REPLAY
by Ken Grimwood

 

THIRTEEN

A dull grey early-morning light filtered through the louvred window and the blue-green drapes. As Jeff opened his eyes he saw a sleek, seal-point Siamese cat peacefully asleep at the foot of the king-sized bed. It raised its head as he stirred. The cat yawned once, then issued an annoyed and clearly interrogative ‘Rowwr?’

Jeff sat up, turned on the bedside lamp, and scanned the room: stereo console and TV against the far wall, flanked by shelves of model aeroplanes and rockets; bookcase on the right-hand wall; uncluttered dresser below the windows to his left. Everything neat, ordered, well-kept.

Oh, shit, he thought; he was in his boyhood room at his parents’ house in Orlando. Something had gone wrong, dreadfully wrong. Why wasn’t he in the dorm room at Emory? Good God, what if he had come back as a child this time? He threw back the covers, looked down at himself. No, he had pubic hair, even had a morning erection; he rubbed his chin, felt stubble. At least he wasn’t prepubescent.

He leaped out of bed, hurried to the adjoining bathroom. The cat followed, hoping for an early breakfast as long as they were going to be getting up at this hour. Jeff flicked on the light, stared in the mirror: His appearance seemed to match the way he’d always looked at eighteen. Then what the hell was he doing at home?

He pulled on a pair of faded jeans and a T-shirt, slipped his sockless feet into some old sneakers. The clock by his bed put the time at almost a quarter to seven. Maybe his mother would be up; she always liked to have a quiet cup of coffee before starting her day.

He rubbed the cat’s neck. Shah, of course, who’d got run over during Jeff’s junior year; he’d have to tell the family to keep him inside. The regal animal strutted alongside him as Jeff walked down the hall, through the terrazzo-floored Florida room, and into the kitchen. His mother was there, reading the Orlando Sentinel and sipping her coffee.

‘Well, goodness gracious,’ she said, raising her eyebrows. ‘What’s the night owl doing up with the robins?’

‘I couldn’t sleep, Mom. Got a lot to take care of today.’ He wanted to ask what day it was, what year it was, but didn’t dare.

‘What’s so important that it rouses you at the crack of dawn? I’ve been trying to do that for years, and never succeeded. Must have to do with a girl, is that it?’

‘Sort of. Could I have part of the paper, please? Maybe the front, if you’re done with it?’

‘You can have the whole thing, honey. I’m about to start breakfast anyway. Want some French toast? Or eggs and sausages?’

He started to say, ‘Nothing,’ then realized how hungry he was. ‘Uh, eggs and sausages would be great, Mom. And maybe some grits?’

She gave him a mock-insulted frown. ‘Now, when have I ever made you breakfast without grits? They paste your ribs together, you know that.’

Jeff grinned at his mother’s old, breakfast-table joke, and she set to preparing the meal as he picked up the newspaper.

The main headline stories were about civil rights clashes in Savannah and a total eclipse of the sun in the northeastern US. It was mid-July 1963. Summer vacation; that was why he was here in Orlando. But Christ, it was three full months later than it should have been! Pamela must be frantic, wondering why he hadn’t contacted her yet.

He ate his breakfast hurriedly, ignoring his mother’s admonition to slow down. Glancing at the kitchen clock, he saw it was just after seven; his father and sister would be getting up any minute. He didn’t want to get embroiled in a family discussion of what he knew he had to do.

‘Mom …’

‘Mm-hmm?’ she said distractedly, getting more eggs ready for the later risers.

‘Listen, I’m gonna have to go out of town for a few days.’

‘What? Where to? Are you going down to Miami to see Martin?’

‘No, I have to, uh, go up north a ways.’

She eyed him suspiciously. ‘What does that mean, “up north a ways”? Are you going back to Atlanta so early?’

‘I have to go to Connecticut. But I don’t want to talk about it to Dad, and I need some extra cash for the trip. I’ll pay you back real soon.’

‘What in the world is in Connecticut? Or I should say, who in the world? Is it some girl from school?’

‘Yes,’ he lied. ‘It’s a girl from Emory; her family lives in Westport. They invited me up to stay for a week or so.’

