November 1, 2001
I got run over at twenty-six
by Jerry Mansfield
gun the Monte Carlo past a pickup truck with a bumper-sticker that says: 'WHEN THEY TAKE OUR GUNS AWAY, WHAT WILL WE SHOOT LIBERALS WITH?' Then I fast forward the tape in the stereo past 'Moondance,' so I can do a duet with Van on 'Wild Nights,' a song that seems to fit my mood a lot better.
I got run over by divorce when I was twenty-six. I didn't look both ways before crossing like they teach you, and she missed the stop sign. I lay there on the pavement for a long time, thinking about how we'd been too young when we'd started driving.
She drove off into the night and I finally got up, dusted myself off, and got a prescription for the pain (Drink six of these and call me in the morning). I took my medicine faithfully, played solitaire, and rented movies until I got numb enough to start forgetting.
The speedometer shows seventy-five as I see the Kentucky border getting closer. I check my mirror (I'm more cautious since I was run over), see an empty road and hit the brakes. I pull the wheel to the left, sending the car into one of those movie-set power slides. Since the accident, I'm a regular Steve McQueen behind the wheel.
I head back south toward a place I know that has cold beer and good songs on the jukebox. I pull in among the new neon colored cars and the old pick-up trucks and rev the engine before shutting off the ignition. Two young guys are standing outside and they stare at the car, an '84 Super Sport. Black Cherry paint job, dual Holley carb, glass pack muffler, slapstick shift. A big boy's toy, what any psychobabbler would call a compensation for an empty life. But I don't have a problem with that.
Inside, I order a draft and check myself in the mirror behind the bar. Most of the customers here come down from Kentucky, so I don't know any of them. That's why I came here. Sometimes you want to go where nobody knows your name. I look at the bartender, don't really see him; it's like he's invisible. I feel the cold beer go past my lips and I turn in my stool to look around the dim room.
A biker-type leans drunkenly across the pool table and lines up a combination in the corner. His hands stop their alcohol shake a split second before bringing the stick forward. The four ball knocks the nine into the pocket, and the shooter holds out his hand to collect his five dollars.
At the jukebox, two preppy-looking girls pop their chewing gum and watch the pool-shooters. One twirls her moussed hair in her fingers and gives what looks like a word-by-word account of some recent event in her life. The other listens, nodding her head - either in agreement with her friend or in time to the jukebox. I can't tell which.
I turn back to my beer as I see a tall brunette walking up behind me.
'And what's a sweetie like you doin' sittin' all by yourself?'
Her beer-breath is hot against my ear, her words slurred, and I can tell her evening started early. She flashes what I'm sure she thinks is a wonderful smile and slips onto the stool beside me. She leans toward me, one hand playing with the beads around her neck. I smell her perfume. I want it to be Chanel, but I know it's Avon. Sweet Honesty, to be exact.
Pass the pretzels, please.
In a moment, my would-be friend gives up and moves off, searching the crowd. I've done this before: You look and you look, and then you wonder what you're looking for. After a while, you realize you ain't going to find it, but you don't ever completely stop looking. It's just that on some nights - like tonight - you don't want to look and don't care what you might find if you did.
Tonight, I don't want to search the crowd. I don't even want to get drunk. What I want is to be by myself on that stool surrounded by other people who are by themselves.
It makes perfect sense once you've done it a time or two.
She sits down while I'm on my third beer. Unlike the Avon lady, she barely seems to notice me. She nods as she slides onto the stool and orders one of those clear drinks with a funny name. Her blonde hair is pulled back into a long braid. She takes one quick glance around the room, and, like I had earlier, turns back to her drink. You can tell she came here to be by herself, too.
The thing is, I know her.
I know her from back when I was in junior college. A handful of us spent the hour between classes in the small student lounge. Students who have regular jobs and families - people who are stamped 'non-traditionals' - seem to naturally hang out together. Our little group in junior college was like that. I talked to this girl almost every day for two years. She doesn't belong here, is what I think. But then, I think, neither do I.
I remember I wanted to get to know her better, but that was before I got run over, and she was married too. I had really liked her a lot. There was just something about her. Aside from her being damned drop-dead gorgeous, I mean.
She'd grown up hard and dirt-poor in one of those old mining towns in Kentucky. She told me once that her father had left when she was a kid, and you got the feeling she'd had more than her share of life's crap. But she never bitched about it. I remember letting myself think what it would be like to be with her. Now she's sitting beside me and doesn't even remember me.
