Forty years ago I was twenty. I was two years out of high school and finishing my sophomore year at Ole Miss, and since I hadn't been home from Faulknerland since New Year's, I perceived it a good idea to return to town for a few weeks to see my parents and reconnect with some of my old friends before we all got too busy with summer employment and didn't have time. Everybody I stayed in contact with was of the general consensus that we all deserved a break.
I was about halfway home on I-40 when the thought began bouncing around in my head so much I couldn't let it go. I became fixated -- probably because of the fat little number I'd blown coming out of Memphis and the excellent music sliding out of my eight track -- on the undeniable fact that I was no longer the same guy I'd been five months before. I'd gone through some life-changing experiences down there in Oxford, just to put it mildly. I'd changed my major to Philosophy and grown a beard so I looked like Frank Zappa and lost my virginity and then some to a couple of coeds whom I had always believed were only going to come my way when I was sound asleep and deep in a dream. I had been too cool to join a fraternity but had rented out a house with four other serious scholar-types who along with me were making detailed preparations to change the world. I don't think I was on the same level with those fellows though, since I'd regularly made it a habit to postpone any plans for bettering the planet if there was a loose girl around or a party with drugs and alcohol going on anywhere in my vicinity.
My first night home consisted of dinner with my parents and attempting to watch television with them afterwards in the den. I made it through about half of an episode of "Gunsmoke" when I knew I was going to have to find something else to do pretty fast, otherwise my folks were going to begin seeing the spastic Joe Cocker side of their only son. It was during the angst of these moments when the telephone rang and I sat on the sofa praying to God that this call would somehow be for me.
The miracle occurred, and my mother motioned me to the phone. Brenda Bailey, home from college herself and just up the street, had spied my car in the driveway and wanted to know if I wanted to go with her and Barbara and get a pizza. A lot of people were already back in town and everybody was going to meet at Shakey's, which was this place that served greasy pizza and cold beer and showed old Laurel and Hardy movies on a small projector screen in the main dining room, or you could go back in the rear of the building where there were booths and a big Rockola jukebox that held every hit from the Fifties you could think of, so I said sure, although I had no earthly idea what I was going to say to Barbara when I saw her. We'd been fairly hot toward each other for a couple of years before, but since Christmas something had come between us. I was in Oxford and she was in Bowling Green, and soon our phone calls began dwindling and the ink in our Bic pens all but dried up. I don't know what caused it, really. It wasn't just Barbara alone that was making me weird -- I simply found myself suddenly with not much to say to anyone at all. I preferred my life back in Oxford Town -- as Bob Dylan used to call it -- where I was a stranger to most everyone and I didn't have to answer any questions. I guess everybody gets strange at one time or another in their lives. This, I suppose, was my turn.
I walked up my familiar street under a new moon, knowing already how many steps it was from my mailbox to the Baileys'. I figured if this foreboding feeling abiding within my soul was a true indicator of my feelings toward Barbara and my friends and my family and the world at large I could at the worst abandon them all this one night and sit in the Baileys' den and watch a baseball game with Mr. Bailey. I was at least sure of the fact he'd be glad to see me. I'd even bet he'd missed me while I'd been gone. And I knew I could give him a big laugh simply by recounting all the trials and tribulations I'd had with girls at Ole Miss lately.
The good thing was Barbara didn't treat me like a leper when I got to the Baileys'. As a matter of record she was very friendly and smiled at me like she'd found it within herself to forgive me for my many trespasses and had sided with Jesus in the opinion that I knew not what I was doing, which was fine with me because it was true and it was damned nice for her to understand my insanity in such a gracious manner. The peace this forgiveness brought to my mind also provided impetus for other diabolical sneaky and downright vile thoughts to form in my head and whisper to my brain how I might use this mercy as a means of getting its provider in the sack -- but more of that later. There were plenty of instances where I was plotting such misdeeds with various and sundry females, so if I begin elaborating on them now I'll never get around to telling about this one spring night in question.
