(“Here Come the Jesters” is an excerpt from my novel in progress titled “How Does Your Garden Grow”.)
The smoke gave Lilly a headache and she began to think coming on this road trip was a bad idea.
As Bad Company’s Rock ‘N Roll Fantasy blared from the car’s radio, Rick, Eddie, and Regina passed the small pipe around, each taking a drag before passing it to the other. They’d been on the road for a while, and now a smoky haze, together with Paul Rodgers’ bluesy vocals, filled the cabin of Rick’s station wagon as it sped south along the Garden State Parkway.
A few minutes earlier, Lilly thought nothing of it when Rick removed his hand from the steering wheel, leaned his body across Regina’s lap, popped open the glove box and withdrew a narrow, zippered pencil case. The case looked just like the one she’d used in middle school, only this one was black, and she was pretty certain it didn’t hold No.2 pencils, or cheap Bic pens, or a protractor that never got used.
She watched from the back seat, curious now, as Rick worked open the zipper. He first pulled out a tiny metal pipe, not much bigger than the palm of his hand. This was followed by a lighter, and finally a clear plastic baggie filled with something that looked like dried herbs from her mother’s kitchen.
Lilly had a pretty good idea what Rick had just pulled from the pencil case and dropped into his lap. She had no personal experience with grass, nor knew anyone who did. She was only a freshman, like Regina, so while she’d heard about it, even read about it, she’d never seen the real thing until now. Rick and Eddie were seniors, though, so while it both disturbed and intrigued Lilly, it didn’t at all surprise her when Rick prepared to light up.
Eddie and Regina both saw what Rick was doing, yet neither said a word. Their only reaction was to casually look away, as if watching, or otherwise acknowledging his actions, might make them appear naïve, out of step, less cool. But from the back seat, Lilly’s eyes fixed on Rick. She watched, engrossed, as he rolled open the baggie, fed the dry shards of plant into the pipe, and then held it to his lips. All this he did while the car continued speeding down the Parkway. His bare and boney knees, protruding from the shredded bottoms of cut-off jeans, squeezed the steering wheel, nudging it this way and that to keep the vehicle moving straight, or straight enough, in the far left lane. She watched how, with a practiced hand, he thumbed the wheel of his plastic Bic lighter, placed the flame above the pipe, and inhaled in short puffs. As he did, the flame pulsed, dipped down, and was drawn into the bowl with each breath until a red ember glowed briefly there, faded, and then was replaced by a steady, delicate wisp of smoke. Rick inhaled deeply, held the smoke in his lungs for a few seconds, and then let a cloud slowly billow from his lips.
Lilly caught the scent right away. It was an odd but sweet, herbal aroma. Not disagreeable in small quantities, she thought, and somehow familiar. Yes, in fact, it was recently familiar. She’d caught a whiff of that same scent just last week at school when she passed the girls’ restroom on the second floor of C Hall. She wondered about it then, but not anymore. Now she knew, and understood.
Rick’s eyes darted to the rear view mirror and locked on Lilly. She hadn’t realized she was staring at him, focused like a camera lens on what he was doing, until his eyes fell on her, caught her. She quickly looked away, out the window to the Parkway where the trees rushed by in a blur.
“You want some, Lil’?” Rick said evenly. His tone was not unkind, but not inviting either. To anyone else, his mind would be difficult to read, but to Lilly it was very clear. Those words and their tone were testing, probing, questioning, laying a trap.
Where do you stand?
That was the real question.
Are you going to judge? Are you going to give us shit for smoking some good shit?
That’s what she heard when he spoke those flatly intoned words. She was keenly aware that neither Regina nor Eddie wanted to look at her. They just continued to feign disinterest. They weren’t looking, but they were listening, of that she was certain. They waited for her answer, waited to see if their own choices would be made easier, or more difficult, by her answer.
“No.” She said, a little too quickly and firmly. “No, thanks. I don’t’ smoke. I… I have asthma.” It was a lie, but a reasonable and safe lie.
She might have been curious, but not curious enough to try some herself; not now, maybe not ever. And then her thoughts went reflexively and inexplicably to Annie. Lilly knew that had Annie been there, been alive to be there, her friend would have been the first to give Rick a hard time about lighting up.
