"Your dress is hangin' on a hook on the door
My jeans are lying in a pile on the floor, yeah
Flat on my back, tryin' to catch my breath
When we were rockin' tonight
I thought that we were gonna rock to death
But what's that in your eyes?
I'm no longer paralysed
Here we go again
"

- Alice Cooper - "Crawlin"



          All good things

December 1987 to May 1988


December 1987 was a hard time for me because my life changed a lot that month.  With my semester finals coming up, end of the semester stuff happening and a busy holiday work schedule my time with Debby Lee was limited during the first week or so.  

Debby Lee spent one weekend with me at my apartment that month, the 11th through the 13th.  She showed up that Friday night at Sack and Save with a gift wrapped bottle of Jack Daniels.  She came through my checkout line and bought some hot cocoa mix.  When I got off work and drove back to my apartment, she was waiting for me there, wearing nothing but a Santa hat and holding out a mug of hot cocoa spiked with Jack, naked as the way that she had come into this world.

That was a good weekend, no, it was a really, really good weekend.

We coasted the next week. 

Since school was out Debby Lee wasn’t on my side of the map as often so we went from seeing each other every weekday at school to seeing each other when we could which after the semester finals was almost few and far between. 

On Wednesday the 16th I visited her at the steakhouse and ate there.  She came by my apartment after work.  We had sex, her call, but it felt rushed and then she left a little after midnight.  She seemed … distant.  The sex was good but it wasn’t like it usually was between us and when she left I had that funny feeling way deep down inside that something had changed between us.  Even for an affair like ours what we had just done felt empty … almost meaningless. 

Token, even.

Something had changed for us, between us, and that wasn’t good.

I didn’t see Debby Lee any more that month.

I worked on the 23rd until 10pm then left Sack and Save and drove down to Hattiesburg to spend Christmas with my parents and my sister.  My grades were waiting on me when I woke up the next day.

My grades weren’t good.

School had always come easy for me and while I was never a straight “A” student (and didn’t really care to be), making “B”s and “C”s came no sweat and that had always been good enough for me.  Not so with college and when I got my final grades for that first semester it came as somewhat of a shock to me to see that I hadn’t done nearly as well as I thought I had … not by a longshot.  In fact, my grades were low enough that I lost my scholarship (something that my parents were not pleased about) and while I didn’t wash out of college I can say that any stellar performance coming from me that first semester certainly hadn’t been in the classroom. 

The grades told on me there.

I chuckled when I saw that I’d gotten an “A” in Tennis / Aerobics because I’d also gotten a “D” in that class; a “D” as in “Debby Lee.”

I spent the Christmas break with my family in Hattiesburg and after the well-earned ass chewing about my grades and the loss of my scholarship from my father we all settled down and had a great holiday time together.  I can’t say that I didn’t think about Debby Lee during that time, in fact, I thought about her a hell of a lot.  My parents commented that I seemed distant and I guess if my thoughts were distant I could be as well.

I headed back up to Raymond on Monday the 28th because I had to work at Sack and Save that night.  I was three hours into my six hour shift when Debby Lee came to see me.  Her eyes were red and it looked like she had been crying a lot, maybe even in the last few hours.  That’s when I knew that she wasn’t stopping by to plan another long weekend together.

That’s when I knew that what we had shared these past few months was over.

I took a break and we talked, there in the employee break room; that’s when she told me that she couldn’t see me anymore and her tears flowed again.  Even at eighteen years old I wasn’t na´ve enough to have believed, going into our affair, that what we had wasn’t as temporary as it was finite so I can’t say that I was surprised that it was ending … I guess I had been surprised that it had lasted as long as it had; almost three months to the day, and that we had been together (and so often) as we had been.  If it really was over then I had few, if any, regrets because it had been fun while it lasted.  God, had it been fun.

Debby Lee didn’t really give me a reason why she was ending our affair (and I didn’t press her on the matter) but I think that logistics had a lot to do with it … our affair had been one of convenience; time, place and circumstance.  Now that we weren’t together all the time, every day, now that she was on the other side of Jackson over thirty miles away one way and working full-time days and nights, now that she wasn’t apart from Robby so often five days out of each week it just wasn’t as easy or as convenient for us to be together anymore … to see each other like we had been seeing each other … to share what we had shared.

She gave me back the spare key to my apartment.

It was the first time that a girl had given me back a key to my place.  I marked that as a first in my book as well.

The truth was that Debby Lee hadn’t fared well in her classes either and had dropped out of junior college all together after only one semester.  I guess she didn’t have the discipline that she thought that she had but in hindsight I may have had a part in that as well and I felt bad for her.  On the other hand, she had found a full-time job in Ridgeland at an upscale night club, far closer to home and she was quitting the family steak house there in Clinton at the end of December.  The hours at the club were better, the work easier and the pay a lot higher.

I was happy for her.

I wished her well, finished our time together with the usual bit of nonsensical post extramarital affair small talk and walked her out to the parking lot to her ’84 white Buick Regal.  I said goodbye to her, kissed her once on the lips (only) and then watched her drive off out of sight … one last time.  I stood there on the big hill overlooking Jackson, watching the taillights of her Buick merge with the traffic on the highway and then finally vanish from sight.  I could tell it was over because she had never looked in the rearview mirror, not once, when she was leaving.  When Debby Lee left that night, a tiny part of me went with her, never to be replaced or renewed, ripped out as it always was when I lost someone that I cared enough about to share my body with.

That night, after work, I stood there for a long time at the guard rail of the parking lot of Sack and Save, stood in the same spot that I’d stood just hours earlier when she had left.  I was lost in my thoughts, alone again in my life and left with some hard decisions to make.  College wasn’t all fun and games, I guess I’d come to learn that the hard way this semester … it wasn’t going to be as easy as I thought.  School had been easy for me, college wasn’t going to be.

The cold December wind whipped at me there on the high hill that overlooked the cloverleaf interchange of Highway 49 and Interstate 20 with the vast sea of twinkling lights of Jackson businesses and neighborhoods beyond.  I listened to the wind howl around me and I listened to the sound of the traffic passing by on the looping highway and interstate lanes beneath me.

A thought occurred to me, more a revelation than any kind of epiphany; I had pretty much pissed away my first semester of college on being wild and having the time of my life and in doing so I’d let my grades suffer and lost my academic scholarship in the process.  Now it was time to get my head on straight and get serious about college ...

... and that is exactly what I did my second semester at Hinds. 

 

          New Year's Eve
Thursday, December 31st, 1987
Raymond, Mississippi

I rang in the New Year by myself, at my apartment, watching the numbers on the clock change.

11:53 PM.

11:54 PM.

Oz’s “Fire in the Brain” LP was almost done on the first side and I felt a need to listen to something more … maudlin so I dug out Tank’s “Honour and Blood” LP.  I put Oz’s vinyl back in its album cover, put Tank on the turntable and, setting the needle down on the “Too tired to wait for love” track, I took my place on the sofa again.  Another sip of my drink and I closed my eyes, listening to the lyrics and the guitar work and feeling something personal in the song.  Memories come rushing back.

Pam.

Claire.

Debby Lee.

This time just one year ago I’d been holding Claire in my arms, watching the countdown to a new year and wondering what all that year would bring.  It had brought Claire vanishing from my life, me graduating high school, me going off to college, me meeting Debby Lee, me having an affair with Debby Lee and me losing Debby Lee as well.  I can’t say it was the best year in my life.

Memories.

Some good.

Some bad.

I opened my eyes.

11:59 PM.

Close. 

I had almost missed saying goodbye to this year, my 18th so far, and that would have been a real shame. 

The seconds hand on the clock showed that I had about twenty more seconds left in 1987.  Back in my junior year in high school I had once taken a calculator and figured out how many seconds there were in just one year, part of a math problem for homework and the answer had amazed me.  Sixty seconds to a minute, sixty minutes to an hour, twenty-four hours to a day, three hundred and sixty-five days to a year … I think the number of seconds in a year had been over thirty-one and a half million.

There were over thirty-one and a half million seconds in a single year and here I was, watching the last twenty seconds of 1987 tick by.  Somewhere, deep down inside I guess that meant something because I thought about that fact hard and deep as I stared at the clock on the wall.  It gave me some sense of placement; a small amount of anchoring in a life that I felt was moving way too fast to sometimes get more than a fleeting grasp on.

Ten seconds left in 1987.

Out of over thirty-one and a half million seconds that I’d lived in just the last year alone I was now down to the last ten seconds of this year.  Ten seconds.  A countdown to the death of the old year or the liftoff of a new year; I guess only I was going to be the one to determine that.

I finished off the last of the amaretto sour that I had been nursing, watched all the hands on the clock, hour, minute and second, move to the single instant in time when they were all pointing straight up at the end of the old year and the start of the new year and I let out a breath I didn’t know that I’d been holding.

Nothing had really changed.

The world didn’t seem any different. 

Off in the distance the sound of fireworks began to spastically thunder and there were a few reports that I felt were made by firearms and not fireworks at all.  I gave a silent toast to the brand new year, watched the seconds hand climb down to twenty seconds into the New Year and somehow felt that a balance had been achieved.  In what and for what I didn’t know but going from the last twenty seconds of the old year to the first twenty seconds of the New Year somehow felt … right.  Like some temporal debt had been paid in full.  I got up, walked with some noted difficulty to the kitchen and cobbled up another amaretto sour, more amaretto than sour.  If I was going into this new year it certainly wasn’t going to be on a stable set of legs.

I went outside and stood on the sidewalk of my apartment.  The air was cool, crisp.  The reports of fireworks and firearms were a lot louder now, some close, some far off in the distance.  I sipped on my amaretto sour and felt the cold winter air on my cheeks.  The moonlight was bright and cast an eerie white glow to everything.  I breathed deep, feeling the cold down in my lungs and I closed my eyes.

It was 12:03 AM, midnight, January 1st, 1988.

1987 was gone forever and with it so was Claire and Debby Lee; two women that I’d cared deeply about in the same year and I realized then that I had cared deeply for Debby Lee, probably more so than even I had let myself in on.  It’s not easy to get that close to someone, to share what we had shared for as long as we had shared it and to just cut it off like a light switch.

1987.

Not a great year but not a bad one either depending on how you looked at it and I can assure you that I looked at it a lot differently than my parents did.  I had a feeling that 1988 was going to be a good year.  I was going to make it a good year.  I felt that I had somehow “evolved” or moved up to a different level in life.  I felt like I “got it” now, that I had figured out something that I had been missing and that I understood life a lot better, now, today, more so than I had just yesterday.  Maybe it was just the maudlin feeling that I was in, maybe it was the amaretto talking to me but whatever it was I kind of liked being right there in the middle of it and I raised my glass in a solitary toast, took another drink of my amaretto sour before nodding to the world at large and going back inside my apartment.

