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Vignette 4

Opening the door to his childhood bedroom was like entering a time machine.  Although he hadn’t lived here in over 20 years, it was as though he had woken up this morning and left for high school.  If he closed his eyes and concentrated, he could find all of those things that had mattered most to him by touch alone.  

Bemused, he wandered around.  After 20 years, was there really anything here that he needed to salvage?   He thought of his kids, and realized that there might be stuff here worth saving for their sakes.  He went immediately to the bookshelves.  He ran his hands over the spines of his much beloved friends.  He idly wondered whether any of the comic books stored in the box on the bottom shelf had any value.  Opening the box, he realized that they had not been purchased with an intent to collect, but instead with the desire to escape.  All were well thumbed through.  The covers bore the crease marks of frequent reading.  He remembered the hours he had spent getting lost in those flimsy paper books. Those lost hours had helped keep him sane during some of the most uncomfortable times during his preadolescence. He grabbed a shopping bag and started placing some of the books he thought his kids would enjoy into it.

When he opened the closet, he got another blast from his past.  Did people really ever WEAR this stuff?  Granted, he had always been a jeans and t-shirt sort of guy, so the disconnect between past and present wasn’t incredibly blatant, but there were a few shirts in there that surprised him.  Tucked away were a few vintage concert shirts.  Taking these off the hangers, he folded them and added them to a new shopping bag.  He was sure the girls would get a kick out of them eventually.  Behind the t-shirts, he saw an object that made him gasp.  It was his denim jacket.  He had believed it to be long gone, victim of one of the wild party nights at college.  The jacket was so well worn that the sleeves almost looked greasy.  The shearling lining had pilled, and overall it was much the worse for wear.  He immediately began figuring out how to explain to his wife that this objet d’art would require space in the closet at home.  For old time’s sake, he slipped the jacket on.  “Not too shabby,” he thought to himself.  Still as trim as he was in college.  The jacket fit perfectly.

There was a bulge in the pocket.  He reached inside and pulled out a collection of folded notebook paper.  Curious, he opened the packet and began to read.  “Holy shit,” he thought.  He was holding a collection of letters from a girl he had a long distance fling with his junior year of college.  He had taken a road trip to visit a friend at school.  Upon arriving, he met a girl who quietly sat at the table in the bar and matched the guys beer for beer. The place wasn’t a serious drinking joint, though.  Too popular, too crowded, and too many pretty people looking to get laid.  He asked Rob if there was a place where they could go shoot darts or pool.  Rob shrugged.  He was enjoying eying some of those pretty people.  The girl nodded, though.  Eric had barely paid attention to her all evening.  She was clearly accepted as one of the boys, and hadn’t said much for most of the evening.  “How far?” Eric asked.  
“Not too,” she replied.  “Just around the corner, actually.”  
Rob laughed.  “You’re not seriously thinking of taking him to Frank’s, are you?”  She nodded.  “Fair warning,” Rob told Eric, “They have a trough instead of a urinal.”  Eric was just drunk enough that a trough seemed to make perfect sense.  He had had enough of loud music, especially since someone in the place was obviously lovelorn and playing the same song over and over again on the jukebox.  He just wanted someplace less busy.
He stood up and shrugged on his denim jacket.  “Coming with?” he asked Rob.  “You’ve got to be kidding me,” Rob snorted.  Eric looked at the girl.  “You play darts?”  She nodded.  “Let’s go, then.”  She stood up and he looked at her for the first time.  Overweight.  No makeup.  Jeans and a t-shirt that were too big for her.  Then he noticed her eyes.  They were a tranquil green, and right now they expressed nothing but a mild curiosity.  Rob pulled him aside.  “Don’t fuck with her, my friend.  She’s like a little sister to me.”  Eric shrugged.  “I’m in no condition to fuck with anyone, Rob.  I just want to shoot some darts and drink heavily.”

