The Labyrinth

By Steven Arnett All Rights Reserved ©

Other / Thriller

Chapter 4

After Ralph came in Wally Kurtz dropped by. He was dressed in a tie-dyed T-shirt and faded blue jeans, and had a book under his arm. His hair hung down below his shoulders. I could tell even before he opened his mouth that he was really fired up about the war. He and Ralph were usually good for a few laughs when they happened to run into each other, and they didn’t disappoint me this time.

“Well, look who we have here,” Wally said. “Peg-leg Denison,” referring to his straight-legged pants. Ralph looked up at him and sneered. “I don’t suppose you marched to the capitol today to protest this disgustingly immoral war, did you?”

“No, I didn’t join you communists and march to the capitol today,” Ralph said, with extra dourness but at least somewhat tongue-in-cheek.

“Oh, no, paranoia strikes deep. Joe McCarthy has risen from the grave. So everybody that protests against this stinking war is a communist, right?”

“Either a communist or fellow traveler. What’s that book you’ve got under your arm, The Communist Manifesto or Das Kapital?”

“It happens to be The Student as Nigger, by Jerry Farber,” holding the book in front of him. “It’s one of the best books I’ve ever read. If you read it, maybe you’ll open your eyes and find out how you became a robot tool of the capitalist state.”

He was enjoying exchanging invective with Ralph too much to be entirely serious now.

“I’m sure it’s a best seller in Hanoi and Moscow.”

Wally brought his hand up to his forehead, incredulous.

“Can you believe this guy?” he said, looking at Bert and me. “I mean, are you related to J. Edgar Hoover, or what?”

“What’s wrong with J. Edgar Hoover? He’s one of the most patriotic men in America. There’s no yellow streak running down his back.”

“He’s a fascist! A cold-blooded murderer. I suppose you think Hitler’s a saint?”

“He reminds me of your heroes Stalin and Trotsky.”

“Your political consciousness is back in the Stone Age.” He turned toward Bert and me. “You know what he needs? He needs to smoke some dope. He needs to get really high and break out of this fascist shell he’s living in. Just smoke away all of his hangups and paranoia at once. That would be something,” forcing a laugh. “Ralph Denison high on grass.” He laughed hard.

“Smoke any of that illegal stuff in here and I’ll call the FBI.”

“He might even throw his Brylcreem in the wastebasket and let his hair grow to a decent length. Not that it would do much for that face,” laughing. “And he might start listening to some decent music, instead of that Mantovani and Mancini shit.”

“Like what, Chairman Mao’s greatest hits?”

“I can’t take any more of this paranoia. I’ve got to go anyway. I’ve got to go help plan a takeover of the ROTC building,” which I doubt he was really going to do. “Peace,” making the peace sign as he went out the door.

Just then I imagined Wally Kurtz as one of Hitler’s brownshirts.

Charlotte and I waited for Jack in his room at Sparrow Hospital. He was being tested somewhere else in the hospital, and the nurses didn’t know when he’d be brought back. Slumped in a chair asleep beside his bed was Michelle. We drank coffee, and as the wait dragged on got more and more impatient. I snapped at the nurse when I asked about Jack again and she couldn’t tell me anything, when she came in to bring lunch to the man who was sharing the room. Charlotte tried to make me feel better, but everything else about the trip to the hospital was a real downer.

Jack had O.D.ed sometime in the middle of the night. The way the story was going around Michelle had become frantic and woke up half of Jack’s floor trying to get some people to help carry him down to her car, until someone had had the sense to call an ambulance. He’d passed out and Michelle had shouted for him to wake up like she was afraid he’d never wake up again. I’d found out when I’d gone down to breakfast in the dorm cafeteria. I went right to Charlotte’s room, and she said she wanted to go to the hospital with me.

When Jack was finally brought back after we’d waited a couple of hours, he just looked at us blankly, and when I said something to him he didn’t answer. A little later he mumbled something that didn’t make any sense. I still didn’t know what drug was involved, but I supposed it was downers. I leaned over Jack’s bed and looked into his eyes. Only half open, they were bloodshot and glassy. The only thing I could see in them was a vague longing and weak attempt at comprehension, or at least that’s what I took it to be. So he wasn’t as tough as I thought he was after all.

