"Raven hair and ruby lips
sparks fly from her finger tips
Echoed voices in the night
she's a restless spirit on an endless flight"

- The Eagles - "Witchy Woman"




          Pulling Cowboy for Joy

Friday, February 28, 1992



It had been almost five years ago I had first stepped foot onto a college campus at Hinds up in Raymond, Mississippi and now here I was, nearly five years later, almost about to graduate the University of Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg, Mississipp, drinking in a bar and slowly reminiscing about all the choices that I had made and how they all had led in one way or another right here to the wooden stool that I was sitting on at the Mahogany Bar.

Funny strange how life was like that.

What a ride!   

What a long, wild ride it had been thus far and now there was only five months left until graduation.  Almost five years behind me and just five months ahead of me; it wasn’t a bad spot to be in, all things considered.  What should have taken me four years to finish was now stretching into five years and some change, semester after semester, summers included.  I hadn’t had a summer free since …

I hadn’t had a free summer since my first year in college!

God! 

I remember when summers had been special, magical even.  You got out of school the last week of May and didn't go back to school until after Labor Day.  Almost three and a half months off from school, one endless stretch where anything was possible.  The past years, including two changes to my major, all added up to the wages of sin being passed on to me as a come-due bill for my reckless though well-spent and well-enjoyed youth.  I couldn’t complain … my time in college had all been one hell of a non-stop blast of a ride and I had enjoyed every single minute of it, both the good and the bad because you can't have the good without the bad ... otherwise how would you know what the good was?

Graduation was five months away and while that seemed like an eternity on down the line from where I sat the truth was that graduation would be upon me in the blink of an eye and I realized that a lot could happen in that blink of an eye.  My college courses were becoming increasingly harder as the semester progressed and I had to devote more and more time to keeping up in my classes and maintaining my grades.  My life had become a full time job of balancing my college course load between my part-time job at the University library and my part-time job at County Market.  Both jobs were night jobs with long shifts that took up a lot of my personal time and left very little free time for me … especially when one shift stacked on the tail of another and gave me a twelve to fourteen hour stretch of work between days, between classes.  There were some days during the month where I completely skipped sleeping at all.  No-Doz tablets and Jolt Cola by the can became two of my best friends.

Free time was at a premium and what little free time I had to myself, trust me, I cherished … like I was doing tonight.  

I felt so lucky to have a Friday night off to do what I wanted to do and I was having fun!  Life was, ultimately, what you made of it so if fun didn’t come my way soon it was because I wasn’t out there looking for it.  In a college town like Hattiesburg, you really had to work hard not to have fun … or to purposely avoid it altogether.  In a college town like Hattiesburg, it was almost impossible not to have fun on any given night of the week but especially on weekends.

So, with a Friday night off the last week of February and all my classwork done, with the first Friday night off in I really couldn’t remember when, I found myself with some free time sitting on an empty stool at the Mahogany Bar … or was that some empty time sitting on a free stool at the Mahogany Bar. 

Semantics.

Semantics always struck me as being two ways to say the same thing.  The important thing is that I was cranking back shots of Jack Daniels, taken neat, and chasing them with Amaretto Sours on the rocks all the while watching the bewildered herd prance, pose and preen around me in that infinite circus and jest that we call the human race.  I sat there, at the crowded bar, thinking about everything and nothing at all, alternately putting my mind into gear then slipping it back into neutral and just letting it rev free.  I was wreathed in the cigarette and cigar smoke of a dozen different brands, the clink of bottles, the hollow tap of glass on wood, and the useless, never ending banter of value-less strangers that permeated the bar … the magic of the whiskey condensed it all into a dull roar in the back of my skull, a collective ambience that was the ultimately disposable soundtrack of this particular evening.

The blend of overlapping conversations intermingled with loud exclamations or spontaneous laughter that broke out at random and for no apparent reason that I could discern.  Normally, I preferred to drink alone but sometimes, with the help of a good bit of liquor, watching the rest of the human race meander on by in their usual uninformed, bovine-like stupor did wonders for putting my own life into real perspective.  It really helped a lot to put your own life into perspective when you could look at another human being and find it easy to say “thank God that’s not me!” or “Man!  He’s leaving with her now.  I guess she finally got good looking about four beers ago.”  Do this enough times and you soon become convinced that your life really wasn’t all that bad, at least when compared to the lives of others.

So, there I sat at the bar. 

My black Western hat was parked in front of me on the bar along with a shot glass of whiskey and an Amaretto Sour, all a nice subject for an interesting still life.  I took a sip of my whiskey and looked at myself in the full length mirror behind the bar; itself mounted high behind the rather impressive liquor and alcohol collection the Mahogany Bar kept on display.  The beard and mustache were something old now something new again, full, but neatly trimmed and it outlined my jaw in dark relief, connecting to the dark hair that was longer and fuller than I’d worn it in a long time.  The eyes had a stare that was indifferent, leaning heavily towards a mixture of amused apathy and just plain soul tired.  I studied myself in the mirror and found it easy to pretend that it wasn’t actually me being reflected there in the mirror.  It had been so long since I had last seen the image of the man in the mirror that I had almost forgotten what he looked like … what I had looked like.

I had become a stranger to myself

Gone was the smooth shaved, clean cut, thin eyeglasses, preppy clothes wearing, nice type college guy that I had been for the last year and a half and in his place was someone who wasn’t smooth shaved, who wasn’t clean cut, who didn’t wear eyeglasses or preppy clothes and who wasn’t a very nice person at all. The person that I was looking at in the mirror wasn’t someone that I had turned into … no, it was someone that I had just forgotten how to be, someone I had once again become and since the only person who would have ever given me any grief about how I looked was now gone for good the old look wasn’t only back it was here to stay.

A loud laugh behind me caught my attention and I cut my eyes slowly to the left.  The laugh had drawn my gaze because it was not only annoyingly loud but it was also obviously fake and generated to draw attention to the person doing the laughing.  It was one of those attention getting laughs, the obnoxious kind of laugh that had the tendency to really irk me.  Two women and a man spread three wide in that order, appeared from around the corner of the restaurant area and made their way through the growing crowd gathered near the kitchen, moving towards the front entrance to the bar.  The woman in the middle was the one doing the loud laughing and talking loudly.  If she wasn’t drunk or high she was sure trying to make everyone think that she was which in any intelligent person's mind wouldn't be the brightest thing to do.  More than a few stares were sent her way and other patrons tried to move out of the trio’s meandering path.  The man on the side was obviously pandering to the woman in the middle, the loud one, but the woman on the side closest to me looked nervous, reserved and … annoyed.

I shook my head and turned back to watch them in the mirror behind the bar.

The trio was having trouble finding their way through the gathered crowd, moving more by force than by any degree of grace or luck.  Their path was hurried, purpose-like, and erratic at best.  They were forced to navigate around singles, other couples or small groups that simply couldn’t be budged or moved through along their busy way.  It was obvious that the man was leading the other two, the woman next to him willing to follow and the other woman less than so.  As they passed me, the woman on the far left, the one who had been strangely silent since I had first noticed them, was suddenly jostled out of place by an inattentive blonde waitress who was in turn too busy flirting with a customer to pay attention to where she was going.  The strangely silent woman bumped me hard, by accident, turned, looked me over to make sure that she hadn’t spilled either of my drinks or caused me any serious inconvenience, apologized in an unemotional almost automatic way and then carried on with her group towards the entrance … more pulled along by the other two than by any will or desire of her own.  If I had to make a guess, the silent woman was doing what she could to drag her feet along the way and I think that the man and the other woman were starting to figure this out.

The woman who had bumped into me made it another five steps before she slowed, stopped, turned around, took three steps towards me then looked at me again like she recognized me.  I suppose she must have although it was probably as big of a surprise for her as it was for me.

I saw all of this through the reflection in the mirror, never having even made eye contact with her the first time when she bumped into me.  Since there hadn’t been any damage done, I hadn’t offered anything more in reply to her than dismissing her with a simple, noncommittal grunt.  The woman said something over her shoulder to her two friends then walked the rest of the distance back over to the bar and sat down on the empty stool next to me … and that’s when my past decided it was as good a time as any to catch up with me but then if you knew anything about my life you would know that things like that just tended to happen to me on a more than regular occasion.

She was a tall woman, my height plus more.  

Western hat.  

Long black hair, long lashes and witchy eyes.

Pale blue witchy eyes.

“Hey?  Hey!  Christopher!?” She said, looking at me, her back flat to the bar, bowing backwards and placing her arms on the bar top elbows first.

She wore tight blue jeans stuffed down into old black suede dress boots with some kind of gold decorative chain links around the ankle, a black leather belt with a large gold circle buckle that looked vaguely oriental, a white button up western shirt with tassels on the sleeves and a black Western hat with a leather band full of turquoise decorated Conchos.  Her purse was a large, black leather one on a wide strap over her shoulder.  

I looked her up and down.

Twice.

The first time because she wasn’t hard on the eyes and the second time because I realized that I actually did know her even if she wasn’t carrying a guitar and standing in the middle of a dark two lane county road at night.  Damn, I thought to myself, shaking my head and looking down into my whiskey.  When it rains it pours.  Of all the people …

Tuesday Joy Curtis. 

“TJ” to her friends.

I should know ... I used to be one of her friends.

Somewhere, deep down inside my soul I laughed out loud because my Friday night had certainly just gotten a hell of a lot more interesting.  Serendipity strikes again.  Joy was probably the very last person that I had ever expected to run into tonight and I wasn’t sure if I was ready to dive back into my past that hard and deep but since when did Fate ever ask me what I wanted when it came down to what amused her? 

"Christopher?" Joy asked, taking another hesitant step forward and looking closer at me.

“Long time no see, doll.” I said and that was about the best that I could come up with at the moment.

“Oh.  My.  God.  It is you!  It really is you!” Joy exclaimed excitedly, putting her hands on me and turning me around on my stool to face her then drawing me quickly and deeply into a one sided hug. 

I smelled of cologne, leather and whiskey.  

She smelled of cigarettes and flowery perfume, more so of the former than the latter.  I had to hold my glass as best as I could as she wrapped me in her arms and my thought was that made twice so far tonight that Joy had almost made me wear my whiskey.  When she let go of me, I looked Joy over from head to foot and back up again.  That made three times that I had done that in less than a minute and a half, I admitted to myself, mainly because it was worth doing.  Joy really wasn’t that hard on the eyes, never had been either.

“God!” she said excitedly.  “I haven’t seen you in …”

“A long time.” I offered, well aware of exactly how long it had been.

“A very long time.” She said flatly, nodding.  “Two or three dog months … at least.”

"At least." I agreed, nodding slowly and smiling.  

Dog months.  

Take a unit of time and multiply it by seven and you got the dog equivalent.  Cody and I had started using that term way back our first semester at Hinds in 1987.  Joy had picked it up from us back in ’88 when she, Flynn and I had started hanging around together … I hadn’t used that term in … two or three dog months.  

At least.

“You … you’re … I mean … Look.  At.  You!” She said, memories obviously coming rushing back to her in a pleasant way.

“You’re looking good.” I said, taking another sip of whiskey from my shot glass.

She blushed.  Her hair was longer than I remembered … a good third longer by the looks of it and … fuller?  She had lost a little weight or toned up or something.  She was still an Amazon at six foot two but now she was more warrior lean.

“That’s nothing more than the whiskey there talking and you know it.” She said, trying to be modest.

“It never was before whenever I told you that.”

Joy seemed to mull on that for a second or two.  I swished the little bit of whiskey that I had left in the shot glass around in front of me, watching it swirl and decided to pour it on down my hatch before Joy did something else that might could let me wear my whiskey instead of drinking it.

“So … Where’s your skinny girl?” she asked, looking around the bar.  

"Who?" I asked.

“The stick figure librarian with glasses?”

My skinny girl. 

The stick figure librarian with glasses.

Joy was talking about Katrice.

“She’s a long way off right now.” I told her, sitting the empty shot glass back on the bar top.

“You mean you’re not together tonight?” Joy asked, trying to be sarcastic.

“No.  I mean we’re not together anymore, tonight included and you can throw in tomorrow, the day after that, every day after that and about two weeks before now for extra and then draw a line into the future all the way to Jesus coming back to judge the quick and the dead.” I said with more enthusiasm than I thought I would have said something like that.

Joy’s demeanor turned from nervous to surprised as she cut her eyes to look at me.  She acted like she might have misheard me.

“Okay.  I got about half of that what with the noise in here.  What do you mean you’re not together anymore?”

“It’s over.” I told her, remembering and using Katrice’s very own last words to me to answer Joy’s question.

Joy put on an exaggerated display of shock and disbelief.

“You’re kidding, right?” she asked.

“Nope.” I said, taking a sip from my Amaretto Sour and chewing on the cherry that had decorated the mixed drink, the stem hanging out of my mouth between my lips.

Joy mouthed a silent “damn” and mulled over that thought.  I stared out across the crowd as I sucked on the cherry.

“How the hell did that happen?”

I shrugged my shoulders.

“I’ve got a few ideas but the gist of it is that she said it was over and I took her at her word.”

Joy stared at me, trying to read my expression.  When she saw that I wasn’t kidding her a stern look came over her face.

“You’re serious, aren’t you?”

“Well, I was really serious right up until she walked out on me.”

Joy whistled and stared at the ceiling, tipping her Western hat back.

“So your skinny girl walked on you.  I didn’t know.” She muttered.

I shrugged my shoulders, again.  I’d gotten pretty good at shrugging my shoulders lately; it seemed to convey a good enough reply when I didn’t really feel like giving one and it didn’t use a whole lot of energy or effort to do so.  A shoulder shrug was a simple, eloquent, but thorough gesture that said what needed to be said without actually saying a damn thing.

“Really!  I didn’t know!” Joy half whispered.

“It’s okay, doll.  Don’t sweat it.  I haven’t really told a lot of people … haven’t had much of a chance … I’ve been kind of busy with school and work, full time student, two part-time jobs, upcoming graduation, you know … important stuff.”

“How long ago was this?”

I did a bit of quick calculating in my head.

“A little over two and a half weeks ago.”

“Two and a half weeks ago?” she asked.

I thought about the time and dates again.

“Near enough.” I said as I pulled out the chewed up cherry and dropped it on a napkin next to a few others that had met its same fate.

I reached for my Amaretto Sour.  Joy made an expression like she was trying to figure out the date on some calendar that only she could see.

“So she dumped you … what?  On Valentine’s Day?”

“Close.  The Sunday before.” I said, taking a drink from my Amaretto Sour.

Joy took a few seconds to mull that over as well; her expression told me as much.

“I really thought you two were set in stone.”

“Yeah.  I thought she was the one for me, too.  Guess not, huh?” I said, laughing a gallows laugh.

Joy shook her head softly.

“Me.  Dumped by a children’s librarian.  Go figure.”

“Just goes to show you never can tell, can you?  The old book by its cover thing.”

“Nope.  You never can tell.” I said, shaking my head for emphasis and swirling what was left of my whiskey in my glass.

“Well, at least she saved you some money there when she left, didn’t she?” Joy ventured half-heartedly.

“Huh?” I asked, not sure what she was trying to say.

“Valentine’s Day.  At least she broke up with you before you spent a whole lot of money on her for Valentine’s Day.  I mean there's that ...”

I couldn’t help myself.  I thought about the engagement ring and the Mazda Miata and I laughed out loud … a long, much needed, long time coming laugh.  It was so loud that people at the bar next to me looked in my direction, even the bartender.  Joy looked at me, somewhat confused.

“Did I miss something there?” she asked.

“Doll, you just don’t know how much money I saved when she left.” I said.  “Woooo!”

Joy gave me a look that said she still didn’t understand.

“Sorry.  Private little joke.”

“You’ll have to tell me one day.” She said, hopeful.

“Yeah.  One day.” I mused.

"Wow."

I shrugged my shoulders and picked up my Amaretto Sour.

I looked back at the crowd in the mirror and hit the Amaretto Sour again hard enough to put a good sized dent in what I had left.  The shot of whiskey was gone and the Amaretto Sour was on its last legs about to give up the ghost to the buzz I was doing maintenance on.  I’d have to order up reinforcements soon if I wanted to maintain the pace I had set for myself and keep my buzz lit.  Joy adjusted her Western hat, looked around the crowd then leaned over towards me.

“Karen told me that she thought that she saw you downtown last Saturday and that you were alone.  I didn’t believe her but I guess it was true …  Heard some others say that they had seen you as well the past few weeks … riding the streets alone.  Walking alone.  Being alone … like you are here.”

I looked at her just as Joy mouthed the word “alone” slowly and suddenly remembered that she hadn’t come to the bar by herself.

“Aw, hell!” she said out loud.

“What?” I asked her.

“Speaking of being alone … I forgot!  I’m not!” She said, throwing her arms wide for emphasis as her expression quickly became one of concern.

She looked over her shoulder at her two forgotten companions and I followed her nervous look.  The guy she had been with stared at me, hard, like I had cost him something big.  The other woman, a bottle blonde trying to dress slutty by wearing a dress that was two sizes too small, tapped her watch and made an exaggerated motion that the three of them had to go and go now.  Her smile was as fake as her acting had been.  Joy nodded in understanding then turned back to face me and her expression got really serious all of a sudden.

“Listen.  Uh, I know this is kind of sudden but can I hang out with you tonight?” Joy asked in a half whisper.  “I kind of have a ticket to ride but I’m not real bent on following through with it.  It started out okay but things have really changed and I just don’t like the crowd I’m hanging with right now, okay?”

I turned to look from her to the other woman and man that she had been with.

“Plans changed?” I asked.

“Yeah, and not for the better … Look …  I know you probably have your own plans for tonight and it’s kind of sudden and all but …” Joy said.

“Is he pulling Cowboy for you two?” I asked, interrupting her, thinking that I was starting to see the picture.

Joy nodded, running her hand through her hair and tossing it lightly, playing with the end of it almost as an afterthought, twisting and pulling.

“He’s not a cowboy.  More like a spectator.  The guy is a real creep.”

“He's going to watch you drop?" I asked, not believing what I was hearing.

Joy nodded.

"That’s trouble and you know it, Joy.  You’ve done this too long to not know that’s trouble waiting to happen.” I said, giving my opinion of the man and looking the other two over again, up and past Joy’s shoulder.

“He’s not the only one.  He’s got some friends over at his place waiting on us to go back there.  They want to watch, too … or so they say.”

"Good God, doll!" I said, finding myself at a loss for words on how stupid that idea really was.

“I know!  I know!  It wasn’t my idea!  Carrie and I, that’s her over there, we were going to drop at her house but her boyfriend hooked up with us and then invited himself along and then he invited some of his friends along as well.  What started out as two at her place is now seven at his place.” Joy said, getting exasperated.

Five guys watching and two girls dropping.

Yeah, it didn’t take a rocket scientist to see what was going to happen there.

Impatience was on the face of both of them, more so the man.  Again he stared at me like I owed him something and at that point in time, with just enough whiskey on board, I was of the right mind to walk up to him and ask him what his problem was … I just hadn’t decided if I would ask him before I put him down hard on the ground or afterwards when he was trying to pick himself up from where I had planted him.  The way I felt right then, I didn’t mind putting my hands on someone … the dumber the better … just like old times.

The carpet of the Mahogany Bar could use a good sweeping and I knew just who I was going to use to sweep it with.

Memories.

Nineteen and four.

“So … do you want to be alone tonight or do you want some company?” Joy asked hopefully.

I must have taken longer than she liked to think that over.

“Look.  It's just for a little while, at least.  Please.” She added, in a lower voice, staring down towards the floor.

I hadn’t seen Joy like this before and it really bothered me.  When you see a six foot two inch tall amazon who is in a situation that makes her nervous and scared, it was obviously time for five foot twelve little old me to step in and do something about it.  I reached over and lifted her chin up to where she was looking at me, eye to eye.  When I looked into Joy’s heavily made up, long lashed, witchy pale blue eyes and saw the concern there I knew she was serious about wanting me to take her in under my wing and look after her if just for a little while.  Joy wasn’t usually concerned about anything or anyone, she’d been able to take care of herself long before she ever met me but somehow this time, tonight, she was scared and out of options.  Yeah it was sudden and out of the blue but I knew right then that there was no way that I could turn her down.

It was Joy.

Call it one for old time’s sake.

“Yeah.  I could do with some company tonight.” I said.  “Tell those two over there to blow and we’ll do some catching up.  Is your car here?”

She shook her head.

“I rode with Carrie over there.  She picked me up tonight so I've got no ride.”

I thought about my Vette out in the parking lot though I was in no condition to drive and might not be for a while yet.  Fuck it.  Another problem to solve when it came time to face it.

“I’ve got my car so I’ll run you home later if you want to stay with me for a while.  Your call.”

Joy nodded, a tiny smile spreading on her lips.

“Are you sure?”

“Yeah.  After all that I’ve been through these past few weeks I could use a little Joy in my life tonight.” I said, smiling and winking at her.

Joy ran her hand over the right side of my beard, her eyes to my eyes and there was a look of growing happiness that hadn’t been there a few seconds ago.

“Thanks, Cowboy!  Save my seat, will you?”

“No problem.”

Joy got up from her stool at the bar and went over to the couple she had been with.  I watched as they talked among their selves, occasionally looking back in my direction.  It was clear that the other man and woman weren’t pleased with Joy’s sudden decision to stay behind with me, especially the man who stared at me hard when he wasn’t in some kind of heated discussion with the other woman and occasionally with Joy.  His expression suddenly went from a mixture of anger and frustration to his best used car salesman smile.

I stared back at him, hard.

I didn’t recognize him but I tried to memorize his face.  There’d be another time, another place and I looked forward to being there then because he may have thought that I owed him something but for the effect that he was having on Joy I knew that he definitely owed me something and I was going to collect when and if I ever got the chance. 

Joy, obviously having said her piece, turned and started to pull away when the guy reached for her, took her by the arm and started doing the used car salesman smile again.  I watched as he gently tugged her towards the front door, nodding with his head and trying to persuade her with a lot of quick banter that I couldn’t make out but could probably guess the gist of.  I didn’t like how he was holding onto Joy, squeezing her around her bicep and almost dragging her backwards with him.  Joy wasn’t a small woman or weak by any measure but this guy was decided that she was going with him and the other girl.  The more she tried to pull away, the tighter his grip became.  The look on Joy’s face said she didn’t like it either and when she looked up at me and our eyes met … I saw that her nervousness had returned in spades, there was an unspoken cry for help that her eyes flashed at me and that was all I needed.

I stood up off my bar stool, grabbed my Western hat, dropped it on my head, squared it up and took a pair of steps in his direction with the full intention of grabbing this guy by the throat, pushing him out the front door and then explaining to him why when Joy said "No" that was all he needed for an answer.  The guy holding Joy by the arm saw me start walking towards him and he quickly relaxed his grip on Joy’s arm which was probably the smartest thing that he had done so far tonight.  Joy pulled her arm back and, despite even more desperate pleading attempts to change her mind from both the guy and the girl, she gave them one last goodbye, turned her back on them, rubbed her arm where the guy had grabbed her and walked over to me where I stood there a few steps away from the edge of bar.  She moved in slightly behind me while the guy and the girl she had been with moved a few steps closer to the door.

That was too bad because I had really wanted to plant that guy in the ground … just something about him that made me really not like him.

Joy stood real close to me; her body almost touching mine and I put my arm out, ran it around the right side of her waist, pulled her close to me and held her like that.  It was just something that I felt needed to be done, that she needed me to do and she didn’t protest at all when I did although she did tremble just a little.  Her head went down to my shoulder and her hand came up to my chest.  The guy stared from Joy to me and sneered; it was a look of real disappointment mixed with anger at something he couldn't do anything about that he managed to project.  I met his eyes and nodded towards the front door, giving him a suggestion of where I thought he should head as soon as he could.  After a hateful stare he took the other girl’s arm, turned around and they both left through the front door obviously none the happier for doing so but it was hard to tell which one was more so than the other.

"Yeah." I muttered.

The bartender looked from the front door to me as I stood there, holding Joy in my arm … the air phone already in her hand ready to call … who … ?

The police?  

Probably.  

Behind us near the kitchen two of the kitchen staff had appeared, casually, but I knew why they were there.  I looked to the bartender.  Her expression asked “is there going to be any trouble?”  I shook my head and she gave a shrug of indifference then went back to waiting on her customers but the air phone went onto her jeans pocket.  And that was the end of what I could only imagine would have been a really bad night for Joy … and me.

“You okay?” I asked as I held her close.

She nodded but didn’t say anything.  She just stood there, next to me, my arm around her.  Her left arm hung at her side and her right hand crossed over her chest to rub her upper left arm where the guy had grabbed hold of her.

“Are you sure?” I asked.

She nodded and then said “No” so quietly I almost didn’t hear it amid the roar of the crowded bar.

She stepped into me then.  I reached up and took my Western hat off, putting it back on the bar as Joy sniffled.  Since I'd known her ... since that night we first met way back in the summer of '88 I'd never, ever seen Joy shaken like she was right then.  Joy was a rock.  Joy was an Amazon carved out of dirty granite and here she was, huddling up next to me like a little girl.  It spooked me ... just a little ... in the same way that when you see something you never thought would get broken, something you never thought could be broken get broken.  I took her hat off as well, sitting it next to mine and I had no more turned back to face her than she put her head on my left shoulder and sniffled again.

“Hey!  It’s okay.” I said.

“No.  No, it’s not.” She said, almost sobbing.

“Yes, it is.” I said.  “They’re gone and I’ll stay with you as long as you want.  My time is your time, TJ.  However long you need me for.”

Joy cranked out a short, soft laugh but said nothing else, just leaned there against me, her head on my shoulder and her right hand massaging her left arm.  I reached around her with my right arm and wrapped her in my arms, holding her tight.  I got no protest from her, none at all.

A few customers were looking at us now, having picked up on the fact that something had just happened and either drama had been averted or they had somehow missed the show.  A guy three seats down kept staring at Joy there in my arms and when he looked up at me, our eyes met and I jerked my head a little indicating that he should find something more interesting elsewhere, which he did.

Joy stopped rubbing her arm, put both of her hands between us, her palms flat against my chest and still we stood there, me holding her and her letting me hold her.  Finally, she patted me softly on my chest with the palms of her hands and gently pushed back.  I took my arms from around her, sat down and motioned for her to take her seat again as well.  Her eyes were red but I couldn’t see any tear tracks on her cheeks.  I handed her a napkin from the stack right behind the bar and she blotted her eyes.

“This is getting to be a habit …” I said, remembering how we had first met all those years ago.

“What is?” she asked.

“Running into you on the back side of your bad dates.”

Joy laughed and caught herself.

“Well … I took care of some of that.” She said, motioning with her head over her shoulder to where the other two had stood.

“You always do.”

Joy stared into the mirror behind the bar.

“Are you going to be okay?” I asked, since I hadn’t really gotten a good answer the last time I had asked her.

“Yeah.  I’m fine.  I just need a smoke.  You don’t mind, do you?”

I shook my head.  Joy pulled a half empty pack of Winstons out of her purse, tapped one out and when she turned around I had my old dented Zippo lighter already lit for her.  She accepted the offered flame, puffed twice and lifted her cigarette away.  I snapped the lighter closed again, putting it back in my shirt pocket and went back to my drinking.

“You never smoke but you always have a light ready whenever anyone needs it.  I’ve often wondered why that is, Christopher.”

“I guess I’m just a philanthropist.” I said flatly.

Joy laughed, blowing smoke out of her nose and coughing, waving her hand in front of her face to try to get some air.

“That’s one of the things that I always liked about you; your quick wit and your endless sarcasm.”

“You liked a lot of things about me, care as I remember.” I said.

“Can’t say that I ever stopped liking those things.” She said, leaning on the bar, taking a long drag and blowing it out through her nose.  “There’s a lot to like about you ... ”

“Not lately, there isn’t.” I stated, sipping again on my whiskey.

“According to who?” she asked.

I waved my hand in the air nonchalantly.

“Her?  Is that why you’re here?  Drowning your sorrows?  Trying to forget her.”

I shook my head.

“Good.  Always drink to remember, never to forget.  Old Russian proverb, you taught me that one, remember?” Joy said, tapping her cigarette out onto a damp napkin.

“That I did.” I said as I picked up my Amaretto Sour, nodded it to her and took a drink.

“So … what are you trying to remember this … hard.” She said, trying to judge how much I had already had to drink.

I tapped the shot glass with my finger.

“Five.” I said.

I tapped my Amaretto Sour.

“Five.” I said.  “I’m about halfway to where I want to be.”

“And where is that?”

“Exactly where I used to be a long time ago … before I went and got … dumb … and stupid … and forget everything that I’d ever learned about ... women.”  I whispered.

“So … what are you trying to remember?  The time you spent with … her?” Joy asked, an obvious amount of distaste in the way she said it, especially that last part.

I laughed out loud and quickly shook my head.

“Hell no!  I’m trying to remember the time I spent before I met her.  My life was a lot more interesting back then, care as I to remember … and a lot more fun.”

“At least it was when you hung around us … and then you met her and you just stopped coming around at all.” Joy mused.

I hung my head and tried to think of something to say but I had nothing in my defense.

“Yeah.  I know.” I grunted at Joy.

“Can I say that you were missed?”

“You all seem to have gotten along just fine without me from what I can tell.” I said, looking her over and then drinking from my Amaretto Sour.

“You were missed, Christopher.  Trust me.  It just wasn’t the same without you.  When you stopped coming around …”

I grunted and Joy must have thought it was best to move on.

“So what do you say, Cowboy … ?  Buy a girl a drink?  Just like old times?”

“Fair enough.” I said, agreeing to her proposal.

Now that I wasn’t seeing anyone I had folding money, once again, to spend on myself and my friends.  I finished the Amaretto Sour in front of me then put the empty glass down on the wood bar with a solid tap, the kind that bartenders listen out for in order to earn their living.  The blonde bartender brought me a new shot glass of whiskey, a fresh Amaretto Sour and I motioned for her to take Joy’s order.

“Bud Lite, bottle and a glass with a lime slice and bring me a double scotch on the rocks.”

The bartender nodded then stepped down the counter to get Joy’s request.  Joy took another drag from her cigarette and rested her head on her hand, staring into my eyes and slowly puffing on her Winston.

“The beard is back.  I always liked it … saw you once or twice without it.  I didn’t like it when you were smooth shaved.” Joy said, rubbing my beard softly with her fingertips.  “Now you don’t look like a teenager anymore.  Now you look … older.”

“Thanks.  I appreciate that.” I said, knowing what she meant but deciding to ride her a little on it.

“No.  You look older in a good way.  More mature.  I think it’s your eyes.  There’s stories in your eyes.  You can just look in your eyes and see … stories.” She said, rubbing my beard some more and petting me again along my jaw line.

“Stories?” I asked.

She nodded.

“Story eyes.  You’ve got story eyes.  I like story eyes.”

I closed my eyes feeling her hand along my beard, along my cheek.  I was losing myself in her touch when the bartender brought Joy her drinks as well as a heavy glass ashtray, taking the damp napkin with her ashes on it away and wiping the bar in front of us with a damp hand towel.  Joy took a last drag from her Winston and crushed her cigarette out in the ash tray then poured the Bud Lite from the bottle to her glass, sucked on the lime slice then took a hard swallow of beer.  She dropped her lime slice into her beer then raised her glass in a toast and I tapped it with my whiskey shot.

“To old times.” She said, a smile on her face.

“To old times.” I repeated.

“Where did they go?” she mused then knocked her glass of beer back.

I drained the shot glass in one swallow and set it back down.  The bartender started to step up and I waved her off on her approach.  I still had an Amaretto Sour to sip on and I was piggy backing my liquor, not leap frogging it.  Maintaining a good buzz required finesse and patience.  It wasn’t something that you ham-fisted your way to or through unless you wanted trouble … the kind of trouble that usually left you hugging a toilet or worse, waking up in your own piss and vomit … maybe even in a jail cell ... not that it had ever happened to me and I damn sure wasn’t going to let it start if I could help it.  Yeah, a good buzz was a curious thing.

“Quitting so soon?  That’s only six of each for you.” Joy asked, noticing what I had done.

“Six of each spread over the last hour … No, it’s more like tapering off.  I think that I just want to coast for a while and enjoy myself.  You go ahead and drink up because you’ve still got a ways to go before you get anywhere near where I am.”

“Wanna bet?” she asked with a mischievous smile on her face and she went for her scotch on the rocks.

“Uh, oh.  Remember the last time we had a drinking contest.  You said that you could drink me under the table and you ended up driving the porcelain bus.”

Joy smiled at the memory.

“Yeah, but you’ve been soft for what … a year and a half now?”

“About that long, yeah.”

“Yeah, well, I haven’t been soft, Cowboy.”

And that was what I had missed the past year and a half … a drinking buddy … especially an aggressive one who could turn our mutual drinking into an alcoholic stamina contest.  I’d been able to drink Joy under the table on more than one occasion but it was always close.  If you’ve never woken up the next morning, confused, not really sure where you were but with a six foot two tall amazon passed out either halfway on top of you or right beside you and all the empty bottles and glasses around you to quickly remind you of the mad alcohol free-for-all that you had put yourself through just a few hours ago then you’ve missed out on something in your life, you truly have.  Also the experience of being around a six foot two amazon with a killer hangover is not to be missed either.  Joy had a hangover vocabulary that could take rust off of a Chevy Vega.

Joy smiled at me and I caught myself smiling back.

I looked around.  

Joy.

Her beer and lime.

My Amaretto Sour. 

The bar.  

The people. 

The noise.

The atmosphere.

Joy sitting next to me.

Because she wanted to be sitting next to me.

For just a single instant the entire universe kind of froze in place and in that one instant I felt like I was ... home.  I just had that long awaited homecoming feeling way deep down inside where you have the best feelings and where you keep the best memories right next to the dreams you have that won't ever die.

The feeling, right then and there, was one of the best feelings that I'd had in a really long time.

Joy and I spent the next hour keeping our buzzes lit bright as she filled me in on all the highlights that I had missed in the last year and a half.  The more she told me of what I had missed the more I realized just how I had really wasted my time, part of my life that I could never get back, with Katrice.  At some time around a quarter after nine, Joy got this look on her face, a look of pure invention.

