I swear here and now on a mile high stack of bibles that I’d have never taken Rick up on his midnight business idea if it had not of been for Muriel’s death. I did, though, and nothing can change history. But like my aunt Mary always said, every dark cloud has a silver lining. In this case, that silver lining was the most exciting surprise of my life.

Muriel was a wonderful girl, and smart too. I know for a fact that she could talk about astronomy all day because her and I used to have astronomy marathons, naming the stars and all constellations. We even argued over the names of the moon’s craters. But don’t get me wrong. Please. I never thought she was like, an extraordinary girl. Astronomy savant? noway. She had a super body, that's all, but she acted more like my owner than a girlfriend. She was just what I call a "throw away." I put up with her possessiveness, and with all of her control issues, but, in fact, I was just hanging with her until Jeanette and Sharon smartened up and realized what they were missing.

But now Muriel was dead. I mean, really a goner. Somewhere among the constellations. Luckily for me, though, Jeanette had seen the light and I already had date lined up with her. But I still felt so guilty over the way I had treated Muriel. You know, using her to get to get to second base and stuff like that. With a body like her’s it was difficult to pass up, especially since she practically threw herself at me. So after that downer day of getting the bad news about her accident, I wanted to do something to punishment myself, destructive, and I really didn’t care what it was, or if I got caught doing it, or not. My thoughts were that gloomy. That’s why I decided on a life of crime with Rick. And wouldn’t you just know it, the Ben Jones luck was in the bright sunlight. Because if I hadn’t taken Rick up on his lame-brain plan to steal plants, I’d have never seen that beautiful stark naked redhead with long wavy hair and a body that would stop a freight train. Her name was Penny Peters and I was instantly in love.

I remember everything like it was yesterday. It was late Friday evening, August 21, 1959, a warm summer night, and the sweet sent of roses, poppies and zinnias filed the air. I remember the exact date because it was the very day that President Eisenhower signed the papers making Hawaii the fiftieth state in the union. My uncle Bob said that was a damn good thing. He liked pineapples. I didn’t know anything about Hawaii, but I dearly loved Hula girls in grass skirts, and it wasn’t long before “Aloha” became the most popular greeting in JV high school.

It was dark that night, black as tar, and everything was eerily quiet. Like, it was so quiet you could hear bugs crawling around. Rick and I were in his mom’s brand new Dodge Coronet, beige, the color of sand, with dark brown upholstery, cruising up and down the narrow neighborhood streets. It was a beautiful car, a precision running machine, like an expensive watch, and all we could hear as we slowly cruised along the quiet neighborhood streets was the gentle flutter of our own tailpipes.

Rick turned up one street that was lined on both sides by spacious ranch style homes, real upper end, like those you see on television. Rick’s trained eyes scanned the mailboxes for the place he had indentified earlier in the day. He called it “recon.” He counted each one aloud as we drove by: one, two, three, four, and then he eased up on the gas and we slowed to a quiet stop in front of a big white house with a white picket fence and a well manicured front lawn. It looked like the home of a movie star with a long concrete driveway stretching from the road all the way to the garage, maybe a hundred feet. There was a mailbox on a post by the gate with the inscription: The Peters.

“That’s it,” Rick said, leaning over and rubbernecking to look through my side window. “The Peters. Yep, they just moved in . . . some big shot from LA. I saw them unloading their piano and a bunch of other stuff. Ritzy. I already reconnoitered the scene. There’s a line of rose bushes along the back of the house. Nice ones too. Bring top dollar. We’ll kill the headlights, swing around to the alley nice and quiet like, and bingo, we’ll be in an out in less than three minutes flat . . . piece of cake.”

I swallowed hard, my pulse picked up a few beats and I admit my nerves were a little raw. What the heck had I gotten myself into? Stealing plants? What seemed like a good idea yesterday, when I was feeling remorseful over Muriel’s untimely death suddenly became a sobering reality. We were about to commit a major crime. I suggested we forget the whole thing, turn around and get the heck out of there. Rick quietly eased his door open stepped out and eased it shut again.

“Come on,” he whispered, “It’s cool. Think of it as a mission.”

“Right. We're on a mission to go to jail.”

So, like Army commandos on a secret midnight mission, we hunched over like overgrown potato bugs and silently scuttled across the wet lawn to the back of the house: so far so good. Rick unfolded an old plastic checkerboard tablecloth and spread it out over the wet grass. Evidently the sprinklers had just just off making a spongy bog out of the whole lawn. Then we started digging at the base of the prickly rose bushes which were right up against the house, throwing dirt every which way and, just like Rick said, in about three minutes flat, four nice rose bushes were wrapped up and neatly tied off. Rick looked over at me like it was time to go. He pointed to his watch. Suddenly, a bright yellow light flashed across the yard from the window right above our heads. We froze on the spot.

We couldn’t move without passing directly through the light, so there wasn’t anything we could do but hunker down in the black shadow up against the house, quiet as dead men, and wait for the light to go off again. The cool water from the wet lawn began to seep through my tennis shoes, and when I tried to barely lift my foot, a squishing sound came from under my feet.

Rick put his finger to his lips. “Shush,” he whispered. “Don’t move. It’s just somebody going to the bathroom."

Minutes passed about as fast as watching a fat tortoise slowly walking across the blistering hot highway at highnoon. My heart pounded against the inside of my chest and my legs grew stiff from lack of circulation. Like how long could a person be in the John anyway? The light was still on. Finally, Rick slowly rose up to peek over the edge of the window, and then quickly dropped back down. Squish!

“Quick, quick, take a look,” he whispered, an obvious edge of excitement in his voice.

“What?” I responded. I was shaking and my body felt as cold as a three day old cadaver.

With both hands he motioned for me to hurry up. “Take a look. Quick!”

I rose up, ever so carefully, my legs teetering like a hillbilly dancer, and peeked over the windowsill. “Oh my gosh!” A stark naked girl about our age was moving around the room, right under the light. What a sight. She was beautiful beyond belief, with fiery red hair and an unbelievable figure. My eyes instantly took a picture, as if my entire head were nothing more than a big camera. Then she turned right towards me, full frontal. I quickly ducked back down. Shocked. The muddy water sloshed out from under my feet. What if she’d seen me? We’d be arrested like common perverts, publicly humiliated, possibly even jailed. How could I ever in a million years explain a Peeping Tom charge to my beautiful, wonderful, innocent, Sharon? Jesus. She was so proper, such a goody two shoes. She’d probably never speak to me again. And then there was aways Jeanette. She wouldn't think that was too cool either. I wanted to run and get the heck out of there. But I was trapped by a stupid beam of light like a tractor beam in some old science fiction movie. 

