The first time I ever held a girl in my arms was at Jimmy Walker’s fifteenth birthday party. The song was Santana’s “Samba Pa Ti,” from Abraxes (side two, track three), and the girl was Margaret Hagerty, who had transferred that year to the public high school that Jimmy and I, and everyone else at the party, attended. Margaret had previously gone to the Catholic school in Bessemer, St. Aloysius, and like most of the girls I knew there, she was beautiful and popular and definitely out of my league. But on this night as Jimmy and whoever else kept Santana’s romantic anthem on repeat, Margaret agreed to slow dance with me not once, but twice.
I held Margaret in my arms and we shuffled and swayed in a slow circle like all the other couples. She clung to me for a total of nine minutes, twenty-six seconds. I didn’t press my luck for a third dance, nor did I try anything further with her that night, or ever. Throughout high school, she dated glamor boy Mike Busbee, whom she married and later divorced.
Jimmy’s house inclined on Sixteenth Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues, a mere four blocks from the home of Kathy Menzel, the first girl I kissed romantically, two years after the season of this party. This party was my first mixed high school affair, and I remember thinking as I left it that maybe my jinx was broken, that I’d start dating soon. Clearly, I was wrong.
Jimmy’s mother cooked us hamburgers, served in the living room, which adjoined a long screened-in porch where the music and dancing happened. Mrs. Walker was an elementary school speech teacher and well meaning. However, her hamburgers stunk. I don’t know if it was the beef quality or if the meat was fading, but hamburgers shouldn’t taste like paste. Tasting such has to be the most disappointing experience a teenaged boy can have, next, that is, to holding a girl close but not kissing her. I think after my first bite of that “burger,” I set my plate behind a plant and nursed my generic Coke for the rest of the night.
I don’t want to be hard on Mrs. Walker. Springing for such a party on a teacher’s budget in 1970’s small-town Alabama couldn’t have been easy. What she brought home likely equaled what a cashier at Rexall Drugs made. Besides, hers was the only income the Walker household had, given that Jimmy’s father had died the previous year.
Mr. Walker was a tall man, quiet and distinguished looking, though “distinguished” wasn’t the word that came to my mind when I saw him lying in his coffin. He was my very first corpse. I hadn’t intended on looking that evening, just as I had no idea I’d be slow-dancing with Margaret Hagerty on the evening of the party, and just as I had no idea in my sophomore year of college I’d be losing my virginity to a girl I had asked to a campus movie, that is, until the moment I did.
I rode to the funeral home with my friends Don and Jimbo, and when we walked in, Jimmy greeted us. He didn’t cry, but thanked us for coming, and as I was wondering how long we’d have to stay, I heard Jimmy say,
“Well, you wanta come see him?”
What do you say to a friend who wants you to stare at his dead dad? “Oh sure, Jimmy.”
In my life, I had never spoken one word to Mr. Walker. In all the times I had seen him at Cub Scout banquets, helping Jimmy’s pinewood derby car beat mine, or at the Little League games at Roosevelt Park, watching Jimmy lumber around the bases after a mighty drive, Mr. Walker’s countenance never changed, and not one word escaped his mouth in my hearing.
I don’t know how many minutes Jimmy had already spent looking at his dad, but as I stood there with him, sharing an awkwardly intimate moment, I wondered what I should say. Would “I’m so sorry, Jimmy” be enough? Would anything be? He had died so suddenly. It’s only now that I wonder what he left and whether his affairs were “in order,” at the end.
Intimate moments with the corpse of a friend’s dad stick with a person. Like the other kids there, I felt glad that this wasn’t my father. And a few minutes later, when we were back on the street again and heading for home, I felt the relief of still having an intact family. I wondered not so much how Jimmy would cope in the future years, but what he would do tonight, tomorrow night, and the next few nights when his dad wasn’t there at the supper table, in front of the TV, or checking the doors before bed to see if they were locked and that Jimmy was safely at home.