But then she says to me, 'So, Noble, is this how you've ended up? Drinking alone in a redneck bar? We all had such high hopes for you.'
I nearly jump out of my boots when she says my name.
'Saints Point Community College,' she says. 'Three years ago. In the student lounge.'
Her voice is like molasses - sweet, smooth. Just like I remember.
'You don't have to remind me, Alexandria,' I tell her, remembering how she'd hated her name and insisted on being called Alex. 'I was sitting here thinking you'd forgotten. And it looks like I'm not the only one drinking alone.'
'Touché.' She smiles and sweeps the air with her hand.
We talk for a few minutes, idle, mean-nothing chatter. I remember how it was talking to her. Back at Saints Point, we could talk about the weather - anything, nothing - and it always felt good. Like me, she'd wanted to leave - to escape - since she was a kid. 'Get above your raising,' is what everybody around here called it. And, when they said it, they usually looked disgusted and spat into the dirt, as if getting away from here was such a bad thing. Alex told me one day that, after her mother's death, she thought the only way to escape was to get married. She wound up having a baby when she was sixteen. But she'd never taken the easy way out, never thrown up her hands and quit. She was 'above her raising' in all the ways that mattered.
I ask if she wants to go for a ride. She looks at me; I figure she's sizing me up, wondering what the offer means. Good move, I think. I wouldn't trust me either.
Still, she slides off the stool and takes my arm. She stops by the pool table and tells an older lady - someone she rode with, evidently - that she's leaving for a little while and will be back later.
She glides into the car, a figure-skater in Nikes, and I close the door behind her wondering what the hell I'm doing. I mean, I just don't do this anymore. But it had been so easy, I'd asked her without even thinking. Soon, we're on the Kentucky side of the line. I absently guide the car with my left hand, and search for a radio station with my right, while she looks out the window. It's one of those early October nights when it's still warm enough to keep the window down.
'Mother Nature was on a roll when she made October nights,' I say.
She turns and smiles. 'So, Noble, are you a poet or a nature-lover? Or just a slick-talking country boy who uses lines like that to impress the chicks?'
'Guilty on all three counts,' I confess. Lines aren't going to impress her, I think. I've built quite an arsenal over the years. Some guys just can't talk to women. Me, I've got what you call a heavy rap. Like back at Saints Point, I talked a lot of trash in the student lounge. I'd just come up with some off-the-wall stuff and spew it out like I really believed it. Everybody would be convinced, leaning closer in, like I was E.F. Hutton or something.
Except Alex. She'd sit there smiling, and when I'd get too far out, she'd catch my eye and mouth the words: 'You're so full of it.' And it would just stop me in my tracks.
A lot of women won't do that. See through the bullshit, I mean. They all can, I think. But they usually won't, and that's one of several things about women I've never figured out. But Alex, she could listen to your crap and give it right back to you. With topspin.
'Turn here,' her molasses voice directs, and I mindlessly turn down a dirt road somewhere around Pine Knot.
'My ex-husband knew all the lines, too. He's in prison now.'
'His lines that bad?' I ask. Ex-husband?
'No, he killed a sheriff's deputy he caught nosing around his marijuana plants. He'd always told me he was hunting or digging ginseng. Then he started taking my son out to help him grow the stuff. Bobby was only nine.'
I try to figure up how old her son is and think of my own. He's twelve now.
She leans forward. 'If only I hadn't met that man.'
'If 'ifs' were fifths, we'd all get plastered.'
'Noble, Noble,' she says with a warmer smile, 'you do think you're a poet, don't you?'
We keep driving a back road I've never been on. My fingers tighten around the wheel as I make the winding curves. I'm thinking, so she's divorced, still looks fantastic. And she's still full of topspin. She rolls her window up, and I'm able for the first time to smell her perfume. I can't tell what it is, but it's damned sure not Avon.
'So,' she breaks the silence, 'what's your story? Back in school, we all thought you'd turn out to be a college professor or something.'
'My story? Still writing it, I guess.' Then I tell her about being run over. She laughs a deep laugh that matches her molasses voice.
'I guess I'm an accident victim too then. Sometimes, it pays to be a pedestrian.'
I respond with my grandest voice, 'Ah, two kindred spirits finding each other in the no-deposit, no-return existence life.'
'You're ... so full of it,' she turns back to the window.
I laugh and think, yeah, I'm full of it. I'm so full of it that sometimes I'm not even aware of being full of it. It's kind of nice to have somebody around to remind me.
