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June 05, 2023

Miss Julia

By Ralph Bland

I don't know exactly when it was I first acquired the habit of perusing the death notices in the paper every morning during breakfast, but I suppose this routine is as natural to me now as the first cup of coffee is to all the other early risers in the world. I don't drink coffee and have never had the taste for it, and I have never been one to get up that early with the chickens and most everyone else in the working world, but I guess it is that everyone has his or her own manner of getting the day started. My mother liked listening to country radio while she got us off to school, cooking big hearty breakfasts my sister and I never ate, while my father liked reading the markets first before going on to the local news. Katherine drank orange juice and rushed out the door to catch her ride, while for most of my time growing up I stopped by the table and nibbled on a slice of plain toast before I caught a ride with my brother to elementary school and junior high. That was my fare every morning until halfway through my sophomore year of high school, when Sammy had that wreck on a Saturday night and died with two other boys on the road driving to school at Tallahassee. He was a sophomore when that happened, attending Florida State on a golf scholarship. But even after that happened, I still kept my routine in the morning the rest of the way through high school and those first two years of college, and I never read the first obituary until the day Daddy died and Mother cut the notice out of The Marietta Daily Journal and laid it on the mantle in the living room.

Anyway, I suppose it has been a long time for sure, but I don't know if any day over the past forty years has ever gone by when I haven't at some time or another given a few seconds of reflection to the fate of Dennis Barton, who all this rumination is all about, and probably I would have gone on without ever missing a beat had it not been for me and my morning habit of seeing who was no longer present in this world I am a member of.

Dennis Barton was a student at Williamson College; that's where I met him. Just like me, he was a freshman in those days. Dennis was from a small town outside Chattanooga, Tennessee, a place called Stone Ridge. I'd seen him once or twice during the first week of Freshman Orientation, but I didn't actually know his name until later on that first semester, even if it was no doing of my own. Dennis was the one who more or less made sure I became aware of him pretty quickly. He'd make a point of sitting in my vicinity in places like the cafeteria or the library and speaking to me, saying hello and smiling with that way he had, that grin that made you wonder what he was thinking or what he might be up to. He was always somehow bumping in to me somewhere or standing beside me when I turned around. I'd just look and there he'd be, so it was hard not to learn who he was.

Of course, all that was more than forty years ago, and until this morning I haven't known the first thing or heard any news about Dennis Barton for quite a while. Off and on somebody might mention him to me, and occasionally I might see his name in the paper for writing a hit song or being in concert at a club somewhere, but in all actuality any contact between us ended twenty years ago. It was like there was some kind of bond or connection between us for a while, some form of agreement and trust we shared somehow, but just like that, one day it was gone and so was he. Dennis Barton was never a person anybody could count on for important matters; he would even tell you that much, saying it was because he never could trust anybody enough to form any sort of permanent allegiance. Anybody who knew him will tell you that was only half of it, that he wouldn't and couldn't trust you for a whole number of reasons -- if you were alive and breathing, or if you were older than him, or if you were younger, or if you were a woman. Dennis always made it a point to say the only people on the face of the earth he ever got along with were dead. Older people had always given him bad advice, children couldn't be trusted, and no female had ever told him the truth about anything important, not even his mother.

Especially, he said, his mother.

So it had been cemented in my mind that way for a long time until this morning, this third day after Halloween, making the two days ago Dennis died be on the actual Day of the Dead that people celebrate for some reason only God knows. I opened the paper to check the obituaries in my usual way, and there Dennis was again all at once, complete with a black and white grainy picture that brought him right back front and center in my mind.

It was an old picture of him, taken some time back in the seventies I guess, back when he was still in college or just out, and I simply sat there at the breakfast table looking at his face for a while before I bothered reading the obituary. It was like Dennis was staring back at me after all this time, smiling that same way he always had and not about to tell me or anyone else about where he had been for so long a time.

He had that wild hair in those days. I don't think he ever brushed it but maybe once in the mornings, and going to a barber was never on his list of priorities. But it wasn't like his hair fell down across his eyes or cascaded down his neck like anyone else. No, Dennis had hair that thickened and had the inclination to sprout, to rise up toward the sky and reach for the stars or go outwards in all directions like a scout on his own personal wagon train, telling him which way to go to locate towns where there were saloons or gold or Indians or women. Dennis and his Wild West hair didn't mind one bit. They were both always going toward the place where the action seemed to be.

When Katherine called after lunch this afternoon, I at first hesitated to say anything about Dennis, just so she wouldn't start worrying about me again. But I went ahead and mentioned the obituary anyway. It was just too much of a thing to keep to myself.

"Did you read about Dennis?" I said.

"I was wondering if you'd come across that yet," Katherine said, unaware as she is of my morning routine or anything else much about me. "I read it online during lunch at my desk. We didn't go out today, but just ordered sandwiches from the Subway downstairs. It's cheaper, and if you ask me it's a whole lot better than the other fast food places around."

