The following is a short story based on the Koller/Silverstein song "Jennifer Johnson And Me
" that appears on Robert Earl Keen
's album West Textures
Did You Save One Of Me?
... is a story by David S. Myrmidon.
"Oh, hey, Jim."
"No, I'm not really doing anything at all. Hangin' out, trying to recover from last night."
"No, nothing too wild. I was up 'til six, though. Some TV, little bit of reading, little bit of thinking."
"Yeah, I'll grab some dinner. What time?"
"No, now is fine, I guess. Belle's?"
"All right, I'll be there in twenty."
Hanging up the phone, thinking about the last time he had gotten together with Jim, and turning off his stereo, Rob repairs roomward to dress. Putting on his shirt, he thinks not of his first love; changing pants, he thinks not of his first love; applying socks to his feet, he thinks not of the summer of 1967; combing his hair, he thinks not of the electricity and magic associated with one's nineteenth year, or with youth in general; sliding into an old pair of loafers, he thinks not of slender fingers on the hand of a beautiful young woman, but rather of whether he needs to go to the grocery store after Belle's.
But, deep in the pocket of an old sportcoat jacket, he chances to discover an old memory. In addition to a ticket stub from Midnight Cowboy, and a receipt from his favorite record store for Blood On The Tracks and Born To Run, there is, its top-left corner corner folded forwards, a picture of Jennifer Johnson and him. Rob is struck; the force of this photograph carries him away from his closet, to his bed. Suddenly, he can smell her hair, suddenly, her hand is in his; suddenly, he is sixteen, sneaking in with Jennifer Johnson to see some long-forgotten movie, the moldy reels of which are occupying space and dust in a decrepit warehouse archive space owned by a studio that barely remembers the warehouse exists, let alone that film; suddenly, it's two years later and raining, she's cold and wet, banging on his bedroom window, asking for a towel and a place to sleep. No fewer than a dozen ghosts begin to haunt the rooms behind his eyes; he looks contemplative.
It must have been summer, 1967. He and Jennifer Johnson lived in a small town in New Jersey, right on the Atlantic Ocean. they spent every day together that summer. He got out of work at 3:00, and her summer school classes ended shortly thereafter. He would pick her up in his father's convertible, her bathing suit in the front seat, a six-pack in the trunk under an old army jacket, and they would drive to the beach. The Beatles owned the airwaves in that particular small town during that particular summer. "Love is all you need...." Jennifer Johnson did a great John Lennon, while Paul was more his forté; he envied Jennifer Johnson that, for he really preferred John's songs. Neither did Ringo too well.
She was two years younger than he, seventeen to his nineteen, but they had been seeing each other since she started high school. Next year, when Jennifer Johnson graduated, they had planned to drive to California; she wanted to go to Stanford, and he wanted to go where she was. She said she had gotten the idea from On The Road, but Rob never could get past first thirty or so pages.
They knew a spot. Peninsulated behind them and to their sides by high plateaus, this heavenly nook was always empty. They were always alone. And the sand ... pure, pristine, clean, unadulterated, free of pollution or garbage, seaweed or seashells, perfectly perfect. Alone, they would lie on their sand, surrounded by their rocks, before the majesty of their ocean, underneath their sun or their moon, and they would talk. They would talk about the past, the present, or the future, about plans, goals, or fantasies. She did most of the talking, but that was fine with both of them. She was so smart, and he....
He remembered the day, even. It was the last day of July, and he had the day off. He went over to her house at 11:00 that morning, and she made them lunch, a veritable feast. Rob helped her to pack it into her parents' cooler, and off they went. It was exceptionally hot, so Rob's shirt collar was open, like some Latin lover on late-night TV. He had some hair on his chest, and Jennifer Johnson delighted in pulling on it and watching him squirm. As he bent to open her door for her, she readed right down in there and got him god, pulling almost too hard. He feigned shock and pretended to be in serious pain convincingly enough for her to let her guard down, at which point he spanked her behind (just hard enough), and ran over to his side, climbing in and starting the engine.
"You are such a bastard, Robbie!"
"Hey, you started it."
"Yes, but you're never supposed to hit a woman."
"Not even if she likes it?" Rob had rejoined, coyly.
Jennifer Johnson shook her head with defeated acquiescence, but her hair -- her long, straight, beautiful hair; hair that smelled better than anything he knew; hair that never had any knots in it, nor was less than flawless in any other way -- was not so long that Rob could not see her smiling. He thought he saw her looking at him out of the corner of her eye, too.
"You know, I'll probably love you forever."
"Forever for Jennifer Johnson and me."
"I love you, too, Robert King."
"Know what I heard?"
"What's that?" she asked, knowing what was coming.
