The smoke hung like suspended wisps frozen in rays of moonlight that trickled from the sky-port above the cavern door. He thought that he must be going crazy. There was no way that the lovely dark-haired woman sitting just outside the shadows at the table to his left was Linda. The resemblance was stunning, but it had been twenty years since he had watched, tears straining his view, as she had tossed the ring on the floor at his feet and stormed away. For a moment that feeling in the pit of his stomach that he had come to know enough times to call "gizzard grumblings" swept him back to Northwestern State University where he had first met the woman who had spawned such love in him that no other after her could hope to measure up. The woman in the dark blue dress, now laughing with her friends as a lonely saxophone lifted and fell, obscurely, in broken rhythms, was what he imagined Linda's mom may have looked like, twenty years ago.
"Fresh me up," he grumbled to the bartender who was cleaning glasses at the end of the bar. He turned away from the woman, but that only made it worse as the smooth sounds of her laughter intruded into his thoughts, coming from the angelic face of young Linda, college freshman, sharing a hotdog with him in front of the stadium after a game...or running from him across the library square as he followed in hot pursuit, swearing to tickle her mercilessly...or tossing wads of paper at him from across the room as he tried to concentrate on the new plays he had to learn for the big game.
Eric had been a high school All American from a small town in Louisiana. Being a big fish in a small pond had given him a false sense of security entering his freshman year. What had once come easy to him now was drudgery and hard work. Instead of slaps on the back and his name mingled with cheers that he had grown accustom to he learned the sting of scalding instructions from less than impressed coaches and the abasement of anonymity on the campus. More than once he had almost given up and probably would have if he had not met Linda. The awards and the glory would come soon enough with the emerging season. On the football field, Eric always found a way to make it to the top. It was at the other things in life, the daily existence, the relationships and responsibilities, where success usually seemed to elude him. Linda gave him enough balance to work his way though the game of life until he had made his mark on the football field, insuring himself of at least the benefit of any future doubts in the football crazed world of the South.
Eric would never forget the day he first noticed her. She was working at the cafeteria, and he figured he had never noticed her before because he and his buddies usually came in roaring about some thing or another, consumed with whatever it was that day that had taken their fancy. His friends walked through the campus with the confidence, almost cockiness, of a pride of young lions, fresh from the kill. Other students steered clear of them. Not so much out of fear but from a desire to remain as far as they could from the spotlight that seemed to follow college athletes at Northwestern State. Being a college freshman was task enough for the majority. Linda was not afraid of the spotlight at all. In fact, she had no experience with which to measure its intensity until she met Eric.
"No, no, no, missy," Eric put his hand over his plate."I don't want the scrambled eggs. I want the fried eggs."
Smiling through the glass that separated them on the bar, Linda laughed, "So you always have this much trouble making your mind up?"
"Nevermind," Linda rolled her eyes.
"Hey," Eric was a little surprised by the reaction of the nice looking girl plopping eggs on his plate. "You better be careful. I know who you are, you know?" He had no idea who she was but had found himself at a lost for words.
"I'm so scared," she giggled.
He remembered standing there watching her laugh. Something inside of him awoke at that moment - something he had never really felt before. It was a feeling that would only grow in depth and intensity over the next few days as he would round the corner in the cafeteria each morning, looking for the egg person in the lunch line, hoping it would be her. He could not bring himself to talk to her at first. It wasn't that he did not want to. However, he was certain his friends would not look favorably upon him talking with a cafeteria worker. There was no written rule concerning such behavior. It was just something none of his friends ever did. He finally made an excuse to hang around the cafeteria one morning until Linda was finished working. He intended to find out more about this spunky girl.
