Wretched (Part III)

The seniors of 1942 were planning a spring soirée that was to be held two weeks from this Saturday at the armory building.  Block ice cream and lemonade would be served prior to an evening of dancing.

I was a member of the planning committee for the soirée so for a half an hour after the end of the day’s classes I sat with two of my friends, Mary and Lorna, and we came up with a few ideas about how to make the event a great one.  Mary thought we should have the theme “I Dream” and Lorna invented a way to make streamers look like big puffy clouds to match the theme.  I knew the Robins brothers and their sister, Glenda, would be perfect to hire as a band.  Glenda had a wonderful singing voice.

Mary and her steady boyfriend, Alan, were going together as a double date to the dance with Lorna and her steady Ronald.  I didn’t have a date.

As Lorna and Mary discussed their plans I sat there watching.  My mind wandered.  It had to.  Finally, I stood up and announced to my friends that I needed to go back to the motel.

“But of course!”  Mary smiled sweetly.  Her bright yellow sweater and single strand of simple pearls matched the light in her face.  Tight curls hung flawlessly at her cheeks and temples.

“Sure thing, kid!” Lorna added as she snapped her chewing gum.  My Aggie once told me that the only acceptable places to chew gum were in the dark of a movie theater or alone in a car.   But, I found Lorna’s bold defiance of this suggestion quite youthful.

Holding my books, I meandered toward home.  I told myself not to be too excited about the night before.   He hadn’t really kissed me and there was somebody else for him anyway.

When I finally reached home I was half relieved to find nobody there.  It gave me time to reflect and collect my thoughts.

I sat down on the sofa in the living room and stared out the window at the rolling hills beyond.  It had been a sunny day and now there were many big, puffy white clouds bouncing along the green slopes in the distance.  I knew I had to go upstairs and do my homework soon, but it was nice to just sit here and watch.   Just for a moment.

A tear fell down my face, but it wasn’t the good sort of crying.  No, it wasn’t due to the beauty I saw before me.  It was because I didn’t really feel a part of any of it.   And I often felt like I was merely observing so much of life as it seemed to pass by me.  It was miserable.

The tears fell harder and suddenly I couldn’t stop them at all.  They just kept falling.

Then the front door opened and in walked my Aggie.  I bit my bottom lip hard to stop crying.  I couldn’t be sad around her.  Not anymore.

When I was little I cried and she would hold me, but now she sometimes seemed burdened and a little bit chilly when I cried.  And yet at other times she would comfort me.  Still, I never knew which reaction I would receive so I kept most moments of sadness silent.

Agatha waltzed into the living room and with a breezy gait she threw her hat on the honey colored wooden table near the window.  She appeared ebullient.   And now I felt silly for feeling so down.  Nobody else around here ever really was down except for me it seemed.

Then there was a knock at the front door.  I was sure it was probably Andrew and his mother.  They were supposed to come over again for supper tonight.  Papa was going to join us too.

“Come in, Bertha.”  Aggie almost crooned, as she welcomed the visitors into the hallway by the front door.  I adjusted the way I was sitting so that I looked more presentable in case they came in the room.  Then I brushed back my hair from my face and opened my eyes wide.

“I just knew we would have nothing but wonderful things to say about this place the minute I got here.”  Bertha said in a very sugary, but still stately and mannered voice.  She often managed to seem both aloof and yet kind and courteous at the same time.  I had yet to figure out what exactly she thought of any of us.

“We’ve had the nicest time staying here, Agatha.”  She now sounded as if she was smiling.  “We really have, dear.”  They were all still standing in the hallway.

“Oh, you’re too kind.”  Agatha said, as she was likely guiding everyone into the kitchen.  I could hear their footsteps on the hardwood floor that led to there.  “We’ve been honored to have you stay with us.”  Agatha’s voice could be heard from the kitchen now.

“And, as much as I absolutely loathe to say it, tonight after dinner, Andrew and I will be leaving to stay with my brother.  He has room for us now, and I think going and staying there is best.”  A silence was created suddenly.  I guessed that Agatha was a little disappointed to hear this and it wasn’t because we would lose their business.

Agatha just loved that they were here.  The Thompson’s were one of the nicest families in the community and having Bertha and Andrew here gave the motel a new sort of glamor or something similar to glamor.  It made us appear frugal and not just like the cheapest motel in the area.  It gave us an air of respectability.

