November passed, and although December was warm as usual that year there was a part of me that found the whole season cool to the touch, seeing how I was literally beginning to burn up in my desire for Dennis Barton. I was no virgin -- Joel Davis had made certain of that -- but I was sure that once Dennis and I finally went to bed together there would be no prior experience in my life to compare it to. I think of how I was then and how I was thinking about sex and it shocks me now. It really surprises me. I truly was like some kind of animal in heat.
The funny part of it was soon Joel started calling me again, acting like all at once he couldn't live without me. This began on Christmas Eve. I took Mother to church for a service at six, and before I knew it Joel had plopped down in the pew beside me. Members in the congregation would take turns reading scripture about the nativity, and after every segment we'd all stand and sing "O Little Town Of Bethlehem" or "Joy to the World" or "O Come All Ye Faithful" and then sit down to hear the next part of the story. Joel kept opening the Broadman Hymnal and sticking it in front of me, wanting, I supposed, for me to share the thing with him, which it seemed to me was a way of him making sure we were starting back to being a couple again. Well, I'd have nothing to do with it. I kept holding the hymnal with Mother and halfway turning my back to Joel like he wasn't there. In my heart I was wishing Dennis had been there on my other side, but he couldn't come, he said. He had to work. Christmas Eve was supposedly a really busy time down at the Western Auto. People buying their cars gifts and all.
Joel called me the full week after Christmas three and four times a day. I made Mother answer the phone to put him off for as long as I could, then I finally told him as plainly as I could that I didn't want to see him again. I'm involved with someone else, I said. It sounded really strange coming out of my mouth, like I was an actress in a play and I was reading lines for some character other than myself. I think back on it now and I see I was almost rude about it. I guess I was trying to get even with him for taking me for a tumble and breaking my heart while he was at it. I was convinced he was out to do the same thing all over again, but it would be over my dead body this time.
Meanwhile, Dennis continued to drift in and out with that smile on his face, kissing me on the porch and in the driveway and in dark secluded corners until the blood in me raced like a stock car and all I could think of was grinding myself into him just to make him notice. Finally I decided the thing to do was make him jealous. I told him how Joel was calling me all the time wanting us to get back together and waited to see what his reaction would be. It wasn't like I wanted him to go into a rage or feel like he had to go challenge Joel -- who was taller and heavier than Dennis by a long shot -- to a duel or anything, I just wanted to see some form of reaction cross his face and ride up into his eyes, just for a single moment replace that smile on his face with some genuine emotion. We had talked for so long and kissed in the most romantic of places, yet I still knew I didn't know him totally. I didn't know where we stood as far as being a couple. Katherine wasn't around to explain this sort of thing to me. She was off in her married life, and I was perhaps lost in my own little fantasy.
That smile never left him when I mentioned Joel. He seemed to draw up some private resolution within himself, and then he asked me how I felt about the return of Prince Jockstrap, his thumb rotating between an up and down position as if he wanted me to choose which one. I told him I thought Joel was a creep and I wanted him to go away and leave me alone. I was being as honest as possible, but there was something in Dennis' eyes that was looking over my head, and I could tell he didn't much believe me.
I couldn't put my finger on it, but I almost believe it was close to over between us on that very night. It wasn't like we stopped dating or he didn't come around as often -- nothing like that -- but it was more I found myself doing most of the talking and sensing how I needed to try a little harder to keep it going. I even doubled my efforts to seduce him, to entice him to take me to bed and rid my memory of all the bad things that had occurred with Joel before. And he did take me to bed finally. Over a couple of weeks in late March and early April that was all we did for a while, and then our lovemaking abruptly stopped. Suddenly he wasn't around in the afternoons at the lot. The phone calls stopped and I was afraid to call his home. I tried Western Auto but was told he didn't work there anymore. And even on a campus as small as Williamson, I could never spot him walking to or from a class.
By the time the spring semester ended I was home with Mother and had no hopes of Dennis ever calling me again. Joel had given up on me and gone on to other girls -- I'm sure he had his pick of willing participants -- but I hardly gave it a thought. I just wondered about Dennis and blamed myself for chasing him away. I even took up one of his tactics and drove by his house to check on him, but I never saw the Cutlass in the drive. His dad's Porsche sat gleaming in the sunshine, and his mother's bicycle was either out on one of her errands or locked in the garage. One night I phoned the house, but his mother answered and I hung up without speaking. I didn't want to talk to her. I didn't want her to know I was in love with her son. I was pretty sure she'd do something like make me a character in her next book, and I didn't want that. I felt too little like a real person anymore by then anyway.