“Jack, this is John.”

His lips moved but no words came out. I looked over at Charlotte and motioned to her that I wanted to talk to her outside the door.

“We’re wasting our time here,” I said. “He doesn’t even know we’re in the room.”

“You don’t know that for sure,” Charlotte said. “Maybe he just can’t say it.”

“Somehow I have the feeling he’d be just as well off if we left.”

“I don’t think we should leave him this soon,” calmly. “He might really want us here and just not be able to say it. We’ve got nothing to lose. Let’s stay, even if it’s just for a little while.”

“All right. But I don’t know how much more of this I’m going to be able to take.”

Charlotte sat down beside Jack on the bed and held one of his hands, and said to him, in as soothing a voice as I’ve ever heard, things like, “Everything’s going to be all right, Jack” and “We’re always thinking of you.” I sat down in a chair beside the bed, but I didn’t really even want to look at him. A nurse came in and gave Jack a shot and took his pulse.

“Do you expect him to regain consciousness soon?” I said.

“You can never tell in a case like this. Sometimes they come around right away, sometimes they never do. Usually they do, though, sooner or later.” Some help.

“Have they figured out what drug was involved yet?”

“There were several drugs identified in the blood sample we took, but barbiturates seem to be what caused him to go into a coma. I shouldn’t be telling you that, since you’re not family, but no one else is here for him, and you seem to care.”

I wondered where Jack’s aunt and uncle were and if they even knew about what had happened—I didn’t even know if they were his legal parents.

After the nurse had left Michelle woke up, looking pale and sad and confused. Sleep didn’t seem to have done her much good. She barely acknowledged we were in the room as, turning her back to us, she sat beside Jack on the bed. I found out later that Michelle had refused to leave him, regardless of hospital rules, even when he had had his stomach pumped when he was first brought in. She’d stayed by his side holding his hand all night, until finally she fell asleep exhausted in the chair in his room. She’d even tried to get in the hospital bed with him, but the nurse in charge drew the line at that.

As I sat there, I kept thinking how I’d felt that something like this was going to happen to Jack sooner or later, that it was always in the cards. Like me, he had a fatal flaw in his life that could never go away. Still, I felt a little better by the time Charlotte and I left the hospital, right after Jack’s aunt and uncle arrived. There was something about the hospital environment that made me think Jack would be all right, now that he was receiving medical attention, some naive belief that wasn’t even a belief really but a feeling that went back to all the myths about doctors and hospitals you pick up when you’re a kid. I could imagine Jack walking out of the hospital in a few days as good as new, even though in the back of my mind I still thought he was on a slide that couldn’t be stopped.

We went back to Charlotte’s place, where her roommate, Becky Potts, was at her desk studying for a test. She had short, stringy blonde hair and wore about the ugliest looking glasses I’ve ever seen, the kind with really thick frames that I remember girls wearing when I was in elementary school. Her face had a worn, frazzled look, like all she ever did was worry and fret. When she talked to you, her pale blue eyes darted around nervously. The dress she was wearing was terribly out of style, like she’d picked it up at a garage sale or a Salvation Army store.

“Studying for this bio test is driving me crazy,” she said shortly after we’d come in. “The prof just tried to cover too much material. Now I’ll have to pull an all-nighter. I’ve only got a three-five going in that class.” By which she meant a 3.5 on a 4.0 grade scale.

“That’s not bad,” I said, figuring that would set her off.

“I hate three-fives. I’d almost rather get a zero. When they have the All-A Dinner next term, I plan on being there. You’d think my bio prof was trying to destroy me. I’ll bet he’s already planning to give me a three-five, even if I get a perfect score on the final.”

“I’ll bet that’s all he thinks about.”

“It might as well be a plot. You’d think I’d never buttered him up or anything, even though I’ve been down to his office at least ten times and gave him a card on his birthday. He’s just trying to cover too much material. The way things are going I’ll be lucky to even make the Dean’s List this term.”

