One of the interesting things about getting older, and taking a longer view of things, is that things that were once just an aspect or component of one’s life now become memories.
For years and years, these stories I tell weren’t stories at all. They were a part of my life. It wasn’t until I got older and began to look back a little and reflect, that they kind of disengaged from myself. They became separate from me; they became something to think about and mull over and perhaps ascribe some deeper meaning to. Whereas before, they were just one part of a busy, emerging life story.
Telling and retelling these stories has some value for me, but it is a bit melancholy, too. These stories, and the people in them, are long gone from me now, mostly. And I get the feeling that while I retell them and perhaps embellish them a bit and try to make them more literary than real, I am the only one doing it. I get the feeling the people in these stories, who are (or were) real, more or less, don’t think about them at all, or even remember them.
Does that make them fucked up? Or is it me, the one who cannot and will not let them go? Maybe I am the one who is fucked up here. Wouldn’t be the first time.
I have not seen or talked to Jennifer in more than 35 years now. I ran across one of her sisters on social media once, and she told me Jen was living in the Metroplex somewhere and was a lawyer for a large company up there. She had never married or had children, and she lived alone. I don’t know how I feel about that, or if I even care. I don’t know what to think.
Joseph Conrad wrote that we live as we dream. Alone. I don’t usually feel alone, but I suppose if I really think about it, ultimately I am. As we all are. Jennifer is just more honest with herself about it than I am, apparently. And, bless her for that, and much more.
LITTLE JENNY ON THE HIGH WIRE
“Jesus Fuck! What am I gonna do?!” I was in the men’s room of the bar inside the Gallagher’s restaurant, fronting up a urinal. Leaning into it, actually. My joint was resting in my right hand, and my left forearm was resting against the wall above the urinal. I couldn’t stop thinking about how I needed $20, like, right away; and I had no idea where I was going to get the money from. But I had to have it before I left that restroom, for sure. And even though I was full of bourbon and really, really needed to go, there was no way I could whiz long enough to save myself from my fate. Unless I could somehow manage to piss out twenty bills, that is.
By then, I had been a clerk at one of the larger law firms in town for a couple of years. I had initially got the job through family connections, and I liked it because it was easy, and there were always a lot of gorgeous women around – legal secretaries, court reporters, all the babes working in the county clerk’s office, etc. Also, the law clerk job paid way better than the menial jobs most of my college friends had. I was able to go to school full time, pay rent and utilities for a small, austere apartment, and pay a new truck note and insurance, and still have enough left over to party a little bit, and wine and dine some of those attractive women I was always seeing, as I perambulated around in my job. All solely on the income from an after school job at the law firm.
I had even managed to get my employment classified as an internship; and since I was technically a pre-law major, it earned me three credit hours a semester, just for going to work. I had to write a 2-3 page paper at the end of each term about an interesting case I’d done work on, and I would get an A.
One summer, I had the assignment to get up early one morning and drive one of our partners, and an attorney co-consul from another local firm, and his assistant, to Houston Intercontinental so they could catch a plane to New York. It was basically just a chauffeur’s job, but I did all kinds of stuff like that for my firm. I figured it was a blow off day – drive our partner Paul’s LTD Brougham and everyone on board over to the airport, dump them off, then tool around Houston for a while before heading back to Beaumont, taking the long, roundabout way back; down I-45 South through Galveston and then the Bolivar Peninsula, then back up FM 124 to IH 10. I figured I’d stop along the way at one of the places along the seawall in Galveston, for fresh oysters on the half shell and a few beers, before catching the ferry across to Port Bolivar. Just an easy, pleasant day was what I had planned, and all on the law firm’s dime.
That is what I did, too. It was a nice, sunny, uneventful but fun day, mostly. The only thing that made it remarkable, and kept it in my memory, was the co-consul’s assistant. She was a year or two older than me, a not necessarily striking but decent-looking blonde. Her name was Jennifer, and the other firm’s attorney I was chauffeuring, the one she worked for, was her dad. His name was Dave, and he was some big deal partner in the most prestigious firm in town. He and Paul (and Jennifer) were off to New York to take or sit in on depositions, in a deceptive trade practices suit I never really understood the details of.