She went on to talk about how expensive the restaurants were downtown and how she'd been considering for a while packing her lunch for herself and Jim every day just to save money and eliminate the hassle of going out in all the traffic. In other words, Katherine was talking about anything that came into her head rather than getting into some kind of discussion with me about the death of Dennis Barton. See, it had always come to be an established fact around our family circle that it was Dennis Barton's fault I was the way I was, that it was because of him I didn't finish college or never could seem to fit into a job or hadn't ever found the inclination to make any kind of life for myself with a husband or children or getting involved with anything much at all. My parents and Katherine and all my aunts and uncles and cousins all tended to point fingers at Dennis Barton -- who was never even around to take the blame -- and say it was entirely his fault things turned out the way they had. If I didn't choose to go to church on Sundays or stayed in my room reading magazines all night it was for certain it was because of Dennis, even if none of them had caught sight or heard from him in over forty years.

"Dennis was sixty-two," I interjected. "It's hard for me to imagine him that old. Of course I'm the same age. It's hard to think of myself as being that old either."

I could hear Katherine's silence on the other end of the line, the unspoken words in her head wondering to herself if I was getting ready to freak out again.

"Jim and I were planning on going out to dinner tonight with another couple. You're more than welcome to go with us if you want, although I'll warn you it's the Thompsons from church. Earl and Judy. I don't know if you've met them before. They run a travel agency. We've been talking to them about taking a trip to the Holy Lands in the spring."

"I'll be fine here. I'll have a frozen dinner or something. I'll stay in and watch something on TV. Maybe I'll listen to some music. You know, it's sort of funny when you think about it. Dennis wrote all those songs for all those years and I hardly ever listen to any of his albums. I know there aren't but two of them, but still. You'd think I'd listen to them more than I do."

Katherine doesn't have too much more to say, so we hang up and I go back to walking through the house. This is a big house, and I suppose this is about my fifth lap around the first floor already, and I wonder if it's time to stop and go upstairs and wander around up there a while. I look down and suddenly I'm aware of the way I'm clasping my hands together, wringing them almost, although I know that's not the proper term for it. Wringing would mean I'm anxious about something, like I'm waiting for something bad to happen. My hands in this position are not that way at all. It is more like they have come together and are getting ready to pray.

Praying, I think, that's a good one, Julia. I thought that was one of those things you gave up a long time ago, one of those silly little hobbies you indulged in way back when that you finally decided was a waste of time and had never done you any good. You think back to all the times you've ever said a prayer asking God to help you do something or get through something and what happened? Do you recall? Nothing happened, that's what. Whatever help you asked for never showed up. Whatever wisdom you thought you'd be granted to solve your problems always turned out to be just another branch of foamy water rushing in from the big river of your stupidity and naiveté to try and drown you in the wrong answers. Didn't you decide for yourself a long time ago that you'd be better off not saying a prayer, not asking the Lord above or whoever is up there for anything whatsoever? Didn't you decide you'd be just as well off without any help from anyone? So what is this nonsense going through your head now? Because you see a picture in the paper you're ready to throw all your carefully crafted common sense right out the window?

Maybe Katherine and Jim and everybody else who's ever had an opinion about me and my life are right. Maybe what's wrong with me is Dennis Barton's fault. Sure, it's true; I've also blamed him before, too. I always wanted to ask him why he did the things he did. I wanted to hate him and I tried to make myself feel that way. But sometimes you have to admit certain things to yourself and make yourself acknowledge as much as you can fathom of the truth. Maybe it's not what you like but you end up doing it anyway. You end up doing it even before you know you have to.

I pick up this paper that's folded out to page eighteen and I look at the picture staring back at me again. Yes, his hair is wild and his eyes almost twinkle from the black and white likeness of all those years past. There is a smile on his face, as if he knew then that this moment was coming, that someday in the great spread of the future I would as an aging woman stand at a table looking at his likeness, rubbing my glasses to help my eyes focus on him again.

Dennis. It is like you knew even back then that one far-off day I would stand somewhere thinking of you once more, remembering just about everything.

* * *

This, Dennis, was before we ever met.

Just like my brother Sammy and my sister Katherine, I took to water. I can never recall a time when I was afraid of it whatsoever, not even the first time I drew near the edge of the club pool and peered down into the blue water without any notion of how deep it might be. I allowed Daddy to pick me up and advance down the steps with me in his arms, and I did not cry, and I did not flinch, and I wasn't the slightest bit apprehensive of what I was about to experience. I was perhaps three years old, maybe younger. It didn't matter. I was ready for the water.

"There's nothing to be afraid of," Daddy said. "I've got you right in my arms and I won't let go." He didn't have to tell me. I knew it already.

I remember seeing Katherine beside us, water wings wrapped around her shoulders, and Sammy stood with my mother in the shallows watching. Everyone was smiling.

It seems like all I did was blink and time went by so fast. I was older and still at the club, but a lot of time we were inside at the indoor pool, and there were classes and races and sometimes I wore goggles and swam between ropes trying to beat other girls to the other end of the pool. I liked the races just fine, but what I really liked was when they taught us how to dive, first from the side of the pool into the deep water, then from the low board, then finally to climb the ladder up to the high board, which seemed to soar like a mountain above the water below.

