Summer 1996. The friendly neighbor.

According to an old saying, people come into your life for either a reason, a season, or a lifetime.  Some of the people I met in Jeromeville only crossed my path for a reason; I only met Moises a few times, and he showed me the gross misconceptions held by other Christians about Catholicism.  For the people who came into my life for a season, the season varied dramatically in length.  Megan McCauley, my older friend who became a hopeless crush, was part of my life for a little over a year, but Sarah Winters, one of my best friends at the University of Jeromeville, we were friends for about thirteen years until life got in the way and we gradually grew apart in our early thirties.  And, of course, some of the people I met in Jeromeville, like Taylor Santiago and Eddie Baker, have become lifelong friends whom I am still close with today.

One person who came into my life for a literal season, the summer of 1996, sat in a lawn chair reading one afternoon in front of apartment 224 at Las Casas Apartments, the apartment directly above mine.  The class I was taking had just started a few days earlier.  I rode my bike home from campus, checked my mail, and rode up to my apartment.  “Hi,” I heard a voice say above me as I walked my bike up to the door.  “Do you live downstairs from me?”

I looked up at the balcony and saw a short, stocky African-American woman with short curly hair and glasses looking at me.  “Yes,” I said.  “I don’t think I’ve seen you around before.”  As far as I knew, the leases at Las Casas ran from September 1 to August 31, to correspond with the UJ academic year.  I was not sure how I could have a new neighbor at the end of June, but she promptly answered my question.

“I’m Marie.  I’m Dan’s friend, I’m subletting this apartment from him; he’s gone doing research for the summer.”

“Nice to meet you.  I’m Greg.  I never actually knew Dan; I kept to myself a lot all year.”

“Nice to meet you too!  So what do you do?  Are you a student?”

“Yes.  I’m a math major.”

“Undergrad?”

“Yeah.  I just finished sophomore year.  What about you?”

“I’m just working at a temp agency.  I’m kind of at a point in my life where I’m trying to figure out the next step.  I’ve been moving around a lot, working here and there until I figure things out.”

“Where were you before this?”

“Southern California.  I liked it there, but I was just ready to move on.”

“That makes sense.  Have you been to Jeromeville before?”

“No!  But Dan has told me about it, and it seemed like a nice place to check out.  So here I am!  Are you from around here originally?

Plumdale.  Near Gabilan and Santa Lucia.”

“Oh, okay.  I’ve been to Santa Lucia a few times.  It’s so pretty there!”

“Yeah.  What about you?”

“I’m originally from North Carolina, but like I said, I’ve lived all over the country.”

“Wow.”

“Are you taking classes this summer?  You’re wearing a backpack.”

“Yeah.  I’m taking Introduction to Software.  I don’t need it for the math major, but it’s a prerequisite for an upper-division computer science class that counts toward the math major.  And I like fiddling around with computers.”

“Wow.  I’m not a techie at all.  I’ll come to you next time my computer isn’t working.”

“I don’t know if I’m that good,” I said, chuckling.

“It was nice meeting you!  I’m sure I’ll be seeing you around.”

“Yes!  It was nice meeting you.”


The next time I saw Marie was about a week later.  She knocked on the door as I was typing an email to my mom, who had just recently gotten Internet access for the first time and was writing to me almost every day.  “Hi,” I said after I opened the door.

“Hi, Greg!” Marie said.  “How are you?”

“I’m doing okay.  What about you?”

“I’m good!  Have you had dinner yet?”

“No,” I said.  “Why do you ask?”

“I decided to try this new chicken and rice recipe that I got from a friend, and I made too much for just me.  Want to come upstairs and try it?”

“Sure.”

“Great!  Come on up!” she said.  I locked the door behind me and followed Marie up the outside stairs into her apartment.  The apartment above me was a studio apartment with a loft; the loft was set up like a bedroom, but open to the living area downstairs.  A small dining table was next to the entrance to the kitchen, where I had my bookshelf in my apartment.  I was not sure which of the furniture and pictures on the wall were Marie’s and which belonged to Dan, who had the apartment the rest of the year.

Marie went into the kitchen and emerged with two plates.  Each plate had a chicken breast on top of rice with vegetables mixed in, and other vegetables on the side.  “Sit down,” she said gesturing toward the table.  “I’ll get you some water.”

“Thank you,” I said.  I waited for Marie to sit back down before I started eating, and after she did, I took a bite.  “This is really good.”