It turns out what I had imagined would be a quiet, mundane trip over to Intercontinental that morning was anything but. For one thing, Dave turned out to be the loud, garrulous sort, used to holding the floor, and he jabbered non-stop from Beaumont to Humble, while meanwhile filling the passenger compartment of the LTD with thick cigar smoke, from the fat heater he kept jammed into one corner of his mouth. And Paul, who was normally diffident, and quiet as a monk around our offices, apparently had another side to him. The whole way over, he was in the front seat with me, telling me stories about his days of smoking weed and dropping acid at Stanford in the late 1960s, and about how he and his wife Lettie – who was quite attractive, actually, in a middle-aged kind of way – used to practice “free love” and all this stuff, before they settled down to the straight-laced upwardly mobile genteel life, with three kids and a big fancy house in the tree-lined West End. Meanwhile, he was changing tapes in the 8-track player after every song.
The cacophony from Dave in the back and Paul in the front, the loud music, and the cigar smoke – sometimes so thick I could barely see out of the windshield – were distracting and a bit off-putting, actually. Several times along the way I stole a glance in the rear-view mirror at Jennifer in the back seat, to see how she was taking it all. She seemed to be doing all right, and she caught me looking a few times, too. When she did, she would just roll her eyes in her dad’s direction. I felt like we formed sort of a silent bond that morning, drawn into kinship through our mutual suffering.
When we finally got to the airport and I let everyone off at the terminal, there was a minute or two while all the luggage was being taken care of, etc., and I went over to Jennifer and we laughed for a minute about Dave and Paul. Then she told me they’d be back from NYC by the end of the week, and would I call her then? And I told her that, yes, I surely would, as soon as she got back.
We were naked on the sectional sofa in Jennifer’s parents’ living room, in each other’s arms and panting a bit; after having made love for quite a while, it seemed like. Right there on the sectional. The thing was, Jennifer’s parents’ house was two stories, and the living room was situated in the middle of the downstairs area. The upstairs was all bedrooms, and the upstairs hallway had a railing all around on the inside, where one could stand and look down on the living room, which was sort of a two-story atrium, I guess. When Jennifer had suggested we do it right there, in the living room, I had balked. I liked sex as much as anyone, but I was not really a sexual thrill-seeker, or risk-taker. I didn’t need the chance of being caught in the act to get me off. Still, when she insisted on us doing it right there, I found I was not really distracted by the risk factor once we got going. I will admit the thought of her dad or mom or one of her siblings getting up in the middle of the night to go whiz and looking over the railing and seeing naked Jen and I down there, going at it hammer and tongs, so to speak … it may have actually added a little to the arousal factor for me. I am not saying it did, but I am not saying it did not.
That was on our first date, by the way, after Jen had got back from her New York trip. I had picked her up from her house and we’d gone straight to a bar, and what I found out right away was that my date liked to drink, a lot. Of course, that only endeared her to me more, and before long we were both three sheets to the wind and headed back to her house, for some sloppy, high-risk sex on her parents’ living room sectional. Most of our dates that summer followed a similar pattern.
We lay there in each other’s arms that first night, post flagrante delicto I guess you could’ve called it, on that sectional; and as Jennifer buried her face into my shoulder, I gently traced my fingertips across her naked back, all along the lines of the multiple scars that were there. As I did, my mind drifted back in time …
We had gone to the same elementary school, way back when, though Jen was a few grades ahead of me, and I don’t think we really knew each other then. One day I was sitting in class, maybe in second grade, looking out the windows at the street that ran past the north side of our school, and I noticed there was a lot of commotion down at the corner, cars stopped and stuff. The next thing I knew there were a couple of ambulances screaming by down that street, and then they stopped at the corner, too. It turns out the fourth graders had been at recess or something, and Jennifer had wandered out into that street and had been run completely over by a car.
I didn’t remember everything about the accident, but I had heard that the girl who was hit had broken her back in several places and had lost a lot of blood, spilled right out onto that street in front of our school. I heard she nearly died – it was touch-and-go for several days. But she hung in there and, remarkably, endured a series of surgeries on her back that eventually made her more-or-less whole again. If you didn’t know her history, you might not even have realized something traumatic had once happened to her. I knew, because I was there, as a barely-conscious-of-it 9 year old; and because 10 years later I held her naked in my arms, and traced the ridges of scars along her back (which she seemed to enjoy, by the way.) Other than that, she was left with an almost imperceptible limp, the result of one leg being slightly shorter than the other (after the accident.)