The thing I still find funny is how, standing up there on that high board so far above the water, I wasn't the least bit afraid, not of the height or the water below or if I might hurt myself when I sprung up into the air and had nowhere to go but down. I never worried about how I was going to hit or if I was going to complete my somersault and straighten up or anything like that. It's pretty amazing, really, and very strange too, because I was afraid of most everything else all through my childhood -- bicycles and Ferris wheels and the dark of my bedroom at night. A recitation of my fears could go on and on forever. The pool and the water and the diving board, however, were not a part of that list.

I didn't much like school either, though I wasn't particularly afraid of it. I just never seemed to find too much in my classes or textbooks I was interested in. I wasn't much for reading or writing, and math and science bored me. I did like to listen to the radio a lot, but I guess I got that from Sammy and Katherine going along before me, listening to Top Forty and going out on dates and to dances and such. By the time I was in eighth grade I knew all the songs on the radio and how to do every dance there was, but I had never danced with a boy yet. Like the dark and Ferris wheels and bicycles, I was afraid of boys too.

But it was not like they ever left me alone much. I'm just going to go ahead and say I was prettier than most of the other girls. There's no need acting like I wasn't.

Joel Davis went to my church. I not only saw him every Sunday but he was also a year ahead of me at school, so he was always around during the week too. He was a good-looking boy with a head of blond hair, and in his sophomore year he was president of the class. He made straight As on his card and scored touchdowns on Friday nights and was on the basketball team that went all the way to the state tournament. By the time he was sixteen he was big stuff at Marietta Cascades High School, so it's not hard to imagine how frightened and intimidated I was when he started calling me on the phone for dates.

Of course I said yes. There was no way I couldn't. I'd have had to be crazy to turn Joel Davis down. But that doesn't mean I was all that happy to go out with him. I tried everything I could think of, but I couldn't get over being scared to death of what might happen.

Our first date was right before Easter vacation. It was a Friday night in April, and Joel picked me up in his green Pontiac Bonneville with black bucket seats. He'd been driving that big fancy car for a year, and he told me his parents bought it for him for making good grades and getting on the All City team as the only sophomore in town who made it. He had a radio with big black buttons on the dashboard, and he punched them like a jukebox every minute or two to change stations, like he was never pleased with what was playing. Every time a song would come on I liked his finger would come up and press the selector, and off we'd go to another frequency. Most times I wished he'd just leave the radio alone and let it play, but I never said anything about it. There at the beginning when we first started dating I was too frightened to open my mouth.

It wasn't like I was a novice at this dating thing. Katherine had all kinds of boyfriends down through the years, and she was three years ahead of me, so I had plenty of time to study what she did and ask her questions about what to do. Sammy was four years older, so it wasn't like I didn't know anything about boys either. Sammy had been as popular as Joel was; he just played golf and tennis was the only difference, which weren't such big sports like football and basketball, but he had a lot of girlfriends too. I could see what made him tick.

One thing Joel didn't know about me was what I could do off a high board. Neither he or any of his friends were members of the athletic club my family was in, so nobody had any idea what I did during the weekends and summers when I was out of sight. You'd think maybe word would have gotten out about me winning ribbons and medals in competitions, but back then the paper didn't report on things like that. People were only interested in the major sports the boys were playing. That's why Sammy wasn't any more popular than he was. He wasn't considered a real athlete in the sense. You had to play football or basketball to claim that distinction.

It wasn't until early that next summer that Joel found out about me. We'd been dating maybe two months by then, and I had gone to the junior prom with him, so it was pretty much a given to everyone that we were now a couple. All we really ever seemed to do, though, was ride around, eat, and go to movies the high percentage of the time with maybe a party or a dance thrown in, and there hadn't been too many opportunities for us to be alone for too long a time, so our moments of intimate physical contact weren't very plentiful. There were some make out sessions here and there, but not as many as Joel wanted there to be. I could sense that much. But for me I was fine keeping all that irregular and scattered, because I was still in the frame of mind where I wasn't so certain if I liked what I was getting into or not.

As a member of our club I could bring a guest any time I wanted, so right after the outdoor pool opened for the summer I invited Joel to come with me.

I could tell Joel was impressed right from the start. I don't think he'd ever really been to a club pool before this. He was used to the YMCA or the public admission pools around the city, where you swam elbow to elbow with strangers and you never knew who was brushing up against you in the water. I know when I say this it makes me sound like one of those pearly-white privileged girls of upbringing and all that, but I'm truthful when I say that really wasn't the case for me at all. I was just stand-offish is all, shy and not easily able to relax around a crowd, especially if that crowd was loud and boisterous and I didn't know anyone in it. I'd be the first to admit that adapting and fitting in during new situations and close encounters was never my strong point, and though Sammy and Katherine hadn't suffered from those maladies like me, I think Daddy saw a little of it in them, too, and figured he had the money and the means to circumvent any signs of unease and stress among his children, so that was when we became members of the Marvin Estates Athletic Club.

Joel walked around the perimeter of the pool with his towel wrapped around his shoulders, looking up and down at the size of the pool and the women stretched out in chairs fetching the first of the summer's sun. From the look on his face I was pretty certain he'd died and gone to heaven already, and I wondered if I'd be able to come to the pool by myself the rest of the summer. Something inside me told me no, and I felt a tinge of sadness over the loss of my privacy. Lots of times, alone and up on the high board, I enjoyed springing into the air knowing I was by myself and free to do what I wanted. No one was ever waiting for me when I came back up to the surface after a dive. That's one reason I liked staying inside at the indoor pool. Everybody else was outside and I could be by myself. But now Joel would be with me wherever I went.