“Thank you!  Would you like the recipe?  I can write it down before you leave.”

“Sure,” I said.  “Honestly, though, I’m not very good at cooking.  I don’t know if or when I’ll make it.”

“That’s no problem.  It’s there if you need it.”

“True.”

“So how is your class going?  What are you learning about?”

“The programming language C,” I explained.  “It’s set up differently from the other programming I’ve done, but it’s ultimately a lot more powerful.”

“Interesting,” Marie replied.  “I told you before, I don’t know any of that stuff.  Why didn’t you major in computer science if you’re into that?  There’s a lot of good jobs out there for computer people.”

“Because most of my computer knowledge is out of date, so most of the people in my classes would be coming in with more knowledge of the basics than I have.  Also, I didn’t want my hobby to become work.”

“That makes a lot of sense.”

“I taught myself BASIC on a Commodore 64 when I was nine,” I explained, “but that’s useless already in today’s world.  Technology moves so fast.”

“That’s true,” Marie said.  “How old did you say you were?”

“I’m 19.  I’ll be 20 in August.”

“That’s right.  You said you were a sophomore.”

“Yeah.”

Marie paused, then said, “How old do you think I am?”

Uh-oh.  I did not like being put on the spot like this.  “I’m not good at guessing people’s ages,” I said.

“I’m just wondering, because people say I look younger than I really am.”

That made it even more difficult, because she looked a little big older than me.  Was she actually a lot older than me?  “25,” I guessed hesitantly.  Marie pointed upward.  “Older than 25?” I asked.  Marie nodded, and I guessed, “27.”  She pointed upward again.  She really did not look older than 27.  “30?” I guessed, apprehensively.

“Yes.  I’m 30.”

“Whoever says you look younger, they’re right.”

“Thanks,” Marie said, smiling.  “So what are you doing this weekend?”

“Probably just studying,” I replied.

“I’m thinking I want to go see a movie this weekend.  You want to come with me?  Maybe Saturday afternoon?”

I was not expecting this; instead of Yes or No, the first thing to come out of my mouth was, “What movie?”

“Have you seen Independence Day yet?  I’m seeing ads for it everywhere.  It looks interesting, for sure.”

“I haven’t, but I want to.  That sounds good.”

“Great!”

I stayed in Marie’s apartment for about an hour and a half that night, just talking about life.  She looked up the movie times at some point, so we could make plans for Saturday.  After I left, I sat in my apartment, trying to make sense of what was going on.  Marie was kind of acting like she was interested in me.  At least this is what I assumed it was like when a girl was into me; since no girl had ever been into me as far as I knew, I was not quite sure.  But she was thirty years old.  Surely she was not interested in a young kid like me.  She was just friendly.


On Saturday afternoon, I climbed the stairs to Marie’s apartment about half an hour before the movie started and knocked on the door.  “Hey!” she said when she opened the door.  “You ready to go?”

“Sure.  Want me to drive, or are you?”

“How about you drive, and I’ll pay for the tickets.  Does that work?”

“Sure,” I said.  “That’s my car down there, the red Bronco.”

“Nice,” she said.  As we headed down Andrews Road and turned onto Coventry Boulevard, she asked, “So do you ever take this thing off road?”

“I don’t,” I said.  “Well, this was our family car for five or six years before I moved here.  We used to visit my great-grandma in Bidwell a few times a year, and she lived at the end of a dirt road about a mile long.  Sometimes we’d use the four-wheel drive on that road.  But that’s about it.”

“You should go off-roading!  It’s so much fun!”

“Maybe someday.”

I turned right on G Street, just past Community Park, and headed south toward downtown.  The movie theater in Jeromeville was on the corner of G and First Streets, six blocks from the old part of campus.  I had not seen many movies in the last couple years, at least not during their first run in theaters; I had only been to this movie theater twice before.  It was in a gray building with a two-story parking garage above it.  I maneuvered my large vehicle through the narrow ramp leading up to the parking garage, barely wide enough for a car going up to pass a car going down.

“Can you fit in here?” Marie asked.

“I’ve done it before,” I said.  “Hopefully an even bigger car doesn’t come down at the same time.”

Marie laughed.  “Then we’d be in trouble.”

The stairs leading down from the parking garage were on the outside of the building, not a typical scary parking garage stairwell.  We walked to the box office, where Marie said, “Two tickets for Independence Day, please.”