"This friend of mine, Bob Z., told me the ghost of 'lectricity howls in the bones of your face." She jumped into his lap at that point, kissing him passionately and nearly causing him to crash the car. A passionate kiss from Jennifer Johnson was worth the pain of an accident, though.
They had downed two beers by the time they got to their spot, so, once arrived, they quickly changed, dove into the water, and returned to land, curling up together on the golden sand and falling asleep in their lover's embrace. Rob woke up a half-hour later, and started thinking about where they were. "From Maine to Argentina, and from Ireland to Cape Horn," he thought; "it's all the Atlantic. Plunging unknowable thousands of feet; cooling the feet of unknowable millions of people. Separating the two greatest English-speaking nations in the world, and South America and Africa, which I read may once have been one continent. Looks like it." He tried to think of how many people had thought of the Atlantic Ocean, but couldn't perform the arithmetic. The decades, centuries, and populations were too expansive for him; and why did he care, anyway? He stroked Jennifer Johnson's hair. he had meant what he said about loving her, and he believed that she loved him. He vowed to take care of her, no matter what. He could go to school, if that's what she wanted. Maybe just a trade school; but something. She had a lot of faith in him, and he would not let his Jennifer Johnson down.
The sound of his third beer opening woke her, and she asked for one of her own. Done with that, she wanted to go for a walk.
"Do you have any money?" she asked.
"A few bucks. Why?"
"Just curious. Do you feel like crusing the arcade, or would you rather stick to the sand?"
"Arcade's fine." Smile. "Whatever you want, Jenn." He held her hand as they walked through the arcade, two young believers on a three-dollar spree.
"Soft hands," Rob thinks to himself. "She had such soft hands. She loved it when I'd kiss her fingertips. She loved it when I'd crack her knuckles for her. She loved it when I would tickle her palms or trace the veins on the backs of her hands. She loved it when I would cut her nails for her or rub lotion on her hands. She loved it when I would warm her hands with mine on those cold nights we'd be out until the sun came up. She loved it when I would play with the ring I gave her, spinning it and moving it from finger to finger. I worshipped those hands. I prayed at night that the next day she would see me on the street, or in a grocery store, or at the library, or walking alone along the pier, sneak up behind me, and surprise me, just so I could feel her hands on my face. We used to hold hands while reading those Romeo And Juliet scenes, and also when we watched Welles's Macbeth at one of her friends' apartment at Stanford. Shakespeare writes about as pretty as Jennifer Johnson is, though I never really got him. I won't make the joke about how it's like reading another language, but...."
"Three for a quarter! A black-and-white portrait taken of you and yours." read the sign.
"Oh, Robbie, can we?"
"What do you want a picture of me for?" he asked, laughing.
"Oh, come on. With your rugged good looks, and your shirt collar open like some Latin lover on late-night TV, what seventeen-year-old girl wouldn't want a picture with you? Don't you want one of me?"
"Well, I know what you look like. Were I to close my eyes, I would know. If you weren't around, I could still see you in front of me."
"Ugh! Boys are so unsentimental!"
"No, we just have good memories. Let's go, though." After some pouting, ,she had agreed to step into the booth with him. He dropped a quarter into the slot, and said, "Jenn, close the curtain, so no one can see." Then, "Hey, kiss me quick, cuz the red light is flashing." It was flashing on him and Jennifer Johnson.
The first set, they threw away. They had both been in motion, so it had come out blurry. The camera caught them kissing, the second time; Jennifer Johnson kept all three of those. Finally, on the seventy-fifth cent, they had gotten it right. Smiling right there, with her head on his shoulder, it was Jennifer Johnson: she was looking at him. Rob kept two, and she kept one.
"I wonder what happened to that second copy of mine...."
Tucking his copies into the back-left pocket of his bluejeans, he and Jennifer Johnson bought a couple hot dogs, a couple small lemonades, and started walking. They walked until the sun went down, for which event they made sure to be back in their spot.
"Do you think it's different watching the sun set on the west coast?"
"Well, no offense to this spot of ours here, but I'm sure it's a lot prettier out there. Think about it: it's going down over the water."
"Yeah. That means our sunrises are prettier, right?"
"Yeah, Jenn." Smile. "Though, to be honest, I look at you more often than the sun during these rises and sets."