The first thing he wanted to do was for us to get into the water together. I could tell he felt like swimming around me and splashing water into my face, trying to dunk me under the surface by grabbing my legs or arms while he did it, all, I deduced, an easy and acceptable way of getting his hands on me. I didn't much like it. I wasn't ready for all that yet.

When I think about it now, probably the wisest thing I could have done was not act the way I did. But there was something in me that reasoned the best thing I could do this day was get away from those hands and establish myself on more familiar ground, and the most confident place I knew to do that was up on the high board. I didn't ask him or anything, but just made my way over to the ladder of the high board. There wasn't a line, so I could climb right up to the top. Joel looked up at me from fifteen feet below, shading his eyes with his hand wondering how I had escaped him so quickly and eagerly. I could tell this was a side of me he never thought he'd see.

And that made me feel better too.

"You're going to have to jump," he called. "I'm not going to let you back down the ladder."

I could see he still hadn't got it.

"I never jump," I told him.

I hadn't gone through any of my warm-up routines and hadn't even gotten wet yet, but I knew in my head I was ready to go. I took my four steps forward to the edge of the board and jumped up one time to maximize my spring, then left the end of the board like I'd been launched by a cannon from some nearby Barnum & Bailey. At the top of my ascent I tucked my head forward and rolled my hips in unison, grabbing my knees and turning a complete double somersault in the air before entering the water with only the trace of a splash. I hung around the bottom of the pool congratulating myself before heading up for oxygen, knowing for sure I had never made a more perfect dive. This was not a meet or a contest, but I was happy I'd saved my very best for this moment.

When I spotted Joel standing on the side looking down at me, it was difficult to tell if he was happy or not. The look on his face could have been anything from awe to anger. He stood there watching me bob around in the deep water, and it was hard to tell what was on his mind. It was the first time I could remember when he wasn't the one talking and I wasn't the one sitting and listening, and I sort of liked the sensation.

"I don't know why you changed into your trunks if you're not even going to get wet," I told him.

He smiled a little and looked toward the rungs of the high board, then thought better of it and dove into the pool from the side. You weren't really supposed to dive from the side of the pool and I started to tell him that -- I even thought there was a good chance one of the lifeguards might blow a whistle at him -- but I decided I shouldn't say anything. There was something in me that thought it might be unwise to push or rankle him too much more at the moment. I had a feeling Joel Davis wasn't the kind of boy who liked getting shown up by anyone -- much less a girl -- at anything. That was why he didn't go off the high board immediately after me. He knew he couldn't match me at diving.

It made me feel better that minute. Maybe, I thought, I'd be allowed to come to the pool alone this summer after all.

We swam a few more hours that afternoon and Joel seemed to loosen up some. I think he even had some fun while we were there, but he made a big deal out of playing miniature golf later that night, and I could see he was dead-set to beat me. I went ahead and made sure he did, missing several putts on purpose, even though I'm certain I could have made them. I'd played golf a little with Sammy before and he'd showed me a few tricks. We used to putt on the living room carpet before supper sometimes, and lots of times I beat him, and that was with him getting a golf scholarship, too. I was pretty good at it.

So I dated Joel for three years. He was really the only boy back then I had that much to do with. I began to learn what pleased him and what didn't, and it wasn't too long a time before I found myself in the habit of thinking about him and wondering how I could make him happy on a regular basis. Before I knew it all those thoughts turned into some sort of feeling about him, I guess, and by the time I was a senior in high school I equated those feelings into love. It's still hard for me to accurately say what was in my heart and head at the time, but I do know there was a part of me that believed I was in a relationship that was going to go on forever.

I guess I was so busy making my life into a manufactured fairy tale that I didn't have the foresight or the time to notice I had done nothing but defer to Joel's wishes during those three years we spent together. I suppose that old feeling of trepidation had continued gnawing on me after our first day at the pool, and I slowly learned that making him happy meant not doing or flaunting anything I was good at or better at than him. I still liked practicing my dives, but I gave up competition after my junior year and winning awards to stow in my room. It took a while, but the time did come when I found myself going weeks between going to the club, and by the time graduation loomed I had stopped going altogether. I think Daddy was disappointed in that, though he never said anything. I think he would have liked me going to school on a diving scholarship. Sammy had his golf and Katherine received an academic grant, but the only way for me to go was for him to pay my way. It wasn't like it was that big of a burden to do that for him, but it still just wasn't the same. A scholarship was something that showed everyone else you had a special kind of gift.

Joel did get a football scholarship, although it wasn't to one of the big universities like Georgia or Alabama or any of those places he'd always dreamed of playing for. It turned out he just wasn't tall enough or big enough to play as a receiver in major college -- not in the SEC, at least -- so in the end he accepted an offer at Williamson College right outside of Marietta, hoping maybe he'd catch the eye of the major schools with a year or so of exploits there and end up where he'd wanted to be initially. I spent my senior year without him around much, missing him and still grieving for Sammy, who'd died two years before. Katherine had gotten married the summer before her senior year at college, so now it was Mother and Daddy and me at the house, with Daddy working so much that mostly it was just Mother and me. We watched television and sat at the kitchen table playing Monopoly and Scrabble a lot. I didn't feel like getting too involved with what everyone in my senior class was doing. I just sat and waited for Joel to call or come home the forty miles down I-95, thinking things would eventually get better if I was only patient.

