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The Merry Widow
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The Merry Gladiator
by Colin Campbell

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Bike-pumps... bike-pumps... bike-pumps... bike-pumps, windshield wipers beat rhythmically, pushing back the cascade of rain. Tom huddled close to the steering wheel and turned his head to Jim, sitting in the passenger seat. "Bike-pumps." Tom said. "Ol' Wagner wants us to give away a bike-pump with every farm machine we sell."

Jim looked side-ways at Tom's crafty face, made luminous by the lights of the dashboard. "This isn't another one of your jokes, is it?"

"No joke." Tom insisted, smiling and shaking his head. "Wagner wants to promote the clients to send in their warranty paperwork in faster. If they send the warranty to us in under two weeks, they'll be eligible to win an all-terrain bike for the farm."

Jim looked at him again. "Then what is it you're chuckling about?"

"I can imagine it now," Tom said. "The lady of the house answers, her husband is out in the fields someplace..." Leaning forward, he began to laugh. "...And I tell her that I'll give her a pump if she'll buy my plow!"

Covering his eyes, Jim gave an exaggerated groan. "I can't sleep at night."

Jim moved up in the seat to stretch his legs. "These long hours on the road."

Tom reached into his lapel pocket and handed two small blue capsules. "Take these when you go to bed and you'll be out cold." He opened another small vial and popped a brown pill, straining to see the road. The thick rain suppressed the light of the head-lamps. They had left the last rural town hours ago and still had a two-hour drive until they'd reach Plattsville. In between, dotted here and there with expensive ranch homes, was countryside, ripe with oil and cattle. This area was easy money for two traveling salesmen with a talent for meeting the needs of their prospect.

"God, I can't see a thing." Tom hunched closer to the wheel. Seemingly, the night's blackness was so impenetrable that it resisted the advance of both headlights and vehicle. "We seem to be losing power."

The interior light of the dashboard flickered and went out and Tom pulled the car to the shoulder. "Well, that's it." he said, reaching to the back seat to retrieve an umbrella. "You'd better take a look." he added, handing Jim the umbrella. "There's a flashlight in the glovebox."

Seeing Jim's disdaining glare, he shrugged his shoulders. "You know cars better than I do."

With a resigned glance, Jim pulled out the flashlight and opened the door.  Rain blew into the car riding a cold blast of wind. Stepping out, he shut the door, moved to the front of the car and lifted the hood.  Rain drummed hard on the metal over his head. A flash of light in the distance set off a thunderclap that swelled and bounded like rapids against the neighboring mountains. The engine was still there.

Shutting the hood, he jaunted back to the driver's side, his feet squishing at each step. Tom cracked the window open just enough to hear Jim yelling. "I can't tell what's wrong. But I see a light in the distance. Maybe there's a house with a phone we can use."

His clothes were beginning to cling over his pimpling skin. Comfortableand dry, Tom maintained himself inside the car. "You're coming too!" Jim yelled.

Together, they walked beneath the umbrella along the paved road. Luckily, the rain was decreasing to drizzle. The beacon they were directed to split into several smaller lights.

"Look, there's the house." Tom pointed. "It's getting bigger." 

"That's because we're getting closer." Jim muttered. "Enough of this shit. It's time I found some other line of work."

"Like what" Tom asked with a shrug."

"I don't know. Maybe a car dealership."

"Maybe, you'll win the lottery." Tom added.

A concrete path met the road and they followed this toward the house. The house was big, painted light grey with white trim of lattice and clap-boards. It was an old house, early century. However, there was a distinct look of maintenance to the place. A veranda stood out from the front that ran around the house where a small orchard spread itself out in perfect rows.

They walked up the steps between a garden flaming with red and pink rose bushes. Sheltered beneath the veranda, Tom closed the umbrella and knocked heavily against the wide oak door and waited. The doorway opened up and was filled with the figure of a woman, probably in her early fifties.

"We're terribly sorry to bother you this late evening." Tom started, "But our car has broke down and we would like to use your phone."

"Certainly gentlemen, please come in." she spoke with a youthful country tone. She gave a big smile that revealed a gap between her two front teeth.

Tom and Jim entered, wiping their feet on the big Welcome mat at the door.

Inside, Tom surveyed the interior, which strangely enough seemed to have a greater area than the exterior as he remembered seeing it. To his left was dining room and to the right a living room. The stair case curved downward from the upper rooms, landing in the center.

"My name is Agnes." she said, taking their jackets.

"This is my associate, Jim Harold and my name is Tom, Tom Richards." said Tom. "We saw your outside lights on. Are you expecting company?"

"Yes, uh no." Agnes said. "My father was a farmer, you know. We often had visitors such as yourself on nights like these." She stood there looking up at the chandelier as if reminiscing on some for off pleasant memory.

"Ma'am?" Tom interrupted. "Oh, yes." she blushed. "Please, make yourselves comfortable. But you are a bit wet, aren't you. Wicked weather outside. Migh migh." She motioned them to follow her.

"Well, Dick, Harry." She went to a closet and took out some two pairs of sweats.

