Vintage Gas Pump. ©2013 Anjani Millet

Vintage Gas Pump. ©2013 Anjani Millet

This is the best worst date story I’ve ever heard, and it is true. It is my mother’s story, and it happened to her in 1966 or so. I’ve asked many people over and over if anyone can top this date story. No one ever has. Note: I have changed some names in this story to protect my mother’s identity, and some minor details, but have otherwise told the story as my mother told it to me.

It turned out to be a very long date, starting at 6pm, and ended after 5 am the next morning. But lengthy as it would be, no cooing, canoodling, or goodnight kiss would occur. There would be no waiting for the phone to ring afterward, no wondering if he really liked her, and no next date. There was, though, just one phone call, made that very night. It was the only one allowed, in fact: the one she made from the Sheriff’s office to the babysitter. My babysitter.

My mother, I’ll call her Marthe, was a 36 year old single mother, and her history with men was not pretty. Her first husband, a preacher with whom she had three children, took all of them, and my mother’s best friend, and disappeared into the wilds of Oregon to start a new, hidden life. This is another story that would forever break the hearts of my mother and first her three children. The second husband was yet another charming gift from the devil’s clutch purse; a handsome, pathological liar wrapped up in a shiny, charming bow. This man became, unfortunately, my father, and thankfully, they were divorced almost as soon as they began.

But a few years after I arrived and my father disappeared, things were looking up for my mother.

On that balmy summer night, she had a date! Her shining black hair was pulled up high, into a perfect, dramatic beehive. The nape of her neck was adorned with that surprising shock of glistening silver hair, like a sparkling jewel crowning her back. Her Kohl eye-liner, round at the top and sleek at the edges, like cat eyes, showed off her emerald green eyes, which also sometimes looked violet in some light, depending. She looked like Liz Taylor. It was the sixties, and she had on her squeaky new go-go boots, white, leather, and up to the knee. She’d slipped into that figure-hugging orange dress: a little short, sure, mid-thigh; it was stylish, cute, and a little saucy, just like her.

Her date was a man I’ll call K.P., and she’d known him at work for two years. He seemed smart and responsible, if quiet, and was always nice to her in the halls at work, even though most engineers couldn’t be bothered speaking to the secretaries. When he asked her on a date, she was flattered and, after she thought about it a bit, the tiniest bit hopeful. Maybe she could find a good man one day, even a good father? Maybe. Doubtful. But, maybe.

He arrived at 6:15 sharp, and they hopped in his yellow Carmen Ghia. Dinner at the Red Hen was tasty, if frugal. Steak: medum, slightly tough but decent. Salad: iceberg lettuce, chilled cucumbers, anemic winter tomoatoes, nearly red. Dessert? Well, she skipped that (girlish figure), though he had neopolitan ice cream. She didn’t drink any wine due to her religious beliefs but even if she did, she wouldn’t. Her young toddler – that would be me – was home with a sitter, and she wanted to be sure she didn’t smell like a loose person when she returned in a few hours. After dinner, they’d go bowling, where, she thought, she might impress him a little with her first class bowling skills. Bowling was the one thing she felt any good at anymore, because in the last few years, she’d come to doubt nearly every decision she’d ever made and every thought she’d ever had. But bowling was like a reliable friend; always there for her.

Between dinner and bowling, they stopped at the 76 gas station to fuel up. After he filled the tank, as he was heading in to pay, he leaned in the driver’s window in a friendly way and asked her if she’d like anything. That was nice.

“Oh, gosh, a Coke, please. Thank you!”

He smiled in that big way he did at work. His stride was relaxed and confident as he walked into the store. She watched him go, and wondered does he like children, has he ever been married, or, oh no, is he currently married, and does he believe in God? Will we have an ok time, is he the sort to have affairs, does he have a good relationship with his mother, what if he hates my hair? Moments later he returned and was about to get back in the car, but had forgotten the drink.  He headed back to the store, just to get her that soda he promised. Yes. He was keeping his word – a good sign. And as he walked away, she decided she liked the look of him. He was as handsome from behind as he was head-on. When he returned, he smiled again, handed her the soda, “enjoy!”, and off they went. They joked about the funny way the waitress almost tripped on a snag in the carpet on her way to their table. He seemed to think it was a little funnier than she did but, well, everyone is different about what’s funny. My mother has a hilarious sense of humor and has always reminded me of Carol Burnett, and was good for a pratfall herself, so she didn’t think much more of it.

