IT WILL BE FOREVER
by Jeff Richards
Richard Sager lost his virginity in the spring of 1967 before our road trip across country to break in the red Mustang convertible my parents gave me for Christmas. Her name was Linda Boudreau. She was a wisp of a thing, with a turned-up nose and a sallow complexion. We called her “the Mouse” behind her back. We knew that was mean, but Linda was dangerous. She reeled in a college boy and didn’t plan to throw him back.
We were in Steubenville, Ohio, in a double-wide furnished in Early American. An American flag slapped against a pole outside. We could see the lights that lined Dean Martin Expressway sparkling in the distance. Baby Huey invited us down here for the weekend. His parents were away, so we had the place to ourselves. There was J.B. of the close-cropped hair and businesslike demeanor. Hank Hipple of the Big Eyes. He could sleep sitting up with his eyes open. Baby Huey of the comic strip and wide girth. And me, Underdog, as my students called me many years later because of the short distance between my lipless mouth and dimpled chin. We were all innocent as lambs. Not Rick of the curly sandy-blond hair, blue eyes, and pointy chin. He almost looked girlish, one of the reasons, I assume, that he was cultivating chin whiskers.
We were all in the living room watching baseball on TV. We were drinking beer and smoking cigars. A fan was on to blow the smoke out of an open door. Huey didn’t want to anger his fastidious mom. Linda wasn’t smoking a cigar, but she was hanging on to Rick like an ill-fitting suit. She whispered to our friend, and he stood up with a sheepish grin on his face.
“Well, uh-hum,” he said, clearing his throat. “I guess we’re going to disappear for a while,” he said as they slipped by the TV and into the other side of the double-wide. They emerged later, in the eighth inning of the game—they left in the third. Rick looked solemn, almost anxious. Linda smiled. Her eyes lit up like sparklers. She raised her hand and showed us the cigar ring on her finger. “We’re gonna get hitched,” she gushed.
That’s why I didn’t think Rick was that enthusiastic about our road trip, but we went ahead anyway. The idea was to work the first part of the summer so we could raise enough money to finance the gas and food for the trip. We found a job at Hot Shoppes Jr. on Rockville Pike. I worked the front while Rick flipped hamburgers in the back. I had to watch Rick because he liked to joke with me. One time he put a dishrag in a Teen Twist. Another time, I found a dead cockroach floating on top of the Royal Sauce in a Mighty Mo. This might not have been Rick, because I’d seen roaches fall from the ceiling. I was always careful to check the food before I handed it to the customers. One time I caught the fry man turn his head and spit in the soup. For the rest of the day when somebody asked for soup, I’d say we were out.
Sometimes Linda visited. They’d have lunch, or if Rick didn’t have time, she’d sit in the dining area sipping a Coke, watching him in a covetous way, like she owned him. Once he spoke to one of the women customers. Linda stormed out of the restaurant. And this wasn’t the first time that happened. The day manager got on his back. “You got to keep your woman under control,” he said.
The day manager was a short ginger-haired fellow with beefy arms and a sly grin on his pimply face. He had six kids and all he heard from them all day, he told us, was, “Daddy, give me a quarter. Daddy, give me a quarter.” He would lean up against the register after the rush and comment on the customers who came in. A black guy came in, he’d say he’ll order an orange drink; a white guy, he’ll order a root beer float; a fat guy, he’ll order Pappy Parker’s fried chicken and apple pie à la mode. But mostly he’d comment on the lady customers’ breast size. He’d poke one of us in the side and say, “That’s a good un, that’s a good un.” Once he spotted Lindy, knowing exactly who she was, he said “Flat.” Rick didn’t say a thing.
But on the last day of work, when I was about to drive out of the lot, Rick opened the glove compartment and found two Kotex pads that my sister left there when she borrowed the Mustang. Susan was not a modest person. Rick grabbed my arm and told me to stop. Then he ran in the Hot Shoppes and came out with a squeeze bottle of ketchup. He squirted the ketchup on one of the Kotex. He stood up in the car—the top was down—and threw the Kotex as hard as he could against the plate glass window. The pad stuck for a second, then slide down, leaving a trail of ketchup behind.
“Take that, creep,” he yelled to the manager, who was at the register ringing up a customer.
* * *
It took us two days to pack our gear and reassure our families that we would be safe. Then we drove west at breakneck speed, Rick grumbling the whole way about how his mother didn’t trust Linda. She was cheap. She was grasping. She didn’t have a brain in her head. “She’ll rob you blind. You’re so innocent.”
We reached Phoenix, where J.B. lived with his family in a ranch house in a suburb overlooking Camelback Mountain. It was hotter than hell. They’d water the lawns at night, and the water would stay there. The ground was like cement. J.B.’s family had moved from the bucolic hinterlands of Connecticut, and I think they were in shell shock. J.B. had a younger brother and sister. We didn’t see much of them, though once Rick and I wandered into the living room. J.B.’s sister was standing on top of the sofa, sticking her finger in a hole in the ceiling like she was the Little Dutch Boy plugging the dike. Rick asked her what she was doing.