I went to all the Williamson home football games, driving down in my Volkswagen on Saturday afternoons, and it was during those weekends Joel and I started going to bed together. He had a friend who had an apartment off-campus, and the first time we went over there I drank some Catawba wine and couldn't bring myself to say no.

It's hard to describe how it was that first time. It wasn't like it was wonderful, but it wasn't so bad either. I guess it was more like it had been for such a long time by then -- I just wanted to please and be careful not to make Joel feel bad or hurt or not as good as he liked to think he was. So I guess you could say I did it because I thought I was supposed to by that juncture in time. It's like I have a hard time remembering it now. It was like it all happened to somebody else.

I graduated from high school and started at Williamson the next fall, but even from the year before that I could sense Joel didn't really like me being around too much of the time. There was this feeling I would get that my presence wasn't welcome sometimes. If there was a party or something I got the feeling Joel would rather be there without me. Maybe, I thought, he wants to meet up with somebody new, some new girl that didn't remind him of home so much, even though when the pace was slower he didn't mind me being around if it meant we could go to the apartment and mess around a little, as he liked to call it with that wink in his eye. I tried not to dwell on it too much, but I was beginning to get the feeling Joel thought I was only good for one thing. By those first few weeks of my first semester I was worrying about it a lot.

I was constantly pondering this train of thought when Dennis first started crossing my path. At first I was too absorbed to notice him much, but after a week or so it got to the point where I couldn't ignore him. He was just always there where I was, and even in the state I was in I could tell he was interested in me. I wanted to tell him to go away, that I was involved with someone else, but since we weren't really talking that was difficult to do. I decided to simply ignore him, to maybe let him see me meeting up with Joel a few times so he would know I wasn't available. I'd only been employing this defensive strategy for a few days until my mother called to tell me about Daddy, and I had to drive home right away by myself because Joel had practice and couldn't get away.

Daddy had his first heart attack and was in the ICU. I drove home immediately and made my way to the hospital. He was all hooked up with wires and machines and clamps, and it was only every four hours that Mother and Katherine and I were allowed to go in and see him. All in all we were there at the hospital with him just under three days. He died the third morning just like that, without much warning at all, right when we were wondering if we should go downstairs to the cafeteria and eat.

When Sammy died in the wreck, it was Daddy who had held me in his arms and let me cry until I couldn't shed any more tears. He told me stories about Sammy and all us kids growing up together and made it seem like Sammy dying was just another part of a process, like him going away to school or Katherine getting married and the way I was going to go away to school someday too, and how none of us were going to be around anymore like we used to, and that was because that was the way life was. That was what was normal. I didn't know if Daddy was lying to me or not, but he did make me feel better when he said that sometimes we here on earth can't see the reasons behind why sometimes bad things happen and God doesn't stop them before they do. By the time I was spent with crying he almost had me believing that Sammy was gone on to better things than playing golf for Florida State or spending another two years in Tallahassee, just like Katherine was going to be a mother and graduate from law school someday too, and things would be different from then on for her too. I just thought of my family and I thought of Joel and I wondered which way God was going to send me that I didn't know the first thing about right then.

Joel did manage to drive home one night for visitation, though he didn't come to the funeral the next day. When I went back to school I walked around in a daze for about a month, and he never once came by to see me and never called. For a while I wondered if I might be pregnant -- I skipped a month in there -- but I guess it was from stress and shock and just turning my body inside out so much. I was too scared to go to a doctor, so I never really found out what was going on inside me. All I know is I was sad, so incredibly sad, and nervous too. I couldn't think straight or eat or sleep much for anything. I'd go to class and not hear a word that was said. I wouldn't know what day it was or if I'd had breakfast, if I even remembered the last time I did have something.

Somehow, in the middle of all that tumult, I would see Dennis Barton staring at me, looking like he might have something to say. For a little bit, I thought, I wish he'd talk to me. I wish he'd speak.

I wished somehow he'd save me from whatever this was that was taking me away.

I finally got so bad and strung-out my roommate took me to a doctor. They ended up sending me home in an ambulance, and I went to the hospital for a while.

* * *

It was a year before I went back to Williamson.

They sent me an Incomplete for all my courses that first quarter and made it so I could start all over again the following fall. I was so nervous and wary about going back I started not to enroll at all, but my sister talked me into it and said I could commute the forty miles three days a week until I got back in the swing of things again. I drove Daddy's Mercedes on those trips back and forth, drove it all the time from then on because it was mine. Mother didn't drive and Katherine, since she already had one Mercedes of her own, didn't need another, so we sold my VW to the kid next door and I got Daddy's Mercedes for myself.

