Down By The River



She said she would meet me at the river to talk things over. I was uneasy about the rendezvous and was nervously chain-smoking as scattered cigarette butts nearby testified. Her constant harping about my smoking was just one of the issues affecting my relationship with Valerie Templeton, who was a health nut. That and my tendency to overdo it on beer consumption with my buddies, a sore point I had been considering seriously lately though I resented her hectoring me about it. Plus several other issues had built up friction between us for a few weeks.

I was attracted to Valerie from the gitgo, the kind of girl who stands out in a crowd, but strong-willed and dominant, to my mind. Despite her conservative ways we had chalked up some happy times. Despite my earlier reluctance to completely part ways, it was apparent she had other ideas, judging by her brusque comments on the phone demanding a face-to-face.

Ordinarily I had looked forward to meetings at the river, a hangout for me and my friends. It isn't the most scenic spot along a quiet rural road to really nowhere, since it ended in a dead end. Right now I was feeling like the the "Nowhere Man" of the Beatles tune. I like it at the river okay, but not exactly like Valerie and her girl friends. She had described the surroundings as "idyllic" more than once. They would go on endlessly about the natural beauty of the place; its huge twin willows joined at the base, its shade in summer heat. They would point out how the river rippled alongside lending a musical background to whatever was going on, sometimes guitar trumming and singing around a flickering campfire.

"Don't you just love it, Billy?" Valerie would sigh. From time to time, we meandered over to a stone wall edging the river. You could put your back to the bark of a couple of giant willow trees and relax while casting a fishing line. And it joined a stone bridge you could dive off when the water was high enough.

I recalled how earlier it had been fun to lie nearby where leaves had rustled up a comfortable and colorful bed for a nap or cuddling up to the girl of the hour. Sometimes we hung around for a picnic, rustling up hot dogs on a portable grill I carried around in my pickup.

Valerie frequently remarked how cool it was just to mosey along for a stroll. I didn't object much to talking things over with a girl or buddy and watch thousands of ducks and geese from Canada splash, feed and cavort. But actually I preferred to shoot them or fish. I like action.

Pacing back and forth, awaiting Valerie, I recalled it was at the river where I had decided she was the one for me. At first she was on the quiet side and I mistakenly judged her introverted. What a mistake that was! Guess she was sizing me up then and as our friendship advanced beyond the budding stage she gradually put her two cents worth in when one copper was plenty.

She became more argumentative and could stiff me, like her response when I had suggested we exchange rings to show our relationship was more than ordinary. "You must be kidding," she said skeptically. "Just because you're a sports hero doesn't mean I'm gonna go overboard!" She ultimately came around.

But, I had to admit--strictly to myself, of course--that she was right, I did okay in various sports with letters to prove it, but having her in my life took the edge off my playing enthusiasm though it didn't affect my playboy tendencies much. After I first met Valerie, I cut practices a lot to spend time with her, and my coaches were on my case a lot. She wasn't into sports, probably because she wasn't very athletic. But I had liked how our relationship was shaping up.

I had quite a bit of experience with girls and zeroed in on Valerie with plenty of confidence. Lately I hadn't been getting through with her and resented her stepping on my toes more frequently. Her reluctance to accept my approaches and lifestyle bothered me and my self-confidence was going south. So I'll let you in on a little secret: In my frustration over where our relationship was heading, I was starting to play the field.
I still considered Valerie a pretty good catch but had become convinced I would never turn out the way she wanted me to. And I'm not about to have her try to make me over into something I'm not. But to tell the truth, I've been apprehensive about how she would take it if I revealed my meandering to her. Being the man in the relationship, I always want to be the one to set the timetable for major decisions.

My solitude was interrupted as Valerie buzzed up in the new Mustang provided by her dad, a corporation executive, for a high school graduation present. She's a brainy type, easily making good grades in college courses. I tried not to let on but that has bothered me since I struggle in community college phys-ed studies. Besides my extra-curricular pursuits, I work a night shift at a local factory to meet college costs and I like to party. So study has played second fiddle.

Valerie was constantly grinding away at me to settle down and work harder on my studies and I had detected a certain coolness lately when I didn't. My theory was there was plenty of time for that; I was young and needed to sow my wild oats and if she didn't want to sow them with me--well, that was her loss.

Back to the present: Valerie shoved shapely legs out of her fancy Mustang and walked resolutely to where I was seated on the stone wall. I was becoming more agitated as she approached.

I was trying to how to initiate diplomatic tactics to cool her down since she was obviously running hot. Her appearance was usually a pulse-jumper with her smiling blue eyes, full red lips the color of her Mustang, accentuated by blonde curls shimmering in the sunlight. It was a sunny day now, but I felt like shivering in her icy presence. I tried to look directly into her face to avoid casting my usual glances at a figure you could die for: petite except in certain places that any normal male's gaze would lock on to.
"L-l-l-look," I blurted--not ordinarily a stammerer--but I was trying to get in the first shot. "It wasn't my fault Gloria told you I was chasing after her--that's an exaggeration."
"I would believe her before you, Billy," Valerie said sharply. "She's been a good friend for a long time, at least she was, and I never had any reason before to doubt her."
"But I only met Gloria a couple of times at Maggie's with my friends." Valerie and I had spent lots of time at Maggie's Playhouse Bar but seldom alone since my buddies patronized it at all kinds of hours. It was only last month that a friend came in with Gloria Gonsalves on his arm and I was knocked out by her brunette looks and funny, easy banter. She was fast on her feet on the dance floor, too.

