a short story by Frank Diamond
I tell them, “Country music.”
Explain this to people I’ve just met, or people I’ve known for some time, or even a stranger I’ll never see again who will just come right on out and ask why I—Jacqueline Carlton, “Jackie”—go to Dodgeman College.
“Do you listen to country music?” I don’t wait for an answer. “It’s people cheating. Stealing. Lying. Beer. Killing. Beer. Lyrics like foreplay. Beer. Husbands running around on wives. Beer. Wives running around on husbands. Beer. Trucks. Did I mention beer? Lots of beer. Lakes of beer. Lots of whiskey. And most of those artists are Christian and quite a few are born again Christian. We kids at Dodgeman. We’re really not that much different than any other college kids you see around Pittsburgh.”
These conversations, when they happened, were at one time face-to-face. Remember those? And you could see the faces because of no masks. Friggin’ COVID-19 stinks!
I said to one girl: “You’re Catholic, right?”
“Right?” A question for a question. She’s still figuring it out.
“But you do the same”—for a nanosecond I think of saying “fucking shit,” but a phrase like that, a phrase I’m not inclined to use, always bellyflops, so instead I’ll say—“stupid stuff that college kids do, right? You’re not robots. You party and date and” reaching again “experiment.” That labors, too. But I push on. “Well it is the same with us.”
“You ask what it’s like to go to Dodgeman,” I add. “It’s the same as going anywhere.”
Well, kind of. Dodgeman College occupies an inconspicuous corner of Pittsburgh. We Dodgers hop on the same buses, go to the same Wawa’s for coffee, and eat at the same joints as all those students from Pitt, Carnegie Mellon, Duquesne, Chatham, Carlow.
“Bible college” used to be part of its name, but it was one of those deals where some graduate billionaire named Dodgeman back during the financial meltdown saved the place by buying it. But the Christian mission and mandate remain.
“That doesn’t make us saints,” I explain. “If anything it makes us more aware of our” and here I might be tempted to say “sinfulness” but that’s another stopple, so I say “thought processes. We’re not prisoners in some re-education camp.”
Memories of these conversations now romp about my mind as I get the house ready for the first party I have ever thrown. With help, of course. Six of us senior girls—the Posse—rented off-campus this year. It is the first Saturday in June of 2021, about 2 in the afternoon. As me and my roommates hang decorations and set up folding chairs and put out munchies—and do the other party prep crap; it’s a lot, I never knew—every now and then I wander over to the front windows for a Tim and Erin sighting, but nothing so far. Well, they said they’d be here around 2; 11 minutes to go.
But then Erin calls.
“Don’t hate me,” she says.
“What time you getting here?” I ask.
“You knew this might happen, Jackie.”
“What time? Where’s Tim?”
“Being Tim. Leading a discussion group.”
They are hiking at the Beechwood Farms Nature Reserve in Fox Chapel. I can’t blame them (much). Reverend Professor Paul, who chairs the nonprofit leadership department, whipped it up sudden. A sort of let’s get reacquainted with God’s creation excursion for a few hours on this very day. The day of Jackie Carlton’s party. Totally voluntary for everybody in the department, so of course everybody signs up.
Erin adds: “I can’t pull Tim away right now.”
Tim Merton’s been my boyfriend since the end of freshman year. We took an English lit class together and, of course, all the girls liked him. A goalie on the soccer team—tall, neat, nice body, friendly but intense. Wants to change the world. I liked him, too, but not in that way. Not in the beginning. Back then I crushed on a boy named Justin—a lonely, brooding, poet. I always need to fix things. I take in strays. I nuzzle horses, while whispering in their ears.
Justin and me dated four and a half times and then no Justin. Quit school, just like that. Ghosted. Didn’t answer my texts or emails, and I way too late gave up trying. I shouldn’t have been so bruised; I didn’t really know him and he’d treated me so cavalierly. Logically speaking, I should have thanked God for dodging that disaster. Logic. Ha! A lot of good that does.
Tim asked me out for coffee a few times. As a friend. He knew I hurt. We went to the cafeteria and then off campus and Justin’s name didn’t exactly come up, but it didn’t exactly not come up, either. “Narcissism wears thin eventually,” Tim said once. “He was wrong for you.”
“Oh, and you’ve got all the answers,” I snapped.