Light up on your own time, Rick, she could easily hear Annie say. Then we don’t have to breathe your bullshit as well as listen to it.
The words would have been even-toned; not at all mean-spirited or combative. No, that wasn’t Annie’s style, but her words would have hit home just the same, and they would have drawn a line and dared Rick to cross it. It wasn’t that Annie’s dad was a cop; Lilly knew that. It’s just the way Annie was: clear-headed and practical; not the type of person to be coerced, or cornered, or compromised by someone else’s choices. God, how Lilly wished she could be that strong.
Just the thought of Annie lifted Lilly’s heart, and she suddenly realized why her friend came to mind. It was their destination. They were headed to Seaside Heights, one of a long string of beach communities with amusements, boardwalks and piers. They were places with names like Wildwood, Barnegat Bay, and Keansburg that collectively made up the Jersey Shore.
The Shore always put her in mind of Annie. Her parents had a summer house on the bay in Toms River, just over the bridge from Seaside, and Annie invited her to go there every summer, often for weeks at a time. She loved the Shore and it was one of the reasons she agreed to come along when Regina invited her on this weekend road trip. She knew Regina was just trying to set her up with Eddie, that much was obvious, but she would deal with that problem as it came.
Right now, she was headed to the Shore and to Seaside Heights; to the crowded beach where access required a fee and a badge pinned to your bathing suit; to the piers crowded with childish but irresistible rides; to the boardwalk and booth games where the operators smiled from beneath sunglasses and dirty baseball caps while they talked too fast and took your money in exchange for trinkets and trash; and to the food that tasted wonderfully sweet, or savory, or spicy-hot, but made you sick because you couldn’t resist eating too much of it too fast.
She liked to think of the Shore as a pretty woman, fun and young, with a bikini that showed off her a deep tan. Her perfume was the unmistakable aroma of sea salt and coconut oil blended with the sweet scent of cotton candy, and candied apples, and saltwater taffy. The Shore was an exciting assault on her senses. From those familiar smells, to the cacophony of sounds and music as she walked the Boardwalk, to the cheap foam rubber sandals on her feet that smacked her heels as she walked; she found comfort in it all.
Lilly thought about all of this as they pulled off Route 46 to the Turnpike. As they eventually maneuvered from the Turnpike onto the Parkway, she took the familiar sight of the tree-lined thruway that ran along the New Jersey Coast as another sign that they were making progress, getting closer. Even after Rick lit his pipe, she told herself it wouldn’t be for long, that they would be there soon, though she really had no idea how many more miles they had to go. Just the same, she held tight to her memories of Annie, and the beach and the boardwalk, using them to convince herself that no matter what happened, today would be one of her good days.
When Rick passed the pipe, first to Regina, then to Eddie, Lilly had turned back to the window and told herself it wasn’t so bad. But now the smoke filled the car, and her head started to throb, and the back of her throat began to burn. Lilly finally reached for the window’s handle.
The crank was stiff and turned reluctantly, but she managed to roll down her back passenger’s side window. All at once the wind rushed in at 75 miles per hour, buffeting her face. It whipped at her hair; each strand danced and darted about her head as if it had a mind of its own, turning her long auburn locks into a wild, jittering halo. She drew the cool, fresh air into her lungs and her head began to clear. That’s when Rick got angry.
“Hey, what do you think you’re doing, Sweet Heart?”
Rick had to raise his voice to be heard above Bad Company’s guitar riffs and the whooshing sound of the wind, and his voice put Lilly on edge. For Rick, Sweet Heart was not a term of endearment, but a label for any chick that he thought was an idiot. To Rick’s mind, if a girl didn’t want to let him cheat from her test in class, let him get to second base or further in the back of his station wagon, or swipe a bottle of Jack Daniels from the back of her parents liquor cabinet so they could get wasted, then she was an idiot.
“Leave her alone,” Regina said. “She’s got asthma.”
“Bull shit,” Rick said to Regina with casual confidence. And then turning his bloodshot eyes back to Lilly, he said firmly: “Close the window.” His voice was sharp and direct, and that’s when Lilly knew he’d seen right through her.
Then Eddie, who no doubt saw himself as her date, even though they weren’t really on a date, felt the need to explain. He was sitting next to her and now leaned across the back seat in her direction to be heard above the radio and the rushing wind.