None of us went to Jimmy’s party out of pity, though. While we remembered that his father had died, a year had gone by, and most of us were more worried about each other—the slow dancing and what might follow. Had he been alive, Mr. Walker likely would have been in his den, watching a western on TV, or maybe getting ready for bed, certain that Mrs. Walker could handle us. I’ve wondered all these years what it felt like to be Jimmy on this night, as he slow-danced with a variety of girls.
What is solace, exactly?
Jimmy wasn’t my best friend and only on the periphery of the circle of guys I hung with. We had been in the same Cub Scout pack, but in different dens. We played Little League, but on different teams. Later in high school, we’d both join the Thespian Club, but where I was an “actor,” Jimmy ran tech. We both sang in the school choir, sat near each other in the “Bass” section. Our circles overlapped, and when we saw each other, we were always friendly. I’d say that both of us were on the cusp of the most popular high school clique.
We didn’t plan it, but Jimmy and I chose the same college—The University of Montevallo, in the geographic center of Alabama—and rode to orientation together. I remember our rambling around that first night with members of the Theater department, and smoking a joint outside the library. We registered for classes, the common core, though we didn’t choose any classes together. Nor did we choose a common dorm. In fact, all I saw of Jimmy that first year was when he drove me home. Sometimes we’d reminisce about high school, and our double date to the Frank Sinatra Jr. concert at Bessemer’s Knights of Columbus Hall when we were seniors. Our dates were younger, cuter than we were, and, even better, they asked us. But what I recall most strongly that night was Bessemer’s mayor getting shit-faced drunk and threatening to punch a nice Catholic lady.
I wasn’t sure how Jimmy got such a cute date that night, another girl I considered out of my orbit. After a few months in college, though, I met Jimmy’s new girlfriend, and then I had to assume that there was more to him than met my eye.
She didn’t go to our college, or any college that I knew of: Janice Garrett, a girl I first met in homeroom of seventh grade who had long blond hair, braces, and the skinniest legs I had ever seen on a girl her age. As with virtually everything I thought or encountered back then, I couldn’t imagine how she might change, might grow into someone breathtaking.
My friend Freddy had gone to elementary school with her. We were comparing notes about the cute girls in our class one Friday afternoon that fall as Freddy’s mom drove us to his house. Out Eastern Valley Road, we passed an average ranch-style house with a barn and horse corral. “That’s where Janice Garrett lives,” Freddy said. “She’s pretty nice.”
I thought about it, but not enough to make a real impression. Still, every time I passed her house, I thought about her. In ninth grade, our junior high split off into various high schools. Since Janice lived in the county, she enrolled in McAdory, while Jimmy and I were zoned for the city high, Jess Lanier, named for that drunken mayor. Our school had originally been built to hold 800 students, 800 white students, but by 1970, the courts wouldn’t stand for attempts to defy or end-run around integration. So, we ended up with 1700 students, well mixed. There were too many problems, and too many other girls to consider then, so Janice Garrett faded to gold, McAdory’s primary color.
How or where she met Jimmy after high school, I don’t know, but on the way home from Montevallo one weekend, he told me that he had begun dating her, that she had become a model. We met up later that weekend, and he re-introduced us. Janice was six feet tall, her hair lustrous, and her figure not as skinny as in seventh grade. The braces were gone, and her eyes and smile made me feel like an idiot for the one-millionth time in my life. I wish I could say that I totally got why she liked Jimmy, why I, who had no girlfriend, wasn’t her choice now that she met me again. I considered myself a winner, and Jimmy? Trending toward “loser.” I suppose I hadn’t matured very far; I was jealous, small, and petty.
I know that they dated for at least the rest of our freshman year; what they did after, what happened to them, remains a mystery. Jimmy quit college after our freshman year, and we lost track of each other. I know one or two other details about him, but from ages 19-59, his relationship with Janice, or any other aspect of his life—his mother, his house, that screened-in porch where I slow-danced with Margaret Hagerty—vanished from my life, almost as if none of it was ever lived at all.
My father died in December 2000 from Parkinson’s disease. Two years after, my mother began keeping company with a very sweet Bessemer man, John Vines. John was a widower with a grown daughter, Sallie, whom I knew from high school, though she was two years younger than me and played in the marching band. Our circles had little, if any, intersection. I learned only recently that Sallie and my brother Mike hung out together in those days.