Rick whispered, “Stay put.”

So I held tight, reluctantly, my body feeling like it was about to explode. My adrenal glands were definitely working overtime.

“Let’s go Rick,” I urged, desperation in my voice. But he held his palm up to me.

“Wait!” He whispered. “Not yet.”

A few more long minutes dragged slowly by. The tortious hadn't gotten to the other side of the road yet. Horrible. I was so pumped, tense, I felt like I was on the track team waiting at the start line to do the hundred-yard dash. Nervous sweat dripped from my forehead. I had never been that wired up in my entire life. Finally the light went dark. I breathed a long sigh of relief. At last, the lawn was black as tar again. Rick pointed his finger towards the car, and we awkwardly waddled across the slippery wet grass like speeding ducks, me lugging the heavy waterlogged tablecloth full of stolen rose bushes over my shoulder like some runaway hobo. Squish, squish, the water splashed loudly as if I were running across broken glass, my slick tennis shoes nearly slipping out from underneath me. I didn’t care. I ran as fast as I could, splash, splash, and by the time we were safely back into the car I was puffing like an eighty-year-old mountain climber. Rick hit the gas and we disappeared into the night.

In the car I was so angry I couldn’t contain myself. Adrenalin fizzed in my veins, the fiery hormone powering my anger into a rage. I pounded the dash over and over again like some maniac. I wanted to pound on Rick’s face over and over again, beat him to a bloody pulp, but I yelled at him instead. I hit the window with my fist, hard, and it’s a wonder it didn’t burst into a million pieces.

“Are you crazy? I barked. “I’m never doing this again. Never! “Goddamn it!” I was so hyped up and angry, I thought I was going to blow apart at the seams, like an exploding grenade, right there in his mom’s nice new car. I hated myself for getting involved in such a stupid scheme. “Cockamamie,” as my uncle Bob would say. It was the dumbest thing I had ever done, bar none.

Throughout my threshing tirade, Rick stayed cool and calmly attempted to ease my agitation by saying that tomorrow was payday. But for me it was too late for soft talk. I had already transformed myself into a rabid werewolf, my fangs sharp and visible, hungry for the taste of Rick’s blood. I told him to keep the damn money, stick it up his ass, the growl of disgust in my voice. “Just don’t call me ever again for one of your stupid stunts.” I stared at him, daring him to defy me, my dark eyes catching a tiny spark of light from the instrument panel, crazy looking, projecting my killer rage. He nodded submissively and concentrated on the road.

We lit cigarettes, took long drags and filled the car with dense, white smoke. I was shaking: fingers, arms, everything, and we didn’t speak again until we pulled up in front of my house. But the fifteen-minute ride provided just enough time for me to cool down a bit. I looked over at Rick. He was quiet. I knew he was hurt over my outburst; after all, he was one of my oldest and best friends, and I loved the guy. We had had so many good times together they were uncountable. I said, “Hey, we saw a beautiful naked girl didn’t we?”

Rick's forehead instantly stretched backwards as a total sigh of relief came over his face. “Damn straight,” he said. Then he apologized over and over again. He was only trying to help out with my job situation. Make a few bucks. You know? “I hated to see you hurting, man.” 

I tried to soften up a little bit. I said I understood where he was coming from. After all, I didn’t hate the guy. I was just pissed. I told him I’d see him tomorrow. “Give me a chance to get a grip, but no more sneaking around people’s yards in all hours of the night, and definitely no stealing or peeking into people’s windows.” Again he nodded submissively like a puppy with its tail between its legs. I climbed out, waved, and my best friend drove off into the night in his mom’s brand new Coronet. I thought, “God if that car could only talk, we’d all be in prison.”

The next day was Saturday. Thank God I didn’t have to work at Bowfry’s hay mill anymore, so I slept in until about ten when my aunt Mary woke me up.  I had been dreaming about Muriel. I couldn’t get that wacky chick out of my head. In the dream I was chasing Muriel along a narrow mountain trail that wound its way through high clumps of thick brush. I was exhausted, winded, my heart was pounding, running as fast as my legs would carry me, uphill, trying to stop her for some reason, heck if I know why, but she was too fast for me. She disappeared over a small rise and, as I came up over the rise myself, I saw that she had run straight off a high cliff and had fallen onto the sharp rocks below. I heard a voice yelling at me, “Benny! Wake up!”

I groaned and opened my eyes, just a crack, half expecting to see Muriel standing at the foot of my bed. But it was my aunt Mary. Her hands were on her hips, defiantly, her elbows flaring outward like some prehistoric bird, looking around my room as if it were a landfill. My still soggy clothes were piled up on the floor.

“Clean up this pigsty,” she ordered, and then she walked out.

Tonight was my big date with Jeanette, my beautiful, sexy Jeanette. After all these months I couldn’t wait to see her again. So I arose in a good mood, ate breakfast and spent the morning doing whatever my aunt told me to do, happily, no problem. Then I fired up my old Studebaker, made one stop to put my last two bucks worth of gas in the tank, and headed off to Rick’s place. Cash was what I needed. Yes, shamefully, I decided to take the money after all. Stealing plants. How low am I willing to go? I guess love really does rule the world. And right then, I desperately needed love. 

Rick asked if he should still call Jeanette; ask her out, stick to our original plan of setting her up to be unfaithful to me? I wasn’t surprised by his question. I knew how he felt about her. Love sick. Please. Like I’m really going to set him up with my beautiful girlfriend, probably the hottest chick in Joshua Valley. I said I wanted to wait until after my date with her this evening, just to see how things go. If she gives me any crap about Sharon, the girl of my dreams, then the plan is definitely on. In that case, call her. Lay it on thick. If not, if every things cool, then we’d wait and see. To my surprise, he didn’t have a problem with that. He wanted to go out with Jeanette really, really bad, but he had another girlfriend to deal with. Her name was Cindy and if she found out that Rick went out with Jeanette, even as a trick, it’d definitely be a bad scene for Rick.

Cindy was a sweet little gal, like pure cinnamon and sugar. She was petite, cute, curvy and she was a real fireball. I don’t know how Rick found all those exciting short girls that were so hot. I liked petite girls too, but it was always the tall ones who favored me. Like Jeanette, she was at least five-foot-six, a big Swedish girl, like a fashion model. She had long legs and a nice slim figure. Excellent. Yummy. Next to Jeanette, Cindy looked like an oversized doll. Rick called Cindy a “smidget.” I preferred, “hottie.”

