Dancing Days

I picked Jessie up from her parents’ house in my Nova at eight. Sitting with my car running on their driveway trying to keep warm. It was uncommon in December for it to be this cold in Michigan. I could hear the snow crunching under Jessie’s feet as she walked up to the passenger side. Without saying a word she opened the door and got in and I shifted in reverse to pulled out of the driveway.

“I told my parents I wouldn’t be out late,” she finally said to me as I drove down the dark, lonely road. I could tell something was bothering her, but she wouldn’t tell me what. Maybe it was another argument with her parents. I didn’t know. There were times I found it hard to understand what she was thinking. It can be that way with couples.

“Don’t worry, we won’t be out long. I was thinking maybe we’d go out to Rick’s and hang out.”

Rick Lang was a friend of ours who lived with his parents just outside of Jackon’s city limit and a couple of miles from Jessie’s. We both knew him from Mickey D’s, a fast-food restaurant all three of us worked during the summer before I left for college in Ypsilanti. All three of us were part of the fast-food restaurant’s closing crew and used to party after work together. All that summer we’d spend hours sitting in the restaurant’s parking lot late at night drinking wine coolers and smoking the joints Rick would roll. Me and Jessie would sit in front seats of my blue ’79 Chevy Nova messing with the radio while Rick would sit in the back. He would use one of the store’s dining trays to sift the seeds out from the crumbled weed before putting it into the crease of the thin cigarette paper and rolled it into a joint. Jessie would tune in from one station to another until settling on one that was playing a song we all liked.

“Stop there,” I would say when she came to a station playing Led Zeppelin.

“This one? Okay, maybe this one song but only because I like it.” Jessie began singing along with the music as I took a drink from my wine cooler. “I saw a liar standing alone with a tadpole in a jar.”

I burst out laughing and almost spilled my drink. “I saw a lion, not a liar.”

“What?” She stopped singing and looked over at me with irritation.

“It’s lion, not liar. I have the album and it’s got the lyrics.”

“That doesn’t make sense. What would a lion be doing standing with a tadpole in a jar?”

 “And a liar makes more sense?”

She punched me in the arm, and we settled to the jams as we listen to another one of Rick’s stupid jokes.

“What do you call a fake noodle? An im-pasta. What do you call a guy who never farts in public? A private tutor.”

Rick would go on and on like this as he rolled another pausing only to lick the adhesive on the rolling papers to seal it. Jessie would laugh, so would I, and she would tell Lang how lame he was. Rick would just look up with that famous shitty grin of his, pop a freshly rolled joint in his mouth, and light it. They were fun times, and we enjoyed each other’s company as we drank and got high. After a couple of hours, just before the cops made their rounds to our part of town, Lang would crotch-pocket his sandwich bag full of weed and joints and climb out of the car. Before getting into his Ford Ranger Rick would always do this wink and clicking sound with his tongue as he waved goodbye. I think he thought it looked cool when he did it. I just thought he looked like a big dork, but it always seems to make Jessie laugh. Another thing he would do that he thought was cool was knock on my driver’s side window and hand me a joint before he is driving off. Other times, well, he left us with yet another groaner. After he pulled away I’d start the car, went, and dropped Jessie off at her house after a kiss, and I drove home to my parent’s house in town.

None of us had met before working at Mickey D’s because we went to different high schools in town. I went to Denton High in the subdivision on the south side of Jackson while Rick and Jessie went to Jackson High on the city’s west end. They said they had never met before because they hung around with different crowds. High school was like that back then in the eighties. Our whole lives revolved around groups you fitted into. If you were into the sports you were a jock, primps were the rich kids, drug-users were burnouts, book readers with good grades were nerds, project housing kids were slums. You also had your black wearing goths, avant-garde weirdos, and the misfits who didn’t fit anywhere. It was social suicide to ever drift outside your circle. Rick played in both football and basketball teams so he was a jock. He got his dope from the burnouts and that was all right because that was just business. He would share what he toked so that made him cool. Jessie’s dad was a regional distribution manager for one of the automotive associated companies and made enough money to live comfortably in one of the nice homes outside of town. She worked at the fast-food to save up so that when she goes to college she would have spending money. So, Jessie, the primp, would never have known Rick, the jock, even though they went to the same school. My parents were part of the working middle class that lived in one of Jackson’s subdivisions. Dad worked the night shift in a plant that Jessie’s dad managed. In high school, I was a nerd because I read a lot and had been pulling a four-point-o since the sixth grade. Graduation changes all that, at least, it did for some.

