I went a long time without giving her much more than a passing thought, and I don't really know if she would have ever taken any significant precedence in my mind had it not been for the fact I somehow became addicted to the sausage and biscuits the Tasty Shoppe on Shady Park Drive served up on the mornings I passed by it on my way to work. I'd pull my car into their gravel lot and wait by the window for my order to come up, spend maybe three minutes standing there watching cars go by on their way either into town or out toward the fringes of the city to schools or businesses that resided there, and now and again a train would roll by on the tracks behind the Tasty Shoppe, blaring its horn at the crossing in five long loud blasts, the same way trains had been announcing their approach at this location for as far back as I could remember, which is a good while, seeing how I am someone who has been around this neighborhood for just about forever.
So it was on one of those mornings waiting on my sausage and biscuit and watching the train rattle by on the ancient rails of the intersection when the railroad cars all finished passing by and the barriers came up and the crossing lights stopped their flashing and I happened to fix my eyes at the old houses across the tracks. The few cars that had been waiting for the train to pass started up and crossed the tracks and went their way toward their morning destinations, but for a solitary moment I was unaware of the train rolling on and the cars moving and life snapping back into a normal routine. I did not notice any of it, for I was off somewhere, swept inside a memory of a time gone away.
Maybe it hadn't been a half century ago, but it's close. It was the October of my senior year in high school, back when every guy in our tight little group, between trying to figure out what college he was going to get accepted into and getting drunk as a rabid skunk every weekend, was looking around somewhere for a way to once and for all lose his cherry. It was hard at the time keeping an accurate take on such major historical events as these events, since it was difficult determining who was telling the truth about such matters and who was embellishing the facts so he wouldn't have to be known as the last virgin left standing.
On Saturday nights, after our dates were taken home, my friends and I always met at the Donut Hole, a place that stayed open late nights and provided us with a location to eat doughnuts and sweet rolls and drink hot black coffee and sit on stools with round plastic seats at Formica counters and talk through the night until everybody ran out of words and had to head home and get some sleep. We would look at our images in the long mirror behind the counter above the cases and shelves of varieties of yeast and sugar and recount the truths and tall tales of our experiences with the world of girls we'd just finished courting and sparking on that particular night. Most evenings it would take hours for every fable or story to get itself told.
Upon returning from my momentary reverie these years later and getting in the car and crossing those railroad tracks, I almost can sense someone peeking through dirty blinds on a window of a familiar house as I drive up Morris Road. I feel eyes watching me as I get to the top of the hill and travel down to turn on Endicott. All the way to the bridge that crosses the river into downtown a face starts to flitter through my mind. I never have been in the habit of traveling to work this way until lately, but since all the millennials have moved into the old neighborhood and the Tasty Shoppe opened to cater to them I find myself here, dropping by almost every morning, and now it is not just the sausage and biscuits that seem to be drawing me to the Tasty Shoppe by the railroad tracks but also a flavor of something else in my mind that I know is not good for me to desire these days, a clouded memory from out of the nowhere of the past that suddenly starts festering in my head.
I have to admit it now. Back in those days I was one of those boys who had to fill a story out, feed it with lies and wild wishes and talk about it until it finally emerged as some form of the truth. The fact is I was no great shakes when it came to girls then. I was a plodder and a planner and a thinker, strategizing my moves and strategy with the opposite sex so diligently and in such a careful manner in advance that the objects of my scrutiny and efforts were often long gone and vanished from my proximity by the time I finally forced myself into some sort of romantic action with them. I'd wait until what I believed was the proper time to ask someone out for a date, and by the time I had my plan in place and the courage to pick up the phone the moment to strike would be long gone. Someone else would already be wheeling into a driveway and picking up my targeted girl to go to a movie or a party somewhere.