‘Which girl is this? I don’t remember your mentioning anybody from Connecticut. I thought you were still going out with that cute little girl from Tennessee, Judy.’

‘Not anymore,’ Jeff said. ‘We broke up right before finals.’

His mother looked concerned. ‘You never told me; is that why you haven’t been eating right since you’ve been home?’

‘No, Mom, I’m fine. It’s no big deal; we just broke up, that’s all. Now I really like this girl in Westport, and I need to go see her. So can you help me out?’

‘Won’t she be back in school in September? Can’t you wait till then to see her again?’

‘I’d really like to see her now. And I’ve never been to New England. She said we might drive up to Boston. Her and her folks,’ he added quickly, remembering the mores of the time and his mother’s own sense of propriety.

‘Well, I don’t know …’

‘Please, Mom. It would mean a lot to me. This is really important.’

She shook her head in exasperation. ‘At your age, everything is important; everything has to happen right now. Your father was counting on that fishing trip next week. You know how much –’

‘We’ll go fishing when I get back. Look, I have to go up there one way or the other; I just wanted to let you know where I was going to be, and it would be a big help if you could lend me a little extra money. If you don’t want to, then –’

‘Well, you’re old enough to be in college, so you’re old enough to go wherever you please. I just worry about you, that’s all. It’s what mothers are for … besides lending money.’ She winked, and opened her purse.

Jeff threw some clothes in a suitcase, put the two hundred dollars his mother had given him into a pair of rolled-up socks. He was out of the house before his father or sister got up.

The old Chevy was parked in the curved driveway, behind his father’s big Buick Electra and his mother’s Pontiac. The car gave a familiar cough when Jeff started it up, then came rumbling to life.

He pulled out of the suburban development where his parents lived, skirted Little Lake Conway, and sat for a moment with the engine idling when he came to the intersection of Hoffner Road and Orange Avenue. Had the Beeline Expressway to the Cape been built yet? He couldn’t remember. If it had, that’d be a straighter shot to I-95 north. There hadn’t been anything in the paper about a launch this morning, so the traffic around Cocoa and Titusville shouldn’t be too bad; but if the expressway hadn’t been built yet, he’d find himself stuck for too long on a pitted old two-lane road. He decided to play it safe, go on into town, and take I-4 up to Daytona.

Jeff drove through the sleepy little city, still untouched by the Disney boom to come and only just beginning to feel the spillover development of the NASA presence forty miles away. He picked up I-95 sooner than he’d expected, tuned the radio to WAPE in Jacksonville: ‘Little’ Stevie Wonder doing ‘Fingertips, Part II,’ then Marvin Gaye belting out ‘Pride and Joy.’

Three months. How the hell could he have lost three months this time? What did it mean? Well, there was no use worrying about it now; it was beyond his control. Pamela would be upset, with good reason, but at least he’d see her soon. Concentrate on that, he told himself as he sped north through the long stretches of pine woods and scrub brush.

He made Savannah by noon; there was a brief gap in the interstate there, slowing his progress, and the streets of the gracious old city were incongruously lined with scowling, helmeted police. Jeff made his way past the barricades cautiously, aware of the demonstrations and subsequent racist violence that had broken out here this week. It was sad to see that all begin yet again, but there was nothing he could do other than avoid the bloody confrontations.

He stopped for a quick sandwich a little after three, at a Howard Johnson’s outside Florence, South Carolina. The flatlands of Florida and coastal Georgia were behind him now, and he drove through rural hill country, keeping the speedometer of the powerful old V-8 a notch above the posted 70 mile-per-hour speed limit.

It was dark when he drove past the turnoff to his boarding school in Virginia, where he’d made that unplanned pilgrimage so many years ago to see the little bridge that had become to him the very icon of loss and futility. He could see the lights of the Rendells’ house from the highway; his pretty young former teacher and object of his onetime adulation would be preparing dinner for her husband, and for the child whose birth had sparked Jeff’s adolescent jealous rage. Love your family well, he wished her silently as he sped past the peaceful home on its scenic ridge; there’s enough pain in the world as it is.