* * *
I never did graduate. I went back to Williamson for only a semester before I dropped out again. My heart wasn't in it and none of the courses I took held my interest. I didn't want to be there anymore because Dennis was gone off someplace, so I thought I might as well go get a job and try and make something of myself. Katherine and her husband had a small practice by then, and they needed someone to do light typing and answer the phone. I seemed a likely candidate, so I drove the Mercedes to the Marietta outskirts five mornings a week beginning in January and took up residence in the outer portion of their office, which once served as a chiropractor's office before the poor man dropped dead unexpectedly during an examination and his widow had to sell off the place cheap to pay for his funeral. It didn't seem like much of a place for a legal service, being surrounded as it was by a Baskin-Robbins and a dry cleaners, but it was affordable for Katherine and Jim in their initial forays into the field of writs and wills and justice for all. They didn't pay me much to go to work there -- I think Katherine and Mother regarded my employment as a case of modified babysitting -- and I didn't complain about my salary either. It was the first place I'd ever worked, so it was more money than I'd made before in my sheltered existence. All my previous endowments had always come from Daddy.
I'd taken typing for two years in high school, so I could handle that part of it okay. The phone had three lines with three buttons and a hold knob to push, so it was hard to mess that up either. A lot of the time I looked out the window or read TV Guide. Katherine piped in my favorite radio station over the speakers, so I listened to the radio too. The station played a lot of my favorite songs. They called them oldies, but I didn't think they were so ancient at all.
Sometimes someone would come in and have to sit and wait for a while until Katherine or Jim could see them. They'd sit in one of the chairs against the wall and read magazines or look at me. Some of them wanted to start conversations, mostly men. I didn't like that part of it, and I never had much to say to them.
At one Katherine would let me go to lunch; sometimes she and I would go to a restaurant called Larson's together and let Jim man the desk. Katherine would order boiled shrimp and eat from the salad bar, but I never was too hungry for anything at that time of day. If I ate I wanted to take a nap, so a lot of time I nibbled crackers and had a Pepsi. Katherine worried a lot about me not eating, so after a while I got in the habit of going to lunch alone. I'd go into Baskin Robbins and get a vanilla cone and walk around in the sunshine eating it. I liked that a lot better than sitting with Katherine while she asked me questions about Mother and the house and what I was planning on doing for the rest of my life. Mother had told her about Dennis disappearing on me.
Mother pointed out an announcement in the Sunday paper about Joel getting married. The bride-to-be was enrolled at Williamson, but I'd never seen her or heard of her before. The wedding was scheduled to happen in about a month, which made me wonder if Joel had struck again and hadn't been so lucky this time. I looked at the girl's picture and was glad it wasn't me. I thought this was probably the last time I would ever have any inkling of what Joel Davis might be about. I didn't think I had to worry about being invited to the wedding. I was betting it would be a small affair. Hurry-up things rarely drew big crowds.
"Do you ever think about Joel any?" Mother asked me one night at dinner.
"Not much," I said. I tried to ignore her. I was watching "The Gong Show." Lately I'd been making a study of Chuck Barris.
"None of his family come to church anymore," she told me. "I think they moved their membership somewhere else."
"I wouldn't know," I said.
"You used to say you couldn't wait for Joel to ask you to marry him," she said. "Sometimes I wonder why that all changed."
"I changed my mind. It all started when I really got to know him. We were fine before that. Besides, he didn't like the fact I was a better swimmer than him."
"You were a better swimmer than almost everyone. I don't know why you stopped going to the club and competing."
"It's a long story, Mother. I don't even remember all the details myself. Let's just say it wasn't fun for me anymore."
"Still, if you had stuck with it you could have gotten a scholarship, just like Sammy did."
"I wasn't as good at diving as Sammy was at golf, Mother -- you know that. And I'm not as smart as Katherine, so we might as well get used to that too. For right now I'm here with you, and nothing I know of is going to change that any time soon. So we might as well both learn to live with it."
"Whatever that boy did to you," Mother said, "wasn't good. I'm talking about that Dennis person. You're going to have to get over him someday. You're letting one little thing ruin your life, Julia."
I didn't bother to answer. I was too busy noticing the book Mother had in her lap. It was Inez Barton's latest. I wanted to snatch it away and read the back cover, the About the Author part. I wanted to see if there was any mention of Inez's only son, to see if it would tell me if he was still long-lost or dead or what. I started to tell Mother just who her favorite author was, but I didn't. I wanted it to stay my own little secret.
We didn't talk much more that night. Mother read, and I sat staring at the television and not knowing what was even on. I finally said I had to go out for a minute. I wanted to look at some shoes over at the mall. The last few days my feet were killing me.
* * *
Before I knew it, four years had passed. I was working at a AAA office in another mall closer to downtown, mapping out trips and renting cars for people going on trips who were members of the club. I didn't work for Jim and Katherine anymore because their office had expanded and they needed a real legal secretary to take care of their load, and I wasn't qualified to do that sort of work. But Katherine knew a friend who had a friend at the AAA office and I got a good Monday through Friday job there. I printed out travel routes and booked hotels and rental cars for members from eight-thirty until five, then got into the Mercedes and drove home to Mother. It was a pretty simple existence. On Saturdays I slept late and on Sundays I drove Mother to church. In the afternoon we ate lunch with the choir at a lot of Marietta restaurants, then I would go home and take a nap.
I kept to myself and made sure I did very little thinking. I knew people were beginning to talk about me, but I tried not to think about it.