I was tired.

The year was brand new.

The world would keep, at least for a few hours while I drank myself into a painless comfort where memories of those gone couldn’t hurt me.  I’d have two more amaretto sours before I felt like sleeping and I would certainly be feeling no pain before I turned the light out and went to sleep there on the couch that night.  I could have made it to my bed but I just didn’t feel like sleeping in my bed tonight, not tonight, not alone.  I’d slept in that bed since I was a child, alone, but tonight, it just didn’t feel like I should sleep there so I didn’t.

Maybe it was acknowledging my time with Debby Lee and what we had shared.

I pulled an afghan off the back of the couch and spread it over me then bunched up one of the throw pillows to put under my head.  I hit the remote for the stereo, turned the light off on the end table and lay there feeling the rush of the amaretto through my body.  I was floating on a warm tide, along warm currents.  I was happy, I had set my course in a new direction, tomorrow, hell, right now was a brand new year and I was going to do something with it.  I felt my body start to sink slowly into the cushions of the couch, like I was being lowered into a warm sea.  It was a blissful, easy feeling and that’s the last thing that I consciously remember of New Year’s Eve, 1987 and celebrating it, alone, at my one bedroom apartment there in Raymond, MS.

 

          Bad decisions can be fun

Since Debby Lee hadn’t told me where she was working in Ridgeland (only that it was a much better paying job than the one that she had worked at in Clinton) there was never the temptation to go looking for her in the weeks and months that followed.  You can’t find someone who doesn’t tell you where they're going.  Yes, I thought about her, a lot and often, probably more than I should have but over was over and what I still carried of Debby Lee were more pleasant memories rather than powerful yearnings …

We had been two people with a need disguised as a want and we had shared and satisfied that need with our wants.

However, like all things in my life so far, just because Debby Lee said it was over didn’t mean that was going to be the end of it because even though it was easy for me to put Debby Lee out of my mind and replace her with my studies apparently it wasn’t that easy for Debby Lee to put me out of her mind. 

I guess absence really does make the heart grow fond.

The third week in February I stopped by the family steak house in Clinton for dinner.  I had no plans other than to maybe reminisce a little on the memories of a few months ago and to enjoy a really good steak.  Since Debby Lee wasn’t working there anymore I thought that there would be no awkwardness involved in eating there now and the food had been really good the couple of times before that I had stopped by (more as a pretense to seeing Debby Lee than to actually wanting a steak).  Of course, the elderly hostess immediately recognized me from the few times that I had eaten there before and still under the story that I was just a good friend of Debby Lee’s from college, she told me that Debby Lee and Robby had gotten a divorce in January and that Debby Lee had moved back to Canton to be with her parents. 

I told her that I hadn’t kept up with Debby Lee in a while because I’d been at school and Debby Lee hadn’t come back to campus this semester.  The hostess said that the divorce probably had a lot to do with it.  When I asked what the divorce had been over, thinking that I might have been a part of that, she told me that from the way that Debby Lee had talked with her when they last worked together that the divorce had been coming on for a good while now.  Apparently Robby and Debby Lee had more problems, and deeper ones, than she had ever told me about and those problems had only been building over the years.  

That might have been why she wanted to have something with me … she knew it was over between her and Robby so, what the hell.  Have fun until it all falls apart around you and have something on the side before it all comes crashing down.

I enjoyed my dinner, left a good tip and went back to my apartment to think about all that I’d been told.

The last week in February I left work one night and found a business card for a high end night club in north Jackson stuck under the window wiper of my ’79 Pontiac Trans Am.  Jackson was a college town and often people promoting these types of clubs would come through the parking lot and put flyers or business cards on the windshields of employee and customer cars.  I didn’t think much of it and was about to simply drop it to the pavement when I got curious and turned the card over in my hand.  There, on the back of the business card, were three words written in red ink, “I miss you”, and the imprint of a pair of lips in lipstick superimposed over the words.  I put the business card to my nose, it smelled of lilac perfume, the kind that Debby Lee had always worn … she must have misted the business card like she had misted her wrists and neck on that first night that we were together … when I was watching her from the shadows of the breeze way and she was standing there next to her Buick and my Pontiac.

Misted herself with that lilac perfume, like she always did when we were together …

Flashes of our time spent with each other came back to me. 

The smell of lilac and musk …

Her rapid breath hot against my neck as she bit her lip in an effort to keep from crying out too loudly there in my bed … her grunts and moans, the way she moved under me or when she was on top of me.  The feel of her hands gripping me in passionate desperation, her long nails digging in deep and scraping along my back and the sounds that she made when she couldn’t keep quiet any longer ... like I was hurting her but in a good way, there, right before her release.  Her back arching under me as her long legs wrapped around my waist, her cowboy boots sliding along my back … the worn down heels cold to the touch of my bare skin, pulling me into her, driving me like spurs, her eyes closed, her head thrown back, her mouth open, calling my name …

Memories … but that’s all they were and there was no use in trying to make them anything more than that so I never followed up on the unspoken invite to visit her at her current job ... I could have but I didn’t because I knew it was more than just an invite to visit her.  It was a request to start back up where we had left off.  Now that all the dust had settled in her life she was looking for something that she could hold onto.

The next day I showed the business card to Cody because he had been curious about Debby Lee as well.  Later that day he drove by the place more out of personal curiosity than anything else and he said it looked like a gentleman’s club and not any family restaurant that he could think of.  It didn’t open until around five at night and that told me plenty.

“You want me to show you where it is?  It’s not hard to find …” he asked.

I shook my head.  If I knew where she was working there might come a time when I’d get lonely enough to stop by there, lonely enough to make a decision that I’d probably regret a whole lot a whole lot later.

Lonely enough or desperate enough?

I got the mental image of Debby Lee walking around a smoke filled bar, strutting, serving drinks while wearing something that was decidedly not western while old businessmen, lawyers and fat old married men leered at her and offered lewd suggestions; the slings and arrows of a GED level fortune that she had agreed to endure for the money that it all brought.  I was just a kid in college, years younger than she was.  Her husband had been one of the top mechanics at one of the top dealerships in the state’s capital and now she was surrounded by men who probably ruled the local business world and charted the course of local politics.

What was I to that? 

What was I to any of that except a diversion for her?  Once Debby Lee had gotten a taste of all of that how could she ever settle for the likes of me?  If either of us thought that it could be like it was, now, then we were dreaming, her probably more so than me and I'd find out exactly how much that was true two weeks later.

          Friday, March 11, 1988
Raymond, Mississippi

I had a Friday night off which was a rarity.  

It had been a long day at school and I was tired, just a lot of stuff building up in my life and even though I had a Friday night off I just wanted to veg out, maybe throw some Tangerine Dream "Phaedra" on the stereo, play a little of Electonic Arts' "Wasteland" on my Apple II-C, grab something to eat and get halfway drunk before crawling back into bed and hopefully forgetting most of what was required to be anything other than a basic, low level functioning human being.  I went to my apartment, cranked the AC down low, threw my backpack in the corner then crawled on the couch in the living room and got comfortable ... and like I've said before, that was the most comfortable couch in the world so it didn't take a whole lot of effort to get comfortable on it.  I looked at my watch ... 4:18 PM.  I had the whole night ahead of me so a quick nap to recharge wouldn't take up too much of my night and besides ... I had all of tomorrow free as well so if I stayed up to dawn then went to bed it wouldn't make much of a difference.  

The next 48 hours were mine to spend as I saw fit and I intended to use them for nobody else but me.  My thoughts were on what I was going to do when I woke up, swimming out of my deep sleep.  I was still face down on the couch.  I realized then that I had fallen asleep, that all of the thoughts I was having were actually dreams and that something had brought me out of sleep, something that I'd felt or heard.

Heard ... 

... and there the sound came again ... a deep rapping; someone was knocking at my apartment door.  It sounded like a jackhammer on a drumset.

Cody.

"Yeah." I muttered, more to myself and more for cheering myself on in my effort to wake up and it was an effort, more so than I had first thought which surprised me.

I blinked.  It felt like I was covered in warm taffy and all I wanted to do was just go back down, close my eyes and surrender to a really comfortable feeling.  Someone knocked on my door again and it was an impetus for me to get up.  I got up, slowly, arms under me, pushing myself up off of my couch like trying to do a pushup on a waterbed.   It felt like I weighed twice as much as I normally did.  Everything was dark which was strange because I hadn't slept that long ... had I?  An hour or two and the sun should still have been lighting up the front room.

I threw my legs over the side of the couch and sat up, looking around the dark living room.

Why was it so dark?  

What time was it?

I looked at my watch.

10:38 PM.

"Ten thirty?  Damn." I muttered in disbelief, sitting up, then standing up to stretch and yawn.

I'd slept way later than I thought I would ... way later.  I guess I was more tired than I thought.  I looked at the numbers ... stared at the numbers ... trying to comprehend why or how I'd slept nearly six and a half hours straight.

There came a knock again, louder, on the front door.

"Alright!  Hold on!  Damn it!  Just hold on, bro!  I'll be there in a minute!" I shouted, annoyed, walking towards the front door, turning on lights in the living room as I went.

This late at night it had to be Cody knocking on my door wanting me to go out to The Dock or The Stage Door or some other nightclub and hang out on a Friday night being his interference while he chased skirt.  I flipped on the outside light, left the chain on, undid the deadbolt lock and opened the front door.

" I thought you were doing your own thing tonight, bro." I muttered, shutting my eyes and yawning.

Silence.

When I finished my yawn and opened my eyes it wasn't Cody standing there.

It was Debby Lee.

Debby Lee.

Damn.

Oh, damn!

She stood there in dress sandals, tan slacks, and a white short sleeve button up dress shirt with this frilly type collar.  It was probably the dressiest that I'd ever seen Debby Lee look before.  I stood there, door open to the limit of the chain, looking at her and ... I had nothing.  

I literally had nothing.

Words escaped me.

"Hi." she said.

"Hi." I said, finding my voice and little else and doing the best that I could just by bouncing what she said off of me and doing a return serve.

Debby Lee.

My mind was rebooting.

I had nothing.

"Yeah.  Uh ... Sorry.  I thought you were Cody wanting me to go out with him or something."

"Nope.  Just me." she said softly.

When I didn't say anything in reply she held up a up a fifth of Jack Daniels, brand new, unopened.

"I brought ... this." She said.

I slowly shut the door, put my forehead to the door and probably didn't put a lot of thought into what I was about to do.  In fact, my body was already in motion while my brain was trying to tell me, tell my heart, that we really needed to think about what was going on, to reconsider what we were doing and to take into consideration all the regrets that we'd have tomorrow.  My heart was like "Debby Lee!  Debby Lee!" and my brain was like one long stern "let's-think-about-this" while in the background of my mind some klaxxon was sounding softly to the tune of "nonononononono."

