Z. Z. Boone
May 20. Day.
Lilith discovers the hinged picture frames at a Saturday morning tag sale and pays four dollars without even haggling. She not interested in the item itself, its gold paint flaking off the tinny metal beneath, but in the two black-and-white 4”x 6” pictures mounted under the scratched glass. The one on the left shows a young woman, maybe eighteen, posed for what looks like a yearbook picture. Her hair is dark and pulled back, her skin is clear, her blouse appears to be white or maybe a light pastel. She’s pleasant looking, even in profile, almost smiling.
The second photograph is a man maybe a year or two older, a steel helmet on his head, its leather strap hanging open. He wears an unzipped flak jacket, and on his one exposed sleeve, a single chevron shaped like the roof of a house. He appears harmless but uncertain, and he cradles an M-16 as if it were no more dangerous than a cheerleader’s baton. He’s standing indoors—a barracks, most likely—the poster of a smiling, seductive Farah Fawcett partially visible on a wall behind him.
Lilith shows the pictures to Jeff that afternoon. She’s gone over to his apartment where he’s cooked chili, and the weather outside is warm enough to eat lunch on his small deck.
“What do you think ever happened to them?” she asks.
Jeff half-shrugs, breaks off the end of a crusty loaf of bread, and tells her to check the backs of the photos for dates. As carefully as a jeweler, Lilith slides the female’s picture out.
“Oh my God,” she says. “There’s writing.”
Jeff reaches over and takes the picture. “‘E,’” he reads out loud, “‘Thinking of you. Please come home safe. Love, R.’”
Lilith has removed the soldier’s snapshot and flipped it over. “‘R… 188 days! I have past the half way mark! When I get home I wont let you out of my sight! All my love, E.’
“He dated it,” Lilith says. “September 1969, – Xuan Loc, Viet Nam.”
“Okay, so here’s the story,” Jeff says. “Six months later he came home, they got married, at this very moment they’re spoiling their grandchildren and stockpiling their social security.”
“If that’s true,” Lilith says, returning the photographs to their conjoined frames, “why didn’t they keep these?”
“Things get lost. Given away. Put in cardboard boxes and forgotten about.”
“I don’t know,” she says. “They seem so different. Look at her handwriting. It’s so precise. He doesn’t even spell ‘passed’ correctly.”
“Maybe he didn’t know it was gonna be on the test.”
“I’m serious, Jeff. Read between the lines. This is a woman trying to politely tell somebody that she’s not that interested.”
Jeff gets up to go inside for more napkins. “She did write ‘love,’” he says.
“Everybody does that,” she tells him.
They met four months ago through a dating site called soulsearchers.com. It was an unlikely match, a mistake Lilith had thought at first. She was a third grade teacher looking for a companion with comparable education and compatible interests: antique hunting, gothic literature, women’s issues. He was the bartender at a tavern called The Fielder’s Choice, a guy who swore off formal education after high school, a person happy to stay home and watch MSG or The Food Channel.
But their first date went well. Over perfectly grilled Brazilian picanha in downtown Danbury, they discovered similar values (they both hated Trump,) and the same sense of humor (“Wouldn’t it be funny if he fell in a hole?”) They each owned an elliptical, had seen Springsteen in concert, and spoke passable Spanish.
By their third date, a revival-house movie theater showing Like Water for Chocolate, Jeff made one of the more romantic suggestions of the early 21st Century.
“Let’s take down our profiles,” he said, and Lilith—with perhaps a bit of apprehension—agreed.
May 20. Night.
Lilith does something she hasn’t done before. She drives over to The Fielder’s Choice, makes her way through the crowd, passes the three large-screen TVs, and takes a seat at the bar. It’s a busy night. Both Boston and the Yankees are playing on different coasts, and the Stanley Cup playoffs are on ESPN. Besides Jeff, there’s a second bartender, Marlene, a sexy-looking blonde in a Red Sox cap who—in Lilith’s opinion—is showing a bit too much cleavage, a few too many teeth.
“Don’t think I’m checking up on you,” Lilith says over the din of televised sports, “but I think I have a better idea what happened to them.”
“I’ll get you a glass of wine,” Jeff says.
By the time he gets back, she’s removed the two photographs—again outside their frames—from her tote bag. “Look at her picture compared to his,” she says, handing them both over. “Hers is really worn. His seems almost untouched.”
“He probably carried this in his shirt pocket the entire time he was in the jungle,” Jeff says.
“And his probably stayed in her wallet or in some drawer.”
Jeff studies the young woman’s face. “First thing he looked at in the morning, last thing he saw at night.”
“Like I said. A classic case of unrequited love.”
Jeff hands back the photographs. “Well their pictures wound up side-by-side somehow,” he says.”