It’s funny, while I was thinking about Cindy, her face and curvy figure and her bubbling energy, the image of that beautiful stark naked redhead drifted into my mind, mesmerizing me, like something warm and sensual gliding over my brain. I hadn’t seen her face because of my obvious distraction, after all, she was totally naked, but I’ll never forget that picture of her standing right there, facing me, separated only by a thin pane of glass and a few feet of clean night air, her fiery red hair scintillating under the yellowish light like it had been sprinkled with stardust. If I had a beautiful girlfriend like her, I thought to myself, I’d be happy for the rest of my life. I’d never speak to another girl. Honest Abe. But I didn’t even know her name, or what her face looked like. What a sad loss. Like my uncle Bob used to say during our fishing trips, the big ones always get away.

I was a tall teenager, as far as high school guys go, over six-foot, and Jeanette said she liked to go out with me because when she wore high heels I was still taller than her. She liked to look up to me and, of course, I liked to look down at her, especially in a low cut dress, like delicious peaches and crème. Plus, we made great dance partners. And she was good looking beyond description with fine-spun hair that flowed down over her shoulders like a golden waterfall. But I really preferred shorter girls, the smaller the better, like Cindy. She was just the right height with a curvy figure, not too big on bottom and not too big on top. A nice hand full. That’s how I liked my girls. Cindy lived with her crazy grandfather way out in the desert between Rosamond and Mojave, what we called, “Mojavy,” pronouncing the “j” as in jock. Their house was a rundown, paint-less old weatherboard shack that looked like something right out of Erskine Caldwell’s Tobacco Road. You couldn’t ask for a more miserable place to live, not on this earth anyway. There was nothing for miles around except sand, sagebrush, Joshua trees, spiders and snakes.

Cindy’s grandpa was like some dried up old prospector who’d lost the last of his marbles under the scorching Mojave sun. He was a real nutty old guy, skinny as a twig, with thin, wobbly legs. He was strict with Cindy too, like an old time Baptist preacher, always keeping her under wraps, definitely no hanging around with boys. And to top it off, Cindy didn’t have a phone. If Rick wanted to take her out he just showed up and tapped on her bedroom window. She’d quietly climb through, and when he brought her back home, she’d sneak back through it again. Rick said one time the old codger threatened to blow him away with a shotgun if he didn’t stay away. To me, that would have been reason number one to not to go out with Cindy. But Rick just laughed and said, “Hey, you only live once.” Yeah, yeah I thought, but if I’m going to risk my life, I’d rather it to be for that deliciously beautiful redhead, or, maybe Sharon, or maybe Jeanette. That’s how much I loved Sharon.

“I got an idea,” Rick said, “Why don’t we make it a double date tonight. We’ll pick up the girls and drive up to the abandoned Joshua King Goldmine. You know, tip a few, smoke a few Camels, and make out a lot. We’ll take the Dodge.”

I liked the idea, although it was a long way to the mine. It was way out in the desert, and, of course, we’d have to sneak Cindy out through her bedroom window. That didn’t appeal to me very much. But whatever, it might be fun. We’d been up to that old goldmine a thousand times. It’s high up a hill where you can see lights all across Joshua Valley. It’s a great spot to sit and neck. “Okay, let’s do it,” I said. What the hell, I was in the mood for a little close up female contact, and Jeanette was always game for contact sports, but only so far. But who knows, maybe tonight would be different?

“What about her grandpa?” I asked.

“What about him?” Rick said.

“Well . . . wonder if he really does have a shotgun? You know…Kablooey!” I pointed to my head and contorted my face. "Like blow you head off." 

Rick just chuckled. “Don’t sweat it. He’s just a half blind, old Billy goat. He’s so skinny and weak I doubt if he can even hold up a shotgun long enough to shoot it, let alone hit anything. Even if he did, the recoil would probably knock him on his bony butt. Why? You’re not afraid are you?” Rick’s tone was like I’d be a chicken if I didn’t come along. It was a cheap shot and I didn’t like it.

I old him I wasn’t chicken, that’s for sure. I was just concerned. After all, if the old guy really had a shotgun and he had threatened to shoot Rick, somebody could get hurt, any of us, even Cindy or my lovely Jeanette. How would you like that on your conscious? I said I didn’t care how old or skinny the guy was. My uncle Bob always told me never to underestimate a man, no matter his age or size. If somebody threatens you to do you in, believe it. But, of course, Rick wouldn’t listen. He couldn’t see past his hormones.

Again I said, “Wonder if the old guy aims at you and maybe misses and hits Cindy, or Jeanette, or even me? What about that?”

Rick thought for a microsecond, and then looked up with a mean expression on his face. He said that if that old guy were to shoot Cindy, he’d kill him right there on the spot, “Squash him like a bug. Kablooey his ass!” I said that was the stupidest thing I ever heard. Rick laughed and said, “Come on . . . nothing’s going to happen. I’m just fooling with you. Don’t be so serious. We’re talking one old dude.” 

Reluctantly I said, “Okay.” reluctantly. I wasn’t about to show any fear in front of Rick. But the truth is I didn’t have such a good feeling about this whole “sneaking out of the window” thing. Something could go wrong. And wouldn’t you just know it? Something did go wrong. It was the worst thing ever. You’ll understand what I mean when I get to the part about picking up Cindy.

After I left Rick’s house, I stopped by the Quartz City Market to pick up a few things for my aunt Mary, and just as I was about to leave, Ronnie pulled up in his white 1956 Buick, the polar bear. He got out of his car and climbed into my old Studebaker. He had a down look on his face, which was surprising since Ronnie was usually up beat.

“What’s going on?” I asked, and Ronnie looked right at me as if he knew exactly when the world was coming to an end.

“Jesus. What’s with the horse face?”

Ronnie told me how he had been talking to someone who had talked to someone who knew a guy who was friends with Eddie, Sharon’s brother. Anyway, the word was that Sharon was dating an older guy, maybe nineteen or twenty.

“What!” Instantly my happy mood went sour as if I'd been struck right in the heart with a sharp arrow. My thoughts jumbled up like waded paper, speechless, I just sat there for a few seconds, my eyes starring back at Ronnie, looking right through him as if he were nothing but dirty glass.

Ronnie held up his hands and said, “Hey man . . . don’t kill the messenger.”

I blinked and looked away, out across the vacant parking lot, hiding my pain from Ronnie’s searching eyes. A million thoughts clogged my mind, like a sudden desert flash flood. Older guys were all about the sex. That was a fact. And I couldn’t stand the thought of Sharon allowing some twenty-year-old scumbag to hold her, to kiss her, to touch her; after all I had done to protect her innocence. Yes, I had kissed her sweet lips, I had held her warm body in my arms, and even now, after five months of separation, I could still smell her subtle perfume, and feel the gentle pulse of her heart as we held each tight. I wanted that girl more than anything on earth, but I had never crossed the line with her. Never. She was the one girl that I truly respected, and I had abided by her limits. Now she was giving herself to an older guy. How could she do this to me?