Eric and the girl left the crowded bar.  The early spring night was breezy and cool.  She shivered, and then began walking.  He was impressed.  She had been matching them drink for drink all evening, and was walking without a hitch or stumble.  “Hey,” he said, “I didn’t catch your name back there.”  “It’s Ellen,” she replied softly.  “Ellen Jones.”  “You like to play darts, Ellen?”  “S’okay,” she responded.  They rounded the corner and Eric knew why Rob hadn’t wanted to come.  The garish neon screamed, “DIVE!” Perfect, he thought.  Just perfect.  He had come up for the weekend to get away from crazy crap at home, as well as an unrequited love situation that was currently driving him insane.  A quiet person to shoot darts with in a sleazy hole in the wall seemed just about right.

He learned something about her as they walked in.  The place was dark.  The bartender greeted her by name.  “Hey, Paul.  Pitcher tonight.”  Paul checked Eric out carefully.  Eric took out his wallet and put a twenty on the bar.  “Please keep it full for us?”  Paul looked at Ellen and raised his eyebrow.  She looked back at him and nodded.  Eric understood that she belonged to the brotherhood of drunks.  He grabbed the pitcher, Ellen grabbed the glasses, and they found a table near the dartboard.  They played a few rounds of baseball, and then realized that they were missing more shots than they made.  They started to talk.  They talked, and they talked some more.  All the while, they drank.  At quarter to four, Paul called last call.  The two amiably wandered out of the dark bar.  They continued talking on the long walk home.  She laughed often and naturally.  His humor was dark, tinged with bitterness.  The quiet girl was no more.  She had fallen into an easy comfort, and talked honestly and openly about herself.  They stopped at a greasy spoon and spent another two hours talking and drinking coffee.  Coffee was not such a good thing.  Eric didn’t really want to sober up.

Outside the door to her dorm room, she fumbled with the key.  She dropped it, and they both bent down to pick it up at the same time.  “How trite,” he thought to himself, and then kissed her anyway.  He was surprised at the urgency of her response.  She didn’t seem the type.  He had seriously underestimated her loneliness, though.  One outcast had recognized another, and the clinging would begin.

They stumbled into her room and removed their clothing.  It didn’t go well.  They were both too inebriated.  Instead, they lay in the bed and talked and laughed some more.  He couldn’t remember when he had had such an easy time with a girl.  Eventually, she fell asleep.  He lay next to her and wondered what time the bars opened.  They spent the remainder of the weekend together, drinking, talking, laughing, and generally making each other feel good.  He stayed an extra day.  

When he left, the letters began.  Some funny, some vitriolic, some depressing, some brilliant.  She would write about anything and everything.  He looked forward to the letters more than to the occasional phone calls.  He wished he hadn’t slept with her.  It complicated things.  There was an air of expectation in her letters that he was unwilling and unable to address.

He didn’t write back.  Not once.  He went up one more time to visit, and she came down to a summer grain-alcohol party thrown by one of Rob’s friends.  They wound up at a sleazy motel.  It was an experience, she said.  But the next morning, for the first time, he saw shame on her face.  She had begun to understand that he was not at all interested in the same thing that she was.  She dropped him off at his parents’ house, kissed him one last time, and that was that.  No more letters.  No more anything.  She quite conveniently removed herself from his life.  

He thought, ironically, that she had managed to do a very good job.  Aside from idly wondering why she had stopped writing, he had forgotten her.  He had moved on with his life, grown up, got sober, and started living.

He sat on the bed in his boyhood room and began to read.  It only took an hour.  He carefully tucked the letters back into the pocket.  He shrugged the jacket off, and folded it and placed it in the final shopping bag.  He took out his cell phone and called his mother.  “I’m done,” he said. Then he hung up.

He put the three bags into the trunk of his car, got in, and headed home.  Flicking on the radio, he caught the news.  “This is just too fucking weird,” he thought.  On the news was a breaking story about a hostage situation at a high school in California.  One of the names announced was Ellen Jones.  “Can’t be the same one,” he argued with himself. “It’s California, for chrissakes.”  

He arrived home and headed for the computer.  He got on the Internet and hit the first major network station he could find.  

It was, indeed, the same one.


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