The Labyrinth

By Steven Arnett All Rights Reserved ©

Other / Thriller

Chapter 11

Years went by and nothing more came out about the murder and I heard nothing about where Ed Carey had gone. I stopped going through the papers every day. I’d mostly lost touch with everyone from the old neighborhood and my old schools, and the ache I’d felt for so long about the murder slowly started to seep away. Sometimes it would suddenly come back to me, though, and I’d feel almost like it had happened only a day or a week before. I’d get out the old newspaper articles that I now kept in a metal box and read through them. They had turned yellowish and brittle from age by that time, and I held them carefully so they wouldn’t fall apart. I picked up the business card the detective had given me who had questioned me and read it like I was seeing it for the first time. So many times I had wanted to just spill my guts about it to someone, and a couple of times I almost did—to Charlotte and to Heather—but just about the time I felt like I knew them well enough to tell them about it or I thought they loved me enough to do it, the relationship ended, and I crammed the whole story back down into my head again. I made an appointment with a psychiatrist once and was going to talk to him about it, but the day before I cancelled it, because I just couldn’t go through with telling the story to a stranger. I began to think that maybe my life would go on more or less normally, like the murder never happened, that maybe I would die with nothing more happening than that it would haunt me sometimes or I’d see it again once in a while in a nightmare, that no one but me and Ed Carey would ever know the truth.

I tried. I tried everything I could, but I couldn’t get Jenna off my mind. I decided that I’d overreacted to seeing her that night, given that I’d only gone out with her once myself and couldn’t really expect anything from her because of it. I thought about giving her a call. But then I remembered her with “Neil” laughing, and his smart ass grin, and everything Vanessa had told me, and was determined to stay away from her. Then my attitude softened, and I remembered Jenna the way she was the afternoon we went for a walk. I was in one of those moods when I called her again. But there was no answer, and when I tried calling a couple other times, Angela told me she wasn’t there.

So I decided I’d stick with Vanessa for a while, and surprisingly, she seemed to mean what she said about no strings. The day after the night we’d spent together she was just as casual as always around me. She wasn’t more friendly or affectionate, nor was there any trace of regret in her words or looks. She went on with her painting and the rest of her life, and I went on with mine. A few nights later we slept together again, sharing laughter and wine, but the next day, again, she acted like nothing had happened between us. Still, I found myself avoiding her.

I sought out solitude. I took long walks, and sat for hours by the Red Cedar River as the last autumn leaves tumbled down. The campus seemed strangely quiet to me. It was different now that the big protests against the war were over. Some people were still protesting the war, but the war was winding down, and the leaders of the anti-war movement couldn’t draw big crowds anymore. Some students were getting into the McGovern campaign, but unless you were into it yourself, you hardly noticed it. The state of the anti-war movement was symbolized, I thought, by the tattered, dirty post-bills that were wearing off posts and the sides of buildings, telling of protest rallies of years past. When I watched people’s faces as they walked by me, I decided that most people were doing OK. Although there were still plenty of disillusioned, cynical, bitter people, they seemed to me to be the exception rather than the rule. Either that or they were hiding it pretty well, but I preferred to think they weren’t. For miles and miles I walked, all over the campus, into Sanford Woodlot, around town. I suppose part of it was I was hoping I’d run into Jenna. But I never did.

It was a Friday night, about eight o’clock. Vanessa had gone out with some of her wild friends about four and I didn’t suppose would be back till late. She’d asked me to go with them, but I wasn’t in the mood. Roxie was out, too, and Paul was upstairs studying. The big house was quiet. I was sitting around more or less doing nothing. Simon & Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Waters was on the stereo, and I was drinking a beer and occasionally reading a few pages of Steppenwolf. I half regretted not having gone out with Vanessa, even though I knew I probably would have had to pay for it with a hangover in the morning. I was glad when the doorbell rang, because I was bored and ready for any kind of diversion. Well, I got all the diversion I could have wanted, because when I opened the door, there stood Jenna, with a tentative questioning look that quickly changed to a smile. My heart felt like it was going to beat out of my chest, and I felt for a moment like I wouldn’t be able to talk, to get any words to come out of my mouth.

“Hiya,” Jenna said. “Mind if I come in a minute?”

I gave her a glazed look and didn’t smile or seem glad to see her.

“Well—” She walked in and sat down on the sofa. We looked warily at each other but didn’t say a word.

“I was wondering why you hadn’t called,” finally.

“I tried. You were always out.”

“Oh.” There was an awkward silence. “What have you been up to lately?”

“Not much, really. Nothing really worth talking about.”

Silence again, only longer and more uncomfortable. Jenna got up. “Oh, well. Guess I’ll go now. I was just passing by, you know, and thought I’d drop in and say hello. Good-by.”

I nodded. She walked slowly to the door. I got up.

“Jenna.” She stopped. I walked over to her and she turned around. I was right in front of her.