Ronnie broke the silence, “I’m sorry, man. Truly. It definitely ain’t cool. If you want us to, Rick and Terry and I will put that scumbag in the hospital, make it so that he can’t have sex for a year. Just give the word and it’s done.”

Ronnie’s proposal struck a pleasurable note with me. It had that sweet, vindictive sound to it. The four of us guys had been together for a long time, longer than any of our relationships with girls, that’s for sure. We had learned to protect ourselves from bullies like Terrible-T and Big Boned Bert. If someone wanted to pick a fight with one of us, he’d feel the wrath of four of us. I tapped my finger on the dash a few times, thinking it over, trying to calm the werewolf inside of me. It sounded like a good idea, as revenge always does. But then my mood seemed to change. I don’t now why, but the anger and the sadness just drifted away as if a gentle breeze had cooled my thoughts.

“No,” I said. “Let the dirty, lousy, low life, scumbag alone. You could hurt him, bad, and I’d love that, but really what’s done is done. Sharon did me wrong, so that’s it. It’s on her. As far as I care, she can live her life down among the troglodytes. I’ll never date her again. I’ll never speak to her. I’ll treat her like the plague.”

Ronnie’s eyes searched my face for truth. Among the four of us, he was like the human lie detector. He could always see the truth. So I knew he didn’t believed me. I mean, why would I just stand by and let this over-aged scumbag take the girl of my dreams? With no consequences? It just didn’t seem right to let him off Scott free. At least we should mess up the guy a little bit. Maybe kick him in his pea balls, or break his finger, something, anything, as long as it was infinitely painful. Definitely a bone needed to be broken. Let his dumbass know who owns this valley. When it came to girls, Ronnie, Terry, and Rick and I owned this valley. After all, I was Ben Jones. Nobody takes my girl.

Ronnie was right, of course, and I didn’t really know the answer myself. I just figured, well . . . if she wants him instead of me . . . that says it all right there. It really wasn’t the guy’s fault. He couldn’t do anything unless she wanted it. That’s a fact. And that’s what my uncle Bob always told me. Besides, of we were to do anything to the scumbag, it’d get back to Sharon. And then I’d be in even deeper hot water. It was best just to let it go. Let her go too.

“Naw, it’s cool,” I told him. You’re right. Chicks don’t do me wrong without suffering the loss.” But in this case, her loss is to do without me. I smiled at Ronnie cool and calm, like I was infinitely in control of myself. We both laughed. “Anyways, I’ve got a date with sweet, beautiful Jeanette tonight.”

Ronnie sat back in his seat, relieved and happy. He took a long puff from his Pall Mall cigarette, and chuckled. “I knew you’d be okay, man,” he said. “As soon as I heard about this stuff, I said to myself, ‘That dumb chick’s making a huge mistake. Huge. Ben’ll never put up with this. What a cool solution. Just put her out to pasture.”

“Damn straight,” I said. “You figured it right. Now get lost, I’ve got stuff to do. Rick and I and the girls are heading up to the goldmine tonight for a little romance and I’m going to be extra sweet on Jeanette tonight. I’ll call you later, maybe tomorrow. Oh yeah, if you should see Sally, keep your ears open for anything she might say about me.” I smiled.

Ronnie shook his head and laughed. “Sally? Will do,” and then he climbed back into the polar bear and drove away.

After Ronnie left I lingered there in the parking lot for a few minutes, thinking, clutching my steering wheel with white knuckles; my guts burning like a white-hot poker was sticking right through me. The news about Sharon had really hurt me. I guess I had deluded myself into thinking that Sharon actually loved me, like I loved her, and that she would come back to me someday. I would have bet my life on it. I mean, really, how many nights had she kissed me so lovingly, so hot, so wet, stretched out on the front seat of my old Studebaker, molding her body into mine as if she were made of soft clay? Her breath was short and warm on my neck, whimpering in my ear, “I love you, I love you.” Begging me, “Ben, please, please.” But I never touched her. Imagine that? Me? Hands off. Get real. Instead, I was a nice guy, respect and all that B.S. Man, was I ever a sap.

I started the Studebaker and clicked on the radio. I wanted something loud enough to drown out my thoughts, reset my brain. And I got it. Chuck Berry came on singing Maybelline, electric guitar strumming, drums pounding, and the words, “Maybelline . . . why can’t you be true?” blared from the speakers. Just what the doctor ordered. I turned the volume all the way up until my windows buzzed like bumble bees, and I shook my head from side to side, violently, and messed my hair, like a rock star, and I beat on the steering wheel in tune with the music and screamed the words loud enough for everyone to hear, “Sharon . . . why can’t you be true. O Sharon . . . why can’t you be true?” I dropped Brownie into gear and headed for the barn.

As I turned the corner towards my house, once again I thought about what my uncle Bob had said.  “Nice guys finish last.” I finally got the meaning of that wisdom. Nice guys do finish last. That’s it. Life is such bullshit. It was a bitter spill to swallow: nasty Castor oil. Well, I thought to myself, the days of resisting temptation are definitely over. From now on, no more Mr. Nice Guy, and that’s a fact. Little ladies, if you see Ben Jones coming, you’d better snap your bras and hold down your skirts, because I’m going for the gold.

I parked my old Studebaker on the front lawn, and broke out the water hose and a bucket, and lit up a long cigar. I spent the next two hours listening to the radio as I washed and vacuumed Brownie until you could eat off her floorboard. The old lady who lived across the street said I shouldn’t smoke those things, they’ kill me.  I smiled and threw her a big kiss. She closed her door in a huff. After I finished with the car, I cut a juicy orange in half, put the pieces in a flat saucer and placed it on the dash. A few hours in the hot sun and my old Studebaker would smell as sweet as an orange orchard. I wanted everything to be perfect. After lunch, a baloney and mustard sandwich, I called Jeanette, to see if our date was still on. It was. She seemed happy, up beat, no attitude, and no negative inflection to her voice. Good. I told her to wear something extra sexy. She giggled. She said, “What?” I said, “Surprise me.” I should have said, don’t wear anything. The game was on.

