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by Kevin Fitton

 

I was fifteen-years-old when Laura-Jean arrived in our town. The year was 1942. Her father had received the call to our Methodist church, a big city preacher who fit our little New Hampshire town like the proverbial square peg to the round hole. Then there was Laura-Jean, who joined me in the freshman class. She had the goods. She was pretty, kind, and unflappable, and it wasn’t long before she had climbed high above myself in the social strata of our school while I remained locked into place. Middle of the road, Chet, now and forever.

Of course, I was infatuated with her. That year, I went to the movie theatre a half-dozen times to watch the film, Casablanca, with Humphrey Bogart as Rick Blaine, pulling Ingrid Bergman into his gravitational field. I never asked my parents’ permission, knowing it wouldn’t be granted. Instead, I would make an excuse and then walk down into town from our hilltop neighborhood, passing the row of strong-armed elms at the bottom of the hill, across Main Street, and into the film house, where I sometimes paid and was sometimes waved through by a friend running the projector. While the movie ran, I watched Bogart as if I were trying to break a secret code. And then, later, when I was alone in my room, or during one of the lulls in the school day when there was nothing else to occupy my attention, I would imagine Laura-Jean and myself finding one another in Paris, the crunch of the Great War approaching from the eastern front, the two of us thrown into a desperate romance. In my dreams, Laura-Jean’s primary attribute, apart from her luxurious hair and bright smile, was her infatuation with myself, and it was disorienting when I would then pass her in the halls, managing to elicit only the most commonplace of Laura-Jean smiles, the one that was handed out to every acquaintance, as if she were running for mayor of our little town.

             My only connections with Laura-Jean were through church and Greek—a course of study that I took because I was interested, and that she took because her father insisted. Girls did not typically study the classics at that time, but Laura-Jean’s father treated his only daughter like a son in regard to her education, another mark against his reputation.

 

            At the beginning of the next school year, I walked into Greek class on the first day of the term, and she waved for me to come and sit in the open seat behind her. I don’t know why she chose me that day. Her girlfriends weren’t in the class, and neither was Charlie Fournier, a jock who often slipped over to the girls’ table at lunch, squeezing in next to Laura-Jean on the already busy bench, his body coming into contact with hers whenever someone shifted their seat. Still, it surprised me, and maybe she surprised herself. Maybe the idea popped into her head the way frogs leap suddenly into the water, or maybe all of those times when she greeted me in the hallways had been full of meaning after all—a recognition that we were alike in some important way. However it came about, from then on, just before class started each day, she would turn around in her seat, lock her leaf-green eyes onto mine and ask me a question.

            “Chet, don’t you think this war is just awful? Daddy says that men are dying in absolute heaps,”

            Or, “Do you ever wish you were old enough to join the fight?”

            Or perhaps something much more mundane. “What on earth do you think I got on my dress? Chet, have you ever seen anything like it?”

            I didn’t know what she had gotten on her dress, and I had never wanted to go to war, being certain I would wind up in those piles of dead bodies. I had never been particularly cunning, and I suspected that I wasn’t brave either. Still, when asked, I said yes, I had thought about going to war, because in all of those hours spent playing and replaying the Casablanca of Chet and Laura-Jean, I had many times turned myself into a war hero briefly on leave from the fighting or recovering from a wound in Paris. So I said, “Yes, sometimes I do.”

            One day, Laura-Jean turned around just as class was about to start and said, “Walk me home after school today.” Our teacher was calling the class to order, and I just managed to nod my head in agreement before Laura-Jean shifted her attention back to the front of the room, leaving me to stare at the white skin showing above the collar of her shirt.

 

            Our school was built on what had once been a farm on the edge of town, and the path leading to the village traveled through a hay field and then a short section of woods. I will never forget how it felt to walk the path into town that day with Laura-Jean. It was well into September by now, but a long, dry summer was hanging on. The air had a salty sweetness, the grasses languishing for want of rain, their cracked tops opening wide and perfuming the air. I too was ready to burst, not from the heat, of course, but from the incredible air of possibility.

