A cowbell clanged as I released the door.
Meg looked back, raising an eyebrow.
We followed Shelby past the stuffed animals, county music CD collections and faux vintage t-shirts to the hostess’s station.
“The kids are going to be miffed that I went to Cracker Barrel without them,” I sighed.
“Your own damn fault for raising kids in the city,” Shelby shook her head. “I can’t believe there’s not a Cracker Barrel in Manhattan.”
“That would be fun,” Meg mused. “I guess they’d have to hire gays, then.”
“Man, can you imagine?” I said. “A Cracker Barrel on Eight Avenue, right in the heart of Chelsea, with a big old rainbow flag flying high.”
“All those hot boys, making out on the rocking chairs . . .”
“ . . . while playing that brainteaser puzzle with the golf tees . . .”
“Okay girls, come on,” Shelby beckoned. “We’re getting a table.”
Shelby and Meg scanned the room for familiar faces. We were among travelers taking a respite from the Turnpike, but also among hometown folks dining in a favorite local restaurant.
Down home, south Jersey.
They sat us near a window facing the parking lot.
“They always put the good looking people in prominent view,” I said, as I always do. “Drives up business.”
Shelby moved the chintz curtains to look at the cars. “I dunno, see anyone we know?”
Meg looked up from the menu, turning to glance back at the other diners. “No, no one I know.”
“All right, then,” Shelby said, opening her menu. “Whatever. No one knows we’re here.”
In bringing me to her hometown, Shelby wanted to fill me in on her life and upbringing in small town New Jersey. She maintains a young adult’s love/hate relationship with the place she grew up—she relaxes among the familiar sites and people even as she is occasionally irked by evidence of provincialism.
My visit allowed the ancillary pleasure of indulging in a little épater le bourgeois.
So what if the yokels saw a bright face from the Class of ‘02 with her old man—Class of ’82—holding hands at the Wal-Mart, his arm around her shoulders at the Cracker Barrel?
Shelby isn’t like every other kid. She likes to shake things up. If people gawk, let ‘em.
As for me, I was content to drink endless cups of coffee and eat biscuits with gravy.
“Good bacon,” I chewed.
“Fuck yeah it is,” Meg agreed.
After refueling on breakfast at Cracker Barrel and gas at Wawa, we were off on a driving tour through Shelby’s life.
We passed the Blockbuster where she had worked when we met.
Shelby steered us down a two-lane highway to the historic site where she once served as a tour guide. She answered my questions about the nineteenth-century fort and plain wood structures nearby. Meg pointed out the best places for picnics.
Shelby drove us to a colonial tavern that was the site of a dreadful massacre. The gore continued to flow as we looked around the secluded cemetery where Andrew Cunan began the killing spree that would end with him standing over Versace’s body on Ocean Drive in Miami.
Local history can have so many curious twists.
We were admiring the churches and brick storefronts of Main Street when Shelby turned to look over her shoulder.
“Hey, that was my mom’s car,” she said. “I wonder why she isn’t at work?” She dug out her cell phone and pushed a button. “Hey, it’s me. Did you just drive down Main? . . . Well, you drove right by us! . . . Yeah, it’s me and my baby and Meg . . .”
“Hi, Shelby’s mom,” Meg called.
“Meg says ‘hi,’” Shelby said, looking at me.
I waved feebly.
“Jefferson says ‘hey’ too. So what are you up to? . . . uh huh . . . who, with Jill? Okay . . . all right. Later.”
Shelby closed the phone. “Yeah, that was her all right, picking up my sister.”
“Oh cool,” Meg said. “Band practice?”
“Yeah, band. But man, that reminds me. I need to go by the house to pick up a cable so I can play Sega at your place.”
“You can play Sega on my television?”
“Yeah man, straight from the laptop. It’s sweet, so old school.”
My dorky jailbait girlfriend likes the video games that were in arcades when I was her age. At that time, I considered those games to be kid stuff. I guess things have changed in the intervening decades.