I parked Brownie under a shade tree, and walked up the street to visit my old buddy Jerry. He was a few years older than me, but we got along well. In fact, he was sort of my bodyguard, always looking out for me. When he was still in school we rode the big yellow school bus together because he wanted to save his gas money. We always sat in the back seat. Now he had a fantastically beautiful girlfriend named “Donna” and they were talking about getting married. I loved that girl. Sometimes when her and Jerry and I were sitting in his living room watching television, she’d walk around in her panties and bra. She wore those giant, white, what I called “regulation panties,” but still it used to keep my pretty much spaced out. Jerry just laughed. He said if I didn’t watch out, I would go blind someday.

Jerry’s mother was probably the most sour, unhappy person on planet earth. She had a face like a dull gray rock, and she always wore homemade, flour sack dresses, frumpy looking, and her hair was like stiff weeds, sticking out every which way. She was always at the kitchen sink washing dishes, tons of dishes, everyday, and I’ll never forget the smell of that grayish looking dishwater, putrid stuff, almost like a sewer. When I’d come in I’d say “Hello,” but she’d never looked up, not even a grunt, like I wasn’t even there. Poor, pathetic thing, she hung herself one day. Jerry found her when he came home from school. The front door was locked, his dad wasn’t home, so he walked around to the back door and saw her swinging from a rope tied to a fat branch of a big cottonwood tree in their backyard. It was a nightmare. Her neck was squeezed up real tight, and she was all purple, a real frightening sight. I can’t even imagine how he must have felt. I tell you, something like that it makes your own problems seem pretty small. My biggest problem was figuring out how to unfasten a bra hook with only two fingers in a dark car. Seems kind of trivial in comparison.

Jerry and I sat on the back porch killing time smoking and talking. He didn’t say much though. He never did, not a big talker, especially after his mom died. I talked and he mostly just sat there rubbing oil into the stock of his homemade crossbow. He’d spent all semester in woodshop making that crossbow, and everybody was impressed. He held it up to the sun slight, and the rich, dark hardwood stock shined like polished glass. It was a beautiful thing, a real piece of art. And, of course, “Donna” was carved into the stock.

Jerry was somebody I could really talk to. He’d been around the block with girls, gained a little wisdom, so he knew a few things. I told him about Sharon, the older guy, scumbag asshole lover boy, and how my heart was aching, what I had done to her, how I had double-crossed her. He listened attentively, nodding his head from time to time. When I finished, he lifted his crossbow, aimed it at that big old cottonwood tree, pulled the trigger and the short arrow stuck in the tree with a loud twang. Then he looked at me and smiled.

I looked at the arrow sticking in the tree. I said, “I wonder how Sharon’s lover boy would feel with an arrow stuck in his crotch?” We both laughed, and that’s about the most animation I ever got out of Jerry.

“I bet it’d feel real good,” he said, “to you,” and we laughed some more. Then he reloaded the crossbow and handed it to me. I almost fainted, because he never let anybody touch his crossbow. I aimed it at the tree, right in the fork of two diverging branches, took a bead, pretending the tree was scumbag asshole lover boy. “Easy does it now,” Jerry said. “Hit him right in the crotch.” I took careful aim, held steady, slowly exhaled and gently squeezed the trigger. “Ka-chunk,” the arrow sliced through the air and stuck right in the bark, right on target. Jerry patted me on the back. “Feel good?” he asked.

“Damn straight,” I said. Now I would never actually kill anybody, but it felt good to imagine such things, especially when it came to scumbag asshole lover boy.

“Now go on home and get back to your life,” Jerry said. “It’s no use in beating yourself up over something you can’t change. You hurt her pretty bad, that's a fact, and no matter what you say or do now, she has her own mind and she’ll do whatever she wants to do. So learn from your mistake, if that’s what it was, and move on down the line. Heck, you’re too young to be thinking about serious love anyway.”

Jerry was right, of course. I knew that. My heart hurt, and I wanted her back. But I couldn’t change what I did to her. I was glad we talked.

By the time I got back home, my car smelled like sweet, juicy oranges. Perfect. It was all set for my next victim, who, of course, I wished would be that nocturnal mystery girl, that gorgeous naked redhead. That chick was all over my brain like a giant crab. I imagined her and I walking down the street hand in hand, her strawberry hair all fixed up and everything, and her lipstick shiny red, and her pretty face and figure lighting up the sky. And then Sharon and the scumbag asshole lover boy would just happen to see us? Sharon would look at me, and she’d be jealous. And when scumbag looked at me, and my fine strawberry lady, I’d lift her skirt, just a little so that he could see her beautiful creamy-white legs. “Eat your heart out dude.” That’s what I’d think. Yeah. That’d be so cool.

In the house, I sat down and leaned back into the soft couch, killing time, day dreaming, carnal thoughts intoxicating my brain like opium. I guess I fell asleep for maybe an hour, and then my aunt Mary woke me up with a serious look on her face. She reminded me that I had to go to Bible study that Wednesday evening. Tuesday was the minister’s birthday, so she had baked a nice cake and she wanted me to take it to him. She liked to do stuff like that. I guess it made her feel good.

“Okay,” I said. “No problem.”

I had attended Bible study every Wednesday evening since I was a little kid. It was one of my aunt Mary’s house rules. I had church on Sunday, Bible study in the evening, and two weeks of Bible School during the summer. Jesus, I knew more about the Bible than I knew about biology, American history, or geometry all put together. But that was the price of my room and board, so I didn’t mind. In fact, I kind of liked it.

There were four regular girls and four boys in our Bible study group. We met on Wednesday evenings at the minister’s house. His name was Bob. We sang songs, recited verses, and ate cookies and ice cream. It was fun. I had watched those pretty little girls grow from fancy Sunday school dresses and colorful bows in their locks, to curvy young women, real lookers and heart stoppers. I flirted with every one of them too, offering to share my cookies. Bob’s wife said I should pay less attention to the girls and more attention to the scriptures, and she made me memorize ten new verses. When I stood up to recite them in front of the group, all the girls smiled at me, and whispered to each other. I was thinking how much I’d like to kiss each of them right on their pink little lips. Praise the Lord!

Bob was an amateur astronomer. He had a nice telescope in his backyard. It was one of those Newtonian reflectors. I said, “That’s a great Newtonian reflector with a six-inch parabolic mirror.” He admired my knowledge of astronomy. Like I said, I had read everything I could get my hands on, so I could really impress him with what I knew. Of course, I always said something smart when the girls were standing close by. Please. That’s a given. He’d asked me to recite some astronomy statistic, like maybe the distance to the sun, or the speed of light, and I’d respond smartly. “Ninety-million miles!” The girls smiled with stars in their eyes at how sharp I was, a frigging savant. I smiled back, as innocently as I could, like a bashful little boy. Yes sir, I prayed, sooner or later I was going to have me a genuine church girl in the front seat of my old Studebaker. Hallelujah!