"I know, Robbie. You look at me more than anything." It was true. At movies or at meals, with family or with friends, on the sand or on the street, during sunrise or during sunset, Rob had a hard time taking his eyes off of Jennifer Johnson. Last summer, they had drive to Florida to experience their ocean in several different states; he had looked at her so much from behind the wheel, that thrice he nearly ran the car off the road. Her hair, her body, her face, her eyes, her cheek bones, her hands, those thighs, her toes when she went barefoot, her mouth when she ate an apple, her triceps when she tried to help him lift the cooler out of his trunk, her neck as she cranes her head over the top of the windshield to windsweep her hair, her forehead when she laughs, her chin when she cries, her chin when she's smiling, her forehead when she's frowning, her stomach, her chest rising and falling as she sleeps, her mouth as she yawns, her hands as she gives her knuckles a wake-up crack, her spine as she sits up for the first time, her infinitely kissable spine, her eyes when she opens them for the first time, her ears when we listen to her favorite Beethoven symphony.... Was it the sixth? Which has the "Paean To Joy"? Rob always had had trouble keeping track of all her classical music. It was a bone of contention. She thought it "indicative" of something, or was it "illustrative"?, when she had been at Stanford for a couple months. And he never did read On The Road. and he never really "got" Midnight Cowboy.
"Why look at anything else? I think you're well enough to look at."
"I may be well enough, but I could never compete with a sunset."
Smile. "Will you at least agree that you are close to a sunset?"
Rejoining smile. "Sure." Kiss.
Jennifer Johnson figured it all out that night. Rob buried her in the sand up to his neck, did the same to himself, and then listened to her talk about her senior year of high school, how she was going to do secretarial work at her dad's office on Saturday's, what they would do next summer, Stanford, and all the rest of it. He agreed with her that it was in their best interest for him to go to a trade school while she was getting her undergraduate degree. When he was done, he could get a career-paying job to support them until she got a master's. With that, she would be able to do whatever she wanted, and he could get a bachelor's degree -- or more, if he wanted -- while she paid the bills. There was nothing wrong, she assured him, in going to school later.
He asked if he could turn his "career-paying job" into a career. After a silence, brief yet noticeable, she had answered, "Yes, dear. Of course."
Kids, cars, big houses in small towns and spacious apartments in big cities, promotions, tax returns, appliances, friends and social engagements, she took care of it all, and accounted for everything.
"As she grew up, she grew up, ya know? I met this innocent, sensitive fourteen-year-old girl who knew the best place in Jersey to watch a sunrise. By the time we started out on that road trip to California, she was a woman, an ambitious woman, a mature woman, a woman who can't tolerate a twenty-year-old boy for long, a woman without much use for black-and-white portraits of a guy with an open shirt collar."
"So you did go out to Stanford with her, huh?" asks Jim.
"Yeah, I was out there for almost a year-and-a-half. During Christmas break her sophomore year, I left for good."
"Wanna talk about what happened?"
Laughing. "Why not? I've already told you everything else, right?"
"Only if you're comfortable, man."
"Ya know that line in Nebraska, the song about Bruce driving all night to get home to his baby, he says, 'wiping our fingers on a Texaco roadmap'?"
"Uh, I guess."
"Well, that was us. We had to get to California fast and for cheap. We only stopped for gas and food, and that's all we paid for. It was romantic, in that Springsteen way, and we both had a good time. We had the top down, and she sat in my lap, and cops didn't pull you over as much then, so, man, we could fly. She told me all about her classes and I talked about how excited I was about my trade school. I was excited; I'd done all sortsa reading, I knew what I wanted to do and what classes I needed, and I figured I had it all figured out. We figured we had it all figured out. Our future was spread out before us like some kind of feast, and we were free to pick and choose what we wanted. We were happy, we were gonne be prosperous, Jennifer Johnson was gonna turn me into something -- my father and grandfathers hadn't been anything; my mom and grandmothers hadn't done much more than cook, clean, or file. The only reason we had that convertible is because my old man bought it cheap and abused, and fixed it up. Jennifer Johnson was taking me places, and I loved her for it. That was the most important thing: we were together, and we loved each other: I loved her and she loved me.
"We got there, though, and she started making friends. These friends came over. They came over and discussed things. They discussed books, movies, and plays. Books, movies, and plays that I hadn't read, seen, or seen or read. They discussed theories. Theories whose official titles or names I couldn't even pronounce. She got made that I wasn't -- or couldn't -- participating, and I was frustrated because I felt excluded.
"Anyway, this got worse and worse, and then other things went wrong, and then I left...." Long pause.
"So, you really don't want to talk about it."
"Okay. 'Nother round?"
"Sure. Ya know what I'd say to her if I saw her, though?"
"Nothing too bitter. I'm not mad at her. Things end. People change. She grew up. That's cool. But I'd say to her, 'I saved your picture in my sportcoat pocket. Jennifer Johnson, did you save one of me?'" Drink.
"Man, that's sad." Drink.
Drink. "Jennifer Johnson, did you save one of me?"