Jessie and I had been dating since April and a couple throughout that last summer we were all together. At first, it seemed like we were an odd pair, me being who I was and she, well, her dad was technically my dad’s boss. But after I mustered enough courage to ask her out, and she agreed, we found we liked each other. One date followed another and pretty soon we became a twosome. We did what most couples did back in the eighties. We wasted quarters on video games at the arcade in the mall and go out to the movies at the cinema plex. I had the Nova at the time and some nights we would just cruise around all night going from the mall to Cascade Park and back wasting gas. That summer was the best. Someone always knew somebody who was having a bonfire and kegger and we would go there to party. When we felt like being alone we would park at the Cascades and make out. We were each other’s first and, as such things go, we thought we were in love. Well, at least I did.

Sometimes we would just sit in my car and talk. At Carl’s Liquor Mart I would get someone old enough to buy beer for us and we would drive out to Cascade Park to drink and smoke cigarettes. I would park the car, me in my denim shorts and printed t-shirt, and she in her designer jeans and tank top, and we would sit listening to the music playing on the WRIF radio station. We’d talk about our stupid parents, or how dumb our teachers were, and of how shitty friends can be. She had feathered her hair for her graduation pictures and had been playing around applying more makeup to make herself look more mature. The eye shadow she wore brought out her blue eyes which, framed as they were by her dark, curly hair, made them look beautiful. Sometimes we sat there in silence, and I would just look at her. She would turn and look at me and say something like, “What are you looking at?” I would answer, “You”. We would laugh, fall into each other’s arms and kiss. It was one of those warm summer nights when we talked about leaving town for college. 

“When are you leaving for Ypsilanti,” she asked as she lit her cigarette using the car’s lighter.

“The last week in August,” I answered as I took the lighter to light my own. “And you?”

“I don’t have to be there until after Labor Day.”

I was going to Eastern Michigan University in Ypsilanti to study teaching. Jessie had been accepted at Grand Valley State in the west part of the state on a fine arts scholarship.

She took a puff from her cigarette. “Are you going to call me when I get there?”

“You know I will.”

 We had talked often about how hard it would be to stay together. We figured that we would stay in touch by calling each other every week, every day if we could and that we would see each other during the holidays.

“Could you, maybe, drive out to visit?”

‘I don’t know, Jessie, Allendale is pretty far.”

At this point, she would start crying and say how alone she was going to be and how she was going to miss everyone. Looking at her like this made me feel like a real jerk. I still loved her and knew I would continue to do so even if we were on the opposite side of the state. I felt helpless and did the only thing I could think to do; I reached out and cradled her in my arms. I still remember the smell of her perfume as I would rest my chin on the back of her neck.

August came, we continued to do what we had done all summer until it was time to say goodbye. Jessie and I made love one last time at the Cascades before going out to Rick’s for a bonfire party. When we had arrived the party was going full blast with the music playing, everyone drinks, and having a good time. Led Zeppelin’s ‘Dancing Days’ from their ‘House of the Holies’ was blaring in the background. We got our cups of beer from the keg and sat in a couple of lawn chairs by the fire pit. There were lots of people there, some we knew and others we didn’t and we sat alone. This was an all-in-one graduation and going away party for Rick. The Langs were pretty cool in that they didn’t mind if you weren’t old enough to drink. They also didn’t mind us smoking pot as long as Dave didn’t make it so obvious.

I remember spending most of the time asking Jessie if there was anything wrong. She would stare at the fire pit and say nothing as she drank her beer. Lang would occasionally pop in on us and do this “wink, wink, nudge, nudge” thing as he pointed to his parent’s house. We’d catch on followed him to the house and then the basement where he would pull a joint out of his pocket, light it, and we’d catch a buzz. After the joint was gone the three of us would go back to the party and grab some of the food that Rick’s mom had laid out. Again Jessie and I sat down by the fire but this time she seemed to be in a better mood. By now Jessie was laughing and looked like she was beginning to enjoy herself. At three in the morning, things started to wind down and everyone was leaving. Jessie and I said our goodbyes, got into my car, and left. Again she went into her solemn mood and remained silent the entire way to her house. I dropped her off after we kiss, and I drove home. Two days later I left for Eastern.