We loaded up in Barbara's Mustang and drove to the nearby Shakey's, where about a dozen of our past high school friends awaited us. Despite my inclinations of remaining a recluse, I still found myself having a good time drinking Schlitz on tap, throwing darts and teaming with Barbara to beat everybody in Rotation. On the jukebox the Coasters and the Platters and the Everly Brothers were sucking up all my change -- six plays for a quarter -- and I was beginning to think how maybe I'd been wrong all along, that maybe I did miss my old existence after all. It was amazing how outright human I was starting to feel and how I was getting real close to believing there might be some hope for me yet.
This euphoria occurred just before Jennifer Kay Owens walked in and surprised me and everybody else in the place, and I found myself instantly snapped back into the reality of the moment, which consisted of the fact that here was a vision right before my eyes, and here was a dream walking in the same room as me, but the truth of it was that no matter how I carried on this evening I was still never going to come close to sharing the same rarified air as her. I may have gone my own way for a few months and managed to return feeling good about myself, but here was something I couldn't be a part of. I wanted to ask God why, but down inside of me I already knew.
I hadn't seen Jennifer since graduation, but even without the influx of television and radio in my Spartan college existence I still would have had to be unfettered 2001-like out in space for news of Jennifer and her accomplishments and her stardom not to filter through. And it was not that she had grown any more beautiful in that two year absence, but it was the new, experienced way she carried around those looks and that personality with the celebrity she'd picked up along the way, like she'd just plopped down in the back seat of an expensive convertible and relaxed there while the sun and the wind nestled around her and welcomed her into a world where music played all the time and the rain never came along to ruin a day at the beach, and if it happened to do so it didn't really matter that much in the end, because every day was a day at the beach and sooner or later the sun was always going to shine.
So she wasn't that much prettier than the girls who'd stayed behind. It was that something else she had, but something even more than that too. It was Jennifer Kay Owens with a bunch of things added to it.
I think she knew it was there, but Jennifer did her best -- like she always had -- to act like she was no different from the rest of us, the way she'd been even after her ship came in and took her off to the countries of Fame and Fortune. She hadn't changed in that way, and it was easy to see how she was still trying to shift the spotlight from herself and on to someone else, even though it was impossible to disown that aura she possessed. She was just this rare and beautiful bird who'd been given the best of God's plumage and the grace and poetry that wondrous forms in this world possess, and no matter what lengths she went to it was impossible to cover it up.
There's a lot to be said for being in the right place at the right time and life being nothing but a big fat wheel of fortune and all, and I suppose it all came down for me that night getting the phone call from Brenda and going to Shakey's and being present when Jennifer Kay Owens came home and decided to make an appearance. Later on I found out the only reason she'd showed up that night was because she'd called Brenda and Barbara that very afternoon and been invited to come by, so all these years later I have to look at everything that happened and marvel at the irony of the universe, how the woman who would one day become my wife would be the person responsible for providing me with the means and opportunity to experience the most romantic encounter of my life. Even today I do not know whether to thank Barbara or blame her -- thank her for placing me in an almost fairy tale/ cinematic scenario or blame her for making it possible for my mind and soul to be irrefutably marred and unable to operate in a proper manner for years afterwards.
I don't know if it was an over-abundance of Schlitz galloping through my veins or if I was just so full of myself at that time, but there was something in me that looked at Jennifer Kay Owens standing among all my old friends that just came out and declared that the time had come to stop being shy and carrying it around inside forever. There she is, I heard somebody in my head say. She is never going to be this close again. I don't want to hear about what you should have done tonight later on down the line. I don't want to sit around while you go over every angle and think about it later. What I'm saying is the damn light is green right now. What I'm saying is, go.
After all the time spent watching Jennifer as if she was an untouchable movie star up on an unreachable screen, all at once I found myself by her side that night, as if some invisible undetectable magnet had drawn me there. Immediately I recognized how that force had always been tugging me and how unconsciously, without even being aware of it, I'd been fighting against it, and how naturally it felt this moment now that I had allowed whoever it was in charge of traffic control to divert me into the flow of the stream I'd been swimming against for so long. It was a nice feeling to feel suddenly upstream and know in your head you could finally relax.