“Speaking of old times …”

I sighed because I knew what was coming and I didn’t mind at all.  Just being with Joy was a lot more therapeutic than just being with my whiskey.  The good thing about whiskey was that it didn't do a whole lot of talking.  The bad thing about whiskey was that it didn't do a whole lot of listening, either.

“Can I pull Cowboy for you tonight?  Is that what you’re going to ask me?”

Joy nodded, shyly, smiling.

“Yeah.  Would you?  I know it’s kind of sudden but …”

I set my Amaretto Sour down on the bar and looked at her, not quite sure if I’d heard her correctly or not.

“You’re serious?  You really want me to pull Cowboy for you?  Tonight?” I asked.

“I’m all set … or was all set but I lost my cowboy.  What do you say?”

Joy nodded slowly, her eyes looking at my expression for an early answer.  I rubbed my beard in thought.  Pulling cowboy for Joy hadn’t been part of my plans but then running into Joy again hadn’t been part of my plans either.  The truth was that I didn’t really have any plans for tonight and those that I did could certainly be changed as needed.

Priorities.

“How much are you going to drop?” I asked, getting more interested in the idea the more I thought about it.

“Kind of planned on going for broke ... been saving up.” Joy said, smiling mischievously.

“Damn!  You are serious ...  You’re not talking a bus ride across town ... you’re talking a moon shot, aren’t you?”

“Yeah.  Look, I need this.  I got some really good stuff, I mean really good, and I had planned on an all-nighter with Carrie … until that fell through and now I’m kind of left hanging.” She said not sure if I was going to accept her request.

I thought about what she was asking me to do longer than it had taken me to come up with my answer.  Whiskey will do that to you, give you the answer before you can even ask yourself the question or really think about the question that you just asked yourself because you already knew the answer … and now you see why it wasn’t a good idea to go getting your alcohol all complicated.

I downed the last of my Amaretto Sour in one long effort and turned the glass upside down on the bar signaling that not only had I decided to accept Joy’s offer but that I was finished drinking for the night as well.

“Will you?”

“Cowboy for you?  Tonight?”

Hell.  I didn’t have anything better to do on a Friday night and right then pulling cowboy for Joy sounded a whole lot better than anything else I could come up with on short notice.

“Sure, doll.  Yeah.  No problem.”

“For old time’s sake?” she asked.

Her eyes were bewitching.

“For old time’s sake.  Just like we used to.” I agreed.

Joy’s eyes lit up at my answer.  I picked my Western hat up off of the bar and squared it on top of my head before standing up.  It was then that I realized that standing up was going to take a hell of a lot more effort than I had thought it might.  It was a good thing that I had quit drinking when I did otherwise I might have been in trouble.  I sat back down at the bar, sighed, and waited until the world got all orderly and settled down again.

“Uh … There might be one … little … problem.” I said as I rubbed my chin in thought.

Joy looked up at me, curious concern on her face.

“Can you drive a stick?” I asked her.

“Yeah.” She said, laughing and realizing why I was asking.  “I can drive a stick and probably a lot better than you can right now.”

“Of that I have no doubt at all.” I said.

“Let’s get out of here.” she said.  "I'll take you back to my place."

I nodded happily at her answer, patted the bar lightly and stood up once again.  It wasn’t so bad the second time, if you were ready for the world to move like it did when it was riding on whiskey filled shock absorbers.

“Good!  Well then, I guess there really isn’t any problem after all.” I said, reaching into my pocket and handing Joy the keys to my Corvette.

Joy paid our collective tab in full before we left the Mahogany Bar so I felt a little more than obligated to her and even if I didn’t then my wallet sure did because we had run up quite a tab catching up on old times and reminiscing.  Plus Joy actually did know how to drive a stick and since she drank a whole lot less than I had I let her drive my Vette back to her place which she said wasn’t that far.  Still, it would be best if we avoided any Imperial entanglements along the way.

I opened the driver’s side door and let her fall down into the ’88 Corvette then shut the door behind her.  I went around to the passenger side, waited on her to hit the power door lock button then fell into the Vette myself.  I think it was the first time that I’d been seriously drunk in this car and it was a new sensation.  The Vette wrapped around me and I felt like I was sitting in either a leather wrapped cellar or a really deep and padded bath tub onboard the space shuttle.  Joy adjusted her power seat and checked the mirrors before putting the Vette in neutral, pushing the clutch to the floor and cranking it.  I caught myself wondering how she knew where all the buttons in a Corvette were when I'd owned this car just a few weeks and I still was trying to figure out all the gadgets in it …?  The 5.7 liter Tuned Port Injected small block V8 under the clamshell hood sequence fired on all cylinders then growled to life and idled with a slight lope.

“Outside or inside air?” she asked.

“Let’s hit the AirCon.” I said, reaching up and setting the automatic climate control system to its coldest setting and highest fan speed.

Joy reached up on the dash and took down my driving gloves which I had stacked there.  She looked at them and smiled as she held them in her hand.

“I remember these.” She said.  “Your lucky driving gloves.  You never go anywhere without wearing them.”

“Still don’t.” I said.  “I’ve had that pair since 1986 …”

“Wow!  Six years … These things should be in a museum.” She mused.

“Someone gave those to me.  Someone I knew a long time ago.”

“A girlfriend?”

Elizabeth.

Marie.

So long ago now ... someone else that had left.  Someone else I couldn't hold onto in my life.

“Something like that.  Those were a Christmas gift from her, those and my first pair of Ray-Bans.  Way back in '86.” I nodded.

Joy seemed to think about that.

“Hey!  Show me that trick that you always did …”

“What  ... trick?” I asked her, not sure what she meant.

“You know!  That trick where you put the driving gloves on at the same time without using either hand to help the other and then you slap them tight …  that thing you always did when we went racing.”

I nodded and she handed me the gloves.  I put them in my lap, stuck my fingertips in the fingerless gloves of each hand, wiggled to get a good grip in them then flipped the gloves up in front of me, letting each one fall onto its individual hand, wiggled my fingers and the gloves seated themselves all the way down to my wrist.  I cross slapped the Velcro tabs closed and then held up my hands in front of Joy in an exaggerated “tah-dah” gesture.

“I always liked how you did that … it’s a neat trick.”

“Gimmick.  Quirk.  A trick will get you a drink at the bar.  Putting on gloves like that never got me anything.  I liked your top hat trick better …” I said.

“Guess what?  I got to where I can do that trick with a Western hat as well.” She said, smiling and tipping her western hat towards me.

“I’d like to see that.” I said.

“I’ll show you when we get back to my place.  Can't do it in here.  No room.”

Joy had this trick she did at parties where she wore this outrageous black top hat that was a cross between an old time mortician’s hat, a magician’s hat and kind of like something out of a bizarre fusion of Dr. Seuss and Lewis Carol.  It had a red band around it with a pair of white and black feathers stuck in it and a pair of thick red ribbons flowing off the back.  She had found it at a consignment shop on the coast one weekend back in the spring of '90 when we were down there and she had instantly fallen in love with it because it was so garish.  She had added an Ace of Spades playing card, a Queen of Hearts and a Joker playing card to the band (which she said represented me, her and Cody), gluing them there and that had somehow completed the look of the hat entirely.  It was Joy’s party hat and it fit her, especially when she loosened up at parties.  Joy would take the hat off of her head, flip it in the air in front of her, duck and bob and then catch the hat on her head again without using her hands at all.  She had this coy little look to her when she did it and it was always a neat trick to see her do, especially if you were drunk, you were bored, it was only the two of you and she knew you that were watching her do it.  Joy could be something of a show-off … sometimes just as bad as Cody but a show-off all the same and she knew lots of little parlor tricks to keep you entertained or amused, like when she would walk a quarter along her knuckles just by flexing her fingers or tie a cherry stem in a knot using her tongue.  The first time I’d seen her tie a cherry stem into a knot, well … those had been impure thoughts to be sure.

“Here.” I said as I peeled the driving gloves off and handed them to her.

Joy looked at the gloves being offered with an incredulous expression.

“If you’re driving my car, you’re going to be wearing the gloves.  It’s the rule.  Otherwise shove over and let me behind the wheel.”

Joy threw her head back and laughed because she knew that I was serious and that there was no way that I was in a condition to drive nor would she let me drive in the condition that I was in.  She took the gloves, tried the trick that I had showed her and failed comically which caused us both to laugh out loud.  I picked up the fallen gloves, took the left one and held it out for her.  She slid her left hand into the glove and I gently fastened the Velcro clasp.  She flexed her hand, made a fist and I could hear the leather creak.  She held out her right hand, palm flat down and fingers slightly spread and I slid the other glove on, slowly, taking my time and latching the Velcro closure with both thumbs.  I was about to pull away when her hand took mine and held it.

“It’s been a long time, Cowboy, to be just the two of us alone, like this.  Laughing.  Having a good time.” She mused.

I nodded.

Memories of a time long ago came roaring back.

Maybe it was the whiskey, maybe it was seeing and being with Joy again, maybe it was almost kicking some loser’s ass there in the Mahogany Bar but I felt really good, warm all over, like I had been dipped in hot water with my clothes on and just left there to soak.  She let go of my hand and put her seatbelt on, I put mine on and she slowly drove us out of the parking lot and on down Hardy Street.

On more than one occasion I caught myself looking over at Joy and admiring her as she drove the Vette.  On more than one occasion she turned to catch me looking at her …

“What?” she asked, smiling.

“Nothing.” I replied, smiling.

“Nothing doesn’t ever come with a smile like that.” She said.

I continued to stare at her, smiling.

“What?!” she asked, again, in an amused, bashful tone, blushing at the attention that I was giving her.

“Something.” I said.

“That’s better.” She said.  “Now, are you going to tell me what you’re smiling about?”

“No.” I said, smiling and turning back around to face forward as we cleared the intersection of Hardy Street and Highway 49 near USM.

 

Joy’s apartment on Lincoln Road had been replaced with a nicely decorated rental house off of Broadway drive in the older section of Hattiesburg near the downtown district.  Her current house was an older one, a rental property that was seventy years old if it was a day.  Solid wood and partial brick, built on piers, old thick glass, peeling white paint that was just the top layer of who knew how many layers beneath; it was a grandmother type house.  The yard was kept nice, with a buckled and cracked sidewalk to the curb and a broken, twin strip rutted concrete driveway leading to a simple latticed carport in the rear. 

We parked in the two concrete rut driveway and I followed her up to the front door, waited for her to use her keys then followed her on inside.  The house smelled of decades long past, cigarette smoke, incense and the trace odor of weed; not unpleasant altogether.  The wooden floors creaked with every third board that you walked on and electric fans turned wooden blades slowly in the ceiling of each room.  Joy took my black leather jacket and black Western hat and put them up in a small closet just inside the front door.  She then picked up a tube of long fireplace matches and walked through the house lighting candles which added to the ambient charm and the aroma of the old place.

“Finish up for me?” Joy asked, tilting her Western hat towards me and handing me the tube of long stick matches.

“Sure.  How many?” I said. 

“All of them.” Joy said.

"All of them?”

There were a lot of candles in Joy’s house … I counted thirty-two and that was after I actually bothered starting to count.  I went through a lot of matches.  I found the central air conditioning controls and cranked the house down to a comfortable seventy-two degrees.  Somewhere under the old house, the ancient heating and cooling system growled to life, shuddering and finally exhaling its cold breath through the large metal grates set into the wooden floor … a sleeping frost dragon stirring to wake.  I stood on a large grate and felt the cool air blow up and around me.  Even the air smelled old, like the dying breath of the house itself. 

I closed my eyes and breathed the old house deeply in. 

Metal.

Wood.

Plaster.

Paint.

The smell of memories.

A place like this had a lot of memories, of families that had lived here and called it home and then moved on long before I was even born.  There was a feel to the house.  The walls were practically oozing memories.  Patina, layer upon layer of it built up over the many years that the house had been here.

“Make yourself at home, Cowboy.” She shouted from behind a partially closed bedroom door.  “Anything in the fridge is fair game, cabinets and pantry too.”

Maybe later, I thought, walking on through her house and still feeling the effects of a healthy buzz as I took stock of what I had to work with, things I might need, things I should avoid or at the very least watch out for.  Three bedrooms, two baths; one with an ancient claw footed bathtub and the other had been turned into an amateur photography dark room. 

So Joy still dabbled in amateur photography …

The door handles were glass when they weren’t painted ceramic and consisted of a mixture of the knob type that you turned and the T-shaped twist.  A border of flowers was pasted around the top of the wall in the den and a large area rug with vibrant reds and blues really brought out the room.  Two couches, a recliner, a love seat, three different colored bean bag chairs, a big TV with a pair of VCRs all connected to a component stereo composed of different but good quality parts.  The speakers were nice as well, two large speakers for the stereo and four smaller satellite speakers for the room, mounted on stands in the corners.

Surround sound.

I remember some of the parties that Joy had thrown back when I first knew her, back at her old place but this place was even better; more room to throw a party in.  Her one room, one bath apartment had been cramped, crowded when parties were active and I guess that gave it some ambience … it was hard not to mingle when it was standing room only and you were rubbing shoulders and elbows with thirty total strangers.

I could imagine a crowd of people moving through this house, sharing and toking, doing lines, getting drunk or getting stoned, music playing, videos playing, couples groping or nuzzling in the corners and spread over all the furniture … all the while Joy would be moving through making sure that people had what they needed in order to be happy.  Joy’s parties were another facet that I had given up in order to be with Katrice; one more memory to help me find out who I had been and help me get back to being the person that I once was so long ago.  I felt like an archaeologist but the dig site was my own past and I was rediscovering myself in the process, layer by layer.

I found her component stereo system and began looking through her albums.  She had a lot of albums, mostly stuff from the late ‘60’s and through the 1970’s, all stacked in painted plastic milk crates that had been glued together with epoxy.  She had everything from Earth, Wind and Fire to the Bee Gees and Alice Cooper to Barry White and even Issac Hayes’ “Hot Buttered Soul”.  An equally impressive CD collection was kept in place by painted rock bookends on a shelf above the stereo.

I continued to wander around her house, picking up memories from stuff I found familiar, mostly little trinkets, and noticing new stuff that she had added in the time since we had last been together.  Joy had a real taste for decorating on the cheap … she would find the oddest things and turn them into works of art in such a way that you would never have thought that something like a rusty old Underwood typewriter could be used as a vase for a really nice bouquet of artificial flowers.

There were a lot of pictures, some in color, some in black and white.  Different sizes from faded pictures up to several large portrait sized images and even some collages.  The short wall between the living room and the kitchen was done in nothing but pictures, overlapping each other, taped at odd angles … it was hard to make out some of them there in the candle-lit dark but it looked like pictures taken at random at a party or parties that were thrown at this house.  One collage was done in jagged, torn out parts of other pictures and one was done in precisely cut squares, circles and rectangles.  Old pictures of Joy, and lots of new pictures of her, some obviously shot by Joy herself using her tripod and timer. 

Joy and I had shared a love for photography three years ago, a hobby that I saw she had not only kept up with but had advanced in skill with if the pictures were any indication of just how far she had come.  I liked the picture where she was hanging upside down from a rusty fire escape in what I recognized was an alley in downtown Hattiesburg, the look on her face was great, her mouth open, her face one of amused surprise and her long hair spilling down around her almost touching the pavement.  Another shot was of her, taken at sunset, from atop the roof of the American building which I recognized from all the other buildings around it.  A similar shot showed her with another woman that I didn’t recognize, both had beers and both seemed happy.  It wasn’t the woman that I had seen her with tonight.

I saw a lot of faces that I didn’t recognize … and then some that I did.

Flynn … Cody … Marcus … Ellen … Joy … Deano … Laura ... Hobiwan ... Stephanie …

I had stepped away.

I had left this group.

I had turned my back on this entire subculture and they had all gotten on with their lives in my absence and here I was looking at images of memories I didn't have, memories I couldn’t share because I hadn’t been there to experience them.

Eighteen months.

When you’re twenty-two years old, eighteen months is still an eternity, an entire lifetime lost to a bad decision and a poor judgment of character on my part.  I was looking at a graphic representation of a missing chunk of my life, an eighteen month long chunk that I hadn’t been a part of and it pained me to see all that I had missed out on because I’d made a bad decision, because I’d left to be with someone who hadn’t been worth giving up anything that I could see in the images illuminated by the flickering candle light.  This must be what it feels like to wake up from a coma ... to know that a good part of your life you missed and everyone else kept living their lives without you while you weren't there.

I moved over to a small table in the hallway where a group of four pictures were arranged below a large pair of moody black and white self-portraits of Joy.  I looked at one of the pictures and my heart skipped a beat because it was a picture of me.  My eyes went to the other three pictures … I was in all of these pictures here on the table ... it was like a small Christopher shrine.

Snapshots of a different time …

I picked up one of the pictures.  Joy and I together, reclined on the hood of my black and gold ’79 Trans Am, our backs to the windshield ... a joint in her right hand and a bottle of Jack Daniels in my left, her left arm around me and us both giving nods to … I tapped the glass of the frame, trying to remember. 

Cody. 

I remember.

Cody took this picture. 

Cody took this picture with Joy’s camera and I remember him taking this picture at his old rental house in Oak Grove my first semester at USM … his first semester at USM … that would have been the spring of ‘90.  Man, we had some fun that semester … all of us getting together for the first time … Joy, me, Cody and Flynn. 

A bond had been formed, a tight knit group made.

Joy and I had been sitting on the ’79 TA with our backs against the front windshield, windows down, T-tops off, listening to Def Leppard’s “Hysteria” album cranked up on my Kenwood stereo system in the Pontiac.  I remember Joy singing “Pour some sugar on me” and doing it pretty well.  She said it was one of her favorite songs.  Her loud singing was what had gotten Cody’s attention and he had wandered over from the rest of the crowd at his place, picked up Joy's Canon 35mm camera and snapped off a few pics of Joy and I just enjoying being by ourselves … enjoying being ourselves.

Together.

I put the picture down and looked at the next picture.

There was Joy posing with my ’79 Trans Am on the top level of a parking garage downtown.  I remember taking this picture with her camera but she had never given me a copy of it.  The picture looked like some still image from an unproduced Motley Crue video.  Joy was wearing my black leather jacket, my cowboy hat, my Ray Bans, my driving gloves and looking all serious … almost like she wanted to fight someone … her long black hair pulled together into a single drape that fell over her left shoulder and down over her chest.  The T-tops were off and she was standing up in the driver’s seat, leaning on the front roof pillar, her expression said that she owned the world and I guess she had … at that moment in time, and maybe a piece of my world as well … a tiny piece just about as big as my heart.

She still might but then that could just be the whiskey talking.  Whiskey talked, every time you drank it, but all whiskey did was whisper lies ... lies like you could pick up right where you left off before.

There was a picture of me driving my ’79 Trans Am.  My left gloved hand gripping the thick padded Formula steering wheel hard and my gloved right hand, palm flat, fingers open, against the slapstick style center console mounted shifter.  I looked serious; I wasn’t even looking at the camera.  The windows were down, the T-tops were off, and by the looks of the scenery outside the window I was staging for a ... street race.  Point of view ... whoever took the picture was standing right outside the passenger side door, beside the TA.   I could just make out the hood and front windshield of a red car next to us; it looked like a late model Chevy Camaro, the ribbed hood meant it was some kind of IROC-Z, probably a 1985 or so.  Joy must have taken that picture but I didn’t remember her taking the picture at all … it was obviously a street race, late in the afternoon by the amount of light, with Joy snapping the pic from outside the TA ... right before I'd left the line in a blaze of tire smoke and screaming engines.

But I didn’t remember that race at all … probably because there had been so many back then and because Joy had tagged along for most of them.  I hardly ever got to drive the ’79 TA any more.  It was in dire need of a complete restoration, the motor was losing compression, the paint was gone … she was in sad shape and her glory days were behind her.  Something else that I’d let slip from my life and deteriorate with neglect ... Katrice had never liked the '79 TA so I didn't drive it much and in a year and a half of sitting up it had gone downhill.

My '79 TA ... just another friend I'd given up to be with Katrice ... I missed driving the TA.  I missed the trouble that black and gold TA got me into ... and I missed the trouble that black and gold TA got me out of.   I missed the deep roar of that six point six liter V8 when the accelerator got pressed flat to the floor.  I missed the way that she would get sideways in first gear screaming out of the hole, the way that she would burn the rear hides all the way through first gear and bark them loudly when she shifted from first to second and chirp them when she shifted from second to third.

I missed the way she would plant you back firmly in the driver's seat when the long skinny pedal went flat to the floor.

I missed the hiss of air sucked in through the open hood scoop and the deep roar of the four barrel Rochest Quadrajet.

T-tops off.

Windows down.

The Kenwood stereo cranking out the tunes.

Joy had loved to go cruising with Cody, Flynn and I … with us.

Joy liked cars almost as much as we did and we taught her how to take care of her car, when to know if some mechanic was trying to take advantage of her.

Joy liked cruising.

Maybe she still did. 

I really didn’t know because I had left the group and gone my own way.  At the time it had seemed like a good idea, like the right thing to do … it had felt like the right thing to do but as it turned out I had made a mistake … I had left all of this behind and gotten involved with Katrice. 

I had left and now I was … what?

What was I doing here?

What the hell was I doing here?

Coming back?

Maybe.

Maybe not.

Was coming back ... was picking up the pieces where we'd left off ... was that even an option now?

I didn’t know.

I didn't know if I was on the rebound mending bridges and making up for lost time or if I was still going my own way and just bumping into people I used to know?  In any case, apparently I still had a lot of catching up to do.  

I set the picture back down and picked up the next picture.  

There was a picture of Cody, me and Flynn with our arms around each other’s shoulders.  The Three Musketeers ... inseperable, at least for a while.  Cody had a Bud Lite in his hand, raising it high in some salute.  There was a handrolled joint behind his right ear and a cigarette behind his left.  I was wearing my driving gloves, I had my red and white thirty-two ounce Junior Food Mart Mega Mug raised as well and my Ray Bans were pushed up on my head.  Flynn was hunched over, taking a big pull off of his whiskey flask, lit Winston between his fingers.  Cody was laughing at something, his entire face a study in tortured comedic expression and it was obvious that whatever was funny he had gotten the punch line first.  I was obviously about to lose it and Flynn had his eyes cut hard to the right, looking sideways at us like what we had was contagious and he was next in line to catch it ... like maybe he could swallow his mouthful of whiskey without having to worry about choking on it or blowing it out of his nose when he finally surrendered to the building guffaw that he was known to produce when he found something funny.  

I remembered that picture as well … it was at the end of July, 1990 … the last time that we had all been together at one of Cody’s backyard parties and right before I had gone my own way … the height of good times but I couldn’t remember what was so funny.  This was the first time that I had ever looked at this picture but it made me smile.  When you had lots of liquor and weed and good friends, humor and laughter just came in bunches all the time and it never stopped … the good times never stopped.

Unless you just up and walked away from it all like I had.

Stupid.

I put the small picture frame back down on the table and picked up the fourth picture with me in it, the last one in the group.  It was another picture of me and Flynn but this time we were working under the hood of Flynn’s ’69 GTO with that big 400 cubic inch Pontiac V8 taking up most of the space between the fenders.  Our arms were dirty, shirts sweaty, my hands were greasy and Flynn was leaning on a prybar while I was preparing to swing a ratchet on … the water pump.  The water pump on Flynn’s Goat had failed and Flynn had to put another one on over at his house. Flynn and I were both looking up from what we were doing in a somewhat annoyed manner at being interrupted and that is what the photo captured of our demeanor.

Two guys doing what they liked to do but not because it was something they wanted to do but rather something they had to do so it was less fun and more chore.

Our expressions captured that mood perfectly.

Joy.

Always there taking pictures, always there preserving memories lest we ever forget who we were, what we had done and where we had come from … like I seem to have gone and done.  Joy had been our documenter, sometimes our narrator and our collective muse.

I remembered that summer day, long ago, late June 1990 … the last day of that June in fact.  We were halfway through the first year of a new decade.  It was a Saturday and it had been hot.  Cody, stoned as usual and single at the time (which was unusual), had walked up to Joy while she was cleaning her telephoto lens and had asked her when she was going to just accept him as her steady boyfriend.  She had told him that she preferred to keep things platonic between them then walked off leaving Cody with a dumb look on his face.  Later, when Joy had gone into the house to get us all something to drink Cody had asked me what “platonic” meant and I had told him that “platonic” was a Top 40 hit by Blondie in the late ‘70’s.  That’s when Flynn, drunk off of his ass and halfway stoned, had thrown his whole body and head backwards, laughing out loud and banging the top of his scalp on the sharp lip of the underside of the Pontiac’s hood, gashing his scalp open in the process.  I had never seen someone alternate between hysterical laughing and venomous profanity but Flynn had managed to do it.  He stomped around, holding his head, cussing and staring at all of the blood on his hand.  That scalp cut had bled steady for a while but then head wounds always do, even the small ones.

We got an old towel, put pressure on the wound, piled into Joy’s Monte Carlo and took Flynn to Urgent Care over across from Forrest General and there we sat in the waiting area … Cody stoned, Joy fiddling with her camera, Flynn drunk, half stoned and holding a blood soaked shop towel to his head to try to stop the bleeding and me there in the middle of that circus.  Joy popped a few more pictures while Cody and Flynn were silent, each feeling no pain and just dealing with the situation.  Me, I sat there, smiling, a bit of whiskey onboard myself, and just enjoying the glow, the ambience of being with people who were an adventure to be with, day in and day out, more often than not.

When all was said and done, Flynn had a two and a half inch gash to his scalp and got fifteen stitches for his trouble.  The doctor had wanted to do staples but Flynn had been adamant that he wanted stitches.  After a week Flynn had taken the scissors of his Swiss Army knife and cut the stitches out himself, using a pair of needle nose pliers to pull the black strands out.  He said it saved a return visit to the doctor.  I remember that he had a scar from that cut but his salt and pepper hair did a good job of covering it up, especially when he pulled his hair all the way back into a pony tail and tied it off.

Memories.

Good memories.

Chaotic platonic.

That’s what the relationship between Joy and I had been like … more or less, swinging from almost really hot to somewhat cold.  We’d become friends, then really good friends and then great friends in the two years after we first met.  We’d held hands a few times, held each other in our arms a few times, especially on cold nights in the winter of ‘89 and there’d even been a kiss or three on the cheek and once on the lips … I remember that last one the best because even though it had been just a very short, quick kiss that felt more like a test than anything serious, it had been on the lips and for a brief instant in time Joy’s lips and mine had met and touched and that had been solid fucking gold.

God, that kiss had been nothing but solid fucking gold.

What we had, what we shared had never gotten serious and I’d always wondered why.  There was something there, something about her when I was with her, an underlying current, an emotional pull, a sexual tension, a physical friction that somehow neither of us ever allowed to progress past what it was.  Sparks when we touched, the sound of swords and steel sliding against each other as we paced in a circle eyeing each other wanting but not daring.  I was the intrepid adventurer always wanting to explore the dark underside of the human race and Joy was the experienced femme fatale in that regard who was only too happy to act as my personal tour guide.  Together we got into (and out of) some really bad situations in those first two years that we were together and most of those situations had been centered around Joy’s recreational pharmaceutical habits.  Joy was less a junky and more of an adventurer, a pharmaceuticalnaut experimenting and exploring her boundaries with the best stuff that she could find.

Platonic … always with the hint that there might be more for us, between us, if either of us could just slow down long enough to catch our breath and understand more fully what we had, what we shared and how much fun we had together … how much fun we were having together.

The old floorboards creaked.  Joy walked up behind me and stood close.  I could feel her, smell her, and hear her breathing.  Her presence there was comforting; I liked her being there, that close to me, and I slowly turned my head towards her as she put her hands on my shoulders and moved up right next to me.

“Good times.” She said.  “I never forgot about all the good times that we all had.  I’ve got a lot more pictures of you in an album in the living room.”

I smiled.

“So … I get my own album?” I asked.

She nodded.

“You get your own album, Cowboy.”

Silence.

Searching for something to say when nothing sounded right.

“Do you remember that first time that we met?” I asked.

“The night you and Flynn almost ran me over there on Richburg Hill road then you gave me a lift to Waffle House and bought me supper?”

Memories came flooding back to me.

“IHOP.” I gently corrected her.  “We hauled you off to IHOP.”

“IHOP!  That’s right, it was IHOP … there on Hardy Street right across from the University!  You bought me cigarettes and dinner and you drove me home and the next day you and Flynn surprised me when you knocked on my door, picked me up and we all went to NAPA and you bought me a starter for my old Monte Carlo and you two fixed it right there in the parking lot.” She said, closing her eyes.

I remembered that.  We also had to jump her Chevy off with my TA but it had started right up.

“I remember how happy you were when we got that starter on and you cranked that Monte Carlo.  Your eyes lit up like it was Christmas morning!” I laughed.

“That car was my baby!” Joy said.  “I was mobile again!  I could get to work on my own without having to bum a ride or depend on someone else!”

“Still got the Monte Carlo?” I asked, fond memories of that old blue Monte Carlo coming to mind.

“Nope.  I sold it a year ago, got $2500 for it.”

“You ... sold it?” I asked, not believing what I was hearing.

Joy nodded with a mischievous smile.

“You sold your Monte Carlo?  What are you driving now?” I asked, curious.

“Let me show you.” She said, smiling coyly and beckoning me to follow her with a curled finger.

I followed her out the back door and there, in the carport, was a red and black 1985 Toyota Supra, five speed with sun roof.  I ran my hand over the hood, up over the roof, to the black spoiler mounted at the top of the rear window and then walked around the back.  There, on the bumper, was a faded “Don’t Mess With Texas” sticker.

No way.

No damn way!

It couldn’t be!

I knew this car!

“Is this Cody’s old Supra?!  This is Cody’s old Supra, isn’t it!?” I asked, not believing it. 

“Yep!  He sold it to me last year now it’s my baby.”

“Wow!  This thing still looks great!”

“It’s sweet and she purrs … don’t you, girl?” Joy said, smiling and rubbing the Toyota Supra affectionately.

“Well, this beats that old Monte Carlo any day.” I said.

“Don’t you know it, Cowboy.  I’ve got air conditioning, a sunroof and a decent stereo system!”

“So … if  you’ve got this then what’s Cody driving now?” I asked.

“I think it’s a Corvette just like yours, red, and a convertible.”

“You’re kidding!  Cody’s got a Corvette now?”

She nodded her head.

“Yeah, he’s got a Corvette now.  Just like yours only its a convertible which is way cool to go cruising in.”

“Wow.  I wouldn’t have figured him for that … he seemed dead set against anything American made.”

“Yeah, well, he got a convertible Corvette and the only way that he could get it was if I bought his Supra from him.  Red drop top looks identical to yours except his has a black interior.  And it’s an automatic.”

Wow!

An automatic.

I remembered over five years ago when we had made fun of a guy at Hinds for having a Porsche with an automatic transmission and now Cody had a Corvette with an automatic transmission.  All real Vettes had sticks in them.  I’d have to really rub that in when I saw Cody next time.

If I saw him again …

So maybe that’s how Joy knew where all the buttons and stuff and such were on my ’88 Corvette; Cody had one just like mine.  Memories of Joy and Cody from a long time ago.  Together.  Not good memories.  Joy said something and I snapped back to the here and now.

“Sorry, what?”

“I asked when was the last time that you saw Cody?”

I thought back.

“Cody sold me his ’84 Honda Interceptor last year when he bought his new ’91 Suzuki GSXR but he still had his Supra back then.  That was the first time that I’d seen him since I started dating Katrice.  Last time as well.  Man, that was nearly a year ago now.  I never thought he would ever sell his Supra … hell, I never thought he would sell his Interceptor.”

“Well, it’s mine now.” Joy said, smiling.

“I remember this Supra.  Cody and I had a lot of good times in that Supra up in Jackson.”

“Yeah, he’s told me about some of those times.  Like the time you all caught my baby on fire and tried to burn up her seats.”

I laughed at the memories.

Memories.

“Yeah, that was a day.  A long day.” I said, walking around the Supra, looking inside.

Memories.

“You got lucky.” I said, turning my back on the Supra and walking back in the house, holding the door open for her then locking up after us when we were inside.

I took one last look out the window at the Supra.  It was one car that I’d never owned which had almost as many memories associated with it as any car that I did own or that I had ever owned.  Joy stopped in front of me and turned to face me.

“Do you remember … us?” she asked.

“Remember … us?  I can’t forget … us.” I said.

“Do you remember everything?”

“Yeah … I remember everything about us.” I said.  “Why?”

Joy got solemn then.

“Remember when you used to take me downtown to that big parking garage and you would use your driver’s license to fool the carded gate system and get us in?  Remember how we used to drive up to the top, park your TA and just sit on the edge of the garage, our feet dangling a hundred feet high off the pavement and we’d watch the sun go down over Hattiesburg?”

“And we’d talk …” I said.

“Oh, we’d talk for hours.”

I nodded, remembering the picture of Joy standing up in my TA.  That had been taken at the parking garage downtown.

“You’d have your camera and take pictures of the sunsets and the shadows on the old buildings.  And rust.  And broken bricks.  And stray cats.”

“And you.  And your car.” She added.

“And you.  I’d take pictures of you.” I said.

“I still think about those times … we would talk for hours.  Just talk about anything and everything.  Sometimes we would walk around downtown Hattiesburg and look at the old buildings and … we’d just be … together.  Walking and talking.  I missed that.”

“God, I missed that …” Joy whispered softly, hanging her head to her chest.  "Hey!  Remember that song we used to listen to all the time ...?"

"Which one?" I asked.  "We listened to a lot of songs when we were together."

"Eddie Brickel and the New Bohemians ... "Circle"."

I thought back ... yeah, that song had been playing on the radio a lot back then and almost everywhere Joy and I went we heard it on the radio.  It kind of became our song.  I told her it meant a lot to me, as a song, because I thought it described how I felt and how I lived my life.  The lyrics talked about how being alone was the best way to be ... and I realized that they also talked about someone who had stopped coming around a group of friends and how the group suffered.  A cold chill went up my spine then ... almost like the song had been a premonition of what was to come.

"After you left ... I learned to play the chords on my guitar.  Played the hell out of that song because it reminded me of you.  I started thinking about the lyrics and how you lived your life and I just kind of tried to be like you ..." she said.

"What do you mean?" I asked, not understanding her exactly.

