Ralph Bland is the author of eleven novels and two collections of short stories. He is a graduate of Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee, and lives with his wife and spoiled dogs on the outskirts of Music City, USA (Nashville, Tennessee).
There’s an old saying everybody’s heard a thousand times—always the bridesmaid, never the bride. It’s like it’s a mantra, like it gets said so much about some poor girl who never gets anything nice and never ends up on the winning side of anything or finds herself in the winners’ circle as far as matrimony is concerned, that now, whenever anybody hears it said, it’s like it goes over their head and there’s just not much empathy whatsoever for that poor girl who’s been left all by herself on the sidelines. It’s like it’s one of those facts of life that happen all the time and a cliché and there’s no need in dwelling on it that much, because that’s just the way the cookie crumbles sometimes, that’s the way it is in the cold cruel world, that’s the way it’s been forever and the way it’s always going to be. There’s no use worrying about it, because it’s one of those things nobody can change. I suppose after hearing this maxim said so many times over the years and knowing at the same time the people who were saying it were generally talking about me that after a while the whole idea took hold of me like a birthmark in my head and I became convinced I was surely going to be by myself and on my own for the rest of my life and was simply going to have to learn to live with it, the thought of which made me consider turning into someone Sappho-like and to go through the remainder of my days like some sort of Butch figure or same-sex person, but I couldn’t imagine myself in that mode or wearing neutral gender clothes or even making the attempt to transform myself into some sort of Joan Baez swing-both-ways AC/DC sort of gal. No, I couldn’t stand that idea at all, because, frankly, I never could stand that soprano voice Joan had and I didn’t like women that much even to sit around and chew the fat with, and I wasn’t the least bit socially conscious and didn’t much have one diddly care about the fate of the human race whatsoever. So, with all that in mind, I decided to just go out on my own and do my thing and never worry about things too much, and maybe something out of the blue would possibly come my way and change my life. Go ahead, I thought. Surprise me. Humor me just this once. It’s hard to pinpoint it exactly, but to the best of my memory it started happening around the fourth grade, although I suppose it could have been earlier, since most of my early years were spent in a kind of shock, coming as I was from the womb to my family and learning right from the beginning that I wasn’t really a part of them whatsoever, that I had to have been left on their doorstep for them to claim, because it was plain as day to me that my parents and my sisters and my brother and me weren’t of the same ilk in any way. My parents both noticed it, but my dad was the first one to bring it up. “Why did you pitch such a fit when your mother wanted to get you a new dress for Easter?” he asked. “Both your sisters got one, and your brother got a new sport coat to wear to church this Sunday. They were happy about getting new clothes, but your mother said you acted like somebody was trying to pull one of your teeth out or something.” “I didn’t like the colors,” I told him. “Pink makes me look like a sissy and white makes me look like a ghost.” “How does a pink dress make you look like a sissy?” he asked. “You’re a girl, Connie. The last time I looked in the encyclopedia girls aren’t ever classified as sissies.” “I’m not really a girl,” I said. I saw him looking at me like I was from outer space. “I think I might be something else.” Just exactly what, I hadn’t figured out yet. “You’re a girl,” Daddy said.
My first real rejection occurred in the fifth grade, when I convinced myself I was required to be in love with Randall Harper exactly the way every other girl in Miss Washington’s class was. Randall was the tallest boy in the room and had strawberry-blond hair like he was the forerunner of all things Robert Redford. He made good grades and always gave the best book reports when he stood in front of the class and gave his recitation. Every now and then he would look up from reading his report and smile. I don’t know if he knew what he was doing or not, but it sure worked. My feeling about Randall had a base of confidence behind it. Unlike all the other girls, I went to the same church he did. His mother and my mother were in the same Sunday School class. Add that to the equation that my dad and Randall’s father both worked at the water company together, and I thought I perhaps had the inside track to Randall ahead of the other girls. I wasn’t of the age yet where I’d learned boys liked girls better if they didn’t know much about them. It was like a variation of the old adage that familiarity breeds contempt. So, when mention of the Sweetheart Banquet at the church came up, there was some irrational part of me that actually believed Randall was going to do the right thing and ask me to go with him. I guess I might as well have believed Rudolph Valentino was going to come back from the dead and ask me to go with him instead, since that would have been no more far-fetched than me sitting by the telephone for two weeks waiting for it to ring, and then finally convincing myself that Randall was waiting to see me at church so he could ask me in person. I wore my newest, best dress to church that Sunday before the banquet. I can still remember putting it on and walking into Sunday School that morning. We didn’t go to that big of a church back then, so there was just one class for the girls to attend, and if you were a boy and not in high school yet there was just one class for you too. The young peoples’ classes were all held down in the basement of the Education Building, where there were four classrooms, two on each side, and a big meeting space in the middle where everybody had to gather before going to their classroom. I remember the Sunday School Director, Mrs. French—who was also the church’s piano player—had a son named Hubert, who always had to stay locked in a room by himself. It was hard to tell about Hubert French, how old he was or what was going on in his mind at any time, because Hubert was totally retarded—afflicted, my mother used to say through pursed lips—and he stalked around like Frankenstein with his arms and hands all scrunched up like he had ingrown claws. I knew he couldn’t talk or make words like any other person, but what he did do was every thirty seconds or so stop on a dime and then moan for a while before raising the roof with an unnerving shriek mixed inside a howl. Unless you were about a mile away you couldn’t keep from hearing Hubert loud and clear. Mrs. French, since she didn’t teach a class of her own but just presided over everybody from nine to ten on Sunday mornings like she was Eva Perone or something, let Hubert roam around free and unhoused during the Sunday School hour, and I spent a lot of time sitting in my chair acting like I was listening to the weekly lesson when I was actually looking through the little square window on the door trying to see what Hubert was up to out there. I wasn’t the only one. The entire class sat there looking out that window and grinning at each other every time Hubert stopped in his tracks and raised his voice to high heaven. After all, it was such a noise that it couldn’t possibly be ignored, though all the women and men in the church did their best to act like there was nothing emanating from Hubert’s mouth that could possibly keep anybody from studying the Holy Scripture or worshipping with all their faculties in utter concentration, but we were girls ages nine through twelve, and you can bet we heard it loud and clear. We were supposed to act like we were deaf to it and didn’t hear the commotion going on outside our door, but we heard it all right. The big trick was to listen to it without coming down with a bad case of the giggles. But it was hard to concentrate on being prim and pretty on those mornings and getting right with God, what with Hubert carrying on so much you couldn’t think about anything else. It didn’t get any better after Sunday School let out. Mrs. French would dismiss everyone and we would all troop up the stairs on our way to morning service, but nobody ever had much of a chance for conversation because that was the time when Mrs. French had to lock Hubert up in one of the classrooms while she went to the auditorium to play the piano for the morning service. This was when Hubert really cut loose and went ballistic, when he got left behind by his mother in the nursery room with just him and a bunch of foam rubber toys and plastic furniture. He’d yell and stalk and stomp around and pick up whatever was in his path and throw it at the windows over his head, where a lot of the time we would sneak back as a group before and after worship and watch him pitching his fits and gaze through the glass enthralled at the monster present in our midst. Church wasn’t exactly the most inspirational place for affairs of the heart to be conducted, and even though I had high hopes of getting asked to the Sweetheart Banquet on that particular Sunday morning, with my best dress on and my hair all brushed and fixed up the way I liked to wear it, still Randall never came near to ask me to go with him. He didn’t even sit close enough to beg my pardon or give me the time of day. He stayed way off in the back with a bunch of other boys. I waited around all that afternoon and night for the telephone to ring. It never did. Later that week, in the middle of recess up on the playground I found out that Randall had asked Teresa Dunn to go with him to the banquet. Teresa was my best friend at the time, and she gushed out the news for me to share in her joy. She didn’t know how I’d had my hopes fixed on Randall all along. I never told anybody anything personal like that and still don’t. I always felt like doing so was dangerous, like I was providing ammunition that could later end up being used against me, so I kept everything to myself to stay safe, then and now. I also didn’t say so at the time, but from that moment on I crossed Teresa Dunn off my list. She would have to find a new best friend from then on.
“I don’t think it would hurt you one little bit to take a few days off from work,” Valerie told me. “Go with us and we’ll have a lot of fun. There’s just no telling how much trouble we can get into in four days.” Valerie was my latest best friend. We’d shared a dorm room at Murray State for two years, and still, these four years after graduation, made it a habit to meet once a month for lunch. Sometimes we’d even take in a movie together. It was about all I could stand to do much in those post-college days besides eat. I love going to the movies. I never have to be myself there. “We always go to this one motel that’s a little way up from town,” Valerie was saying. “That way we can get our three rooms down at the end where we’re all together. The way it works is we hit the beach all day and work on our tans and look at everybody around us, then we head into town for dinner and party the rest of the night. There are lots of places to go and there’s always tons of guys hanging out. You can pretty well have your pick of them. So, Connie, what do you say? Are you coming with us or not? You’ll be sorry if you don’t. You’ll be missing out on the time of your life.” “The time of my life has already come and gone,” I told her. “In case you don’t remember, I turned twenty-six my last birthday. That means my golden girlhood is officially over. Whatever glorious things that were supposed to come my way are in the way back past, if they ever showed up to begin with. If they did, I don’t remember them. What I’m thinking is the entire rigmarole was all so inconsequential and overrated I must have blinked and missed the whole parade when it marched by.” “That’s just it,” Valerie said. “You always close your eyes what’s going on and never see anything.”
“I don’t understand why one minute it’s okay for us to spend the night together and do anything we want for an entire weekend,” John said, “and then twenty-four hours later we’re supposed to act like we’re still in the courtship process and we haven’t gotten around yet to touching each other.” John was what you might call my steady boyfriend at the time, although I suppose if you substituted the word only in place of steady you’d have our relationship classified more succinctly. Both of us worked at the same insurance company together, he and I and about seventy others, everyone sitting at desks inside cubicles taking information for claims and enrolling people for car insurance. John’s cubicle was next to mine. We’d begun talking to each other about a month after he’d been hired, and after a while we started going out together, on the weekends at first, then eventually a couple of more nights during the week. It wasn’t like it was a hot romance or anything like that. I was my usual plain self and he was certainly not Johnny Depp. He was no dreamboat, but I went out with him anyway, mainly because he was the only guy in quite a while who’d bothered to ask me. I don’t know what kind of mental state I’d allowed myself to fall into by the time I started messing around with John Ambrose, but I had to be pretty low in spirits and self-esteem to choose him as an option. That first time we even went to bed together was after we went to a Rolling Stones concert out in the middle of a football stadium. It was October and unseasonably cold that night, and we sat way up in the end zone bleachers about ten miles from the stage with a brisk north wind blowing in our faces for the entire Stones set and the warmup act and all the preliminary waiting which we spent watching about a thousand people set up the stage and the lights and the sound system. We were also about an hour and a half early for all of it, because John was afraid we might miss something if we weren’t the first people to arrive. Like I mentioned, John was a real winner, and there I was with him, so it kind of made me feel like I wasn’t much better, like maybe the two of us were meant for each other or something. It was so cold that John kept drinking from some yucky concoction of vodka—I think it was peach—certainly not anything anybody had ever heard of, but more some kind of leftover liquid that had been bottled up out at the airport after all the jetliners had been gassed for the day and this was what was left over. It was horrible stuff and I wouldn’t touch it for a while after I took in the first whiff when John removed the cap, because I didn’t feel like barfing all over myself right then up in the top of the end zone and having it freeze all over me from the wind, then have to sit there for eternity seeing some far-off figure who might be Mick Jagger sing “Jumping Jack Flash.” But after a while I got so cold I chugged a bunch of it down anyway. When we finally got back to my apartment that night it was way past midnight and I was wondering if certain parts of my body were ever going to be any color other than blue. I was so sleepy and intoxicated I was in bed and almost asleep before I realized John hadn’t left and in his drunken state was crawling in there with me. That was when I realized I’d been wrong in not drinking even more of the hideous vodka at the concert. I could have had been totally oblivious of where I was and what was happening in my bedroom. The good thing about my year and a half relationship with John Ambrose was that I never got pregnant. It wasn’t that I was so smart and knew how to handle birth control so much, but more the fact that John was so bad and inept in bed that he couldn’t have aided in making a baby for all the money in the world, because no woman who still counted herself as being alive would have ever let him get close enough for long enough of a time for whatever sperm he might have had to contribute to get close enough to someone’s uterus to make a match. And yet there I was with him, desperate for companionship and stark naked in bed most weekend nights of that time. I was lucky my sentence didn’t go any longer than that. It could have been life. On the night I finally told John how I thought it was best we not see each other anymore—I made up this big story about my old sweetheart moving back to town and how we’d decided to give it another go—he actually hung his head and acted like his world was coming to an end. How was I to know that in a week’s time he’d be dating another girl at work and in three months after that they’d get married and both quit at the agency to take another job? Funny how things like that work.
