My good friend Bob and I usually try to get together on Friday to listen to live music someplace and decompress from the week's pressures. This time we chose a place with a nautical theme called the POOP DECK. It is a clean, well-lighted bar which has been in business in Ft.Worth for about fifty years. We didn't realize it was Karaoke night, which can be daunting at worst, but surprising at best.
Last night was surprising in many regards.
A rather mature couple sat next to us at a table near the entrance (where there is fresh air to be had) and the four of us began chatting.
The lady was no longer young but presented a rather strikingly presentable appearance in every way. For one thing, she had the skin of an 18 year old! She was slim, tall and liked to move to the music as she listened. All the while, the couple held hands like newlyweds which warms my heart when I see it.
The gentleman was either older or less well-maintained physically, but he had an eternal smile of goodwill and, as it turned out, a dashingly effective singing voice.
"We're from Waco. This is our first time in Ft.Worth."
("Although we had planned to come here when we were younger." The fellow completed the ladies' sentence.) He winked at Betty and she pinched him.
Now, my friend Bob, I may have mentioned, is one of the friendliest, most neighborly of people. He enjoys getting to know strangers. He asks in-depth questions and generally takes it as far as the interviewee is willing to go.
"You look so young--would it be rude if I asked your age?"
The lady gave a Cheshire cat smile and replied in the way I would have expected.
"Why don't you both take a guess--you won't hurt my feelings. If you get it right, I'll tell you. But, you only get one guess."
I groaned inwardly. This is exactly like somebody telling you to go ahead and juggle their fine chinaware. I decided to shrug it off by saying,
"I'm not any good at guessing. I'd just embarrass myself."
As mentioned, the lady (her name was Betty) had perfect porcelain skin. I must confess it caused me to wonder if she had had some 'work' done, as they say.
Bob made several appraisal inspections; groaning "M-m-m-m-m-m" sounds before he made his guess.
"I'm only going to guess 60 and I'm probably too high. I apologize."
Betty laughed and looked at her fella, he beamed with satisfaction.
"No-o-o-o. Way, way off."
The two of them looked toward me.
I thought, "What the hell--they seem to want me to guess."
I made a "Here goes nothing" face and spoke the number.
"I'll say 65."
More laughter--delighted laughter from the couple.
"Tell them, Robby" she poked her companion as though this was all rehearsed in advance.
"Believe it or not, Betty is 71!"
Betty pointed to Robby and chimed in, "And Rob here is the same."
(There is no way. Just no way. But. . .who would lie in the wrong direction?)
So, little by little as the evening wore on, Betty and Robby began divulging details of their lives and how they met and what they were up to in Fort Worth.
Robby knew Betty back in High School. He was attending a different school, a rival school, but spotted her at a football game. He shyly approached and asked her to the Prom and she responded with immediate infatuation.
"I mean to tell you, it happened just like THAT--" She snapped her fingers and giggled.
Rob grinned like a hound dog at mealtime.
"The instant I saw her sitting in the stadium, my goose was cooked." His face beamed as he recounted. "I told myself--'Rob, that's the girl you're going to marry."
Betty had returned home that evening excited to have met him. just as he was delirious with joy when she accepted his invitation.
Not all smooth sailing, however. Betty told us she had suffered the persecution of her classmates when she showed up at school wearing Rob's letter jacket--for the RIVAL school.
In the weeks that followed, the two of them mailed hot letters to each other every day. On weekends he'd stop at her house and watch TV in the living room with her parents and her brothers. Her parents were very strict, it seemed.
"It was certainly a well-chaperoned experience!" Robby mused.
As the day of the Prom came around the excitement was more than either of them could handle. According to Betty:
"We had been writing more and more intimate letters. You see, we came from very religious households. Both of us were Baptists and we were hot to trot but too repressed to be able to do anything much at all except talk ourselves into a frustration like you wouldn't believe!"
Robby leaned in close to Bob and I, providing additional tidbits to his part.
"We had got it into our heads we would leave the Prom early and drive to Ft.Worth and spend the night together in a motel. Then, we'd run off and travel from town to town like outlaws wanted by the F.B.I."
Bob almost fell off his stool laughing. I confess I was drawn in to this story. Even though the music was loud, I strained to hear every syllable.
"It was a crazy plan that only two horny Baptist kids would dream up." Betty shook her head side to side like she couldn't believe her own story.
The previous Karaoke singer had finished attempted murder on an Ann Wilson song by Heart called BARRACUDA. My ears would never be the same!
Now it was Robby's turn! He excused himself from the table and climbed up on the little platform and the next set of song lyrics popped up on the screen. It was a Percy Sledge song, WHEN A MAN LOVES A WOMAN.