On the way to her family’s house, Shelby and Meg pointed out the middle school they attended together. Their high school was across the street.
“There’s the new building over there,” Meg said. “Did they move the rehearsal space?”
“Yeah, that’s all new,” Shelby nodded. “You know Mister Campbell must be glad about that.”
“Oh yeah, Mister Campbell!” Meg giggled. “The way he hated that music closet—remember that . . . ?”
“Fuck yeah, that was whack, man.”
The girls commiserated on the shared memory of a yesteryear that was not so far removed from yesterday until Shelby pulled into a driveway.
Meg paused and looked at the house. “I think I’ll just wait in the car.”
“Me too,” I agreed. I sat back.
“Whatever, I’ll be out in a minute.” Shelby unhitched her seatbelt and opened the door. She stopped and turned in her seat. “No, come in. Nobody is home, maybe my sister, but she’ll be asleep. And Mom made pumpkin pie.”
“No thanks,” I said.
“Did you say pie?” Meg asked.
“Come on, there’s pie.”
“Okay, for pie.”
“I’m fine, thanks.”
“Okay man, whatever, we’ll be back. No pie for you.”
I watched as the girls climbed the steps into the house. A screen door shut behind them.
I looked around for something to read. There was nothing in the car. My eyes scanned the yard and looked up, to the attic where Shelby sleeps.
I closed my eyes and wished the girls would come back.
I didn’t care to be sitting in the driveway of my jailbait girlfriend’s home. I felt exposed, like target waiting to be hit. I had recently met Shelby’s mom, and while it had gone well, I didn’t want to push my luck.
I knew her parents were not exactly keen on their daughter’s romance with an older man in Manhattan, particularly once they had discovered my blog and read, in some detail, about our love for one another and, worse, the lurid specifics of our sexual activities.
There was a rap on my window.
I opened my eyes. Meg opened the door.
“It’s taking Shelby time to find that cable,” she said. “She wants you to come in.”
I grimaced. “No one is home?”
“Her sister is up, but it’s cool.”
“All right.” I trusted Meg’s assessment. I unfastened my seat belt.
I followed Meg into the house.
“Hey.” A teenage version of Shelby stood near a piano. She wore sweats and a hooded top over her head.
“Hi, I’m Jefferson.” I crossed the room to shake her hand.
She removed her hand from a pocket and took my hand for a moment. “Hey, I’m Lindsey.”
“Nice to meet you, Lindsey.”
Lindsey looked at her feet, then at Meg. She shoved her hand back into her pocket. “Yeah, thanks.”
“That’s my sister!” Shelby shouted from upstairs.
“I think he figured that out!” Lindsey shouted back.
“Then offer him some pie, moron!”
“Kiss my ass!”
I looked at Meg. “I’m fine. I don’t need pie.”
Meg bit her lip. “It is very good pie.”
Lindsey stared at me.
I felt as conspicuous as a fox in a rabbit warren.
We all knew that the discovery of my blog had caused rifts in the family, upsetting Shelby’s mother and sending her father through the roof. Lindsey had listened as accusations and curses flew back and forth.
Now here I stood, in the flesh. Her older sister’s older lover.
What’s the big deal, she thought. He’s just some old dude.
I looked around the living room. I pet the long-haired white cat that sheds on everything. I saw a black and white photo in a frame on the piano. A young soldier in uniform smiled next to Shelby, circa nineteen forty-three.
“Is that your grandmother?” I asked Lindsey.
She looked to the photograph. “Yeah, Gramma Dottie.”
“Strong genes you’ve got.”
“Yeah, we all look alike, if that’s what you mean.”
“That’s what I meant, yes.”
Meg looked up the stairs. “You found it, Shelby?”
“Fuck no,” Shelby called back. “I can’t find anything in this fucking mess.”
“So clean your room, idiot,” Lindsey shouted. “I can’t move in there.”
