by Joseph M. Rinaldo
Valerie, a middle-aged woman, leading an average life as a head teller at a bank finally finds her soul-mate, Franco. He's sixteen years younger and studying for a Ph.D. in Archeology, but they click. Suddenly, the evil hand of fate causes their lives to fall into a downward spiral. They lean on each other. Trying to find happiness they happen to commit a little crime - make that a little felony, and dash out of the country. Now they're happy – mostly.
Valerie's Retreat follows the life of a forty-one-year-old woman who happens to fall in love with a man sixteen years younger. My wife is sixteen years older than I am, so that might have helped foster this idea for a book. The jokes Valerie must endure, such as, "Do you have to cut his meat for him?" are actual barbs my wife received during our dating process. Like Valerie, I also worked in a bank. Unlike Valerie, I never considered robbing the bank where I worked.
Valerie doesn't consider herself a "Cougar". Franco, her boyfriend, happened to attend the same church singles dance on the same night. They talked, talked some more, went on a date, and presto- they're boyfriend/girlfriend. That's how it happened with my wife and me. "Cougar" makes the women dating younger men seem somewhat predatory. That isn't the case at all with Valerie or my wife. For the record, my wife never considered robbing a bank either. Well, maybe considered, but never planned it out.
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At the dance Janet looked around the large, open room with the DJ lights and stereo equipment lining one wall. The vacant tile floor serving as the dance floor stretched from the DJ’s area to the beginning of several neat rows of tables and chairs. "Why is he playing fast songs to start with? He needs to be playing a few slow songs to get everyone up and moving.”
"Go tell him Janet. I think he’s new," Valerie prodded her friend. Janet had yet to miss a dance and considered herself Director of Music at this weekly gathering.
"I will; he needs my help." Janet went behind the stereo equipment and spoke into the DJ’s ear loudly over the music.
On her way back to the table, Valerie watched as Janet stopped to speak with two young men. The men, dressed in Dockers and golf shirts, followed Janet back to the table.
Janet turned to the two men and tried to speak over AC/DC’s Back In Black blaring through the speakers. "This is my friend Valerie." Janet turned back to Valerie. "This is Chuck and uhh, what was your name again?”
"Franco Stavini," said the six foot tall, thin but solid looking man with stylishly long hair.
"This is Valerie," she introduced them, then, looking back to Valerie said, "Chuck works with me at Kentucky Investment. He’s the bookkeeper.”
"Nice to meet you," Chuck said to Valerie.
Franco nodded to Valerie, and then said to the group, "Great dance music.”
"The DJ is making a point that he doesn’t want or need my advice," Janet replied. "I told him to play some slow songs to get people on the floor before speeding it up.”
"If you said it that way, I’d play AC/DC too." Valerie laughed at Janet.
Back In Black mercifully ended. The DJ played Lady In Red by Chris de Burgh.
"Dance?" Franco asked Valerie.
As they walked to the dance floor, Valerie realized this guy looked good and, although he was thin, he carried himself strongly.
Franco put his arms around her waist and noticed her pretty face when the flashing dance lights shined their perpetually moving beams over them. Her medium size standing five foot four inches fit nicely against him.
"So how long have you known Chuck?" Valerie asked, leaning closer to his ear than necessary to be heard over the music.
"Only a coupla weeks," he responded, also leaning in close. "I just moved here from Columbus, Ohio.”
"What brought you to Louisville?”
"I’m an archeologist.”
She burst out laughing. "How in the world did you get a job as an archeologist in Louisville?”
He smiled. "Everyone asks me that.”
"I wasn’t trying to be mean.”
"I know; people don’t think of Louisville as an archeological hotspot." He smiled again.
Valerie noticed his crooked but cute smile, "So what are you digging up?”
"We’re not really sure. It might be a Hopewell or Mississippian site; we just can’t tell yet." Franco tried to keep on topic as he looked at her eyes, reminding himself, don’t let the eyes drift to her chest; she'll think I'm a perv. He also hoped his breath didn’t reek after drinking that can of coke at dinner. He brushed his teeth before leaving the apartment, but one could never be sure.
"Were they Indians?”
The music stopped, and a few people clapped. Too Busy Being In Love by Doug Stone filled the room. Valerie headed back to her seat, assuming they were done. As the two couples passed on their way back to the table, Janet grabbed Franco and threw Chuck at Valerie so that they switched partners for this slow song.
"I hope everyone enjoyed those," a booming voice came over the speakers. "I had a request for some tender music." Everyone turned to see the DJ speaking into a microphone. "Now we’ll pick it up a little.”
The DJ re-asserted his control by playing some hard rock tunes. No one even tried to dance to the headbanger songs. With the heavy metal urge out of his system, the DJ played Randy Travis’ For Ever And Ever, Amen. Franco asked Valerie to dance, which surprised her.
"How long have you been in Louisville?" Valerie inquired as they embraced and began to sway in step with the music.
"Only a few months. What about you?”
"Me? I’ve been here about twenty years. Where’re you from?”
"I grew up in Vandalia, Ohio, just outside of Dayton, but I’ve spent the last seven years in Columbus at The Ohio State University." Franco paused trying to think of something else to say.
"Did you dig up Indian stuff in Ohio?" Valerie realized this cute young fella was shy. That attracted her; the last several guys she’d dated never stopped talking about themselves.
"I did," Franco said, with his mind focused on her warm soft body gently pressing against his. "I,uh, went around Ohio digging into Hopewell Indian burial mounds.”
"I work at a bank, so I hope this doesn’t sound rude, but, who pays you to do that?”
"That’s a good question Valerie, and not rude; I get asked that from almost everyone I meet. I actually worked for Ohio State as a graduate assistant for the Department of Archeology. Going out to sites was just a part of that job. Now I’m doing the same thing for the University of Louisville.”
