Read This Month's Free Short Story

Mercy's New Life

(Scroll down to read last month's story Graduation into Life, if you missed it)

June 1968

Had I left Cypress Point to run away with Jess only two weeks go? Sometimes it feels like an eternity. As I look around this dingy motel room, I think back to my bright, beautiful bedroom back home, all gingham and lace and stuffed animals. This room reeks of stale sweat and cigarettes and things I don't want to think about, The dingy linens and poor lighting define the word “dump.” The vents in the wall hint at a ventilation system, but I can't feel any air movement.

Here I sit, Mrs. Jess McKay, wondering if my family knows yet what a huge mistake I've made. My new husband drinks too much and stays out too late gambling with his buddies. I smell perfume on him when he gets home, and it isn't mine.

The first day’s drive north from Cypress Point led us to a justice of the peace in a small town in Arkansas. Jess had grinned as he said he wanted to get a room for the night, a leer underlying the smile. I reminded him of his promise we'd marry by nightfall. His gruff agreement told me he didn't really agree. I stood firm, and at last he found the JP's office, just a mile off the main highway.

The justice and his wife seemed amiable in a grandparent-ish sort of way, and offered us coffee or tea while we filled out the paperwork. Jess declined, anxious to return to our journey, I supposed. The justice began the ceremony, with his wife and a neighbor as witnesses. His kind smile reminded me of the pastor I'd known as a child. The rich timbre of his voice lent a dignity to the proceedings which made the old-fashioned parlor seem like a magical chapel.

I thought I saw doubt in the justice's face at our responses when he asked us to repeat the vows.

My "l do" carried all the emotion I felt for Jess.

"Yeah, yeah, whatever," Jess responded to his part.

I should have taken the warning, I suppose. I thought he was playing it "cool." My mistake.

Jess paid the justice as soon as he pronounced us man and wife. Our first married kiss felt more like a first date peck, quick and perfunctory. My new husband crammed the marriage license into his jacket pocket with no more regard than if it had been a grocery list. He grabbed my hand and pulled me from the parlor of the justice's house. I called back a "thank you" to the couple before Jess dragged me from the house.

We drove in silence for another hour until a "Vacancy" sign prompted him to pull off the highway. All my attempts to start a conversation had met with a chilly disdain. The appearance of the sad motel matched the gloomy atmosphere within the car. I thought my wedding day would mark a happy new beginning, but it felt more like a funeral.

Once we checked in, I felt sure Jess's mood would improve and a romantic evening would follow. I fought down nervousness mixed with anticipation over my wedding night and waited for him to say something loving. But all he said was "I'll be back," and left me there, alone.

I changed into the special nightgown I had brought for my wedding night. The soft white cotton gown, trimmed in ribbons and lace, had rested in my hope chest for two years. Now it floated around me like an elegant princess's robe. If only the rest of the setting matched the wardrobe. I tried to think of the situation as some play we'd performed at school, a romantic drama headed toward a happy resolution – the misunderstood heroine awaiting her hero to rescue her. My imagination failed me and the reality of a smelly, cheap motel room overpowered my wishes.

When Jess stumbled back into the room more than two hours later, he woke me from a fitful sleep with his faltering steps. He left his outer clothes in a trail across the room and collapsed face up atop the covers of the lumpy double bed. Snores echoed in the room within seconds. The aroma of alcohol filled the room, growing stronger each time he exhaled.

By the pale amber glow of the lamp on the dresser, I slipped from beneath the sheet on my side of the bed. I tiptoed around the bed to the string of clothes reaching back to the door. These belonged to my husband, and I felt an obligation to care for them. I folded his khaki trousers and placed them on the battered dresser. Next, I stacked his shirt with his pants.

Lastly, I picked up the leather jacket to hang it over the back of the chair. Before I draped i, I had to perform one more task. My fingers found their way into the jacket pocket, seeking the precious piece of paper which identified me as a properly married woman. There it was! I withdrew the crumpled document from its resting place.

I smoothed the wrinkles from the paper as best I could, then folded the certificate and put it in my purse. A silent prayer of thanks rose from my heart, gratitude that Jess hadn't lost it during his evening’s activities.

As I looked at him sprawled there on the bed, I saw only vague suggestions of the handsome man I loved. This drunken stranger bore little resemblance to the Jess McKay I thought I knew in Cypress Point. I sat in the arm chair and wept for my shattered dreams. What had I done?

