Maybe, If, and What Might’ve Been

Short Story by Nick Gallup

Maybe, If, and What Might’ve Been

You’ve got to trust me on this, but back in the early sixties they had a thing called drive-in movies. The movies were actually shown outdoors, after dusk, of course. You pulled your car into a spot where there was a speaker mounted on what looked like a parking meter, except that the parking-meter part was a speaker you could detach and place in your car. The movies shown were usually second-runs, movies no longer being shown in regular movie theatres. That and some B movies and early horror flicks that the movie theaters deemed beneath them.

The drive-ins attracted various clientele. Mostly it was teenagers who were looking for a place to make out. The running joke was that if your parents were twenty or younger when you were born, odds were you were conceived in a drive-in movie. Early honeymoon, late wedding. There was some legitimate clientele, usually families who wanted a night out without having to pay for a babysitter. Some drive-ins even had a play area for kids. The parking spots around this area were usually reserved for families. The restrooms were a must for the third group frequenting drive-ins, teenage boys who iced down beer and wanted a place with all the conveniences to drink it. The final group of viewers were those who had missed the movie when it was first run in theaters or people who perhaps just wanted to see it again. The movies were double features, usually a second-run movie and a horror film.

Pencil me in the teenagers drinking beer group, although on the particular night I’m beginning this story with I was also there to see the horror film being shown. I’d seen it several times before, but I’m one of those people who can watch and rewatch a good movie. It was, and still is, one of the best low-tech horror films ever made. It was called The Thing, although its original title was The Thing from Outer Space.

We tended to make undue noise when we drank beer, so we’d been cautioned over the years by theater management not to park close to the family area. They didn’t seem to mind our drinking beer, as we usually spent heavily at their high-priced concession stand.

“Keep it as quiet as you can, and make sure you take all your beer cans with you,” we were told.

Fair enough, but quiet as you can was too loud for the beautiful young girl who appeared at our car window halfway through the opening movie. We knew who she was, of course. Everyone did. She was Beverly Ann Collins, arguably the prettiest girl at our university and daughter of one of New Orleans’ richest residents. There were four of us, and she immediately got our collective attention.

“Need a favor,” she said, not too sweetly.

“What?” My friend, Woody, who was driving, answered in an equally unsweet tone.

“One of my favorite movies is coming up after this, and I don’t want to miss a minute of it by having to walk over here and keep asking y’all to be quiet so I can hear it. I’ve barely heard a word of the first movie with all the noise y’all been making.”

Woody was the campus Lothario, but his charms had never worked on Beverly Ann. She shot him down in flames whenever he hit on her. So, she was not high on his like-list anyway, and her tone that night irritated him all the more. “Well, I see a ton of vacant spots, Beverly Ann,” he said sarcastically. “Why don’t you and your boyfriend just move somewhere else?”

“It is a good movie, Woody,” I interceded, for no reason other than it was the truth. “I’m looking forward to seeing it again, too. I was going to ask for some quiet myself when it came on.”

Beverly peered into our car to see who’d spoken. We’d had a few classes together, and she recognized me. “Well, thank you for that, Zachery. Think you can keep them in line?”

“I’ll try.”

She nodded and returned to her car. She was in shorts and a tee shirt, and we all watched with interest as she walked to her car, which was parked two lanes behind us. Pete and Joey were in the back seat, and they had a better view.

“Man, she’s hot,” Pete said, which was true, but he thought every girl was hot.

“She’s by herself,” Joey observed. “Look, she’s in her T-Bird. No one else with her.”

“Who goes to a drive-in by herself?” Woody wondered. “What a weirdo.” We all chuckled because we knew Woody labeled any girl who didn’t succumb to his charms weirdo.

“Maybe she wants to just watch the movie and not get groped,” I suggested.

“That’s what the hell I’d be doing,”

“She knows that, Woody,” Pete teased. “That’s why you’re not in the car with her.”

We all laughed.

”Maybe her date’s in the john,” Joey suggested. Joey always cut people slack.

We waited five minutes. No boyfriend appeared.

“No date,” Joey conceded. “Hard to believe she couldn’t get a guy to take her to the movie.”

“She could have any guy she wanted,” Pete joked. “Even me.”

“No girl’s that desperate.” Woody didn’t tend to cut slack.

We nonetheless laughed again.

But it was kind of odd she was by herself. Odd, and also intriguing.

I often act on impulse, so I acted. “Hand me a six-pack out of the cooler, Joey. I got an idea.”

“If you’re going to throw beer cans at her, I’m in.” Woody again.

“No thanks,” I said, as Joey handed me an icy six-pack.