"You know ... being alone is the best way to be.  I started living like that, just depending on me for everything.  I became super independent after you left ... I didn't need anyone.  I made my own fun, took care of my own car.  I didn't depend on anyone for anything.  I had to make some adjustments, change how I lived and I won't tell you it was easy but ... here I am.  Me.  Miss Super Independent."

"You were super independent before I met you." I said.

"Yeah, maybe I was independent but not like I am now.  Not like I've become in the last two years."

"I guess some good came of all of this ..." I mused.

"Before I met you ... I was just doing the best that I could, Christopher.  I didn't have a clue ... I was in total survival mode, living from paycheck to paycheck.  After I met you my life turned around and when you left, well, I wasn't going to let you hurt me.  I wasn't going to go crawl up in a ball and go back to the way that I was living so I just got on with my life.  Played some guitar, tought myself the chords to "Circle" and found out that being alone wasn't that bad of a thing."

"There are worse things than being alone ..." I said.

"Who said that?" she asked.

"Charles Bukowski.  Urban poet."

"Where did you read him?" she asked.

"Found him in an old Hustler I found out in the woods of a vacant lot near where I lived when I was little.  Liked how he wrote.  Never forgot his name."

Joy looked at me.

"You found poetry ... in a girlie magazine ... in the woods ... near where you lived ... when you were young?"

"Yeah.  Seven years old."

"You were seven years old and reading the articles in a Hustler ... not looking at the pictures?" she asked, doubt and skepticism obvious on her face.

"Don't get me wrong, Joy.  I looked at the pictures.  I was seven years old ... I'd never seen a naked woman before ... that was new and interesting and exciting.  I mean, women were built different than I was and I liked it.  But I also liked the cartoons in the magazine and then I started reading the articles and one of the articles was a story by a guy named Charles Bukowski and I liked how dirty and gritty the story was.  It was just about life ... every day life and a guy and a woman having an affair that was pointless and the grind that went into it and what little came out of it."

"And that saying was in the story you read?"

I shook my head.

"No.  The story I read was called "An Affair of Very Little Importance."  What I said was taken from a poem called "Oh, Yes".  It was in a collection of his poetry I found in a book he wrote called "War all the time."  I really liked the poem, it was short, so I memorized it since it seemed to really make a lot of sense and ... it just felt right for my life."

"Say it for me." Joy said.

"What?"

"You said you memorized it.  Say it for me.  Now?"

I thought about the poem.  The last time I'd said it aloud had been ... what?  Six years ago?

Pam.

"There are worse things than being alone but it often takes decades to realize this and most often when you do it's too late and there's nothing worse than too late."

Joy waited.

"That's it?" she asked.

"That's it.  Short.  Sweet.  Truth."

Joy thought about what I'd said.

"Say it again." she asked.

I did.

"Wow.  You're right.  It does fit you."

"Charles Bukowski." I said.  "Give him a read if you get the chance.  Do it by a window on a gray, rainy day and have a bottle of whiskey next to you when you do read his work."

"Is that your professional opinion of the poet?" she asked, smiling.

"No.  It just makes what he wrote sink in better when you do."

Joy smiled and nodded.

Silence.

Uncomfortable silence.

“Where did you go?" she asked.

"What?"

"Why did you just stop coming around like that?”

I looked at a black and white picture on the wall of the kitchen; it was the full moon over a cemetery down near Hattiesburg High School.  I straightened the picture a little.  It was an easy question for Joy to ask but a difficult answer for me to admit to.

Silence.

Uncomfortable silence.

Joy waited.

“I made a mistake.” I said at last, not realizing how hard it would be to admit that.

“You made a mistake?” Joy asked.  "That's putting it kind of lightly, don't you think?"

I shrugged my shoulders in indifference.  I hadn't come here to be put on trial but every fuck up has a price to be paid and I guess I was about to pay for what I'd done so I squared myself away on the inside and rolled with it.

“I fucked up, Joy.  Is that what you want to hear me say?  I got sidetracked.  I got caught up in something I shouldn’t have ever gotten caught up in to begin with.”

“Something … or someone?” Joy asked cautiously.

“Katrice.” I said with no emotion at all.

Joy nodded, solemnly, but that one word looked like it had hit her physically.

“Yeah … but you stopped coming around before you got serious with her, didn’t you?” Joy mused.

"There was a reason for that as well." I said.

"And you went looking for something serious?"

“I wasn’t even looking for anything serious, I mean, I ran right into her then things got … complicated.”

“Care to define complicated?”

“I love you.  I can't live without you.  You're the greatest man I've ever met.  That kind of bullshit.  The gist of it is that Katrice made promises that she could never keep and she told me that she was someone that she never could be.  I spent a year and a half believing her right up until the end when she showed me who and what she really was.  She lied to me, she walked out on me, she broke my heart and I let her do it all because I was stupid.”

“Sounds like she had a lot of problems.” Joy said softly and I stifled a laugh at what was possibly the understatement of the night.

“Yeah, she did.  She hid them well, too.” I said.

“Sounds like she was another stray you found ... just your type.” Joy chided.

“Pretty much, yeah.  She was a stray for sure.  There at the end she turned out to be just like all the others.” I said.

“Seriously?  That bad?” Joy asked, trying not to smile.

“Yeah.  Seriously.  That bad.” I said and smiled myself and then I laughed.

My laugh was both genuine and … hollow.

“You sure can pick them …” Joy said softly.

“Yeah ... I’m a magnet for the bad ones.”

“But you stayed with her a long enough time …”

“I stayed with her because I thought she was actually someone worth staying with and I thought what we had was actually going somewhere … turned out all of it, especially the time I spent with her, was just a total fucking waste of my time.”

"Well, it's over now." she whispered.

"Yeah.  It's over and now I'm picking up the pieces of my life ... trying to start over and figure out what I have to start over with."

"Starting over?" she whispered.

"With me.  With you.  With Cody.  With Flynn.  Hell ...  With just about everybody I used to know."

And like that Joy leaned closer until our foreheads touched.  I looked at her, her eyes stared into mine looking for … what?  An explanation?  An apology?  I chose the latter because it was a lot shorter to give an apology than an explanation of what I had seen in Katrice and why I’d stayed with her as long as I did.

I took a deep breath.

"You fucked up, cowboy." she whispered.

“I fucked up, TJ.  I fucked up bad.  With Cody.  With Flynn.  With you.  I fucked up ... especially with you.  I'm sorry.  I can't change things or how things turned out.  All I can say is that I'm sorry.  I'm sorrier than I've ever been in my whole life.  I got lost.  Hell, I'm still lost ...” I whispered.

Joy smiled.

"I'm sorry, TJ."

"Wow.  Christopher T. Shields saying that he's sorry.  I do believe that I'm shocked because that is a first if there ever was a first."

"You're making this harder than it has to be." I said.

"That's part of the fun."

"You're sadistic." I said.

“I know.” She said, smiling.  "For what it's worth, Christopher, I want you to know that I forgave you a long time ago."

That’s what I liked about Joy.  At six foot two, she was a bit taller than as I was and that meant that we really could see eye to eye, literally as well as figuratively.  I could smell her perfume and smell the whiskey on her hot breath, the cigarettes.  Joy lightly nuzzled me, noses rubbing, foreheads rubbing, lips almost touching.  God I wanted to kiss her.  Her breathing started to come faster and I rubbed my cheek against hers.  The whiskey tried to take hold and guide my lips and my hands but I fought it back down.  It would have been so easy right then … so easy just to lose myself in Joy … her witchy eyes and long lashes … I stared into them and felt myself becoming lost to urges I knew not to let get the better of me.  The whiskey would have made it so easy to do something I’d regret, to do something easy and regrettable and shallow and meaningless and …

Stupid.

I took a deep breath, one full of obvious regret, and pulled back some from her, putting my hands on her hips and holding her there at half arms length, my hands on her hips and her hands on my shoulders, gently swaying, eye to eye.  Her eyes weren’t just witchy, they were bewitching and I stared into them as we swayed.  We stayed like that for a long while, saying nothing because nothing needed to be said and then she pulled away, turned and walked back into the kitchen.

“Damn.” I whispered to myself.

Sometimes it really, really sucked to be the gentleman, to take the high road, to follow some kind of moral code, loose as it may be.  I closed my eyes and wondered if I was doing the right thing.  Behind me, I heard Joy moving around in the kitchen, I heard the refrigerator open, the sound of aluminum foil being carefully unwrapped then carefully wrapped again and the refrigerator being closed again.  Joy was getting her ticket to ride; she always kept her acid in foil, in the freezer, in an old ice cream box that was lined in Styrofoam and purple velvet … her own work.  It was her personal Ark of the Covenant.  Heat and sunlight were the enemies of acid and while Joy never kept very much acid on hand she always gave what she had lots of love and attention.  Joy’s passages were more like rituals, she followed a kata known only to her, her own series of personal steps in preparing for each trip and she took her time making sure nothing was left to chance.  At least that had always been my experience with her as her cowboy.

I heard her boots move off away from the kitchen and back down the hall towards her bedroom, clomping on the wooden floors of the house.  She’d probably be slipping into something more comfortable for her trip … possibly including nothing at all.  I’d been her cowboy on a few of her trips when she had dropped acid buck ass naked before … an experience in friendship to be sure for both of us and the kind of relationship that it took to pull cowboy for someone like Joy.

Memories.

I was discovering myself again through memories, through pictures, through artifacts and through long overdue personal revelations as I made my solemn way through the old house …

… and then I found her special room because there really wasn’t anything else it could be. 

I stood in front of the door, knowing what I had found but not quite believing it.  The door was partially open and I stepped through into another world, a world of sensory delight and tactile experience.  The front side of the door was painted white to match the frame and the rest of the hall but the back of the door was painted with a cloudscape of blue skies and white fluffy clouds, a yellow and white sun peeking out high above.  Looking at the open door I knew what lay beyond because Joy and I had talked about making such a room a long time ago.

“Wow. You finally put it all together.” I said softly to myself, taking in the contents of the room behind the door.

I was suddenly jealous again of a type of lifestyle that I could never willingly allow myself to be a part of other than as an occasional observer and perhaps referee / lifeguard.  The third bedroom was a dedicated mission control center for experimenting in psychedelics or mood altering chemicals.  The room was set up to provide variable intensity sensations in all ranges of the sensory spectrum.  Opening the door to the room, the inside was specifically tuned … The walls were painted a light blue with a cloud-like border near the top.  Sheets of pale blue and bright white were hung above head height on metal wires that crisscrossed the ceiling and could be moved along their lines like shower curtains either partially or wholly dividing the room into smaller sections.  Running from front to back there were wires which held pale green sheets as well which could be drawn down each side of the room to change the color on at least two walls.  A third set of sheets could be pulled across to divide the room into either two identical sections or four smaller sections.  There was a pair of white, a green, a red and a light blue bean bag chair piled up in the corner; some with cloth coverings and some with vinyl coverings.

A pair of queen size mattresses, one firm and one soft, were arrayed on the floor in a mismatched angle in the center of the room.  Each was made up nicely, with lots of colored pillows, sheets and colored blankets.  Each had a different texture and hue and a pleasant memory of Debby Lee suddenly reached out from my past, a memory from that first time with her naked there on the floor of my dorm room way back in … October 1987.  Wow, had that time with Debby Lee really been five long years ago now?

Five long years ago.

It seemed like last week but it was five years ago … long years, short years, gone years.  Close enough … memories were best rounded to the nearest whole when they were remembered, if they were worth remembering at all, that is.  Detail was where you found all the tears and grief and resentment.

The room looked like something out of Salvador Dali’s vision of what an Arabian harem should look like.  Small sconces on the walls held well used candles with pooled, melted bases and colored lights were strung among the sheets and at various places along the walls, controlled by the simple kind of plug-in adjustable timers used by people who went away on vacation but still wanted people to think that someone was home.  The ceiling was painted a light sky blue and had pictures of hand painted clouds there as well.  A single electric fan, painted blue to match the ceiling, had wooden blades that had been painted white and there was a window mounted air conditioning unit along with a box fan and a pair of pedestal fans, all controlled by timers as well.  The electrical setup was pretty elaborate though amateur and cobbled together from typical department store available parts.  I could only begin to imagine what this room must be like to someone under the influence of a psychedelic substance.

Incense in sticks and cones were also arrayed around the room on pedestals, on sconces and in small alcoves that were built into the walls.  An old holiday cookie tin was used as a place to keep boxes and books of matches and a few different colored lighters, all from different businesses or night clubs both local and places I didn’t recognize. Two large speakers, placed flat against the wood floor to both carry the sound of music and the vibration, were hidden in the far corners of the room under pillows and sheets, connected to another impressive component stereo system that was itself hidden under different colored sheets that were draped over a small Parson’s table that served as the protective frame for the components themselves.

I stood in the middle of the room, in awe, because years ago Joy and I had discussed just such a room while sitting on the ledge of that downtown parking garage and I saw a lot of my suggestions had not only been noted but were later actually acted upon and in some instances improved upon.

A trip room.

A dedicated trip room built around the support and indulgence of pharmaceutical adventures.

Oh, this was very smurfy!

“How do you like it?” Joy asked, leaning up against the doorway behind me.

I turned to answer her and caught my breath.  Her long hair was down, brushed out and pulled into a single flow to the right where it draped over her shoulder to well below her breasts.  Her garish black top hat!  She was wearing nothing but her garish black top hat and a short white kimono with a jade green dragon on the back.  I remember that kimono because I’d picked it up for her way back in ’89 when I went on vacation and found this oriental shop in Gatlinburg.  I’d gotten a black kimono with a red dragon for me and a white kimono with a green dragon for her.  The kimono dropped to just a few inches above the top of her thighs and from there on down nothing met my eyes but long naked legs, a gold charm anklet, bare feet, and painted toe nails.  Her hands were stuck down in the pockets of her kimono, stretching the material of the wrap down and over her features, especially her ample chest which seemed to jut out, protesting its constraint under the confining material.

I was speechless.

“Well … how do you like it?” she asked again, slumping slightly against the frame of the door and crossing her bare legs at the ankles, using her hands behind her to keep her balance.

“The room … or you?”

“The room, Cowboy.”

“This is .... How did you …?” I asked, looking around the room again and trying to find the right words to say.

Trying.

Failing.

“A little bit at a time.” She said, nodding, smiling and looking around at her handiwork.  “A little bit at a time over about the last year.”

“You did all of this?  Yourself?” I asked, walking over and looking at the small alcoves recessed into the wall.

“Yep.  Found a couple of home improvement books at the library and at the book store then just started doing what I could, learned as I went, made a few mistakes and finally got it all set up the way that I wanted it to be.”

“All by yourself?”

Joy nodded, smiling even more.

“All by myself.  Told you I was Miss Super Independent now.” She said confidently, rocking slightly on the heels of her feet.

I nodded and turned as she slowly walked across the room to me and stood close to me, stroking my beard gently and looking into my eyes.

“I like the beard.” She said.  “You didn’t have it for a while.  You looked really young …”

“How young?” I asked.

“Too young.  Almost like a child.” She chided.

“Things change.  People too.”

“Not all the time.  Not everyone.  You haven’t.” she said.  “Deep down, you haven’t.  Even after all this time I can tell that you haven’t.”

Joy walked slowly around the room, stretching and running her fingers over the texture of the wall, sliding a few of the draped and hung sheets on their runners until she had partitioned the room the way that she wanted.  Joy put the matches up then went over and sat cross legged on the mattress, leaning back on the support of her arms, watching me as I finished setting up the music.  When I turned to face her it was obvious from my viewpoint that Joy was completely naked under the kimono, a fact I think she more than meant for me to not only be able to see but for me to notice as well.

“I think you’ll find something you like in the pantry, just off the kitchen.” She said, nodding that way with her head as she started to put her hair into a tail.

I walked into the kitchen, found the pantry and knew instantly what she had been talking about when I spied the unopened bottles of liquor; different makes of whiskeys, a huge bottle of Everclear, red and white wines, vodka, gin, rum.  Joy had a pretty well stocked bar waiting to happen in the pantry and there … towards the back, was a three quarters full bottle of Jack Daniels, a nearly full bottle of amaretto and an unopened bottle of Amaretto Sour mix.  It was a temptation but I was still pretty buzzed from the bar and since Joy was about to lift off, I thought it better if I started sobering up as quick as I could just in case something did go wrong.  I found some sweet tea in a pitcher in the refrigerator, tried a small bit in a glass and found it to my liking if I added about three spoonfuls of sugar to the glass.  I filled the rest of the tall glass with ice and tea then walked back to the trip room with the start of all that I would need for the evening.  Joy was going to be in orbit for most of the night and I was going to be riding the range all that time.  I set my glass of sweet tea down in the front corner of the room, pulled up a bean bag chair and made me a little nest then went back to check on Joy in the trip room.

“Looks like you’ve got everything.” I said.

“I like to be prepared.” She said.

“Just like old times.”

“Yeah.  Just like old times.” She answered.  “Come here.  I want to show you something.”

Hesitantly I walked over to where she sat.  She patted the mattress next to her and I sat down beside her on her left.  I reached over and used my finger to slide the sleeve of her kimono up.  Her bare arm was red and slightly bruised from where Steve had kept a grip on Joy, almost dragging her out of the bar with him and Carrie.  I traced the red marks and the bruise with my fingertip.  Anger started to burn down low inside me.

“He had a pretty good grip on you, didn’t he?” I asked.

Joy looked over at her arm, turning it to examine it and smirking in disgust.

“Steve’s got a better grip on Carrie.  After tonight I’m not going to be hanging around her anymore.  He’s become too controlling of her and she … it’s like she likes that.  She just lets him control her and she can’t see what he’s doing to her.”

“Steve?  That was the guy you were with … with Carrie?  The loud girl?”

Joy nodded.

Memories.

Pam and Ingo.

“I knew someone like that … years ago.”

Joy let the sleeve of her kimono fall again into place then held out her hand with the pair of tabs in her palm, each light pink with a blue star image on it.  I whistled; Joy was really wanting to ride all the attractions tonight in old Hoffman’s amusement park.

“How long since your last?” I asked.

“About three months.  I picked these up from an old friend who said he couldn’t do them and I was going to drop with Carrie tonight back at her place but then we ran into Steve …”

“That would have really gone bad.” I said.

“Yeah, there was just something about him just kind of creeped me out.  He was a little too eager for Carrie and me to trip back at his place, you know?  Kept insisting that we drop at his place and wouldn’t take no for an answer.  She drops all the time around him but the way that he kept looking at me tonight really creeped me out … plus Carrie mentioned that Steve might have a few friends come over later and I really didn’t feel like being a rag doll for people I’d never met before.”

Joy shuddered and rubbed her arm again where Steve had grabbed her.

“Carrie used to be cool, we’d cowboy for each other off and on over the past year so I thought we had some trust established.  She has connections so she gets some really good stuff but lately Steve’s got some kind of hold on her and she’s changed.  She’s not careful like she used to be and she’s doing more and more stuff which, she told me, she gets from Steve.  I tried a hit of it one time and it was really cheap rate stuff … didn’t even get me off the ground and I felt kind of bad for two days after that, not sick but just not … good.  That kind of spooked me so I stopped using her for my stuff and found someone else.”

“Why did you go out with them tonight?”

“I didn’t go out with them … I went out with Carrie.  Steve caught up with us at dinner and invited himself along.  Carrie didn’t say no, which kind of pissed me off since I thought that it was just going to be the two of us.  Come to think about it that did seem kind of odd that he would run into us like that, kind of like he knew where we were going.  Then Steve ran into some of his friends, four really loud college guys, another really odd coincidence that I didn’t buy into …” Joy mused.

“Why not?” I asked.

Joy sighed and lowered her head.

“It all seemed way too convenient.  Carrie asking me out and then the two of us running into Steve and then running into a group of his friends ...  Carrie wanted to trip back at Steve’s place instead of her place, Steve kept encouraging the idea and then when Carrie had me halfway convinced to drop with her, Steve mentioned that his friends were coming over as well.”

I grunted.

“When Steve told me that his friends were coming along for the evening as well that made me really and I mean really nervous but as long as we stayed there in public I felt like it was okay.  It was creepy, but okay, you know?”

“Who were his friends?”

“I’d never seen them before.  It was four college guys who just gave off a bad vibe.  Steve said that they were his friends but they didn’t talk like friends talk … sometimes it was like they got things wrong between them.  One of them kept calling Steve by the wrong name, like he couldn’t remember who Steve was and that made me even more suspicious.  When he got Steve’s name wrong the third time, Steve and one of the other guys looked at him like he was messing things up for all of them.  I’ve seen that kind of look before too many times not to recognize it for what it was.”

Joy shuddered slightly.

“Anyway, we all had dinner there at Crescent City together, Steve paid for that cash, but I really didn’t like the way that these guys kept leering at Carrie and me, especially me.  It’s like they couldn’t take their eyes off of me, I felt like something on the menu.”

“So Steve invited himself along and then invited some of his friends along as well?”

“Pretty much but I think that Steve’s friends had been invited before I ever found out about it.  It just seemed … planned and I got a creepy feeling about it.  Steve’s friends left early to get some beer and then go on back to Steve’s place to hang out.  One of them even told me that he couldn’t wait to see me again and it was the way that he said it that creeped me out.  It was like his hands were already all over me, groping me.”

“Nothing good was waiting on you back there.” I told her.

“That’s what I felt.  Steve suggested that he drive Carrie’s car and that the three of us go back to his place and just hang out there for a while with his friends.  I didn’t get a good feeling from all of that, especially how it had gone from just Carrie and me tripping to Carrie, me, Steve and now his friends and the only ones who would be tripping that night would be Carrie and me.  Carrie must have dropped early because she started hitting her peak about that time and it wasn’t the good stuff that she had taken.  I could tell that by the way she was acting.  Steve was pissed that she dropped and asked me to help him get her to her car before she caused a scene or anybody called the cops because of the way that she was acting.”

“When was this?” I asked.

“That’s about where you came in tonight.  Steve’s friends were back at Steve’s house, waiting on us and Carrie was already into her trip so everything seemed to be going wrong in a big way.  I didn’t know that she had dropped.  Steve was getting angry at Carrie for dropping early and he was getting mad at me because I wasn’t moving fast enough for his taste.  I guess I was dragging my feet but I just didn’t get a good feeling going back there, two girls wanting to drop four or five tabs apiece and four college guys who were just going to hang around and watch two girls trip?  Four college guys who couldn’t take their eyes off of me, who were already getting drunk and who I’ve never met before?  There was Carrie tripping already on who knew what and Steve getting angry at her and me because we had to get Carrie out of the bar and back to his place.  I didn’t want to go …  It was all fucked up and getting more fucked by the minute … and then I bumped into you.”

“Serendipity.” I said.

“Serendipity.” Joy agreed.  "Or Fate."

Joy held herself in her own arms.  I reached out and put my hand on top of hers, she flipped her hand over and our fingers interlaced and closed together, palm against palm as I pulled her close to me and held her.

Held her like I meant it.

“Christopher …”

“Yeah?”

“Stay with me tonight?  Please?  Just like old times?” She whispered, her eyes were pleading … like there was a chance that I would ever refuse her.

“I’ll be your cowboy, doll … I’ll stay here, with you, all night.”  I said softly. 

Joy smiled a slow smile that soon became a happy grin.

“I’m here for you.” I added.

“I know you are.  You’re my favorite cowboy.  Have I ever told you that?”

“A few times.” I said.  “You’ve told me that a few times before.”

“It’s true.  I mean it when I say it ... and it's just not trip sitting ... you're my favorite cowboy of all.”

She put her head down to my shoulder and her hands flat to my chest and I put my arms around her and just held her.

“I missed you, Cowboy.  I really missed you … not just you … but this.  Being with you.  Being near you.” She said.

I moved my arms around her and held her tight, nuzzling her head with my chin, rubbing my hands slowly up and down her back.

“I feel safe around you, I don’t know why but I always have.  You make me feel safe and I like that.  I like that a lot.  You make me feel ... safe.” She whispered.

I held her tight and rocked her back and forth gently in my arms.

“I’m glad I ran into you tonight.  Just seeing you, again … Just being with you … here … now … I’ve got a good feeling going into this, a really good feeling and you’re part of that, you know.  You’re part of that.”

Her voice was a loud whisper and I nodded as she raised her head, put her hands on my shoulders, her lips to my forehead and kissed me lightly there.

“Thank you.” She said, smiling.

“For what?”

“For being you.  For just being you.  For always being you.” She said, reaching into her kimono pocket and handing me a small decorative match tin.

“Here.  You remember this and what it’s for, don’t you?”

“The Little Case … just in case.” I said, remembering the small decorative match tin and what it contained.

“If you can’t help me that will.”

I opened the lid and stared at the pills inside, arranged neatly around a well rolled joint and a handful of strike anywhere matches.  It was Joy’s first aid kit in case of a bad trip; bennies for the rescue.  The joint was for later, afterwards, because weed went great with just about everything but especially with acid or so I’d been told by her and a few others that had experimented with acid and pot on a more than occasional basis.  She reached out and ran her finger over the joint.

“Hey!  You still …?”

I solemnly shook my head and she nodded in quiet understanding, withdrawing her finger.

“Of course not.  You know, you’re right.  Some things never do change.”

“That won’t.  Ever.  Sorry.” I said.

Joy smirked.

“Same old silly Cowboy.  You’ll flood your temple waist deep in hard liquor but you won’t fill it with holy smoke.” She whispered reaching over and closing the lid.  I stuck the decorative tin in my shirt pocket for safe keeping.

“Ready?” I asked, reaching down and putting my hand on top of hers.

“Almost.” She said, handing me the tabs and then letting me help her up to where she was standing in front of me.

I knew what was coming because I’d seen it enough times before ... and it never ceased to amaze me; when Joy dropped, she dropped everything.  

Joy slowly untied the sash, letting the kimono slip off of her body and fall to the floor before she kicked it to the side.  She wore nothing underneath except what God had given her when she was born … that and the gold anklet, the artistic ink that she had paid others to put under her skin and the two long ugly scars that she carried with her through this life.  The first scar was on the lower part of her stomach, a jagged looking serpentine rip that started high up on her left side, curved down around her belly and snaked almost down to the start of the upside down pyramid that was her full, dark, bushy pubic curls and the other scar a more linear one in the upper part of her back, almost like a whip strike, a good foot and a half long if it was anything, running from the seven o’clock position to the two o’clock position.  The tissue around it looked like it had been badly burned long ago; the skin was bunched up, stretched and uneven.  Her scars were the reason why Joy never wore a bikini but I could personally vouch that she was mind blowingly stunning in a one piece bathing suit.

Naked, she was a six foot two raven haired Amazon warrior goddess with the battle scars to match.

Each of the scars had a history of which she had never wanted to share with me but my fingers had lightly traced her jagged scars often enough, with no protest from her, while we were alone, as close as we'd ever be, all the while I was wondering at the story each could tell and of the pain and suffering that it had taken to earn them … and my eyes went back to the red marks on her upper left arm where Steve had held onto her there at the bar, held her like she was personal property, like she owed him something and he was there to collect.  Yeah, even though he didn’t know it Steve and I had unfinished business to settle and I’d prefer that he and I settled up sooner rather than later but that was my concern, not Joy’s, and she need never know about it when I collected on Steve’s past due debt … with interest …

Her perfume was strong, her natural musk mixing with it in a feral, intoxicating way.  Now, standing completely nude in front of me, she tipped her garish black top hat then took it off, flipped it in the air in front of her, ducked slightly, caught it on her head and did a coy little pose and gesture to me before winking and blowing me a kiss.  God would have been ashamed at the impure thoughts that were running through my mind right then but then it had been a real long time since I'd cared what God thought of how I lived my life.

“Is that the hat trick that you said you missed, Cowboy?” she asked, smiling, knowing it was to begin with.

I had missed that trick in ways I didn’t know that I had missed that trick.  Of course, it’s the first time that I ever saw her do it naked which probably made the trick that much better but still … there are certain types of memories that a man will carry with him for the rest of his life and seeing Joy do her hat trick, naked, was one of those memories that I knew that I would always remember and cherish.

“Train’s leaving the station.  Got my tickets, Cowboy?” she asked, smiling and running her finger along the rim of the garish black top hat.

She held her hand out for the tabs and I gave them to her; she stuck them under her tongue and started to walk slowly around the room, stretching and relaxing.

“All aboard?” I asked.

“All aboard.” She said.

I watched her preen, slowly rubbing her body, eyes closed, strands of her hair gently wafting in the artificial breeze.  She wrapped herself enticingly in a sheer white curtain and stood there posed for me before pulling it softly across her body.  You could just make out the details of the parts that made her a woman through the sheer material.  Joy was walking through the draped sheets, letting the wind currents and the sheets blow softly over her naked body … touching her, caressing her like wisps and ghosts.  I turned on several of the smaller lights and cut off the overhead light, dropping the room into various shades of illumination.

"I needed this.  Thank you." she said.

“Go well.  I'll be here if you need me."

"All night?" she asked in a cautious whisper.

"All night.” I said, reassuring her then turning to leave her to her journey.

"You won't leave?" she asked.

Witchy eyes ... almost pleading with me.  Something had really shaken Joy and for the first time in a long time I felt like she really needed me there tonight.

"I won't leave you, not tonight." I said.

Joy smiled, turned and continued to go about her tactile odyssey as I walked out of the trip room and went into the living room to set up my camp for the night.  Overall this had shaped up to be a really interesting evening and for the first time in two and a half weeks … hell, for the first time in over a year and a half, I really felt like my old self once again and that felt good.  In fact, it felt really damn good.

I didn’t realize how much I had missed me … how much I had missed being me … the real me.

And how much I missed being with Joy.

Being Joy's cowboy meant that I was more her escort than her guide.   While she tripped I managed her music, the temperature of the room, and covering her in light blankets when it looked like she might be cold or taking them off when she looked to be getting too hot.  I checked on Joy often enough throughout her journey, offering her small amounts of juice when I thought she might need it and then trying to be as removed from her presence as I could be.  I slept on a pile of sofa cushions and blankets just outside the trip room door, using a pillow from her bed and an old quilt to keep me warm.  Joy called out my name a few times during the night, once in what sounded like a panic but when I walked softly back in and lay down beside her she quickly calmed.  I lay there beside her,  gently tracing her temple, her cheek, her ear, behind her ear, and her neck line with a single finger ... softly, helping her work past whatever roadblock her trip had thrown up to stop her.   Just my presence alone seemed to bring her back on course to where ever she was steering her way to, just a simple touch, a soft spoken affirmation that I was there for her gave her all the reassurance she needed and then once I was sure that she was okay I’d leave her alone again to her own passage, marking the time and trying to guess her progress on her illicit pharmaceutical fueled pilgrimage.

As for me, when I wasn’t cat napping on the floor outside the trip room I passed the time I had by doing a lot of personal introspection myself and going through some old photo albums I had found … albums filled with pictures of people that I had forgotten and events that I had never been a part of ... all by personal choice, all by mistake and none without a lot of regret on my part.  Looking at the pictures by the light of two single candles made it all the more special to me … the flickering candles made the photographs seem to come alive in their own way, to writhe and twist like small movie screens.

Each album told me of a life that I could have had but that I'd chosen not to have.

Each picture I looked at should have had me in it ... but didn't.

I never found the album that Joy said held nothing but pictures of me.

Maybe she kept that in a special place known only to her.

 

          Saturday
February 29th, 1992

Whatever Joy experienced on her trip was her own to reconcile.  We never talked about her trips when she was done and other than thanking me for being there for her with a kiss on my cheek and reassuring me that it was a really good trip she didn’t tell me anything else about her experience last night.  I also knew better than to pry because I had learned years earlier that there were just some things in the world that words simply cannot accurately describe … they just have to be experienced personally and trying to share that experience by describing it with words not only dilutes the essence of the experience itself but often loses much of the essence in the translation.   Describing your trip to someone who has never taken acid before would be like trying to describe the color blue to a person who has been blind all of their life.  Whatever it was that Joy had journeyed through, whatever her pilgrimage had been, it was up to her to draw her own interpretation of it and extrapolate her own answers from it.  I had started to pull cowboy for Joy shortly after ten last night and now, a little after eight the next morning we were done, my cowboy for her astronaut.  Joy sat naked, Indian style, on a throw rug in the living room, smoking her post-drop handrolled as warm sunlight played through the soft curtained windows and bathed her body in lurid patches of white light.  She seemed to be at such peace right then and I left her, quietly as I could, to straighten up the house.

I cleaned up what little mess I had made in the kitchen.  After I had cleaned up, I blew out all of the candles ... at least the ones that were still lit or hadn't burned down to nothing, found her kimono still wadded up in the trip room, picked it up and put it gently around her shoulders as she sat there on the rug finishing her handrolled.  Her smoke wafted in the rays of sunlight, adding its own peculiar sickly sweet odor to that of the incense and the candles that had been burning.  Joy turned and smiled at me, cutting her eyes and putting first her hand on my hand and then my hand to her head and cheek, all without saying a word.  I slowly withdrew my hand from her touch, returned to the couch and sat, silent, watching Joy as she relaxed in the sunlight, each of us content to just be lost in our own personal thoughts, to be lost in our own private introspections.  Joy looked at me often, the smile on her face almost as bright as the sun outside, warm rays bathing her naked body in their light.

Once Joy had finished her joint I sat behind her there on that big rug, put my arms around her and hugged her close to me for what seemed a long time.  No words, no emotion, just human touch and reassurance that she needed after her drop.  She rested her back against my chest, her head against my left shoulder and I rocked her softly, nuzzling my face through her still fragrant hair as my hands slowly caressed her shoulders, her arms, her neck and as I ran my fingers through her long hair. 

Softly. 

Lightly. 

Up and down the sides of her arms, across her chest above her breasts, up her neck line to her jaw and back down again across and below her neckline.  I stroked her like she was a kitten.  Tactile sensation at the very edge of being felt, my fingertips gliding along her skin, barely touching ... her breathing came deep and long and her eyes remained closed.  We said nothing because nothing needed to be said.  There was just us, the two of us, and nothing else in the world mattered ... not time, not the human race ... nothing mattered when we were together like this.

When I was sure that Joy was going to be okay I helped get her into bed and tucked her in.  I didn’t know what, if anything, that we had in store for each other but I was patient.  I did a double check of her house, making sure nothing had been left to chance and then I let myself out, locking the door behind me.  I left, feeling better myself but knowing that the fatigue and tiredness I had forgotten about the night before would soon return with a vengeance.  I had the start of what I knew was going to be a really good headache and I wanted nothing more than to get home as soon as I could so I could grab a long, hot shower, some aspirin and some sleep myself.

