“Where the fuck are you going?” Peggy asked, her head jerking around as she tried to map out the unfamiliar landscape.
“To the Alwood Theater,” I said.
“I’ve been to the Alwood Theater a million times, Alfred, and I’ve never seen these streets.”
“It’s a back way I know.”
“Back way?” she asked, a painted brow rising high onto her forehead.
“I went to school around here. I used to hang out on these streets.”
“And now you’re going to get us lost in them?”
“I would never do a thing like that.”
“If we’re late for that movie, Alfred, I’ll make you wait for the second show and then you’ll be late for work.”
“And in the meantime we can fool around in the car, maybe?”
“What yourself, buddy – this is only our second date.”
“Our second date officially,” I said. “We’ve seen a lot of each other in-between.”
“Too much maybe. You’re starting to get cocky.”
“Me, cocky? Never,” I said, feeling freer than I had in a very long time.
I liked the idea that this woman enjoyed being with me.
Sure, there were still lots of questions that needed to be answered. But there were other things, too, a tenderness I could feel just under the surface I hoped I could draw out of her.
Her passion for the New York Giants gave me hope, proving she was capable of love if given a chance. And I liked the idea that she might come to love me with that same passion.
“Ut oh,” I said, pulling the car to a stop. The street had stopped in a small cul-de-sac framed with bi-level houses.
“I must have taken a wrong turn somewhere,” I said.
“I knew it. The minute I let you take me on your own secret route I knew it meant trouble.”
“They changed the road,” I said. “I knew there was something different back near the factories.”
“Excuses, excuses,” Peggy said. “On thing is certain. We’re not going to make the first show on time.”
“I wouldn’t bet on that,” I said, putting the car into reverse for a quick three-point turn in order to race back the way we’d come. “It was a silly mistake, easily corrected.”
“We’ll see,” Peggy said. “I wonder what your boss will say when you show up late?”
“Nothing. There’s still time to make the first show.”
It had been almost 20 years since I had come this way, and the old stomping ground had gone the way of many such places, old factories replaced with housing developments and strip mall. Even the old AMF warehouse where I had worked during high school tossing boxes of bowling balls had vanished.
“Here’s the road,” I said, finally discovering my mistake – a division in the road.
I turned and raced down the broader avenue, managing to catch every yellow light before it turned red, turning finally onto the street where the theater was located.
The once familiar marque had changed, too. Now instead of one theater, the placed had been divided into four.
Americans constantly clamored for choices until they got so many they could not make up their minds.
“I told you I’d get us here on time,” I said.
“Just park the car and shut up,” Peggy said, refusing to look at me, her expression taunt with indignation.
I parked the car up the street and we jumped out.
Whatever tension had existed between us seemed to evaporate.
I slipped my fingers through hers.
She didn’t try to stop me or look up to object.
We strolled towards the theater the way young lovers might, swaying slightly to the same tune Mother Nature hummed inside our heads.
I glowed. I was seventeen again, innocent and carefree, walking in a cloud of innocence I wanted to retain forever, trying to forget the strip clubs where Peggy danced and the pain of her growing up.
I wanted this particular moment to last forever when deep down I knew it could not.
We crossed over to the theater box office.
“By two tickets for Blind Date,” Peggy said.
I pushed the money through the small gap in the ticket booth window in exchange for the tickets, wondering if Peggy had selected this movie for a reason. Was she sending some kind of message?
I gave up speculating.
I did not want to ruin a nearly perfect moment by analyzing it.
But I couldn’t get it out of my head, not just the movie, but all of the circumstances surrounding it – Peggy pretending she was an honest, all American girl next door looking at me as if I was her sweetheart.
And what about that stranger at her door?
What business was Peggy really in?
A friend suggested Peggy might be a prostitute since many strippers were.
If so, at some point, Peggy would want payment – even from me.
I hated the idea.
I already liked Peggy too much for something like that to get in our way.
The film bothered me, too.
Bruce Willis played a poor soul who needed to bring a date to an important corporate dinner. Warned not to get her drunk, he got her drunk anyway and she went wild. Pursued by her jealous ex-boyfriend, Willis struggles to make sense of what was going on.
Through the film, I kept looking over at Peggy to see if she saw the same similarities in this film as I did.
To me, she seemed just like the woman on the screen, living her life under the influence of booze and cocaine.