“Christ, am I glad to see you again,” I said. We put our arms around each other and laughed, and I picked her up and twirled her around.

“Not half as glad as I am to see you.”

“How about a glass of wine to celebrate?”

“Sounds great. I’d love to.”

Jenna looked up at me happily, and we kissed long and tenderly. Then I got the wine and we made a comic toast and sat and talked. We caught up on what we’d been doing since we’d last seen each other, and Jenna told me some funny stories about the nursery school kids she’d been working with as a field project for one of her classes. After about the second glass of wine, though, she got worried.

“Are you sure Vanessa isn’t going to come home pretty soon?”

“I’m as sure of that as I am that you’re gorgeous.”

“In other words, you’re not sure.”

“When she goes out with those friends, she never gets back before the bars close. And half the time she doesn’t come home at all. We can leave before there’s any chance of her coming back.”

“Well—as long as you’re sure. I’m sure you know by now how we feel about each other, and I can imagine the stories she must have told you. I saw her at Dooley’s before I walked over here, otherwise I wouldn’t have had the guts to do it. I’ve walked by your house before but I was afraid to stop because of Vanessa and because I didn’t know how you’d act. Don’t you think it’s getting around the time she might think about coming home if she started early enough?”

“No, I don’t. Stop worrying about it, all right?” amused, curious as to what would happen if they did meet.

Jenna seemed to forget about Vanessa after that, and we drank more wine and listened to a Lightfoot album.

“It took an awful lot of guts for me to come over here the way I did tonight, you know,” she said.

“That’s what I thought.”

“You can imagine how I felt at first when you played it so cool.”

“It was fun to see you humble, even if it was only for a second.”

“So it was an act, eh? Just to see poor little Jenna humble?” She put a mock offended look on her face, and I laughed.

“No, it wasn’t that way at all. I was too surprised to do any acting. I just didn’t know what to say or how I should act, that’s all.”

“Well, that’s better. I was beginning to think you deserved a good punch.”

“Oh yeah?” bringing my fists up like a boxer.

“Yeah. And if you think the Ali-Frazier fight was tough, just wait till you see this. Not really. The hardest punch I’d give you right now is a Hawaiian punch.”

“That I wouldn’t mind.”

“I liked you the first time I met you, because I thought you looked so romantic, although I’m not sure now that’s quite the right word. Maybe vagabond romantic would be better. I thought that, but I thought you’d try to hide it if you really were. To me that just made you more interesting. I’ve always thought I could tell a lot about a person just by looking at them. Don’t you think it’s remarkable that I could figure all that out just by looking at you?”

“Looks can be deceiving,” like I was mocking the cliché.

“I doubt mine were. I think you put up a mask to try to hide your real self, but it’s like the mask is made of glass, and it’s a cinch to see through it, at least for people who look for things like that.”

“Is that so.”

“Or maybe you don’t realize it yourself,” with a curious smile. “It’s often easier for someone else to see a person as he really is than it is for himself. If they just know where to look.”

“I didn’t know you were really Dr. Joyce Brothers.”

“You will when you get my bill. But I realize I may be all wrong. Whenever I try to figure someone out I assume their motivations are the same as mine would be if I were in their shoes. But maybe you’re nothing like me. Now I’m romantic.”

“Oh, yeah? How are you such a romantic?”

“Well, I’ll tell you. It’s partly just because I like to imagine things. I could see a rock by a stream and imagine it’s a castle by a river, and that I’m queen of the castle. I could imagine, say, that the king is ugly and sinister, with warts on his face, and that I had to marry him, even though I loved someone else. I could imagine a masquerade party in the castle, in a huge ballroom with enormous tapestries on the walls, and the room crowded with people in lavish costumes. The dancing would go on and on, and the wines flow like water. I could imagine myself dancing with you, a dashing knight, and in the confusion when everyone unmasked, I could find you, and we could sneak off together. We could take a walk in the moonlight. We could kiss under a willow tree by the river, and while we were kissing, a black horse with a golden saddle could come up, and we could ride off on him to a magic kingdom and live happily ever after. Now isn’t that romantic?”

She’d spoken in a theatrical and humorous manner, I mean this woman was born to be on stage, and her story made me think of the stories that Lonnie used to make up. I smiled like I was thinking of something else.

“What’s that for?” Jenna said.

“Your story made me think of someone I used to go out with.”

“Did you meet her at a masquerade party at a castle?”

“No, but she used to make up stories a lot. She was always the star.”

“Hmm. One of your many, I suppose.”

“There haven’t been that many, really. But maybe I’ve had more than were good for me. Or maybe I just get involved with the wrong sort of women.”

“I’ll bet you’ve never gone out with as sweet, lovable, and reliable a woman as me before, have you?”

“If you’re reliable, I’m Santa Claus.”

“I can imagine it. In about fifty years.”

“Somehow I can’t imagine you that old.”