It was a whole new world being a commuter to Williamson. Those few weeks the year before I'd stayed in a dorm with a roommate, but leaving in the afternoons and showing up on time for classes in the mornings wasn't the same as actually residing on the campus. Whether it was true or not, there was still the tendency to feel like you didn't belong at the place, that you weren't actually a part of the scene. I didn't go to anything extracurricular anymore, no football games of course because of Joel and I breaking up like we did, but also no clubs or hanging out in rooms or being around groups of girls who lived there, because if I wasn't in my three classes a day, I'd be sitting in the car eating lunch from a drive-thru, because I didn't know anybody at the cafeteria and it cost more unless you had a meal ticket from living on campus. And as soon as my third class was over for the day it was time to go home. It wasn't like I could just hang out doing nothing and relaxing. If I loafed around too much I'd get caught in all that after-work traffic.

I had a history class at nine and freshman English at ten-thirty, then my Algebra class didn't start until two in the afternoon, so I had two hours to kill from noon until then. Those first few days I sat in my car listening to the radio trying to study, but the fact of the matter was I really didn't have that much to do. I don't want to put the place down, but Williamson wasn't the toughest school around to go to. It wasn't like it was Mercer or Georgia Tech or someplace where you have to crack the books all the time or you're out. As a matter of fact I was kind of surprised how easy it really was. A year before, before I'd had to leave, I was making A's and B's in everything, and I'm not going to lie and say I am that smart. I'm not dense or anything, but I was making better grades at Williamson than I ever made in high school, and it wasn't like I just got smarter all at once when I hit campus. It was true. A lot of people were that way. It's probably how the place managed to stay open, because it really didn't offer much else for anybody to enjoy. So I'll go ahead and say it out loud. Williamson was boring mostly, but it was easy. The two things seemed to balance out.

It was September, but it still felt like summertime, so I had my window down that afternoon. I was about half-asleep sitting there listening to Helen Reddy singing "Delta Dawn", which was a song I really didn't like no matter how many times they played it, when I happened to open my eyes and see Dennis Barton with an armful of books walking in front of my car pulling some keys out of his pocket. He cut over to the passenger side of a beat-up car parked beside me and pulled the door open to unload his books, then shut the door and started to walk around to the driver's side. That's when he saw me.

"Man, you surprised me," he said. "Are you a ghost or something? I thought you were gone from this place for good. From what I understood they had to cart you out of here in a meat wagon. I thought you'd died and were up in heaven already." He squinted his eyes to make certain he was seeing what he thought he was. "Course if you were up in heaven it's a sure-fire thing I wouldn't be looking at you now, because most everybody tells me I'm headed in the other direction when I check out. Not that I'm that bad of a guy or anything."

He ducked his head down to my level and looked at me again, smiled and shook his head.

"Yeah, it's you, all right. How about that? I thought I'd never see you again."

"I didn't think you knew who I was," I said. "I didn't think you knew my name."

"Well, you'd have been wrong about that if you went to a casino and bet on it," he said, "because I not only know your name -- Julia Hagemeyer -- but I also know you're from Marietta and you went to high school at Cascades and when you were here last year you were dating that Joel Davis guy who thinks he's the second coming of Raymond Berry, and I also know you dropped out because your dad died and any of the few people who knew you all said they doubted if you'd ever come back."

"How did you find all that out?" I asked. It was almost like he knew more about me than I did. He at least knew more than Joel, and I'd dated Joel almost three years.

"I asked around," he smiled. "I'm nosy. When I grow up I'm going to be a private investigator. When people go missing I'll be the guy who goes out and finds them." He stopped looking at me and turned his gaze on the Mercedes.

"Nice jalopy," he said. I guess he was right. I guess there weren't all that many Mercedes parked around Williamson College during the day for passers-by to look at.

"Thanks," I said. "It was my dad's. There's nobody else at home to drive it, so I suppose it's mine now. My mother doesn't have a license."

"I should get into a situation like that," he told me. "You ought to see what my parents drive. My dad's got a Porsche that's about a hundred years old, and my mother -- I'm not kidding -- has this bicycle with a basket and a bell she pedals around everywhere. I'm not lying. She won't drive a car. She says if everybody on the face of the earth keeps driving cars around and polluting the air we'll all start coughing and hacking and dying off by the turn of the century. She's crazy, I'm serious. She wouldn't even lend me money when I wanted to get a car, and she's loaded to the gills. She writes mysteries with this lady detective as the main character, and people go in bookstores all over the world and buy her out. My dad doesn't even work anymore -- that's how rich she is. But she still makes me work. She won't give me any of the money because she says it will build my character if I don't get my hands on it too soon. She tells me all the time, 'I love you, Dennis, but I don't want you to turn out to be a jerk.'"

It dawned on me.

"Your mother is Inez Barton?" I asked. "My mother and sister have been reading her books for years. They talk about her all the time."

"That's her," Dennis said. "That's my dear crazy mama. I claim her, but the feeling's not mutual most of the time."

"I still don't understand how you know so much about me," I said. "Yes, I do remember you from last year. You were in one of my classes, weren't you? But I don't remember ever talking to you much."

"You never talked to me at all, and no, I wasn't in a class with you. We just exchanged meaningful glances for a while."

"I didn't give you any meaningful glances that I can recall," I smiled.

"Maybe it was just in my imagination," he said. "I sure wanted you to. As for me, I was doing all I could to send some your way."