“Rick likes to keep the windows closed when he smokes,” he said. “His car, his rules.” And he made a vertical, circular cranking motion with his hand as if to say she should be a good girl and roll up the window.
“I just needed some air, is all,” Lilly said to all of them, and no one. She hadn’t realized it at first, but now it dawned on her. Rick, and maybe the others, had taken her opening the window as a statement. Perhaps one she felt deep inside, but certainly not one she meant to openly voice. You make me sick, is what opening the window said to them, to Rick anyway, and he was going to make his own statement in kind.
“Close the God damned –“
Rick’s angry words were cut short by the deep, throaty roar of a glass packed muffler and the piercing wail of car horn. The origin of the noise was racing up behind them and Lilly saw Rick, Eddie, and Eddie all swivel their heads in unison to look past her in search of the source. Lilly finally turned to look as well.
Coming up fast behind them, and looming larger and menacing in their dirty tail gate window, was a large convertible with a wide slatted, chrome grill that looked to Lilly like a snarling animal, lips pulled back in a toothy display. It was approaching at a good clip, not slowing down one bit, gaining speed in fact, and for a moment Lilly thought it was going to ram them.
“Jesus…” The word slipped unconsciously from her lips in a whisper.
Just before the chrome grill collided with the back end of the wagon, the convertible’s driver tapped his breaks and the vehicle’s nose dipped and backed off. Then its juiced-up V12 engine roared again as he stepped on the gas pedal and it jumped closer to the tail of the station wagon. It did this repeatedly, like a dog jumping and barking at a passerby. Its engine growling, its toothy snarling front-end leaping, then dipping and backing off. Both vehicles were racing down the Parkway at better than 75 miles per hour, but they could have been standing still as the convertible danced behind them, as though it were alive. The sun glared off the convertible’s windshield, making Lilly squint her eyes, obscuring her view of the driver. The convertible leapt again, its engine growling, its horn blaring in a staccato rhythm.
“Oh, my God.” Lilly said, not hiding the fear in her voice.
And that’s when Rick laughed. Whether at Lilly, or at the growling convertible dancing behind them, it wasn’t clear, but his laughter gave Eddie and Regina permission to laugh as well.
Rick killed the radio, but still had to shout over the roar of the engines, the blaring horn, and the rushing wind.
“It’s Crazy Jimmy!”
“He’s early!” Eddie shouted.
“No time like the present to party!” Rick said, flashing a broad smile.
Just then, the V12 engine behind them roared once more, this time in a sustained burst. The convertible raced toward the station wagon’s tail, the engine’s roar reached a crescendo, and Lilly braced herself for the impact. But a split second before the inevitable collision, the convertible, with squealing tires, swerved to the right and pulled alongside the wagon, matching its speed. The two cars raced along the Parkway side-by-side.
The driver, his eyes hidden behind dark Ray-ban Wayfarers, his face covered with stubble, grinned broadly. He waved, and when he did, Lilly could see that half of his right index finger was missing.
Lilly watched as the driver with half a finger made a cranking motion with his hand, just as she had seen Eddie do. Rick tapped Regina’s thigh with the back of his hand.
And as if he’d never delivered a command to the contrary, Rick said: “Open it.”
Quickly, Regina rolled down her own window. More air rushed in and the roar of the wind in the wagon’s cabin was nearly deafening. Rick leaned over her, pointed at his friend behind the wheel of the convertible, smiled and shouted: “Hey, Jimeeeeeeey! Way to go! Nice wheels!”
Jimmy was behind the wheel of a rebuilt 1969 Mercury Cougar Convertible with a custom built v12. But while Rick was getting a hard on over Jimmy’s ride, Lilly thought it was the ugliest piece of crap she’d ever seen. As she looked it over, she thought the car was puke green but it was hard to tell because it was really several colors. It seemed that every part of the body was taken from a different vehicle, or was scarred and patched with gray auto body filler and red primer, waiting for the paint job that would never come. It appeared Jimmy had assemble it out of pieces scavenged from other dead junkers, just as Victor Frankenstein had robbed graves to patch together his own green beast. The two monsters – one a groaning, grunting, mute, according to Hollywood, and this one a growling mechanical animal – were cousins down to the scars and the bolts. The convertible seemed to be an on-going project that Crazy Jimmy, as Rick had called him, was assembling one piece at a time. If indeed that was the case, Lilly was certain he had started and finished with the engine. By the way the front end jumped and bucked when Jimmy danced between the gas pedal and the break, Lilly got the impression there was a sizeable animal trapped under the hood trying to get out, and the glass pack muffler, with its throaty growl, gave the creature a voice to match its menace.
