George August Meier
George August Meier
George August Meier writes what he considers non-fiction by day—he's a trial attorney—and fiction during evenings and weekends. Three of his short stories won first place awards in Writers' Journal. His work has appeared in Forge, The Write Room, and Writers' Journal. He has been named one of Florida's "Elite Lawyers" by Florida Trend Magazine. He and his wife, Yvonne, and their dog, Lily, reside on a gator-infested lake in Winter Springs, Florida.
It was the summer of '97, and I was on the verge of honoring a promise. One made almost twenty-five years before by ten of us in the dimly lit back room of our favorite bar. We were crowded around three tables we had pulled together, and the bold promise was made as we drank the last pitcher of bourbon and ginger. That was how we drank it back then.
First, I had preparations to make. Actually Jesse's Auto-Body did. As I drove into its parking lot, my tires crunched on the gravel surface. The metal building that housed the business was streaked with rust. A large, crooked sign was perched over the front door. It read: WORK DONE RIGHT AND FAS–. The last letter was completely faded. I was counting on Jesse's mechanics to keep their promise to have my baby ready. They were restoring a 1962 Chevy Nova convertible I had recently purchased at an auto auction. I hadn't planned to be a bidder. I was at the auction accompanying a friend who was looking for a deal on a used car. But when they rolled the Nova under the bright lights of the auction stage, the identical model I drove in college, I fell in love with my first car all over again. I must have been in a trance on my first bid because I don't remember it. I do recall that my bidding got so frenetic, I actually bid against myself. That proved highly entertaining to the crowd. But maybe that enthusiasm discouraged my competition, since it only took one more bid to win my prize. One might chalk it up to sympathy on the part of the other bidders, but not me. At an auto auction the buyers have street smarts and black hearts.
Closer inspection revealed a myriad of dings, dents, and dimples I hadn't seen through my nostalgic inebriation. But my timing, I had thought, was excellent. There was almost four months between the auction and when my old gang promised to rendezvous back at the bar. I wanted to show up in the same car I had when the promise was made. This one would be in even better condition than the first Nova, which was about ten years old when I drove it. But time was running out. The restoration was taking too long. As I walked into the repair shop, I thought about the place we affectionately referred to as our "low-down bar," where we drank all that bourbon. The main room was large with low ceilings. The room we favored jutted off the back of the building like a porch. You stepped down from tile to a heavily worn wooden floor. There had to have been over ten beer taps, and they made every mixed drink ever concocted. Food seemed a secondary concern back then, but you could get a grizzly burger or skinny sandwich between drinks. Now that I'm older and a bit more "civilized," I wonder about the cleanliness of the place. I recall the lead bartender in a grungy t-shirt, and if I squint hard at the memory, I can see his stubby fingers with dirty nails.
I entered the office of the body shop. No one was there. An old metal desk sat in the middle of the tiny room. On it were what appeared to be estimates, invoices, purchase orders, scribbled notes, and burger wrappers. I dearly hoped my order was not amid that ad hoc collection of dispossessed paperwork.
At one corner of the desk was a button partially covered by a yellow burger wrapper. I supposed it was a buzzer or bell for alerting Jesse someone was in the office. I maneuvered my finger toward the button, painstakingly attempting to avoid contact with the burger wrapper. I pressed it and heard a buzzer behind the door that led to the work area. Shortly a heavyset guy wearing a white t-shirt streaked in grease lumbered through the door. He reminded me of our old bartender. The fingernails clinched the likeness.
I had previously dealt with an employee, but this man swaggered like an owner. So I said, "Are you Jesse?"
"No," he said with a raspy chuckle. "Jesse sold me the place five years ago." He made an obligatory but ineffective wipe of his hands on a rag that was dirtier than they were. He put a hand out to shake. "I'm Lou."
I hesitated but grabbed it. The shake didn't last long. My hand squirted out of his for the lack of friction.
"How can I help you?" Lou asked.
These are the magic words a customer wants to hear.
"I'm Scott. Pleasure to meet you, Lou. You guys are restoring my Chevy Nova."