“Oh, I’m very sorry to hear that you’re leaving us so soon.   It’s been just lovely.”  Agatha managed to sound endearing and communicate just a tiny bit of the disappointment she must have been feeling.  I was impressed by her.  She always knew what to say.

“Now you’re being too kind, dear.”  Bertha sounded like she was being genuine with her affection this time.  She must have started to sincerely like either the motel or my Aggie, I surmised.

“Well, I’m positive that we’ll miss both of you.”  Agatha said a little dreamily.  Then it occurred to me that this part of the conversation might have something to do with the romance they had been trying to concoct between Andrew and me.

I quickly, and quite passionately, stoop up from the sofa.  I felt angry.  It was as if they had invented another world in their minds where I was someone quite different from who I actually was.  It was also a world where Andrew was without any attachments to a girl named Susanne.  It was a world where I was someone who Andrew wanted.  And as much as that world sounded maybe a little bit nicer than this one, it wasn’t real.  But I was real and existed here, standing sadly beside the sofa in the living room.

Feeling miles away from everyone else, I walked into the kitchen now through the large sliding wood door we always left open.  Actually, I often wondered why there was a door there at all, but then I found my thoughts distracted from analyzing it further just as they were now.

I sat down at the table and noticed right away that Andrew was completely ignoring me.  Somehow, I knew he would.  This was exactly what I had expected.

Then Bertha looked at me.  It was a look I had never had anyone give me, although I’d seen it before.  Her eyes radiated an enormous amount of compassion.   And I almost wondered if she knew that I had been crying, but I couldn’t figure out how she would have known or guessed.  She had just barely met me.

“You darling girl.”  She said and I knew she understood so much more in that moment than I had ever told almost anyone.    I was terrified by it and yet, I no longer felt nearly as sad as I had before.

I looked at Andrew and he looked away.  Then I guessed that she may have forced him to confess at least some part of our failed romance.   But even so, it wasn’t a look of pity that she gave me and it was about more than just Andrew and me.  I looked at her and felt a new sort of angst.

Agatha did most of the talking during supper.  She seemed to sense the heaviness in the room and insisted on cheering everyone up, especially me.  I felt bad for her.  She must have been taking responsibility for all of it, just as she so often took responsibility for almost, well, everything.

I looked at Andrew and grew a tiny amount of rage.  This dour mood was at least partially his fault, I reasoned, however poorly.   Somehow it was his fault.  Somehow.  But even if it wasn’t really his fault, his current sullen, haughty and distant attitude was as obnoxious as anything.

He just sat there smugly eating his peas.  I couldn’t put my finger on it exactly, but it was just the way he lifted that spoon with such precision maybe.  Or perhaps it was the way he held himself with a kind of superiority there in that chair across the table from me.  Whatever it was, every little thing about him made me angry right now, even his freckles annoyed me.

“I never even thought you were that great, you little stuck up monster.”  I yelled in my head at him.  And I’m sure the look on my face said the words in my head a million times over.  But he just kept sitting there with that same look on his face despite the way I stared at him.  He didn’t even look up at me.

He was ignoring me intentionally I decided.  I looked over at Aggie now as she was telling some long story involving someone’s niece wining a spelling bee two years ago.  

I couldn’t recall this story.  I listened for a moment to see if I had heard it before but as the tale continued I realized it was one I hadn’t heard.   Apparently the little girl had chicken pox and was scratching every few minutes to the point where the judges began to wonder if she was cheating and getting secret clues from some member of the audience.  It was only after she became very ill the next day that anyone believed her and she was awarded a prize.

Anyway, I lost interest eventually after the little girl got well, and it I suddenly felt a need to be quite silly.  It was a sort of protest silliness.  It was a protest against this ridiculous gloom.  All of it.  And it was much more nice than just sitting there feeling a mixture of boredom and anger.

I covered my face partially with my hand so my Aggie and Bertha couldn’t see me.  Then I looked at Andrew intensely.  I stuck out my tongue first.  Then I added crossed eyes.  And then I even wiggled my tongue around.

Nope.  He was truly ignoring me or he was completely lost in thought.