It was on one of those lazy late Sunday afternoons when I opened my eyes from slumber and began going through the Sunday paper while Mother cooked dinner.
I didn't usually even look at the Arts section because I didn't care about local art much, I didn't go to movies or plays or any kind of event often, and I didn't care who was in town playing music at whatever venue, but somehow my eyes fell upon an announcement for an upcoming club date, mainly because the name in the caption seemed to leap out of the print at me like a spoiled cat wanting my place on the sofa. At first I thought the blurb was about Inez Barton, Mother's favorite author, and I thought I'd memorize the title and maybe buy it for a birthday gift, but then I saw it wasn't Inez in the paragraph for me to view. It was Dennis and his picture there above the write-up. I looked closely at the image and there he was, bearded now, wearing a sport coat without a tie, but still smiling, still with that look in his eye. It was like he was saying, look, I am back from the dead.
The writer of numerous songs recorded by many famous names (I didn't know any of them)-- the article said -- will be at the Round Robin Pub on Thursday evening, 7:00, to perform some of his compositions. No admission is charged for this event.
I started to get up off the sofa and walk into the kitchen to show Mother, but I decided against it. I thought maybe I ought to just keep my mouth shut about Dennis Barton. I didn't want to explain why I had to go to Marietta Thursday night, because then Mother would say the same things she always said to me and then call Katherine on the phone so the two of them could worry and wonder if I was about to trip out again. No, I didn't want to discuss it. I didn't want to weigh the factors of whether I should go to see Dennis or stay at home.
I crumpled up the Arts section and tossed it in the kitchen waste can.
* * *
There weren't too many people at the pub -- twenty maybe -- but something told me I'd be better off staying back from the audience and not sitting at the tables up front. Round Robin's wasn't too ritzy anyway -- it was inside a mall with a shoe store across from the entrance -- so it wasn't like I had to worry about being out of my element or anything. Most people just ate and talked and didn't even listen to whoever was playing, so it wasn't like a whole lot of strict rules were enforced. At first I thought I'd just walk up and say hello right off the bat, but then I got to thinking maybe that wasn't such a bright idea. What would I do if Dennis had someone with him? What if that person turned out to be his wife? What would I ever say?
He walked right by me on his way over to the little stage with a stool. I suppose he had his mind on his upcoming presentation, but I still felt a little hurt that he hadn't recognized me immediately, but then I got to thinking how foolish a thought that was, since why would he have the slightest idea I'd be sitting by myself in a mall restaurant waiting to surprise him. Of course, he did know I lived nearby, and he did know there was unfinished business between us, so the idea of his head being entirely void of anything pertaining to me was difficult for me to swallow. I hadn't forgotten him. How could it be possible he'd put me totally out of his mind, even if it had been years since we'd talked? There was a part of me that was nervous, but there was a part of me that was angry, too. I wanted to know why he left me without a word. I wanted him to explain why the love he knew I had for him was nothing more for him than something to be thrown away.
I decided not to wait or hide or remain in the shadows. It was either the bravest thing I've ever done in my life or it was the dumbest, but I got up from the table where I'd positioned myself and made my way to where he was standing. There were people shaking his hand. Everyone was smiling. I decided I'd smile too.
"Julia," he said. He took my hand. He seemed pleased, but I was wondering if that was true or not. I reminded myself I didn't have much of a track record at accurately reading his feelings.
"It's been a long time," he said. "I've been meaning to call you."
"The number's still the same," I smiled. "It's not in the book, but that didn't stop you before. See, I remember. I know. Little obstacles like that don't stop you. You can call me anytime you want." I let go of his hand. "I came to buy one of your albums," I told him. "Maybe you can come by and listen to it with me one of these days."
I left him with a few more people standing around him. He had to greet his public, just like his mother did, just like any other good little celebrity. I picked up his album from a display table and took it to the register. The cashier asked me if I'd like to stay and get it signed and I told her no. I had to be somewhere and couldn't stay for the performance.
I stood in the mall's corridor with shoppers passing and boys and girls with their arms wrapped around each other walking by me, smiling, talking, happy and young and in love. If I was as young as they were I might have started crying right there on the spot. I would have let the whole world know I had a broken heart.
But I didn't.
I was getting to be a real life woman, and I was going to do what Frankie Valli told me to long ago. I was going to be a big girl and not cry. Maybe I wasn't going to be quite so big forever, but I wasn't going to cry right then.
I was going to wait until I was outside the mall and inside my Mercedes with the radio on. I'd cry then. It wouldn't matter so much that way. I was alone. Nobody would ever know.
* * *
Dennis never called.
I waited a few days until it became a week, then the weeks began to multiply. After it became a month I got it into my mind that Dennis wasn't going to do anything. Maybe he'd surprise me some day, but as for now he was gone once more. Once again, I had to learn to get used to it.
