Story about a young woman's summer on the road after graduating college.
Tess and Stacy
It was the summer of 1978, and not only were Stacy and I making good money waiting tables for our cross country trip in August, but we had convinced Teddy, the bartender, to join us in his VW van.
We worked at the tavern in the Crockford Inn, which was nestled in the back pocket of a stand of tall pines overlooking a secluded cove in Southampton. Formerly a Gatsby-style mansion, it had been rehabbed back in the 30’s. The Crock, as Stacy and I called it, was a lovely place with a stone and clapboard exterior, wrought iron trim, and pitched dormer roof, all of which gave it that old fashioned charm of understated class.
The Whispering Cove Tavern occupied what was once the drawing room—it had solid plank wood décor, with double hung sash windows along the front and side, that was complimented by miniature schooners and whaling boats in glass cases, fisherman netting, and copper lantern wall sconces.
But the history and ambience of the place was in direct contrast to the owner, Tony Santini, who was pure Flatbush Italian: dark features and hair, thick, beefy hands that were constantly in motion when he talked—and he was rarely silent—and an outgoing, big guy personality that bordered on pushy.Rumor had it that he had won the tavern in a poker game from the scion of old Hampton money.
Every so often, some of Tony’s paisanos from the old neighborhood would drop in at the oak bar nestled in the back. Standing shoulder-to-shoulder, foot on brass rail, they studied The Daily Racing Form, kibitzing in secretive murmurs before shuffling one at a time over to the pay phone in the restroom hallway to place bets with their bookies. Dressed in gaudy double-breasted pinstripe suits, slicked-back hair, and with monikers like Little Al, Fat Sally, and Benny Squint, they were an affable, but tight knit collection of characters. They were in odd juxtaposition with the well-heeled, Waspy crowd ensconced in leather booths and white linen tables, luxuriating in the dining area. It was like watching two different and separate worlds, each rotating around their own axis in close proximity to the other.
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 a good twenty years older, it was definitely for the best. Though, Stacy had mentioned that she found them interesting in a dark sort of way. But gambling seemed their only passion, at least in the Whispering Cove Tavern where they were always courteous gentlemen and big tippers. Stacy and I called their generous gratuities Road Trip Booty.
But from the start, Tony was on us about our trip. “You and Stacy,” he had told me more than once, “are crazy traveling cross country by yourselves.” When I told him Teddy was going to join us, he twisted his face up in disbelief. “Are you serious, Stacy could kick that roly-poly, law school sissy’s ass in a heartbeat.” He raised his hands, palms out, and said, “Come on, already, Tess.”
Thetrip was to end in San Diego and included 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. Buddy wanted me to move in with him, and though I cared about him, I had an intuitive sense that I should not rush into anything.
Stacy, on the other hand, had broken up with her beau of two years right before graduation. She was a no-nonsense capable girl, who changed her own sparkplugs and oil filters on her car. But, at 6 foot 1 inch tall, finding Mr. Right had never been easy for Stacy, an athletic looking girl with a well-proportioned body from years of competitive swimming. Her face was finely structured with prominent cheekbones and wide set dark-blue eyes, bold eyes, that transmitted an attitude that said, Whatever. And combine that with her loud, gregarious voice that went a hundred miles an hour, the boys gravitated to us. I always felt a bit uncomfortable doing the Hampton bar scene since I was involved in a 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, working at The Crockford sharing a bedroom in the private quarters upstairs with Stacy, mornings at the beach, work until ten, and partying late nights at the bars.We were in a comfortable little groove until …
The first time I laid eyes on Jake Langeham, he was standing at the end of the bar, a look here, a look there, nothing missed. There was something compelling and dangerous about him, from his rakish good looks to an icy cool distance in his gaze.
Jake wasn’t dressed like the rest of the Brooklyn cronies in their flashy suits, instead he wore a cotton knit short sleeves shirt that showed off his tanned, muscular arms. On his left forearm was a tattoo of a stripper in a g-string, leg wrapped around a pole.
He looked over to me at the waitress station in the corner of the bar, “Hello, kiddo.” “Hi,” I stammered as my heart seemed to pulse fearful exhilaration, “I’m Tess.” “You look like a Tess, kiddo.”