But, I felt persistent.  So, I moved my foot across the floor and kicked his leg underneath table.  It wasn’t a hard kick mind you, but I’m sure he could feel it.

He suddenly glanced up, but surprisingly it wasn’t at me.  Instead he looked everywhere else with a lot of confusion.  He even looked under the table.

I paused for a moment to make another plan.  Then I picked up a pea, placed it on my spoon and being careful to avoid anyone’s detection I flung it at him.  But he didn’t notice until I launched the third pea, which flew across the table and hit him in the face.

Then with a look of real anger and some sort of vague fear he exclaimed out loud, “Hey!  What’s with you!?”

“What do you mean?”  I asked.  I looked at him blankly.  Then Bertha and Aggie ceased their conversation and studied us, bewildered.

“You know what I mean.”  He glared at me and then stood up and asked Aggie politely, “May I please be excused for a moment?”  Then he walked toward the front door, “I’m suddenly not feeling so well, I’m sorry.”

My Aggie was shocked, but she turned slightly in her seat to face him and then responded sweetly as ever, “Of course, honey.”

He walked out the door and I felt terrible.  Bertha shook her head and rested it on her chin.  A strange smile crossed her face and then a look of some sadness came over her entirely.  I wondered how my Aggie would respond.

Right on cue Aggie rose from the table and grabbed the coconut cream pie she had made earlier in the day and then announced, “I think it’s as good a time as any to have dessert.  You folks need to go soon anyway, I reckon.”

“I’m going to go check on him, I think.”  I said meekly.  Nobody said anything in response, but I continued out the door and then into the darkness.

I looked around and first thought to check their motel room, but the moment I looked in that direction I could see that nobody was there.  Beside the darkness in the room there was a feeling of emptiness.  I just knew somehow that it was vacant.   Then I decided to take a walk down to the creek and check there.

I walked across the big lawn and when I found myself nearing the creek I finally caught sight of him.  But, he was standing by the side of the road.  He appeared to be hitch hiking. 

I was very curious.  And, I could either go back home and mind my own business or go find out what was happening.  I couldn’t resist so I ran quickly toward him.

He had sat down when I got there, so I sat down and joined him.  He pretended not to notice me at first.  The pitch black of the night was only broken up by the dark blue sky near the moon and a porch light on at the neighbor’s house across the street.  It was a bright moon.

“Why did you leave?”  I asked.

He turned to me and I noticed that he had been crying.  He didn’t even try to hide it.

“Why are you crying?”  I questioned him now with a new sort of empathy and wonder.

He glanced to the right and away from me.  Down the street in that direction in the distance there were several houses lined up next to one another on each side.  Trees and lots of lights made that section of town look warm and inviting.  It was a much more happy view than looking almost anywhere else.  Well, unless you were in a romantic sort of mood, and then I suppose the moon would have been much better.

“My mother knows about Susanne now.  My Aunt Mable told her about us.  She has a friend who works in the beauty parlor in the town where Susanne lives and she overheard Susanne telling her friends about me.”  He shrugged.  “I guess I knew it would happen eventually, but gee.  Why did it have to be now?”  He laid back on the grass behind us.

“Where are you trying to go tonight?”  I questioned him further.

“I’m going to see Susanne.”  With tightly clenched teeth, he appeared very sure of this plan.

“Why don’t I just drive you there?”  I volunteered.

He seemed baffled by me now.  “Why would you help me?”  I guessed that he thought I was feeling rejected by him.

“Because I want to, I guess.”  I shrugged.

“That’s silly, but awfully sweet.”  He got up and brushed off his pants.  “If you’re not kidding around I’d like to go now.”

“Why are you going right now?”  I was still confused.

“Because my mother needs to know that she can’t push me around and because I need to tell Susanne to shut up about us, and-“He broke off and the look that was on his face when he was crying returned momentarily.  “I just want to right now, is all.”  He shrugged.

I pushed myself up and off the ground and began walking to the car.  He slowly followed me and we meandered together but separately until we reached the driveway near the fence.

“Just wait here.  I’m going to go tell my Aggie that I’m going with you into town.   Who knows, maybe they’ll be excited that we’re going somewhere alone together.”  I shrugged and he opened the car door and got inside silently.

I felt I was about to be dishonest, but at least it was for a good cause, or so I told myself.  I wanted to be helpful.