“No. Not all. Only where you’re concerned, Jackie.” And he did the Tim smile, the one the says that only you and him are in on the joke. Then he says, “You’re beautiful, Jackie, you know that?”
And it developed. The way Mom said it happened to her and Dad. Not lightning bolts and mad desire. Attraction, sure. Sexual energy, sure. But planted in a garden of friendship, and respect and just liking being around each other even when the hormones take a vacation.
Tim still calls me beautiful (he better) and I admit to being attractive, but I’m prone to vanity so I try to keep it in check. I am 5 feet seven inches. I have curves. I’ve had beaus before Tim. I’ve dated before Tim. This much I’ll say and it’s what my mother says. When I stand before something beautiful, a field of daisies, or a sunset, or fall trees, Mom says my face transfigures, glows and my features become softly sacred. And when I visit the farms near our home, the one or two horses whose names I know come down from their stalls on the hills to greet me even when I carry no apples. This is my mother saying this, now. Not me. Mom.
Also, of course, Tim and I are both Dodgers. We have that.
“Saint Paul,” Tim said once. “He annoys me.” We were bussing it to a homeless shelter to help with renovations.
“What exactly needs to be renovated?” I ask.
“Well, I’ll tell you why Saint Paul annoys me,” Tim says.
“They’re going to give us lunch at least, right?”
“He’s on his way to Damascus out to kill more Christians and this great light flashes and he hears Christ asking ‘Why do you persecute me?’”
“Uh-huh,” I whisper, hoping he takes the hint. People a few seats in front have stopped talking and their heads tilt back. Any second they might turn and stare. Or shush us. Behind me, the background murmuring ebbs.
Tim says: “Paul’s struck blind for three days until a disciple lays hands upon him and gives him back his sight. So, that’s Paul’s conversion story.”
“Yeah. Saint Paul. Beheaded, you know.”
“But who wouldn’t become a believer after that? I wish God would smack me upside my head. Then I’d never doubt. I’d walk the entire known world, too, and missionize.”
Missionize is not a word, but best not to to point that out.
“Hey, Tim!” I say, as if I’d just remembered something that might make us have to use an emergency exit. “Do you want to eat lunch there at the shelter? There might be a lot of dust. Maybe we should go someplace else?”
“I didn’t think of that.”
So, that is Tim Merton, my boyfriend. Erin is my best friend. She and Tim are both on the hike because they major in nonprofit leadership.
Now, on the phone, Erin says, “No later than 4, I promise.”
“Jackie, I will make it up to you. I will do your laundry for a month.”
“Thanks, but the party—our party—starts in four hours.”
“Look, Jackie, Tim’s waving me over. I need to go.”
“Tell him to call me.”
But—spoiler alert—I don’t get a call.
“OK, girls,” I announce to the roomies. “Tim and Erin are going to be late. So it’s all on us.”
“Those two,” someone complains.
Why the party? Well, have you ever been to a zoom happy hour? Sure you have. Gawd! Small talk stumbles about like ants that have been Raided.
We roomies at first thought about not renting the house. The fall semester started September 2020 and Dodgeman had already decided that classes would be virtual because of COVID-19. We took the plunge anyway. We needed to get away from our parents. We love them. They love us. But the summer was enough. The landlord offered to tear up the lease, but we kept that to ourselves, stuck with the plan.
No more dorm curfews and swimming in religious waters. Swimming is nice but after a few years it begins to feel like drowning. None of us are going on to be ministers. We’re on secular paths. The old “in the world, but not of it” thing. Well, we’re in it this year. Even though school became virtual, we masked up and nibbled at experience.
We made friends from different schools and worked at Uncle Sam’s a few blocks away: subs, pizza, pizza extra cheese, fries, cheese fries, nuggets, cheese nuggets, soup, cheese soup, celery, cheese celery. Every food group in Pittsburgh includes cheese. Or fries. Fries crowd burgers and subs like squatters. Order fries on the side and you’re putting on airs. It’s great! Everybody’s been to an Uncle Sam’s, though probably not as cheesy, and I mean cheesy in a good way. In some cities, there’s one every three or four blocks, but they’re out in the sticks as well. Diners count.
On this day, the day of the party, one of the cooks from Uncle Sam’s (Pitt, junior, business major) earlier brought a keg and though we in the Posse don’t drink he says his friends do. This was no moment of truth because I’d already decided OK with alcohol. Come on, a virtual graduation? Please. No control over that. But we are going to have a real, honest-to-goodness graduation party for the Class of 2021.
