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Ethan had never gotten over Jenny.  Life gave him a second chance.  He was finally going to make things right.  But destiny had other ideas…none of them good. Ethan should have stayed in the car and turned up Michael Stanley. For your reading pleasure, may I present…

THE GIRL IN THE PINK FLIP-FLOPS by PJ McIlvaine

It was 3:45 a.m and I’d just finished my overnight shift at the factory, just another long, dull night in a string of long, dull nights. I was driving on Old Block Road listening to the Michael Stanley Band belt out “Working Again,” the best goddamn unknown band that Cleveland has ever produced.  They should have gone a lot further than they did; guess you could say that about a lot of folks, including me.  I didn’t usually drive this way, but I was tired and distracted and missed the turnoff.  It’s not like anyone was waiting up for me.

I saw her about a quarter mile from Rankin Bridge. She was on the side of the road, slim with long brown hair braided down her back like a knotted rope. When my headlights passed over her, I could see that she was dressed in a tank-top, a long white skirt down to her ankles, and pink flip-flops—oh, you know, those foam things, the kind you wear to the beach. I never could wear them. They always gave me blisters.

She didn’t seem to be going anywhere in particular. She just stood there, gently swaying as if she was listening to music in her head. It was like she was waiting for someone—someone special. There was something about her—maybe it was her hair, or the way her hips moved, or the warm spring breeze—that made me think of Jenny.

Now that was a shot to the gut. Damn, I hadn’t thought of Jenny in years. Well, that’s not quite the truth. I thought about her a lot. We were seventeen, we were in love, and we spent most of that magical summer in the back seat of my old man’s Cadillac along with the sounds of Meat Loaf and Billy Joel.  When I held Jenny close, she made me feel that anything and everything was possible, that I could be something more than what I was, which wasn’t much to begin with.  I had no special talents, no hidden genius. But sweet Jenny made me feel like I mattered, and when you’re seventeen, that’s your whole fucking world.

When Jenny told me one night that she was pregnant, I didn’t hesitate. I went straight to the old man and swore up and down that I was going to marry her, no matter what he or anyone else said. I should’ve known that the old buzzard would have other ideas. See, I was being groomed to take over the mill; I was going to college and get a business degree, settle down and marry the “right” woman, the woman he picked out. The bastard had my whole life planned out, and no whore in a tank top and cut-off shorts was going to mess that up. I put up a hell of a fight, but in the end, the old man got his way.  He always did.  He had a way of wearing you down like a pair of brass knuckles. My mother had long ago given up, preferring a bottle of Scotch to dealing with reality. I started the fall semester at the state university, Jenny was shipped off to California to stay with relatives, and her Dad, who was a foreman at the mill, got a nice fat raise and a promotion. It was all very nice and tidy, wrapped up like a Christmas present. The old man even paid for the abortion—six hundred bucks. He docked me for it, too.

Oh, the old man liked to think he had everything figured out, but the one thing he hadn’t counted on was life. In my junior year, the son of a bitch had a stroke that left him drooling in a diaper. The mill went bankrupt, Mom went off the deep end, and I had to drop out of school. The day after he was buried, I took off in his Cadillac. My first stop was Jenny’s house, where her father greeted me with a shotgun.  Jenny was engaged to a nice young man, he said, and she didn’t need me stirring the pot.  Well, after that, my next stop was the interstate, and I didn’t stop driving until the car blew a head gasket in Alabama. I never went back home, not even for my mother’s funeral. It took me awhile, a couple of scrapes with the law, but I got the wildness out of my system and married Susie when she was six months pregnant with Mark. I told myself that I loved Susie, and I suppose I did at some point. Not as much as I loved Jenny, but, you know, lightning doesn’t strike twice.

Over the course of the years I’d worked a variety of jobs in different states—salesman, driver, Security guard—you name it, until I found steady employment at the factory.  I thought I had it good.  I bought a wide-screen TV and a riding lawnmower to go with the house I couldn’t really afford.  I loved my kids, but I didn’t really know them, and they didn’t really know me. I left the emotional stuff to Susie. I always told myself it was going to get better, someday. Well, someday had finally come and the sore truth was that I was on the wrong side of fifty with a bad back and a beer belly, wondering where the hell my life had gone.  Seeing Jenny—I mean, seeing that girl—filled me with a bitter ache that gnawed at me, a sadness that no amount of tortilla chips, salsa and Budweiser could fill.  I glanced at myself in the rear view mirror and saw the gnarled face of my old man.

