Tess and Stacy By Dennis McKay
Friday, July 31, 2009
Not rated by the Author.
Story about a young woman's summer on the road after graduating college.
The Crockford Inn in the Hamptons was a quaint little place with a restaurant and bar wrapped in pine walls adorned with knick-knacks of whaling boats and such. But that quaintness did not match the owner, Tony Costello, who was born in Brooklyn and had the aura of a guy if not connected at least familiar with that world.
Stacy waited tables, Eric tended the bar, and I did both. Often, I would help Eric when Tony’s pals took over the bar, which was elevated from the dining room. Dressed in gaudy double-breasted pinstripe suits, slicked-back hair, and with names like Little Al, Fat Sally, and Benny Squint, they were constantly checking their horse racing forms and using the pay phones to place bets. Affable, but tight knit, these wise guys mingled in an odd juxtaposition with the well-heeled crowd that would wait for a dinner table at one of the round oak tables along the bar’s perimeter. It was like watching two very different worlds each rotating around their own axis in close proximity—each giving the other world enough space to continue its orbit.
Tony’s pals never tried to hit on Stacy or me, and seeing how we had just graduated from the University of Maryland and they were all at least fifteen years older, looking back now, it was for the best. Not that I had any interest, but Stacy had said more than once that she found them interesting in a dark sort of way.
My life before and after Stacy has been pretty routine. But when we were together, the sparks always flew and you never where they would land. And Stacy getting involved with Tony’s compadres would not have been a good thing. But gambling seemed their only passion, at least in the Crockford Inn where they were always courteous gentlemen and big tippers.
Tony’s biggest dream was to get Frank Sinatra into the place. He had a friend of a friend of Old Blue Eyes, and had this idea of getting Frank and his entourage to spend a weekend at the Inn. “I can see it now Tess,” Tony had said to me, his eyes with a far off look, “Old Frank as a guest here at the Crockford and maybe after hours telling stories about the old days in Vegas right here at the bar.” Tony had shook his head and shrugged his shoulder as if trying to convince himself of the possibility of it all.
I thought the whole thing fanciful, but still held out a glimmer of hope that Tony could somehow pull it off.
This was the summer of 1978, and not only were Stacy and I making good money for our trip across country in August, but we had convinced Eric, the bartender, to join us. He was a good-natured roly-poly local boy who came from money and had completed his first year of law school at NYU.
The Trip was to take two months and include a visit to my boyfriend, Buddy, in Colorado who had graduated the year before and worked as a sales rep for a sporting goods company in Denver. Stacy had broken up with her beau of two years right before graduation and had told me she had sworn off men. At 6 foot 1 inch tall, finding Mr. Right had never been easy for Stacy, but I figured after a couple of weeks she would hone in on some unsuspecting guy and latch on to him.
But after six weeks working at the Crockford, she hadn’t shown the least interest in guys when we went out to the local bars. Not only was Stacy very tall, but she was a big-boned lank of a girl with wide set dark-blue eyes that glinted bold and combined with a loud, gregarious voice that would go a hundred miles an hour, and the boys would gravitate to us. I always felt a bit uncomfortable doing the bar scene since I was involved in a serious relationship albeit long-distance with Buddy.
I tried my best not to encourage the pick up artists who hit on me with the likes of You’re a dead ringer for Ali McGraw oranother one who told me I reminded him of Pocahontas. “What?” I had said. And he had replied without missing a beat, “Take me to your wigwam.”
So it went for the summer, working at The Crockford sharing a bedroom upstairs with Stacy, mornings at the beach, and partying at the bars. It was fun and different and a good time, until Jake Langeham showed up. There was something compelling and dangerous about him, from his rakish good looks to the way he looked at me with a cool distance in his light blue eyes. That first time he had looked at me, I almost lost my breath from a bit of fear and I must admit excitement that a character like this would be interested in me. It made things even more so when Tony gave Jake the spare bedroom right next to Stacy’s and mine.