“Are you sure you want to pay for both tickets?” I asked.

“Sure!  I asked you.  And it’s afternoon matinee prices.”

“Seven dollars, please,” the cashier said.  Marie gave the cashier the money, and he gave us our tickets, which the person at the entrance promptly tore in half a minute later.  We sat near the middle of the theater; seats were already starting to fill up.

“Do you like these kinds of movies?” Marie asked.

I had to think about this.  “I guess I don’t really have one specific kind of movie that I like best,” I said.  “Some movies I just like, and some I don’t.”

After sitting through several minutes of previews, the movie began with giant alien spaceships coming to Earth early one July.  The aliens positioned themselves over major cities, destroying them all simultaneously with massive energy beams.  A Marine played by Will Smith led attacks on the alien spaceships, which failed.  Jeff Goldblum’s scientist character eventually found a way to deactivate the force fields protecting the aliens, and Bill Pullman’s President of the United States character gave a rousing speech.  He said that July 4 is Independence Day in the United States, but now it would be the day that the whole world fought back against the aliens.  People watching the movies cheered on the fighter pilots on the screen.

After the movie ended, I turned to Marie and said, “I’m excited.  That was a nice feel-good movie.”

“It was!”  She grabbed her purse, then said, “So what do you want to do now?  Want to get something to eat?  Lyon’s is right across the street.”

“That sounds good.”

As we stepped outside, I had to squint, since my eyes had become accustomed to the dark theater.  We crossed the street and walked into the restaurant.  Lyon’s was a chain of restaurants serving American diner food.  When I was very young, I remember a few times going to breakfast with my dad at Lyon’s in Gabilan.  I usually got waffles.

“What are you getting?” Marie asked as we each looked through the menus.

“Probably a cheeseburger.”

“I’m going to get this chicken salad.  It looks good.”

“Sounds good,” I said.  I did not admit that I was not a big fan of salads.

“So what did you think of the movie?”

“It was a lot of fun.  But I’m kind of suspicious that the alien spaceships would be compatible with a human computer virus.”

“I hadn’t thought of that.  You’re the computer guy.”

“A computer virus is just a program that does something destructive,” I explained.  “If the computer can’t understand the instructions, the virus can’t do anything destructive.  If you took a virus for a PC and ran it on a Mac, nothing would happen; it would just look like gibberish to the Mac operating system.  The movie writers apparently don’t know how computer viruses work.”

“That makes sense.”

The food arrived a few minutes later.  I tried to break up a lull in the conversation by asking, “So how long will you be in Jeromeville?  Are you just here until your friend gets back?”

“Yeah.  He comes back in the middle of September.”

“And he has the same apartment for next year?”

“Yeah.  Do you?”

“No.  I’m moving into a bigger apartment with roommates, at Sagebrush Apartments on Maple Drive.”

“Oh, ok.  So, around the corner from Las Casas?  Past the shopping center?”

“Right.  What about you.  Where are you going next?”

“I’m gonna take some time off for a while.  I’m going to travel, see some of the National Parks in the Southwest and the Rockies.  I haven’t seen the Grand Canyon since I was little, and I’ve never been to Zion, so I’m definitely going to those two.  I haven’t really figured out where else.”

“That sounds fun!  I’ve never been to either of those places.  Where is Zion?”

“Utah.”

“Yeah.  We didn’t really travel much growing up.”

“Really?  You gotta get out there and see the world!”

“I will someday.”

“What’s the farthest away you’ve been?”

“Vancouver,” I said.  “My family took a long road trip to the Expo ‘86 World’s Fair when I was nine.  We went to Spokane first, to see Dad’s mother, then we all went to Vancouver in a rented RV.  That was my only time out of the country.”

“That sounds fun!”

“Oh!  And I’m going to Illinois in December.  That’ll be the farthest away I’ve ever been.  It’s for a Christian student and young adult convention, to learn about mission trips and service opportunities.”

“Are you looking to do that?  Be a missionary someday?”

“I’m not sure.  But I have friends who do things like that in the summer, and I want to learn more about what they’re doing, and stuff like that.”

Marie and I finished our meals, talking more about my faith journey and her options for life after she finished her trips to the Grand Canyon and Zion.  It must be fascinating to live that way, to wander the country working short-term jobs, never putting down roots.  I did not see that kind of lifestyle as my future.  I hoped someday I would settle down with a wife and children.  But there was nothing wrong with Marie’s way of life, if it worked for her.