On Wednesday evenings, after cookies and ice cream, and a few scriptures, we’d convene to the back patio, in the dark, and take turns looking at the stars, the moon and the planets, the “glorious heavens” as Bob put it. Us kids called it, Astronomy for Jesus. The warm summer nights over Joshua Valley were always filled with what seemed like a million bright stars. In fact, there were so many stars, like a canopy of glittering points of light; you could hardly pick out the constellations. I’d stand real close to each cute girl as she peered into the eyepiece of the telescope, so I could smell her sweet hair and feel the warmth of her body. I’d rub my bare shoulder up against hers, and she’d push back, just barely, but enough to feel the pressure, hidden from Bob’s probing eyes. That’s how we flirted. When the girl rose up from the eyepiece, she’d look at me and blush with that certain glint in her eyes. I had to agree with Bob, it was pure heaven.

Finally, it was Saturday. It had been the longest week ever. Rick and I picked up Jeanette around 8:30 that evening. She was a beautiful sight in her tight pedal pushers and a loose, white, cotton blouse. Not exactly h what I had in mind for her to wear, but it’d have to do. Her hair was like honey-colored silk tumbling down around her shoulders. God she was beautiful. As she walked towards the car, her hips swayed from side to side, her breasts bouncing like Jello, so sexy it made my heart skip a beat. Rick and I looked at each other, stunned, completely stupefied, like we were watching an angel descending from Heaven. I knew Rick was licking his chops, like a hungry wolf, but she was all mine. I could always count on Jeanette for a little hot action. But on a little more serious note, I was beginning to see Jeanette in another light.

When she slipped into the seat next to me her perfume instantly sapped my strength, like a whiff of green Kryptonite. We kissed each other lightly on the lips, and then she placed her face close to my ear and whispered how much she had missed me. I squeezed her tightly. Electricity shot through my body. I said I had missed her too. She always had that electrical affect on me, like getting struck with lightning. It was a hormone thing. Tonight was going to be extra good, I thought, no doubt about that. I was highly motivated. We’d make up and make out at the same time. “I looked into her eyes and said, “Love the outfit.”

Rick smiled at Jeanette too, his big eyes quickly absorbing her beautiful face and fantastic body, every dangerous curve. Then he put the Dodge in gear and we were off to Rosamond to pick up Cindy, Jeanette sitting in the front seat squeezed in between Rick and I. Rick was so excited I’m surprised he could even drive.

Jeanette knew Cindy, but she didn’t know anything about her crazy grandpa. So she just sat there quietly as Rick and I made wisecracks about the old coot. We laughed like stupid teenagers. We had no idea the crotchety old coot was waiting for us, shotgun loaded for bear.

We parked a little ways from Cindy’s shack, on the rutty dirt road with our headlights out. After the dust settled, Rick climbed out of the car, quietly, told me to scoot into the driver’s seat, and keep her idling; we might have to leave fast. Jeanette looked at me quizzically, like, what’s going on? I nodded my head like I didn’t know, and pulled her over next to me and rested my open hand on her thigh. Her leg felt arm like uranium. Jeanette leaned her head into me and we watched with squinting eyes as Rick disappeared around the side of the house into the black shadows. For the longest time, everything was dead quiet.

Actually, it was only a minute or two and then we heard a loud “pop!” And then another, “pop!” It had to be shotgun fire. Suddenly Rick was at the car’s side door, swinging it open. “Hurry,” he said, “Hurry!” Cindy jumped into the back seat. In the dome light I could see that all she had on was a short, loose, transparent nighty. Jeanette’s eyeballs nearly popped completely out of their sockets. Rick barked, “Get the hell out of here . . . now, now, now!” I didn’t hesitate. I slammed the pedal to the metal and we fishtailed back around in the middle of the dirt road and headed towards the highway in a dense whirlwind of dirt and sand and rocks flying out all over the place. Then we hit the black top of the main road, and I floored her again and our tires screamed for mercy as we sped down the highway.

All the way up to the goldmine, Cindy apologized for her state of undress; she had no idea that Rick was coming over. We all said it was okay; I wasn’t about to argue with a half naked girl, especially a fireball like Cindy. Even Jeanette gracefully acquiesced, she wasn’t surprised over anything Rick and I did. As far as she was concerned, every date, was a new adventure. Cindy said her grandpa sat in his easy chair every night with his shotgun across his lap, just waiting for Rick to show up. Then all of a sudden right out of the blue, Rick said, “I’m bleeding to death!”

“What?” I snapped. “What did you say?”

“I’m bleeding to death.”

I immediately slid to a stop in the soft shoulder and flicked on the dome light. Sure enough, Rick’s face was covered in dark blood, running down across his forehead and cheeks. He’d been hit with buckshot, in the head! My mouth dropped open, I imagined him expiring right there in the backseat of his mom’s brand new Dodge Coronet with me driving! Jeanette blurted out, “Oh my God!” Cindy started to cry uncontrollably and apologized over and over again as she used her fingers to rub the red blood from his eyes.

“Cindy?” I said, "Cindy!" She looked up at me, her teary eyes squinting under the harsh dome light. “Is there a rag or a towel back there anyplace?” She quickly ran her hand across the rear floorboard and grabbed an old dish towel. "Yes, yes," and she began to wipe Rick's head like a nurse, smearing the blood all over his forehead and face. By now the black ooze  was running down his neck and soaking his shirt. As she worked, I could see her body right through her nighty. I felt guilty as all hell, but it’s just a fact. Jeanette pinched my arm and told me to stay focused.

Cindy inspected the wound closely, as best she could under the dome light, her fingers nervously probing for the tell tail bump of buckshot under the skin. That’s good, that’s good, I thought. Then she said it was only a scratch, no shot. But the thing was bleeding like a faucet. She held the towel on the wound and applied pressure with her hand, just like a nurse. Damn, she was a smart girl.

I asked Rick how he felt and he said he had a terrible headache, but he was okay. He told Jeanette to look in the glove compartment for Aspirin. She did, and there was a small bottle, so she shook out three little white pills into her open palm and handed them to Rick. He chewed them up like peanuts. Then he rested his head back on Cindy’s lap. I said I wished I good rest my head on your lap. Cindy looked at me and smiled.  Jeanette didn’t think it was so funny. She told me to be serious for a change.

I asked if we should go to the hospital, I was in panic mode. Cindy and Jeanette said absolutely, but Rick said no, he’d be okay. He insisted he was fine. The bleeding would stop pretty soon. It was just a scratch. There was no buckshot in the wound so all they’d do anyway is give him a bandage.

Rick said, “There’s a first aid kit in the trunk.”