“Has anyone called?” Charlotte said.

“I don’t know how I’m going to pull an all-nighter. I’ve got an appointment to butter up Dr. Bunn at ten o’clock. If I look real tired, he’ll think I stayed up all night partying.”

There wasn’t much chance of that, I didn’t think.

“I don’t know how I’m ever going to get ready for this test. I mean, he might as well have told us to go down to the library and memorize the Encyclopedia Britannia. Einstein would have had trouble handling all this material.”

Charlotte had by this time got the books and the albums that she’d come for. With her head she motioned to me that she was ready, and we left as Becky was saying, “My nerves are worn to a frazzle and if I …”

As we started walking down the hall Charlotte and I looked at each other and laughed, as if we couldn’t quite believe a person like Becky Potts could exist.

When we got to my room, I put Simon & Garfunkel’s Bookends album on my stereo on low volume and we began studying, Charlotte in the easy chair and me on the bed propped up by a cushion. Before long, though, I put my book down and just listened to the music. When the album was done playing, Charlotte got up and we joked about something while she put on another one. She sat back down to read, but when she looked up and saw that I still wasn’t reading, she closed her book and came and sat beside me on the bed.

“You’re really worried about Jack, aren’t you?” she said.

“I can’t get my mind off it. I can see what’s happening, but there isn’t a damn thing I can do about it. When he gets out of the hospital, he’ll just go back to the same scene he was in before he went in. There’s an inevitability about it that I can hardly even stand to think about. I’ve even dreamed about him lying in a coffin.”

“Forget that now, John. Don’t say another word about it. Pretend you’re someplace wonderful and nobody’s there with you but me.”

She went to my refrigerator and took out a bottle of white Chablis, poured two glasses of it, and handed one to me as she sat down next to me.

“We’ve done enough worrying for today,” she said, holding her glass out. “All that anyone could expect us to. Now we deserve to just forget everything sad for a while. To us,” as we clinked glasses together and drank. “There, I feel better already, don’t you?”

“Yeah. I feel like Beck must feel when she’s at the All-A Dinner.”

“Oh, come on,” laughing. “I can’t imagine you two ever feeling the same way about anything.”

“We’re really a lot alike.”

We looked thoughtfully into each other’s eyes.

“It’s funny how fast things have changed between us,” I said. “The feeling’s different than it was even yesterday.”

“You can’t always predict a thing like that. But there’s still something—”

I put my glass down, and we put our arms around each other and kissed. Charlotte still had her glass in her hand behind my back. She laughed, breaking off the kiss.

“Think my kisses are funny, eh?” I said.

“I’d better put this thing down before I spill wine all over you. I might laugh if that happened, and then there’s no telling how mad you might get at me.”

“I’d pour some on you, and we’d end up swimming in it.”

“That’s all right. Just think of all the fun ways there’d be of getting it off each other.”

We kissed a long time and then made love, and later, we sat up in bed and finished the rest of the wine and listened to music, covered by a sheet and a quilt that we pulled up to about half way up our waists. We could hear rain falling.

“It’s funny, I never thought this would happen between us,” I said. “I always thought we’d just be friends. It always seemed like the right thing.”

“It did to me, too. But when we were at the hospital today, I realized how much we need each other. I’m glad that this happened. I don’t have any regrets. I figure this is about our last chance, because school will be over soon, and I’ll be going all the way back to Oregon. And I’m sure you’ll have forgotten me after a long summer surrounded by gorgeous women in the big city of Dee-troit,” looking curious as to how I’d reply.

“Don’t dare me. I might surprise you by coming out to see you.

“I’d love it. We’d have a wonderful time. It’s beautiful country out there. Consider yourself to have an open invitation.”

“I might just take you up on that. I’ve been wanting to get away from here for quite a while.”

“Would you mind getting up, love, and putting on another album?”

“Anything you say, boss.”

She smiled and kissed me as I got up. “How about putting on Pet Sounds?”

I had a brick of cheese in my refrigerator, and we ate that as we drank the rest of the wine. We drank just enough of it to mellow us out, and it seems we got to laughing over silly things, and that I felt guilty because I was enjoying myself while Jack was in the hospital. And that the later it got, the better I felt about Charlotte.