So the sad truth was I was a virgin. I had no sexual experience much whatsoever. The choice was to either be truthful and admit my low standing and lack of experience to my peers, or to act like I had been to war too and had resided in the clinches two or three times before myself, just like them, instead of admitting how most of my time was spent at school or washing cars or mowing lawns and driving around nights in my beat-up Falcon listening to music on the radio by myself, trying to make certain I stayed away from anywhere I might be seen where the fact might get known I was not with a girl but all by myself on another weekend night. I preferred to go missing until those late nights at the Donut Hole and then have everyone semi-believe I'd been out somewhere on the other side of town with some strange girl no one knew doing something dirty somewhere in the dark of the night. It was a world of pure fiction, but it certainly beat the hell out of the sorrowful truth. I'd sit on my stool and keep my trap shut for the most part, maybe add in a little something from my imagination just to keep pace with the rest of the boys. Saturday nights like these went on all the way up to the Christmas holidays, when, thankfully, for two glorious weeks I didn't have to see anybody on a regular basis. I was out of school and therefore free to hide in my room and watch television and not worry about how inadequate I was, except that Saturday night soon followed those stress-free days of vacation I'd spent alone, and I finally had to come out of my hideout and act like I was out there with my friends in the world finding dark fields and dead-end streets and parking in cars with wild girls. I wanted to be like them and have some abiding power in my soul and fresh memory of touch and taste and desire enveloping my senses, helping me to know I was actually walking this earth, that I was really alive like everybody else and I didn't have to worry about searching for it anymore.
A front moved into the city that holiday week and dumped a six inch blanket of snow on the streets the Sunday before school was scheduled to be back in after the new year, so with the new semester postponed for what looked like an interminable time I began wondering how long I could keep remaining in the limbo world I'd created for myself. Finally on a Saturday morning I cleaned the ice off my Falcon and inched over to Morrison Drive, which was the main road of the neighborhood, and parked at a Hi Ho restaurant to get something to eat. I ran into Mike Harper inside, and he waved at me from the table at the back. Mike and I were good friends and had been since the first of junior high. I wasn't certain of the fact, but I suspected he was a lot like me when it came to girls and escapades and all. I had the feeling he and I were in the same boat -- we were each rowing across to the distant shore of Desire against a really strong current while everybody else was cruising along on the waters with big pulsating powerful outboard motors.
"I'm glad I ran into you," he told me. "I was going to call you when I got home. I'm wondering if you'd like to go out with somebody on a blind date. I've been dating this girl, and she's got a friend she wants to double-date with us sometime."
I didn't really want to act like I was altogether free for the choosing when it came to going out with girls I didn't know, but it was, after all, a real girl Mike was steering toward me and not a figment of my imagination, so I couldn't stop myself from listening and having an odd rush of trembling excitement going on at the same time.
"I was going to see what you were doing tonight," Mike continued. "This girl's parents are out of town -- Brenda Cathey's her name -- and we could go over to her house and have some fun. From what Lynn tells me, her mom and dad drink like fishes, and there's this whole house full of wine and alcohol and stuff there for the asking."
So now I had a name, but no face to put out there for my imagination; there was this thing in me that wanted this Brenda Cathey to be some sort of magical angel brought down from the mystical heavens above just for my benefit.
"If you want we'll meet them over at her house at about seven."
It appeared to me Mike was fulfilling some part of a bargain where if he provided entertainment for his girlfriend Lynn's pal then the odds were pretty good he might get amply rewarded for his endeavors later that night. He explained to me how Lynn and Brenda didn't go to any of the public high schools around us, how they lived in our neighborhood but went across town to a private Catholic girls school. Having been brought up Methodist my entire life, this strange removed world of religious pageantry and symbolism played upon my mind some and made me all the more intrigued, for the few girls I'd ever had contact with before were all plain and vanilla and Protestant to the most boring degree.