Jake didn’t dress like the other gamblers in their gangster suits, instead he wore Hawaiian shirts or tight cotton knit short sleeves that showed off his tanned muscular arms. On his left forearm was a tattoo of a stripper in a g-string clinging onto a pole. And when Jake talked everybody listened for his voice had a gravelly honey-smooth rumble that drew one’s ear.
Right before closing on Jake’s third night at The Crockford, he sat at the bar nursing a Jameson straight up. We had become conversational whenever I would get a break, and he would tell me stories about growing up with Tony in Brooklyn: wild stories of knife fights with rival gangs, running numbers for the local neighborhood Mafioso, or how he got the moniker Little Hammer. I never knew how much to believe or not, but couldn’t help listening, almost feeling privileged for this charming raconteur to share his life with me, and only me, as he reminisced in a low voice out of the side of his mouth.
I remember thinking at the time what my parents would have thought if they knew their twenty-two year old college graduate was consorting with the like of Jake, Little Hammer, Langeham.
When the pay phone in the hallway to the restrooms rang, one of the dishwashers coming out of the men’s room answered. “Hey, Mr. Jake, phone call.” The dishwasher, an older black man with persistently blood shot eyes, crackled with excitement as if he were party to something big coming down.
Jake excused himself and answered the phone. He listened intently and hung up. “Tess,” he said as he leaned his head toward me and placed his hand on my shoulder, “I need a favor.”
That was the first time Jake had touched me and I felt a shiver surge through me. I turned to him and said, “Yes, Jake.”
“I need to get on the road...” Jake looked over my shoulder, and I turned to see two sets of headlights pull into the parking lot. “Tess, I need to borrow a $100.00.” Jake’s eyes darted about the room as his fingers tapped the bar.
I reached into my tip apron and came up with just under his request. I dug into my short’s pocket and gave him the rest.
Jake folded the bills and slipped them in his shirt pocket. “Thanks kiddo.” He tapped me on the shoulder and went through the swinging doors of the kitchen. That was the last time I ever saw the roguish Jake Langeham.
As I watched the kitchen doors flutter shut, the front door burst open and four men dressed in dark suits, dark ties, and white starched shirts entered. They had
close-cropped haircuts with no sideburns and had a superior demeanor about themselves.
The older one of the group pointed to the kitchen door. “Delaney, check it out.” As his man hustled into the kitchen, the head guy scanned the dining area, which was empty save one couple enjoying an after dinner brandy. He then directed his attention to me, sitting alone at the bar. “Do you know Jake Langeham?” He removed his fedora hat, which reminded me of Dick Tracy, and put it on the bar right where Jake had been no more than a minute ago. I felt torn between loyalty to Jake and my upbringing of always doing the right thing. “Who wants to know?” I had no idea where that reply came from, but there it was.
The man straightened, reached inside his coat jacket, and flipped open his wallet. I saw his mug shot and then froze when I saw the bold blue letters FBI.
“Young lady.” He leaned toward me—he smelled of Old Spice and mouthwash. “It’s a federal crime to harbor a fugitive.” He drew back, studying my face for a reaction.
I looked into the mirror behind the bar and thought how absurd the image of this hulking forty-year-old man in his government issue suit trying to intimidate me with my summer tan, hair in a pony tail, and wearing a pale blue Crockford Inn polo shirt. I absentmindedly put my hand in my now empty apron pocket and said, “I saw him earlier, but don’t know where he is now.”
Two agents who had been searching the dining area and bathrooms returned and stood behind their boss, their eyes on me. Out of the corner of my eye, I looked for Tony or Stacy or anybody. Where were they?
One of the younger agents came over to my other side and leaned on the bar. “Jake Langeham is wanted for check fraud and money laundering.” There was an annoying nasal quality to his voice.
I looked into his lean, combative face. “Look,” I said, my voice rising, “I just work here.”
I heard Stacy voice bellow out of the kitchen. “Take your hands off me.”
The kitchen door swung open and Stacy stormed out followed by the fourth agent. “Inspector, I found her in a storage room.” The young agent pointed his chin to the where I sat. “Take a seat with your sidekick.”
