“She Was Playing a Part I Could Understand” by Terry Barr

I watched The Last Picture Show again this week. Sonny, and that poor girlfriend of his, “Charlene,” are still making out in the last row of the Royal Theater, The Father of the Bride playing in their semi-shadowed faces. As they kiss, Sonny, played by Timothy Bottoms, is watching the screen because even Spencer Tracy is more interesting than Charlene. What he’s really eyeing, though, is the moment “Duane” (Jeff Bridges) and “Jacy” (Cybill Shepherd) walk into the theater and plunk down in the row in front of him. It’s Jacy he wants. Later on, he gets her, too, but only for a while, only until her parents come to the rescue. His rescue, as Jacy’s mother, played by Ellen Burstyn, puts it, while Jacy’s father rushes this soon-to-be “un-bride” away.

Forty years ago I only had eyes for Shepherd. But when I re-watched the film, not only did Burstyn outclass, out lust, Shepherd in my eyes, but so did Cloris Leachman, the “coach’s wife.” Life changes. Eyes grow far-sighted.

But back to that last row.

Only once in my life did I make out with a girl in the back of the theater, side one of the Bessemer Twin. Maybe the movie was The Abominable Dr. Phibes, a bad horror film, part of the timeless Friday Night After the Football Game Horror Shows. This particular night was the November Friday of my senior year, our Homecoming night. But this particular girl was not Melissa Krahenbuhl, the girl I escorted to the midfield stripe in the Homecoming Court earlier that night, the girl I would be photographed with for our 1973 yearbook. No, Melissa had another date for the official and unofficial festivities after the game: with Don Griffis, number 62 in your scorecard, our team’s starting left guard. My “Duane.”

I knew better than to challenge “Don-uane,” because of his barrel-chest, his reckless rep, and because back then, like Sonny and Duane, we were friends. Friends just didn’t do that to each other even if the Melissas of this world wanted them to. Which she didn’t, leaving me without a homecoming date. Leaving me to go to the game with my equally dateless friend Jim.

Earlier that evening, after she fried us two of the best cheeseburgers I’ve ever eaten, Jim’s mother gave him and me $20 to “have fun” that night. Like Jim, I had no big plans for spending that money.

What I did have was another kind of girl.

I met Diane the previous week working at a Bessemer Jaycees Haunted House. For three straight nights, I wove stories of zombies and mummies to the unsuspecting little kids paying their dollar fee, while the other bad actors near me menaced them with masks and fake hatchets and blood in this soon-to-be-abandoned house on 18th Street.

Diane and her twin sister Denise were working at whatever scary exhibit needed them. Mainly, though, they kept hanging around me, letting me think I was in charge. I kissed both of them the second night, and I thought I knew which was which.

As I entered the run-down ghost house on the third night, All Hallows Eve, Diane leapt to hug me. Then I knew, though I kept what I knew to myself.

She was only 14, an eighth grader, and I was 17, ready to graduate in six months.

I should have known better with a girl like her. I should have known something about the law.

Especially when she asked me to meet her at the movies after the game, asking me not to tell anyone about it beforehand.

When Diane saw me enter the theater, she immediately signaled to meet her in the back row, center-left. As we sat French-kissing in the rear of the Bessemer Twin, all I thought about was how well she did it, for a girl her age, and how great it felt to hold her and kiss her while the movie was playing; while Vincent Price continued frightening no one; while my other friends, who surely saw us but didn’t care, were figuring out what this night meant, what the rest of high school held. What lay in the unrecorded world beyond ours.

One night a week later, I came home from riding around with my friends.

“Some girl called for you,” my mother said, her tone suggesting that I was on notice. “But she didn’t leave a name.”

I thought about calling her back. If I had been Sonny and she had been Jacy, I might have played some lonely Hank Williams record, “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” perhaps. But this was Alabama; I didn’t feel lost or even very southern. So I put Neil Young’s Harvest on my portable hi-fi.

I didn’t know then how much I should have known about girls that young; the knowing took these forty years, until I had a 14-year old daughter of my own. A daughter pursued by 17-year olds: my potential Jacy, who once allowed me to answer the phone when one of her Duanes called. It felt good to cower a boy who tried so secretly to take advantage of a girl he should have left alone. Despite hormones and cautionary tales, your fourteen-year old daughter is your daughter, a fact that got me to remembering that lost Homecoming night and Diane, a fatherless girl.

Though I have no idea where my theater girl is now, she comes back to me so easily when I think of last picture shows and high school kids longing to be adults and taking advantage of what they have in their arms, and all those days when I never knew who I was or what I truly wanted.

Two years later, the Bessemer Twin Theater closed. For a while it became the temporary library in town, but now, it’s just a shell, nothing at all really. Not even a record of itself.


terrybarrTerry Barr is the author of Don’t Date Baptists and Other Warnings From My Alabama Mother. His work has appeared in Eclectica Magazine, Blue Lyra Review, Bookends Review, Loud Zoo, South Writ Large, The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature, and Steel Toe Review. He lives in Greenville, SC, with his family.

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  1. Pingback: My essay “She Was Playing a Part I Could Understand” featured in the Steel Toe Review | terry barr

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