My favorite part of the Jeromeville Bulletin local newspaper was the daily column written by Bill Dunnigan.  He often poked fun at the City Council and other prominent local figures.  One member of the City Council was an aging hippie named Jill Popovich, who had ideas like making long straight avenues curved so drivers would slow down.  Ms. Popovich was vocally against paving a muddy alley downtown that became a breeding ground for mosquitoes in the winter, because dirt alleys enhance the small-town character of Jeromeville, and she was a major proponent of adding a tunnel for frogs to a new overpass that opened that summer.  Bill Dunnigan often joked that she was an alien.  A few days after I saw the movie with Marie, Bill Dunnigan wrote, “If the City Council thinks that Jeromeville is so important, why didn’t the aliens in the movie Independence Day attack Jeromeville?  They probably feared the wrath of Jill.”

I ran into Marie around the apartment several more times between then and the end of August, when I moved out.  She was always friendly, and I always enjoyed talking to her.  In late September, in the new apartment, I got a postcard from Zion National Park.  It said:


Greg —

I’m enjoying my travels very much!  It is so beautiful here.  Utah looks so different from California.  So good to be out in nature again.  I’ve been on so many great hikes here!  I leave for the Grand Canyon tomorrow morning.  I hope you’re doing well, and that you like your new roommates.  Have a great school year!  –Marie


That was the last I ever heard from Marie.  To this day, I still do not know if she liked me or if she was just being friendly.  She was nice, but I just would not have felt ready to be in a relationship with someone a decade older than me.  We probably would not have worked out anyway, because of that.  Marie was part of my life for a season, but also for a reason: I got lonely sometimes that summer, and I needed a friend.  

July 2-5, 1996. I could go to jail for this.

When I was a student at the University of Jeromeville, I drove a 1989 Ford Bronco.  At the time, many people associated the Ford Bronco sport-utility vehicle model with retired football player and acquitted murder suspect O.J. Simpson, who led police on a nationally televised chase in a white Bronco two years ago.  Mine was red and tan, which conveniently enough were similar colors to my favorite football team, the Bay City Captains.  Technically my parents owned the car.  Dad bought it new when I was in seventh grade.  Between Dad driving to and from work, Mom picking me up from school, and all of my brother Mark’s baseball and basketball games and tournaments, we wore that car out quickly, putting a hundred thousand miles on it in less than five years.

Shortly before I left for Jeromeville, we were coming back from watching some of Mark’s friends in a baseball tournament in San Tomas, and the Bronco broke down.  My parents spent a fair amount of money to get it running again so they could send me off to school in the Bronco.  They got another car, and when they needed multiple cars, they often borrowed a car from my grandparents, who still had two cars and did not drive as often.

The Bronco was a big car.  It was great for when I had to move a lot of things, which pretty much had only happened once, when I moved out of the dorm at the end of freshman year.  It also had four-wheel drive, but I never drove off pavement, so this was not particularly useful to me either.  I would find advantages over the years to having a large vehicle, but those are stories for another time.

A car this size had two major disadvantages.  The Bronco only got around 13 miles per gallon, and it was difficult to park.  The first point was not something I thought about often.  The Bronco had a 30-gallon gas tank, and Mom and Dad gave me a credit card for Chevron gas stations on their account, so I did not have to pay for gas.  But I did often have trouble parking the Bronco in the parking spaces in Jeromeville, which seemed to be narrower than the parking spaces I grew up with.  One night, as I was coming home from the grocery store, this minor annoyance became something I needed to deal with immediately, as I tried to maneuver into a parking space at my apartment complex and felt a bump as I turned sharply to the right.

I had hit the car parked next to me.  What do I do?  My first thought was to finish parking, so I would not be in the way of anyone else trying to get by.  I carefully wiggled the Bronco into the parking space without further incident; I would have rather parked elsewhere, but the lot was full.  When I got out, I saw that the Bronco was fine, but the car next to me, a black Honda Civic, had a small crack in the taillight.  I vaguely remembered something from driver training class about having to leave my contact information and my car insurance information when I hit a parked car, but instead I ran in the house and called my parents.

“Hello?” Mom said.

“It’s me,” I replied, speaking quickly and panicky.  “I hit a parked car.  What do I do?”

