Graduation; Sweating Ourselves to Death and Never Finding Rita
In that blurred span of three moments, I saw her for the first time. Rita. I had seen her many times, but now, I really saw her. Rita. Even her name was beautiful. Her name easily fit into those Vintage Hollywood drama's with Boggie and Bacall with a lead dancer, Rita, who had a thing for Boggie, but kept it hidden. But in those few joyous moments, sadness laughed and I could no longer see Rita anymore. She was elusive in the very definition of the word.
No use in lying. Rita although was willowy and beautiful alright, but was not "the" most beautiful girl in our high school senior class. I didn't want to lie to her and say that she was "the" centerfold of our senior class and she didn't need me to lie. But she had "that" certain magic (for lack of a better word) that every heterosexual male appreciates and when she walked down the halls, she floated like a lazy summer cloud. The rest of the girls in our class only walked. If you were an active heterosexual you would know right off what I mean.
Then came Graduation. Our senior class sponsor, Mrs. Gladys Jennings, a very elderly woman with brittle bones--way past her retirement, told us that we would be practicing for the Graduation March for a week which included picking up our heavy velvet robes and mortar boards for our heads and try our best to at least "look" the part of a classy bunch of teenagers. This was exciting alright, but what was truly exciting was the day when Rita appeared like a dream and said softly: Would you march with me? I was frozen in thought. My tongue had ceased working. The only word that I could blurt out was, "YESSSS!" She smiled a soft smile and floated away. Fact: those few moments put me on one more emotional high that lasted for the rest of that day, week and some of the next week ahead. And no scrapes with the local authorities. I sometimes nick-named Rita (only in my imagination) "Rita Coke," sounded cool and hip. But "Rita Weed," would have been a dead give-away for local authorities who knew anything about weed or blow. I didn't use either, but talking about it did make me feel laid back.
You want to hear a stupid question? Okay. Why, oh why didn't I just ask her for a date before we practiced our Graduation March? Stress, I can only guess. Oh, Rita was visible although just for a few moments, but she was mostly a loner. I liked that. With a few changes in her hairstyle and clothes, she would have made one hot biker chick. She was not one to participate in any of the school events, elections and after-school club festivities. She would hang out with my cousin, Deb, and mutual friend, Janie who was in the D.O.E Class which stood for: Diversified Occupation Education. The teacher, a stoic, Mr. D.D. Real, (also pas his retirement) didn't teach from any text book, but asked few job-related questions and napped for the rest of the class. That suited us just fine. I envied Real for that one thing.
May I, for just a moment, share an antedote about Mr. Real? Thanks. He had this way of his D.O. Class to keep us honest. In the second class he announced that he would start making random inspections on our job sites to just see how we were doing. My good friend, Joe Mays, San Diego, and I would laugh when Real napped. Joe would ask me if Mr. Real had inspected me at my job? I would answer no. Then Joe let go a valuable secret: "Don't worry," he said. "Mr. Real is too old to drive any great distance to check on us---so relax and enjoy." Joe had this class wired. When our class was dismissed at 12 noon to leave for our jobs, Joe didn't head to his job, a barbecue joint in a smaller town than Hamilton. Joe was cool. He simply went home and went to his room and slept the afternoon away. I found out later that Joe's boss had laid him off for lack of business and if he needed him, Joe that is, he would call him. I could have such luck. I stayed at it. But still, Mr. Real never made any inspections at my job. I felt like an idiot for a long time after we graduated.
During D.O.E. Class, I would sit silently and just admire how Rita sat--proudly and with perfect posture letting her long dark blond hair fall just on the crest of her shoulders. As for make-up, she wore very little. She didn't need any. She was beautiful from birth. When she spoke she used small words using her full, pouty lips to a minimum. Her soft tone was like a magnet when I was near. But as for showing me any sign of flirtation, she remained quiet, stoic, and very reserved. That to me, was an ever-occuring mystery, but that didn't matter. I still adored her.
Then came Graduation Night. The boys and girls were to line up at seperate doors to the gym and when each couple would meet they would continue to march to the stage, stand, and sit down in unison. Mrs. Jennings never missed any over-used graduation tradition. Even then, some adults spoke in hushed tones about her mental state, but kept it hush, hush. Still we all prayed that she would forget a lot of this junk that was passed down from each senior class to the next. I mean, some of these things like Class Night and Day was stupid as a cat burgular who goes into a home with the family at home to rob the loot. Class Night was when our class all sit on a specially-built set of wooden bleachers on the stage and sang those old, outdated glee songs that Jennings taught when she did have good mental faculties.
