Looking at my battered, coverless Wal-Mart road atlas from 2003, I surmised it was about an hour and change Batesville to Searcy.
Which, of course, it exactly what the redhead with green eyes told me.
I felt an energy I hadn’t felt in a long time as I thought about the drive. About the conversations to be had. The awkward silences that would bother me for a moment, then drift into the humid night air. At least I hoped she wouldn’t want the windows up and the air conditioning on.
You miss too much being comfortable,” I’d scribbled on a piece of paper tucked away in my Rose Bowl backpack that I got when I covered the game back in 1997. The Ohio State University vs. Arizona State University. That day, for the first time, I believed in Jake Plummer being some kind of special player. One who would be remembered forever due to his complete and utter ability to will a team to victory.
Ohio State won. Smashing that belief.
Some days, I wonder if I’ve believed in much since.
Other days, I scoff at the stupidity of such a wonderment.
At this moment, I certainly believe. I believe in a red haired gal from Searcy, Arkansas. Someone I had never met just 18 hours prior. But now knew would be the driving force for the foreseeable future.
I stared up at the neon lights from George’s Liquor outside of Batesville in a town called Newport. We stopped here to pack up the car with Lone Star’s because, the redhead told me, “Lots of dry counties here in Arkansas.”
It had been about 10 minutes since the redhead went inside. At first, I thumbed through her CD wallet. To her credit, she still cared about physical music. Her old truck did not have an Ipod jack. It did have a cassette/CD player.
The wallet contained the following:
“Guns n Roses: Use Your Illusion II”
“Glossary: How We Handle Our Midnights”
“Neil Young: Yuma”
“Johnny Ace: Memorial Album”
“Exodus: Bonded by Blood”
“The Beatles: Meet the …”
“Lucero: Attic Tapes”
Not too shabby, I thought to myself.
I glanced up at George’s and didn’t see the redhead, so I stared at the road. There was a dead bird, being picked by other birds. Next to the car, was a smashed Mickey’s Big Mouth bottle. To the left of that was a quarter. I picked it up. It was from 1978. Not sure if that’s a good omen or bad one. That year wasn’t anything too amazing for me. I was 7.
I bought my first pack of baseball cards.
I played pee-wee basketball.
Saw Star Wars at a drive in theater again and again.
I was in second grade.
In second grade, a girl, her name was Kathleen handed me a note on the playground.
It would be the first time a girl did that.
I freaked out.
I was in love with another girl, her name was Heather. I don’t remember much about her. Other than she left in third grade and I would see her twice over the next 10 years. Both times, we hit it off as if no time had passed. Both times, I was scared to death and didn’t get a phone number or address. Silly when you look back at it 30 years later.
The song “Somebody’s Baby” by Jackson Browne became the first, but not even close to the last, heartbreak song for me. I wondered whatever happened to Heather for decades. I knew her birthday was the day after mine, April 10, but that was about it. I never really looked. But always openly wondered.
One day, with the advances in society such as Myspace and Facebook, I found her. We became “friends”. I wished her happy birthday.
And we never spoke.
She got married again and disappeared.
Good for her, I’m thinking right this minute as I’m in a stranger’s car in Newport, Arkansas, wondering what’s next.
Then there is Kathleen. I never answered that “Will you go with me” letter. Which, of course, is answering it.
I told my best friend at the moment, Danny, that she had asked him to go with him.
It never went anywhere.
Years later, in 8th grade, he came up to me in class one day. He was a member of the “in” crowd. I wasn’t.
“Hey, man,” he said. “Remember that gal Kathleen from elementary school?”
Of course I did. She had lived two blocks away from me. And I used to ride my bike by her house hoping she’d come outside to say hello.
She never did.
“Yeah,” I said.
“I saw her yesterday at a party,” Dan said. He went by Dan now, not Danny.
“Yeah,” I replied.
“No surprise,” I uttered.
“And she remembers you of all people!” Dan said with a smirk.
“Yep. And she told me that she asked you to go with her in elementary school. Not me.”
“Yeah, it’s true.”
“You haven’t learned a bit,” Dan said as he walked away.
“Yeah,” I said to myself.
Lessons learned sometimes take a long time to stick.
I look up, the wind is blowing slightly from the west. It makes me think of Russellville, the site of Arkansas’ only nuclear power plant.
I was driving through Arkansas once and saw it. It seemed to really stand out amongst the scenery. Much more so than one in New Jersey does.
With that thought, the redhead came out of George’s. She had two packs of smokes – Marlboro reds – and a fifth of Jameson.
“What’s that for?” I said pointing at the back of the truck filled with Lone Star.
“The drive, silly.”
I looked at the road signs. Malcom Ave. Some place I’d been once before, but probably won’t ever be again.
We got back in the truck and started south. Me driving, her navigating.
She pulled out a battered cassette tape. Without a word, she put it in the player.
“Look out momma, there’s a white boat coming up the river …”