They arrived at the bowling alley, and he took her hand in his as he opened the car door for her. So considerate! Seems few men were gentlemen anymore, especially the ones she had chosen so far. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a really nice man for once, someone to care for her and her little yours-truly, someone who wasn’t another sweet-talking snake in the grass. We’ll see about that. That is what she told herself, and and that is just what she did. When they reached the building, he opened that door too,

A scary arm and hand, opening a car door.

Scary Arm. ©Copyright 2013 Anjani Millet

and the minute he did, a badly conducted symphony of smells clanged and soared into her nostrils – sorry french fries, wilty-lettuced hamburgers, exhausted cigarette smoke (menthol for the ladies), Coors beer, old leather bowling shoes and new (partly rubber), spilled whiskey, tired carpets, greasy black machine lubricant, brown floor wax, grease pencils.  She’d bowled for 16 years, and the aroma disaster that was every bowling alley was both noxious and known, as familiar to her limbic system as her favorite Tijuana beauty parlor. She breathed it in and didn’t mind the instant little headache.  K.P. paid for two games at the counter, and ordered their shoes. The clerk handed my mother hers first – a dainty size 6.5, red striped, brand new. Shiny. Feminine. Pretty. A little stiff.

“And what size for you?” she asked the man with my mother.

“Size 11, thanks,” he said to the tired woman whose sleepy cheeks were furrowed from too much Scotch and too many divorces. Her scraggly voice was like branches on windows, crackling and near-breaking; her throat too moist, the unfeminine phlegm conflicting with the Sexy Smoker Voice. She’d earned the sultry voice over two decades by happily imbibing thousands of smoke clouds over the years, only some of which came from her own cigarettes.  She bent to find some nice shoes for the handsome man at her counter.

“Oh,” K.P. said, “I forgot something in the car. Go ahead and head to our lane,” he told my mother. “I’ll be right back. Take my shoes?” He touched her warmly on the small of her back, quickly, with his fingertips, as if they were already lovers.  My mother headed to lane 12 at the far end. It was a little dark, which was fine, as she’d applied evening mascara. Besides, if you ask me, she thought, as if she were reassuring the lights themselves, every woman over 30 looks best in less lighting, rather than more. She slipped onto the cool, burnt orange bench, its heavy plastic looking polished and glisteny. She plopped down her white plastic purse with its gold buttons and mother-of-pearl handle (so cute!), slipped on her red shoes (ouch, a little tight), surveyed the other patrons of the busy bowling alley, and headed to Lane 12’s little desk. She was about to write down their names on the score card, but decided to wait and let him fill it in. If he was really a gentleman, he’d put her name on top – ladies first. It seemed like a benign test, but you can never be too careful. Her husbands had both been completely self-absorbed and she wouldn’t put up with that kind of nonsense from a man again.

She fiddled with the white wax pencil to be sure this was not too silly or sneaky an idea, to test a man like this, just a tiny bit. When she settled on her answer, no, she returned the pencil to its groove on the desk. She went back to the bench and pretended to look for something in her purse so she had a good reason to the score card was still blank when he returned. As in every mother’s purse, she found plenty of loose pennies, old tissues, a missing pacifier, one tube of liptstick with a missing lid, and two half-eaten packets of Wrigley’s chewing gum. She fiddled with Wrigley while she waited, all of the sticks now stiff, flat gum-boards that crunched when bitten. She unwrapped one, bit her tongue upon first bite, and pretended to look for something else, carefully refolding the wrapping paper, which took a hand bit of extra time. She unwrapped and snapped a second piece in half, and half again, and into tiny squares, and finally, tippling the little stack into her mouth, like teensy building blocks.

