It was almost noon when Janice pulled into the Jacqueline's lot and parked the Audi. She didn't feel half as uneasy as she'd thought she would on the drive over, even with having to park and walk to the restaurant through the environs of the old neighborhood. There were new buildings now standing in the places where back in her day boarded-up shops and winos had loitered, and she didn't even have to walk down the sidewalk to Jacqueline's by herself, since Carol spotted her coming and was waiting by the steps to walk with her. Janice smiled and waved and hurried along, all the time trying to identify what had once been around her here in relation to the new structures and scenes standing now. It was hard to believe that just a half mile away was where she and Carol and Diane -- who was probably already waiting inside -- had all gone to high school together, at the big ominous building that seemed to go on forever to them then but was vanished now, replaced by an endless stream of condos. This was the first visit back to the neighborhood for Janice in a while, and she hoped it was worth the trip from her side of town to have lunch here with her friends. The three of them made it a point to stay in touch having lunch together as often as they could, making it into a sort of tradition, but all this time they hadn't ventured back to their old stomping grounds. Maybe Diane had, since she'd had to sell her parents' house when they'd passed one after the other, but for Janice and Carol it had been more than just a while.
Diane had a table for them by the window, and in five minutes they sat with a pitcher of margaritas on the rocks looking over the menu while Saturday traffic zoomed and rushed by outside on Perkins Drive, vehicles on their way downtown or back or turning off here in this revamped retail space to shop at the exotic eclectic stores for that special something a person couldn't find at the malls or brand name department stores.
This was just their second meeting this year, so there was a lot to catch up on. After their January meetup Diane's mother had passed at age ninety-one, and there had been all the business of getting rid of the house to the satisfaction of Diane's two younger brothers, who both lived in other states but seemed to want to be in charge and in the know about everything anyway, and Carol had undergone her knee replacement and was just now able to be up and around, and Janice had retired once and divorced Carl -- which brought her total of ex-husbands to three -- and then been forced to go back to work again until the house sold and her share of the proceeds appeared in her bank account. It was July now and Independence Day was two weeks past, and so it was time to resume normal schedules and get back in step with the crazy pace the world was setting these days.
"Yep," Carol said, shaking her head like there could be no doubt about it, "I was there and saw it with my own two eyes or I wouldn't have believed it either." She picked up her glass and took a tiny sip of her margarita, eschewing the provided straw, curling a sliver of ice into her mouth like it was from a frosty place only she knew about.
"I always knew there was something funny going on there," Janice agreed, "whether it was with the court or the mayor or the police department, so when it turned out to be all three of them in on it, well, I wasn't all that surprised."
"Honey," Diane said, "I don't feel like I'm an old lady or anything, but I'm at the point where I don't think there's much of anything that could shock me enough to where my hair is going to go grey over it."
"I imagine you're a lot like me, Diane, and that hair turning grey thing is a thing of the past now." Janice thought of the pack of cigarettes nestled in her bag and how she'd really like one this moment, but here she was in a public place and there was no such thing as lighting up an innocent cigarette around a congregation of people anymore, and so it would have to wait until later. In two hours she could smoke all she wanted to on the way home. Here, though, that was a no-no. It had been a while since she'd smoked in front of Carol and Diane anyway. She wasn't sure if they would approve or say anything and she wasn't even certain anymore if either of them even smoked themselves. They didn't see each other that often to where they could keep up with such trivialities anymore.
"Still," Carol said, "it's not every day you hear about a judge and a mayor getting caught having sex in chambers."
"Especially when the mayor is married to the chief of police," said Diane. "I swear, you just cannot make anything like that up. I read a lot of best-sellers in my free time, but I have never run across anything remotely as raunchy as this."
They laughed and finished off their pitcher and ordered another. They had a few more minutes to order before brunch was over.
"I guess both of you saw on Facebook where the graduating class is planning another gathering," Janice said. "I imagine it is going to be another one of those functions I'll be forced to skip."
"It wouldn't be so bad if there was the least bit of planning put into it," Diane offered, "but it seems to me like all anyone ever does is pick a date and try and get people to show up at some franchise. Shoot, I can go to a franchise and eat their salad bar any blessed day of the week. You'd think people would want something like this to be the tiniest bit special."