Of course, I forgot all about that big ravenous Grizzly that was waiting downstream for me to arrive. I think about it now and I still know the big bear wouldn't have made any difference whether I'd remembered him or not. I'd have gone right ahead anyway.
It began with a crowd around her, but somehow I managed to figure out this group of people wasn't what Jennifer was looking for this night. How I could see it in her eyes or read it from the tone of her voice I cannot explain; all I know is that in some strange way I sensed what she was looking for and why she'd brought herself into our midst again. I have never been too adept at reading the innermost hidden desires of those around me, but now and then I have my moments when I am almost godlike in my discerning skills and my comprehension of what makes people stop and start and go and do the things they do, and so it was this night with Jennifer Kay Owens. For a certain term I had access to the secret places in her mind.
She was still just Jennifer Kay Owens at this time. There had been no parade of husbands at this early date, although the rumor mill had long tied her and prospective males in the entertainment field together, and, like most everyone else, I became accustomed to a new romantic link to her every month or so. All I could do was shake my head in wonder, and try to comprehend how it could be she could ever have time to write songs or poetry or books or accomplish anything in the artistic vein whatsoever. I looked at her far-off life like I did with everything associated with motion pictures and fiction and the magical musical waves of radio, like she was a mythic creature who passed through my world every so often and caused me to look up and know there had to be a god out there somewhere, else how could such a wonder be there for me to imagine and see.
And, on this night, to touch.
So, there wasn't much anyone could tell me about Jennifer Kay Owens I didn't know already. This fact more or less astounded me as the evening ensued, since I'd never made a conscious effort to add her to my field of expertise in any real sense. I'd long considered her to be out of my sphere and thus not worth the time spent in study, but I must have been paying attention somewhere along the way, because on this night I seemed to have all the answers to whatever problems were besetting her, problems that had caused her to want to escape her celebrity existence and return to the safe and secure world she'd once known. I found myself saying the right words, making the correct moves, staying at her side and catching the significant glances she gave me, and for once I found myself as a self-assured fellow I'd never been before. I remember having the passing thought that such a moment in my life had yet to happen to me before, and so I must have turned a corner and was now at the top of some mountain looking down, but I still somehow wondered in that wary practical part of me where all this dream stuff was coming from, if the pitcher on the mound was taking it easy on me during batting practice, just lobbing the ball in to me so I could get my confidence up and be ready to swing for the fences when the big game began.
"Believe it or not," Jennifer told me, "I've never drank a whole actual beer before. I've had a glass of wine here and there and I once tried a Singapore Sling, but I really don't know the first thing about alcohol. My parents have just never allowed it and most times watch me like hawks. All I ever hear is how alcohol can ruin my career and spoil everything I've accomplished so far."
"Beer is good for you," I said. "I think Benjamin Franklin said that. Or maybe it was Thomas Edison -- I forget. But it was somebody who was close to being as smart as I am."
"You never told me you were that smart," she said, and I distinctly remember feeling her brush up against me with her hip.
"You never asked," I managed to say.
"I guess I just needed to find out for myself."
Now unbeknownst to me at this moment and partially because my head was turned another direction and my wild fickle heart was all a-flutter, I didn't know that Barbara (whom I'd just finished patching up relations with maybe a half hour before) was currently on the entry ramp to the Conniption Fit Highway, which she still traverses these days at a moment's notice whenever this particular night comes up in conversation, but anyway, there Barbara was, motoring along in a frenzy over the spectacle Jennifer and I were making of ourselves. To this day, I still find it strange for Barbara to react so violently about this matter, considering how our attachments and claims upon each other were mostly dormant at the time, though I will admit that if the tables had been turned and Barbara had been there at Shakey's openly cavorting with Neil Young or somebody I'd have probably become somewhat put out too. So I'm glad it was me doing the performing and Barbara doing the observing, even if there is hell to pay for it every now and then. In a way it's worth the hassle. Barbara's ire is good for my ego, which, believe me, needs all the bolstering it can get these days.
But I truly didn't know all this at the time. I was too wrapped up in the dream world I was visiting.