"I do remember that," I told him.

We talked that afternoon until it was time for my Algebra class, then I ended up cutting and talking to him an hour more because I couldn't bring myself to gather up my books and cross the street to go to class. I don't think I'd ever done such a thing as that before, skipping a required function because of a boy, but I did it that afternoon. And Dennis did the same thing, more or less. He stayed in the parking lot talking to me instead of getting in his ragged Cutlass and going to work at a Western Auto down the road. I don't suppose it was outrageous behavior on his part that much, since I guess it was in him to do that sort of thing almost all the time. I mean, I never knew him to turn away from a girl or a fun situation much the whole time I knew him, but there on that first day, I was pretty impressed he would miss a day of work just to talk to me.

We talked until I really did have to leave because Mother was waiting on me. It was a Wednesday and we were going to go out and eat before I dropped her off at church for choir practice. Most nights I'd come inside and listen while I studied, but on this night I stayed out in the car listening to the radio. I didn't do a very good job of keeping Dennis Barton from crossing my thoughts. I'm not going to say I even tried.

Before I knew it, I found myself looking for Dennis' rusted-out sky-blue Cutlass when I parked in the mornings. More often than not I wouldn't find it, but when I'd appear back at my car it would be parked there beside the Mercedes, usually with Dennis lounging in the trunk with the lid up and his feet, clad only in socks, dangling out in the air. He'd thrown himself a load of used sofa pillows back in the Cutlass's trunk, told me a lot of nights he slept outside in the driveway with a bottle of wine, just so he could watch the planes that sped through the evening sky on their way to who knows where. I'll tell you the truth, he told me, a lot of nights I'm too out of my tree to get inside the door. And if I do manage to make it, then I have to listen to my mother tell me how I'm wasting my life and one of these days it's going to catch up with me. Like I'm crazier than her, he'd grin. Like she doesn't know who's the craziest. What it is, see, is she and I just fight sometimes, and sometimes I'm just not in the mood to go a round or two with her.

After a couple of months of this, when November came around and Thanksgiving wasn't but a few weeks off, I finally said something.

"Something I've been wondering about," I said.

He was sitting on the passenger side of the Mercedes leaning back on the headrest. He was always fascinated with that headrest because he'd never been in a car equipped with one before -- never, in fact, been in a car with half of what the Mercedes came with. I could live in this car, he said on a number of occasions. It beats the hell out of the trunk of the Cutlass for sure.

"I wonder who wrote the book of love," he said, "but what do you wonder about?"

"I wonder why it is after all these times of talking out here in this lot you've never bothered to ask me for my telephone number. I also wonder why you've never asked me out."

"I'm shy," he grinned.

"Shoot, you're not shy. Who do you think you're kidding? You're about as shy as a hungry grizzly bear."

"I'm being a gentleman for once in my life," he said. He raised his head and opened his eyes wide at me. "I'm trying to give you time to get over your dad and losing out on Johnny All America."

It was the first time Dennis had brought up the subject of Joel since that first day, and it made me wonder if he'd been mulling the subject over all the time we'd been going through whatever it was we were going through. I wasn't going to call it a courtship, but it was certainly something. I knew that by now.

"I don't know if I'm ever going to really get over Daddy," I said evenly, "but I can tell you right now I'm not the least bit attached to Joel Davis anymore. I don't know if you could ever really say we were ever attached at all anyway," I lied.

I wasn't lying about the part about Daddy; I was lying through my teeth when I said the part about Joel and never being attached to him. Maybe he hadn't been so much involved with me, and maybe I was learning how to live with that, but I think back to that dark week when I thought I might be pregnant, and I knew how attached I'd felt about the two of us then. I was still having trouble getting that fact out of my mind. The only thing that helped was my conversations with Dennis. I was beginning to feel him coming between the last year and me.

"Then I'll call you," he said, "if that's the case. You don't have to give me your number. I already have it. Don't ask me how. I just do. I've got my sources."

"How did you get it?" I asked. "It's a private line."

"I told you before," he said. "I'm going to be Sam Spade when I grow up."

It turned out he wasn't lying like I halfway expected he was, for he did have our telephone number and he did call me later that night. Those were the days before Caller I.D., and there had been a couple of calls before him during the evening, both of which I answered with nervous anticipation and a certain measure of coolness, since I didn't want him to think I was jumping and running for the receiver like a schoolgirl afraid she was going to miss out on her big chance to go out with the dreamiest boy in her class. When both the calls were for my mother I called her to the phone with the oddest sense of dissatisfaction, and it was all I could do not to instruct her to keep her conversations brief and to the point, because I was expecting an important call. I really didn't even want her to know I had a call perhaps headed my way, for then she might want to know from whom the call was coming -- was it Joel at last, or was it some mystery person she knew nothing about? -- and then I would either have to make up a story about someone joining in with me on a school project or have to swallow deep and tell her the truth about this funny boy at school who was the son of her favorite author who knew everything about me before I had the chance to tell him and who might, just might, be the one who would place the broom in my hands to sweep Joel Davis out of my life for good.