Some clown who’s already had enough is banging his empty beer bottle on the bar a few customers away. Jeff excuses himself, steps over, begins to take orders. Lilith returns the photographs to their frames, watches the Nashville Predators score a goal, finishes her wine, and catches Jeff’s attention just long enough to wave goodbye.
Here’s Jeff’s plan, worked on since February, entirely behind Lilith’s back. Nine days from now—Memorial Day—he will call early in the morning and suggest driving three hours up to Massachusetts for the Brimfield Antiques Show. Lilith knows him well enough to be suspicious. You hate driving and you hate flea markets, she’ll say.
Well it’s not a totally unselfish offer, he’ll tell her.
May 21. Morning.
Lilith has to lie to her parents in order to spend the night with Jeff. She still lives, as her father reminds her, “under his roof,” and “until such a time as there’s a ring on your finger,” she’ll be subject to his rules. Kelli, Lilith’s best friend, reluctantly covers for her.
“Rose and Ernest,” Lilith says.
They’re both lying in Jeff’s bed, both nude and on their backs. Lilith is holding the hinged frames at arm’s length, above her face.
“No way,” Jeff says. “‘Rose,’ I’ll give you. Not ‘Ernest.’” He points a figure at the soldier. “My boy here? That’s ‘Eddie.’”
Lilith lowers the frames, turns her head to look at Jeff.
“The night before he left,” she says.
“What about it?”
“What do you suppose happened the night before he left?”
Jeff turns on his side and pushes himself up on one elbow. “They made love,” he says. For the first time. His parents were at the movies, so they had the entire house to themselves.”
“And they wound up in his room, on the rug, listening to The Beatles.”
“She worried about getting pregnant,” she says.
“He hoped she would.”
Lilith turns serious. “Why would he wish that?” she says.
“Because he was looking for something to keep them together for life.”
“That’s kind of selfish,” Lilith says. “What if he was killed? Now he’s left behind a widow and an orphan.”
“Nah,” Jeff says. “Too much to live for.” He takes the frames from Lilith. “He’s got the hot girl, the future father-in-law who’s gonna set him up in business, house in the suburbs and cottage by the lake…”
Lilith gets out of bed and begins to retrieve her clothing from the floor. “Don’t you see, though?” she says. “If he was killed, it makes sense. He’s dead, she feels this kind of responsibility, and it isn’t until years later, after she’s married to some Wall Street-type she met at a party, that she finally decides to get rid of the pictures.”
Jeff watches her dress. “Where are you off to?” he asks.
“Papers to grade. The Industrial Revolution.”
“In third grade?”
“Next year they read Great Expectations,” she says.
Jeff pushes himself upright so his back is against the bed’s headboard. “It could have just as easily been her who died,” he says. “Cancer at a young age.”
Lilith shakes her head. “Look at her,” she says. “A survivor. That woman still walks the earth today.”
“We could probably find out.”
This stops Lilith and she looks over. “How?”
“There’s this guy. Harry something. Comes into the bar a couple of times a week. Computer geek. He could maybe do an image scan or something.”
“I don’t think so.”
“Because I love a good mystery.”
“Even if you never know?”
She smiles at him as she picks up her bag and slings it over one shoulder. “Especially if I never know,” she says.
Lilith takes the twin frames from his lap and pulls free when he tries to tug her back into bed. “Behave,” she says playfully, and then—forgetting to kiss him goodbye—she’s out the door.
This is what Jeff means by his offer being not “totally unselfish.”
After following Lilith around from booth to booth like a refugee, after hours of looking at old furniture and tarnished jewelry and paintings nobody wants, he’ll drive them into Boston, directly to Fenway Park, where he has two tickets to watch the Red Sox play Toronto in a late afternoon start. Lilith will be unenthusiastic about this—she refers to the game as “boreball”—but a full morning of antique hunting will encourage her to be a good sport. She’ll sit compliantly—eat a Fenway Frank, maybe even drink a warm beer—and avoid the temptation to take out her phone.
Then, halfway through the fifth inning, as already arranged through Red Sox Fan Services and a nonrefundable $400 donation, he’ll indicate the Jumbotron in right field and her life—both of their lives—will be irreversibly changed.
May 21. Afternoon.
Jeff, on his way to pick up shaving cream at CVS, passes Lilith’s house and notices her parents’ car is gone. There is, however, a green Fiat parked at the curb which he recognizes.
He knocks on the door and Lilith lets him in, delighted that he’s come by. Kelli is another story. “Don’t people usually call first?” she stage-whispers. Kelli works in admissions at Danbury Hospital, one of those people who demands your insurance card regardless of your physical discomfort. Right now, she’s in the kitchen making Lemon Zinger tea, and Jeff sees the splayed open frames on the round wooden table. Lilith asks if he’d like to hang out for a while, but he tells her he just stopped by to see how the paper grading was going.