When I got home, Susie was in bed. I pulled back the covers and snuggled up against her like I used to, but she just pushed me off like a pile of dirty laundry and stumbled headlong into the bathroom. It seemed hard to believe, but once upon a time, I couldn’t get her out of bed. Hell, it wasn’t that long ago that she begged me to get on the day shift so we could spend more time together. Now, we just passed each other like strangers on a train.  I pretended to be asleep as she dressed to go to work, but all I could think about was that girl by Rankin Bridge.  After Susie and the kids were finally out of the house, I fumbled with my pajama bottoms and thought long and hard about what I’d do to the girl in the pink flip-flops as I lifted her long, white skirt.

Later, when I got up, I couldn’t say why exactly, but something was different. For one thing, my back didn’t hurt so much. When I put on my jeans, they weren’t as snug as they had been. I told myself it was skipping that extra six-pack and bag of chips. By the time I got to the plant, I swear, it was like I had the energy of a sixteen-year-old. I lifted boxes like I was some kind of Samson.  Me, who could barely lift a sack of potatoes without calling for an ambulance. The guys kidded me about it, said I was making them look bad. Susie noticed it too, made a couple of snide cracks when I puttered around the garage. What could I tell her? Maybe it was seeing that girl. Maybe it was thinking about Jenny. But whatever it was, I hadn’t felt so goddamn good in months—no, years.  And when I clocked out each night, I cranked up my CD player and began missing the turnoff on purpose. I slowed down when I came upon the bridge, looking, lingering, with a hunger I could taste. But I didn’t see her again. After awhile, I started to think that my eyes had played tricks on me. There’d never been a girl. I’d dreamed the whole thing up. Or maybe it had been that bottle of Jack Daniels I hid under the front seat.

A few days later, I was at the bowling alley with my buddy Silas from the factory. Officially, we were there playing, but unofficially, we were there for beer and girls who could have been our daughters in low-cut T-shirts and tight jeans. While the view was pretty good, I couldn’t stop thinking about Jenny, I mean, the girl on Rankin Bridge.  Hell, if I didn’t know myself better, I’d say I’d been bewitched.

I ordered another round for me and Silas. “Woo-wee, you won the lottery or something?” Silas hooted.

I shook my head. “I wish. Just feeling good.  My back’s been a hell of a lot better.”

“Yeah, those chiropractors work wonders.” Silas grabbed another handful of peanuts.

I fumbled with the words. “Silas, I got a question for you. The kids, where do they like to hang out?”

“Hell, that’s easy. Up on Rankin Bridge.  Been that way since before I was a kid, it’ll be that way when I’m gone. Why you ask?”

I nervously gulped down some beer and spilled some down the front of my shirt. “No particular reason. I just thought one night driving around there that I saw someone I used to know, is all.”

Silas gave me a funny look. “You don’t know, do you? Look, if you want to know about the bridge, you ought to talk to my boy Luther. He’s into that paranormal activity shit.” He turned and shouted at Luther, who was playing pool in the back. “Hey, Luther. Get your fat ass over here.”

Luther shuffled over to us, slow and eager to please. Silas had gotten him a job at the plant as a janitor when he graduated high school last year. Luther was a nice kid, polite and respectful, but not the sharpest saw in Home Depot, if you get my drift.

Silas jabbed his thumb at me. “Tell Ethan what you kids do up on Rankin Bridge.”

Luther’s eyes lit up. “It’s fun, Mr. Ethan. We play music, and Frisbee.  And we hunt for ghosts.”

I stared at Luther. He was dead serious. Silas had this smirk, like he was in on the joke. I decided to play along. “You don’t say, Luther. Ghosts.”

Luther wagged his head like a puppy dog.

“You ever see a ghost up there, Luther?” I asked.

“No, sir.”

“Any of your friends?”

Luther shook his head. “But just ‘cos I don’t see them, doesn’t mean they ain’t there. Bridge is cursed. Everyone knows that.”  That was a lot for Luther to say. Spent, he shambled back to his game.

Silas stared at me. “How come you be asking all these questions? You see something up there?”

I slapped a twenty down on the counter. “I asked a reasonable question, Silas. I don’t like being made a fool of.”  I turned to go, angry and embarrassed.

Silas grabbed me by the arm. “Come on, just jiving with you, man. Hell, let’s just say that I make a point not to drive up there.”

“Why? Afraid you’ll see a dead person?”

“No. ‘Cos it ain’t safe. It’s what you call, how do they say it…accident prone.  Must be the way the bridge is designed. Couple times a year, a car ends up in the river, and some poor asshole ends up with a toe tag. Same thing happened to Big Bob Rankin, except he lived.”

I was confused.  Who did he mean? Big Bob Rankin?  Our boss at the factory?