Valerie finally did talk me into going to Destin with the rest of the girls. I didn’t want to do it, but I knew I’d never hear the end of it unless I did. Besides, I was at a point where I was starting to get restless. It was a strange kind of feeling, and I was having a hard time with it. It was like I wanted to do something crazy while at the same time I just wanted to be by myself and be left alone. One minute I wanted a lot of noise, then I wanted silence. I wasn’t a lot of fun to hang around with acting schizoid all the time, so I knew if I was going to take a vacation trip with a bunch of yahoo fun-loving girls I would have to snap out of my mood-swings pretty fast. It was about a seven-hour trip to Destin. There were five of us going, and between that number of girls and all the baggage everyone would have to carry to get through five days away from their closets we decided to borrow Leigh Barret’s dad’s van. That way we could all go in one vehicle and we wouldn’t be split up on the trip down and run the risk of somebody getting lost. This was a long time before cellphones with built-in GPS, and besides, we were all so crazy and just altogether dipsy-doodle that the chances were good we wouldn’t have known how to use such contrivances anyway. Destin was a lot different from what I remembered it being when I was a kid, when I went with a group of about forty Baptist teenagers on a three-day retreat, where we all stayed in this cheesy motel and congregated on a scraggly beach to swim during the afternoon after studying the Book of Romans all morning, eating pizza at the motel party room, and then going down to the beach again at night to sing songs about Jesus and rededicate our lives a couple of times before heading back home. Destin was a lot bigger by this time. There were restaurants and bars and live music playing down on the piers, and nobody was getting observed all the time the way those counselors used to watch us kids back then on the church outings. Nobody was watching us at all. We were legal and could do anything we wanted. Everybody went wild, except for me, of course. I might have been twenty-six years old by then, but with the way I felt about the world and everything, I might as well have still been fourteen. I was scared of just about everything, getting knocked up, getting arrested, having all my possessions stolen—you name it. I had somehow imagined so many unpleasant things that were out there in the world that were probably going to happen to me any minute in the future that I found myself absolutely frozen in my tracks when it came to engaging with the world in any kind of social manner. So it was that for the first three nights we were there in Destin I found myself reading a mystery novel on a porch looking out at the Gulf while all my friends were down on the beach drinking Tequila and dancing and doing their best to get themselves laid. I sat there by myself with a bottle of Coke Zero reading one of Sue Grafton’s alphabet books, telling myself I was just trying to get accustomed to where I was and how I’d join everyone and start having some fun later, but here I was on the third night and there were only two nights left until we had to go back home, and I could easily see myself sitting right here those remaining nights too. Sue Grafton had plenty more novels, and I was only on the letter G. I was just about to give it up and go inside and watch TV with a bag of microwave popcorn when I saw this guy walking up the beach smoking a joint just as pretty as you please. I guess in my prim and proper role as moral monitor of our group I should have been appalled that very moment at the sight of seeing some pagan sort of fellow trooping through my range of vision and personal space engaging in illegal drug activity like it was his God-given right, but at that precise moment in time I was feeling so disgusted at my own status in the world that I simply couldn’t summon up the inertia to look down my nose at anybody else. I just watched him as he walked along getting closer to where I was sitting, and that was when I heard him singing between tokes, after he’d taken in some smoke and held it in his lungs and exhaled it out. He’d sing a snatch of a verse or two in between. After a couple of stanzas I recognized the song. He was singing “The Girl from Ipanema.” He had a nice voice. I didn’t know if I was imagining it or not. He glanced over my way and saw me sitting there. It was dark and there wasn’t but one small light on the porch burning so I could read, but he made me out just fine. He didn’t act startled or anything, not like he was afraid someone might spot him smoking a joint or being high and walking along the sand singing songs to himself, not like there was anything to worry about at all. He just looked my way and smiled and raised his hand in greeting, and I didn’t know much else to do but wave back, and the next thing I knew he was walking over my way. “You just sitting out here all by yourself?” he asked. “I thought I was the only human being around for miles and miles. I thought everybody else in the world was over there.” He motioned with the hand that was holding the burning joint toward where he considered the world and all the action that was going on besides where he was standing and I was sitting. It didn’t seem to occur to him one way or another if I was sitting on the porch because I wanted to be alone or that it just might be that I was one of those persons on the planet who did not much care for any kind of exhilarate, liquid or lit or administered in a swallowed, sniffed, or ingested sort of way, and did not want to be in any way in more of an altered state than I was in already. No, he wasn’t thinking about any lines of correct social behavior at all; he just kept coming closer and closer with his smile and the burning joint that he offered over the porch railing to me. Which, before I had the chance to think about it, I took. This wasn’t the first time I’d smoked pot in my life. I’m pretty sure I’d done such a thing two or three times before, but this night was the first time I ever achieved the results that all good weed aficionados were always striving for. I took the cylinder from him and drew the smoke deep into my lungs, and when it got way down there I held it in like I was waiting on my birthday to come around, and then I blew it out and had a coughing fit. Not much smoke escaped out into the night air, and I knew the preponderance of it was now cascading throughout my anatomy, and that for a goodly time from there forward I would be psychotic and unhinged and perpetually unbalanced. Nice toke, he said. He was grinning. Just like that, out of the blue, in exactly the manner in which he’d materialized before me out of the Gulf night, he began to talk to me. It was like we were continuing a conversation we’d started a while back, like we’d known each other a while and now was the logical time and place to start our discussion back up again. “This place is okay for a while,” he told me, “but after a couple of days it’s like a been there, done that kind of thing. Do you follow me? It’s like I’ve been thinking all day that about one more twenty-four hour period is going to be my limit. I was even considering getting up early tomorrow morning and having breakfast and hitting the road back to Athens. That’s Athens, Tennessee, by the way, not Greece. Then I remembered I didn’t drive down here—I came with two other guys—but no matter, I’d get back somehow.” He smiled at me. “Even without a car, I get anywhere I want to with no trouble at all.” I guess with the help of two or three more tokes off the offered joint I got to where I halfway understood what he was talking about, even if he did have the darndest way of saying things, because before I knew it I was enjoying myself and not dreading being there on the beach and wishing I was dead anymore. I noticed how this guy who’d appeared before me like he’d walked out of the ocean had evolved into a cute stranger I’d never in my life thought would make my acquaintance with his sparkly eyes that were probably brown but were certainly dancing, and all at once I wanted to get out of my chair and close my book and take off walking with him. I didn’t want to go find a big crowd of people and join them or anything like that; I just wanted to amble down the Destin sands with this guy out of nowhere and laugh the night away. I think it was the first time in my life I ever did anything without thinking it over for a year or two beforehand. “I have to confess this is not exactly an accident,” he told me, “walking up the beach and finding you sitting by yourself reading your book.” He finished off what was left of the joint to where it was burning his fingers, then flipped it extravagantly away into the waves. “I saw you when I went by the past two nights, and I started thinking you might be like me and be a creature of habit and you’d be out here again tonight.” He looked at me and grinned. “Bingo,” he said. “I was right. First time for everything, if you know what I mean.” “You mean you’re never right? I asked. “You’re always wrong?” “Hardly ever right,” he amended. “Maybe I’m right every blue moon or so. Once a year at best. I guess even a blind dog doesn’t bite his own tail some of the time when he’s after a rabbit.” “I don’t think that’s exactly the saying. You’ve got it mixed up and turned around.” “The whole world’s mixed up. I’m just trying to fit in some way.” We walked along in the dark and talked about the mixed-up world. I realized pretty fast I’d met someone who was possibly more ill at ease about life than I was. I hadn’t thought such a thing was possible. “I could be back there on the pier partying down with my buddies,” he told me. “The thing is I don’t want to. I don’t like to be around a lot of people if I can help it. I don’t even like to be around my friends that much. People always seem like they do their best to keep me from having fun. I’m always too worried about what creepy thing they’re fixing to do the next minute that’s probably going to make me barf.” He sounded like me talking. I was immediately enthralled. I guess the only explanation was I was in love with myself and this stranger beside me was about as close to a manifestation of my own essence as I was going to find. Something like that. I was smiling at him and trying to be seductive, even if I wasn’t certain he could see me very good out there in the dark. I started flirting. In a crazy way I wanted him to take me right there on the beach, like I was Deborah Kerr and he was Burt Lancaster in that old movie “From Here to Eternity.” I wanted the waves to wash over us and sand to be clinging to our bodies and for neither one of us to care one little bit. Well, you know what? I got what I wanted. Maybe not quite like the movie, but good enough for a start. ***** I got home, and it wasn’t long at all before Jimmy Mills—that was his name, which I finally got around to learning later that night—I discovered didn’t live so far away as Athens as I thought. It turned out he had an apartment in town that was only a half hour or so from my apartment, and he commuted to work every day at his job at Holloway Furniture, where he sold sofas and beds and recliner chairs at this huge warehouse on the other side of town. We ended up being together for two days in Destin doing the dirty deed each night, and I’d figured, with the way things worked for me, that we’d never see each other again afterwards, but the first night I got back home, after a day of work and coming home to eat a pot pie, my telephone rang and it was him. He was still at work and hadn’t left yet. He was, he said, as a matter of fact, still on the clock. It was one of two nights a week that he had to stay until closing time at nine. I told him I didn’t think I’d like any job where I had to work at night. “I don’t mind it too much,” he said. “I don’t have to fool with the rush hour in the mornings or afternoons. The only bad thing about it is when I have to be back in to open the next morning after working that night. I don’t get much sleep because I’m generally wired when I get home. It always takes me a while to wind down.” So we got into the habit of Jimmy coming by to see me on those two nights a week he worked. After a few weeks it seemed stupid for him to drive back to his place only to get right back up and drive back in the next morning, so starting with those two nights he began staying the night with me. It took maybe another couple of weeks and he hardly drove back home at all but to get fresh clothes. Soon he started bringing his clothes by, then his cat, and by the time Halloween rolled around we were pretty much living together. His cat was named Jacques. Jacques was the last item Jimmy brought with him when we made it official we were living in sin, when it first took root in our minds. When Jimmy arrived with Jacques in a travel crate and a box full of toys and a water dish and a bag of Meow Mix and a bevy of cat treats, all I had to do was look in the crate and see Jacques peering out at me and I knew the move was officially done. I never have really been a cat person. All my life I’d been raised with a string of Chihuahuas, little yappy creatures who were mostly around for my parents’ sake, to beg food or sit in their laps or pose for pictures for that year’s Christmas card instead of their real kids. Some of my friends had cats I would see from time to time when I would visit, but other than that I hadn’t been around them much. To make a long story short, Jacques the cat didn’t like me at all, right from the beginning, and it didn’t take long for me to not like him either. It started with Jacques just seemingly having an instantaneous inclination to go to war with me. I couldn’t lay in bed in the mornings without him seeking out a part of my body beneath the covers and digging his claws in hard enough to draw blood. I couldn’t walk through the apartment without him springing out from behind some piece of furniture and wrapping his body around my ankle, getting tighter like a boa constrictor and using his hind legs to kick at my skin like he was trying to start up some reluctant Harley Davidson that had been sitting in a garage neglected for years. Whenever I cooked, he had this menacing habit of climbing up on the top of the door and balance there and watch my every move during the meal preparation. Most times a low growl came from his throat, guttural and audible enough so only I could hear it, letting me know all his animosity was strictly for me. I grew to where I despised that damn cat. Jacques made his big mistake on a Saturday afternoon when I was home and Jimmy was working, the week before Thanksgiving. For the month he’d been here, Jacques had from the beginning made a practice out of every single time the front door got opened to make a beeline for the opening and try to escape out into the hallway. It was like Jimmy and I both had to be on constant guard cracking the door and blocking the opening while we were stepping through it and then closing it quickly before Jacques could rocket over from wherever he might be hiding and scurry through to the hallway as his first step toward gaining everlasting freedom. On this particular Saturday morning I was getting ready to leave for the grocery store to do some Thanksgiving shopping. I wasn’t really going to do much cooking at all, since I was having Thanksgiving dinner at my parents’ and all I was responsible for was making some banana pudding. It was still kind of up in the air whether Jimmy was going to come with me to eat, because neither him or me was really ready yet to make our relationship known and out in the open. His parents lived in Athens, so they were far enough we could keep some distance from them a while, but my parents were just thirty minutes away and it was harder to keep things from them. My parents were nosy as hell is what it was. They were forever calling or dropping by unannounced, so it wasn’t like we were going to be able to keep our relationship a secret forever. On that morning, with all these holiday predicaments running through my head, maybe I wasn’t so diligent in my everyday routine. I had my list and my cloth bags in my hand and was thinking about whether I needed to get gas while I was out, when the absolute second I opened the door to go, Jacques, like he was shot out of a cannon or something, tore across the floor and ran out the door before I could stop him. I watched him skitter down the hall about fifteen feet and then stop and turn around and look at me like he was trying to decide if I was going to be dumb enough to try and catch him. I already knew what he had in mind—he was going to let me walk over and pick him up so he could then wrap his legs around my arms and dig in and draw blood and maybe even reach up and take a hunk out of my face and leave a nice scar for me to remember him by. Well, I wasn’t about to let that happen. “Now you’re out, you little bastard,” I told him. “It’s the answer to all your prayers. Now what are you going to do? Now you’ve got to worry about how you’re going to get back in, because it’s not going to be that easy.” I locked the door and walked by him on my way to the stairs. He didn’t run when I got near him, but just sat there and watched as I passed. He had a funny look on his face. I think he expected me to pick him up and take him back to the apartment. I walked down the stairs to my car. I was halfway hoping I’d seen the last of the little demon. I was all the way out in the lot and inside the car and backing out of my slot when I knew I had to stop and go back and save Jacques from himself. I couldn’t bear the thought of him lost and wandering around the apartment so close to the holiday with most everybody gone out of town and no one around to take him in. I think this was the final straw in the foundation of my personal makeup in those days. It was like everything I did was one big pattern that never deviated from form. If someone treated me kindly, if I went to a place where I felt comfortable and enjoyed myself, well, that was when the alarms went off in my head and I’d have to take off for another part of the world. It was like if I didn’t feel good about where I was or who I was around then that meant everything was normal and I didn’t have to worry about something coming at me out of the blue and freaking me out. I guess rescuing Jacques the monster cat with his scratches and his hisses and his unprovoked attacks was a perfectly rational course of action for me. Jacques or Jimmy. I hadn’t decided by then who was the craziest, who was likely the most dangerous in the long run. I walked back upstairs and Jacques was sitting against a wall, licking his paws like he was waiting for me and knew all along I’d be back. I opened the door and he strolled back inside, like his whole experiment was now completed and it was time for a nap. I walked back to the car with the dual feelings of being glad I’d gone back and saved him balanced with being ticked-off at myself because I’d let a damn cat play me like I was one of his toys he only fiddled with now and then to relieve the tedium. The whole time I was shopping, pushing my cart up and down the aisles among the holiday throng with their crying children and their unwillingness to get out of my way so I could grab the few things on my list, and the holiday music that was already playing over the store speakers, I thought about Jimmy Mills and Jacques the cat and how I was smack-dab in the middle of a chapter in my life I never dreamed would come to be.
