August 10-23, 1995.  Voices of Austria and birthday surprises.

My brain tends to do weird things when I am in a familiar place and I see a familiar face that has no connection to that  place.  That happened one Thursday morning when a short girl with long red hair walked into the store.

“Hey,” I said, in a familiar tone, because I knew her.  Of course I knew her; it was Renee Robertson, and she had been my prom date a little over a year ago.  My brain caught up then and became confused, because I did not expect to see Renee in Books & More.  Somehow my brain took those thoughts of confusion and turned them into the spoken words, “I know you.”

Renee appeared to be as surprised as I was when she turned and looked at me.  “Greg!” she said.  “I forgot you worked here.”

“How are you?”

“Actually, I’m here for Catherine.  I’m putting these flyers up around town.  Do you think I’d be able to put one up here?”  Renee put a flyer on the counter.  I read it.


VOICES OF AUSTRIA
Choir & Orchestra Performance

Wednesday, August 23, 1995, 7:00pm
Good Shepherd Church, Gabilan


 

“So this is a choir made up of people Catherine knew when she was in Austria?”

“Yeah.  She put together this trip where we’re going to do a tour of performances around here.  Gabilan, Mount Lorenzo, San Tomas, and Bay City, I think.  And we’re going to sing the national anthem at a Titans game.”

“That’s so cool!” I said.

“Yeah.  Just contact Catherine for tickets.”

“For sure!  I will!”

“So where can I put the flyer?  Do you need to ask your supervisor?”

“She isn’t here right now, but I’ll ask her later this afternoon.”

“Great!”

“How is your summer going?” I asked.

“It’s pretty good.  I’m mostly just hanging out with family and Anthony,” Renee answered.  “I’m glad he was able to come home.  It was hard having him so far away last year.”

“I’m sure it was.”

“How’s your summer?”

“Nothing too exciting here.  Just working here.  I’ve been going to a lot of San Tomas Mountain Lions roller hockey games.  And I took a day trip to Jeromeville with my family and my cousins.”

“That sounds fun.  I haven’t been back to Valle Luna all summer.  Hey, I need to get going and put up the rest of these flyers.  But it was good seeing you!”

“You too!  I’ll definitely be at your show.  Say hi to Anthony for me.”

“I will!  Thanks!”

Jane arrived about an hour later, and she approved of me putting the Voices of Austria flyer in the window.  She wanted to know more about what exactly they would be singing.  I did not know anything beyond what was on the flyer, and I told her so.

When my shift ended that day, I did not go straight home.  Instead, I went to the Lucky grocery store across the parking lot from Books & More.  Lucky stores disappeared a few years later in a merger with Albertsons, and they reappeared in the early 21st century when Albertsons sold all of their holdings in this part of the country, including the Lucky name, to another company.  I walked straight to the greeting card aisle and looked for birthday cards.  Greeting card companies made special cards for 18th and 21st birthdays, because of the legal milestones involved, and special cards for people turning 30, 40, and 50.  But to my knowledge there were no cards for turning 20, as the person I was shopping for was doing.  My own birthday was coming up next week also, and there were definitely no special cards for turning 19.

After a few minutes, I chose a card that had a cartoon drawing of an elephant, saying, “Of course I remembered your birthday!”  On the inside, the card said, “Who are you?”  I chuckled loudly for a second, in the middle of the store, when I read that.

After I got back to the car, I thought for a few minutes, then started writing on the inside.


Megan

Happy birthday!  How are your classes going?  I hope you’re doing well.  Things really aren’t very exciting for me.  One of my friends from high school came into the store today; that was a nice surprise.  I can’t wait to get back to Jeromeville and see everyone again.  I hope you have a great birthday!  What are you doing for it?  My birthday is coming up on the 15th, but I don’t have anything planned, probably just cake and presents with my family.  See you soon!

Greg


 

I had carefully prepared for this moment.  I left the house today knowing that I would probably have to mail Megan’s card today in order for it to get to Jeromeville by August 12, her actual birthday.  I had a stamp and a scrap of paper on which I had written Megan’s address in the glove compartment.  I put the stamp on the envelope and copied the address onto the envelope: Megan McCauley, 2525 E. 5th St. #202, Jeromeville, followed by the state abbreviation and ZIP code.  I knew that the mail at the nearest Post Office did not get picked up until five in the afternoon, so I drove there to mail Megan’s card, which would most likely get it to Jeromeville in two days.  

I drove home, still nervous about what I had done.  Sending a friend a birthday card should not have been a big deal, and Megan and I had been periodically in touch by email for most of the summer.  But this was not just any friend.  Megan was a year older than me, the first older friend I made at UJ other than my dorm’s resident advisors.  She was so nice.  And she was cute.  I felt kind of dumb.  I probably didn’t have a chance with her.  She probably saw me as a silly little kid.

 

Ten years earlier, my childish lack of self-control led to a new family tradition in the Dennison household.  I had asked for an obscure computer game for my birthday, the first birthday after our family got our first computer.  I woke up at 1:30 in the morning, asking if it was time to open presents; Mom told me to go back to sleep.  I woke again at 3:30, asking if it was time to open presents; Mom told me to go back to sleep.  I woke again at 5:00, asking if it was time to open presents, and Mom handed me a box, saying, “Here’s your stupid game!  Now let me sleep!”  Since then, we have always opened mine and Mark’s birthday presents on the night before, so I would not be too excited to sleep on the night before receiving presents.  To this day, I visit my parents every Christmas, and we still open Christmas presents on the night of December 24.

My 19th birthday was August 15, five days after the day Renee came into the store.  Although I felt that I had probably outgrown the insomnia-inducing excitement on the night before receiving birthday presents, Mom still insisted on giving my presents on the 14th after dinner.  Many of this year’s gifts were practical things for the new apartment.

“Thank you,” I said after opening a cookie sheet.  As I began opening a package the size of a compact disc case, Mom said, “This is more of a fun gift.”

“It looks like music,” I replied.  I thought I knew what it was, because I had only mentioned one CD that I wanted, and I was right.  It was the album Cracked Rear View by Hootie & the Blowfish.

“And I thought you would like this,” Mom said, handing me what appeared to be a wrapped paperback book.  I had spent enough time around books that summer that I recognized the shape and size.  But as I began unwrapping it, it felt like it was not entirely solid, more like it was several thin paperback books.  “Oh!” I said as I had removed enough wrapping paper to see the name Stephen King on the side of each thin paperback.  “The Green Mile.”

“Part 6 isn’t out yet.  So you’ll have to watch for it at Books & More.  Or at the campus store in Jeromeville.”

“I can do that.”  I had read that Stephen King had been working on publishing a novel in monthly installments, but I knew nothing about the story.  I read the descriptions on the backs of the first two books, something about a murder and prisoners awaiting execution and something mysterious happening at the prison.  Of course there was something mysterious happening; it was Stephen King.

green mile

The best birthday surprise came two days later when I got home from work.  After Mom said hi to me, she said, “That girl you know who is in Jeromeville this summer, is her name Megan McCauley?”

I felt a jolt of excitement.  “Yes,” I said, trying not to draw attention to my thoughts.

“You got something from her. It looks like a birthday card.  I left it on the table.”

“I see it.  Thanks.”  I picked up Megan’s card from the table and took it to my bedroom.  Looking at the envelope, I realized that I had never seen Megan’s handwriting before.  It did not look like what I would have expected; the lowercase letters were much smaller than the capital letters, with a lot of space between them.  After so many years of being in school and seeing people’s handwritten work, it seemed odd that I could know someone for a year and never see her handwriting.

I opened the envelope.  Inside was a card with a picture of a birthday cake with candles, and “HAPPY BIRTHDAY” in large colorful letters above it.  The printed text on the inside said, “Celebrate your special day!”  Megan had added a note in her own handwriting.


Happy birthday!  Thanks for the card!  I hope you’re enjoying your summer!  I’ll see you in the fall.

-Megan


 

It wasn’t a very long note, but it was better than nothing, and I was getting emails periodically from Megan so I already knew the basics of what was going on in her life.  Still, though, it was nice that she thought of me and took the time to send a card.

 

Mom and Dad and I arrived at Good Shepherd Church slightly better dressed than usual.  I was wearing a shirt with a collar and no writing on it.  I saw an older couple dressed nicely and realized that I might be under-dressed for an event like this, but looking around I also spotted others dressed similarly to me, so I was probably okay.

 I was unsure what to expect.  I looked through the program and saw names of pieces of music that I did not know, many of which were in German or Latin.  A few of the composers’ names were familiar, like Mozart, and that made me feel a little smarter.  This was no big deal; I should not be this nervous.  I was watching my friends in a performance; I belonged here just as much as anyone else.  No one was going to judge me for not knowing classical music.  I continued looking through the program and recognized the name of a song: Edelweiss, from The Sound of Music.  I had seen that movie many times.  It was one of Mom’s favorites, although watching it with her meant having to hear her sing along to everything.