© 2017 Mary Beth Magee, BOTR Press, LLC


Graduation into Life

May 1968

“Mercy, can we work on the English review together this evening? You’re such a whiz in English and I’m really worried about the final. If I don’t pass this class, I won’t graduate with the rest of you.” Jonathan sounded so desperate I couldn’t turn him down. How could I refuse to help him with English when I would have failed chemistry without his tutoring?

“Okay, I’ll meet you at the restaurant after school. I promised Dad I’d help out today. One of the waitresses has a sick kid.”

“Thanks, honey. I’ll see you there.” He gave me a quick one-armed hug and dashed down the marble-floored hall of Cypress Point High School.

I adjusted my books and turned toward my own classroom. Jonathan meant well, but his endearments and signs of affection held no meaning for me. Each time he proclaimed his love, I felt more distant. I’d tried to tell him I only liked him as a friend, but he seemed sure he could sway me.

What Jonathan didn’t know, what almost no one knew, was my feelings belonged to someone else. Jess McKay had swooped into Cypress Point like a hurricane a few months ago, looking for a job. He’d been working for one of Dad’s suppliers and I met him when he delivered an order of fresh meat for the restaurant. We had talked a few times and then started dating on the sly.

Jess was everything Jonathan wasn’t. He carried himself with confidence, where Jonathan was uncertain about his skills and abilities. His dress and talk spoke of “bad boy,” while Jonathan was as good old South Mississippi through and through as a boy could get. Jess looked me up and down as though he knew something about me I didn’t know. Jonathan always showed respectful affection when we were together. Jonathan treated me like a lady; Jess made me feel like a woman.

The last few weeks, trying to treat everyone normally while I sneaked off to meet with Jess, had taken a toll. My nerves were on edge and I knew I had no business trying to tutor Jonathan at the restaurant. Yet, I wouldn’t give up any free time outside the restaurant if I could avoid it. Jess might have time to meet later.

 

My dilemma weighed heavy on my heart as the end of day bell rang.  I ran for my locker and switched my books before exiting through the heavy wood and glass doors of my soon-to-be alma mater.

“Wait up, kiddo,” called Drusilla Tonnelier, my best friend since grammar school. She pulled even with me and we charged down the short cement stairway together.

“I’m working at the restaurant tonight, Dru,” I said. “Can’t chat too long.”

“Well, I was just wondering if you wanted to have a sleepover the night after graduation next week. We could watch the Saturday night movie and pig out on pizza from your dad’s place, if you want.”

Drusilla knew about Jess McKay and how I felt about him. She labeled my feelings a crush and warned me he was no good. If I agreed to the sleepover, perhaps I’d alleviate some of her irritation toward him.

“Sounds good. I’ll see about getting some Jiffy-Pop in case we want popcorn after the pizza.” I beamed my highest wattage smile at my friend. “I can hardly wait, but I’d better get over to the restaurant now.”

She smiled and nodded her agreement. I turned and walked as quickly as I could toward the restaurant, six blocks away.

“Hey, doll, need a ride?” I’d barely covered half a block before I heard the wolf whistle and Jess’s question. As I glanced back toward the school entrance, I could see Drusilla looking my way and shaking her head. I looked back to Jess and nodded.

He leaned across the seat of his 1965 Ford Mustang to release the door handle. The Rangoon Red door swung open. I put my books on the floor of the back seat and slid into the passenger side bucket seat. The door swung shut as he put the car into gear and pulled away from the curb.

“Where to, doll? I got a tank full of gas and the evening free.” He patted my knee as he spoke.

“I’m sorry, Jess, I have to get over to the restaurant. Dad needs my help tonight. If you could drop me there, I’d appreciate it.” I hoped my request wouldn’t offend him.

“Sure, babe, whatever you say.” His voice sounded harsh in my ears. “But once you graduate, we’re blowing this burg, right? We’re hitting the road and having some fun.”

“That’s right, Jess. Just as soon as I get the diploma and we get married, we’re off to the big city.”

His hand tightened on my knee. “I’ve been waiting long enough for some fun. I deserve it. We’ll find a Justice of the Peace on the way north. If we try to get married here, dear old dad might try to stop us."

“That makes sense. I’ll make sure I have everything I need ready to go the day after graduation. If we leave before sunrise, no one will miss us for hours.”

