Ashley and Me

 

Frank Dougherty

Frank Dougherty has previously been published in both Heater and Romance Magazine, as well as The Rampallian, Pilot Magazine, Boating World, Motor Boating, and other non-fiction magazines. He also posts periodic diaries on DailyKos.com as FIDougherty.

 

I never saw it coming. That’s nothing new for me, though; a lot of times events go on around me, but I don’t realize what’s happening until I’m surrounded and there’s no way to escape. That problem of a lack of awareness, however,  might explain why I found myself with Ashley Jones at the Social Grill. It started innocently enough when she bet me I couldn’t guess her weight within five pounds. She said she’d buy lunch if I did.

“How’s your burger, Mister Tim?” she asked.

“Good,” I mumbled with a mouth full of hamburger and bun, and then, finally swallowing, “Real good.”

“I thought you’d like it.”

Ashley is a Southern girl, brought up to be informally formal, especially with elders, so first names were frequently preceded by “Mister” or “Miss” to indicate respect. She was sitting across from me, her elbows resting on either side of her untouched salad, her hands folded together, propping up her little chin. She was watching me eat, with just the faintest trace of a smile turning up the corners of her lips.

It was a little embarrassing, having someone watch me like that, so I asked her, “Why do you always call me Mister Tim?”

“’Cause that’s your name, silly.”

“No, I mean the mister part.”

“Okay, then. From now on I’m going to call you Timmy. Is that better?”

Before I could recover and give her an answer, she said sweetly, “Timmy, I want you to be my boyfriend.”

“B-but you already have a boyfriend.”

“Not any more.”

“When did this happen?”

“Right after you guessed my weight.”

Just then, a girl walked up to the table, dressed in jeans, cowboy boots, and a low-cut blouse. She glanced at me and started talking with Ashley. Thankful for a chance to catch my breath and sort out my thoughts, I desperately tried to understand what was happening. I wasn’t listening to their conversation until I heard, “This is Timmy. He’s my boyfriend now.”

The girl glanced over at me a second time, then looked back at Ashley, then looked hard at me.

“Hi.”

Too flustered to say anything, I just nodded. She said goodbye to Ashley, looked my way once again, and left.

Ashley was now gazing at me with a disconcerting Cheshire Cat grin. She had a way of narrowing her eyes, furrowing her brow, and smiling. It made her look really cute but almost calculating, both at the same time.

“Well?”

“Who was that?”

“That was Doris. She’s my ex-boyfriend’s sister.”

“The one you just broke up with?”

“Who else would it be, Timmy?”

I realized I had said something terribly gauche, and it must have shown on my face.

“That’s all right, Timmy, you couldn’t have known. Donnie’s been the only real boyfriend I’ve had since high school. Until you, that is.” she said, breaking out into a genuine laugh.

What could I say? I was flattered and scared at the same time. This was new ground for me and I didn’t know what to do. What would people think?

“What will people think?”

“What do you mean, ‘What will people think’?”

“I mean, what will they think if they see us together?”

“We’re together right now.”

“Yes, but…”

“You mean if we’re holding hands or kissing out in the parking lot?”

“Well, yeah, kinda.”

“I’m surprised at you, Timmy, I never thought you were one of those people who cared what people think.”

“Well, I’m not, really.”

“Then stop worrying about other people. I don’t, and besides, I really like you.”

I remember very little of what was said for the next several minutes. Ashley was chatting away, explaining to me that since it was Friday, she had already cleared her schedule for the afternoon and she thought it would be a great idea if we spent some time together celebrating our new relationship. I didn’t know what to think or what to say. I was so in awe of this creature, so impressed by her, and I couldn’t for the life of me understand why she would be attracted to me and, especially, want to be my girlfriend. It wasn’t making any sense, but it was a wonderful dream and I didn’t want to wake up.

By the time I finally began to come out of my daze, Ashley was paying the bill. When we stood, she reached for my hand and took it in her own, leaning into me and playfully butting my arm with her shoulder. In the parking lot, I walked her to the passenger side of my car, but instead of opening the door, she turned to face me, wrapped her arms around my waist, and pulled me to her as she lifted her face to kiss me with her warm, oh so soft, sweet lips.

I heard the rattling, the engine revving, and the squealing tires before I opened my eyes and saw the decrepit old Ford pickup as it slid to a stop just feet from my car. The truck was at least five different colors of chalky paint, brown rust, and gray primer, but it certainly suited the crazed redneck who flung open the driver’s door, jumped down, and slammed the door so hard it simply clanged and bounced back open, hitting him in the butt. He was a skinny little guy, no more than five foot six inches tall, maybe 130 pounds, with greasy shoulder-length blonde hair, zits on his pasty, dirt-smeared face, and a long-failed attempt to grow a beard. That attempt had left his cheeks and upper lip with odd patches of peach fuzz and the occasional renegade blond hair. It only took a second before I realized this was Ashley’s ex-boyfriend.