“Thirsty?!” Crazy Jimmy shouted.
Rick just shook his head and waved an open hand by his ear, abandoning all pretense that he and Jimmy could actually hear one another over the roaring engines, the sound of traffic, and the rushing wind.
Jimmy took a hand from the wheel, reached down between his knees, and then raised a long neck beer bottle into view. He took a sip and flashed another grin. He raised the beer again, this time tipping its long neck in Rick and Regina’s direction, as if to say care for a drink? Rick flashed his own smile and gave Jimmy a thumbs-up.
Jimmy nodded in response, message sent and received. He leaned over and spoke to the dark-haired boy sitting in the convertible’s front passenger’s seat. Lilly saw that there were three other people in the car with Jimmy; the boy in the front seat and two girls, a slim blonde and a busty brunette, in the backseat.
“Hey Eddie,” Rick shouted above the noise. “I’m thirsty!”
“I’m on it, chief!” Eddie replied, and then he leaned toward Lilly again saying: “We need to swap seats.”
Puzzled at first, Lilly finally followed Eddie’s instructions and in a few seconds the two squirmed, folded and twisted their bodies around each other until they were repositioned. Eddied now sat in Lilly’s seat behind Regina, his right elbow propped on the edge of the open window, his fingers tapping rhythmically on the roof of the station wagon, wind thrashing at his shaggy mop of brown hair. He waited, for what, Lilly wasn’t sure. Then she saw past Eddie, through the window, to what was happening in the car racing along beside them.
A similar game of musical chairs was taking place in the convertible. The dark-haired boy in the front passenger’s seat was trading places with the busty brunette in the back. The airstream buffeted them when they rose up above the convertible’s windshield. The rushing wind tossed the girl’s hair about in tangles, strands of hair whipped in and out of her eyes. She moved slowly and wobbled a bit as she placed her foot on the back seat, taking care not to step on the blonde girl who squirmed to make room. The brunette nearly toppled but grabbed the front bucket seats to steady herself. The boy maneuvered around the open car with equal care, but better balance, as he made his way to the back seat. He was bare-chested except for a gold chain that held a crucifix, and he wore long blue bathing trunks. The boy was clearly an athlete, that much Lilly could tell, and when he finally sat in the back of the convertible, now opposite Eddie in the station wagon, Lilly finally recognized him. It was Bobby Morris, another freshman, the one everyone was talking about. He had made the Blackwater Warrior’s Varsity football team as their starting running back, the only freshman to make the starting varsity in 20 years. That meant the blonde in the back seat was very likely Lucy Price, his girlfriend.
Lilly continued to watch as the brunette, now safely in the front seat, reached down to pick up something from the floor. They were bottles of beer and they were dripping wet. She saw the girl flick her wrist, tossing the droplets of water off her hand before she handed the bottles to Bobby in the back seat.
Eddie turned to Lilly. “Hold on to me.”
“What?” Lilly was confused as she watched Eddie kneel on the bench seat and feed his torso through the open window to hang outside the car, one hand gripping the luggage rack on the roof.
Lilly immediately grabbed Eddie’s belt and shouted: “You’re insane!”
Eddie laughed and so did Rick and Regina. Lilly’s fear, unfounded in their eyes, was just another perk of the game for them; syrup for the sundae. She could see that now, and anger welled up inside her.
“You’re a jackass, Eddie.” She said, but they all laughed even harder. Lilly gripped Eddie’s belt tighter, then took hold of the back pocket of his shorts and yanked on them hard to ensure she had a good grip. His cut-off jeans were now riding up on him, and his belt, made tight by her grip, was cutting into his circulation.
“Hey, careful,” Eddie complained.
