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Dancing to Ray Charles: Ch 02, Hot Fries and Cold Beer

"Cruising and talking about life, two women, and one mixed-up guy."
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He’d left the dance early, needing to be alone, to think, to sort out his emotions. Then he got hungry. The one place still open was the all-night, Hilltop Café Motel and Truck Stop.

With the country club dance still going on, the over air-conditioned, neon lighted café seemed empty. A few couples were sitting in the back booths. None looked familiar. Out-of-town kids, he guessed. A lot of them would have stopped in after dates to check each other out for telltale signs of drive-in passion. After a quick burger, they’d rush home to beat the girl’s midnight curfew.

The figure standing at the business end of the, “Blushing Beauty,” the Hilltop’s only pin-ball machine was, however, very familiar. By even the most tolerant of standards David Clyde Wright was a strange life form. By the small-town standards of Pinefield, Louisiana in 1968, he was way off the scale. His more distinctive features included long, stringy hair, and the beginnings of a beer gut. He also had a goofy, don’t-give-a-damn smile some girls insisted was cute.

Friends and law enforcement officers alike called him, D.C. Both groups agreed he was every bit as odd as he looked. Among other things he was a self-destructive, semi-alcoholic, anti-establishment free spirit.

D.C. was smart, but in a D.C. sort of way. After being expelled from high school, he got his equivalence diploma before the rest of his class graduated. And unlike most of them, he read Dylan Thomas and William Faulkner because he liked them.

By some strange amalgamation of interests, he and Mark were long-time friends. And while total opposites, they could share certain secrets and count on one another for candid advice.

Unlike his anti-social friend, Mark was a big, easy-going guy. He’d been an athlete in high school. Back then he kept his hair short. Now it was a well-barbered, collar length. And while D.C. took the concept of casual clothing to an extreme, Mark dressed like the fraternity member he was. However, both men liked sports, Bob Dylan, and William Faulkner.

At the counter, Mark asked for two burgers and a large order of curly fries. The sour-faced, older woman D.C. had nicknamed, “Winona, the Woeful Waitress,” took his order in silence. After checking his hair in the mirror next to the “George Wallace for President” poster, he walked over and stood beside the machine.

While a new ball was being put into play, he asked, “So what’s a guy like you doing in a nice place like this?”

Bells rang and lights flashed. D.C. kept his gaze focused on the shiny, darting, steel ball. “Getting my scrawny ass whipped by this damn machine.”

As if to validate his remark, the ball ricocheted off a bumper at an unfortunate angle, sped past the outstretched flippers, and disappeared from sight.

A short but emphatic string of obscenities followed, punctuated by D.C. slamming his palms against The Blushing Beauty. It responded to this assault by flashing, “TILT” and ending the game.

Not unlike two mourners viewing the body of someone who died owing them money, they pondered the treacherous machine’s dimmed lights until D.C. broke the unnatural silence. “You know, it could be worse. I could be Chinese.”

“I’m going to hate myself for asking,” said Mark. “But, how do you figure that?”

“Just think, Cahill. There’s about a billion of them over there. And not one of those poor, thirsty, commie devils has a single Budweiser to drink.”

“Well, that does put your loss in a different perspective.”

His point made, D.C. turned his head and looked at Mark. “I wondered when you’d show up. Want a beer?” Got some out in the truck.”

Long accustomed to his friend’s habit of changing subjects in mid-stride, Mark said, “Why’d you think I’d come in here? And yes, I’d like a beer. I’ll even contribute the two burgers and curly fries I’ve got coming.”

“Cold beer and hot, greasy fries. God is indeed good to the young and beautiful,” said D.C. his voice rich with solemn irreverence. “You had to show. Your head would be too screwed up from dancing with Bebe Boudreaux at the country club to go home.”

They’d been drifting over toward the worn counter. Now they sat on plastic covered, backless stools and waited for Mark’s order. “And you knew I’d danced with her because…?”

“Because who do you think was playing all those slow Ray Charles songs? You owe me big time, Cahill.”

“It’s a debt I’m sure you’ll never let me forget. Not after you learn we’re going out next weekend.”