Debby Lee was here. 

What more did I need?

I reached up and slapped the chain off the door then stood back and opened the door for her.  There was room for her to walk past me now, to walk into my apartment.  I waited a few seconds and Debby Lee walked into my apartment.  I turned to face her.  We stood there ... and there was that feeling again, like two actors on the same stage when one of them had forgotten their lines and I knew that it wasn't only me that had forgotten his lines ... I hadn't even read the script.

I still wasn't sure how to deal with this.  After all that we'd shared, after she had decided to stop seeing me and now here she is at my apartment at almost eleven o'clock on a Friday night that I have off from work.  She just drives over from where ever she is now and thinks that I'm going to just pick up where we left off.   Part of me was mad, mad as hell at her and part of me was just as taken with her as I was that first time I kissed her that cold winter's night at the steak house there in Clinton.  A little voice inside me told me what I should do if I was smart and the other voice, the voice that could usually outshout the little voice of reason, told me exactly what I could do with that suggestion and exactly where I could shove that suggestion.

This had to be a dream ... I had to still be asleep on the couch.

Had to be.

I shut the door behind me, locked the deadbolt ... put the chain back on the door and turned the porch light off.  I stared straight ahead at the door ... this was such a bad idea.  This was stupid ... so stupid.  I was doing something stupid, something really stupid.  I was being stupid but ... it was Debby Lee.   I put my forehead against the cool surface of the door.

It was Debby Lee ... and I was about to do something stupid.

All the way stupid.

I turned around and looked at her.

"You look nice." I said.

And she did ... she looked really nice.

"I just got off work two hours ago ... took me that long to figure out if I was going to drive out here to see you or not."

I took that for what I could.

"Did the club close early?" I asked.

"What?" she asked, surprise on her face.

"The club ... You said that you got off work two hours ago.  Did the club close early ... "

"What ... club?" she asked.

"The club you work at?" I asked.

And then a sense of real dread creeped into me ... like I'd just done something bad, like when Wile E. Coyote steps off a cliff into thin air and has just enough time to hold up a sign that says something comical.  The look on Debby Lee's face told me instantly that I'd just made an assumption that I didn't need to ever have made.

Damn.

"I ... Christopher, I don't work at a ... club." she said confused.  "I work for a lawyer over in Ridgeland.  I'm the office manager.  Why would you ...?"

Damn.

Damn.

Damn.

Feeling like an idiot I reached over by my computer and picked up the business card that she had left behind, the one that she had left her lipstick on and had misted with her perfume ... the one that said "I miss you."  I held it up for her and she put her hands to her mouth.

"That?  You thought ... oh, God." she whispered through the palm of her hands.

"Cody said it's a gentleman's club ... opens late ... stays open late."

"What's Cody doing going to a place like that?"

I shrugged my shoulders.

"Definitely not being a gentleman.  He was probably looking out for me by checking up on you.  Doing recon." I said.

Debby Lee nodded, hung her head then rolled it back, staring at the ceiling and biting her lip while slowly shaking her head.

"Wow.   That's an ... that's a hell of assumption to make." she whispered.

I looked at the business card for the night club.

"You ... don't work here?" I asked.

"No.  I don't work there.  A client gave me that card, asked me to meet him there for drinks after work and I never went ... he was kind of creepy.  Really just creepy old guy.  When I went by Sack and Save that night, I saw your TA and I wanted to leave you a note because I was thinking about you and all I had was that card to write something on so I ..."

"... Put your lips on it and misted it with your perfume and wrote me a note." I said.

She nodded.

"Never thought that you would ... think ... yeah.  Probably not the best thing to write you a note on."

I nodded.

"I don't work there, Christopher.  I'd never work in a place like that ... Hell, I hated working in the steak house.  I've got a pretty good job now, got some benefits and I'm not hustling tables for tips.  This is a real job that I've got, good money.  The hours are okay, sometimes long like today when I had a couple of cases to get put together ... that took me to almost eight.  I like it.  For the first time in my life I actually like my job."

I looked at the business card and put it back down near my computer.

"I make more in a week than I made in a month at the steak house.  This is how I dress for work now.  No more skirts, apron, and a bandanna.  No more wearing someone else's food or having to memorize the special of the day." she said.

"No more name tag ..." I said.

"No more name tag.  No more boots."

"I liked your boots." I said, smiling.

Debby Lee stuck her tongue out at me playfully.

"I like your clothes ... you look ... professional."

She blushed.

"Wait ... Professional?" she asked.

"Sorry.  Don't take it that way.  You look ... real.  You look like you have a real job ... the kind you don't have to wear a name tag to work.  You look like maybe you finally made it to where you always told me you wanted to be."

She thought about that, nodded, walked over and picked up the business card, looking at it and huffing softly.

"You actually thought that I worked ..."

I waved her silent.

"You never told me where you worked, Deb ... only that you had a really good job ... and then you leave me that card one night, just out of the blue.  Hey, Christopher!  Surprise!  I know I said that what we had was over but, guess what?  I'm still thinking about you!  What the hell was I supposed to think, Deb?"

She held the card out in front of my face and waved it at me.

"Obviously I expected you to think a hell of a lot better of me than you actually did." she chided, fuming.

"You could have left me a message on the business card of the lawyer you work for ..."

She shrugged her shoulders and I looked at her.

Silence.

Awkward silence.

Debby Lee looked at the card again then at me.

"You kept this card?" she asked softly.

I nodded.

"Why?"

I shrugged my shoulders then knew what I had to say to her.

"Because it was something of yours ... it smelled like you, it had your lipstick on it, your writing ... I guess I kept it because it was the closest thing I still had to you.  Looking at it gave me good memories of you ... maybe some memories of us that I wasn't ready to let go just yet."

Debby Lee put the business card back down on the table by my Apple II-C computer and set the bottle of whiskey down.

"And I guess the real question is ... What the hell are you doing here?" I half whispered.

"What?"

"What are you doing here, Deb?  I thought this ... all of this ... I thought what we had was over."

"It was."

"Then what are you doing here?"

"Seems pretty obvious that I wanted to see you." she said.

"Yeah, I get that.  Why?" I asked.

Debby Lee flashed her eyes at me.

"Why am I here, Christopher?  I'm here because I missed you and maybe ... just maybe ... because I want to be here with you.  Maybe I need to be here with you, tonight."

"Deb ... Don't ..." I started.

There were a lot of feelings that she was just picking up where we left off and that seemed a bit abrupt.

"Don't do this to me ... please."

Debby Lee crossed her arms and chewed her lower lip.

"You know that Robby and I got a divorce?"

I nodded.

"I'd heard that, yeah."

"Yeah, well ...  That was then and this is now."

"And ..."

"And ... things are looking pretty simple from where I'm seeing them." 

"Deb ... it's not that simple."

"What's not simple about it, Christopher?  Can you tell me that?  What's not simple about ... this?"

"You said it was over ... you walk out on me, on us, and now you're back?  It can't be just like that."

Debby Lee stepped forward close to me.

"Why can't it be just like that?" she asked.

Yeah.  

Why couldn't it be just like that?  

I asked myself that question right then and I really didn't have an answer for it, or at least I didn't have an answer that I liked or an answer that was going to make me feel good about any of this but it was Debby Lee.  When I was lost in reconciling my internal conflict Debby Lee stepped in even closer to me.

"That was then, this is now and the way that I see it ... I can either stay the night or you can tell me to leave."

I closed my eyes and took a deep breath.

"Stay or leave." she whispered.

It was Debby Lee.

"Your choice.  You decide." she said.

And then she started to make that "tic-toc" sound with her tongue and cheek and like that my mind was made up.  I was on automatic now as I growled loudly and pushed myself towards her.  Her brave front that she had put on quickly melted away, right in front of my eyes, the closer I got to her.  For a second there was fear, real fear in her eyes and then I stood in front of her, pulled her to me, and put my arms around her.  She struggled, resisted and then just as suddenly gave up, letting herself be held tight by me.  Our lips met, our tongues wrestled and it was Debby Lee ... again.  

It was me and Debby Lee, again.

God!  

I'd missed Debby Lee, more than I was willing to admit to anyone especially myself.  Sometimes doing something stupid really made sense at the time that you did it and I felt that this really was one of those times.  I was going to regret this after this was over ... I was going to kick myself good and hard but I'd do that later, after she left, and the part of me that was doing the kicking wouldn't be the same part of me that would be doing the smiling.

"I missed you." I whispered, eyes closed, my forehead to her forehead, then I pulled her back to me, hard, and kissed her deep a second time.

Her tongue found mine and we kissed, long, slow, deep.  Her arms came up around me as I pulled her tight to me.  My right hand cupping her bottom, my left hand high on her back, just holding her to me as I nuzzled her.  My lips found her neck, her shoulder, her ear.  I ran my hand over her bottom while my left hand slowly went up and down her back, keeping her pressed against me.

"I really missed you." she whispered and then I just held her there, tight, slowly swaying in place, not believing that I had Debby Lee back in my arms, that she was really here, right now, with me.

I held her tight, one hand around her waist, the other on the back of her head, my fingers in her hair, holding her to me tight and close.  Lilac.  I smelled lilac and I realized how much I had missed the smell of that perfume that she always seemed to wear.   When she slowly pulled away from me she had fuck me eyes.

Oh, man had I missed her fuck me eyes.

"Deb ..." 

She reached up and put a finger to my lips, shaking her head slowly.

"I didn't come here to talk, Christopher ... that's not what I want right now.  That's not what I need.  Not with you.  Not tonight." she whispered.

Her finger on my lips.

"And what do you need?" I asked her.

She smiled.

"Baby, if you can't figure that out by now then I sure as hell can't help you there." she said in a sultry whisper.

Yeah ... and like that I reached down, picked her up in my arms and she quickly snatched the bottle of whiskey up before I slowly carried her off to my bedroom.  She put her arms around my neck as I carried her out of the living room, into the kitchen and then into my dark bedroom.  I put her down gently on my bed and looked at her lying there on her side, on my bed, again, right hand and arm supporting her head, the bottle of whiskey held in her left hand, upright, there on the bed.  She put her finger on top of the bottle and slowly moved it around in a lazy, shallow circle.

"I'm going to get a pair of shot glasses." I said.

"And when you get back?" she asked, smiling.

Fuck me eyes. 

"When I get back you had better be naked." I said.

"Oh, I had better be naked?" she asked, reaching up and starting to unbutton her shirt.

"Yeah."

"All the way?" she asked.