For his part, John had many widowed male friends whom he went to regular breakfasts with at Raggedy Ann’s café, the old Cliff’s Barbeque building on Fourth Avenue, across the street from the football stadium, where John was a star in the late 1940’s. Though my mother liked John quite a bit, she detested Raggedy Ann’s: “Their food either comes from cans or oozes grease,” she said; “I don’t see how those men eat it!” My mother was the best chef I’ve ever known, but she never understood that mass quantities of grease, fat, and cured pork are to men like slow dancing to adolescent boys.
One of John’s best friends was Durwood, whom John introduced Mom to and who did odd jobs for her—painting, moving furniture, re-wiring junction boxes. She’d cook fresh summer vegetables, beef stew, for John and Durwood, and as she’d report to me, “They ate everything like they hadn’t eaten before, ever!”
Just as they did at Raggedy Ann’s, I thought, though I never uttered such words to my mother. So often during our weekly phone calls, she’d refer to Durwood, and I got the image of Durwood Kirby, Garry Moore’s sidekick, the only other Durwood I’d ever heard of. This went on for years, until once when I was home, she suggested that we ride over to Durwood’s place to see his horses. That’s when I finally met the man who lived in a ranch-style house on Eastern Valley Road.
After we petted the horses and talked to him a bit, we left. On the way home, I said to Mom: “I bet his last name is Garrett.”
“Yes, Durwood Garrett.”
“And he has a daughter named Janice.”
“Yes, she’s married, I think, with a couple of kids.”
“Huh. She used to date Jimmy Walker, you know?”
“No, I didn’t know that. Well, she’s not married to Jimmy Walker, that much I know.”
I felt a little dizzy then, like something had just opened for me, or closed.
Four years ago, Mom told me that Durwood died, “They’ll sell his place now, and I think one of his children is taking the horses. I hope so at least.”
The next time I came home, she showed me Durwood’s obituary. It mentioned Janice, of course, her husband and kids. I wish I had taken better note, for I don’t remember where she is or what she’s doing. It’s not as if I would have contacted her. It was just another memory of another life.
That same night my friend Joe dropped by. We spoke of Durwood, Janice, her brother David whom Joe knew back in high school. Because I had nothing real to share, I reminded Joe that Janice had dated Jimmy Walker. “Don’t mention Jimmy Walker to me,” Joe said; “That asshole left town owing me a good bit of money!” Where Jimmy had gone, Joe didn’t know. He didn’t go into the details of the money either.
It couldn’t have been three months later, though, that I got a new Facebook friend request from Jimmy. While I felt like I was betraying Joe, I accepted. Jimmy, it seemed, had moved back to the Bessemer area. I didn’t press for details, just followed his feed.
The following summer, John Vines passed away.
And last summer, so did my mom.
Bessemer began fading for me then. Last October, my wife, brother, and I returned to Mom’s house to get it ready for its new owners. Joe had engineered the sale, and he and Sallie, who adored my mother, and now considers me her “older brother,” were there to help. As we watched the movers hauling Mom’s treasures to the van, we sat in an almost empty den and spoke of our past.
Sallie grew up four blocks from our house, though in childhood circles, that was a world away. I knew many of the people she spoke of. One name I knew better than others. “One of my best friends was Margaret Hagerty,” Sallie said. “She was so sweet. She still is. I talk to her every now and then. She’s divorced, and has a couple of kids and grandkids.”
Margaret and I had already become Facebook friends by then, but our communication was limited to posts about the old radio stations we listened to; the skating rink near Hueytown we all frequented back when we had no idea of the lives we’d lead. “Is Margaret happy?” I asked Sallie.
“Oh yeah, she is! She’s a good soul.”
One of Mom’s last requests was that Sallie Vines play John Lennon’s “Imagine” at the service, on the saxophone. It was lovely, if not a bit odd at a Methodist service.
That Jimmy didn’t come to the funeral didn’t disturb me, and it doesn’t even now, except the part of me that wishes I had told him. Even though we kept Mom’s coffin closed, as we did with every other member of our family who’s died, there would have been a certain symmetry had he been there.