The truth was I would have paid money to go with Mike on this adventure, but I tried to act cool like I'd done this kind of thing before and I was just being a good friend and doing him a big favor by donating my time to such a cause. I could tell he was as excited about the evening's prospects as me; several times I saw him smiling and almost expected him to break into song at any minute. I guess it wasn't that unusual for either of us to feel that way. Probably any guy in his right mind would be cheerful to the point of turning cartwheels if the chance to leave the world of boyhood behind and jump headlong into the realms of pleasure and sin and sex and excess were looming before him on the horizon, like some big exciting colorful rainbow moment with a pot of gold waiting there to change his life forever.
Later I drove to Mike's house on the slushy half-iced streets and picked him up. We crossed the railroad tracks and cruised up the slight hill to the fourth house on the right, a small brick structure with an overhang over a tiny porch with no rails. The steps were still fairly icy, so I had to do a balancing act to climb up and not go skidding off into the barren branches of the dead scraggly shrubs surrounding it. I figured how it would be just my damn luck to slip and break my neck right when I was on the verge of crossing over into the glorious territory of sin, excitement, and total degradation.
The door opened and a girl smiled at us. She was nice-looking in a way that told me she was not my date for the evening, that there was no way I was going to be that lucky, and she opened the door to let us in and looked at me as if she expected some sort of introduction.
"You must be Eddie," she said.
"That's me," I told her, like I was letting her in on a big dark secret just in case I was wrong and she was indeed the girl deemed to help me meet my fate later this night.
"I'm Lynn," she said. "Come on in and meet Brenda."
Brenda stood by a chair in a cramped living room, surrounded by an ugly brown sofa near the front window and two chairs of undeterminable age and a fireplace that may or may not have been real and a mantle with cheap plaster statuettes of birds and cats spread across it. Brenda was short and skinny with sort of a pageboy hairdo. She had small brown eyes and seemed to incorporate none of the qualities I was looking for in a girl to romance and perhaps go a step or two further into outright fornication. We didn't shake hands or anything like that. We just kind of nodded at each other.
Lynn and Brenda had fashioned some form of homemade pizza back in the kitchen at the other end of the house, so the four of us marched back that way and cut slices from a pan and served them out into plates. There was a bottle of red wine on the dinette and Mike poured it into four wine glasses, and everybody stood around the dinette with their plate in front of them and a glass in their hand without sitting down. I took about one bite of the pizza and a big gulp of the sweet tasting wine and knew this wasn't the concoction that was going to get me intoxicated to the gills or lit to the degree I was looking for this night, so in a minute Mike and I were nosing through cabinets and pulling out bottles of alcohol and varieties and colors of wine, opening caps and sniffing the contents inside. I figured if I ran across something that didn't make me immediately gag then it would be my choice of alcoholic diversion for the evening. In the end I settled on vodka over ice. Brenda sipped her initial glass of wine. I guessed she either liked it or didn't have the courage to move on to anything else.
In a few minutes the radio was playing and Mike was telling a story about a fight he'd seen in the school hallway a few weeks back. After a while Brenda and I went into the living room and sat on a sofa that was altogether over the hill once you put your weight on it. I'd downed about four glasses of vodka by then and patience wasn't in my personal agenda anymore, so the next thing I knew I was kissing Brenda all over and squirming around on top of her with my hands and fingers going everywhere.
A while later in a break between our heavy as hell petting session she told me about how she had never made anything lower than an A in high school. The last time she'd made anything below that, she said, was in P.E. back in junior high when she didn't complete a couple of laps on a mile run. She said she didn't much care for sports then and still didn't. She never had liked wearing shorts and being on a team. I wasn't interested whatsoever in Brenda's clouded past and I didn't at the moment care for a whole lot of conversation. I didn't give a whit about her academic success and I was out of charming words and snippets of talk to win her over. All I wanted to do was continue my onslaught on her physical self, rub and touch and breathe in her ear as much as I could and go as far as I could with her. I was so inexperienced I couldn't tell if I was making progress or not, but I was past the point of stopping. I had to go on. There was a part of me that believed all my wishes were possibly going to come true right then and there, and how I'd be a fool and a coward if I stopped.