It took even less time to realize the ex-boyfriend was not a happy camper, and for once in my life I actually knew why. It didn’t take a rocket scientist to realize that Doris had hightailed it home to let her brother know whom she’d just seen at the Social Grill. But why he’d chosen to come see for himself was another question, one I didn’t quite yet have an answer to. The biggest question, though, that I found myself asking was, what in God’s name did Ashley see in this boy?

But while I was mulling over these questions, Donnie was yelling at Ashley, “Goddammit all, Ash, why the fuck are you doing this to me?”  Then he started pointing at me with his thumb, jerking it like he was trying to hitch a ride. “And why the fuck with this old guy?”

I wanted to say, “Hey, I’m not that old, I’m only thirty-nine,” but Ashley beat me to it and added, “And it’s none of your business what I do. You’re not my boyfriend, he is.”

Before he had a chance to answer, she said, with her face shoved forward into his and sparks shooting from her eyes, “So get into that old truck of yours and leave us alone. We’re on a date.”

I have a confession to make: I haven’t told you the whole story, not by a long shot, so maybe I should start now. First, let me explain the whole thing about guessing Miss Ashley’s weight. Ashley is my stylist and has been for years, nearly a hundred haircuts. During this time she learned a little about me, while I learned a lot about her. A few weeks before, she had told me, while reducing the shag I refer to as hair, that she weighed 120 pounds but was trying to lose five more. During our appointment this morning, she made the bet about guessing her weight. Maybe she wanted to see if I had been paying attention, or maybe she just wanted to make sure. I had, of course, and because I’m not a complete idiot, I knew a guess of 120 pounds or more would lead to immediate exile and the need to find another stylist. I also decided that she had asked precisely because she had succeeded in reaching that target weight, so when I guessed 115 pounds I hit paydirt. But I wondered, at the same time, if I had been set up and had fallen into a carefully crafted trap.

That latter thought related to everything I wanted and had dreamed of for years, ever since the first time I had wandered, clueless, into The Tigers’ Den Styling Salon. If anyone wanted to be trapped by Ashley, it was me. What had stopped me was not only my own diffidence, but also the undeniable difference between our ages. She was barely twenty and I was thirty-five, nearly twice as old. Now, four years later, the difference was less extreme, but still, in my mind, too large.

Ashley knew I had never been married and hadn’t dated a whole lot, so on several occasions she had suggested I needed to get out more. She also knew I taught sixth grade math at the middle school, liked my job, and enjoyed the kids. She was always mentioning single teachers who frequented the salon, telling me I should ask them out. I never did, of course, and she knew it. For my part, I really enjoyed her honesty, her straightforward way of telling me exactly what she thought. She wasn’t deceitful, mean, hateful, or gossipy. In fact, she was almost always cheerful and bubbly, with her infectious laugh and her quirky facial expressions.

Her mother had died years before of breast cancer, when Ashley was only thirteen. Her brother was older, and was still having his own issues with his mother’s death, while her father had been suddenly saddled with the responsibility of raising two teenagers. He had already been working two jobs to support his family. I knew enough about him from Ashley to know he was opinionated, set in his ways, and sometimes difficult to get along with.

I also realized that Daddy was going to be the next hurdle to overcome, and I already had the feeling I hadn’t seen the last of the old boyfriend. And, finally, all this turmoil was happening in the hour since Ashley had proclaimed me her new boyfriend. If I wasn’t so head over heels in love, I would probably have been a little worried.

“Can you play pool?”

“Sure, I used to play a little in college.”

“Good, ’cause now we’re going to go play some.”

Yes, I can play pool, but quite a bit more than “some.” I had played on an unofficial pool team and had reached the finals of a couple of ladder-style tournaments, so I was prepared to back away from my obvious talent to keep from embarrassing Ashley.

The Wings & Beer was located in a small strip mall on the highway just outside of town, with two pool tables behind the large plate glass windows that flanked the front door. It was the closest thing to a pool hall within twenty miles.

“Timmy, I thought you could play pool.”

“I’m just getting warmed up. It’s been a while.”

“Good, ’cause I’m getting tired of winning.”

She was good, damned good. I had always thought women stood back to watch their boyfriends play. Wrong again, as usual. I was fighting for my life or, at least, my dignity, as if I had any left.

I was lining up to put the eight ball in the far corner pocket and win my first game of the afternoon when I heard the telltale sound and looked up and out the plate glass window into the parking lot. My shot went wild, the cue ball went into the pocket instead of the eight ball, and I lost my third game in a row.

What had distracted me was the sight and unmistakable sound of an old Ford pickup truck slowly cruising through the mall parking lot. As I stood there, mesmerized, barely conscious of my gaffe a moment before, I saw the truck turn at the end of the lot and head back.

Ashley saw him, too, and we both watched as he slowed to a stop outside.

Before I had a chance to say anything, Ashley said, “Stay here. I’ll be right back.”