Things ratcheted up a notch when later that evening, Tony told Stacy and me that Jake would be staying for a few days in the spare bedroom next to us. It felt a little scary knowing Jake Langeham was in the next room—I could almost feel his presence through the walls— but along with it was a sense of security that no one would dare harm us with Jake nearby.
By Jake’s third day at the Crockford, Stacy and I wondered what a character like Jake was doing idling in the Hamptons. We never saw him during the day—he was gone before we got up—but would always arrive at the bar at seven and stay until closing.Teddy thought he was hiding from something or someone, but whom or what it was, we had no clue. I told Stacy I couldn’t imagine Jake fearing anyone. “Maybe it’s more than one person,” Stacy replied.
But during this period, Jake and I had become conversational, and whenever I had a break, he would tell me about growing up in Brooklyn in the late forties: stealing cars in Manhattan, running numbers, or turf wars with local gangs—“We were the real life Sharks and Jets.” I never knew how much to believe, but couldn’t help listening, almost privileged to have this charming raconteur share his life with me, and only me.
That evening toward closing, Jake sat alone at the bar nursing a Jameson straight up, his sharp gaze on constant surveillance.
When the pay phone rang, Jake looked over with an inquiring slant to his eyebrows. One of the dishwashers, an older black man, who went by the name of Papa Charlie, answered. “Hey, Mr. Jake, phone call.” There was an eager note in Papa Charlie’s voice that announced something big was coming down.
Jake answered, listened silently, and returned to his seat. “Kiddo,” he said to me, tapping the stool next to him.
I came over from the waitress station and sat. “Yes, Jake.” “I need a favor.” He leaned his head toward me and whispered, “I gotta get on down the road.” The shuddering flash of headlights drew Jake’s attention to the front window for an instant before he said to me, “Can you spare a hundred.”
I reached into my tip apron and came up with four twenties, a ten, and ten singles, and stacked my night’s earnings on the bar in a neat pile. “Hundred on the nose, Jake,” I said staring at the money.
Jake scooped up the bills, folded them, and secured them in his shirt pocket as the heavy bang of car doors shutting registered like a warning shot. “Thanks, Tess,” he said in a detached voice, the voice of a man with nothing to lose. He tapped me on the shoulder and smiled and winked conspiratorially, and then he was gone like a ghost into the night, slipping through the swinging doors to the kitchen.
As I watched the kitchen doors flutter shut, the front door burst open and three men dressed in dark-blue suits, thin black ties, and white starched shirts entered. They had close-cropped haircuts with no sideburns, and a superior I’m in charge demeanor.
The oldest of the three 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 a late night brandy. He motioned to the other agent. “Check out the rest of the place.” He then directed his attention to me sitting all by my lonesome at the bar. “Do you know Jake Langeham?” He removed his fedora hat, which brought to mind 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 my reply came from, but there it was.
The man straightened, reached inside his coat jacket, and flipped open his wallet: I saw the bold blue letters FBI, with his mug shotand below it a name, Inspector John O’Connor—Yikes.
“Young lady.” He leaned toward me, and I caught a whiff of Old Spice and mouthwash. “It’s a federal crime to harbor a fugitive.”
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 nearly empty apron pocket and said, “I saw him earlier, but don’t know where he is now.”
The agent who had been searching the dining area and bathrooms returned and stood on my other side. “Jake Langeham is wanted for check fraud and money laundering.” There was an annoying nasal quality to his voice.
“Look,” I said, “I just work here.”
A loud, aggrieved voice blared from the kitchen. “Take your hands off me, buster.”
The kitchen door swung open and Stacy stormed out, followed by the third agent, who appeared to be no more than twenty five.
“Inspector, I found her in a storage room.” The young agent pointed his chin in my direction. “Take a seat with your sidekick.”
Stacy wheeled around and looked eye level at him. “Look buster, we haven’t done a damn thing other than wait tables and serve drinks.”
The young agent made an underhand sweeping gesture for Stacy to sit. She drew her chin in and stared back at him. He repeated the motion and Stacy muttered, “Humpt,” before taking a seat next to me.
The Inspector went behind the bar and faced Stacy and me, straightening the perfectly straight knot in his tie. “Where is Jake Langeham?”
Stacy shrugged her shoulders and said, “Beats me.”