“You better not be moving in my room, bitch, or I’ll kick your ass.”
I heard the sound of wheels on the gravel driveway.
This was inevitable, I thought.
“Is that Dad?” Shelby shouted.
“No, it’s Mom,” Lindsey called back, her eyes on me.
I glanced to Meg. She looked a little nervous.
Shelby’s family had long considered Meg to be a good influence on their daughter. She was a little older, a little more mature, a little more focused on pursuing a career. Meg was the angel on Shelby’s shoulder.
Of course, the discovery of our blogs had dispelled some notions of Meg’s angelic qualities.
Now she was standing in the family living room with Shelby’s old man, even further implicated in our depravity.
The screen door flew back. An eleven-year-old version of Shelby bound into the room.
“Hey Meg!” she said, dropping her violin case and rushing to an embrace.
“Hey there, Jill,” Meg smiled. “How was practice?”
“It was fine,” Jill said, hesitantly. She had noticed me.
“Jill, this is Jefferson,” Meg said.
“Nice to meet you, Jill,” I said, offering a hand.
Jill took an arm from Meg’s waist and extended her left hand to me. “Hi.”
I was shaking Jill’s hand as her mother entered the house.
“Well, hello Meg, what are you doing . . . oh! Hello, Jefferson.”
I dropped Jill’s hand and stepped over. I put an arm on her mother’s shoulders and kissed her cheek. “Good afternoon.”
“I heard you were coming down for your birthday,” she said, shifting a grocery bag in her arms, her eyes roaming to Meg and Lindsey. “Are you kids having a good time?”
“Very much, thank you.” I smiled. I was one of the “kids” in this context. “Shelby has been giving us a tour of the region. It’s lovely here.”
“Good, well, it’s not New York, but we like it. Where’s Shelby?”
“Upstairs,” Meg answered.
“Is that Mom,” Shelby called. “Mom, have you seen my frigging Sega cable?”
“I have no idea what you are talking about,” her mother replied, lifting the groceries to a kitchen counter. “Did you look in the laundry?”
“It wouldn’t be in the laundry, Mom, it’s a . . . oh wait, here it is.”
About time she found that thing, I thought.
I looked at Meg. We were itching to bolt for the door.
Shelby clomped down the stairs. In her descent. I could hear the confident landing of someone who has walked down these particular steps in this particular rhythmic stomp since childhood.
“Hey Mom. We had to stop by the get this cable and some pie. We’re going back to Meg’s tonight.”
“Oh, did you like the pie?,” her mother asked us.
“I love your pumpkin pie,” Meg smiled. “I need to learn how to make that.”
“Well, I have two. Why don’t you take one?”
“Well, no, we can’t . . .”
“Take the frigging pie, Meg,” Shelby taunted. “We’ll want it later.”
“I’ll wrap it for you,” her mother offered. She pulled a box of Saran Wrap from the top of her refrigerator.
Jill was staring at me. I smiled at her.
We couldn’t stay much longer, I hoped.
Once the pie was packed, once Shelby went to the bathroom, once her mother unpacked the groceries, once all those things were done, we said our goodbyes and returned to Shelby’s car.
“When are you coming back?” Shelby’s mother asked.
“I don’t know, maybe Wednesday?” Shelby answered. “Bye.”
“Bye.” Her mother closed the door.
I handed the pie to Meg and fastened myself in the front seat. “Well, that wasn’t too awkward,” I opined.
“Just tell me you didn’t kiss my mother, man.”
“I can’t help it, sweet. I kissed your mama.”
Shelby turned the engine. “We don’t do that, man. This isn’t New York fucking City. You don’t fucking kiss people here.”
“I can’t help it, baby,” I shrugged. “My mama raised me right.”
“Your mama raised a freak, dude.”
“Yes, I suppose she did.”
Shelby took her mama’s pie and her old man back to her best friend’s place.
Shelby’s mama could take heart that pumpkin pies tell no tales.