Rita, being illusive, was late in lining-up to march into the gym. My heart beat faster than the engine in any of Mario Andretti's racing cars. I silently prayed . . ."God, please let Rita be here. I do not want to look like a fool." God was quick in anwering for there she was in all of her radiance. I almost asked her out while we were marching, but my mouth was dry as cotton. But my shirt and pants (underneath my 75-pound grad robe) were soaked from the sweat produced by a gym that our principal, Mr. Joe L. Sargent (who was also past his retirement) had ordered all of those big ceiling fans to be turned off. I guess that he wanted his speeches to be heard--and I hate to be this honest, but we along with our parents and friends in the gym were only going through the motions of applauding at various times when he would reach to the sky and bellow, "and seniors! I can tell you that the game isn't over until the gun has sounded!" Oh, one time, we did witness half of the gym stand for a standing ovation, but quickly sat down. I felt for Mr. Sargent for these who only gave him an "attempted standing ovation."
As we marched slowly down the middle of the gym--which was the school tradition, I felt it was time to at least hint at taking Rita out after graduation was over, but when I mentioned it to her, she either didn't want to say no and reject me or didn't want to hear what I asked. For a split second I was (in my mind) hanging on a pine sapling from a high Rocky Mountain ledge--my breath became short. I feared that a cardiac arrest was on the way. Me? I thought. A heart attack? I am only 18. I have way too many things to do: a job to land, girls to date; promises to break--you know? Life to the fullest.
We stood. We sat. We listened. Then we stood, listened to our names to be called and given our diploma's all within the span of a horse taking a well-needed drink of cold water. Fast is beyond the adjective structure. We were there. We were gone. Walking into life with a full-bore attitude to achieve more, work less, and have some sort of a happy life. But in all of the graduation pandemonium, where was Rita? I asked this in my heart so many times. She vanished. I saw Deb and Janie, but no Rita. Then our last night as high school students was over. For some of us, finally over. For others, grateful that the years were finished. Some did not even care.
Life began as I had dreamed. I continued my job at small country store, Collins Corner Grocery, in Hamilton, Ala., just out of town on highway 43 north. A quaint little store with very little dust on the canned goods. I loved to man the old reliable feather duster for I knew how to keep the appearance on the inside of our store looking immaculate. Well, I did my best. Let's just leave it there.
Later, my best friend, James, who worked for a mobile home factory on the other side of Hamilton, got me a job, with the help of his dad who just happened to be a foreman. He hired me and another guy on the spot. I was still in my Friday night graduation. Why? I was always either looking for someone to come by and pick me up or someone to take somewhere. Life wasn't a newly-baked applie pie cooling in the summer breezes in the window ledge. No, sir it wasn't.
Then, as was our custom, we who had just graduated a couple of weeks ago, would meet in some of our old haunts, talk, and share details of what everyone was doing. James and I just had fun riding around in his brand-new 1972 Ford Mustang. What a great smelling car. But then again, all new cars have that new car smell--an aroma that cannot be duplicated by Einstein himself.
During one of these weekends, James and I decided to just leave town and try to see what it was like to ride the back roads. This turned out to be a lot of fun--listening to James' Steppenwolf Eight-Track tape turned wide-open with all of the windows down. Man, were we cool. Upon stopping on one of those backward country roads, there she sat in her green Pinto. Rita. I was just like a caged lion being released from the circus. I ran to her driver's car window and wanted to talk since she was alone.
We talked, or rather I talked. She nodded, smiled, and listened. But never agreed to go out with me. I stood in that almost-deserted neighborhood watching her drive away. And with the tail lights of her green Pinto being the last thing that I seen, she left me. And my life forever.
Oh, in a few years, I talked with Deb and Janie at various times when we would meet in our hometown, and Deb did say that Rita had met with a dangerous encounter with some heavy drinking and a sexual advance by an older man. But something else happened. Something life-threatening. Janie said later that Rita came back to pay her respects to a family member who was related both to her and Janie who said that when Rita met Janie face-to-face, Janie spoke and tried to embrace Rita. Nothing. No words were said. Just a blank stare on Rita's face.
I could only ask myself why pain has to be so painful at times?
Three years ago, I stopped asking myself this question and did my best to move on with my life without Rita.
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© 2017 Kenneth Avery