We didn’t talk about the circumstances of his arrest, Ronny McKay and I sitting on the front porch of my house drinking shots of tequila chased with Ice House. We didn’t talk about whether I’d be his lawyer, except for him assuring me that I was and me saying I’d think about it. I told him I’d done all the work on a Saturday night I was going to.
We talked about other things. We talked about my daddy, who’d owned a small bookstore in Hiawassee. We talked about Ronny’s father, who had run a used car lot and had his finger in a dozen other marginal businesses. We reminisced about what good men they were, the apple brandy they made, and how much trouble we’d caused them.
“It’s too bad Beau didn’t live to see you make a hot-shot lawyer,” Ronny said, meaning my father, Beau Bagley, dead since 1975. “I think the last time I saw Beau, he was telling me how the Sheriff had found some marijuana plants growing back in the clearing behind y’all’s house. The Sheriff said some kids told him they’d seen me and you back in the woods there, but he figured it was probably the Dillard boys; Travis and Larry weren’t fit to shoot noway. He just thought Beau might want to tell us there’d been some talk. And that was all Beau ever said to me about it. As far as I know, he never told Daddy.”
“Yeah, I heard about that, of course. Although by the time I saw Daddy, his major complaint was that he’d given the Sheriff a gallon of his apple brandy. ‘And it ain’t even election year, son.’ He musta said that a dozen times. ‘It ain’t even election year.’”
We laughed and poured another shot of tequila.
“Jim into any petty vandalism like we used to pull?” Ronny asked.
“I hope not, at least I’m hoping he doesn’t get caught.”
“Probably doesn’t have any rewards out for him like we did for painting the Blairsville water tower.”
“Well, the rewards weren’t for us. They were for the low-life hooligans that painted, ‘We don’t want your fucking war’ on their water tank.”
“They still don’t know who did that. Maybe I ought to turn you in and get the reward. I’m gonna be needing some money for legal fees.”
“I don’t think you wanna play that game, Ronny. If it comes down to telling what we know about the other one, I got a lot more ammunition than you.”
“You can’t divulge any of that, son. You’re my lawyer.”
“The hell I am. Hand me another beer.”
Ronny reached into the cooler beside him. We were, as some of my clients say when asked if they were intoxicated, “feeling pretty good.”
“Seen much of Shelly?” I asked. Conversation between us would always turn to Shelly Ballew. Shelly Ballew whom I’d sworn I would love forever. Shelly with whom I’d lain out on the front yard at her daddy’s mansion on the hill, sighting shooting stars on crisp October nights, Shelly with whom I’d planned out our whole life together: me going to Harvard Law School, becoming a congressman, then Senator, maybe President, Shelly beside me all the way.
Shelly was the daughter of the richest man in Hiawassee and I was working class, pretty much like everybody else in Towns County except for a few merchants, doctors, and the indigenous poor who lived back in the hills off welfare mostly. I was the S.T.A.R. Student, leadoff man on the baseball team, president of the Student Council. I was president of everything, earned every honor the school could bestow. I fantasized I would achieve so many honors and awards that there wouldn’t be enough room in the yearbook to list the accomplishments of the student pictured beside me, Karen Moore. (“Six years perfect attendance.”) I was sure I would be a great and famous man.
I had all that and finally, my senior year, I had Shelly Ballew and my world was complete.
Shelly’s father, Bobby “Bobcat” Ballew, was possibly the ugliest man in Towns County. He’d made a small fortune starting from nothing in the lumber business, and to show for it he had two fingers sawn off at the middle joint, a huge brick house sprawled over a hilltop overlooking the town--he’d cut down every tree which might obstruct view of his house for those of us below--a Lincoln Continental, a Cadillac and, rumor had it, a good-looking redneck sweetie working at his lumber mill. His wife was a plain, rail-thin woman who kept the books for the mill and still did all her housework even though she could have paid a fleet of servants. Their daughter, their only child, Luanne Michelle, stood out like the niece on “The Munsters:” tall, blonde, and drop-dead good looking.
Shelly had perfect orthodonture, expensive doctors in Atlanta to treat any pimple that might arise, and chic, short, 1969 skirts to show off her fabulous legs, tanned in any season from trips to the Carribean. When Shelly bent over and looked back between her legs into the stands, shaking her pom-poms as the cheerleaders slowly rose and turned to look over a shoulder into the Towns County faithful, nobody cared that the Indians were getting shellacked. Shelly Ballew was worth the price of admission.
“Hot damn, wouldn’t you like to get some of that,” Ronny would say as we sat back in the stands taking surreptitious nips of apple brandy. “I’m gonna get some,” I’d say, and he’d laugh and call me King G-Bag the Deluded. But I did get me some of Shelly Ballew, claimed her through my class ring on her finger, although by the time I’d got some in the sense that Ronny meant, the dream life I’d constructed for Shelly and me was a thing of the past. Some frat boy had broken the seal and she was giving me a drink for old time’s sake.