"Here's to the murky regrettable and unforgettable past," Carol said, raising her glass toward the center of the table. "May we never have to re-live it again."
"Lord, I'll second that," said Diane.
Getting down toward the bottom of the second pitcher of margaritas, with the afternoon July sunshine beating down on the asphalt and the glint of metal from the traffic lurching by, what they could make of the scene from their window seat looked like nothing they remembered from the way things looked so long ago that still seemed like not that long at all if they considered it the right way. Certainly things were not in their rightful place anymore and buildings and sites had vanished or moved or faded away and new things were present, but it was still the same place in a strange sort of way and they were still the same three friends sitting here gazing at it all. They were older and wives and ex-wives and mothers and grandmothers and maybe their hair was a different color and there'd been some surgery here and there to correct and slow down a few things, but they were still who they were and they liked to think they hadn't changed all that dreadfully much.
"Look over there," Diane said. "Does that fellow look familiar or not?"
A man stood up from his chair and was leaving a tip on the table. The friend who was with him held up a finger and walked toward the corridor where the restrooms were, and the man in question placed his billfold back in his pocket and began making his way toward the front door. He wore expensive tan slacks with Weejuns and a burgundy polo shirt tucked in very neatly, and he was putting his sunglasses on as he passed their table.
"Glenn," Diane said.
He stopped and looked over and smiled.
"Well," he said. "What a nice surprise!" He smiled and went around in a circle giving them all a hug. "It's so nice to see you."
"We're here slumming," Janice said. "We like to have lunch together whenever we can fit it in and today's the day it all worked out. We thought it might be fun to come and have it here at the scene of all our past crimes."
"Lord, I come here just about every Saturday," Glenn said. "We don't live anywhere close but it's worth the drive once a week. It's hard to find a better brunch than Jacqueline's."
"We haven't even ordered yet," Carol said. She wondered with the way he was smiling at them if he actually remembered their names or not. Surely he did. It wasn't like any of them had ever been wallflowers or toiled away their schooldays in obscurity. "We've just been having some drinks and catching up a little." She wondered if she sounded like she was making an excuse for the three of them sitting at a table at this time of day with a pitcher of margaritas in front of them.
"What have you been up to, Glenn?" Diane asked. "It's like you dropped off the face of the earth about a hundred years ago. The last I heard you were selling real estate and making a fortune."
"I still am," he smiled. "We were in Atlanta for almost twenty years, then we moved back about six years ago. Terry and I are in business together, partners in just about anything you can name." About this time Terry the partner appeared at Glenn's side and introductions were made. Glenn did remember their names, which was nice. Everything was nice. Terry and Glenn smiled and held hands. Glenn asked about children and husbands and such, and then he and Terry left.
"That was weird," Carol said, watching them go out the door. "Did anybody have the slightest idea Glenn was gay? The main thing I remember about him back in school was that at one time or another he probably dated every girl in the class."
"I went out with him once," Janice said.
"I'll bet it was at least five with me," Diane said. "For a while, if memory serves, we really liked each other."
"Maybe you broke his heart," Carol said, "and that's why he decided to go gay."
"Not me," Diane said. "I was always the one with no morals. I never told anybody no."
"I'm ordering another pitcher," Carol said. "I think we might need it if the conversation is going to go in this direction."
"Probably we should order food," Janice suggested. "All this alcohol on an empty stomach might not be so good."
"Yeah," Diane agreed. "One of us just might get a little un-sober and start acting in an un-ladylike way."
While they waited for their food, they talked of trips they'd taken recently or were getting ready to take, of children and grandchildren and spouses and family matters. When it came to any of those details, who was living and living life between the lines, was, after a moment, not too important; what was of interest was who had died or strayed off the beaten path and descended into shame or scandal. Diane and Janice with a few ex-husbands each had plenty of fodder, while Carol had to settle for a couple of sorry sons-in-law and an ungrateful daughter, but there was plenty of ammunition to load up on and store away for reference later.
"I've been thinking of moving away," Janice offered. "I'm thinking once the divorce is final and the house closes out I don't think I'm going to look for a place in town again. I think it wouldn't hurt a thing to go get a fresh start somewhere else."