Stacy stopped dead in her tracks, wheeled around, and looked eye level at the agent. “Look buster, we haven’t done a damn thing other than wait tables and serve drinks.” Stacy folded her arms across her chest. Her eyes said, Your move.
In a sweeping underhand motion, the agent motioned for Stacy to sit. She drew her chin in and stared back at him. He repeated the motion and Stacy muttered, “Humpt,” and took a seat next to me.
The head agent went behind the bar and faced Stacy and me, straightening the perfectly straight knot in his tie. “Where is the proprietor?”
Stacy shrugged her shoulders and said, “Beats me.”
His eyes shifted subtly to me. I felt like I was in some low budget movie and didn’t know whether to burst out laughing or be worried.
Stacy blurted. “Are you guys the keystone cops or what. Why are you wasting time with us.”
The boss agent twisted his mouth into a faint smirk, his eyes still on me. “We know for a fact that Jake always travels with a female accomplice.”
Stacy burst out in a great guffaw. “Ha, Ha, Ha.” She shook her head and waved her hand at me. “Do we look the part? We just graduated from college six weeks ago.”
The boss agent grimaced and jerked his thumb up in the air. “Delaney, you and Morris check the upstairs. Connelly, check around the perimeter of the building.”
The men dispersed, and the headman turned and inspected the liquor bottles in front of the mirror.
“I don’t think Jake is hiding back there,” Stacy said.
I placed an elbow in Stacy’s ribs to silence her.
He looked at Stacy through the mirror, his eyes grinning. “That very observant, Miss...What might your name be?”
I jabbed Stacy again in the ribs. She looked at me as one would an annoying fly. “Stacy Enright,” she said as she folded her hands together on the bar. “I didn’t appreciate getting strong-armed by your underling in the kitchen.”
The FBI man turned and placed his hands on the bar. “Now,” he said in a demanding tone, “Where’s the bartender?”
I heard a tense pleat in my voice as I shot in. “He has the night off.”
The agent kept his eyes on Stacy. “And the owner of this place, who is he?”
“Tony Costello,” I said.
A thin knowing smile creased his face. “Tony Costello,” The FBI agent strung the name out as if familiar with it.
Just then, the kitchen door swung open and Tony walked in as if on cue. “What the hell are you people doin’ in my place?” Tony went behind the bar as if he was claiming his turf. “You got a warrant?”
“We’re looking for Jake Langeham.” The agent said as he faced Tony, “Where is he?”
The FBI man took a bottle of Chivas Regal off the rack. He ran his fingers up and down the side. “Funny kinda of place for guy from Flatbush to be running.” He placed the bottle back and said in a low conspiratorial voice, “Unless he was washing big dollars through here.”
“I ain’t saying nuttin’ until I talk with my attorney.” Tony folded his hands across his chest and looked away from the agent.
The agent shrugged his shoulders and raised his hands in front of himself. “Have it your way.” He jabbed a finger at Tony. “But I am going to make your life around here, very, very hard, Mr. Costello-you got that.”
That night after the agents left, Stacy and I went upstairs and found Eric standing at the open door of his room. “Somebody went through my stuff,” he said.
We explained everything to Eric including me lending Jake $100.00. “Oh man,” he said, “I better check my stash.”
I followed him into the communal bathroom off the hallway. Eric drew back the shower curtain, stood on the bathtub wall, and opened the air vent in the ceiling. He reached up but found nothing. “When are they coming back?” He asked.
Stacy came into the bathroom. “They ransacked our room too—the bastards.”
“We might as well leave now,” Eric said.
“Why,” Stacy demanded, “Should we give those sons-of-bitches the satisfaction of running us off.”
“Because,” Eric said in a determined voice that I had never heard before. “I had enough marijuana in this vent to ruin my chances of ever becoming a lawyer.” And Tony’s been laundering money for the Mob through this place, and the Feds will be closing it down.” Eric secured the vent and stepped down. “I don’t want to be answering any of there question about any of this. I say we split tonight for California.”