Now, see here… He was taking longer than she guessed was polite, considering this was a first date. She felt a little like this was a tinge rude to keep her waiting: what in the world is he doing, I don’t remember anything he left in the car, it was so clean… I wonder if he’s another neat-freak). She almost said that out loud. And then, if he turns out just to be a slowpoke, who needs that, because the only thing worse than a cheating, lying man is a boring, slow man, and this made her laugh, as if a boring, slow man could be any worse than what she’d already had. At least she’d never been bored, that’s for dang sure. While she was unwrapping and rewrapping the third piece of gum, for stalling purposes, the waitress came over. My mother ordered two sodas for them both, thinking, I hope that isn’t too forward, since he is picking up the tab.

She decided that rather than get unattractively irritated, which she was in imminent danger of doing, she’d reflect on the things going well so far on this date. She began a numbered list in her mind, figuring there would be maybe a few, but once she got past three items, she decided to jot them down. She found in the inside pocket of her purse an uncapped red pen which had leaked a little, not too much, and a folded envelope, with its edge ripped open (its corner having been sacrificed for an earlier Wrigley’s wad), and the plastic window flap thing hanging open.  She unfolded it and jotted down the things her date was, or had done, so far. As of date number 1, he:

1) has always been well-mannered at work,
2) asked me out politely
3) picked me up and came to the door
(3a: on time);
4) said hello to the baby while he
5) helped me with my coat, and
6) even said thank you to the sitter (though that was unnecessary of course), and then he
7) opened my car door, which was actually
8) his car he drove, not mine,
and then whisked me away to
9) an evening he had planned himself, but not until after he
10) asked my opinion of his plans before we we left.

Well, a list of over 10 things by the first date had to be rare. She thought she’d seen something about this in Dear Abby. She went on.

So he took me to a
11) nice restaurant,
which had
12) good food. Well, alright, it was not that great, but not fancy, so maybe that meant he is
13) good with money.

He also
14) paid for dinner without complaining about his
15) regrettable inability to find or
15a) keep a job,
or his
16) “aching back.”

and at the gas station he
17) thought of I might want something
17a) actually offered to get it, and then,
17b) PAID for it. And
17b) even though he forgot it at first, he later remembered my Coke, and even
17d) went back in a second time to get it and then
17e) brought it to me in the car,
17f) without me even having to ask for it like I usually have to do with every little thing, or for that matter,
17g) complaining he’d had to spend his hard earned money on something so frivolous as a soda.

He then
18) took me to the fanciest bowling alley in San Diego, oh, and opened the door for me
19) paid for two games
19a) and my shoe rental

And just in case it happened, and so she could get to an even number, she left one slot open for the possible,

20) wrote my name down first on the score card (*true gentleman*)

So far, this was a very superior score indeed. Going so well, sure, but, who knows, with my luck he’s probably married… or Catholic. She wondered what was worse for a God-fearing Pentacostal woman, dating a marrried man, or a member of the ‘idolatrous cult of Catholicism’. Well, nevermind. For now, she’d just try to have fun, and see if he turned out to be a decent guy, for starters. She’d had enough of the cheaters and the lying dogs of her dismal history. Yes, she was much wiser now. She would not truck with anything less than a decent, honest man, if there were any, and she was pretty sure she’d spot anything else right off. After everything, her cheater/liar/loser radar was on high alert these days.

After about twenty minutes, he entered the front door, waved at her, and without thinking, she waved back his shoe at him. Oh no. Her holding up his shoe like that, mid-air. She was trying to save him a moment at the shoe desk, to show she had his shoes, but that was probably not so lady-like, maybe. “Fiddle faddle,” she scolded her hand right out loud, and then inside her mind, put the dadgum shoe down!  But he didn’t seem to mind her waving his footwear. He waved back, touched the counter with a little tap and smiled at the shoe clerk, paid her for their games and shoes, and sauntered in that easy-breezy way of his over to her in Lane 12. His hair, or maybe it was his shirt, seemed somehow messier. There was that winning smile, those kind eyes, that lilting hello – the same one he’d greeted her with at the door when he picked her up. Both her embarassment about the shoe-holding, as well as the slight irritation over his delay, disappeared when he smiled at her. She couldn’t help it – he just seems nice. He sat down next to her, his knee touching hers, barely.

“Sorry that took a bit longer than I thought.”

