He could hardly believe it, but he was going to see his hero in the flesh. For the past few months, Rutherford’s been going to the mall at least once a week for the sole purpose of entering the “Two Tickets To Paradise” contest located in the entryway of Sears. Always using his best penmanship—can’t take any chances when it came to seeing “the grooviest cat of all time”—Rutherford made sure to double, and even triple check the slip of paper for errors before dropping it in the over-sized fish tank. Louise, his adoring yet cautious wife, was worried he was getting his hopes up for nothing and that it’s probably just some big scam to get people’s personal information. Ford, as his old Army buddies called him, refused to surrender hope until the lucky winner was finally announced. He was optimistic after all, seeing that the giant fish tank wasn’t even half full and it was getting pretty close to the end of the contest.
“Is this Rutherford L. Gilmore?” a friendly female voice inquired on the other line. “It is!” he answered feeling a quick buzz of excitement remembering that the drawing date had just passed. “This is Martha from Pascal Entertainment. I’m happy to announce that your name had been drawn from the fishbowl and you won the big prize….you’re going to see Tony! Oh and I see here that you’ve also won the third place prize as well. You must have entered quite a few times huh?” “Oh, is that against the rules?” Ford sheepishly asked afraid that he might get disqualified for his overzealous act. “Not at all sir. In fact, I’m glad to see the prizes go to such a dedicated fan. Sometimes they go to some bored mall-walker just trying to kill time. Anyway, here’s what you won: Two lower-deck tickets to tonight’s performance, a limousine ride to and from the venue, and because you won the third place prize you also get a free dinner at Murray’s Steakhouse before the show.” Ford was trembling. “Just present your ID at the ticket office and they’ll let you in, have fun and congratulations!” He had the urge to ask what second place prize was but before he could, she hung up. Rutherford set the cell phone down still a bit numb with disbelief.
Ford was so frantic he just now realized that she said the tickets were for tonight’s performance. “Boy they sure don’t mess around,” he thought as he went to tell Louise the news. “Louise, guess what?? I won, I won the contest!” Louise looked up from her magazine and peered above her bifocals with wide eyes. “Ruthie! You mean it’s real, not a scam?” “Apparently, unless Mr. Bennett tries to sell us a timeshare during intermission or something. Well get dressed hon, we also get a free steak dinner, and a stretch limo ride. And may I take this time to just say…I told you so,” Ford joked as he brushed his silver (well grey but it made him feel younger to call it silver) hair back with his curved arthritic fingers. “You mean the show is tonight?” Louise asked hesitantly. “Tony sold out shows all week at the amphitheater, can’t you pick another night Ruthie? Remember Gail is coming over.” Rutherford’s heart sank a bit. In all the excitement he forgot about Louise’s sister coming in from Maine. “There’s no chance they gave you three tickets is there?,” Louise asked knowing it was a longshot since the name of the contest clearly stated “Two Tickets To Paradise.” Rutherford looked down and just shook his head no. “I guess seeing Tony Bennett was just not meant to be, at least for me,” she said with a small hint of regret. Louise knew how much Rutherford wanted to see this show and didn’t want to keep him from it so she suggested he go with one of his buddies instead. “But it just won’t be the same without you Louise.” “I’m not taking no for an answer Ruthie, I know how much you love Tony and this might be your last chance to see him. He’s not getting any younger you know, and neither are you,” Louise said with a half-kidding smile. Rutherford chuckled, “Thousand bucks says I end up outliving him.” After a few more minutes of futile negotiation, Rutherford realized Louise would not be accompanying him to the show. She’s much too polite to call her only sister and cancel plans at the last minute, anyhow he had two strong candidates for the extra ticket, and if they were busy he had a definite possible maybe as a third option.
