“Would you like to talk?” he asked, sipping his beer. “Go for a walk?”
“My sister should be here any minute,” she replied. The door to Stefan’s opened at that moment with Dixie, jangling her keys. “Hey, Lewis!” she said brightly. By now he had broken contact with Gina, but they stood close. “I thought you might be about ready.”
“Actually,” he said, clearing his throat, “I didn’t know the plan, so I had just invited her to go around the block and chat for a bit.”
Just as he was about to invite Dixie along, too, Dixie smiled and waved them off. “Sure, knock yourselves out! I’ll just have a beer and talk with everybody ‘till you get back. Gina can drive us home. Sound like a winner?”
“Uh-huh,” agreed Gina. She picked her jacket off the peg, and he held the pine door open to reveal the clear night sky.
“I’ll bring her back in one piece,” joked Lewis. Gina smiled as they descended the steps into the parking lot.
“Ever been over to the lighted bridge?” he asked.
“I’ve seen it out the window, so many nights at work,” she replied, “but no one’s ever taken me. It’s really pretty, but we drive the other way home. How far is it?”
“Once we get around the block and cross Shorter,” he responded, “it’s really just up the bank, behind that old general store building.”
He asked her how her shift went, and how often she came to town for fun. He remarked on the moon, the crisp wind, and how much he’d enjoyed visiting downtown since he was a boy. “I used to come down here to get comic books with my weekly work money from Mom and Dad’s restaurant,” he said. “Clocktower Hill’s that way…you can see all of town from there. I picnicked with some friends up there, listening to Queen and joking around. I used to go up there to, you know, muse, listen to the radio, eat a taco, read. And down that way is Schroeder’s…we used to hang out over there when we had extracurricular events, especially Mock Trial. I had a blast playing a witness. We finished third in state!”
“I didn’t do a lot of after school stuff, except for chorus,” she responded. “We made flag core and even the soft ball team once, just to show my brother we could do it!”
“Yeah, it’s been interesting,” he replied, “dealing with the world outside of that framework. I know for some people those are the best years of their life. I hope for me it’s just getting started. I think I’m happier with who I am now, even if it’s hard to imagine what’s to come.” She thought for a minute about his impending trip, but said nothing. She let go of that, to savor the moment.
“Feels like there’s all these possibilities that lie ahead, ways of thinking of ourselves that we never saw before. There’s so much I want to explore,” he said. “How about you?”
“I know what you mean,“ she said. “With our whole lives ahead of us, it just feels like I work all the time as a placeholder until some bigger idea comes up.”
His thirst for the unknown already separated him from the few guys she’d been out with. His voice seemed alive enough for both of them.
“Here’s where it gets a bit steep,” he said, remembering the one other date ---the Black Widow, she’d called herself, because she had already buried a husband and a boyfriend. She hadn’t really been ready to move on after that, as he discovered quickly. He thought of a way to make the night special for Gina.
“Here,” he offered, stooping down. “The best way to get up this bank is take me, piggy back. Is that okay?”
“Hee hee, I guess so,” she beamed. She clambered trustingly on to his back. “At your service,” he said in a posh British accent. Her tiny legs were easily secured at his sides. She was almost weightless for him. She let out a surprised whoop as he took off, quickly. He bore down at an angle and walked with a wide stance. While she laughed, Lewis carried her up the hill. When had anyone done that with her since her Daddy, years ago?
Beside naked trees, they reached the path up top, and crossed the steel suspension bridge of lights. They shown incandescently, hundreds of bulbs arranged in pictures, such as the American Flag, or at the holidays, boughs of holly and ribbons. They crossed the river as the night wind blew. A solitary car now and then crossed the bridge close to Stefan’s, whose windows lay just inscrutably within sight from this second bridge. When he set her back down, her hand easily, naturally fell into his.
By his side, her work place across the street seemed a quaint world away. She had never seen the romance of the location, for all the times she had clocked in and worked alongside her siblings…for all the love affair misfires that originated there. Not one thought of those things lingered a second, however. For once, she felt free from her life, as though any direction were hers for the choosing.
After staring up at the night sky and walking the length of the bridge slowly, he pointed to a gazebo, painted white, beside the river where it ran beneath both bridges from the levee. “How about a seat?” he asked. “If we’ve got time?”
She nodded and enjoyed the near-silence with him on the wooden benches within the gazebo. “This place is great during Fall Festival,” he said. “Kids, crafts. Nice little family day. Should always be a place for those things. They make a community.” They went back to holding hands, quietly, feeling each other’s presence with complete comfort, just as they had that day on his couch.
They looked up in the direction of the moonlit river, aware they were not alone. The figure shambling their way said hello in a friendly tone, and remarked what a nice night it was to enjoy the park. They agreed. He began to hold court there, telling how he lived over in the south part of town near the cemetery, and how he planned to spend the night walking. “Actually,” he said, “my wife locked me out for being too drunk! But she knows when I’m ready to come home, I’ll sleep it off there. Are you two married?”
“Not yet!” said Lewis. Gina laughed and reaffirmed her grip on his palm.
“Well, it’s a fine thing, being married,” he remarked. “It’s good to have someone who understands you, whatever you do. I know I get her riled up, being so restless at times, but she’s been a good woman to me.” They agreed that was wonderful.
“So, I tell you what,” he said, leaning in. Now they could plainly see he was a one-eyed man, and his face became earnest as he confessed. “I would sure like to go back to the liquor store for one more, before I walk it off and go home. I’ll be honest with you about that. So would you help me out, if can?” Lewis told him he’d enjoyed his story, and produced a single dollar for the man, who wished them well.
