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I first encountered her in the lunchroom at grade school, going from table to table and swooping down on a boy of her choosing, first wiping her mouth with her arm then planting a wet one on his unsuspecting cheek. I watched her like a hawk so it never happened to me, though whether it would have anyway, I’ll never know. What repulsed me most, besides the act of kissing or the invasion of one’s corporeal bubble, was that she often did this with her mouth full.

          I lost track of her soon after that, having transferred to a different school, which I attended for the next six years. Besides, she didn’t live anywhere near me, so I never had occasion to run into her.

          I caught up with her very soon, however, when I began attending public school after my 8th-grade graduation. Her reputation had preceded her, and she, too, seemed to have graduated far beyond her kissing days in elementary school to something more serious. You know how rumors spread, and I heard about her the very first week in homeroom, and, even though her name was never mentioned (it was there’s this girl…), I immediately got a vague feeling of deja vu, and sure enough, it was she.

         The way I first heard it was: she sucked them like candy, which was how she smelled. They came quickly and she sent them away. They lined up in an orderly queue, one after another, skipping out of classes to meet her in the long weeds behind the baseball diamond by the electric company. She seemed older than them somehow, though they were mostly in the same grade. None ever acknowledged her presence in the school halls (she was seldom there) afterwards, but when she was you couldn’t miss her: long thick bright red hair cascading down beyond her shoulders, freckled cleavage already showing in her low-cut blouses, her tight jean skirt riding up her dappled thighs. Though they had no inkling, she’d ruined them for their subsequent girl friends and wives, and they’d grow to long for her when they began to experience their mid-life crises.

          She lived a Huck Finn kind of existence in a poorer section of town, seemingly free to come and go as she pleased, the only child of a blowzy mother and absent father who was said to slap her around when he was home. I envied her freedom, as my childhood was very restricted not realizing at the time how things really were for her.

         All the poorer kids seemed to have that freedom, for no reason I could readily understand at the time. Only later did I realize they mostly came from broken homes, where the harried mother had enough just to keep body and soul together with menial, low-paying jobs, or often, even where the family was still intact, there were a passel of kids and little education, the father working a low-paying job and often drinking up his meager earnings, which the worn-out mother tried to augment any way she could, often times getting the back of his hand for her efforts.

          No one else gave her much thought otherwise. I never partook in the actual thing, and certainly never watched, but fantasized about her a lot, which was just as bad, I suppose. But I also truly cared about her, wondering how she would end up, while these peach-fuzzed “innocents” who were on the fast track, went on to careers in law, medicine, finance, or perpetuating the family business. I never even talked to her, not once, though I wanted to, as well as wanting what all the others were getting, though I never acted upon it. I wanted it to be of her own free will, to be treated specially by her, though she never even knew I existed.

                                               —–o—–

          It just so happened, that, like her, I didn’t go to college right away after high school, and we ended up working at the same restaurant together, a place called the White Inn, she a waitress, I a parking valet.  I saw this as a dream come true, if only I could take advantage of it.

         Things didn’t exactly go as planned, there being a pecking order among the restaurant employees based on frequency and type of interaction, with the waitresses and waiters being at the top, and the valet literally left out in the cold, never mind that he garnered the biggest tips, drove all the big shots’ cars, and witnessed some of the sordid things that went on in the back seats of them after a night of eating and drinking. In addition, they mostly hung around amongst themselves, and as a result, I was shunned by those on the inside.

         It was depressing when it became clear that the main reason Grace had become a waitress was to have access to males of all different ages, and readily took advantage of it, that this was what she wanted out of life and was quite successful at it.

          Still, I was able to be of service to her one late evening when she came outside looking rather disheveled, her hair, lipstick, and clothes a mess. I had just finished my shift and the restaurant was closing. Surprised to see her unaccompanied as she usually would be by one of the young waiters, I knew something must be wrong. I shut the light off in the valet booth and locked it, then set off to intercept her, trying at the same time not to startle her.

          “Grace,” I managed in a stage whisper toward her retreating silhouette.

          She stopped in mid-flight and turned around, not at all certain who it was.

          “Who’s there?” she said quickly in a breathless whisper.

          I wondered if she’d even know my name but didn’t want to say the valet so I took a chance and shot out, “Wesley Barnes.”

          She hesitated at first, then said, “Oh yes. What is it?”