I watched the paper constantly to see if he was coming back to town anytime soon, but there was no mention of him much, only every now and then when I'd see something about a song he'd written or a concert he'd played in somewhere. From what I could tell he was gone from Georgia and Atlanta for good; most mentions of him always seemed to be in Nashville or Texas or maybe even overseas a time or two. From everything I could gather he was pretty entrenched in the music scene. He had a song coming out in a movie. I read that his mother and father died fairly close to one another a little while back, but by this time they'd moved to San Antonio and Inez had stopped writing. It had been another year since I had seen Dennis that night at the mall, but I still expected him to phone me at home some night, to just amble in to the AAA office on an afternoon grinning his grin and sit down in the chair across from me. It would be just like him, I thought, but I didn't mention it to Katherine or Mother. They would have made me go back to see a doctor again. It would have convinced them I was absolutely not getting any better. But I could have argued with them about it. To the contrary, I wasn't getting any worse either. I was basically the same as I'd always been. I was a girl in love to stay. It wasn't like I had a different personality every other day like a schizoid.
Speaking of Mother, it was a couple of years before the Y-2K scare when the century was getting ready to change and the world was going to end that she started slipping pretty fast. One day she was cooking and cleaning house like she'd always done, then she'd have to lay down for a nap and was always looking pale and started not getting up early in the mornings like she always had before. Katherine and I would have to take off work and take her to doctor's appointments and even get her checked into the hospital sometimes for tests. Maybe I didn't notice it quite as much because I was so accustomed to seeing her every day, but she lost weight and her energy level went down, and it wasn't long before she didn't feel like going to church anymore and certainly not singing in the choir. That scared me, I have to admit, because singing in the choir was like Mother's hobby, like the one thing in the world she enjoyed the most and would never stop doing for anything. When she slept in on Sunday mornings even after I finally got up I knew things were not ever going to be the same again. I had dealt somehow with Daddy and Sammy going away, but it was hard for me to try and imagine a world without my mother in it. I knew that sooner or later I was going to one day be living by myself. It seemed so unreal to me. I'd been by myself most of my life, but I had never really been alone. It was a strange thing to suddenly have to think about, and all at once I began to be afraid. I tried my best not to go overboard about it, because it seemed selfish for me to think about only myself in a circumstance like this, but I couldn't make the feeling go away. It was with me day and night.
Mother had a stroke on a Saturday morning, just after I'd got out of bed. I hadn't slept well and I was up a lot earlier than usual, which I suppose was good, because if I'd been asleep like I usually was Mother would have just fallen on the floor and been there until I finally woke up, which could have been close to lunch maybe. As it was I called 911 and an ambulance came. Katherine and Jim rushed over and we all went to the hospital to see what we could do. We didn't have to hurry or anything, because Mother had passed by the time the ambulance got to the hospital. We stood around and waited for the coroner and our preacher to come while Katherine and Jim made calls and asked me about funeral services and what dress I thought Mother should be buried in. All I can remember is nodding my head and agreeing to everything, just sitting there in that little vestibule area glad I didn't have to worry too much about plans and arrangements, glad I had a sister and a brother-in-law who were educated and well-versed in things like this. And every now and then I wondered what I was going to do with myself.
I brushed my hair back and wore my best clothes for the two nights of visitation. I was determined to meet the people from the church and the neighborhood with a calm manner and a good attitude. I didn't want to do a lot of crying and carrying on and making everybody believe I'd never be able to make it alone, that I'd better have somebody around to watch me or there'd certainly be trouble. I told myself I had to act like a grownup.
I think I would have been able to do it if it hadn't been for the flowers. The people who worked at the funeral home would bring the flowers in as they arrived during the day. On that first day it was like there was a constant stream of sprays and green plants and colorful flowers from everyone. Between people coming in from the church or wherever, I'd pass the time walking around looking at the arrangements and reading the cards to see who had sent them. It was better doing that than carrying on conversations with all the visitors. I let Katherine and Jim take care of that part. They were better at talking than me. I could run out of words very quickly.
There was one green plant in the corner in a pot with a white ribbon wrapped around it. On the card it read, Sincere Sympathy, Dennis Barton.
At first I didn't seem to have any recognition of the name at all, then a whole rush of memories began exploding between my temples and I wondered if I was going to faint or cry or have another one of my breakdowns, but I knew this wasn't the time or place for such a display. I had no idea how he'd found out about Mother or where he'd sent the flowers from or even why he'd done such a thing, but then I thought about how he was and how he'd always bragged about being able to find out things about anyone, about how someday when he grew up he was going to be a private eye. That was when I knew he hadn't left me altogether, that he was still somewhere keeping track of my comings and goings. And even in the middle of my grief for Mother, I stood there in the corner of the chapel with Mother's casket not fifteen feet away from me and smiled. I wanted to cry for joy. I wanted to walk around and take the hand of each and every person present and walk them over to look at this green plant with the white ribbon that Dennis Barton had sent from somewhere in the world.
But I knew I couldn't do that. I couldn't let on to anyone that this was such a wonderful thing in my mind.