We didn’t talk about Jack again but I never forgot him, even though I was too selfish to let his being in the hospital spoil this night with Charlotte. Having her with me just made it so much easier to take. I felt the way you do when you laugh at a joke at the gathering after a funeral, like you’re not sure it’s the right thing to do, but it feels good, so you’re glad you did. It was one of those really contradictory feelings that sometimes makes life seem so strange.

The last album we played that night was the Moody Blues’ To Our Children’s Children’s Children, and as the last song on it, “Watching and Waiting” began, we lay down under the covers to go to sleep. It was the perfect song for the mood we were in, and as we feel asleep close together, I thought of how many times I’d been through this before, and I couldn’t help but smile with a touch of cynicism, though it was a pleasant sort of cynicism.

When I woke up in the morning, it was still raining. It was a soft rain, the kind that’s nice to lie in bed and listen to, but that kills any desire you might have had to get up and do anything. Before long Charlotte woke up. She batted her eyes, then rubbed them with her hands.

“Is it morning already?” she said.

“I’m afraid so. It must have got on the subway and taken the express.”

“Right,” laughing. “It’s raining. What more reason do we need not to get up?”

“We’ve got to go see Jack.”

“I know. But I’m not quite ready yet. I just don’t know what to think. I’m so happy because of us, and so sad because of Jack. I’m really confused.”

“Make that two of us. I feel just the way you do.”

“Well, we ought to do something. I suggest we go have breakfast and then go and see Jack. I don’t know about you, but I’m just about starving.”

“I’m not all that hungry. If it weren’t for Jack, I’d just as soon stay here all day.”

“And live on love? I’d probably lose ten pounds, which wouldn’t be all bad, I’m sure.”

“All right. But if we’re going to have breakfast, let’s go out somewhere. The thought of the cafeteria is enough to make me gag.”

“All right then. To hell with the cafeteria!”

Almost every night for the rest of the term Charlotte spent with me in my room. We’d talk, sometimes until late into the night, and almost always we had music playing. Sometimes we’d go out to a movie or a concert, but mostly we just stayed in my room. I got to feel so comfortable with her that I almost told her the whole story about Ed Carey and the night of the murder. I came as close as I’d ever come before. I wanted to so badly. But in the end I couldn’t quite bring myself to do it—I didn’t quite have the courage.

About a week after Jack O.D.ed, Charlotte found out that her mother had leukemia, and that she would have to drop out of school after spring term so she could help take care of her, or at least transfer to a college in Oregon. Charlotte’s father had died when she was two, and there was no responsible person in the family who could take care of her mother besides Charlotte. So we knew we were going to have to go our separate ways when the term ended, and that colored and shaped the time we spent together. A slim possibility there was we would get back together in the fall, but somehow we felt that wasn’t going to happen, and I’m not even sure we wanted it to. It was the perfect relationship for me because I didn’t have to make any promises but didn’t have to be a jerk about it, because circumstances would soon almost surely make any commitment null and void.

Finally we started to walk out of the woods toward Plymouth Road but Ed stopped. “If you ever say anything about this, I’ll kill you,” he said. He grabbed me by my shirt and practically held me off the ground. He was really strong for a guy his size. “Understand! I’ll kill you just like I did that bum,” yelling it now. I didn’t say anything but he put me down and we started walking again. I was terrifiedI was shaking and could hardly breathe. There was a dumpster behind Sibley’s and Ed thought of throwing the clothes and the knife in there but realized that would have been too obvious—it would be the first place the cops would look for evidence. So we had no choice but go out to Plymouth Road and try to think of some place we could get rid of the clothes that now we didn’t even have a bag to put them in. The traffic was heavy and I couldn’t help but wonder as I looked at the headlights if some of the people in the cars didn’t recognize Ed or me and would think of that later when the news came out about the dead man (was he dead?). It seemed like we walked for miles but I realized later it was really only a few hundred yards before Ed realized it was crazy to expose ourselves like that and we ducked down a side street. As we walked along it, Ed spotted a shovel sitting by the side of a house. He took it and we went into some woods at the end of the street. He dug a hole and buried the clothes and the knife and covered it with leaves and branches so that at least in the moonlight you would never have known someone had dug up the ground. We put the shovel back where we found it and walked back to Plymouth Road and we split up.

