Sunday, January 09, 2005

The Wager

There were once three men who often sat around a table at a fancy restaurant. These men smoked cigars and, as men do from time to time, discussed things of great importance. These three men ranged in ages: one was very young; the second was middle aged and the third was an old, old man. Each man was a various stages in his careers and so was established socially and financially commensurate with his age.

One day, the subject of romance came up at the table. The youngest man, filled with the directness and stubbornness of youth, said that he believed that romance faded with age. He so loved his young wife, and he often fretted over the possibility of this happening to him. The other two men kindly but firmly rebuked him, each man professing great love for his own spouse.

Then the old man had the idea of issuing a challenge that would show who was the most romantic man among them. The challenge would be in a form of a wager. “Let’s see who is the most romantic among us,” he said, “and we will see if romance has faded in our marriages! We shall meet one month from today, here at this very table with our wives. We shall have diner and present each of our wives with one gift. We will determine who is the winner based on the reaction of each woman.”

The youngest man protested first: “This is a splendid idea!,” he said, “but since you are the oldest and the most established and, well, to be blunt, the wealthiest, it stands to reason that you will be able to afford the most expensive gift. My wife and I are just starting out in life and I do not have the kind of money you have. I am afraid we would be at a disadvantage.”

The old man listened, his large overgrown gray mustache pointing downward almost in a frown, then agreed with the youngest man. “Very well, then,” he said finally, “Let’s limit the gift to $25 – that should level the playing field. Do we all agree then? We meet back here in one month. Be sure to wear tuxedoes for this is a wager for romance after all.”

The three men shook hands and agreed then off they went.

One month later, as agreed, the men and their wives reconvened at the restaurant. The men looked all shiny and new in their tuxedoes, and the women simply radiated beauty in their elegant gowns. The dinner passed uneventfully, with each woman enjoying dinner and the fine company. None of the women knew of the wager and all three couples were having a wonderful time.

After dessert the old man pulled out a cigar, and glanced over at the other two men, nodding, indicating that now was the time to see who would win the wager – who was the most romantic man among them.

The youngest man went first. He took a small beautifully wrapped box from his pocket and placed it in front of his wife. She seemed surprised, but equally delighted. As she opened the package, the young man spoke:
“Darling,” he began, “I cannot afford to get you the kinds of things you truly deserve. Since we are newly married, you know what a struggle it is just to get by. I know how much you always wanted a string of peals and if I could I would lasso the full pale moon with a rope, and break it into a million pieces, then string each piece for you to make you the most precious strand.”
The wife opened the box and in it set a single, white, perfect pearl.
“Since I cannot do that, I give you this one pearl, along with this promise: that I shall give you one pearl each year we are married so that when we are old and gray together you will have that string of pearls you always wanted and this strand will represent the length and beauty and perfection of our marriage.”

The wife said nothing but began to cry. Finally she grabbed her husband’s shoulders and kissed him so long and so hard and so deeply that the other two couples at the table grew embarrassed. “Ahem,” the old man cleared his throat. The young man, seeing how he had moved his wife, hugged her, and then glanced over to the middle aged man, indicating that it was his turn next.

The middle aged man pulled a vial of dirt from within his breast pocket and placed it before his wife.

“My reason to be,” he said softly to her, “We were married a scant ten years ago overlooking the vineyards of the Tuscany region of Italy. I remember the day because we danced until the sun set. We danced when there was music and we danced when there was none. I never wanted to stop dancing that day and truth be told, I would be dancing with you now if I could.” He paused, then took a deep breath and presented the vial to his wife. She took it in her hands and examined it.

“I took the liberty of calling the hotel in Italy where we stayed that week when we were married. I asked the man there if he would send me this small vial of dirt from the very spot where we first exchanged vows. Do you remember that gently green grotto covered with grape leaves? Do you remember how cool it was and how perfect?”