But it wasn’t like I was unhappy and bewildered all the time. It was more like my emotions were now on some kind of elevator, going up to the top floor of elation and contented joy, and then taking the downward trip to some form of seething anger, frustration, misery, and finally to the basement floor of unexplained despair. I wasn’t used to fluctuations. I guess what bugged me the most was the fact that I’d never really been overjoyed at any time in my life, and so when I finally arrived at a plateau where I was supposed to feel that way it was such an unmitigated mystery that I became upset and frightened when I decided such a state wasn’t going to be anything constant and eternal. I was of the opinion that the smile on my face and the song in my heart was supposed to last forever, but there was another part of me that knew it wouldn’t. And I blamed Jimmy and his appearance in my life for the majority of that present uncertainty. The really stupid thing about the whole deal was that most of the bitterness and hostility I was harboring only got played out between Jacques and me. Most of the time Jimmy wasn’t even present during my black moods and blue times and didn’t know there was a war going on. He’d come in after one of his shifts and begin instantly receiving snippy replies to his cheerful conversation or a good dose of the silent treatment I directed his way, and I guess if I’d been adamant enough to refuse his sexual advances our relationship would have been over with faster than it had started, and I guess I couldn’t have blamed him either. No, it really wasn’t Jimmy’s fault there was strife in the air. It was emanating from me, with a lot of assistance from that damn evil Jacques. I could have complained or bitched about it if I wanted everything out in the open, pitched a little fit and stomped my foot and said either the cat or both of you have to go, but I knew how crazy Jimmy was over Jacques and I was afraid that, if it came down to it, in the end he would choose Jacques over me. Anyway, I just felt like all my grievances against Jacques would come across as the railings of an unbalanced jealous woman, and Jimmy would wonder how he ever came to be embroiled with some girl who was in dire competition with a cat. And it wasn’t like I could prove any of my case against Jacques either, because Jacques never acted like the spawn from Hell when Jimmy was around. When Jimmy was there Jacques was as gentle and loving as any domestic pet could ever aspire to be. It was on those evenings when Jimmy worked the late shift at the furniture outlet, when I’d get home from work and fix something to eat and relax until he got home, that Jacques would invariably unleash his attacks. I would even go out of my way being nice to him in an effort to win over his affection, little stuff like dropping food on the kitchen floor or talking to him in a gentle voice, but none of it ever did any good. He’d just gobble up the food like he had it coming to him all along, and at the sound of my voice he’d show scarcely any emotion at all other than to stare at me like I was violating his own personal space. It was generally when I sat down on the sofa to watch television that the trouble would begin. Jacques had genius as far as knowing when to begin waging war. He would curl up in a ball over on the other side of the room, on a chair or under a table and sit there motionless with his eyes closed. After a few minutes of this I was always convinced in some irrational corner of my mind that he was sleeping in that zombie-like manner cats like doing, so I would relax with my magazine and my television program, and the next thing I knew I’d be dozing off, all contented and cozy, away from the demands of the day and perfectly happy. That was when Jacques would spring into action. Sometimes he was stealthy and sometimes he wasn’t. He liked mixing his tactics up to keep me off-balance. One time he’d let me completely nod off or get totally engrossed in my magazine or television program, then he’d leap out of nowhere and land on my head or my shoulder or my arm or my thigh, any place where he could sink his claws into and make me scream in shock and pain, do his damage and then dash away before I could swat him with my hand or whatever weapon I could find to defend myself. Other times he switched his strategy and came at me full-force all at once, no surprise element whatsoever, just an all-out attack brought about without any forethought or planning. The best that I could garner from such behavior was that this possessed spawn of the Devil had an immediate desire to draw blood, and he looked upon me as his primary donor. But most of the time he preferred the surprise element, and after a while I took my own steps to counteract it. Once I’d fallen victim three or four times, I decided it was time for a counter-attack of my own. I taught myself to do different things that would change the chemistry of our encounters. I began by feigning sleep while sitting with my reading materials on the sofa. I closed my eyes and as an added enticement allowed my head to drop down to my chest as if deep slumber had overtaken me. Peeking out from closed eyes, I could see Jacques drawing nearer and positioning himself for another Pearl Harbor attack, but I was ready this time. I knew what he wanted to do and had learned when and how to foil his plan. I armed myself with a sofa cushion and a flyswatter. The flyswatter I kept hidden beneath the pillow, which I set down beside my hip and the sofa arm out of sight. Then I began breathing gently and in a rhythmic manner, as if I was sleeping. I closed my eyes and waited. It took almost five minutes, but soon I sensed Jacques’ approach. His paw wasn’t touching me, but I knew it was right there close to my exposed wrist, poised and ready to slash away any moment. Somehow or another this act of aggression had become so ingrained within my psyche that I knew when Jacques was about to pounce and spring better than he did himself. He’d just become airborne when I suddenly raised the sofa pillow and caught him in mid-flight. The pillow smashed against the side of his body and carried him with its force and momentum onto the back of the armchair beside me, where I pinned him, smushing his head and body against the arm with the protection of the pillow. I held him captive there, writhing and struggling, and pulled out the flyswatter I’d hidden away. I swatted his carcass a good six or seven times before I let him go. I wore his evil, conniving butt out. When he finally got loose he ran under the kitchenette table and peered out at me. I could tell he really wanted to hiss and growl at me for what I’d done to him, to issue a threat as to what would happen if I ever tried such a thing again, but I could see the uneasiness in him about everything concerning me now and how he was hesitant to try even the least little thing. I didn’t think I was going to have any more trouble out of him, but by this time I didn’t want to give him the chance. I walked over and opened the door. In about two seconds Jacques was by me and out into the hallway, and I closed the door behind him. I wasn’t going after him this time. It was fine by me if I never saw him again.
Jimmy took the news of Jacques’ departure better than I thought he would. I thought I’d have to concoct some wild story about how Jacques had managed to get out and run off, maybe do my best Bette Davis imitation and act like the grief of Jacques’ absence from our lives was threatening to eat me alive, but I didn’t have to. When Jimmy got home from work that night Jacques was nowhere to be seen, and he was fine with my explanation of why his cat was on the lam and how I’d done everything in my power to find him after his escape. Jimmy just smiled and said how that was just the way things went sometimes. “Sometimes things happen for a reason,” he surmised. “It could be old Jacques has an appointment with destiny he has to keep, and maybe when his fate is all aligned with the stars he’ll come back again.” I had mixed feelings of being surprised but not too surprised when Jimmy said that. It wasn’t in the way he said it, because that was just the way he had of wording things, kind of an out there in a dreamy, mystical manner about most anything going on in the world, but it was the different road he was taking with the disappearance of Jacques, who was one of the few things in the world Jimmy valued much. There was Jacques, and there was his obsession with the NBA Utah Jazz (although we lived in the South, three thousand miles away, so I never could figure out where that attraction came from), there was Jimmy’s love for anything Dr. Seuss ever wrote, and also his abiding interest in Jim Morrison and the Doors. He whistled “People Are Strange” and hummed “Light My Fire” or something like that all the time. It was almost creepy. Very little else of what went on in the world sparked much interest in Jimmy’s realm or point of view, being of not much significance at all, and I spent a lot of time wondering which classification I happened to fit into. He had no friends from high school and he never talked about his college days, other than to say he had dropped out after two years because he didn’t want to waste his parents’ money on a lot of crap not worth knowing in the long run. He’d taken up selling furniture as a vocation, and before that he’d worked a few years at one of those quick oil change places, where he’d motion folks in their cars to move forward or go right or left and stop, check their bright and dim lights and turn signals to make sure they were working, and then try to get them to add on some other part or service while their oil got changed. He said he liked being around automobiles and such but that he’d quit after two years because he got tired of bilking people out of their hard-earned money and at the same time how his boss was always griping about how Jimmy needed to pressure the customers more so they’d spend money on stuff they didn’t need. “It wasn’t that I was tender-hearted or anything,” he told me. “It was just depressing to see how stupid people could be, how they’d just hand over money because somebody told them they needed to.” At least in the furniture selling business Jimmy didn’t have to be quite so aggressive. The good thing about selling a sofa, he said, was you always know exactly what someone wants when they walk in the door. You don’t have to figure it out. They just walk right over and sit down testing one out, and then you don’t have to guess what they’re thinking. So, for some unknown reason Jimmy didn’t grieve or waste a lot of time conjecturing on Jacques disappearing. For a day or two the subject didn’t come up, and I almost believed the matter was all said and done. Then two nights later after a dinner of takeout from Taco Bell, Jimmy put on his jacket and grabbed his keys and said he’d be right back. He was already out the door before I had the chance to ask him where he was going. He was gone for more than three hours. He’d left his phone on the kitchen bar, so I couldn’t call and ask him what in god’s name he was doing for so long. He finally returned around bedtime. He took off his jacket and said he couldn’t find Jacques. He’d been searching for him all that time and he’d gone everywhere he thought Jacques might be. “I had a dream about him last night,” he said. “It was like God came to me in a vision and told me where he was. Connie, I’ve never had God speak to me in a dream before, or at least not that I remember, so I took great stock in what information I was getting. I did exactly what I was told to do and went right to where God said Jacques would be, but he wasn’t there, so none of what I’d dreamed was true. In three hours of looking high and low I saw exactly one cat, and that one was orange and not black like Jacques and ran off before I could get near it. Everything I got told in my dream didn’t happen, which brings me to the conclusion that God is dead or at least doesn’t know anywhere near as much as I always thought he did.” As far as Jimmy was concerned, he told me, the mystery of Jacques’ disappearance was going to go unsolved. He had done all he could humanely do in the matter. He was giving it up, he said. I wondered if I was an unnamed suspicious character in the puzzle, the culprit in the whodunit going on inside his head, but Jimmy never mentioned it again. It was like whatever he’d done or wherever he’d gone that night during his search for Jacques had closed the door on any more of his efforts, and from then on Jacques would have to be somebody else’s problem. I was beginning to learn more about Jimmy Mills every day. I realized he was not like other people in the slightest. When Jimmy was done with a thing he was done. He didn’t harbor second thoughts or wallow around in the past looking for answers or try to change what had already become history. What was done was done, and not even God could do anything to change it.