Jack got out of the hospital in a couple of weeks. He’d changed but it was hard to put your finger on how. He just seemed more remote and like he’d forgotten a lot. He dropped out of school and said he was going back to Chicago and that he might go out West. We talked about my going out West with him and agreed to keep in touch. But I really wondered if I’d ever see him again.

I let my school work slide pretty drastically. I practically quit going to my classes, and often didn’t even bother showing up for tests or to turn in important papers. I’d completely lost interest, and had no intention of coming back in the fall. I just couldn’t get into the idea of preparing for a career and didn’t really think it was even an option.

Then, after what was really a very short time, came my last night with Charlotte. She was flying back to Oregon the next day, and I was going to leave for Detroit right afterward (when people in Michigan say Detroit, they really mean any place in the Detroit metro area). We’d planned something special—a trip to the Cave-of-the-Candles restaurant in East Lansing for dinner. We even got dressed up, and in those days I didn’t get dressed up for anything. On a typical day I wore blue jeans and a T-shirt, like just about everyone else did. Charlotte wore blue jeans most of the time, too, but that night she wore a green cotton dress with brown fringes circling around it. In her hair she wore a sprig of holly. I wore a green corduroy jacket, dress pants, dress shoes, and even a tie, although it had been so long since I’d worn one that I had to fumble around with it a bit before I got it tied right, and I loosened it after about an hour. Somehow I didn’t think I looked very sharp, though—I looked more like I was ready to go out to a horse race track than to a nice restaurant. Nice clothes didn’t sit well on me. You could tell I was out of practice.

With a candle between us we were sitting at a booth. Even though we were half done eating, we’d hardly talked at all.

“This chicken is really quite good,” Charlotte said.

“This steak’s not bad either,” I said. “You could just about cut it with a feather.”

Charlotte laughed softly. “It’s funny how awkward we feel. On this of all nights.”

“We’re probably not going to see each other again, and I guess we don’t quite know how to handle it.”

“I suppose—” Charlotte looked away for a moment but then smiled warmly. “You know, we must look really silly dressed up like this. It’s just not us. We probably look like Jethro and Elly Mae dining at the Ritz.”

“Or like Ma and Pa Kettle at the Waldorf.”

“Or Laurel and Hardy at Maxim’s!” We laughed, and Charlotte put her hand on mine under the table. The wine was just starting to mellow me out, and I felt good.

“I’m glad we’re doing something special tonight. It will give me something nice to remember you by. I’ll put it in my memory book right next to the corsage I got at my senior prom.”

“What higher honor could a person ask for?”

“None that I can think of. Not that it’s like we’ll never hear from each other again. We can write and talk to each other on the phone sometimes, and if I can somehow come back in the fall, we’ll get together again.”

“You never know.”

“You should have seen Becky studying for her finals this week. It’s been just hilarious. Sometimes it’s been hard for me to keep from laughing. She’s been running around like a chicken with her head cut off, worrying herself sick. I’m surprised she hasn’t had a heart attack. Her stomach must be festering with ulcers.”

“She’s crazy, all right. She probably has dreams about zeros and E’s that turn into monsters who chase after her and try to kill her.”

“And wish fulfillment dreams where four-points and A’s turn into handsome professors who ravish her. She’d have made a good comedy star in an old silent film. Pure slapstick.”

“Maybe she can star in a therapy play when she finally gets put away into a mental hospital.”

“Right. Maybe they’ll give her the lead in Ship of Fools. But we’re being too cruel. She’s really not as bad as what I’ve made her seem. Sometimes she talks about things that don’t have anything to do with schoolwork. But she just seems to go bananas during finals week.”