Mom nudged me, with her program open.  I looked up.  She pointed to the last three words of the title “Gott nahe zu sein, ist mein Glück,” and whispered, “It’s my gluck,” pronouncing the last word as if it rhymed with “pluck.”

“Don’t make me laugh,” I said, trying to stifle giggles at this silly randomness.

A few minutes later, the performers walked onto the stage, the choir standing on risers placed in front of the altar, and the orchestra seated in front of them.  Catherine walked to the front of the stage.  “Welcome to Voices of Austria,” she said.  “My name is Catherine Yaras.  I grew up here, but I spent my senior year studying in Austria.  I performed with some of these musicians here during that year.  Now they have come out here to perform and do some sightseeing.  This is the first of six performances we will be doing, including the national anthem at a Bay City Titans baseball game.  So please sit back, relax, and enjoy the show.”

As they began singing and playing, I started to feel out of place again.  I did not know what to expect at a classical music performance.  I guessed it was probably frowned upon to sing along or wave lighters or shout “FREE BIRD!” in between songs.  Everyone else seemed to be sitting still and clapping at the end of each song, so I did the same.  I wondered if any customers from the bookstore were in attendance tonight.  This was their world.  Probably not, though.

As much as I did not know classical music or understand the lyrics, I really did enjoy the performance.  All of them sounded beautiful, and for as much fun as rock and pop music could be, classical music had complexities far beyond that of most rock and pop music that gave it a pleasing sound.

When they got to the Glück song, I noticed that that word was not pronounced like Mom said, rhyming with “pluck,” but with a vowel that does not exist in English, close to rhyming with “Luke” but not exactly.  I leaned over to Mom and whispered, “It’s ‘Glück, not gluck,” attempting to replicate that sound.

“I hear that,” she whispered back.

At the end of the performance, I waited in my seat, watching for Catherine and Renee so I could go talk to them.  When I saw them come out from the room behind the altar, I said to Mom and Dad, “I’m going to go say hi to Catherine and Renee.”

“Okay,” Mom replied.  “We’ll wait over here.”

I approached Catherine and Renee; they were with a few of the other performers.  “Greg!” Catherine said as she saw me approach.  She walked up and gave me a hug.  “Meet my friends.  This is Helga; she was my sister when I stayed in Austria.  Helga, this is Greg.  He was one of the people who wrote me letters that year.”

“Oh, yes,” Helga said.  “It’s nice to meet you.”

“You too,” I replied.

“And this is David, Matthias, Lisi, and Katharina,” Catherine continued as she introduced me to the rest of the group.

“Hi,” I said as they waved and greeted me in return.

“I’m so glad you could make it!  Thank you very much!”

“I enjoyed it.  You guys are really good.”

“Thanks,” Renee replied.  “I felt like I messed up my part on one song.”

“I didn’t notice,” I told her.  “I don’t know what it’s supposed to sound like, so if one part is a little bit wrong, I won’t know.”

“That’s what I said!” Catherine exclaimed.  “So have you ever thought about performing in a choir?”

I was not expecting that question.  “Me?” I asked.  “I’m too self-conscious up on stage.  You know that.”

“I think you should try it!  Find a group to sing with in Jeromeville.”

“I don’t know.  Maybe.”

“It’ll be good for you.”

“So you guys get to sing at a Titans game?  That’s really cool.”

“I know!  A baseball game seems like such an American thing to do.”

“I haven’t been to a game in two years.  I’m still kind of upset at baseball for being on strike last year.  Matt Williams was going to break the home run record.  But I’m sure you guys will have fun.”

“I need to go say hi to some other people, but it was great seeing you!  When do you go back to Jeromeville?”

“End of next week.  September 2.”

“And is that when classes start?  I thought you guys started later?”

“We do.  But my apartment lease starts September 1, and I’m kind of ready to be back up there.”

“That makes sense.  I don’t know if I’ll get to see you again before then, though, since I’ll be busy with these guys for the next week.”

“Yeah,” I replied.  “If not, I’ll be home for Christmas.”

“Call me before you leave, okay?”

“I will.”

“Bye, Greg.  Thanks again for coming.”  Catherine hugged me.

“Bye,” Renee added.

“See you guys later.  Enjoy the rest of your performances.”

I walked back to the car with Mom and Dad.  “That was really good,” Mom said.  “They’re all really musically talented.”

“I know,” I said.

“Yes,” Dad agreed.

“I know I say this all the time, and I don’t want to bug you, but I always wish you would have stuck with music.  You were always good at playing piano and singing.”

“I guess,” I said.

Mom started talking about something else as Dad pulled out of the parking lot, which was good because I was tired of this topic.  I took piano lessons when I was a kid.  I quit when I was 10.  I was too concerned with my image, and playing piano did not seem cool to me.  But also, more importantly, I got tired of Mom making a big deal of my piano playing and making me perform every time we had company or relatives come over.  I was too self-conscious to perform music in front of people.  I love music, but as for performing, I was content to sing along in the car while driving alone.

But Mom and Catherine had basically told me the same thing tonight, that I should get into music again.  I could not even remember if Catherine had ever heard me sing.  And three years earlier, in tenth grade, I had attended our school production of The Sound of Music (Catherine played the Mother Abbess), and one of my teachers, Mrs. Norton, asked me why I wasn’t up there singing and performing.  I knew Mrs. Norton had never heard me sing.  It was strange.  Did Catherine and Mrs. Norton see something in me that I did not see in myself?  Was being part of a choir singing in front of a group something that I could do?

As I sat in the car headed north on Highway 11 on the way home from the Voices of Austria concert, I had no idea that that question would be definitively answered less than two months later.

voices of austria
A big thank you to Catherine for finding this t-shirt from the tour at her parents’ house.

July 28, 1995. Taking advantage of a night at home by myself.

After I finished watching Jeopardy!, I went back upstairs.  I checked my email; no new messages.  I was glad to have a night at home by myself, but I had no immediately apparent way to take advantage of this night at home.  There was no long dormitory hallway to walk down and see who was free.  It was my parents’ house, the other bedrooms were empty, and the only other people in this house tonight were cats.  I could sit in front of the computer in a chat room, but for some reason I was not in the mood for that tonight.

My eyes drifted around my bedroom.  I saw my yearbook from my senior year at Plumdale High sitting on top of a box of books that I had not completely unpacked from when I moved out of the dorm last month.  So far, this summer, I had seen exactly two high school friends exactly once each.  The situation was made worse by my fear of using the phone.  And I was self-conscious about having friends in the first place, because my mother makes fun of people behind their backs, and I was afraid of what she would say about them.

I started to reach for the yearbook.  Some of the nicest things that people had ever said to me were in that book.  Two girls whom I did not really know until senior year both wrote messages that seemed more like what someone might write to a lifelong friend, not someone they had only known for one school year.  But then one of them moved away without saying goodbye, and the other had a boyfriend so it did not matter, and neither of them had stayed in touch.  I had lost touch with so many of my high school friends.

I reconsidered and did not open the yearbook.  My mind and eyes continued to wander.  Next to the computer on my desk was a stack of letters, all from girls.  Mom noticed a few days ago when I got letters from both Molly Boyle and Tiffany Rollins on the same day that I seemed to be keeping in touch with mostly girls over the summer.  She was right.  Guys were mean to me in elementary school, and I felt safer communicating with girls.  Taylor was really the only guy I was keeping in touch with.

Molly lived in central Pennsylvania.  She was studying early childhood education at Lock Haven University and, like me, she was home for the summer after her first year.  We had met in a chat room, and she had written to me the most so far, six times.  She was working a boring job that she disliked, but she needed the money in order to afford to go back to school.  She lived in the country and did not have much of a social life, which probably explained the frequent letters.  I opened the most recent one and began reading.


I spent the weekend in Philadelphia with Christina, my roommate from last year, and it ended up being a disaster!  This guy she knows on the Internet who lives in California was in Phila. for the weekend too, and they had been planning to meet for a while.  Her parents didn’t want her to go alone, so she brought me along.  When we got there, the guy was busy, so we saw all the touristy historical stuff.  When he was finally free, they just went back to the hotel and cuddled and did other stuff, and I felt really uncomfortable, but I didn’t want to go do something in the city by myself.  Then they just left without telling me where they were going or when they would be back.  So I was stuck alone in the hotel room for over an hour.  And then while they were gone, her parents called the hotel room looking for her.  Apparently before we left she lied and told her parents we were meeting our friend Michelle in the city, but Michelle called Christina’s house while she was supposed to be with us so they knew she lied.  And her dad started lecturing me about stuff like this, even though this wasn’t my idea and I didn’t know she lied!  This isn’t the first time Christina has done something completely selfish.  Maybe I’ll learn my lesson and stop letting her use me.