The drive back home continued to be introspective for me as well and since I hadn’t had anything stronger than a whole lot of whiskey the night before I could only attribute that continuing need for introspection to the impending physical and mental crash that I knew was coming fast.  I popped Tattoo Rodeo's cassette tape in, the "Rode Hard Put Away Wet" album and keyed up the first song on Side One ... "Strung Out".   The guitar licks started in hard and heavy ... nothing like pseudo country metal with a cowboy motiff to make a statement.

Well, bet my money I've never been made
By the girl with the wildcat eyes
But the rain came down and washed away
Cut me down to size, but I'm doin' alright
Amen...hear me now
I ran to the well, the well was dry
The sky was pourin' rain
Washed that fire right out of your eyes
Drive this boy insane...Lord I testify
But I'm doin', doin', doin', doin', doin' alright
Doin', doin' alright
I'm doin' alright

It was Joy.

Joy was in my life again; I was doing alright and I felt strung out on her already.

All the way home I just kept listening to that one song ... that one damn song, rewinding it when it finished and playing it again, over and over, from start to finish, playing it loud ... and I couldn’t seem to get the smile off of my face.

 

Once I got home, I forgot about the shower and just fell on my bed and slept heavily off and on until nearly seven that night.  I dreamed of my past and of Joy in particular, of a different past … a past with time spent with Joy instead of time wasted with Katrice.  Intense dreams, emotional dreams, poignant dreams that didn’t torture or abuse but merely placated and indulged.  It was warm and sweet and it was some of the best sleep that I had had in a long, long time and I took my time coming awake because the dreams and the feelings they brought to me all lingered in a haze.   My body felt weak but good, like I had just been reborn.  It felt like I was crawling slowly up out of a really warm, really comfortable and strangely familiar place … a place that I didn’t want to leave but knew that I had to.

I had to work at the library that night and I did a lot of soul searching during my shift, walking around the library courtyard, thinking of what I knew, of what I had learned and mainly thinking of Joy. 

In fact, I spent most of the night thinking about Joy.

And I couldn’t seem to get the smile off of my face.

          Monday, March 2, 1992

My usual shift at the library didn’t begin until eleven that night so I popped the top on my Corvette and stopped by Joy’s place to see if she wanted to go out and get something to eat.  The main reason I stopped by Joy’s place is that I wanted to see her and I wanted to spend more time with her if I could.  I hoped that she felt the same way and I was happy to find out that she did and that she was way more enthusiastic than I would have thought she would be. 

It didn’t take Joy long to get ready to go out and we had dinner, my treat, at the Sonic on 4th Street.  Normally I would be opposed to eating in my Vette but Joy was an exception … sitting there in the passenger seat, working on her cheeseburger and onion rings and a Route 44 cherry Coke with real cherries in it.  We talked and laughed and just enjoyed being together.

After dinner we just drove around, visiting old haunts, slowly cruising the streets of Hattiesburg and talking even more about anything and everything.  I had forgotten what talking to someone … interesting … was like and while my year and a half absence had been filled with hardly anything exciting at all Joy had apparently been living it up for all it was worth.  She told me story after story of parties I should have been at and people I should have met and each story made me only more convinced that the last year and a half of my life really had been a monumental waste of my time and effort.

I’d missed so much and for what?

Joy sighed and leaned all the way back in the passenger seat, closing her eyes.  Her hair wafted in the speed generated breeze as we cruised and she played with her hair often, moving it out of her face and tossing it gently back into place.  Around seven we finally wound up at a place that was special to both of us … the multi-level civic parking garage on West Pine Street and Forrest Street, near Forrest Towers, downtown.  I used my driver’s license to fool the card reader, waited for the guard arm to raise and then we drove on up the garage, level by level, until we got to the very top which was open and had a commanding view of downtown Hattiesburg in each direction.  I parked the Corvette, walked around, opened the door for Joy and we walked over to the spot that had been our spot on so many nights a long time ago.  I sat on the lip of the guard wall, dangling my feet over the edge, a hundred feet over the narrow alley below us.  Joy did so as well and we sat there, watching the sun set, rays of fading light streaming through the brightly lit clouds and we spent the next two hours talking about a lot of things. 

Talking to Joy just came so easily, even when her curiosity got the better of her and she decided to pry into what Katrice and I had shared.  I spent the better part of an hour sitting there on that ledge, dropping pebbles down into the alley below or bouncing them off the brick wall of the building opposite where we sat and answered all of Joy’s questions about Katrice.  I told her about what I thought we had had, what had happened, how it had happened and how Katrice had left me.  It had been two and a half weeks since Katrice had left me and I think that Joy was the first person that I had really talked to about Katrice and the more that I had talked to Joy the more I realized that Katrice leaving me was probably one of the greatest things to ever happen in my life.  It hadn’t felt like that, at the time, but now …

After the sun went down, Joy and I walked the alleys of Hattiesburg until a little after nine, just walking and talking and for a few moments, holding each other’s hand.  I dropped Joy off at her house around ten that night and had just enough time to run home, grab my school work and get to my part-time night job at the university library.  As had been my Saturday night experience, my thoughts throughout the work shift were filled with Joy.

 

 

          Tuesday, March 10, 1992

I was pulling a four to ten shift at County Market when Joy dropped by to see me around 8:30 that night.  I took a fifteen minute break in the back store room to talk to her.  She thanked me again for spending time with her and she invited me to a party Friday night at Cody’s.  She had filled in all the details of our time together to Cody, especially the details about Katrice breaking up with me and Cody had told her to grab me and drag me to his party on Friday night.

“The only problem is that I’ve got to work Friday night.” I said.

Joy pretended to fume.

“When do you get off?” she asked.

“Around ten that night.”

“Oh!  Well, that’s cool because Cody’s party doesn’t really start until about that time anyway so you can get off work and still make the party.”

I agreed to go to the party with her and even offered to pick her up at her place a little after ten, an idea she was more than happy with.  I walked Joy out to her red Supra and she asked me to stop by her place after work.  I told her that I would and I think that we both could tell how much we were looking forward to that happening even if it was implied rather than said.  As she drove off, I couldn’t help but think that it was looking like it was going to be another great weekend.  I was really feeling good then, being back with Joy, knowing that there might be something there … something that I had missed, something that just hadn’t clicked before, and knowing that I was about to see my old friends again in an environment that I was all too familiar with for my own good; a party.

After work, I picked up a large pepperoni and sausage pizza from Papa’s Pizza there on the corner of Highway 49 and Hardy in the strip mall behind Chesterfield’s and took it over to Joy’s.  She had made sweet tea to my specs and we sat on the big rug in front of her TV, eating pizza and watching David Letterman.  Halfway through Letterman, at her suggestion, we moved to the couch where she lay next to me ... cradled in my arms.  She nuzzled up close to me as I held her, her back to my chest and soon she was sleeping contentedly there in my arms.  I found the remote for the TV and lowered the volume all the way.  I held her in my arms like that, watching her breathe, watching the slow rise and fall of her chest, watching the occasional little spasm or muscle twitch and every now and then hearing a little moan or sigh.  I traced her ear and neck with my finger, moving her hair aside where it fell and she smiled and made a pleasant sound in her slumber, never once opening her eyes.  I held her through the end of Letterman, to the local channel sign off and then for a little while longer before I gently woke her, said goodnight, and headed home.

There was a look in her eye as she stood there on the front porch of her house.  I’d seen that look plenty of times before not to know what it meant.  There was a moment there, shared between us, when I knew that I could have stayed the whole night … and that the time that I would have spent with her wouldn’t have been spent on the couch but rather in her bed with sleep coming only after she had only I just didn’t feel like I was ready for that, yet.

 

          Wednesday, March 11, 1992

Around 1:30 AM in the morning the phone in the library computer center rang.  Only four people knew my work number at the library … my parents, Bill and Katrice.  The phone rang again and I stared at it.  Somehow, deep in my soul, I knew who was on the other end of the line before she even spoke.

“Shields.” I said flatly, like I always did when I answered the phone.

“Christopher?”

The voice was one that was instantly familiar and one that I had hoped never to hear again in my life. 

Katrice.

I waited … saying nothing … thinking … 

Why?

Why now?

Why was she calling me at 1:30 in the morning?  What the hell did she want now?  A reference?  A letter of recommendation to the next guy who was stupid enough to give her the time of day let alone stay around her long enough for her to spin some of her lies in his direction?  Did I leave something behind that she didn’t want around to remind her of me?  Did I have something still of hers that she desperately needed back?  I held the phone to my ear and closed my eyes, rubbing the bridge of my nose with my left hand.

“Christopher?  Are you still there?” she asked hesitantly, her voice unsure.

“Yeah.” I said, still not believing that she had called me or that I was talking to her, again.

“I knew you’d be working tonight because I remembered your schedule from this semester.”

“And …?” I asked.

“And … I wanted to talk.” Katrice said.

Not the answer that I was expecting or the answer that I wanted to hear.  As far as I was concerned, we had nothing left to talk about but curiosity got the better of me, like it generally did.

“Talk about what?” I asked.

There was a long pause.

“Us.  I called … because I wanted to talk about us.”

Damn.  

Hell.  

And every other four letter bit of profanity that I could think of without saying them all out loud. 

I took a deep breath and stared up at the suspended ceiling of the computer center.  What bothered me right then and there was that there was no more “us” … Katrice had seen to that personally four weeks ago so what the hell did she really want to talk about?  Was she in trouble and needed my help?  Did she need money?  Had she realized that she had made a mistake and she wanted to start over?  Was this her way of trying to come back?

I had no idea … and I wasn’t sure that I wanted to know anyway … or cared to know.  What we had was over and there could be no reconciliation.

No second chance.

Ever. 

“It's over.  What’s left to talk about?” I asked.

The truth was that I was mad that she would be calling me now, all these weeks later, after what she had done, after how she had acted and after how she had treated me.  What gave her the right to call me, now, tonight, after all this time, and want to talk about our relationship?

Nothing.

Nothing gave her the right.

“What’s left to talk about?  It’s over and done with.  There’s no more us.  What we had is dust.  You made sure of that.” I said flatly.

Silence.

A long silence.

“Are you through?” Katrice asked softly.

“Are we through?” I asked, getting somewhat angry at her for trespassing in my life again.

Katrice sighed.

“That’s what I wanted to talk to you about.” She said.  “But I don’t want to talk about this on the phone.  I rather talk to you in person.  I need to talk to you in person, Christopher.”

“You didn’t need to talk to me in person when you left me last month.” I said.

“Don’t be that way.” She said.

“What way?” I asked.

“That way.  I need to talk to you.”

“Why?” I asked, getting even more annoyed.

“It’s important.”

And my first thought was that a month ago Katrice had finished off what we had over the phone so why did she need to meet in person now to talk?  That just seemed odd.

My second thought was that Katrice could go fuck herself.

My third thought got the better of me and kept me civil ... for the most part.

“What we had wasn’t important or you wouldn’t have left.” I said.  “I doubt that anything that we have left, whatever that may be and I really can’t think of anything that it could be right now, is really that important at all.”’

“Can I say something?” she asked.

"You did say something.  Two words.  It's over.  Remember?"

"Can I say something?" she asked again.

“Do you want to … or do you need to?” I asked.

Katrice sounded like she was either mad or about to cry and I couldn’t be sure which it was.

“I think that we have some loose ends between us that we need to tie up.  I need to talk to you about what happened between us.”

What the hell? 

What was done was done.

I didn’t need to tie up any loose ends, I’d done that back in February when I had returned her engagement ring and traded the money I had allotted on it and the Mazda Miata I was going to buy her over to my ’88 Corvette instead.  That was the moment in time when all of my commitments to Katrice had been erased and forgotten, over and done with and there was no going back.  That was the moment in time that I had truly become free of her burden on me and the closer to the tan carpet that the long skinny black pedal in the Corvette got the farther and less relevant Katrice became in my life on that day, especially with the Gulf Coast getting smaller and smaller in the rear view mirror.

No, what Katrice meant when she said that we needed to tie up some loose ends was that she needed to tie up some loose ends and that she needed me to be present in order for her to do so.

“Look, Katrice.  I don’t think there’s anything left to say between us.”

“I think there is.” She said.  “You need to know some things … and … I need to tell you some things.”

No there wasn’t.  No I didn’t and I’m sure that she did.  None of that changed anything, though.

“I’m busy …” I said because I really didn’t want to deal with Katrice any more.

“So am I but this is important, Christopher.  Can we meet later this week?”

“There’s not much left in this week, Katrice.” I said.

“Look.  I really need to see you and we really need to talk.  I’m coming through Hattiesburg Friday on my way up to Flora to see my parents for the weekend.  Are you working that night?” she said.

“Yeah.  At County Market.”

Ah and why the fuck did I just go and tell her that?  I put my hand against my forehead and mouthed profanity silently.

“What time do you get off work?” she asked.

I thought about my schedule.  Katrice was going to push me until I said yes and even if I said no she’d find a way to show up where I worked sooner or later.  There'd be a confrontation, of that I had no doubt.

“I get off work a ten that night.”

“Okay.  I get off work Friday at the library at five.  After I pack for the weekend, I can drive up there and stay for a few hours at Sandy’s apartment until you get off work.  If I come by and see you after work can we talk then?”

I took a deep breath and closed my eyes.  At that point in time I really thought that I could understand how a fire hydrant must have felt when a great big dog came walking down the sidewalk, sniffing.

“Are you still there?”

“Yeah.  I’m still here.” I said, rubbing the bridge of my nose.

“Is Friday night okay?  Can we talk then?  After you get off work?” she asked.

I was thinking about it … considering it.  Trying to find a way not to have to talk to her ever again let alone this coming Friday night … and it wasn’t working.

“Please?” she asked.

Hell, I might as well get this over with since Katrice would just drag this out until she got her way.

“Yeah.  Look … drop by the store around ten and we’ll talk.  I’ll wait for you in the parking lot if I get off a little early.  Look for my car and wait on me there.  I’ll be parked on the hill like I always am.”

“Okay.  I’ll see you then.  Friday night at ten.”

“Yeah.” I said.

And just like the last time that she had called me she hung up without another word.

I hung up the phone, leaned back in my chair and slowly rotated it in place trying to figure out the loop that my life had just thrown me for and that’s when I remembered that Cody’s party was Friday night.  About a second after I remembered that I realized that I had told Joy that I would pick her up after I got off work Friday and take her with me to Cody’s party.  It was then that I fully realized what I had agreed to with Katrice and just how it would affect my plans for the weekend.

“Aw for the love of … !” I muttered.

"FUCK!" I shouted as loud as I could, slamming my fist down hard enough on the work station top to topple a few operations manuals onto the floor.

It was amazing the curative effect that loudly uttered, heart-felt profanity had on the soul.  I looked up at the calendar on the wall and double-checked what I had set in motion. 

Friday night.

That’s when Katrice wanted to meet with me but I had already made plans for Friday night.  It was supposed to be a really good Friday night, no; it was supposed to be … No, it was going to be … a really great Friday night.  I was going to pick up Joy after work at her place and we were going to go to Cody’s party.  She’d wear her gaudy black hat and be the center of attention, competing with Cody for the spotlight like she always did.  There’d be drinking and talking and maybe some dancing and then Joy and I would probably spend a lot of time together which right then was what I wanted to do more than anything.

I wanted to be near her.

I wanted to smell her.

I wanted to touch her. 

I wanted to hold her close to me and lose myself in her.  There was going to be whiskey and music and dancing and slow dancing and probably a half quiet corner somewhere that she and I could claim as our own and just be alone with each other but all that was on hold now because I had to deal with Katrice’s emotional baggage again and I had to deal with that before I ever got to Joy’s house or Cody’s party.

Katrice had already wasted a year and a half of my life and now here she was, again, asking … no … demanding … more of my time for her own convenience.  I really wondered if I would make Cody’s party at all … or if I would even feel like going to the party once Katrice was finished getting whatever she thought that it was that she needed to off of her chest.  The truth was that I was looking forward to seeing Katrice again about as much as Superman would look forward to a getting a Kryptonite suppository and for the very same reason.

I was really, really, really tempted to call Katrice right back and explain that I had a party to go to with some old friends and that she would just have to either deal with whatever loose ends and emotional baggage she had all on her own or I would have to reschedule our meeting at my convenience … if I ever rescheduled it at all.

I reached for the telephone and picked up the handset from the receiver.  My finger punched in the outside line and started dialing a number that I regretted ever remembering, a number that had once meant something to me and a number that had been, just weeks before, worth dialing even if it was long distance.  The library could bill me for the call or take it out of my check if they wanted to because right then I didn’t care.

I just didn't fucking care.

No.

I stopped on the fifth digit dialed, my finger hovering over the next button.  I really didn’t want to postpone meeting with Katrice because if I had to meet with her one more time, just one more damn time in my life then it would be the very last damn time that I would do so and I wanted to do it as soon as possible just to get it the hell over with.  I put the handset back down in the receiver and leaned over the work desk, hanging my head, eyes shut, shaking my head slowly and laughing to myself softly.  Sometimes, it really wasn’t fun to be me … it just really wasn’t.

Suddenly I needed some fresh air because I realized that Katrice had done it again.  She had made another long distance phone call from nearly a hundred miles away and ruined yet another part of my life strictly for her own selfish convenience.  Four weeks ago she had told me that it was over …  I guess she lied about that, too.

Damn it and damn her.

 

          Thursday, March 12, 1992

I called Joy and explained the situation to her the next morning during a break between classes.  If I thought that I wasn’t happy about Katrice wanting to meet with me to talk on Friday after I got off from work then that was nothing compared to what Joy felt, and expressed, over the phone.  I got an ear full of Joy’s opinion on the meeting and her opinion on Katrice and her opinion on me for even considering meeting with Katrice all of which was justly deserved.  Joy wasn’t happy that Katrice was intruding on my life again, not at all … no, Joy was Amazon pissed and when Joy was Amazon pissed she usually did things that we all regretted later.

I just hoped that Joy wouldn’t show up before I got off work Friday night to have it out with Katrice there in the parking lot.  I didn’t put it past Joy to do just that and while part of me hoped that she really wouldn’t part of me kind of hoped that Joy would.  I didn’t need anyone to take care of me but seeing a cat fight between Joy and Katrice would have been like watching a speeding freight train slam into a Volkswagen stalled out on the railroad tracks … and the end result would have been pretty much the same.

Joy was beside herself being livid especially after what Katrice had done to me and how she had done it.  The only way that I could get Joy to even partially calm down was to promise her that not only was this time the last time but that I would get rid of Katrice as fast as I could and I would still take Joy to Cody’s party Friday night.  Joy was angry at first but the more that she vented, the more she began to sound ... frustrated, even hurt.

That night was really hard on me, probably the hardest night alone that I'd faced in weeks.  I thought it best not to spend any time with Joy Thursday night even though I really wanted to.  I didn’t call her later that afternoon and she sure as hell didn’t call me.  I think we both just needed some time to cool off and gather our thoughts … at least that’s what I hoped it was.  Here Katrice was, doing it again ... fucking me over for her own convenience and selfish needs.

Seeing Katrice one last time wasn’t worth losing Joy over, again. 

I spent the night not sleeping very well.  My dreams were busy, tedious things that taunted me and gave me very little chance to rest.  I dreamed of webs and spiders, of Katrice with someone else, and of Joy walking away … far away beyond where I could reach her.

 

          Friday, March 13, 1992

I punched out on the time clock, undid the top two buttons of my short sleeve work shirt, took off my name tag and the red bow tie and put them in my shirt pocket.  My Timex Diver said it was 10:02 PM.   I looked down the store length center isle of County Market … there, out the front doors of the giant discount grocery store was the huge parking lot and in that huge parking lot was Katrice; up on the hill, near my car, waiting to see me, needing to see me when I really didn’t need to see her.

It was supposed to be over.  She had told me that it was over and I had taken her at her word.  In the weeks that followed I’d moved on with my life and started forgetting about her ... so why couldn’t she do the same?

I looked around the store.  How many times had she come to see me when I worked at County Market?

I remember the time, a year ago February, when Bill had his 21st birthday party.  It was a pretty big birthday party.  We all had been invited to his mother’s house for pizza and cake but I couldn’t make it because I had to work.  Katrice went on without me because at that time she was still one of the gang.  It was supposed to have been a birthday party for Bill … it turned into a roast of me in my absence and Katrice had sat there, listening with amazement as the others told tale after tale of my childhood and youth and all the crazy things that I had done.  I remember her being late to see me … she had lost her keys at Bill’s mother’s house and it had taken her half an hour to find them.  I remember asking her how Bill’s birthday had been and she telling me how it had turned from being about Bill to being about me and how the stories had been told.  Then … she took me in her arms and kissed me, telling me how happy she was to be dating me … that I was her bad boy and that she had never had anyone like me before in her life.  I remember her looking at me and there was nothing but awe in her eye … like she had finally found something that she could only have ever dreamed of having.

I had a lot of memories of Katrice in this store.

I couldn’t count the number of times that she had come to see me, or been out there in the parking lot when I got off work anxiously waiting on me to spend time with her afterwards … sitting on the hood of her old white four door Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme.  I had forgotten how many times Katrice had bought groceries here, while I was working, and when she had lived just over on Lincoln Road about a mile and a half away from here.  We had often shopped together in this store … she had made sure to do her grocery shopping while I was working … just so we could spend some time together.

But those were memories and memories were just the ghosts of stuff that had already turned to dust.

Now, Katrice was waiting on me again, outside, in the parking lot, but this time was different.

I thought back to two nights ago when Katrice had called me at the university library.  Katrice had wanted to talk about what had happened between us.  She had wanted to set up a meeting between us where we could talk about what had happened.  I don’t know if she wanted to, or needed to, explain, in person, just why she had done what she had done … hell, all she had said was that we needed to talk and that we needed to tie up some loose ends.  Since I didn’t really know of any loose ends I didn’t really see a need to meet with her but she had insisted and I had relented and agreed to meet with her one last time in person.  I promised myself that it really would be the last time because, after all, life was just too short to placate useless and worthless people who no longer had any relevance at all in your life.

I guess the thing that I was worried the most about was … what if she wanted to come back?  What if she had made a mistake?  What if she was here to apologize and ask me to take her back?  I thought back to Pam ... this very store ... these very aisles ... and how Pam had cheated on me and then begged me to take her back.  That was what I was dreading the most about seeing Katrice again … what if Katrice was here to talk about a second chance?  That wasn’t going to happen, I’d already decided that, but what if Katrice started in on some sob story about how she had made a mistake, she had just needed some time away to get her head on straight or something like that?  What if she wanted a second chance at what we had … at what we were going to have?  That’s what bothered me the most; she couldn’t talk about what she wanted to talk about over the phone, no, it had to be in person.

Was she here looking for a second chance?  If that’s what she wanted to talk about tonight then our conversation was going to be pretty short and one sided and it would revolve around me telling her “no” because that was a lot nicer than what I would want to tell her which would be “no way in hell”.

I started the long walk towards the front of the store and I thought back to February 15th, the day after Valentine’s Day … Saturday.  It was supposed to have been one of the best days in my life … it wasn’t.  I had driven down to Long Beach to Katrice’s apartment to pick up my stuff … relics from our relationship already covered in a week’s worth of dust.  Katrice hadn’t said very much then, just a few words, only what was necessary to point out where she had my stuff waiting for me already boxed up.

My stuff.

Waiting for me.

Already boxed up.

It had been six days since she had told me that what we had together was over and in those six days she had already boxed all of my stuff up and had it waiting on me to pick up … or, I guess, to be thrown out if I never came to collect it.  Or had she boxed everything up before she ever called me?  How long had my stuff been boxed up now?  How long had I been gone from her life before I even knew it?  Before she got up the nerve to make that short phone call and tell me that I was gone?

A week?

Two weeks?

I guess it really had been that easy to get rid of me, all my stuff, eighteen months of shared memories, fit neatly in a single cardboard box with my name written in her handwriting in black marker on the side of the box.  The box had been pushed into a corner behind a big comfy chair near the front door of her apartment.  She might as well have put all of my stuff in a big black garbage bag for all the care and concern she had given it and that probably would have been more appropriate to the final outcome of the relationship.  Katrice had thrown everything that we had away and she had done it for her own selfish reasons and that made it all the more easy for me to walk away from her.  If what we had shared together, if all of her promises had been for nothing … if she could throw all of that away with the snap of her finger then I could, too.

I looked over to her where she sat on the couch.  One, last look at what might have been … One last look at what I knew now would have turned into one of the biggest nightmares of my life had things actually worked out the way that I had wanted them to work out … had things worked out the way that Katrice had promised me that they would. 

Katrice wore no makeup. 

She hadn’t fixed her hair. 

She was dressed in sweat pants, a T-shirt, slippers and her glasses. 

I guess I didn’t rate anything more than that.

I was the garbage man, coming to collect the discarded stuff that she no longer wanted or needed in her life.

Katrice had sat on the couch quietly watching me take my boxed up stuff out of her apartment.  I remember looking at her sitting there on the couch and not really caring any more.  My heart had at one time used to skip a beat whenever I saw her but now seeing her did nothing for me.  I didn’t want to be with her anymore, not this Katrice … not the real, true Katrice. That Katrice was someone that I had only just recently met and I didn’t like her at all.

There was no love for Katrice any more.   I had no love for her at all.  There was no affection, no devotion, no caring, and hardly any emotion. 

She was a stranger … a complete stranger.  The woman sitting on the couch there wasn’t the woman that I had known for a year and a half, no, the woman sitting on the couch was someone else and if that was who Katrice really was then I guess that was what hurt me the most … the woman that I had loved with everything that I had was gone and the truth is that she had never really existed in the first place.  Katrice had turned her off and erased her as easy as if she had flicked a switch.  I didn’t know Katrice anymore, not the Katrice that sat there on the couch watching me collect my stuff, and I had to ask myself if I ever really knew her at all.

It was then that I realized that if I felt anything at all for her anymore, if you could put a name to what I was feeling towards her at that point in time and in the weeks that would follow then that feeling would have been a mixture of remorse and pity.  I felt remorse for ever having wasted a year and a half of my life with someone like her.  I felt sorry for her because I saw her now for who and what she really was and I realized that not only had she already plateaued in her life, not only was her life as good as it was ever going to get but that she was happy with that.  I also realized, then and there, that I could never live with someone like that … not for very long, and expect to be happy myself.

The truth was that I had too much self-respect to ever waste any more of my time with someone like Katrice.

I picked up my box of personal stuff and started to walk back out the front door for what I thought would be forever.  Once I stepped through that door I had never intended to see her or talk to her ever again.  Six days ago Katrice had used two simple words to completely destroy all of our hopes and dreams and to render meaningless eighteen months of our lives spent together.  I didn’t even look back as I carried my box of stuff out of her apartment.

“Goodbye.” I said over my shoulder, loud enough that I knew that she would hear me.

As soon as I had said that word Katrice had bent forward and started crying loudly there on the couch because she knew what that word meant and she knew that I meant it when I said it.  I left her crying there on her couch as I pulled the door shut behind me and slowly walked down the steps to the parking lot, carrying my stuff.  I could still hear her crying in her apartment, even at the bottom of the steps leading into the parking lot.  I didn’t understand why she was crying … she was the one who had chosen to end our relationship … she was the one who had wanted to break up, to leave … she was the one who had thrown away a year and a half of our lives, thrown away our future together, thrown away everything that we had and everything that we would have together.

Why should she be crying like that when she had gotten everything that she wanted?  Was she unhappy with me and unhappy without me?  If so then that was her problem and not mine and I couldn’t care less right then.  I put my stuff in my car, did a quick check of the contents and drove back to Hattiesburg.

Alone.

For me the relationship had been finished at that point, all the talking had been done and any reasons or logic for what had happened were, to me, meaningless and pointless since they would never and could never change the outcome.

Goodbye.

That one word, coming from me, had clear and significant meaning to Katrice because I had made a tremendous effort during our relationship never to say “goodbye” to her, ever.  I told her that when and if I ever did say the word “goodbye” to her it would be because I was leaving her for good, I wouldn’t be coming back, ever, and I had told her that she would be the reason for me leaving.

You see, Katrice had had one chance and only one chance with me, ever.  Pam had taught me that lesson in life the hard way four years before I ever met Katrice and it wasn’t a rule that I was willing to break for anyone, ever.  No woman was worth giving a second chance to, ever, for any reason.  My history with women was certainly spotted and Katrice understood this from the start of our relationship.  She begged me to let her be part of my life.  She told me that she wasn’t like any of the other women that I’d ever had before … she was different and she would prove it to me.  She told me that she would never leave me, never cheat on me, never lie to me and never hurt me, ever.

If only …

Katrice offered exactly what I was looking for … a long term, stable relationship with someone who (I thought) was my educational equal.  Reluctantly, I agreed but on one condition.  I had told Katrice, up front and first thing, that she had one chance with me, ever, and I had meant it because I just didn’t have time to let other people play games with my feelings.  I told Katrice that if she ever lied to me, cheated on me, left me or left me for someone else then we were done and there would be no second chance so she better be damn sure when she went astray that she had made the right choice as there was no way I was letting her back in my life once she chose to leave.

One chance. 

Ever.

That’s all she wanted, she had told me.  She understood about the other women that I’d been with.  She just wanted a chance with me, one chance was all she wanted, all she needed and she promised that she wouldn’t waste that chance if I gave it to her.

I had trusted her and that had been my first mistake.  One chance … she had begged me for her one chance to be with me and she had blown it.  Despite all of her promises to the contrary, she had taken that one chance and thrown it away.  I had only one word left to say to her, a word that I had told her that I would never say to her unless I meant it and this time I meant it with all that was left of my heart; that word was “goodbye.”

I stopped by the sugar display on Middle Isle and collected my thoughts.

All of that had been four weeks ago …

All that we had was over four weeks ago.  Everything had been said and done so what the hell did she want to talk about tonight? 

Was she wanting to come back? 

Was she wanting a second chance? 

God, I hoped not … because in the last four weeks that I had been without her I had come to realize that I didn’t want to be with her any more … whatever spell I had been under while I was with her had been broken and now that I saw her for who and what she really was I simply wasn’t interested in having anything more to do with her now or ever.

The problem was, I had a party to go to tonight that had already started and now I had to take time out from my friends and from my life, once again, to deal with Katrice and all of her silly emotional baggage and I realized with a slow dawning clarity that I had been dealing with Katrice’s emotional baggage ever since I first met her.  It was only in the few weeks without her that I had been able to see all the problems that she made for herself and those around her … it was only in the absence of those problems that I realized that they had been there the whole time and that I had been too willing to live with them all in order to be with Katrice.

I realized that now.

I wish I had realized that a long time ago … eighteen long months ago to be exact.

In the past four weeks that Katrice had been absent from my life I had linked back up with those that I had given up all in order to be with Katrice in the first place.  A chance encounter with Joy Curtis at the Mahogany Bar had rapidly put me back in her good graces as well as gotten me back in touch with Cody Miller.  Good times were here again, tonight, and they were going on right now across town.  Cody was throwing a huge party at his apartment complex and I had been invited by specific request of the host but I wasn’t going to that party alone.  No, I was supposed to pick up Joy along the way since she would be my date for the party … a fact that seemed to make her as happy as it made me.  I thought back to the other night, her falling asleep in my arms there on her couch and I knew that was a feeling that I wouldn’t mind experiencing again, especially tonight …

But now I was going to be late because I was going to have to deal with Katrice first.  I was going to have to deal with Katrice, again, before I could get on with my life.  Damn it to hell … she was so fucking needy and I realized then that she always had been.  She always had been needy, and here, even after she had walked out on me and trashed all the dreams that we had made of a life spent together … here she was, walking … no, marching back into my life and making even more demands of my life and my time just so she could sleep better at night and feel good about herself once again.  Well, I thought to myself, if she had to lie to anyone any more after tonight then it damn sure wasn’t going to be me. 

I promised myself that.

For the last time, I swore, for the last damn time I would meet with Katrice not because I cared for her or because I thought we could reconcile whatever had gone wrong between us or because I wanted her back in my life but simply because I really, really felt sorry for her.  I mean, how pathetic was it that you dump someone long distance over the phone and then, almost a month later, you come slinking back wanting to talk to them face to face about something that was over weeks ago?  How much more plain did she have to make it?  What part of “it’s over” did she not understand?  What we had, it was over, we were through; I knew that and I was getting on with my life. 

Apparently Katrice didn’t and couldn’t. 

For me, the relationship was over that Saturday way back in February when I had picked up my stuff from her apartment in Long Beach, when I had first told her goodbye but I guess that wasn’t good enough for her. 

She said that we had some loose ends to tie off.

I didn’t know it at the time but what she really meant was that she had to have the last word after all.

 

I didn’t realize how angry I was at Katrice for needing to waste even more of my time because suddenly there I was, snapped back to the present and standing next to the Coke machine at the end of the sidewalk in front of County Market, looking out across the parking lot.  There, up on the hill near the street light, standing there next to my red ’88 Corvette, was Katrice.  I hadn’t told her about the Corvette but since it was parked in my usual parking space, a parking space that she knew I parked in all the time, and since my white ’89 IROC-Z wasn’t parked there, I assumed that she would be able to come to a basic conclusion on what I was now driving all on her own.

What really made me mad was that I didn’t see her old piece of crap white Oldsmobile four door Cutlass Supreme anywhere in the parking lot which must mean that someone had dropped her off.

Great.

That in and of itself was just fucking great.  I really didn’t care who had dropped her off, I didn’t care if it was the guy that she had left me for … No, it was the fact that she would need me to take her somewhere to get her car after we had finished talking and that meant that she would be imposing her needs on me and my time even more so than I had anticipated or planned to accommodate.  Yes, once again, Katrice had come into my life trailing all the emotional baggage that I had come to realize was just part of her sad little existence and would always be part of her sad little existence for as long as she lived and she had put me in a position where I had to take care of her, her needs, her wants and her desires.  Once again, she had come into my life, wasting my time, taking me away from my friends and making demands on me that had to be met for her own personal happiness and convenience.

I was furious.