We kissed and panted and breathed and rolled around on that couch for what had to be a couple of hours. I don't know where Mike and Lynn were during all that time, but I was grateful for their prolonged absence, since I was determined my sorry status was going to be changed that very evening, no matter how long it took me to do it. We took restroom breaks and delved out moments to drink more vodka or wine and retain that high that was helping me to be brave and bold and hopefully persuade Brenda to grow weary of resisting. I look back on that night now and realize I was the most determined about achieving something then than I have ever been about anything else in my whole damn life, before or since. I wonder now what I might have accomplished in my time on earth had I possessed as much zeal for my goals as I did that night.
Finally the time came when everything going on between us began to take shape. There we were in that living room on that dilapidated sofa with a radio playing off in the kitchen and our clothes on the floor, and somehow even with all the planning and hoopla and foreplay preceding it here something big came and it nearly frightened me to death. Brenda breathed so fast and moaned so deeply I almost became unnerved and stopped. But stopping was not in me by then. It was like I had no choice but to go on.
There was that moment when I shook like a leaf and knew somewhere in my mind I had finally crossed over to the land I'd been seeking. The lights were out and I lay there thinking about it. In the quiet of the room I could hear Brenda breathing, and on the sofa we were so close together I could feel her heartbeat. I wondered if I was supposed to feel any happier than I was at the moment, or if this was like a lot of things I was learning about then, how when something came and got up close to you it wasn't quite what you had originally made it out to be. In a minute I moved away from her and started to inch about the living room in the dark. I didn't know whether to turn the lamp on or not. I couldn't tell where my clothes were around the room, finally locating everything save for one shoe. I felt around for it with my toe, straining my eyes and waiting to get accustomed to the darkness. I didn't want to turn on a light for anything.
"Can you see?"
"I'm just looking for my shoe. I didn't want to blind us right off the bat."
She didn't say anything. I could see her shadow there on the couch, but her face and features were invisible to me. I thought there was something I ought to say, some stream of words that would smooth over what had just happened between us, but I couldn't summon anything witty enough to verbalize it. I found I was more than happy to say nothing for the moment. Then I heard a laugh down the hallway from Mike.
"Do you care if I come in?"
"Sure. Come on."
I flicked on the light and sat in a chair with everything but one shoe on. I saw Mike look over at Brenda wrapped up in a blanket, and a part of me cringed some, while another part was happy my reputation was secure for eternity. I saw my missing shoe under the coffee table, and I leaned down to retrieve it. I slipped it on and got up, pointing toward the kitchen.
"Come on," I told him. "Let's get something more to drink."
I didn't really want any more vodka and the red wine in the bottle looked sweet and sticky. I drank a glass of water instead. Mike and I stood there smiling at each other. I guess in a way we were telepathically communicating to each other, rehearsing our victory speeches we would give at the Donut Hole later on.
In a minute I went back into the living room. I felt like it was a requirement or something, a payment I had to make.
"Was that the first time you ever did that?" Brenda asked. Her voice was thin and tinny.
"No," I lied. "It wasn't the first."
She looked at me like I was far more interesting than what I'd previously believed myself to be. It was like she was making up her mind about something. Then she smiled in such a strange way that I couldn't decide if I was confused or nervous, and she laughed and ran her finger through her stringy hair.
"I'm glad we found each other," she said.
I didn't know much what to say back. I was glad I'd found her too, I supposed, but I didn't know if we were both thinking about it in the same way or not.
"I'm going to have to get home," I said. "It's late, and the roads are getting icy."
After being treated like crap for what seemed like my entire lifetime I guess I should have been grateful and happy to have someone of the opposite sex take a liking to me, but that wasn't the case. There was a part of me that somewhat resented Brenda's affections and interest that followed that night, but because I'd been successful that first time I went ahead and saw her again the following weekend. I instantly regretted this decision as soon as I got around her, but in my mind I made it entirely her fault at the way I was starting to regard her.