I was perspiring now, nerves jangling but trying not to show it, attempting to smooth over my brief history with Gloria and cool Valerie down. I knew from experience she could get very emotional.

"So why did you break off with your wonderful friends to bring her out here to the river, just the two of you?" Valerie snapped. "And don't lie, I happen to know it wasn't the first time."

"What! Who told you that? I suppose it was Gloria again?" I was having a tough time figuring out why Gloria would disclose what I thought were secret meetings at the river. The thought occurred: Could it be feminine one-upsmanship? Gotta watch that Gloria closer! I had been observing her pretty closely but not that reason.

"That's what hurts so much, Billy," Valerie said, her voice breaking. She held out her hand to show me the ring I had given her, "You said you'd be true to me and I have been to you. Oh, what's the use." She looked at me with such sadness it even made me twinge a little bit inside.

I could see tears welling in those gorgeous eyes. I never could stand to see women cry, especially one you are fond of and I had befriended many of those, though none who could match Valerie. Until Gloria sashayed into my view, that is.

"But I thought we had a deal, " I responded. "You said maybe it was better if we backed off some and tried dating others. I was only doing what you suggested, girl."
"That's beside the point. I didn't think you were going to start flirting with other girls immediately," Valerie said.

It was obvious the best course was to get this session over with. Besides, the more Valerie went on the more worked up she became. Tears were flowing down her cheeks now and I reached out to put my arms around her but she shrugged me away.
"Don't touch me or even get near me," she exclaimed. "That's over. I'm getting out of here, Billy Madison. I never want to see you again." And with that Valerie yanked off the ring I had given her, threw it on the gravel, ran to her car and sped away, wheels spinning.

I picked up the discarded ring, brushed if off, settled back down on the stone wall-bench to try to figure out the next move. I squinted to read an engraving inside the band, "Billy to Val with love."

Feeling sorry for myself, I shoved aside golf clubs and grabbed fishing gear out of my pickup. I screwed an artificial worm on a hook and had just made my first cast when along comes my friend Jackie Baird in his little Volks Golf, which was loud as usual, needing a muffler replacement. Jackie worked as a mechanic in a local garage and it wouldn't have cost him that much to fix, but he joked that beer money came first.
"Hey, man, what's up?" he said as he took a perch on the wall.

"Well, you just passed Valerie's car, if you noticed."

"Yeah, I did, she went by me like a rocket. What gives, she usually doesn't push it too hard. And she didn't even wave or honk back."

I reeled in my line after a couple of easy pulls and flicked my bait out across the river again as Jackie torched a cigarette after offering me one.

"So what's with you and Valerie? Gloria told me you were breaking up with her."
"What! I can't believe how she goes around telling everybody in town about my business."

"You're only getting what you deserve," Jackie said. "Valerie is a great gal, and a looker. You're making a big mistake playing around.."

"In the first place," I said, jiggling my fishing line just a bit to tempt any fish lurking nearby, "It's nobody's business except mine, buddy. And what makes you think I'm giving her up? I never said I was."

"You don't have to say it, it's plain where you're headed. Everyone knows how you're two-timing her," Jackie responded.

I got riled up at that, yanked the fishing line in and told Jackie to beat it. I wanted some time to myself to think things out. He took off in his pickup and I could hear the engine roar for a long time with its bad muffler. I couldn't believe how he was making a pest of himself, going around gossiping about me and my relations with women.

Restless, I decided to pack it in. I plucked Valerie's ring from my shirt pocket and hurled it into the river. Tossing my fishing stuff into my pickup, I headed back into town, feeling some pangs of loss and misery, but frankly it was minor compared with those of hunger the way my stomach was rumbling. I had been so intent on the meeting with Valerie I had forgotten about lunch. Any concern and bafflement about where that relationship was headed took second place now to a sizzling hamburger and a beer at a joint that I knew well and its patrons knew me the same way.

I cruised down the main drag of Smith's Crossing, the pickup noisy with its double mufflers. I like to call it the Bluebird with its blue and white wing designs painted alongside the fenders and doors. I hit the brakes with gusto, announcing my arrival in a cloud of dust, as usual. I flipped my half-burned cigarette away and brushed off my cowboy boots with a cloth I keep in the truck just for that purpose. Checking out my appearance in the rear view mirror, I jumped out and headed for the bar's entrance and hopefully a fresh romance.

No sense of getting all shook up over a particular girl--it'll all work out, whatever. Maybe since Valerie and Gloria were so friendly it would be best to avoid both of them and hook up with another female. Now that Sarah Donnelly is a real looker. Wonder what she is up to tonight.