So I jumped out and opened the trunk and sure enough, there was a first aid kit. While Cindy wrapped his wound, I said maybe we should still go to the hospital? Maybe they’d give him a shot, or something, take x-rays. But Rick wouldn’t hear of it. He said, “Let’s get the hell out of here. Now. Come on. You drive.” So again I put the petal to the metal again and we headed up to the old goldmine.

As I drove up the steep hill, Jeanette squeezed up next to me. It had been a stressful situation and I could feel that she was a little tense. Her bare arm touched mine, and I put my hand on her leg. Touching her soft, warm body sent shivers up my arm, all the way to my brain. In my mind I was thinking how I had cautioned Rick about this very thing. I told him something could go wrong. And sure enough he got shot. How bazaar is that? Now I wondered what else could go wrong? Obviously, what I didn't know was that the worst was still to come. 

At the goldmine, I parked near the edge of the hill. The entrance to the deserted old mine was off to our side, like an ominous black hole in to the side of the mountain, dark and scary. The view of Joshua Valley stretched out before us. At night the view was heart stopping, with a million flickering lights as far as the eye could see, like a reflection of the stars above us. Sitting there in the dark car, it was easy to pretend that we were astronauts in a rocket traveling in deep space. I thought about stuff like that because it was my dream to be the first man on the moon. Directly in front of the car, no more than six inches from our front tires, the loose earth sloped downward steeply towards the flat desert floor. I had stopped right on the edge of the slope without an inch to spare.

In no time at all, things got into full swing, and the inside of the brand new Dodge Coronet was transformed into a steam cooker. The windows were totally fogged up. Jeanette and I were in the front seat, our lips permanently stuck together like Tupperware seals, our bodies tied into a tight knot. Rick and Cindy were doing the same in the back seat. While I was kissing Jeanette, I could hear Cindy’s little voice and her sighs. I wanted to look over the seat to check her out, catch a glimpse of her in that tiny see-through nighty, but I dare not. After all, I was still on a kind of probationary status with Jeanette. It was too soon to do something stupid. But I would have bet ten dollars that even though Rick was heavily involved with Cindy, his mind was on Jeanette, just like mine was on Cindy. It’s the male brain. We always want what we can’t have. The grass always looks greener…whatever. So the four of us necked, and the soft rock and roll sounds of Wolfman Jack streamed from the radio. And then all hell broke loose. 

I heard something strange, like car tires slowly rolling over loose gravel. I instinctively glanced into the rear view mirror. Holy cow! There was a police car slowly creeping up behind us with its lights off. I snapped around to alert Rick, who was locked in a deep kiss with Cindy, her nightgown so high it completely exposed her exciting body in the dim starlight.

“Rick!” I said in a loud whisper. “The cops! The cops!”

Without so much as a microsecond of hesitation, Rick snapped, “Over the side! Now! Drive over the side!”

And just as he ordered, my foot slammed the gas pedal to the mat, the tires spun, kicking dirt and rock upon that police car, and the brand new Dodge Coronet leaped into motion and quickly angled down over the side of the hill causing all four of us to lurch forward, Rick and Cindy banging against the front seat, Jeanette bracing herself from hitting the dash. We bounced and creaked and smashed through the desert sage, and the undercarriage cracked loudly against the hard rocks, like driving over river boulders, and I fought the steering wheel as it jerked back and forth and feathered the gas petal to keep from stalling in the soft sand.

We hit the bottom of the mountain with a dull thud, and dirt spewed up over the hood. Finally, I pushed the gear shift button into "first" and drove up onto the dirt road, pressed the gas all the way to the mat and we made a beeline for the main highway. A huge swirl of dust and dirt rolled up behind us. Our headlights were still off but in the rear view mirror I could see the cloud of dust illuminated by our bright red taillights, blinking intermittently as I applied the breaks, and it blocked my view. I searched the side mirror for the bright headlights of the cop car, and the flashing red lights and siren I was certain would be hot on our tail. But the road was all clear. Rick kept his eye on the rear window. “No cops!” he shouted from the backseat. “Keep the headlights off until we hit the main highway.” “Will do!” I responded. Jeanette was squeezing my arm so hard I though I’d get gangrene.

"It's okay baby," I said, in a feeble effort to comfort her. "We'll be alright."

She didn't look at me, and she didn't speak to me. She just squeezed my arm. 

I knew the cops weren’t behind us because they had taken the long way down the mountain, not wanting to drive over the side of he hill and across the rough desert in their squad car. No. That move was reserved for morons like us. But they’d catch up to us soon enough. So when we hit the main highway, I turned right and floored her and we sped as fast as we could down the dark asphalt. When I saw a turnoff into the desert, I killed the lights again, and made a quick turn onto the dirt road and headed out into the open desert as fast I could, hoping the dust would settle before the cops caught up to us. The night was black as coal.

There were literally hundreds of miles of crisscrossing roads all across the desert. It was like a super maze, a perfect place to park and hide in the darkness. We knew the cops would stop on the main highway and wait and watch for the telltale red flashing of our taillights. So we had to be very careful. One mistake and they’d quickly chase us down. It was a waiting came, like two submarines stalking each other in silence, listening for the other to make a tiny sound to give away its location. Only in this case, they’d wait for me to make a mistake and allow my foot to hit the break, triggering a quick red blink of the Coronet's huge taillights. So we sat there in the dark, silent, motionless. Jeanette and I kissed and made up for the last five months of being separated. Kissing her warm wet lips was like eating a pot of sweet honey. Rick and Cindy did the same.

This time, we got lucky. We could see them on the highway, slowly driving back and forth, until they finally left. "Yay!" We all light out long sighs of relief. We talked for a while, and then about two thirty we took Cindy home. All was quiet and she climbed back through the window without incident. Rick’s head had stopped bleeding, so we headed for Jeanette’s house. Rick and I kidded her about how exciting our date was. Rick said, "We aim to please."  She wasn't impressed. She just looked at both of us like we were infinitely stupid. Rick said if she didn’t want to go out with me again, he’d be glad to take her out. She looked at him, smiled and declined with a look on her face like she'd just sniffed a bad odor. I asked her out again and she agreed to go out again next Saturday. Only she insisted that we be alone, no more excitement. It was fine by me. Rick said kiddingly that he was hurt.

Rick called the next day, laughing his tail off about how dusty his mom’s cars was, covered with dirt. But it was okay, nothing broken. He felt absolutely no guilt. His mom was spiting mad, yelling at him, but Rick didn’t care, he was that kind of guy, always mean to his mom. I never understood that part of him. He said that last night was the best time he ever had. His head wound, for all the bleeding, was barely noticeable. He had thrown away the towel, alongside the road on his way home, so all was good. Not a trace of anything wrong. Luckily, no blood had dripped onto the seat of the Dodge.