After dinner we walked back to the dorm, laughing and joking most of the way, stopping a few times to kiss, and went to Charlotte’s room so she could pick up some albums and some normal clothes to take back to my room. When we walked in, Becky was studying, but we couldn’t see her at first because the side of the desk that faced the door was piled so high with books, we couldn’t see over it. And Becky was concentrating so hard on the notes she was reading she didn’t even seem to know we’d come in. Finally, Charlotte said hello and she looked up.

“Oh, hi,” she said, startled. “Didn’t hear you come in. I was lost in these notes. I’ve got three finals tomorrow. I’ll probably have a heart attack before the day is over. Or just collapse from exhaustion during the last test, and they’ll have to carry me off on a stretcher.”

“You took too many credits, silly,” Charlotte said. “I told you 28 credits would be too much. Sixteen’s a full load. You haven’t left yourself any time to have fun.”

“I thought eight four points would look a lot nicer on my report card than just four four points. But now I’m sure I’m going to get at least one three-five and that might even turn into a three point. It’ll be like someone took a paintbrush and painted a big black stripe right down the middle of my report card. There was one prof I just couldn’t soften up, Dr. Stone, and I tried every trick in the book. He was just too aloof. I know now I should have checked him out better before I took him. What a disaster.”

Charlotte was getting the albums and the jeans and a shirt to change into.

“I did the best job I could. I got out the old Grade A Wisconsin butter and melted it down and spread it on nice and thick, but it didn’t do a damn bit of good. He was too haughty, too snooty.”

“So long now, Beck.” Charlotte had her arms around the albums and the clothes and was standing next to me.

“So long. I’ve got gobs of studying left to do anyway. And I’m sure as hell not going to get any of it done if we sit here gabbing all night. I’m going to have to pull an all-nighter tonight as it is.”

“Can you imagine what it’s like living with someone like that?” Charlotte said as we were walking down to my room.

“I still say she’ll end up in a loony bin before she’s 25.”

“What do you mean? She’s already crazy. But I suppose we seem like we’re crazy sometimes, too.”

“At least you do.”

“Hey, watch it!” giving me a little shove.

When we got to my room we poured some wine and put a Mamas and Papas album on the stereo. I sat down in the easy chair, and Charlotte sat on my lap. She put her head on my shoulder.

“It’s really going to seem strange going back home,” she said. “After the way I’ve been living here, it’ll be like going to the moon or something. Mom and Aunt Vel and my brother Stan will never know how much I’ve changed. It’ll be harder to talk to them now, because now I think about things they could never understand. I don’t feel like I belong there anymore. But most of all, it’ll seem strange not having you around.”

“It might do you some good. You’ll have one less bad influence.”

“If we get desperate we could be together in five minutes if we wanted to.”

“Sure. I could get into a rocket and blast off for Oregon.”

“I meant five hours,” laughing. “Cut me off, bartender.”

We kissed, and then stood up and undressed each other slowly in the candlelight. Everything seemed in slow motion that night. We got into bed, and for a while we just kissed, long, slow kisses as we ran our hands up and down each other’s bodies. When we made love, we were more passionate than we’d ever been before, and I came close, I thought wryly, to breaking my cardinal rule: Don’t lose control of any situation, always keep your emotional distance. After we made love, we lay close together with our arms around each other.

“Boy, am I going to miss you.”

“Ah, c’mon. I’ll bet you tell that to all your men.”

“Yeah. I’ve had so many, you know,” in a mock jaded tone.

“So the rumors really are true.”

“You don’t know the half of it.”

She kissed me and we were silent a little while.

“This is all anyone really wants, isn’t it? A little love, and a little space to live and grow. But it’s so hard to keep.”

“Actually, a lot of people would rather have power and money.”

“No, no! You’re not supposed to say that. You’re supposed to sigh and say, ‘Yes, isn’t it?’ as you look longingly into my eyes. Haven’t you seen any Gable and Harlow movies lately?”

I laughed, and she laughed, and then we hugged each other tightly.

Later, we sat up in bed and drank more wine and listened to some Moody Blues, some Beatles, some nocturnes of Chopin’s and Rhapsody in Blue.