He had a late meal of fried chicken and sweet potatoes at a truck stop north of Richmond, bought a thermos, and had the waitress fill it with black coffee. The Beltway took him around Washington, and he made it to Baltimore just after midnight. At Wilmington, Delaware, he switched from I-95 to the Jersey Turnpike, avoiding whatever predawn traffic there might be through Philadelphia and Trenton. As the night wore on he marvelled again, as he always did at the beginning of each replay, at his own youthful stamina; in his thirties and forties, he’d have needed to break this drive up into at least two days, and even that pace would have been exhausting.

The George Washington Bridge was all but deserted at 4:00 A.M., and Jeff kept the radio jacked up to full volume as Cousin Brucie whooped and wailed along with the Essex on ‘Easier Said than Done.’ Driving through New Rochelle on the New England Thruway, images of a Pamela he had never known filled his mind: She had lived here in her first existence, raised a family … died here, assuming it was the end of her life, unaware that her many lives had just begun.

What had death been like for her this time, he wondered, there on Majorca? Calmer, he hoped, more accepting, as it had been for him at the cabin near Montgomery Creek, knowing that this time they’d have each other to come back to. But he didn’t want to dwell on the thought of her agony, however short-lived. That part was over, for now, and they had a limitless future together to look forward to.

The first light of day was beginning to tinge the eastern sky as Jeff reached Westport. He located the address of Pamela’s family in a phone book at a Shell station. It was much too early in the morning for him to show up at her house yet. He found a twenty-four-hour coffee shop, forced himself to go through the New York Times from front page to last, just to kill time. Things were still tense in Savannah, he read; Ralph Ginzburg was appealing his obscenity conviction for publishing Eros magazine, and controversy was growing over the Supreme Court’s recent ruling against compulsory school prayer.

Jeff looked at his watch: 7:25. Would 8:00 A.M. be too early? The family ought to be up by then, maybe having breakfast. Should he interrupt them while they were eating? What difference did it make, he thought. Pamela would introduce him as a friend, and they’d invite him to join them. He dawdled nervously over his coffee until twenty to eight, then asked the coffee-shop cashier for directions to the address he’d written down.

The Phillips’s house was a two-storey neo-colonial on a shaded, upper-middle-class street. Nothing to differentiate it from a thousand other homes in a thousand other towns across the country; only Jeff knew of the miraculous event that had taken place there.

He rang the doorbell, tucking his T-shirt into his jeans. It suddenly occurred to him that he should have changed; he should have at least found a rest room where he could shave –

‘Yes?’

The woman bore a startling resemblance to Pamela; only the hairstyle was different, a moderate bouffant instead of the straight, Dutch-boy cut Jeff had grown so fond of. She was about the same age Pamela had been when he’d seen her last, and the impression was unsettling.

‘Is, uh, Pamela Phillips home, ma’am?’

The woman frowned, pursing her lips slightly in the same expression of mild consternation Jeff had seen so frequently on Pamela’s face. ‘She’s not up yet. Are you a friend of hers from school?’

‘Not exactly from school, but I do –’

‘Who is it, Beth?’ came a man’s voice from inside the house. ‘Is it the man about the air conditioning?’

‘No, dear, it’s a friend of Pam’s.’

Jeff shifted his feet uneasily. ‘I’m sorry to disturb you this early in the morning, but it really is important that I speak to Pamela.’

‘I don’t even know if she’s awake yet.’

‘If I could just come inside and wait – I don’t want to put you to any inconvenience, but …’

‘Well … Why don’t you come on in and have a seat, for a minute at least?’ Jeff stepped into a small foyer, followed her into a comfortably furnished living room, where a man in a grey pinstriped suit stood before a mirror, adjusting his tie.

‘If that fellow does show up this morning,’ the man was saying, ‘tell him the thermostat is –’ He stopped as he caught sight of Jeff in the mirror. ‘You’re a friend of Pam’s?’ he asked, turning to face Jeff.

‘Yes, sir.’

‘Is she expecting you?’

‘I … believe so.’

‘What do you mean, you “believe so”? Isn’t this a bit early to pop in on someone unannounced?’