“That’s because I’m never going to get old.”

“Oh yeah? How are you going to arrange that?”

“I’m going to meet Peter Pan, and she’s going to take me to Never-Never Land. Want to come with me?”

“Nope. Seventy years is long enough for me.”

“Even though you’ve met me?”

“I refuse to answer that question on the grounds that my answer may tend to incriminate me,” trying to imitate a Mafia man.

“Want to find out how long you will live?”

“Nope. I like surprises.”

“Let me read your palm, anyway, and see what I see.”

I held my hand out and she took it in both her hands and looked at it intently. She put a finger on the lines and traced them as she talked.

“Your life line’s long, so you’re going to be around a while. You’re going to meet a short, dark-haired woman with black hair and a funny name and fall madly in love with her.”

“’I wonder who that could be?”

“You’re going to inherit a fortune, and live like a country gentleman, fox hunting and going to teas and junk like that.”

“In that case you can shorten my life line. I’d rather be dead than live like that. I can’t imagine anything more boring.”

“You’re going to have lots of kids, and establish a dynasty out on your country estate.”

“I don’t know how much of that will end up happening. But the first part’s by far the best.”

“I sure think so.”

We kissed, and lay down on the sofa.

“There’s something we still have to get straight,” I said, in a little while. “I can’t understand why you changed so much. You seemed to do everything you could for weeks to try to show me you didn’t give a damn about me, and now, after not seeing me all that time and not answering my phone calls, you drop by and act like you couldn’t wait to see me again. It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.”

“I know it must seem like I was being a real bitch, like I was really playing games with you, but I was actually being more of a coward than a bitch. Sometimes I was even home when you called but didn’t come to the phone because I just didn’t know what to say to you. But I never forgot you and never felt that I didn’t want to see you again. Once I even saw you on campus and followed you almost all the way back to your house. But I finally decided I shouldn’t talk to you. The timing wasn’t right. There was another guy, and I was really confused about what to do, so I just tried to block it all out of my mind. I wouldn’t have blamed you at all if you’d just run me right out tonight. You would have had every right, but I’m so glad you didn’t,” holding me closer and kissing me. “If you can overlook that, I’d like us to try going together. I’ll try to make sure you’ll never regret it.”

I replied by looking amused.

“What’s so funny?”

“I’m just trying to take this all in. This is so much different than the Jenna I’d come to know and love.”

“Well, I didn’t want to make it too easy for you.”

“There wasn’t too much danger of that happening. When I ran into you that night, I thought you were probably more interested in that guy with a beard. I thought it was all over for me.”

“No,” laughing. “He was no fun. He only had one thing on his mind. And he certainly doesn’t have your eyes. Your eyes are your fortune, you know.”

“So I’ve been told. But—”

The front door opened. There were women’s voices and laughter. The overhead light went on just as Jenna and I were sitting up, and Vanessa was standing there with two of her drinking buddies.

“Well, well, look what we’ve stumbled on. How cozy,” she said. She was jealous and mad, obviously. So much for no strings. “You never know what you’ll run into when you come home at this hour, living with Romeo here.” She and her friends laughed. “But slightly better than a rapist or a deranged murderer, I guess,” but pursing her lips like she wasn’t sure.

Vanessa and her friends came in and sat down. One of them had in her hand a half empty bottle of cold duck. I whispered to Jenna that we should leave.

“Has John told you about me, Jenna?” Vanessa said as we were getting up.

“No, he probably didn’t want to bore me,” with a hateful stare.

“Didn’t he tell you we’re lovers?” laughing, lighting a cigarette. “He’s not bad. I’m sure you’ll like him, even with all your experience.”

“Go to hell.”

Jenna gave me a hard, angry look and then got up and left the house.

“You goddamn bitch,” I said to Vanessa. “You’re the biggest hypocrite I’ve ever met.” But she and her friends just laughed. I went out the door and ran up to Jenna.

“I’m sorry, Jen. She was too drunk to know what the hell she was saying. But I don’t give a damn about her, and for two cents I’d never talk to her again.”

Finally, I stopped her and turned her around. I held her shoulders so that we were face to face.

“Don’t,” she said. “Let me go. You lied to me. I just want to go home.”

“All right,” letting go of her. “But I’m disappointed. I didn’t think that you, of all people, could be intimidated so easily.”

“I wasn’t intimidated. I just don’t like being lied to.” She started to walk away.

“That’s probably the earliest she’s ever come home when she’s gone out with them. How in the hell could I have known?”

She was quite a ways away now.

“Thanks for dropping by,” I yelled. “I enjoyed it,” with a note of sarcasm.

