Saturday, July 7, 2012

F3 Cycle 83 "The Secrets That Bind Our Lives Together"


F3 Cycle 83 Prompt:  Write a story about a first crush, and include the outcome when the crush has been revealed.
Genre:  Any.
Word Limit:  1,500 words.
Due Date:  Wednesday, July 11, 10:00 pm, EST.

Whenever I go home to the Lowcountry of South Carolina there is almost an unbearable melancholy I have to deal with at seeing the changes reshaping the people and places of my childhood. I was born in Georgetown in the early 1960’s when it was still a small town kept alive by the paper mill built at the onset of World War Two and a motley collection of families devoted to pulling as much fish and shrimp from the sea as their nets and Mother Nature would allow. Now the entire area seems desperate to catch up to the insane pace and lifestyle the rest of the country keeps.

The church my father built in 1962 on the north side of town was no exception. My old man started the First Baptist Church of Maryville the year before on a rainy spring morning beside an ancient oak tree with twenty other people. My mom told me once the service lasted only fifteen minutes because dad had to rush back to the paper mill to finish his shift. As much as my father loved the Lord he wasn’t one of those fancy, professional preachers, he had to earn an honest living to feed his family.

The old church is long gone and a huge asphalt parking lot covers most of the property it was built it on. The ancient oak still stands, granted a reprieve but isolated in what the people in this age call a “mini-park.” It stands like a lonely sentinel just waiting for its chance to reclaim its domain. The First Baptist Church of Maryville still exists; several buildings have come and gone over the years and what now serves its members is a huge and gaudy modern construction of glass and brick. See, while my father passed away years ago, the new senior pastor has attracted a lot of the finest and upwardly mobile now living in the area to join his flock. I still come and visit from time to time and I like to joke with this charismatic man of God that the only reason he puts up with a poor slob like me is that he, his beautiful wife, and I were best friends growing up.

***
  
Years ago in a far simpler world Ben and I had met each other while walking to school. It was the second day of first grade for us both and with our dads trailing behind we joined the flow of other children to neighborhood elementary school.

As children, Ben and I brought out the best in each other. Right from the time I could walk, I had the knack of effortlessly getting into trouble. As time went on my antics increased to the point that I could certainly be called mischievous, headstrong, and downright disrespectful to authority. Because of my antics, my dad bent his knees in prayers many times in an effort to save my soul.

Ben, on the other hand, was always more cautious to downright timid. Ben’s father worked at a local garage and was a good-old-boy redneck, and while he loved his son, was often confused by his apprehensive nature. While I never told Ben this, I personally remember a time hearing his father confide to mine that he was worried his son would grow up to be, what was politely called back then, a “sissy.”

Together we proved to be patient and understanding of each others weaknesses. I got Ben to go into places, like the woods behind our neighborhood that would have otherwise terrified him. While Ben talked me out of throwing rocks through our elementary school windows. Our fathers encouraged our friendship, for the same reason, since it was easy to tell both dads viewed the other’s child as the perfect son.

Long restricted to our street, as Ben and I grew older our horizons in the neighborhood expanded.  Around the time we were in the third grade, our parents allowed us to move out into the wider community. For me I remember thinking Ben and I were intrepid explorers. After Ben got over some initial fears, we realized each day offering a new adventure. It stayed that way until the day we stumbled upon a young girl riding her bike. That was the day we met Jennifer.

***
  
Turning off the main road, I soon see the church and chuckle at the sight of the parking lot overflowing with Jaguars, BMW’s, Mercedes Benz’s, owned by the professionals that now dominated the area. A far cry from the beat up old trucks and cars of poor mill workers that made up my father’s congregation. Since I am a founding member of the church, I have my own reserved parking space mere feet from the front door. My old, post-divorce truck is a stark contrast to all the expensive imported automobiles spread out all across the lot. I have heard scuttlebutt some of the new parishioners, who do not know my history, take umbrage at having such an eyesore so close to the main entrance.   

Inside the church, I take a seat on one of the empty pews at the very rear of the sanctuary and watch the crowd. A primatologist would have a field day watching these folks who do everything but physically groom each other. On the other hand, when I come to visit I have my own less than honorable agenda and thankfully I remembered to control myself when Jennifer and her entourage enter from a side door. She walked in the sanctuary wearing a form-fitting purple silk sundress that somehow highlighted her raven black hair. Despite the crowd, those ice-blue eyes of hers caught sight me all the way in the back and she stopped momentarily to flash me a sphinx-like smile that suggested neither warmth nor annoyance.  

***

In those early years, Jennifer easily became the third member of our little pea pod, as my mother liked to say. In temperament, she was more like me but being more mature knew enough to make sure Ben never felt left out. In a way I was in love with her even then but I was too much into the little boy frame of mind to understand. On the other hand, Ben openly spoke about marrying her up until middle school when he finally realized such talk was extremely uncool. To Ben she was an exotic and carefree spirit who never failed to come to his aid, even when he embarrassed her in front of other kids.

There was never any competition between Ben and myself over Jennifer. To me, she was a sister, nothing more and I thought her feelings about me were similar. That changed when Sally arrived.