We played pool, Jennifer and I. We threw darts. The jukebox played and suddenly we were dancing. Johnny Mathis sang "Chances Are" and there we were. My friends were leaving and saying goodbye. See you around sometime, Jennifer. See you, Tom. Sometimes a smile or a widened winking eye. I wondered what these people were thinking, if they were as surprised or as freaked as I was at what was going on. A man came in the room and said we're closing now. Past midnight and the world wants me to go home. But not tonight, I say in my head. I have the rest of my life to sleep. I can dream then. My eyes have to stay open for a while because this I've got to see.
She owned the kind of car I'd never thought I'd travel in, much less drive down a mainly-deserted thoroughfare with the top down and a tape deck parceling out Simon and Garfunkel and a poetical suggestion of a woman beside me. I'm afraid to drive, she said. I think maybe I've had too much to drink. One was too many because I've never had much of anything before. I told you that, didn't I? I get like this and I don't know what I'm doing or saying, so I guess it's better you drive. Because I'll bet you're used to it, aren't you? You're off at school and I'll bet you do this all the time. Drink and end up with a girl, I mean. I'll bet you do all sorts of things. And I guess you don't, I said. You're in L.A. and on television and out on the road and you never do a thing, is that what you're telling me? Because I don't believe you. But it's true, she said, I can't ever do just what I want to do. Nobody lets me. But you just drive and be careful, okay? Don't wreck my car. It's Italian, an Alpha Romeo. I'm going to tour Italy next year -- what do you think of that? Do you want to go to Rome with me? We could have a lot of fun.
I'd never driven a car like that before. Nor seen such a night. I could hear the engine hum along with the music, and I followed with my eyes the snaky trail of the headlights when I pulled away from the lit streets and the buildings of the main avenue and floated down the long winding double drive road that led to the suburbs. In the last hint of illumination before we entered the darkness I looked over at Jennifer and memorized the sight of her blonde hair blowing in the wind and the night and the city of dreams I never knew was there before.
Just a couple more minutes, my soul said to me, and I'll be ready to go.
Go where? I wondered.
You know where, it said.
I couldn't get enough. I weaved the Alpha Romeo past our old high school and the sleepy surrounding houses and the neighborhood churches where all those vanished Sundays ago we were told that everything we did was wrong wrong wrong and someday soon we'd pay for it. And the voices and the eyes were suddenly around us and trying to seek us out, so I drove the car fast and hard, cutting through the meddlesome town looking for a place where we would never be seen again. Eyes had followed me all my life and on this night I wanted them gone. I wanted no one but Jennifer Kay Owens to hear the beating of my wild heart. I wanted the world to never know where I was or where I'd been or what deeds I'd done while I was gone.
The only place I knew I could be alone with Jennifer was within the darkened lanes of Garden Grove, the graveyard of choice on the east side of town since somewhere around the turn of the century and the place I had memorized every twist and turn and secluded path. Any number of war heroes and Country Music icons and most anybody in the neighborhood's aunt or uncle or childhood friend who met an early tragic end were all interred somewhere on the rolling plains and hills of the grounds, not to mention the plots where in only a matter of time my own parents would be planted, bringing me full circle with where this narrative first began. With only the spring stars and the budding summer moon lighting our way I drove the Alpha Romeo to the place where eyes would never spot us.
And one might wonder how I, a wayfaring ghost disappeared from these haunts for the longest time, could know in a place reserved for the long and recent dead and certainly not for a fellow so lately embracing the horizon and himself in a dance of ongoing life, where in the winding lanes and nooks and sepulchers were all the secret hiding places where the majority of the living never go.
I could say and maybe someone might believe me.
It is only a short ride by bicycle from my old neighborhood to the busy pike that runs from downtown to another county. In the afternoons after school and summer jobs, in the daylight savings sun before the evening meal, while most folks watched Cronkite or shot baskets in backyards or sat on porches watching traffic and birds migrate, it was my passion then to pedal across sidewalks and painted lines until I hit at a high rate of speed the rock-sculptured gates of Garden Grove, where I'd ease my English Racer into the recesses of the grounds where no bells rang and girls didn't look at me so strangely and parents and friends of the family were not altogether obsessed with what in god's name I was planning to do with myself for the rest of my life, when all I really wanted to say was Jesus God in Heaven I am still a kid and can't I keep it that way while the mean old future is still way over on the other side of the hill and down that superhighway I haven't entered yet.