She hadn't helped matters a damn bit when she'd told me dreamily, "I don't think I've ever been happier in my life than I have this past week. I just didn't think it was possible."
Still, though, I was wise enough to not mess up a good thing by being too honest right from the start. Over a matter of days I'd lost my virginity and somehow or another risen a few rungs on the red-blooded American male ladder as far as mating and all -- I was glad not to be cowering down there at the base with all the other unfulfilled little boys -- but I didn't care much for the idea that I was stuck with a girl who was not particularly pretty and shared none of my interests and insights about what was happening in the world that we might possibly hold a conversation about. The truth soon rose to the surface in my head -- Brenda Cathey was not good enough for me. It seemed I was getting stuck with second-hand goods when it all came down to it.
"I'm glad all the snow has melted," I'd told her. "All that ice makes it tough to get around."
I changed the subject as fast as I could. I didn't feel like talking about how much I'd missed her over the course of six days.
This was a Friday night. The weather had warmed up over the last few days and a lot of thawing had occurred. We had gone back to school for three days, and I always came home in the afternoons to an empty house and played music in my room, lying there on my bed and thinking about a lot of nothing. I figured I was required to call Brenda on the phone once a day as payment for the weekend before, but it was like once I got on the phone with her it was difficult to hang up. She would talk and talk about her private Catholic school, about nuns and classes and the uniforms all the girls had to wear, like I really wanted to know about it. She told me how her father was going to buy her a car for her birthday but how that was still two months off and she had no idea what kind of car it would be. She asked me if I was going to get a job the coming summer and if I was going to go to college anywhere around close, and I listened and told her what I thought she wanted to hear so she wouldn't ask any more questions and I could hang up.
Nobody's parents were out of town that weekend, so we went to a movie downtown. It was some kind of motorcycle movie with guys in leather jackets and girls wearing bikinis, but I can't remember the title. We bought soft drinks at a Dairy Dip later and then found a vacant lot and climbed in the Falcon's backseat. This was the third date we'd had, and this was the third time we engaged in the dirty deed. It was like there was a pattern.
"Every time we do this," she whispered, "I feel like I've died and gone to heaven."
This was about as much as I could stand without having to go off somewhere and cough up a hairball, but by the time the guys all met up later at the Donut Hole I couldn't help but feel my status soaring. I was as good as the next fellow, I thought. I could sit and make jokes all night with the best of them.
"I'm trying to remember the last time I was horny," I told everyone proudly, sitting there grinning and sipping my coffee.
After a few weeks Brenda wanted me to go to church with her, but I told her I'd feel funny in a Catholic church looking at priests and watching people eat communion wafers. I'd laugh and tell her how we didn't do such things at my church. We were too busy handling snakes and speaking in tongues.
She thought I was just about the funniest guy who'd ever walked the face of the earth.
"What do you really think of Brenda?" Mike asked me at school one day. "Lynn keeps wanting me to see if you really like her or not." He looked at me like he hated to be the one having to pump me for information, but I could tell he'd been talked into it. Lynn, I guess, was beginning to get worried about what was going on between her best friend and this boy she didn't know much about. "She's sort of crazy about you, and Lynn's afraid you're going to duck out on her sooner or later."
I didn't really answer him, wary as I was of telling him the truth and having him go back and spill the beans to Lynn. I did say I liked Brenda just fine and had no intention of dumping her. He acted like this was all he needed to know to quell Lynn's fears and didn't press me further, and I didn't bother telling him that I would stick with Brenda until we stopped having sex or until somebody prettier and smarter came along. Such a choice had never happened with me before, but I was experienced now, I was in the running, I believed, to be the little red rooster in the barnyard, so I wasn't going to limit myself to the first girl who had come along. I had some catching up to do.