“Where are you?”

“At home.  It was parked next to me.”

“How bad is the damage?”

“My car is fine.  The other car has a small crack in the taillight.”

“Don’t panic.  It’s not a big deal.  Do you know whose car it was?”

“No.”

“So just write down your name, and phone number, and insurance information, and put it on their windshield, under the wiper,” Mom said.  I heard Dad’s voice in the background, and Mom told Dad, “Greg hit a parked car.”

“Is my insurance rate going to go up?” I asked.

“Wait,” Mom said. “Dad is talking to me.”  I waited a minute, hearing muffled voices in the background.  “Greg wants to know if his insurance is going to go up,” I heard Mom ask Dad, followed by more muffled voices.  Finally, Mom said, more clearly, “Are you still there?”

“Yes,” I said.

“Dad says if you’re worried about getting insurance involved, if it’s just a tiny crack, it probably isn’t that expensive to fix.  You can offer to pay for it yourself, out of pocket.”

“That could work.”

“And if you’re worried about money, we can send you some to help.”

“I think I’ll be okay,” I said.

“Are you sure you’re okay?”

“Yes.  I should go now so I can leave a note on the car.”

“Good idea.  Just let us know if you need anything else.”

“I will.”

“Okay.  Bye.”

“Bye.”

I tore a sheet of paper out of a notebook and wrote: I accidentally bumped your car and hit the right taillight while I was parking.  I’m sorry!  If it’s not too expensive, I will pay for it without getting insurance involved.  If that doesn’t work, I can give you my insurance information.  Greg Dennison, apt. 124, 555-0159.  I went outside and walked down to where I had parked, so I could leave the note on my neighbor’s car.

It was not there.

The parking space to the left of me was empty.

I checked the car on the right, just to make sure I did not somehow get confused as to which car I hit.  The car on the right had no cracks in its taillights.

I was now officially guilty of the crime of hit and run.  I could go to jail for this.

Maybe no one would notice.

I waited about five minutes; the other car did not return.  I had not thought clearly enough to get the license plate number.  I went back in the house, picked up the telephone, and called Mom again.

“The car left before I could get back outside,” I said.

“Oh no,” Mom replied.  “I guess you just keep looking for the car around your apartment complex.  Do you remember what kind of car it was?”

“Black Honda Civic, but I don’t remember the license plate or anything like that.”

“Then just keep looking for a black Honda Civic with a cracked taillight, and when you find it, explain what happened.  That’s all you can do.”

“I guess.  I just don’t want to go to jail.  This is a hit and run now.”

“You won’t go to jail.”

“But I could.  I left the scene.”

“You really didn’t.  You went inside to get a pen and paper, and when you got back, the other car was gone.”

“I shouldn’t have spent five minutes on the phone with you,” I said.

“Five minutes is no big deal.  You’ll be fine.”

“I guess.”

“What are you doing the rest of the night?”

“Just working on homework.  I don’t usually work on it until late at night, because I need to dial in to a computer on campus to work from home, and I don’t want to tie up the phone line.”

“Should I let you go?”

“I guess.  I just hope I don’t go to jail.”

“You won’t go to jail!  Just keep looking for the car, and explain what happened.”

“I will.”

After I got off the phone with Mom, I listened to the sounds of the dialup modem connecting to a server from the Computer Science Department.  I worked on my assignment until around midnight.  Tomorrow was Wednesday, the day that I had to be on campus at 10:00 for the discussion, so I did not want to stay up too late.  Before I went to bed, I made one last walk through the parking lot, looking for a black Honda Civic with a cracked passenger side taillight.  I could not find it.  I looked at all the cars parked on the street nearby, as well as the two other parking lots for this large apartment complex, and I did not find the car there either.  I went to bed, hoping that I would not go to jail for this.


Wednesday was a fairly uneventful day.  After I got back from class in mid-afternoon, I checked all the parking lots again, still looking for the Honda with the cracked taillight; I did not find it.  We got our new weekly project for this week, and I worked on that during the night, starting at ten o’clock so I did not tie up the phone line during the day.

There was no school the following day, Thursday, because it was July 4, Independence Day in the United States.  All across the nation, in all fifty states, proud Americans celebrate our founding ideals of independence and freedom by attending barbecues and watching fireworks.

