Without Regret

     “Lawrence Welk played, last time I was here.  My mother actually danced with him.  She still talks about it, or did.”  Jess looked at the girl beside him then noticed Peter had taken Elizabeth’s hand.  The scent of Evening in Paris wafted lightly to him.  Sliding his hand into his pocket, he touched a lace handkerchief and watched Peter lean to hear what Elizabeth was saying.

The ticket line moved slowly.  The noise from inside the dance hall was intense.  Jess barely heard Ellen’s response.  He didn’t care.  What he cared about was the smile that passed between the couple they followed.  He recalled Peter’s words on the merry-go-round a few nights earlier and believed he understood his anguish.  Elizabeth was not, never would be “just a girl.”  The compassion he’d felt for Peter at the time had been dashed to pieces on the rocks of their reconciliation.  Truth was, Peter’s loss had been Jess’ window, a window he’d had every intention of climbing through the minute opportunity presented itself.  Now, that hope was gone, along with his compassion.

Ellen Kimball noticed Jess’ eyes, noticed that he didn’t seem to realize she hadn’t finished her sentence.  Already she regretted agreeing to the double date. 

I’m still just old ‘Bucktooth’ to him, she thought.  Pretty obvious were his interest lies.  Boys!  They’re all alike. 

Ellen and Elizabeth were friends.  Ellen was also pragmatic.  She had no illusions about her looks or about Elizabeth’s.  Yet, Elizabeth was a true friend, so Ellen would do almost anything for her if asked.  Elizabeth had asked.  Ellen now found herself standing beside Jess, watching Jess watch her friend, and wondering just how very long the night might be.

The Goldenrod Ballroom, on the west edge of Stratford, buzzed like a long flat beehive.  Inside, the noise was deafening.  Peter, Elizabeth, Jess and Ellen wound their way through people until they found an empty booth in the minor’s section along the east wall.  Cooler air filtered in through the torn screen covering the window, that and a myriad of mosquitoes.

“Think we should close it?” Jess asked, swatting one. 

“I think,” Peter shook his head, “I came to dance.”  Taking Elizabeth’s hand, he pulled her from the booth towards the dance floor.  “Learn any fancy footwork out west, Blakemore?  Or you still club-footed?” 

A few moments later, Elizabeth was in his arms; her smile was contagious.  “What?”

“Thank you, Peter.”

“What are you thanking me for?”

“For the puppy, of course.  He’s so adorable.”

“Well, I’ve been saving him for you.  Max is really Dad’s dog.  Homer can be ours.  That’s quite a name you’ve tagged him with?”

Elizabeth pouted.  “Well, he needs a strong, solid name.  Not something common.  Smart sounding, too, don’t you think?  He’s a very intelligent looking dog.”

“Honey, puppies look exactly the way they need to so we’ll take care of them.  He’s your dog.  Whatever you decide is fine.  I just hope he’s as smart as you think.”

It was as if the past two months had never been.  They danced with a natural grace, an ease, few couples find.  Their future shone brilliantly before them.

Back at the booth, there was no grace, no ease, no comfort.  Ellen had hoped Jess would follow Peter’s lead.  She liked to dance, wasn’t half bad at it.  Jess simply sat.  Conversation between them, which had been sparse, became nonexistent.  The second song ended.  A third began.  Jess’ attention remained diverted.  The evening that had started out slow ground to a stop.  Still, Ellen tried.

     “What are your plans now, Jess?  Once threshing is done,” she yelled over the crowd and the music.

     His eyes met hers briefly.  He shrugged.  Without looking back, he said, “I’ve been thinking of enlisting.  After I see my mother.  It all depends.”

     “Depends on what?”

     Jess’ eyes flat-lined hers.  “Just a figure of speech.  Want something to drink?”

     “Sure.”

     “Be right back.”  Just like that, he was gone.

     Watching him walk away, Ellen wasn’t sure if she was more puzzled that he hadn’t asked what she wanted, curious what he’d bring her, or if she were glad to be alone.

     On the dance floor, Peter held Elizabeth close, enjoying the waltz.  Placing his forehead against hers, he drank in her fragrance. 

     Elizabeth pulled back, looked up.  “What will people think?”

     Peter smiled.  “That I’m the luckiest guy alive.” 