          I’d finally caught up to her. I’d never been face to face with her before and was quite daunted. It was a fine summer evening. A gentle breeze blew through her hair, the stars were twinkling brightly, and I began to stammer a bit, “I-I…just thought something might be wrong, and wondered if I could help.”

          “Why how observant of you, Wesley, and kind,” she replied, “I’ve never had a knight in shining armor before. Are you my knight in shining armor?”

          Reeling from the effect of her saying my name while at the same time wondering if she was mocking me slightly, I steadied myself and began to stammer once more, “Well I wouldn’t go as far as…”

          My words trailed off as I drew ever closer, close enough to notice the miniscule black dot in each of her sea-green eyes, smell the alcohol on her breath, and realize she was quite tipsy.

          “How are you getting home?” I asked. “Why don’t you let me give you a ride?”

          “I bet you’d like that, wouldn’t you?” Grace replied, smiling slyly. “I’ll just bet you would. You probably know all about me, how I’m everybody’s next one.” Her mascara was beginning to run as tears welled up in her eyes.

          “No, no,” I said. “It’s nothing like that, please believe me. I just want to see you get home safely.”

          When she hesitantly acquiesced, I put my arm around her and steered her back toward my car as she slumped limply into me.

          Passed out, I thought. Just my luck. Now what?

          I bent down and scooped her up in my arms and began to carry her back to my Comet, not all that easy as she was a dead weight.

          “Mmmmmmmh?” she mumbled.

          Uh boy, I thought. I’d better get her home quickly. I knew where she lived, on S. Autumn, only five minutes away.

         I poured her into the car and drove to her house as quickly as I could, not knowing what to expect when I got there. She stirred every now and again, mumbling something unintelligible, now sprawled halfway across the front seat, her head almost in my lap. It was so dark out that the headlights of oncoming cars glared suspiciously into the car, as if I was doing something wrong, even though my intentions were good. I looked cautiously into my mirrors for any police cars.

          When I got to her house, a two-story double that had been converted into 4 small units. I parked the car in front and attempted to rouse her. Nothing doing, she was out cold. The house was dark, all the houses on the street were, only the streetlights were on. People sure go to bed early around here, I thought, as I had for the hundredth time over the years. Saturday night. Probably have to get up for church tomorrow.

         I had no idea which floor she lived on either, but knew if I got her keys, I’d figure it out. What if she had a boyfriend living there or her parents, and were sleeping and I woke them up? Not much I could do though, I had to go through with it and get this night over with. She probably wouldn’t remember a thing, and I wouldn’t get any good karma for being a gentleman. I fished through her purse and found her keys, then got out of the car and went to the other side to get her out. She started stirring a little, and then her eyes were wide open.

          “Where am I? What happened?” she asked querulously, still quite out of it.

          “You’re home,” I replied as reassuringly as I could. “Let’s get you inside. Can you walk?”

          “I think so,” she said, “with your help.”

          “Come on then, lean against me,” I said. She did so, and we managed to stumble up the walk, then the porch steps, and up to the front door, which was open and led into a little hallway. Her apartment was on the right, an upper, as it turned out. I asked if she could make it from there all right and she replied, “I think so, but I’d like you to come up if you want.”

          She unlocked the door and led me inside. The first thing I noticed was that it was immaculate. The second thing was that she began taking her clothes off, starting with her blouse, under which she was naked. The view was spectacular, what I’d always wanted to see, but not like this. I figured I’d better quit while I was ahead.

          When I told her I should go, Grace replied, “but I want to thank you for bringing me home.”  

          “You already have,” I said, “and I think I’d better be going. I’m just glad you’re home safely.”

         “But I insist,” she said, ‘and I usually get my way.”

          “Not tonight,” I replied. “I’m really sorry, Grace, but I think I should go. Get some sleep, and I’ll see you at work. G’night.”

          With that I went back to my place, thinking all sorts of things as I lay on my pillow and second-guessed myself to sleep.

          From that moment on I was her sole confidante, not exactly a role I relished, but one that suited me perfectly. Anything to be near her. It gave me some status in the pecking order, too, and I was actually allowed to come in out of the cold from time to time and partake in some of the banter at the bar. It turned out she was in between boyfriends the night I took her home, the breakup with her latest that precipitated her jag having taken place that same evening. Rumors were swirling that I had taken her home, but I wasn’t about to say anything. Let ’em think what they wanted, they’d get nothing out of me, not that there was even anything to tell.