“I hope you can come out to Oregon before too long. There are so many things I want to show you. I want you to see the town I come from, and I’d like for us to go camping up in the mountains. We could even go down to San Francisco. Now doesn’t that sound tempting?”

“It sure does. And maybe you can come and visit me in Detroit, too. We can take a tour of the Rouge Plant and have a picnic out on Zug Island.”

Zug Island is in the Detroit River just south of Detroit and is probably the ugliest island in the world: It’s covered from end to end with steel mills.

“I can’t wait,” laughing.

“We could have a great time when we come back washing the soot off each other.”

“I’ll say we could.”

For a little while we didn’t speak, just looked into each other’s eyes, and Charlotte took her hand and ran it through my hair. Then she lay back down and motioned for me to lay back down with her. She held her arms out toward me and we drew close together.

“Just hold me tight,” she said. “I feel very vulnerable right now, and I want to be as close to you as I can get. All the emotions I’ve felt the past couple of days are just hitting me all at once.”

I thought about how different things really would be when Charlotte was gone.

“I love you, you know,” she said.

“I know. There’s nothing I know better.”

Charlotte and I were at Capital City Airport. We’d finished packing in the morning, and now it was four o’clock. I was going to leave for home myself as soon as Charlotte’s flight took off. Most of the people in the small, crowded terminal looked like students, but I remember one man in a suit who kept nervously looking at his watch. Charlotte and I were sitting down.

“We can’t have a very romantic parting here, can we?” she said.

“We could, but we might get arrested for it.”

“We won’t have a very romantic parting,” laughing.

“I’ll just pretend then.”

“I will, too. And then the next time we see each other, we can tell each other what we imagined, and maybe live it out. As long as yours isn’t too kinky.”

“It’s pretty kinky.”

The voice on the P.A. called for Charlotte’s flight to board.

“Oh, no, I’ve got to get on the plane already, and we’ve wasted all our time here talking about nothing.”

“No, we haven’t. It’s better that way. We both know how we feel already anyway.”

“Of course we do. Good-by, my love. I’m really going to miss you. Don’t forget to write me and call me, and come out and see me as soon as you can.”

We put our arms around each other and Charlotte whispered, “Someday we’ll be together again, John. Someday,” then she put her flight bag over her shoulder and said good-by. Just as she was about to go through the door to the plane, she turned around to wave and said, “Don’t forget to let me know how things turn out with Jack.”

I nodded and she smiled wistfully, and then she was gone.

For a couple of weeks after I went home, I did practically nothing. I slept in late every morning, and when I did get up, I didn’t do much besides watch old movies on TV and read novels. Sometimes in the afternoon I’d go out and smoke a joint while I took a walk, and then go back to the house and listen to music on headphones on the stereo. I called Charlotte after a few days to make sure she’d made it home all right and to see what she’d been up to, and I told her that I’d come out to see her as soon as I could get enough money together. I didn’t look for a job, though.

Every day that I just sat around doing nothing, the tension between me and my parents got worse, and finally one Saturday it came to a head. It happened around lunch time, and I can remember smelling clam chowder and sardines when I came downstairs. My father looked like he was ready to go outside and work on the house when I walked into the family room.

“Well, look who’s finally up,” he said.

“Good morning,” I said, like I was still only half awake.

“I’m afraid you’ve missed the morning. It’s already past one o’clock.”

I grabbed the Detroit Free Press off the coffee table and sat down on the sofa to read it.

“It must be nice to be able to sleep in every morning and then get up and take it easy the rest of the day.”

I didn’t look up at him. I just kept reading the paper.

“If you don’t get a job pretty soon, you know, you’re not going to have enough money when school starts in the fall.”

“It wouldn’t make any difference, because I’m not going back anyway,” putting the paper down.

“Oh yeah? What in the hell do you think you’re going to do then? Spend the rest of your life sitting on your ass here and sleeping in until one o’clock every day?”

“Look, I couldn’t go back even if I wanted to. I flunked all my classes and they kicked me out.”