His eyes shifted subtly to me. I felt like I was in some low budget gangster movie and didn’t know whether to burst out laughing or worry.
Stacy blurted. “Are you guys the Keystone Cops or what? Why are you wasting time with us?”
Inspector O’Connor 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 man grimaced and jerked his thumb up in the air. “Delaney, check the upstairs. Morris,” he said lifting his chin in the general direction of the front door, “check the perimeter of the building.”
After the two men dispersed, O’Connor said, as if mostly to himself, “We’ll get him. We always do.” He then turned and began straightening the liquor bottles in front of the mirror, as though stalling for time.
“I don’t think Jake is hiding back there,” Stacy said.
I placed an elbow in Stacy’s ribs and made a face at her indicating to be quiet.
O’Connor 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. “Bonnie Parker and this is my sidekick Ma Barker.”
“Very funny young lady but—”
“I didn’t appreciate getting strong-armed by your underling in the kitchen,” Stacy said.
I grabbed Stacy forearm firmly and said, “She’s Stacy Enright and I’m Tess Henderson.”
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 bleat in my voice as I said, “He has the night off.”
The Inspector kept his eyes on Stacy. “And the owner of this place, who is he?”
“Tony Santini,” I said.
“Toe—neee San—tinee he said, in a derisive tone of discovery.
Just then, the kitchen door swung open and Tony walked in as if on cue. “What the hell are you doin’ behind my bar?” He put both hands on the bar as if claiming his turf.
“FBI,” O’Connor said, flashing his badge.
“Whadda you want?”
“We’re looking for Jake Langeham,” The Inspector said. “Where is he?”
“Funny kinda of place for guy from Flatbush to be running.” The FBI man took a bottle of Chivas Regal off the counter. “Unless he was washing big dollars through this very fine liquor.” He raised the bottle toward Tony as if producing exhibit one.
“I ain’t saying nuttin’ until I talk with my attorney.” Tony folded his hands across his chest and looked away from the agent.
Inspector O’Connor shrugged indifferently. “Have it your way,” he said as he placed the liquor back on the counter. A hard, dark look came over his countenance, as he jabbed a finger at Tony. “But I am going to make your life around here, very, very difficult, Mr. Santini-you got that.”
Later that night, Stacy and I went upstairs and found Teddy outside the open door of his room. “Somebody went through my stuff,” he said.
We explained everything, 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. Teddy 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?”
Stacy came into the bathroom. “They ransacked our room too—the bastards.”
“We might as well leave now,” Teddy said.
“Why?” Stacy demanded. “I don’t want to give those sons-of-bitches the satisfaction of running us off?”
“Because,” Teddy 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.”
Teddy secured the vent and stepped down. “I don’t want to be answering any of their questions about any of this. I say we split tonight for our road trip.”
We all looked at each other. In that instant, it seemed a light bulb went on in our heads simultaneously. We darted to our rooms and packed.
I tossed the last of the sleeping bags in the seatless back of Teddy’s VW van. I paused for a moment and looked out past the cove at the blue-black sky aglitter in stars, the reflection of the moonlight shimmering over the water. I felt an adrenaline surge, like a convict scaling over a prison wall and disappearing into the dark of night.
“Ready?” Teddy asked as he slowly closed the sliding door, pressing his hands against it as it softly clicked shut.
I said in passing that I would never get my $100.00 back from Jake. “Wait here a minute,” Teddy said. He went to the front door of the tavern and unlocked it with a key Tony had given him for emergencies. Stacy and I waited, looking around, half expecting the roar of squad cars and the blare of sirens.
After what seemed forever, but was probably only a few minutes, Teddy returned. “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 Teddy had settled back to laid-back guy, but Stacy was still ranting about the whole affair at The Crockford. “Sons-of-bitches”strewing every other sentence.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.”
“Turns out,” I said laughing, “The Crockford really was a crock.”
The tension left Stacy’s face, and in its place a thin smile emerged. “Yeah,” she said nodding, “The hoity-toity Crockford, a crock with a little c.”
“Their illustrious tavern run by gangsters,” Teddy said. “Doesn’t that make you girls mob bimbos?”
“Damn, “Stacy said, “I sure hope so.” She looked at me and smiled big. “Ever since I was a little girl, I’ve wanted to be a bimbo.”
