Sunday, February 25, 2007

Lightning Striking

Listen to me baby, you got to understand
You’re old enough to know the makings of a man.

Lou Christy sang to me from the radio. I pulled the blue plaid blanket closer then pushed it away again. Like everything else in David’s car, it smelled like fish and fertilizer. David and his family never seemed to notice that the smell of the their trout hatchery lingered around them, but the rest of us did.

My breath froze on the window, silver crystals blooming in the night. I wrapped my arms around myself and tucked my chin into the softness of the chinchilla collar on my new coat. That coat had magical powers. It really did. Wearing it, cold couldn’t touch me. Bad hair days didn’t exist. Even pimples disappeared when I slipped my arms into its fur-trimmed sleeves. I wasn’t crazy about letting the fishy blanket touch it, but surely the smell wouldn’t rub off before David got changed.

“Wait for me after the game,” were words every high school girl in Ava, Missouri, longed to hear. In the world beyond our hills, the Viet Nam War raged, long-haired hippies gathered in muddy farm fields to play crazy music and smoke “them funny cigarettes,” and something called “The Summer of Love,” was supposed to be happening. But here in the heart of the Ozark Mountains, we didn’t burn the flag we saluted it, roll-your-own cigarettes were made with Velvet or Prince-Albert-in-a-can, and a girl lucky enough to have the keys to a football player’s car was envied and admired.

And so I waited. Proudly.

Players started to drift out of the locker room in twos and threes. Finally, the metal door screeched opened again and David stepped into the pool of light cast by the one bare bulb above the door. Throwing his helmet and his bag of gear over a shoulder, he shifted its weight and headed to the car. David moved with a fascinating, boneless kind of grace. His long legs sort of revolved instead of alternating, more like bicycle wheels than human limbs. His wet hair flopped over the wire rims of his granny glasses and his shirttails flopped under his blue-and-gold letter jacket. In a town filled with crew cuts and tight white t-shirts, David was a fish out of water, a rainbow trout in a stream of browns.

My heart fluttered. I pulled one arm from beneath the blanket and reached across the seat to unlock both doors on the driver’s side. When he threw his gear in the back, its sweaty boy smells added to the general stink. He folded his long body into the front seat and slid beyond the steering wheel, straight over to my side. Shampoo and Right Guard drowned out all the other smells, even the fish. He wrapped his arms around me and the smooth leather sleeves of his letter jacket cooled my cheeks as I blushed and burned. I could have stayed right there forever.

“Girl, why didn’t you run the heater? It’s freezing in here.”

At $.23 cents a gallon, who’s going to burn gas just to keep warm?

“I’m fine,” I said.

“You just wanted me to warm you up,” David whispered, his voice low and full of something dangerous. His warm breath almost burned my neck. He rubbed his hands up and down my arms and then around to my back. Even through the thick wool of my coat, I could feel the surprising strength of his long, thin fingers. Tiny bubbles popped up on my skin, tingles everywhere he touched me. He leaned back, moved his hands to the air in front of my chest and waggled his fingers in a pantomime of massaging my breasts.

With a big whoosh, all the bubbles went flat. I turned toward the door, away from his hands. Away from his eyes.

David and I had known each other forever—since I was eight and he was nine or ten. A kickball got away from me and my best friend, Brenda Kay, at recess and he brought it back. His brown eyes were the first thing I noticed. They reminded me of the puppy I wanted but could never have.

Through elementary school we grinned at one another across playgrounds, choir risers, and auditorium seats. In junior high, the puppy-dog look was replaced with a wolfish gleam that made me look away when our eyes met. By high school, we occasionally glanced at each other across the great divide of his reputation as a bad boy and mine as the kind of girl you took home to mother.

Brenda Kay and I assumed 16-year-old boys thought about sex a lot. But David was the only one we knew who talked about it. Out loud and all the time. Everyone said he’d proposition anything in a skirt, and—to hear him tell it—he got taken up on his offer more times than not. I wasn’t so sure about that. But back stage at play practice, in the school newspaper room, in the halls between classes, in the bleachers where the cool kids sat before school and after lunch—David’s internal dials were turned to sex-talk radio long before Dr. Ruth was anything but a funny little Jewish grandmother. He was all sex talk, all the time.

Brenda Kay and I thought it was because his dad had been a military man and his family had lived all over the world. Or because he had two older brothers and an older sister. Or because his mother was so flat-out strange. Every September, like clockwork, Mary Lou Sallee stepped back while Mrs. Emerson took over gym class for a week. Wearing a series of bizarre costumes, she’d tell us about the time her husband was stationed in the Phillipines. Then she’d lead us in a strange Phillipino game that involved banging long, fat bamboo sticks together in complicated, staccato rhythms while others jumped through them. All through elementary school, I associated David’s mother with severely bruised shins.

After puberty I managed to keep safe distances between us, but eventually David’s mother got my mother to talk me into going out with him. And now, here we were on the bench seat of his ‘63 Rambler Classic with nothing between us but a few layers of wool and denim.

“These seats lay down flat, you know. Just like a bed. Let me put ‘em down and I’ll get you warmed right up.” David raised his left arm above his head and swept it down the side of the seat as though to pull the infamous handle that turned the Rambler into a bed on wheels.

“Da. . .vid.” We both knew what the tone in my voice meant. Get off it before I make you take me home. No way was I going to find myself flat on my back in that car or any other. Four girls in my sophomore class were pregnant already. I was not going to spend the rest of my life trapped on a farm in the back of beyond. Cows. . .horses. . .rainbow trout. Didn’t matter what was being raised or what kind of shit was being shoveled. I was not going to be—or be married to—the one behind the shovel.


Speedy Chick said...

Great story. I got sucked in right away. Wish I could read more.


Michelle O'Neil said...

Awesome Jerri! LOVE THIS!

I can smell the fish from here!

kario said...

You are amazing. I am so pleased I was able to watch the transformation of this piece this weekend. Safe travels, my friend.

grammer said...

jerri, i'm with kario, so loved seeing this piece grow. not only do i love this story, but i love how it brings me back to the room, and our weekend. what wonderful work. and how wonderful to meet you. thank you.

Mystic Wing said...

Must have been a good conference. This is great writing. Very telling detail. I can't wait to read more stories in this style.

Prema said...

The best part is seeing you read it out loud! (and then going out to an awesome tea house and a fabulous dinner!) Love that we're on the boat together, Jerri.