"You should have said something to Glenn," Carol smiled.
"Why, sure," said Dianne. "I'm pretty certain he and his paramour -- what was his name, Terry? -- could have found you something in a hot jiffy."
"Glenn," Janice pondered. "From what I remember, I'm not so sure I could count on him a lot."
It had truly driven her to the point of being altogether pissed off, she remembered, with how long it had taken Glenn to get around to asking her out back then, but he had finally done it a month before graduation rolled around. She had messed around with Rob Wilson and Mike Lucas for a while that year, but she hadn't really gone with anybody regularly, and the time was getting short for someone to step up and make himself into a viable candidate to take her to the prom. Diane, she knew, had been with Glenn for a long time toward the end of junior year and all through that summer, and when they'd broken up he had done a lot of back and forth dating with girls in the class, here, there, and everywhere, but never for too long with the same person. Maybe he had gone out with Carol once, but that was probably one of those jealousy games they all seemed to play at one time or another back then, you know, date somebody once and get seen somewhere so the word would get back around to whoever it was you wanted to make green with envy. That was the way Carol did things in those times; she would use somebody like Glenn to make some other guy -- in that case, Bert Fielding -- start thinking he was fixing to get left behind if he didn't step up his efforts and get back in the romantic running in a hurry. And Glenn was the same way, using people like that. It was as if every day was a great big chess game or a puppet show, with lots of pieces being moved and strings getting pulled.
"Listen to this song," Diane said. "Do you hear this song?" Somewhere in the ceiling speakers Smoky Robinson wanted everybody present to take a good look at his face. "Oh, god, I used to love this song."
We went to a couple of movies together and maybe a concert downtown. I think it was Neil Diamond, or maybe it was the Turtles. The movie was The Bible, I think, and possibly The Graduate. Or it could have been The Sand Pebbles. I just don't remember now. But I do remember he never asked me to the prom. Just all of a sudden stopped calling for no reason at all and I had to go to all kinds of lengths and jump through all sorts of hoops to get Phil Collier -- who was nothing but a loser even then -- interested enough to ask me to go. "Paris After Dark," that was the prom theme that year, and I can remember standing there getting my picture taken with Phil and him grinning with a fresh pimple on his nose like he'd won a jackpot and me there beside him wishing I could die or disappear thinking maybe this was the best I could ever do as far as falling in love and finding true romance.
The wait person brought their salads -- that was all they were having -- and sprinkled pepper over their bowls with a grinder. He asked if they needed another pitcher of margaritas and Carol said, "God, yes!"
Out the window heading north on Perkins they watched what looked like a battalion of motorcycles with men and women in leather and helmets in the July swelter lined up the road as far forward and back as they could see, and the sound of the mass engines churned deeply and vibrated and came close to blending with the music from the overhead speakers, up there where Bruce Springsteen was now on fire.
"It looks to me like the Hell's Angels have decided to take a transcontinental trip and visit our region," Diane said.
Dennis Graham had a motorcycle that summer, Carol thought. It wasn't as big as those bikes out there, but it was one of those contraptions that accelerated really fast and rared up on two wheels and such, and Dennis showed up at a swim party and was doing all sorts of tricks outside the fence. A couple of us went outside for a ride and somehow Dennis let Glenn take the bike for a test ride and Glenn looked at me and said, "Want to go?" and I didn't think but just got on behind him and we went off up the street with me holding on to him tight as I could, afraid, maybe, he was going to try and do some of those insane stunts Dennis had been doing, but he didn't. He just putted up the street sweet and gentle as you please and I held on with my arms wrapped around him and he felt so good and strong I didn't want to get off and go back inside to swim when we got back. I thought about it the rest of the afternoon and night but he never came over to talk to me or anything like that. Just left with somebody else, I don't know who, and I ended up getting into some big make-out session with Dennis because he gave me a ride home on his new bike and we sat out on my porch for a while, and it was a nice summer night and it seemed like the thing to do, and I guess it was all right but it wasn't Glenn and I wished that part of it had been different.