     “I have missed you so much, Peter.  Wanted to talk with you so often.”

     “What would you have said if we’d been together?”

     “You mean besides ‘I love you.’”

     His smile became a grin.  “Yeah.  Besides that.”

     “Well, let me . . .” Suddenly Elizabeth grew animated.  “I know what I haven’t told you!”

     Her energy startled him.  “What?”

     “Your picture is missing.  You know, the one you gave me when we were still in country school.  That and my handkerchief!  The one Grandma tatted for me as a Christmas present.  I had both on my dresser, and both are gone.”

     “Maybe your Dad the other day . . .”

     “No.  These disappeared weeks ago.  They’re simply gone.”

     “Maybe one of the boys took them.”

     “They swear they haven’t.  Why would they?  No, this is strange.  Don’t you think?”

     “They’ll turn up.” 

     “Maybe, but I can’t imagine when or where.”

     The song ended.  Back at the booth, Ellen, alone, greeted them.

     “Where’s Jess?” Peter asked.

     “He left two songs ago to get us something to drink.”

     “He probably ran into someone.  You want a Coke, Beth?”

     “Yes, please.”

     “Ok.  I’ll see if I can track Jess down, Ellen.”

     As Peter disappeared into the crowd, Ellen whispered, “Don’t bother.”  She and Elizabeth looked at one another.

     “I’m sorry, Ellen.  I’d hoped this would be fun.”

     “It’s not your fault, Liz.  Jess was more fun when he called me Bucktooth Kimball.  At least he was looking at me when he said it.”

     Elizabeth looked down.  “What’s he doing?”

“He just watches people.  Certain people especially.”  She waited for Elizabeth’s eyes. “It’s kind of spooky the way he keeps watching you.”

     Elizabeth took a deep breath.  “Oh, Ellen, he does it all the time, even sometimes when Peter’s right there, but he seems blind to it.  He’s so trusting of him . . .

“I’m sorry Ellen.  It wasn’t fair to drag you into this, but . . .” their eyes held “ . . . he scares me.”

     “Scares you?”

     “I wish he’d leave; no, I wish he’d never come back.  Every time he looks at me . . .” She closed her eyes and knowing she could trust Ellen, said, “I feel like he’s undressing me.  I don’t know what to do.  Maybe I’m just being overly dramatic.”

      Ellen considered Elizabeth’s words; they meshed with what she’d seen.  “Guys can be pretty crude, you know.”

     “I know.  I tried not to pay much attention until . . .”  The incident in the orchard replayed in her mind.  “Until what, Liz?”  Ellen read her friend perfectly.  “Liz, if something’s happened, you need to tell Peter.  Tell somebody!”

      Once again their eyes held.  Then Elizabeth said quietly, “I can’t seem to find the right time,” she looked down, “or the right words.”  She sighed deeply.  Genuine sadness filled every syllable as she said; “We’ve had so much trouble this summer already.”  Tears filled her eyes, “And Peter’s missed Jess for years.  I can’t come between them, ruin their friendship.” 

     “Hey, I won’t say a word.  Promise.  What happened?”

     “It’s . . . Jess made a pass, is what happened.  But not like other guys have.  Not the kind you laugh about and walk away.  He wasn’t playing, Ellen.  His intent was very clear, his words vague enough to plead denial.”  Her eyes begged for understanding.  “He frightens me.”

     “When?”

     “Last Sunday at Peter’s.  After you’d gone.”

     “You have to tell Peter.  You need to  . . .”

     Elizabeth motioned for silence.  Peter and Jess were approaching.  Peter seemed irritated in a way he hadn’t before.  The two of them halted, had a brief and seemingly unfriendly exchange, and when they reached the booth, were both silent.  The girls took note and said nothing.

     That’s how Jennifer and Paul found them. 

“Well, look who’s here, Paul.”  Jennifer dimpled in the most pleasing way and pulled a reluctant Paul their direction.  Peter noted the look of apology in Paul’s eyes. 

     “I hear congratulations are in order, you two.  I guess you know I’m green, Liz; but then who can blame me?”  Jennifer planted her smile on Peter, who ignored her.  Seeing, she moved on.  “Jess!” 