“Does that hurt Eddie? Good! I hope you sing Soprano,” Lilly shouted over the wind.
Regina howled with laughter. She was sliding off her seat now, almost on the floor, almost out of breathe.
Rick laughed, too, and as his shoulders shook with the gales, the steering wheel shifted slightly, and the station wagon, which handled like a boat on its aging suspension, swayed and bobbed as Rick quickly moved to right the ship.
“Hey, hey, hey!” Eddie shouted to Rick, the first true iota of concern creeping into his voice. “Steady as she goes!”
His smile only wavered for the moment it took Rick to steady the wagon again. Then Eddie, with Lilly holding tight to his belt and his cut-off jeans, leaned further out the window.
In the back seat of the convertible, Bobby leaned out toward Eddie while Lucy held his legs. She had one leg tucked under each armpit and wrapped her hands around his tan thighs. Bobby held out four beers, two in each hand, fingers wrapped expertly around the long necks of each bottle. The sun gleamed off the beads of ice water and condensation that ran down the brown smoky glass.
Lilly peered out the back window and saw only a single vehicle, a white van trailing behind them at a reasonable distance. She then stole a glance out the windshield – clear up ahead – then over Rick’s shoulder to the dashboard. They were still racing down the Parkway at better than 75 miles per hour. Neither Rick nor Jimmy planned to slow down. She watched as their eyes darted from the road to the other driver, back and forth. Their eyes locked on one another for a brief moment and then Jimmy nodded. Rick smiled and nodded back, message sent and received. Then slowly, the gap between the two vehicles began to close.
For a split second, Lilly thought Bobby looked like Christopher Reeve playing Superman in last summer’s movie blockbuster. His hips rested on the convertible’s door frame. His body was fully extended, legs secured by Lucy, arms thrust out before him, the four beer bottles dangling from his curled fingers. Bobby stretched a little further.
Eddie let go of the luggage rack, bent over a little more, and reached both his hands out toward Bobby. Lilly could feel his weight shifting, his center of gravity now slipping outside the car. She was the counter weight keeping him balanced. Then she heard it; the screaming.
“Watch out! Watch out!”
Regina screamed and pointed to something in the road up ahead. The effect of her scream was like someone pulling a rip cord on a parachute during free fall. All at once, the false and reckless notion of easy and assumed invincibility that accompanies youth was gone, and the true gravity of the situation ripped at the pit of their stomachs.
Something gray, and fat, and just a little bigger than a house pet, slowly emerged from the weeds that choked the highway median. It waddled into Rick’s lane and toward certain death. Oblivious to the metal monsters packed with human bodies that raced its way, an opossum had chosen that moment to cross the road.
Just as Eddie and Bobbie began the exchange of beer bottles, Rick began shouting and jerked hard on the steering wheel.
“Oh, Shit! Oh, Shit!”
For Lilly, this adventure began with an apology she thought would never come.
“Look, I know the whole firecracker thing was kind of stupid,” Regina said. “Sorry about that. I didn’t know Rick was going to do that.”
They sat on a bench outside Blackwater High, waiting for their rides. Lilly, having finished writing a paper in the school library, waited for her mother. Regina, just out of cheerleading practice, waited for Rick.
Lilly just shrugged at Regina’s words.
“Sometimes Rick can be a jerk. And God knows he hates Mrs. King. I have no idea why, but he does.”
Lilly new perfectly well why he hated Mrs. King, though she didn’t think it was a good idea to tell Regina. Instead, she found herself uttering words meant only to deflate the awkwardness that had grown between them.
“That’s okay, Regina” She said. “It’s no big deal.”
Even as the words came out of her mouth, Lilly regretted them. That’s okay. It’s no big deal.
She wanted to kick herself. Why was she always letting people do that to her, always giving them permission to put her in compromising situations.
But the words had their intended effect, as the tension faded from Regina’s shoulders and back. She relaxed on the bench now and smiled a bit. Lilly knew how different she and Regina were, as different as she and Annie had been the same. Regina’s raven black hair was long and full. Lilly also saw that it was stiff and unmoving, and she could detect a faint chemical smell beneath liberally applied perfume and deodorant, and she understood.