"Maybe we could call one of those Uber drivers to come and pick us up and take us for a tour of the old neighborhood," Diane giggled. "I'd drive us around myself but it could just be I'm over the limit and DUI to the max. We'd probably all wind up in the pokey, and I hate for the weekend to get started off like that."
"That's definitely something we don't need right now," Janice said. She started to let it go at that, but she was on another magic concoction now and she felt like talking. "I don't suppose I've mentioned how Karen's husband and I are getting along these days, have I?"
"Catch me up on the scorecard," Carol said. "Is this Karen's second or third husband now? Our children get married and divorced so much these days it's hard for me to keep up."
"Second. But I'm betting it won't be long before she's ready for number three. Like her mother, I guess. Has to keep shopping around and taking things back because they don't fit."
"You're not the only one, honey," Diane said. "I'm guilty as the next person."
"What's going on with the hubby?" Carol asked.
"Well, the number one thing wrong with him is he's been appointed a lieutenant on the police force, and all of a sudden he's decided in his simple mind somewhere that he can do no wrong. The two of them have started going to one of those big non-denominational churches downtown, and Wayne has come to the conclusion he is the moral compass for the entire congregation. I went over to their house for a cookout about a month ago and during the evening's festivities Karen and I may have had a little more to drink than Wayne was comfortable with us having. He about had a fit when I started to drive home and insisted on taking me home in his cruiser. I didn't like it but he wouldn't let me leave on my own, just kept playing this high and mighty I-know-what's-best-for-everybody game until I finally gave up and went to bed in the spare room. He and Karen had a big argument and by the next morning he'd decided I wasn't fit enough of a grandmother to be around his kids anymore, even if two of them aren't even his. I left and we haven't said a word to each other since."
"He sounds like a real jewel," Dianne observed, holding up a radish and studying it like it was an artifact from another age.
"Oh, he is," Janice said. "He is. Only someone as ignorant as Karen would have ever hooked up with him. But that's how it goes, I guess. People make the wrong choices in their lives, then make worse ones trying to make up for the original bad ones they made."
"Guilty again," Carol said.
"But anyway," Janice said, "you're right about that DUI stuff. I can just see my darling son-in-law running across a record of me being behind the wheel and something like that going on. It would be the end of the world and no one would ever hear the end of it."
"Tell Karen to hurry up and get rid of him," Dianne said. "I don't see what good having someone in your family on the police force is if they can't be counted on to tear up a few tickets and get you out of jail in a hurry when you need them to."
It was as if all the talk about the police and law enforcement and the long arm of authority snatching one up when one stepped outside the rules and lines suddenly became manifest and real for them when the sound of sirens began filtering in from the street and three city police cars with their lights flashing rushed down Perkins from downtown and made a quick immediate right turn into the lot that ran from the street to the back lot of Jacqueline's. The women sat with their glasses poised at their lips and watched the cars speed by the window. Most of the room ceased conversations and sat looking through the glass, no voices or the clattering of plates and utensils much anymore, only the sound of James Taylor telling somebody invisible that somewhere they had a friend.
"I wonder what's happening?" Carol asked.
"Something not so good," Diane said. "If it takes three police cars in that big of a hurry, you can bet it's probably bad."
It was like the diners in the room wanted to resume with their meals and their prior conversations, but just when it seemed life was ready to pick up from where it had been interrupted, another set of police cars came down the road from an opposite direction and also turned into the lot, and people started to wonder exactly what was going on and if they were indeed safe sitting in this restaurant when something bad might be threatening them from beyond the walls and out in the real world from where they had entered this room to escape from its everyday tediousness earlier.
"I don't know whether to ask for my check or not," Janice said. "I'm almost afraid to go outside to my car."
"It might not be the worst thing to just sit here for a minute or two until someone lets us know what's going on." Diane opened her bag and peered inside at its contents. "Anybody feel like going out on the patio and smoking a cigarette?"
