by Terry Barr
I see her smiling at me in K-Mart, over by the jeans. She has red hair, and no matter which aisle I turn into—the Men’s grooming products, the albums, the “notions”—there she is, smiling. I don’t know if it’s her hair or her smile, or those eyes, green and wide like two Persian limes that stop me. She looks at me as if she knows me, as if she knows something I don’t know. As if she’d like to know more.
But I don’t think the part of me she’d like to know is the one who loves going to the Midfield K-Mart on Friday nights with my family and our neighbors. Would she be smiling at me if she could see me sitting in a booth at the K-Mart grill, sipping a Coke with my younger brother and our friend Frankie? If she knew that this moment makes me so happy? K-Mart Cokes are good, that perfect mix of carbonation and syrup, but which other teenagers would find this scene satisfying? Which other teenagers would rather be here than out trying to buy illegal beer or Boone’s Farm at the Ice House or Quik Mart? Or sneaking their parents’ car out and driving roughshod over the bumpy roads of Bessemer and Jonesboro?
For 77 cents plus tax, I can buy a new 45 record. If I’ve cut the grass recently and saved my allowance, I might be able to afford an entire album, and I’ve so been wanting the one Neil Young album I don’t have: Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere. Then I can sit in my bedroom alone, in the dark, playing it over and over, especially the first song, “Cinnamon Girl”:
“I could be happy the rest of my life…dreaming of pictures….”
I don’t want to be alone, though, or nowhere, so I turn back again and again to make sure it’s me she sees, is smiling at. I’m only fifteen, a high school sophomore, and I know she’s older, a junior. I recognize her from our high school halls, but I don’t know her name.
That night, after my parents drive us home, I look her up in last year’s “Largus.”
There is only one Gosling listed in the Bessemer phone book, and the next night, at a more decent hour, I dial her number and hold the last digit for ten or fifteen seconds before I let it go.
“Is this Denise?”
“Yes, but who is this?”
It’s funny, but though we talk for ten minutes that night, I only identify myself as “that guy you smiled at in K-Mart last night.”
It never occurred to me then to ask or wonder what she was doing in K-Mart, why she was wasting her night there and not with some boy who would stroke her cinnamon hair.
“Is this how guys do it,” she asks. “They just pick up the phone and call girls who’ve smiled at them?”
“I don’t know. It’s what I’m doing though.”
I call her again the next night.
“Do you want to go out with me sometime,” I ask.
“Can you even drive?”
“No, but we could double with someone, maybe my friend Steve.”
“Anyway, I’m dating Ricky Russo.”
Some girls are that honest; some even save the moment.
“Do you have a favorite song?”
“Uh, yeah. I guess it’s “Cinnamon Girl,” by Neil Young.
“I don’t know him. Mine is “Rock and Roll Lullaby” by BJ Thomas. That song just hurts me,” she says.
Hurts her. What a thing to say.
I never call her again, this girl who smiled at me, who tried to tell me something with her eyes. That weekend I went back to K-Mart, but of course she wasn’t there. It didn’t matter. I bought her record anyway:
“Sing it sweet and clear, O mama let me hear that ol’ Rock and Roll lullaby.”
The next week at school, I see her in the hallway, arguing with Ricky. I could hear them clearly. I had also seen Denise flirting with another guy, a senior named Eugene, who was the lead drummer in the marching band. They had been standing by her locker, so close together. Ricky saw them, too, it seems, or at least heard that lullabied story. He would blacken Eugene the drummer’s eye later, but on this day, it was the cinnamon girl he burned, in the school corridor, not caring who heard, who saw. Though as I see it now, I was the only other one there.
Finally, Denise turned her back on Ricky and walked away, down another aisle.
And when she did, she caught my eye. Only this time she wasn’t smiling.
This past week as I was driving down an almost forgotten highway, I noticed the street she used to live on: 13th Street, a dead end branch that I never saw at all until I talked to her. A road that still leads to somewhere.