I was as mad at Vanessa as I’d ever been at anyone. I felt like going back and strangling her. But when I went back to the house, she and her friends were already gone. I suppose they were afraid of what would happen if I came back and just took right off again. And when I saw that no one was on the first floor and that the house was silent, somehow my anger drained out of me. So I got out a bottle of wine, rolled a joint and lit it, and put on a Pink Floyd album. As hard as I could, I tried to keep any thoughts about Vanessa and Jenna out of my head, but of course that didn’t work. I ended up going over and over the events of the night, and wondering about Jenna. Though she was offbeat, it hardly seemed possible to me, now that I’d spent a little more time with her, that she could be what Vanessa had made her out to be. I must have finally drifted into a stupor, because I fell asleep on the sofa and didn’t wake up until the sun was up. I looked around the room and it seemed to spin. I had a stabbing headache. My mouth was dry. Rubbing my eyes, I looked down at the coffee table in front of me, strewn with magazines and album covers.

When Vanessa came downstairs about two o’clock that afternoon, her face was pale and haggard and her eyes were puffy. The look of contrition and humility she wore might have fooled me once, but it didn’t now. The meeker she was, the easier it was for me to see the phoniness that was always just behind it. I was sitting in the living room reading Steppenwolf.

“John.”

I waited a few seconds and finally looked up.

“I just wanted to say that I’m sorry about last night. I know that’s not good enough,” she added quickly, “but I wanted to say it anyway. I was drunk and didn’t know what I was doing.”

“You knew what you were doing.”

I went back to my book.

“OK, maybe I was jealous when I saw you with Jenna. Or maybe I just didn’t want to see her make a fool out of you.”

“She doesn’t have to. You’re doing a pretty good job of that yourself.”

“If she’s really what you want, I’m sure I didn’t do any real harm. Tell her I’m a liar if you want to.”

“She already knows that.”

“I promise it won’t happen again.”

I put the book on the coffee table. I could still hear a trace of phoniness in her voice. There didn’t seem to be anything she could do to hide it completely. I suppose she still thought it would be easy to manipulate me.

“The next time you get drunk you’ll forget that promise just like you’ll forget everything else.”

“I didn’t really say what I said to Jenna because I was drunk.”

“Then what in the hell did you use that as an excuse for?” almost shouting.

“I don’t know. I just hate her so much. If it had been anyone else, I wouldn’t have minded. I just wish there were some way I could make it up to you.”

“Well, there isn’t. I’m moving pretty soon, though, so the problem shouldn’t come up again. I should have stuck with what I said about not getting involved with any of the women at the house. But I didn’t, and now I have to move because of it.”

“Don’t move, John. Please. What happened last night won’t happen again. If it does you can take all my paintings and drawings and put them in a big pile and burn them.”

I looked at her skeptically.

“It’ll be a cold day in hell—”

“Go ahead and move then, you son of a bitch. I don’t give a damn.” I was enjoying seeing her upset, and now it seemed real. “If you won’t forgive me for anything, I don’t want you around anyway. The hell with you.” And she ran back upstairs.

In Dr. Blume’s History of Skepticism class, about three in the afternoon, I was half daydreaming, half listening to the discussion of Hume’s The Skeptic, hoping Dr. Blume wouldn’t call on me to give my opinion on one of the points of the discussion—I hadn’t read the book. He had seemed strange from the first day of class. He’d walked in and sat on top of his desk Indian style and read a long passage from Fichte’s The Vocation of Man. He had small, intense eyes, a swarthy complexion, and curly black hair that was thinning. He wore tweed sport jackets, white shirts, always, thin dark ties, and thick black glasses. Depending on what was called for in an argument his face artfully expressed sarcasm, satisfaction, or puzzlement. He liked to walk back and forth across the room, stopping and bringing his hand to his chin when he pretended to be puzzled, to prod some student to come up with the answer to a difficult question. He called philosophers by their first names, like they were all his friends, and that seemed pretty comical sometimes. Still, he was the most brilliant prof I ever had, and he was totally unpretentious. He liked to quote from literature, and knew more about it than most English profs. He could elucidate Einstein’s theory of relativity if that was needed to clarify a point, or refer to a comic strip from yesterday’s paper.

“What then, is the point of it all?” he said, almost as if he were threatening us, opening a book of Hume essays to read from it. “David tells us that, ‘in a word, human life is more governed by fortune than by reason; is to be regarded more as a dull pastime than a serious occupation, and is more influenced by a particular humor, than by general principles. Shall we engage ourselves in it with passion and anxiety? It is not worthy of so much concern. Shall we be indifferent about what happens? We lose all the pleasure of the game by our phlegm and carelessness. While we are reasoning concerning life, life is gone; and death awaits alike the fool and the philosopher.’ Now surely, there’s something fallacious here; surely, there’s more to our existence than the shards and tatters David offers us,” with heavy irony, scanning the room for a response.

The woman who most often sparred with Dr. Blume raised her hand.

“Yes, Miss Anderson?”

“Couldn’t you just respond to that by saying that such a belief is itself just a product of a certain humor, and just as likely to give way to another belief as any other? And that therefore it can’t be taken seriously either or accepted as the ultimate reality of our lives?”