            The grass was high in the field. The bulbous tops of the timothy grass swayed in the afternoon breeze, bending and bending, and then, when the wind took a breath, gently returning to its place. At one point, a groundhog wandered into the path, froze, and then scrambled back into the weedy wall. We had been among the last to leave school that afternoon, and we were alone.

            “Oh, it’s so lovely,” she said, as if the goodness of the world was simply too much to bear.

            I don’t know why I said what I said then. It is one of many instances in my life when I have regretted my words even as they were falling out of my mouth, unable to keep my finger from poking into the sorest spot, the place where the flesh is already bruised and swollen. I said, “My mother complains about your father all the time.”

            She looked at me in confusion and stopped walking. “That’s a terrible thing to say.”

            “Well, I don’t agree with her,” I said.

            Laura-Jean turned away from me. Her hair was brown, tinted with red like fallen pine-needles, and it caught the afternoon light in a way that made it look so rich and alive, I felt that if I reached out and took hold of a bunch, I could crack it open and find milky sap hiding inside. She was crying, and I didn’t know what else to say. But then she came close and leaned against me, putting an arm around my waist and burying her face in my shoulder.

            “It’s okay,” I said.

            “I know it is,” she said.

            She took my hand, and for the rest of the way, we held onto one another, and I remember wondering how firmly I should grip her hand. I didn’t want to squeeze her too hard, but I didn’t want to lose her either. As we passed through the woods, I noticed how the tallest pines swayed and circled while the shorter trees watched. When we came out to the street, she let go and then led me through town to her house, seated just around the corner from the church. Her parents were sitting on the porch, her father with a stack of books resting at his feet.

“Heigh-ho,” he said. “Look what we have here.”

“Dad,” she said. “Don’t embarrass him.”

She walked up on the porch, and I remained standing on the sidewalk, looking up at the three of them until it was clear I wasn’t going to be invited in.

           

            For the rest of the week, I anticipated a recurrence of our after-school walk, Laura-Jean turning around before class and repeating her invitation. Every day, I was disappointed. I looked for reasons to hang around after school. Laura-Jean was the type to linger in the hallways, talking with friends and remembering a question she’d been storing up for one of her teachers. I kept thinking up excuses to remain after school throughout the week. I talked with teachers, checked the office for a missing sweater, and just generally hovered. But this week she was nowhere to be found.

Finally, on Friday afternoon, I walked into Poppy’s, the drug store, and found her sitting at the booth with her friends, Betty, June, and Charlie. A gaggle of kids flocked around the shop, juniors and seniors lining the counter with Cokes and Moxies. I approached her from behind, tapping her on the shoulder just like I would have in Greek class.

“Oh, Chet,” she said, turning. She looked as if she had been caught doing something she wasn’t supposed to, her smile crooked and forced.

“I haven’t seen you much this week,” I said.

“I’ve seen you in Greek,” she said. “Same as always.”

“They’re out of Coke,” inserted Betty. “No ice cream either.” There were shortages of sugar and butter.

“The trials of the war-effort,” said Laura-Jean. “I suppose there’s sherbet.”
            “I suppose there is,” said Betty.

            “Sherbet’s fine with me,” I said, though I would have preferred ice cream.

            Laura-Jean said: “Chet here wishes he could go to war.” Immediately, a fire of embarrassment exploded inside me like it had been doused with gasoline and gone up with a roar, the heat of it lighting up my eyes and flushing my cheeks and forehead.

            Charlie smirked. “That’s great, Chet,” he said. “Real heroic.” And the three of them laughed, Laura-Jean employing her bright smile, white teeth flashing, head tossed back, so that I could see into her nostrils. I turned to the side, looking at the counter, which was running away from me to the soda fountain. I pretended like I was trying to get Poppy’s attention in an effort to place an order, but with each passing moment, it was becoming more and more clear that I wasn’t going to be able to hold back the tears.

“Well,” I said, as casually as I could manage. “I should get going,” and then I turned and walked away, the hot tears burning my eyes and blurring my vision even as I made my way for the door.