I looked at Eric then Stacy and a dead silence fell over us for just an instant. Then we all darted to our rooms and packed. As we tossed the last bag in Eric’s VW van, I said in passing that I would never get my $100.00 back from Jake. Eric ran into the restaurant and came back out. “Here,” he said, as he handed me five twenties. “I left Tony a note in the register explaining everything. Let’s get the hell out of here.”
By the time we got to a diner in Hazleton, I had started to feel somewhat safer, and Eric had settled back to laid-back guy, but Stacy was still ranting about the whole affair at The Crockford. As we took a seat at the counter, I told Stacy to forget the Crockford, and that we needed to plan our trip.
“Yeah, yeah, I know,” she said between long swallows of her water, “But it still wasn’t right—the way we were treated.”
After we ordered, Eric said, “I’ll feel better when we got a couple of states between us and The Crockford.” Stacy and I agreed, and we decided to drive all day, taking turns behind the wheel. I volunteered to drive since Eric had driven the whole way from Long Island. “You and Stacy get some sleep, I’m good for four hours, I said.”
So we departed Hazleton with me behind the wheel and Stacy and Eric head-to-toe in the seat-less back of the van in sleeping bags. Heading west on Route 70 with a red-streaked dawn glinting in the rear view mirror, an overwhelming sense of freedom overcame me driving along the Pennsylvania Turnpike, up and down and through the granite mountains. No parents to control my life, no teaches to tell what to study or read, just myself sitting up high behind the wheel of an yellow VW freedom express. I wanted to bottle that moment—that exhilarating sense of anticipation that the road offered. A new phase of my life was beginning, not just this trip but after. The last vestiges of my childhood were fading and this trip would be a breaking away—a new beginning for the rest of my life.
By noon, a growing weariness gnawed on me for I had not slept in over a day. I pulled over into a service area. As I filled up the van, Stacy came out and stretched her long arms over her head. “Where are we?” She asked.
I topped off the tank and put the gas nozzle back on the pump. “Forty miles from the Ohio line.”
Stacy’s eyes narrowed, as she looked me over. “Tess, you look tired, I’ll drive.”
I snuggled into the empty sleeping bag behind the driver’s seat. Eric was laid out on his back with his head at the rear of the van. He looked so young and innocent, his chubby cheeks tinted light pink and the little snores whistling out of his lips that flapped ever so slightly.
I turned on my side and felt a sense of comfort as the van lurched forward and then accelerated onto the highway. The sound of the tires on asphalt, the whooshing rumble of trucks we passed, and the comfort of the sleeping bag lulled me asleep.
The whining sound of the van shifting gears and the crunch of tires on gravel woke me. I sat up in my sleeping bag and looked out the side window. We were pulling into a campground with a variety of mobile homes and campers. Eric was back behind the wheel and Stacy sat next to him.
I scrunched up to the front. “Hey,” I said, “Where are we?”
Eric pulled up to a permanent trailer on blocks. “Meadow Grove, Illinois.” He opened the driver’s door. “Let me check it out.”
Five minutes later, he came back and told Stacy and me that he had paid $4.00 for the night that included use of outdoor showers. That sounded real good to me so after all three of us had cleaned up and gotten directions to a place to eat, Eric drove directly to Big Annie’s Bar and Grill. We took a seat at a booth. The place had a honky-tonk quality about it with dim lighting, a jukebox, and various good old boys stationed at the bar. But the owner of the campground had told Eric that they had the best burgers and coldest beer around, and a cold beer right now sounded good to all three of us.
After our pitcher of beer arrived, we decided to have a few before ordering dinner. The experience at The Crockford now seemed far, far away as if a dim memory faded in the rear view mirror of time and distance. Stacy finished her first mug of beer in short order and poured another. “We need to give the van a name,” she said.
“How about,” I said as Stacy topped off my beer, “We call it something like The Yellow Freedom Express.”
“That’s close,” Eric said as he leaned his glass over as Stacy poured.
I got it.” Stacy placed down the pitcher with emphasis. “The Mellow Yellow Freedom Express.”
“Yes that is exactly it,” I said.