"You must be a Nosy Parker," she kidded, "wanting to pry into those dead people’s lives.”
"I promise not to tell stories out of school about those people," he played along. "Now tell me what you do at the bank?”
"Well, I work at an in-store bank branch. An in-store means we’re in a grocery store. Know what I mean?”
"Oh yeah, I’ve seen those.”
"I’m the Head Teller for the one in Food Kingdom on Outer Loop.”
The song ended, and they went back to the table to find Chuck sitting alone.
"Franco," Chuck said as The Heart Of Rock And Roll by Huey Lewis began, "I’m sorry, but I have to take off.”
"That’s cool," Franco said to him before speaking to Valerie. "I rode with him so I gotta go, too.”
"If you want to stick around, I can take you home.”
"You don’t mind?”
"Not at all.”
"Chuck, I’m -"
"I heard. See you later." Chuck brushed by Franco and said in a low voice, "Janet’s driving me nuts." He quickly headed for the door, escaping before Janet came back to the table.
Returning from the bathroom, Janet asked, "What happened to Chuck?”
"He had to go," Valerie replied.
"That’s too bad. We were dancing just about every dance," Janet said with a disappointed expression.
The DJ played several more songs before he decided to pack it in for the evening. Janet and Valerie took Franco home. Valerie walked with him up to his apartment door.
"Would it be all right if I called you sometime?" he asked nervously.
"That would be fine," she smiled. "Do you have a pen to write down my number?”
"Come on in, I’ll find one real quick so Janet doesn’t have to wait very long for you.”
"Relax, Franco, she doesn’t mind waiting.”
He held the door for her to enter first. To her relief and surprise, this bachelor pad struck her as being as clean and tidy as her own apartment. So far, no red flag with this guy, she thought.
He grabbed a pen and paper off the coffee table and took down her number. They lightly kissed good night.
The instant Valerie shut the car door Janet practically screamed, "What the hell are you doing?! He’s about fourteen years old!”
"Oh, puh-leez!" a giddy, giggling Valerie shot back.
"You’ll have to teach him how to drive in a few years!”
"Janet, you’re just jealous.”
"Damn right I’m jealous! Did you make a man of him while you were in his apartment?" Janet howled with laughter.
"Not yet." Valerie smiled.
"So when are you two going out?”
"He said he’ll call me.”
"You know what that means Val. No man ever calls when he says he will.”
"I know. Whatever; if he calls, great; if not, no big deal," she said, resigned to the truth of Janet’s words.
"Did you ever find out how old he is?”
"No, Janet." She looked at her friend with mock disapproval. "I couldn’t think of a way to bring it up tactfully. How old’s Charlie or whatever his name was that you threw yourself at?”
"I don’t know, but he’s obviously a few years older than that child you clung to.”
"I bet he’ll be man enough for me," Valerie giggled again.
"With that school-girl squealing, you sound as young as he IS!”
Janet pulled up in front of Valerie’s apartment, and Valerie got out. "Thanks for dragging me to that dance. It was fun.”
"No problem, chicky, we’ll just have to wait and see if your young forbidden fruit calls you.”
"Well, Janet, in the unlikely event he calls, his fruit won’t be forbidden." Valerie smiled shutting the car door.
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AN INTERVIEW WITH JOSEPH
-What inspired you to become a writer?
The actual impetus for me to begin writing came while I was reading Three Weeks With My Brother by Nicholas Sparks. When I got to the part where he received a million-dollar advance, I thought, “Holy cow! He’s a good writer, but I know I can do this, too.” I’ve been writing since that day in 2004.
-What draws you to your genre of choice?
The stories that pop into my head get written down. They haven't fit nicely into a genre, which I think makes them more interesting. I just read 11/22/63 by Stephen King. The book was great, but I have no idea what if any genre it fits into.
-Give us a fun or interesting fact you learned researching this book.
The interesting fact I learned is that heart disease is the number one killer of women. Valerie’s Retreat was written long before the Go Red campaign, but I’m very glad heart disease is getting recognized for the killer it is.
-Which of your characters would you go out for drinks and pizza with?
I’d love to go with Valerie. Her relate-ability and enthusiasm for living would make her a great pizza partner. While I was writing her story, Valerie constantly complained to me about all the negative things I included, especially about her traumatic childhood. She might get agitated about that after a few beers, but I thought we got along nicely for the most part. (Yes, I know she’s not really real.)
-For aspiring writers, any tips?
You really need to find someone who will tell you if your work stinks. Most people won't. In fact, it's very hard to find someone honest enough to do that.
-Is there a genre you could never write? Which and why?
I could never write trying to fit into a genre. Genres are great when you’re marketing a book because it attracts a certain kind of reader and communicates an expected style and plot sequence. I am proud to say that my books do not fall in a one- or two-word category. All I ask is for a chance to entertain you. Use the Look-Inside feature on Amazon to read several pages of one of my books. If the book grabs you, I think you’ll be please you got it.
For me the true test of a really good book is how long you think about it after you finish it. After Valerie’s Retreat I hope you put yourself in Valerie’s place and decide how much compassion she does or doesn’t deserve.
For approximately one year I labored as a Head Teller at a bank. This employment history enabled me to create a believable bank robbery. The theft described in Valerie's Retreat is easy to conceive and execute, but leaves a very clear path to the perpetrator. That is why the characters had to immediately run.
Now I live in Nashville, Tennessee with my wife and daughter. We love to go boating and avidly support our daughter in Special Olympics. The latter is why I can guarantee you’ll never read anything disparaging about disabled folks in my books.
Also, if you are in a book club that reads one of my books, I'd be honored to join your discussion. Feel free to contact me through Facebook or my website, josephmrinaldo.com.
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