This had been decided about a month ago.
“Masks are prohibited,” Erin had said, one morning after helping at the Jubilee Soup Kitchen. Me, Erin, and Tim back at Posse Palace, planning it out.“No! Masks! Allowed!” Erin fisted her palm on each word. “And hugs! Big, big hugs for everybody! This will be a danged hug-a-thon! Hell with this social distancing shit.”
Well guys will certainly enjoy Erin’s hug. Erin’s a runner. Not a jogger, a runner. I believe that she’s one of those dark Irish descendants of the survivors of the Spanish Armada who washed up on the Celtic shore in 1588. Blue black hair and eyes so green that you reach for your sunglasses. Porcelain skin. One guy told me that Erin is “can’t take your eyes off of her” beautiful.
A beautiful soul, Erin has, as well. Sneaky hilarious, some of what she quips takes a few beats to process. Impish smile. I guess I’d be tempted to hate her if I didn’t love her so much. She had one pretty serious relationship (that I know of; she shares only so much) but that ended badly when the guy went Othello on her. So, one of those beauties who could have her pick but she’s not picking at the moment. She’s dated a couple of times just to shut me up.
“COVID what?” Tim had mumbled, the day of the great party decision, his face already buried in his MacBook. I lean in between him and the screen.
“Hello, yourself,” Tim says, closing the computer and tossing it to the other side of the couch. He pulls me to his lap.
“So?” I ask.
“I heard.” Tim says.
“Are you going to help?”
Erin says, “Gawd, Tim. Could you sound any less excited?”
“I like to party,” Tim says.
I say, “Right. A regular party animal.”
This stubbornness springs from a moral code that I admire except when it annoys me. Tim lives his faith. But so do Erin and me, so drop the self-righteous nonsense, Tim. A graduation party. Why not, after all the COVID-19 imprisonment?
“And some of the people will be non-Dodgers?” Tim asks.
Ah. That’s why not.
“Most will be, baby,” I say running a hand through his springy brown hair. “Most of the people in this life that we will meet and work with and socialize with will be non-Dodgers. Dodgeman is a tiny little college that no one’s every heard of.”
Erin reminds me once again: “Your boyfriend’s a tight-ass, Jackie.”
“I’m still here,” Tim says.
“No,” I say, “you’re not.” He’s easily distracted.
He stifles a chuckle; I feel his torso flex.
“OK!” Tim shouts, and I nearly fall. “We deserve to celebrate! To the Class of 2021!”
“That’s my baby!”
Erin says: “That was so painful to witness.”
“The Class of 2021!” This time Tim shouts so that I spring off his lap, holding my ears.
But I recover.
“Hell, yeah!” I shout. “To us!”
“And to us getting jobs!” Erin shouts.
Right. Reality. Jobs. The journey before us. I’m graphic design. Tim and Erin know their direction. They share some of the same classes and the same hassles. Organized a study group. Of course, all on zoom. Except, recently things loosened. We’ve finally got vaccinated. Mask mandates are not so mandate-y.
Like I said, that was last month. In the meantime the hike at Beechwood Farms had been announced and Tim and Erin had signed up. It made me uneasy.
“We will be here,” Tim promised again just Thursday night when I walked him to his car. This was after he and Erin and I did some party stuff, but there’s only so much prep you can manage two days out.
“You don’t have to go on that trip,” I say yet once more, folding into him as he lounged against his car door.
“Everybody’s hiking,” he said.
“Exams are over. You graduated. Why?”
He shrugged. “Jobs. Reverend Paul knows everybody in the field. And I wanted to say goodbye to people. Me and Erin both. We want to say goodbye. We’ll be doing a lot of that the next few months.”
“That’s what our party’s about, pooper.”
“You, me and Erin are supposed to stay in the city until at least August, right? When the leases run out? We’ll have more than two months of goodbying.”
“A lot of the people coming to the party: It might be the last time we’ll see them.”
“The party’s about the beer and the wine and the whiskey.”
“Jackie, sweetie, I’ll be there. I just can’t help you with setting up like I wanted to.”
“The Bible doesn’t forbid alcohol.”
“I know, like you say. Jesus kept the party going. But I don’t drink.”
“Neither do I, to speak of. Erin does.”
“Are we fighting?”
“Yes, we are. Look, Jackie, if you really, really want me….”