The small amount of pity I felt for her was quickly turning into loathing.  I huffed and walked up the hill to where my ’88 Corvette was parked, not believing how needy Katrice was.

“Hi.” She said softly as I unlocked my Vette.

“Yeah.” I said flatly, opening the driver’s side door.

I changed out of my dirty white button up work shirt there in the parking lot and into a spare tan short sleeve expedition style button-up that I kept in the back of the Vette for after work fun.  Katrice watched as I changed out of my work shirt then looked back away.  What did I care?  There was no room for modesty in what was left between us.  I mean it wasn’t like we hadn’t seen each other completely naked almost every time that we had been together so I felt no need to be modest when changing from my dirty work shirt into something cleaner and more social. 

“Where’s your car?” I asked, already knowing that it wasn’t here and that I’d be responsible for giving her a ride to where ever she had left it.

“It’s over at Sandy’s.  She dropped me off here to wait for you.  I didn’t see your IROC but it wasn’t hard to figure out which car was yours.  All I had to do was look for the car on the hill … parked away from everyone else.”

Katrice looked over the Corvette.

“You always wanted one of these …” she said, her voice carrying disdain like she was jealous that I had spent some money on myself instead of her.

“Be good to yourself when no one else will.” I said flatly, quoting a lyric from a Journey song of the same name.

"What?" she asked.

"Nothing." I said.

“What year is this?”

“1988.”

“When did you get it?” she asked, looking at the Corvette as I tucked my shirt in.

“The weekend after Valentine’s ...” I said, hitting the power door lock and unlocking the passenger side.

Katrice nodded and she seemed to be thinking to herself.

“I thought I saw your white IROC at a dealership down there.”

“That was it.” I said flatly.

“I knew that was your car …  It’s gone now.  They must have sold it.”

“They did.”

I walked around the rear of the Corvette to the opposite side, opened the passenger side door and waited until she got in.  I looked at my watch. 

10:10PM.

Cody’s party was probably starting to kick about now.  Joy would be at her house watching the clock as well but for different reasons.  I could picture her in my mind standing there, arms crossed, lips curled into a pseudo-snarl, thinking of the reason why I was going to be late to pick her up for Cody’s party.  Katrice.  Even Katrice’s name had become a thing to despise when it was mentioned between us, something to be said with disdain.

I had told Joy to go on to the party without me but she was adamant that we ride together.  As such, I had promised her that I would be quick and I had every intention of letting Katrice say her silly nonsense or whatever it was that she had to say to me, whatever it was that she thought was so important that it had to be said in person, and then I would do everything I could to get her back on the road to her parents as soon as possible … not because I was concerned about her safety traveling the highways this late after dark but because I had better places to be and better people to be spending my time with and Katrice just wasn’t a concern of mine anymore.

At all.

She had her life and I had mine and right now she was taking up one last part of my life that I was coming to really regret letting her have.

Thirty minutes.

I gave it thirty minutes, tops.

And like all things involving Katrice I was wrong about that as well.

 

After Katrice put her seatbelt on I pulled my driving gloves on, cranked the Corvette, worked the shifter and drove slowly out of the parking lot.  I needed sweet tea and lots of it if I was going to be riding around listening to Katrice make excuses for what she had done and why what we had hadn’t worked for her so I headed towards the Sonic drive-in over on 4th Street. 

I was wrong about one thing; Katrice didn’t want to come back.  She wasn’t looking for a second chance and for that I was glad.  No, she was looking for someone to pin the blame on and that person was, of course, me.  Katrice started in almost immediately once we left the County Market parking lot saying what she felt she had to say or what she needed to say in order for her to feel better about what she had done. 

It was pretty much what I had expected to hear, it sounded amazingly rehearsed and everything eventually came back full circle to what she wanted, what she needed and her own selfish desires.  What I wanted, what I needed and my own desires were, of course, hardly a consideration in the matter and I came to the realization that they probably never really had been a consideration at all in our relationship despite all the promises that she had made to the contrary.  Apparently, she was the only one who had ever mattered in what we had and when what we had no longer suited her she had decided to move on.  As she talked, I glanced over at the stranger in the seat beside me and realized that I really didn’t know the woman sitting there in the Corvette with me.

The radio was tuned to WHSY 104.5 FM playing classic rock music softly and I listened to it more than I listened to Katrice since most of what she was saying was just really flimsy excuses designed to make what she did seem like the only thing that she could have done and the right thing to do, at least for her, given her circumstances.

She had changed.

Her needs were different now.

We weren’t right for each other anymore.

She had made a hard decision but it had been the right one, according to her needs, she said.

On and on it went.  It was all about her, what she needed and what she wanted and how I was the problem in her life.  I found that funny since she was the one who had come on to me and begged me for the chance to be with me.  Hell, the way she was going I thought that she would put the blame on me for everything bad that had happened in the relationship … and her life as well both while I knew her and even before I knew her.

And I sat there, just driving her around Hattiesburg while she talked and talked, while she put the blame on me for everything that she could remember and everything that she could think of.

What the hell did I care? 

She wasn’t a part of my life anymore.  She couldn’t hurt me anymore than she already had and if giving her troubled soul a douche, if letting her use me as her emotional piñata for a little while longer let her sleep better at night then Katrice could throw whatever she needed to my way; I had a thick skin and no involvement with her anymore.  Once I had my Route 44 sweet tea, I just drove around, cruising the streets of Hattiesburg, because I sure as hell didn’t feel like going anywhere and parking then sitting and letting her shovel air my way.  As long as I was mobile, as long as I had some classic rock playing softly on the radio and the deep bass-like hum of the tuned port injected small block V8 under the clamshell hood to keep me company then I could tolerate Katrice and her almost non-stop, self-serving, excuse-laden banter for what she had done and why she done it.

Katrice did almost all of the talking while I did almost all of the listening, except when my thoughts were on Joy which I found happened more often than not, in which case Katrice was lucky to get a monosyllabic grunt at best in reply to whatever she had just said or as an acknowledgement to some point that she was trying to make.  Katrice talked and I ignored her for the most part, watching the minutes click by on the digital clock of the radio.  Katrice had obviously rehearsed what she was going to say thoroughly because half an hour after we had left the parking lot she still hadn’t gotten to whatever point she was trying to make though it all seemed to be connected and it all seemed to point to me as the singular failure in the relationship.

And the minutes clicked by … 

And clicked by …

And clicked by …

Over two hours after we had met there at County Market, when all was finally said and done we found ourselves in the parking lot of the apartment complex where Sandy, one of her college friends, lived.  There, in the parking lot, was Katrice’s old piece of crap white four door Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme.  I didn’t even offer to walk Katrice to her friend’s apartment door, I just sat there in the idling Corvette, seatbelt buckled, Delco Bose stereo playing WHSY 104.5 softly … one gloved hand on the thick padded leather steering wheel, the other gloved hand resting on the leather wrapped gear shift knob of the Doug Nash 4+3 manual transmission, the center button on the gear shifter was actually a switch that turned the overdrive on and off.

I’d never have been able to own a car like this if I was still with Katrice.

The digital clock on the Delco-Bose stereo read 12:48AM.

I was ready to go but more importantly I was ready for Katrice to go as well.

More than ready.

We had been together for over two and a half hours and that was about two hours too long for all it had entailed but now it was finally at an end … I could sense it.  I guess that Katrice had either said everything that she had needed to say in order to get on with her pathetic life or she had realized that I had reached the limit of what I wanted to hear (and was willing to hear) from her.  Regardless, the result was the same.  Here we were, a relationship that had begun with a chance meeting at a college study group at my best friend Bill’s house in September of 1990 was now ending in the parking lot of an apartment complex just off the university campus in March of 1992.

It seemed an appropriate location to end our relationship, be that whatever it may have been.

We had started out with her sitting in a corner with her back to the wall in the living room of my best friend’s house and everyone ignoring her.  We ended it with her sitting in the passenger seat of a red ’88 Corvette and me really wanting to ignore her.

Katrice had unbuckled her seatbelt, gotten her purse from behind the passenger seat and opened the passenger door to get out.  She paused, as if she had one last thing to say …

“You will always be blue collar, Christopher T. Shields.  Always.” Katrice said flatly.

She waited for a second as if she was expecting me to offer a reply.  I guess I disappointed her when I said nothing in return and with that, she shut the passenger door, walked up to the apartment door in front of the Corvette, and knocked on the door of her friend’s apartment.  When the door opened she went into the apartment without even a backwards glance.  Her friend looked out, gave a small cordial wave and then slowly shut the apartment door.

And like that, it was over.

Finally over.

Truly over.

Thank God.

Once again, I was alone … just like I’d been so many times before only this time it really felt surreal.  Never before had I ever been so close to someone as I had to Katrice, never before had I ever made plans for sharing my future with someone else like I had with Katrice and now, it was all dust.  I realized that this was really it … that there had been some kind of closure tonight, not just for Katrice but for me as well.

She was gone.

She was really gone this time and I had my whole life ahead of me.

I was alone.

Again.

Alone.

It was a situation, a feeling that I’d long ago grown accustomed to and one that I even looked forward to.  I sat there in the idling Corvette, smiling, because six months ago I couldn’t have imagined spending the rest of my life without Katrice and now I couldn’t imagine spending the rest of my life with her.  Katrice had promised me, over and over, from the start that she was different than all the other women that I had dated and in that assertion I guess she had been correct … she wasn’t like any of the women that I’d been with before her, no, she had been the worst of all of them … even worse than Pam.

I reached over and buckled the passenger side seat belt with a sharp click, a sharp click that resounded with a certain kind of pleasing finality.  At the time, Katrice’s last words had really forced me to rethink why I had ever paid any attention to her at all because coming from Katrice, her last words to me had been such an asinine statement to make as to defy any type of logical reply from me.  Here she was; a poor little country girl who came from a one stoplight town, from a family that was lower blue collar at best and she had the audacity to tell me that I would always be blue collar … like blue collar wasn’t what Katrice had been used to all of her life so far and wasn’t the only thing that she had ever known.  Or maybe she had just had enough of being blue collar all her life and the only way that she was ever going to be happy was to marry someone that would take care of her for the rest of her life because I knew for a fact that she couldn’t do it on her own and if left to her own devices, she’d never amount to much.

I gave a short chuckle.  The truth was that I had never been blue collar and would never be blue collar, ever, and Katrice knew that. She knew what kind of family I came from, how hard I worked and what my future held in store for me as soon as I graduated.  If anything, in terms of our relationship, I was the one who had gone slumming on the low end of the socio-economic spectrum when I had first agreed to have anything at all to do with her.

What had she been looking for?  Was she looking for more than I could offer her?  Apparently so.  How much more could I have given her other than everything that I had, everything that I would ever have and my last name as well?  The truth was that I couldn’t have given her anything more than everything that I had to give her.  But, I guess, in the end, even all of that hadn’t been good enough for someone like her.

“You will always be blue collar, Christopher T. Shields.  Always.”

Going out with Katrice had been one of the stupidest things that I’d ever done, probably the stupidest thing that I had ever done up until right now in my life but that’s what happens when you pick up strays and then make the mistake of getting emotionally attached to them rather than trying to find them a good home and pawn them off on someone else.  Katrice had been little more than a stray, a non-pedigreed stray that walked into my life looking for someone to feed her, to scratch her, and to take care of her for the rest of her life … or at least for as long as she decided to stay around which was only until something that she thought was better came along.

I shook my head slowly as I finally, fully understood just what kind of person Katrice really was and how much better I was without her.

I reached behind the passenger seat and pulled out my cassette storage case.  I flipped it open, running my finger down the first row of cassette cases and then up the second row.  I needed to hear something right now, something appropriate, something that would match the mood I was in, something that would close off this moment.  My finger stopped on Tattoo Rodeo’s “Rode Hard Put Away Wet” cassette and I tapped it twice … yeah, a little bit of slow country hard rock blues seemed to be called for right now to ease the tension still in the air.  I pulled the cassette out of its case, shoved the tape halfway into the cassette player first side down and put the cassette storage case back behind the passenger seat.

12:53 AM.

I thought of Joy, looked at the time, saw how late I was then threw my head back hard into the cushion of the driver’s seat and blasphemed loudly to no one but the Corvette around me.

Thirty minutes my ass.

It was 12:53 AM.

Fuck!

Joy was going to be pissed.

No.

Joy was going to be Amazon pissed which would be kind of like Wonder Woman with PMS and Tourette’s Syndrome at the same time.  I picked up the handset out of the cellular bag phone behind the passenger seat and tapped out Joy’s phone number.  I felt it was better to let her know what was going on than keep her waiting.

The phone rang four times on the opposite end before Joy answered.

“I’m done.” I said, noticing that I hadn’t said “We’re done” because that kind of went without saying.

There was a pause.

“It’s almost one in the morning.  What took so long?” she asked, her voice … concerned … not angry.

That surprised me because I hadn’t expected it.

“I’ll tell you about it on the way to the party.”

Silence.

“You do still want to go out tonight, right?”

I hoped that she did because at that moment in time I really wanted to be with Joy more than anything else.  I had no right at all to be in her favor for how I had acted, for what I had done to her and after all that I had done, to do this, to meet with Katrice again, tonight, and put Joy and my plans aside for Katrice’s own convenience.  I had really messed up my life the last year and a half and in doing so, Joy had been caught in the wake and had paid the price as well.  Joy owed me nothing and if Joy said no to us going out tonight, hell, if she didn’t have anything else to do with me ever again then I would completely understand.

“Do you still want to go out tonight?” I asked again since she hadn’t given me an answer.

“Yes.” She half whispered … she sounded tired or frustrated?

My heart jumped into fast idle.

“Then I’m on my way.” I told her.

“Where are you now?” she asked.

“Some old apartments on the far west side of USM.”

“Apartments?  Why are you at some apartments?” she asked, concern rising again in her voice.

“It’s not what you think.  I had to drop Katrice off at her friend’s apartment where she left her car.  Her friend dropped her off at County Market then left her so I had to give her a ride back to her car.  Just one more inconvenience she hustled off on me and at the last minute.”

There was a pause on the other end, as if Joy was trying to put all of that together.

“How long will you be?”

“Give me fifteen minutes.”

“Hurry, Cowboy.  Ride fast if you can.” Joy’s voice was soft, almost wounded.

“Like the wind.” I said and pressed the END button, dropping the call on my end and returning the handset to the cradle behind the passenger seat.

I put one foot on the clutch and one foot on the brake, put the Corvette into reverse and slowly backed out of the parking lot of the apartment complex.  If only it was as easy to back out of emotional dead ends as it was to back out of dead ends in real life … I would have thrown my heart in reverse, looked over my shoulder and stomped it, backing out of eighteen months of my life and starting over again … this time with Joy … as fast as my spinning wheels and burning tires would carry me there.  But life wasn’t like that or at least my life wasn’t like that so I put the Corvette into first gear and slowly drove out of the apartment parking lot.

I nonchalantly pushed Tattoo Rodeo’s cassette all the way into the Delco-Bose and keyed up the music search to find the third song on side one of the tape. A few seconds later, Tattoo Rodeo began to pound out the lyrics to "Been your fool" and I found that the words matched my situation and mood … exactly.  In fact, I found myself singing along, out loud, and I had the biggest smile on my face when I did. I didn’t even look back when I drove away because everything behind me was just dust and that’s all that Katrice, her empty promises, our broken plans and our never happening future together would ever be … dust.

 

          Joy's House

The digital clock on the Delco-Bose stereo read 1:18 in the morning when I edged the Corvette carefully into the old rutted, broken concrete driveway at Joy’s house, clear across Hattiesburg from where I had left Katrice at her friend’s apartment.  I had no more put the Corvette into neutral and pulled up the emergency brake beside the driver’s seat than I looked up and saw Joy standing there on the side of her concrete porch. 

Great.

I had fully expected her to be standing there with arms crossed and an unforgiving look on her face ready to let me have it for all she was worth and maybe even have changed her mind about tonight intending to just send me packing but instead she was leaning up against one of the old, peeling wood columns there, holding it like a strong wind was coming, a look of concern on her face and something else … relief?  It almost looked as if she were hugging the column … posing for a portrait to be painted.

And those long lashed, witchy eyes held anything but anger.

She wore a black blouse, tan slacks, a black leather belt with a gold buckle and black sandals.  Her long black hair was tucked up into a bun on top of her head and her makeup was … heavier around her eyes than normal.  It almost looked like she had been crying but in the low light I couldn’t tell.  Joy was stunning, regardless, and I caught my breath.

I sat there in the idling Corvette, seatbelt still buckled, keys dangling in the ignition, the window rolled down and my left arm resting on the driver’s door edge.  I honestly didn’t know what to say or what to do at that point in time other than to drink her in with my parched eyes.  Joy let go of the column, took a step towards me and folded her arms.  Here it comes, I thought.  She is Amazon pissed and you are fixing to get your fair share.

“You’re late.”

“Yeah.  A little, I guess.” I said flatly, steeling myself for what I knew was about to come.

You didn’t spend a few years with a woman like Joy and not know when she was going to blow her stack.  And then Joy let her feelings out … it went better than it could have, all things considered.

“A little late?  You’re three hours late!  Three fucking hours!  Three hours is not a little late, Cowboy!  Three fucking hours is a whole lot late!” Joy said in a voice that was surprisingly calm.

I couldn’t argue that point with her.

“Were you with her for the last three hours?”

I nodded.

“Were you with her the entire time?”

“Pretty much, yeah.” I said, leaning back all the way in the driver’s seat and crossing my arms across my chest, not really believing that I had spent that much time with Katrice.

“Jesus Christ!  What the hell did the two of you do for three hours?  Can you tell me that, Christopher?  Or do I really want to know?” Joy said, concern creeping into her voice.

I stared straight ahead because I had nothing.

“And?” Joy asked.

“And what do you want me to say, Joy?  That we kissed and made up and that everything is going to be just fine between us now?  Do you want me to tell you that it was all just a big misunderstanding, that she said she was sorry, that I asked her to marry me and that we’ve set a date?  Is that what you want me to say?”

Joy was about to say something, probably something scathing but she bit her lip and slowly shook her head.

“You’re three hours late.  You spent three hours with her.  Her.  After what she did to you …” She said loudly.

“Yes, I was with her for three hours but it’s not what you think.  All she got out of me tonight was a quarter tank of high octane and my time.  I drove around and she talked …”

“She talked for three hours?”

“For two and a half hours.  She talked and I pretty much ignored her, for two and a half hours, because what she was saying only made sense to her.  All in all, it’s just another two and a half hours of my life that she wasted for her own convenience and selfishness.”

Joy muddled over what I had just said.

“That’s another two and a half hours of my life wasted on her that I can’t ever get back and I have nothing to show for it but a good laugh, a little over seventy miles on the odometer, almost a quarter tank of gas gone, being late for a party that I really wanted to go to and worst of all you standing there pissed off at me … again.  That makes twice this week that I’ve pissed you off.”

I breathed out heavily, more of a huff.

“Not what I wanted.  This is not the Friday night that I had planned on …” I said softly to myself.

Joy stepped away from the column she was standing against.

“I’m not pissed at you …  I’m pissed at her.” Joy said as she sat down on the side of the porch there, facing the Corvette, letting her long legs dangle and swing slowly back and forth as she put her hands in her lap and leaned forward.

“What the hell did she talk about for two and a half hours?” Joy asked.  “Did it take her that long to clear her guilty little conscience?”

“I guess.  Mostly what she talked about were her needs but she got a few good jabs in which I expected she would.  I guess she needed to do that in order to feel better about herself and what she had done.  She needed to put the blame on me, for all of her problems …”

“So … all of this was your fault?”

“Pretty much, yeah.”

“That girl has problems.  Real, serious, deep problems, you know that, right?” Joy harrumphed.

“Well I’m not one of her problems anymore and I won’t ever be one of her problems ever again, thank God.”

A long silence. 

I reached up and slapped the headlights off, listening to the whir of the electric motors as the headlights flipped, thumping shut hard under the clamshell hood.  I turned the key backwards in the ignition, killing the L98 under the hood then worked the shifter and clutch, putting the Vette into gear and leaving it there.

"She said what she had to say and now it’s over with.” I managed to say at last, feeling that I needed to say something but not sure what exactly to say.

“Is it really?” she asked softly.

“Yes.” I nodded.

“Are you sure?” Joy asked.

“I’m sure.”

Joy was quiet as she thought.

“And … what if that book witch calls you three weeks from now and wants to see you again because she’s thought of something else that she needs to talk to you about?  What if she comes up with some more loose ends that you and her need to tie up?  Are you going to feel sorry for her and agree to see her again?”

I shook my head slowly there in the driver’s seat.

“If Katrice does call then I just guess she’ll have to get happy with me saying no to her because tonight was the last time that I ever intend to spend any time … any more time … on her.  I’ve wasted enough time as it is … too much damn time.”

“Promise?” Joy asked.

“Scout’s honor.” I said, holding up my fingers in the correct Boy Scout hand sign.

Joy’s stern face did something then … it softened … and like that the Amazon rage passed.  She stared at me and I stared back.

Silence.

She was staring off into space.  I turned back to stare at the now dark dash of my Vette.

“Are you okay?” Joy asked at last.

I guess the genuine concern in her voice was what surprised me the most.

“I’m fine.” I said, rubbing my eyes and massaging my temples.

“Are you sure?” she asked.

“Yeah.  I guess that I’m just tired … I thought all of this, all of Katrice's neediness, was over a month ago and I was moving on with my life but then she called and you know …”

“What?” she asked.  “Threw you for a loop?  Again?”

“Yeah.  I guess.  I’ve really been dreading seeing Katrice again ever since she called me the other day and now that it’s over … now that it’s finally over and she’s really gone I just feel …”

I threw my gloved hands out in front of me and just made a throwing away motion, huffing as I did so.

“What?” Joy asked.

“Empty.  I guess I feel empty … like I’m starting over from scratch.  Like everything that I ever had is gone and I’ve got nothing left and all I can do is just get on with my life and start again.”

Silence as I leaned my head back into the headrest of the leather covered sport seat.

“You really didn’t know what she wanted to talk about tonight, did you?  You thought that she wanted to come back, didn’t you?”

I shrugged my shoulders.

“No, I didn’t really know what she wanted.  She said it was important that we talked and that we couldn’t talk about it over the phone so … yeah.  I was scared that she might say that she had made some kind of big mistake when she walked out on us and that she was sorry, she needed some time away, that she wanted my forgiveness and she wanted to get back together so it could be like it was before …”

I did an involuntary shudder when I realized just how close I had come to making my life miserable by marrying that loser and if her walking out a month ago hadn’t shown me what kind of person she really was then how she had acted and what she had said to me tonight certainly had.

“I could tell something big was bothering you yesterday when you called me.  It was that, wasn’t it?  You were afraid that she wanted to come back.” Joy asked.

“Yeah, I was scared that she wanted to come back because I just didn’t want her anymore … not after seeing her for who and what she really was.  I couldn’t go back to that, to her, ever again.  I couldn’t marry someone like her, not and be happy.  If she had wanted to come back then I'd have had to tell her "no" and then I'd have been the bad guy in the relationship and ... I just didn't want to have to deal with that.  What she and I had, what I thought we had, that's over.  It was over when she broke up with me and there's no reconciling that.  Ever.”

“Well, it’s over.  She’s gone and you can get on with your life.” Joy said.

“Yeah, it’s over.” I muttered.

Joy sat there, slowly swinging her feet back and forth on the edge of the porch.

“The time you spent with her tonight …”

“I ignored her, most of it completely, because I had other things on my mind.”

“Other things?  Like what?” Joy asked.

Here it was, the moment when I had to make a decision.  I had made a mistake with Joy a long time ago and look where it had gotten me.  I wasn’t going to make that same mistake again.  I turned to face her and spoke …

“You.” I said, loud enough that I made sure that she heard it. 

There came a look of surprise on Joy's face.

“I spent the last two and a half hours that I was with Katrice thinking about you.  That’s all I thought about … just you.  I didn’t want to be with Katrice tonight.  I wanted to be with you.  I wanted to be with you two years ago.  I wanted to be with you three hours ago.  I want to be with you now, Joy.”

There it was; I had said it.  My mind had been on Joy the whole time that I was with Katrice.  Joy looked up at me when I said her name.  A look came over her that was a mixture of surprise and … relief.

“All I could think about was you waiting on me here and how this was the last time that I would ever have to put up with any of Katrice’s silly bullshit and any of her stupid ass emotional baggage ever again.  All I could think about was how inconvenient her life has made the lives of almost everyone else around her … it’s been that way since the first time that I met her and it’s all for her own convenience.  I don’t even think that she knows that she does it; it’s just how she is, it’s just how she’s always been and it’s how she’ll always be.  She’s just a really emotionally needy and a highly inconvenient person to be around let alone to have in anyone's life.”

Joy stifled a laugh then got serious again.

“Well, it’s over now.  She’s gone.  You’re free.” Joy said, standing up, slapping the back of her slacks clean and then folding her arms and leaning up against the column next to her.

“Yeah.  She’s someone else’s misery now.” I said closing my eyes and trying to melt back into the leather of the driver’s seat.

I felt soul tired right down to my bones as I sat there, in the Corvette, thinking about tonight, about the last year and a half … thinking about a whole lot of things.  Right then, I wasn’t sure where I was or where I was going only that I had to keep on going.  Wheels were in motion and I couldn't stop.

“Hey.  Cowboy.” Joy said, whistling loudly to get my undivided attention.

I rolled my head to the left, slowly opened my eyes and looked at her.

She was really stunning looking, all dressed up like that.

“Do you know what you look like?” she asked.

“Yeah.  I look exactly like a Christopher-shaped piñata that’s just had the shit beat out of it.” I said.

Joy snorted and laughed, covering her mouth to stifle her laughter

“No.  You look like you need a drink.” She said, regaining her composure.

I held up my Sonic Route 44 sweet tea cup.

“I’ve got a drink, doll.  Well, some of it left, anyway.”

“No.  You look like you need a real drink.”

That was an idea but ... I looked at my watch to double check the time and all it told me was bad news.

“Liquor stores are closed.  Bars, too.” I said.

“My bar isn’t closed.  Come on, Cowboy.  I’m pouring tonight from my private stock.  House of Joy.  Specials all night long.”

That threw me for a loop right then and there.

“Wait ... I thought we were going to Cody’s party.”

"Thinking and doing are two entirely different things, now aren't they?" she said.

I watched her walk to the front door, open it, and lean on the door sill looking at me.  She nodded a silent invitation with her head towards the inside of her house and walked on in without waiting.

Those long lashes.

Those pale blue witchy eyes.

That long jet black hair.

That six foot two tall frame.

Legs for days.

Curves like a dancer.

Yeah, if Joy was pouring then I could definitely use a drink.

I pulled off my driving gloves, slapped them together and put them in a stack on top of the wide dash.  I locked up the Corvette and let myself in through the front door, closing it and twisting the dead bolt behind me.  The inside of the house was dark, lit only by the vast number of candles in Joy’s collection.  Incense was burning in several holders, the same type; a rare Far East spice that drowned out all the other normal smells of the house.  Flames flickered and cast wavering shadows everywhere I looked.  All of this didn’t just happen, either.  Joy was expecting someone and it didn’t take a lot of brain cells to guess who that particular someone was.

Somehow I just really didn’t want to go to Cody’s party anymore.  That may not have been the right thing to want but right then and there, I just wanted to spend time with Joy, to be with her … if not to talk then at least to just be around her.  Her presence had an almost mystical healing quality to it.   Right now, when she had been sitting there on the porch, just her presence in my life had been comforting and I needed that probably as much as I needed a good, long pull of whiskey.

The air was on, the house was cool … a difference you could immediately feel as soon as you walked in from the humid spring night outside.  Joy was waiting for me in the living room, standing there, again with her back leaning up against the threshold of the entrance to the hallway.  She nodded her head again, inviting me to follow her to the kitchen, then shoved off from the door frame and glided out of sight.  I joined her in the kitchen as she pulled out a shot glass from the cupboard and a half full bottle of Jack Daniels from the pantry.  She filled the shot glass straight from the bottle, put the bottle down and as I started to reach for the shot glass Joy took the whiskey and belted it back.  She refilled the shot glass and slid it across the counter top to me.  I turned the shot glass in my hand.  Her lipstick was on the side of the shot glass where she had drank from and I held it up to the flickering candle light to see it better … the perfect outline of her full lips.  I put the shot glass to my mouth and belted the whiskey down, feeling the burn hot and slow all the way down.  

Damn I’d missed that.  

The afterglow slowly put all residual thoughts of Katrice completely out of my mind, like rain washing a sidewalk clean of a child’s poorly rendered chalk drawings.

There was only here and now ... Joy and I.

I slid the shot glass back across the counter top to Joy.  She filled the shot glass again then picked it up and emptied it.  She refilled the shot glass again full of whiskey and slid it back to me.  When my expression asked her an unspoken question she nodded towards the shot glass.

“Take your medicine, Cowboy.” She said.

Who was I to argue with her? 

I belted down the whiskey and put the shot glass back on the counter top.  She moved away from the counter towards me, stepping closer.  I could smell whiskey now, cigarette smoke, mixed with her perfume and the burning incense all combining into an enticing aroma …

“Those weren’t your first couple of shots tonight, were they?”

She slowly shook her head, cut her eyes at me and took another step towards me.  There was a determination, an expectation behind those eyes.  She moved towards me with a purpose and a look that said I didn’t need to make too many guesses on what she was wanting.

“Since you were picking me up and driving, I thought I might get an early start for Cody’s party.  You know, loosen up a little before you got here.”

“Speaking of which … What about Cody’s party?” I asked as she stepped closer to me.

“What about it?” she asked, moving a step closer.

Not moving … gliding … as much as a six foot two inch tall half-drunk Amazon could glide across the kitchen floor.

“We’re three hours late …”

“So?” she asked, moving even closer.

Gliding, like a snake going after its prey.

Witchy eyes.

Paralyzing and hypnotizing.

“So?” I asked.

“So … why don’t we just skip Cody’s party all together?” she whispered.

It was then that I realized that she was serious about skipping the party and that she was whispering a whole lot.  I’d never known Joy to be the person who did a lot of whispering … usually she was the loudest person at any party and most of the time the first one to throw a punch.

“Why are you whispering?” I asked her, still keeping my voice low.

“I feel like whispering.” She whispered as she took another step closer to me.

“I’ve never heard you whisper before.” I said.

“You’ve never been this close to me before, Cowboy.” She said.  “People whisper when they’re this close.”

“I’ve been close to you before.” I whispered.

“You’ve never been this close to me before ... not when I was in this kind of mood.” She said.

“What kind of mood are you in?” I asked.

“I’m in a mood to do something stupid, cowboy.  Sound good to you?” She whispered

She was close enough for me to reach out and put my hands on her hips which is what I did, instinctively, without any thought whatsoever … I just reached out and put a hand on each hip, took a gentle grip and pulled her the rest of the way to me, looping my thumbs through the belt loops there on the sides of her pants.  Her hands to my shoulders and we held each other that way, staring into each other’s eyes.

Long lashes.

Witchy eyes.

Heavy makeup outlining her eyes, she had done that on purpose for the sheer effect alone.  She reached up and undid her hair, letting it fall and tossing it out with a long shake of her head.  Her breath came hot and fast now, scented by whiskey and cigarettes, and my hands slowly moved up and down her hips and sides.  She made soft noises as her body writhed up and down in my hands.  Her expression was familiar.  I’d seen that expression on a woman before and I knew what it meant; Joy had made up her mind and she had made it up long before I ever pulled up at her house.

“What kind of stupid?” I whispered.

“The really stupid kind of stupid.” She said.

“Something really stupid or something really, really stupid?” I whispered as she writhed up against me.

“How about we do something all the way stupid … and then some?” she whispered.

“That works for me.” I said.

“I’m glad it does, cowboy, but I really don’t think I was giving you any choice in the matter, now was I?”

Before I could say anything else Joy closed the distance between us.  Our lips brushed, met again, parted and we kissed deeply.  She crushed her lips and mouth down on mine.  Two years ago we had kissed like this, once, on a beach on the coast and it had left us with mixed feelings about where we stood in our friendship, in our relationship.  Now there was no denying what we felt for each other. 

No second guessing, no boundaries, nothing holding us back. 

She tasted of whiskey and smelled of cigarettes and flowery perfume but right then that was just what I was looking for.  This was more real than anything I’d had in the last two years of my life.  This was a woman, not a scared little girl.  My hands roamed up Joy’s sides, down her hips and around to her bottom, cupping her there and pulling her into me as my lips broke away from hers, moved across her right cheek and down the right side of her neck, nibbling and kissing as I went.  She made sounds, she reached up and grabbed my head and pulled me into her.  I reached up, grabbed a handful of her hair and pulled her head back exposing the side of her neck to my lips.  Her breath grew faster and her body writhed in my arms as two years of misguided need and wasted passion came boiling to the top.

I wanted Joy ... more than anything thing else in the world I wanted Joy.

Joy wrapped herself around me, crushing her lips against mine and we stumbled backwards, hard, into the far kitchen wall where she was on me, pinning me in the corner between the wall and the counter top.  For the second time that night my shirt came off my body, much quicker this time and with a lot of help from an extra set of hands.  Joy threw my shirt over on the kitchen table and I felt the cool of the kitchen wall against the skin on my bare back.  She ran her hands up my chest, pressing hard, her fingers spreading through my chest hair, rubbing, grabbing, clenching, pulling and kneading me like a cat.  She fingered my Saint Christopher medal, looked at it, picked it up and held it before letting the medal fall back to my chest.  Joy moved up then and our lips met again, we kissed, deep and hard.

Frantic.

Desperate.

A long time overdue.

Her head dipped down into my neck and I felt her lips on my neck, her teeth nibbling, moving up to my ear.  I began to stir for her.  Her hands roamed, her tongue went down into my ear and I closed my eyes and lost myself in her.

“You know that we’re going to regret this …” I whispered.

Joy suddenly stopped what she was doing and pulled back then, held me at arm’s length and stared at me.  Witchy eyes cut sharp.  Her look was one of utter fucking seriousness and she was the hottest thing that I could remember ever seeing at that moment in time.

Regret?” she asked in a harsh whisper.  “There’s not going to be any regret, Cowboy, because I’m not going to make you any promises.  Got that?”

I nodded.

“Good.” She said, looking at me as if having second thoughts then moving back in closer, starting back on me with her hands and mouth.