“Not that Rankin. His Daddy. Happened  when I was kid. My father was a deputy then, I remember him talking about it. The story the Rankins put out was that he took a wrong turn, but my Dad said he reeked of gin.  Big Bob also had a bad habit of putting his hands where they didn’t belong. Knocked up a couple of girls at the factory, so they say. Then he blew his brains out.” Silas paused, gave me a hard look. “Ethan, I’m gonna tell you what I tell Luther, but he don’t listen to me. If I was you, I’d stay far away from that goddamn bridge.  Everything the Rankins touch turns to shit.”

“Except our paychecks,” I teased.

Of course, I couldn’t stay away. I went back that night, and the night after that, and the night after that. I told myself it was because I kept missing the turnoff, but even to myself, I was running out of excuses.

And then a week or so later, I saw her again. It was raining, I could barely see through the windshield. But there she was in the pale moonlight, standing to the side like a wet dog, hair stringy, her skirt matted to her skin, still in those goddamn pink flip-flops. I don’t know what the hell I was thinking, but I stopped the car. Hell, I do know. I thought maybe she was in trouble, or needed help. Maybe I wanted to talk to her. Maybe I wanted to fuck her. But by the time I got out of the car, she was gone. I ran into the woods and came upon some kids smoking pot. When they saw me, they took of like bottle rockets. Still, even with the pouring rain, I’d gotten a better look at her this time, and goddamn, she could’ve been Jenny’s twin sister. And just like the last time I’d seen her, I felt great. Better than great. There was something about that girl that made me come alive, made my blood race, made my heart ready to burst through my chest. I’d never felt that way with Susie, ever, not even in our best times. It was like I was coming out of a thick, blinding fog.  It was a feeling I didn’t want to lose.

A couple of days later on my shift, I was working in the back when Silas came up to me. “Ethan, you got a visitor.”

I gave Silas a what for look. “Who are you shitting? At this hour of the night?” Silas shrugged.

As I walked down the corridor, I wondered who it could be. I knew damn well it wasn’t Susie; if something was wrong, she would’ve called. I went into the outer office, and I saw her standing by the soda machine. It took a moment to register, and then I was back in Calhoun Middle School on the first day of eighth grade. I was at my locker, and a girl with long brown hair in a skirt and sandals shot past me. She dropped her book bag, and I picked it up for her. She gave me a smile, and I followed her down the hall like a lost puppy.

“Jenny?” I whispered, not believing my eyes. It had to be a joke. But it wasn’t.  Jenny burst into tears and flew into my arms, and I held her tight, and the years melted away.  Once I got over my initial shock, we went to the cafeteria. Over cups of coffee that went stone cold, Jenny told me everything. How she’d been shipped off to California against her will, how when she came back, that her parents had pushed her into marrying that nice young man, who turned out to be a drunk who used her for a punching bag.

All I could say was that I was sorry. Sorry for not standing up to my old man. Sorry for not looking for her. Sorry for a thousand other things I should have done and didn’t. And sorry, most of all, about our baby.

Jenny became quiet. She whispered something low under her breath. I didn’t catch it the first time, and then she repeated it. She never had the abortion. We had a daughter, her name was Miranda. Somehow she had found out the truth about her real father—me—and had run away. Jenny had no idea where she had gone, but I knew. Oh, I knew, because I saw her in my dreams every night. The girl on Rankin Bridge.

Jenny was staying at a motel on the outskirts of town, and I told her that I’d meet her there after my shift was over. I kissed her and held her and told her that everything would be all right. I was going to make it right. I was going to find our girl—maybe she was hurt, confused, disoriented—and make up for lost time, with her, and with Jenny. I saw it all so clearly now.

The hours flew by and then I was in my car, driving, Michael Stanley playing at full blast.  A line of severe thunderstorms rolled in and it was raining hard; cars and trucks were slipping all over the place. I sensed her before I saw her, standing under a grove of trees. It’s funny. I don’t even remember slowing down or stopping. I don’t remember her getting into the car.  I don’t even remember turning the ignition or the roar of the engine as I drove onto the bridge. I remember saying her name, and she looked at me, puzzled.

“Who’s Miranda?” she said.

The next thing I knew, the car jackknifed over the bridge railing and quickly filled up with water. I frantically pulled on the door handle, but it was stuck. I looked at Miranda, and instead of younger version of Jenny, what stared back at me were the sunken eyes of a rotting corpse. As the cold water rushed over my head and my lungs exploded, it gave me a soft kiss and a sad look.

“I’m sorry. I thought you were him,” it whispered as it disappeared, her pink flip-flops floating.

 

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