His first call was to his best friend since childhood, George. He and George always accompanied each other when the wives weren’t available, or when they just needed to get away for the occasional “guy’s night out.” But Rutherford didn’t even make it past George’s wife who claimed he had already gone to bed for the night. “But it’s only 5 o’clock Dorothy!” Rutherford said in a skeptical tone. “Well…he’s just…he’s just not feeling well,” she replied sharply. Rutherford conceded and as he hung up the phone he heard a faint voice on the other end that sounded a lot like George ask, “Who is it dear?” Before Rutherford could call her on it, Dorothy quickly hung up. She’s never really liked Ford. Not since he took her Georgie out for his 70th birthday (of all places) to the sleaziest pub in the neighborhood. George, after a few too many whiskey on the rocks, accidentally pocket-dialed Dorothy and she ended up hearing most of the frisky conversation he was having with that “fake red headed tramp” Bethany, the waitress. Dorothy had always blamed him for her husbands behavior that night even though Rutherford was in the restroom for most of the verbal discretion.
His hopes were dashed yet again when his second “sure thing” fell though. Turns out Derek never much cared for Tony Bennett, and being Ford’s “well-meaning but extremely blunt friend,” let him know that he’d rather catch the Patriots game from the couch than spend the night “bumping elbows with those bleeding-heart yuppies.” Rutherford, although disappointed, refused to put up a fight. He would rather go alone than drag his friend kicking and screaming to a show he really didn’t want to attend anyway.
So now he was down to his last hope, Samuel, his most antisocial friend by far. According to those who actually knew him, Sam was just one or two steps from going “living off-the-grid in some remote cabin stockpiling for the inevitable collapse of society while writing his Manifesto” crazy. “If you’re selling something, I don’t want it. If you’re asking for donations, forget it. If I know you, just leave a message and if I feel like it I might call you back.” beep! Samuel was almost as blunt as Derek. Rutherford wondered when all his friends became so bitter. “Um, I…hate leaving messages Sam but this is Ford. Hey I won some tickets to see Tony Bennett and wanted to know if you wanted to come with. Call me soon or…um, if you get this later on just meet me at the ticket booth at the amphitheater around 7:30. Um, thanks.” Rutherford hung up knowing his call was probably in vain since Sam not answering meant he was either ignoring the world, which was often the case, or he was off losing his ass again at the casino. Sam had many vices.
Rutherford let out a sigh of someone who had just run out of options and resigned to the idea of going to the show alone. He kissed Louise on the forehead and gave her a long, deep, loving look. Usually Rutherford is quick to look away or slightly above eye contact (a strange habit he picked up back in his Army days) but this was a direct, caring gaze that took Louise by surprise. Something about venturing out by himself made him appreciate the kind face of his wife, and knowing he had her to come home to brought him some peace. “Be sure to take a picture or two so you can show me what I missed out on,” Louise joked as she gently shut the door behind Rutherford.
He kept his phone on him in the very unlikely chance that Sam calls back, and as he plopped down into his cozy ol’ car’s leather seat, he got a tingle of excitement knowing he was on his way to see his long-time musical idol. “Oh, speaking of the man,” Rutherford said out loud and extracted one of Tony’s duets albums from the glove compartment. He bobbed his head in time to the swingin’ sounds as he pulled out of the driveway and sped onward to the steakhouse for his complimentary third place prize dinner. His neighbor Larry was mowing his lawn and witnessed Ford’s antics. Like usual, he just shook his head at what he considered Ford’s “typical juvenile behavior.” Although Rutherford had no ill feelings toward Larry, Louise had been known to ask Ruthie what their grumpy neighbor had “up his ass” from time to time.
He arranged for the limo to pick him up at the restaurant and bring him right to the show. That way he could enjoy a celebratory martini and not worry about having to drive right afterwards. Knowing this, Rutherford parked his big yellow 1961 Lincoln Continental right under a lamp post, you know, just in case some young punk gets any ideas while he’s at the show. At least the bright light may deter any potential thievery such as what happened last year. Someone made off with his entire CD case (filled with his favorite albums of course) and twenty dollars in parking cash after breaking his rear window in the middle of the night. He checked his phone one last time. Still no call from Sam. Rutherford wasn’t surprised.
It wasn’t until he entered the limousine after dinner that Rutherford felt the weight of being completely alone. “Why do I have this pit in my stomach? Here I am going to the concert of my dreams with a belly full of great food and even a martini, and yet I can’t seem to shake this hint of emptiness inside.” Rutherford scanned the spaciousness of the car. On either side of him were two long rows of white cushions illuminated by neon blue rope lights. Just above them were crystal clear empty buckets that are probably used for keeping champagne chilled. He imagined all the exciting times that had probably taken place inside this limo, in fact right where he was sitting. “Okay, that’s enough imagining,” he thought as he shuttered and placed his fancy purple handkerchief under his lap.
