Fumbling through tapes without cases, Deb snatches at that one: yeah, the live album. Her vodka and cranberry will leave a ring mark on the stereo when she rests it there to begin her dance. On side A, she starts with “Carolina in My Mind,” her favorite. When she listens to James Taylor, Deb can remember back to a time when she wasn’t thirty years old and strapped to a sick little kid. She moves her head back and forth, stumbling over her own feet some, partly because she has had a few drinks, but mostly because she is into it. Touching her short, thinning hair, Debi moves all around and turns the volume up all the way up.
James Taylor makes her think of sex. Maybe it was just that all music, every song seemed to be about her. She thinks about how so many songs have captured her emotions, or inspired her emotions. Sweet Baby James is calling that raw sensation from within her, and with every blast of Russ Kunkel’s drums, she can feel that Carolina summer of 1976 when she had it all.
Deb’s hair looked great in the blonde French-braid pigtails that matched her Dutch girl uniform for work. The summer she was twenty-one, Deb went blonde. It was Peggy who suggested that Nick would probably love blonde hair. Gentlemen prefer blondes, right?
Deb was meant to be blonde. And at Heidi’s, Deb was the star. Heidi’s was just a glorified Denny’s, but they had these imitation Dutch and German syrup pourers and sugar holders, so it really had more ambience. Deb could remember how she got into the rhythm of filling those things up so fast listening to Ronnie Milsap on the radio early mornings. She and Peggy would then go around and fix all the little blue and white gingham curtains and wait for the truckers and early morning old-farts. Deb always paid special attention to the sweet old guys. They liked Deb. She made the most tips, knew the menu the best, and was dating the owners’ son, Nick. Sometimes, Nick would come in and get breakfast at Heidi’s, even though he hated the place. He’d sit in Deb’s section just to be with her, even though she had just left his three story, stone mammoth of a house an hour or two before.
For her birthday in July, Nick bought Deb a Celica. She and Peg celebrated by slamming twenty-one shots of…whatever, she couldn’t remember, and dancing on the hood of it.
“Debbie, Jesus! Quit acting like a tramp.” She was almost too engrossed to hear Nick’s judgment. “This kind of shit might fly up in Gresham, Oregon, but this is at least Portland. Get some class.”
She was still dancing on the hood when Nick slammed his front door. Debbie pulled at the fray of her Levis cutoffs that were riding up and headed into the house.
Deb thought that if Nick would just marry her, she could be happy and she wouldn’t have to dance on her car.
“Do me wrong, do me right, but don’t let me be lonely tonight,” she sang to him. She used her hips to move first. The rest of her body following, against him.
“Those aren’t all the lyrics, Deb. You left some out.”
“This is our song, Nick. You and me. I have a birthday present for you, Nick, come here.” She squished onto the waterbed. But Nick just knelt next to darkened glass coffee table where he had his coke lines all set up.
Deb tried to seduce him there on the tan shag carpeting, but instead, she thought she only messed up his coke line, she couldn’t remember. But then again, maybe not, because she thought she would have been madder, more mad, at herself for wasting that money, and she remembered that he did do his line. Or maybe she did spill it; he would have always had more anyway.
* * *
Walking into the kitchen, Deb feels glad she doesn’t do coke anymore. She knows she’s broke enough without that added cost. She pours herself another vodka and cranberry and heads to the bedroom at the other end of the apartment. Deb sits down below the little feet, miniature versions of her own, and touches her baby’s little blonde curls. Damn, does she ever look like Sam, Deb thinks and turns off the light.
Back at the tape deck, Deb rewinds back through “Carolina in my Mind.” She rests on the coffee table while the machine whizzes through songs. When she stands back up, she accidentally knocks over her nail polish and other makeup. Must be the dancing, remembering. Thinking about Nick, making her a little shaky.
With a chipped acrylic index finger, Deb starts the tape again. It’s not quite to the beginning of her song yet and James sings, “Still I’m on the dark side of the moon.” Yeah, that was Nick, alright. Never knew what mood he was headed for next.