The wife did remember and she was about to cry, when the middle aged man produced a card from his other pocket and began to read a poem he had written for his wife just for this occasion:

It is an inky night without Love -
The Dark that hollows me out; planes me thin;
Lowers me sure but exalts you above;
I only know warmth from your salty skin
And Trust which sprouts from your gentle surround;
I am vapor until love’s compass rose
Guides me with Faith through poetry and prose;
That life grows from love, as trees earth in ground.
I am breathless until I breathe your name!
I am blind until I am in your sight;
Shine within thickest woods the Streaming Light –
And burn clear the path of omniscient flame.

Let Love’s whispery gauze cover our wounds,
With a kiss, let’s scorch our selfish ruins.

When he finished, he saw how his wife’s cheeks were wet with tears and the two of them gazed long and hard with love into each other’s eyes until the old man realized it was his turn, and he sprang into action.
The old man, like the other two produced a small gift wrapped box with a bright bow on top.

“Long before you were born,” and he nodded to the youngest man, “and while you were still in diapers,” and he nodded to the middle aged man, “a beautiful young woman walked into a Five and Dime store – a convenience store I guess you would call them today. It was Christmas time and her heart locked onto a small Christmas tree ornament. It was an angel made of the most iridescent blue metal. The angel was stretching upwards placing a star atop some unseen tree. I remember the ornament because of how it reflected the light. I remember this ornament because of how you told me this would be the first ornament you would get to eventually decorate our tree when we were married.”

The old man paused to remove his glasses and clean them with a napkin.

“My soul and very breath,” he started again. “I was too poor that day to buy you that ornament and I suppose over the years, I simply forgot about it. Well, I had to make lots of phone calls since that store has long gone out of business, but I was able to get the exact ornament just as you remember!”

But the old man’s wife looked sad through all of this.

“No,” was all she said.

Her clipped response stopped the old man in his tracks.

“No, dear heart,” the wife said in a flat monotone. “I know you are old and now I am wondering if you are also a bit addled as well. It was not I who wanted that ornament but rather my best friend Lucy Forbes who loved it so.”

The silence was as awkward as it was long. No one knew what to say or what to do. The old man began to sputter, the ends of his mustache flailed up and down as he tried to explain.

“Why…but…I thought you said…” The old man was flustered and it was uncomfortable for everyone at that table for what seemed like an eternity.

“No,” the wife barged on. “I had my heart set on the silver plated handled hairbrush that day. Don’t you remember? I told you how it reminded me of my grandmother.”

The old man’s wife seemed genuinely hurt but she recounted the memory in such a way that she was trying to mask the pain of her husband’s forgetfulness. The old man merely shook his head as the words, “I swear” were all that was audible.

As the wife opened the box, she began to describe the brush to the other couples, how ornate the design was; how there were flowers on the back with rolling swirls that were like leaves that traveled down the handle. She knew it was only silver plated told the others, but it so reminded of her of when she was a little girl, how she would spend hours sitting and brushing her dear grandmother’s hair with a sterling silver handled brush of which this was a dime store replica.

As she spoke, she looked at each of the other couples, hoping this would help her keep her composure and not cry in front of them. When she reached into the box, what do you think she pulled out?

It was the very same replica brush, which she had just been describing. Her face froze in shock and the other two women shrieked with joy when they saw what the old man had done. The other men gasped in awe and then applauded, clapping the old man on the back.

The old man’s wife collapsed into the arms of her husband, crying over and over again, “I love you, I love you, I love you.” Soon the whole table was awash in tears.

The old man looked over at the other men, his wife’s head on his shoulder, and gave them a wink.

“When you dine at the table of romance,” he admonished them, “you need to be prepared to change the table cloth every so often.”

The other men knew exactly what the old man meant and they all agreed that the old man clearly won the wager.

But really, they were all winners at that table that evening. For when love is served with true and steadfast hearts, there are never losers.

M C Biegner


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