I couldn't just go up to Katherine and start gushing about a plant that had arrived courtesy of Dennis Barton. I knew better than to mention him at all, because it had long been established by Mother and Katherine that he had violated some part of me and left me behind, and all that remained of me afterwards chose not to move on in life but to stop. To wait. And while waiting, to go slowly off my rocker every day and every month, until finally I was what I had become now -- a woman with a past that only I knew about, a woman with a past that a lot of people believed maybe never happened. So I knew I had to act like the plant or the name or the memory of the past made little or no difference to me.
I don't know if Katherine ever saw the card or not, but if she did she didn't say anything about it to me. Probably she did see it, and probably she thought the wisest thing to do was to not bring it up. I let the card hang there by the plant for a day or so, before finally I removed it and walked around the rest of the night with it in my pocket. I felt like a master thief or something, like I had stolen something valuable right out from under someone's nose and if all went well I was going to get away with it.
I tried not to concentrate on it too much, but all through the funeral service I kept darting my eyes around looking to see if Dennis had come in. It was not the kind of thing I should have been doing in the middle of my mother's funeral, but there was a part of me that just couldn't help it. After all, Mother was gone. She wasn't around for me to have to worry about anymore, to take to choir practice or church or to any of her doctor appointments. Sammy and Daddy were gone too, and all that was left of my family was Katherine and Jim and the baby the two of them had on the way. So other than becoming Aunt Julia and being good to babysit all the time because I didn't have anything else to do, I was alone in that big house on the edge of town. I wasn't going to go to church by myself, and after working through the week it was hard to imagine what I'd do with myself on the weekends. I had the Mercedes. I supposed I could always drive myself to the mall.
Even after we drove to the cemetery and had the graveside service and everyone came by to hold my hand and hug me while the casket went down in the ground and the diggers covered it with dirt like they'd done it a thousand times before, I still couldn't stop myself from thinking about Dennis. I expected him to be the next person in line, to say how sorry he was for my loss while smiling his smile. I thought one time I heard him speak to someone behind us, but when I looked it was no one. I sat in my chair on the front row and watched and waited. Finally Katherine stood up and I knew I had to go. I felt a little guilty as we walked away, because the whole time of the service I hadn't been thinking of Mother much. I'd been thinking of Dennis Barton most of the while. I was wondering if he was ever coming back.
* * *
It surprised everyone, but I lived in the house alone after Mother's death for more than four years. Katherine tried to talk me into moving someplace smaller and selling the house the entire time, but I kept putting her off. I didn't make that much money at my job, but the house was paid for and Daddy and Mother had left a hefty little provision to me in their estate, so much that I didn't really have to work if I didn't want to. There was a part of me that wanted to do just that -- to quit and stay home and watch television all day -- but I was afraid I'd allow myself to drop out and become a weirdo and lose contact with the world. I was only thirty. I thought I needed to keep working and have some semblance of a life.
Not that it was much of a life, but it wasn't all that bad. The women who worked at the desks beside me seemed to like me a whole lot better than the woman who had preceded me, whom the two of them jointly described as nothing more than an apprentice prostitute. I heard stories of this woman flirting with customers and making dates with married men, and each of my co-workers had a notion that alcohol and illegal drugs had a prominent place in this former worker's life. It wasn't unusual at all, I was told, for this slut to miss days at a time, holed up somewhere with some man or just not in good enough condition to get out of the bed and come to work.
So Theda and Becky were glad I was around. They were both at least twenty years older than me, and because I'd never been married and showed no prospects of doing so they jointly adopted me as their spinster daughter. I got assured on a daily basis that someday the right man would come along. That was just the way God worked.
There was a boy named Danny who worked the receptionist's desk. I thought it was a little funny for a man to be holding such a job at first until I saw how fast Danny could talk and look up insurance data and answer the phone and multi-task like it was going out of style all day long, so then I saw why he held the job. Of course, once you got to know Danny you found out pretty fast that he was homosexual, or gay, as they were calling it by then, but he wasn't one of those people who talked about it all the time or dressed like a girl or tried to shove it down your throat at every opportunity. As a matter of fact he was the nicest person in the entire office, and we had close to fifty employees working there at the time. He was funny and cheerful and had a real knack of knowing what kind of mood everybody was in and how to make things better if somebody was feeling down.
I have to admit it. Sometimes I did get down. I'd do my best to come to work every day with a good attitude and not act like I was the only person in the world who had problems, and most of the time I was fine. I'd smile and listen to what Theda and Becky did on the weekends, and I'd burst out laughing at Danny's corny jokes a lot, because he had at least a million of them and could go on all day. The only thing is sometimes I'd go home and it might be three or four days before Katherine would call me up to talk -- or really, to check up on me -- and after a while I'd get to feeling that if it wasn't for the TV or the radio I might never hear a human voice away from the office. All our old neighbors had died or moved off, so it wasn't like I could go out in the yard and carry on a conversation with anybody. Sometimes I got the feeling I might as well move on off to Alaska or somewhere and just live in a cabin miles away from anyone. Danny seemed to be able to sense this in me, and he tried his best to keep me from getting too depressed. He was just one person, though.