I was less interested in how well Rob's singing would go and more directly enthusiastic for the rest of Betty's story. I was ready to hear about Prom night!
"So, how did things go?" I primed the pump and sat back, waiting.
Betty raised her eyebrows and shrugged it off.
"He never showed up. I had to twist my older brothers arm to get him to take me to the Prom. I kept running to the restroom to cry in between dances. I dried my tears and went back out on the dance floor again and again."
"W-H-A-A-A-A-T?" Bob and I both responded simultaneously with disbelief.
"Yep. By the time the Prom was over, I had convinced myself Robby had chickened out--or--that he was killed in a car crash. I was truly a wreck--let me tell you!"
The sound of Rob's voice raised ripples of goosebumps on the back of my neck as he sang.
"When a man loves a woman,Can't keep his mind on nothin' else,He'd change the world for the good thing he's found."
Bob's mouth hung open like a fish in an aquarium. The sound of Rob's singing was unbelievably rich, full and professional. I too was nothing short of thrilled.
Betty squinted through the cigarettes smoke and nodded her head with adoration.
I placed my hand on Betty's arm to gain her attention.
"What the hell happened? Was he in a wreck?"
Betty lifted her chin with her eyes closed and drew in a brave lungful of air--as though opening a dark, rusted door in dread. She must have been reliving something in that moment.
"Nobody knew and I didn't ask. My heart had been broken and my pride was wounded. You know the old saying about hell having no fury like a scorned woman? Well, that was me."
"When a man loves a woman,
He'll spend his very last dime
Tryin' to hold on to what he needs.
He'd give up all his comforts
And sleep out in the rain,
If she said that's the way
It ought to be."
Bob looked at me, looked at Rob singing, and back at Betty while shaking his head, trying to clear away all the jumbled thoughts attached to this development.
"Well, the two of you are together here this evening--so. . .you must have worked it all out eventually."
Betty was soaking in the sound of her companion's voice the way a person does who knows how fleeting life itself is and how special even a tiny moment can be. She nodded at Bob.
"The story I told you was a long long time ago. I didn't find out what happened to him until yesterday morning at 7:00 a.m."
Another shock wave rocked me. I watched as Bob struggled too with this information.
She really had us hooked. It may be the greatest story I had ever heard from anybody in a bar!
When a man loves a woman
He can do her no wrong,
He can never want
Some other girl.
Yes,When a man loves a woman
I think the right word is spellbound to describe the depth of attention we poured into Betty and Robby's tale of unrequited love. My ears craved the next unfolding of it.
Robby now held his last note forever, with eyes closed and the applause violently erupted appreciatively as he stepped down from the stage. Bob and I clapped with genuine enthusiasm for his incredible voice and the passion he poured into the Karaoke performance in a nowhere bar on a Friday evening for these strangers. But no--it wasn't for strangers Robby sang. Of course not--he had never taken his eyes off of Betty. Every note, each word was for her and her alone.
He walked back to his table and Betty jumped up and grabbed him, holding him so tight I thought the buttons would pop off his shirt. He smiled down at her with a miraculous gleam in his eyes. They then turned and sat down. The two of them had tears running down their cheeks.
Bob jumped in, "Betty was just about to tell us the rest of your story. She was at the point where you showed up at her door yesterday morning at 7:00 a.m."
Robby nodded and placed his hand upon Betty's hand. They squeezed.
"The shock on her face when she opened that door was worth a million bucks to me. I'm pretty sure the expression on my face was just as wild to behold."
Betty grinned. "Oh yes! Because, you see--I instantly recognized him. I mean it took no more than half-a-second. He's tall, as you can see. And his eyes are true blue. He didn't have curly dark hair up there on his roof, but---well, I knew it was him and it blew out the circuit breakers on my heart."
Bob was beside himself and I was sweating with curiosity.
"Tell us--please--what had happened?" (We were like kids at a campfire.)
Betty sipped her drink delicately and dabbed her lips with a napkin.
"I don't know what I must have looked like to Rob, but---"
"An angel! You looked exactly like that 17 year old girl I met at the ball game! A beautiful angel. Nothing had changed--not in my mind's eye. Of course we both are older--any fool can see that. But, I was looking at her with the eyes of love! Nothing had changed in that regard."
Betty spontaneously grabbed the back of Rob's neck and pulled him close to her face and paused inches from a kiss.
"You always were the man of my dreams."
They came together with real Hollywood pressing of lips at that instant and Bob looked at me with tears in his eyes. I was way ahead of him on that myself.
Rob sighed deeply. "I wanted to grab her when she opened the door. But first, I knew I had maybe thirty seconds to explain why I had been missing all these years, or I'd have that door slammed on my nose!."
Betty snorted and laughed at the same time and took another dainty sip at her glass.
