by Samuel Stevens
Loeb drove, trying to adjust to the winding Blue Ridge roads flanked on both sides by trees. “How did you used to stand coming here?” he groaned.
“I was a kid, Ray,” I laughed a little. “Why did I agree to a road trip with you of all people?”
“I wonder myself how I can be friends with a backward reactionary like you.”
“I’m congenial and have a sense of humor. It goes a long way.”
“So you keep your iron hand in a velvet glove.” Loeb shrugged. “Anyway, you think there are good women here?”
“Ray your ‘good woman’ is the kind whose father puts her on birth control at sixteen, buys her a car, and tells her to be safe.”
“What’s wrong with that?”
I gave him a look. Loeb steered away from an oncoming truck, almost scraping the slope on the right side. “Son of a bitch,” he groaned.
“Take it easy. We’re almost there.”
“I have a feeling this road is going to end with a tar paper shack in the middle of nowhere.”
I laughed. We reached the town soon after. It was an odd amalgamation of mountain town and hippie colony. We pulled into the little hotel. Loeb looked incredulous.
“This is nice, actually.”
“Shocking that small town people can, in fact, make nice things, I know.” I said, rolling my eyes. We checked in. Loeb leered at the girl at the desk, a pretty blonde maybe a few years younger than us. She forced a smile at Loeb. I felt a little embarrassed for him. That was my role in life more than often than not.
She had a cross necklace. She smiled at me, a real one. “Hello sir,”
“Hi,” I said, giving her my information. Loeb sat in the small lounge away from the desk.
“Is your friend alright?”
“He’s always like that. He’s just my attorney.”
“I’m kidding. We’re taking a trip so that he can see there is, in fact, more to the world than the Washington D.C. metro area.”
She laughed a little.
I sounded too smart, damn it. Not that anything would happen. We’d only be here two weeks. She’s probably not even Catholic, I thought rapid-fire.
She printed off a receipt. “Do you work in DC?”
“How did you guess?” I said with mock surprise. “Do you know where I live?”
“Well it has your address on the slip here.” She laughed a little. “How did you find out about our little town?”
“I used to come here as a kid with my family. I wanted to show Ray over there.”
“I’m glad you did. Let me know if you need anything else,” she said, handing me a key.
We went upstairs to our rooms. Loeb said he was taking a nap. I decided to get a cup of coffee. I went to the café on the main street and watched people. If she was a Christian it was not worth it because she was a Protestant and even if she was not it would not last. I knew why Loeb and I were so close—I was just as neurotic as he was. I was just better at hiding it.
The people passing by ran the gamut of rural American archetypes—healthy looking families, kind old people, perpetually irritated Boomers, opioid and alcohol casualties, and then the obese drowning in their own bodies. The last two were often one and the same, though not always. I had always wanted to be a part of this, but I never could be. Not really. I shook my head. I wanted to be a writer—artists usually obsessed over women. It sort of came with the territory of finding beauty, I guessed.
It was Saturday. I needed to find a church. I knew there wouldn’t be one. I could have checked my phone but I wanted an excuse to talk to the girl at the hotel desk again. She would know I was just going back to talk to her and she would clam up and I was right back to where I was in my undergraduate days. I gritted my teeth and went back to the hotel. I asked her where the churches were here.
“You can go to the Church of God on the main street here, if you don’t want to go too far. I go to that one.”
“Oh,” I said.
“The service is at nine o’clock tomorrow.”
She smiled at them. I couldn’t tell if it was real or not.
Loeb came down to the lobby. “Let’s get dinner.”
“Good idea,” I said.
We went to a restaurant with a bar. Loeb picked it. He wanted to talk to women. I always had the urge but never did. It wasn’t worth meeting women in bars.
“Loeb,” I said as we drank. “You’re not going to pick up women here.”
“You don’t know that,” he said. He looked unnatural drinking a beer. “You look like a fish out of water with a damn martini.”
“I’d rather telegraph I’m a pretentious urban asshole. Be upfront about it.”
Loeb rolled his eyes. “You need to get laid.”
“I think you need to indulge your urges a little, Jake.”
“This is why you’re so miserable. You do it to yourself.”
“Women are my vice, Ray, that’s why I can’t ‘indulge my urges’ Doctor Freud.”