"All the way ... and this time, no socks." I said and left it at that.

She looked down at her dress sandals.

"I'm not wearing any socks ..." she said.

"Well, I guess there's a first time for everything."

Debby Lee stuck her tongue out at me and shook her head playfully as I turned and left the bedroom.  Behind me I heard motion, the whispered sound of the zipper on her slacks and I smiled.

This was happening.

This was going to happen again, tonight.

I went into the kitchen, found a pair of shot glasses turned upside down in a cabinet, washed them out in the sink then dried them with a hand towel like a bartender on a busy night.  I stared at the two shot glasses, thought better of it then put one back in the cabinet before walking back to my bedroom.  Debby Lee stood there in the dim illumination of the dark bedroom and the light spilling over from the kitchen and the living room ... she was naked, gloriously naked, standing there, arms crossed, holding the fifth of Jack Daniels cradled close to her breasts and she was everything that I had remembered her being.

Debby Lee.

She twisted the cap off and, with one hand on her hip, she took a long drink straight from the bottle then wiped her lips with the back of her left arm.  She held the bottle straight out to me, shaking the bottle slightly in invitation, sloshing the whiskey inside gently in a way that teased and beckoned.  I put the shot glasses down on my dresser, walked up to her, took the bottle from her and took a swig.  I could taste the whiskey and her lipstick on the rim.  The whiskey burned a good burn.  There was a warm glow yet to be chased.

"I guess we won't be needing the shot glasses." I said as I took another swallow of whiskey straight from the bottle.

Debby Lee's answer was to kneel in front of me and start undoing my belt and jeans.

Debby Lee left late Saturday afternoon, right at dusk.  I walked her up the long sidewalk to her Regal and held the door for her to get in.  We didn't say much, all we had to say I think we'd said last night, this morning, again before lunch and again just about half an hour ago.  We kissed there in the parking lot, standing between her white Buick Regal and my black TA.  She seemed somewhat reserved now, somewhat distant and that was pause for concern on my part.  Maybe this had been a mistake ... and maybe she was realizing that now, too.

"So ... where is this going?" I asked her, finally seeing an opportunity to ask her the one question that had been burning a hole in my mind for the last almost 24 hours.

She shrugged her shoulders and bit her lip either in thought or because she didn't want to talk about it.

I waited, looking at her.

She avoided looking at me.

"Deb ..."

She shrugged her shoulders, again.

"Deb ..." I prodded.

"I don't know." she finally said in a half-exasperated whisper.  "I'm still trying to work some stuff out ... being on my own again, the new job ... I'm still trying to figure out what's what in my life."

I rolled my eyes and stared at the sky for a few seconds then looked back down at her.

"Am I going to see you again?" I asked.

"You mean like you did last night?"

"Again.  Last night.  At all?" I asked.

"I ... don't know.  Give me a little more time."

"How long is a little more time?" I asked.

"A few days ... a few weeks.  Maybe more.  Maybe less.  I don't know."

"And last night?" I asked.

Debby Lee sat down in her Regal, shut the door and cranked her car.  The 3.8 liter V6 under the hood stuttered to life.  I thought that was all I was going to get out of her but she hit the power window switch, rolling down her driver's side window as her car started to idle up.

"Last night wasn't a mistake, Christopher, if that's what you're thinking.   It didn't feel like a mistake then and it doesn't feel like a mistake now, at least not to me.  I needed last night.  I needed to know if there was still something between us or not."

I stood back as she put on her seatbelt and put the transmission into reverse.

"Was there still something between us?" I asked, loud enough that she could hear me over her engine.

She looked at me and slowly nodded.

"I thought there was ..." she said, smiling.  "Otherwise I wouldn't have come all this way out here to see you.  Otherwise there wouldn't have been a last night to begin with ... or a today ... or now."

She started to say something else then stopped.

"Yeah.  Hell." she said flatly.

And like that she backed her Regal out of the gravel parking lot at the front of the apartments, stopped in the middle of the street, looked at me, waved softly then slowly drove away.  I walked to the edge of the road and watched her go, watched that white Regal driving slowly down that old two lane there in Raymond, the Buick finally vanishing from sight in the distance.  For a long time afterward I stood there, at the edge of the property, leaning up on one of the wooden fence posts that separated the commercial property from the residential property next door.

I thought a long time about Debby Lee, about what we had shared, how she had ended it and about last night and today.

I still wasn't sure of where we were headed.  

I wasn't sure that she knew either.

Had we just had some kind of restart to what we had before or was last night just another quick cure for her chronic need?

Alice Cooper's song "Crawlin'" off of his "Constrictor" album began to play softly in my head.

          Friday March 25, 1988
Raymond, Mississippi


Two weeks later I saw Debby Lee again.  I wasn't expecting it but I wasn't surprised by her showing up, either.

I got off of work at Sack and Save at eleven that night, took the T-tops off of the Trans Am and drove from the store on Ellis Avenue, down Raymond Road back out to Raymond, Mississippi.  All the way back to my apartment I'd sponged to one song ... just one song, and that was W.A.S.P.'s "Sleeping in the Fire".  Somehow, the more I listened to that song the more I thought of Debby Lee, especially the time I'd spent with her two weeks ago.  I drove the Pontiac west towards Raymond, just rewinding and listening to that same song over and over again at high volume.  I don't know why but that was the song I wanted to hear right then and that was the song that I just kept playing on the Kenwood over and over and over again, thinking about Debby Lee.  

There was just this ... feeling ... I was having.  Like there was something going to happen tonight and the more I listened to the song, the closer I got to my apartment the stronger that feeling got.

As I got closer to the outskirts of Raymond I could see that some rednecks had once again set the trash dumpsters on fire at the edge of the city limits.  I drove past the blazing trash dump and thought I saw figures running around the dumpters, throwing stuff into the hellish inferno like some pagan ritual.  Long shadows cast across the bare dirt of the trash dump and I drove past thinking I'd just seen a preview of an unfinished level in Dante's Inferno.

It had been a long day at school which made me realize that I only had about three more years of the kind of day that I had today to slog through in order to get a diploma and get a real job.  It had been a long night at work which made me realize that I really wanted to finish college and get a degree so that I didn't have to work some crappy job like being a cashier at a grocery store the rest of my life.  Waiting on people, checking them out in the grocery line ... that wasn't a job for a man ... hell, it wasn't even a job for a human.

I watched the orange glow from the trash dump there on Port Gibson Road fade in the rear view as I let my mind wander.  As Tolkien once said, not all who wander are lost ... but my mind was lost in thoughts about Debby Lee, thoughts led on by Blackie Lawless' crooning and that's when I pulled up at my apartment and saw her white '84 Buick Regal parked there in the front parking lot.   My foot went to the floor smoothly and the four wheel disc brakes quickly brought the old Pontiac to a stop, rocking slightly on its suspension, just shy of the property line of the apartment complex.  I stared at the white Buick as I let my foot up off of the brake and the '79 Trans Am idled forward, slowly, engine rumbling, gravel crunching under the rubber of the tires.  I pulled up on the street, stopped again and looked at the white Buick Regal ... making sure it was her car ... really her car.  

I recognized her tag; county and number.  

There was the Hinds Junior College commuter parking decal on her rear bumper, the decal from last semester.

The Buick parked in the front parking lot of my apartment was Debby Lee's Buick.

"Yeah." I muttered as I cut the wheel and turned into the gravel topped parking lot of my apartment.

She was here.

Again.

Tonight.

Waiting on me.

Part of me was excited about the prospect of being with Debby Lee again and part of me started to get a cold shiver ... wondering why she was here.  Did she want to see me?  Did she want to spend time with me like she did last time, was she here to tell me something I probably didn't want to hear or was she here to tell me something that I'd probably be better off if I didn't hear?  The cold feeling of doubt began to creep into my mindset and then I shook my head to clear it.  No, if Debby Lee was here, now, waiting on me then she was here for pretty much the same thing that she had showed up for two weeks ago.  If she wanted to end whatever it was that we were having now she wouldn't have showed up here, not now, not this late at night ... and she wouldn't be waiting on me like she was.  Her Buick was empty which meant that she was probably down by my apartment, waiting on me, sitting at my doorstep like a lost kitten, listening for my TA, looking at her watch, counting her time ...

Debby Lee's chronic need had started bothering her again and she wanted me to scratch her itch, again.  Part of me felt a little mad that I was a convenience for her and part of me once again told the other part what it could go and do with itself.  After all, it was Debby Lee and Debby Lee was pretty much a fuck monster and there were a lot worse ways to spend what was left of a Friday night in Raymond, Mississippi than being Debby Lee's first choice for her hedonistic sexual needs.

The truth is that I wasn't expecting to see Debby Lee ever again after she'd left that Saturday two weeks ago, figuring that was just a long drawn out one night stand but that doesn't mean I wasn't really happy to see her again, or at least part of me was really happy to see her.  I'd thought about her a lot since I'd last seen her, especially in the last week, good thoughts, bad thoughts, naughty thoughts ... yeah, I'd done a whole lot of thinking about Debby Lee, even thought about her all the way back to my apartment tonight and now here she was.

Too bad I hadn't thought a lot about a million dollars in a brown paper bag sitting on my doorstep but I guess this was the next best thing.

I let off the brake pedal and the torque of the idling 403 under the hood slowly pulled the TA around the right side of the building, parking in back where no one could see my TA from the road.  I shoved the console mounted gear selector for the three speed THM350  automatic transmission up into park, stomped the parking brake, cut the headlights off and sat there in the dark in my TA, 403 idling, air conditioning blowing, and the Kenwood playing out W.A.S.P.'s "Sleeping in the Fire" from their self-titled cassette.  Blackie Lawless had a halfway decent voice when he was trying to be tender ... he might even pass as a country western singer ... the rest of the time he sounded like he gargled with fiberglass which was a noted advantage when you're fronting vocals for a brash metal band as raw as W.A.S.P.  

"Sleeping in the Fire"

The song I'd just spent the better part of the last half hour listening to over and over again seemed somehow appropriate ... really appropriate ... for the situation I found myself now.  I let the song play to finish as I sat there in the Pontiac thinking about what I was going to do.  Maybe that was the problem ... being with Debby Lee didn't take a whole lot of thinking.  In fact, when Debby Lee got close to you, it was a lot better if you just took your brain, turned it completely off and just let your caveman instincts take over.  That's what she liked best ...  when she used you and you used her.

Yeah.

Thinking was the wrong word.  

I knew what I was going to do ... I just didn't know if I was going to be honest with myself about doing it.

"Going to do something stupid tonight." I muttered to myself, like I needed permission from myself to actually do something stupid.

I saw movement at the edge of the sidewalk, there at the back of the apartment.  A shadow growing in length on the retaining wall.  A figure standing there at the edge of the sidewalk where the light and dark met.