 

Molly may not have had much of a social life, but her weekend seemed a lot more interesting than anything that had happened to me recently.  Christina appeared to be the kind of person I would not want to be friends with.

Tiffany had written three times.  She and I had two math classes together last year.  She was home in Ashwood, about a two and a half hour drive to the east.  Like Molly, she also had a boring job that she hated, doing office work.  I had told her about being self-conscious about having friends at home, and she understood completely, because her mother still lovingly teased her about a boy she liked in tenth grade.  “So is there anyone you are interested in that way?” she wrote.  “You don’t have to answer, I just thought I’d ask.”  The thought crossed my mind that she might be dropping a hint to me.  I liked her as a friend, but I just didn’t feel attracted to her.

Danielle Coronado, who had lived down the hall from me in Building C last year, had written a fairly long typed letter a couple weeks ago.  She was back home in Desert Ridge, about 250 miles southeast in a part of the state I had never been to.  She told me a whole lot about her job working at a day camp for children.  Unlike Molly and Tiffany and me, Danielle enjoyed her job.  Spencer Grant, who lived on the first floor in Building C last year, was also from Desert Ridge; he and Danielle had been hanging out some, although they were definitely just friends.  Danielle wrote that Spencer was loud and obnoxious, but really a nice guy underneath.  I could see that, although I had mostly only seen the loud and obnoxious side.

Bok, who lived on the first floor last year and would be rooming with Danielle next year, sent me a postcard with big trees and a forest floor covered in ferns.  She and her family were camping in Olympic National Park in Washington, and would be headed north across the border to British Columbia before returning home.  That sounded beautiful, but I had never been camping, so I could not really relate to the experience.  Mom was the only one who took initiative to plan vacations in my family, and Mom hates camping.

Sarah Winters, also from the first floor, had written to me once.  She was home in Ralstonville, a couple hours’ drive northeast of here.  She passed the time playing flute and learning guitar, and she had been spending time with her older brother and the girl he would soon be marrying.  She also spent a day with Liz Williams, Ramon Quintero, and Caroline Pearson at Caroline’s house in Walton Canyon.  That sounded fun.  I missed all of them.

I had not heard from Liz or Ramon, but Caroline had written once.  Caroline grew up in Australia, and she would be visiting her family there in August.  That would be an exciting trip.  She ended her letter saying, “Everyone from Jeromeville that I’ve talked to is wanting to get back up there.  I think that we all suffer from homesickness, strange as it sounds, even though we’re at home!”  She was exactly right.  Plumdale felt like home to some extent, but my connections here were not very deep to begin with, and my life was in Jeromeville now.

I looked around at the desk.  My eyes rested on the telephone.  My bedroom was part of a remodel that my parents had started seven years ago and technically never finished; the room still had plywood for a floor.  At some point in high school, I had figured out how telephone wiring worked and hooked up the telephone jack in the bedroom myself, so this telephone worked, although it was on the same line as the rest of the house.  I was always so nervous about making phone calls as it was, and with three phones in the house on the same line, it was frightening to think that Mom might pick up and listen in on my call.  Tonight would be the perfect night for a phone call, since I was alone in the house; the rest of the family had gone to watch some of my brother’s friends in a baseball tournament.  But whom did I feel comfortable calling?  One of my high school friends?  One of my Jeromeville friends?  I did not have Molly’s number, so she was not an option.  Even if I did have her number, Mom would not appreciate a phone call to Pennsylvania, although Mom had come around to the fact that this person writing me was probably not a 37-year-old pervert named Chuck.

It would make more sense to me to call someone I knew from Jeromeville.  I still had my copy of the campus directory, which had many students’ home addresses and phone numbers in addition to local contact information, but that seemed kind of creepy looking up people who did not expect me to have their phone numbers.  A few of my dorm friends had shared their home phone numbers at the end of the school year, with the intent of keeping in touch.  Of the people who had written so far, Danielle was the only one who had shared her phone number.  I felt safe talking to her.

I picked up the phone and started dialing, but gave up halfway through the number and hung up.  Mom would see a call to Desert Ridge on the phone bill.  She would want to know everything I said.  She might even tease me about liking Danielle, even if I explained that she was just a friend.  But Mom was always telling me to be more social, so she would probably be okay with me making one long distance call.  I picked up the phone but hung up again before dialing anything.  Danielle probably was not even home.  It was a Friday night.  Normal people are off having fun on Friday nights.  But, on the other hand, maybe that would be better.  I could leave a message and tell Danielle to call me, and I could get the phone call done earlier and feel like I did the best I could, not feeling guilty about wasting a night home alone.  And If Danielle ever did call me back, then I would have to talk to her and not chicken out.

I took a deep breath, picked up the phone, and dialed the numbers quickly.  A male voice picked up on the third ring.  “Hello?” he said.

“Hi.  Is Danielle there?”

“Yeah.  Just a minute.”  I heard muffled voices on the other side of the line, and after about half a minute, Danielle’s voice said, “Hello?”

“Hi.  This is Greg.”  After a few seconds of silence, I added, “Greg Dennison.  From Building C.”

“Greg!” Danielle exclaimed.  “I wasn’t expecting you to call!  How are you?”

“I’m doing ok.  Just kind of bored.  And I’m alone in the house tonight.  The rest of my family is busy.”

“I’m glad you called!  How is that bookstore job going?”

“It’s okay.  It’s nice when I get to read on a slow day, but that store just really isn’t my clientele.”

“That’s tough.  But it isn’t forever, right?”

“I know.  That’s what I keep telling myself.  How’s your work with the kids?”

“It’s exhausting, but I love it so much!  Yesterday we took them on a field trip to the fire station.  One of the little ones really loves fire trucks, so he was having a great time.”

“I bet that was fun.”

“And there’s this one eleven-year-old boy who lives in a foster home.  He’s been through a lot in life.  He gets in fights and acts all tough, but he has this soft side too that he doesn’t show many people.  But I see it.  He likes me and he trusts me.”

“That’s so cool.”

“I know!  Today he told me I was his favorite.  And he told me all about this girl he likes, but he doesn’t think she likes him.”

“That’s so cool that you can really make a difference with someone like that.”

“Yeah.  It’s amazing what these kids are like when you get to know them.  I’m going to miss them when the job is over.”

“When is that?”

“Two weeks.  After the camp closes for the summer, we can keep working for another week to clean things up and take things down.  That’s not going to be fun, but I’m going to do it for the money.”

“That’s a good idea.  I don’t think I’m making quite a difference in the lives of the customers at the bookstore.”

Danielle laughed at this.  Then she said, “Hey.  I heard you went to Jeromeville and you got to see Taylor?  How was that?”

“It was fun.  My cousins Rick and Miranda, they live way up north in the middle of nowhere, they were visiting that week, and we just went up there for the day so they could see where I lived, and my new apartment, and stuff.  And I took a break to go see Taylor.  And Jonathan too, but he had to study for part of the time I was there.”

“Figures.  That sounds like Jonathan.”

“You said you had been in touch with Taylor too?”

“Yeah.  He wrote me back.  Pete still hasn’t.  It’s like he fell off the face of the earth.”

“Some people just aren’t good at keeping in touch.”

“He’s a jerk,” Danielle said jokingly, chuckling.  Last year, both Taylor and Pete seemed to have something going on with Danielle.  I was too oblivious to know exactly what was going on, and it probably was not my business anyway.  Danielle continued, asking, “Did you visit anyone else when you were in Jeromeville?”

“I’ve only been in touch with one other person in Jeromeville this summer, someone not from our dorm.  And she was busy that day.  I really want to go back.  It’s boring here, and I rarely see the few friends I have left.”

“I know how you feel.  Bok and Theresa are going to visit for a few days in August.”

“That’ll be fun.”

“Have you heard from them?  Or anyone else?”

I told Danielle about everyone I had heard from this summer.  Some of these people Danielle did not know, and she seemed particularly interested in finding out more about Molly.  I told her a little bit about her, including how we met.  “She’s the first person I met on the Internet who I trusted with my contact information in real life.”

“That’s brave of you.”

“We had been emailing for six months by the time she wrote me on paper.  You’d have to be pretty good at being an old pervert and pretending to be an 18-year-old girl in order to keep it up for six months, so I’m pretty sure she’s really who she says she is.”

“Well that’s really cool!  Do you like her?  Like, more than just a pen pal?”

“I don’t know.  We’re just friends right now.”