“You won’t be gone long.”

“You should know, Woody.” I grinned.

Little in the way of encouragement was offered me as I departed the car.

Six-pack in hand, I walked back to Bev’s ’55 T-Bird. The top was down. I walked over to the driver’s side. “Apologize for the noise, Bev, so I come with a peace offering.”

“Such as?”

“I love this movie, and I want to see it, too.”

“So?”

“They’re not going to shut up, so I’d like to watch it with you. We can move your car to another spot, have a few beers, and watch the movie with no distractions.”

She frowned at the beer cans. “You expect me to drink from one of those dirty cans?”

A lesser man would have been deterred.

“Back in a sec.”

I was headed to the concession stand, but I had to walk by Woody and the others first. They all started laughing when I appeared. “Even Pete could’ve lasted longer than that,” Woody taunted.

I just smiled and continued on to the concession stand.

“No beer allowed in here,” one of the concession girls said.

“Know that. Need a favor.”

“Don’t have a church key.”

She meant a beer can opener, an essential tool for us beer drinkers in those days.

“Got one. Got a clean glass?”

“No glasses. Only cups.”

“May I have one?”

“Gotta buy a Coke or root beer.”

“You can’t just give me an empty one?”

“They count the cups. I can give you an empty one, but I’ve gotta charge you a quarter.”

Bitch, I thought. I handed her a quarter. She gave me a large cup. I triple inspected it.

“It’s clean,” she said defensively.

I walked out with the beer and my new cup. I smiled at Woody and the guys as I strolled past them to Bev’s T-Bird. More laughter and disparaging comments.

I approached Bev again.

She looked at me curiously. “What part of ‘not interested’ don’t you understand?”

“I thought your comment was perfectly reasonable. No lady should drink beer from a can. So, at great expense I’ve acquired a clean cup for you to drink from.”

“Rules of decorum first,” she declared. “We just watch the movie and drink beer. Right?”

“I may occasionally comment on the movie if I think my comments will add to your enjoyment.”

“And I can tell you to be quiet if your comments annoy me?”

“As long as you do so civilly.”

“And if you try to grope me, I can tell you to leave?”

“Trust me, I’m here solely for the movie.”

She looked surprised. I’m not sure she was convinced, but she acquiesced.

“Get in.”

I did and suggested she moved the T-Bird to a spot I knew to be less noisy.

She agreed and I directed her to a parking spot to the left of the concession stand. She parked, and I filled her cup with beer. Perfect timing. The Thing was just coming on. When it came to the credits, it showed that the actor portraying “The Thing” was James Arness.

“Know who James Arness is?”

“Of course. He plays Matt Dillon on Gunsmoke.”

“He’s also plays ‘The Thing’ in this movie.”

Only people like me read credits. She appeared to be impressed.

The movie took place in an Artic clime with lots of ice and snow, which makes you feel chilled and uneasy and much more susceptible to being freaked out when watching a movie designed to freak you out. Nothing like snowstorms and howling winds to set the mood.

When “The Thing” finally showed himself halfway through the movie, she grabbed my arm.

I quickly withdrew my arm. “No groping, Bev. Rules are rules.”

“It startled me.”

“Even though you’d seen the movie before and knew it was coming?”

”That made it even worse.”

“Know why this movie is so scary?’

She didn’t say yes or no, but I sensed she was interested in what I had to say, so I said it.

“It’s a low-budget film, and they didn’t have a lot of money to spend on special effects. So the director hired an extra tall actor and didn’t let you get more than a glimpse of him until he’s vivisected half a dozen people. By then your mind has conjured up a mental picture of a giant Frankenstein, and you’re really apprehensive by the time you finally see him. Your imagination is far more vivid than anything the director could depict on the screen. It does the work for him.”

Again, she said nothing, but her thoughtful nod convinced me she agreed with my analysis.

I’d had hoped for some sort of flirtation or mild petting, but nothing of that sort occurred.

Woody drove over and asked if I needed a ride back to the campus. I chose not to ask Bev for a lift, but instead got immediately out of the car, after gathering up all the beer cans, of course, and rejoined Woody and my friends.

“Night, Bev. Enjoyed watching the movie with you.”

“Same here, Zach. Thanks for the beer.”

“And let’s not forget the clean cup, which cost me a small fortune.”

“That, too” she smiled. A tiny one, but a smile, nonetheless.

####

I did things like that as a kind of experiment. She was good looking and rich. That brought a lot of attitude with it. She was used to being pursued. And to pursue a girl like that, a pursuer first and foremost had to have confidence. I had that and had demonstrated it. It helped if you had something in common, like good looks or money. I was iffy there, especially on the money end. I wasn’t poor or low class, but I damned sure couldn’t afford a vintage T-Bird.