Just like he told me that I was a nice girl, I felt that he was also a very nice boy.  For one thing I had never watched a boy my age cry that way.  He seemed to feel so passionately about Susanne.   I thought it was quite touching.  Now it was just a matter of figuring out what to say to the two ladies in the kitchen.

The door opened and I felt a burst of warmth, the smell of our wood floor and Agatha’s cooking.  I walked into the kitchen through the swinging white painted wood door and stood by the sink facing the women who still sat at the table.   Their plates were empty now and only crumbs were left.  Two coffee cups sat cradled in their hands as they softly chatted.

“Mother,”  I said out loud.  I didn’t even realize what I had said but continued talking as if I hadn’t said anything even remotely unusual.  I would only later realize what I had just uttered.  The particular reason it came out of my mouth at that moment would intrigue and puzzle me for years afterwards.

Both of the women stopped talking and turned to look at me with surprise.  Then I continued, “I’m taking our car and driving to Main Street with Andrew.  Is that alright?”

“It is late, but I suppose so.”  Agatha answered tentatively and with a look of some sort of vague shock still registering on her face.

I looked at Bertha and she quickly turned her face away from me and covered her mouth with her hand.  I wondered why.

“You should have Andrew drive the car.”  Aggie suggested.

“Ok.  I will.”  I practically bounced out the door and then walked quickly to the car.  

I opened the door and sat down in the driver’s seat.  “Do you want to drive?” I asked Andrew even though I was already sitting in front of the steering wheel.

He moved his head and gave me a look that needed no words attached to it.  I put the key in the ignition and started to drive.

We quietly drove down the twisting paths that were between us and his Susanne.  After learning where exactly we were headed, I focused carefully on the road before me and noticed that Andrew had fallen asleep a few miles into our journey.  I wondered if he had slept well the night before.  I felt bad for him now.

Susanne’s town was called Edenberg.  It was located in a valley and approaching it on this route you first viewed it from a large bluff, so the lights in the houses below looked a little bit like stars.  It was beautiful.

I smiled.  “Now, this is romance.” I whispered to myself.   Then I breathed deeply and opened the window a bit to smell the scent of the alfalfa fields and hear the sound of the crickets.  Andrew moved a bit and partially woke up.  He glanced at me and smiled.  It was the first time I had seen him look so happy.

“We’re almost there aren’t we?”  He noticed the lights below us too now.   I nodded to him in response.

Finally the car descended and we drove past the first indications that we were approaching a town.  Then we drove past a little house near the side of the road with a man walking out of it, and as he sat on the final step near his front door he lit a cigarette in his mouth.

I quickly fixed my gaze back on the road.  This already seemed like such a lovely town.  I was intrigued.

“Say, what’s the population of Edenberg?”  I asked.  It was an unimportant question, but I wanted to know.

“Oh, it’s not a very big town I guess.”  He shrugged.  Then he sat up and a huge grin lit his face.  “There!  Turn there.”  He sounded very excited.

I turned the car down a narrow street and we passed a few houses before we reached the end of the block.  “Now where do I go?”  I asked.

“Turn to the left.”  He said, practically flying in some sort of happiness.

I turned the car to the left and then saw him grab the car door out of the corner of my eye.  

I slowed the car for fear that he would jump out.  He did.  He opened the door, quickly shut it behind him and then practically raced up to the house on our right.

It was nice home.  It appeared to be a dark red house with white shutters.  There was a big oak tree in the front near the road and several other trees in the back that towered over the roof.

I watched as he knocked on the door.  He stood there patiently for a second before a man opened it.  I guessed it was likely Susanne’s father.

I couldn’t see her father’s face entirely, but he seemed surprisingly pleasant considering and then he moved away for a moment before a girl stood there instead.  She was a gorgeous girl, from what I could see of her.  It was easily understandable why Andrew was so smitten.  Her frame was smaller than his and only a few breaths were exchanged between them until he held her tightly.  

I was enthralled.  They looked so very happy.  I had seen this sort of scene in movies, but never in real life.  It was mesmerizing.

Then I steered to the side of the street and parked.  I got out and stood beside the car watching.

She backed away, grabbed his hand and pulled him inside of their house.  Then the door shut behind them.