Seconds later, she ran out the door and up to the passenger side of the pickup. I could watch the interchange between the two like an old silent movie, Ashley’s hands gesticulating wildly, Donnie’s extended toward her, palms up. After what seemed hours, but I’m sure were only seconds, she opened the door of the pickup and got in. My heart sank into my feet as I watched them drive away.

Heartsick, crestfallen, I don’t know what you would call it. To me, it was as if I had died, been shown a glimpse of the pearly gates, and then suddenly been told I had been condemned to an eternity in hell. I put four more quarters into the slots on the side of the pool table, racked the balls, and began a game of pool solitaire, if there is such a thing.

The minutes were ticking by like hours and Wings & Beer was beginning to fill up with the Friday happy hour crowd. The other pool table was busy and I was  beginning to get dirty looks from some of the people waiting to play, so I did the only thing I could do: I racked my cue stick and left.

I didn’t know where Ashley lived, but I did know her car was parked near the salon, so I drove past and saw it was still where she had left it when we had gone to lunch. Not knowing what else to do, I went back to my apartment, showered, and then slid a frozen dinner into the microwave. I sat numbly on the couch, turned on the television, and ate what I could. I considered calling the police department, but then I thought about what I would say.

“I’d like to report a kidnapping.”

“You’d like to report a what?”

“A kidnapping. The girl I was playing pool with at Wings & Beer saw her boyfriend drive up. She ran out and got into his truck and they left. I think he kidnapped her ’cause she didn’t come back.”

“Sir, have you been drinking?”

I decided there was nothing more I could do until morning. Then I’d drive by to see if she had picked up her car. If she hadn’t, I’d go to the police department and report a missing person. With a phone book filled with Joneses, the chance of my finding the right Jones and finding her father at home were slim. Besides, I realized that with the tag number from her car, the police would have an immediate address to work with.

 

I don’t remember dozing off, but a gentle knock on my apartment door woke me with a start. It was nearly 10 p.m. I jumped up, my heart in my throat, and literally ran to the front door. Standing in the hallway was Ashley. She had obviously been crying: her eyes were red and puffy, and her shoulder length hair was no longer sleek and shining, but tangled and knotted. She fell into my arms, sobbing, and I half carried her across the threshold and led her to the couch. I wrapped my arms around her while she clung tightly to me, still sobbing.

When she finally stopped crying we sat in silence, the TV muted, for the longest time. Finally, she spoke: “Can you forgive me?” Suddenly wondering what she might have done to be forgiven for, I felt  defensive and blurted out, “For what?” When she started crying again, I realized that, once again, I had said the wrong thing, so I started over, “What happened?”

“He tried to kidnap me.”

“My God, why?”

“He said he needed to talk to me. He said we would just drive around the block and then he’d bring me back.” She paused and looked up at me, her eye mascara smeared across her tear-streaked cheeks. “But he didn’t. He just kept driving and driving. We must have gone halfway to Boonesboro. He wanted to marry me. He didn’t want anyone else to have me. He was talking crazy. Tim, I was so scared.”

She had never called me just Tim before and I was processing that piece of information when she added that he had finally calmed down and agreed to bring her back to town after she had told him she would see him again, and promised she wouldn’t say anything about what had happened.

Then Ashley blew me away once more when she asked if she could stay with me; she just wanted to be close. She showered and I gave her an old T-shirt and a pair of boxers to wear. I knew instinctively that this was not a time for lovemaking. She was exhausted and traumatized and I wanted our first time to be really special. In bed, she fell asleep almost immediately in my arms; I held her, thankful and relieved that my world, which had crumbled so quickly and completely, was now nearly whole again.

 

I woke up on Saturday morning and watched the girl of my dreams sleeping softly next to me before I finally slipped quietly out of bed and went to fix breakfast. We ate, we talked, and we finally agreed that it was time to meet Dad.

I was pleasantly surprised when he greeted me with a gruff, “So you’re Mister Tim.” And I was even more surprised when he continued, “You’re a far sight better choice than that little pucker-face she used to moon over. I could never understand what she saw in that boy.” I knew now we had something in common. Something we could agree on.

Her dad never mentioned the difference between our ages and I was amazed at how much he knew about me. “My daughter has spent a lot of time talking about you over the years. I always thought maybe there was a little something going on there. I guess I was right.”

***

The years have been good to us, Ashley and me. The twins, both little hellions, are going on seven and Emily just had her third birthday. I’m an assistant principal at the middle school now and I get my haircuts free, although Ashley keeps her chair at the Tiger’s Den and still does a few old customers. On date nights we go to the Wings & Beer and Ashley helps save my dignity by letting me win a game of pool occasionally. Oh, and Donnie did us a favor by going a little deeper off the deep end. Instead of the usual DUI when he and Ashley fought, he decided to rob a bank and was caught red-handed as he left in his old truck. He’ll be out of town for quite a few more years.

 

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