From cheer practice Regina and her teammates, the ones who expected to see their boyfriends afterward, would have made the required stop in the ladies room. The hiss of aerosol cans would have filled the room and echoed off the tile walls as they pumped a cloud of quick-drying chemicals meant to tame unruly hair. Like the other girls, Regina would have labored to attain the high, full, kinky look fashioned after bands like Van Halen and Cheap Trick. The style was new, and only just becoming a trend, but that was Regina, always looking for a way to stand out, to be noticed, to be first.
From the hair, perfume, and deodorant, she would have moved onto the eye makeup as well, using a Bic lighter to burn the tip of her eyeliner pencil for darker thicker application. The first time Lilly saw a classmate do this; she thought the girl was doing something illegal. The carefully orchestrated 30 minutes in the ladies room resulted in raccoon eyes and big kinky hair. This wasn’t always Regina’s style, but it had become her look since she started dating Rick. Regina once told Lilly she modeled it after Cher, even mentioned the cover of the Take Me Home album where Cher did her best imitation of a warrior goddess from a Boris Vallejo painting. But in truth, she did it to impress Rick. To Lilly’s eyes, she looked less like Cher and more like a cross between Eddie Van Halen and Alice Cooper, and figured that’s why Rick liked it.
That was Regina’s style and she could have it. For Lilly, especially these days, standing out meant getting that gnawing feeling in the pit of her stomach. It meant taking the risk of becoming an object of curiosity, the risk of people poking thoughtlessly at unseen scars, or worse, the risk of becoming a target for teasing and ridicule. It meant jumping from a precipitous height without the parachute, without the unconditional love and acceptance that Annie had always provided.
Regina removed a pack of Virginia Slims from her bag along with a lighter. She held out the pack, offering it to Lilly.
Regina shrugged, lit a cigarette, and exhaled the smoke.
Finally, Regina said: “Hey, listen…” She smiled and Lilly could tell she was trying a little too hard to be casual and friendly. “Me and Rick and Eddie are going down the Shore for the weekend, Eddie’s family has a place down there. You should come with us.”
And then she took another drag on her cigarette, a stalling tactic to cover the fact that she wasn’t sure how to proceed with this conversation.
She and Regina had never been close. Yes, they’d gone to school together for years, but that didn’t mean anything. She could say the same about most of the kids in her freshman class. She even went to kindergarten with some of them, yet still, she had a hard time putting a name to most of the faces. Most people just float in and out of our lives without making a ripple on the surface of our memories. It took more than being in the same place, the same classroom, the same neighborhood, the same house, even, to make a connection. Sometimes, the connections never came. They were rare indeed for Lilly, so when Regina reached out, regardless of her motives, Lilly was grateful but guarded.
“I don’t know…” Lilley said, and then let her words trail off.
“You know, Eddie thinks you’re cute.”
Lilly just shrugged at this, not knowing how to respond, as this was coming out of left field.
“Eddie’s a pretty cool guy, don’t you think?”
And there it was; the real reason Regina was inviting Lilly for a weekend down the Shore. She was delivering a message from Eddie. That was the subtext, anyway. Eddie, an upper classman she didn’t really know well, wanted to ask her out but didn’t have the nerve to do it himself. Regina was his emissary, his means of plausible denial if rejection was the result.
“I have a lot of homework I should do this weekend,” she said, heading down her usual path of polite deflection when such invitations came her way. It was just safer. It was her way of avoiding the uncomfortable moments with strangers, and the questions about Annie that would inevitably come.
I’m really sorry about Annie, they would say. It would start with a sincere comment like that. Everyone knew they were inseparable and everyone had heard about the accident. How could they not? The principal of their Middle School had announced it over the PA system the very next day. He talked about the deeply felt heartache over the loss of a member of the Woodrow Wilson Middle School community.
The sympathy would, as it always did, turn to morbid curiosity.
Where did it happen?
Did you see it happen?
They say it was a drunk driver, was it?
Is it true that her head was twisted completely around like Lind Blair in the Exorcist when she was hit by the car?
“We’ll have fun.”
“Huh?” Lilly’s mind had drifted again and Regina’s words came at her as if out of a fog.
Regina flicked cigarette ash onto the sidewalk. “I said we’ll have fun. It’ll be cool.”
“I’m not sure my Mom will let me.”