It was in the same basement from the bonfire party five months ago that Rick led us down to when we arrived at his house. As we climbed down the stairs I noticed things had changed. Gone were the boxes of old toys, books, and picture frames. In their place was a raggedy old couch, a bed, and an old nineteen-inch television. Concert posters of Zeppelin and Pink Floyd covered one side of the walls and on another was a giant velour, neon green painting of a marijuana leaf. A lava lamp sat on a small table in one corner giving the room an eerie glow. It was apparent that Lang had moved out of his room upstairs and was now living in the basement. Rick pulled out a chair from under an old desk and sat in it. He then took a rolling tray, a Mickey D’s dining tray he must have stolen, and began sifting through the pot as he had always done before. Jessie and I sat next to each other on the couch as we watched him in silence. We still hadn’t said much to each other since leaving her house. Rick was the first one to speak.


“So, what’s shaken, bacon?” he said as he pinched some of the pot to put on the cigarette paper.

Thinking he was talking to me I answer, “Not much. What’s new with you, gnu?”

Rick licked the joint to seal it and smiled as I’ve always seen him do hundreds of times.

“Not much over here, partner. You know, same thing, different day. I’m working for my dad now. Business at the dealership is picking up and he said if sales continue to look good he might need another salesman. That might be me if I play my cards right.” Rick’s dad owns Lang’s Used and New Ford Auto Dealership in Concord. He did pretty brisk business. The news caught me by surprise. The last time I talked to Rick he was enrolled at Western State University.

“What happened to Western? I thought you were going there?”

“Nah, change of plans. Got a job with my dad. Making good money working at the dealership running around making coffee and picking up things. Did you check out my sweet ride outside?” I had noticed the used Mustang parked in the driveway. “Dad got me a deal on it.” He lit the joint and passed it to me.

I took a quick hit and passed it to Jessie. She waved it off not wanting any and I passed it back to Rick. I didn’t want to say anything, didn’t want to start anything, but the silent treatment was really getting on my nerves. Rick took another hit and I looked over at Jessie with a pleading expression on my face.

“I don’t feel like it, okay?” she responded angrily not looking at me.

“Okay. Okay. But what’s the matter?”

“Nothing.”

Rick and I took turns from the joint a few more times before it was gone. Whatever was going on was driving with Jessie was making me nuts. I was high from the pot, frustrated, and I couldn’t take it anymore. Something had changed between us and I couldn’t figure out what. Jessie and I started pretty well after we both left for college. We called each other every day when we first arrived from the phones in our dorms, me from Eastern and she at Grand Valley. But soon it became every other day and then once a week as classes started and the expense of calling made it difficult. There were a couple of times she missed my calls. She was out and I left messages with her roommate. I thought she was studying or making friends, joining a sorority, or something. I didn’t expect her to be waiting in her dorm room for my phone calls. But there were times I just wished she would call me back. Then there was Thanksgiving and she said she wasn’t coming home. Yes, I was upset, but I didn’t hold that against her. She told me finals were coming up and I told her I understood. But this? The cold shoulder? What was going on?

Rick sat and watched the exchange between us, sifting and rolling, sifting, and rolling until the entire bag of pot was rolled.

“We got two weeks before we have to go back! Is this how it’s going be?” I said as I got up from the couch out of frustration.

“I’m not going back! I’m pregnant!”

Rick sat with his head down looking at the tray full of joints. I stood there in silence.

“What? Pregnant? How?”

She looked up at me from the couch with angry tears before she said, “You know how. How does anyone get pregnant?”

“You know what I mean.”

“Yeah, I know what you mean. How? How? HOW? NOT WITH YOU! Is that what you want to hear? It’s not with you! Three months! There, you know now!”

I lost my buzz as the floor from under my feet gave out. The last time Julie and I had sex was before we both left for college. Unless she was lying to me that would mean she got pregnant in September. I looked to see if she is showing. I couldn’t see the bump she may have been hiding under her coat.