***** All this time I was experiencing increasing highs and lows and new ways of looking and thinking about the things going on in my life, most of them having to do with my funny, up and down feelings about Jimmy. It hadn’t been that long since we met and started seeing each other and Jimmy moving in with me, but I kept ruminating about how my life had evolved from being something quiet and humdrum all the time to suddenly spinning around with Jimmy and his whereabouts and his philosophy. What was his schedule each day? Did he want to eat at home or go out somewhere? Was he bored or did he find his lifestyle entertaining and fulfilling? Did he truly like me, were there romantic sparks going on within him, or was he merely going through the motions in our relationship because he’d finally found a warm body he could sleep with every night and eat her cooking and not be required to reciprocate in any way? It was like I had no ready answers for anything, much less know what I was truly feeling myself about all that was happening around me. Then it got to where, at least once a week, Jimmy suddenly started wanting to drive twenty-five miles out of town and eat in this Bavarian beer hall-type place that was off by itself in a strip mall that was mostly deserted with buildings where the businesses had failed at some point in the past, rental furniture and quick loan places and tattoo parlors. Where Jimmy ever heard about it or came across this place—which was named Hugo’s—I don’t know, but it must have been about the only entertainment venue in the community, because every single time we went the place was packed. There was a bar and a dance floor, a stage where six members of a band played Oom-Pa music and drunk people got up to do the Chicken Dance, and an upstairs and a downstairs filled with tables that were never empty. I spent a lot of time watching the band and trying to ignore the weirdness that went on around me, because frankly, the clientele of the place scared the living daylights out of me. There were rough characters everywhere you looked, and I’d bet a lot of money most of them were armed and on drugs and guilty of a whole lot of other stuff I didn’t want to know about. At first I couldn’t figure out the attraction. Jimmy wasn’t a big drinker, most of the time preferring to roll a joint of an evening and zone out listening to The Doors or watching the Jazz if they were on television, and he wasn’t the type to want to go out in public among boisterous crowds with fights going on and imbibe until the cows came home. But whatever, the night would come around when he’d say he felt like some brats and fried potatoes and a few schooners, and so off we’d go to Hugo’s. He’d drive and get there and drink a lot of beer to float his brats and potatoes, he said, in his stomach, then disappear off and mingle with unsavory people and go outside in the lot with them, come back happy and drink some more until I’d drive back while he sang “Light My Fire” and various snatches of The Doors’ Greatest Hits at the top of his lungs until he fell asleep. Then he’d go for a long while, after one of our trips to Hugo’s, and he wouldn’t mention the place even once or show any inclination of ever wanting to go again. That was Jimmy’s way, up and down and in and out and over and out, never the same pattern. That was the way his entire life worked. Just when you thought you had him figured out, when you thought you knew what he was going to do or say, that was when you found out that everything you thought you knew about him and how you had him categorized was down a blind alley and you’d made a wrong turn and it was totally different from the way you’d had him figured. You’d have to stop on a dime and change the way you thought of him, and then when you thought you had him nailed down this time for sure, he’d go and become that chameleon portion of himself and change on you again. That was when you discovered it was best not to try and predict anything Jimmy Mills might do. You just had to wait and see who he was that moment and what was coming this time around and then go from there.
It hadn’t been but a little over four months’ time when Jimmy had first met me on the beach at Destin. Summer was gone by now and the days and nights had passed while we got to know each other and started living together, and one morning when I woke up it was the day before Thanksgiving, just like that. I thought about how the holidays were here, starting with dinner with my folks tomorrow and dinner on Friday at Jimmy’s parents in Athens, where I’d meet them and his two sisters and their families for the first time, and how by the time the four-day weekend ended the Christmas holidays would be in full swing. This would be the first time in my life I had ever had a boyfriend at Christmas time. I’d always spent the holidays on my own, perhaps with my family or friends some of the time, but in the end by myself, in my room at home or after I’d moved out in my apartment with a bowl of popcorn watching some stupid old movie on television. I can’t say that was a bad thing, because I always enjoyed myself during those times, being alone and watching Edmund Gwynn or Jimmy Stewart go through their Christmas poses, crying along with Claudette Colbert when she opened her present from her husband who was missing and presumed dead in the War and who she thought was gone from her forever while “Together” played on the music box in her hands. I didn’t mind getting maudlin and sentimental those times, having a glass of wine and giving myself over to feeling sorry for my own existence and shedding a few tears, because it seemed like after I finished up sobbing and went to bed all by my lonesome I’d wake up the next day feeling a whole lot better, probably because I knew things couldn’t get worse than they’d been already. But now with Jimmy my life had changed, and I didn’t think it was possible to go back to my old existence ever again. That was the past, and this was the present. What changed everything was that Jimmy was a part of my life now. He was in the moment and present in every scene I saw myself in and the one person in the world who seemed to know what I was thinking and what I was fixing to do. I couldn’t imagine any further solitary evenings for me—holidays or not—and so I started to settle in with the idea that the grownup portion of my life was now in full-swing. It was pretty scary, this being suddenly happy, to tell you the truth.
It was twenty miles to my parents’ house in Lebanon, so it wasn’t like we had to spend all day traveling to get there. I wanted to leave around mid-morning, ten or so, so that way I could be around to help get dinner ready a little, although my two aunts and my sisters would be there already, bringing dishes of their own and puttering around in the kitchen the way they always did, so save for me bringing banana pudding and a couple of bags of rolls there wouldn’t be much more for me to do other than get in everyone’s way. Jimmy got up from eating breakfast just as the Macy’s Parade started and said he had one quick thing he had to take care of before we left. He said he’d be right back and was out the door before I had the chance to ask what could possibly be so important that somebody had to run out on Thanksgiving morning and get it done. He was gone for an hour and a half. I called him a couple of times to see when he was coming back but he didn’t answer. I was right on the verge of getting upset and bent out of shape because he was going to make us late when he came in the door whistling “Sleigh Ride”—like he was happy as the day was long. I couldn’t understand why in the world he ought to be so cheerful that moment, since what was staring him in the face was a visit to my parents’ for Thanksgiving dinner with a bunch of my relatives he’d never met before, which was in the same league as what I was going to have to do Friday when we traveled to Athens, which I was dreading to no end because it was so unknown and mysterious, so it wasn’t computing in my head how I could be so nervous on my end and he could be so happy and carefree on his. “Where have you been?” I asked him. “I was worried you’d chickened out and weren’t going to come back.” I was trying to act like there was no big deal going on. I didn’t want to let on how I was a person who could get perturbed and tied up in knots over a whole lot of nothing. “A dude at work needed to borrow my truck to move some stuff today. I went over to his place so we could swap vehicles. He’s got the truck and I’ve got his Mercedes.” “Somebody at your store drives a Mercedes?” “Yeah. It’s a good deal for me, don’t you think? It’s one nice car. We can drive it to your parents for a kick. For one thing, it’s got a hell of a stereo system. Speakers everywhere you look. I can’t wait to hear Jim Morrison on it.” “Well, you’d better be careful and not wreck it. You and me put together couldn’t afford to pay to get a Mercedes-Benz fixed.”
We left to make the drive to my parents’ house, and when we got outside there was the Mercedes-Benz sitting in the lot that we were going to take the trip in. I’ve never been in such a car in all my life. I certainly hadn’t been in anything quite so nice. I was used to hatchbacks and economy cars and vehicles designed to get you around using hardly any fuel whatsoever, contraptions that ended up making you pay the price of not spending your money on gasoline by delving it out on expensive repairs instead. My driving experience had always been a case of knock-on wood for luck—I had to search for something wooden to knock on because all my cars had always been composed of cloth and plastic and flimsy metal that was supposed to be durable but never quite made it to that level because it all ended up disintegrating first. It wasn’t that way with Jimmy’s borrowed Mercedes. I got in the passenger seat and it was like I’d entered into a world I’d never dreamed existed. The seats were cream-colored and genuine leather. I didn’t know exactly what kind of leather, but I couldn’t stop this Fernando Lamas voice in my head that kept describing it as “rich” and “Corinthian.” The dashboard was authentic wood (mahogany?) and there were several shiny silver vents for the air and heat to come gushing out at about twelve speeds at your convenience. The seats were large and comfortable with an adjustable headrest that drew my head back on it like a magnet. I could see icons galore on the dash—Phone, Music, Maps, Audiobooks, GPS, Podcasts—all sorts of pleasures and luxuries I never knew existed in an automobile up to that moment. “This car will run you about a hundred grand,” Jimmy said. “It wouldn’t surprise me if it was more than that.” “If somebody can afford a car like this,” I said, “you have to wonder why they’re working in retail.” “Well, a person can’t just drive around all the time. Sometimes you have to come to work to keep from getting bored.” “I believe if I had the choice to make on my own, I’d pick being bored. There’s not as much stress as there is hanging out in an expensive automobile and worrying all the time if some nut is going to run into you.”
Everybody was already there when we arrived. It was a nice fall day, there were cars parked in the yard and the driveway, and the whole group, my sisters and their husbands and their kids, were all out in the front yard throwing a frisbee back and forth. I waved when we got out and everyone waved back, looking, of course, at the car that transported me here. We weren’t that close, my family and me, but I was their sister and their aunt and their daughter, and no one had much reason to hate my guts, for as it was then I was just Aunt Connie who was for some unknown reason designated as the crazy person of the family. I sort of resented being given such a moniker, because I really hadn’t done anything in my life so far to deserve it, but I guess I was considered the crazy one because for most of my existence I’d done pretty much nothing at all to write home about. Everyone was taking in Jimmy for the first time. Until that day I don’t think I’d ever been seen by any of my family with a boy before. They especially hadn’t seen me with a fellow driving such an expensive car as the Mercedes we’d pulled up in. They may have been my nieces and nephews and brothers-in-laws and sisters and parents, but they could all tell a luxury car when they saw one.
After a while I started realizing that the only person at this Thanksgiving gathering who was suffering in abject misery was me. Everybody else was enjoying themselves immensely, or at least, if they weren’t wallowing in the pure joy of the moment, they were at least secure enough in their own skins to relax and be at peace and not go into a conniption about what others might be thinking about what stranger this was I had become involved with enough to actually bring him with me to dinner. Everyone seemed almost sane and laid-back, like there was no dynamic present anybody had to worry about or question. Even Jimmy seemed like he was cool with the situation, that he wasn’t in the least feeling like he was under a microscope getting inspected by a nosy family trying to figure out what sort of species he was to willingly be here with crazy Connie. Jimmy, as a matter of fact, appeared to be having a good time being among a group of folks who weren’t entirely certain, but probably, judging from the expensive automobile he’d arrived in, were convinced he was the head of a drug cartel and had money funneled his way illegally one way or another. But it wasn’t like anyone was going to mention it. My family has always been in awe and held a sort of reverent admiration for anyone with money and financial freedom. Veto Genovese could have been sitting there at the table that day and everyone would have gathered around him with honey in their voices and smiled for the camera when it came time to take a picture. The fact that Jimmy was employed by a cheap retail furniture outlet didn’t make a bit of difference to my mother. That he had no tattoos or visible body piercings and was not dressed in a Gothic mode, along with the shiny car parked in the driveway, made him all right in her book. That I had a male with no glaring impairments who was interested in me—and who might possibly save me from myself and an impending life of being Nutty Aunt Connie Who Never Married Because She Was Just Too Crazy For Anybody To Say I Do To—and he actually had a job and had been to college and drove a vehicle that pretty much broadcasted to the world that he was a success in all his ventures, lifted him up to an exalted position in my mother’s eyes. She made sure he had seconds of everything on the table and laughed at every word that came out of his mouth. I couldn’t bring myself to tell her he was driving someone else’s car. It seemed cruel to bust her bubble. We had the most pleasant visit I’d had with my parents and family since childhood, and on the ride home I was feeling very grateful for the experience and affectionate toward Jimmy for how he’d acted during the day, planning secretly in my mind to jump his bones when we got home. But when we pulled into the parking lot he immediately said he had to take the Mercedes back and he’d be back in a few minutes. I asked if I could go with him but he said it would be better if he went by himself, since, he told me, his friend lived in a pretty rough neighborhood and it might freak me out to go there at night. He was gone for a good two hours. I don’t know what took him so long to return the car and come back, but I made myself a cup of tea and stayed up waiting for him. I didn’t want him to think I was asleep, because I still had romantic notions on my mind. The whole time I worried about what he said about the rough neighborhood. I figured it would be just my luck and in the cards for somebody to kill him while he was returning the Mercedes, to leave me alone for the holidays once again. I don’t get that way too often about boys and sex and all, never, really, to be truthful, so I wanted to make sure I didn’t let the feeling get away without anything happening.