I fluctuated up and down for a while, but I think I hit rock bottom at last on the afternoon the Mercedes broke down on my way home from work. I maybe should have seen such a thing coming, since the car was twenty years old by then, but I just hadn't been able to part with it like Katherine and Jim kept insisting I do. I told them I'd get a new one in just a little while -- I used that excuse for at least a couple of years -- but I was adamant that I would never sell or trade that Mercedes, no matter what. It can sit in the garage and I'll get it fixed up someday, I told them. There's plenty of room in there. I didn't bother telling them that it was the last thing I owned that really reminded me of Daddy and I didn't want to let it go.
I was on one of the main roads leading out of town when the Mercedes shut off at a red light and wouldn't turn back on again. It clicked and sighed at me like it was sorry but couldn't help letting me down like this, and horns were honking and cars lining up. I looked in my mirror and didn't know the first thing to do. Some kind stranger finally came up and tapped on the window and I got out. He got in and had no luck getting the Mercedes started either, and finally he and a truck driver pushed it off to the side of the road. The truck driver was a nice man too, thankfully, and said he'd take me back into town to my sister's office. I was so upset and confused the whole way back that I forgot I worked for AAA and all I had to do was call them and get a free tow. That would have been fine, I guess, but I still didn't know where I wanted the Mercedes to get towed. Daddy always used to handle things like that. I guessed I'd have to wait and ask Jim what to do.
The problem with the Mercedes proved to be unfixable, and before I knew it Jim and Katherine were driving me down to the Ford dealership and having me try out bland little cheap sedans. I didn't like anything I sat in or saw, but was frankly so depressed over the demise of the Mercedes and the dull pattern of my life that I agreed to what they wanted for me just to shut them up and get it over with. It sounds stupid to say this, but the day I drove home in my new car I was at the lowest point in my life. I can remember thinking how I didn't want to go back to work anymore, how I didn't want to talk to anyone or listen to what anybody told me. There was a part inside me that just wanted everything to end, and I was included in the mix. I just didn't see any sense in anything, and in a vague sort of way I started thinking about how I wouldn't mind checking out from everything.
That was where I was when the telephone rang at ten on a September Saturday morning, closing in on middle age and depressed and thinking about what it might be like to end it all. I had dreamed the night before of being on a high diving board, poised on the edge with all these faces below looking up at me and waiting. I wanted to go into my routine and do a dive, but there was something all wrong and I was frozen up there with no way back down. For one thing, none of the people looking up at me were familiar, so it wasn't like I was diving for anyone or had anyone down there to care whether I was successful or not. Then the big thing was I could look down and see there wasn't any water in the pool, and no matter how I tried to get somebody's attention about it I couldn't get anyone to notice. It was like no one cared if there was water in the pool or not. Nobody cared if I dove into blue hard concrete whatsoever.
The phone was ringing, and I just looked at the receiver trying to determine if I should answer or let it ring itself out, but since it was probably Katherine checking up on me again I decided to answer and talk to her rather than making her worry what I might be up to. To say the least, the call was not what I expected.
"Well, it's been a while, but I see you've still got the same number. If the address is the same, I'll know right where to come to pick you up for lunch."
So what if it had been a few more years? I knew the voice just fine. It was Dennis, calling me on a Saturday morning like he was on his break at work, like he used to back in the days of Western Auto. I thought about Western Auto. Did they even exist anymore?
"Where have you been?" I asked, like I couldn't think of anything smarter to utter, which I couldn't. I could have had three day's notice he was calling, and I still couldn't have come up with anything better to say.
"I've been everywhere you can think of and nowhere at all. You name a town and I've probably been there, and if you asked me I probably couldn't tell you one thing decent that happened wherever I was. So I guess what I'm saying is I've come back to visit and was hoping somehow you'd still be around."
His voice sounded flippant like it always used to, and I wondered if he'd kept that smile on his face he'd always had before, the one that said he didn't believe you or anyone else and he wasn't going to be the guy who doesn't see the next thing coming when it raises up of a sudden and tries to smack him in the face.
"If you're sitting around bored on a Saturday morning," he said, "I'd love to take you out to lunch. I can be there anytime you want. It's not like I have a real job or anything."
I said to give me an hour.
He was driving a silver car that looked like one of the soulless pieces of tin Katherine and Jim had auditioned for me when they were outfitting me with a new vehicle. I was surprised he hadn't pulled into the drive in a fancy sports car or something just as flashy, since he was such a big-time songwriter and all and had his songs on peoples' albums and a few of them even on the radio I'd heard once or twice, and I said as much about it too.
"This is borrowed," he told me. "This is how I get around these days. I've gone from limos and Jags and expensive convertibles to bumming rides off whoever these days. If my songs sell any less I'll get out my mom's old bike to go to my next stop, and if things don't look up after that I won't have to worry about it, because there won't be any more stops to make."
"I doubt it's as bad as that," I said. "What about what your parents left you? Your mother must have had quite a nest egg."