I wondered what Peggy was really like absent the addition, and would she even bother with a slug like me.
The film reversed course, and came to a happy conclusion, Bruce Willis winning over the girl in the end.
I couldn’t help but wish I was Bruce Willis.
Finally the credits rolled and we stumbled out of the theater.
“What a crappy movie,” Peggy
“I sort of liked it.”
“You would,” Peggy grumbled. “But love does not conquer all.”
“I think it does.”
“PLEASE!” Peggy moaned. “Let’s get out of here. Romantic claptrap like that always vies me a headache. I wish I hadn’t left my aspirin at home.”
“Are you really in that much pain?”
“No, I’m holding my head because I have nothing better to do.”
“You have headaches often?”
“Often enough,” she said. “I have a constant headache. Sometimes they’re better than other times. Right now, it’s killing me.”
“Have you seen a doctor?”
“Here you go with 20 questions again,” she moaned. “Just drive me home so I can get some aspirin.”
I didn’t move. We both saw the drug store a few doors up the street from the theater.
I didn’t have much money left. But finally I sighed.
“Do you want me to buy some aspirin?” I asked.
“It would help.”
I slipped out from behind the wheel, fingering the last of this week’s money in my pocket. I was going to have to get another advance from my boss if I expected to have gas for the rest of the week.
I felt like a zombie with the drug store’s bright light stinging my eyes, and I was glad to escape.
I handed the package to Peggy as soon as I got back into the car. She slid the bottle out of the bag, savagely ripping off the plastic from around the lid, then she pressed down on the top.
“Damn this fucking thing,” she scowled. “It takes a fucking rocket scientist to get this fucking lid off.”
` “You want me to help?”
“No,” she snapped and after a few more attempts, the lid came off, and she used the tip of her finger nail to remove the cotton from inside. She dumped a bunch of pills into the palm of her hand and gulped them down.
“No wonder you have ulcers,” I said, engaging the gears of the car for the trip back to Lodi.
“Mind your own business,” she snapped. “It’s my stomach.”
She dumped the bottle on the dash board where it rattled as I drove.
The intensity of her pain diminished as her face took on a less agonized look.
Finally, I pulled up to the car in front of her building.
“Well,” I said. “It has been an interesting night.”
“Aren’t you coming upstairs?” she asked.
I looked up at her apartment struck by the fact that she had left the lights on.
“Are you sure you want me?” I asked.
But Peggy had already started away, leaving me to choose whether or not to follow.
I put the car in park and shut off the engine, missing its sound as the silence of the street grew around me.
I followed her like a love-sick puppy.
Upstairs in her apartment, life became a fairytale again, full of carved hearts, wilting roses, stuffed unicorns and pictures of John Wayne.
She went through the ritual of undressing and making herself a drink, then drew me into her bedroom where she again expected me to sit with her as she went to sleep.
“Just hold me until I go to sleep,” she said.
“Tell me about the man who was here earlier?” I asked.
“He’s nobody, Alfred. He’s just business.”
“What kind of business?”
“Do we need to go into that now?”
“I need to know.”
“He’s one of my customers.”
“Sometimes other things. I usually do big deals. That’s something you shouldn’t know too much about. Now quit asking questions so I can go to sleep.”
So I held her. She shuddered as I did, though I wasn’t sure which one of us it came out of.
I kept thinking how wrong all this was, about the drugs and the strange me showing up at her door, and yet how right she felt in my arms, as if I could have spent an eternity like that, needing no Bruce Willis or John Wayne to save her.
Peggy stared at the TV set. I managed to stare there, too, trying not to let that other voice in side me slip out, the one that kept saying, “Get out, stupid, before it’s too late.”
I didn’t move.
I felt her consciousness slowly slipping away, the cocaine and alcohol sweeping her back into the deeper regions of her dreams.
She cried out: “No, please, don’t hit me.”
I clung to her; she shoved me away, then clutched me back, her sharp nails biting into my back as if we were making love with me still fully clothed.
Finally, real sleep flowed over both of us. When I woke a short time later, I found Peggy coiled in a corner of the bed whimpering.
I got up, found my shoes and carried them out into the hall before I put them on.
Outside, I found the dark street empty of anyone, only the deep shadows of the old Italian neighborhood and me, one more wraith walking in my family’s footsteps, weary and confused.