“Yes, but in doing so wouldn’t we just be further confirming Hume’s premise that all belief is a product of particular humors or constitutions, and that there is no objective truth?”

“Perhaps, but even Hume admits that nature has an artifice which makes us believe that our existence is meaningful, so that sort of reasoning, ultimately, is of little consequence to us, of no more value, say, than a philosophy degree in the job market.”

Most of the class laughed and Dr. Blume smiled.

“It’s like those arguments about the ultimate reality of a chair. No matter what you believe about them, when you’re tired you’re still going to sit on one.”

I must have gone off daydreaming and lost the train of the discussion, because before I knew it Dr. Blume was in the middle of one of his Hume stories.

“David was quite well off as tutor to the Marquis of Annandale and secretary to the Earl of Hertford,” he said. “Indeed, he became so complacent that when asked why he wouldn’t complete his remarkable history of England, he replied, ‘too old, too fat, too lazy.’” That was the kind of story Dr. Blume relished, and you could see the pleasure he took in relating it. But he quickly knitted up his brow, and proceeded to move the discussion along.

“But how is Hume different than the others we’ve studied, Plato in the Theaetetus, and Sextus Empiricus? Hasn’t he really just restated tired arguments that had been expounded for more than two thousand years?”

A guy raised his hand and was called upon.

“There’s a difference in emphasis, at least. Hume is more concerned with the individual, and would never have called for a withdrawal from the affairs of men and the world in the manner of Sextus Empiricus.”

And so the discussion went on, bouncing from one plane of discussion to the next, until the class ended. The quote Dr. Blume had read from Hume, though, about the uncertainty and pointlessness of life, had really hit me. It just seemed so sad and so true that I couldn’t get it off my mind, even though it was something that I’d heard in one form or another many times before, was something that everyone suspects at least some of the time, and that’s always lurking at the edge of consciousness, ready to mock us and spoil everything.

I was still thinking of it after class when Jim Fraser and I walked to the Olde Worlde Bread & Ale. It was windy, the sky was gray, and the trees were almost bare. In the air you could feel snow was coming. Almost everyone had on winter coats, except for those few people who seem almost oblivious to the weather and always wait a few extra weeks to start dressing for a new season, who wear windbreakers at the beginning of December, and parkas in April.

“That Blume is amazing,” I said as we walked. “I didn’t think it was possible for anyone to know that much.”

“He’s a strange son of a bitch,” Jim said. “He’s living in an imaginary world with all those dead geniuses. He’d have it made if he could sit around a fire and talk with Schopenhauer and Hume and Dr. Johnson. I don’t know what’s going to happen to him when the revolution comes. There won’t be any place for him.”

“But how do you know what the ultimate reality is?” smiling. “Is it the world of ideas or the world as perceived through the senses? How do you know that I’m real or that tree over there?” pointing to a large oak. “If we can’t determine what the ultimate reality is, the idea of revolution is meaningless. If there is no knowable reality, maybe we should take the advice of Sextus Empiricus and seek a state of quietude, putting ourselves above the passions and tumult of the world.” I wanted to see how stirred up I could get Jim.

“That may be interesting to talk about in class, but you can’t live your life thinking like that. You make me think of those professors who say they don’t believe in an objective reality, then go out and march against the war. All that talking won’t help the millions of poor people in the world who are starving. Philosophical speculation is practically immoral when you come right down to it, because it can lessen people’s commitment to doing something about the mess we’re in.”

“But how do you know millions of people are starving? You’d never convince Sextus Empiricus of that. It could be that your perception is based on a false epistemology. They could all be living in the lap of luxury, or not exist at all.”

I could see Jim was starting to steam, so I decided to lay off.

“I was just kidding, man,” I said, laughing. “You know I don’t take any of that stuff seriously.”

It felt good to walk into the Olde Worlde and feel the warm air and hear people talking and the smell of warm hoagies. We brought a carafe of rosé and sat down at a booth. We didn’t talk much at first, just drank the wine. Jim seemed more down than usual, and I wondered if it didn’t have something to do with the fact that Nixon had just been reelected in a landslide. I thought he took politics and world problems much too seriously. He had intense brown eyes that showed he was thoughtful but rarely showed laughter or warmth. He had long, scruffy brown hair and a scruffy beard that he thought showed his contempt for the conventions of American society. He wasn’t involved much with radical organizations, though. He wasn’t a joiner. And he wasn’t serious all the time. When he’d get drunk or high he’d loosen up and start joking around. He really wasn’t a bad looking guy, and probably could have done pretty well with women if he’d wanted to, but he hardly seemed to give a damn. I’d met him in the philosophy class.

“You still bummed out about the election?” I said.

“I don’t even like to think about it, man. It’s too depressing. Four more years of Nixon!”

“I don’t suppose McGovern will run again.”