And then, as she hoped he might, he went to the green plastic chair at the score card desk and settled in. She watched on the overhead projector and went a little happy inside to see the shadow of his hand writting her name first, his careful, engineer’s handwriting even spelling her name right.  Well, I’ll be.  She reached over, subtly, to her envelope and placed a checkmark next to:

20) wrote my name down first on the score card, like a true gentleman

and, she added quickly, even though it was an odd number,

21) spelled my name right 

She wasn’t sure where he’d even seen her name written but, well, he knew the spelling, and that’s got to count for something. As he was finishing writing her name, he paused during the last “e”, his shadown hand on the projector stopped. She looked down from the overhead to smile at him appreciatively, but he was looking back at the front door, and his smile had disappeared. His mouth was rigid and tight. His brow was furrowed, deeply; his jaw muscles were rippling. What was that about? Was he really about to leave again? Or maybe he didn’t like her name – why did her mother have to get all creative about the name thing. In school she’d been accused of being ‘uppity’ with that name, though of course it wasn’t her fault that her mother had weird taste in words.  Hm.  She couldn’t throw stones. I did pick the first and last name of the baby – that’s right, yours truly again – off a shoebox.

Her date turned back to the overhead and she looked quickly up again. The shadow of his hand moved to the next slot and wrote his name, but then stopped again, and she watched his shadow finger erase it. She looked at him again. There, out the door again, was his attention. She turned again to the white image above her, and his hand, which scribbled down only his initial: K. When she looked at him again he was staring at the card and seemed preoccupied. Maybe he was bored. Maybe he hated bowling. Maybe she should have written their names down herself. He looked again briefly at the door, then, as if the ceiling had been removed and light streamed into the bowling alley, he turned back to her and it was a sunny springtime day on his face. There. The big, happy smile, as if he’d waited all day long to see her.

“Well, now, lovely Marthe,” he said, and gestured toward the alley, “Ladies first!”

Well, hallelujah, you just can’t get enough of gallantry these days.

As she was stepping up to her third turn with the ball (she’d impressed him with her first two, both strikes), she was concentrating on the exact spot on the floor where she always stood to throw – just between the first and second arrows on the right, as this worked best for the well-honed curve which she always threw. She was also thinking about her backside, wondering if he was noticing her figure, and she hoped it was at least a little appealing to a man anymore, since she was only a few years out from the birth of her fourth child. She turned her mind back to the ball and the pins ahead, and was swinging her arm back to throw when she heard a commotion behind her. She released the ball anyway, sure to nail a strike one more time. But the noise behind her distracted her so much that she curved the ball too hard to the right, throwing it into a slow, meandering spin down the alley. She turned to see what was so important behind her. The rack came down behind her and took away the ball she’d thrown badly and the poor, toppled pins that had been in its way, due to no fault of their own.

That was when she saw the sheriff.

He was running – running! – from the front door to the desk, saying something to the clerk, leaning in for the answer, looking toward their end of the building, looking and squinting, and then running again. For a moment it almost seemed as if her were running toward them. Her date was looking up at her through his brows from behind the glaring projector, and its unforgiving, humorless light struck him hard against the side of his mouth, which was not smiling. His jaw muscles clenched again. Strangely, he did not even turn to see what the commotion was behind him.

The Sheriff was careening toward Lane 10, two alleys down, when the shoe clerk yelled,

“No, no, keep going!”

The Sheriff whipped down the steps and behind the desk at Lane 11, past the other bowlers, past the orange bench, knocking my mother’s purse onto the floor (now, that’s just uncalled for). He spotted my mother’s date, who still hadn’t looked away from her eyes. The Sheriff descended upon the scorekeeper like an angry bear, grabbing him hard by the arm and pulling. His badge threw a painful glare into my mother’s face as her eyes widened and her mouth dropped open. Her right hand was still poised in mid-bowling, and she forgot they were suspended in mid-air, for all the world appearing ready to catch a tiny little bird flying away from an eagle.

“Get UP, you sonofabitch!” the sheriff bellowed at her date, who still gazed at my mother where she stood, her mind blank, as if she were witnessing an unfolding car accident. Another ball down the alley pummeled hard into its vulnerable, waiting pins, and my mother’s mind was torn between the sound of them being clubbed into submission (that’s a strike for sure), and the clattering sound of his plastic chair hitting hard the linoleum. The sheriff pulled  him up so hard his seat fell over backward, clanging as it hit the floor and tumbled onto its side. The man she had been with all evening said nothing, but simply stood and placed his hands behind his back. With two terrible ratcheting clicks, the Sheriff clamped handcuffs onto her date’s wrists.