We all burst out laughing—let the road trip begin.
After we ordered, Teddy 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 keep on truckin’, taking turns behind the wheel. I volunteered to drive since Teddy had driven the whole way from Long Island. “You and Stacy get some sleep, I’m good for at least four hours, I said.”
So we departed Hazleton, with me behind the wheel and Stacy and Teddy, head-to-toe in the back, ensconced 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 teachers to tell me what to study or read, just myself sitting up high behind the wheel of an yellow VW freedom express. I wanted to bottle the moment of that exhilarating sense of anticipation that the road offered. It came over me that 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.”
“Tess, you look tired,” Stacy said. “I’ll drive.”
I snuggled into the sleeping bag behind the driver’s seat. Teddy was stretched 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 downshifting gears and the crunch of tires on gravel woke me. I sat up and looked out the side window. We were pulling into a campground with a variety of mobile homes and campers. Teddy was back behind the wheel and Stacy sat next to him.
I scrunched my head up to the front. “Hey,” I said. “Where are we?”
Teddy 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 with a legless, squishy cushion-chair under his arm. “Bought it for three bucks,” Teddy said as he tossed in the back, “and paid $4.00 for the night that included use of outdoor showers.”
After all three of us had cleaned up and gotten directions to a place to eat, Teddy drove directly to Big Annie’s Bar and Grill. We sat in a booth, Stacy sitting across from me and Teddy. The place had a honky-tonk quality with dim lighting, a jukebox, and various good old boys stationed at the bar. But the owner of the campground had told Teddy that they had the best burgers and coldest beer around.
After our pitcher of beer arrived, we decided to have a few before ordering dinner. The experience at The Crockford now seemed far away, like a dim memory fading away 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,” Teddy said, as he tipped 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.
Teddy smiled and nodded. “Perfect, I now am the proud owner of The Mellow Yellow Freedom Express. Taking us away,” he said, raising his mug, as we clinked glasses, “from the tyranny of Big Brother and his FBI goons.” All three of us burst into hooting, snorting laughter.
Stacy, her eyes sparkling with daredevil gleam, jabbed a finger at us and said, “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.
“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 for a few days.
“Let’s kill two birds with one stone,” Teddy said. “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. “How’s that sound, Stace?”
Stacey shrugged. “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. “Also, 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 an ironworker nicknamed Scrap-Iron, 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 Teddy, 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 another pitcher and burgers, which were great, we drove to a country store and bought a Styrofoam cooler, bread, peanut butter, cokes, and the like for our trip. By the time we returned to the campground, it was dark outside and all three of us were tuckered out. We sunk ourselves into our sleeping bags: Teddy, head at the rear, Stacy and me in the front. Within a minute we were sound asleep.
When we arrived in Des Moines the following afternoon, the traffic was so snarled that we had to drop Stacy off a mile from the fairgrounds. There was a festival attitude all around, with shouts and laughter coming from a gaggle of young people strolling down Main Street, which looked to be 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. 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 crammed to the brim with people.
As Teddy drove away, I turned back around and watched as Stacy, with canvas carryall in hand and sleeping bag strung across her shoulder, standing 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, 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 Teddy and me, and the dynamics of the journey had changed. Although there was no interest on my part for Teddy, there was on an occasion or two, a quick look of longing in his eyes when we had shared a drink after closing. And to complicate the matter, it would be just Teddy 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 out of our way. 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 Teddy in the van. Not that I worried he would try anything, but it would be better this way, and I would get to Buddy, whom 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, backdropped by the snow-capped Rocky Mountains—how big and imposing they were. I got out of the van and breathed in the brisk air. Teddy and I went to Buddy’s door and knocked. I couldn’t wait to see the surprise on his face when he saw us.
Teddy 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 stood there with a huh expression on his face.
A knot tightened in my stomach. “You going to let us in?”
“Well yeah ... sure.” Buddy unlocked the chain and opened the door, standing there shirtless and in his underwear. I saw her from the corner of my eye lurching toward the bedroom in the back. She was in her panties and wearing Buddy’s favorite flannel shirt, the one I had given him for his twenty-first birthday.
I felt a vague sort of sickness come over me, as I stood in the hallway with Teddy at my side.