Danielle and I talked for almost an hour.  I told her about watching roller hockey, and about the time I broke the picture frame at the store.  She told me about going camping with her family on an unusually hot day and getting badly sunburned, and about her next youngest sister also going to Jeromeville in the fall.  “And she’s going to major in psych, just like me.  We even have a class together in the fall.”

“Is that going to be awkward?”

“It might be.  When we were younger, we hung out in the same circles, and we fought about everything.  We’ve learned that we should kind of have separate lives.”

“That makes.  My brother and I are six grades apart, so we never were at the same school at the same time to run in the same circles.”

“Consider yourself lucky.”

After a few minutes and another lull in the conversation, I said, “I should probably get going.”

“Yeah.  It’s getting close to bedtime.  But thank you so much for calling!”

“You’re welcome.”

“It was good to hear your voice!”

“Yours too.  Tell Bok and Theresa I said hi.  And Spencer, if you talk to him again.”

“I will.”

“Good night!”

“Good night, Greg.”

I hung up.  That was nice.  Keeping in touch with my Jeromeville friends was keeping me going that summer.  I had a month left until I would be able to return to Jeromeville, and I needed every bit of contact with that part of my life that I could get.  I was done making phone calls, it was getting late, but I looked through the stack of letters again.  Something that Molly had written caught my eye:


A suggestion for you: don’t look in the past and see how much you haven’t done, but look into the future and see how much time you have to do whatever you want.  I try to look at the positive things instead of the negatives, so I don’t get depressed.


 

Molly was right.  I needed to stop dwelling on the negatives.  Sure, I felt like I had missed out on some things in the almost nineteen years I had lived so far, but I had a lot of life left, and I did not need to let that which I missed out on define me.  I would get back to Jeromeville, where I belonged, in a little over a month.  I had people there who wanted to be part of my life, and the stack of letters on my desk was evidence of that.

I walked over to the box of books, lifted a bunch of them up, and put my high school yearbook near the bottom, where I wouldn’t see it.

1995-07 danielle's letter

1995-07 molly's letter

 

Summer 1995. Broken glass and sad news.

I got up and walked around the store for what seemed like the hundredth time today.  I looked at my watch: 10:33. I looked for books that were out of place or crooked on the shelf.  There were none, since I had just checked ten minutes earlier and no customers had come in since then.  I wiped the shelves with a dust rag, but there was no dust because I had already dusted twice today. I felt like I had been here forever.  I sat back down behind the cash register and looked at my watch again: 10:36. This day was going by so slowly.

I picked up the book I was reading: The Chamber, by John Grisham.  It was about a lawyer defending his grandfather, who had been given the death penalty decades earlier and was running out of time to appeal his case.  I had just finished reading Grisham’s most recent novel, The Rainmaker, about a lawsuit against an insurance company.  I bought The Chamber in paperback using my employee discount, but I was not enjoying it as much as I did The Rainmaker.  I continued reading, feeling a little disappointed.  I put the book down at 11:02 and walked around to check the shelves again.  I knew that nothing would be out of place or collecting dust yet, because no customers had come in since the last time I checked the store.  I just needed to walk around again for a change of scenery.

This day was a perfect example of what my summer had been like so far: boring.  I went to a roller hockey game with Rachel Copeland, and I had lunch with Catherine Yaras once, and that was the extent of the time I had spent with friends this summer.  I had gotten letters from Sarah Winters, who had lived downstairs from me in Building C; Tiffany Rollins, who had lived in Building K and had classes with me; and Molly Boyle, my friend from the Internet who lived in Pennsylvania.  But none of them were anywhere near Santa Lucia County.   The Fourth of July, Independence Day in the USA, had been last week, but my family stayed home and did nothing. Fireworks were illegal in Santa Lucia County, and the night of July 4 had been too foggy and cloudy to see any public fireworks display.  I had some fun creative projects I was working on, though, and I was playing a lot of Super Nintendo. My game of choice at the moment was Donkey Kong Country.

In the front of the store was a tall vertical rack of greeting cards, visible from outside through the window.  I looked out the window at the parking lot. Books & More was in a strip mall anchored by a grocery store, which was ahead of me on the left.  People were entering and leaving the store, each one of them having a much more interesting day than me, purely by virtue of the fact that they were not stuck in this boring store on a slow day being forced to listen to classical music.

The rack of greeting cards squeaked as I turned it.  The cards were all straight and in the right place, just like they were an hour earlier the last time I checked.  A poster of a painting of flowers, in a frame behind glass, sat on the floor leaning against the wall between the window and the shelf that held magazines.  As I turned around to go back to the desk, I accidentally bumped the poster. It fell forward and landed on the ground. The short, coarse carpet was not enough to break its fall, and the glass shattered.

Crap.

It had happened.  The first time I had ever seriously screwed up at work.

My brain shut down for a few seconds.  What do I do? I did not know, but I was going to have to tell Jane.  I would not be able to hide this. I messed up, and I needed to take responsibility.

Of course, just at that moment, with a mess of broken glass on the floor, a woman walked in.  “Hi,” I said, smiling. “Don’t go over there,” I continued, pointing to the broken picture frame.  “There’s broken glass, and I didn’t get a chance to clean it up yet.”

“That’s ok,” the customer replied.  “I was just wondering where I could find the children’s section.  I’m looking for a birthday present for my niece.”

I pointed the customer in the direction of the children’s books and stood near the broken glass.  I needed to tell Jane and find out what to do, but I did not want to leave the customer unattended, nor did I want to risk other customers coming in and stepping in the glass or cutting themselves.

After the woman bought the gift for her niece, I went into the back room, where Jane had been making phone calls and doing bookkeeping.  “Jane?” I said. “There’s a problem.”

“What is it?” she asked.

I explained about knocking over the poster and breaking the glass.  “I’m sorry,” I said. “It was an accident.”

“There’s a broom and dustpan over there, and a vacuum cleaner.”

“What about the poster?  How would I fix the glass for that?”

“You can take it to a glass shop.”

“Do you know where one is?”

“You can try the phone book,” Jane told me.

That would work, I thought.  Jane did not come across as sarcastic to me; she was probably trying to help me figure things out on my own.  I did not ask whether or not I would be paying for this myself; I just assumed I was, since it was my fault.

I carefully picked up the large pieces of glass and threw them in the garbage.  I swept as much of the rest as I could into the dustpan, throwing that away as well, and I vacuumed the area for several minutes, making sure to get all the glass.  I had cleaned up the mess, but there was still the matter of getting new glass put into the frame.  I had never done this before. I did not know how to deal with glass shops. And I had no idea how much this would cost.

I looked up “Glass” in the yellow pages section of the phone book.  Back in 1995, search engines on the Internet were in their infancy, and most small local businesses did not have Web sites, since most of their customers were not regular Internet users.  I found one not too far away called Bill’s Glass Shop. I had heard that name before; I had seen their trucks around town, and I think my parents got a new window there once, when I was a kid and I hit a baseball through my bedroom window.

I picked up the phone to call Bill’s Glass, but I got nervous and hung up before I dialed.  I needed a plan. I would explain to them when I did. I would ask if it could be fixed, how much it would cost, stuff like that.  I took a deep breath and picked up the phone again, this time actually dialing the number.

“Bill’s Glass,” a male voice said on the other end.

“Hi,” I said.  “I accidentally knocked over a poster in a picture frame, and the glass broke.  Can you fix that?”

“Sure we can.  How big is it?”

“I didn’t measure it.  It’s like a regular poster size.”

“So about 24 by 36?”

“That looks about right.”

“We can get that done for you today.  Can you bring it in now?”

“I should be able to soon.  How much will it cost?”

“Including labor and everything, let’s see, around thirty dollars.”

That seemed reasonable to me.  I did not like the idea of spending money on the fact that I was clumsy, but I had no choice now.  “Sounds good,” I said. “I’ll bring it down as soon as I can.”

“You know where our shop is?” the man asked.  I told him the address I got from the phone book, and he confirmed that I was correct.  “See you soon,” he said.

“Thank you.”  I hung up and walked to back room.  “Bill’s Glass says they can do it today,” I told Jane.  “Should I take it there when my shift is over, or should I go now?”

“You can go now,” Jane replied.  “I can take a break from this and work the front until you get back.”

“I’ll be back soon,” I said.  I carefully put the poster and picture frame in the back of the car and drove toward Bill’s Glass. It took about ten minutes to get there.  I had no trouble finding the shop. When I got there, I parked and took the poster inside.

“What can I do for you?” the man behind the counter said when I walked in.

“I called a few minutes ago about the poster in the picture frame?” I said nervously.

“Oh, yeah!” the man said.  “Let me take a look at that.”  I handed him the poster, and he looked at it, assessing the work that needed to be done.  “We can get this done right now. It’ll only take a few minutes.”