D.C. stopped lighting a cigarette to give Mark a look of genuine surprise. “A date? Damn son. After all those years of her giving you the proverbial finger, she suddenly says yes. I’m impressed.”

“With you as disc jockey, how could I fail?”

“So true. By the way, I didn’t see Amy at the dance. Is she still sick as a dog?”

Mark hesitated, then nodded. “Yep. But I called before the dance. Her dad said she’s on the mend.”

“What do you think’s gonna happen when she finds out about you and Bebe? Now I know you two are just good buddies and all that jazz. But the last time I checked, she and the Cajun Queen weren’t what you’d call a mutual admiration society.”

Mark shook his head. “I’ve quit trying to figure out Amy Marshall. I suppose she may give me a hard time. But all we’re talking about here is one date. So she’s not going to care, at least not that much.”

D.C. reached for an ashtray. “Well, what about old buddy Bob and that time in high school when he asked Bebe to the prom? Best I recall, instead of just saying no, she called him everything but a one-legged son-of-a-bitch. And then there’s Willie. Remember him? Nice guy who just happens to be black? You know Bebe’s old man’s now the boss of our local sheet-heads and she’s working for him?”

“That’s bullshit. He’s Cajun. They don’t even join the Klan, much less become honchos. As for Bob, he’s so wrapped up with the luscious Libby I doubt he’ll even notice. And Willie, well, we’ve been friends about forever, give or take a day or two. I should be okay with him.”

“All right. But what if you and Bebe click and go on more dates?”

“That’s not going to happen.”

“But what if it does? Outside of maybe being a little envious, I don’t give a shit. But what if you had to choose between Amy, Bob, Willie, and her?”

The arrival of Mark’s order saved him from dealing with that uncomfortable question.

The burgers vanished quickly, then they left. A few minutes later they were in D.C.’s old pick-up, drinking beer and finishing off the curly fries while driving past the modern, soulless structure that was the new parish courthouse and jail. As was his custom, D.C. spit out the window in the general direction of the courthouse.

“I suppose you heard that Connie Jackson had a baby girl?”

Mark nodded. Connie’s husband, Tommy Jackson, was in Vietnam. A gifted, all-state, running back, he’d married Connie right after graduation and gone to college on a football scholarship where he started on the freshman team. But then he surprised everyone by dropping out and joining the Marines.

“I’ll never understand why T.J. pulled that stunt,” said Mark. “I wonder how long it’ll be before he’ll get to see his baby?”

“Or the baby’s good-looking mother,” said D.C.. “But to answer your question, it’ll be over three months.”

The conversation moved from local gossip onto life, love, and Mark’s long-standing obsession with Bebe Boudreaux. “I was glad to help,” said D.C., “you know, by playing those records and all. But I’ve never understood why you’re so hung-up on that little coon-ass. Granted, she’s sexy as hell. I mean, I’d screw her for a quarter even if she didn’t pay me.”

They both grinned at his old joke, then D.C. shook his head, “But, man, you know the drill, ‘If they will, screw ‘em. If they won’t, screw ‘em.’ But it’s Bebe whose been screwing you over ever since she came dragging her fine ass into town. So why this fascination with her?”

They headed out of town. Humid, late-spring air swirled inside the cab. Mark finished his beer and tossed the bottle at a passing speed limit sign. He missed. “It’s like this. All my life I’ve been a nice guy. It’s just the way I am. I’m the peacemaker, the polite type mothers always like, a team player, a real competitor. But I’m also the one who’s always the runner-up. I might win a sportsmanship trophy or get ‘honorable mention’ but I never, ever, win it all.”

“Don’t give me that shit. You’ve won a lot of things.”

“Like what? Okay, maybe there has been one or two. But I’m talking about feelings as much as reality. And I’ve always felt like an also-ran in a world of winners. Just think about it, Willie won a state title in high school and now plays college football. Bob was All-District before blowing his knee out and he dates the luscious Libby.”

D.C. crossed himself and muttered, “Blessed be her name.”