Eric smiled and nodded. “Perfect, I now am the proud owner of The Mellow Yellow Freedom Express. Taking us away,” he raised his mug and we clinked glasses as he continued, “The tyranny of Big Brother and his FBI goons.” All three of us burst into hooting, snorting laughter.
Stacy, her eyes sparkling with a daredevil gleam, pointed a finger at us and said, “I say we go to The State Fair in Iowa before we get to Colorado.”
This was so like Stacy to come up with some detour to our plans. She just never wanted to take the straight journey when the road less traveled beckoned. “Well,” I said with a hint of hesitancy in my voice, “I already phoned Buddy from back in Pennsylvania and told him to expect us in three days.”
Stacy screwed up her face in mock disgust. “Buddy boy can cool his heels a few days. I have always wanted to go to the Iowa State Fair, and it’s less than a day’s ride from here.”
This was all news to me, for in four years of college together, Stacy had never once mentioned anything about state fairs—she grew up in a working class neighborhood in Baltimore.
“Let’s kill two birds with one stone,” Eric said as he refilled his mug and mine. “How about we drop Stacy off at her Fair, Tess and I go on to Colorado, and Stacy can catch a bus and meet us.”
I looked over at Stacy who sat across from Eric and me. “How’s that sound, Stace.”
Stacey threw down her second beer and shrugged her shoulders. “Fine by me, but you guys don’t know what you will be missing.” With that, she got up, walked up to the bar, and motioned to the bartender, a middle-aged skinny guy with thinning hair and a world-weary look of someone who had spend most of his adult life behind a bar. “Another pitcher,” Stacy said, jerking her thumb over her shoulder toward our booth, “And where are your restrooms?”
Every guy at the bar was now looking at the tall outsider of a woman who acted as if she owned the place.
“Restrooms,” said a querulous voice from the bar. “We call ‘em toilets around these parts.”
I held my breath wondering what Stacy, born and bred in Dundalk, Maryland and the daughter of a rough-hewn ironworker, would do next.
Stacy shot a glance in the direction of the heckler. “Where I come from, we call ‘em terlets.” She said in her best Balamer accent.
The bartender jerked his thumb toward the end of the bar, and as Stacy made her way, the heckler swiveled around in his stool and reached for her arm. She grabbed his wrist with a firm grip and looked down at him. “Also where I come from, it is not polite to touch a woman without her permission.” Stacy put the man’s hand on his lap as an uproar of laughter burst out from the other patrons. “Looks like you had her pegged wrong, Larry,” an old timer at the bar croaked.
I looked at Eric, and he smiled back at me and said, “That’s our Stacy.”
After Stacy returned to the booth, the waitress brought over the pitcher and told us it was on the old timer at the bar. Stacy filled her glass and raised it to the man. “Thank you, sir,” she said. The man nodded and tilted his glass toward her.
After we left the bar and grill we found a country store and bought a cheap cooler, bread, peanut butter, cokes, and the like for our trip.
The following afternoon, we got to Des Moines, but had to drop Stacy off a mile from the fairgrounds, the traffic was snarled and people were everywhere. There was a festival attitude all around with loud hoots and laughter coming from a gaggle of young people strolling down Main Street, which looked right out of a Norman Rockwell painting. We were in the heartland all right for there was a wholesome quality from the low-tiered brick buildings with flower boxes in windowsills to litter-free sidewalks to these clear-eyed good folks who crackled with excitement as they made their way to the fair. I remember thinking how different they were from the gamblers at the Crockford.
Stacy said she would call Buddy’s apartment in two days and let us know when she would arrive in Denver. She told us not to worry that she would find a place to stay even though Des Moines seemed filled to the brim with people everywhere.
As Eric drove away, I turned back around and watched as Stacy, with canvas carryall in hand, stood on the sidewalk talking with a group of college-aged kids. How fearless she was, I thought. As we turned a corner, my last image of Stacy was of her arms flailing over her head as she jabbered away and her long body animated with that limitless energy that drove her. I imaged she would have a place to sleep within fifteen minutes and by tomorrow would have made a new set of friends.