“Yeah, it’s there, dumb ass! I missed my period a couple of months ago and took the test. I’m pregnant. You happy now!”

I don’t know why but I started to apologize. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” I repeated over and over as I sat down on the couch my head between my knees.

“And YOU! You’re not going to say ANYTHING?!”

I looked up as her rage was focused on Rick. Why Rick? Then it hit me.

“Yeah, college guy, Rick is the father.”

Rick wouldn’t look up at us least of all me. He stared at the joints rolled on the tray in silence. Jessie got up and crossed the room. In her tear-filled anger, she smacked Rick several times on the shoulder. Rick closed his eyes and took it hunched over the tray of the pot.

“I hate you! I hate both of you! You!” she said pointing at me. “You said you would never leave me! But you went and I was alone. You left me!”
“I called,” I retorted back in anger. “But sometimes you didn’t call me back!”

“So what did you do when I did? You acted like everything was okay. You didn’t ask where I was. You didn’t even ask if I was alright? It’s like, like you didn’t care. YOU DIDN’T CARE!”

“But I did care! I do care!”

“Then, why didn’t you come and see me? Because it was too far away. Yeah, that’s your answer, isn’t it? Isn’t it? Well, Rick drove up to see me. I called him and he came but you didn’t. You wouldn’t come to see me, and I felt so alone, and he came but you didn’t. Rick came to visit me three times and not once did you ever think of driving up to see if I was okay. Not once!”

I didn’t know what to say. She was right. Not once did it ever occurred to me to ask if everything was fine. I once thought about driving across the state to surprise her but talked myself out of it thinking, as she said because it was too far away. Now I thought it may not have been a good idea because of what I might have found. Rick with my girlfriend.

I got up, walked up the stairs, and left the house slamming the screen door behind me.

It had just started to snow as I made for my car. It was that fluffy stuff that came down like little balls of cotton. The air was cold, and it was silent. The countryside was so quiet you could hear the interstate a couple of miles away. I fumbled through my pockets for my keys, but they had gotten stuck in the loose threads of the lining of my coat pocket. When they finally came out I dropped them into the loose snow, and I had to dig them out with my hands. When I found them I put them into the keyhole, turned them to unlock the door, and climbed in. I sat in the driver’s seat staring out at the screen door as it swayed unlatched in the wind. I hadn’t noticed that Lang had followed me on the way out until he rapped on my passenger side window. Startled from my inner thoughts I looked over before reaching the handle to the passenger side window. I rolled it down a crack, just enough to see Rick’s breathe blowing through it.

 “You okay, dude?”

“Yeah, I guess I’m okay. How’s Jessie?”

“You know, crying, angry.” He shrugged. “You are coming back in?”

“Nah, I think it’ll be better if I just go home.” I was still angry at Rick, the both of them. But mostly I was angry with myself for being so stupid.

“I hear-ya. I’ll take Jessie home.”

“Could you? Thanks.” It sounded lame after I said it. Of course, he would take her home. I was the last person Jessie wanted to see right now.

A long minute passed before Rick said, “I guess I should go back in.”

“Yeah, you should.”

I started the car as I watched Rick make it back to the house.

I didn’t talk to either one of them for the rest of the two-week Christmas break. I spent my Christmas with my family trying not to think of what had happened that evening. Once I thought I’d give Jessie a call, to see if she was okay and if she needed anything. But I thought the better of it. I even thought about visiting her house. You know, drive up, knock on her door. She would answer, give me a big hug as if things were okay, and we would laugh about it. I even entertained the idea of marrying her if Rick wouldn’t do the right thing. That was all a dream. I never drove by her house ever again. When Christmas break was over, I said my goodbyes to my parents and drove back to college.

I haven’t spoken to either one of them since that night forty years ago. Never heard from either of them or what eventually happened. Did she have the baby? Did Rick and Jessie get married? I don’t know. What about the child? They are all grown up now and maybe with teenagers of their own. There are times when I sit at my desk typing, times like this when I hear Led Zeppelin’s ‘Dancing Days’ playing on a web station, and I remember that last summer when we were together.

-A. M. Holmes

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