She was also left with, I thought, a bit of sadness in her, a bit world-weariness. I cannot really explain it, and I never talked to Jennifer about it. I just felt like there was some darkness in her; and I was attuned to that, being the bearer of so much darkness, myself. And I guess it was a good thing in the long run that Jen and I were only together for part of one summer, while she was home from school (Vanderbilt, I think.) Her darkness, and her serious devotion to John Barleycorn, fit perfectly into my fucked up view of the world at the time, and I was quickly enthralled with her, and I could easily see us falling in love; or more likely into a terminal embrace that might not have eventually killed one or the other of us, but surely would have left us both worse for the wear. As clueless and lost as I was back in those days, I still had the sense that someone dark and fucked up like me should not be seeking out a woman with the same traits; though I almost always did, anyway. I’ll admit, I still find that sort of thing attractive; even though I know now and knew then that what I need is someone bright and good, to offset my own darkness. But I guess part of me was always looking to do the worst thing for myself, to jump off into the deep end with someone like-minded, not caring one fucking bit where we ended up.
I still have some of that in me, too.
That is really too heavy to be putting off on Jennifer, though. I really liked dating her for that summer. It was so … easy. Go out somewhere, get loaded, then go home and make love, risky love, for hours.
Once during that time I had gone down to the beach for the day with friends. We sat down there all day drinking beer and getting seriously fucked up. We finally headed back to town at dark. On the way back it suddenly struck me that it was Jennifer’s birthday, and I hadn’t got her anything, even a card. What to do? What to do?
When I got home I took a quick shower and then, still smelling of the coconut oil that had apparently seeped down into my skin, I hauled ass to the liquor store. I got there about ten minutes before they closed, and bought a fifth of Jack Daniels Black Label. The liquor store guy fished around in a drawer behind the counter and found a slightly disheveled red stick-on bow for me, and I put it on top of the bottle of Jack. Then I headed for Jen’s house. When she opened the front door, I handed her the fifth without saying anything, except for a sheepish and mumbled, “Happy Birthday”. She took the bottle and looked at me, blinking; and then she started to cry, it looked like. She was so happy that I remembered her birthday, and had given her a fifth of a gallon of her most favorite thing in the whole world. I couldn’t believe how smoothly I’d managed it, how easy it was. Neither could I believe the supremely positive effect my perfunctory gesture had on Jen. That night, she started taking off her clothes almost as soon as we got in my Jeep, almost before I could get off of her street, even.
Jennifer was a Jack Daniels aficionado, for sure. She told me later, half-jokingly I think, that one of the main reasons she chose Vanderbilt for college was because it was only 70 miles or so from Lynchburg, TN, where the Jack Daniels distillery was. When she first got up there, she and her friends made the pilgrimage to Lynchburg every weekend, for the distillery tour, and especially for the hospitality room afterward. I mean, I loved whiskey and all, but she really, really loved it.
That’s how we ended up in the bar at Gallagher’s one night. Back then, Gallagher’s was a chain, some kind of franchise operation. It was supposed to be an Irish steak house or something, although I don’t recall ever having eaten there. And the bar in the restaurant was about what you’d expect. Not much, no décor or atmosphere or anything. No business to speak of. It was briefly popular only because they’d instituted a 5 p.m. to 8 p.m., 3-for-1 happy hour on Thursday nights. That gave them instant atmosphere, and suddenly brought them plenty of business.
We were meeting friends there that evening, and I figured a 3-for-1 deal would save me some money, especially the way Jennifer put away the whiskey. Once we’d got there and settled in, I started ordering 3-for-1 call drinks, JD and water, and before long I was getting blitzed. What I didn’t realize was that Jen was bypassing the 3-for-1 deal, and ordering two fingers of Jack on the rocks, neat. Those were expensive drinks, and she was steadily putting them away, one after another.
That night sort of went like most of them did back in those days – it started off fun and coherent, and then somewhere along the way veered off into mild chaos. It ran off the road and got stuck in a mud hole full of drunken craziness. And, I loved that so much. I loved chaos in my life back then. I think it was how I got away from some of the stuff going on that I didn’t really want to deal with. There was a song on Ric Ocasek’s solo LP, which came out a few years later … “Keep It Out Of Control”. That was my modus operandi then. The more fucked up and crazy and dissonant and chaotic my life was the better.
Of course, even then, reality would pop up here and there. Like at the end of the night at Gallagher’s, when the waiter brought the tab for me to settle up, and I realized it was $15 more than what I had in my pocket. I excused myself for a moment to go to the men’s room to take a piss, and to try and get myself together.