“No, Tim. Just come right over after the hike, you and Erin, and help like you both said you would.”
About 15 minutes later, when I went back inside, Erin greeted me with: “I know. I know.”
“He texted you?” Hmmm.
Erin said: “Jackie, your best friend and your boyfriend will be there.”
“We’ll be there too,” the Pegs call from the kitchen.
Oh, yeah. Fun fact and a bit of a detour here. So, six girls rent a house off-campus and what are the chances that two are named Peg?
That won’t do, we thought. We compute variations: Peg and Meg, Margaret and Margie, Peggy and Peg—we must have come up with dozens of them but neither of the Pegs would have it. We tried teasing them out of it, arguing them out of it, subtly bribing them out of it, but they just insisted. Peg. It wasn’t personal and it was very personal at the same time. Their names were their essence. We were messing with their essence.
OK. So, then we started calling them by their last names, but they didn’t like that ether. So we settled for their full names: Peg Bell and Peg Christodoulopoulos. And, no, Peg Chris is not allowed either. We intone “Peg Bell” in flat affect, like it is a sign-off by police or military. “Roger That. Birddog One. Apple Three. Peg Bell.” And we kinda sing Peg Christodoulopoulos, usually to the tune of the opening chords of the The Sound of Music.
We sometimes slip and call “Hey Peg!” through the house, but neither will answer to that name only. Except tonight. I call it, and they both happen to be in the same area and close enough to hear. They turn and hold their index fingers up. Just a minute. They must have noted my distress. We of the Posse look out for each other.
I am drunk for the first time in my life. My religion doesn’t forbid drinking, but it’s pretty clear about drunkenness. Guilt will ride tomorrow’s hangover, I know. I’m not falling down. Yet. The room’s not spinning. Yet. But I’ve left the lower atmospheres of giddiness, and buzziness and have broken reality’s pull as I head into the unknown. I’ve been drinking beer and not eating much and talking and laughing and, yes, hugging, for a few hours now.
The party big-banged into existence at 12 minutes to 6 when a flood of people tumbled into our house the way water crashes into the hull of a sinking ship. Aftershock after aftershock ever since. Everybody arrived enthralled about encountering proof that we’ve finally thrown off the chains of COVID-19. We’re allowed to be young again. The pandemic stole 18 months of our youth. We’re out to reclaim those months in just one night.
The party lives, an itchy and scratchy matrix moving and thrusting about. Music started immediately and the volume soars and dives like a rollercoaster reflecting the no-assembly-required push-and-shove between those who want to actually hear each other and those drinking and drugging within debauchery’s embrace.
Loudest or louder, the music’s bass-line pivots and dodges like the heartbeat of non-carbon-based species. An alien has arrived. Love unspoiled by rules rampages blindly about and people who don’t know each other or even mildly dislike each other exchange teary eyed greetings. Long-standing and newly-formed couples make out. Laughter rolls through the rooms and out onto and over the porch into a clear June night that holds stubbornly onto sunset’s remnants.
When the party began with a blast, I took steps toward the back door with the idea of escaping to the nearest library or Pitt’s Cathedral of Learning to wait it out. But then I remembered that I was the host. Someone handed me a styrofoam of beer and I gulped it down. Then someone handed me another.
And now I must weep.
It’s 9 o’clock and my best friend and my boyfriend have not shown yet. Erin texted me three times during the mayhem, pushing back the ETA. The last one said they’d get here by 7:30. An hour and a half late is not 5, 10, or even 15 minutes late. An hour and a half late is a sucker punch, and I’m the sucker.
I just texted her again: “Where are you?”
I just texted Tim: “This is upsetting me. Why are you not here?”
I think I know. Maybe it always lurked in the shadows of consciousness and I’d just chosen to not entertain it. That’s what you do with sin or, as pop psychology might say, negativity. You don’t stand and fight, because you will lose. You run. You cut off its oxygen. And after some time—it depends on the person’s faith and the demon’s persistence—it’s gone. But is it really? Ever?
Erin and Tim are falling in love.
For months I’d ignore this possibility, but traces of its malignancy lingered like a shadow on a lung X-ray that the doctor can’t quite explain but doesn’t seem especially concerned about either. On this night with the beer and the music and rush to freedom, the demon breaks free as well, and I am going to cry.