Sally entered our little group in the freshmen year of high school. Sally was Jennifer’s cousin and somehow she attached herself to me right from the start. Being older, I understood the dynamic that was being played out between the four of us. At first, Sally irritated me and I resented the friction she caused but as months went by my feelings for her began to grow. By the summer of our freshmen year, she and I were going to together forcing Jennifer to reluctantly pair off with Ben.

***  

“Praise be to God,” Ben cried out from his raised pulpit clearly enjoying the unbridled adulation of his flock. The shy and scared little creature I knew so well as a child had long since become a man with an ego about as big as his church. Having oodles of carefully developed charisma, the crowd in front of him became utterly silent the second he said those words. “The prodigal son has returned,” he began again looking directly at me. “My lifelong best friend and the son of our founding minister Sean Harper has driven down from Greenville to see how much his father’s church has grown. Michael, stand up and wave to the good folks assembled here today.”

Knowing he would not let me escape with a humble wave of the hand I did as he said and watched the fancy mob look me over with cold, analytical eyes. It was especially bad coming from Jennifer who from her seat next the pulpit, she looked at me as if I was a curious bacterium.

***

By the senior year of high school, Sally and I were making plans to attend the University of South Carolina up in Columbia. Marriage was a foregone conclusion and during those years my father was as happy with me as a pig is in warm, wet mud. His plans had me returning home and taking over his ministry. Sally and I never said anything about that; our plans were more nebulous but had nothing to do with trying to run and grow a church. Dad refused to listen but none of it mattered anyway.

Sally and her mother were killed in a car crash coming home from Myrtle Beach a few months from graduation. For a week, I completely withdrew into myself and had to be watched twenty-four hours a day by friends and family. Ben was out of the country on missionary work for my father so that left Jennifer staying with me alone for several hours a day to allow my mother to get chores done. By that time, Ben and Jennifer were engaged but that did not stop her from locking the door to my room one afternoon and making love to me. And, while it may curse me to an eternity in Hell I willingly took what she offered.

“Michael,” she said looking at me as we both lay naked on my bed, “we need to leave this town today. I’ve never felt for Ben the way I feel for you. We can start a completely new life far away from these people. I know you feel the same way about me.”

It was way too soon for any talk like that, I looked at her like she was insane even though I wanted to do just what she suggested. Days later, I am in an army recruiting office and soon after that on my way to basic training. I stayed away from home for six years, in the mean time Ben and Jennifer got married, and when my dad retired, he took over the Maryville church.

I eventually married a woman I met in the service and we made the upstate our home. It took the passing of my parents and the inherited duties of administering certain church assets to bring me home every few months. Ben never found about that afternoon Jennifer and I shared or what she said to me about running away. I figure I owed my friend that much.

***

The service concluded in its regular fashion with Ben, Jennifer, and I dealing with paperwork after the church was empty. After that we pile into our cars and drive over to Murrells Inlet to eat dinner at our favorite seafood restaurant. It is a drawn out affair where our ancient friendships are renewed with me yet again being forced by Ben to promise I would someday find a good woman and remarry.

With dinner concluded, Ben and Jennifer excused themselves and return home while I drove to the motel I usually stay at while in town. It is a modern but quiet place situated on the edge of Georgetown facing the marsh with the waters of Winyah Bay just beyond. When I started coming back down to Georgetown after so many years away Ben would demand that I be a guest at his house saying we were family. It was truly a nice gesture but I always declined, at first it was because I felt the secret Jennifer and I carried was just too heavy an item to have all three of us in the same house. Luckily I was able to convince my friend that after so many years away I needed my space and solitude so he eventually stopped asking. Later on it was because the motel was neatly tucked away off the main highway offering excellent privacy from anyone just driving by.

Once in my lonely room the remaining afternoon bleeds over into the evening with my only company the flickering television. If I was an honorable man I would get in my truck and begin the drive back to my equally lonely apartment up in Greenville. Instead I lay on my bed and think about the two people who are the only remaining anchors to my hometown and a past that fades further away each day.

I know Jennifer is spending her evening relaxing and catching up on her reading. The demands of being a popular preacher's wife weigh heavily on her during the week and she jealously guards her Sunday alone time. On the other hand Ben does not have that privilege. The price he must pay for his fame and growing influence in the community requires that each of his sermons not only be thought provoking but dramatic performances worthy of the best professional actors. No matter how much Ben seems to have changed over the years deep down he is still the same scare little boy overly eager to please everyone. The first thing he did after arriving home was grab a bottle of bourbon and lock himself into his study to begin the process of writing next week’s sermon. Somewhere around midnight, he would pass out and not become conscious again until late Monday morning. It is a depressingly sad life we all lead but each of us are trapped by our history and love for each other.

A little after midnight I am pulled away from my morbid contemplations when I see headlights shining through the drawn curtains of my room, the knock on my door that comes seconds later is no surprise. While experience has shown we have little to worry about anyone seeing her I quickly open it to let Jennifer come inside. It is almost a ritual for us now, once inside she wordlessly deposits her pocket book and car keys on the small desk and then fall into my arms. The first kiss is always so deep it almost engulfs our tortured souls. Time is not our ally so our words are few but they generally fall into a familiar pattern.