I ran my hands over her body.

“Promises are just IOUs that people write when they know that their heart isn’t good enough to pay for what they need up front and they know they won’t have it in them when the bill comes due later on.  You should know that by now, Cowboy.” Joy whispered into my ear.

Wow.

I didn't know if that was something Joy had read, something she made up on her own and believed whole-heartedly or it was just the whiskey talking but what she just said made perfect fucking sense to me right then and there and just like that any inhibition I might have had for doing what I was about to do … for what we were about to do … vanished.  No promises, no regrets; just here and now and Joy.  I pulled her back to me, she came willingly, and I lost myself in her again.  Her breath was warm on my neck, her hot tongue sliding up and down my skin … tasting, licking.

Her breath was warm on my neck, her hot tongue sliding up and down my skin … tasting, licking.

“Does this feel like regret to you?” she whispered in my ear as she was almost climbing on top of me.

“No.” I said and I meant it.

Two, three nights ago I might not have meant it but tonight … yeah, I meant it.  I meant every last bit of it.

“How about this?” she asked in a whisper, pushing against me harder, pinning me to the wall.

Her hand moved along the inside leg of my jeans, along my thigh, up to my groin and grabbed a handful of what God had hung there.  I ran my hands all the way down her back, sliding my hands down and cupping her bottom again, pulling her into me.

“You.  Me.  Us.  What we’re doing.  Does any of this feel like regret to you?  Are you regretting any of this?  You just let me know if any of this feels like regret to you, Cowboy, cause I’ll stop and you can go your own way.” she whispered.

"That's always been your problem ..." I whispered.

"What?" she asked, trying to pull away but I wouldn't let her.

"You talk too damn much." 

A sly look came over her face right then.

"Then why don't you put something in my mouth and shut me up?"

My answer to her was to kiss her deeply.  I grabbed her head, my fingers in her long hair.  My tongue wrapped around her tongue.  Our hands roamed over each other’s bodies without boundaries.  I wanted this so much … I wanted Joy so much tonight and I think that the feeling was more than mutual.  Of course, all the whiskey that we had drank wasn’t hurting us either but at that point I think it was just more fuel to the fire.  A fire that had started four years ago that night on Richburg Road way back in the summer of 1988 and a fire that had been slowly smoldering ever since then.  Joy pushed herself back from me, took my hand in her hands and started leading me out of the kitchen ... back down the hall towards her bedroom, walking backwards and pulling me with her, both hands, as she went ... almost dragging me.

And she was serious.  Joy was more serious than I'd ever seen her before.

Joy was looking at me like I was prey.

This was happening and by the looks of Joy she had already reached the point of no return.  I dug my heels in, yanked back on her and pulled her to me, hard, before she could protest or resist.  I spun her to her side then bent and grabbed her up in my arms.  She wrapped her arms around my neck, her long legs dangled over my right arm, my left arm supported her back as I carried her on down the hall and into her bedroom.  She held me tight, almost as tight as I held her and I thought I felt her shaking in my arms as I carried her, trembling, just a little.  I put her down gently on her bed, as gently as you can put a horny Amazon down and then she reached up and pulled me down on top of her.

Pulled isn't the right word ...  grabbed and yanked.

Face to face.

Me on top of her.

Our bodies starting to writhe against each other.

Serpentine.

Friction.

Pleasure.

Her chest rising and falling.

Her breathing shallow and fast.

Her mouth open slightly.

Her lips trembling.

Her eyes searching.

I wanted this.

I wanted her.

I wanted … us.

We kissed.

Deep.

Hard.

Her arms came up around me as Joy rolled me over, climbed on top, took lead and I let her.  Our clothes came off like they were on fire.  Joy wasn’t gentle and she took what she needed, she took what she wanted, she took what had been denied of her for two years.  

Time became meaningless.  

There was just us.   

Skin to skin.  

The sounds she made ...

We were losing ourselves in each other.

Finally.

Totally and completely.

That night we made up for lost time, almost two years’ worth.

That night we answered to whatever want or desire we had.

That night we did what we should have done a long time ago.

That night there were no promises.

That night there was no regret.

That night there was just Joy ... and only Joy.  

 

"All your life you've never seen
a woman, taken by the wind
Would you stay if she promised you heaven?
Will you ever win?"

Fleetwood Mac - "Rhiannon"


          The Morning After
Peppertree Apartments
Saturday, March 14, 1992

  10:35 AM



Cody’s apartment wasn’t far from campus and Joy showed me where it was, just off North 28th Avenue … Peppertree Apartments.  I stifled the urge to laugh out loud, succeeded for the most part and only emitted a chuckle accompanied by a slow shake of my head.  Yeah, I knew this place … knew it all too well.  For an apartment complex where I’d never lived before, I sure had spent a lot of time over here in a lot of different apartments … I’d been coming to the Peppertree Apartments since 1984, way back when I was just fifteen years old and now here I was back again.

“How long has Cody lived here?” I asked, remembering the old three bedroom house that he had rented out in Oak Grove back in the summer of ’89 after he graduated from Hinds and started at USM.

“Since last September …” Joy said as we pulled into the parking lot and found a spot for my Corvette.  “Why?  Do you know someone else that lives here?”

“Yeah.  I’ve known plenty of people that have lived here.  Jeanne lived here for a while back in the mid-‘80’s and Pam roomed with her for a few weeks when the dorms closed for the Christmas holidays.  Kurt and Greg lived here, so did Robert, Danny, Mark, John, Kim, Mary, Susan and Cathy.  All people I worked with at County Market.  Those guys threw some major parties back in the day.”

“So … you know this place?”

“Oh, yeah.  This place was like the apartment complex for County Market employees.  We’d work together then get off and come over here and party then see each other the next day at work.  It was funny to see people try to work Front Wall with a killer hangover.  Even Katrice used to live here …”

“Katrice used to live here?” Joy asked, turning to face me to see if I was serious or not.

“Yeah.  Katrice used to live here, way back in the winter of ’90 when we first met and during the spring of ’91 when we first started dating.  After that she moved out last summer into a one bedroom apartment there on Lincoln Road.  Funny thing is that it was one building down from your old apartment there at Hillendale ... but I never saw you or your car so I guess you were gone by then.”

“So she moved into an efficiency apartment?” she asked.

“More like a deficiency apartment.  You remember how small your apartment was?  She didn’t have any furniture short of this raggedy old bed, a dresser and this ugly coffee table that probably came out of a rummage sale at a Holiday Inn …”

Joy smiled and leaned over close.

“Did Katrice ever throw any wild parties at her apartment?” she asked in a teasing manner.

I laughed and shook my head.

“Not here she didn’t and certainly not at her place over on Lincoln Road.  No, I don’t think that anything that Katrice ever did could have been considered to have been wild by any stretch of the definition.”

“That’s sad.” Joy said flatly.

“That was Katrice’s life.” I said flatly.  “Boring and predictable.”

“It’s still sad.” Joy commented as we pulled carefully into the steep parking lot, me driving slowly so as not to bottom out the low slung Corvette’s front end and spoiler.

“Now wait.  Wait.  I stand corrected.  Come to think of it, way back in October she did organize some Halloween themed party at the Dixie Community Center way out by the old Beverly Drive-In.  That was the only place that she could find on short notice that wasn’t spoken for at that time.  The party was for people she knew and people she worked with.”

“What was that like?”

“Oh, she sent out a lot of invitations.  I think six people showed up, me and her included.  No one cared.  You were supposed to dress up in a Halloween costume but I didn’t even bother with that.  It was so boring that you could hear crickets in the background chirping.”

Joy looked at me with an expression of disbelief.

“Six people?”

“Six people.”

“I hate to tell you, Cowboy, but six people is not a party … it’s more like … a support group meeting.” Joy said.

I busted out laughing because I hadn’t thought about it like that but at the time even I was kind of embarrassed for Katrice.  The highlight of that evening had been the fact that some nerd from the library program had tried hitting on Katrice and she was happy to see me when I showed up so she could lean on me and hide from the other guy, to show him that she was spoken for already.  Memories, funnier now in hindsight that Katrice was gone.

“Hey!  Wouldn’t it be really funny if the apartment that Cody rented was actually Katrice’s old apartment?” she asked, smiling and talking in a put-on eerie voice.

For a second my blood ran cold and I did an involuntary shudder at the idea.  

Damn.  

What if Cody had moved into Katrice’s old unit?  

Talk about memories … unpleasant ones.

“No.” I said, smiling.  “That wouldn’t be funny.  It would be weird and that would just be the way that my life goes.”

“You definitely have a weird life.” Joy said, laughing.

“Yeah, weird.” I said with a dull feeling of apprehension at being back here, again, at these apartments.

“You have to admit, your life does get a bit weird sometimes.”

“It's all the weird stuff that keeps my life from being boring.” I said, smiling.  “I wouldn’t trade it for the world.”

And the truth was I wouldn’t.

As it was, Cody’s apartment was on the back left side of the complex, facing the pool.  Katrice’s apartment had been on the front left side near a breezeway facing at a ninety degree angle away from Cody’s apartment.  I thought back … just a year ago I had been parking my black and gold ’79 Pontiac Trans Am in a space up there near the road whenever I came over here to see Katrice on an almost daily basis.  Now, just one year later, I was parking my red ’88 Chevrolet Corvette here at the back of the complex to go see a friend that I had pretty much ignored in order to be with Katrice and Katrice was gone.  It was funny how quickly things changed in life … things that you took for granted, things that you thought were carved in stone were here today and suddenly gone tomorrow.

I thought back even further still.

In 1984 I was fifteen years old.  I was driving a 1978 red and black Chevrolet Camaro Rally Sport and I had started coming to parties thrown here, parties thrown by college students that I worked with at County Market.  In December of 1985, Pam had stayed here, in Jeanne’s townhouse, during the Christmas holidays when the dorms had closed but she couldn’t get time off from work at County Market.  I’d visited both Pam and Jeanne during that time; it was a prelude to Pam and me beginning our little work affair … be that as it may.  

After that, I found myself hanging out more and more at this apartment complex always at the invitation of those who lived here.  In fact, throughout 1986 and into 1987, I’d been to more parties at this apartment complex than any other apartment complex in Hattiesburg.  When I wasn’t partying I was bringing a pizza or a movie over after work, trading computer software and games with those who had Apple computers like I did, or taping someone else’s heavy metal album and cassettes and letting them tape mine.  Yeah, if my life had a bit of weird thrown in then this particular apartment complex was some kind of focal point or central node that a good bit of that weird ran straight through … time after time.

I’d quit County Market in the summer of 1986 to enjoy my senior year of high school and after that I’d left for Hattiesburg for Hinds junior college up in Raymond, Mississippi.  That first year of college had been fun but ultimately it hadn’t worked out like I had planned so I came back home to Hattiesburg, moved back in with my parents and went to Jones County Junior College.  In the summer of 1988 I had started working again at County Market and hooked up with some new party animals, this time it was with people my age; I was a college student at long last and it was a new set of parties being thrown here at this old, old apartment complex.

New faces but the same old apartment complex.

And then I’d met Katrice in the fall of 1990 and spent many an afternoon, long into the night, at her apartment during the spring of ‘91.  Her roommate was dating a soldier who had been deployed to Kuwait during the Gulf War and her roommate was pretty much living with her boyfriend / fiancé’s parents giving Katrice the apartment all to herself … a fact that we had put to our best use each and every chance that we could.

When her lease had expired, Katrice had moved to a one bedroom apartment on Lincoln Road, near Winn Dixie, at the end of the ’91 spring semester at USM.  I remember helping her move … she didn’t have very much to her name so it wasn’t like we needed a big truck or anything for the cross town move.  A coworker from County Market and I moved her in about two hours using his pickup truck.  That put Katrice closer to me, pretty much in walking distance of my parent’s house and Bill’s mom’s house … that is, until she had taken a co-op job at the Gulfport library and moved to an apartment in Long Beach at the end of the fall ’91 semester.  

After that, well …

“Yeah.  Lots of memories.” I said to myself, looking at the buildings around me and thinking back through all the good times … through all the years.

Joy looked over at me with a questioning look.

“This apartment complex has a lot of memories for me.” I said.

“Good ones?” she asked in a hopeful voice.

“Most of them, yeah.” I said.  “More good than bad.  So far … so I guess that has to count for something.”

“I guess it does.” Joy said.

I smiled then, realizing that not even the recent memories of being with Katrice here could taint the party nature and the long standing heritage of good times that this particular apartment complex had enjoyed over the last eight years of my life, the better part of almost a decade that I could remember coming here.  

After we parked the Corvette I walked around and opened the door for Joy then let her lead me across the parking lot and up the sidewalk to Cody’s apartment.  It was on the lower level, on the left end of the back section.  It wasn’t Katrice’s apartment and you couldn’t even see her apartment from Cody’s … not that it mattered anymore.  By the time that Cody had moved into these apartments Katrice was already across town in another apartment over off Lincoln Road.

We stopped outside the door to the apartment.  

Silence.  

Joy turned the knob, it was unlocked, and she opened the door slowly, stepping in partially and looking around.

“Cody.” she said flatly, her voice louder than normal.

“You’re … late!” a slurred voice shouted from somewhere inside, heavy emphasis on the last word.

Cody.

Drunk … or stoned … or both.

“Where’s … Ray-Bans?”

Joy leaned back against the open door with her hands and arms behind her back.  She looked at me then nodded that I should go on in which is what I did, slowly, not really knowing what to expect.  I don’t think that anything could have prepared me for what I saw.  I’d been to parties here before, great parties … wild parties … crazy parties … but this …

This …  

The interior of the apartment was lit with various lights and completely trashed.  It smelled of alcohol, liquor, beer, whiskey, sweat, pizza, perfume, incense, cigarettes and weed; all the smells I was familiar with; the party potpourri as we had once dubbed this combination of smells.  Ashtrays were overflowing on the end tables, coffee table, bar, top of the TV and each of the waist high stereo speakers.  Bottles, cans, plastic cups, Styrofoam cups, glasses, shot glasses, paper plates, dining plates, napkins, paper towels, cigarette paper wrappers, cigarette carton plastic and other discarded materials were everywhere on every surface.  On the floor in the hall was a makeshift beer funnel and a bunch more empty cans.  To say that it looked like a hurricane had hit a trailer park was an understatement.

“Ray-Bans!” Cody shouted from the sofa, throwing his arms up happily.

I almost didn’t recognize him.  There was a young woman either asleep or passed out there on the couch with her head in Cody’s lap.  She didn’t move when Cody shouted my name so I was voting that she was passed out.  Even with her hair messed up I could tell that she was attractive.  I had no idea who she was but she was pretty enough that I gave her a second, longer look.  From how she was curled up next to Cody, I figured she might be a fixture in his life but was that temporary or more permanent?

Cody was barefoot and bare chested, he wore nothing but his jeans and a full blown Indian chief’s headdress which strangely didn’t look all that out of place given the circumstances.  Cody had what looked like war paint on his face and some kind of tribal necklace with bear teeth and feathers around his neck.  He pointed at me with what looked like a peace pipe or maybe it was a broken tomahawk.

“Chief Big Party welcomes you, bro!  Come on in!” Cody said, throwing his arms wide and swinging the peace pipe around for emphasis.

The peace pipe smelled heavily of burnt weed when it swung through the air.  I was wondering where he had gotten something like that but the more I looked at it the more it looked homemade.  It might not have been authentic in every detail but I didn’t have to try to guess if it worked or not the way it was supposed to.

“Chief Big Party?” I whispered to Joy standing next to me.

She shrugged.

“Chief Big Party.” Joy whispered, smiling.  “He’s had that gig for about a year now.  He throws a big party and dresses like that to greet the guests and have a good time.  You should see it when he burns a joint, he’ll actually start hopping around whooping and hollering and shaking his peace pipe in the air doing some kind of spastic, retarded Indian dance or what he thinks is an Indian dance.  It’s hilarious.”

“Anyone ever join in?” I asked, curious.

“Actually … Yeah.  I’ve gotten in behind him after a few puffs, just for fun, and one time about six months ago it looked like we had a conga line going around that coffee table there, Cody in the lead and all of us pulling train on him, stomping and whooping, patting our mouths.  We had the Sugarhill Gang’s ‘Apache’ playing on the stereo when we did it.  It was hilarious!  You should have been there.”

More memories of fun times that I’d missed.

“I’ll take your word for it.” I said, trying to imagine the scene that Joy had just painted in my head for me and not really being able to.

“Cody’s a showman.” Joy said.

“You mean a show-off.” I said.

“That too.” She agreed.  “There’s definitely a fine line between the two of those.”

“Only Cody’s line isn’t solid … it’s perforated.”

Joy laughed despite herself.

So some things had changed since I’d been gone, some things had gotten just a little weirder than I remembered them being and like Hunter S. Thompson once said, “when the going gets weird the weird turn pro.”  It was easy to see that Cody had definitely gone pro on me while I’d been away.  He tried to stand up, remembered that he had a woman’s head in his lap, slid out from under her letting her head drop to the sofa and then stood up facing us.  He took three steps forward, threw his arms out wide like he wanted a hug from me and then started to fall forward, the funniest surprised look appearing on his face as he started to teeter forward … it was a look of contempt at the fact that his legs were betraying him.  

I jumped forward and caught him under his right arm, a second ahead of Joy who had seen that coming as well and moved to catch him under his left arm.  Cody steadied himself with our help then quickly embraced me in a tight hug.

“I can’t feel my legs … wait … they’re all tingly.  Okay.  That hurts.  That really hurts.  Oh, God! Damn! I think my nuts went to sleep!” He said as Joy and I held him.

“Fuck!  My nuts aren’t asleep!  They’re in a coma!” Cody shouted.

I laughed and held him tight.  After a few minutes of holding a half-naked Cody next to me and hearing him moan about the pins and needles in his legs and the spots in front of his eyes, he managed to steady himself enough that he could stand on his own … somewhat, but I was still afraid to let him go.  The smell of liquor and weed on him was strong, along with sweat and musk.  He smelled like too much party and long overdue hygiene.  The apartment wasn’t the only thing that needed a good cleaning up and I thought that maybe a cold shower would do wonders for Cody … maybe even make him break out in an impromptu Indian dance there in the tub.

“Hey!  Ray-Bans!  Aw, fuck that.  Shields!  It is good to see you, bro!” he said, hugging me and sounding like he was almost going to cry.

“It’s good to see you, too, Chief.” I said.

“Chief!” Cody drawled out and smiled like it was the nicest thing that anyone had ever said to him.

“Okay.  You can let go now.  I think I can stand.  Ow.  Ow.  Ow.” Cody said as we let go of him and he started massaging his legs and groin vigorously.  Any faster and he was risking setting his jeans on fire from friction alone.

Cody finally stopped complaining, stood back, folded his arms and stuck his chin in the air, striking a defiant pose resplendent in his headdress, peace pipe and necklace.  If you ignored the jeans Cody had the kind of sharp chiseled look that Hollywood so often wanted to portray American Indian warriors as looking like.  He’d lost weight, maybe more than was healthy for him … I wasn’t sure … maybe my memories were as fuzzy as his brain was right now.

“Chief!  So you like it, huh?  Me Big Chief.” he said, thumping his chest with his fist then gesturing to the Indian headdress, the war paint, the tribal necklace and the peace pipe that smelled of weed all in an in-your-face type attitude that was drama in its purest form.

“It’s certainly got chrome and noise.” I said.  “Chief Big Party?”

“Chief Big Party!  If the teepee is rocking don’t bother knocking just get on inside and have a good time!”

I looked around the trashed up apartment.

“I take it that this is your … teepee?”

“It is a very nice teepee.  A sturdy teepee.” Cody said, gesturing around the apartment.

I followed his gesture.  Right then his “sturdy teepee" was a disaster, the flotsam and jetsam of a major party, at least thirty people or more by my guess at the amount of empty bottles and glasses.  It was going to take a construction crew with a track-hoe and a front end loader to get this place back in order … and maybe some high explosives.

“My teepee … is … your teepee, bro.” Cody said, putting both of his hands on my shoulder and pulling me to him in a strong hug.

Weed.

Sweat.

Alcohol.

Cody let me go and looked at me.

“Damn!  It’s good to see you, bro!” Cody said happily, smiling.  “So … when did you get here?”

“About five minutes ago.” I said.

“Five minutes ago …?” Cody looked at his watch, did some mental calculating; something that he obviously took some effort to do, looked outside the front door and saw daylight then got a frown on his face.

“Shields!  So you missed my party?” he said solemnly.  “You missed my party!?  How could you miss my party!?”

“Sorry.  Something came up that I had to deal with.” I said.

Joy stifled a giggle at that.

“What could possibly have come up that you had to deal with and thereby miss my party?” Cody asked.

I was about to tell him when Joy burst in and spoke.

“Katrice came up.” Joy said with some amount of distaste in her voice.

I was going to say Joy had come up but … okay, now I had to explain Katrice as well.  Cody looked from Joy to me and back to Joy.

“What do you mean Katrice came up?  I thought you said that Katrice dumped him like … what … a month ago.” Cody said, looking back to me.

There was confusion on his face, maybe a little bit of sadness.

“She did.” I said.

“And he got back with her last night.” Joy said flatly with distaste in her voice.

“No, damn it.  I did not get back with her last night.” I said flatly.

“Whoa hell!  You got back with her last night?  Why did you do that?” Cody said turning me around and running his hand up and down the middle of my back, forcefully, pressing and kneading me there.

“What are you doing?” I asked him casually, slightly amused at his strange behavior.

“I’m looking for your spine.” Cody said.

“Yeah, well, if you try to check to see if I have a set of balls I’m going to punch you.  Hard.  Really hard.”

Joy laughed out loud.

Cody got this very disappointed look on his face.

“A girl dumps you and you take her back a month later?  Well, since your spine is present and still in the correct place and since there’s no way in hell I’m going to check to see if you still have a set of functioning balls hanging I’ll have to assume that you’re just retarded for taking her back.”

Cody pushed me away, hard, thumping me on my chest with his open palms.

“You asked her to come back?  What the hell is wrong with you, bro?”

I sighed, closed my eyes and shook my head.

“I didn’t ask her to come back, Cody.  It’s not like that at all.”

“Oh.”

Cody thought for a moment.

“Oh!  Okay!  She came crawling back to you?  Wow!  That’s a different story!  You go, bro!”

“It’s not like …” I began.

“No.  I get it.  She dumps you, realizes what she had and comes crawling back to try to make up, right?  That is so cool!  Gwen Dale did that like twice one summer.  Wait!  You didn’t take her back, did you?  Tell me that you didn’t her back!  I mean, I took Gwen Dale back but …”

“Cody, I …”

“No second chances!  The Christopher T. Shields motto, long may it stand etched in stone!  I used that motto one time on …”

“Cody!” I shouted to get his attention, probably louder than I should have because even Joy jumped a little when I barked at Cody.

He looked like a puppy that had just been spanked.  I almost felt sorry for him but in his post-wasted state you had to take control of Cody if you wanted to keep him on track for anything.  This I had learned the hard way and I’d learned it early on five years ago.

“Cody.  Please, will you just shut THE.  FUCK.  UP. ... And listen?” I asked.

Cody stood there, chewing his lip but still bouncing on his heels excitedly, smiling.  I started following his motions, like a snake charmer, and then Cody used the homemade peace pipe to whack me hard on the arm.  Twice.  It stung the first time, it hurt the second time.  The third time he tried I grabbed the homemade peace pipe and jerked it away from him so hard he winced and put his fingers to his mouth.  He went back to his spanked puppy pout.  It was everything I could do not to crack a smile or whack him back with his own peace pipe.

That thing had hurt … it was built substantially.

“She dumped me, Cody, and I thought that was it but Katrice called me Wednesday night while I was working at the library and said that she wanted to meet with me to talk about things, I guess clear up some loose ends.”

“Hers or yours?” He asked.

I guess I was a little slow with my answer because Cody grabbed the peace pipe from me and whacked me on the arm hard enough to really hurt because he hit me right in the exact same place.

“Ow, God damn it!” I said, rubbing my arm and grabbing for the peace pipe.

“Hers or yours?” he asked again as I was rubbing my arm.

Cody surprised me by darting out of the way and taunting me with the pipe, pointing it at me accusingly.

“Hit me with that again and you’re going to need a proctologist to light your next toke for you.” I said.

“Oooooh.  Bad white man get much angry.  I asked you a question, bro.  Your loose ends or hers?”

When I was slow answering Cody darted in again and raised the peace pipe like he was going to hit me again.  I moved back out of his reach.

“Hers.” I said.  “She called me, I didn’t call her.  What we had, that was over for me a month ago when she ended it but I guess she couldn’t live with a guilty conscience so she called me up and wanted to meet with me and talk.”

“What the hell?” Cody asked, lowering his peace pipe as he thought about what I had said.  “Why did she want to talk about what happened after she’d been gone a month?”

“She didn’t want to talk, not about anything that really mattered.  She just wanted to shift the blame or do whatever it was that she felt like she needed to do in order to feel better about herself for what she had done … for all the promises that she had made but decided not to keep.”

Cody stared at me.

“So … she wanted to clear her conscience?” he asked.

“Yeah.”

“And she wanted to clear her conscience by blaming you.”

“Yeah.”

“That’s fucking low, bro.  That’s really fucking low, even for a girl.” He said, closing his eyes, thinking.  

Suddenly, his eyes snapped open with a crystal clear look and he pointed the peace pipe at me again, menacingly.

“Bro!  You let her do that to you?”

I shrugged my shoulders.

“You let that scrawny little bitch do that to you?” Cody asked, dumbfounded.

I thought about it.  I thought about what I could say.  I had nothing.

“You really let her dump on you like that?  Come on, Ray-Bans!  What were you thinking.” Cody asked.

It wasn’t what I was thinking about but who I was thinking about.  I cast a quick glance at Joy then I shrugged my shoulders again, still trying to come up with a good answer to give him.  Joy beat me to it thought.

“Yes, he did.  He let her play pin the blame on the jackass for two and a half hours last night.” Joy said flatly, again a bit of anger in her voice.

“Two and a half hours?” Cody almost stammered.  “She dumps you then calls you up, has you meet with her and then you spend two and a half hours with her letting her blame you for everything?”

And then I realized that I was about to get caught in a crossfire between Joy and Cody … Chief Big Party and Wonder Woman, something that I knew would end up with them escalating the attack, feeding on each other’s arguments and me sliding on the defensive until I had been cut to ribbons.  I decided to head that off real quick.  I waved my hand up in the air at both of them to get their attention.

“Now shut up and just listen.  Listen and understand … both of you.  If I didn’t meet with Katrice when she wanted me to meet with her then she would have hounded me until I did meet with her.  If I hadn’t agreed to meet with her voluntarily when she wanted me to meet with her then she would have shown up at some later point in my life totally by surprise or she’d have written me some damn long letter …”

“Like Debby Lee did that time.” Cody said.

Her and a few others, I thought.

“Exactly.  I don’t know why it is that when women either can’t have me or walk out on me that feel the need that they have to write these huge ass essays but I stopped reading that stuff long ago.  It’s over, get over it.”

“Gwen Dale …”

“Cody?  Shut up.  Okay?  Just shut the fuck up and listen, damn it, because I only want to say this once to both of you and then I am done with it.”

Joy and Cody looked at me hesitantly.

“When I am through with this … I am done with it.  Done.  With.  It.” I said, sliding my hands across each other in front of me to give emphasis.

Cody bit his lip, crossed his arms and flicked his peace pipe up and down, slowly.  Joy looked a bit uncomfortable but she was paying attention and at least she hadn’t interrupted me like Cody had.  I took a deep breath, gathered my thoughts and started to explain it all once again.

“I agreed to meet with Katrice last night because I didn’t want her showing up one night at the library at USM or County Market or … damn … showing up at my parents’ house looking for me and ready to make a scene … maybe even in front of some of my parents’ guests.  Trust me, Cody … Joy.  I had to do this, one last time, for myself more than for Katrice because that was the only way, apparently, to get rid of her and to have her gone for good from my life.”

“So, she dumps you long distance and a month later she comes back to tell you why she dumped you?”

I nodded.

“I guess it took her a good month to come up with whatever story she was going to tell him and to rehearse it enough that she actually believed it herself.” Joy said.

“Why the hell would she do that?” he asked.

Cody reached over, picked up a bottle of Bud Light and took a long drink from it.  He wiped his mouth on his arm, stuck a finger in his mouth and ran it around his gums then took another drink of beer before sticking his arm out, beer in hand and a pointed finger aimed at me.

“I bet that was irritating having to listen to all of what she had practiced to say to you.  So?  How long did you spend with that loser last night?  Did she have a set of notes or a cheat sheet to go by when she tried to shift the blame over onto you?”

“I didn’t pay her much attention and I certainly didn’t listen to her very much.  I had my mind on other things, really.  I just drove around for two and a half hours and let her blow her air and when she was finished she got out of my car and left and that was that for Katrice and me … or that was it for the second time in a month for me with her.  After that, I drove over to Joy’s to pick her up for your party.” I said.

Cody jerked his arm out at me, beer in hand and forefinger extended towards me.

“Two and a half hours?  Wow!  You drove around for two and a half hours listening to your ex-girlfriend chew on your ass and tell you that it was your fault that she left?  Not me!  Not fucking me, I wouldn’t have.  You’re either retarded or have balls made out of granite to go through that kind of abuse.”

“Probably some of both.” I said.  “Probably more one than the other but I’m not sure which right now.”

Joy said nothing.

Cody’s brain was working better now and he mulled over what I’d told him.

“Damn.  I’m sorry you missed my party for that but if you say you had to do it then I guess you had to do it, huh?  Got to do what you got to do, huh?”

“Yeah. I had to otherwise it would have been a lot worse later on.  She would have kept hounding me until she could feel better about herself … one way or the other.”

We all stood there for a moment, silent, not sure what to say.

“Hey!” Cody said.  “Joy said you got rid of your badass white IROC.  She said that you’ve got a ’88 Corvette now?”

And like that Cody’s mind had shifted gears without warning us that he was going to do that.  Relieved to not be under interrogation any more I nodded.

“Yeah, a red one.  Joy told me you have a red convertible Vette … ’87, right?”

“Yep.  Got it and sold the ’85 Supra to Joy there.” Cody stated.

Joy did a little curtsey in place to acknowledge the fact.

“That was a sweet car …” I mused.  “Damn shame what happened to it.”

“Whoa, bro.  Uh.  What are you talking about?” Cody stammered.

“Your old Supra.  You do know she wrecked it?” I asked, pointing casually over to Joy.

“She wrecked the Supra?” Cody asked in a half quiet voice.

Cody stopped in his step looking from me to Joy and back to me.  His expression took on one of deep concern.  Joy’s expression was of simple confusion.

“Nuh uh.  You’re kidding, right?” He said.

“Nope.  She slid out on Lincoln road during that bad storm we had last week and put the Supra nose first into the ditch there by Presbyterian Christian School.  Twatted it up like an accordion.  That’s why she’s riding with me a lot lately or didn’t you think that was odd?”

Joy huffed up, put her hands on her hips and stared at the ceiling, not believing what I was telling Cody.

“I did not twat up the Supra!” she said loudly with a look of disbelief on her face.  “Cody!  Don’t you believe him!  That Supra is my baby!  I’d never wreck it!”

Cody looked at me and I couldn’t help it anymore.  Joy was huffed up like a cat, Cody was having deep regrets about selling his favorite car and there I was jerking them both along.  Cody saw just the tip of the corner of my lip move and he reached out and frog punched me in the arm, hard.

“Aw, you son of a bitch!  Don’t ever do that, bro!  I may have sold the Supra to her but that’s still my car.  It’s like family.  I still care about it!”

I rubbed my arm because it had been a good punch.

Joy went and stood next to Cody.

“Yeah.  I think he’s back.” She said.  “What do you think?”

“I think so, too.” Cody said, seeing me rubbing my arm.  “Aw … Did that hurt, bro?”

“No, because you hit like a girl.” I said flatly, still massaging my arm then flexing it to work some of the soreness out.

“He’s back.” Joy said.

“Well, it’s about damn time.  Two years without Shields hanging around … it’s about damn time.” Cody said, taking another hit from his beer.



Cody nodded happily in his headdress then pointed towards the still open front door with his peace pipe.

“Allow me to show you my bad chariot, bro.  It is scha-weeeet!  This way, boys and girls.” He said.

Cody comically marched out the front door and towards the parking lot like a major domo, swinging his peace pipe like it was a baton, occasionally throwing it in the air, catching it and then crossing it over his chest left to right like he was in a parade that only he could see and hear.

“Did he just go out into the parking lot dressed like that?” I asked.

Joy shrugged her shoulders and started to follow.  You had to know Cody to understand that he was suffering from a slight case of brain damage, mental retardation or just plain craziness, or maybe a little bit of all three, but it was what made him such a fun person to be around.  I attributed it to all the drugs that he'd done since I'd known him and probably all the drugs that he'd done before I ever knew him.  We caught up with Cody standing next to his red ’87 Corvette there in the parking lot.  I admit, it was a beautiful car, almost identical to mine except for the smaller factory wheels, 16x8 inch where mine had the larger seventeen inch by nine and a half inch alloy wheels on it, part of the Z51 suspension option.  We walked up and stood beside Cody as he reached into the front of his jeans, down into his crotch and pulled out his set of keys holding them out to me.  I looked at the set of keys dangling in front of me, knew where they had just been and held up a finger to wag at him in a no-no gesture.

“No thanks.” I said.  “I know where those have been … probably most of the night.”

Cody shrugged, using the keys to open the Vette, drop the top and then pop the clamshell hood.  

“You always keep your car keys in your underwear when you party?” I asked.

“When Chief Big Party throw big party in teepee, keys to bad red chariot stay in underwear.  Chief Big Party remember story that good friend Christopher tell him one time about high school friend of Christopher’s who get drunk and pass out at party and other people at party take Christopher’s friend’s Z28 to go get beer and Z28 get stolen.”

I thought back to that incident …four years ago now.

“I had forgotten all about that story.” I said, laughing and remembering the sad tale of what had happened to Chris Rogers and his ’81 Z28 my (and his) first year of college.

“No one going to go into Chief Big Party’s underwear to get keys.  Bad red chariot stay safe in parking lot while Chief Big Party party big ... from sunset to sunrise through the dance of the great moon spirit across the sky.” He said, spreading his arms wide and then bringing them close together to indicate the horizon and the passage of the sun across the sky.