Debby Lee.

Sneakers, dark jeans, a black sleeveless T-shirt ... no bra; that much was evident to see even from here.  She walked slowly to the end of the sidewalk, stood there at the edge of the exterior light of my neighbor's apartment and she looked at me, her thumbs in her pockets as Blackie Lawless and W.A.S.P. finished up on the Kenwood.  

 ...You feel what it does and you're drunk on love
You're sleeping in the fire ...

Debby Lee's expression was one of lonesome longing, she looked at me, nodded with her head back towards my apartment then slowly turned around and walked on back out of sight.

I had been summoned.

"Damn ..." I whispered to myself but right then any feeling of regret was so far away it might as well have been in the Small Magellanic Cloud for all the good it was doing me.

I turned the Pontiac off, took off my driving gloves, put the T-tops on, rolled up the windows and locked the TA.  My conscience didn't even try to argue with me this time because the part of me that could out-shout it was just jumping up and down and doing cartwheels inside my soul.  

It was Debby Lee!  

Debby Lee was here again!  

I walked through the grass up and around the back of the apartment building.  Debby Lee was leaning up against the left side of my door, watching me over her right shoulder as I walked towards her, her purse on the sidewalk at her feet.  I walked up to my front door and put my key in the deadbolt.  

No words were said.  

She slowly reached up, touched the side of my face and I turned, pulled her to me and we kissed deep.  

No resistance.  

It was a long kiss, my hands and her hands played over our bodies, pulling each other closer.  She turned, pulling me with her, putting her back against my front door and we fell into each other, devouring each other, our tongues wrestling in each other's hot mouth, our breath coming hard and fast as our hands roamed over each other's bodies.  After what seemed a long time I broke off our kiss and she looked at me with those fuck me eyes.

I turned the key in the deadbolt, unlocked it and opened the door to my apartment.  Debby Lee reached down, picked up her purse then walked on in, her back to me.  She dropped her purse on the couch then reached down and pulled off both of her sneakers, followed by her socks.  She put a sock in each sneaker and put the sneakers there by the end table of my couch.  I watched as she pulled her sleeveless T-shirt off, all in one motion, and dropped it on the couch as well.  

No bra.  

Her right arm crossed her chest to cover her bare breasts in a gesture that was teasing to the eyes and futile to the imagination.  She turned her head to look at me over her right shoulder, giving me a sultry look, flashing those fuck me eyes, then nodding towards my bedroom.  I watched as she started walking towards my bedroom, reaching down in front of her to undo her jeans.  The sound of a zipper and a shake of her hips and her jeans were in a pile at her ankles.  Barebacked, wearing nothing but white panties, she stepped out of the pile of jeans on the floor in the middle of the hall and kept on walking, leaving her jeans in the middle of the floor.  I watched her disappear around the corner into my bedroom, her thumbs hooked in the sides of her panties, starting to drop them down over her hips, over her bottom, down her long legs. 

"This is never going to work out.  She's just using you to scratch her itch.  Again." I thought to myself.

I thought about that for a second ... maybe longer and I realized that I was okay with that because maybe I had an itch to scratch as well.  Debby Lee was a free woman and I had no one to call my name.  I was okay with Debby Lee using me because I was going to use her tonight like I'd never used her before.  Tonight was my night to scratch my itch.  I locked the front door of the apartment behind me, slid the chain into the groove and when I walked into my bedroom she stood there completely naked.

Hands on her hips.

Head cocked impatiently.

Waiting.

Ready.

I looked her up and down, slowly.

This was happening.

Again.

She was going to use me and I was going to use her.

It was Debby Lee.

She walked over to me and started to unbutton my shirt, her fingers slowly working their way down my chest ... past my Saint Christopher medal.

It was Debby Lee.

Her hands on my chest, lightly rubbing her fingertips up and down.

Skin on skin.

It was Debby Lee.

Her hands on my belt, starting to undo it.

I shut my eyes and let her because ...

It was Debby Lee.

           The end of my pilgrimage

I never saw Debby Lee again after that night.  

Every time I got off work and went back to my apartment part of me, the part that did the thinking below the belt line, hoped that I'd see her white Buick Regal parked there, to find her waiting on me there by my door ... but I never did.   I never got another note from her left on my Pontiac, she never stopped by Sack and Save to see me while I was at work and she never came knocking at my apartment door late at night again.

The fact was that while Debby Lee was busy making up her mind I was busy making up my mind as well.  I guess we both had a lot to think about, how our lives had changed, how we were going to go about getting on with our lives and what we wanted from the future that lay before us.  Debby Lee didn't know it but there were two clocks counting down, hers and mine, and if my clock ran out of time before I heard from her then I would have made up my own mind as to what I was going to do and she'd just have to live with that decision.  As it was, four weeks after I last saw Debby Lee my clock ran out of time; I'd made up my mind at the end of April and since I still hadn't heard from Debby Lee about us I set my own plans in motion and moved on with my life.

I was going home.

Overall, my second semester in college I did much better and while I didn’t get any kind of scholarship returned to me I at least was moving in the right direction and from what I could tell, the direction that I was supposed to be heading in was southeast in nature … all the way down Highway 49 south till I got to Hattiesburg and back home.  At this point it wasn't a result of finances or grades  ... it felt like I was being called home, like I'd done or tried to do everything that I set out to do.

I was tired of Jackson, I was tired of the self-induced adventure, my less than holy pilgrimage had grown weary and it was time to go home maybe not as a victorious crusader but certainly not a defeated one either; no, I was simply a weary pilgrim with a lot more experience than I had set out with and maybe a regret or two thrown as well.  I don’t know what I had come to Jackson looking for … after living in two states, three cities,  four houses, going to five different schools, twelve years and no real friends left maybe I just needed to know that I could go back and find some of the stuff that I'd been forced to leave behind as a child, that I could go back and still remember what had been a whirlwind of youth growing up, that even though I'd been yanked up by my roots maybe I could go and see what might have been and where I might have grown up if things had been different in my life.

Maybe I just needed to be on my own for a while, to sort some things out and to try on a new aspect of life to see if it fit or not.

Maybe I needed to see what it was like to be master of my own fate rather than caught in someone else's jet wash and dragged around everywhere like the family pet, leashed to the bumper, which the family forgot before they drove off.

Maybe I just no longer cared. 

I left Hinds Junior College and my strange little one bedroom apartment in Raymond after the end of the spring ’88 semester, opting to move back home with my parents rent free, take the summer off to get my head screwed on right (as my dad said) and enroll in Jones County Junior College (JCJC), about twenty miles north east of Hattiesburg, and just commute every day for the fall 1988 semester.  With any luck I could go every semester and still graduate on time.

I was a week into making these plans, pretty much had everything finalized; I'd told my landlord that I wouldn't be renewing my lease and I had most of my stuff in my apartment already on its way back to Hattiesburg when I got an envelope from Debby Lee addressed to me in the mail.   Inside the envelope was a thick letter, several pages, stuffed in an envelope with the  lawyer's office logo and address on it ... I guess just to prove to me that she really did work there.   

A week after I'd gotten the letter from her and I still hadn't opened it yet ... wasn't really sure that I wanted to.  

Inside the letter would be one of two options ... the first option was that she wanted to have what we had before and now that she was divorced maybe we could start over again and the second option was that she had decided that what we had wasn't really what she was looking for and that this time what we had really was over.  

The problem was that Debby Lee had taken too long to make up her mind.  By the time that I had received her letter in the mail I had pretty much already made up my mind to go back home and go to school there and if this letter was what I thought it was then it might be enough to make me second guess my choices.   It might be enough to make me do something stupid, something that would affect my life for years to come.

I looked at the unopened letter.

There was still time to change my mind.

I could still stay at Hinds.  I didn't like working at Sack and Save but I could always go to County Market or maybe Autozone and get a part-time job there to pay the bills.  I could tell my landlord that things had changed, that I wanted to keep my lease or I could find something maybe closer to north Jackson, farther away from Hinds but maybe closer to where Debby Lee lived and Hinds had a second campus closer to Debby Lee than the Raymond campus was.

I started rationalizing how I could stay.

I started to make plans that overrode the plans that I'd already made.

I thought about Debby Lee.

What we had.

What we didn't have.

What we might have.

What we might not have.

I could stay if I wanted ... I didn't have to go back home to Hattiesburg, I didn't have to go to JCJC in the fall ... 

... and suddenly I realized the exact reason why I hadn't opened Debby Lee's letter yet and why I was scared to open her letter.

I was scared of what she had written me.  I was scared of how much I might be tempted to stay ... just for her, just to have her, just to be with her if that's what she really wanted.  The fact that I had let her into my apartment and let her spend the night with me, twice, against my better judgment, meant that I had a real weakness for Debby Lee, a weakness I couldn't quite figure out and one that I didn't want her to be able to exploit in such a way that it caused me to wreck my life and life plans for years to come.  There was something there, something for Debby Lee, feelings I had for her that had never really entered into our relationship. 

When I had been with Debby Lee, back then and the past two times, there really had been something there that I'd felt for her.  Something that wasn't just simple lust or physical gratification.  Maybe I'd try to hide it from her, hide it from myself but it was there nonetheless and right now that was a bad thing because maybe Debby Lee had been hiding the exact same thing.

When I was around Debby Lee I was stupid.

Debby Lee was like Kryptonite, when I was around her I was powerless and all I wanted to do was to be with her. 

I looked at the unopened letter.

Were we starting over or were we building something new?  

That first night that we had spent back together felt different even though I think we both had been trying really hard to make it feel like it had once felt, to make it feel like what we had once shared together.  It hadn't felt quite the same but it hadn't felt really different either.  It had felt ... new.  What we had shared those two nights together hadn't felt like it should be what we should have together but more like what we could have together if we let it.   When I confronted her about what we had and where it was going, she hadn't been able to give me a straight answer the next day, even after we'd spent the whole night and most of the day together sharing everything that we had with each other.  She had hesitated, she had avoided the question and she had asked me to wait a few weeks for her to get settled, for her to make up her mind after she'd had time to think things over.

Maybe she had already known the answer.

Maybe she had already known the answer but just hadn't been ready to accept that answer for herself.

Two clocks counting down ... two clocks running out of time; mine and hers.  Neither one of us knew when the other's clock would run out of time and mine had run out of time before hers had ... mine had run out of time at the start of May.

At the start of May I'd made up my mind; I was going to just turn my back on all of this, chalk it up to a big year long learning experience and go back home.  I was tired of trying to lose myself.  I was tired of spinning my wheels.

And then the middle of that first week in May, a Wednesday, May 3, almost five weeks after I'd last seen Debby Lee,  I get this envelope, this letter from her ... a letter that had come three days too late.