Someone threw a birthday party and I debated whether to go by myself or take Brenda. Finally I asked her to go and we showed up on a Saturday night at a house with music and cake and a big den with lights turned low and a patio where couples danced and went out around to the back of the house to make out. I stayed inside and ate cookies for a few minutes, then took hold of Brenda's elbow and herded her toward the Falcon. We didn't dance even one time and we never went back behind the house. I didn't like people seeing us together. I didn't like seeing other girls I wanted to be with and not being able to do anything about it.
Brenda didn't say anything until we came to the stop sign at the end of the street. She turned in the seat and faced me.
"We sure didn't stay very long," she said. "Leaving this fast, I wonder why we even bothered to go at all." She looked at me for a moment and then turned back and stared out the windshield. "I think sometimes you'd almost rather not go anywhere with me."
She stated this rather matter-of-factly, like anyone with eyes could see such a thing. I could have argued the point with her and tried to look a little like she was being too harsh in her judgment, but I didn't bother. I was getting tired of acting like I was something I wasn't.
"I'm just not too wild about parties is what it is," I told her.
I drove on down the road like I was used to being misunderstood, like I was accustomed to being blamed for things I was innocent of. I could feel her eyes on me, as if she was trying to decipher an equation that had no answer.
"I don't like parties much either," she said gently. "I don't really enjoy being around big crowds of people."
"We could go to the drive-in," I said. "It's not that late."
When we parked and I got the speaker mounted in the window she seemed okay again. I wondered if she was still upset about leaving the party early, but here in the privacy of the Falcon everything felt better. I didn't feel like I had to give her another song and dance.
"You sure do like these old monster movies," she said. King Kong was stomping around knocking over buildings, looking all over Tokyo for Godzilla somewhere.
"I like romance."
Somehow this amused her.
"Yes, you're romantic all right. You're more worried about getting a bag of popcorn than holding my hand out here in the dark."
At that moment I wondered if I was going to be able to make it through the rest of the night without having waves of discontent and boredom sweep me out to sea, but she was okay after that. She laughed and we made out some and she let me do pretty much whatever I wanted to.
"I think I'm falling in love with you," she told me while Godzilla was breathing fire on a battalion of soldiers.
I didn't make any comment, but just kept my lips pressed against her ears and neck and lips in a clever way of keeping quiet in some variation of a sexual Miranda Act where I didn't incriminate myself. Somehow this aggressive continuing foreplay procedure worked out, in the sense that I never had the occasion to have to explain myself because I was too busy with my hands and body to speak. How could she possibly believe I had no deep feelings toward her when I spent so much time attempting to be intimate? I began to see that if I kept her busy being hot and bothered she wouldn't have the opportunity to doubt me, and later when I was past the point of having any urges toward her I could simply lie and say I had to go off and work with my dad somewhere, I had to be at some family function, I had to do something, and then I could stay in my room and watch TV or maybe go off in the Falcon by myself. I was sure she'd always believe me. I thought it was quite a clever plan.
We went on like this all the way to April, but by Easter and Spring Break at school I got to the point where I couldn't play the game anymore. In my mind I was certain I could do better than Brenda. I started thinking how maybe I could put her on a back burner somewhere. I didn't want to throw her away completely because I wasn't totally certain I could make an upwardly mobile sexual move with anybody, but I thought it was worth a shot and I should at least give it a try.
"I'm going to start working some weekends," I told her. "I know a guy whose dad owns a curb market, and I'm going to be doing some stocking and stuff. I need to make a little money before I start school next year."
Of course it was a lie. I knew no such fellow and there was no such curb market. But I had to come up with something mysterious to disappear into, some shady locale Brenda would never know how to find and check up on me. I had to hand it to myself. I never before thought I was so smart.
"Don't work all the time," she told me. "I'll miss you too much." I guess she had finally got to the point where she couldn't help but believe me.