“I hate you.” Jennifer she said that particular night pulling away so she could undo the purple dress she still wore. As it crumpled to the floor, I looked at her naked body hungry to pull her close again. The true love of my life was still as beautiful as the day she begged me to runaway with her and my thoughts raced to say something in response.

“Yeah, I hate me too.” Was all I said, after that thought the world outside did not matter. Hours later as we both lay together exhausted and spent I often find myself wishing I could get her to leave Ben and runaway with me like she wanted so many years ago. The irony in our little drama is that while Jennifer still loves me she has become use to the lifestyle only Ben can provide her. It is not a happy or healthy arrangement for any of us but when Jennifer walks out of my room in the morning all I can think about is how long will it be before my next visit home.


16 comments:

Pixel Peeper said...

Great story...Just as long as nobody finds out!

Leslie Parsley said...

Can't top Pixel's comment. My thoughts exactly.

Beach Bum said...

Pixel and Leslie: This is a much scaled down version of a story that is close to eleven pages long. The story is a complete parred down rewrite but to keep the core I still blew out the word count. In the original each of the three characters suffer from major flaws that equalize the immoral behavior of the other two.

In this version "Ben" pretty much gets a complete pass although as I sit here writing this comment I may go back and add a sentence of two so I can bring him down a peg.

lime said...

oh the secrets held by those considered far above the rest of us...

Beach Bum said...

Lime: My humble and poorly written fiction is nothing compared to some of the stuff I know about.

Randal Graves said...

Boomchickawowowow, but this is, of course, entirely fiction.

Akelamalu said...

Of course Ben will find out eventually won't he?

Great story Beach.

Mike Williams said...

oww! leaving broken hearts with every step. i would like to see this one fleshed out a bit more and more needs to said about Ben. does he know, does he care? Good writing my friend.

Beach Bum said...

Randal: Thank God for the Fifth Admendment. And the fact my wife thinks my little blog is a cute, child-like activity.

Akelamalu: This story is a one time visit but somehow I see the character of Ben so caught up in his little religious empire that his wife's affair and his best friend's betrayal escapes his notice.

Mike: In the eleven page original that I based this story on Ben does not know. Of course in the original story each of the three have their own very serious character flaws which evens out the blame.

Michael is dealing with the aftermath of divorce to a woman he never really loved. His ex-wife has remarried and her new husband is relatively rich. Michael's two boys are teenagers and are caught up in the adventures a rich step-father can afford.

Ben's moral problems come from pride; he is a up and coming VIP with friends in very high places. Because of the rich people attending his church his salary has grown considerably.

Jennifer still loves Michael but cannot give up the lifestyle only Ben can provide.

Ranch Chimp said...

Runnin away together and chasing bike's ... well Bum ... a romance indeed. I'm not sure right off hand of a first crush for me, I would have to give it long thought, however, I remember a first kiss that a gal gave me after school (just a light petty kiss type thing though) and I was about 9 year's old attended Clark District 5 School in North Las Vegas, and was fixin to move back to New York and this girl from class pulled me out of sight after school and you know, started talkin about me leaving, missing me kind of stuff, etc, etc and she suprised me, but I couldnt never forget it. Great story Bum

Later Guy ....

Glenn Ricafrente said...

This story really took me in. Kept dashing down the lines to find out what happens.

Life As I Know It Now said...

Ben's flaws are his current egotism and alcohol fueled sermons. I think he is covered in this short version well enough. Jen's flaws are that she wants the main character and she can't stay away, she had to settle for less than her true heart's desire but is compensated with wealth and prestige, so she hates Michael as well as herself. And Michael's flaws? He is fucking his best friend's wife.

Ravens said...

What a sad, yet happy life they lead. She hates him, yet will be back. He hates himself he says, but has a love/hate relationship with her. Ben loves himself - or at least his image up there on the pulpit. Many crushes here. I suppose they'll all keep going on this path until something external changes it.

Joyce said...

What an incredible story. This really does make me want to know more, but then again, I don't see how anything could really change. Michael acts as though he would never betray Ben openly since they were so close as children. But he has no problem betraying his friend behind his back. I don't believe Jennifer would ultimately leave Ben, even though there's obviously something missing in their relationship. I don't think she would feel the risk would be worth the reward.

I think they're all very sad people, all wrapped up in their own wants and needs, and pretty much all use each other in some way. It's tragic really, since they were all so close growing up, but as charming and cute as crushes can be, there is also the possibility of long-term damage as is shown here.

Looking back to childhood days, one has to wonder about what the consequences could have been if one or two relationships had followed a different path. Kinda scary...

Doc Häagen-Dazs said...

Jennifer has raven black hair? I love her. (You anticipated that.) And I can easily see how you can't tear yourself off from your shared history. I couldn't tear myself away, either, for this piece is eloquently written and serves a well-contrived story line.

Doc Häagen-Dazs said...
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