I waited a few days to call the number that she gave me. Whether I wanted to seem less eager or simply didn’t want to find out it was a fake number is an even money bet. Regardless, I was ready to take my swings, so I grabbed the phone from the kitchen wall and dialed.
“Hey, who’s this?”
“Jim, from Camelot.”
“Oh, hey. I was hoping you’d call.”
“Nothing much. Hey, I hear that A Flock of Seagulls is playing in Charlotte this Friday. I don’t know if you’re interested, but I haven’t seen a synth band in a long time.”
There was dead silence on the other end of the line. “I’m not really into ‘synth bands,'” she said, and I felt like an asshole. “But maybe we could go to dinner instead.”
“Yeah, cool. Give me your address.”
“No, I’ll just meet you somewhere. How about Capri’s? Friday at 7?”
“See you there.”
My father was all over me about getting another job after I walked off of the roofing crew. “I don’t mind you staying here this summer, but I’m not paying for everything,” he said. I didn’t know what to do. Lee G. picked up a job slicing open jugs of spoiled milk as they rolled past on a conveyor. That didn’t sound very fun. I called Rick, my old manager from Camelot Music, but he wasn’t interested in three months of butting heads. Record Bar, BJ’s Music, Peppermint Records: nobody wanted a summer employee.
I landed a graphic design gig in a warehouse out in the middle of nowhere, just a big building set back in the red clay and scruffy pine trees. The majority of the floorspace was taken by a coin-op company, their shop filled with video games, vending machines, and pool tables. I wandered over one afternoon during my lunch break and asked if they had any old pinball machines for sale.
“You mean a pinball or a flipper machine?”
“What’s the difference?” I said.
“Flipper machines have flippers. Pinball machines don’t. They just for gambling.”
“Okay, flipper machines. You have any old ones?”
“I got a mess of them buried out back yonder in that field.”
“You have what?” I said, but I’m sure it sounded more like, “You killed how many kittens?”
“Don’t nobody want them old things. Couldn’t even give them away. Cost lest to rent a backhoe than to take them over to the dump.”
“Do you have any idea how collectible those old machines are?”
“Oh yeah?” he said. “Well, you go get you a shovel and you can have as many as you want.”
That was one great disappointment, the other being that “graphic design” turned out to be less Darren Stevens and Larry Tate than I expected. The shop employed two other people: Paul, the owner; and Marlene, a heavyset grandmother in her fifties with immovable hair and a chain on her glasses. The two of us sat three feet apart at matching drafting tables, a stand filled with art supplies between us. Paul sat ten feet away in his tiny office. The only other room in the shop was a darkroom for making transparencies and enlargements.
Paul’s bread and butter was small town marketing: flyers, newspaper ads, tee shirts. Marlene had regular customers, so she was busy all day collaging butt roast and whatever the hell else went in her ads while she sang at a pitch that made dogs howl and shattered the glass of the buried pinball machines. When she wasn’t singing she was talking.
“Are you married, Jim?”
“I’m 19, Marlene.”
“Well, I married Sam when I was 17 and we’ve been together 35 wonderful years.”
“You know what the secret is?”
“No, Marlene, I don’t.”
“Fishing! Stan goes out in his bass boat every day and I play with my beautiful grandchildren.”
“Can we just work, please?”
“Oh, I’m sorry. I interrupted the artist. Do you know the way to San Jose / I’ve been away so long….”
I liked Paul, though. He taught me how to use the darkroom equipment and gave me my very first professional assignment: A tee-shirt design for a Baptist church’s summer Bible camp. The client thought my finished design looked “too Satanic,” but they were on deadline so they had to go with it. This may be the greatest single thing that I have ever accomplished.
Friday night came, and I abandoned the Quincymobile in the Capri’s parking lot. The restaurant was your basic checked red tablecloth and candles in the Chianti bottles strip mall Italian place, but it wasn’t Red Lobster. Any place that wasn’t a chain seemed fancy to me.
Jody was already seated, the candlelight flickering in her bright blue eyes. “Hey,” she said.
“Hey. You been waiting long?”
“Nope, just sat down.”
The waiter brought a basket of bread and a chilled plate stacked with butter pats.
“That was a great show the other night,” I said.
“Yeah. They were really good.” We stared at our menus.
“It was crazy running into you there.”
“Yeah,” she said. “What are you going to get?” I panicked. What if I ordered something tacky? Or what if I dropped spaghetti on my shirt or spent the rest of the evening with parsley stuck between my teeth? I had no business sitting across the table from this woman. Whether she agreed to the date out of courtesy or curiosity was unclear, but I knew this: I wasn’t anywhere near Jody’s league.
