by Steve Joos
Two lost loves are reunited by accident one late summer's afternoon in Chicago.
| A sense of sadness and frustration dogged Richard Davidson as he woke up one summer morning.
The same combination of nostalgia and the coulda-woulda-shouldas haunted the twenty-eight year old man as he contemplated the ceiling of his sister’s guest room. He was thinking about her again.
Why now? Why after all these years did the memory of his first crush still run through the mind of Richard Davidson?
Where was she? Did she marry? Would he recognize her? And she him?
There were also the memories, of two middle school adolescents making eyes at each other (what else could they do?) for a fleeting moment almost 15 years before. The same affectionate grin crossed Richard’s face as he recalled those days, but they were usually followed by sadness over the missed opportunities and the way it all ended. Two high school nobodies pulled apart and sent on their separate ways in that teeming teeny-bopper warehouse known as Baylor Heights High School.
Oh, but they were number one in the state in football. They won this championship and that academic honor. Oh but this and that.
And they seemed to do everything they could to keep Richard Davidson and Melanie Beck separated, or so it seemed.
Baylor Heights killed Richard’s innocence and love life. His school spirit was collateral damage.
Why did her memory invade his vacation? How did it follow him on vacation?
Maybe it was the sad songs he’d heard on the oldies station piped into the antique auto museum he’d visited his first day at Stan and Leslie’s.
Or possibly it was his sister’s latest stab at match-making, which tended to have the same result. Leslie finds one of her single friends, invites Rick, invites her and she shows up right on time—with her new fiancée.
“I’m sorry about Jackie,” Leslie said softly after the previous evening’s dinner. “She and Greg met a few months ago and well, they clicked, just like that.”
Just as well, the slightly heavy-set man with most of his dark hair intact thought as he clumped downstairs to the shower and then breakfast. He wasn’t in the mood for strangers.
“What are you going to do today?” Leslie asked as Richard munched on cereal and fruit.
“I thought I might go into Chicago,” was the reply. “I’d kind of like to go through the new broadcasting museum.”
Vacations had always been something of a saving grace for Richard, three months away (more or less) from a teaching job which had become as depressing as it was rewarding.
He loved sharing his knowledge of history and government with his middle school students, but the school culture was starting to affect him emotionally. Richard was known as Mr. Undertaker for the way he approached his eighth grade students’ transition to Groveland High, which while considerably smaller than Baylor Heights during Richard’s school days, was still a high school and one which shared a conference with the fortress of evil at the intersection of College Avenue and Northwoods Road in Baylor Heights.
Groveland also had a big school mentality, which was a source of flashbacks for the owlish young educator, who took well to teaching, but not the social aspects of the job, even if he was at the junior high.
You knew when high school orientation was scheduled because Mr. Davidson seemed to act like his charges were all the doomed, crossing the yard to their executions. When the last day of classes neared, Richard would stop the partying momentarily and have has class form two lines and then shake hands with each other and say goodbye, no matter how they got along during the year. He’d actually gotten in trouble for helping the class lovebirds exchange contact information so they could stay in touch over the summer one year.
He would work sporting events with little trouble, but dances? Not so much.
Why did he feel this way? Richard had never been happy in school, but between a need to support himself while trying to be a writer and a lack of opportunities for history buffs landed him in a classroom. He loved the kids he taught, but the baggage from Huff, Cimarron and Baylor Heights was sometimes too much to bear, especially when it was repeated by a different, more contemporary group at Groveland.
But most of all, it was because Richard could look out at his classes and still see himself in the back of Mr. Dewitt’s social studies room at Cimarron, winking at Melanie Beck. She’d blink back at him.
Melanie had been just another girl in Richard’s class until the day he slapped goofy nicknames on her and her best friend, Patty Williams. Midway through that fateful Wednesday, their eyes met and Richard dropped an eyelid in her direction. She smiled and a brief but beautiful story began. Richard had been reliving it ever since, wishing that somehow things would have been different and that Melanie Beck would today be Mrs. Richard Davidson.
Richard’s less-than-sunny attitude towards high school got to be too much two years earlier and he found himself looking for a different line of work. Enter Junction City Press, a small publisher of children’s books, where he had just been promoted to junior editor. No, Richard didn’t have any children of his own, but he had two nephews and a niece, along with two former classmates in the front office.