“Damn, Rick,” I said. “That old man actually shot you, he could have killed you.” Rick just laughed. “It’s all good,” he said with a slight chuckle. “He just doesn’t want me hanging out with Cindy.” When I hung up the phone I knew I’d never forget this night for as long as I lived.

The next few days passed without too much happening. Jeanette and I talked a few hours on the phone. She said she wouldn’t like to do that again, it was too stressful. I had to agree with her. But that’s how Rick was, always wanting to do something daring. It was his dream to join the Marines someday, and I had a sneaky feeling that he’d make a darn good Marine. Rick wasn’t the toughest guy in the crowd, but he was fearless, and that had to be a good thing if you were in battle.

I even called Sally. But for all the secret looks and little sexy smiles she was playing her cards close to her chest. I couldn’t get her to agree on a definite date for the life of me. She liked me, that was all well and good, and she admitted as much, but she didn’t like my reputation. What reputation? I didn’t know what she was talking about. Not really. So I went out with a few girls. Who didn’t? I tried to explain that most things you hear through the gossip mill are grossly exaggerated. But she had been on too many double dates with Rick and I and Jeanette, as well as other girls, to buy that line. If I wanted to get next to her, I’d have to make some huge changes in my behavior.

That was a problem. I didn’t know if I wanted to change my behavior. After all, the incident with Sharon had hardened my bones and toughened my skin, like a shield covering my heart, and I wasn’t very amiable to being transformed into a good guy to meet some chick’s demands. Like I said, I had learned that good guys finish last, and that was a damned fact. I wanted to kiss Sally, spread her out on the front seat of my old Studebaker. That’s all I wanted. Of course, I didn’t say that to her. Well, I kind of said it to her. Sally knew the score. She told me to do a little inner reflection, and when I was ready to change my evil ways, I could give her a call, but not until then.

I called Ronnie. He said Sally had expressed a desire to go out with me, but she thought I was a little too aggressive. She didn’t want to be just some girl that I had been with, like a trophy. He thought she’d eventually give in, but it would take a lot of work on my part. I said, so sorry, it ain’t happening. Talking about trophies, I asked how Roxie was doing. She was Ronnie’s girlfriend. Gorgeous. Hot as fire. Ronnie told me to not to worry myself about Roxie. We laughed.

Wednesday after school may aunt Mary presented me with the biggest chocolate cake I had ever laid eyes on. Holy cow, I thought, she must really like Bob the minister a lot. I never even got a cake that big for my birthday. She made it very clear that I was, under no uncertain circumstances, to cause it to sink, or to tip it over so as to get smashed. If that were the case, shaking her finger at me, then I had better pray hard, because when I returned home, all hell would break loose. I wondered why on earth she liked that minister so much. Bob wasn’t much to look at, short and pudgy, with a bald spot the size of Canada. Whatever.

“Yes, ma’am,” I said, sort of sarcastically. “I’ll see that reverend Bob gets his precious birthday cake.”

“And don’t call him Bob either,” she said. “Show a little respect. He does the Lord’s work.”

Everyone in our Bible Study group was at Bob’s house that warm August night. The four girls looked wonderful as usual, ultra sweet and lively. When they saw me carrying that gigantic chocolate cake they all gathered around and smiled at me like little angels. I kiddingly said that I had baked it especially for them, and I told them it was okay to stick their fingers into the thick chocolate icing for a little taste. They did, and they made lots of little holes in the icing. Just then Bob’s wife came into the room and snatched the cake right out of my hands like it was a sex magazine. She gave me such a stern look that would have made my dog Sandy whimper and put his tail between his legs. “What’d I do?”  She didn’t answer. Then we all sat down and waited for Bob to start the lesson.

My three church buddies were sitting in fold up chairs, the girls were sitting dirtily across from me side-by-side on the sofa, I was sitting on Bob’s over sized easy chair, and his wife was at the piano. She began to play Amazing Grace, actually my very favorite, and then Bob made his big entrance from the kitchen like he was a famous stage actor. He was soooo corny. He looked all around the small living room, at each one of us, smiled like he was Jesus Christ himself, and told us to raise our hands and clap. Then he stood straight as a fence post, shoulders back, chest out, proud, like a soldier, his minister’s smile stretching nearly from ear to ear.

“It gives me tremendous pleasure of the most sincerest kind,” he said, “To welcome a brand new member into our Bible study group.” He stretched his arm out towards the kitchen and said, “Please welcome Miss Penny Peters,” and a beautiful redheaded girl about my age emerged from behind the kitchen door and stood right before us smiling. God-damn! I nearly swallowed my Dentyne. Of course, I recognized her. In fact, I knew her better than anybody there. I didn’t know the face, but that figure, even hidden under that flaring church dress, was emblazoned on my memory forever. I squinted my eyes tightly and tried to look right through her dress like Superman.

When Bob finished bloating about her history, where she came from and all that boring stuff, I raised my hand excitedly and said, “I’d be very pleased if Penny would sit right here next to me,” and I patted the seat with my hand, like it was a little puppy. “There’s plenty of room right here.” All the girls on the sofa squinted their eyes at me like I’d said a bad word. But I just kept on smiling, avoiding their glaring eyes.

Bob looked at me and smiled and told Penny that my name was Ben . . . Ben Jones, and that I was a very nice young man, and that I was also an expert astronomer. She looked at me and smiled just a little, so daintily, exposing the innocence of a sheltered life, and I smiled back at her, more like the big bad wolf. Then she walked over and sat down right next to me. “Thank you,” she said, ever so sweetly. Man she was beautiful, clothing, or not. I’m talking unbelievable, and my heart was beating like a hummingbird’s wings. I looked over at Bob’s wife as she played the piano, her beady eyes glaring back at me. "Sinner!"they said. I just smiled back at her like I was nothing but an innocent little school boy. I knew I’d have to memorize about a thousand Bible verses for this little stunt, but I didn’t care. I was a very happy school boy, and nothing could change that. Penney Peters was in my gun sights.

“Aloha,” I said in reply to Penny’s sweet thank you. Then she seated herself comfortably, the soft chair crowding us together. She arranged her dress to flow outward like an expanding fan. She had long legs like Jeanette’s and a million freckles that covered her sweet face. I hadn’t seen those when I peeked through her bedroom window. I said, “I really like your red hair. And you smell like roses." 

She look right at me and smiled, and her eyes had that certain twinkle. I was in seventh heaven.