Jess pulled up in front of Bellini’s Pizzeria and Deli. Before I could say a word, he grabbed me by the back of the head and pulled me toward him. “Good plan, doll,” he whispered and he kissed me, a hard kiss which bruised my lips. His ardor frightened me, even as I felt excitement to be so wanted.

“Bye, Jess,” I said, breathless and confused. I opened the door and got out, collected my books and blew him a kiss before I closed the door.

 

“Hi, Mercy,” said my father as I entered the kitchen area. “I’m sorry to have to call you in so close to finals, but it’s an emergency.”

I kissed his cheek. “Everything’s fine, Dad. Jonathan will come in later for some English help whenever I’m between customers. We worked out a plan.”

“Good. Jonathan’s a nice kid. I like seeing the two of you together. He’s respectful and hard working. You could do a lot worse.”

“I know, Dad. He’s been a good friend for a lot of years.” Dad would be devastated if he knew I planned to leave with Jess. I hated to hurt him, but I had to make my own decisions. Much as Dad might prefer otherwise, Jonathan wasn’t my choice.

A customer came in to pick up a phone order, and my evening began.

 

Jonathan arrived soon thereafter and stayed until closing, working on the review while I waited on tables. At closing, he set the chairs on top of the tables so the janitor could sweep and mop overnight. I collected the condiment containers and brought them to the kitchen for replenishment. In less than an hour, we had the dining room cleared.

“Mr. Bellini, do you mind if I walk Mercy home?” Jonathan asked Dad. “I’ve just got a few more questions to ask her.”

“Sure, Jonathan, you two go ahead. I’ve got a little more work to do in the kitchen. I’ll be home soon.”

“Thank you, sir,” Jonathan replied. He took my books and added them to his stack, then held the door open for me.

We started the walk to my house surrounded by velvet darkness and the glitter of stars. The occasional streetlight chased the darkness for a moment with a circle of pale glow. I caught Jonathan staring at me in the light of one of them.

“Is something wrong?” I asked. “Have I grown an extra eye or something?”

“Oh, no, honey, nothing like that. I just can’t get enough of looking at you, is all. I know you said you wanted us to stay friends and I’ve tried, I really tried. But I love you, Mercy Bellini. I always have and always will. I just can’t help myself. So, I’m hoping you’ll agree to be my wife after we graduate. We can wait as long as you like, so you can plan the wedding of your dreams. Just say you’ll marry me. We can go shopping for a ring this weekend and you can start wearing it after the graduation ceremony.”

I caught my breath, shocked by his admission and question. He’d asked me out in the past, even asked me to go steady once. After two dates, I realized he was my friend, not my love. Long before Jess came to town, I knew Jonathan Wiggins wasn’t the right man for me.

“Jonathan, I’m flattered, but you know how I feel. I love you as a friend, practically as a brother, but not in the way a woman should love her husband.” How could I turn him down without hurting him more than necessary?

“Will you at least think about it? Unless there’s someone else who’s won your heart, I think you should give me a chance. We’re older now, and maybe we’ve become closer as we matured. You don’t have to answer now. Just think about it.”

His plea touched me, but not in the way he hoped. I felt sadness at his inability to understand. He would be hurt when he learned I had left town, but I didn’t see any way to avoid causing him pain.

“Okay, I’ll think about it. We’ll talk again after graduation.” A simple statement to buy some time, but he accepted it.

When we reached my door, I took my books, said “Goodnight” and slipped inside as quickly as I could. I heard his footsteps leave the porch and I sighed in relief.

 

I waited near the corner in the early morning darkness, just outside of the circle of light from the streetlight. Two suitcases, an overnight bag and my purse stood at my feet. I heard the purr of Jess’s motor as he turned onto Dogwood Drive and slowed to a stop.

“Ready, doll?” he whispered. “Let’s get going.” He shifted into Park and got out of the car.

He tossed my luggage into the back seat while I got in on the passenger side. Nerves warred with excitement as I considered the magnitude of what I was about to do. I pictured Dad’s face when he found my note. Would he ever forgive me for running away?

Jess got back in the car and shifted into Drive. Minutes later, we turned on to the road heading north toward our new lives. I had graduated from sheltered young girl to a young woman and wife-to-be.


© 2017  Mary Beth Magee     BOTR Press, LLC

 

 



 

 

 

 

 

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