Three days too late.

Debby Lee may have finally made up her mind but so had I ... three days before she did.

I'd made up my mind and I was going home.


          Saturday, April 30, 1988

My father drove up to Raymond with a U-Haul moving van and Cody, dad and me loaded up everything in my apartment before lunch then dad and I hauled it all back to Hattiesburg.   I spent Saturday night and Sunday with my parents and followed my dad back up to Jackson on Monday morning since I had my semester finals that week.   My father was in Jackson on business all week long and I opted to stay with him in his motel room at the Holiday Inn off of Interstate 80 just about a mile or so from Sack and Save.  

My apartment was vacant, my phone disconnected and I was gone forever from the little southern town of Raymond, Mississippi where a Civil War battle had once been fought and where several times a month on Friday nights the denizens of that town set the trash dumpsters on fire.  I had finals this week, a really weird schedule of one final on Monday, one final on Tuesday, two on Thursday and one on Friday so I basically ate, slept and crammed for my finals there at the Holiday Inn.

And still I didn't open that letter from Debby Lee.

Day after day passed and still I didn't open that letter from Debby Lee.

I had dinner with my father every night that week (except Wednesday when Cody came by and we went out to get something to eat and see a movie) but other than that I didn't go out much, I just stayed in the motel room and either worked on my short stories and musings on my Apple II-C computer or I slept away my life to the roar and hum of the big window mounted air conditioner system.  

Alone ... a stranger still in a strange land.

Cody came over once on Wednesday to go to lunch with me.  His finals were over and he was out for the summer break.  We ate at Pizza Hut on Ellis Avenue, one of our favorite haunts and this time it seemed like I was eating there for the last time.  Our mood was guarded and we rode around Jackson after that, me in the passenger seat, Cody driving his Toyota Supra and the two of us just talking, reminescing about the times that we'd had this year and trying to be optimistic about what our lives held for us in the future.

Cody was still seeing Wanda.

He asked me about Debby Lee.

I told him what I knew ... about the lawyer's office ...  about the two times that she had come to see me ... how she had spent the night.

I told him about the letter that she had sent me and I told him that I hadn't opened it.

When he asked me if I was going to open it I told him that I'd open it after I was finished with my finals.  I just didn't think that I needed anything to distract me while I was finishing up the semester and trying to salvage all that I'd pissed away my first semester.  Cody dropped me off a little after three that afternoon and then headed back to his grandparents' house and I let myself into my dad's hotel room.  The room was hot since I'd run the air conditioner down while I was out with Cody and I stripped down to nothing but my jeans, spread my next two class subjects out on the bed I slept in and started trying to cram for tomorrow's two finals.  I sat there and studied.  I got up and recited text and figures to myself until I knew them backwards and forwards.  It wasnt' too long before I was bored out of my mind, listening to traffic pass by the hotel, drinking Pepsi from a disposable cup of ice, staring at my text books, swallowing and regurgitating facts and figures and quotes.

I took a break from cramming for my finals on Thursday and I just paced around the hotel room, pacing like a caged tiger.  I went back to my studying but invariably I got back up and paced.  

"Damn it." I whispered.

I picked up one of my spiral bound notebooks and threw it across the room as hard as I could, papers rattling as they sliced air.  It felt good to throw something across the room but that wasn't what I needed so I went over, picked up my notebook and tossed it gently on the bed.  

I needed to get out of this hotel room but that wasn't the answer either.  The real solution was that I needed all of this to be over ... to finally be over ... and I needed to be far away from here.

I remember that my boredom got so bad at one point during the late afternoon that I found myself sitting there on the floor in front of that big window mounted air conditioner, leaning on the air conditioner, my head resting on my arms and the cold air blowing across the bare skin of my face and chest ... I sat there, just thinking about my life.  I watched the sunset through a narrow crack in the old curtains and drapes, watching the sunset paint the clouds purple and orange with golden rays shooting across the sky.  

I loved this time of day ... everything settling down, the slow bleed over into the night when a whole different world began to stir.

There was a spot on the old air conditioner, on the top right near the window sill, a rough, rusty spot covered in droplets of condensation, a spot where the paint had come off the finish long ago and rust had started to eat away at the metal casing on the window unit.  I rubbed the dark colored wet rust spot with my finger.  It felt like wet sandpaper, like when you wetsanded the fender of a car that you'd just painted a week ago.

Somehow that fascinated me ... that little spot of wet rust, wondering how it came to be.

What caused that patch of rust?

What had knocked the paint off the metal in that one spot, exposing the metal to the droplets of condensation from the edge of the window there.

How long had that spot been there?

How many people had stayed in this room before and never noticed the rust spot?

"As cancer is a disease of men, so, too, is rust a disease of metal." I whispered, running my finger over the wet rust spot.

I thought that bit of spontaneous creativity was good enough to remember and keep for later use one day in ... something I might write so I banked it away.  I put my face and arms to the vents of the old air conditioner and breathed deep the mechanically and electrically cooled air, letting my mind just wander and wonder as the deep throbbing drone of the compressor and the roar of the circulation fan was the only sound that I knew.   It was like being in an artic hurricane and memories of my childhood swept back across my remembering.  Memories of that one year I spent in Jackson ... 1975 to 1976.  The cold air was crisp in my lungs and I sat there like that, just lost in thought, staring at the sunset, my finger slowly rubbing across the patch of wet rust, remembering the year that I'd just lived, thinking about everything I'd done, every moment, every fun thing, the good, the bad, thinking about everyone that I'd met but especially thinking about Debby Lee.  

She always came back to me in my thoughts.

Debby Lee.

I sat there, in front of that air conditioner, thinking about everything, thinking about Debby Lee, until the cold air on my skin was finally too much to take. 

"Yeah ... this is getting me fucking nowhere." I said, standing up.

My watch said that my dad would be off work in about an hour and a half so I took a long, hot shower, just letting the hot water soothe my back and neck muscles then I got out, threw my jeans back on and got back on my books, cramming for my next final.  When dad got back to the hotel room he was ready to go get something to eat and I didn't keep him waiting.  I stood up, found my shoes, socks and shirt and got dressed and we went to eat at Luther's BBQ just down the road.  Dad asked me how my finals were going and I told him that I felt good about my tests.  When we got back to the hotel room my dad took a long bath and I got back up on my bed, spread out my books and papers and started cramming again, drinking from a to-go cup of sweet tea that I'd taken with me from the restaurant.  

There was an old Clint Eastwood movie playing on the TV, dad had found it by channel surfing,  "A Fistful of Dollars", and we watched it together, him on his bed and me on mine.  It had been ages since dad and I had watched a Clint Eastwood spaghetti western together and suddenly I was five years old again, with my dad and I relished that thought, that memory.  The realization that I was spending more time with my dad, right now, than I'd probably spent with him in the last year hit me like a lightning bolt and for a second there was perfect clarity ... I fully and completely understood the kind of life that my father led and the sacrifices that he made, that he had made, to put me where I was, to give me what I had ... 

About twenty minutes from the end of the movie on TV I heard dad softly snoring.

He was asleep, head back, eyes closed, mouth open, reclined against the bunched up pillows of his bed.

I didn't begrudge him that ... hell, he lived in motel rooms like this five days out of every week of the year, he had lived in rooms like this ever since I was born.  Dad probably fell asleep to a lot of shows on TV and while I hadn't seen "A Fistful of Dollars" since I was a child, dad probably had seen it way too many times in all his years of travels.  I wondered what it would be like to have a life like my dad did ... to be away from your family so much ...  to always be on the road or on a plane going ... somewhere.  Each week a new place ... or maybe back to someplace that you hadn't been to in years.

If you were single it was probably the life to have.

Not so much if you had a wife and kids.

I bunched up my pillow behind me for more support and finished the rest of the classic movie without him.

Afterwards there was a bit of local news that I watched with abject nonchalant attention and after the weather I got up to cut the TV off.  Dad stirred half awake, said goodnight, fixed his pillows around him and almost immediately went back to sleep in his bed.  I stayed up for about another half hour, studying for tomorrow's final, making sure that I had everything memorized that I needed to have gone over before I reached the point where I just couldn't cram any more.  I pushed my books to the side, turned off the light and tried to get comfortable in my own bed.

Long after I'd turned off the lights I lay awake, my arms behind my head, staring at the ceiling and just  listening to the traffic pass on the highway and to the same dull throbbing drone of the air conditioner's compressor ... hoping that it would lull me into the waiting sleep that seemed so hard to find right then.  I thought about the air conditioner and the wet spot of rust because sometimes cold air could smell like far off candy and the feel of wet rust under your fingertip could remind you of a love that wasn't meant to be.  


          Friday, March 6, 1988

I took my last final that Friday morning and after a slow walk through campus, remeniscing my way through an entire year, and then a slow drive back through Raymond I was on my way out of Jackson for the last time.  Dad was finishing up his banking business today and would be home later tonight so I'd beat him back to Hattiesburg by a few hours.  I figured that it wouldn't take me long on the last final, it was kind of easy since I'd been cramming all week long for it, and I'd told Cody to meet me at Sack and Save around eleven that morning so we could say goodbye, be that as it may.

Everything seemed different.

Surreal.

Like I was watching a slide show instead of living a life.

I remembered my first day moving into the dorm at the Raymond campus and now here I was, leaving.  Two semesters ... gone in the blink of an eye.  I wasn't the same person that I had been when I first stepped foot on the Hinds campus at Raymond.  I wasn't sure I knew that guy who used to be me.  I wasn't sure I knew who I was now.

Taking Robinson Road, I drove past the Little Caesar's that I'd worked at way back in September and October, finally pulling into the parking lot of the Sack and Save / Walmart shopping center there on Ellis Avenue to pick up my last paycheck and maybe have one last look at the old city.  The office  crew wished me well.  The store manager caught me at the front door and told me that a young woman had stopped by the other night looking for me and had asked if I still worked here.  I asked him to describe her and he described Debby Lee perfectly.

Debby Lee.

I still had that unopened letter from Debby Lee in my back pocket, unopened, saved for just this moment in time.  I took my last paycheck and said my goodbyes to some of the other people that I had worked with then left the huge discount grocery store, walked across the shimmering, rising heat of the parking lot and took the T-tops off of my '79 Pontiac Trans Am.  As I stood leaning against the driver's side front fender of the Pontiac I looked at the envelope that Debby Lee had mailed me. 

I guess it was time to get this over with.