It was unclear what exactly I was supposed to do at this point, but I figured that sitting here in this car was a rather boring, lonely and dreary idea.  It made much more sense to explore.

Down the street I walked until I found myself at a park near a schoolyard.  There was a swing set and it seemed like the perfect moment to use it.

I sat down and began flying back and forth.   Then the frame of a young man walking down the street came into view.  He had one hand in his pocket and was smoking a cigarette with the other.  He didn’t seem to notice me at first, but then I saw him glancing in my direction.  He froze.  I wondered why.

I kept swinging until he opened the gate to the park and seemed to be walking toward me.  Who was he and what interest did he have in me?

I slowed the swing completely and watched as he approached.  My hands gripped the sides of the swing as I sat there.

He came into view now and I could see his face.  It was Adam.

“What are you doing here?”  He looked just as amazed as me.

“I don’t know.”  I responded.

“What do you mean, by ‘I don’t know?’  How did you get here?”  He asked, his breathing quickened.

“I mean, I do know.  I do actually.”  I captured my own breath and blinked my eyes in an attempt to find my lost thoughts.

“Good, cause I’d really like to hear it.”  He answered, sitting next to me now on the swing to my left.

“I drove here, I guess.”  I still felt slightly foggy.

“That sounds right.”  He nodded.  “I’m glad you got your car fixed.  But why did you drive here?”

I blinked again many times before I could find it in my head to say, “I had to.  I mean, I wanted to.” I rubbed my forehead and closed my eyes then continued slowly, “A friend of mine has a girl here in town and needed a lift.  I offered to give him one.  Here I am.”  It was a terrible explanation.

“Fine. Fine.”  He pursed his lips and nodded again, then looked ahead of us.  “Well, this town is where I live too.  Imagine that.”  He laughed and smiled to himself.

“Really?”  I asked, sounding much more dumbfounded than I was by that fact.

“Yes.”  He smiled at me now and began looking gently into my eyes.  I felt a little bashful.  Heat rose to my cheeks and I closed my eyes and looked down at my shoes.

“I live right over there.”  He pointed to the right.

“I see.” Then, I bit my lip and looked in that direction.  I felt like smiling and my face kept trying to form a perfect grin, but I wanted to seem composed.

“Well, I’ll be.”  He laughed again.  “Say, you should come meet my family.  I think they’re all still awake.”  He stood up and looked quite pleased.  “That is,”  he grabbed his chin and added, “unless you need to go find your friend and go home.  It is a bit late.”

“No.  I’m sure he’s still busy with her.”  It then occurred to me how tawdry those words potentially sounded, but I hoped Adam would assume the best.  I didn’t want him to think I was keeping fast company, even if he himself was as fast as Aggie had insinuated.

I moved off the swing and he placed his hand at my back for a moment to guide me in the direction of his house.  We walked there slowly and he placed his hands back in his pockets.

The grass beneath us was chilled by a sort of dew.  I could smell a rainy sweetness in the quiet breeze that floated around us.

When we found the front door of his house, which was rather pretty.  I was surprised when he suddenly stopped at the door.  He leaned in closer.

“Hey you.”  He whispered in my ear.  Our eyes met for a moment and then he went on, “I won’t be able to say this once we go inside so I’ll say it now.”  I turned my body to face his. “I would have tried to call on you already, but I didn’t think your mother would approve.  I found out from my aunt that you’re not Catholic.  We are Catholics, you see, and I knew that would likely be a problem for your mother.”  He looked down and shuffled his feet, but then lifted his face and said, “But it doesn’t matter to me one bit.  Do you mind at all?”

“No.  No.”  I smiled and shook my head to confirm a no.  I really didn’t think much of it.

“Well then.”  He grinned and his eyes flickered.  “Just don’t tell my parents enough about yourself for them to figure out where you’re from just yet, if you know what I mean.”  I agreed.  “I’ll do the rest of the talking.  Don’t worry.”  He winked and then moved his head over to mine and reaching his hand around the back of my head he landed his lips on me and kissed me fervently.  It was a supple sort of kiss on the mouth.   Our lips and mouths moved slowly but with a tangible force that seemed nearly separate from our beings and yet very intimately connected to us.  It was breathtaking.  Then he reached over and opened the door, our lips still together.

We stopped only when we heard footsteps approaching and he turned his head to see who it was.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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