‘Now, David …’ his wife cautioned.

‘She is expecting me,’ Jeff said.

‘Well, this is the first I’ve heard about it. Beth, did Pam say anything to you last night about someone coming over this morning?’

‘Not that I recall, dear. But I’m sure –’

‘What’s your name, young man?’

‘Jeff Winston, sir.’

‘I don’t remember Pam’s mentioning anyone by that name. Do you, Beth?’

‘David, don’t be so rude to the boy. Would you like some cinnamon toast, Jeff? I just made some, and a fresh pot of coffee, too.’

‘No, ma’am, thank you very much, but I’ve had breakfast.’

‘Where do you know our daughter from?’ Pamela’s father asked.

From Los Angeles, Jeff thought, giddy with lack of sleep and too many cups of coffee and a thousand miles of highway. I know her from Montgomery Creek, he wanted to say; from New York, and Majorca.

‘I said, where did you meet Pam? You look a little old to be one of her classmates.’

‘We … met through a mutual friend. At the tennis club.’ That ought to sound plausible; she’d told him she’d played tennis since she was twelve.

‘And who might that be? I think we know most of Pam’s friends, and –’

‘Daddy! Did I leave my Green Stamp book in your car? It was almost full, and now I can’t find –’

She stood at the top of the stairs, all gangly teenaged arms and legs in a pair of white Bermuda shorts and a yellow polo shirt, her fine blond hair pulled into two little ponytails, one over each ear.

‘Could you come down here, Pam?’ her father said. ‘There’s someone here to see you.’

Pamela walked slowly down the stairs, looking at Jeff. He wanted to run to her, take her in his arms, and kiss away all the torment that he knew she’d been through; but there’d be time enough for that. He grinned, and she smiled back at him.

‘Do you know this young man, Pam?’

Her eyes were full of youth and promise as they met Jeff’s loving gaze.

‘No,’ she said. ‘I don’t think so.’

‘He says he met you at the tennis club.’

She shook her head. ‘I think I’d remember if I had. Do you know Dennis Whitmire?’ she asked Jeff innocently.

‘Majorca,’ Jeff said in a voice hoarse with strain. ‘The painting, the mountain …’

‘I’m sorry?’

‘I think you’d better be on your way, whoever you are,’ her father cut in.

‘Pamela. Oh, Jesus, Pamela …’

The man took Jeff’s arm firmly, ushered him towards the door. ‘Look, fella,’ he said in a quiet but commanding tone, ‘I don’t know what your game is, but I don’t want to see you around here again. I don’t want you bothering my daughter, not here at the house, not at school, not at the tennis club. Nowhere. Got that?’

‘Sir, this has all been a misunderstanding, and I apologize for the trouble. But Pamela does know me; she –’

‘Anyone who knows my daughter calls her “Pam,” not “Pamela.” And let me remind you that she is fourteen years old, is that clear? Do you get my drift? Because I don’t want you claiming there’s been any “misunderstanding” about the fact that you are harassing a minor.’

‘I don’t want to bother anyone. I just –’

‘Then get the hell out of my house before I call the police.’

‘Sir, Pamela will remember who I am soon. If I could just leave a number where she can get in touch with me –’

‘You’re not leaving anything except this house. Now.’

‘It’s unfortunate we had to meet this way, Mr Phillips. I’d really like us to be able to get along in the future, and I hope –’

Pamela’s father shoved him roughly onto the outside steps, and the door slammed in his face. Jeff could hear raised voices through the window to the living room: Pamela crying in confusion, her mother pleading for calm, her father’s strident tones alternately protective and accusatory.

Jeff walked back to his car, sat in the driver’s seat, and rested his weary, jangled head on the steering wheel. After a while he started the engine, and headed south.

Dear Pamela,

I’m sorry if I confused you yesterday, or upset your parents. Someday soon, I hope you’ll understand. When that time comes, you can contact me through   my family in Orlando, Florida. Their number is 555-9561. They’ll know where I can be reached.

Please don’t lose this letter; hide it somewhere safe. You’ll know when you need it.

With fondest regards,

Jeff Winston

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