"That was gone a long time ago, what my dad didn't squander in bad deals and medicinal bills and hospital stays. I didn't help much with it either. Times are bad, all right," he grinned. "I couldn't begin to tell you."
I wanted to ask him what he was doing showing up here at my door all these years later, but I was afraid to make him angry right off the bat and have him drive away without a word. People didn't know Dennis the way I did. Everyone always said he was quirky and temperamental, but that didn't truly describe him. What he was -- or at least he was to me -- was self-contained. He was always out there in the world, but he was compartmentalized to the hilt. Wherever he was no one could find him. He made sure of that. There wasn't a door to walk through or a number you could call. You could see him in a room and lift your hand to wave at him and it wouldn't do you any good. If he didn't want to see you then you never came into view. You could say his name and he wouldn't hear. It was like he was always out somewhere alone in his world, in a crowd or not, and that was the way he liked it. He was constantly in the process of being absent from the scene.
He'd been standing beside me five minutes, and I could already tell he hadn't changed a bit.
"Before you ask," he said, "I'm just letting you know I feel bad about the way you and I left off. I've thought about it for a long time and all I can say is it didn't have anything to do with anything you did. It was just the way things were going at the time. My world was all screwed up and the only thing I could think of was to put some distance between me and it before everything around me melted down."
I was afraid to invite him inside for two reasons. First, I didn't know what sort of volatile character I was dealing with right then, and secondly, I didn't know if I trusted myself enough after a thousand years of waiting for this moment to arrive to allow him in the door to witness what I might possibly do. To be frank, and this is something I didn't think I'd ever admit to, I wasn't so sure I could keep my clothes on if temptation was to present itself. Memories and visions of what we did together those years ago flashed through my head and made it difficult to concentrate on what he was saying, but I got into his rented car and did my best to listen as we drove out the interstate toward Williamson. There was a place I used to eat at, he told me, called Paul's. He wondered if Paul's was still around.
It turned out that Paul's -- like a lot of things we looked for that day -- wasn't there anymore. The building was still standing, but it was a plumbing business now. There were trucks and vans parked in front with pictures of plungers and toilets painted on their sides. We drove through Williamson and only one old dorm was still there. There was a new gymnasium where the old one used to be, a new bookstore, and a glistening student center in the middle of the campus where there used to be nothing but grass. We parked at the old library -- which I was glad to see, because if it had been gone I might not have believed I was where I thought I was -- and took a walk through the circle looking at what was new and what had been left behind. Every time I saw something I recognized it made me feel older in a way that was both happy and sad.
"It didn't take long for me to find out I was a dime a dozen in the music world," he said. "If my mother hadn't been famous and rich I'd have never got a foot in the door to begin with."
We were walking along under some shade trees, then we sat down on a bench where we could people-watch if we wanted, but it was Saturday and there was nobody passing by. Dennis lit a cigarette -- which I thought was funny, since I'd never seen him smoke before -- and told me how his career had started hitting the skids right after his mother died.
"A lot of people listened to my songs because I was Inez Barton's son," he said, smiling again like he'd told himself a joke. "It's strange how faithful her readers were. It's like they bought my albums so she wouldn't have to take time away from writing to support me."
"I don't believe a word you tell me," I told him. "Sometimes I think you make up things just to say to people to get them good and confused. I don't think you've ever told me the truth as long as I've known you."
"I told you I loved you before I ever met you," he said abruptly. "Don't you remember me telling you that? I thought for sure you believed me for that."
"I didn't forget." There was no use lying about it. "That's one of those things that have never left my mind."
"Good," he said. "I never wanted it to. So that makes me feel better. Because, you know, that's the biggest reason I never called you. I couldn't have taken you not believing what I'd said or not remembering anything about me. I didn't want you to take off with some guy like that damn Joel and never give a second thought to me again."
"I fell in love with you before I knew it," I hear myself say. "I'm still in love with you, but I don't know why. I don't know why I should be."
"I guess you'll just have to give me a chance to show you, Julia."
He took his hand and pushed my hair back from my eyes. I still wore my hair long, I realized, because he'd liked it that way before. I'd never changed it, and now here he was.
"There are a lot of things I can show you," he said. "All you have to do is watch."
* * *
I did end up letting Dennis into the house. I was right, of course, about not trusting myself alone with him after all this time, because everything happened I thought would happen right from the first. We went to bed together right there in the bedroom where I grew up, and the entire time I didn't have one single thought about Daddy or Mother or Katherine or Sammy or just whoever else's spirit might still be in the house. I had lived in that house by myself for years by then, and if there were any ghosts or presences hanging about anywhere I'm certain I would have discovered them by that Saturday afternoon when I let Dennis in the door. It could be that there were eyes watching me from another realm, but by this time I simply didn't care. I had been alone for such a long time. I was getting older every day. It was time I experienced what everyone else in the world had lived through already. It was time I had love and magic and happiness in my life too.