She shrugged. “Nothing.”
She jumped off the couch and looked at us. “You’re Jim’s friends.”
She laughed and ran out of the room. We asked J.B. later what her problem was. He shrugged. “I don’t know. Maybe she smokes marijuana.”
We didn’t see the parents. The mother was back in Connecticut. The father worked all hours. I met him once at our college when he came to visit. He hardly spoke at all, but sat in a chair jotting down notes in a small black leather-bound notebook. I thought the parents were estranged or about to be.
J.B. was working at the time, so there wasn’t much for us to do. Once when it was 110 degrees, we ordered tacos at Taco Bell and ate outside to see what was hotter—the tacos, which we slathered with hot sauce, or the overheated air. Another time we took a ride out in the desert and noticed that it was all fenced in. Why would someone care if you trespassed on this crummy land, we wondered. Another time we took in a movie, The Trip, about a group of rich Hollywood types on acid that ends badly, I think, when Peter Fonda’s frozen face in a close-up cracks like glass.
We exited the theater into the hot air, trying to catch our breath. It wasn’t the heat as much as the lack of humidity that bothered us. “You know,” said Rick, “I don’t think I’ll ever take an acid trip.”
On J.B.’s day off, we took an inner-tube trip down the Verde River, which comes out of the mountains above Phoenix. The rapids were mild, mostly ones or twos, though occasionally we’d hit a chute that would take us a couple of feet down to the next level. We came across two couples drifting along, with a table on an inner tube between them, partaking of a fried chicken and potato salad lunch between sips of beer. The air was baking hot, so it was nice to fall off the inner tube and bury myself up to my neck in the cold, silky water.
When we were winding our way home through a forest of saguaro cacti—most with their arms up, but a few bent over like dead soldiers—J.B. asked Rick if he really planned to marry Linda.
“Of course I do. We’re engaged. I don’t know why everyone doubts me.”
“Are you going to wait until after you graduate from Denison?”
“Maybe I will. Maybe I won’t,” snapped Rick.
We drove south to Tombstone, Arizona, where we watched a mock gunfight at O.K. Corral. Then we crossed the border at Agua Prieta, Mexico, and drove down a dirt road dodging potholes until we came to a fence and couldn’t drive farther. A kid came up to us and said, “You want my sistah?”
“No,” said Rick.
We drove back and at the border, they searched the Mustang. They opened the trunk and pulled back the mat. They found a compartment that I didn’t know was there.
“What are you looking for?”
“Drugs,” said the border patrol guard, rolling his eyes as if we were a couple of neophytes.
We spent the night in the Chiricahua Mountains and had a run-in with a family of skunks that didn’t amount to much. They camped out with us for a couple of hours in Rick’s tent. We lay as still as stone statues. They got bored. They left. They didn’t leave anything behind.
We decided to try Mexico again. We crossed the border at El Paso. This time on foot across the International Bridge. A Mexican border guard waved us on impatiently and went back to reading his newspaper. We ordered a steak and Coke dinner in a small restaurant by the square. Then we wandered through the seediest part of town into a bar where a heavyset woman danced on a stage to mariachi music. We ordered margaritas and sat down at a table. A skeletal woman with an ashen complexion and a cold sore on her lip asked us if we would buy her a shot of tequila. We said yes.
I told Rick that this woman looked an awful lot like a dissipated version of Linda Boudreau. He shot me the dirtiest look and jumped up like he was going to slug me. The woman backed off. He looked at her for a second and shook his head.
“You’re right,” he said and sat down, mopping his forehead. It was hot and close in this room, even though there was an overhead fan above us creaking around and around.
There were a few customers in the bar, and except for us, they all seemed to be Mexican. They watched us in a friendly way, as if they were waiting to see what would happen next. What happened was that the heavyset woman lumbered off the stage and came up to us. She sat down. She asked for a shot of tequila. This went on for a while, one shot after another, until I sniffed one of the glasses.
“It’s water,” I told Rick.
He grabbed the glass from me and sniffed. “Yeah.”
The ladies seemed nonplussed by the nasty looks we shot in their direction. They gestured toward a staircase that led up to the second floor.
“We live,” the skeletal one said. “You want to visit?”
“No, thanks,” I said.
“Sin dinero,” said the heavyset lady.
“That’s right,” said Rick. “You cleaned us out.”
The man in a Yankees baseball cap at the table next to us grinned from ear to ear, so we could see the gaps in his teeth.