Bev and I were both juniors at the university. I was on a basketball scholarship and she on a Daddy-Pays-the-Freight ride. I was a second-string basketball player and she a member of the school’s famed Southern Belles, a dance group which entertained spectators during halftime at football games and a rare basketball game. She was in the most socially elite sorority and I in a more lowly fraternity that actually believed we were supposed to get good grades in college. We eschewed the gentleman C.

Not much in common, except… Except The Thing, and, I suspected, a love of movies in general. I stored these thoughts in the back of my mind, thinking that in all probability they would never be put to any use. Kind of like what you learn in high school.

Our basketball team was decent, which isn’t saying much, given that basketball was just a sport southern colleges played in those days to give the football players a breather. The game on our schedule that night was against one of our most hated rivals, which also played in the powerful SEC. We usually trounced them in football, less so in basketball. It was a league game and usually well attended when they showed up to play basketball against us. The Southern Belles had even deigned to dazzle the fans with a performance at halftime.

I’d seen Bev around campus a few times since the drive-in encounter. It’d been odd. We stared at one another for a few seconds, and then I waved. She waved back. Then I smiled. She smiled back. That’d never happened before. Usually we just ignored each other. In truth, it was she who did the ignoring. She was hard to ignore.

Our game with our rival was close. I played some the first half and scored a bucket or two. The Southern Belles were sitting directly behind us. There were forty-eight of them, and although I glanced around a few times, I couldn’t locate Bev. They performed at halftime, which I wasn’t permitted to see. Only about half of them returned to sit behind us during the second half. Football reigned supreme in our state, and, as I already mentioned, basketball was a sideshow, just something to do until football season rolled around again. Apparently the AWOL Belles couldn’t care less how the basketball team fared. The loyal fifty percent returned to their seats.

A Belle directly behind me cleared her throat. I know an “ahem” seeking attention when I heard one, so I turned to acknowledge the ahemer. It was Beverly Anne.

“Can I borrow your warm-up jacket?” she asked. “It’s freezing in here.”

She was sitting directly behind me. I didn’t know if it was protocol or not to lend my warm-up jacket to someone, even a Southern Belle, but I pulled it off anyway and handed it to her. Several of my fellow second-stringers noticed and smiled. The coaches generally ignored me.

“Might be a little sweaty,” I cautioned.

“It’s not. You didn’t play that much. She pulled the jacket on and zipped it up.

“You watched?”

“You’ve got five points. Going to get any more?”

“Depends. If I get in they mostly want me to play defense.”

“You watch us perform at halftime?”

“Sorry. Coaches were chewing us out.”

“Why?”

“That’s what they get paid to do.”

“Turn around,” she warned. “One of them is glaring at you.”

I speed-whirled around. It wasn’t one of the coaches, but THE coach. He screamed my name.

“Zach!”

I jumped to my feet. “Yes. Coach?”

“Bailey’s hurt. Go in for him while we check him out.”

I slipped out of my leggings. I’d shed my warm-up jacket elsewhere.

Bailey was the guy I subbed for. He was our point guard, which meant he ran the offense and made all the assists, only occasionally taking a shot. Coach grabbed my jersey and jerked me over to him.

“I think he has a sprained ankle, Zach. You up to taking over?”

What was I supposed to say? No, I’m not. So, I said, “You bet, Coach.”

He looked at me a little skeptically, but waved me in. “Protect the ball and try to work it in to our big guys. Be patient and try not to turn the ball over.”

I’m not going to bore you with the details, but no second-stringer in the history of our university played a better second half of basketball than I did that night. If you guessed that I was trying to impress someone, you might be right. Unfortunately, we didn’t win, but I scored ten more points, had ten assists, and stole the ball from our opponents five times.

“If you played like that all the time, Zach,” Coach begrudgingly said, “your ass wouldn’t be sitting on the bench so goddamned much. That Southern Belle must’ve really hyped you up.”

Fair enough. She had, but, when I returned to thank her, she’d departed. I looked for my warm-up jacket but couldn’t find it. It was MIA. I asked the student manager if he’d picked it up.

He shook his head. “That Belle you were talking to left with it.”

“Coach is gonna kill me.”

The manger shrugged. “We’ve got spares. I’ll get you another.”