It now seemed different traveling without Stacy. It was just Eric and me, and the dynamics of the journey had changed. Although there was no interest on my part for Eric, there was on an occasion or two, a quick look of longing in his eyes when we had shared a drink at The Crockford after closing. And to complicate the matter, it would be just Eric and me showing up at Buddy’s place. Buddy wasn’t the jealous type, but still I found the whole thing a bit unsettling.
By dusk, we were having no luck finding a campground so we pulled off the highway into a small town and found a family run restaurant. The owner told us that the nearest campground was over two hours away. So after dinner we got back on the highway and decided to drive through the night taking shifts sleeping and driving. This was mostly my idea for I didn’t want to sleep alone with Eric in the van. Not that I worried he would try anything, but it would be better this way and I would get to Buddy, who I missed, all the quicker.
Early the next morning, we exited the interstate ten miles north of Denver and pulled into a group of garden apartments all neat and orderly with the snow-capped Rocky Mountains as a backdrop. I got out of the van and breathed in the brisk, healthy air. Eric and I grabbed our bags, went to Buddy’s door, and knocked. I couldn’t wait to see the surprise on his face when he saw us.
Eric knocked again, and we heard the jiggle of the chain lock and the door creak open. A tangle of Buddy’s curly hair appeared then he stuck his sleep-flecked handsome face into the opening. When he saw us, his eyes bolted open and his mouth gaped. “Tess, you’re...early.”
I heard something or someone stirring in the background. “We drove all night, left Stacy at the Iowa State Fair.”
Buddy just stood there with a huh expression on his face.
I felt a knot in my stomach tighten as I said, “You going to let us in.”
“Well yeah...sure.” Buddy unlocked the chain and opened the door. I saw her from the corner of my eye lurching toward the bedroom in the back. She was in her underpants and wearing Buddy’s favorite flannel shirt, the one I had given him for his birthday.
I felt a vague sort of sickness come over me as I stood in the hallway with Eric at my side. I couldn’t speak.
Buddy sighed and said, “Look Tess, you gotta understand, I got lonely.”
I looked at Buddy then turned to Eric. Everything seemed in slow motion: the growing fear etched in Buddy’s face and the squinting gaze from Eric that seemed to say, I could have told you this would happen.
I remember Eric and me getting in the van and Buddy pounding on the door as we drove off. It was all so surreal.
“What now?” Eric said as I peeked in the rear view mirror and saw Buddy heading back into his apartment and his awaiting Lolita.
I looked at Eric and said in a pleading voice. “Stacy.”
“What?” Eric said as he turned to me.
“I need to be with Stacy. We have to go back to the Fair... Please,” I gasped as the first tear streaked my cheek.
Eric drove the entire 600 miles with me still numb in the passenger seat. We talked very little and Eric was very decent the whole way, talking when I talked and the other times just driving with an occasional concerned glance over at me. We ate peanut butter sandwiches for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. By the time, we arrived in Des Moines it was late afternoon. “Let’s try the Fair Grounds,” I said to Eric. We parked almost a half mile away from the entrance and made our way through the endless maze of cars parked in various lots and a huge wooded campground. As soon as we saw the campground, we both knew that Stacy was sure to be staying there.
Inside the Fairgrounds, it hit me how hard it might be to find her. The place was huge with an array of tents and pens filled with massive snorting pigs, mooing cattle, bleating sheep, and bellowing goats, food stands everywhere, different bands scattered about playing banjos or rock. The place was a bustling, noisy carnival with men dressed in overalls and women in sundresses or jeans wandering about with children in tow, and loads of boisterous young people.
We stopped at the Ferris Wheel, every seat filled and a line of people waiting to ride it. “Eric,” I said as I looked up at a seat with an elderly couple tottering at the top of the wheel, “We need to think like Stacy. Where would she go?”
Eric thought for a moment then said, “Wherever the most different and unusual event is.”
We asked a great big heavy-set man in bib overalls. “Well,” he said as he took off his straw hat and scratched his forehead, “I reckon that’d be the Butter Cow.”