For its ability to bring old friends together, I celebrate Facebook. Some of these renewals have motivated me to write about the people I once knew or loved, like the one high school girl I really loved, the one I could never forget. The one who was raped by a guy I knew just before she and I began dating.
The downside of Facebook, for me at least, is that in such renewals we find that the person we once knew, the person we once were, have changed drastically, perhaps irredeemably. Renewals can wreck marriages, lead to alienation, particularly in such a polarizing age as ours when you discover that someone you once cherished is a Trump supporter.
Of course, I weigh in sometimes. I tell myself that I’m under no illusion that I can change anyone’s mind. Which brings me back to Jimmy.
When we knew each other best, Jimmy wasn’t religious. Yet, once we connected again, I saw that his Facebook posts leaned more and more on his love and need for Jesus. I never asked what caused his turn, but my guess is that it was his daughter’s contracting an aggressive cancer that Jimmy’s posts indicated was fatal.
Nor did I know why Jimmy’s political views veered so hard to the right. Maybe it was just being in Alabama, for the past dies hard. I didn’t engage Jimmy much on politics, and can remember only two times when we directly messaged each other. The first came when Jimmy heard that I had written about our double date back in high school. He asked where he could get a copy of my book. “Oh, man, let me sign one and send it to you,” I said.
He thanked me, offered to pay, but I wouldn’t let him. That he wanted to read about us was enough. I think he appreciated the memory, and he “liked” the posts where I promoted readings and signings. If he found anything inaccurate in the Frank Sinatra Jr. story, he never said.
The other Facebook encounter, though, could have gone ugly. Jimmy had posted his objections to several southern cities’ removal of Confederate monuments. He didn’t like the idea of “erasing history.” I pointed him to an article—one that described how in most instances, those statues weren’t erected until well in to the 20th Century. “I didn’t know that,” he said. “I’ll have to read further. Thanks!”
I don’t know if he did read further, and I wish I had asked. We could have moved right into our uncomfortable past, the terrain most of us avoid. We could have had a deeper conversation. We might have become more than “old friends.” Of course, we might also have said things we’d always regret. So, we left the exchange at that. After my mother died, I disengaged for a while from the Facebook world and, of course, from Jimmy.
A couple of months ago, I ran across a new post from Jimmy. His daughter was near her end, and so Jimmy, while asking for prayers, said he was driving out to Colorado to see her for the last time. Yet again, I couldn’t imagine what he was feeling and what that drive would be like. I’ll never know, either, for there his posts ended.
“Did you hear what happened to Jimmy Walker?” Joe asked a few days after Jimmy’s last post. Joe doesn’t subscribe to Facebook, but his wife, Kit does. I don’t know who posted the news, but this is Joe’s account:
“Jimmy made it to the hospital and spent some time with his daughter. Then he left for the night, planning to come back in the morning, as she wasn’t imminent. On the way to his hotel, another car crashed into Jimmy’s, killing Jimmy instantly. The other driver was okay.” That’s all Joe knew. I don’t know what they told his daughter, or if they told her anything at all. I don’t know if she was lucid enough to be told. But I know that she died earlier this week, two months after her father, and just a week after Father’s Day.
This year for Father’s Day, my older daughter was in town visiting. I cooked a big meal for us, and that night as we were full and sitting on the couch together, she took a photo of me reading the book she’s bought me earlier that day, Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, and posted it to hers and my Facebook feed. “To the best daddy in the world,” she wrote, a loving thought shared by many daughters and sons about their own.
I’m sure that had he seen it, Jimmy would have “liked” it. And I’m sure he would have updated all of us about his daughter and her last battle. I wish I could add a like to this “post,” and say something warm to him in his time of sorrow. Maybe that’s what I’m doing now.
As I scrolled down the responses to my daughter’s post, one name out of over a hundred caught my eye. Margaret Hagerty, with a heart added to help steady mine.
Terry Barr’s essays have appeared in storySouth, The New Southern Fugitives, Eclectica, Under the Sun, EMRYS Journal, Coachella Review, and Call Me [Brackets]. He lives in Greenville, SC, with his family.