Loeb cut his eyes at me. He looked over at a table of pretty, blonde country girls. All of the young women in the town seemed to be blonde. He got up and talked to them.
I looked at my empty glass and went up to the bar. The bartender was an older woman with leathery smoker’s skin. She had green eye shadow, as if that would cover up the damage to her face from cheap liquor and cigarettes.
“What’cha drinking hon?” she said to me.
“Martini,” I said.
She gave me a dirty glance and then made me another one. “Not from here?”
“No. My friend and I are on a vacation.”
It was my turn to glare at her. “He’s never spent time out of the city, so I thought I’d show him.”
She looked over at Loeb. He was trying desperately to keep the girls’ attention, and he seemed to be succeeding. Some kind of organ grinder monkey, I thought. “You have a girlfriend?”
“No,” I said, nearly spitting out my drink. “Why?”
“Figure you should be over there with him. Wingman, right?”
“I don’t do any of that.”
“What’s any of that?”
“Ah, you know, talking to women in a place like this.”
“Do you like men?”
I shifted in my seat. I gave her another look. “No. Nothing like that.”
“Not that I care. I’ve had plenty of friends like that.”
“Yes, of course,” I said.
“I have a son about your age.”
“Is that right?”
“I left his father when he was four.”
I was not surprised by this. “I’m sure that was for the best, in your mind.”
She sighed. She had acted this drama to many people, I thought. It made my stomach turn.
“Well nice talking to you,” I said. “I’m going to check on my friend.” Her mouth hung open. I guessed I’d denied her moment.
Loeb sat with the three girls. As a rule I never tried to “pick up” women in pairs or groups. Their friends almost always sabotaged you the moment you walked away.
“How are you doing?” I said to Loeb from behind.
“Oh,” he said, turning slightly. “This is my friend Jake.”
“Hello,” I said to the girls. They all looked similar—blonde hair, blue or brown eyes, with Anglo or Germanic features.
“Do you have a lot of money like Ray?” one of them asked.
She took me aback. “No,” I said. Ray did come from a well off family. The girls were all a little drunk; Loeb must have been keeping them supplied while I talked to the bartender. I pulled up a chair and sat down.
“So Ray, do you work for the stars?” the prettiest one said. It was funny, they sat in a sort of descending order of attractiveness. I sat on the end, outside the four others.
“No,” Loeb said. “Not exactly. I came close a few times.”
“Some senators and congressmen.”
“You know, government people.”
I glanced at Loeb and said, “They’re like Hollywood people, only ugly.”
The girls laughed.
“Do you want to get going?” I said to Loeb.
“It’s only eight thirty.”
“Oh, well, I’ll stay a little longer.”
“You have to go to church in the morning, right,” Loeb said. “Is there even a Catholic church in a fifty mile radius?”
“No. It’s complicated, I’ll tell you later.”
“What’s complicated?” the girl next to Loeb asked me.
“It’s nothing important.”
“Do you girls want another drink? Of course you do.” He got another round. I grimaced at my own glass.
“Lighten up,” Loeb said.
“Yeah, yeah,” I said.
The one with brown eyes seemed to be staring at me, although it wasn’t a flirtation. It couldn’t have been. That did not happen to me.
“I’m going to go now,” I said to Loeb. “See you in the morning.”
I woke up and dressed in my usual Sunday clothes and headed out for the church.
“Hey,” the desk girl said to me. the mountain accent was attractive, far more so than the vocal fry of the women Loeb and I usually met back home.
“Oh, hello,” I said. “My name is Jake, by the way.”
I liked her name. “Did you wait outside for me?”
“I thought it would be the nice thing to do,” she smiled. She had hazel eyes. They were very clear. She did not have the broken look of a woman who wasted her virginity. She wore a simple blouse and jeans. “You don’t have to get all dressed up. Do they do that at your church?”
“Not really. I’m one of the only ones.”
“I don’t know. I just figure if I’m going to talk to God, I ought to dress up. Like I was meeting the President.”
“Huh,” she said. We walked down the long main street. “I never thought of it like that.”
I shrugged. “It’s just one of my…neuroses I guess.”
She gave me a small smile. “What did you and your friend do last night?”
“Just had dinner and a few drinks. Well, I had a few. Him, not so much.”
“My pastor says alcohol is Satanic.”