     Jess brightened.  He’d always appreciated Jennifer’s directness.  She knew how to make life interesting.

     “It’s nice to see you,” Jennifer added and, without invitation, sat down by Peter.  Peter’s jaw set.  He looked at the Coke bottle in his hand then took a quick drink.  He felt Elizabeth’s hand on his leg, understood her touch, and struggled for self-control.  Because of Jennifer, it had been a long miserable summer.

     “I hope you two aren’t sore at me.”  Jennifer’s eyes found Elizabeth’s.  A sadness Elizabeth had never seen before filled them.  “I really didn’t mean any harm.  Fathers!  They can be such a trial . . .”

     Peter’s temper flared.  “At least your father . . .”

     “Please, Peter,” Elizabeth cut him off.  She’d worked hard to hide the trace of the bruise on her cheek.  Peter glanced over, saw it, and dropped the subject.

     “Actually, you two should thank me.”

     Peter’s words dripped contempt.  “How do you figure that, Jennifer?”    

Jennifer looked at him, remembered his lips as he called Elizabeth’s name, but said brazenly, “Who knows how long things might have gone on if I hadn’t said something.  It really worked out best this way, don’t you think?” 

     “If it hadn’t been for you, Jenn,” Peter’s eyes danced with fire, “this whole summer . . .”

     “Pete,” Paul said, counting on their friendship to end the confrontation.  Jennifer was, after all, his girl; at least that’s how he felt about her.   

     “You promised Ellen a dance,” Elizabeth added, further defusing the situation.

     Peter looked at her, excused himself, and stood; he offered Ellen his hand.  Ellen happily obliged leaving a new foursome at the table.

     “Thanks a lot, Liz,” Jennifer piqued. “I suppose you think he’ll jump every time you issue a command now that you’ve got him back.”  Green eyes slanted.  “I only wanted to apologize.  We sometimes make mistakes.”

     “And I was saving your neck, Jenn.  In case you didn’t notice, he’s pretty steamed at you.”  Elizabeth’s calm non-threatening demeanor defused Jennifer’s fire.  “I’m not sure he’ll ever completely forgive you, but I do know it’ll take some time.  A little distance can’t hurt.”

     Jess watched the match with interest.  Jennifer, he recalled, could give as good as she got.  But Elizabeth played good defense.

     Sensing futility, Jennifer grabbed Paul’s hand. 

“I don’t need a brick dropped on my head.  Nice to see you again, Jess.”  She dimpled anew.  “Life was so much more pleasant when you lived here.”  One final green glare, and she and Paul were gone.

     “This happen often?”  Jess’ expression was amusement.

     Elizabeth squirmed.  Her peacemaking had created the very thing she’d dreaded.  She was alone with Jess. 

“We usually ignore one another,” Elizabeth said then added, “I’d really like to scratch her eyes out.”

     “Could have fooled me.  You played that pretty cool.”

     “Because Peter was losing his temper.  We’ve had enough drama for a while.  Besides, there’s not much point.  Jennifer is one of life’s crosses, someone I must bear.”

     “Is that what I am to you, Beth?”  The look in his eyes made Elizabeth’s breath stop.

     “Don’t call me that,” she exhaled.  “Only Peter calls me that.”

     “Fine.”  He looked towards the dance floor.  “Suppose we can call a truce long enough to dance.  I do know how.”

     Elizabeth hesitated.  Jess stood, extended his hand.  Reluctantly, she also stood, but she did not take his hand, merely followed him to the dance floor. 

What can one dance hurt?” she wondered.

     The singer sounded surprisingly like Perry Como, as He sang, “I wonder who’s kissing her now.”  Jess placed his right hand low on her back, roughly grasped hers then guided her back into the crowd and stayed there.  To Beth it seemed purposeful, as if he was using the crowd to keep her close, or as a shield.  At any rate, it was an odd, uncomfortable dance.  Then he stepped on her toes.

     “Sorry,” he mumbled.  His breath smelled of alcohol; Jess had been drinking.  Elizabeth recalled the words Peter had had with him, the look on Peter’s face.  “That’s what was wrong,” she realized.

     Dancing unevenly in the milling mob, Elizabeth felt Jess’ arm tighten, drawing her closer. 