“Sounds good,” I replied.

I sat in the lobby of the shop, staring awkwardly at everything on the wall for a few minutes.  I saw a newspaper sitting on a table next to my chair; I started reading that.  How did this work? Did glass shops have waiting rooms? Was I supposed to wait here? Should I go back to the car? I felt completely out of place, but I just sat there, trying to act like I knew what I was doing.  After I finished reading the newspaper, I stared at the same things on the wall that I had stared at before.

About twenty minutes after I got there, the man brought out Jane’s flower poster with the glass in the frame repaired.  “I got you all fixed up,” he said.

“Thank you,” I replied.  I paid him, took the poster back to the car, and left.

As I pulled out of the parking lot, “Touch of Grey” by the Grateful Dead came on the radio.  I turned it up and started singing loudly. My dad loved the Grateful Dead, and he often saw them live when they were playing on this side of the country.  My parents had been eating Ben & Jerry’s Cherry Garcia flavor ice cream, since long before Ben & Jerry’s was trendy, just because the flavor was named after the Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia.  Once when I was in high school, Dad invited me to come with him to a Dead concert. I said no, because I had heard stories about the kind of things that Deadheads are into, and I wanted to stay as far away from that stuff as possible.  Also, although I did not particularly dislike them, I only knew a few Grateful Dead songs at that point in my life. I felt like I would not be able to appreciate the music well enough.  A little over a year ago, Dad had tickets for a Dead concert that he ended up not being able to go to, because we were in Jeromeville for an event for incoming freshmen.  I do not know if he ever got to see them again.

Touch of Grey was my favorite Grateful Dead song.  Many rock bands that stay together for a long time seem to end up having one more big hit late in their career.  The Grateful Dead was a product of the hippie counterculture of the 1960s and 1970s, but their most commercially successful album was In the Dark, released in 1987.  Touch of Grey, from this album, was also the first Grateful Dead song to have a music video, which I often saw on MTV at the time.  I have a theory that the album was successful because many of the Deadheads of my parents’ generation had gotten real jobs by 1987 and were actually able to afford to buy the album.

As I drove back toward Books & More, singing “IIII WIIIIILL… GET BY” along with the radio,  I thought about the odd situation I found myself in. I had a piece of fancy artwork in the back seat.  Not original artwork, of course, it was a copy, but it was some fine classy painting of nature by some artist with a name in another language that I could not pronounce, the kind of artwork that belonged in a store that played classical music.  And I was sitting up front, blasting the Grateful Dead. I guess that’s just me. I don’t fit neatly into stereotypes and cliques.

“It’s fixed,” I told Jane as I walked back into Books & More, holding the poster.

“Thank you,” Jane replied.  “I’m going to put this back in the office until I can hang it properly, so this doesn’t happen again.”

“That’s a good idea.”

Jane went back to the office with the poster and stayed back there to work on bookkeeping, leaving me up front at the cash register.  Business did not appear to have picked up while I was gone; the rest of the day was just as slow, and I spent much of it reading The Chamber with classical music in the background.  It was a slow day, but I felt like I accomplished something.  Maybe I would have been better off not having broken the glass in the first place, but now I knew how to get picture frame glass fixed if it ever came up again in the future.

I find it somewhat amusing that I spent the summer working in a stuffy bookstore with art on the wall and classical music playing, yet I have multiple memories of that job that revolve around the Grateful Dead.  About a month after the broken glass incident, I arrived at work on a day that I was working the opening shift with Paula, the other part-time employee who also knew my family.  Paula coincidentally arrived at the same time I did.

“Good morning,” I said to Paula as I got out of the car.

“I just heard on the news this morning that Jerry Garcia died,” Paula said.

I stood and stared for a few seconds, feeling shocked.  “Wow,” I replied.

“Yeah. I hope your dad is taking the news okay.”

“I know.  I feel bad because Dad always wanted to bring me to a Grateful Dead concert, and I never did because I was afraid of what kind of things happen at Grateful Dead concerts.  Now we’ll never get the chance.”

When I got home from work that day, Mom and Dad were both sitting in the living room.  “Did you hear the news?” Mom asked in kind of a somber tone.

“You mean that Jerry Garcia died?” I asked.

“Yeah.  People have been calling all day to make sure Dad is okay.”

“Are you ok?” I asked Dad.  He shrugged noncommittally.

Every year after that, when shopping for Christmas presents for my family, I always got Dad a Grateful Dead book or calendar if one was available.  In recent years, the Bay City Titans baseball team has done some sort of Jerry Garcia or Grateful Dead tribute every year in August, since Jerry’s birthday and death anniversary are both in August, and I have been to this event multiple times with my parents.  The last time I attended this  event, I listened to the Grateful Dead channel on SiriusXM satellite radio every time I was in the car for a week before the game. But I still regret never having been to an actual Grateful Dead concert with Dad.  Sometimes, windows of opportunity close with no warning.  It is difficult to find that balance of going out and taking advantage of every opportunity, yet still getting enough rest to avoid exhaustion. I still struggle with that balance today. Sadly, missed opportunities are just a natural part of life.  No one can possibly do everything, so all I can do is make the most of what I have and do my best to live my life.

jerry g
Jerry Garcia bobblehead, from the Titans game on what would have been Jerry’s 70th birthday, August 1, 2012.

That’s a great video, but the song is edited, missing the guitar solo.  Click here to hear the full version.

June 22, 1995. The first day on the job.

“Hello, Greg,” Jane said as I walked into Books & More.  Jane sat on a stool at the cash register. She wore a long-sleeve blouse, a blue-gray color, with black pants.  She was slightly shorter than average, with dark hair and wrinkled skin. I never did know how old Jane was, or if I did know, I don’t remember now.  I would have guessed around sixty.

Jane had kind of a rough appearance, but she tried to make herself look classy.  There was a popular movie from a few years ago called Kindergarten Cop, in which Arnold Schwarzenegger played a police officer working undercover as a teacher.  One of the students in the class had a drug dealer father who was planning to abduct him, and the drug dealer had his creepy mother working with him.  Three days ago, I had been to the store for a sort of job interview, although I had been told that the job was already mine. Jane probably wanted to make sure that I was responsible and trustworthy.  The first thought I had that day when I first saw Jane was that she reminded me of the drug dealer’s mother from Kindergarten Cop. I didn’t dare tell her this to her face, of course.

“Hi,” I replied, hoping not to give away the fact that I had no idea what I was doing.

“Are you ready?” Jane asked.

“Yes.”

“I was thinking I’ll start off by showing you around.  Then I’ll show you how the microfiche reader works, so you can take orders for customers from the catalog.  When someone comes in, I’ll show you how to use the cash register.”

“Sounds good.”

Jane then showed me around the store, so I could become familiar with what books, magazines, newspapers, greeting cards, and other items were on which shelves.  I tried my best to pay attention. Books & More had exactly three employees: Jane, the owner; me; and Paula McCall, the connection through whom I got this job. My family had known the McCalls for a few years now; they had a middle school age son named John, who played basketball and baseball with my brother Mark.  With school out for the summer, and John home all day, Paula wanted to be home more and cut back her hours at Books & More. She had told this to my mother, who mentioned that I was going to be home for the summer and that a job would be good for me. Ordinarily, I would not be happy with Mom intruding in my life like this, setting up a job for me without consulting me at all.  However, I had no plans for the summer, and looking for a job on my own, having to interview and make a résumé and a good first impression, sounded kind of terrifying, so I was okay with it.

“May I help you?” Jane said to a well-dressed middle-aged woman who entered the store a minute ago.

The woman handed Jane a list.  “My son is in honors English at St. Luke’s, and he has to read these books over the summer.  Do you have them?”

“We do,” Jane said.  She gestured for the woman to follow her to a shelf near the front of the store to the left; I followed them as well.  “For all of the high schools that have summer reading assignments, I have all of those books here in a special section.  I spoke to English teachers at all the schools in Gabilan, and Plumdale High, and St. Luke’s.”

“That’s a really good idea,” the woman said as Jane pointed out the specific books on the woman’s list.  She brought the books to the cash register, and I watched carefully as Jane rang up the sale and handed the woman the receipt.

After that customer had left, Jane showed me how the microfiche reader worked.  This was the most interesting thing I learned that day. Books & More ordered its inventory from two different book wholesalers.  Apparently, the standard practice at the time was that these companies would send their catalogs to bookstores on microfiche. If we needed to order a book for a customer, or if we needed to order more inventory for the store in general, we would look it up in the wholesale distributor’s catalog and use that to place an order when we had enough items to order.  I knew very little about microfiche, except that libraries kept archives of things like old newspapers on microfiche. A microfiche card apparently consisted of very small printing on film, so that the entire catalog of the thousands of titles supplied by these companies could be listed on just a few cards. A microfiche reader was basically just a giant fancy lighted magnifying glass.  Within a few years, the Internet would emerge as a commonplace consumer technology and make microfiche all but obsolete. So far, Books & More was not connected to the Internet.