“Is that right? What kind of car does he drive?”
“A truck.” She gave me a look. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Just a bad joke. Sorry.” Now I’ve really shot myself in the foot, I thought. Apologizing never did you any good.
“You have an odd sense of humor.”
“I guess so,” I said. “How old are you?”
“Oh I’m twenty four.”
She blushed slightly. “What do you do?”
“I work at a law firm.”
“No, I’m just an assistant. I do research. My helped get me the job, Thank God.” I did not tell her my real goal, or more honestly dream. Saying you were, or wanted to be a writer, got you shunned from these kinds of people. I couldn’t blame them after encountering so many poseurs.
“Do you want to be a lawyer?”
“I just want a job to support my family with.”
We reached the church. The congregation’s eyes fell one me as I walked in No one wore a jacket or tie. The church walls were barren except for a cross at the front. We sat down together in chairs, not a pew. People talked. Claire introduced me to a few people. I fidgeted as the service started. It was alien, cold to me. It opened with acoustic guitar hymn. The preacher spoke about vague Christian niceties. Then they passed the “communion” around in a tray—it was Dixie cups of grape juice and soup crackers. My hands sweat as the tray reached me. I paused a half-beat. I stared at this farcical Host. I passed the tray to Claire.
She took it and then gave me a look of concern. “I’ll tell you later,” I said.
The service ended afterward and we left the church. I stood outside while Claire mingled with her friends in the congregation. She was very kind. Even though she did not have the prettiest face, aesthetically, she had a glow about her. It was unreal, something I had not witnessed in any church I had been to. It was tempting to leave the Church sometimes but I could never go through with it.
Claire approached me. “Is there a good place we could get breakfast here?” I said.
She glanced down. “Yes, I know a place. Will you tell me why you didn’t take the Supper of the Lord?”
“You drive a hard bargain, Claire.”
She seemed to smile when I said her name. “There’s a diner, I’ll show you.”
We went to the place and sat down.
“I’m, well, Catholic, I’m not supposed to take communion with other denominations.”
She frowned. “But aren’t we all Christians?”
“I guess…look, I went because you’re pretty, alright?”
She took a breath. “Did you plan on…did you think I would just…”
I narrowed my eyes at her. “No. I don’t have any designs on seducing you and then leaving town.”
We stared at each other for a few minutes. My gut had a knife in it. My phone buzzed. Loeb texted me: “please can we go tonite?” I told him I was busy and we’d talk soon. “Sorry about that,” I said.
“I believe you. I’m sorry. I overreacted. You don’t seem like the type to just sleep around.”
I shrugged. “That’s good. You still live with your parents?”
“I live in town here.”
“Were your parents at church?”
“No, I’m the only one that goes. They live out in the county.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
“I pray for them.”
“You said you wanted a family.”
I nodded. “Hopefully,”
“Do you think you’ll visit again?”
“Maybe. Maybe I should move out here. Better than Washington, that’s for sure.”
“It’s nice here. Everyone knows each other.”
“What’s DC like?”
“A collection of ugly people striving miserably toward an unknown goal.”
“That’s…um, you should write that down.”
“You think so?”
She nodded. “Well that’s why I said it,” she laughed.
I grinned. “Of course.”
We had our meal and talked about other things for about an hour and a half. She was a bright girl, easy to talk to.
I walked her home after.
“Will you come visit again?”
“If I can. I don’t get a lot of days off. Here, you can have my number.” I gave her a business card out of my wallet.
“Thank you,” she said.
We looked at each other. I kissed her and she kissed back.
“I’ll call you,” she said, going inside her apartment building.
I met back up with Loeb at the hotel.
“We have to go,” I said.
“Can you believe it? The girl I took back last night slept with nine other guys before me. I pissed her off when I said I didn’t like that, after we banged. We have to go.”
I nodded. I told him about Claire.
“And you want to leave?”
“You should stay here, don’t go back to the firm.”
“Why? You’re crazy, Jake.”
“Ray, I’ll never be one of these people. I’m not part of this world. Being with Claire…it goes against my code to insert myself here or pluck her out.”
“You’re fucking nuts, Jake.” He shook his head.
“Let’s just head out.”
Loeb looked out window of his room. “I can agree with you there.”
Samuel Stevens’s most recent novel is Lone Crusader.