Other than the smaller wheels, the black cloth interior, the black drop top and the four speed automatic in the center console Cody’s ’87 was identical to my ’88.   Cody opened the Vette’s driver’s side door and motioned like a hand model for me to sit down and get a feel for the convertible.  There wasn’t much difference, other than what I’d already noted, but it felt weird without a roof over your head.

“Seriously?  You party and stick your car keys down your underwear?”

“Seriously, the way I figure it is that if I put my keys down in my pants then no one’s going to take the keys to my Vette and go for a joyride if I throw a party and pass out.  The kind of person who would go looking for my keys down there isn’t the kind of person you’re going to find at my party.” Cody said.

Joy looked up as someone shouted something across the parking lot at us.  I looked up too and saw a pair of guys six parking spots down.  They had just stepped off the parking lot and started walking down the sidewalk towards the apartment complex.

“What the fuck did you say?!” Cody shouted loudly, pointing his peace pipe like he was taking aim with a rifle at the pair of guys.

“What are you dressed as?” the first guy shouted, pointing and laughing.  “A school mascot or one of the Village People?”

“Yeah.  I’m dressed like a school mascot.” Cody said back loudly, still pointing with his peace pipe.

“What school?” the other guy asked out loud, laughing.

“The retard school up there in Ellisville.” Cody shouted back.  “You know … The one your mother just graduated from with honors.”

Joy busted out laughing and I couldn’t help myself because I did too.  Cody’s caustic wit was second only to mine when he was angry and you didn’t want to get Cody angry because he was the kind of guy that would rather fight than argue, especially if he thought you were wrong and he was bigger than you.  There was some agitated moves between the two guys as Cody bowed up and took a few steps forward towards the curb and the sidewalk.  Joy stepped up beside him and I started to get out of the Corvette but it was obvious that the two guys didn’t want to start anything as the first guy held the second back and spoke to him to calm him down.  The two guys said something else that I couldn’t understand, the second guy flipped Cody off and then the two of them kept walking towards an apartment, opened the door and disappeared inside.

“Fags.” Cody said.

I looked at him with a questioning look.

“No.  Really.  They’re fags.  I was at a party over in that block there a few months ago and I walked in on them in the bathroom snaking on each other and one had his hand down the other’s pants just going to town.  I don’t care how drunk or stoned you get, tongue wrestling with another guy means you’re gay.  It’s not like you’re going to be so toasted out of your mind that you do that and then realize … holy shit!  I’m Frenching my roommate’s tonsils raw!  Gay.  The only reason why I haven’t beaten their asses is that it would be like hitting a pair of girls.”

“You should know.” I said.  “After all, you do hit like a girl.”

“Fuck you.” Cody said.

“You’d enjoy it.” I said, batting my eyes at him from the driver’s seat of the Vette.

“Fag.” Cody said.

“You wish.” I said.

“And with that picture in my mind, I’m going back inside.  I’ve got to use the bathroom.” Joy said, turning and leaving us.

Cody watched her walk away then slid in slowly beside me and squatted by the open driver’s door, peering over the door at nose level and back at Joy until she vanished inside his apartment.  He rubbed his mouth with his hand, looked back again at his apartment then turned to me and spoke in a low voice.

“Damn!  Two and a half hours!  Man!  So, uh, like what time was it when you finished up having to listen to all the crap that your ex was throwing your way?” Cody asked, taking another long drink from his bottle of Bud Light.

“Almost one in the morning.”

“Uh huh.  So you got back to Joy’s house about one last night?  Well, hell!  This party was just starting to kick about then, bro!  Why didn’t you two just come on over?”

I didn’t say a thing which was probably a bad thing to do because Cody must have understood what I was thinking.  I paused a second or two, trying to come up with something to say but I had nothing.  I seriously had nothing and I felt like Cody had me in a corner on the ropes.  Cody held up his bottle of Bud Light, his forefinger extended accusingly towards me again.

“No.” He said, starting to laugh.  “No!  No damn way!  You two!  Really?!  Finally?”

I said nothing.

“So if you're down on your luck and you can't harmonize, find a girl with far away eyes and if you're downright disgusted and life ain't worth a dime get a girl with far away eyes …” Cody said, trying to carry it with some harmony and not really succeeding.

I laughed because that Rolling Stones song had been a favorite of our little group and I always thought it had applied in particular to Joy.

“Ha!  Katrice dumps you.  You link back up with Joy.  Then Katrice comes back to use you as some kind of emotional tampon one last time and then you and …”

Joy appeared in the doorway of Cody’s apartment and waved for us to come on back there.  There was some amount of urgency in her motions.  I helped Cody put the top up on his convertible and then dropped the clamshell hood for him as he shut the door and locked the Vette.  I followed him back to his place and found Joy standing there by the TV and entertainment center.

“What’s up?” Cody asked.

“She called out for you.  I think she’s waking up.” Joy said, leaning back against the apartment’s den wall and pointing towards Stacy.

“Or coming to …” I muttered.

Cody went over to where Stacy lay on the couch, squatted down next to her and began stroking her hair again, kissing her on top of her head and forehead and whispering softly to her.

Stacy was starting to come around.  Her back was to Joy and I and she was looking up at Cody as he stroked her.

“Hey, baby.  Some party, huh?” She moaned.  “That was fun.”

“My parties are always fun.  How are you feeling?” Cody asked.

“My head is hurting.  Can you get me a beer and some aspirin?”

Cody nodded, stood up and headed to the kitchen.  Stacy leaned up on one arm, almost rolled off the couch, caught herself and looked up at Cody in the kitchen then looked over at the windows and open front door.

“Wow.  It’s daytime.”

Then she looked over at Joy and me, squinting as she did.

“Oh!  Hey, Joy!  Hey somebody … standing … there … with … Joy.”

Cody stifled a laugh.

“So … When does the cleaning crew arrive?” I asked.

Cody brought Stacy her beer and aspirin then looked around at all of the trash and debris, like he was seeing it for the very first time.

“Ho!  Ahahahahaha!  Damn!  We did party big!” he said loudly.

Cody moved a few pizza boxes and empty potato chip bags around on the counter, freeing up a place to sit his beer then thought better of it.  He led us back into the living room and cleared off the chair and a half for Joy and me.  Joy slid down into the chair and I slid down beside her.  Her arms went around my neck and I didn’t think twice about it.  Whatever we had, I was just happy to have it and apparently she was to.

“We’ve got a lot of cleaning up to do.” Joy said.

“We?” I asked, not sure if I had just been volunteered for a job or not.

“Yeah.  What are friends for?” Cody asked.

That phrase had been run into the ground the last five years that Cody and I had known each other.

“Won’t take long.  Never does.” Cody said, sitting back down on the sofa as Stacy sat up, drank her beer and swallowed her aspirin.

“Never does.” Joy agreed.  “Oh and by the way, I’m not doing the bathroom this time.  Someone puked in the shower.  That’s your mess to clean up.”

“How bad is it?” Stacy asked.

“Bring a shovel.” Joy said.  “I think a couple of people had a contest back there.”

Cody was about to say something but the look on Joy’s face shut him up.  He realized that she was serious.

“Who is that?” Stacy asked, sipping on her beer and motioning to me as I sat next to Joy.

Cody slapped his hand against his forehead and gestured towards me.

“Damn.  I forgot!  Stacy, meet Christopher T. Shields.  Shields, meet Stacy Greene.”

We both nodded at each other, she raising her beer bottle to me and I raised my Mega Mug to her.

“You mean Shields as in ... Ray-Bans?” Stacy asked.  “That’s Ray-Bans?  The one you talk about so much?”

“That’s him, babe.  The one and only.”

“And the Mega Mug!” Stacy said, pointing at my drink cup.

I held up my Mega Mug in a toast.

“And the Mega Mug!” Cody said, saluting the Mega Mug.  “Shields never goes anywhere without his Mega Mug.”

“Cody’s talked about you.  A lot.” Stacy said.

“None of it probably any good.” I said.

“I wouldn’t say that.  You and Cody got into a lot of funny crap together.  He’s almost made me wet myself from laughing at all of the stuff that he’s told me about what the two of you used to get into at Hinds and while you two lived in Jackson.”

“Those were good times.” I said.

“Those were damn good times, bro.” Cody said, offering a half salute with his bottle of beer.

“So … how long have you two been …?” I asked.

“June.  We’ve been together since last June.  Don’t know where it’s going but I like the fact that it’s going and its going pretty well.  I think she’s in love.” Cody said, stroking Stacy’s hair and whispering the last part for our benefit.

“Poor girl must be retarded.” Joy said with a perfectly straight face and in a sad, condescending way.

“I swear I must be.  It takes a total retard to love him sometimes.” Stacy said, nodding enthusiastically.  

I laughed out loud as Cody flipped Joy the bird nonchalantly with his off-hand while never stopping stroking Stacy with his right hand.



I stood there, in the front room, looking at the dust motes dance in the late afternoon sun rays that were coming in through the open apartment windows.  The air still smelled faintly of cigarette smoke and the incense but most of the other smells had been covered up by the cleaning supplies that we had been using for the past two hours.  This apartment, this apartment complex, had another set of good memories now.  Outside the front door there were five big black trash bags full of the remains of the party, all waiting to be carried to the dumpster.  The bathroom still smelled of vomit but a couple of candles and an entire can of Lysol had taken a huge part of the odor away and we’d left the vent fan going since we had started.

Joy and Stacy had gone to the store to get some more cleaning supplies and, I guess, to engage in some girl talk.

Cody took some clothes back to the washing machine in the alcove in the hallway and dumped them in.  I took a long drink of sweet tea from my Mega Mug, walked out the open front door and stood on the front sidewalk.  The late afternoon air was still and humid.  There was very little traffic on the road in front of the apartment complex or through the parking lot.  Cody’s red ’87 convertible Corvette and my red ’88 Corvette coupe were parked beside each other now in the parking lot.  They made a sweet pair of rides, side by side.  Joy wanted to get a picture of all three of our cars in a row, spaced evenly, with the three of us posed with them.  She had all the photography equipment so it was only a matter of finding a location and setting up a date.  It was looking like good weather this weekend so we’d all ride around and find some place neat to do the photo shoot.

Cody walked out and stood beside me there on the sidewalk.

“Well, they should be back soon.” He said, stating the obvious as his voice strained.

“Yeah.” I said.  “Maybe.  You know how women are when they get off by their selves.”

“Speaking of women being off by their selves, you don’t act too tore up about Katrice.” Cody said.

”Nothing I can do about it, Cody.  People come and go in my life ...  Some people I care about, others I don’t.  Doesn’t matter either way, when they’re gone, they’re gone.  I got used to it a long time ago.”

Cody rocked in place on the balls of his feet and sighed.

“She’s something else, isn’t she?” he asked.

“Are you talking about Katrice?” I asked, not sure if Cody had switched gears on me or not.

“No, dumb ass.  Joy.”

“Yes, she is.” I replied.  “A very unique woman.”

Cody ran his hand over the front brick siding of the apartment.

“Joy.  Stacy.  Flynn.  Me.  We all have had a lot of good times in this apartment, bro.  Well, most of us …”

“Sorry I missed them.” I said.

“Yeah, well, that was your choice, now wasn’t it?” Cody said as he stood beside me.

I took another drink of sweet tea and prepared myself for the fight that Cody evidently wanted to pick with me.  It wasn’t a fight that I wanted but I could tell that it had been brewing in him for a long time now and it was a fight that was going to come out sooner or later so might as well get it over with.  Maybe that’s why Joy had been so insistent that we come over to Cody’s apartment today.  Maybe that’s why she and Stacy had left, to give Cody and me some time and space to work out anything that needed to be worked out.

“She cares for you, bro.  A lot.  I don’t know if you know that or not.”

“I know.” I said hanging my head because I knew it was true.  I just wasn’t sure what to do about it or even what I could do about it.

“She cares about you a lot.” Cody said again.

“I know.”

“No.” Cody stood up and sighed.  “I don’t think that you do, bro.  I don’t think that you will ever know how much that woman cares about you.”

He walked to the end of the sidewalk and stood there, his back to me.

“She and I were close.  We got close, for a while.  After you left.  Real close.  You knew that, didn’t you?” Cody added.

“Did you ever fuck her?” I asked, staring out into the rest of the apartment complex.

Cody gave a nervous shudder.  I could tell that he was weighing options, replies.  I had caught him off guard, I’d broken his advance and he was regrouping in his skull.

“No.” he said, after a long pause, sighing heavily.  “But you did.”

I turned to stare up at him, hard, trying to see where he was trying to take this argument but his back was still to me.

“Yeah, you fucked her, bro.  You fucked her real bad when you left.  You broke her heart beyond anything that … I … could fix …  Hope to fix.”

“And you tried?” I asked, flatly, curious.  “You’ve got Stacy and you’ve had Stacy for what, now?  A year?”

“A few months short of that long.  Stacy came along when I was trying to get over Joy.  Things just kind of happened and Stacy and I have been together ever since.”

“So … when did you try to mend Joy’s broken heart?” I asked.

Cody turned around then and looked at me, hard.

“Right after you started dating Katrice.  Joy didn’t understand what you saw in Katrice … none of us did … but you saw something because away you went to date the skinny loser and to hell with the rest of us.  You just stopped coming around.  I guess we weren’t good enough for you anymore?”

I shook my head.

“It wasn’t like that.” I said.

“The hell it wasn’t, bro.”

“You still don’t get it, do you, Cody?”

“Get what, bro?  What is there to get?”

“I left because I thought that you and Joy were about to be a situation, you know.”

Cody stood there saying nothing.

“What?!” he asked, having finally processed what I’d just said.

“You heard me.  I left because I thought that you and Joy were about to be a situation.”

“You thought that Joy and I were about to be a situation?”

“Yeah.  She was spending all that time around you and you were spending all that time with her.  I wanted Joy, Cody.  I wanted her real bad but I wasn’t going to fuck you over to get her for myself.  You’re my friend.  I’ve known you longer than I’ve known her.  I wasn’t going to do that to you.  Joy was a big girl ... she could decide who she wanted to be with.”

Cody seemed to mull that over.

“If she had eyes for you and you had eyes for her then what did it matter if I had eyes for her, Cody?  You said that I left.  I saw it as stepping out of the way so that you and she could be together, even if it meant that I wasn’t going to be happy about it in the short run.  I stepped aside so that I wouldn’t interfere and if you and Joy were going to be something … well, I needed to step away for a while and get used to that idea because it was going to take a hell of a lot to get used to, trust me.”

Cody was about to say something then thought better of it.

“Look at it from my point of view, would you, Cody?  Back in ’90, Joy and I started to get close that spring and summer, real close, closer than we’d ever been before and I thought it was heading somewhere for us.  I thought it was really heading somewhere and I was happier than I’d ever been in my life.  Then I see you and her, together all the time, everywhere you went, every time I saw you … both of you happy, both of you laughing and carrying on … what was I to think?  I thought that I had gotten it wrong.  I thought that she wanted you …”

“She didn’t want me, bro.  She wanted you.  She always wanted you.  It’s all she could talk about when she was with me … it was always about you.” Cody said loudly.

“Didn’t look like that from where I was standing.” I said.

“Yeah, well, you were standing a pretty good bit off, weren’t you?  I guess that just made it all the easier for you to leave, you know, if you already had one foot out the door.”

“If you knew it was about me you sure didn’t share that fact with me, did you?  In fact, if it was about me you sure looked like you were putting your bid in for the same prize.  At least from where I was standing, that’s what it looked like.”

I turned towards him and Cody took a step backwards, not a large one but one all the same.  I’m not even sure that he realized that he did it but I noticed that he did and fought to keep from smiling.  Cody was just venting because he was never good at compartmentalizing.  I stretched my arms and back, hearing my back and fingers crack before continuing our conversation.

“Yeah, I left, Cody.  I left because I wasn’t going to get in the way of two of my good friends maybe finding a little happiness together in this world.  You were my friend and she was my friend and I didn’t want to tear us apart over some petty jealousy on my part.  If she wanted you, I wasn’t real happy with that but, hey, she’s a big girl and she can make up her own mind who she wants to be with so I was willing to step aside, for you and for her, if it meant that the two of you were happy … more so for her than you.”

“Well, it wasn’t like that at all, bro.  You got the situation wrong.  You broke her heart.”

“I broke her heart?  And you did what?  Tried to fix it?  Come on, tell me you didn’t play that angle on her …?  That’s a desperate play to make.  Women see that coming before you even throw it out.”

Cody turned to stare out into the street as I chewed my lip and stared off into the sky.

“You did make that play on her, didn’t you?” I asked, not really believing it.

“When she started coming around and hanging around with me … at first I thought that I was onto something, you know.  Probably just like you.  I mean, it was Joy and here she was paying me attention and hanging around with me and I thought it was because she wanted to be with me … I thought I had it made, bro.  A girl like that ...  I thought I was the luckiest guy in the world to have her coming after me but she was coming after me because she wanted to be with you.  She was milking me for you.”

"What do you mean?" I asked.

"She was hanging around me just to find out about you ... because you're so damn ... hard to figure out.  She asked me questions, like what you liked, what kind of women you'd been with ... she was milking me for everything I knew about you so that she could be what you wanted her to be."

Damn.

Cody leaned up against one of the concrete columns and looked back at me standing there.

“It was always you, wasn’t it?”

“It was always me.” I said softly.  

“Yeah.  Somehow it always ends up being about you, doesn’t it?” Cody asked.  “I’ve noticed that.  All of these years that I've known you ... I've come to notice that.”

“I can’t help it if the rest of you all sort of orbit around me.” I said.

"You can't help it if we all sort of ... orbit ... around you?!" Cody asked loudly.

I turned to face him and stared him down.

"Look.  Cody.  People just come into my life.  I don't ask for you to come into my life and truth be known I'd really prefer that you didn't but you do.  Somehow, you always do and every now and then I end up actually liking or, God help me, even caring about one or two of you.  Sometimes I care too much, way too much and when you leave it hurts.  Oh, God, it hurts, bad, and you always leave, every single Goddamn one of you that I care about.  Anybody that I ever cared about ... You always leave, sooner or later, for this reason or that, you leave and you always tear holes in my soul when you do and the price I pay ... what I have to give, what I have to give up, what I have to live with when you're gone just to let you into my life ... what I have to give to let you go ... for what little time you decide to stay, well, sometimes what I get out of it just isn't worth the price I have to pay there at the end.  Not for me, it isn't.  Not for me." 

"That's ... cold." Cody whispered, lowering his eyes and breaking eye contact.

“That’s just my life and you’re all along for the ride, like it or not.  I don’t control when you come into my life, how long you stay or when you leave.  Sometimes you come back, sometimes you don’t.  Sometimes things work out, sometimes they don’t.  I got used to that a long time ago.”

Cody took another drink of his beer.

"You know ... I see that now.  All that you just said.  Just ... damn.  I see that.  When you stopped coming around ... we weren't a group any more.  I guess we did orbit around you.  You were the center of the group and when you didn't come around any more ... well, the group just kind of fell apart.  We weren't the same without you.  You tore a hole in us as well when you left."

Cody looked at his beer then pointed his beer at me.

"You were the center of our little group.  Hell, I understand why you didn't see that ... Flynn found you.  I found you.  Joy found you.  Katrice found you.  You're right.  You draw people to you and we just orbit ... we just fucking orbit around you and we have the best fucking time but when you leave we all shoot off into space, go flying off our separate ways.  Flynn and I never saw eye to eye, not without you around.  He's more like you than me which I guess is why he's your friend and not so much my friend.  Flynn tolerates me because you like me.  Without you around, Flynn and me got nothing in common, not much at least.  We share some smoke but that's about it.  You made it so easy to hang around and have fun and when you left all of that left with you."

"Where did everyone go?  After I left ..." I asked. 

Cody drank again.

"We hung around for a few weeks but after about a month of trying to just hang and be like it was ... man, that was kind of awkward.  You not there, it just didn't work.  Joy stopped coming around.  I'd see her every now and then, I even took her out a time or two but after that she always had an excuse not to go out so I let her slide and figured it was a dead end I was chasing.  Flynn just was, you know, Flynn.  He just melted back into Hattiesburg and I'd see him every now and then but about all I'd get out of him was a nod of the head or a slight wave.  I found some suppliers for smoke and threw in with that crowd for a while.  That's how I met Stacy and ... that's where I've been ever since."

I nodded, thinking about all that Cody had said.

"You still threw parties." I said.

"Well, who doesn't like a party?" Cody asked.  "And yeah, I still threw parties because that's what I'm good at and with the kind of crowd that I started hanging with parties were weekly things.  If I wasn't throwing a party someone else was.  I don't understand how I haven't flunked out of USM yet ..."

"What about Flynn and Joy?  They were at your parties, that's what Joy said ..."

"Yeah, Flynn and Joy would come to a few of my parties and it would almost be like old times ... almost ... but it wasn't.  After the party, we'd make promises to keep in touch better, to see each other more often and ... it was the usual bullshit.  Say it but don't keep it."

Cody looked at his beer in his hand.

"Wasn't the same without you, bro.  It just wasn't the same." he said in a low voice.

I stood up and walked past Cody, back into the apartment, through the front room and into the kitchen.  It was bare now, scrubbed clean like my life felt right then.  I felt more than heard Cody standing there behind me.

“You fucked her.” Cody said flatly.

I lowered my head and shook it slowly.

“Jesus.  Not this shit again.” I muttered because it really was starting to get old.

“No.  You fucked her.  You really fucked her!” Cody stated, staring at me.

I matched his stare, eye for eye and I knew that he wasn’t talking about what I’d done to her heart.  His expression and his stance said that he was demanding an answer.

"Jesus Christ!  You finally fucked her!" Cody said.

“Yeah … I fucked her.  In more ways than one, bro.” I said softly.  “Both good and bad.”

“Son of a bitch!” Cody exclaimed, lowering his head and shaking it.  “I knew it.  I knew it!  You fucked her!  Last night!  You fucked her!  That’s why you two didn’t come to my party last night!”

I leaned up against the kitchen counter and folded my arms.

“This is not a conversation that we want to have right now, Cody.”

“Tell me that I’m wrong, Shields!  Oh!  Man!  Tell me that I’m wrong!  Go on!  Tell me that I'm wrong!” Cody said loudly.

Silence as I thought what to say, what to tell him.

“You fucked her!  Tell me that I’m wrong!  Go ahead!  Tell me!” Cody demanded, his voice getting even louder.

I couldn’t.

Silence was an acceptable answer but I thought Cody needed more.

“Yeah, I fucked her.  I was supposed to pick Joy up when I got off work at County Market and take her to your party but Katrice just had to meet with me to work out her personal problems.  I was going to give Katrice an hour for it to be over and done with but Katrice ended up wasting three hours of my life for nothing but her silly emotional bullshit and when I showed up at Joy’s place three hours late to pick Joy up I thought she was going to tear me a new one, Amazon style … but I guess she had other ideas.”

Memories.

Candles.

Sensuality.

Whiskey.

Laughter.

Classic rock music.

Incense.

More whiskey …

The steadfast look of determination on her face, a look that said that she was out to get what she wanted … to get what had been taken from her by another ...  Joy had looked like a woman who had been cheated of what she thought that she deserved, of what was rightfully hers and she had a look that said that she was going to take it back with all of her might if need be.

I remember her pushing me back into the kitchen wall, hard.  

Hard enough to hurt.

Determination combined with desire.

The whiskey began to whisper to each of us what we wanted to hear and that's when things stopped making sense for both of us ... or maybe it was that things started making perfect sense ... started finally making perfect sense.  I remember that first kiss that we shared; a kiss that was a long time overdue.  A kiss that was more than a soft brush of the lips or a peck on the cheek.  Our first kiss, our first real kiss, had been strong, deep, and almost frantic.  It had tasted of whiskey and smoke and had been driven by the simplest but strongest of human emotions; unsatisfied, overdue desire.

Desperate hands groping each other.

Her taking my shirt off and throwing it away.

Her hands spread across my chest.  Her fingers sliding through my chest hair, over my Saint Christopher medal, gripping me, digging her nails in, pulling herself into me as our lips met again and our tongues wrestled.

My hands sliding down her sides, to her hips, around to her bottom and pulling her into me.  One hand cupping her bottom while the other hand slowly moved up her back.

I remember her frequent deep sighs and low guttural moans.

I remember the way that her breath came shallow and fast, when she could catch it, as I rubbed my beard against her neck, nibbled her ear, her neck, and that gentle curve where her neck slides into her shoulder … pulling her shirt back, hard, to get at the soft skin there.

I remember how she had writhed, serpentine-like, in my embrace.

I remember her taking me by the hand and leading me down the hall to her bedroom … to her bed.

Pulling me.

Wanting me.

Not willing to take “no” for an answer.

Liquid courage.

High octane.

Pure lust.

Two pair of experienced hands crisscrossing each other feverishly undoing belts, undoing pants, undoing zippers, pulling, pushing, never losing contact while creating a pile of discarded clothes on the floor ... hers and mine.  It didn’t matter where they landed just that they came off.

No regret.

Skin to skin.

At long last, her bare skin to my bare skin.

Bare and naked as the day that we had each been born into this world.

Sweat and musk and cologne and perfume and scented candles and incense and longing and loneliness and sensuality and need and desperation and desire and buildup and release … It was primal and savage, just one step shy of being to the death and it was years overdue.

There were no promises made so there were no regrets to be had.  

There were no limits defined so there were no boundaries that couldn’t be crossed.  

At times it was hard to tell who was leading and who was willing to be led because that role changed so quickly from one to the other on the spur of the moment.  Over and over and over again we used each other until there was nothing left for us to share but a deep exhaustion and finally the only thing left for us to share … the only thing that we had left; a deep contented sleep there in each other’s arms amid flickering candle light, wafting smoke trails from the incense burners and the slow hum of the rotating blades of an old ceiling fan.

Nothing had been said that didn’t need to be said.  No promises were made.  The only thing that we had made was up for lost time, lost chances and missed opportunity.  Joy had made me happy, as happy as I had been in a very long time and I guess I had made her happy, as happy as she had been in a very long time.  I had made her happy for what little time we had together.  It was a small dent compared to what pain I had caused her a long time ago but at least I had the chance to tell her that I was sorry, that I had been stupid, and at least I had gotten the chance to … be with her … like I had always wanted to … like she had wanted me to be …

“So … you were going to pick her up for the party but she had other ideas?” Cody asked, ripping me out of my memories and back to the here and now.

I nodded, letting go of the memories of last night for the here and now.

“She’d been drinking, Cody.  I guess me being with Katrice last night didn’t help matters, either.  I mean, I’d just run into Joy the weekend before but we hit it off again immediately.  It was just like that spring and summer all over again, you know ... back in the first part of '90? There was something there between us, again, just like it had been before.  I could feel it.  She could feel it.  I guess she just acted on it.”

“So you decided to skip my party …”

“When I got there she was well on her way to swimming in happy and I wasn’t in the best state of mind myself to go to a party like the kind that you throw.  Joy was in rare form, Cody.  I hadn’t seen her like that but on a few occasions and … I don’t know.  Joy asked me in, poured me a drink and kept pouring and before I knew it she was on me like everything was forgiven.”

“Like Katrice never happened …” Cody mused.

“Yeah.  Like Katrice never happened.  What happened last night between us was what should have happened a long time ago.  We spent the rest of last night and part of this morning making up for lost time.  That’s the best way of putting it.”

“That's the best way of putting it?”

“We did what we should have done a long time ago and maybe, if we had done what we did last night … if we had been together like that a long time ago then I can promise you that Katrice would have never have happened in my life.  I wouldn’t have even looked at someone like Katrice twice if I’d had Joy in my life like I had her last night.”

I thought more about last night.

Joy and Katrice … one was a mature woman who knew what she wanted and the other was a scared little girl that didn’t have a clue.  Cody walked around me to the refrigerator, got a beer out, popped the cap and started drinking.  We stood there in silence.

“What was it like?” he finally asked, his voice low, as he set his beer on the counter top.

“What was what like?” I asked.

“Being with her.  Last night.  What was it like, bro?” he asked in the same low voice.

I smiled because there was nothing else I could have done but smile.

“Tell me, being with her … like that … was it everything that I ever imagined it would be like?” he asked.

“I can’t say, Cody.  I really can't.  I can tell you that it was everything that I ever imagined it would be like … and more.  A whole hell of a lot more.”

I put my back to the kitchen wall and slowly slid down until I was sitting flat on the floor then crossed my legs.

“Yeah.  I won’t be forgetting last night any time soon and that’s all I’m going to say about it.”

“Lucky son of a bitch.” Cody muttered and sat down on the other side of the kitchen, opposite of me.

I couldn’t argue with him on that point.  

My life just kind of worked out that way most of the time … with a few notable and odd exceptions.  I took another sip of my sweet tea and shook my Mega Mug; it was almost empty.  Joy was supposed to bring me another Route 44 sweet tea from the Sonic on 4th Street just down the road but the girls weren’t back and I was running on fumes as far as caffeine was concerned.

“You’ve always been one hell of a lucky son of a bitch.” He said softly.  “Always.”

I just stared up at the bare ceiling, letting my eyes go numb while doing so.  Cody looked around every now and then.  We were on a pilgrimage, each lost to their thoughts and memories for what seemed an eternity.

“It’s really cool that you and Joy have gotten back together.” Cody said.  “Better late than never, I guess, bro?”

“Story of my life.” I said, thinking about Joy, about last night, and about where it all might be heading.

“Yeah.  It just sucks that you two don’t have a whole lot of time left, I mean, now that you’re finally together.  You know, finally really together.” Cody said, drinking from his beer.

Huh?

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“You know … you don’t have a lot of time to be together before she moves back to Pensacola … so are you two going to try to do the long distance thing or ...”

I turned to look at him and my expression said everything that I couldn’t.

“Oh, shit.  Oh, shit!” Cody said laughing in a tragic kind of way. “You don’t know!?  She hasn’t told you yet!?”

“Hasn’t told me what?!” I asked.

“She really hasn’t told you?” Cody asked.

“Hasn’t fucking told me what, Cody?”

Cody shook his head and put his head in his hands, looking down at the floor between his legs.

“Fuck, bro!  Damn!  I thought she had told you!  Joy’s moving back to Pensacola in two weeks.  First of April and she is gone.  That bird is flown.  She and her dad like made up and he wants her to come home.  He’s retired now and said he’d help her go to college, help her find a good job and she’s going back, bro.  It’s all she’s been able to talk about the last two months … She’s excited.  She hasn’t been this happy in a long time.  Damn!  I thought you knew.”

I shook my head because it was the only thing that I could do.

Joy was leaving.  

Life had done it to me again.

“Aw fuck!  Don’t kid me like this, bro!  You two have been together so much the last week I thought for sure that she would have told you by now … especially if you two … last night …  I mean, why would you do … last night … if you didn’t know that she was … leaving … and ... why would you ... two ... get back together like ... that ...”

Cody trailed off and hung his head.

"Fuck." he whispered.  "You really didn't know ..."

I couldn’t believe it … or rather I could believe it.  

First Katrice and now Joy was leaving me.  

I stared at the floor and laughed.

Story of my life.

“Aw, no.  Jesus.  Sorry, bro.  Jesus.  I thought you knew …” Cody whispered.  “Man this sucks!  I really thought you knew … I thought she had told you …”

If it’s possible for your soul to get kicked right in the nuts then that’s what I felt like right then.

Pretty sure.


I barely remember walking over to the pool and sitting down there in a rusty old lounge chair, just sitting there, hands clasped, sitting there watching the water in the pool and trying to decide if I needed to laugh or cry and realizing, at that point in my life, that I just didn’t have the ability to do either anymore.  I remember just sitting there, thinking, trying to figure my life out, what was going on and where it was all going because so much had changed so quickly in the last three months … every plan I’d ever made or thought about making was gone.  

Every dream I had was dust.  

Every hope I had fell through.

Joy and Stacy had come back about twenty minutes after Cody had told me about Joy’s decision to move back to Pensacola.  We hadn’t said anything else … I’d just got up and walked out to the pool because I needed some air and a place to be alone, to sit down to think.  When Joy saw me sitting out at the pool she had asked Cody what was going on and when he told her what had happened she went into Full Blown Righteously Pissed Amazon mode and it would have been spectacular to see if I really hadn’t cared one way or the other at the time.  I heard most of it, though.

“You told him?  Why did you think that was a good idea, Cody?  Don’t you think it should have been my place to tell him?”

“…”

“You think?”

“…”

“Asshole.”

"..."

"Fucking asshole."

I remember Joy had started shouting at Cody loud enough that I could hear her over by the pool and then she had pushed him inside the apartment and slammed the door behind them.  Anything else that she had to say to Cody had been so muffled that I couldn’t make it out but I bet the neighbors could hear her chew him up one side and down the other through the apartment walls.

About twenty minutes later, I guess, Joy walked over to the pool and stood there beside where I sat.  It was evident that not only was she flustered but that she had been crying.  A lot.  There we were, neither one sure of what to say to the other.  I didn’t know what to say, I was just numb, all the way down to my soul, if I still had a soul left and right then I didn’t know if I did or not.  What did a soul feel like?

What did it feel like to have a soul?

Whatever it should feel like I didn’t think that it should feel like a big, empty hole inside you.  

Joy stood there, looking at me, staring off into the distance, trying to start to say something then not.  After a few minutes she couldn’t stay silent any longer.

“So Cody told you?” she said in a voice barely louder than a whisper.

I nodded and she lowered her head, folding her arms and starting to sob again.

“Is it true?” I asked softly when I thought that some of her sobbing had stopped.

It took a long time for her to answer but when she did she used only one word to do so.

“Sort of ... mostly ... I guess.” She said in a voice so low that I almost didn’t hear her.

She stood there while I sat.  A long time passed during which we said nothing to each other.

“I want to go home, Christopher.” She said at last.

“You mean you want to go back to Pensacola?” I asked.

She nodded, holding her arms tight around her like she was cold, biting her lip and rocking in place.  Her eyes were distant and she wasn’t seeing me.  I wasn’t in her plans anymore and I think the realization hurt more than her nodding of her head.

“For how long?” I asked.

“I don’t know.” She said.

“Are you going to visit ... or stay?” I asked.

“I don’t know.” She said, louder this time.

“Will you be back?”