For me, making an order from these catalogs was simple.  I just had to write down the book title and International Standard Book Number on a clipboard that Jane kept next to the cash register, and Jane would make the order when we had enough items to order.  That seemed simple enough. If I noticed we were out of something, particularly a book that was a top seller at the time, I also needed to write that on the order sheet when we ran out.

For the rest of the morning, I essentially shadowed Jane as she rang up customers, dusted shelves, and took special orders for customers.  I ate lunch in the office in the back of the store around noon. When I finished, Jane said, “I’m going to take care of some things back here and take my lunch break.  Do you think you’re ready to be by yourself on the cash register?”

“Yes,” I answered.

“Let me know if you need anything.”

“I will.”

As I left the office, I noticed Jane getting a pack of cigarettes out of her purse and stepping out the back door into the back parking lot.  As I walked back to the cash register, I had a sudden realization. Jane reminded me of a female version of the Smoking Man from X-Files, one of the show’s primary recurring villains.  Her mouth and lips had the same shape as those of the Smoking Man, and seeing her with a cigarette triggered this association in my mind.  Maybe the bad guy’s mother from Kindergarten Cop and the Smoking Man had an affair sixty years ago, and Jane was their love child.

I looked at the rack of hardcover bestsellers at the front of the store.  The Rainmaker, by John Grisham.  Rose Madder, by Stephen King.  Beach Music, by Pat Conroy.  Jane told me that I could read when things were slow in the store, as long as I did not damage merchandise that I did not intend to buy.  I also got twenty percent off everything in the store. I had read a few Stephen King books before, and I was about to pick up Rose Madder when a man walked in.

“Hi,” I said, walking back to the cash register.

“Can you help me?  Where might I be able to find Rising Sun by Michael Crichton, in paperback?”

“I’ve read that book.  I liked it.”

“I did too.  It’s a gift for my father.  Did you see the movie?”

“I didn’t.”

“The book was better, to be honest.”

“That’s what I heard,” I said as we walked to where I thought the Michael Crichton paperback novels would be.  I looked around… they were not there. This section had mystery and horror and romance. I turned the corner… one side of this aisle had science fiction and fantasy, and the other side had nonfiction.  I checked to see if Rising Sun would be filed under science fiction; it was not.  It was not really science fiction, other than the fact that it involved a technology corporation.  I walked the entire length of that aisle and turned back up the next aisle, past greeting cards. I let out a resigned sigh.

“I’m sorry,” I said.  “I’m new here. Let me go find out.”

I walked to the back of the store and opened the office door slightly, peeking inside. Jane looked up from her desk.  “Yes?” she asked.

“I’m sorry.  I still don’t know my way around the store, and a customer is looking for Michael Crichton.”

“That’s in Fiction.  Let me show you.” I followed Jane, thinking to myself that I knew that Michael Crichton was fiction but too embarrassed to admit that I had forgotten where the fiction section was.  I said nothing. Jane pulled the book off the shelf and gave it to the customer, who had followed us.

“I’ll ring him up,” I said, hoping to redeem myself after forgetting where to find fiction books.

“Okay.  Let me know if you need anything else.”  Jane returned to the office as I typed the amount and figured the sales tax on the cash register.

“Do you take Visa?” the customer asked as he got out his wallet.

“We do,” I said.  Another test for me: did I remember how to use the credit card machine?  As he swiped his card, the machine printed a receipt; I tore it off and gave it to him.  “Sign this, please,” I said. As he signed it, I pressed another button on the credit card machine.  A second copy of the receipt printed, which I gave him to keep as I stored the signed copy in a drawer of the cash register.

“Thank you,” I said.  “Have a great day!”

“You too!” the man replied, as he walked out of the store with his book.  I could not help but feel discouraged. Sure, I had been successful with the cash register, but I still had not learned such simple things as where different kinds of books were located.  My first test on the new job, and I felt like I had failed.

I was still curious to start reading Rose Madder, or at least see what it was about, but I had something more important to do.  Rose Madder would have to wait.  I walked up and down the shelves, learning where everything was located.  Fiction. Children’s books. Magazines. The books on school required reading lists.  Cliffs Notes. Nonfiction. History. Greeting cards. Art. Reference. Humor. All of the other things I had found when I was unsuccessfully looking for Michael Crichton.  

As I walked around, I was surprised to hear a familiar song on the radio, since the station that played classical music was always playing in the store.  It fit the kind of upscale image and clientele that Jane was marketing to. I knew very little classical music; most of the classical music I knew were pieces used in commercials, movies, or as the case was right now with this familiar song, old-timey cartoons.  It was the song that goes “da-DUN da-da-DUN-dun, DUN-da-da-DUN-dun, DUN-da-da-DUN-dun, DUN-da-da-DUN,” and there was an old Bugs Bunny cartoon where Elmer Fudd sang “Kill the WAB-bit, kill the WAB-bit, kill the WAB-bit, kill the WABBIT!” to that tune. I think it was actually called something about valkyries.  I hummed along to the part I knew, which wasn’t very much of it, as I walked up and down the aisles again, learning where to find things.

Another customer came in shortly after the Valkyrie song ended.  “I’m looking for a really old science fiction book,” she said. “Where would that be?  Do you have a science fiction section?”

“Yes,” I said, confidently walking toward the back to the right, where I saw the science fiction section.  “What is the book you’re looking for?”

Stranger in a Strange Land, by Robert A. Heinlein.”

“Wait,” I said, turning around.  The customer did not realize it, but it felt like life was asking me a trick question, but I knew the correct answer this time.  “We have a separate section for books that are on reading lists for schools that have summer reading assignments, and Stranger in a Strange Land is there.”  I walked up to the shelf of summer reading books, in the front left of the store, and pulled out a copy of Stranger in a Strange Land, handing it to the customer.

“Thank you,” she said.  “I’m going to look around a bit.”

“Okay.  Just come up front whenever you’re ready.”

I walked back to the cash register, satisfied with myself.  Sure, I wasn’t able to help the customer who was looking for Michael Crichton, but I knew exactly where to find this other customer’s book.  The customer came to the front desk with two greeting cards (I knew exactly where in the store she found those) to go with her book; I rang her purchase on the cash register, she paid cash, and I gave her the correct change.

Working in a bookstore was new to me.  Working in general was new to me. I was still learning, but I shouldn’t beat myself up for making one mistake on the first day.  I would figure things out eventually. Paula was not working that day, and I was scheduled to work until 2:30; Jane would run the store by herself until it closed at 6:00.  When it was time for me to go, Jane told me that I could go home; I filled out my time card and said goodbye. I stepped outside; the sun had long since burned off the morning coastal fog, but a cool breeze kept the air from being too hot.  I walked back to the car, feeling optimistic about the new job, and I began humming that Valkyrie song again.

 

May 26-28, 1995. Friends far away.

By the time Memorial Day weekend arrived in late May, the weather in Jeromeville had become quite summer-like.  The bike ride from Wellington Hall to the South Residential Area only took five minutes, but I was doing that bike ride in 88-degree sunshine, so I was already starting to sweat by the time I got back to my dorm room.  It was the Friday before a three-day weekend, and I was drained from a long week of classes.  I unlocked my door and turned on the air conditioning.  Cool air began blowing into the room.  I took off my shoes and lay face down on the mattress, dozing off for about an hour.

I spent a couple hours writing emails and catching up on Usenet groups, and reading for fun.  Shortly before six o’clock, I walked to the dining commons. I saw Taylor, Pete, Charlie, Ramon, Liz, Caroline, and Sarah at a table.  Next to Charlie was an empty seat with a half-empty glass of water on the table next to it. I could not tell if anyone was sitting there.

“May I join you?” I asked.  “Is that seat taken?”

“Go ahead,” Charlie replied.  “There’s always room for hydrochloric acid.”

“Wait, what?” I asked.  Charlie laughed. “That was random,” I said.

“I know.”

“How’s it goin’?” Taylor asked.

“I’m good,” I replied.  “It’s a three-day weekend, and they turned the AC back on.”

“I know!” Sarah said.  “It feels so nice!”

“So, Greg, what are you doing this summer?” Taylor continued.  “Will you be back home in Plumdale?”

“Yeah,” I answered.

“Working?  Doing anything like that?”

“My mom told me the other day she found a job for me.  One of my brother’s friends, his mom works at this small bookstore.  I guess it’s just her and the owner working there. She wants to cut her hours for the summer to be around more when her son isn’t in school.  So Mom told her that I was going to be home for the summer, and I could use a part-time job.”