* * *
Nick still had a hair up his ass about the dents when Peggy honked the Celica horn in the driveway. As soon as Deb had been able to slide her cut-offs back on, she followed Nick to the window to see what Peggy wanted.
“Hurry up, you two. You think I’m having fun down here all by my damn self?” Peggy sat in the driver’s seat.
From the second story window, Nick called down to her. “Peg, shit! Where could we go in the car? What do you think we’re gonna do? Just come inside!”
But they got in the car anyways, Deb in back and Nick in the passenger’s seat.
“When you see where we’re going, you will thank me, Nicky Nick,” Deb remembers that Peggy sounded like a trucker when she screamed this as she pressed the gas pedal harder towards the ritzy cemetery up in Gresham.
Peggy and Deb both knew that Nick had this weird infatuation with cemeteries. He had talked about this particular cemetery on some of the mornings when he would watch them work. When your parents are part owners of the largest restaurant chain in America other than Denny’s, you can afford creepy habits like that… as for Deb, she picked walnuts and fought with her sisters as hobbies.
Deb camped herself out next to her favorite grave. The Oregon grass soaked her jean shorts every time Nick brought her here, she felt gravity knock her to the ground to look at the broken tombstone of this little girl, Jessica. Whoever the girl was, she had a tombstone with the sweetest color portrait of her on it. Deb had never seen a color tombstone before. Even smiling in her picture, Jessica seemed sad.
Maybe because her parents didn’t even take care of her grave. At least Jessica’s mother knew where she could visit her. There was a place for her to go. All Deb could think of was that she wanted that child to be hers. But Nick didn’t like babies. He liked cemeteries.
Deb struggled to rise on the sloping bank, mumbling. She tried to lift the tombstone, but couldn’t by herself. Slipping in the mud, she grew frustrated and hurled her anger at Nick. It was all his fault anyways.
“It’s your fault, you ass! Yours, yours.” By this time, her energy had exhausted itself. “Would you help me with this? Peggy? Nick? I’m taking this. They aren’t taking care of this kid anyway. Look, it’s broken.”
Deb sunk her weight back into the grass to be near the tombstone. She rested her hand on the foundation of the grave, feeling the edge of broken marble. Peggy looked first to Deb, then, feeling awkward, to Nick.
Nick rolled his eyes, Deb tried not to see that, but she did. And she saw that Peg saw him too. And Deb saw Peg wince. But Nick went to her still and put one arm around her shoulder.
She didn’t know how to give him what he wanted. Sometimes, Deb wondered whether he wanted her to pour her heart out to him or to shut up, just shut up. Or both simultaneously.
* * *
In her swirl of smoke and vodka and James, Deb reassures herself he must have loved her some.
No matter how drunk and angry she could still get, Deb couldn’t hate him. It wasn’t his fault. He just couldn’t know what else to do to calm her down, or make it up to her. He didn’t know, Deb reasoned, so he helped Peggy and her carry the tombstone to the car. He told them he’d buy them plane tickets to somewhere fun so that she could forget the tragedy of their nine month relationship.
When they loaded the stone into the hatchback of the Celica, when they stopped for Deb to puke on the shoulder of the highway, when the girls boarded the plane to visit Debi’s sister three weeks later, Deb was still thinking about that baby girl with the color tombstone.
When they stepped into the Carolina August heat, Deb in her mink coat, she wondered how anybody could live in such a shit hole. She wasn’t sure how Peggy had talked her into going to Carolina to see Karen of all the places they could’ve gone. Deb had always hated her sister and nothing had changed in the six months Karen had been away. The problem was—well, one of the problems was that Karen was always trying to look like Deb. She did naturally, anyhow. People asked all the time if they were twins. Except that Karen still had brown hair. But on top of that, Karen was always changing her clothes to be like Deb. Karen even dated a guy once that Deb thought looked a lot like Nick. Carolina was a bad idea.