"Beautiful wheels," Lou replied. "It should be ready in about a month."
"The problem is I really need it in two weeks, and I was told three months ago it would be ready in two."
"Well, you see, Scott, we ran into a few unexpected issues," Lou said.
These were the dreaded words I didn't want to hear.
"But," he said, "I tell you what: we'll make it two weeks."
While driving home, I recalled the close friendship our group shared throughout high school and college. Yet I had lost contact with all of them except Sonny. I had purposely avoided any contact with one: Anna Paget. She's the only girl I've ever loved, other than my wife, Marilyn. We broke up after a two-year relationship. Or, more accurately, she dumped me. After that she and I hardly even made eye contact. As we all graduated from college, began our careers, and got married, it became more and more difficult for the group to get together. On what turned out to be our last night at the bar, when we all silently knew we were at the end of our run, Sonny laid down the challenge.
"Who will commit to meeting back here in exactly twenty-five years from tonight? Just us, nobody else." I'm sure it was bravado and his good friend, alcohol, really answering, but we all committed without hesitation. When I drove the original Nova home that night, I took the longest route. I didn't want that night to end. The song by Mary Hopkin wasn't on the radio, but it played in my head. "Those were the days, my friends, we thought they'd never end." And they just had.
While I hadn't forgotten that promise made in the reverie of youthful camaraderie, I suspected most had, except Sonny, who never forgets such things. He had maintained contact with everyone in our group. Through him I surreptitiously kept track of Anna. She had married two years after she left me, had two children, and was recently divorced. I suspected Anna wouldn't make it to our gathering, as she lived a couple of states away.
Sonny called me a week before the event. "Getting ready for the big evening?" he asked.
"I wouldn't miss it for anything," I replied. And then I said, "Let me ask you something. As I get older, what is it that so fascinates me about old songs, old cars, and—?"
"An old girlfriend?" Sonny interrupted.
"Yes, that too," I said.
"Well, good news. Everyone's making it. And I mean everyone, if you get my drift."
After hanging up, I was still thinking about my question, and also whether we diminish our present relationships by "living in the past." Will we neglect those dear to us who are at our fingertips in the present? No, I thought, we don't have to choose between them. We can dip into the barrel of memories and savor what we find, and also devote time and energy to the things important to us today. I can embrace both the past and the present; why not? So I wanted my Nova. And I wanted to see Anna. On the morning of the gathering, both were on my mind.
"What are you so jumpy about?" Marilyn asked.
"I don't know," I answered.
"Afraid the old gang won't be able to connect like it used to?"
"Don't think it's that," I replied.
"Think it might be a concern that people won't show up?"
"Will your ex be there?"
"I think it's the car," I said. "Those guys have been stringing me along far too long."
I mulled her questions. Was it seeing my old gang; the chance the chemistry we all shared was long dead; or what? Would returning to the same haunt, with the same friends, perhaps tarnish the wonderful memories from those times, which are now almost legend? Or was there another possibility lurking, one infused with guilt, that I was anxious about? I suspected it was that, but quickly suppressed the thought.
At 1 p.m. I still hadn't heard from Lou. Back to the shop. This time, when I entered the shop's parking lot, the gravel kicked up and clanked in the wheel wells, and I skidded to a stop, dust drifting up over my car. I skipped the buzzer and pushed open the door to the garage. I smelled fresh paint. And there it was, the Nova, shiny and blue. But something was wrong. It looked like a naked lady. Its chrome trim, emblems, grill, door handles, and bumpers were all missing. Lou came out of nowhere.
"Got another problem, my friend," Lou said.
"What now?" I asked.
"My guy who puts the exterior parts back on called in sick."
"Does he have more skills in that department than you?" I asked.
"No way," he replied emphatically.
"Then you'd be able to put my car back together, right, Lou?"
He thought about that for a moment, then shrugged his shoulders.
"Well, I guess I could at that."
Lou promised to work on it immediately and deliver the car to my house within a couple of hours. I didn't leave until he began installing the front grille.