“Haven’t gotten to it yet,” she says.
“We didn’t know the warden would be checking in,” Kelli says.
Kelli has never really warmed to Jeff and he considers her a snake, out to sabotage their relationship. “If he was my boyfriend,” Kelli once said to Lilith, “I wouldn’t let him work in some hoochie bar.”
“Kelli just needs to feel like she’s part of the equation,” Lilith has told Jeff a number of times, but she’s never really explained exactly what that means.
Lilith is arranging Oreos on a plate while her friend pours two cups of tea. “I see you’ve introduced Rose and Eddie,” Jeff says.
“Kelli points out an interesting possibility,” Lilith says.
Kelli brings the cups to the table but never looks up at him. “Maybe the poor bastard fell for some Vietnamese bargirl,” she says. “He never dipped his wick before, and that was all it took. Wound up spending his life with Miss Saigon instead of the woman with the stick up her ass.” Kelli sits, tips the pictures for a better look. “In the end, though, old Rosie here realized something.”
“She realized that she never had any feelings for him because her real passions were toward other women.”
“Okay,” Jeff says. “Let me get going.”
And this time Lilith does kiss him, if somewhat sisterly, on the cheek.
“Bye,” Kelli says. “It’s been real.”
It’s hardly an original idea, in fact it’s one Jeff has seen a million times during televised games from practically every ballpark in North America.
What Lilith will see as she looks out toward the bleachers is a live projection of the two of them, forty feet high, and a legend on the bottom of the screen that says, LILITH, WILL YOU MARRY ME? It’s at this point that Jeff will drop to one knee—peanut shells and spilled beer be damned—take the ring box from his jacket pocket, flip it open and hold it out to his soon-to-be fiancé. Organist Josh Kantor will play “The Wedding March,” both teams will smile up and lift their caps, and the fans will roar their approval. All around them the night air will grow electric as people point cellphones in the couple’s direction, a few even armed with real, honest-to-god cameras.
May 22. Morning.
At 7:45, Lilith’s check engine light comes on as she’s driving to school. She pulls into the first service station she spots on Route 7, is informed it’ll be awhile before they can get to it, and phones Jeff. He’s been sleeping less than four hours and wants to say something like, Why don’t you call Kelli? but he doesn’t.
Lilith picks up on his mood shortly after she gets into his car and asks him what’s up. He tells her it’s nothing, but she already knows him better than that.
“Okay,” he says. “This is going to sound stupid. But I don’t like that you include Kelli in what I thought was just between us.”
“She spotted the frames. What was I supposed to do? Besides,” she says, “I didn’t know you were taking it so seriously.”
After they drive a few silent miles, he says, “Okay. Let me tell you what I did last night. When I got home from work, I dug out my old 11th grade history book. There was this chapter. ‘The Vietnam War: A Nation Divided.’ And I started thinking. Maybe you’re right. Maybe the two of them had their differences”
“There was a big peace movement back then and maybe she became part of it.”
“Hey,” Lilith says. “You are into this.”
“But I know this guy. He’s open to change. And maybe after he came home, his mind changed about the war. He became a…what are they?”
“A pacifist. Just like her.”
Jeff pulls his car up to the curb of the school’s drop-off zone and Lilith is almost out when she pauses, pulls the door closed, and turns to him.
“One problem,” she says. “If that was the case, one of them would have probably replaced Eddie’s picture with something a little less militaristic. Don’t you think?”
Jeff shakes his head. “All part of their history,” he says.
This whole Fenway Park thing is not without risk. Jeff can remember last season when a proposal went bad, when the young woman actually shook her head, when the cameras quickly shifted away while the crowd chanted SHE SAID NO! SHE SAID NO!
May 22. Afternoon.
Monday and Tuesday are Jeff’s nights off, and he’s surprised when Lilith—whom he’s picked up at school and taken to get her car—turns down his offer of pizza and a movie at his place. Her excuse is that she’s swamped, a bunch of student evaluations to get out before the end of the school year, a faculty meeting at which she’s expected to give recommendations for the fall.
“Tomorrow night,” she promises, and adds, “I’ll make it worth the wait.”
When Jeff gets home, he discovers that Zales Jewelers has called to tell him the engagement ring he’s ordered is in. Outside it’s started to sprinkle, so he slips on a light nylon windbreaker and drives to the mall. After he pays for the ring with his already overworked Visa card, he heads toward the food court for some take-out grease and gristle.
He sees Lilith first, then the guy she’s standing next to. They’re at the Haagen-Dazs counter sharing a laugh with the gum-chewing teenage girl serving them, and Jeff notices the guy is wearing plaid shorts and a white t-shirt with a smiling pickle on the back. MAKE MINE A DILLY, it says.