Rick decided that we should drive straight across Texas to New Orleans, where we were invited to stay at Linda’s uncle’s house. But we only managed a third of the way before we pulled over to a rest area, dog-tired. It was pitch-dark. The next morning, I awoke bathed in sweat. We seemed to be in the middle of an alkaline desert, flat and white as a ghost, not a sign of vegetation or animallike creature, though insects by the thousands. I brushed a baby tarantula off my arm. We drove on, made Houston. Broke down. Rented a motel room, it was so muggy-hot. We arrived in New Orleans in the middle of the day and parked near Bourbon Street. We downed a couple of hurricanes at Pat O’Brien’s. Linda’s relatives were not far away in a postage-stamp house at the edge of a swamp. We camped in the backyard. The cockroaches came to visit. I woke up and there was one trying to climb in Rick’s mouth. I slapped it away. He jumped up ready to slug me, but when he saw all the other cockroaches arranged in phalanxes prepared to assault us, we retreated to the tiny back porch. The next morning we left town, to the surprise of the Boudreaus until Rick explained he wanted to see Linda. We would meet again at the wedding. We made a quick visit to Rick’s aunt in Marietta. I left my security pillow behind, which was as flat and hard as a skipping rock anyway. The first night without my pillow, I slept fitfully and woke up with a headache. The second night, in the Hungry Mother Mountains, I covered my eyes and forehead with a T-shirt and slept like a baby.
When I awoke and peeled off the soggy T-shirt, I glimpsed the clear blue sky through a canopy of oak leaves waving in a light wind, reflecting the sunlight. This was a pretty sight, I thought, until I remembered a tent covered my head last night. I leaned up on my elbow and looked around. I had slept on top of my sleeping bag last night. All that covered me was a thin tarp. I pulled it up over me because underneath I was buck naked. I fished around for my underwear and pulled it on. Then I checked around for my clothes. Gone. My backpack. Gone. The campsite totally clean. All of Rick’s gear and Rick himself gone. Then worst of all, the Mustang was gone from the parking lot where I’d parked it the night before. My first thought was, Here I am three hundred miles from home in my underwear. Has Rick deserted me? What am I going to do?
But no, as it turned out, it was another one of his tricks. He pulled up in the Mustang with the top down and a big smile on his face. He lifted my clothes from the passenger-side seat. “Ready to go?” he asked.
* * *
The next day we were in Washington, and he was back in Lindy’s arms. Only there’s one thing he didn’t account for: his mother. Joan Sager was a wisp of a thing with a sallow complexion, like Linda, though her nose curved down, not up. But unlike Linda, she had a bulldog’s tenacity, like her Boston terrier, Dovie. She would hand me a rolled-up newspaper to beat him off when he was too friendly, which was most of the time. Of course, Joan was more refined, but it came down to the same thing. The first thing she insisted when we returned home in late August was that she meet Linda’s parents. They invited her for dinner. They lived in an apartment complex on New Hampshire Avenue, a mile outside the District. I wasn’t there for the event, but Joan said they were gauche. They served dinner from the kitchen. That seemed to be the biggest complaint other than where they lived. Rick’s family lived in Bethesda, the poshest suburb on the Maryland side of the line other than Potomac. It was not that she was a snob exactly. After all, her husband had died, and though she had his government pension, she wasn’t exactly living in the lap of luxury. It was that she was trying to convince Rick that he was making a big mistake, and somehow it worked.
A week before we were to leave for Denison, Rick told Linda that the engagement was off. I could hear her down in the basement begging him to change his mind, and when that didn’t work, I could hear her heartrending sobs. Joan wasn’t there that day. She’d driven to Lord & Taylor to buy her daughter school clothes, and though she knew it would be expensive, she wanted Anne to look respectable. No miniskirts. But Dovie was there. When they came out of the basement, Dovie jumped on Linda. She didn’t bother picking up a rolled-up newspaper, but kicked him straightaway in the nuts. Dovie ran off whimpering and hid in a corner.
The plan was that I was to drive Linda back to New Hampshire Avenue alone. I insisted Rick come along. They sat in back with the top up. Linda didn’t want her hair mussed. I weaved through the traffic for five miles. There was complete silence in the back, so I switched on the radio. A Lettermen’s song came on:
When I fall in love,
It will be forever.
Linda whimpered and I switched off the radio.
“It’s better this way,” said Rick haltingly. “To end it suddenly.”
“Why don’t you shut your big fat mouth,” she countered.
Another silence until we arrived at the turnaround in front of her apartment. He walked her to the door. He tried to kiss her. She pushed him away.
When he came back to the car, he was teary-eyed.
“Hey, man, I’m really sorry this happened,” I said.
He jumped in the front seat with me. I took down the top. He turned to me with a careworn smile on his lips. “Don’t worry. I’ll get over it. Mom was right.”
About the Author:
Paycock Press published Jeff Richards’s novel, Open Country: A Civil War Novel in Stories in 2015. His short fiction, essays, and cowboy poetry have appeared in New South, Pinch, Southern Humanities Review, and Grey Sparrow, among more than a dozen other publications. He has appeared as well in four anthologies and one college composition collection that include Tales Out of School (Beacon Press) and Letters to Salinger (University of Wisconsin Press). He lives in Takoma Park, Maryland, with his wife and two dogs, and can be reached at jeffrichardsauthor.com.