At 5:00 I was about to call Lou and raise some hell when I heard the sweet sound of the Nova's horn. I think I ran to the window. There was my baby, its blue intensified by the saturating light of dusk. It had that mystical appeal of all top-down convertibles.
I grabbed my checkbook and trotted out the door to greet Lou, my hero. He seemed just about as anxious to be paid as he had been in finishing the restoration. "Oh, just come by the shop when you get a chance," he said. "I have to find your paperwork." I pictured his desk.
I opened the passenger door and gave Marilyn a nod that said, "Jump in, babe." Like twenty-four years before, she got into my chariot with a smiling face that said, "I'm with you and ready for whatever you have in mind." And that's been her alluring attitude throughout our marriage.
That evening I paid close attention to shaving well and fretted over what shirt to wear. Something expensive; no, trying too hard. Something very casual; no, I'll look like I just don't care. As usual, Marilyn came to the rescue and picked a comfortable shirt that said "confidence" without "arrogance." Sounds like I'm describing wine.
I was ready, the Nova was ready, and the evening seemed ready to ignite old memories and perhaps create new ones. As I climbed into the Nova, its top down, I saw the image of myself pulling into the parking lot of the bar. My old friends, especially Anna, were marveling at my car and great shirt. But when I actually arrived, none were there, and I had to appreciate the moment alone. I parked way out in the lot so that some inconsiderate dumb-ass wouldn't ding the new paint job.
I walked through the doorway of the old building, and a well-spring of energy lifted me. I felt like the young man who had walked through that door so many times before. I was looking forward to seeing my old friends, especially Anna.
The bar had been renovated, but the layout was the same. I spotted Sonny in the back room. He was already waving at me. I thought, Oh, Sonny, thank you for challenging us twenty-five years ago and leading us here tonight.
By 8:20 everyone was present except Anna. I'd hoped to resolve my curiosity about her. Had she changed; had she succumbed to adding weight; did she still have that disarming smile?
This group needed no warm-up and suffered no initial moments of stilted conversation. Laughter was quick and spontaneous, without a hint of disingenuousness. It was as though we had walked out of the bar last night and returned tonight. I was back; we were all back; this was great. The only thing missing was Anna.
A few minutes later Sonny gave me an exaggerated smile and nodded toward the entrance. At first she was just a silhouette, but that silhouette answered one question. She still had her shape. Call me shallow but I had an image of her. Reflecting on it since, I realize it was idealized. And, yes, shallow.
She walked toward us. Light began filling in the features of her face. When her eyes came into view, I was surprised by a shudder. Her eyes were mission-oriented, and focused, on me. Our eyes connected. I felt I couldn't look away. When she reached our table, I was lifted to my feet by her presence. She gave me a hug and whispered in my ear, "Hi, Scotty, sorry I'm late." This was the nickname she had for me. "It's been too long," she added. Her breath tickled my ear.
Nothing prepared me for this—the car, the close shave, the shirt, nothing. "I know," was all I said.
She looked for a nearby seat, but the only one open was at the other end of our table. "We'll catch up later," she said. As she walked away she looked back over her shoulder and gave me a wink. As I reminisced with those around me, I was distracted by the woman who had rejected me so many years ago and was sitting ten feet away. Do we ever really get over abandonment by a lover? Is there a residual programming that runs beneath the surface that is ready to burst forth if given the chance? I loved my wife and took my vows seriously, but Anna stirred something that made me nervous, and admittedly guilty, despite the fact I hadn't done anything wrong.
That evening was one of those times when four hours seem a matter of minutes. At midnight one person announced she had to leave, everyone stood, and we all knew the evening was over. Sonny raised his glass and said, "Who's ready to commit to our next get-together, this time five years from today? Just us." We all agreed.
The group headed for the door. The guy I was talking with grabbed me by the arm so that he could finish a story. Anna gave me a quick glance that said, "We didn't get a chance to talk, and I so wanted to have a few minutes alone with you, maybe hours." Actually that's what I was thinking. I think her look was, "Sorry."