A few hours earlier in an apartment not far from the Norris residence, a woman about Richard’s age with short dark hair twice slammed on the sleep switch of her clock radio.
“Shut up Wally!” Melanie Beck growled at the radio. “I don’t care how wonderful people are. I just want to roll back over and sleep!”
She methodically prepared for another day of sifting through insurance claims while working to help computerize the Great North Central Insurance Company after it relocated to Chicago from downstate.
For Melanie, life had been an adventure—sort of. She followed her older brother into the Navy and learned how to be a computer technician, which paid off when she returned to civilian life.
On the other hand, she had to scramble to make a commuter train each morning and ride into the big city, where she became lost in one of those windows on the upper floors of a Loop office building.
“I mustered out of the Navy for this? “ She thought to herself while hitting the drive through for a cup of coffee.
Melanie had even soured on ex-athletes and sailors after her last two relationships, one of them with an old BHHS grappler from her graduating class. Both guys left her for younger, more attractive women. Oh and yes, she was seeing another coach, only this one was in the Army.
Talk about lowering your standards.
So here she was, a single girl trying to make it in the big city, quickly maneuvering her blue Honda Civic into a parking spot at the downtown Elgin METRA station.
It was close to noon when Richard pulled his white Mercury into a spot right next to the Civic. Camera case in hand, with his wallet in his front shirt pocket on advice from his sister, he entered the station, bought his ticket and like an adolescent traveling alone for the first time, took the train into the City of the Big Shoulders.
As he rode the train into the Windy City, Richard reminisced a bit about how he went from teaching to editing manuscripts about a much more idyllic childhoods than his. Linda Heinie first recognized him, then showed him to an adjoining cubicle.
“Hey Laurie!” she exclaimed to a slight blonde-haired woman working there. “Do you remember Rick Davidson? Rick, this is Laurie Springer, one of our bookkeepers. Do you remember Rick from school? Now we’ve got an editorial assistant for historical books!”
Richard smiled meekly as he thought about how his current job started, then returned to his regrets, mixed with concerns over how he was going to get to the museum and how he was going to get back.
And he thought about Melanie.
Watching people board and depart the train, observing husbands and wives saying goodbye as they went about their daily tasks, he thought about her. He had chances to catch up before, but passed. Hearing about her fantastic husband and wonderful kids would be too much for Richard to bear.
Everybody else has moved on, he thought. Why can’t I?
He had some fun jawing with some younger passengers on the train about baseball and enjoyed looking at some of the old radio and television memorabilia, even if in some ways it struck another nerve.
Teaching and book editing weren’t his main career choices, they were what was available to a would-be mystery writer with a journalism degree and limited contacts in the media. Among the old wire machines, Charlie McCarthy radios and dolls were dreams that a good-paying job really couldn’t replace.
Richard had about as much fun as a single man could have. He sprang back out of Jack Benny’s vault when the recording of the alarm went off and then acted like the contents of Fiber McGee’s closet came crashing out on him, all the while mimicking the old time radio stars and sportscasters to himself while watching old videos of a baseball game.
The Cubs no-hit the Cardinals. That figured.
While Richard juggled the wonders of the Broadcast Museum with his bittersweet reflections on his life and lack of romance, Melanie was saddled with more contemporary challenges, trying to computerize a small property insurance company while also trying to plan some sort of weekend.
"Hi Mapes, what’s up?” she asked with sense of exasperation while taking a phone call from her roommate. “What? Gary called and what? No, don’t bother. I was going to try and work on arrangements later this afternoon, but I guess I won’t have to worry about that now. I’ll talk to you later. Bye.”
She slammed the phone back down on the receiver. Men, she growled inside.
At 4:30, she packed up and left for the day. At about the same time, Richard bought three bags of peanut M&Ms for his sister’s children (well, two of them), finished his late lunch at McDonald’s and headed for the State Street bus stop.
Where he immediately became confused trying to find the Union Station bus.
Back and forth he went, nearly going into one large department store in search of someone who might be able to help him find the right bus. As he lurched down State Street, going as far as Carson’s Department Store, Richard began to fear being stranded in Chicago overnight, with only his camera case. Back up the street he ran.
At this point, Richard ran directly into the path of a young lady at the end of a very harrowing day both on and off the job as she left a stark office tower.