On Friday I had to return the favor with Jimmy and make the trip to Athens to have dinner with his family, which wasn’t so long of a trip, maybe fifty miles. I got everything we would need to carry together—more banana pudding, which seemed to be all that was ever required of me—then jumped in the shower to get ready to go, but when I got out, once again, Jimmy was nowhere to be found. I finished dressing and was about to call him and try and track him down when he came in the door with a to-go cup of coffee in his hand. We had an entire pot of coffee sitting in the kitchen, so I wondered why he’d seen it necessary to go out and get more. “Somebody else called me and wanted to borrow the truck,” he said. “I ought to start charging a fee. It seems like everybody I know is moving or having to haul something off somewhere.” This time we had a big loaded, fancy SUV to take on our excursion. I think it was a Cadillac, which is another synonymous big hunk of metal that normal people don’t own or drive around, but anyway, there it was for us to go to Athens in, and I was beginning to wonder whether the majority of Jimmy’s friends and acquaintances were members of Forbes 500 or something, judging by the vehicles they owned. I wondered, if these people had this kind of money to spend on expensive cars, why they didn’t bother to buy one of those monster pickup trucks that cost about as much as a house to move their stuff around in, or even better, just hire some company to do it for them, since money was obviously not an issue. Why not just go all-out and buy an entire moving company and be set for life? This was my first time to meet Jimmy’s parents, so I was hoping to make a good impression. I’d talked to his mother on the phone a few times, but I’d fudged out one time when they’d called wanting to see if the Facetime App on their new phone worked, because I’d just got home from work and it was raining and my hair was wet and I looked like crap and I didn’t want them seeing me like that the first time because first impressions are the strongest ones and I didn’t want them to picture me that way in their heads forever. We pulled up in the gleaming and shiny Cadillac or whatever it was in the November sunshine, and we went inside to say hello to everybody. This time we were about the first ones to arrive except for Jimmy’s grandmother on his mother’s side, and that was only because she lived there with his parents and was already there and didn’t have any other place to be coming from except a bedroom down at the other end of the house. Arriving later were Jimmy’s big brother and his little sister and their families and a set of aunts and uncles. I found it interesting that there wasn’t but one grandchild in the entire group, and he was this nine-year-old kid who had not a word to say to anybody, who was so mute and lifeless I wondered if he was like old Hubert back at church and was going to start screaming and baying at the heavens any minute. We sat down for dinner and Jimmy began talking, dominating the conversation so much that no one could manage to get a word in because of his lengthy narratives. I guess this was why the kid kept quiet all the time; he’d been around enough times to know with Jimmy around his turn was never going to come. Jimmy told long stories about incidents that had occurred at his workplace, strange customers who’d come in and nutty fellow employees, weird circumstances he’d run across lately doing one thing or another. He made no mention of Jacques and his disappearance or the line of luxury cars he was lately driving on a daily basis because of his affluent friends’ need for his truck, or, most noticeably, of me and him and our relationship and how we’d seemed to find one another. It was like anything that was real and actually transpiring in his life couldn’t be articulated. I finally figured it out after a while and it made good sense. I came to understand that Jimmy was doing with his family exactly what I’d been doing with mine for the longest time. He was telling them what they wanted to hear. He was filling in all the available gaps talking about anything but the truth, because the truth was the last thing he figured his family or anybody else in the world would ever want to hear about him. At that moment I thought I’d begun to understand him at last. Halfway through dinner I began to get a second inkling about Jimmy and his rambunctious chattiness, and I realized he was continuing to monopolize the dinner talk so much so that no one in his family had time to speak or turn their attention toward me. At first I’d thought all his blabber-mouthing was maybe to keep me quiet and not give me any opportunity to open my mouth so everyone would discover what a loser Jimmy was unfortunately hooked up with at the moment, but then I could tell, just by the way he would occasionally look my way and wink or flash a quick smile, that he was putting on this show intentionally just to hold the wild beasts at bay and keep them from getting at me. It was a nice thing he was doing. He was protecting me from the very same people that he considered his greatest enemy—his family. I realized that if I wasn’t there he would be in retreat and silent this moment, far within himself in that place where he always would go so he could be at peace and not have to come out and defend himself, just stay silent and chew his food and hide inside his personal fallout shelter. I was grateful for this sort of protection. I was beginning to believe Jimmy was a master at handling things. He didn’t take the Cadillac back to its owner that night when we got home, but just left it in the lot about a hundred yards away from the apartment. He said he’d park it off by itself so no one would scratch it opening a car door against it. By the time I woke up he’d already left for work and the Cadillac was gone. I’d been awake maybe two hours when my phone rang and I looked to see an unknown number on the screen. I started not to answer, thinking how it was probably some post-Black Friday marketing ploy to get me to buy something I’d missed out on, but something about the word that said Booking and the exchange that appeared to be local made me give in and see who it was. It was Jimmy on the other end. “I’ve got a problem,” he said. “Don’t freak out, but I’m afraid I’m in the process of being arrested.” “Arrested? What are you talking about? Is this one of your jokes? If it is, it’s not funny.” “No, this is the truth. I’ve already been booked and this is my one phone call.” “Why are you being arrested, Jimmy? Tell me the truth.” “I got in a wreck when I was driving to take the car back this morning. I tried to run away but they caught up with me.” “Why would you run away? I don’t understand. Did you do something wrong?” “I was driving a stolen car.” He let it hang in the air a moment, then he laughed a little, like it was a funny thing to think about. “I knew I’d be in a deep load of shit if they caught me. You have to understand, Connie, it’s not like I ever really stole any of these cars. I just borrowed them for a while, just to go on a little ride.” “What are you saying? These cars? Are you telling me there’s been more than one?” “There have been several. A few.” He paused again, and I could almost see him shrugging his shoulders on the other end, like this predicament he was in was just another one of those times when he’d been having some fun out in the world and the world in turn didn’t like it and decided to spoil his party. “I’ve been borrowing cars for a while now,” he admitted. “But I never kept them. I always brought them back. It’s just this little game I play sometimes. I’ve done a lot of research on how to steal a car over the years, so I like to practice. It’s like it’s a hobby of mine.” “So those cars we took to Thanksgiving dinners were both stolen?” “Borrowed.” I couldn’t believe the way this conversation was going, so finally, after promising to somehow get my hands on enough money to come down to the jail and bail him out and to also check around for a lawyer on his behalf, I hung up. For a few minutes I walked around the apartment wringing my hands and wondering what in the hell I’d gotten into, how my quiet little existence had ever managed to get embroiled in a situation like this, and then I sucked it up and went to the bank before it closed at noon and drew out my savings and started trying to make sense of this imbroglio.
I didn’t know exactly how much money it was going to take to bail out a car thief who also had an additional charge of leaving the scene of an accident tacked on too, so I drew out everything in my savings and hoped if that wasn’t enough that they’d maybe take a credit card for the rest. I didn’t know if I had to call up a bonding company and finance everything through them or what the deal was. I was stupid and thought you just paid at the desk of the jail, like you were at K-Mart or something. Even though they didn’t take all my money on the initial run I still had to sign a paper that said if Jimmy decided to jump bail that I would be the one on the hook for paying off all the balance plus fees. It ran through my mind how it might be a wise thing to let Jimmy sit in jail for a while. “It’s really just a big understanding,” he explained. “Everybody’s making a big deal out of practically nothing.” We’d just got through with posting his bail and getting his valuables and being told when the court date was, and we were standing outside the front doors of the downtown Justice Center waiting for the light to change. It was noon and the sidewalks were bare, what with it being a Saturday, no court employers or city or state workers bustling around on their lunch hours. What few people were around strolled by us with dogs on leashes, and I wondered if any of these citizens were tuned in to the foibles of human behavior enough to know that I was standing there among them with a soon-to-be hardened criminal at my side. I wondered if the people of the world would soon start regarding me as if I was Blanche Burrow, wife of Buck, consort of Bonnie and Clyde. It was like I was suddenly guilty by association. “Five thousand dollars bond,” I said aloud, probably just so I’d believe it. “That’s what it cost to get you out. Sounds pretty serious to me.” “It’s all a racket. They make you jump through a bunch of hoops just to get your money. It’s nothing but a game. If I knew anybody important this whole thing would vanish like a magic trick.” He’d already phoned in to his store and given them some kind of story about why he wouldn’t be in for his shift today, so I drove us home and tried to determine how I was going to handle the rest of the day with Jimmy the car thief underfoot. I wanted to drive him somewhere and tell him to get out of my life for a while, that I needed to think this whole thing out and maybe I’d be back to get him in a little while and maybe I wouldn’t. As it was I wasn’t the least bit prepared or receptive when in the five minutes after we got home to the apartment Jimmy began trying to touch me and started chasing after me like sex was the only salvation that was going to see him through the woes he’d lately found himself a victim of. Victim, my foot. He’d done this just for kicks all on his own without any assistance from anyone, so I wasn’t buying into any of it. “Keep your hands off me,” I told him. I think this was the first time I’d gone against him in anything before. I think he was so accustomed to me deferring and letting him have his way on everything that this action I was taking shocked him even more than getting arrested and hauled off to jail in the back of a police car. It was like me turning him away was even more traumatic. I guess because I wasn’t receptive to playing around that afternoon Jimmy decided he’d instead regale me with assorted tales of his adventures as a master car thief, like he thought it would impress me and woo me and maybe work like foreplay when I heard them. And the thing of it was, as much as I tried to ignore him and tune him out just for that reason, the more his stories started tickling my imagination. The stories came in waves and layers, and each one grew a little more interesting than the one before. “The first thing I learned to do was to always check out the car I was thinking of taking off in.” He sat at the kitchen bar with a bottle of Pepsi, leaning back on the stool like he was some big authority on the subject, a stolen car guru or something. “What you do, see, is go up and bump against the side of a car and see if an alarm goes off. If it does you just keep on walking like you didn’t have a damn thing to do with it.” He was full of all kinds of tips and illegal expertise. “Heck, one of the first things that come to you is that people mostly have their heads up their asses all the time. They don’t hear alarms going off anymore because they’re so used to it. You can stand there and break a window or jimmy a lock all day and hardly anybody will even look twice at you while you’re doing it. Of course, I never wanted to get anywhere near as blatant as to having to use force to get into a car. There’s plenty around parked and unlocked without having to resort to shit like that.” I’d been emptying the dishwasher and putting the clean dishes away. I didn’t want to stop listening to all he was saying, so I started cleaning out the refrigerator, which is something I’ve never done in my life. “There’s a lot of stuff people can do to keep their car from getting lifted, but some of it costs a lot of dough, so most of them don’t want to take the time to fool with it. They’d rather take their chances and not think about it. Some people think putting a security emblem or an insurance sticker on their windshields will scare thieves off, but after a while a guy gets to know who’s wired up and who isn’t. Anyway, there are plenty of dumbasses out in the world who leave their cars unlocked and all their valuables just laying out on the seat inviting somebody to take them. They leave their keys in the ignition and their wallets in the glove compartment and their pistols under the seat. All you have to do is stroll up and down a lot a couple of times and there one is, like a hand-wrapped package under the Christmas tree with your name on it. All you have to do is hop in and away you go.” He looked over at me and grinned. “Sometimes, though,” he said, “it’s almost too easy. One time I got so bored with everything I jumped in a car—it was a Land Rover, I remember—while the driver was twenty feet away using an ATM. That almost got too exciting, what with him calling the cops and them looking for me everywhere. I had to ditch it really quick before I even had time to take it for much of a test drive.” He studied the contents of the Pepsi in his glass, like he was looking for something lost in there. Jimmy’s court date was set for the next week. We’d managed to find a lawyer by then, what with a little more financial aid from me, which was beginning to drain me dry and which Jimmy promised to repay me as soon as this whole ordeal was all over with. I didn’t much believe him though. I had already marked it down as the price I had to pay for letting myself fall into a dicey situation with some weirdo guy all on the basis of me aspiring to be like all my friends in the world and get married or romantically involved and not be a lonesome castoff like I’d been thinking I was for the longest time, or, if I had to be truthful, all my life. What I’d done—and I knew it just as well as I knew my own reflection in the mirror—was confuse desperation with love. I’d willed myself into a crazy situation on the premise it gave me a chance at being normal. I didn’t really want to go to court with Jimmy that Tuesday morning. I didn’t feel like asking my boss for the day off so I could go downtown with my car-thief boyfriend and find out if he had to go to jail or not, if I was going to have to sit there wondering if they were going to take him into custody right on the spot or what was going to happen, but I couldn’t see any way of getting around it other than to tell Jimmy I was through with him and this mess he’d created and he was on his own. I still wasn’t sure I was up to being by myself again after having someone around to connect with for the first time in my life. Talk about being torn. I don’t know why we even bothered to hire the lawyer who represented Jimmy. The guy was nothing but a doofus. All he did was have Jimmy plead guilty and ask for a suspended sentence with a chance to eventually get the charges expunged from his record, and a court-appointed attorney could have done that just as easily and without a lot of financial cost on my part. I guess if the judge had decided Jimmy was simply this goofy guy who’d up and done something stupid one time in his life then he might have had a chance, but since the prosecution had already determined—by Jimmy’s own admission—that he’d stolen and taken joy rides in at least a dozen cases, it was determined some time in the workhouse was justifiable. Because it was his first offense, Jimmy got two months in the workhouse and twenty-four hours of community service. He would have to serve sixty percent of his sentence, which amounted to about five weeks, and he would have to report to the downtown jail in two weeks to begin serving his time. So the thing of it was that when Jimmy got out in February he would be an ex-con. Maybe they might wipe it off his record later for time served and good behavior, but in my mind he was always going to retain that classification. What I knew for certain was I hadn’t in my entire lifetime ever planned to be the squeeze of an ex-con. Other girls might find that aura of danger exciting and attractive, but not me. Count me out. I was a good girl in my own strange way, and I made up my mind from that point on I was going to stay that way.