“He wasn’t really any good, anyway. All he wanted to do was bandage up a dying system, when what we really need is a complete overhaul. Maybe it was better that he lost,” unconvincingly. “Now maybe the country will boil over faster and revolution will come sooner.”

“I think you’re dreaming. I think the country’s going the other way. Just look around you. Everybody’s getting more conservative. You’re fighting a lost cause.”

“You’re probably right. We’re probably headed for a fascist state.”

To Jim, the political future was conceivable only in terms of extremes, Marxism or fascism. The idea that the country might muddle through with the half-baked system it had always had hardly seemed conceivable to him.

“Or maybe just more of the same old shit. Maybe we’ll have another Red Scare.”

“It wouldn’t surprise me one bit. That’s the favorite Republican trick when they want to distract people from the real problems of the country. And Fürhrer Nixon is an expert at it.”

“I can see it now: You up on the stand before the House Un-American Activities Committee, being questioned by some fiery young Nazi from Utah or Alabama. ‘Isn’t it true, Mr. Fraser, that you ate breakfast with a communist in 1954?’”

“Shit, I was only three years old.”

“‘Just answer the question, Mr. Fraser, and refrain from the use of obscenities. Did you or did you not eat breakfast in 1954 with one Mr. Elmer Fudd, a card-carrying communist and fellow traveler?’”

“I’d spit in his face.”

“‘And isn’t it true you were eating communist baby food at that breakfast, baby food manufactured in that card-carrying, communist front state of Massachusetts, which of course you know is just a part of Russia that was snuck over here by Alger Hiss’s great-great-great-great grandfather when he came over on the Mayflower, that he secretly towed behind the ship?”’

Jim looked amused, reluctantly.

“‘And isn’t it true that in 1955 you attended a meeting of the Little Friends of China—that giant yellow menace of the East—whose goal was to encourage pen pals between Chinese and American children. Which would have encouraged atheistic communism with its ugly tentacles to sweep through the United States and thereby crush God, motherhood, the flag, and apple pie? Which would have caused people to throw the Bible out the window and run naked through the streets like they do in China?”’

“You ought to run for Congress, man. Just talk like that, and you’ll win by a landslide.”

“Sure. Can’t you just see me as part of the Nixon team?”

“Well, you do almost seem like you’re happy he won sometimes.”

“I didn’t want him to win, but I don’t really care anymore. Right now, all I really care about is Jenna McAllister, the most beautiful woman this side of the Red Cedar,” as if I’d forgotten what had happened the last time I’d seen her.

“You’ve been brainwashed by the media to believe in a bunch of romantic crap that acts as a bourgeois smokescreen to keep people from seeing the injustices and class divisions in our society,” only half seriously.

“And loving every minute of it.”

“You’ve fallen right into the trap.”

“You may be right about that.”

“But hell, let’s drop this heavy philosophical discussion. I never should have let you drag me into it,” smiling. “What do you say we just drop the whole thing?”

“That’s fine by me. Let’s toast on it.”

We held up our wine glasses and clinked them together.

“From now on, let’s dedicate our lives to wine, women, and song,” Jim said. “To hell with Nixon.”

“Right on. To hell with Nixon.”

After a couple of more carafes of wine, I decided to go see Jenna. Jim said he wanted to come with me so he could meet this “vision of bourgeois loveliness” as he called her, and I said OK, as long as he didn’t hang around too long. Naturally, he made a couple of sarcastic remarks about romanticism when I told him I wanted to stop at Barnes Floral to pick up some flowers for Jenna. The flower shop was a real trip. Jim whistled “Light My Fire” while I looked in the coolers at the flowers, opening and closing the sliding doors again and again. The scent made me think of funerals. I suspected the old man minding the store thought we were drunk or high. He looked at us disgustedly and asked a couple of stupid questions to see if we had any real intention of buying anything. I finally decided to get an assortment of daisies, roses, and carnations, which really cost more than I should have spent. But when I paid, the old man just grunted, like he wasn’t even happy to get the money. I felt like shoving the flowers in his face. I thought it was really strange for a guy like that to be working in a flower shop.

“Now I’ll be able to see romantic love in its highest level of bourgeois development,” Jim said as we walked to Jenna’s. “The young Romeo laying flowers at the feet of his Juliet.”

“You’re just jealous. I’ll bet when we get over there, you’ll end up falling in love yourself with Jenna’s roommate Angela.”

“Oh yeah? What’s she like? A fellow struggler against the forces of oppression and injustice?”

“No. She’s a Jesus freak, but really nice and friendly. Her father is a vice president of Dow Chemical.”

Jim abruptly stopped.

“You’re putting me on, man.”

“No, it’s true. He’s vice president in charge of napalm sales and development.”

Jim laughed. “Now I know you’re putting me on.”

“That napalm part was a lie. But he really is a vice president at Dow.”