History. Mom and Dad. Well, growing up we’d get a Christmas card from one of Mom’s old friends, Claudette Bouvier. One of those cards with the long year-in-review about the Bouvier family whom I never met. Eventually, somehow—and I forget exactly how—I deduced that Claudette, yes, was an old friend of Mom’s but also an old girlfriend of Dad’s. I confronted Mom with this.
“You stole Dad from another woman?”
“Your father and I fell in love.”
“When he was your best friend’s boyfriend.”
“Best friend is pushing it. But it worked. Claudette’s happy.”
“A point she insists on making every year.”
“We still keep in touch.”
“You betrayed your friend, Mom.”
“Everything isn’t black and white, Jackie.”
This from the woman who rails against the dictatorship of relativism. The woman who not only talked me into going to Dodgeman but ensured that my childhood experiences would make that the natural choice. I wonder if I’ll be sending a pathetic family update to that happy couple Erin and Tim for the next 40 years.
“And” Mom had added, “you wouldn’t even be here if things hadn’t unfolded according to plan.”
I noted that she for once didn’t say “God’s plan.”
Meanwhile, the party improvises as the night goes on. The Pegs continue talking to whoever, but one Peg does look back at me and once more gives me the index finger. Same to you, Peg. I want to unload on someone, on a friend. Cry on someone’s shoulder and the Pegs are the only two of the Posse that I see at the moment. It’s nearly impossible to turn my back on the party, but I stumble into my room, kick out the couple, and sit on the edge of my bed holding my head in my hands. I am crying. Someone taps me on the shoulder. I don’t look back. I’m embarrassed.
“I am so sorry, Jackie.”
I jump up, turn around and fall to the ground.
“Oh, my God!” Erin says. “Your state!”
“What….” I sputter as a I spring to my feet again. I am about to launch a vindictively ugly tirade at her that I know I’ll regret in the morning (I’ll regret everything about this night tomorrow) when Erin starts to circle around the bed, arms outstretched, wanting to give me a hug.
“Stay away from me!” I shout.
She stops, lets her arms fall to her sides.
“You know what’s going on,” she says. “And you’re hurt.”
Of course I’m hurt, you pig! You whore! This isn’t over! You’ll pay for this!
But I don’t say it. Because if I try to say it I’ll lose it even worse; like uncontrollably sobbing sort of lose it, and I refuse to do that in front of her. I’ve already lost too much too quickly. I have lost two of the most important people in my life in one night.
“He shouldn’t have texted you,” Erin says. “When I left, he promised me that he’d talk to you tomorrow face to face. God knows we talked a lot tonight, me and Tim.”
Erin says: “We talked and talked and talked about it. That’s why I’m so late. It’s love, Jackie, honey.”
I hold myself tightly. I glance at my image in the mirror and don’t recognize it. It belongs to someone else. It has to. It’s a face I never want to see again. I make a point of not looking at it for the rest of the conversation. I just look at the floor, wonder what the hell that yellow stuff is on the toe of my nice shoe. Did I say conversation? It is more of an Erin deposition as the party roars along outside the room. Once or twice, someone peeks in, and I deadeye them. They leave, always gently closing the door behind them.
Finally, Erin does make it around the bed and we do hug and I sob like a baby, my tears streaming onto her shoulder.
The next day I’m cried out and suffering the first—and, so help me—last hangover I will ever suffer from. But this, in a way, is good because when Tim and I meet, I merely tear up when he breaks it off.
“I have to do this,” he explains as we sit in a booth in Uncle Sams with our burgers that we both wind up hardly touching and sodas. And styrofoam cups of water. Refills keep coming. I don’t even need to ask Peg Bell, who’s got this shift. She’s hydrating me. Tim wears a golf shirt and he’s never looked so handsome, so like a young captain of industry ready to take on the world. Well, he is taking on the world.
“A missionary,” I say, shaking my head.
He flashes the Tim smile.
“And you leave tomorrow.”
“Tanzania. I’ll be getting malaria for sure.”
“I really do love you, Tim.” I reach across the table, but he doesn’t take my hand.
“And I you, Jackie.”
“So I guess you and Saint Paul worked things out,” I say.
“Guess he won.”
We hug outside, under the Uncle Sam’s sign. Someday that may seem significant to me.
“Write to me!” I order.
“You’re on the list!”
“Christmas cards with updates on my adventures and not-too-subtle requests for donations.”
I already gave.