She attempted small talk.  “Is it as beautiful out west . . .”

     Jess leaned in. 

“ . . . as they say it is?  I’ve always thought I’d like to go west sometime.”

He looked into her eyes.  “I’d like to show it to you sometime.”

     “Maybe some day Peter and I . . .”

     Brown lava bubbled in Jess’ eyes.  “He had his chance.  I meant you.”

     His directness confounded her; she looked away.  “That isn’t going to happen, Jess.” 

     “Why?”

     “What?  You know why.”  Her eyes sparked.  “Stop this.”

     “Stop what?”

     Elizabeth tried to pull back.  “I want to sit down!” 

     Jess smiled.  “But, I’m just beginning to have a good time.”  His arms tightened, pulled her back in. 

She pushed against him.

Letting go of her hand, he placed both his hands firmly over her buttocks.

“Not every man’s going to jump like Peter does.”  Jess laughed as she pushed harder.  “Jennifer’s dead on there.”

     “Jess, please,” Elizabeth begged.  His stomach was tight to hers.  He pressed against her, leaving no doubt about his intent. “Stop!  Let me go.”

     “Relax.  What do you think I’m going to do with all these people around?”  His breath was hot against her neck.  “You’ll just cause a scene.” 

His nose found her ear.  “You’re so beautiful,” he whispered, “I just want to hold you for a while.”

     “Let me go!” 

     “No!”  Jess’ voice was a strange mix of anger and passion.  “All I want is to hold you . . . for a little while.  One dance.  After all,” his hands moved, “if he can have you for the rest of your life . . . “

     Elizabeth’s cheeks flamed.  She couldn’t stop the tears. “You’ve no right to do this!”

Her tears only fed his need.  “Stop me.”

     Moonlight Serenade began.  

Grabbing a handful of hair, Jess pulled her head back, studied her expression, her tears.  With a smile, he bent to kiss her.

Her fist hammered his shoulder. 

     When the first song ended, Peter and Ellen returned to the booth.  Finding it empty, Peter began searching the crowd.  His concern was that Jennifer had raised the ante on the sparing match he knew ensued once he’d left them.  Ellen noticed his worried look and, remembering Elizabeth’s confession, decided to break a promise.

     “Peter, what happened last Sunday?”

     “Last Sunday?  I don’t know.  Was something supposed to have happened?”  His mind quickly dismissed the incident by the barn as mere rivalry gone awry.

     “Maybe it’s none of my business, but Liz is my friend.  She started to tell me something about last Sunday until she saw you and Jess returning.  Then she stopped.  I promised not to tell, but . . .” 

She had Peter’s full attention.

“She told me she’s afraid of Jess.”

Peter’s mind flashed to the orchard.  Once again he saw a look of breathless anxiety.  Again, he felt her tremble, remembered the uncertainty her explanation had created in him.  Suddenly, the dots connected.  He resumed scanning the crowd. 

“I don’t see them, do you?”

“I did earlier—over there.”

With Ellen in tow, Peter headed back to the dance floor, searching the sea of faces.  Just off center, in the midst of a mob, he spied the tall, ragged head he sought.  Threading his way through the throng, Peter noticed the peculiar expression of many nearby dancers, noted their attention seemed drawn towards Jess around whom an ever-widening circle grew. 

At its edge, he saw why.  In disbelief, he watched Jess’ hand against Elizabeth’s skirt.  He watched Elizabeth push against him.  He saw the handful of hair Jess grabbed, saw him pull it—hard.  He watched Elizabeth punch Jess once, then again. 

He saw Jess kissing Beth.

Quickly stepping through the circle, Peter grabbed Jess, forced himself between them, and freed Elizabeth. 

“What the hell do you think you’re doing, Jess?” 

A quick look.  He saw Beth’s embarrassment, her tears.  Those tears fueled his wrath.  Shoving her to where Ellen waited with open arms, he turned on Jess, pushed him hard.  Jess stumbled backwards.      

Another look.  Peter saw the devastation, the fear in Elizabeth’s eyes, and shaking with anger, railed, “I asked you a question!”

“Peter,” Elizabeth whispered.  “Please.”  She felt naked, exposed to the multitude of eyes watching them.

Her tone pushed Peter over the edge.  Grabbing Jess with both hands, he shook him. 

