibberish that serve the same purpose newspapers do I bring home from family vacations. I read humorous murder/mystery novels, of love’s history, and of the whimsical attack of the British upper crest but never sign up for writing classes. Some may pass the curious friend’s reaction as idle conversation it hit me with the speed of a fast ball sparking the wordsmith within however, Milada instills self-assurance.
“Ok hold on a moment,” quickly turning to a fresh page, “I see, so writing begins as souvenirs, so to speak, and from the sounds of it you are self-taught. Incredible.”
“Yeah, I guess you could say tidbits of life like a page of unconnected dots. With the same last name as Finnish composer Jean Sibelius mother hoped something musical would rub off Milada’s appearance connected the dots and writing becomes the path.”
Deep inhale, long exhale Sibelius’ voice turns remorseful, “People come into your life for a reason Milada transforms mine and just as all seems right with the world in early 1995 a childhood friend from Michigan, Makenna Blackburn whom I once had a crush on, tracks me down and begins communicating by letter.”
I break in, “So you are from Michigan, eh? Most be nice to win the award on home ice.”
This brings Sibelius into reality, “Home ice, are you a fan of the game?”
“Absolutely, Leafs all the way!”
James looks left then right, “I won’t say that too loud I may not be the only Red Wings fan here. Don’t want to start a fight, eh?”
We both laugh then a sad Sibelius smile, “ Makenna and I were neighbors in suburbia Detroit her family and mine constantly together when in the late 60’s they move to Albuquerque, New Mexico, while in Michigan on vacation in the late 70’s she appears on my doorstep unannounced. A dormant attraction erupts as we write letters with such frequency they pass each other in the mail and without thinking I violate love’s protocol.”
“You want your cake and eat it too.”
Sibelius twirls the glass, what little scotch remains mix with ice cubes he recites the betrayal, “Yes on one hand a smart, beautiful woman with dazzling eyes and killer smile, on the other a long distance relationship. I don’t know why to this day but I reseat Milada to the balcony section moving Makenna into the spotlight; I choose a long distance relationship over one lovin’, touchin’, and squeezin’ in my own backyard. Barriers so carefully approached and knocked down are rebuilt Milada is becalmed casting off communication; the idea of marrying Makenna seems realistic I propose to her in the Albuquerque airport just before stepping onto the plane after a week’s visit. “Then heartache,” Sibelius’ clinched fists, in a lighthearted yet serious manner, punch at the empty space between us, “Pow, smack, crunch, boom I misread the tea-leaves for Makenna had no intention of marriage and Milada moves on leaving me ironically, alone. In time, wounds coagulate and Milada reconciles consummating our friendship by accepting an offer to spend a day in Pasadena, California.”
Sibelius stares at the empty glass water builds in his eyes like that in a dam his voice brakes stammered in sentiment, “21 years have slipped by since Milada touched my life we’ve gone down separate life paths, fallen from communication. I was drifting aimlessly in space Milada’s light nourishes a compass askew. We share a place in time, we become each other, we are a timeline of history; unguarded moments as simple as drifting clouds or a tree-lined field in summer green calls her to mind,” then in a regretful yet grateful tone, “ she is my muse.”
I break the long silence to clarify, “So Milada is with you in spirit.”
“Very much a guiding light,” Sibelius adds.
“One final question James, do you think you will ever meet again?”
Without hesitation, “I’m optimistic.”
Finishing notes I add, “You know, even though the name didn’t inspire you to write music, you are a composer your mother would be proud.”
“Thank you Hugo I’ll take that.”
We leave the bar together, outside shake hands I watch Sibelius dance off into the night and to myself, “The J. Paul Getty museum, huh?”