"I won't," I promised.
At the time I had my eyes on a girl at school. She wasn't a cheerleader or one of the best-looking girls around, but she was one of those late-bloomer types who kept getting better in all aspects coming down the stretch of the school year. She was blossoming more every day and I couldn't keep my eyes off her. I got it into my head that I needed to strike while the opportunity was there in front of me.
She was a Linda from a few streets over from my house. She lived in a house by the park, and I got to where I would cruise by her house in the afternoons and early evenings just to see if I might catch her taking a walk or out in the yard or something. That tactic didn't work, so I was finally forced to swallow my fear and say something to her in the hallway after an Algebra class. I actually was successful in getting her to go out with me a few times, but she lost interest soon and started dating somebody else. I suffered for a while and then moved on to other prospects, but it was like once I began to center my emotions on some other girl I real soon seemed to find myself on the receiving end of rejection. I went through several cases of getting snubbed and dropped and then having to go through a period of feeling sorry for myself, of sensing how unfair the ways of the world were, but during all of that angst there was still Brenda on my string, off in her parochial school dumb to my many unsuccessful dalliances with each and every new girl of my dreams. I somehow stayed with her all that summer until the fall came and it was time to go off to school. Like so many of my friends, I decided to go two hundred miles east to the University of Tennessee and drink and screw myself through four years of Business Administration. I didn't bother to make it official and tell Brenda goodbye, but just stopped calling her and cut off contact just like that, because I was headed to a place where girls were hanging from trees for the picking, a place where I was sure I'd finally find the one who'd make my life into some magical thing. There were plenty of candidates out there for the choosing, and the one thing certain in my mind was I for certain didn't need plain mousy Brenda Cathey around for anything anymore.
After a month or so she sent me a note in the mail.
"What did I do to make you not love me anymore?" she wrote.
My four years in Knoxville passed in a blur. Somehow or another I managed to acquire a degree and get my quota of drinking and drugging and wild nights with girls in at the same time, and I came back home and got a job with the city downtown, checking out building permit applications and accepting or rejecting potential clients. It wasn't particularly taxing and the pay and benefits were above average, so I was content to settle down and stick around for the years that followed. I never talked to Brenda even once after that, but just heard her name mentioned every blue moon by Mike in beery conversations or such moments. Mike and I had remained best friends and shared season ticket seats together at the Tennessee football and basketball games. Mike worked for the city too, but eventually had to take early retirement when the doctors found a spot on his lung and aggressive treatment had to start.
Things got worse, and finally I knew Mike wasn't going to make it, a suspicion that got conferred when they finally moved him out of the hospital after a couple of surgeries into a rehab center that doubled as a hospice. I made myself go and see him as much as I could stand; sometimes he was okay and acted like his old self, laughing and telling stories from the past, but sometimes he would nod off and sleep and I'd be left sitting there. I always tried to make my visits when I thought no one would be there -- I didn't want to talk to his grown kids or be around if Lynn, who was now Mike's ex-wife, came to visit. I really wanted to stay in neutral about most everything, and I'd learned I could do that best by myself.
After three weeks Mike's condition grew worse. During our last conversation he gripped my hand and told me the doctor had given him a week to live. He looked up at me and shook his head and told me he didn't think it was going to take that long.
He fell asleep then. I sat in a chair at the foot of his bed and looked up at the television on the wall. Some endless soccer game was going on with the sound muted, foreign guys running up and down the field with the score tied at zero. Junk food and cans of soda lined the counter beside me. Dr. Pepper. It had always been Mike's favorite. His kids kept bringing it to him because they knew they couldn't do anything else.
"Can you hear me, Mike?" I finally asked, just, I guess, to break the silence in that awful room. It was so quiet I could hear my watch ticking.
Something incomprehensible escaped his lips. I didn't think he was giving me an answer, but more that he was off somewhere in the last of his moments, in some world or arena he and I had never visited together, and he was by himself now and was letting me know it.