####

We had a small movie theater just across the street from the college. Its fare was not unlike that of the drive-in theaters. No beer-drinking was allowed there, so I only frequented it occasionally, the occasion usually being it was showing a movie I wouldn’t mind watching again. I noticed that Casablanca was playing one night and decided I deserved a night out. I chose to spend it with Rick and Ilsa. As I was standing in line, I noticed four or five of the Southern Belles in line in front of me. One of them was Bev. She was wearing my warm-up jacket. She noticed me noticing her and knew I’d also noticed my jacket. She smiled and turned around several times to model it for me. Looked a hell of a lot better on her than it did me. She’d rolled the sleeves up. I just smiled and shook my head as if she were an incorrigible.

I was alone, as Casablanca was one of my favorite movies. It had won Oscars not only for best movie and best director, but also best adapted screenplay. I came to enjoy the movie and its snappy dialogue and preferred seeing it alone. I didn’t need Pete to tell me Ilsa was hot or Woody to brag he’d dated girls as good-looking as her. I bought a tub of popcorn and found a seat near the front, which most people avoided.

Fine with me. I wanted to be alone in Rick’s Café Americain. But…

But something sat down beside me. It was my warm-up jacket with Bev in it.

“Mind if I watch the movie with you?”

“Bring any beer?”

She smiled. I couldn’t believe how white her perfect teeth were. Braces undoubtedly, which none of us peons could afford, although my teeth hadn’t turned out too bad despite a lack of orthodontic intervention. She had a Mediterranean look. Large brown, long-lashed eyes, and long dark-brown hair. Her body? Need I say more than she danced for a living?

“No,” she answered. “But I did bring you a Coke.”

“The cup clean?”

“At great expense I acquired an exquisitely clean cup for you to drink from,” she said, mocking me and my grandiose manner at the drive-in the week before. She handed me the Coke.

“I think we should review the rules of decorum first.” My turn to mock.

“If you insist,” she replied.

“No talking except to convey vital information about the movie and no groping. We’re here just to watch one of the greatest movies ever made. Agree?”

“Agree in principle, but I do have a condition.”

”What?”

“You have to share your popcorn.”

“Deal.”

“Then put the popcorn between us. I won’t have to reach over you and be accused of groping.”

I moved the popcorn over.

I knew a lot about the movie, and there was nothing I enjoyed more than showing off and sharing information about something I really liked. In my defense, though, isn’t everyone a little like that? Even though we were a good distance away from anyone else, I conveyed my comments to her in a whisper. She leaned her head in close so she could hear. I could smell a mild perfume, but mostly I smelled soap and good grooming. It was odd. From a distance she seemed aloof and untouchable, but up close as we were then, it seemed almost as if she wanted to be held or even cuddled. Dream on, I admonished myself.

I took her on a grand tour of the movie. She listened attentively.

“How do you know all that?”

“I’m a history major, so I delve into the history of things that interest me.”

She nodded. She teared up a bit at the end. I passed her my handkerchief.

“This clean?” I detected a smile.

“Operating room sterile,” I assured her.

She was surprised when I told her they had made an alternate ending to the film, where Rick and Ilsa ended up together.

“Have you seen it?”

“No, just read about it.”

“Why didn’t they use it?”

“Because World War Two was on, and it was a time for sacrifice. They couldn’t have happy endings. Bad for the war effort. I think the film works fine just the way it is.”

Her sister Belles had departed, and it fell to me to escort her back to her sorority house, which I happily did. We made small talk, during which I learned she had an affinity for anything chocolate, especially chocolate milk.

As we said good night, I told her I liked her warm-up jacket.

“I borrowed it from a friend.”

“Borrowed?”

“Yes”

“Does that mean you’re going to return it?”

“I don’t know. He hasn’t asked for it back yet.”

####

We jocks had our own serving line in the cafeteria. The food was practically the same, although we had a little more selection, such as chocolate milk. A few days after the movie I saw her sitting with some other Belles near where we jocks ate. I scooped up a half pint of chocolate milk and picked out an especially clean glass as I made my way through the serving line. After I deposited my tray in the jock dining section, I took the chocolate milk and the clean glass over to her.

Her table was a bevy of beauties. It was hard not to be intimidated, but I somehow was able to relegate them to regular college girl status. I leaned in and placed the chocolate milk and the operating room sterile glass next to her.

“Compliments of the management, ma’am.”

I bowed as if I were a waiter and returned to my table.

“Aiming kind of high, Zach,” one of my basketball teammates commented.

“In all honesty, I’m not sure what I’m aiming at.”

Which was true and not true. I thought about it and decided it was just another experiment.

She and I ate at about the same time for lunch and anytime thereafter I saw her, I repeated the chocolate milk presentation. No conversation, just gave her the chocolate milk and left.