“Wait, what?  What’s going on here?”  This she said so quietly only the air right around her mouth heard the question.

There was simply nowhere in my mother’s innocent mind that this scene was ever going to make any sense, especially when a second officer appeared from the darkness, coming straight for her (now where in tarnation did he come from?). Out of the inky dark shadows behind the Sheriff came his eyes, bluer-than-blue, etching holes in her mind with the way he was looking at her, as if she were a deer and he were headlights. Though she couldn’t hear it, her torso was leaning backward, hard, aching to run down Lane 12. Her muscles were screaming to her to run somewhere, anywhere. Danger, danger, danger!  But her astonished feet seemed to be the only ones with common sense  tonight, and they stayed glued to that polished wooden floor, right between the first and second arrows on the right side of lane 12.

Her name was a rocket fired from his lips into the air between them.

“Ma’am, are you Marthe Johnson?” He was in front of her now and his hand was on her arm.

“What? I – yes, I think so – I’m…”

“And you have been in the company of this man tonight, is that correct?” His grip tightened a little and her eyes relaxed; tears were coming. He came so close, she could smell the fresh, wintergreen gum in his mouth. Her mind, twirling in a little dance of fog and fear, thought this would be a good time to consider that he might also like the fresh taste of Wrigley’s.

“Would you like some gum?”

“Ma’am, this is no joke. Have you been in the company of this man tonight?” He pointed toward her date. She shook her mind away from the fog bank.

“I’m sorry, yes, yes sir, I have. Is there a problem, Officer?”

“Oh, there’s a problem, alright. Mrs. Johnson, you are under arrest for murder.”

That’s right. Murder. All endless night long, my mother was investigated for murder – the one her date had committed at the gas station as she waited in the car. He had entered the store, closed the door, and shot the young clerk in cold blood. My mother heard nothing and knew nothing. He took the money from the till and sauntered out, calm as a Kansas Sunday school on Wednesday morning. With the mind of a true sociopath, when he returned to the car and realized he’d forgotten my mother’s Coke, he calmly returned, obtained the drink, stepped over the dead man, and returned to the car.  The brother of the murdered attendant entered the scene a moment later, and saw the body, the blood, the cash drawer, and the yellow car leaving the scene.

As they drove to the bowling alley for the remainder of their date – and the last few minutes of freedom her date would ever know – only K.P. was aware they were being followed. He told her to go ahead and start without him while he went to the car, but he had forgotten nothing in the vehicle. He’d seen the dead man’s brother following them, and when the outraged man arrived, K. hauled him out of his car and beat him thoroughly, leaving him in a bleeding heap. He then went inside to bowl a few relaxing games with the young mother of four, with her dainty feet in their tidy red shoes (a little too tight). This she learned throughout the many hours in which she was interrogated that night.

She was allowed one call, which she placed to my babysitter. She was very sorry but “Would you mind staying late?  I’ll be home as soon as (they’re done questioning me for murder I can’t believe this is happening) I can.   My mother, Mrs. Marthe Johnson, she who had never even run a yellow light, was confused, flabbergasted, and clueless about this true nature of this man or the events of the evening. She was released that night, but her date was not so lucky. He was tried and convicted of first degree murder and sentenced to life in prison.

As for my mother, of course, she was never charged with anything except the crime of trusting some truly despicable men. Her date would receive the prize of a forever-view behind bars, but my mother would receive the more entertaining and lifelong prize for the Worst Date Story Ever. No really.  . Ever. We even have the newspaper articles to prove it.

Eventually my mother ditched the psychopaths and married my step-father Bob, who made giant fudge sundaes, taught me to photograph falling jelly beans, put spiders outside in glasses, hated bowling, and never murdered anybody.

He was truly the Nicest Man Ever.

No, really.  Ever.

-Anjani

P.S.: The moral of this story? Our past needn’t be our future. Oh, and be sure you give your lawyer’s number to the sitter.

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