I could have answered on the first ring, since I was all but perched there beside the telephone stand like a hawk waiting for some form of prey to appear, but I allowed three rings to occur before I picked up the receiver and coolly said hello. I said it like I was busy doing something else and was doing whoever had called a big favor just by answering.

"I was afraid I might wake you up," Dennis said.

"Why would you be waking me up? It's not even nine o'clock." I thought this was a strange way for him to be greeting me when I'd been sitting and waiting for him to call for the past two hours. "What do you think I do -- go to school, then drive home and go directly to bed?"

"No, I just figured with your fast-paced schedule as a student and dutiful daughter you'd be totally exhausted by this time of the night. I was almost afraid I'd wake you up as you were recharging your batteries."

"I used to get my napping in out in my car between classes until you came along. Now there aren't enough hours in the day."

We went on that way for a few more minutes, then he finally got around to asking me out on a formal date. We would go to dinner. We would maybe catch a late movie. I told him I was glad I didn't have to ask him out after all, how doing stuff like that wasn't really in the Proper Girl's Manual.

That was the way our relationship seemed to go from then on. It was like a big part of it was a joke. I knew he liked me but I didn't know how much. If he said a whole lot, did that mean he was saying it in fun? Did I really like going out with him or was it because whatever we did seemed to make me laugh? It didn't help matters that he never tried kissing me there at the start, certainly not on that first date when we came home at midnight and talked in his mangy Cutlass until two in the morning. Not when we walked through parks either. Or when we sat on the glider on those warm Georgia November nights with the radio playing on accessory from the open window of his car. I can still hear the music drifting out into the night air we were sharing. Motown. Beatles. The Four Seasons. Old stuff, new stuff. It didn't matter. We both seemed to like the same things.

Our first kiss. I was getting around to that. I didn't want to just say where or when and let it go at that -- I thought it was important to set the stage a little. I didn't want anybody thinking I was just one of these dingy college girls who didn't know one thing from another, who would just flit from one boy to the next without too much thought or concern so long as she was getting what she wanted, so long as she wasn't sitting home nights but seeing movies and going places and not being this poor pathetic figure other girls felt sorry for but were sure as shooting glad they weren't her.

No, despite never really getting serious out loud, or despite the fact I was sort of a wounded bird with my dad and the way Joel had treated me, and how I'd never truly been around too many boys growing up to garner that much experience, that first kiss with Dennis was about as special and romantic as I could have ever dreamed it up and hoped that it would be. Even all these years later I remember everything about it, and I have to admit to myself that I've spent a lot of time and effort since that night making certain that I never forget.

Because forgetting would be a real tragedy. It would be Shakespearian. It would be like what the Fleetwoods sang about. It would be a tragedy.

It was the Saturday after Thanksgiving. We'd gone to eat and then took a stroll around Williamson's campus, which was all but deserted because of the four day holiday. There were lights in the dorms, but nobody was around. All the students had gone home and wouldn't be back until Monday. We parked the car and walked down the road where five dormitories stood momentarily vacant -- three for girls, two for boys. I pointed and showed Dennis where I'd lived for a time last year, until my world fell apart and I had to go home.

"I know," he said. "I used to drive by here night and day to see if I could spot your VW. I finally got brave and started asking around. That's when I found out you weren't coming back. I didn't know anything else to do but try and find out why."

"And I didn't even know your name. You had never spoken to me. Why was that?"

"I don't know if I can explain it or not," he said. "See, the way I see it is you've probably had guys hitting on you right and left for as long as you can remember. I didn't want to be just another hand waving out there in the big auction trying to get in my bid. I thought the best chance of you ever hearing my voice back then was by not saying anything at all, just keeping quiet so I'd be the only one you'd notice amid all the noise from everybody else."

"You had it all wrong," I told him. "You gave me too much credit. Other than dating Joel for a while I hardly had anything to do with anyone else."

We had reached the end of the road where you either turned your car into a parking area or made a circle and returned back to the main campus. I felt Dennis' fingers take hold of my jacket, a slight tugging at my elbow to stop me from walking. He took a small step and was in front of me. Even in the darkness I could see everything in his face, all he had to tell me in his eyes. His hand moved up and cupped the back of my neck, drawing me closer to where I could feel him through the cloth and taste him almost before his lips ever touched mine. I closed my eyes and there was no sound anywhere in the night, nothing but us at the end of the road. The kiss went on for so long I didn't know the time or have any notion of when it might end, and it was wonderful, wonderful. Something in me wondered how I'd managed to live up until that night.

It was such a funny feeling. I'd been so heartbroken over losing Daddy to death and Joel to somebody or something I didn't know about, yet suddenly none of it seemed to matter anymore, not Daddy being dead or Joel being gone. I was in a new world where yesterday didn't matter. They were my old life, when all I'd had was Daddy to watch over me at home and Joel to pick me up and take me places, and after he took me to the places, well, I guess then he took me. That was the price. But all that was far-off, starting with that first kiss from Dennis. I had a new life now.

Article © Ralph Bland. All rights reserved.
Published on 2016-05-16
Image(s) © Sand Pilarski. All rights reserved.
1 Reader Comments
02:11:32 AM
Excellent as usual Mr. Bland. I'm drawn in, not knowing where I'm going, apprehensive even, but unable to resist. I can't wait for the rest of the story.
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