'Kindred spirits, huh?' she says in a different tone.
I look over and she's looking straight at me, her eyes a shiny blue against the dull light of the dashboard. She has the same kind of look she has when she's seeing past what I'm saying to what I really mean.
'Turn in here,' her voice oozes out, and I drive down a road that dead-ends in front of a lake. She takes my hand as we get out and steers me down to a wooden boat dock. There's hardly any sound at all, no frogs or crickets like in the summer. It's near dark now, and I wonder how she can see where we're going.
'I used to come here a lot,' she says, 'just to think.' She smiles and squeezes my hand. 'To think about this no-deposit, no-return existence, I guess.'
My eyes are getting used to the dark, and I can see her now as she bites her lip the same way I do when I'm waiting on the right words. I hear the dull sound of a train from somewhere so far off it seems like we're on another planet.
'Y'know, Noble, I was in love with you back in school. I really thought you were something, so full of attitude and sure of yourself.'
I guess I was, back then, but things change.
'At the time,' she went on, 'I wished I was single.' She pauses. 'I had this fantasy of us being together. It doesn't make sense, I know. I always thought that there was just something about you.' She stops again, takes in a breath. 'I can see it's still there.'
I'm standing there trying to keep my mouth from hanging open.
All this time. I reach for her, not thinking, not cautious. She leans on my shoulder, and her voice gets softer.
'Timing is everything, Noble. When I was a kid, I really thought I could get out of this place. But it just didn't work out that way.'
She turns her face up to me, her hand on the back of my neck. Her lips brush against mine, only for an instant. Having her this close to me…it's like we fit together. Maybe all that romantic stuff is true; maybe there is someone out there for everyone. You just have to wait for her to come along.
'I never thought I'd see you again, Noble,' she says, burying her head into my chest.
'But you have, Alex,' I tell her, not caring about sounding corny anymore. Or sounding like someone in love, I guess.
We stand there a long time, her hair on my cheek, her breath against my neck. Caution just took a walk right off the boat dock, and I don't care. In fact, I'm glad.
She takes my arm, and we walk back to the car. Even having her arm curled around mine feels right. And I ask myself: Where to from here?
We get back in the car, but she stays on her side. There's dozens of things I want to tell her, secrets I want to share. 'Alex,' I start, but she holds a finger to my lips.
'I have to tell you,' she says and looks straight ahead, 'I'm married, Jimmy.' No more molasses now. The words spew out in a hurry.
'He's a lot older, but he's good to my son. I had to stop thinking about what I wanted and do something for my kid. I'm not happy, but I can't leave him.'
I close my eyes tight. My arms meet her as she leans into me and starts crying. I hold her until she stops.
I start the car and back out into the road to retrace my way to the highway. We go a long way without speaking, and I steal glances at her as she looks out the window. She's really beautiful.
'You ever been in love?' she asks at last.
I think about all the different replies to that one, then answer honestly. 'Dozens of times,' I say, 'or never. I don't know.'
'You need to be in love, Jimmy Noble. You deserve it.'
Right, I think. But timing is everything. I look at the clock on my dashboard. It's close to midnight and I think of work in the morning. She yawns a little cat-yawn.
'You need to be getting back?' I ask.
'Yeah, I guess so. Just drop me off. My friend will still be there.'
We're back on the highway. It's colder now and both windows are up. She moves closer and drapes her hand across my shoulders.
'I'm sorry, Jimmy. I just wanted to be with you. I shouldn't have spoken to you to begin with, I guess. But I wanted to see if I'd been kidding myself back in school.'
The parking lot at the bar is nearly empty when we pull in. Most of the people who came to search the crowd have already paired off and left. Only the hard-core drinkers have stayed until closing time. I look over at Alex; she's biting her lip again.
'Listen, Jimmy,' her voice trails off. She takes a slow breath and starts again. 'I can't leave my husband, but I want to see you.' She puts a piece of paper in my hand. 'Just think about it, okay?'
She kisses me and gets out of the car. I watch her walk toward the bar, looking back at me over her shoulder when she reaches the door.
I hold the paper up as I pass under a streetlight. It's her phone number - like I hadn't known that already. There's a trace of her perfume on the paper, and I roll it around, feeling the grain between my fingers, almost like I'm touching her.
I roll the window down and the October night fills the car again, colder now. I check the rearview mirror - being cautious again - and toss the paper out onto the pavement.
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