"I'm going to go now, buddy," I told him.
I walked down the hallway to the door. At the front desk a young woman talked on a phone and scanned a computer screen for the answer to some caller's question. She was not pretty; she was too thin and almost wiry in a sad defensive way. There was something about her that looked like she was waiting for something good to finally happen to her, but she was getting tired of holding her breath so long and wishing and hoping it would occur when there was something inside her that knew it wouldn't. Maybe visiting Mike and all his old stories was making me think of the past more than usual those days, but all at once I looked her way and thought of Brenda. In a way she looked like Brenda. It was the first time Brenda had crossed my mind in god knows when.
I stepped on the mat and the electric door opened. I walked out to my car under a scorching sun and drove down the road with this strange sense of wanting to be distracted by something other than what was foremost on my mind, so I changed channels on the radio every minute, lowered the window to allow the hot August wind inside to change the temperature and my cool cold disposition about the life I was living and the death going on around me, the coming demise of Mike, the sudden realization that the disappearance of a girl named Brenda had happened a while back and I had not even noticed it. It was another one of those things in my life that had not mattered, and I didn't like thinking about it much.
"Yes," I had told her more than once, "I love you. Of course I do. Do you really think I would have stuck around this long if I didn't?"
"Sometimes I don't know what to think."
"That's always been your problem. You think too much. You always talk yourself into imagining the worst."
"I just have a hard time believing you love me."
"That's just you. You always think something bad is going to happen."
These days I remember those conversations with Brenda. I remember how I had lied about almost everything simply to keep her available until it was time to move on to my real life out on the horizon, that life where one of those dreamboats who lived in my head wouldn't reject me and make me feel lesser and inferior and not a true member of a class that ruled and stayed in charge of the gathered world around them. I think of my two failed marriages and how in the end it had been me who was the one left behind and spurned for someone better, somebody richer with more personality and charm, some guy who possessed a lot more of everything than me without even trying, without ever having to pray to God like I had for a smidgen's taste of it. I recall how angry I'd been for the longest, how lonely, how out there in the world I was and am now with only my job and a billfold of season tickets and no partner to go to ball games with ever again. I think about how I have certainly kept myself busy from thinking about any of this stuff for a long time.
That particular afternoon I'd wondered if Mike would make it through the night and if I ought to turn the car around and go back and be there with him until the end. I wondered if I had been a shithead of a friend to him down through the years, a shithead like I had once been to a dreary insignificant girl named Brenda Cathey. I was afraid to know the answer. I wondered if there was any way Brenda might show up at Mike's funeral. What would I say? How could I face her? And I knew immediately what I would do. I would stay on one side of the room, pretending I didn't see her, acting like I didn't know her from Adam. I wasn't too happy with the truth of that thought right then. When I got home I made a cup of tea and sat down at the breakfast bar, switching on the television to see if there was a movie or a sporting event to distract me. There was Dr. Phil. There was Dr. Oz. There was some judge in a courtroom telling a guy how sorry he was. I picked up the remote and turned the set off.
"All this time," I said to that silent room, "I thought it was me who the world kept treating like shit."
No. Maybe the fact is I have never given that much thought to how there is someone in the world other than me who was on the short end of the stick. Maybe all along I've had it in my head how sooner or later my number was going to come up and it was going to be my turn at last, and that it didn't matter what I'd said or believed or felt all along about anyone sharing the planet with me. Perhaps I've believed it was only all about me all the time and nothing or no one anywhere meant anything besides that.
And it comes to me how in a few more years when I retire I will have two ex-wives who have left me behind and Mike will still be dead and I simply won't feel like going to ball games at all anymore, and how maybe somewhere in this city there is a woman who once lived in a house by the old railroad tracks who had perhaps loved me in a time long past, and how something inside me is always going to know that she is gone from my world forever.