Besides, Deb reasoned, she had wedding invitations to write if she and Nick were going to have the ceremony by October. But Peg made a strong case for the good bands in Myrtle Beach. Karen and Deb did their damnedest to avoid pulling each other’s hair out or throwing coffee, like their last little get-together.
With the music, she could forget about everything in Oregon. She only thought of how she was dancing at The Club in the South, the Fandango Club. And she wished that she could sing. The Music Industry seemed like a forbidden realm to Debbie— a place where she didn’t belong, would never be allowed to go. But there she was in the middle of it all, and the boys were loving her.
Deb moved into the bathroom of the club to take a break and go pee. Careful to chance a lot of details in one glance, she sized up each woman in front of the mirror. Walking past them to the mirrors and sinks, she tried not to look at them again. Were they looking at her? She still had on her mink, but was realizing that was an even bigger mistake at the club than during the daytime. When she went for the melting lipstick hidden in her shirt, Deb let her face brush against the fur.
“Yeah, it’s real,” she imagined turning to those girls with her nostrils flared slightly more than usual, to look mean.
Deb made a few faces in the mirror, adjusting the flare of her nostrils. That photographer said it made her look sophisticated. But what Deb really loved was not her nose, but her eyes. Sometimes they were just kind of brownish, but on good days like today, they were emerald green. And she lined them with black and wore the same mascara as her mother.
Deb had been holding her burning cigarette the whole time in the bathroom, but on her way out she flicked it into the sink and glared at all three of the women.
“Hey there. You wanna dance? Name’s Charlie D.”
This fat beardy guy wanted to dance? Was he looking at her? Mostly, Deb was scared he’d crush her.
That oaf thought he was Charlie Daniels! Deb was delighted by the attention even more when she sneered at the proposal. It made her feel like she belonged in the Fandango.
When Karen whistled for her attention, Deb strutted over feeling like it was sophomore year homecoming all over again. “De—eb, I want you to meet a good friend of mine, Sam McMurtry. He plays with Midnight Riders.” Karen gave her sister the kind of sideways glance that Deb could always count on to mean trouble.
In her boots, Deb was staring down at him, at least it seemed that way to her. He had bushy hair that sort of puffed out from under his turquoise cowboy hat and jeans that sagged and drooped low like his hick drawl.
“Nice to meet ya’ll. Hey, did you see that Charlie Daniels came to the show tonight?”
He had the twang of an ignorant red neck, each word elongated to 45 syllables, she was sure. But it was Deb that felt like the true moron for not realizing she had snubbed Charlie Daniels.
Nick was supposed to be her answer to those demons that plagued her. He drove a Corvette. He owned a restaurant. He was high class. And all night, her thoughts flipped back to images of her own handwriting on parchment wedding invitations. She waited and drank until they could finally head back to Karen’s dumpy apartment. Deb tried never to look Sam in the eyes, but couldn’t resist the urge to turn her legs towards him, or play with her hair. She couldn’t help wanting to be wanted.
On the way out, she kicked gravel with her high heeled boots and waited for Karen to start the gossip, ask about the club, ask their opinions of Sam and the band.
Deb had her answer all planned out. Like Karen was anyone to be giving out love advise in the first place. “Paaaleeease. Sam? With fucked up teeth and fuzzy hair. I don’t think so. From now on, don’t show me to the boys, just the booze, alright?”
At the time, Deb thought her joke put Karen in her place. Deb felt like what she envisioned Karen must have felt every time she took her digs.
Peggy popped in, “I dunno. I think he’s cute. That’s the kind of guy you could marry.”
Good for Peggy. Sam was her type. Deb was not impressed. The truth was that Deb just wasn’t happy unless she was miserable. So she loved Nick. And she loved anything that would destroy her and Nick. She was impatient, so she would not wait around for him to treat her right, but she had nothing better to do, so she was timeless. She was timeless-- she knew it.
Ryann L. Ferguson
Ryann L. Ferguson