One day a sister Belle broke the silence. “Where’s our chocolate milk?”

“Sorry, ma’am. The chocolate milk is for athletes only.”

“She’s not an athlete.”

“Oh, but she is. I’ve seen her many times in a warm-up jacket. Only athletes have those.”

“You gave it to her.”

“Not mine to give. College property.”

Beverly had sat silently through all of the chocolate milk presentations. Her attitude seemed to be it was my gig and up to me to play it out. Label her curious and amused, though.

This time, however, she entered the fray, such as it was, and assumed the air of a beautiful empress, which, given her status on campus, was not exactly unbefitting. “Please express my gratitude to the management for these gratuities,” she said, “and I wonder if I’m permitted to tip you for your prompt and courteous service?”

“We humble servers are paid but little, ma’am, and tips are always appreciated.”

“Very well. Meet me at the movie theater across the street tomorrow night. My treat.”

“Gratitude, ma’am. Might I ask what the movie is?”

Shane, with Gary Cooper.”

“I believe that movie stars Alan Ladd. Perhaps you are thinking of High Noon.”

“No, I’m quite sure it’s Shane with Gary Cooper.”

“And I’m equally sure Madam is wrong.”

“Care to place a small wager on it?” she challenged.

“A gentleman doesn’t wager money with a lady.”

“Then we’ll wager something other than money.”

“Like what?”

“A kiss if you win the bet,” she replied.

Her sister Belles all oohed and aahed. I was a little on the pleasantly shocked side.

“And if I lose?” (This was an academic question. No penalty would be too severe.)

“You bring me two chocolate milks hereafter instead of one.”

I quickly agreed.

She stuck out a lovely hand for a handshake to seal said deal.

I took her hand. It was larger than that of most girls, as befit her height, which I estimated to be five-eight or nine. Her large brown eyes signaled approval. She gripped my hand in a surprisingly strong way.

“Making headway, Zach,” a teammate noted when I returned. “You took longer than usual to deliver the chocolate milk.”

“Pleasant place to linger.”

“That’s for sure.”

####

I was standing in front of the movie theater promptly at seven. She approached several minutes later and read the movie posters affixed to the wall. They all affirmed that Alan Ladd was indeed the star of Shane, the movie we were going to watch that night.

She shook her head glumly. “I guess I just read it wrong, or worse yet, didn’t read it and assumed Gary Cooper was the star of Shane, as well as practically every other western. I should’ve known better than to make a bet with a movie buff like you.”

Perhaps I had taken advantage of her. No one knew movies as well as I, or at least I had yet to meet him or her. My conscience bothered me just enough to offer, even though reluctantly, to negate the bet or at least change its conditions.

“How about we forget the kiss and make it a tub of popcorn?”

She turned surprisingly quick and emphatically said no. “A bet’s a bet. I never renege.”

She paid for the tickets and then for the popcorn and Cokes. She led me to a dark, deep part of the theater, where no one ever sat and directed me to take a seat. My shoulder was literally against the wall, and I was looking at the screen at a near forty-five-degree angle.

We ate the popcorn and drank the Cokes. The movie was about a third over.

“I’m ready to pay off my bet, Zach,” she announced.

I expected a short kiss, maybe even a peck. I leaned into her, enthralled by the sweetness of her smell. Her lips parted, and instead of the mundane kiss I expected, the softness and depth of her lips and mouth enveloped me, almost taking my breath away. It was a long kiss, and finally we reluctantly pulled away.

“That’s got to rank as one of the great kisses of all times,” I managed to say.

“We can do better,” she said, pressing close to kiss me again

And that’s how we spent the rest of the movie. I went to some far-off place and didn’t snap back to reality until I hear Brandon DeWilde yelling, “Shane, Shane, come back, Shane.”

I didn’t want to leave the theater, and if I could somehow locate the two seats we’d sat in, I’d have them bronzed. We walked back to her sorority house, holding hands and stopping every fifty yards to exchange another long kiss. When we got to the steps of her abode, she embraced me.

“Want to be boyfriend and girlfriend, Zach?”

“What about Lance Robinson and Jerry Levings and Larry ‘Touchdown’ Douglas?”

She leaned back and smiled at me. “Jealous?”

“Maybe a little. I don’t like competition from rich fraternity guys or star quarterbacks.”

“All items of the past. And you? What about Peggy Cummings?”

“God, Bev, that was two years ago.”

“How about Debbie what’s-her-name? I’ve seen you here with her at the movies.”

“We broke up. I got tired of her telling me James Dean was still alive.”

She walked up a few steps to the front door and then turned back and looked at me.

“Zach?”