“Oh, hey,” Jeff says as he walks up to Lilith. “Imagine seeing you here.”
The guy—“Pickle,” Jeff has already christened him—turns to study the situation while Lilith tries to make some kind of awkward introduction.
“I thought you were home sweating over a stack of student evaluations.”
Pickle, trying to defuse the moment by ignoring it, says, “Lily, you want that scoop in a cone or a cup?”
“I needed a break, Jeff.”
“Ah, of course.”
“Cone or cup?” Pickle repeats as the half-dozen customers in line behind begin to take an interest.
“Two lies in two days,” Jeff says. “Is this something new?”
“You’re embarrassing me.”
“Lily!” Pickle says loudly now. “Cone or cup?!”
Jeff turns his attention to the man in the t-shirt. “Instead of one,” he says, “why don’t you get two scoops and stick them both up your ass?”
Pickle turns, ready for combat. “Who the fuck are you?!” he says.
Jeff is no tough guy, but he’s ready for a fight and apparently so are the shoppers who’ve overheard the confrontation and moved in closer.
“Go!” Lilith says, actually putting her hands on Jeff’s upper arms and trying to turn him. “I’ll talk to you later!”
“Yeah,” Jeff says, not taking his eyes off Pickle. “Do that.”
May 22. Early evening.
She finds Jeff an hour later, not at home but at The Fielder’s Choice. He’s at the bar, rather than behind it, and Marlene has just put a pint of something dark and frothy in front of him.
“Your car wasn’t outside the apartment,” Lilith says, “so I figured you’d be here.” She takes the stool next to Jeff, and other than Marlene and a scattering of patrons at the tables, they’re alone. When Marlene asks if she needs anything, Lilith says, “Yes. Privacy.”
“I’ll be in the kitchen,” Marlene says to Jeff.
“His name is Scott,” Lilith says once Marlene vanishes. “I dated him before I met you, and then he left for a job in Seattle. Things didn’t work out and last night he called and asked if I’d hang out with him awhile.”
“And you were going to tell me about this when?”
“What’s to tell?” she says.
“This.” Jeff reaches into the pocket of his windbreaker, takes out the box, and hands it to her. “Open it,” he says.
It’s not the most expensive ring in the world, a one-third carat diamond in a white gold setting, but it’s simple and unpretentious, the way Jeff likes things. Lilith nods when she sees it, then closes the box and places it on the bar. She reaches into her canvas tote, takes out the picture frames, spreads them open.
“One more story,” she says.
“I don’t want to do this right now,” Jeff says.
“Last one. I promise.” She places the linked frames next to the ring box. “You remember your original scenario? Where they get married and have a couple of kids? Let’s go with that. Except let’s project into the future—five years, say—when he’s happy, but she isn’t. And she can’t figure out why. It’s not because Eddie’s a bad person—just the opposite. He’s decent, and he’s a good man, and more than a few women would be lucky to end up with him. Then one day when it’s way too late, Rose puts it together. She’s chosen a man who loves her more than she loves him, and it winds up destroying her.”
“Maybe, she should have tried harder.”
“Maybe, but in my story, that’s not what happens.”
“Wow,” Jeff says finally.
“Yeah. Wow.” Lilith looks around the place. “Where’s Marlene?” she says. “I could probably use a drink about now.”
May 29. Memorial Day.
He returned the ring a couple of days ago, then called Fan Services to inform them that no marriage proposal would be taking place. But he refuses to let a good pair of Red Sox tickets—Infield Grandstand—go to waste. Marlene, also off on Monday, has agreed to go with him, and although she tends to get on his nerves at work, today she’s fun. She’s a super fan, always proud to be among the Fenway Faithful, happy to belt out “Sweet Caroline” and “Dirty Water,” sure to make it over and touch the Green Monster for luck.
After the top of the fifth, Jeff looks around, worried that some camera crew that never got the word is focusing in on him. They’re not. On the Jumbotron they simply sweep the crowd, stop on unsuspecting fans, then move along.
But one thing catches Jeff’s attention. It’s a young couple seated somewhere in the stadium that the camera pauses on. Rose and Eddie. They’re wearing Red Sox jerseys, and Rose is unaware until Eddie nudges her and points out toward right field. Simultaneously, they smile and wave, and just as quickly they’re lost among 37,000 others.
It’s impossible, Jeff knows this, but Marlene says to him, “Dude, are you okay?”
“Yeah,” he says. “I’m good.”
And for now at least, he actually means it.
Z.Z. Boone is the author of Off Somewhere, published in 2015 by Whitepoint Press. More recent fiction has appeared in New Ohio Review, Eleven Eleven, 2 Bridges Review, Bird’s Thumb and The MacGuffin. Z.Z. teaches creative writing at Western Connecticut State University.