There was a lot of silence between us from then on. Neither Jimmy or I had much to say to one another, and after a few days Jimmy drove to his parents’ house in Athens to hang out with them some before he had to report to jail. I couldn’t really tell if this meant our relationship was over or not, since he didn’t pack up anything or make any kind of formal announcement, but I really was at the point where I didn’t care, because it wasn’t a happy situation whichever way you looked at it. I was mostly interested in seeing if I could get my money back from Jimmy for the bonding and the attorney and the court costs, and it was beginning to look like none of that was going to happen. I told myself how maybe breaking off with Jimmy would be worth the money I’d lost, because in the end I’d at least be living a quiet and normal existence again, but there was still that part of me that had an inkling he was always going to be hanging out in some little corner of my mind for the days to come. Toward the end of that second week, a few days after Jimmy left, this man at the grocery store, whose job was to stock all the over-the-counter medicines at the pharmacy, aspirin and cough remedies and antacids and things like that, asked me if I’d like to go to dinner with him sometime, and I surprised myself and said yes. We decided to make it on Friday night, which was the next day. Now it wasn’t like this guy was some sort of dreamboat or was bubbling over with personality and charm—no, the fact of it was he was mainly pretty doggoned average, perhaps a little slow on the outtake, but maybe that was because he was so shy. He’d managed to screw up his courage to ask me out—he told me this later—so that meant there was at least something present in me that was attractive to other men besides those who stole cars for kicks. It appeared to me that after running across him—Mike, his name was Mike—the past couple of years whenever I shopped at his store, he’d been waiting to ask me out but had been afraid to take the first step. The possibility occurred in my head that he was a lot like me, which wouldn’t, of course, make him normal, but the chances were good we might be able to get along with each other without either of us keeling over. I didn’t think too much about it on that Friday night of our first date. By then Jimmy had been gone a couple of days and hadn’t called me, so I was beginning to get the feeling he’d decided to take the money I’d contributed on his behalf and run. My feelings were about halfway hurt by his acting that way, but the better sense part of me reminded me I’d be better off the further I got away from Jimmy Mills. It wasn’t like I considered him dangerous or scary, but it was the feeling I had that he was going to do me some sort of harm in the end, cause me a beaucoup of trouble and all. I just somehow knew there was going to be something undesirable coming my way the longer I let myself fool around with him. It was the middle of the Christmas season, so Mike and I decided that first night we’d drive down to the Opryland Hotel and look at all the lights and decorations they put up every year. We walked around outside for a while looking at the trees and shrubbery all lit up, then we went inside and strolled around through a lot of lobbies and rooms with floral and trees and animated reindeer and Santas and elves and Grinches everywhere you looked. Finally, we boarded a pontoon boat and floated around a waterway where we could view the Christmas trees on balconies and colorful wreaths and bunting on display everywhere you looked. We thought we’d take in the sights for a while and then go into one of the restaurants and have dinner. There we were floating along, not even talking or anything, just looking at the decorations and listening to the Christmas music playing over the speakers, Nat King Cole and Burl Ives and Brenda Lee singing “Rocking Around the Christmas Tree.” I was wondering how many hours it had taken to make all these displays, hang all these lights, how many people it took to do it. That was when I saw Jimmy up above on one of the walkways, leaning over a railing with a grin on his face, watching us as we passed by. I didn’t at the time know if this was a coincidence or not, Jimmy being there at the Opryland Hotel at the same time as us, or if, in fact, he was stalking me while I was out on a date with another guy, but I don’t mind saying that it really creeped me out seeing him up there. I didn’t say anything about it to Mike because I didn’t want to spoil the evening or anything, but I was ill at ease enough for it to ruin the rest of the boat ride and dinner too. When we went to the restaurant I didn’t have much of an appetite, even if I hadn’t eaten anything since noon. I knew it was bad when we finished dinner and walked outside across the big parking lot to Mike’s car. His car was gone, not there, precisely the way I thought it was going to not be there back in the far corner of my mind all along. We had to call the police and wait for them an hour to get there, then Mike had to fill out a report and find a friend of his from the store to come and give us a ride home. The whole time I kept my mouth shut about Jimmy and how I knew he was the one who’d took off in Mike’s car, and how I knew there was a good chance the car was sitting somewhere close by, and how Jimmy was probably laughing out loud that very moment about the way his special talent had taught me a thing or two about being faithful and loyal. Mike didn’t call me back after that night, probably because he was embarrassed at having his car stolen on our first date. He was that kind of guy. Like I said, he was a lot like me. I wanted to go down to the store and tell him how it hadn’t been his fault and to not worry about it so much, but it took another three weeks before I saw him again. For a little bit I’d bet he’d been hiding from me during that time, maybe seeing me come in the door and going off to the stockroom to lay low until I left. When I finally did see him again, Jimmy was already well into his sentence, but I played dumb and didn’t mention to Mike anything about what had happened to his car, even when he told me the police had found it that same night parked over at the mall. I didn’t go out with Mike during that stretch, and I didn’t hear from Jimmy for quite a while either, even when I knew his sentence was over and he was a free man again.
As much as I told myself I was better off breaking everything off with Jimmy, there were still some things that wouldn’t allow me to completely close the books on him all the way. For one, he still continued to hold some fascination for me because of the way he’d always gone about doing things, like courting me from afar on the Destin beach and knowing how I wanted to be involved with somebody even when every facet of my being was trying to convince me to be Greta Garbo for the rest of my life, like coming on to me so shy and slow there at the first and then all at once moving in with me with practically no discussion about it beforehand, and finally that mystery bad-boy side of him that was out there in his secret places meeting up with rough-looking characters in bad neighborhoods and beer joints and doing and selling drugs and stealing cars from unsuspecting folks and driving them wherever he pleased with that grin always present on his face. I guess, despite my inner protests and objections, there was a part of me that couldn’t turn my back on him, couldn’t put distance between this guy who courted a certain brand of trouble and couldn’t bring himself to join the rest of the world in being normal. I found myself falling into a waiting damsel sort of existence. As much as I struggled against it I still caught myself coming home from work and sitting with my phone all night waiting for Jimmy to call. It was stupid as all get-out, and I’d go through thousands of valid arguments trying to convince myself that this wasn’t the smartest thing in the world for me to be doing with my time, how it all needed to come to a halt very soon. It was more than way past time for me to be moving on from Jimmy Mills. Every day and night I would give myself this lecture in one form or another, I’d nod my head in agreement, and then within minutes I’d find myself right back to thinking about him again, wondering when in the world he was going to get in touch with me, when I would see him once more. Christmas came around and there was still no word from him. I had to go to Christmas dinner without him, alone again like before, and all the way to my parents’ house I pondered over what I was going to tell the family about my latest failed relationship. I knew I wasn’t about to tell them the truth, about how Jimmy was a car thief and done some time and had, I thought, now disappeared from view and his whereabouts were unknown, because that would have done nothing but fuel the fire of Crazy Aunt Connie and the foolishness that always was going on in her life one way or another. No, I knew I could get along better without donating any more evidence to everyone’s viewpoints and conceptions of the kind of failed, hopeless person I was. I ended up telling everybody that Jimmy’s company was opening up another outlet store in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and Jimmy had taken the position of manager there because it was a wonderful stepping stone for his future advancement within the ranks of the company. I chose Nova Scotia because I heard Carly Simon singing “You’re So Vain” on the drive there on some station that wasn’t still playing Christmas music, which I was listening to because I couldn’t stand to hear anything Yule-related even one more time, and Nova Scotia seemed about as good a place for Jimmy to be right then as any.