When I finally left the bar, I looked for Anna, hoping she might have lingered a while. She was gone. Instead I discovered a dumb-ass had dinged the side of my car.
After work the next day, I was still thinking about the missed opportunity to talk with Anna. If we had talked, I might have even made the biggest mistake of asking the question all jilted lovers long to ask: why? I would have tried, of course, to resist that urge.
On a whim I drove the Nova to the park where Anna and I used to go on summer nights, nights when I had little money and a park was something we could do for free. I stepped onto the black asphalt strip that bordered the river running through the park and walked toward the old iron fence. It had a polished wooden top rail. Down river were the sparkling lights of the railroad bridge that spanned the water. Things hadn't changed much and the familiarity of it all triggered a swirling mix of memories and a feeling akin to déjà vu. I put my forearms on the wooden rail and leaned into it. This was what Anna and I used to do, except I usually had an arm around her. We would gaze out on the rippling river and the bridge lights that reflected in it and silently celebrate our love. I grinned as I remembered that Anna and I had a tradition of kissing whenever a train sounded its whistle as it crossed the river trestle. Despite my happy marriage, I wished Anna was standing next to me like when we were young. Only she could appreciate this moment with me. The rail seemed to be sending a current through me of youthful exuberance, first love, things long gone, and perhaps a hint of regret. And then came the voice.
I turned to see her. Anna seemed as surprised as I was.
"What are you doing here?" I asked.
"Do you think I'd come to town without coming here? And besides, remember how we were always on the same wavelength?" she said, tilting her head and throwing her arms open.
"It's happened again. It's scary," I said as we hugged.
We faced the river, forearms on the rail. The longer we talked, the more I saw the things that originally attracted me to her. The sun was setting and cloud-filtered pink glows highlighted her pretty face. I felt like I was falling in love with her all over again.
"Doesn't it feel like we're stepping back in time?" I asked.
"Do you want to re-enact it accurately?" she asked.
"Okay," I replied, perhaps a bit hesitantly.
She took my left arm off the rail and slipped it around her waist. She gave me a mischievous look, put an arm around me, and tugged me close.
"There," she said. "Now that's how we used to do it."
They say timing is everything.
The air was still and surroundings silent, as were we. Layered onto that setting was a faint rumble, which slowly grew louder. I turned slightly in the direction of the noise and saw the outline of the locomotive, its billowing smoke trailing like a fluttering ribbon. When the front wheels of the muscular engine entered the bridge, the roar was both encompassing and familiar. The only other thing we could hear was the rattle of the vibrating trestle. Like the clockwork predictability expected of a railroad, the unseen conductor sounded his whistle at mid-bridge. I turned to Anna to remind her of what we used to do at those whistles and saw her looking up at me, not needing any reminder. Her head was moving toward me. I breathed in hard and leaned to her. I watched as she closed her eyes and put her lips on mine.
The lips were soft and felt the same as I remembered, maybe better. I closed my eyes and was again in 1971, with my first love in my arms and the anticipation of an adventurous future in front of me. But something was wrong and a flash of reality cleared my head as though it had burned away a combustible fog. What was left was a clear view of the present. What was I doing? I wasn't kissing the Anna I loved. I was kissing the beckoning of a spent youth. I realized I had reached too far into the barrel of the past and was risking the treasures of the present. The girl I loved and who shared a history with me was waiting at home for me to return from a nostalgia-fest that had gone too far.
When I pulled back, again there was surprise on Anna's face. And it appeared she was trying to hide disappointment. She hesitated a moment and then touched her forehead to mine and said, "You know what would be another accurate scene—you driving me to the beach in the Nova, where we'd lay out a blanket in the dunes and you'd make love to me. What do you say, Scotty?"
I called upon all the grace I had in me and asked Anna to forgive me. And as I was saying I had to leave, she put a finger across my lips. She smiled sympathetically, like when she broke up with me, and said, "Well, it was nice for that one moment, wasn't it?" I nodded yes and ran to the Nova. And home.