“Oh, I am so sorry,” Richard exclaimed to an exasperated Melanie, bending over to help pick up some of her paperwork as it scattered on the sidewalk.
Melanie dropped an expletive under breath and began gathering her papers, not noticing that some had gotten away from where she was standing.
“Oh no!” she grimaced. “That was part of my report on the project I was working on you oaf! Why don’t you watch where you were going? My boss is going to bury me alive if I lose those papers!”
“You mean these papers?” Richard sheepishly asked, showing Melanie a slightly crumpled set of documents.
She snatched them back, stood up and started to storm towards her bus stop.
"Uh, um m’am,” Richard meekly said.
“What?” Melanie snapped.
“Would you know where the Union Station bus stops?”
There was only one seat available on the bus, so Richard naturally offered it to the lady. The two remained companions to the station and then in the mad dash to a commuter train. Melanie plopped down in the first available seat and found herself—facing Richard, who had also sat down.
“I hope I’m not scaring you,” he said. “I wanted to thank you for helping me find my bus and this seat was available.”
“No problem,” Melanie replied, a bit taken aback by Richard’s manners. “No problem at all. They have a bit of a bar here in this car. Can I get you anything?”
“A diet Coke, if you would please.”
The two struck up a casual conversation, with Richard snapping a picture of the Merchandise Mart as the train shot past it.
A tourist, Melanie thought to herself. I should have known.
“Obviously, you’re from out of town,” she said wearily. “Where are you from?”
“Downstate,” Richard replied. “Baylor Heights.”
“Hmmm. That’s sort of where I’m from.”
Richard sat up a bit.
“Well, I was born around Detroit and still root for some of the sports teams from there,” Melanie explained. “But I grew up in Baylor Heights. Cimarron Acres.”
Richard shifted in his seat nervously.
“That’s where I went to grade school at,” he stuttered. “So that means you must have been a BHHS Green Knight?”
Melanie nodded sheepishly.
“I wasn’t too crazy about that place either,” he said with an understanding voice. “Number one in the state in football, number 783 in compassion. Don’t get me started on that place.”
Melanie acknowledged Richard’s complaints with a sad grin, then listened as he actually defended the school a bit.
He hoped she wouldn’t notice him checking her hands. Two or three rings, but no wedding band or engagement ring. Richard tried to hide his relief, not knowing that Melanie had been looking at his hands, hoping he wasn’t taken.
There was a mutual feeling of relief and resignation between the two as the train zipped towards each suburban unloading spot, a feeling that maybe for a little while, their loneliness would be at least temporarily eased.
“Do you work in the city??” Richard nervously enquired.
“Right now I am,” Melanie replied. “I work for a new computer firm in Bolingbrook,but I live in Elgin. I learned about computers in the Navy and when I mustered out, there were these service buddies of mine who were starting this place, so here I am.”
Elgin, huh? Richard’s ears perked up a bit. Guess where I’m spending a few days with family?
Slowly, he worked up the courage to ask her if any of her male bosses or co-workers were more than just friends.
No was the frustrated reply.
“I’m just one of the guys,” she shrugged. “I was going to try and stay in the Navy, but then I met this friend of my brother’s. We dated, things seemed to be going well, but then he shipped out. A few months later, I got a ‘Dear John’ letter from him.”
Richard muffled a knowing chuckle.
“You too, huh?”
“Yeah. I even got dumped today, right in the middle of a glitch. So I’m not in the best of moods.”
The evening shadows had almost completely covered the Elgin METRA station when Richard and Melanie's train pulled in. The newly-introduced pair began a deliberate journey through the parking lot, not noticing the proximity of their cars to each other. Upon seeing where the Honda and Mercury were left, they laughed a bit and nervously entered their respective vehicles.
"Could I, um, buy you a drink?" Richard asked nervously. “Or maybe interest you in a late dinner? It’s almost eight o’clock.”
“Well,” Melanie replied with equal uncertainty. "I don’t know. We just met and my mom may be a little concerned about me staying out late. Besides, my roommate will have something ready for me.”
She took out two business cards and handed them to Richard.
“Take one and write the phone number and address you can be reached at on the back of one of them,” she instructed. “Keep the other one.”
Richard complied, then fell into his car, checking the information on the business card.
There must be a million of them in the world.