He finally came back around on New Year’s Eve. It was the middle of the afternoon when he showed up at my door, and I was lolling around the apartment trying to decide what I was going to do with myself the rest of the night, if I was going to simply sit around like a concrete block alone all night watching a bunch of inane specials on television--Dick Clark and Guy Lombardo, who were both dead and what year they were in didn’t matter anymore, and the Boston Pops with dead Arthur Fieldler and all that—or if I was going to call one of my friends and get myself invited to some sort of gathering or party or join a throng barhopping and acting like a fool on this night of nights. None of the alternatives excited me much. I debated about calling Mike down at the grocery store but didn’t want to appear desperate or anything just because it was New Year’s Eve. I had a lot of pride. Don’t ask me why. Jimmy didn’t call first but simply walked up to the door and rang the bell. Later I thought how strange it was that he hadn’t bothered to use his key simply to see if I’d maybe changed the locks while he was incarcerated, which I suppose if I had it would have been a symbolic way of saying I’d put an end to our relationship by doing so, but I hadn’t changed the locks and he didn’t check to see if I did. No, he just politely stood out in the hallway and waited for me to answer the door, which I did in a real flash. I looked through the peephole and saw him standing there and didn’t say anything or ask any questions or anything. I just opened the door and he stood there and said hi. “Hey, Connie,” he said. “I was wondering if you were home. I thought you probably had the day off because of it being New Year’s Eve. Hardly anybody works on New Year’s Eve.” It was sort of a stupid way of beginning a conversation considering the circumstances, but I guess it was better than him saying he was back from prison or he’d just finished stealing another car and why don’t the two of us go for a little ride, so I let it go. “I wondered if I was ever going to hear from you again,” I said at last. “I’ve been wanting to thank you for the unique way you had of saying merry Christmas to me, that nasty trick you pulled of making my date’s car come up missing. I knew it was you who’d done it right from the start. I even saw you in the hotel earlier in the evening.” “It was just my way of bringing you a little Christmas cheer.” I moved out of the way so he could come in, but the minute he was inside the door I came to my senses and recognized him for what he was and wanted him gone again. It was like it took being near him once more to jolt me out of my fantasy world where he was Robin Hood or Clyde Barrow or the Sundance Kid and I was Maid Marian or Bonnie Parker or Etta Place, and it came to me that what this was was simply a case of a past-his-prime little boy who couldn’t stand anything in his real life and had to do something every now and then—idolize Jim Morrison or cheer for a sports team three thousand miles away or steal a car—to free himself from the mundane world, and while he was at it to pick somebody who was just as much in the doldrums of life as he was so he could show off and strut his stuff in front of her so she might look upon him with some form of awe and be in servitude to him and his grand and classic acts forever. This wasn’t love and I knew it for certain right that moment. I was not the loser he thought I was. I was not anything what the people in my vista regarded and classified me as. I was no doe-eyed girl friend who went along with anything and everything, I wasn’t a stick in the mud spinster just because I liked staying home and reading the classics of literature and transporting myself to other worlds and different ages from the sorry scenario I inhabited each day, and I wasn’t Crazy Aunt Connie to be looked down upon and snickered at and laughed about. I didn’t need to take the first man who came along as some sort of consolation prize, even if it was quirky Jimmy Mills. It didn’t matter if he was halfway cute and not conventional in a boring way like all the other fellows in the world. The bottom line was he wasn’t the guy for me. There were lots of others out there—it had taken quite a while for me to learn to believe this—who were looking for somebody like me. I was a prime catch, damn it, and I needed to learn to accept that as a fact. After all, look at Mike. He’d noticed me without any effort on my part, and he’d been pining for me for a couple of years now. I made a pot of coffee and we talked for a while about how he’d lost his job at the furniture store and how he’d had to pick up trash along the interstate for three weeks and some of the real lowlifes he’d had to hang around with until they’d finally let him out. “I did get out three weeks early,” he told me, like I was supposed to be really proud of him and ought to be awarding him a medal or something. “I never want to go through anything like that again.” “Tell you what, buddy. You keep borrowing cars and trying out recreational drugs and you’ll be right back there again, sooner rather than later.” “Yeah, I have to remember that.” He smiled at me like he was invoking his magic spell on another one of his victims. “It’s just terrible how the world always tries to stop you when all you’re doing is trying to have a little fun.” “I wouldn’t know about that. Fun’s not something I’ve had a whole lot of for a good long while now.” A few minutes passed and he tried to kiss me and I wouldn’t let him. He acted like he was disappointed or about half-pissed, and after a few more minutes he grabbed his jacket to leave. He asked me if he could call me later and I told him no. “Well,” he said. “You might change your mind. I’ll check back just to make sure. I’ll be around.” I guess he believed I couldn’t continue to say no to him, but that just shows how he and everybody else in the blasted world didn’t really know me, because one thing I can say for me is when I say no, I mean no. He left and I immediately started feeling a whole lot better. I started thinking about the new year ahead and making some resolutions about it in my head, first and foremost putting Jimmy Mills in the rearview. I knew it would be busy at the grocery store because it was New Year’s Eve, but I decided I wanted to cook something special tonight instead of sitting around thinking about all the failure of the past year and eating a sandwich and calling that a meal, and I went shopping for the fixings. I also wanted to see if Mike might be working. Maybe he didn’t have plans for the evening yet. *****
New Year’s Eve went exactly the way I wanted it to. Mike was at the store working and came over when he got off and had dinner with me—I made lasagna, which I’m pretty good at—and we brought in the new year together. Before I knew it February had rolled around and it was Valentine’s Day. There was a big arrangement of roses sitting on my cubicle desk that Mike had sent earlier in the day, and about every woman in the office had passed by on their way to the breakroom to get coffee and oohed and ahhed and remarked how pretty they were. I knew they were probably wondering the whole time who the guy was who’d dropped so much money on me for flowers on Valentine’s Day when for the four years I’d been there no one had ever done such a thing before. I was getting a whole lot of attention out of that vase of roses, that was for sure. I felt like taking a picture of them on my phone and texting it to my mother and sisters and all the rest of my friends and acquaintances who couldn’t believe I was no longer a loser at romance. Things were going great guns with Mike by then, and I was about as happy as I ever thought of being. It was like when I went into his store on New Year’s Eve and invited him to dinner that I’d opened the portals of Heaven wide to him and he came galloping in with the idea fixed in his head that those gates were not going to stay open too very long and pretty soon they’d be closing and maybe for good, so he was determined to make his place in his own Land of Milk and Honey with me and not be cast out alone again for the rest of his life. I’d never been anyone’s savior or dream girl before, and it was a nice feeling to bask in after wearing a worthless cloak on my shoulders and being alone for so very long. I repeat, it was nice. And Mike had been the perfect embodiment of a boyfriend since that night. He was attentive and didn’t tune me out when I was talking, even if what came out of my mouth was stupid stuff about my family or what had gone on at work that day, which was usually absolutely nothing of any consequence. He was constantly busy concocting plans for things for us to do, movies we could see or restaurants to go and eat at or miniature golf courses where we could go miss putts and act like fools. He discovered how much I enjoyed acting like an idiot and was always on the lookout for some attraction or venue where that could happen. Yes, life was good at last, and I very seldom thought of Jimmy Mills anymore. I had no idea that Jimmy hadn’t completely checked out of my life just yet. I didn’t know the Fates had him scheduled for a return engagement.
Like I mentioned, Mike looked upon my emergence in his life as a gift that had to be continually cultivated. This meant that he could never get complacent about our new-found relationship and couldn’t rest easy until he’d come up with some new way to please and entertain me. There was no limit to the movies and concerts and restaurants or festivals he was constantly carting me off to, so much that sometimes I had to invent some concocted place I had to be at without him simply so I could stay at home on a night and get some rest. On St. Patrick’s Day he wanted to take me to an Irish-themed restaurant called O’Toole’s so we could eat corned beef and Irish stew and drink Guinness and Harp and listen to live music while the step dancers clogged away on a stage. I wasn’t all that crazy about going because O’Toole’s was about as traditionally Irish as a McDonald’s was Scottish, and I knew the place would be full of people showing their rear ends because it was a holiday whether it denoted anything to them or not. But I’d learned that once Mike got an idea in his head there was simply no way to make it vanish. It had to be followed through with all the way to the end. Still, I told myself, things could be a lot worse than getting inundated with Mike and his various ideas for entertainment, so I shored up my energy and went along with him like a good little girlfriend, which I had in my mind was exactly what I wanted to be these days. What I didn’t know at the time was that there was an added piece of entertainment at O’Toole’s for the St. Patrick’s Day celebration—the Wienermobile was parked in the lot, all twenty-four hot dogs tall of it, with its yellow body and a twenty-foot retractable wiener on top. There it was playing “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling” and “Too-Ra-Loo-Ra-Loo-Ra” from its jingle horn with a calliope tooting out from time to time that commercial tune about wishing one was a wiener. Of course we had to take the tour. We walked by the performing step dancers and the person in a leprechaun’s costume handing out free hot dogs and climbed a step and viewed the innards of the Wienermobile. Everything in there had a hot dog theme. I had to laugh at the ingenuity of the contraption, the dashboard shaped like a coney and the mustard and ketchup seats and a big TV with wieners dancing like the Rockettes on the screen. It was ridiculous. It was idiocy taken to the limit. I loved it. I couldn’t help but have a good time, and I decided right then and there that my life was going along just fine and dandy. We never went inside the building that night to eat. We stayed out in the lot eating free wieners and drinking Guinness and watching the dancers and listening to the Wienermobile play songs from its speaker and its horn. It was maybe the most fun night of my life. I was feeling so good about everything that when I was driving to work the next morning I was smiling and tapping my fingers on the steering wheel along to the music, which is not the way I generally act in the morning. Usually I’m despising every minute of the waking ordeal, starting with getting up with the clock radio and getting ready and eating something nutritious like a Pop Tart as I drive in. Sometimes I’m in such a foul state of mind with the likes of it that I can’t stand to hear music or the sound of a human voice until my entire being has accepted and adapted to the whole dilemma of another day of work in front of me. But this morning was different. This morning I felt composed and had a feeling of joy pervading my every movement. I wanted to be a part of the glorious world and not keep to myself away from the grand parade of life any longer. I turned up the radio and listened to several songs and savored my Pop Tart as I drove along. I wasn’t cursing the traffic under my breath or bemoaning the morning sun shining in my eyes. Somewhere in my heart I felt like my life was starting anew with every beat of my heart. The music stopped and the two disc jockeys started in with their morning chatter, talking about the events going on around town and giving away free tickets to concerts and reading the weather forecast, and then amid the happy talk they began perusing some of the morning headlines, tax increases and murders and awful stuff like that. Then they started talking about something that instantly made my ears perk up. “Now, of course, everybody in town is really buzzing about the crime of the century that happened last night. This, I’ll tell you, is one of the most bizarre stories I’ve ever run across.” “Oh, yes,” his morning partner laughed. “It will be hard to ever top this one, even if you spent years dreaming up something to try and rival it. Now, in case you’ve been in a cave and haven’t heard this story yet, I’m going to read you the official police release. And just remember, this crime the entire nation is talking about happened last night right here in the heart of our fair city.” “Drumroll, please,” she said, and then she started reading. “‘Just after midnight, the department was alerted to the Harrison Hills O’Toole’s restaurant location to investigate a stolen vehicle. A white male, possibly in his late twenties, wielding what appeared to be a firearm, entered a vehicle identified as the Wienermobile and ordered the driver and an assistant out of the vehicle from where it was parked in the O’Toole’s lot, which earlier had engaged it for a St. Patrick’s Day celebration promotion. It was then driven off in by the lone assailant. After a two-hour search the Wienermobile was spotted in a suburban neighborhood and pulled over after a chase of five minutes. The man arrested, identified as James Cameron Mills, offered no resistance and was taken into custody. No true motive was established for the incident, other than the fact Mills told officers he had only borrowed the Wienermobile for a while to go surprise his girlfriend and take her for a ride. The girlfriend has not been identified and an investigation is ongoing.”’ “Who in their right mind gets it into their head to steal the Wienermobile?” the male DJ asked. “Maybe he was hungry,” the lady said. “Or crazy. Or both.” “Probably he should have picked something that blended in a little better,” the man said. “The Wienermobile has a way of sticking out.” I turned the radio off and tried to make it into work without crashing into anybody, wondering if the cops were going to be there waiting and I was going to get arrested when I got there. Jimmy, I thought. Of course it had been that damn Jimmy. I wondered if he was trying to send me a message, or what was going through his head this time?