I wasn’t even in the same sport. Maybe this wasn’t a date at all. She wanted to meet at the restaurant, after all. Maybe she wanted to make a quick getaway, or had somewhere else to be soon.
“I don’t know, probably the veal,” I said. Classy people ate veal. “So did you date anybody after Johnny?”
“Just this guy Scott for a few months.”
“What happened there?”
“We drove past this sweet old lady carrying groceries and he honked and swerved toward her and she dropped her bags. He thought it was funny, but I said, ‘You stop the car right now and let me out.”
“What a dick.”
“He was cute, but he was a rich asshole. Who can be that hateful? He about scared that woman to death,” she said.
“Yeah, old as she was she probably would have died if he hit her,” I said.
“What’s age have to do with it? What do you think would happen if he hit you with a car?”
“I don’t know, but I wouldn’t die.”
“Why is that?”
“Because I’m not ready to die,” I said.
She stared at me. “That is a really stupid thing to say,” she said. “You don’t know what you’re talking about. You can’t control death. Something happens and you’re gone, just like that.”
“I’m sorry, you’re right.”
“Do you think people want to die?”
Things did not improve from there. I may not have been in Jody’s league, but she gave me an at-bat and I was going down on called pitches.
We ordered and then we made awkward small talk while we waited for our food. Yes, she grew up in Spartanburg. No, she didn’t like Dorman High School. Yes, she had siblings. No, her parents weren’t still together. Yes, no, yes, no, yes, yes, no.
I looked over at the maitre d’, who was wearing a fedora with a press pass jammed into the hatband. “It’s horrible, oh God, it’s horrible,” he bellowed. “Oh, the humanity!”
The chef came out of the kitchen carrying a large carving knife. He held it toward me and said, “Go ahead, son. Take the honorable way out. It’s not too late.”
Somewhere in the distance a lone coyote howled, and other cliches.
The food arrived. We ate in silence, both of us miserable. The night was a total loss, and you know what’s great about a total loss? There’s nothing left to lose. I grabbed a pat of butter and stuck it to my forehead. “So when are you leaving for New York?” I asked, and I casually sliced my veal Parmesan. Jody looked confused, then surprised, and then the flicker returned to her bright blue eyes and her tiny hand covered her mouth and she laughed. “Will you pass the bread, please?” I said.
“He got all of that one!” the maitre d’ cried. “It’s going, going — it’s out of the park!”
The girl I fell for two years earlier on a bench outside of Camelot Music was back, laughing and loose and chatty, and this time she was mine.
Work grew more and more miserable. I liked using the darkroom equipment, but I dreaded sitting next to chatty Marlene every day. The less interested I acted the more she talked, and the more she talked the ruder I behaved. Paul finally pulled me into his office. “What’s going on?” he asked me.
“Seems like there’s an awful lot of tension out there.”
“She never shuts up, Paul.”
“Aw, that’s just Marlene. She’s a good lady. She’s just trying to be friends.”
“I don’t want friends. I just want to do my work.”
“Will you try for me? I think you’re a good worker and the church camp kids really liked that tee-shirt you did. Can you just try to get along with her?”
I didn’t want to try. I hated wasting my time designing stupid church camp tees and listening to Marlene’s shriek and speak. More than anything, though, I wanted to spend every single minute with Jody. If she was leaving in the fall I wanted as many memories as I could make.
The first night she came over I took her to the lake. We made love on a blanket under the stars and then we went back to my parents’ house and made love some more. Love is what it was, the kind that we only experience once. Only at that age can we feel the full weight of love, before the heartaches and the disappointments. There’s no reason to distrust, to hold back. We haven’t had the love beaten out of us yet.
This is a kind of death, too, this emotional battery that we visit upon the ones who love us. It is a death that creeps up in tiny increments, each cruel word or betrayal a step closer to our hearts’ early graves. Our ability to love completely and unashamedly, to trust unconditionally, dies long before our bodies give out.
Unlike corporeal death, though, we can resurrect our hearts. We simply roll back the stone and forgive — forgive ourselves for failing, forgive others for the same; forgive all the hurt we caused and that others caused us. The remedy is that simple and that incredibly difficult. Try it. Even if you only forgive a little bit you might feel that elusive spark flicker back to life.
Anyway, all I wanted was Jody. I wanted to wake up next to her each morning and fall asleep next to her every night. I wanted to make her laugh and tell her stories. I wanted to watch the skin on her throat and chest redden when the endorphins were running high and the only thing to do was follow them over the edge. I wanted to be with her every minute, not doodling Christian tee shirts. Nothing was more important than Jody.
And then my father greeted me one evening when I arrived home from work. “Do you think your boss will give you a couple of weeks off to fly to Colorado with us?” he asked. “Your grandfather has cancer.”