“I don’t know.”

“Which means you’re going to stay which means basically forever.” I muttered.

Joy huffed.

“Do you think this is easy for me?  Do you?” she pleaded, her eyes starting to get moist.

“I don’t know.  Is it easy for you?” I asked.  “It was pretty easy for Katrice to leave me …”

Joy’s witchy eyes flashed anger at me.

“God!  You know, you can be a real son of a bitch sometimes, Christopher T. Shields.  A real Goddamn son of a bitch ... and a real fucking asshole!” She said huffing, grabbing herself tighter and turning her back to me.

Why was I always the bad guy?

I didn’t know what I was feeling.

“I didn’t mean it that way, Joy.  I’m sorry.” I said, standing up and putting my arms around her.  

She half-tried to shrug me off then moved back and let me hold her tight.  We stood there in place, rocking slowly as off in the distance across the parking lot I could hear Loverboy playing “Working for the Weekend”, a song which had absolutely no relevance to our situation.  That thought crossed my mind as I switched my attention from the music back to Joy.

“You’ve just kind of hit me out of the blue with this.  I mean, this last week, especially these last few days, and then what we shared last night …”

She said nothing.

“So you’re going back to Pensacola?” I asked softly.

She shrugged her shoulders.

“Who says that I’ve made up my mind?  Things change.” Joy asked, turning her head to look at me as best as she could.

“I’ve known you long enough, Joy, not to know when you’ve made up your mind.  We wouldn’t be having this conversation if you hadn’t already made up your mind.  You’re going home and …”

She turned around to face me now.

“And I’m not part of that.  I don’t have to have a college degree to my name to figure that out.”

“You make it sound so simple.” She said.

“It’s pretty simple from where I’m standing.”

“Why does it have to be so simple for you?  Why can't anything ever be complicated with you?” she asked.

Complicated?

I shook my head.

“Because simple is always better than complicated, trust me.  I think I’ve had my fill of complicated for now so I’ll take simple when I can get it.  In fact, I think my life is long overdue for a bit of simple.”

Joy gave a forced chuckle, pulled out of my arms and walked over to stand beside the chain link fence.  She put her fingers through the links and leaned against the fence.  Cody came out of his apartment to look at us but Stacy pushed him back into the apartment and shut the door.  The way that Stacy pushed Cody back … I could tell that she was angry at him as well.  The Amazon Pissed kind of angry that Joy was famous for.

Cody hadn’t known.

How could he?

I felt sorry for him right then.

He was getting it from both of the women in his life.

“I haven't made up my mind yet but there's a good chance that I’m moving back to Pensacola.  Couple of weeks.  Maybe a month.  Probably.” She said, gripping the chain links with her fingers and pulling lightly on the fence.

Probably?  I took that for what it was, threw it around in my head ... "probably" was never a sure thing, at least not in my book.

“Well, a couple of weeks, maybe a month is better than telling me on the day that you actually do leave.” I said, remembering how Katrice had done me a few weeks back.  

“At least I know this time that it’s coming and losing you won’t …”

Joy turned and looked at me.

“Won’t what?” she asked.

“Hurt as much as it would have … if you hadn’t told me until the last minute … or worse, told me after you were gone … from a long way away … like she did.” I said in a voice that I found a lot harder to keep steady than I would have thought it would be.

Joy walked over and took me in her arms.  She put her head to my shoulder and started crying softly.

“I didn’t plan it this way, Cowboy.” She said.

"I know ... Just real easy to throw a pity party for myself right now."

“My dad and I have been talking since December …”

I held her there, slowly running my hands up and down her back.

“That’s good.  That's a good thing.” I said softly.

“Yeah.  He tracked me down and called me long distance for Christmas and we talked.  Surprised the hell out of me.  We talked for a long time … hours.” she whispered.

“You had a lot to talk about.” I said.  “Years worth to talk about and catch up on, stuff to work out between the two of you.”

“I didn’t think that we did but yeah, you’re right.  We had a lot to talk about and it was the fact that we talked.  He didn’t try to judge me, he just wanted to talk … it was like we were meeting each other for the first time.  It was like I was talking to my dad instead of someone that I just called dad.”

“How long has it been since you talked to your dad?” I asked.

“A long time.  Not since I left.” She whispered.

“Ten years?” I asked.

“About that long.  More or less.” She agreed, holding me tight.

“And you’ve talked to him since then?” I asked.

Joy nodded, still holding me and rocking slowly in place.

“Since December he’s called about once a week, just to talk, you know … just to talk, just to ask me how I’m doing and if I need anything.  He’s never done that before.”

“I don’t think that you made it easy for him to do that.” I said.

“I know.” Joy said as she took a deep breath and started crying again.  “I didn’t make it easy for him to do that and I don’t remember why I did that.”

“You’re his little girl.” I said.  “He cares about you and whether you believe it or not, whether you like it or not, he never stopped caring for you because that’s what parents do.  Even when you left, he still cared for you and worried about you.”

“I know that now.  I know that now.” She whispered, her voice breaking.

Joy put her nose to mine, her forehead to mine and looked me in the eyes.

“I’ve never had what you’ve had.” She said.  “I’ve never had a family to help me.  I lost my mother, left my sister and my dad and I’ve taken care of myself ever since.  My sister’s been married for six years now and I’ve never even met her husband.  What does that say about me?”

“Well, you’ve done a pretty good job of taking care of yourself ... all on your own.” I said.

“You think so, Cowboy?”

“No.  I know so, doll.”

Joy smiled, it was the first time that she had done that since walking out to the pool.

“So you’ve been talking to your dad, about once a week, since December?”

Joy nodded.

"He calls me ... almost every week, on Friday night and we talk.  It's something I've started looking forward to ... it's like I get off work Friday and I go home and I wait for him to call.  I want him to call, I want to talk to him ... to talk to my dad."

“I didn’t know …” I said.  “You didn’t tell me.”

“It was just talk, you know, at first.  It’s only been in the last two months that he’s started asking me to come home.  Really asking me.  No strings.  No promises.  I’ll live at home, he'll help me get a job and he’ll help me pay for college."

"That's great, Joy!" I said.

"Yeah.  We worked out a lot of things."

"You needed that." I said.  "Talking to your dad ... again ... after so long."

Joy nodded.

"Yeah.  It’s been good.  It’s really been good to talk to him, Christopher.  He thinks he can get me a job with a state agency.  He’s got a friend …”

Joy trailed off, closed her eyes and lowered her head.  She paused then opened her eyes and put her head back, staring at the sky.

"God ... why did you have to come back into my life now?  Of all the ...  Fuck!" Joy said, drifting into silence then almost shouting the last word.

I shrugged my shoulders.

"Life isn't fair ... to anyone."

"Tell me about it, Cowboy." she said.

“You’ve been gone for almost ten years now, Joy.”

“And I can’t really remember why I left, why I ran, why I had to get away.  I just had to and that’s what I did.  It’s … that was then and this is now.  I’m not that girl anymore … the girl that ran away and left.  I want to go home.  I want to see my dad and my sister and … I want to be with my family, again.  I want to be part of my family again.”

“Did he actually ask you to come back home?”

She nodded, tears in her eyes.

“Go home, Joy.” I said, holding her tight.  “Go back home.”

She looked into my eyes and I looked into hers … those long, witchy lashes.

"I really think that I want to go home, Christopher.  I just haven't made up my mind ... and now you come back into my life and ..."

“Go back home and make up for lost time.”

Joy nodded again, tears starting to roll down her cheeks.

I looked up at her then and all I could think was … it’s happening to me again.

It’s fucking happening to me again.

I’m losing someone I care about … someone that I really care about.

Forever.

Again.

I stood up and pulled Joy tight to me.  She started to pull away then put her arms around me and pulled me into her instead.  I really held her tight as she sobbed there against me.  I gently rocked her back and forth there in my arms as she sobbed and held me tight.

“God, TJ … This last week … Seeing you again at the bar.  Getting back together with you.  It’s been like my life was finally getting right.  After last night I thought that everything was going to be okay, that we’d finally be together like we should have been from the start … like we should have been a long time ago.”

“Two years.” She said.

“Two years.”

“I know.  I worked things out with my dad.  He tracked me down, called me up and we’ve been talking since December.  He’s even driven up here to see me twice and the second time he asked me to come back home.  I was so happy to be going home and then I met you again and I got turned around … I got lost and I tried to have everything and now everything is just one big fucking mess.  I was so happy and now I’ve made a complete fucking mess of it all ... just like I always do.”  She whimpered.  

I held her and rocked her softly in my arms and a kind of gentle calm came over me, like a deep sense of understanding.  It felt strange and wonderful at the same time, calming, healing … like everything made sense and it was going to be all right.

“I’m happy you worked things out with your father.  You’ve been gone too long, Joy.  You need to go home.”

Joy slid out of my arms and sat down.  She tugged on my hands and I squatted down beside her as she turned around on the lounger and sat facing me, her hands holding mine.  She shook her hair out of her face and then used a hand to wipe away her tears.

“Do you remember that first night that we met?” she asked.

“Can’t say that I’ll ever forget it.” I said, holding her hand and rubbing it softly.  “You kind of made it memorable.”

Joy laughed softly and shook her head.

“Do you remember when we were saying goodnight and you put your foot in the door and you said that I had to tell you why I was walking down the middle of the road that night, carrying a guitar?”

I nodded.

“And you told me no.  You said that you didn’t have to tell me that night but to ask you later, some other time, and you’d tell me.” I said.

“But you never did ask me.” Joy said.

“I figured if it was important you would tell me when you were ready.  If not, then it was just something that we’d eventually get around to discussing.  I’m not one to dig and pry.”

“Do you want to know why I was carrying a guitar, walking down the middle of the road at night?”

I stared into her eyes.

“Yeah.  Yeah, I think I really do.”

Joy nodded, bit her lip and hung her head.

“I was carrying a guitar, walking down the middle of the road at night because I really just wanted to die.” She said.

That wasn’t what I had expected to hear and I guess that my expression gave me away.

"You wanted to die?"

“Yeah.” She said, nodding at the look that I had on my face.  “Go figure.”

“What?  Why?” I asked.

“Why?” Joy asked, a forced smile on her face.

“Yeah.  Why did you want to die?”

“Oh, that’s an easy one to answer.  I didn’t have anything to live for.  My job sucked, I didn’t have any money.  I had no one in my life.  My car was broken down.  The only guy I knew who said he could fix my car had just tried to get me drunk and when that didn’t work he tried to take me off somewhere and rape me there in the cab of his pickup truck.”

“I know.” I said softly.

“Yeah?  Well, what you didn’t know is that was the four year anniversary of my motorcycle wreck … of Michael getting arrested and me being suddenly on my own and what had I done in four years?  Huh?  I’d moved to a few towns, been in a few shelters, wound up here, got a break and worked full time at a grocery store and a convenience store until I could pay for a cosmetology degree then I cut hair for a living because cutting hair sure beat the hell out of selling cigarettes, beer and dirty magazines to the kind of men that would come into a convenience store at two in the morning wanting that kind of stuff.”

I gripped her hand tighter and she gripped mine tighter in return.

“It was four years after I lost Michael and what had I done in those four years, Christopher?  Nothing.  I’d done nothing.”

“You survived, TJ.” I said.

Joy let out a forced laugh.

“Survived?  Yeah, well, I survived all right but surviving isn’t exactly high living, now is it, Cowboy?”

“I suppose not but it’s better than nothing.”

“No, it isn’t.  Not after you’ve done it for long enough.  Surviving and nothing kind of become one and the same only it takes a lot less effort for nothing than it does for surviving.  So there I was, four years later, broke, with a broke down car, tired, hungry, bills due and I had some guy trying to rape me there in his truck.  I don’t know how I did it but somehow I got out of his truck and when he tried to drag me back inside his truck, I just picked up the first thing that I could get my hands on and I beat him with it.  I wailed on him until he stopped moving and then I wailed on him some more.” She said.

I listened and she cocked her head, looking at me, judging my expression.

“And do you know what I beat him with?  His stupid fucking guitar.  I beat the hell out of him, Christopher, with his own guitar that he kept in his gun rack in the back of his pickup truck and it felt good to hit him over and over and over again until I couldn’t hit him anymore.”

“Did you think that you killed him, Joy?”

She forced another laugh and looked off into the distance.

“No, but it wasn’t for lack of trying, I tell you that.  I don’t know if you know it or not but a guitar just isn’t the ideal thing to use when you’re trying to kill someone and you really can’t get any kind of leverage or swing it around too much inside a pickup truck to do anyone any kind of real harm … any kind of permanent harm.  Lucky for him …”

“What happened after that?”

“Well, after he stopped moving, I pushed him out his side of the pickup then crawled out the passenger side which is kind of hard to do when half of your clothes have been pulled up or down.  I got my clothes pulled up as best as I could, found my purse, my hat, my jacket and just started walking.”

“What about the guitar?” I asked.

“Yeah.  I got about fifty feet from the truck, thought about that guitar, turned around and went back and got it.  I don’t know why I wanted that guitar but right then I just needed it … maybe in case some other redneck tried to bend me over something I’d have something to bash upside their head.  So, I picked up the guitar then started walking the opposite direction that I had been walking.  If I hadn’t gone back for that guitar and kept walking the way I had started walking, we probably never would have met … and things would have been a whole lot different … for both of us.”

I thought about that and knew that she was right.

“And that’s why you wanted to die?” I asked.  “Because … what?  You thought your life sucked and you didn’t have anything to live for?  Come on, Joy.  You can do better than that.”

“I didn’t have anything to live for.” Joy said.  “I don’t know how much simpler I can put it, Christopher.  I.  Had.  Nothing.”

Joy made a big “zero” with both of her hands and held it up to give emphasis on what she was saying.

“So you decided to just check out of life by walking down the middle of a dark and busy country road at night?” I asked.

“Bing, Cowboy.” Joy said.  “Just walk down a road.  I didn’t know where I was.  I didn’t have anyone I could call and no way to call them if I did so I just started walking.  It was better than sitting down and crying and hoping for a miracle.”

“But you didn’t die that night.”

“Well, it wasn’t for lack of trying.” She said, smiling.  “Yeah.  I couldn’t even get that right.”

“So you ... wanted someone to ... hit you?” I asked.

Joy shrugged her shoulders.

“Maybe I didn’t really want someone to hit me but maybe I didn’t really care if they did or not.  The way I felt right then, if someone had hit me they might have been doing me a favor at that point in my life.  Like I said, I didn’t have anything to live for, I had nothing left and if that night was how the rest of my life was going to play out then fuck that, Cowboy, because I’m was out of there with no regrets.” Joy gestured, slapping her hands together and sliding them off each other in opposite directions.

“So you just stood there in the middle of the road doing what … waiting on your life to get better?” I said.

“Something had to happen.  I had nothing, nowhere to go, and nobody.  I didn’t even know where I was right then or even how to get home.  I can’t say that I was praying but I remember that I kept saying “God” just over and over again.  I think I was whining … maybe begging because my life really had become that pathetic.” She said.

Joy looked at me.

“And that’s when I heard this rumble and I saw these bright headlights coming my way.  You were hauling ass down that road so I stopped walking.  I just stood there and closed my eyes and kept saying “God” over and over again because I thought this was it but then I said no, I’m going to watch this coming and I opened my eyes and I stood there just waiting on you to run me down or do whatever it was that you were going to do.”

“There was no way that I was going to run you down.  I couldn’t do that.” I said.

“You almost did.” Joy said.

“That’s because I almost didn’t see you.” I said.

“I know.  I saw that.  It was close.  So close that I saw your expression.  You were shouting something.  I saw how you were working the steering wheel and you missed me.  You barely missed me and you came so close that you blew my hat off my head and then when you came to a stop sideways in the road.  I remember that instead of just shouting some insult at me, flipping me the bird and driving on off you did something that I didn’t expect … you put it in reverse and you came back.”

“A woman walking down the middle of the road, at night, carrying a guitar … there’s a story there, it’s probably a good one and I wanted to hear your story.” I said.  “And I wanted to see if you were all right … if you needed any help or not.”

“Why?”

“Because I was bored and right then you were the most interesting thing in my life.  I wanted to see if you were all right.”

Joy looked up at me.

“I was the most interesting thing in your life?  How pathetic is that?” she asked.

“Not really pathetic at all.  You’ve been around me enough to know how my life is.  A woman, wearing boots, a Cowboy hat, carrying a big purse and a guitar, walking down the middle of the dark road at night … right then that seemed pretty interesting to me.  You didn’t look all right.  I wanted to stop and see if you were okay.”

“I guess I wasn’t all right, no fault of yours, but when you started backing up and stopped there like you were waiting on me I felt something.  I really wanted to see who was driving that black Trans Am and why you had stopped so I started walking towards your car.  At first I was pissed at you for missing me and then I was kind of glad that you had missed me and then when I got closer I was really glad that you had missed me.  By the time I got up to your car and stood beside it, I didn’t want to die anymore.  I just wanted a ride home and I wanted a ride home without someone wanting to bend me over a fender of a car or a tailgate of a truck and trying to rape me.”

I shook my head.

“I don’t think that was too much to ask for, at the time, now was it?” Joy asked in a whisper.

“I didn’t know who you were or why you were standing in the middle of the road but I damn sure wasn’t going to leave you like that.” I said.  “You looked like you could use a little bit of kindness right then and there.”

“And then you gave me a ride, no questions asked, and Flynn shared his smokes with me and you took me to get a couple of packs of cigarettes.  Flynn told me that you had given him that ten to pay for my cigarettes and … and then you took me with you and Flynn to IHOP and you bought me dinner and after Flynn and his woman left you and I stayed there just talking …”

“You had a story and I wanted to hear it.” I said.  “I liked listening to your story, to what you had to say.  I liked hearing you talk about yourself, your life, your past.  It just felt like … you just looked like someone who needed to talk.”

“I loved the way that you did that.” Joy said.  “I hadn’t had anyone to talk to in a long time and there you were, just listening and I could talk and tell you things and you didn’t judge me or tell me I was wrong or bad or stupid or try to feel me up under the table.  You just gave me a shoulder to lean on and you didn’t ask for anything in return.  You were like a Bible story or something that night.”

I laughed and Joy looked at me funny.

“Sorry.  I just don’t think that anyone has ever compared me to a Bible story.  I got called a Saint one time … but not in a good way.  I don’t even think that the girl knew what she was trying to say when she said it.”

“You were … I don’t know.  A prayer answered.  Begging answered?  Maybe all that begging and whining and pleading with God there on that stretch of road … Maybe He heard me.  Maybe He sent you.  Maybe He just got tired of listening to me bitch and moan.”

“If He did, He didn’t share the memo with me.”

“Maybe He didn’t need to.  That’s how your life works, remember?  Mysterious ways?”

I mulled that around.

“I remember that we talked for a long time there at IHOP.  You were carrying a lot of pain with you.” I said.

Joy nodded.

“Maybe I still am.  And then you took me back to my apartment and you didn’t want anything …”

“Except to know about the guitar and why you were in the middle of the road that night carrying it.”

“And now you know.” She said.

I thought about everything that she had said.

“What ever happened to that guitar?” I asked.

Joy closed her eyes and sighed.

“After you left I just sat down on the floor next to the guitar and I cried.  I don’t know how long I cried but it was a good long time and after I got through crying I picked up one of the packs of cigarettes and lit up then I picked up that stupid guitar and I just started playing it there on the floor … slowly.  It wasn’t a great guitar and I had to tune it … but I got it to sound halfway decent.”

“And then what did you do?”

“I sat there, had me another smoke and cried some more.  Oh, I had a good cry that night, Cowboy, let me tell you what.  I just let it all out, everything that I had held back, everything that I had ever held back I let it all out.  And … then I went to bed and I thought about you and I cried myself to sleep.”

I squeezed her hands tightly in mine.

“I’m sorry.  I should have stayed there with you.  I shouldn’t have left you like that.  I should have just … stayed.”

Joy shook her head and shrugged.

“You couldn’t have known.  I didn’t know you.  You didn’t know me.  I probably wouldn’t have let you stay … even if you had offered, even if I really wanted you to stay with me that night … and I did.  Right then and there, trust me, I wanted you to stay because you were the first good thing that had happened to me in a long time but you didn’t stay and I was alright with that because it was like I knew you were going to be part of my life from that point on.  I just had to get a lot out of my system after you left.  I guess that it worked out like it was supposed to work out.  I’ve learned that life is funny like that.  You taught me that.”

Joy gripped my hand tightly and squeezed hard.

“I didn’t get to sleep until a lot later either.” I said remembering how I had stayed awake, in my bed, thinking of Joy and her story.  “I just kept thinking of you, how we had met and how my life was … like you said, life was funny strange like that.”

“I remember that when I did fall asleep I slept really well and when I woke up the next morning I just felt … different.  Special.  It was like my life had changed.  I got some breakfast, I got a long hot shower and then … you’re going to think that this is silly … but I sat by the phone and I played that guitar and I waited on you to call.”

“That could have been a long time waiting if I didn’t call.” I said.

“I knew you’d call.”

“Women’s intuition?” I asked, remembering that phrase from that night long ago.

“No.  You took the business card with my number on it.  If you weren’t interested, you’d never have taken what I offered you.  I knew you’d call.”

“I had to call you but that was one of the hardest phone numbers that I’d ever dialed.” I said.

“Why was that?” she asked.

“You.  There was just something about you … I didn’t know how to read you, I didn’t know how to take you but I knew that I wanted to see you again.  After all we talked about the night before, after the strange way that we had met … I knew that I wanted to see you again.  I didn’t know if you wanted to see me again … but I felt that whatever we had shared that there was more of it that we were going to share … it’s like we weren’t finished, yet, and I wanted there to be more.  Hell, I needed for there to be more.”

Joy nodded.

“I felt the same way too.  I woke up the next morning and I really wanted to see you then I realized that I’d given you my number and you knew where I lived but I didn’t know your phone number, your last name or where you lived.  I could have kicked myself because if you didn’t call me there wasn’t any easy way to get in touch with you.  I didn’t know anything about you and I didn’t think that going around and asking about some guy who wore black driving gloves and who rode around in a black Trans Am with this mean looking chain smoking drunk hippy in the passenger seat would do any good.”

I laughed.

“Trust me.  It would have done more good than you think.  A lot of people, even back then, knew me or knew of me.  They’d have pointed you in my direction real quick and our paths would have crossed a lot sooner than later.”

“I didn’t know you were that popular at the time.”

“I wouldn’t say popular so much as notorious or unpopular, at least with the popular people which usually aren’t as popular as they make out to be … or like to think that they are.  A lot of people didn't like me ... a lot still don't.”

“And then that phone rang and I knew it was you.” Joy said, smiling.  “When I heard your voice … somehow, I got this feeling.  I just knew that things were going to be different in my life.”

“I told you that Friday night things were going to get better.”

“Yeah, you did.” She said.  “I remember that and then you and Flynn came over and took me to that car parts place down on Broadway Drive and bought me a starter for my Buick and then you put the starter on and gave me back my car.”

“And you were so happy.”

“I was so happy!  No one had ever done anything like that for me before.” Joy said.  “I told you and Flynn that I would pay you back for the starter but you weren’t having any of that.”

“You needed help.  We could do it for you so we did.” I said.  “Didn’t cost us much and it brought you a lot of …”

“Joy?” She asked, looking up at me.

“Your name makes it hard to talk to you, sometimes.” I said, smiling.

“I know and that’s why you’re different.” She said.  “And that’s when, I guess, that I first fell in love with you, Christopher Todd Shields, because I knew that you were different and you were special.  You were always zipping around like a jet, never in one place long.  You made your own happiness.  You made other people happy, you made them laugh, you made them want to be around you but you didn't need them.  They needed you but you didn't need them.  I needed you and I ... wanted you to need me.  I wanted to be around you. I wanted that in my life … God, I wanted to be part of that.  I wanted to be sucked up in your jet wash and just ride life along with you even if it meant I was hanging on for dear life.  I wanted to be part of you, I wanted to be part of your life ..."

"Why didn't you?" I asked.

"I was scared ... I was so scared.”

“Scared?  What were you scared of?” I asked her.

“Rejection.  I’ve never been good enough for anyone.  My dad.  Michael.  I was scared I wasn’t good enough for you.  I mean, what did I have to offer you that you couldn’t find somewhere else and find better of?  I was scared that you didn’t feel the same way and that you wouldn’t feel the same way and so I hid my feelings for you because what I had with you …”

“We had plenty to start out with.” I said.

“I was five years older than you.  Come on!  When I ran away after high school with Michael you were in eighth grade!  I thought that would be a problem for you and I didn’t want to take a chance on losing what we had … even if it meant that I couldn’t have more.  I rather have what I had with you than risk not having anything at all.  I played it safe for the longest time and safe was … stupid.  I realize that now.  I realized that last night when you were with Katrice again.”

“Yeah, I could tell that me being with Katrice again last night really bothered you.”

“It did because, hell, I didn’t know if you two were going to get back together or not.  It was like a tease.  You’re free of her and suddenly it’s you and me again.  We have some awesome times together, just like old times and then not four days after I meet you that bitch comes walking back into your life and takes you away from me … again.  Oooooo!  I was so fucking pissed at her!  I almost drove up there to have it out with her in the parking lot there at County Market.”

“And what would you have done, Joy?”

Joy sighed and looked off into the distance.

“Given her a piece of my mind.”

I laughed out loud.

“The last girl you gave a piece of your mind to got a busted lip, a black eye and a pair of loose teeth in the argument.”

Joy laughed.

“She slapped me first.  Can I help it if she slaps me and I punch her in the mouth?  She’s lucky she only got two loose teeth.  If you hadn’t pulled me off of her she’d been shitting the rest of her teeth the next day, stuck up, nose in the air, little spoiled rotten sorority bitch.”

“You’ve got a way with words, doll.” I said.

Joy laughed.

“Can’t help it.  Had to fight for everything that I ever wanted.  Kind of got used to it after a while.”

Silence as we both gathered our thoughts but I kept thinking of what it would have been like last night if Joy had indeed shown up at County Market looking to have it out with Katrice.  There would have been Joy, roaring up in her red Toyota Supra, Amazon pissed, stepping out in her Cowboy hat and boots or … no, better, her garish black top hat, a black sleeveless T-shirt, tight jeans and boots.  Katrice probably would have wet herself on the spot seeing what looked like a long haired, pissed off female version of Lewis Carrol’s The Mad Hatter stepping towards her with ass kicking intent burning in her eyes and a whole tidal wave of profanity streaming before her like a burning wind out of the Old Testament.  It probably wouldn’t have been much of a fight … the smart money would have been on Joy, hands down and I’d take odds that it would be over in the first round.

I guess I laughed at that image because Joy looked at me and like that, something between us broke but broke in a good way, a way that didn’t hurt quite as much as I thought it would.

“I’m sorry about last night, about the time before … us.  I’m sorry that I had to meet with Katrice but I had to just to make sure that she was gone for good.  I guess when she called me and told me that she had to see me that she kind of became a loose end for me … something that I had to deal with and the sooner the better, you know?”

Joy nodded.

“There never was … there isn’t … any chance of me getting back with her.  Ever.  I promise you that.  She's shown me who and what she really is and that's not someone that I can spend any more of my life with, let alone the rest of my life.”

Joy looked down.

“I stared in the mirror last night while you were out with her.  I don’t ever do that but I did last night.  I played with my hair, did my makeup.  I must have tried on three different sets of clothes before I thought I looked good enough for you and all the time I kept thinking of you being out with her.  I kept wondering what you had ever seen in her that you didn’t see in me.  What did she have that I didn’t?”

Joy took a second to bite her lip and mull over what she was trying to say.

“Then I started lighting candles and looking at the pictures of you and me and that’s when I got a glass and just started shooting whiskey and crying and thinking how it just wasn’t fair … to get to be with you again just when I’ve already made plans to go back home.  Story of my life … too little, too late.”

I reached out for her hand and she gave it to me.  I held her hand tight.

“And when you pulled back up at my place … something just came over me and I had to have you, all to myself.  I wasn’t going to take no for an answer, either, in case you didn’t figure that out.  If you had said ‘no’ to me and what I wanted last night then you were going to get hurt, Cowboy.  Bad hurt … maybe even roped and dragged off to the rodeo.”

I smiled at the memory.  There are worse ways in the world to spend a Friday night than getting consensually raped by an almost drunk brunette Amazon like Joy.  Of course, like I’ve always said, it’s hard to rape the willing let alone the overly enthusiastic.

“I don’t know about you but I hurt in places I haven’t hurt in a long time.” I mused.

“Hopefully it’s a good kind of hurt.” Joy said, smiling.

“Well, I’m still walking so you haven’t done me in quite yet.” I said.

“Wasn’t for lack of trying, now was it?” Joy asked, smiling.

I had to laugh out loud at that because last night had definitely been an Olympic event with the only thing missing being the scoring cards and the medals being handed out afterwards.

"No, doll, it certainly wasn’t for lack of trying.” I told her.

Joy smiled.

“We were best friends long before we were ever lovers …” I mused.

“And that was probably our biggest problem wasn’t it, Cowboy?  Maybe we got it backwards.  Maybe we should have been lovers first and best friends after."

"Maybe.  I don't know if it works that way all the time." I said.

"The problem is that we waited too long to try the good stuff, didn’t we?”

“Waited too long or were just both too scared to do what we should have done a long time ago?  If there’s blame here, Joy … it’s a shared blame, probably more my share than yours.  I felt just like you did … only I walked away.  Yeah, I’d say that more of the blame is mine than yours.  I’m the one that fucked up.”

"I told you ... I still haven't given my dad an answer ... a solid answer." Joy said.

"Yeah."

"So ... since things have changed ... in both of our lives ... what say I just take a few more weeks to make up my mind."

"Is your dad going to be okay with that."

"Not his decision.  Ultimately it's mine so let's work us out before I decide what I'm going to do."

I sighed and looked around, squatting there in silence until my heels and ankles started burning in my boots.  I finally stood up, stretched and pulled Joy up beside me.

“It’s late and we’ve both got a lot to think about.  It’s been a really long day and I’m tired.  The last 24 hours have been hell on me, ups and downs and all around.  Let’s get you in bed, doll, and call it a night.”

Joy's eyes flashed and I'd seen the look on her face too many times before not to know what it meant.

“You wouldn’t be looking for another private rodeo now would you, Cowboy?”

I shrugged my shoulders because right then I wasn't sure what I was looking for ... or if I would ever find it.

“I’m looking for whatever you need from me, right now.” I said.

“Well, what I’m looking for right now doesn’t involve a whole lot of thinking, now does it?”

“I don’t know.  A dirty mind can do a whole lot of thinking …”

I sighed as I thought back on my life, on the recent events and one thing that I’d learned years ago from a woman a lot older than Joy; enjoy what you have while you have it because you never know how long you’re going to have it and one day it will be gone sooner than you ever thought that it would.  The truth was that all that anyone ever really had was just what they could hold onto and they only had it right now.

“So … Are you up for it?  Try to outdo what we did last night?” she asked.

“Yippi ki yi yay.” I whispered.

"Take me back to my place." she said.  "Give me a reason not to go home.  Give me a reason, Cowboy, give me a reason to stay."

I didn’t say anything else; Joy just stood up, took my hand, led me back to the parking lot and over to my ’88 red Corvette.  We didn’t even bother saying goodbye or goodnight to Cody and Stacy.  I drove Joy back to her place and we spent the rest of the night in her bed … I lit some candles, put on some incense and poured us a pair of drinks from an almost empty bottle of whiskey and then we were at each other … just like that.  

No words.

No promises.

No regrets.

This time was better than the last.  It was like whatever shroud had long ago enveloped Joy and I had been lifted and we were free … finally free to do as we wanted for as long as we had and we both seemed to understand that instinctively.

There was an almost uncontrollable need between us, an unspoken hedonistic desire that we shared but it wasn’t just sexual … it wasn’t that simple.  No, what we shared was a lot deeper and for the first time in a long time I realized that something complicated could actually be a pretty damn good thing to be a part of let alone be stuck in the middle of.  There was emptiness in our lives, an emptiness that only the other could fill and we each took our share again and again and again.  We shared each other with a savage desperation the likes of which were epic even by the standards that we had previously set the night before in our new found relationship, in our time that we had first shared our bodies together.

Sweat on sweat and skin on skin.

Spent and satiated with no more to give, we finally surrendered to utter exhaustion.  Amid the incense and the flickering candles I put my back to a bunch of pillows and she nuzzled up to me between my spread legs, her back to my chest, her head to my chest and me stroking her long brunette hair, rubbing her neck and shoulders, and using the tip of my finger to trace the ink on her right arm until she fell asleep there in my arms with her brunette hair falling across her chest and down the sides of my body.

I realized that if I was losing Joy then it wasn’t the same way that I had lost Katrice.  Katrice had been a shot in the dark, a stab in the back.  Joy would be a gradual goodbye, one that was going to have a short but intense lead up to the actual parting of the ways if she made up her mind to go back to Pensacola to be with her dad and sister.  Until she made up her mind we had each other.

No promises.

No regrets.

It wasn’t supposed to hurt as bad that way, when she was finally gone but I knew it was going to hurt anyway it happened.  If Joy was going back home then she wasn’t so much leaving me as she was including me in her leaving.  It was a subtle difference but a difference nonetheless and somehow it made sense to me and I accepted it as an option I might face in the weeks to come.  All in all, I was getting my second chance with her, or rather, we were going to see what we had and if what we had was as good as it was ever going to be for us … as good as the universe or God or whatever stood behind the black curtain and pulled the strings and levers was going to let us have with each other.

My eyes burned.  

My body was tired.  

My muscles were sore and my soul felt hollow.  

Sometime during the night we must have knocked the ash tray off of the end table beside the bed.  Cigarette butts were spread out across the floor like spent shell casings at a crime scene but the only crime that had been committed here was that Joy and I had waited for four years to do what we spent most of the night doing and that I'd wasted a year and a half of my life missing out on being with someone who mattered by wasting my time with someone who really hadn't mattered at all.

Joy’s breathing came slow and deep and I watched her sleep, marveling at how beautiful she was and how lucky I was to have her, with me, like this.  I realized that I wasn’t far behind her for sleep and when I closed my eyes amid the flickering glow from the candles I fell into a sleep that had no dreams because the truth was that right then I didn’t have one single damn dream left to my name.




BACK