"That's Tom and Jim." Jim politely corrected. "Oh, yes. Here, put these dry clothes on." She handed them the clothes and turned, her robust figure disappearing down a hallway. "We've been having a little trouble with the phones lately" she called back to them.  "I'll be in the kitchen."

Jim entered the bathroom to change. A few minutes later, he re-emerged wearing the sweats; a bundle of wet clothes under his arm. Tom entered the bathroom and shut the door. He set the sweats down on the closed lid of the toilet and began unbuttoning his shirt. He removed his shirt and slacks, tossing them on the sink. Then he slipped each leg into the soft cotton sweat bottoms and then put on the tops. Pulling the drawstring tight around his waits, Tom opened the door and walked into the living room.

Jim and Agnes were sitting together on the sofa, drinking tea and conversing with the ease of two old friends. "After my father died," she continued, looking straight at Jim, "my husband took over the farm. He converted the land for grazing cattle. My husband was very good at ranching. He has made this place worth millions."

"Really, that's interesting." Jim said, following along.

"Yes, but the poor man died of exhaustion." Agnes looked up at Tom entering the room.

She motioned for him to come sit next to her on the sofa. "The phone lines are not working." she said. "My foreman will be here in the morning to take you two into Plattsville."  Tom took a seat and Agnes poured him some tea. Jim took the pills that would help him sleep with the last gulp of tea left in the cup. After some conversation, Agnes offered to show them the guest rooms. Jim and Tom followed her up the stairs. She moved up the steps with energetic movement, the silk of her dress delineating the ample curves of her body.

In the guest room, Jim fell right into sleep. His light snoring sang along with the wind blowing outside the window. For Tom, sleep was not coming so easily. He turned on his side and looked at the small vial of sleeping pills that he'd set on the nightstand.

"Dear, could you come in here please." Agnes called, hearing him coming out of a bathroom with a cup of water. Headed back to his room, Tom stopped when he heard her voice. Wondering what it was, he walked toward the doorway where a vase of red and pink roses stood in a large vase by the door.

Inside the room, in the middle was an enormous bed covered by a canopy. Agnes lay sprawled out in a black lacy night dress, looking at Tom in the doorway. Laying on her side, telling him to come closer, she opened her gown, exposing her body, an expanse of white desert with an oasis of shrub cropping up between two linear dunes, heat rising. Reaching out to Tom, Anges pulled the drawstring to his sweat bottoms. The sweats dropped to the floor. With a firm grasp, Agnes pulled Tom onto herself and wrapping him in her arms like a spider. Running her fingers through his black curly hair, she kissed him with great passion. Tom let his tongue glide along hers, his hand gliding along the plains and valleys, climbing up one rounded hill to the peak, his thumb moving gently against her nipple.

The rain started up a sporadic rhythm on the roof which sheltered the two lovers. "Please," she begged. "Which one are you? I mean, what is your name??"

Moving against her with a gust of breath, Tom whispered, "I'm Jim!" Outside the window of the room, the rain increased to a torrential spattering against the window. The undulating gales of wind cried and wailed through the trees of the orchard, brushing the leaves back and forth in a cacophony of motion. The thunderclaps boomed overhead, exploding outwards through the mountains. Suddenly the wind died down, smoothing out the ruffled leaves. But as if only to catch it's breath, the wind picked up again, wailing through the branches of the trees, the tempest howling through the remaining night, into the dawn.

* * *

(Later that year)

Tom rolled down the window to let the warm spring breeze fill the interior of the car. He pushed down gently on the brake and turned into the driveway, pulling up near the showroom. A straight row of cars gleamed with sunlight; large numbers written across the windshields. He got out of the car and walked into the showroom. Jim finished talking with a man sitting in the plush upholstery of a new four-door. Tom walked over and shook Jim's hand. "So, how's the car business?"

"Great. " Jim beamed. "They've offered me the managership of the place." 

"Really!" Tom said, taking a step back. "That is great!"

"But I had to turn them down." Jim gave him a dejected look." I have to quit my job and move out to Plattsville. I found out yesterday."

"Found out what? Heavens Jim, what are you getting into now?" Together, they walked slowly out of the showroom into the sunshine. Jim remained quiet for a moment as they walked along the row of cars. "Well, maybe you might remember. About nine months ago..... Do you remember that older woman who's house we stayed at during a rainstorm?"

Tom caught his breath but remained casual. "Yeah?" he insisted. "Tom, I just got this letter from Plattsville. Tell me, that night, did you go to that woman's room after I had gone to bed?" Tom dropped his head, putting his fingers into his hair.

"And when you went to see her, did you give her my name?"

Tom began to stammer, feeling a hot f lush over his face. "Jim, yeah, I did. I'm sorry. But if my wife ever found out...."

Jim stopped walking as they came up next to Tom's car. He looked at Tom and glared. Tom lowered his eyes. "Well, is it a boy or a girl?"

"No," Jim said, beginning to smile. "The letter is from her foreman." He smiled and put his hand on Tom's shoulder. "It seems that she has just passed away...................And she left me her entire cattle ranch!" 

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