"Yes, I probably would have shot him if I'd had a pistol. But, what he said next completely melted my soul. All in the space of half a minute--I was back standing in that stadium with this boy from the rival school promising to go to the Prom again."
Rob leaned toward us and filled in the rest.
"I had stopped at a drugstore to buy condoms and got mugged on the way to my car. I was dressed up in my sport coat and had a silly flower in my buttonhole when two guys came up behind me and hit me in the back of my head with a blackjack and took my billfold."
Betty's face had turned grim with anger.
"He woke up in a hospital and nobody knew who he was. He had no identification. His parents figured out he'd gone missing and called the police by the end of the next day. The doctor told them the x-ray showed damage to the front of the brain, the frontal lobes, even though he'd been struck in the rear of his skull."
Robby nodded and bit his lower lip.
"The brain sort of bounced against the front of my skull and damaged me pretty bad. There was internal bleeding and swelling. For the next weeks and months, my personality began changing. I couldn't remember things and my grades at school suffered, of course. I'd get angry all the time and then I started getting into fights."
Betty's voice grew solemn and agitated.
"He explained all of this just standing at my door and I didn't have the presence of mind to invite him in for at least ten minutes! Poor guy."
Robby snickered. "I know. I spoke as fast as I could. I just knew she was going to scream 'Bull-shit' and slam that door--so I kept going."
Betty laughed sadly as Rob continued.
"To make a long story short, I started robbing and stealing and lying and I ended up in jail. Several times. The last time was for twenty years for armed robbery. I spent it in Huntsville. a truly deplorable hellhole. Then, a Baptist pastor took an interest in my situation and he began asking me questions about my background. There was something missing in my memories and his curiosity got the best of him. He contacted my parents."
Betty jumped in at this point.
"This prison pastor asked the parents for a look at Robby's diary or letters--anything from the time period in which he'd been hurt. He didn't read them because they were personal. What he wanted was to have Robby read them, one by one, to try and bring back things missing from his life before the mugging."
Robby nodded again and again.
"That's right. That's right. It worked too. I started feeling funny in the pit of my stomach as I read my own words and started getting old feelings back. I remember my mom's cat had knocked her favorite vase off the mantle and it had broken in a hundred pieces. She spent a month slowly gluing them all back together again. It was so precious to her. That's exactly what I was doing. Then, one night in my prison bunk--it all came rushing back--like drowning, but not dying! I sat up in my bunk and screamed Betty's name and woke the other inmates up."
He was silent for a minute and Betty's tears mingled in a little puddle on the tabletop. They held hands a long time and sniffed little, whispered endearments to each other.
"I had no idea what had happened to Betty, but I was determined to find out when I got released from Huntsville. I made it my sole preoccupation for another nine years. I tried everybody and everything, the internet, friends and family, Social Security Administration, police department, Social Services and came up with nothing."
"Robby never gave up. He just kept at it. He told me he was mostly afraid he'd finally discover I had died."
"Or, I was afraid she wouldn't remember me. Or, that she would remember me--but despise me."
"As if that was possible." Betty squeezed his hand again.
"And one day, I got a notice from my old High School about the 40-year Homecoming Reunion and I suddenly realized there was a thin possibility Betty might be registered with her High School's Homecoming Reunion notification as well. Sure enough--I found her! I knew I would have to do it in person. A phone call would certainly be inappropriate. I'd only get one shot--one chance. It was best done standing right there in front of her."
"Yes, we did just stand there feasting our eyes on each other like two crazy people, didn't we?" They laughed and laughed.
Bob and I were wrecked by this time. We didn't know what to say or how to react.
"So, am I guessing right, you invited Rob inside?"
They both nodded with exaggerated motions of their head, as in "Ohhhh yessss."
"I pulled this big guy right into my entrance hall and threw my arms around him. I just kept saying his name over and over again, sobbing and not letting him catch his breath."
"She's right. We couldn't let go. I never wanted to let go again. She is so precious to me."
"And after talking and talking--catching up on our lives--we came up with our plan for what we both wanted to do. We two agreed. . ."
"Yes, we agreed, we would drive to Ft.Worth today and rent a motel and make up for lost time."
"And by God--we did--we were at it all morning and afternoon like two crazy sex-starved teenagers."
"My god she's wonderful!"
"And that's how we came to be here this evening. We're exhausted from all that bed shaking, but we wanted to listen to some live music and finish the perfect day singing and sipping and enjoying our date--even though it was delayed by most unfortunate of circumstance."
My heart was leaping in my chest with a peculiar warmth and--perhaps--ecstasy of empathy for these two people.
I can't decide if this is a happy story OR a very sad one. From the way the two of them clung to one another--I'm more inclined to say this was the happiest of homecomings.