“Yes?”

“Did you really think I didn’t know Alan Ladd was the star of Shane?”

She laughed and went inside.

####

So, despite the odds, I got hooked up with one of the forty-eight prettiest girls at the university. Woody couldn’t believe it. “She could’ve had me,” he moaned. ”I had no idea she was so hard-up.”

Joey came to my defense. “Zach’s got class, Woody.”

“Think Beverly Anne could fix me up with one of the Belles, Zack?” Pete wondered.

“That’s your problem,” Joey counseled. “You aim too high.”

Nothing wrong with that, I thought.

“Maybe one of the cafeteria workers instead,” Woody suggested to Pete.

Even that appealed to him. “I’ve seen a couple of them that aren’t too bad.”

“I’ll ask Bev to look into it, Pete,” I offered. Pete was a good guy. He was a business major and got good grades. I was sure Bev could broker him a date or two. Pete didn’t realize it, but he was just lonely. Having a girlfriend is nice. Joey had one, and Woody dated frequently. He fancied himself a Lothario, and he got by on that.

It’s still the same old story, a fight for love and glory. Right, Rick?

####

Bev and I stayed together through graduation. We’d had sex many times by then, and there was no question but that we were compatible there. During our two years together I can’t recall a single spirited disagreement between us, other than perhaps a heady debate we had one night on the John Wayne character, Ethan, in The Searchers. I maintained Ethan was in love with his sister-in-law, Martha, but that she was not in love with him. If so, why had she married his brother? Bev said otherwise. Martha loved him deeply. The only evidence she could offer, though, was how affectionately Martha stroked Ethan’s cavalry coat when she was putting it away for him.

“Stroking a coat is a sign of love?” I countered.

“Most assuredly,” Bev insisted. “I stroke your warm-up jacket nearly every night and think of how much I love you.”

Touché, I remember thinking, as I fought back a tear.

She met my family, and they loved her.

I met her family, and, although they were ostensibly nice to me, they sent subliminal messages I might not be the right fit for their daughter. It was the little things. A raised eyebrow when I ordered Chicken Parm instead of French Salamis of Duck at the country club. An exchange of smiles when I passed on the cabernet sauvignon and said a Budweiser with a frosted mug was fine for me. They were unquestioning Presbyterians, while The Big Bang Theory and “The Origin of the Species” compelled me to question nearly everything about God and religion.

I’ll never forget one of the first conversations I had with her dad.

“You play golf, Zachary?”

“I like to go to the driving range.” That was true. I liked to hit balls.

“Where do you play?” This was the first in a series of questions designed by the wealthy to ascertain if you were one of them. Next question is what did my dad do for a living, followed by where do we summer and do we know the so and sos. My answers would be fed into a computer and my position on the social pecking order spat out. Literally, in my case.

“I don’t.”

“Don’t? Didn’t you say you liked to hit balls at the driving range?”

“I did, Mr. Collins. My friends and I go out to the range, grab some beers, and hit balls.”

I didn’t bother to say I could hit a golf ball over 200 yards straight as an arrow and could probably be a decent golfer if I could learn to enjoy walking through the woods in tourist shorts. Just not my kind of game. Too slow and boring. He looked at me kind of oddly after that. You know what they say about first impressions. They very often are the only impression.

Bev had two older brothers, and they were worse than their father, all because they were lucky semen beneficiaries. They had both gone to our university and had been in the most prestigious of the rich-boy fraternities. When they inquired as to my fraternity, one of them, James Albert Collins, III, actually laughed. “Oh, the Nerd fraternity.”

After we graduated, we put off the subject of marriage until we could put it off no longer. I had been offered a scholarship, which, if I hit the books and milked it just right, could lead to a Ph.D. and tenure as a professor of history, which was exactly what I wanted to do with my life.

Bev kicked a few things around about possibly doing some grad schoolwork herself, but I knew down deep she had no desire for a career, and, in an old-fashioned sort of way, had gone to college to find a man suitable to marry. Instead, she had the misfortune to meet a proletariat she liked very much and with whom she fell in love. She knew I was eager to marry her, and I’m certain she wanted to marry me. If she did, she would have two choices. Get a job and help support me as I wended my way through grad school in pursuit of my doctoral aspirations and forego having children until I could afford to pay my own way, OR we could hit Daddy up for some financial help. She told me she had discussed it with him, and he said that, if she did indeed love me and that was her desire, he would acquiesce to funding the process. He had discussed it with her mother, however, and their recommendation was that we wait until I had completed my schooling to marry.