After checking inside the tent where a life-sized replica of a cow was being sculpted in butter, we decided to walk around a bit when bigger than life here came Stacy walking right toward us. But what a sight she was: She wore bib overalls, her hair was spiked, and her two front teeth were blacked out.
At her side was a tall, gangly guy wearing thick glasses with a professional camera around his neck. “Stacy,” I yelled and ran to her.
“Tess!” Stacy engulfed me like a long lost friend. It felt so good to be back with her. We untangled and I said, “Love what you’ve done with your hair and teeth.”
Stacy exaggerated a smile and tapped her blackened front teeth. “Just trying to fit in with the country folk.”
Stacy introduced Eric and me to Earl, a local photographer freelancing for a travel magazine. He was a good three inches taller than Stacy and built similar with broad shoulders and long arms and legs. He wore a ragged Grateful Dead tee shirt, jeans, and sandals.
Just as Eric and I had figured, they were staying in a tent at the fairgrounds. “You and Eric can rent a tent and stay right next to us.” Stacy exclaimed. She then scrunched up her face. “What are you doing here, anyway?”
Whoa, I thought, she’s already sharing a tent with this guy. I wanted to get Stacy alone and tell her about finding Buddy with the girl, to drink a couple of beers with my best friend and hash the whole thing out. But I sure as all hell didn’t want to share it with this tall hayseed of guy named Earl, for Christ sakes. Stacy what are you doing to me, I thought as I smiled and said, “I’ll tell you all about it later.”
Eric took care of renting the tent and while he and Earl set it up, Stacy and I took a seat on a pair of folding chairs in front of Earl’s tent.Stacy ducked inside and came out with a cooler and handed me an ice cold Pabst. “I figured you could use this.” So between long swallows of beer, I proceeded to tell my tale of heartbreak about Buddy and his chick.
“Son-of-no-good-bitch,” Stacy said, “Don’t you worry anything about it Tess.” Stacy reached into the cooler and said, “You can get any guy you want.” She popped open two beers and handed me one. I was already feeling better. “So tell me about Earl.”
A shit-eating grin slashed across Stacy face. “Met him at the stockyards taking pictures of a prized bull.” She ran her finger around the rim of her beer and looked right at me with her bold gaze. “I knew from the way he moved and the expression on his face that I needed a guy like him at this point of my life.” Stacy took a swallow of beer and wiped her mouth with the back of her hand. “And I tell you Tess, it’s nice being with a guy that’s taller than me.”
Eric and Earl came over and joined us. For the next two hours, we drank beer and ate burgers and dogs that Earl cooked on a small grill. Boy, after a belly full of peanut butter sandwiches and cokes, this was great. And being back with Stacy...well just like the incident with the FBI, Buddy was starting to fade into my rearview mirror.
That night, Eric and I were so dead tired that I didn’t, nor did Eric, worry about sharing a tent. Within a minute of climbing into my sleeping bag I fell asleep.
The next day we had a great time at The Fair. First thing, we went to the pig-calling contest that of course Stacy had to enter. She didn’t win anything, but got a rousing cheer, for if she didn’t quite have the snorting sound down, she did it in her inimical fashion with great enthusiasm and gusto. We then rode the Ferris Wheel, went into the tents with enormous pigs and huge bulls, and ate corndogs, and all day we laughed and hollered and had a good old time. Earl was a country boy through and through, but a lot of fun and I could see he made Stacy happy, something that was not always the case with her. Stace could be moody, go off inside herself, and then just as quickly burst out into her old self again. But with Earl she was riding a wave of bliss.
That night Stacy told Eric and me that she wasn’t going on with us—she was staying with Earl. I knew better than trying to talk her out of it. Once she made up her mind, there was no going back with Stacy.
I think from the moment I first saw Stacy walking through the Fairgrounds with Earl, the glimmer in her eyes before she recognized me said to one-and-all—this is my guy. Down the road, who knew. No way could I see Stacy spending the rest of her life in Iowa. She had a zest for adventure that a little town could not contain. A zest to travel and explore and to met new people and cultures.
The next morning after a quick goodbye and promises to write, Eric and I left the campgrounds and headed west.