Mark ignored this and continued the litany of his friend’s accomplishments. “Amy was a cheerleader, district MVP in basketball, and homecoming queen—twice. And she’s so damn good-looking. I swear it scares a lot of guys off. And then there’s her brother, Walt. How’d you like to have ‘all-everything Walt’ for a role model? Don’t get me wrong. He’s been like the big brother I never had. He taught me everything from how to shoot a rifle to the facts of life. But there’s no way in hell anyone can ever match his style. Much less all the stuff he’s done.”

Mark took a cigarette from the pack D.C. had laid on the seat and pushed in the lighter. “Did you know my dad was a Golden Gloves champ, you know, boxing?”

There was a note of admiration in D.C.’s, “No shit?”

“No shit,” said Mark. “Of course, the best I could ever do was honorable mention all-district in football. My mother was a homecoming queen. And we both know I’m never going to Hollywood with my looks. It’s like I got their worst features.”

Mark paused to light his cigarette. “Oh, you’re gonna love this one,” he said, shoving the lighter back into place. “Last time I visited some of mother’s relatives in Mississippi. One of my cousins, a real doll, wasn’t able to get me a last minute date. She gave me this little embarrassed, apologetic look. Then she said I wasn’t that bad looking. The thing was, girls might give a guy like me a second look, but never a third.”

D.C. laughed. “If either of us has to count on our looks for a meal ticket, we’ll starve.”

“Ain’t that the truth? oh, skinny-assed one,” said Mark. Then his smile went away. “The thing is, Bebe’s just flat-out turned me on ever since junior high. But if there’s anything more to my wanting her than just hormones, it’s that for me, she’s the ultimate prize, the blue ribbon, the first place trophy I never won. Because I promise you, tonight, at the dance, when she agreed to a date, it made me feel like a real winner.”

As they drove back into Pinefield, Mark flipped his cigarette out the window. “There’s one other thing. But this is just between you and me. Okay?”

“Lay it on me, big guy.”

“Just before school was out, some of us threw a party on the levee. And well, there was this girl. I’d known her for a long time. But she’s the type a guy like you or me doesn’t stand a chance with. You know what I mean?”

D.C. nodded. “You’re talking high-class, drop-dead gorgeous, running around baying at the moon, beautiful.”

“ You got it. Anyway, don’t ask me how it happened but we ended up making out. Nothing more. But now I’ve got it bad for her, real bad. The thing is, every time we meet she acts like nothing happened. It’s pretty obvious I’m still just a friend to her. That means if I try anything, odds are about a million to one all I’ll do is screw-up our friendship. I mean, there’s no hope in hell. She’s so far out of my league it’s not funny. So it makes more sense to try getting her out of my mind. And who better to help a guy do that, than Bebe Boudreaux?”

“ Sounds logical to me. Just one question.”

“What’s that?”

“Is Amy a good kisser?”

“She’s incredi--.” Mark caught himself and glared at D.C. He felt stupid and angry. “Who did you say? I mean if it was Amy, you’re so full of shit you, uh….” But the emotion drained from his voice and the words trailed off as his anger turned to disgust at himself.

“You always could read me like a damn book,” said Mark. “You’re right. It was Amy.”

They drove back to the Hilltop in silence. In the parking lot, D.C. stopped Mark before he could get out. “Look, I promised to keep this between us and I will. But, you know, it’s hard to believe I feel sorry for someone who’s made out with Amy Marshall and has a date lined up with Bebe Boudreaux.”

D.C. draped his arms over the steering wheel. The red glow of his cigarette reflected on the cracked windshield. Mark was used to these sudden meditations, and sat back to wait.

With a sigh, D.C. looked over. “But after knowing Amy all your life, you go and fall for her just before Bebe drops in on the act. Well, you didn’t ask, but in my opinion you should tell Bebe to hit the road and then take your best shot with Amy. But you won’t do that. You’re too hung up on Bebe and too afraid of losing Amy. Besides, we both know you’re a nice guy who was born to compromise.”

Mark smiled. D.C. didn’t. “The problem is you could end up losing ‘em both, plus a bunch of friends and maybe even a bit of self-respect. So I feel sorry for you. No shit, I do. ‘Cause unless you change your ways, something tells me you’re in for a very interesting summer.”


Note: This is the ‘storyized’ version of a chapter from an unpublished novel. Any thoughts on how it can be improved would be appreciated. RdW  


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