 

At church that Sunday, I successfully avoided Laura-Jean. It was easy enough to accomplish, since she always had people around her, grasping for her attention. But I did not escape her father, who stepped in front of me just as I was about to leave for home and recruited me to work at the parsonage that week after school. He was adding a garage to the building.

He didn’t need my help. That was clear on the first day, when he spent most of his time showing me what to do. I didn’t even know how to swing a hammer let alone frame a building. I spent nearly all my time watching Reverend Akins, who seemed consumed with his own energy, his spry legs bending in exaggerated gestures.

We worked for a while, and then he said we should take a break. I sat on the porch while he went inside. Just when Reverend Akins disappeared, Laura-Jean walked onto the porch, sitting down beside me. As soon as I saw her, I understood that our meeting had been arranged.

            “Chet,” she said.

            I didn’t answer.

            “Chet, I feel terrible about what happened at Poppy’s.”
            “Yeah?” I said.

            She put a hand on the center of my back, and I let the feeling, the pressure her hand made, seep into me. It was like magic the way it worked on me, my muscles relaxing, my anger dissipating like light drowning in water.

            “I don’t know why I said that—there’s no excuse, none at all.”

            I looked down at my hands and wondered what would happen if I reached over and touched her leg. Would she squirm uncomfortably, slap my hand away, or might she allow it to remain?

            We talked for a minute, and then I straightened up, stretching my back, and I noticed her looking up at me. It was a strange look she gave me. It was like she was searching for something—like I was the keeper of a key, a key that she needed to get where she was going, and she was wondering where I’d put it.

            “I should go help your dad,” I said.

 

For a while, Laura-Jean and I were friends. We stopped one another in the hallway between classes, and we walked home together from school. Sometimes, she would appear next to me at my lunch table, leaning in toward me, Charlie Fournier looking on from where he sat with the rest of the baseball team. We talked about the war and the news reports that came rolling in from Europe and the Pacific theatres. It was what we had—Greek and the Great War—and the shameful thing is that I was thankful for the war. Other people losing their lives half way across the world didn’t matter as much as an opportunity to get closer to the girl I wanted. And what I wanted was to have her—in the Biblical sense, and seeing as I’ve served as a pastor for fifty years, I think I’ve got a good idea about the Biblical sense of things. If I’m being honest, I was never all that interested in friendship.

 

It was about a month later—a month after the conversation on her parents’ porch—when it happened. It was a party at Charlie Fournier’s house. It was October now but not too cold yet, and with the crowd of people in the house, it was warm inside. I remember sweating and how my pants felt tacky against my legs. I also remember how a couple of kids had snitched booze from their fathers, and a circle of boys were flipping shots of whiskey into their mouths and then practically choking as it went down, the rest of them guffawing at the faces the drinker made. I knew better. My mom would smell the whiskey on my breath. She kissed my cheek when I came into the house at night, and I knew why.

            I had been at the party for a while, and I hadn’t seen Laura-Jean or Charlie. It was strange she wouldn’t be there, but Charlie even more so, though I didn’t care to see him. After playing a few hands of cards, I decided to take a break from the house and its warm, tired air. I slipped out the back door to a long wooden porch.

            The cool night tingled against my damp skin and puckered into goose bumps. For a few moments, I stood on the porch, but then, noticing the large harvest moon sitting low and fat in the sky, I wandered out into the yard to get a better look and stand in its wide spray of light.

            There was noise coming from the house, the whooping sounds of teenagers leaking through the closed windows and doors. But then I noticed something else—there were sounds coming from the barn as well. Shuffling and scraping sounds and then a voice: it was Laura-Jean.

            “Charlie, don’t. Charlie, stop it. Charlie, don’t.”

            “Come on,” he said. “Jesus.”

I moved as quietly as possible toward the barn, my feet swishing in the grass and crunching uncomfortably on the weedy stone walkway. Outside the barn, I paused for a moment, understanding through intuition how important these next moments would prove to the course of my life. Seeing without seeing as Jesus liked to say.

I couldn’t see inside. There were gaps in the barn boards, but not enough light to make anything out, except for the voices now turned to whispers. I thought I could slide the door an inch or two, but it was jammed, and when I strained harder, the door jerked into motion, the metal hardware letting out a groan like a shout in the night.