          The fact was that she really liked men, young men, she confided to me, she genuinely did. Liked making them feel good, smelling and tasting them, being around them, as many types as possible, needing them, but monogamous to the core with each one. They didn’t last long but this didn’t seem to bother her. And I heard about every last one. I accepted that it wasn’t going to happen for me. I was just glad to be there for her.

                                                        —–o—–

          Even my inertia didn’t last forever, though, and the next fall I finally moved on to college at the other end of the country. While I was at school, I asked friends about her every now and then but heard nothing. I finally came back to the area after graduation, this time living nearer the city, and, after much inquiry, heard she was still around, but nothing more.

         Once a year I ventured into Wilsonville to try to relive those awful high school years at an annual festival called “Town Days”, the culmination of which was a Friday night bash under the beer tent in a local park.

         As most of the best and brightest had left decades ago, this gathering was mostly a collection of those who stayed home, whether from choice or nowhere better to go, though as in most things I was just an observer. I met the same group of friends there year after year to catch up on things, as it was the only time we saw each other. As you might imagine, it could become pretty maudlin by the end of the evening, when much of the crowd spilled across the street into the Raven’s Nest, the most popular watering hole/restaurant/hotel in town.

         It was there I saw Grace from afar one year. It was packed inside and I lost sight of her for a while. She seemed to flit in and out of my consciousness when I suddenly realized she must be working there. A bar maid now, I thought condescendingly, and began to make my way through the crowd toward her, never quite getting there. Beginning to lose all hope of saying hello, I turned around to leave, having had my fill of it all, when there she was right in front of me. I was gratified she remembered me with a big broad smile of instant recognition after all those years.

          “Why hello, Grace. How have you been?” I said, rather shouted, over the din, but we couldn’t really have a conversation with all the noise, so I left, promising to keep in touch.

                                                        —–o—–

          The next time I heard anything about her it was a decade later and bad news. A friend told me she was in the hospital with cancer, and that it was terminal. I don’t know why, but my immediate inclination was to rush there to be by her side. I just had a feeling she was alone, and needed someone. I called the hospital about visiting hours and went there after dinner one night. It was a beautiful August evening that reminded me of the summer we had worked together, and a hospital was the last place I wanted to be, but it wasn’t about me.

         I knew from previous experience I didn’t have the best bed-side manner. What could I say that would comfort? I was filled with trepidation but was still determined to see her when normally I would have turned tail and run.

          I asked at the Information Desk for Grace’s room number.

          “Friend or family?”

          “Friend,” I said.

          “Sign the sheet and take the elevator over there… Room 308.”

          Famous for getting lost in these hallway mazes, I found Grace’s room relatively easily. The door was ajar and I poked my head in. It was a single room and I soon spotted her shockingly emaciated form lying still on the bed, attached to several monitors, her beautiful hair now brittle and sparse. I couldn’t tell if she was awake and didn’t want to startle her, so after closing the door I walked as softly as I could across the polished linoleum floor until I was right next to the bed. I reached out and put my hand gently on her arm, so thin it almost encircled it.

          “Grace,” I said softly.

          Her head moved slightly and her pale eyes flickered briefly in recognition, which made me extremely grateful.

          “Wesley,” she said, her voice barely a whisper. “How nice. I’ve been alone here for so long,” she said, until her voice broke off into a sudden fit of coughing that wracked her body so I thought it would break.

          “Don’t talk, Grace,” I said. “It isn’t necessary. I came as soon as I heard.”

          “You always did, Wesley. You’ve been so good to me, and I never deserved it.”

          “Just be quiet and relax”, I said quietly, “I’m here, as I’ve always wanted to be.”

          “I don’t know what happened,” she whispered. “All those years just flew by, and now look at me.”

          I patted her hand, not knowing what to say, her monitors the only sound in the room.

          Just then there was a slight rush of air and the door opened. It was an obviously good-looking young man bearing a bouquet of fresh flowers.

          Grace suddenly sat up, clapped her hands together in delight, and said, in a surprisingly strong voice: “You came, you came. I just knew you would!”

          I stepped aside as the younger man approached the bed and leaned down to receive her embrace. Suddenly the room seemed very hot and I was overcome by the smell of the hothouse flowers, which always reminded me of a funeral.

         I left the room as quickly as I could, so quietly no one even noticed.

                                               THE END