I did very little of that growing up, mostly because I lived in Plumdale.  I love my country, and I want to celebrate freedom, but Plumdale was too rural to have a big fireworks show.  The nearby cities of Gabilan and Santa Lucia did, but the cold ocean currents off of the West Coast often created a layer of fog in the evening, even in summer, obscuring the view of aerial fireworks shows.  Backyard home fireworks shows were also out of the question, since fireworks were illegal everywhere in Santa Lucia County.  Beginning in my preteen years, we began traveling north to Bidwell over the July holiday to see Dad’s relatives.  My great-grandmother lived in an old ranch house in the foothills on the edge of town, and from her house we could see two fireworks displays off in the distance, one at the fairgrounds and one downtown.  But until the first summer I spent in Jeromeville, I had never seen fireworks up close.

I spent the morning in my pajamas, reading, looking for girls to talk to on IRC chats, and working on the novel I had been writing off and on.  I also read the newspaper, a big part of my morning routine for many years.  Last year I subscribed to the major newspaper for this region, the Capital City Record, but I canceled my subscription last fall, when they missed my delivery three times in one month.  Since then, I had been reading the Jeromeville Bulletin, a much smaller newspaper with more of a focus on local news.  The Bulletin had a hilarious daily columnist named Bill Dunnigan who loved to make fun of all the little quirks of living in Jeromeville.  He said something about how Jeromeville always begins their local fireworks display with a speech by someone from the City Council, and how he wished that for once, they would just do away with the speech, and just say, “Let the fireworks begin!”  That would be nice.  The people who tend to win elected office in Jeromeville usually had the kind of political views that made me not want to hear them speak.

I found information about tonight’s fireworks display in the newspaper.  It was at Jeromeville Community Park at the corner of Coventry Boulevard and G Street, about three-quarters of a mile east of me.  The celebration would begin at six o’clock, with food booths and carnival games for children, and the fireworks themselves would begin at nine-thirty, after it was dark.  The article recommended walking or riding a bicycle to the park, since parking was limited and it would likely take a while to get out of the parking lot.  

I started walking east around eight o’clock.  Community Park was next to Jeromeville High School, and I saw the setup for launching fireworks on the school football field, along with a fire truck.  The park itself consisted of a large grassy expanse, with a playground, a few groups of picnic tables, and sports fields scattered throughout the park.  Oaks, sycamores, and pines were planted in small groups throughout the park, as well as a grove of redwoods.  The redwoods were the tallest trees in the park, although they did not grow as tall in this climate as they did in their native habitat on the northern California coast.  I found a place to sit where no one else had sat or placed a blanket to sit on.  It was far enough from the redwoods that my view of the fireworks would not be obstructed.

The park was already crowded, and I was glad I had chosen not to drive.  A band played in the distance; it was no one I recognized, but they sounded pretty good, so I listened until their show ended.  After that, I just sat and watched people for a long time as the sky grew darker.  Having come to Jeromeville as a student, like thousands of others, I spent most of my time in a sort of student bubble, living most of my life on campus and in a student-oriented apartment complex.  Although Jeromeville is known as a university town, children and families live in Jeromeville as well, many of whom have no connection to the university.  That side of Jeromeville, which I did not often come face to face with, was all around me now.  Children ran around the park playing with water guns and glow sticks, and young parents fed babies in strollers with bottles.  It was definitely a change of scenery.

At nine-thirty, I heard a woman’s voice on speakers.  It was hard to make out exactly what the voice was saying, but I heard her say something about the Jeromeville Bulletin newspaper, and then, “Let the fireworks begin!”  A cheer erupted from the crowd.  Apparently the people running this show had actually taken Bill Dunnigan’s suggestion to keep the speech short this year.

The lights in the park went dark, and immediately I heard rockets launching into the sky and loudly bursting in colorful displays, while recordings of marching bands performing America the Beautiful, The Stars and Stripes Forever, and other patriotic music played over the speakers.  After about ten minutes, I expected the show to be ending soon in some sort of grand finale, but the fireworks went on and on.  Fifteen minutes.  Twenty.  Would this show go on forever?  Even the fireworks I remembered watching from my great-grandmother’s house in Bidwell never seemed to last this long.  Finally, a few minutes before ten o’clock, I saw and heard many rockets launching at once; they lit up the sky as they all went off within seconds of each other.  Then the sky went dark, with only faint clouds of smoke blowing away from the park visible, and everyone cheered.  This was the best fireworks show I had ever seen.