 

I found myself staring at the forms of two people, startled, and lit up in a gawking streak of moonlight. First was Charlie, naked from the waist down, his bare skin white as chalk. And then beneath him was Laura-Jean. I couldn't see much of her. I could see her bra and her stomach, her face and her eyes. God, those terrible, desperate eyes looking straight into mine.

            For a long time, I told myself that I didn’t know what was happening in that barn, that I couldn’t have known for sure. But I knew—I knew from the moment I heard her voice when I was standing in the yard. And I knew it when I saw the way his visible hand was holding her by the wrist. And what did I do? I peered into the barn, saw those helpless eyes, and turned away, coward that I was.

Like our meeting at Poppy’s, I was embarrassed, only this time my embarrassment was more complicated. I looked at the stiff branches of an old oak tree, trembling in the wind, and felt the embarrassment of having witnessed something untoward, felt the embarrassment belonging to my gender for its many crimes, and more than anything else felt the embarrassment of knowing that I didn’t have the guts to make it stop. I turned away and walked straight home, my legs lifting occasionally to a jog I was so desperate to get away from the thing that I had seen.

           

            The next time Laura-Jean and I were alone together was the day of our high school graduation. I had avoided conversations with Laura-Jean since the night at Charlie’s, but on graduation day my spirits were running high. The war had ended, and Americans were the new power in the world. I was bound for Dartmouth that fall, and a great life stretched out before me.

My parents celebrated my graduation by purchasing our family’s first automobile. In the afternoon when the ceremonies were over, I took the car out for a drive, cruising down to Main Street to show off. There was Laura-Jean.

 “Hey there, Darling. Want to take a ride? She’s a real fine jalopy.”

            Laura-Jean stepped into the car, pulled back her hair into a ponytail, and we were off, running into the countryside.

            “Just like old times,” I said.

            She looked at me and shook her head. “No, Chet,” she said. “It’s not.” Strands of hair had come loose and were waving in front of her face and tickling her eyes. I kept driving until we were rattling over a rutted country road, the noise of the car unable to ward off the silence between us. Then I slowed the car and pulled over. I turned the key, and for a moment we sat there in the quiet of some nowhere hayfield.

            “I’m sorry,” I said. “I’ve been wanting to say that for a long time.”

            “Oh yeah, for what?” she said. She had retied her ponytail, but it didn’t come out right, and she was again doing it over.

            “I don’t know,” I said, “For everything.” I coughed into my sleeve and noticed that my heart was racing.

            She leaned against the door of the car. “My God,” she said. She didn’t look at me when she said it, but spoke the words into the door’s leather lining. It was a prayer, a real prayer. I’ve learned to know the difference, and I knew it then, too, that she was pledging to the God of the Universe she was never going to forgive me.

            “What?” I said.

            “Chet,” she said. “You’re not a lick better than Charlie.” I could see that she felt a jolt at saying the name out loud. It startled her, and it took her a moment to collect herself, open the door, and step out of the car, insisting on walking alone back into town before finally allowing me to drop her off at her house.          

 

            I’ve thought about the question a lot since then: “Am I better than Charlie?” I went to seminary and on to the ministry half for the sake of proving something about myself, though I’ve never gotten anywhere with that argument. When it comes down to it, I’m not a lick better than Charlie. She’s right. But there came a point when I finally saw the past crystallizing into a knowable shape and saw that sixteen-year-old Chet was really a separate person from the one that I’ve become. And when I made that realization, not too long ago, I looked up Laura-Jean through an old acquaintance. I’d hoped we could go for another ride, try the conversation again, and see if it came out any different the second time around. But she had died. Cancer took her a decade ago. Anyway, I don’t think she ever needed to know the truth, that while I felt guilty about my part in things, I was also jealous of Charlie, because he got to have her and I never did. That was the thing I never knew what to do with, and I still don’t.

            Maybe I’ve spent too much time wading through the waters of regret. But for me, regret is how I live. It’s the thing propelling me forward, even as I am continually drawn back to the past. In this, I am like the boy holding on but unsure how firm to make my grip.   

 

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