“Well, she definitely won’t let you if you don’t ask, silly,” Regina said with an easy smile.
There was something about Regina’s persistence that gave Lilly comfort. It felt good to be included. It felt even better if the person doing the inviting really meant it, and Regina seemed sincere, despite her agenda. And for a brief moment, Lilly thought there was a chance they might one day become friends.
“Here” Regina said, and tucked the cigarette in the corner of her lips. With her free hands she rummaged through her bag. “I’m going to give you my number.” The words were slightly mumbled as she secured the burning cigarette in her lips as she spoke. She finally pulled a small spiral memo pad and a pen from her bag and began writing.
“Okay,” Lilly heard herself saying; again, not in acceptance of the offer, no, not acceptance. It was that reflexive need to not resist, not cause waves, to avoid conflict. Again, she wanted to kick herself. God, why did she keep doing that? That kind of acquiescence was like greasing the wheels on an uncontrollable ride down a path she wasn’t sure she wanted to take. She guessed it was the need to avoid yet one more weekend alone, the need to be with someone, anyone. That need was like a subtle undertow that pulled her in a direction she was afraid to go, but deep down she knew it was a path she had to follow, if only to have a path at all. That under tow was pulling her out into deep water and she feared what lay just beneath the surface.
Regina tore out the page and handed it to Lilly.
“Call me tonight, let me know. We can pick you up at your house.”
“I’ll see,” Lilly finally said. She smiled to be polite and in that moment was thinking it would be easier and safer to lie. She would call Regina that night, say her mother wouldn’t let her go and be done with it. That was it. That made things easier.
Someone tapped a car horn. When Lilly looked up, she saw a dusty brown station wagon with dented side panels pulling up to the curb.
Regina grabbed her purse and gym bag, and headed to the car. As she pulled open the door and climbed in, she turned back and said with a smile: “Don’t forget. Tonight. Call me.” She shut the door and the car pulled away.
Moments later, her mother’s car, a new Ford Mustang, pulled to the curb. She shouldered her own book bag, grabbed her purse and headed for the car. She opened the door, tossed her bag into the front passenger’s side foot well, climbed in and turned to look at her mother. But the driver wasn’t her mother.
“Hey, Babe,” the man said in a soft familiar tone. He was dark-haired and dark-eyed, and his smile was easy and friendly and satiny smooth. A knot formed in Lilly’s chest.
Ken Mackey, her mother’s new boyfriend, leaned over and kissed her on the cheek. His cologne, strong and musky, filled her nostrils and touched the back of her throat, and she could smell sweet mint on his breath masking the bitter odor of cigarettes. When he kissed her, she thought his lips lingered beside her cheek for a second, and his eyes met hers briefly before he drew away.
She hated when he kissed her like that, and she said as much to her mother.
“He’s just an affectionate guy and he likes you. Be nice. Give him a chance,” her mother had said. And then her voice changed, getting softer and younger, and a little playful.
“And he’s so handsome, don’t you think?” she said in girlish conspiracy. Her mother had positively glowed when she said these words. She was excited and she wanted to share, and it made Lilly uncomfortable. Ken made her uncomfortable. The whole situation made her uncomfortable: her mother dating a stranger only 18 months after her father’s death, and somehow wanting her approval like they were two girlfriends talking boys at a sleep-over. And Mr. Affectionate, with his smooth smile and his unwanted and sometimes unexpected pecks on the cheek, made her skin crawl.
“Where’s my Mom?” Lilly asked, not looking at him. She kept her gaze out the window.
Ken maneuvered the Mustang into traffic. “Her friend Colleen invited her for a weekend down in Atlantic City. You know, a girls’ get away.”
“Seriously?” Lilly said, once again feeling off balance.
Twelve months after her father died, as if an alarm clock went off, her mother suddenly, and with an unexpected zeal, become prone to spontaneous change: new clothes, new hair style, new car, new boyfriend. Like a reptile shedding an old skin, she was shedding her old life including her dead husband and, so it felt to Lilly, her only daughter. Increasingly, Lilly felt like used and damaged goods that held little interest for her mother. First Annie, then her dad, now her mother, or at least her comfortable idea of who her mother should be; everyone was leaving her.