Janice was more than happy at the suggestion, not just because of her craving for a cigarette for more than an hour, but also because she was now aware she wasn't the only one in the group who loved nicotine and couldn't do without it. Diane was still smoking too, thank God. She wasn't the only one. Who knows, maybe Carol would come and blow blessed smoke through her lips too, and then they would all have one good taboo vice in common. And if there was cigarettes and margaritas and age and failing marriages and worthless children to share, well, then, all the better. Maybe there'd be more to talk about today than all the lunches and brunches before down through the years. They would be like kindred spirits again, like they had once been in their teens, like they had been in college days. It would be almost like so many rivers had not passed under the bridge. It would be almost like no one had changed or succumbed to time or circumstance or anything.
Patrolmen came inside and stood by the doors leading out, their arms folded and their eyes scanning the tables and the patrons at the bar watching to see if anyone was of the inclination to leave and would have to be informed that they couldn't. Wait persons came around to each table to beg pardon for the inconvenience, but it was a police directive for no one to leave the vicinity for a while. No one was in any danger, they were happy to say, but there had been an incident in the outside lot and an investigation was underway that couldn't be interrupted. There seemed to have been a shooting of some kind, but there were no details to be related. Everyone was advised to be patient until all the ends were tied up and the matter was resolved. Hopefully it wouldn't be too much longer.
"You talk about Glenn, well, now I can remember one thing about him." Diane reached for another cigarette and lit it from a book of house matches. They had moved from inside to a table on the outside porch so they could smoke with their complimentary pitcher of margaritas their waiter had provided to make up for their being detained by the swarm of law enforcement gathered on the other side of the building.
"You remember we had that Senior Skip Day that everyone was supposed to participate in?" Diane laughed. "Boy, that whole idea went over like a lead balloon. I'll bet less than a quarter of the class had nerve enough to not go to school that day. There were about twenty of us who met up at the park that morning."
"I was there," Janice said.
"I wasn't," Carol said. "Daddy found out about it and said he'd take my car away if I went. It wasn't worth it to me."
"We decided we'd ride bicycles from the park to the Krispy Kreme that used to be there at the shopping center, by the drugstore and Western Auto. We sat inside and ate doughnuts for a while, and then I had the idea how we ought to take our bikes and ride through the school hallway while classes were going on."
"I remember that," Janice said. "I thought that was a good way to get suspended and not graduate. I was afraid to do it."
"Everybody was," Diane smiled, "except for me and Glenn. That last year Glenn got to where he didn't much care what happened anymore. He knew it couldn't be anything too bad. They weren't going to throw him out of school for anything short of murdering somebody. He was the president of the class and whatever team we had he was always the captain. Colleges were practically throwing scholarships at him, and I'll bet he could have screwed anybody at school he wanted to. He could have screwed me, I'll tell you the truth, but he never tried. My feelings were hurt for a while, but after today I suppose I see why. I guess I was just the wrong sex, which is just my luck. I spent two years trying to get him to stick his prick in me and it never happened, and all that time I thought it was me who was doing something wrong. It just goes to show you how stupid we all were then. I look back on everything now, and I swear I didn't know the first thing about what was going on with just about everything."
"I'm not totally certain I do now," said Carol.
It was beginning to get toasty on the patio by now, and all at once Janice knew she couldn't bear to be stuck there much longer. She pushed back her chair and went in search of someone who could tell her how much longer she would have to stay at this fancified location from her past with old friends evoking memories and feelings long dormant. This scene was fine for a while, like attending a concert or visiting a shut-in from church or even going on vacation and flying first class, but the truth of it was that after a certain amount of time she was always ready for it and everything like it to come to an end. She was ready to get back to her real life, to escape back into that private cavern inside herself where it was just her and no one else was invited and no one else could come in. It was only her there in her place, and she could read what she wanted to and see what she liked and never have to answer questions about why it was this way with just herself and no one else or nobody from outside in the neighborhood or the street could make their way in to break the silence inside her heart and make her have to turn a light on or open a door and come across things she'd made it a point to leave far behind where they could never catch her.
God, she was intoxicated as hell. She had a real buzz going. She had to be careful walking or she might trip on a table leg or somebody's foot and go sprawling and show her underwear.