“Maybe I’d better not go with you then. I’m afraid of what I might say about him. It could end up being a real bad scene.”

“You won’t say anything wrong. Just get it out of your system before we get there.”

“Ho-ho, Ho Chi Minh, the Viet Cong are gonna win,” he yelled, along with a few obscenities about Nixon, the War, and General Motors, as we started walking again.

It was getting dark, and snow was falling softly. I didn’t really have any idea how Jenna would feel about seeing me, but I thought it was about time I talked to her again, and I had all the confidence wine can give. My doubts disappeared the moment I saw her. She was obviously glad to see me and hardly even seemed surprised. With curious amusement she looked at me, as if to say, Well, I wondered how long it was going to be until you came to see me.

“It’s about time,” she said.

“Flowers for a flower,” I said, with a flourish, handing her the white box the flowers were in. She took them out and sniffed them. Angela came into the room and went over by Jenna to look at the flowers.

“Thanks, John. They’re lovely, and I’ll do my very best to keep them in top form, starting out by putting them in my very best vase. Angela, my very best vase, please.”

I introduced Jim to Jenna, and Jenna introduced Jim and me to Angela. She had blonde hair and big, green eyes that shined when she smiled. She looked happy and innocent but shy. It was unthinkable now that Jim would go into a tirade against Dow Chemical. Even Hitler would have had a hard time getting mad at a woman like her. Jim had clammed up as soon as we’d got to Jenna’s anyway. We all sat down and there was a little awkwardness at first.

“I hope we’re not interrupting any serious studying,” I said.

“Oh, no!” Jenna said. “Our studying is never serious, is it, Ange?”

“No,” laughing.

“Jim and I just came from our History of Skepticism class. The prof is a real character. He calls all the philosophers by their first names, like they all live on the same block.”

“Oh really?” Jenna said. “Do they ordinarily serve booze during philosophy class? You two smell like you just got back from The Brewery,” which was a local nightclub.

“No. Only on the birthdays of famous philosophers. Today just happens to be the birthday of Sextus Empiricus, by the way.”

“Well, la de da. Bring out the brass bands and circus clowns.”

“Actually, Jim and I did stop and have a spot of wine to unwind after class. It’s the thinking man’s drink.”

“You look unwound, all right. You look like a ball of string that’s come all undone. Just kidding, of course.”

“We just continued the lofty discussion we were having in class,” Jim said.

“I’ll bet I know the topic,” Jenna said. “Wine, women, and song.”

Jim and I looked at each other, as if to say, she must be reading our minds.

“Actually, we devoted ourselves to higher matters,” Jim said, in a mock snooty tone.

“Higher matters, eh?” Jenna said, nodding. “Like what, grass and acid?” Everyone laughed, but Angela didn’t laugh very much.

“Jim’s a radical,” I said. “He thinks there’s going to be a revolution pretty soon, and he hates big corporations.”

Angela frowned just slightly and looked embarrassed. Jim looked over at me like he’d have liked to break me in two. But I was enjoying putting him on the spot. The wine had brought out a perverse sense of humor in me.

“I don’t hate them, man. How can you hate something that only exists on paper? And besides, I don’t hate anything. I believe in love and brotherhood among all men. And that goes for women, too.” I had to admire the way he handled that.

“Wasn’t it a lovely day out today?” Angela said, yanking us to a new subject. “There’s something about the first snow that’s nicer than the snow the whole rest of the winter.”

“I couldn’t get into it too much myself,” I said. “It reminds me too much of what it’s going to be like around here until April.”

“It can be very beautiful, though.”

Angela seemed so nice, I didn’t know what I wanted to do more: Hug her or punch her. In a little while, Jim left and Angela went to her bedroom. Jenna was silent. We sat on opposite sides of the room. She looked down, then right at me.

“Are you still mad about that scene over at my place?” I said.

“Mmm. Maybe this much,” holding her hand out and making a tiny space between her thumb and forefinger.

The wine was wearing off and I felt a little uneasy. Jenna got up and sniffed the flowers I’d given her, then came to me and sat on my lap.

“But not so much that I don’t think it’s just great that I’m with you again. And thank you again for the lovely flowers.” We kissed, a long soul kiss. “I wish you hadn’t waited so long to come see me. But I suppose I could have called you or somehow met you half way. Hopefully, we won’t have any more misunderstandings like that,” smiling. “Fat chance. But then I guess that’s what makes relationships interesting.”

“If you like soap operas.”

“I’d offer you something to drink, but I imagine you’ve had enough to drink today.”

“I’ll have a glass of wine, if you have any on hand.”

“Coffee did you say?”

“Yeah. Irish coffee.”

“All right, all right. I’ll get you a glass of wine, since you insist. And one for me, too.”

After a couple of glasses of wine, we lay down on the sofa. Except for a dim light in one corner, the room was dark. We kissed for quite a while. Then we stopped kissing and Jenna looked at me thoughtfully. I moved her hair off her forehead with my hand where it had almost fallen down to her eyes.