“Better hold on to that one,” he said, nodding to Gina. “Y’all’s a lovely couple.” He was on his way. The two snuggled up close as the wind blew, and shared a little laugh before resuming their trek.
On the way down Broad Street, they took a short cut through an archway, decorated in bronze letters. Opera Alley had a plaque explaining its original purpose, as an additional dressing space for the early theater there. Still holding hands, they stepped within its now indecorous passageway, on the path back to Stefan’s.
Halfway down Opera Alley---where the thespians changed costumes off-stage, to await their cues---Lewis stopped Gina. He had shown her a pretty nice time. It had been a simple matter of friends, hadn’t it? But something irresistible held him in place, now, an impulse which felt so natural, yet, logically, deserved questioning. He looked above her, as to the stars, with that query drifting in his eyes.
“What are you looking for?” she asked softly, expecting some other wonder on their tour.
“A sign,” he quietly replied. She looked up, too.
Her eyes, gazing skyward, her uplifted chin, the innocence of her face, the haunted sadness of her lips, the mouth pulled open by her motion, drew him close to her. He found no resistance as he gave her that first kiss. She responded warmly. In fact, she deepened it a little, as the honey taste of his mouth and the soothing touch of his lips heated her entire frame this mid-winter night. Their tongues touched in a dazzling mini-nova of pure feeling that brightened their inner voids, an event horizon of their universes sharing quantum space.
Now she looked into his spiritual eyes, and smiled without shame, as her arms wrapped around his head. As she breathed out deeply, he took her lips one more time, lightly. Within herself, she knew. When she had looked upwards for a sign, she had honestly been looking for a physical sign…maybe some vintage old store’s arrow, or a further tribute to the stage of old.
A smattering of artificial flowers decorated the far end of the alleyway.
They lay by the dumpster, as if thrown away carelessly. Inspired to lighten the mood, Lewis reached down into them, and chose one. He bent its pin outward, and nestled it carefully upon her coat. She smiled as he reached for another, and helped him pin it on his, too.
“We reverently wear these flowers,” he intoned jovially, “in honor of our kamikaze grandmothers, who flew their flights bravely! How it is they came home to start families after kamikaze flights is a story lost to history. Yet their courage shall never be forgotten!”
By the time they reached Stefan’s, Dixie had already stepped out the door for a smoke, and waved. “Well, call off the search party!” she chuckled, ashing. “You kids have a good time?” She was confident in asking, as she could tell by their clasped hands, grins and…were those flowers? She felt delight in her heart for her kid sister. They shared the joke in alternating sentences, and related their odyssey. She took out her keys to unlock the Topaz, and invited Lewis to sit with them.
“She can drive us on home in a minute, if you’ve got places to be,” she offered.
“Oh, this is great, Dixie, thanks! Actually, I have been looking forward to talking to you, too. Denise and Martin seem to think so fondly of you, and you always seem to be having a ball in your own way!”
She thanked him brightly, and finished her cigarette with the window rolled down after clicking on the car radio quietly. She shared a little about their lives and found a philosophical and humorous kinship with Lewis quickly; they “clicked” as friends instantly. Twenty minutes later, she was sharing her abiding affection for science fiction books, and dug into a seminal favorite she’d just re-visited recently, Stranger in a Strange Land. She mentioned Heinlein’s unconventional Martian, Michael Valentine, and recommended it as a blasting-off point to 1960’s counterculture, for which Lewis expressed a fondness from adolescence. However short sighted the hippies may have personally been, there was definitely a desire for love, openness, and a questioning of authority that they agreed was necessary. It was less sincere individuals and impractical approaches to material concerns that made the youth movement fizzle. She had just begun to describe Heinlein’s unusual approach to polyamory when she became excited by the book she’d just finished. She began to narrate the travails of Job, a dimensionally-displaced minister who tries through twists and turns to reach his beloved wife.
“I think as the daughter of a former preacher who adores Heinlein, it was bound to be a natural fit,” she said, gesticulating excitedly. “You really appreciate the sense of humor of this guy, who keeps taking dish washing jobs to earn money in each alternative version of America he’s dropped into, because every time he needs completely new currency, and he never knows when he’s going to get shoved into the next alternative timeline! But he never gives up. He comes to understand how much he loves this woman in his life, and there’s nothing he wouldn’t do to try to find her again. It’s very touching! I think it’s Heinlein’s last novel, too. It’s soooo good, Lewis---you gotta read it one day!”
Gina and Lewis listened, sitting in the back seat of the Topaz together, greatly entertained. An hour passed, and by now Dixie admitted she was plenty sober enough to make the drive home. “Look, it’s getting so late, and we’re still having so much fun,” Dixie said. “You want to ride back with us? I wouldn’t be surprised if everyone’s still up! Mom will be, and with the way Dad’s been working down at the jail…I swear, it’s no trouble at all! You can crash on the couch. Our friends LOVE Mama and Daddy! Our friends are their friends, they always say. Well…if they don’t care for ‘em, they’re probably bad news, anyway…but man, they would love to have you, and we have to work in the morning, so we can bring you right back to town…take you right to your doorstep before we come back here! Whaddya say?”
Her motor mouth delivery was irrepressible. Besides, how could he say no, with sweet Gina snuggled up on his arm? The impromptu social occasion….date?...was just the kind of spontaneous moment Lewis sought. Of course he’d tag along. Dixie continued on as chauffeur, but Gina moved up to the front seat to talk while Lewis helped himself to a short doze beneath the headlights on the highway, as he listened to the music and the chattering, if contrasting, sisters. By the time they left city limits for the country highway home, he felt cozy, indeed.