After having moped at the urinal for a while, I was at the nadir of my despair, and I realized I would just have to go back out there and face the music, and admit to the waiter (and my date) that I could not cover my bar tab. I was about to gather myself up and go do it when a friend of mine named Gary came staggering into the restroom to take a piss. “Hey, man,” he said.
“Hey, Gary, do you want to save my life?” I said.
“Yeah, man, sure” he said. “What can I do?”
“Loan me twenty dollars.”
“Sure, no problem,” he said, as he reached into his wallet and pulled out $20 and handed it over.
“Dude, really. You just saved me, “ I said, and then I went on to thank him profusely.
Then I marched back out into the bar and settled up my tab and even left a smallish tip. My girl was impressed with me, I imagined; though in reality she was barely coherent by that point. No matter.
I called Gary the next day and thanked him again, and promised to pay him back on my next payday. Twenty bucks was no small change to a poor college student back in those days.
But Gary said to forget it, that he owed me at least that much for the night I’d saved him. I could not recall what he might have been referring to, and so he reminded me.
One night a few years prior, when we were high school juniors, Gary had simultaneously got hold of the new Rush LP, 2112, and also a quarter-lid of Oaxacan weed that was supposed to be really kick-ass. His parents were out of town that weekend, so several of us gathered at Gary’s house, along with his little sister, who Gary was supposed to be baby-sitting, to smoke cheeba-cheeba and listen to this new album everybody thought was so great. (I thought it sucked; but I figured kick-ass weed could make almost any record sound good, even Rush.) Then Gary realized he did not have any papers to roll with, and no pipe or anything else to employ as a smoking apparatus. Party plans ruined, except I had wandered out into his garage to his dad’s work bench, and found a piece of pipe, called the J-pipe I think; a pre-fab piece used for putting together a P-trap under a sink. I took that back into the house and got some aluminum foil out of a kitchen drawer to cover the opening on the short end of the “J”, and then I poked holes in the foil. Then we put a clump of weed onto our impromptu foil screen, and lit it. I sucked on the long end of the “J” and, voila! We had a pipe to smoke weed with.
It worked pretty well, too, except for at first, when you would suck and get smoke from the Oaxacan mixed with dust that had accumulated inside the pipe over however long the time was it had sat on Gary’s dad’s work bench. After a few pulls, though, the dust was pretty much cleaned out, and everything was copacetic. It was agreed by all, in the easy hyperbole that often characterizes the conversations of dedicated pot-smokers, that my MacGyver-like inventiveness had truly saved the day.
And Gary said it was easily worth $20 to him, what I had done; and that he had been waiting for the occasion to pay me back.
You know, the Lord works in mysterious ways. He put Gary in that Gallagher’s restroom one night at just the right time to take a piss and give me the twenty dollars I so desperately needed to pay off my bar tab, while simultaneously giving Gary the opportunity to pay me back for piecing together a means to smoke ganja at a party at his house one night, several years before.
Yes, mysterious ways. One day, I’d like to sit down with Him and talk about that a little.
Jenny and I went our separate ways at the end of that summer. There wasn’t anything really sad or even melancholy about it. I think we both understood the string had run out for us. She went back to Vanderbilt and whatever was there for her, and got her undergraduate degree and then law degree. I went back to Lamar, to sex and drugs and darkness and all that, and eventually I earned an undergrad degree myself. And that was that.
I cannot speak for her, but I enjoyed that whole summer, going out and getting messed up, knowing no matter what condition I showed up at her house in, Jen was ready to jump into the car with me and go do something, anything. To go do something we both enjoyed – drinking and reckless sex, mostly. There was never any consternation on her part. She never made me feel ashamed or guilty about how fucked up I was back then. I don’t know if it was because of the trauma that came to her early in her life or not – we never talked about it – but Jen was the definition of a person who took things as they came, who did not try to change things around to exactly fit her preferences, whatever they were. Whatever came along her way, she just rolled with it. I loved that.
Up to the point we met, on that early morning drive over to the airport in Houston, if you had mentioned her name to me and I remembered who she was at all, the only mental impression I would have had of Jennifer was her lying in her own blood on the street out in front of our elementary school all those years ago, 10 years old, broken and shattered. Instead of what I think of now, which is both of us grown up and whole and naked together, and Jennifer allowing me to hold her tightly to me, while I gently traced the scars that crisscrossed her back.
Thinking back, she was exactly the sort of girl I needed that summer. I will always be grateful we got together, and that we were able to spend some time together, fleetingly, now seemingly so long ago.