“A penny for your thoughts,” I said.

“Haven’t you heard of inflation? The correct term now is dollar for your thoughts.”

“All right then. Dollar for your thoughts. Put it on my bill.”

“How’s things going between you and Vanessa?”

“I hardly see her and we hardly talk.”

“You know that I can’t come to see you as long as you’re living with her, don’t you?”

“I thought about moving. But I’ve got a lease there. It would cost me a lot of money I don’t have.”

“It would make things a lot better between us if you did.”

“I’ll move out of there as soon as I can.”

We got to kissing again, and I started unbuttoning Jenna’s shirt. But she stopped me.

“You’d better not, John. Angie might come out.”

“I almost forgot,” with my best imitation of an Errol Flynn smile.

We were silent a few moments.

“I’m trying to decide how much I trust you. I’m still not sure about us. There’s so much about you that I don’t know, and that you don’t know about me.”

“I’d like to spend about five years finding out.”

“Do you want to stay with me tonight, John?”

“All right, but it’s only fair to warn you, I’ve really been known to hog the covers.”

“Well, if I have anything to say about it, we’ll be so close it won’t make a bit of difference.”

That’s how easy it was for us to get things right between us. We went into Jenna’s bedroom, sat on the bed and kissed, and teased each other as we undressed. Then we were naked, and a thrill went all through me as we got under the covers and came close together. When we made love, Jenna whispered to me that she loved me, and I whispered to her that I loved her. And even though I wasn’t sure exactly what that meant or whether I was capable of really loving anybody, it felt good to say it, to believe that I really did love her. Later, we lay facing each other and talked.

“You look great in the dark,” Jenna said. “Just like Robert Redford.”

Actually, there was enough light from a streetlight coming through the window so that would see each other OK.

“So do you. Just like Marilyn Monroe.”

“Hey, she’s dead.”

“I think I just beat you at your own game.”

“All right, smart guy,” laughing. She brought her fist up under my chin, then opened the hand with the fist and caressed my side with it. “There’s no telling where we’ll end up, you know. We could end up hating each other or loving each other forever or almost anything in between. Or, worst of all, just bored with each other.”

“It would spoil the fun if we knew, though, wouldn’t it?”

“I suppose. I just hope everything works out well, and we’re happy together. In fact, I’m going to propose a toast on it.” She held her hand up like she had a glass in it. “To us, the craziest two people I know, may the future be bright.”

I pretended I was holding a glass, and as we brought our pretend glasses together, Jenna made a clink sound.

“Cheers,” I said.

In the morning we slept late and lay in bed talking.

“There’s something I’ve got to ask you about,” I said, after we’d been talking a long time. “I don’t really believe it, or at least I don’t believe the slant it was told to me from was fair, but I can’t pretend that I don’t know.”

“Oh really,” seeming curious but not like she imagined what it was I was about to tell her.

I told her what Vanessa had told me about her father and about her being in a mental hospital and the rest of it. She listened with less emotion than I expected.

“I’m not surprised she told you that,” Jenna said. “But it’s all lies. That’s all she’s known how to do since the day she could talk. First of all, I never took any boyfriend away from her. The guy practically threw himself at me, and I couldn’t drop him because I never went with him in the first place. He really wasn’t that great. Vanessa and I haven’t been friends since then, even though there was nothing I could do about her losing him. Also, my father never raped me. That’s just a figment of her filthy imagination. I know that rumor’s been around town in Elkton before, though, and Vanessa may even have been the one who started it. I’ve never been in a mental hospital, either. The place I was in that I assume she’s talking about was more like a rest home for kids. I went in there when my parents busted up, because for a while my mom couldn’t quite handle anything. All the kids went somewhere for a while, and that’s where I went. But there was nothing really wrong with me. As for her saying I try to hide the fact that my stepdad isn’t my real dad, how could that possibly be true in a town as small Elkton, where everybody knows everybody? Do you think anyone would be stupid enough to even try a thing like that and think they could get away with it?”

Her argument was, indeed, hard to dispute.

“Sorry for dredging up those bad memories. Maybe I shouldn’t even have mentioned it. I just thought it wouldn’t be fair if I didn’t tell you.”

“I’m not mad at you. I’m glad you told me so I could expose Vanessa’s lies and not have you think I’m a complete bitch. I’m surprised you even wanted to speak to me again. It just makes me hate her more, because she’s been so cruel to me for nothing.”

I believed her now, not Vanessa, so I didn’t pursue the subject any further. I figured I’d done enough prying for one day anyway. And besides, I didn’t want to ruin our first night sleeping together.

Jenna looked into my eyes as if to reassure me, then pulled me close to her.

“This feels so great,” she said. “Let’s not do anything to wreak it.”

“I won’t if you won’t,” smiling.

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