“And do you want to do this?”

“I wish Mom would have asked me first, although she did say I didn’t have to if I didn’t want to.  But I’m not going to be doing anything else all summer, I’ll be getting paid for it, and it’s a job I don’t have to go find and interview for.  So I’m ok with it.”

“Yeah,” Taylor replied.

“Good point,” Pete said.

I really would have preferred for Mom to have consulted me first before volunteering me to a commitment of several hours per day.  However, the thought of having to go find a job was terrifying, and this way I had something lined up without having to look for it, as I had told Taylor and Pete.  Besides, working in a bookstore sounded fun. Maybe I could sample the merchandise and read on slow days, and maybe I would get an employee discount.

We all went downstairs to check the mail after dinner.  When I saw an envelope with handwriting on it, I felt my heart race.  I had written that letter almost two weeks ago, not knowing what would happen, not even knowing for sure whom I was writing to.  How long did it take for a letter to travel from one end of the USA to the other anyway? And after she got it, she would need time to reply, and then her letter would have to travel back across the country to Jeromeville.  Would she write back right away? Maybe I sent it too early. She was still in the middle of finals when I wrote; she hadn’t moved home yet. Maybe her parents got it and interrogated her about why she was getting mail from this strange boy in another state.  Maybe her parents threw it away.

I removed the letter from the mailbox and looked at the envelope.  I breathed a sigh of relief when I read the return address. It was from Carol Allen in Plumdale. This was not the letter I was nervous about.  This was from someone I had known for years, who had already written me once this year.

I noticed that my friends were moving toward the Help Window, which meant that someone had to pick up a package too big to fit in the mailbox.  I walked over to where they were. “Someone got a package?” I asked.

“It’s for Caroline,” Sarah said.  “You got a letter from someone?”

“It’s from Mrs. Allen.  She was my English teacher in both 7th and 8th grade.”

“And she writes to you in college?  That’s so sweet!”

“I know.  This is the second time she has written.  My mom ran into her somewhere back home a few months ago, and she told Mom to tell me to write to her.”

“She sounds nice.”

“She is.  I was in her class when I was going through a really rough time.  I was at a new school in the middle of 7th grade, and I had had a lot of problems at my other school before that.  She really made me feel welcome and accepted. A lot of the teachers at my old school acted like they didn’t want to deal with me.  And I know that ‘a lot’ is two words, because Mrs. Allen always made a big deal of it whenever someone would write ‘alot’ as one word.”

Sarah laughed.  “That’s funny!”

“I knew ‘a lot’ was two words before Mrs. Allen’s class, but I still remember her making a big deal of it.”

“It’s funny how some teachers stay in your memory forever.  Like I had this math teacher who would always make the dumbest jokes.  He’d say, ‘What’s 4y minus 3y,’ and you’d answer ‘y,’ and he’d say ‘because I asked you.’”

I chuckled.  “That’s great.  And then there are some teachers who you remember for all the wrong reasons.  Like Mr. Milton, my history teacher from junior year. He made fun of Catholics and Republicans all the time.”

“That’s not nice.”

“I still remember all these random things I learned about history from his class, though, so he did something well, but I didn’t think he was very nice.”

I opened the letter from Mrs. Allen when I got back to my room.  

 


May 24, 1995

Dear Greg,

Sorry it has taken so long to write back, but I’ve been busy.  You know how it is. I’m sure you’re busy too. Jeromeville is on trimesters, if I remember right, so you should still be in your dorm room.  When is the school year over? Our last day is June 8.

I’m going to get a new computer and get online soon.  Mr. Coburn got us America Online at school, and he has been showing me how it works.  Once I figure out how to set it up, I’ll send you an e-mail. It looks like there are all kinds of interesting things you can do.

I went to the Titans game yesterday.  I got a partial season package again, so I have a ticket to 20 games.  I have a much better seat this year because a lot of people didn’t renew.  I knew that would happen after the strike. I’m so happy the strike is over!  I missed the Titans. I thought of you because the University of Jeromeville band played the pre-game show.

I hope everything is well with you.  Take care of yourself and good luck with finals!

Love,
Carol

P.S.  I think it will be OK for you to use my first name now.


 

The postscript at the end made me laugh.  Everyone knows that one does not address a teacher by his or her first name.  Mrs. Allen said it was okay to call her Carol, but I just would never be able to bring myself to do that.  It was okay now, because I was an adult, but it still sounded wrong. Mrs. Allen would always be Mrs. Allen to me.  That was just how things worked when addressing a teacher, even years or decades after being in that teacher’s class.

I did not know that the University of Jeromeville Band had played a pre-game show at a Titans game.  I had grown up watching Bay City Titans baseball, traveling up there with my family about three or four times a year to attend games in person.  But I had not been keeping up with the Titans, or baseball in general, this year. The end of the previous season had been canceled because of a players’ strike.  There was no World Series that year. Furthermore, Matt Williams, the Titans’ third baseman, had hit 43 home runs by the time the strike began in early August, possibly putting him in position to set a new record for home runs in one season.  The record at the time was 61. But the season was canceled, he had no chance to hit any more home runs, and in two more seasons with the Titans and seven with other teams, he never reached this level of power hitting prowess again. The strike had continued on into the 1995 season but was settled early in the season, and baseball had finally resumed at the end of April, a few weeks later than the usual start of the season.  I did get interested in baseball again eventually… but that is another story for another time.

 

The next morning, I got out of bed around nine.  That was sleeping in for me, the best I could do.  I studied and did homework for about two hours, then decided to reward myself with a bike ride.  I rode north to the Coventry Greenbelts, where I had ridden last week, and discovered a bike path skirting the northern edge of the city.  Riding west, the path passed fenced backyards on the left and some kind of drainage or irrigation canal to the right, with open fields on the other side.  The path turned south, with ends of culs-de-sac connecting to the path, before zigzagging west again and then south one more time. At this point, the drainage canal  entered the Jeromeville city limits, with a neighborhood of large luxury homes visible on the other side of the canal. I was not sure where this neighborhood was or what it connected to.  I saw a pedestrian and bicycle bridge cross the canal into that neighborhood, but I did not go that way.

The path turned south along a park with a playground, basketball courts, and an open grass area.  I rode past a sculpture of dominoes. The park then narrowed, so that fences of backyards came close to the path on either side, much like the other paths I had discovered last week.  After making several more turns, and not being sure of exactly which direction I was going now, the path narrowed to a small sidewalk, next to a parking lot. I appeared to be in the back of a large apartment complex.  I wondered which one; I probably had heard of it, from when I was looking through that apartment guide trying to find a place to live next year.

Suddenly, as I got closer to the actual buildings, riding through the parking lot, I realized that I knew exactly where I was.  Not only had I heard of this apartment complex, but I had looked at these apartments. I had even signed a lease here. This was Las Casas Apartments on Alvarez Avenue, and I was looking right at my home for next year, apartment 124.  This was convenient; my apartment for next year was right next to the Greenbelts. I would have a lot of opportunities to explore Jeromeville on my bike from my new apartment.

When I got back to campus, I checked my mail before going back up to my room.  All the anxious excitement I felt yesterday when I checked the mail came back when I saw the letter that I had been expecting the day before.  The return address said “M. Boyle,” with a box number and rural route in a town I had never heard of, called Muncy, Pennsylvania. My name and address had been handwritten on the envelope, in black ballpoint pen.

I started to hide the letter under my shirt, but then I remembered that I was all sweaty from having ridden my bike in warm weather for an hour.  I slid the letter in my front pocket and walked back to the building with half of the envelope sticking out. I made sure that no writing was showing on the part sticking out.  Something still felt weird about having this letter, and I did not want to have to talk to anyone about it.

I made it back to my room without seeing anyone and began reading.


May 23, 1995

Dear Greg,

Hello!  It’s nice to hear from you, and I hope this finds you well.  I’m good, except there’s a storm here. It’s raining pretty hard, with lightning.

Good luck on finals!  I got my grades a few days ago.  I ended up with two Bs, two Cs, and a D.  Not as good as I wanted. I’ll have to work harder next semester.

I’ve been bored and lonely much of the time since coming back home.  When I was at school, I was used to having everything within walking distance, but we live out in the country so everything is a 15 minute drive away.  And since I don’t have a car, I don’t get away from home that much. Most of my friends from college live far away, and my friends from home are either still in high school or have jobs.  I looked for a job, but I haven’t found anything yet. The bookstore you told me about sounds like it’ll be fun for you. Mostly I just want to get a job so I can get out of the house. But I need the money too or else I might not be able to go back next semester.  I know how you feel about not looking forward to summer, being away from your friends. I thought I would have a job by now, not stuck at home all the time.