We stayed in that bedroom until the sun started setting and shadows were everywhere you looked. We'd not eaten lunch at all on our field trip to Williamson, but had just been hungry for each other and partook of that until our appetites were sated somewhat. I finally crept out of the bed and found my robe hanging on the bedpost, aware as I put it on how Dennis' eyes were watching me. In a way I was shy and self-conscious about someone seeing me naked at this stage of my life, but there was also a part of me that was proud of myself and the way I'd kept my body and not grown flabby or fat or blue-veined with age like so many women my age do. I was in my middle thirties, I told myself, but I could pass for twenty-five easily. That's what all those years of swimming did for me. They had built the muscles in my arms and legs and back strong and straight, and just because I hadn't been back in the water in a while there still had been no decline in what I had made of myself. I was a good looking woman still, and I didn't mind Dennis being aware of it.
Once I got into the kitchen I had a moment of panic. It had been so long since I'd actually cooked anything I wondered if I knew how to do such a thing anymore. I'd never been very good at it. I guessed I could make eggs and toast okay, which would have to do, since there wasn't anything much more than that in the refrigerator. Living alone had made me dependent on the microwave too much. A peanut butter and jelly sandwich for dinner wasn't all that unusual a fare for me some nights.
I walked back in the bedroom to ask Dennis if eggs and toast would be okay for a meal, but when I got there the bed was empty. The bathroom door was open, so he wasn't in there. I supposed he was taking a small tour of the house without me around, a thought which gave me a funny feeling inside. I don't know why. It wasn't like I was trying to hide anything.
I found him in Daddy's office, which was actually more of a den than anything else, since there was a TV and an aquarium in there among all the law books and magazines. Dennis was bent over Daddy's desk looking at something, and when I looked closer I could see it was Daddy's favorite book of all in his collection, his big leather-bound volume of Shakespeare's plays and sonnets, which he used to leaf through all the time finding quotations he could spring on people out of the blue, at work or at church or at home. He used to enjoy the looks he would get from people, how they were always so surprised somebody like him would be a Shakespeare expert. It was always odd to me too. Nobody else in the family was the least bit interested in Hamlet or Julius Caesar or any part of it.
"I didn't know you came from such a scholarly family." He turned around and looked at me over his shoulder. "I think this is the very same book my parents had on their shelf at home when I was a little kid. If I remember correctly I took some scissors one time when I was a little kid and cut out several of the illustrations. My folks were upset as hell, but neither one of them wanted to spank me for it. I think they were both afraid if they beat me for enjoying a book I'd grow up hating the written word or something. As it was I grew up thinking I was a singer-songwriter, like Dylan or Hank Williams, but I'm damned close to the realization I'm not. I think my mother knew it about me all along, but she was too polite and cultured to say anything about it. My dad just thought I'd figure it out for myself one day. I guess he was right."
"You write good songs," I said. "I've listened to your albums a lot."
"There's a reason for that," he said. "You know me. You probably felt obligated to buy them because you and I were an item a long time ago. So you listened to them, but that doesn't mean you enjoyed them. You were probably just concentrating on the lyrics to see if you were maybe mentioned in them somewhere."
"You write songs about barrooms and death. How could I look for myself in anything there?"
He smiled and went back to looking at the book, brushing up on his Shakespeare before dinner, as he said. I don't even need the eggs, he told me. Sometimes I think I'm allergic to them. Just fix a little toast and that will be okay.
I went back into the kitchen and pulled out a loaf of bread. The expiration date said it had gone out four days ago, and when I ran my finger over the crust it was hard and tried to crumple off at the touch. The first slice I pulled out of the wrapper had a purple blotch on one corner. I threw it in the trash and opened the refrigerator. There were seven eggs and a jar of mayonnaise. There was some orange juice in a carton that had been there forever. There wasn't anything else.
I walked back to Daddy's office to tell him the bad news, but he wasn't there anymore. In the bedroom he was putting on his clothes, down to lacing up the sneakers that had seen better days. I got the bad feeling he had it in his mind to disappear.
"We'll either have to go out somewhere or I'll have to make a trip to the store," I said. "The bread's molded and there's really nothing else here."
"Tell me what you need and I'll go get it," he said. He stood up and patted his pockets. I heard his keys jingle. "You don't have to get dressed."
I didn't really want to let him go by himself, but I thought it was stupid to say anything.
"I could make us hamburgers," I said. "If you'll get ground beef and buns and some potato chips. That will do. Maybe some lettuce and tomato."
"Onion," he said. "I always have to have double onion. People can smell me coming a mile away, but that's the way it is."
"Onion is okay." I watched him heading for the door and wished he would kiss me goodbye, even if it was for just fifteen minutes.
"I'll find a Kroger somewhere," he told me.
That was a bunch of years ago, and I still don't know what to think about it. One thing is for certain and that is I may not know what to think, but I sure can't make myself stop thinking about it. Dennis walked out the door before I even had the chance to give him any money, and I heard the car start up and saw it backing out the driveway by the time I opened the door. I had a twenty dollar bill in my hand and was waving it at him from the porch, but I guess he didn't see me. I watched the taillights of the car disappear down the hill. That was when I noticed it was dark outside. It was later than I thought it was.