I turned the envelope around in my hands and looked at it.  My name was written on the front of the envelope in Debby Lee’s handwriting.  On the back, the flap had been sealed with a lipstick imprint of a kiss, the perfect print of her lips and the same three words that she had left on the business card for the night club … “I miss you.  I remembered her lips, she had great lips and she had been a really great kisser.  I smelled the envelope because I knew it would smell of lilac perfume, a faint scent now seven days old but it was still the smell of the perfume that she always wore.

Memories came flooding back at me.

The lilac perfume that I remembered so well and the lilac perfume that I'd never even asked her the name of ...

There was obviously a letter inside that consisted of at least two, maybe three pieces of typing paper tri-folded neatly to fit the envelope.  I’m sure that everything on those pieces of paper had been handwritten.  Something like that was bound to have had her heart poured into it from the start when she wrote it.

I stared at the envelope a long time ...  I guess I owed Debby Lee the courtesy of reading what she had written … I guess I could give her that much, here, at the end of all good things.  I whipped out my folding lock blade Buck knife and slit the envelope open across the top, pulled out the three sheets of folded typing paper with her handwritten words on them, front and back then began to read what she had written to me.  Her perfume was stronger now, having been sealed inside the envelope, having been misted on the pages.

I read about her divorce, how it had been a long time coming and how she felt free now.  Thankfully, I hadn’t been a part of that and our affair had never been found out; it was just time to part ways since she and Robby had so little left to hold onto and there was no love left in what they had.  The truth was that their divorce had probably started the day after they were married … it had just taken them each this long to realize that neither was as happy with the other as they wanted to pretend to be.  Robby lost himself in the woods with his friends every chance he got and Debby Lee finally found her own escape ... losing herself in me.

I read about what she and I had experienced from her point of view and how she wanted to experience that again with the freedom that came from being single once more … I felt flattered at her description of what she had felt when she was with me and I read how she thought that we could build something from what we had started last year … something lasting and that was probably the part that bothered me the most because what she was asking for was something that I was all too willing to give her and therein lay the problem.

At the end of the letter she had included how to get in touch with her, her address, her phone number, the apartment in north Jackson where she was living, a hand drawn map and directions on how to get there, the address of the law office where she was working, the number at her work, how to see her and how much she wanted to see me again.  She repeated that last part several times in her letter.  I imagine that she had tried not to sound too desperate when she wrote it but that was the feeling that came through in her words especially since three of the words were smudged with what I could only assume were dried tears … or it could have been condensation dripping from the glass of whatever she was drinking at the time she wrote the letter.  Maybe she had needed some liquid courage to get her words flowing … or keep them flowing once she had got her words started.

And taped to the letter was a key ... 

... a key to her apartment and under that key was a smaller piece of paper, folded in half.  I took the smaller piece of paper from under the key and on that smaller piece of paper were written these words:

"I think about you, Christopher.  I think about you like I used to think about you.  I want there to be us.  I want what we had before.  I know this hasn't been easy for you but take this key.  Use it when you make up your mind.  If I come home after work and find you waiting on me then I'll know that you want the same thing that I want and I'll know that there can be something again for us.  Just us.  Just you and me."

Damn.

I put my head back, closed my eyes and sighed.

Damn.

Damn.

Damn.

l looked at the key ... it was new.

Brand new.

Shiny.  

She must have just had it made, a copy of her own apartment key.

It was the first time that a woman had ever given me the key to her place.

I marked that down in my Book of Firsts as well.

I held the key up, looking at it.

Now that I was out of school it would be so easy to just drive across town, to take Debby Lee up on her offer, to see where this relationship was going, how far it would go and how deep it would run.

So easy.

I could take the summer off ... find another job up here, stay with Debby Lee ... move in with her, sign back up for the fall semester at Hinds and ...

What?

... and do ... what?

I leaned up against the front fender of the Trans Am, closed my eyes and thought deep and hard.  Somewhere in the back of my mind I realized that I had a choice to make here and now; go with Debby Lee and have who knew how long with her before she broke my heart like it had never been broken before or I could just forget about the whole thing before it ever started back up, before it ever really started at all, to walk away with the memories that I had and get on with the rest of my life always with the thoughts of “what might have been” to tease me in my older years.  Was the time that we would have together, the experiences that we would share worth the sudden stop and the get off on down the line in the future?  Was it better to have her for a while and eventually lose her to someone else or was it better to just remember what we had and avoid all of that dead end nonsense while I still could … before it ever started?

The truth was that my mother hadn’t raised a dummy ... oh, I may have my moments but they were few and far between.  Debby Lee was divorced and on the rebound and right now I was the surest thing in her life … but how long before someone who was more interesting than me came along and attracted her attention away from what I could give her?  She had a real job now, apparently a good job, with good pay and benefits and maybe even opportunity.  How long could I keep her interested in me?  How long before she left me for someone better?   

How long would she keep me as her toy?

Six months? 

A year? 

Eleven years like she had spent with Robby? 

After all, she had had an affair with me while she wore Robby’s ring … what was to keep her from having an affair with someone else while she was with me, maybe even while she was wearing my ring one day?  What if I got a good job and had to work really hard and what if my job took away lots of time that I could be spending with her?  Would she stay with me, patiently waiting, or would she fill her needs elsewhere like she had done with me when Robby was away?

No.

I’d already played this game once before with Pam. 

The one universal truth that I had come to realize even this early in my life was that once a woman strays she can’t ever be trusted not to stray again … ever ... even if she strays with you.   It wasn’t really a case of “if” so much as it was a case of “when.”  If she left Robby for me then one day she’d leave me for someone else.  I realized then that probably the two most important lessons that I had learned so far were the ones that Pam and Debby Lee had taught me and even though I didn’t know it at the time those would be lessons that would save me a great amount of heartache in the many years to come in my life: no second chances for anyone and no more women who were involved with someone else, married or not, ever.

Debby Lee and I were living in two different worlds now.

What Debby Lee and I had shared together, for all it was worth, had been over that cold winter night way back in December when she had visited me here at Sack and Save and told me that she couldn’t see me anymore.  It wasn’t personal, no, it was just reality kicking in.  We had both been living in some shared escapist fantasy ... we had both been looking for something that we didn’t have and we had found it in each other … for a while at least.  I was looking for more of what Claire and I had shared and Debby Lee was looking for what Robby couldn’t give her.  

It was temporary, it was finite, it was over and with it any chance of having what we had once had ever again.  The last two times that I'd spent with her ... that hadn't been the start of something new, no, that had just been the desperate clinging to of something we had once shared.  What we had shared had been amazing while it lasted but it wasn't a good enough foundation to build anything lasting on.  Debby Lee was just sex.  She was an itch that needed to be scratched ... my itch and hers.  There was no love and if there was it was Debby Lee that was mistaking something that was for something that wasn't.

No, I had said my last goodbye to her then and I had meant what I said when I said it.   The last two times, her showing up at my apartment, had been mistakes.   I'd been stupid, both times because I'd listened with my dick instead of my brain and in doing so I'd broken one of my own core rules.

No second chances.

Ever.

No matter if it hurt, how much it hurt or how often it hurt.

Debby Lee wasn't a relationship waiting to be accepted, she was a reminder of how I had promised myself that I'd live my life from now on.  Debby Lee had been a test of my own personal philosophy, a test that I'd failed but one that I could definitely learn from.

I closed my eyes and took one last smell of the lilac perfume on the pages of her letter.

Memories.

So many memories.

I took the key to her place, refolded the pages neatly, put the key and the pages back in the envelope then smelled the letter one last time.

Lilac.

So many damn good memories.

"So ... you finally opened it and read it?"

Cody.  

I'd told him to meet me here at Sack and Save at eleven on Friday and I'd been so lost in my thoughts that I hadn't even heard him drive up and park next to the TA.  Getting lost in your thoughts like that, getting lost that deep is easy to do when your thoughts are about someone like Debby Lee.  Cody looked at the letter in my hand.

"Yeah.  I read it." I said.

"And ... was it what you thought it was going to be?" he asked.

"Pretty much.  More or less.  One thing's for certain though ... this letter is one hell of an open invitation to really fuck my life up for the next few years." I said.

He nodded but didn't pry.

"Be so easy to do it, too ..." I whispered.

I set the letter and my last paycheck on the hood of my Trans Am, using my folding lockblade as a paperweight to keep the paper in place.  I looked at my watch ... 

11:18.

"You're late.  Five minutes more and I really would have been gone." I said.

"Not staring off into space like that ..." Cody said.  "You were one step from growing roots on the spot."

I smiled.

“Yeah, well, you know …  You’re not gone yet.  At least not gone like disco.”

Gone like disco.

No ... I wasn't gone like disco ... not yet.

 I offered him my hand, we shook, then he pulled me into him and we hugged, hard, him patting me on the back, hard.  He let go and we each stood back against our cars.

“So … is it too late to talk you into staying here and finishing up at Hinds?” he asked.

I looked around slowly at the Jackson sprawl, thought about the invitation in Debby Lee's letter then nodded my head.  I reached up and took the letter in my hand, waving it in front of me for emphasis.

"If this couldn't get me to stay ... I doubt you can."

"So ... you really did make up your mind?"

I nodded.

“Going back down to Hattiesburg.” he stated flatly.

“Yeah, it’s time I left.  Time I went back home.  I wanted to get away, Cody.  No, I needed to get away.  I had to get away and I thought that this was the place I wanted to get away to ... but it isn't and it  ... hell, maybe it never was.”

“Where are you going to go to school?” Cody asked.

I chewed my lower lip in thought.

“You are still going to go to college, right?” he quickly added when I didn't answer him right away.

I nodded, at last.

“Yeah.  I've got to get my degree, Cody.  At least a two year degree and I really want my four year degree.  I mean, look at this crap ..." I said as I waved my hand at Sack and Save.

"I don't want to work there the rest of my life.  I don't want to do this crap work forever.  I want a real job, real money, not this bust my ass for minimum wage all the damn time."

"I hear that." Cody said in a tone usually reserved for having just heard something distinctly profound.

I turned around and looked out over the sprawl of old Jackson.

"I’m going to enroll at JCJC in the Fall.  It’s a little junior college about twenty-five miles from my house, I’ll have a drive like you do every day to and from campus.”

“JCJC?” Cody asked, stepping up beside me.

“Jones County Junior College.  Up near Laurel.”

Cody mouthed a silent “oh” and nodded.

“What about USM?  You headed there when you finish up at … JCJC?”

“Maybe.  I might try for the University of Alabama over in Tuscaloosa.  I’ve still got some wanderlust in me, maybe a little bit of gypsy blood, too.  I still might want to get as far away from home as I can.  Be the new guy in the new place, start over again somewhere else but this time in a different state, this time some place I've never been before.”

"Stranger in a strange land." Cody nodded but his expression wasn’t a happy one.

“What about you?  You coming down to USM year after next when you escape from Hinds?” I asked him.

