“If I could just go back.” My favorite words repeated in my head over and over again. So much useless mind chatter because nobody goes back. You play your hand and if you’re not focused on the game, you throw it all away. Which is what I did, not in poker but in life where it hurts the most. You lose more than the ante; you lose everything that defines what living should be.
I met Peg in a bus station. I was heading out of West Virginia to meet up with friends in Scranton. She was taking the 4:54 to Spotsville, Kentucky, to say goodbye to her ex-husband Tyrus for the very last time. We didn’t say much. Her train arrived, she boarded, she waved, she was gone, and I didn’t think we’d ever see each other again. You know, two ships passing in the night. A brief encounter. Whatever. Then my bus pulled into the Greyhound Station, I told the driver I’d carry on the small carry-on bag of mine. No, I have no more luggage. Yes, this is it.
I took my seat by the window and for the entire trip I tried to sleep, my head bouncing against the window waking me up now and then. Luckily nobody sat on the aisle seat so I adjusted my folded jacket pillow beside me, stretched out a bit, and saved my head from an eventual window concussion because that’s where it was heading if I hadn’t taken up both seats to Scranton.
My friends in Scranton are crazy guys I went to school with. The only time I didn’t throw in my lot with them was the night they robbed the Texaco on Miller Road, but that’s another story. Catch up with me sometime and I’ll fill you all in, but for now, this is about Peg and me. Yeah, Peg, the girl in the station who rode to Spotsville and was gonesville. How wrong I was. If I could go back. There I go again!
The Scranton bunch were laughs and beers and a little pot to grog the head and teleport us back to our younger days when nothing mattered and we lived our lives as selfishly as we could manage. “The hell with everybody!” Was our battle cry. We were the proverbial hell on wheels and damn whoever stepped in our way. To say we were “Badasses” is a sorry understatement. We ruled.
But after two weeks I was back on the bus to Morgantown where I had spent two college years, quit there, and loved the town so much I hooked up with this diner guy in a bar one night and he offered me a job waiting on tables. Sometimes I missed Scranton, but West Virginia had the mountains I loved and death alone would carry me out of there. Not even then. When the Big Goodbye came I’d have myself planted in the old graveyard there because I never want to leave.
I was thinking exactly that when I walked past Manny’s and out the door, nearly colliding into me, was…Peg?
“Hey, I remember you,” she said. “You’re the guy in the bus station. Len, right?”
“Yeah, I remember. I was feeling real low and you told a few funny stories and lifted me right up.”
“Small-town as ever.”
“And you did what you said you went there to do: Cleaned up your act?”
She laughed, something she didn’t do at the bus station, despite my funny stories.
“It was really my ex-husband’s act that needed cleaning. I went there to make that final break. Sometimes the marriage ties are tied so tight you need to saw away for awhile before both of you can finally get away.”
“Let me carry that,” I said, taking the grocery bag from her arms, something I should have done moments before, but I was so shocked to see her again, I forgot my Scranton manners.
“Thanks. Just picked up a few things for dinner.”
“I’m a big eater. No, just kidding. It might make a few meals. Who knows.”
“Live around here?” I asked her because I was only about five blocks from my own apartment and when we first met at the Greyhound Station, neither of us got into our addresses.
“Right off Upper High. Right here in the heart of downtown.”
“We’re practically neighbors. I’m off Middle High.”
For some reason that struck her as funny, so I joined her in laughter.
If we could’ve left it there, said goodbyes again, and blessedly never met again, I would never know how wonderful that would have been, but knowing or not, life would have been better. Let me say that again: better, much better.
To make a long painful story less painful, let me tell it in shorthand. The meat of it. We hit it off. We started dating. I made the gross error of falling in love with her. She told me the story of her sad life, how her Spotsville hubby raked her over the coals of deceitful love with too many slugs of physical abuse thrown in for good measure. She told me he was her second hubby fiasco, the other one being Marco, an Italian guy who it turned out insisted he loved her but liked boys too. Her life she said was a mess, no happiness anywhere. Men had done her in, offering her only the unrequited kind of love that, in her words, “gets tired of waiting on lonely streets for a kiss that is true.”
I fell for it. Every bit of it. The stories that piped out of her mouth were enough to not only make me sad, but make me want to hold her, protect her from the bad end of life‘s stick, make her my wife forever so the two of us could share at last the happiness in love that had evaded us so far.
But she lied. All of it. Her return to Spotsville had not been to close the final act of a marriage that had failed but to face an inquisition regarding her husband’s supposedly accidental death.
And if that wasn’t enough of a lie, here’s another: Marco, her Italian husband, who also liked boys, was found in an alley behind his Venetian Fish House with a sharp stiletto halfway imbedded in his bloody chest. That Detroit inquisition did not, of course, rule in favor of accidental death. Somebody killed him. Peg insisted she loved her man, but when the true life of Peg came to the light, we all learned how Marco did not happen to fall on that stiletto; someone named Peg had hired a tough guy passing through the city whom she’d met at the Pontchartrain Bar, a thug who incidentally came from Spotsville, Kentucky, whom she later married.
A Detroit detective used to solving cases followed Peg’s tracks, put all the jigsaw pieces together, and succeeded in proving Peg’s involvement in not one but two murders.
What makes this a sad story is, I had grown to love her. I called her my soul mate, my angel God sent to Earth to spend a lifetime with me, my everything! And fool that I am, I believe Peg loved me too. Do you know what this does to a heart so damn wrapped up in the heart of another? Can you see how all of this makes unrequited love something positive because it is easier to eventually come to the realization that one cannot love another who cannot or will not love back. But Peg and I had grabbed the brass ring. We were truly in love, but her history made our love moot.
I made a feeble attempt to kid myself that once Peg was free again, we’d resume our lives, continue our marriage, be happy again. I tried to blot out of mind my two predecessors who had met foul play. What if I had disappointed her? What if she had fallen out of love with me? Would I be the third blind mouse under her heel? Dead as yesterday’s laughter?
I tried to collect the pieces of my broken heart. A useless endeavor. They had scattered to the depths, irrevocably lost without chance of recovery. I would live the rest of my life as broken a man as that heart of mine. I would change it all. Everything! Never meet Peg. Never be glad to see her again. Never marry her. Never fall so deeply in love. Never have to suffer this way. The two of us in our prisons.
But I can’t go back.