In Garden Grove no one said a word. Nobody tried to warn you what was coming. Garden Grove sat back and allowed you to figure it out for yourself.
This is what I needed in those days, so I visited there almost to a fault. I was around almost every day, so it didn't take long to learn where to go to become invisible.
On the far side of Garden Grove is a section where orphans are buried from some long ago denominational charity, and on our night together Jennifer and I parked on a narrow lane there beside a field of worn sad markers and a grove of trees that separated the grounds from the highway being carved out below, that one day would connect both sides of town with a bridge over the river. Until the construction crews got started Garden Grove was the last place you could go before the land ended on a high bank above the water.
We sat in the silent car for several minutes listening to the clicking of the cooling engine and the rustle of the dark wind in the tall trees above our heads. Like the orphans and the tombstones that attended them, the trees had been around longer than anyone could count, and when I looked up to where they rested beneath the sky I had a hard time distinguishing one from another. In the night they all seemed joined as one.
"I'm not used to the world around me being so quiet," Jennifer finally said, in a voice so soft it startled me like I'd been sleeping. "I can't remember when there hasn't been someone saying something to me, how I've got to be somewhere or get something done by such and such a time or there'd be hell to pay."
"There are no clocks in the forest," I said, quoting Shakespeare, or whoever it was who decided such a thing -- and I still think it was Shakespeare, even though it's been since forever and a day and I've yet to look it up. "This isn't a forest, but there's lots of similarities. You know, trees and birds and animals and stuff alive and walking around. I was out here once and saw a pack of coyotes strolling around like they owned the place. And I've seen deer out here too."
"What about a bear?" she asked. She pronounced it bar, like the place you go into to get drunk as Cootie Brown. "Did you kill you a bar when you were only three?"
"Sigmund Freud says we first start having latent sexual thoughts when we're three, so I was probably busy wallowing in the gutter instead of hunting. I always liked to go along with the group."
"No, that's not true," she whispered. "You never did. You never did anything anybody else was doing." I felt her hand on my wrist, and I realized I still had my own hand on the shifter knob, like I had to be prepared to take off at a moment's notice. I moved my fingers and found her hand waiting for me, another example of a miracle occurring in the modern world. I kept wanting to look around and see if I saw Jesus lurking around the headstones anywhere, what with all these divine things going down. "You've never acted like anyone else," she said. "That's why I always liked you. That's why I'm here with you now."
"I always assumed you had me pegged as some kind of weirdo. I never thought you hated me or anything, but just believed I was so far out there it was best you kept your distance."
"You never paid me any attention."
"Not true. I always was watching you, trying to figure out what you were doing, but you were always going somewhere or singing or hanging out with some other guy, and there I was stuck in my own little world feeling like I couldn't measure up to things you'd always been used to."
"Maybe that's the way everybody felt about me. Most of the time I always felt so alone while I was in school, and I started writing poetry and songs just because I constantly felt that way, but all that ever did was push me farther away from people."
"Maybe you're like me," I said. "It seems like the closer I get to people the farther away I start feeling."
"Gosh," she said, "that almost sounds like a song."
I didn't know what I was doing out there in Garden Grove at one in the morning, or why some dream girl from a faraway country I had no idea how to get to in real life was inching near me in the darkness to reward me and my separate soul with a kiss to take with me into the morning and the rest of my life that would rise before my eyes, but I decided the best thing I could do right then was to not question Providence or waste time trying to understand why it is sometimes stardust just falls on a fellow's head when he least expects it, but to simply accept this gift from Heaven and not worry about what was going to happen when the gift was gone with the night and I would be forced to squint at the sunshine for what might be a considerably long time.
I decided the best thing to do was stop worrying and enjoy the gift God was giving me.
Article © Ralph Bland. All rights reserved.
Published on 2010-12-06
Image(s) © Mel Trent. All rights reserved.