Valentine Road


She was walking out of the back room of his jewelry store buttoning up the burnt orange cashmere sweater I had bought her on my last trip to her little town outside Kansas City. Harry the Jeweler was right behind her.

He saw me first and he put his hand on her shoulder as if he knew exactly where to touch to make her head rise. I could almost feel the current between them. His face ready for trouble. Her blue gray eyes clouding up with innocence as she smoothed the thighs of her jeans.

“Roger, you’re ah early,” she said. I wasn’t expecting you till tonight. And what are you doing here anyway? I mean I just stopped by to say hi to Harry. He got some new diamonds in and. . .”

“Oh, no big deal. I got off work a little early and the traffic out of Chicago was good.”

Our life had been driving and cheap second tier holidays since the beginning. That’s what happens when the loving is long distance. The holidays gave us markers for our trips. Then came the road.

The best trip was the first one. Maybe that’s why looking back, even after all these years, I can’t even hear one whisper of a regret. No regrets. No tears goodbye. Neither of us were the crying types. Especially not that first trip.

There’d been snow that year. And if you’ve ever driven Highway 57 between Chicago and Champaign Urbana Illinois on a blue sky, wind across the snow fields day; it’s just how you’d imagine Antarctica. Just the endless oceans of blinding white snow and the clear blue sky. And nothing else. The miles of telephone wires and the fact that the road was paved, the only clues that there had once been other people here. Perhaps to make a movie called “Snow Planet Nine,” or “The Blizzard that Ate My Dog.”

My pal Eddie and I. On our way to see Will and Betsy. She was taking more classes at the U of I. She was always taking more classes somewhere. And Will had a job at the Air Force Base. They lived in a tiny one story house on the edge of a cornfield—now of course a snow field. And we were all at that time of our lives when we had all done school but we had not yet done life.

Eddie had a girlfriend somewhere on campus. And Betsy had told me that she had this friend who would be by. They were both receptionists in a doctor’s office. I remember asking her on the phone if they both wore really tight nurses outfits to work and her answering deadpan that mostly they worked naked because clothes were a symbol of the oppressive medical establishment. And then I didn’t think much about her friend again at all after that.

Besides there was the deal with Eddie’s 1969 red Ford pick up with the rusted out hole in the floor, the oil leaks and the habit of often going about 50 miles before sputtering over to the side of the rode for one reason or another.

But we did get there. Giant piles of snow like castle gates to their driveway. A flag pole stuck in one and a rippling white flag, scrawled in black magic marker THIS WAY TO THE BEER.

Inside Will and Betsy’s kitchen. Out of the down coats, which piled together were the size of a small car. The warmth of the room radiating with Will and Betsy’s glow in starting a life together. Jerry Garcia’s guitar burbling warm springs of flowing music bouncing gently off the walls that kept out the cold.

“Come hear, Uncle John’s Band. . . .”

And when that warmth reached what I thought had to be a peak, the back door opened and Teresa walked in.

And if in some other writer life I could come up with a line better than the great John Cheever’s, ‘This is a woman who could stop time just by taking off her sweater,’ I would use it to paint the picture of the instant connection I made with her soft, smart, laughing blue eyes.
When you’re just starting out to live your life, you often have the feeling that there must be some other place you should be. So after hanging out in Betsy’s kitchen for awhile, all of us piled into our mounds of electric colored, goose down coats and scampered over to campus where we went ice-skating at an indoor rink.

Making lazy sweeping circles around the ice rink with Teresa. She was from the Gulf Coast of Mississippi. Which to me, having grown up in Chicago and never really lived any further than Wisconsin, was like being from Casablanca or the French Riviera. Add to that the accent. A southern woman reading the phone book, to me, conjures up visions of eternal bliss living under the warmth of a million Carolina suns. A Faulkner character who somehow ended up happy. I remember her saying, with an innocence I’d never known, “I just finished this book? It was called Ulysses? By James Joyce? Did you read that book? I was just wondering what you thought?” And then proceeding to match me all through that weekend beer for beer, telling stories of the Gulf Coast that would make seasoned sailors howl.

The snow kept coming, so when we got back to Will and Betsy’s we all thought it safest if Teresa spent the night. Eddie was gone to his girlfriend. I insisted Teresa take the couch and I wrapped myself in blankets on the floor.

The next morning Will and Betsy doing an exaggerated tip toe walk out of their bedroom pretending to be quiet, walking past Teresa and I now both on that floor—the couch empty.
That was our first Valentines Day. That morning. Waking up warm on the floor next to Teresa.

And there wasn’t a holiday for the next two years that didn’t involve a long lonesome highway with her at the other end. That time when she called me up, this was after 6 months or so, maybe it was Arbor Day or something, and said, “Roger, I want to come see you in Chicago. But I don’t think we should have sex.”

I had no idea how to respond to that. We talked for awhile. Skirted around it. And I said, “Hey, let me call you back, there’s someone at my door.”

And I did what I always did when life tossed a problem I couldn’t handle. I called my Aunt Mavis. And my Aunt said, “Tell her, OK. You want her to come visit anyway.”

“But I. . . we’ve already. . . .”

“Yeah. I know. Just tell her.”

So I did. And we didn’t make it past the wall of my front entryway before she decided to change her no sex plan.

Valentines Day, Flag Day, every holiday imaginable. Memorial Day found us following blue dawn trails through the Smokey Mountains. Driving into Asheville. Looking for the grave of Thomas Wolfe.

One July Fourth I even loaded up the big rig U-Haul to drive her to a new life in that little town outside of Kansas City. A hot summer day. Looking down at Will and Betsy from behind the wheel of the big truck and Will saying up to me, “You don’t have any idea how to drive one of these do you?”

Me smiling down at him “Not a clue! Seeya!” And then almost ripping out the clutch.

It was the next Valentines Day that I got into town and accidently ran into her at the jewelers. Truth told, I had felt a distance in that soft, smart southern voice when we talked on the phone. And not having a whole lot of plans, other than to be Thomas Wolfe, I thought it was time to maybe grow up a little. She talked about her friend the jeweler a lot. How they’d go fishing together. Do small town stuff. The closest I’d known to that life had been fantasies of settling down in Mayberry, from the Andy Griffith Show on TV. But then coming to believe I’d end up like Ernest T. Bass, my favorite character. A guy who liked to throw rocks through windows.

Teresa and I liked to think of ourselves as not the jealous types. So the jeweler didn’t bother me. No sir.

In fact I’d even buy the engagement ring I was going to surprise her with that Valentines Day—I’d even buy it from him.

And I almost did. That’s why I had stopped in the store.

On that second Valentines Day. Worst one I ever had.

It started when I saw her walking out of the back room of that jewelry store.

3 Responses to “Valentine Road”

  1. robin obrien Says:

    More!

  2. gwen Says:

    I’m sitting here awestruck by the sensory overload. This story is lovely.

  3. bikepsychobabble Says:

    Great story. And your description of I-57 on the way to Champaign is so right.

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