Translation: They knew that years of seeing each other only occasionally would eventually wear down our relationship and our marriage would never occur. They also sensed the stubborn pride in me which would never permit me to accept their financial aid. They realized, too, as I had made no serious effort to disguise it, that I had no desire to move up to bourgeois and beyond.

One night in particular doomed me. I had taken a rare weekend off and was at dinner with Bev and her brothers and her parents at their very large home in New Orleans. The brothers and her father were rattling on about their golf game that afternoon. I wasn’t contributing much to the conversation, although I did endeavor to smile and nod approvingly when I detected an applause point. My silence did not go unnoted.

“Why don’t ya’ll hush about golf?” Bev’s mother requested, “Ya’ll are boring poor Zach to death.” Somehow I got the impression she wasn’t doing it to be a gracious hostess, but more to draw attention to the fact I simply didn’t fit in.

“It’s impossible to bore a history major, Momma,” James the Third said sarcastically.

“On the contrary,” I countered, endeavoring to keep my cynicism within limits. “There are a number of subjects that bore me, but golf’s not one of them. It has a very interesting history, and, being a student of history, I know quite a bit about it.”

“Like what?” scoffed the Third.

I paused, pretending to flip through my mental rolodex searching out interesting tidbits. “Like what do you call it when you shoot one under on a par-five hole?” I ultimately inquired.

“That’s it?”

“His younger brother even knew that one. “That’s easy, Professor. A birdie.”

Professor was the nickname they’d accorded me.

“Okay, what do you call a two under on a par-five hole?”

The Third looked at me like I was the hopeless nerd he believed me to be. “An eagle, Professor. That all you got?”

“No.”

“Well, dazzle us.”

“What do you call it when you shoot three under on a par-five hole?”

I was taking a chance. I would certainly look like a nerd if any of them knew the answer, but my working theory was they would have had to read a book or two somewhere along the fairway to know the correct answer to that particular golf trivia. I need not have worried. The blank look of the Collins men told me they hadn’t a clue as to the answer.

The Third did make a logical guess. “A double eagle?”

“Wrong,” I said, finding it difficult to cloak my pleasure.

“There’s no such thing. No one’s ever done something like that,” his father said, paternal instinct to protect his sons kicking in.

“Oh, but there is, sir. And it’s been done a number of times.”

“Well. what’s called it then?”

“An albatross.”

“That’s bullshit,” The Third said.

I withdrew my wallet and took out the only $20 I had and laid it on the table.

“Care to place a small wager on it?” I challenged.

I got two really stormy looks from the brothers and a cloudy one from their father.

The Third was not going to let some nerdy, wannabe professor bluff him. Golfers loved to bet anyway. He placed his own $20 on the table. “You’re on, Professor. Now, how you going to prove it?”

Mrs. Collins solved that problem. “Call Phil. He’ll know.”

Phil was their club pro.

Mr. Collins agreed. “I’ll call him right now.”

He departed the table and headed for his study, which was nearby enough that we could hear him conversing, although we couldn’t discern everything being said. I was sitting closest to where he was, and I distinctly heard him say, “Well, I’ll be damned. Well, thank you, Phil,” as he hung up.

He paused for a minute after coming back into the dining room.

“Well, don’t keep us in suspense, James. What did Phil say?”

“Phil was out, dear. Theresa said she’d have him call back tomorrow.”

My most vivid recollection of the remainder of that night was Mr. Collins having trouble looking me in the eye. We left the money on the table. I was heading back to school the next morning. We had breakfast, and no mention of the bet or its outcome was made. Bev was driving me to the train station, and, after I expressed my gratitude and said goodbye to her family, we headed to her T-Bird. She handed me the two $20’s the Third and I had wagered.

“Looks like three under on a par-five hole really is an albatross,” she said with a smile. “Dad didn’t want to embarrass James in front of everybody, so he asked me to pass your winnings on to you. How on earth did you know that, Zach?”

“You know how I am with trivia, sweetheart. I just remember inconsequential things like that.”

Maybe they were right. Maybe I was a nerd.

Nerd or not, I asked Beverly Anne Collins to marry me. She said yes and insisted she had no problem with working while I went to school. She was also insistent that we not wait, that we marry immediately. She told her parents of her decision. They convinced her they were happy for her but wanted to have a big splash wedding. Give them some time to make it the event they wanted and we deserved. They suggested maybe nine months hence, when I would receive my master’s degree. How could we deny them that pleasure?

They had won.

Bev came to see me often, even though it was a 200-mile round trip. Staying with me in my Spartan apartment gave her some idea of what the next four years might be like. And, as if the surroundings themselves were not dire enough, there was the fact I had little free time. I had to study like Hell if I was going to obtain the grants and scholarships I needed to eventually become a professor. We rarely had time for even a movie.