“Yeah, Colleen’s husband got called into work last minute, so she invited your Mom. They’re staying in that new Resorts Casino Hotel. Pretty fancy stuff. She said she left a note for you on the kitchen table.”
“She’s gone for the whole weekend?”
“Be back Sunday night,” he said. “Your Mom asked me to pick you up today. Don’t worry…”
And then Mr. Nice Guy, Mr. Means Well, Mr. Affectionate leaned over with his right hand and gently patted her knee. He had slim, delicate fingers softened by lotion, and he wore a gold signet ring on his pinky. They were girl’s hands, she noticed; even his nails were carefully manicured.
“…I figured I’d keep an eye on you this weekend.” Lilly wasn’t sure, but she thought she felt his gentle pat transform into a soft caress. He smiled a genuine caring smile. He let his fingers linger on her for a second before moving them back to the Mustang’s steering wheel.
When he did things like this, Lilly would usually grow quiet and retreat to a place inside herself. But she understood that such silence was just another form of acquiescence. She was doing it again: giving people permission to treat her in ways that made her uncomfortable. She wanted to say something, but what? And who would listen?
And then she remembered the small piece of note paper clutched in her fist, the one with the ragged edge where the spiral had torn through the paper, and the hastily scribbled phone number, written in Regina’s elegant young girl’s hand.
“You mean this weekend?” she said.
“Mom, didn’t tell you?”
“Tell me what?”
Lilly squeezed the wad of paper a little tighter in her hand. “I’m going down the Shore with my friends. Mom said I could go.”
It was a lie, the biggest she’d ever told, but somehow telling it to Ken made it okay. In fact, telling it to Ken made it right.
“Oh, Shit! Oh, Shit!”
Rick hissed the words between clenched teeth as he jerked hard on the steering wheel.
Lilly felt a sudden shift in Eddie’s weight; he was sliding out the window. She leaned back, holding tight to his belt and his cut-off jeans, but his momentum was pulling her, dragging her across the vinyl seat, the friction burn stinging her bare knees. Outside the car, Bobby and Eddie had just made the exchange. But Eddie’s arms wind-milled. The bottles were still tangled in his fingers. One long neck slipped. A foamy white spray of glass and beer exploded on the asphalt below. The white van trailing behind them swerved, its tires squealing as the driver took refuge in the far right lane. Eddie rolled over and in his panic reached for the car. Pain radiated through her fingers and Lilly could feel him slipping out of her grasp.
Desperate, Rick jerked hard on the wheel again. And for the first time since witnessing Annie’s death, Lilly felt time slow to a painful and terrifying crawl.
Tires squealed and then became mute.
The station wagon lurched up.
Rubber no longer gripped the road.
The beach gear in the wagon’s bed lifted and shifted.
Eddie became weightless in her hands.
Their world inside the wagon was tipping.
Lilly could feel it. They were about to roll.
Everything came crashing down. The tires met asphalt once again. The vehicle’s frame followed. The aging suspensions barely held as the tires banged against the underside of the wheel wells with a horrible sounding cha-thunk, and the chassis shuttered and rattled as the opossum was pulled beneath the vehicle and spit out behind them in a formless, motionless lump of fur.
She felt Eddie slipping out the window and screamed. Reacting, Rick jerked the wheel yet again, and this time the momentum threw Eddie’s body toward the wagon. Lilly felt his weight shift. Soon, his right arm and elbow were wrapped around the bar of the luggage rack, and Lilly was relieved to feel the remainder of his weight move back onto the door frame.
Rick finally had the wagon back under control, its speed leveling off at a pedestrian 55 mph.
Regina quickly got up, kneeled on her seat, reached out her own open window, and took two bottles from Eddie as he began to climb back in the window.
They all sat in the station wagon, unmoving. The rushing wind howled, but they were silent, not looking at one another, not saying anything. Lilly’s heart hammered in her chest. Her head was spinning with the thought of what had almost happened. The idea that Eddie could have…
Lilly’s thoughts were interrupted by the gentle release and carbonated hiss of a beer bottle being pried opened. She saw Regina sheepishly raise the bottle to her lips.
And that’s when Rick and Eddie and Regina began to laugh.
Copyright (c) 2014 by Dan Maurer. All rights reserved.
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