When the lights in the park came back on, I immediately began walking back to the west toward Coventry Boulevard.  I had no blanket or children’s belongings to pack up, so I walked ahead of most of the people heading the same way.  It took less than fifteen minutes to get home.  Before I entered the apartment, I checked the parking lots again, still hoping to find the car with the cracked taillight, so I could make that right.  There was a black Honda Civic parked near my apartment, but both taillights were intact; also, this one had Oregon license plates, and if the car I hit had license plates from a different state, I probably would have noticed.

I walked across to the west side of the complex and checked that parking lot next.  I found another black Honda Civic there, and sure enough, it had a small crack in the passenger side taillight.  I memorized the license plate number, just in case the car was gone again by the time I got back to it.  I returned to my apartment, found the note I had written two days ago when I hit the car, and added a postscript about how the car had left while I was inside writing the note, and I had been searching for two days.  I then walked back to the car, which was still there, and left the note tucked under the windshield wiper.  Now all I could do was wait for the owner of the car to call.


I had no class on Fridays this summer, so I went for a bike ride in the early evening.  Early evenings in the summer were the best time for bike rides in Jeromeville, with trees full of green leaves and their shadows long, with the sun low enough that it was not quite as hot as it had been a few hours earlier.  I rode along the Greenbelts that connected directly to my apartment complex, ending in the same park where the fireworks had been the night before.  I continued east along Coventry Boulevard to the edge of the city, where a new housing development was being built.  I then worked my way back west on Fifth Street to downtown Jeromeville and the north end of campus, coming back home north along Andrews Road.

When I got home, the light on my answering machine was blinking.  I pressed the Play button.  “One. New. Message,” a robotic voice said.  The tape forwarded to where the message began, and I heard a woman’s voice.  “Hi.  My name is Dana Forbes, and you left a note on my car about the cracked taillight.  If you could call me back, so we could talk about that, my number is 555-0133.”

I was nervous.  I did not want Dana to be mad at me.  But I knew that I had to do this.  I called the number, and Dana picked up on the second ring.  “Hello?” she said.

“Hi.  My name is Greg Dennison, I left you the note about your cracked taillight–”

“Yes,” she said.  “Thanks for calling me back.”

“I’m so sorry,” I explained.  “I have a big car, and it just bumped a little, and I went inside and it took me a few minutes to write the note, and when I went back outside to put it on your car, you were gone.”

“Thanks for finding me, though,” she said.  “I noticed it yesterday, and I thought, I don’t remember that being there.  So did you want to just pay for it out of pocket?  I was going to get it fixed tomorrow.”

“Do you know how much it’ll cost?”

“He told me over the phone it probably would be around a hundred dollars.”

“That’ll be okay,” I said.  A hundred dollars was a little more than I was expecting to pay in my mind, but I really had no idea what I was dealing with.  I had never had to pay for a cracked taillight before.  “Again, I’m sorry that this happened.”

“Don’t worry about it!  Accidents happen.  I’m just glad you came back and let me know.”

“Yeah.  So do you want cash, or a check, or what?”

“Why don’t you come over with a check around this time tomorrow?  It should be done by then.  I’m in apartment 241.”

“That’ll work,” I said.  “Thanks for calling back.”

“No problem.  Have a great night!”

“I will.”

Everything else happened without incident.  Dana told me the next day that she had paid ninety-one dollars to get the taillight fixed, and I wrote her a check for exactly that amount.  I was relieved that Dana was not upset with me, and that I would not be going to jail.  I made a note to learn my lesson and be careful parking in the future.  With a car the size of a Ford Bronco, I had to be careful of this kind of thing.

As strange as this sounded, though, I kind of wished that my parents had not offered to pay for it.  I did not need them covering for my mistakes.  I already felt guilty that they were paying my rent, and gas.  They also paid all my university expenses, although I still had a scholarship for my grades that covered most of that.  I had my tutoring job, but that did not come anywhere close to covering everything I had to pay for.  Last night I had celebrated Independence Day at the park, but was I really independent if someone else was paying most of my bills?  I decided that once I was on my own with a full time job, I would no longer accept this allowance from my parents.  And when I did get my first full time job, I stopped using my parents’ Chevron credit card, and they stopped sending money to cover rent.  I was not independent yet, but I was working on a degree from the University of Jeromeville, and someday I would be.