“How nice. That’ll look great when you go out to look for a job. I’ll bet every car wash in town will want to hire you now.” He was really mad, and for a moment he seemed just dumbfounded. “What did you do, spend the whole term getting drunk and going to parties?”

“It won’t do any good to talk about it. You wouldn’t understand if I told you anyway.”

My mother had come in from the kitchen and seemed to be trying to say something.

“Don’t you think we deserve some kind of explanation?” my father said. “We’ve spent thousands of dollars helping put you through college, and all you’ve done apparently is waste it.”

“I was afraid something like this was going to happen,” my mother said, but she sounded a little out of it and I could tell she’d already started drinking.

“Don’t think you’re going to spend the rest of the summer sitting around here living the life of Riley. If you’re not going to go to school, you can go out and get a job. I’m not running a welfare agency here.”

“I’ll move out this afternoon. Is that soon enough?”

“That’s entirely up to you,” my mother said.

There was a hard, tense silence for a few moments.

“The trouble with you is you won’t grow up. That’s the trouble with your whole generation. You’ve never had to struggle. Everyone always wanted to do so much for you, and it’s ruined you. By the time I was your age, I was married and commander of a ship in the south Pacific.”

He must have thought he sounded like he was bragging—which wasn’t his style, at all—because his expression softened and he looked reflective for a moment.

“What good do you think it’s going to do to hit me with that John Wayne stuff? Do you really think it’s going to make me change my ways or make me more ambitious?”

“We’d just like to know what you plan to do with your life, that’s all, or at least see that you’re working on something. You seem to think you can wait forever, but you can’t.”

“I don’t have any plans whatsoever, so let’s just drop the whole subject.”

“Well, of all the nerve,” my mother said, not seeming quite hooked in to the conversation.

I went upstairs and called a friend of mine to see if I could come and stay with him for a while, and he said it was OK. As I was packing my car, my father came out and seemed to try, without apologizing for what he’d said earlier, to soften a little the hard feelings that had come between us. He said to feel free to come back and visit, and I faked it and pretended I cared. It was easier that way.

I moved in with my friend, and a few days later I went down to a Ford plant where I heard they were hiring to look for a job. They still had some openings when I got there, so I was hired in. The guy doing the hiring was methodical and looked very bored, but he managed to get in sarcastic remarks whenever one of the new hires asked a dumb question. We kept being moved to different rooms, and each time we got to a new room, we had to wait a long time before anything happened. In the health clinic waiting room, I got to talking to this black guy about horse racing. He was short and had salt and paper hair and an easy laugh. When he talked he made nervous, theatrical gestures. He had a unique theory on how to play the horses and win,

“What I’m gonna do is buy my own horse,” he said, obviously putting me on.

“Oh yeah,” I said.

“That’s right. That’s where the money is, boy. Ain’t no way a cat’s gonna make money bettin’ on them whores,” with a laugh that seemed tinged with memories of the money he’d lost.

“It’s pretty expensive owning a race horse, isn’t it?”

“Nah,” waving away the idea with his hand. “Ain’t nothin’ to it at all.”

“What would you do, ride him to the plant every day and tie him up in the parking lot?” smiling.

“No way, man,” laughing. “I won’t be workin’ at all by that time. I’m just gonna sit back and live off the purses that bastard’s gonna win for me.”

“Good luck,” I said, just as the company nurse called me in for my physical.

I passed the physical, and when I went back to the personnel office, the man told me to report for work on the “afternoon” shift—which meant you worked from 5 pm until 3:30 or 4 am the next morning—the next day.

The plant parking lot was in a state of pandemonium when I showed up for my first day of work. The day shift was trying to get out at the same time as the afternoon shift was trying to get in, and everyone was driving like a maniac. There was a real mixed bag of cars coming in and out—everything from shiny Cadillac Fleetwoods to rusted out old Fords to souped up GTOs, with plenty of pick-up trucks thrown in. Inside the parking lot guys were standing around in small groups drinking or smoking joints. Around the motorcycle rack what looked like half a motorcycle gang was talking loudly and passing around a bottle. Finally, I found a parking space and walked past empty bottles of whiskey and beer as I joined the stream of workers going into the shop.

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