By the time we arrived in San Diego, Eric had grown tired of the road. We were staying with an old high school friend of his near the beach. We were welcome to stay as long as we wanted, and I even had my own room. But the friend, sized up Eric and my arrangement and started making advances toward me. An arm on my shoulder, a knowing look that I didn’t reciprocate, and then one night after Eric had passed out on the sofa, he came up behind me and nuzzled my neck. Ugh.
I needed to get off on my own. So I did some investigating and discovered drive-away cars: People who need their car transported between two points. In quick order, I found a drive-away company that needed a car driven to Kalamazoo, Michigan. Perfect, my older sister and her husband had just moved right outside of Kalamazoo so three days after arriving in San Diego, I departed in a brand new Buick Rivera. It was luxurious after the mellow yellow VW van and rode smoothly. But I missed everything about that old yellow rattletrap: nestling in the sleeping bag in the back, the camaraderie of Stacy and Eric, and the musty smell after a rain. But onward I drove, spending the first night in the backseat of the car in a motel parking lot somewhere in Utah. I found a YMCA, I still had my parent’s membership card on me, and got a shower. I then stocked the cooler with cokes and food and hit the road. Driving for miles and miles without another car in sight, the sense of it all was overpowering and gave me strength to drive on.
By the time I arrived in Kalamazoo, my sister and her husband were not home. After checking with a neighbor, I found out they would not return for two days. The neighbor, a nice older woman, said I looked just like my sister and gave me a key to her house. I had a good night’s sleep in an old clapboard home over 100 years old.
The next morning, I dropped off the Buick and got a ride back to my sister’s place. I checked out their property and found an MG convertible in the garage. It was a good twenty years old, but I found the key in the house and started it up. It was in good shape. I rummaged around the garage and found a tent with poles, but no stakes. So I got out my Swiss Army knife, which my father gave me on my fourteenth birthday, and found some tree branches laying about and carved out my stakes.
I headed north toward the Upper Peninsula. I loved it all: driving the MG with the top down, woodland and water everywhere, and camping out in the woods. Sounds like a crazy think for a young woman to do, but this was 1978 and it was a different world then. At least I perceived it that way.
When I returned to my sister’s house, she and her husband had returned. My sister had gotten a call from our parents who informed her that Stacy was getting married in three days and was desperately trying to reach me. I couldn’t find a drive-away car to Des Moines so I took the bus and thirty-six hours later I arrived.
A Justice of the Peace performed the wedding, Stacy’s parents had refused to come, and I was the only guest outside the state of Iowa. Stacy had jerry-rigged a wedding dress out of toilet paper. That’s right toilet paper. It didn’t look half-bad either. After the wedding, Earl and Stacy were off on an assignment of his to take pictures for an Agricultural Journal of soybean crops damaged by chinch bugs in Kansas. So off they went, and then it hit me—it was time to go home. Stacy was married and it was never going to be the same again.
Looking back on it now, it was the time of my life. Thirty years later, Eric is a prosecuting attorney for the DEA on distribution of illegal drugs. Stacy and Earl lasted three years. She moved to New York and is now in the Import Export business traveling the world. She never remarried nor had kids and is relocating to London.
Me, I met Bill back home in Maryland, and two years later we married. We have been in Joplin, Missouri for twenty years now, Bill teaches graphic arts at the community college, our two daughters are grown with one married, and the other engaged, No grandkids yet. We live on three acres with two goats, some geese, sold the horse after girls went to college, a black lab, and four cats. There’s an old red barn behind the house where I make pottery vases and dabble in some landscape oil paintings.
Bill is going to retire in two years, and he promises me we’re going to buy a old VW van and travel cross-country. It will be a different journey, this one with Bill, not as crazy as with Stacy walking up boldly to the bar in Illinois, no Jake Langeham, no heartbreak finding my beau with another woman. But Bill did promise me one thing- we’d have sleeping bags in the back of van that he would paint a verymellow yellow.
So two years from now off we’ll go, Bill and I. And somewhere along the way, I’ll try to remember the way it used to be through that inscrutable prism—the rear view mirror of my life.