“Answer me!  What the hell do you think you’re doing?”

Jess tried to wipe Peter’s hands away.  That failed.  He pushed back.  “Dancing!  What do you think?”

“Like hell!  And while we’re at it, what happened last Sunday?”  Like bulls, they shoved against one another.  “What’d you do then?”     

Dancers no longer danced.  Several men stepped towards them.  Some had seen what had happened; some had not; all were motioning for them to stop.  An elderly white-haired gentleman said, “Boys, boys.  Stop or take it outside.”

“There’s no need,” Jess said and freed himself.  “I’m leaving. 

“Thought I’d check out the merchandise for you, Pete,” he scowled past Peter to Elizabeth.  “It ain’t so much.”

Peter’s fist slammed Jess’ jaw.  Jess fell backwards.  Strong arms grabbed Peter.  Others lifted Jess. 

One of the men, the white-haired gentleman said, “Let him go, son.  Sore losers like him,” he shook his head, “it’ll gain you nothin’.”  He nodded towards Elizabeth.  “Looks like she’s worth the world to me.”

Peter yielded, his anger abated.  Crossing over, he took Elizabeth in his arms.  “Are you alright?” he asked.

The sob came from deep inside.  Elizabeth grabbed him.  His arms became a blanket around her as she dissolved into him.  Tears came.

“I tried to stop him,” she sobbed.

“I know.  I saw.  I’m the one who’s sorry.  I should have seen.”  Moments later, he said, “Come on.  We need some air.”

With Ellen tagging along, they maneuvered through the crowd, away from curious eyes until they reached the front door.  Outside, stars filled the canopy of heaven.  The air was cooler.  The music muted, voices faded away.  Locusts and crickets sang nature’s symphony under the moonlit sky.

Clusters of people hung on car bumpers as they passed on their way to Peter’s Model T.  Outside, no one seemed to notice the girl blowing her nose into Peter’s handkerchief.  If so, they said nothing, turned back to their fun.

Reaching the automobile, Peter stopped and looked at Elizabeth.  “What really happened last Sunday?  Obviously, more than what you told me.  I want the truth—all of it.”

Elizabeth, still with tears, looked away.

“Beth, you don’t have to protect him.  Not any more.”

“It’s so hard to put into words, Peter.”

“Try.”

“It was just everything.  What he said.  The way he grabbed my arm.”

“He grabbed your arm?”

She began to tremble.  On impulse, she lifted the locket as Jess had.  “He grabbed the locket and,“ her voice faltered, “said it might break . . . he kept . . . touching me—my hair, the lace on my dress.”  New tears. “I didn’t want him to break the locket.”

“Oh, Beth.”  

Her eyes pleaded with his.  “I should have told you, but . . .”

“Honey, why?  Why didn’t you?”  Taking her in his arms, Peter said, “I would have said something, confronted him somehow.  I would never have left you alone with him, put you in a situation where he could molest you on the dance floor.”

“Because he’s always seemed so important to you.  I wasn’t sure you’d understand.  Because he’s your friend.”

Her absolute heartache became abundantly clear. 

“A friend doesn’t do what Jess just did.  Friendship is based on respect and honesty and trust.  There was none of that a few minutes ago.  Not for you, and not for me.  Jess is not my friend, not any more.”

“And that’s the reason I didn’t say anything.  I didn’t want to cost you your friend.  Not this time.”

“That choice wasn’t yours to make.  Jess made it . . .” His eyes caressed hers, his thumbs wiped wet cheeks, “when he touched you. 

“If he were my friend, he could have been honest with me—told me how he felt.  If he were my friend, he would have left you alone.  Don’t ever keep anything this important from me—ever.  Please.”

Ellen had been watching quietly.  Suddenly her hand hid her overbite.  “Oh, my gosh.  I left my purse in the booth.”  She started back inside.

Peter stopped her.  “I’ll go.  Did we leave anything else?”

“Just Jess,” Ellen quipped.  “Sorry, not funny.”

Peter turned.

“Peter?”

He looked back and noted moonlight on violet eyes, wet cheeks.

“Let it go.  Don’t start anything with him.”

Brushing a kiss along her cheek, he turned and said,  “I didn’t start this.”

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