I’ve pretty much given up on finding a boyfriend.  The only place I go is church and the guys there are either not interested or too old for me.  There are some dance clubs, but I don’t have a car so I can’t go to them.

Well, I hope I’m not some 37 yr. old pervert!  Just the idea makes me sick. Would your mom like to see my drivers license or school ID?  Anyway, write me back when you can I know you have finals coming up so I’ll wait until after that to expect something.  I’ll write maybe another letter before then. ☺

Bye,
Molly


 

When I wrote to Molly, I said that I was a little nervous, because my mother was fond of reminding me that all these girls I was meeting online were probably 37-year-old perverts named Chuck.  Molly was the first person I met on the Internet whom I had any sort of offline contact with. Apparently Molly did not find the image of Chuck as funny as I had.

Molly was my age, a freshman at Lock Haven University in central Pennsylvania.  Molly had already finished the school year, because Lock Haven was on a semester schedule, both starting and ending earlier in the year than Jeromeville with its quarter schedule. (Jeromeville quarters were technically trimesters; Mrs. Allen had correctly called them trimesters in her letter).  Molly moved back home, where she would not have access to email, so in her last email to me, she had given me her address.

And she actually wrote back.  I now had proof that someone I met on the Internet actually existed in real life.  Of course, technically she could have been lying about her age or gender or any number of things, but there was a real person behind those messages who took the time to write back.  Hopefully this summer I would be able to look forward to getting letters in the mail. And hopefully she was not really Chuck.

 

I spent most of Sunday studying, although I did make it to church Sunday morning.  In the late afternoon, when I finished everything I had hoped to get done, I got on my usual IRC chat channel.  Kim, a girl from Florida I had been talking to for a few months, was online, so I messaged her.

gjd76: hi
Happygirlkim: Hi Greg! How are you?
gjd76: doing well, it’s been a good weekend.  it’s been warm here, i like that
Happygirlkim: I bet!  I’m done with the school year, back home in Ft Lauderdale, but I’ll be working at a summer camp for kids for six weeks, I leave on June 16
gjd76: that’ll be fun, that’s the weekend i’ll be moving home
Happygirlkim: Yay! Any big plans for the summer?
gjd76: moving back home and working in a bookstore.  my mom knows someone there who got me the job
Happygirlkim: That’ll be fun!  Will you be hanging out a lot with your friends back home?
gjd76: i’m not sure.  i lost touch with a lot of them when i came here, and i didn’t see them often anyway when i was back home.  i don’t even know for sure who will be around for the summer.
Happygirlkim: I wish I lived closer to you!  I’d hang out with you! 😉
gjd76: that would be fun!
Happygirlkim: I think you’d like my friends!  You could come to the beach with us, we’d build a bonfire and stay up late just talking…
gjd76: 🙂
Happygirlkim: Maybe someday!
gjd76: hey, random thought, can i call you?

I typed that last line quickly and pressed Enter before I could talk myself out of it.  It was a sudden fleeting thought that passed through my mind, and it wouldn’t hurt to ask.  Now that I had gotten a letter from Molly, it seemed less scary to try to communicate with these girls from the Internet in other ways.

Happygirlkim: Sure!  Did you mean right now?
gjd76: sure, it’s sunday afternoon and long distance calls cost less on the weekend
Happygirlkim: 305-555-0115
gjd76: great! let me get off here, i’ll call you in just a minute

I logged out and disconnected.  Back in 1995, people connected to the Internet through telephone lines, so being logged in meant that I could neither send nor receive calls.  As soon as the computer was disconnected, I dialed Kim’s number, and just like when I had asked her if I could call, I pressed the buttons quickly, so I would not be able to talk myself out of completing the call.

“Hello?” a female-sounding voice said on the other end of the call.

“Is Kim there?” I asked.

“This is Kim.”

“Hi.  It’s Greg.”

“Hi!”  Kim paused.  “It’s good to finally hear your voice.”

“I know.”

“So why don’t you see your friends back home very often?”

“Where I live, it’s kind of semi-rural and spread out.  And I didn’t really do much except go to school. I didn’t really have friends at all until the middle of high school.”

“You didn’t have a best friend in childhood or anything?”

“Everyone was mean to me.”

“I’m sorry.  And you said you didn’t have a girlfriend, right?”

“Right.”

“Have you ever had a girlfriend?”

“No,” I said.  “I’ve had a lot of crushes on girls who were either out of my league or didn’t like me back.  One of my crushes from high school was named Kim too.”

“Girls named Kim are the best!”

“I know.” I chuckled.

“You haven’t met anyone in college?  Didn’t you tell me you were going to a movie with some girls recently?”

“One of them, we’ve had two classes together, I feel like we’re just going to be friends.  The other one, she’s really cute, and she’s been nice to me all year, but she’s a sophomore, I don’t know if she’d be interested in a younger guy who doesn’t really know what he’s doing.”

“You never know.  It wouldn’t hurt to ask.  You’re such a sweetie. I bet all the girls like you, and you don’t even know it!”

“I don’t know how to ask a girl out.”

“You just go up to her and say, ‘Hey, do you want to go get something to eat?’ or ‘Hey, do you want to go see a movie?’ or whatever.  You can do this. I believe in you.”

“I don’t know.  What if she already has a boyfriend?  Then I’ll look like an idiot.”

“But what if she doesn’t have a boyfriend, but you never ask her?  You never know unless you try.”

“I don’t know,” I said.  I really didn’t know. Kim made it sound so simple, but it was so confusing and scary.  I had a sudden thought, something I had to know. I took a deep breath and asked, “If you lived nearby, and I asked you out, would you go out with me?”

“Yes, I would!”

“Thank you.  I wish we could.”

Kim and I talked for about another 20 minutes, just about life in general.  She told me more about her friends and about her summer job at the camp. I told her about my classes, exploring the greenbelts, and my upcoming finals.  I hoped we would have more conversations like this.

I have had other female friends from the Internet besides Kim telling me that I should have no trouble meeting a girl.  Things did not work that way in my world. It seemed like every girl I was ever interested in always seemed to have a boyfriend already, and without having ever had the experience of knowing that a girl liked me, I had no idea how to know if a girl liked me, and no reason to believe it would ever happen to me.  It was so easy to talk to girls I met on the Internet. Maybe I would have to go to Fort Lauderdale to get a girlfriend. Or Muncy, Pennsylvania.

Today, when kids go away to college, they have a much easier time staying in touch with their friends back home.  Today’s college students have text messages and social media and video chat and technologies that we only dreamed of twenty-five years ago.  I have found that I tend to remember most of my friends back home not staying in touch once I moved away, but when I really think about it, that is not entirely true.  Melissa and Renee and Rachel had been keeping in touch regularly. Janet Bordeaux, the girl whose mother and my mother often gossiped, had written me twice. Jessica Halloran had sent me a postcard from Guatemala.  And now Mrs. Allen had written me twice. I did eventually lose touch with all of those people until social media came along, but it did not happen as suddenly as I tend to remember. I think I also remember people not writing me because I focus on the fact that I had two new female friends and crushes who did not keep in touch.  Interestingly enough, I did not make much of an attempt to stay in touch with guys; I was just more comfortable communicating with girls, because boys were always so mean to me in elementary school.

Mrs. Allen and I have been in touch semi-regularly ever since then.  She did eventually get her email set up. She is now in her early 70s, retired from teaching.  A few years ago, the band AC/DC was touring, and she took her grandchildren to see them when they played Bay City.  I can only hope to be that badass at that age.

I lost touch with Kim sometime during sophomore year.  She just got busy with life, I guess; we never had any kind of falling out. But Molly and I stayed friends for a long time, well into our 30s.  In my late 20s, I did a lot of traveling around the USA, and I saw Molly in person twice when my travels brought me to her part of the country. We also never had any kind of falling out; we just grew apart as life got in the way.  The last time I heard from her was in 2009, and by then she was married and expecting her first child. Being a parent definitely changes one’s priorities.

Someone asked me once, as an icebreaker question, if I could have anything I wanted, without cost being an obstacle, what would it be?  I said I wanted a private jet with an unlimited supply of fuel, because I had friends all over the world that I wished I could spend time with.  It all started during that school year, my freshman year at UJ, meeting girls on the Internet. I still do have friends from all over the world. I don’t meet many people on the Internet anymore, because I gave up chat rooms in 2007, but I still have friends all over the world who I used to know in person that I wish I could visit, as well as chat room friends who I met before 2007 who stayed in touch.  And in three weeks, I would be back home in Plumdale, away from all my new Jeromeville friends. Hopefully at least some of them would write to me. And I would not be gone forever; I still had at least three more years at UJ.

1995 molly's first letter