You marry someone, you marry their family. I knew it wouldn’t work. I’d ruin two lives.

So, it was I more than she who broke it off. My pride and insecurity and my inability to cope with a life in the country club fast lane had become a wall between us. I spent Christmas with her and her family, and they had only to look into my eyes to know they had beaten back the usurper. Bev had seen it, too, and, although she cried when I told her of my decision, I had only to look into her eyes to know she, too, had accepted the inevitable.

There was no wedding to call off. The family had never even announced it.

####

The break-up was motivational to me. I plunged myself into my studies to subdue my grief and obtained far better academic success than I ever imagined. My doctoral thesis entitled “The Economics of Slavery” was so well received I turned it into a book which was published and actually made The New York Times best-seller list for thirty minutes or so. It received good reviews by critics and sold surprisingly well. It netted me nearly $100,000 over the years, which I used to buy a home in the nest of professorial homes surrounding the university. I eventually achieved a professorship and even went on to become Dean of the College of History, thanks to my book and other publications. Publish or perish but publish well and prosper.

I married Grace, a lovely woman, a fellow academic, and we raised three children in the house I’d bought. I never heard much about Beverly Anne Collins, other than she was now the wife of Gordon Xavier Rittenhouse, one of the richest men in New Orleans. They also had three children.

Twenty-five years had elapsed since Bev and I had parted. I’d told my wife that I’d once asked Mrs. Rittenhouse to be my wife but that it hadn’t worked out. My wife flattered me by saying she was very glad it had not, but, being a natural-born woman, did press me for a few details.

“Think Tolstoy,” I said.

“Anna Karenina?”

“Yes, but with characters less steeped in romanticism.”

Grace was a professor of literature and spoke fluent Tolstoy. She got it.

We were close enough to New Orleans that we could pick up its TV stations on our satellite dish. One Sunday morning Grace summoned me to the TV set. “Your former fiancée is on TV.”

That got my attention, and I hastened to the living room. “What’s the occasion?”

“She’s giving a tour of her home. It’s being declared a cultural landmark.”

I took a seat and wrestled with the flood of memories that just the thought of seeing her again evoked. Then suddenly there she was. She was still slim but looked taller. The camera zoomed in on her, and those gorgeous brown eyes I’d loved so much glowed at me. He hair was tinged with gray, and there was a wrinkle here and there that age had gently bestowed on her, but she was still the lovely Southern Belle she’d always been.

“My God!” My wife exclaimed, “You never told me she was so beautiful.”

“I told you she’d been a Southern Belle.”

“They’re cute and flirty. This woman’s beautiful.”

Any half-way intelligent married man would know what he had to say next. “She is indeed attractive, but not as attractive as you,” I fibbed, striving mightily to be believed.

She studied me thoroughly, looking for a smirk or smile that would give me away. I firmly held her eyes and smiled reassuringly. “Good answer,” she said eventually. “You won’t have to sleep in one of the guest rooms tonight.”

The tour of Bev’s house, which was really more of a mansion, reminded me of one of Jackie Kennedy’s famous White House tours. Bev took the woman hosting the TV show from room to room, putting on reading glasses occasionally to speak aloud the name of a painting or the sentiment written on a celebrity photograph. There were many of the latter, even one of Prince Charles and Gordon Xavier Rittenhouse standing together. The TV hostess noted a cabinet filled with VHS tapes and commented on it.

“Oh, yes, Olivia. I’m quite the movie fan,” Bev admitted.

“Is your husband a movie fan, too?”

“Golf is his passion.”

“I understand you have a beautiful garden, Beverly Anne. May we see it?”

“Of course. Let me get a jacket, though. It’s a little chilly out.”

Bev took out a jacket from a nearby closet. She stroked it affectionately before putting it on. The camera zoomed in on her once again. She was wearing the basketball warm-up jacket she had stolen from me years before.

“My favorite jacket, Olivia, I wore it at college.”

“Must bring back a lot of memories.”

Bev smiled into the camera. I’ll always believe she somehow knew I was watching, and the smile was meant for me. The jacket seemed to be hugging her, and she folded her arms in such a manner as to make it appear she was hugging it back.

“Very much so, Olivia. Cherished memories.”

I fought back a tear.

Maybe, if, and what might’ve been.

About the Author

Nick Gallup

Nick Gallup is a graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi, where he majored in English and Creative Writing. He is an Army veteran and retired Department of Defense contracting officer. He has been published a number of times in online magazines. He lives in Cape Coral, FL.