Any visit back to the home town has been made with mixed emotions. It is a city whose current condition can occasionally evoke the promise of yesterday—to those who remember that yesterday, at least. But the city of today, ah that is another story.
Kent did chose to drive down the street of his infancy and childhood. It is good, he thought, that the trees whose name it bore were not chestnuts or elms, but at least a tree that could be found elsewhere in the city. But this street of many childhood memories no longer had occasional willows or the majestic elms he remembered, forming arches over the pavement. Instead, there were a few young maples and flowering crabs—at least he thought those were the names. But the majesty of the street of his childhood years was gone, yet, perhaps, maybe in a decade or so, some approximation of its beauty might reappear. The houses, including the one of his childhood, were on narrow lots, some had been adequately maintained, others ... had not been. Several beer cans and even a pizza box in or near gutters told Kent that the old neighborhood had deteriorated a bit. As has the city, unfortunately.
Certainly, the main street has deteriorated, more than "a bit". Three "five-and-tens", long gone; a men's shop, locally owned, also long gone—as are its founders, whose resting places are in the cemetery Kent knew he would visit, for each of his grandparents are buried there. The movie theatre, and he remembered its name, the Bellevue, became "adult entertainment", probably long ago. Cigarette butts and other urban residue near the ticket booth, a booth no longer listing prices, but having on its plexiglass ticket window the "f" word and, probably written by a different hand, the "s" word, all testified that the Bellevue was no longer screening anything—X-rated or otherwise.
Of course the street's two butcher shops closed, surely long ago, and even the locally owned department store, which, Kent remembered, hosted Santa Claus each Saturday between Thanksgiving and Christmas, was boarded up, although a realtor's sign on one of its vacant display windows says "For sale or lease, reasonable terms".
Across the street from the Bellevue still stood the bank, still majestic, with its impressive bronze doors, bronze-framed windows, and window ledges, the latter convenient resting places for those waiting for the bus. The building spoke of yesterday's prosperity, indeed, for many years, there was no bank-owed parking lot, although, Kent vaguely remembered, one was created maybe during the 1950s. Adjacent to the bank and the nearby funeral home, that lot could be used by persons coming to late afternoon or evening calling hours, in fact Kent remembered one time his parents had taken him to calling hours ... their car was one of many parking there that evening...
On the main interior door of that very impressive bank building, facing the massive bronze-front doors, was a sign, "This branch will permanently close New Year's Eve. You are welcome to use our new branch bank effective January 3." The building, Kent recalled, was once the proud headquarters of a multi-county, many bank holding company; now, like the Bellevue, it was shuttered, and has been for months!
Standing in front of those long-unused bronze doors, Kent looked at his reflection. Yes wearing glasses now, his once thick brownish hair now tinged with gray, his weight, perhaps 170 and adequately distributed over his six-foot frame, unlike his high school years, when he barely weighed 125 and could have been a candidate for one of those Charles Atlas 97-pound weakling advertisements. As he stood there, thinking nothing in particular, a bus approached, slowed down, then turned the corner, stopping briefly in case anyone wanted go get on, or get off. Long ago, Kent might have been someone to get on, today, no one boarded it, for no one had been waiting for a bus and sitting on the bank's window ledges that had been one of the architectural features of the building.
And then he remembered. The phone call, the dash to the bank building, in hopes that the bus hadn't yet arrived to pick her up. And it all came back to him, as if it hadn't happened twenty or so years ago.
Nobody in his twenties, as was Kent when he met Debby, should have expected to be able to date her, for she was still in high school. He first noticed her at a register when he stopped in the five-and-ten to buy a World almanac, one of those annuals that seemed to be useful in the family bookcase. She was tall, with light brown hair, and maybe a chicken pox scar on her forehead that unaccountably gave her an added touch of beauty. Light blue eyes, a perfectly formed nose, no lipstick, but, much later, he realized lipstick and any makeup could not have added to her beauty. That day he bought the almanac, they barely spoke, yet, by the time he left the store, he had a feeling he wanted to see her again. So, during coming days, he invented reasons to go into the store and make purchases from the books and school supply section that seemed to be where she was assigned. Perhaps the third or so time he stopped in the store and headed towards her section, she saw him and smiled. "I think I know you," she said, "Did you have an aunt or great-aunt named Madge?"
"Yes," I told her, "I did."
And so things started.
"I am Deborah," she said, "but my friends call me Debby." With a smile, I told her, "I am Kent, and my friends call me ... Kent." And next day, I brought a newspaper, folded to show an article about a "pops" concert in the nearby big city—"Gershwin and a few others" would be the program. He showed Debby the article, then said, somewhat shyly,
"How about having this concert be our first date?"
"Kent, I don't know. But ask me Monday and I will have an answer."
Monday came, and I stopped in, and she talked very fast, as if she feared her boss would interrupt the conversation. "My parents will let me go out with you," she said. "Sister Madge went to our church, so it isn't as if you are a stranger."
So the evening came, and I met her parents, who spoke fondly of "Sister Madge" as if she were in the room giving her endorsement of my taking Debby to the "pops" concert. Later, sitting in the car, her hands folded primly on her lap, Debby explained how fortunate I was to be related to "Sister Madge".
Debby, her parents, and my late great aunt were members of a small Christian sect, and I learned later through a library reference book that her church had split off from Jehovah's Witnesses, the chief difference apparently being that her church, unlike the Witnesses, did not proselytize, although new members were always welcome. Her mother, in fact, one day showed me a six-volume religious tract, saying something to the effect that "if Sister Madge took comfort in these volumes, maybe you might also".
Somehow, I was not at ease with my great aunt, sitting in some corner of Heaven, waiting for 143,999 other fellow-believers to join her in that very special corner. Debby's parents of course expected to be together in that corner some day, and so did Debby. But, Debby told me, her happiness in Heaven would be diminished greatly if her husband was not with her, meaning he had to be part of her church, and believe its precepts.
But I did not believe, and I could not believe its well-intentioned, but I felt, very unconventional, tenets, and, because of that, we parted. And I cried, and so did she, for we parted only after very memorable dates, the "pops" concert being but the first.
Briefly during that first date, we did hold hands. After the second date, we actually kissed at her front door, so chastely that I am sure her mother would have approved, had she seen us. Then came our final date, although I did not know it at the time. It was dinner with college friends of mine, recently married, each a bit past the mid-twenties. And Debby, not quite 18, more than held her own in conversation.
"You are fortunate to have found her," my friend told me just before Debby joined me at the front door after, I guess, a trip to the bathroom.
Our drive back to her house was uneventful. We held hands, in fact once Debby offered to shift gears for me, she did it well, too! When we got to her house, she invited me in, and for more than an hour we sat on the living room couch. I had my arm on her shoulder, we even kissed, once or twice. Again, I thought, her parents would have approved!
But soon religion came up, and it was clear, we disagreed. I could not promise to leave my mainstream Christianity for her church, and she would not sacrifice her chance to be among those incredibly special 144,000 persons in Heaven.
"We must part," she said. And part we did. I kissed her goodbye, and I tasted her tears. Perhaps she tasted mine, I know there were several. She tried to smile, and clung to me, briefly, then said, "You must go." And I willed myself to let go of her, and it was very difficult to do so.