The media—and I mean the local and the national media combined—couldn’t get enough of the story. For a few days the theft of the Wienermobile was all the rage. The local paper followed it daily, providing their readers with court dates and the history of the culprit and a background report of Jimmy’s penchant for filching automobiles. One reporter for a national service published a story about all the dimensions of the Wienermobile and why Jimmy might have been compelled to steal such an item. There were pictures and diagrams of the Wienermobile’s features, profiles of the two crewmembers who’d been threatened with a gun during the heist--a gun which turned out to be a plastic Dirty Harry replica Jimmy bought off of eBay. I held my breath every day hoping no one stumbled across my name as being Jimmy’s former girlfriend. I certainly didn’t want to be linked or associated with any of this tomfoolery, and absolutely not be identified as the woman Jimmy Mills had gone around the bend for and attempted to make off with the Wienermobile just to impress her as a token of his affection. I got lucky. Nobody ever called requesting an interview or was camped out wanting to take my picture when I stepped outside to go to or from work, so after a week passed I allowed myself the luxury of breathing a sigh of relief. Naturally my family heard all about the incident and bombarded me on the phone to find out more about the scandal of it, which got pretty old after a couple of days. My mother even halfway insinuated that I was involved somehow in the crime, that because I’d stopped going to church a few years back I was on my way to a place in Hell for certain. I debated with myself, but I finally ended up telling Mike the whole story about Jimmy and me and the trail of stolen cars culminating in the heist of the Wienermobile. I didn’t want him to find out about it on his own and freak out or anything, like Jimmy was some crazed lunatic and was going to come gunning for him one day because he was so jealous and obsessive about our prior relationship. Mike was justifiably a tad wary and bewildered about the story, but he at least didn’t immediately take off for the hills as fast as he could go to get away from me, so I felt a little better that I’d told him. At least now there wouldn’t be many more big surprises in store. I just tried to play it cool and let the whole thing blow over. I couldn’t help but be wary, though, because I knew how Jimmy was and how he was out there somewhere on bail and there was no way of telling what he might do next. I kept expecting another surprise coming my way from him, some bizarre action or a return appearance, but nothing happened. I almost got antsy as the trial date—which I’d memorized—drew nearer. It was like a doomsday clock was ticking the moments down and there would be a big explosion coming at any time. What happened that was totally out of kilter was I got a letter in the mail with no return address on it. At first I thought it was one of those invitations to join a health club or a chain letter from the Scientologists wanting me to adopt their lifestyle and become a hundred percent devoted to their beliefs, but it wasn’t anything like that whatsoever. No, this was a handwritten letter written and signed by Mr. Jimmy Mills himself. It was dated over a week before, so I had to wonder if he’d had some misgivings about sending such a note and carried it around a while trying to decide if he should or if he shouldn’t. Dear Connie, How are you? I thought I’d drop a line and stay in touch, since I’ve got a feeling you’re probably wondering what I’ve been up to lately. I guess the answer to that is quite a lot. Quite a lot, indeed. In case you haven’t heard—maybe you’ve been up in the space shuttle or pursuing your romance with your new paramour and the stars are in your eyes and lovebirds are singing in your ears and you haven’t had time to keep up with current events—but I’ve had another little slipup with the police and the legal system is not being nearly as accommodating and tolerant of me as the last time we crossed paths, and, believe me, that initial time was bad enough without going back for seconds. I guess the consensus feeling is that I didn’t learn my lesson the first time when the book got thrown at me, and so this time around they’ve decided to really put the hammer down on my thumbs or any of my other vulnerable spots. So, in case you’re uninformed, I got in trouble for borrowing the Wienermobile on St. Patrick’s Day, which was really done all in fun and shouldn’t have been construed as criminal or an act of terrorism like everybody is making it out to be. I mean, Connie, if you really think about it, I can’t see how any judge worth his salt or any jury with an open mind could come to the conclusion that this was actually an act of automobile theft like they’re charging me with, because who in their right mind is going to steal the Wienermobile and think nobody is going to notice and that he’ll be able to get away with it? And they’ve also charged me with assault with a weapon, when the damn “weapon” is just plastic and cost me six dollars for a used one on the internet—how does that figure into the equation? It doesn’t look that good for me as my court date approaches. I had to get a court-appointed attorney this time because I don’t have the money to afford anything else, since it’s just me and my family has now disowned me. I know I still owe you for my first attorney’s fee, and believe me, once I get this stuff behind me, I’ll make it up to you. But you don’t have to worry about me bothering you again. I know when I’m not wanted, and I also know how I’ve freaked you out with some of the things I’ve done. All I can say is I didn’t mean to. You just sort of took it the wrong way. Don’t sweat it so much because it only means you’re like the rest of the world and don’t really get where I’m coming from or catch my drift. I forget sometimes that there aren’t a lot of people out there in the galaxy who have the same sense of humor that I do. Yours Sincerely, Jimmy The letter for the most part pissed me off in the way he tried to group me with the rest of the world he wasn’t a part of and was presently at war with, a bunch of shallow people who didn’t quite get his sense of humor. I didn’t appreciate it one whit, and I wanted to somehow go out and find him and let him know just what I thought about him and his sophisticated viewpoint of Planet Earth and inform him how he wasn’t nearly as elevated and high and mighty as he thought he was. Of course, I was playing into his hands, getting stirred up exactly the way I’m sure he wanted me to do, and so I fell for it hook, line, and sinker. After twenty-four more hours of thinking about it and seething over what was said I got into my car and drove an hour to Athens to his parents’ house just to see if I could find him. I had no idea what I was going to say or do, but I had to do something. When I got there, sure enough, there was Jimmy’s truck sitting in the drive behind his mother’s and father’s cars. I didn’t know whether this meant he was home or not, but after driving all the way there all my cascading anger had ebbed away. I’d at first considered ramming his truck with my car as a sign to show him I was thinking of him in the same way he’d stolen Mike’s car and the Wienermobile simply to let me know I was on his mind, but now I sat there on the street in front of the house looking at it and thinking how it was going to be sitting there all the time for his poor parents to have to look at while Jimmy was off at prison serving his term, so I figured that fact right there was bad enough for them to have to suffer through without me making the truck a crumbled wreck on top of it. In the end I put the gearshift in Drive and rolled away. I wasn’t angry or sad about any of it anymore; I was just sort of empty and had nothing more to say. Jimmy went to trial the next week and it was all over with in about a half hour. He pled guilty to a count of property theft—which was certainly better than being a repeat offender on grand theft auto—and the court dropped the assault charge and made it malicious mischief instead, both of which added up to six months in the city jail that could be reduced after half the time served. As long as Jimmy didn’t steal somebody’s car at the workhouse and try to make an escape he’d be all right. I had the feeling he’d get through all this one way or another. Now of course the local media was all over Jimmy’s day in court, and it was also followed by the national news organizations and the major television networks, Jimmy and his antics getting a whole lot of attention. I saw the evening news and watched him standing before the judge getting admonished for stealing the Wienermobile and wielding a plastic Dirty Harry 44 Magnum, while the whole time the judge and the stenographer and the two lawyers were having a hard time keeping straight faces. I all at once came to the conclusion that this story wasn’t playing out the way most crime and punishment tales do. There weren’t any moral lessons to be learned from this. This was a feel-good piece tacked on at the end of the broadcast to make the audience smile after hearing all the horrific news of the day beforehand. And just like that, Jimmy Mills was a folk hero. He was on the front page of USA Today, smiling as he was being led from the courtroom in handcuffs. Usually when you see somebody getting carted away to get locked up everybody looks grim and serious, but in this picture even the deputies and the guards are grinning along with the D.A. and the Defense Attorney and all the reporters and photographers milled around. Heck, even the court’s foreman, who was a woman, looked a little moonstruck, like she wanted to go give Jimmy her number and tell him to call her when he got out, maybe even give him a farewell kiss, just to show him she meant business. There were even some follow-up articles that came out here and there in the news, all about what Jimmy’s average day in the workhouse consisted of, his schedule, his living quarters, the menu of what the inmates ate each day, you name it. I halfway expected them to do a special segment on recreation time and if he got to shoot basketball, but word began to dwindle after a week or two more. I thought it looked like Jimmy had been granted his fifteen minutes of fame and a good measure more, and now it was all over and that was the last anybody was ever going to hear about Jimmy Mills and his plastic Magnum and the stolen Wienermobile. But I was wrong. Just in the short time Jimmy was in jail—and it turned out to be less than three months—he spent some time with a notebook and a pencil and started writing down some of his more memorable heists of vehicles other than the Wienermobile. The list turned out to be not only extensive but pretty impressive in its choices of brand names and highly entertaining in the stories surrounding the thefts, whether they were true or fictional, and the first thing he did when he was released was to call up one of the reporters who he’d befriended during his arrest and trial and get together with him to find a literary person somewhere who’d help him write a manuscript detailing the capers. After that was in the works, the ghostwriter contacted a literary agent to see if she was interested, and soon after Jimmy signed a contract with her and the book got sold to a big publishing company in New York, and word leaked out that he had a book coming out--The Wienermobile Caper: Grand Theft Auto and Other Pastimes—and that was when his phone began to ring and buzz asking him to come be a guest on every talk show anybody has ever heard of. From what I could gather, even Johnny Carson in his grave was doing his best to book Jimmy Mills for an interview. So once again he was on all the news and had a big article about him in the Sunday paper. I saw him doing commercials for his old furniture company—yes, they hired him back as their spokesman, like he was Shaq O’Neal or Cindy Crawford or somebody famous and likeable like that—and selling Chevrolets for some slimy dealership, and then he had a stretch of about two weeks where he was in New York and Los Angeles making appearances hawking his book on all the big network entertainment programs—Fallon, Kimmel, Colbert, Ellen, even on CNN, where Anderson Cooper called him “a national phenomenon.” It wasn’t long after that I read he’d been offered a part in a movie the following year, so it looked like he was cornering the market whichever way it came to him. Jimmy Mills was now a bonafide celebrity. For a little bit, you could maybe call him a star. I always wondered if Mike might be jealous of Jimmy because Jimmy was suddenly the bee’s knees, while Mike was stuck stocking laxatives down at the grocery store pharmacy six days a week, but he never said anything about it, and I never brought the subject up for discussion. No, Mike just stayed the same unassuming person who constantly did his best to make me smile, and I appreciated that. Mike was giving me exactly what I needed after all Jimmy’s commotion and emotional toil. Mike was like a calm spring day after Jimmy the tornado had finished passing through. I didn’t want to go to Florida anymore with my wild and rowdy pack of girlfriends. It seemed I’d outgrown them over the past year. I was no longer the innocent little sister they thought of me as, who was the butt of every joke, the poor girl everyone looked down on but had adopted anyway as a means of charity. I wasn’t Crazy Aunt Connie to my family anymore either, the one always out on a star in a dither unable to get through whatever obstacle the world threw her way. I was calm now, I was resolute, and it was me these days who watched the ways of the world and the happenings and the events that transpired and wondered inside myself if any part of it, any person, any institution, was ever going to learn from past mistakes and try to do better by taking a different path, or if the entire collective group was going to keep touching the hot stove and burning themselves over and over again. So I was happy with where I was in my life, but I guess I wouldn’t be telling the entire truth if I didn’t say that there was still a part of me that missed Jimmy a little, that funny, ornery guy who’d wooed me secretly from the shadows of the Destin beach, so secretly that he was the only one to know it, not even me, the wooee. No, to be honest I had to be grateful in a way to Jimmy Mills for coming along and pulling me out of the accumulated mire I’d spent my entire life sinking into. Because of him, I’d learned to do something besides watch television at night and keep myself at a safe distance away from all the life dramas going on around me. Jimmy, in some kind of agitated and halfway scary way, had saved me from a lifetime of tedium and void. I decided the best thing to do to give it all a little closure was to confess a few things to myself and not let everything welled up in me fester. I thought about Jimmy’s grin, his laugh, his utter and complete sense of the ridiculous. I remembered the way he’d pick at me sometimes, like I was a ball of yarn and he was this big playful cat. I let myself imagine hearing him while he was singing in the shower, always getting the lyrics mixed up and replacing them with words and phrases that made not the slightest bit of sense. I recalled going out to eat or staying home playing Scrabble and him challenging every word I tried to use and always somehow or another winding up as the winner. I wondered how many cars he’d stolen during our time together and never told me about. I wondered about his secret life with all those rough people and the drugs and all the things going on in his head and his life he’d never mentioned. Yes, to be truthful I was going to miss his weird and strange ways. I couldn’t argue against it. When I saw his picture in the paper with his new girlfriend, I looked at it for a while, and then I let it go. She was prettier than me. She was a singer who’d had a few hit records. It could be she was exactly who Jimmy had been looking for all his life, the girl of his dreams. But maybe not. Time would tell, I supposed. But it was none of my business anymore. It was one of those things now. He had his life and, wonder upon wonders, I had mine. ***** On a summer Sunday night, Mike and I fixed dinner at my apartment. He watched 60 Minutes with me and then decided to go home early and get a good night’s sleep. He was tired. We’d had a busy weekend. He’d, as usual, gone out of his way and beaten his brains out keeping me entertained. I lived in the upstairs of the apartment complex, so I walked outside and leaned on the railing watching Mike get in his car and drive off. I was deliciously alone this Sunday evening, and a feeling of mixed contentment came over me. I was more than glad to have good old steady and dependable Mike around me all these times at night and on the weekends, doing his scouting work finding places for us to go and things off the beaten path for us to do. I appreciated the sound of his voice and the polite way he always listened to every single thing I had to say, whether the content was earthshaking or trivial or whatever. Sometimes he would even cook for me, maybe nothing that would earn high culinary honors anywhere, but it wasn’t poisonous or botulism-laced and I was always glad to have him do for me. A part of me was constantly warmed by the way he never stopped giving his all trying to please me. We spent a lot of time together at night and on the weekends. There was an abiding joy that came to me in the familiar way we made love, a comfortable and gentle act that brought me a cozy feeling of serenity and peace. Mike loved me. I was sure of it. It was a wonderful feeling. But there was still something inside me that was glad when it was time for me or Mike to go home by ourselves. I reveled in those moments when I was finally alone and had nothing to think of but myself. I stood at the porch railing feeling that solitary peace of being on my own come over me again when I heard a sound coming from the stairway. I walked over to see where the noise was coming from, what interruption had come to disturb my solitude, and I looked down in the center of the stairs and saw him. It was Jacques. I couldn’t believe it. It had been close to a year since he’d vanished out the door, and I’d gone from thinking about him missing to considering him dead and gone. But there he was, looking up at me with his orange, mystical eyes. He meowed again. “Where did you come from?” I asked. “Where have you been? I thought you were gone forever.” I didn’t reach down to touch him or anything, but just studied him a minute before heading back inside to finish the dishes and relax a while. I walked down the hallway and he ran by me and scampered down the corridor to my door. When I opened it wide enough for him to get through, he darted in and climbed up on the sofa where I always sat. He closed his eyes, completely relaxed. He looked like he was right at home. He’d come back, and I wondered if, in a way, his presence signified the way it was going to be for Jimmy Mills and me from here on out. I had this feeling I was never going to get rid of Jimmy completely either. I was pretty sure he was always going to be around in one way or another, just like Jacques, showing up out of the blue to grin at me, even if it was just in my head. Maybe he’d be driving somebody’s borrowed car. Maybe it would even be the Wienermobile.