Buddy sighed and said, “Look Tess, you gotta understand, I got lonely.”
I looked at Buddy, then turned to Teddy and grabbed him by the forearm. “Get me out of here. Please.”
Teddy led me out, holding me by the arm. As we got in the van, Buddy came running toward us, barefoot and in jeans, pounding on the passenger door as we drove off. He was screaming at me but I did not hear him.
“What now?” Teddy said as I peeked in the side view mirror and saw Buddy heading back into his building and his awaiting Lolita.
I looked at Teddy and said in a pleading voice. “Stacy.”
“What?” Teddy 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.
Teddy drove the entire 600 miles with me still numb in the passenger seat. We talked very little and Teddy was very decent the whole way, talking when I talked, and the other times driving in silence with an occasional concerned glance over at me. We ate peanut butter sandwiches for breakfast and lunch. By the time, we arrived in Des Moines it was late afternoon.
“Let’s try the Fair Grounds,” I said to Teddy. 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, where we suspected that Stacy might be staying.
A few steps past the gate of the Fairground, the sticky aroma of cotton candy and the warm fragrance of popcorn welcomed us. 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, bands scattered about playing bluegrass or rock. The place was a bustling, noisy carnival, with many of the men dressed in overalls or jeans and the women in sundresses, wandering about with children in tow, and loads of boisterous young people.
We stopped at the Ferris wheel, where a long line of people were boarding. “Teddy,” I said as I looked up at an elderly couple in a tottering seat at the top of the wheel, “we need to think like Stacy. Where would she go?”
Teddy thought for a moment and then said, “Wherever the most different and unusual event is.”
We asked a 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 a 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 had on 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-looking 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 teeth and hair.”
Stacy exaggerated a smile and tapped her blackened front teeth. “Just trying to fit in with the country folk.”
She introduced Teddy 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—how perfect.
Just as Teddy and I had figured, they were staying in a tent at the campgrounds. “You and Teddy can rent a tent and stay right next to us,” Stacy said. She then scrunched up her face. “What are you doing here, anyway?”
After registering the fact that she was sharing a tent with this guy,I needed 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 named Earl.
“I’ll tell you all about it later,” I said.
At the campgrounds, Teddy 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 beach 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 chickadee.
“Son-of-a-no-good-bitch,” Stacy said. “Don’t you worry anything about it, Tess.” Stacy reached into the cooler and popped two beers and handed me one. “You can get any guy you want.”
I was already feeling better. “So tell me about Earl,” I said.
A shit-eating grin slashed across Stacy’s face. “Met him at the stockyards taking pictures of a prized bull.” She ran her finger around the rim of her beer and then looked at me. “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.”
Teddy 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 charcoal grill. 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, Teddy and I were so dead tired that I didn’t, nor did Teddy, 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 received 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 inside 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. Stacy 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 Teddy 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 meet new people and cultures.
The next morning after a quick goodbye and promises to write, Teddy and I left the campgrounds and headed west.
By the time we arrived in San Diego, Teddy had grown tired of the road. We stayed 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 Teddy 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 Teddy 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. I sat in a cushy leather seat, the powerful engine propelling me effortlessly down the highway. But I missed everything about that old yellow rattletrap: nestling in the sleeping bag in the back, the camaraderie of Stacy and Teddy, 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.
Next morning, I took a shower at a YMCA and then stocked the cooler with cokes and food and hit the road, driving through the buttes and plateaus of western Colorado, the road to myself. The sense of it all was overpowering and gave me the strength to drive on through the Rockies, spending the night at a cheap motel on the Nebraska prairie. Then, up before dawn, I made peanut and jelly sandwiches and checked the road map. I had nearly 800 miles left but decided to try and drive straight to my sister’s house.
By the time I arrived in Kalamazoo that evening, 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 elderly woman, said I looked just like my sister and gave me a key to her house. Tired to the bone, I had a good night’s sleep in an old, cozy clapboard home.
The next morning, I dropped off the Buick and treated myself to a cab ride back to my sister’s place. I checked out their property and found an MG convertible under a tarp 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 had given 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 a grinding 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 to take photographs 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, Teddy is a prosecuting attorney for the DEA on distribution of illegal drugs—go figure. 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 the 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 an 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, and 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 very mellow 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 life.