The driver turned his head and the tinted window that divided them came down automatically. “We picking anybody up on the way sir?,” he asked his sole passenger. “Sadly no, I guess that’s what happens when you win last minute tickets,” Rutherford quickly retorted trying not to feel too much like a friendless heel. “Ah, no shame in going by yourself Mr. Gilmore. Of course it’s a blessing to be surrounded by friends and family but there are just some moments that call for you to go it alone.” Rutherford was a bit taken back. “Excuse me son, but how did you know my name?” The driver just kept driving like he didn’t even hear him. “Well at least tell me your name,” Rutherford insisted. “Pete sir, and it’s an honor being your driver for such a special occasion.” Pete put the window back up leaving Rutherford once again on his own in that big, empty, neon backseat.
Maybe the dirty martini finally kicked in, or perhaps just exchanging words with the mysterious, possibly hard of hearing, yet polite chauffeur, eased his distress. Rutherford reclined back in the soft leather seat and felt a warm comforting sensation fill his entire body. They must have been pulling up to the amphitheater because the car was now filling up with light. Rutherford imagined a larger-than-life marquee illuminating the entire entranceway that read Tony Bennett SOLD OUT. The limo came to a stop, the window descended, and Pete gently said, “We’ve arrived Rutherford L. Gilmore.” Suddenly, all at once, every ounce of loneliness, not to mention sadness, pain, doubt, and fear, left Rutherford as he looked up in wonder at the enveloping light of the marquee.
Rutherford was pronounced dead that Friday morning. Louise had discovered him unresponsive after she returned from her morning walk. The paramedics showed up as quickly as possible but there was just no life left to save in Rutherford’s tired old body. There he laid looking as peaceful as he did back in his carefree days when he and Louise had just met. Playing faintly from the clock radio was Rutherford’s favorite Tony Bennett CD, Duets. He never won that contest even though he had entered multiple times. Some mall-walker who was just killing time ended up with the grand prize. The medics removed Ruthie from the bed and then, in a zipped-up plastic bag, from his home for the last time. George and Derek got the news later that day and hurried over to comfort Louise. And Samuel, although he was not able to be reached until a few days before the funeral, surprisingly performed one of the most meaningful eulogies in recent memory. Here’s a snippet:
Sam hadn’t made a speech since he was forced to back in high school. Wanting to curb his apprehension he came up with the brilliant idea of playing one of Ford’s favorite songs, Fly Me To the Moon, from his portable cassette player to fill any awkward silence as he spoke. He pressed play and nervously cleared his throat. Though he was almost paralyzed by his numerous social phobias, he imagined Rutherford watching from beyond and it filled him with a powerful energy. It was similar to when he was a kid and the doctor gave him a shot of adrenaline during an almost fatal asthma attack. And so he carried on. “I’ve thought about death many times, and I always imagined it being like winning tickets to an incredible concert and wanting to take all your loved ones with you. So one-by-one you offer them tickets but for some reason or another they just can’t go that night. You almost go crazy trying to convince them how amazing the show is going to be but still, no one bites. So you leave everyone to their daily routines, their families, jobs, vices, mortgages, homework, tv shows, etc, and reluctantly head off to the show….completely alone. You have to do it alone ya know. While you’re taking up space here on Earth you can blanket yourself in the safety and comfort of other people all you want, but in the end you’re going to that concert all by yourself. At least, as far as I’m concerned, until you walk through those venue doors and realize that there was never really any such thing as ‘being alone.’”
Sam paused, and then in his usual awkward social manner, folded his notes and clumsily placed them into his coat pocket. He then tuned around and slowly walked to his car and drove off. Sam’s grand exit left the small gathering speechless, but the silence was filled by the Tony Bennett song which Sam left playing at the podium. They let the entire number play out and didn’t make a sound or move a muscle until the last lyric was sung. I………..Love…………You.