But for that first year, my Senior year in high school and my first quarter of college, I was King of the World and Shelly was my queen. Parked behind an abandoned house in a poplar thicket, she’d let me do everything short of the deed--she was a Baptist girl in rural, 1960's Georgia--and I’d take her back to the house on the hill with a slimy spot on the front of my jeans.
I was as happy as a human could be. Shelly and I were Best All Around in the yearbook, and I sincerely believed--I kid you not--that I was Best All Around in the world. I was smarter than anyone I knew, and while I was willing to concede that there were eggheads with higher I.Q’s, they couldn’t match my looks, my charm, my imagination. I believed that I was chosen by God.
Try not to gag; I’m getting to the end of this.
If I had any doubts, Shelly Ballew wearing my ring, walking down the hall with her hand in my back pocket, “Shelly Bagley,” “Shelly B. Bagley,” “Michelle Bagley” covering pages of composition notebooks, Shelly sliding smack up against me on the bench seat of my daddy’s Dodge, nibbling my ear and whispering, “I’ll love you till the day I die, George Bagley”--I still get lightheaded thinking about it. If I had any doubts, Shelly Ballew erased them. She confirmed my worth for the world to see. She filled in the only part missing: love, the perfect complement, anima to my animus.
You can see I lived in a very small world, the only world I knew, and you know I was “cruising for a bruising,” as we used to say back in Towns County, but it wasn’t, as you may suppose, the realization that I wasn’t World’s Best All Around that knocked me off the throne; it was Shelly Ballew, Shelly who decided that going steady in college wasn’t as much fun as her sorority sisters were having, Shelly who with one phone call left me lying in a puddle of tears on the cold vinyl floor of my dorm room. I stopped going to class, started sleeping to mid-afternoon, staying up all night nursing the keg at whatever party I could find. It was eight years before I finally got a degree, but if Shelly had remained true I still believe I would have sped through Vanderbilt magna cum laude and headed for Harvard.
The problem was, as everyone who’s lived long enough to find out knows, that love doesn’t last forever. You may break up, you may divorce, you may stay faithfully married until you both pass away in the nursing home, but that love that brought you together in the first place dies a naturally preordained death. It may be replaced by something else that we also call love, something which does the name proud, but it is not that first thing. You know what I mean.
You know what I mean unless you are seventeen and in love for the first time. Your mama may tell you it’s not love, that you’re too young to know what love is, but you know. You know you’re in love because you are, and you are dead right. If you are seventeen or thirteen or thirty and you are in love for the first time, you know that love so strong will never die. About that you are so wrong, but I envy you and wish I could freeze you in time, child, like the figures on the Grecian urn. I’d trade my knowledge for your ignorance in a heartbeat and Bob Seger would too. I’m wishing I didn’t know now what I didn’t know then./ Against the wind.
Love would have ended for Shelly and me somehow, sometime, but as it was it ended with me coming down hard, face pressed against the cool tile floor, crying like a baby, and then I knew, though I didn’t expressly form the thought for some time, that I was not Best All Around; I was fatally flawed. I suffered from a deficiency of the heart. It was for others who were tougher, who didn’t need another to complete them, to reel off achievement on the way to power and glory.
So love died and I became a philosopher and I repeated the love-and-death cycle again and again, but even now, maybe more so now, any woman in my REM sleep may turn into Shelly Ballew: Shelly leaving me, Shelly coming back to say it was all a big mistake, my heart aglow with the knowledge that love never dies, Shelly thrusting her hips into mine saying, “Oh it’s you George, it was always, only you.”
I’d asked Ronny McKay if he’d seen much of Shelly and he told me, “All there is to see, G-Bag, ever fucking inch.”
I thought he was just being funny. “You been helping Doctor Dink do his examinations?” Shelly had gone back to Hiawassee after college and married David Downs whom we’d called “Dinky” in high school, but dinky though he may have been with his thick glasses and Ichabod Crane frame, had become a gynecologist who kept Shelly in the style to which she was accustomed. I hated the bastard.
The last time I’d seen Shelly six years ago at a high school reunion she’d been a beautiful but flabby woman with a bloated face and watery eyes from prescription drugs.
“Dinky ain’t in the picture no more. I figured you’d know that. After Bobcat died and she came into his money she dropped Dinky-D and moved to the house on the hill. The last six months or so she’s been staying down at the lake,” he said, meaning, I knew, his place on Lake Chatuge.
“She looks good, G-Bag. You oughta see her. She got off Dinky’s pain pills and started getting some exercise. She’s teaching an aerobics class now, first job she’s ever had in her life.”
“So MoRon finally got him some,” I said, calling up the old high school nickname. Although it’s been twenty-five years since I last lay with Shelly, the last seventeen of which I’ve been married, I felt a rush of jealous resentment toward my friend Ronny McKay.
I changed the subject and we went to bed soon thereafter.
I changed the subject and we went to bed soon thereafter.
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(book will not be published until Jan. 2020)