About the time she was fixing to ask a patrolman how much longer it would be he moved away and pushed through the door to the outside walk. The wait staff was going from table to table and people were pushing back their chairs and getting up. It appeared to Janice that whatever the crisis had been was over now. She saw Carol and Diane walking her way and wondered if maybe she ought to persuade them to sit for a while until she sobered up a little. Who knew? Maybe they were both the same way. Maybe they were all just a bunch of drunken aging old floozies who needed to park their asses at a table somewhere until it was safe enough to get behind the wheel of a car again.
"Someone got shot out in the parking lot," Carol said. "That's what the waiter told us."
"This neighborhood's not safe," Janice said. "I don't guess any place is too safe anymore. It's not like it used to be."
"It's just the way it is," Diane said. "There's more people and more guns, and the probability of getting shot is higher these days. Heck, girls, I pack a little pistol myself. Took some lessons and got me a permit. The way I look at it is a person can't be too careful."
They walked out the door toward their cars with the afternoon heat smacking them in the face, stinging their cheekbones and making them reach for sunglasses to keep from squinting. Cars were lined up trying to get out, so they stood for a moment waiting for the traffic to clear.
"They'd been inside eating," they heard a woman say into her phone. "They sat right across from us. They were talking and eating just like everyone else, then they both got up and left. Now I find out one of them shot the other right outside the door. Somebody said one of them was dead, but I don't know if that's the gospel truth or not. I guess we'll have to wait and find out on the evening news."
For a long instant no one said anything. It was like they were waiting for whatever their ears had just heard to simply go away as if it had never been there to begin with, but as the silence hung in the air and the fact slipped uninvited into their minds and took roost they waited a moment to see which of them was going to speak first and make this outer sensation that had visited them all just now evolve into reality.
"You don't think it could have been Glenn, do you?" Carol finally asked.
There were still plenty of police standing nearby in groups and circles, plainclothes and uniforms, and all one of them had to do was walk over and ask, but they continued standing where they were, looking, waiting. It was as if what had happened was already done and out there in the world now and there was no stopping it from being what it was, but there was also no need to invite it to come closer, to be that thing that defined them this day and all the days of their lives going forward. There would be no changing it when it came, but there was no reason to stand and watch it arrive either. Not here so very close. It would be better to find out about it from far away, in the same manner all news came these days, like words from a romance novel, something online, a piece of information, a morsel of gossip to be put away and discussed later when there had been some time for the notion of it to settle in.
"God, I hope it wasn't Glenn," Janice said.
"So do I," said Diane.
They said their goodbyes and promised to keep in touch. They glanced at the police in their huddles and walked off to their cars. Janice told herself to be careful pulling out, not to let the car lurch or hit anybody or do anything stupid like that. She kept the radio turned off so she could concentrate. She did her best not to think about what was going on back behind her in Jacqueline's parking lot. She kept thinking about Glenn and trying to remember who he went to the prom with that last year. Maybe, she decided, he just didn't go. She couldn't remember seeing him there, but it was so long ago.
Carol nudged her car forward and wondered how long Glenn had been gay. Was that the reason he'd left her behind that night? To go off somewhere with some boy? Or was there something else? She wished she'd have just come out and asked him. She would have liked to have known the truth.
Diane switched the radio to the classical station for the ride home. Something calming would be good, but it was Saturday afternoon and the Metropolitan Opera was on and that wasn't going to cut it. She tried three or four more stations, but everybody seemed to be playing the same thing. A couple of the songs she'd already heard back at Jacqueline's today. She could do without listening to them again.
She wondered if Glenn was dead or alive. She couldn't imagine him shooting anyone, so probably it was him with a bullet in him. But she hadn't imagined he was gay either, so who knew? More and more these days life revealed itself to her in a way she'd never imagined. If she'd bet on a lot of things she'd held to be true she'd be in the poorhouse by now, that was for sure.
It was hard to think of Glenn being dead, but it wasn't impossible. When people were gone for a long time, she'd learned, they might as well be dead too. Gone and dead were the same things almost. It meant someone wasn't around anymore. Out of mind, out of sight, dead. A logical progression.
She'd watch the news over dinner. She'd find out if Glenn was dead for sure or just gone, which, either way, was a way he'd been for a long time now.
Article © Ralph Bland. All rights reserved.
Published on 2017-08-28
Image(s) are public domain.