He shrugged his shoulders and sighed.

“Maybe.  My grandfather wants me to go to Ole Miss.  That's where he graduated way back ... Says he’ll pay for it if I go to Ole Miss or USM.  He graduated from Ole Miss so he’s kind of partial to them but he says that Southern is a good school, not as good as Ole Miss, but he won't have a stroke if I decide to go to Southern instead of Ole Miss.  I guess he’ll pay for it no matter where I go but he kind of wants me to go to Ole Miss.”

“It could be worse.  He could want you to go to Mississippi State.”

Cody shook his head vigorously while waving his hands.

“Oh, hell no!  State is the one place that my grandfather would never pay for me to go to.  He doesn’t like Mississippi State, at all ... in fact he hates State with a passion so I doubt he’d ever pay for me to go there.  He has a very low opinion of people who go there, let alone graduate from there.  He calls it a retard school.  Retards in, retards out and they're set up for mass production, he says.”

I laughed and shook my head.  Cody’s grandfather and my dad would get along just fine in that regard as they both apparently hated Mississippi State.

“So ... You going to get a place of your own when you get back?” Cody asked.

I shook my head.

“Probably not.  I can live rent-free with my parents.  They asked me to move back in so … saves money.  Probably find myself in the same situation you're enjoying right now.”

"Not a bad situation to be in.  More cash in your pocket.  Easy rules to abide by and you can make your own hours as long as you don't wake the old folks up." Cody nodded and stared off out at the sprawl of Jackson.

Silence between us, each lost to his own thoughts, the world spinning through space and time.

“Look … If I get down to Hattiesburg … I’m going to look you up, Ray-Bans."

"Can I bank on that?" I asked him, smiling.

"Sure as hell you can bank on that.” Cody said.

“It’s just about a hundred miles, two hours … you could come down one weekend, stay with me at my parents, we’d raise some hell in the 'burg.  You, me, Flynn.”

“Flynn!  There's that!  Yeah, Flynn's cool.  I may take you up on that, Ray Bans, I just may do it.  Where do your parents live?”

“Hold that thought.” I said as I held up a finger, reached into my TA, found a piece of scrap paper and wrote down my address, telephone number, drew a quick map of how to get to my parents then gave the piece of paper to him.

"Once you get on Hardy Street and turn right by the Krystals on South 34th Avenue ... it's not too hard to find.  Five stop signs.  Take a left.  Stop sign.  Take a right then take an immediate left and I'm the fifth house on the right."

"Five stops signs.  Left, right, left, fifth house on the right.  Yeah, I can find you."

“Don’t lose that!  Better yet, make a copy of that and put the original somewhere safe!” I said.

He took the piece of paper and put it in his jeans pocket.

“You look me up, Cody Miller.  If and when you get down to Hattiesburg ... you look me up.”

Cody suddenly pulled me to him again and we hugged again.

“I’m going to miss you, bro.  It just won’t be the same around here without you.” He said, his voice cracking a little. 

“People come and people go, Cody.  It’s what you get from being with them while you’re with them that’s important.  That’s what you carry with you through the rest of your life, that’s what makes you decide to remember them or forget them.”

Cody pulled back from me but he never let go of his grip on my hand.  He looked sad … sadder than I’d ever seen him before and he pointed at me, pulled his finger back, then pointed at me again for emphasis.

“You know … if you had said anything else … it just wouldn’t have been you, Ray-Bans.”

There was a moment of silence between us.  I guess everything that had needed to be said had been said, more or less.  I guess we both knew it as well and there was no sense in making this parting any more difficult than it needed to be.  A year of memories flashed between us, a year of shared experiences and everything else that we’d been through.

You take care of yourself, Ray-Bans.”

“You, too, Cody.”

“Always do, bro.  Always do.  It's what I'm good at.”

I nodded and Cody turned, reached in through the open driver's side window of his Toyota Supra and pulled something out.  He turned and handed me a large flat brown paper bag.

"What am I supposed to do with this?" I asked, looking at the bag.

"You're supposed to look inside, dumbass." Cody said, smiling, motioning for me to open the bag up.

I did, reached in, and pulled out something that looked like some kind of official diploma or award.  In big scripted letters across the top of the award it said "Honorary Texan" and below that it had my name.  At the bottom, on a line that said "Certified Texan Instructor" was Cody's name written in ink penned script.

"Honorary Texan?" I asked.

"You earned it.  A one year degree from the Lone Star school of fast times and hard knocks."

I looked at the award again. 

"You made this?"

Cody shook his head.

"No.  It's a novelty, they sell them all over in Texas at the tourist traps.  I had my mom get me one and mail it to me a few weeks ago."

"But ... we're not in Texas." I said.

"Doesn't matter.  Award's good as long as it's signed by a certified Texan and you've been under the tutorage of a certified Texan all year long.  See?  I vouched for you.  There." Cody said as he used his finger to stab his signature at the bottom of the certificate.

"This is ... nice ... bro.  I ... don't know what to say."

Cody sat down in the Supra's driver’s seat, pulled his seat belt tight and looked up at me.

"Well, you're the only guy not from Texas that I ever met that I think really should have been from Texas." Cody said.

"Wow.  That's a pretty big compliment." I said.  

"Yeah, well, don't go getting all teary-eyed on me, bro.  Take it how you want to, won't change the fact of the matter." Cody said.

I slid the award back in the paper bag to protect it then put it under my last paycheck and Debby Lee's letter, putting my knife back down on top to weigh it all down.

Cody put his own fingerless driving gloves on, turned the key in the ignition of his Supra and the six cylinder growled to life.  He worked the clutch pedal and shifted out of gear, rowing back and forth a few times then just resting his hand on the gear shift in neutral.

"You come down South when you can, Cody Miller.  You come find me.  I'll show you around Hattiesburg, take you through USM ... maybe change your mind about going to Ole Miss.."

“I'll do that, Ray-Bans.  One day, soon.  You.  Me.  We’re not finished.  All this, what we started this year ... we're not finished."

"You really think so?" I asked.

"Oh, I know so.  We still have a lot more hell to raise, you and me.”

"Can I bank on that, too?" I asked.

"Like it was the gospel truth, bro."

Silence.

Awkward silence.

"Bye, Cody." I said.

Cody shook his head.

"Never say goodbye unless you never intend to have anything else to do with someone."

"Who said that?" I asked.

"You did." Cody said.

I nodded.

Maybe I had said that.

I'd said so much this year that I really had forgotten what all I'd said.

"So long?" I asked, trying to find a word, a good word to part on.

"How about "until"?" Cody asked, sticking his gloved hand out.

"Until." I said, nodding, liking the use of that word, and taking his hand, shaking it.

"Until, Ray-Bans.  Until, bro." Cody said as he put the Supra in gear and drove slowly out of the parking lot.

And right then I had a feeling, deep down inside, that I would be seeing Cody Lane Miller again one day and probably sooner rather than later.

Cody drove off then and his words played again in my mind.

You.  

Me.  

We're not finished.

We still have a lot more hell to raise.

I turned and walked back to the safety railing, standing at the top of the hill overlooking Jackson.  Far down below Cody’s red Supra quickly merged with the flow of highway traffic and I watched as it accelerated, skating in and out of traffic before quickly vanishing in the distance … I watched him leave in his red Toyota Supra  just like I’d watched Debby Lee leave in her white Buick Regal that cold December night all those months ago.

“Take care of yourself, you crazy Lone Star Gigolo.” I whispered even though Cody was gone.

Gone ... but maybe not gone like disco.

And like that this first year of college, my first year to be away on my own, all of this was just ... Dust.

I stood there for a few more minutes just looking out over the old Jackson sprawl, over a city I used to know as a child, over a city that used to mesmerize me with its size, its lights, its wonderful places ... a city that I’d returned to and found to be totally changed, almost unrecognizable, from what I’d remembered it as.  It was amazing how much Jackson had changed in just eleven years.  It seemed like a lifetime ago that I’d been a child here, going to first grade and the first part of second grade ... and now here I was at the end of my first year of college.  

Eleven years and everything was changed.

Heraclitus was right.

I’d started the year as a stranger in a strange land.  I’d ended the year pretty much the same.  I didn’t know what I’d come up here looking for and I damn sure didn’t know if I had found it or not. 

Freedom?

Escape?

Solace?

Some kind of reconciliation?

Maybe not all pilgrimages centered around enlightenment or fulfillment.  Maybe the most successful pilgrimages were failures if only from the point of view of the pilgrim on the journey.  Maybe some pilgrimages were just meaningless journeys where you wandered a path you thought you needed to wander, where you learned something to get you on through life and where you finished the journey not with some grand enlightenment but rather with just enough of your soul left there at the end of your pilgrimage to get you back to where you started from.

Life was one long pilgrimage with a beginning and an end and sometimes you could stray from the path, get lost in the side trails and meander or wander for a while.  That wasn’t important.  When you went off the pathwas where you found the memories and the experiences and the friendships that you carried with you through life.  No, what was important was that you made sure that you always came back to the path.

Realizing that looking at the scenery wasn’t going to get me any closer to home or any further down the road that I’d chosen I took the T-tops off my TA, put on my driving gloves and threw some old Whitesnake into the Kenwood.  I took a long, last look at Sack and Save, let a few memories run across my mind and then hit I-20, driving out of Jackson listening to John Sykes bow the hell out of his electric guitar on “Still of the Night”.  I let myself reminisce about Debby Lee and what we had shared one last time before I packed that memory away for a good long while and let myself get on with my life.  I never saw Debby Lee ever again, but every time that I smelled lillac, every time that I heard that Whitesnake song I thought of her ... for the rest of my life I would think of her and smile at the memories that I had of her, of the time spent with her and of what we shared for as long as we had shared it.

It was a beautiful day and I drove the ninety plus miles south east down Highway 49 to Hattiesburg with a smile on my face all the while listening to heavy metal cassettes one after the other and sipping on a bottle of cold Pepsi at my side.

And there I was, alone, again, without a job or any source of steady income, returning home after my yearlong self-professed pilgrimage both wiser and poorer, maybe in more ways than one.  I didn't feel like I was returning home with my tail tucked between my legs, no, it felt like I was coming home smarter ... maybe in the way that Odysseus had felt when he finally set foot back in his homeland.  I wasn’t worried too much about folding and spending money, though.  I had this gut feeling that my old job at County Market was waiting on me back in Hattiesburg and all I had to do to get it back was to walk up to Mr. Hicks the store manager and ask to work for him again.

And do you know what?

I was right.

For the first few days that I was back in Hattiesburg I noticed that a lot had changed in just a single year ... a whole hell of a lot.

For starters, Flynn had gone and gotten himself both a motorcycle and a steady girlfriend.


 

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