Linda had taken the job at the cafeteria as part of the student work program at the university. She was working at the Cajun restaurant across the street from the campus in the afternoons. She hardly had time for studying at all with both jobs and a full load of classes. The jobs were necessary though. Linda was not ashamed to earn her own way; she had been doing it since she was old enough to appreciate the difference in having a new dress as opposed to hand-me-downs. Her father had left the family when she was young, and her mom had barely been able to make ends meet for the three children in her charge. There had been many occasions in her childhood when Linda had cried into her pillow about what some other kid had said in jest, mocking her apparel or economic status. Over the years, she had learned to remain unnoticed as much as possible to avoid the occurrence of an embarrassing episode. Out of sight, out of mind, out of the line of fire. That is why she surprised herself so much when she made fun of the big football player in the breakfast line. And now the big lug was leering at her each morning when he rounded the corner towards the line. Not that she was looking for him or anything. Lord knows the last thing she needed in her life right now was some guy who would require time and attention. He was kind of cute, though.
"Hello there!" Eric stepped into her path suddenly, almost causing her to stumble into him. He had waited until the cafeteria had closed for a chance to speak to her without having to answer questions anyone may have about it.
"Uh, hello," she muttered, holding out her hand to stop herself from crashing into him. She noticed his chest seem extremely hard for such a large man. "You should watch where you are going!"
"Yeah, right," he stammered, seeking for something intelligent to say. Something that would leave a lasting impression. "Uh...you like eggs, huh? Well, I don't mean you like them. You just serve them. I realize that. I'm not dumb, you know?"
"Oh, I did not realize that," she taunted. "Now if you will excuse me..."
"Look, I am late for a class; so unless you are going to kidnap me and write a note for my professor, then I must hurry along," she pleaded. "What are you doing?"
He had taken out a pocket note pad and begun to scribble something down on it. "I'm writing a note for your professor," he smiled. She was not able to suppress the laugh that escaped from her parted lips. "See that now. That's such a nice laugh."
"That's such a nice laugh." The bartender interrupted Eric's thoughts, pointing to the woman's table. He tried to pretend he had no idea what the man was talking about. He shrugged as though uninterested in the woman who was sitting back comfortably, legs crossed, enjoying the company of her friends. If it was Linda, times had certainly changed for the both of them. Not that he didn't have any friends. Things just had not really gone his way since that day he watched his hopes and dreams disappear out of the library door into the blustery winter. It had all been so unnecessary. Thinking about it always made his brow furrow and his heart melt.
They spent the most incredible year together. She gave him the support and courage to make it through the hard times before his exploits on the football field gave him the edge he was used to. He wanted to believe he had helped her through those first months of insecurity as she struggled to find her niche at the university. It became a great adventure with their love as the anchor in the many storms that crashed against them as they took their first baby steps to find their way in this world. He convinced himself that their love had been special. It was the first time in his life he felt that someone believed in him for being a human being and not an athlete. That feeling of being understood, accepted, validated, changed his life forever. He felt that she loved him like he loved her. That every time they touched she soared as he did. That every time they kissed her heart pounded, head spun, and soul danced, making everything seem possible. Surely she loved him like he loved her. Yet how easy it was for her to leave without ever turning back. How quickly she had permanently solved a very temporary problem. He did not blame her though. The betrayal had been complete.
They were studying together in the library. He never really got much studying done there when she needed to do some research for her term paper. He would rather have been down by the river. Cane River cut a lazy little path through the campus and offered plenty of shelter for the hearts of lovers on its banks. Eric sometimes felt uncomfortable in the library. He did not have the freedom there to reach out and take her hand, or play with a strand of her hair between his fingers and thumb, or whisper into her ear the wonderful things she made him feel. Once in a while he would try, but she would cut him a stern look as if to say "not here you beast." It was one of his favorite looks.
He was sitting across from her one day, watching her study, when a disruption occurred behind him. He turned to see his pals from the team pouring through the library to where he was sitting. He sat up suddenly, feeling a bit awkward.
"Eric, pretending to study again, eh?" It was Vance, a friend who had come with him from high school to attend Northwestern. "The guys are heading out to Kappa Sig house for a little fun. We been looking for you. Come on, man!"
The restlessness of the guys caused Eric to stand to his feet. He could tell by the look on Linda's face that she would rather that he stay. She would not have been upset had he gone, but she was looking forward to spending some quality time with him after all this hard work in the library. But fate took matters out of their hands.
"Come on Eric. What you all whipped or something?" One of the guys chuckled. Eric just laughed. It was a common taunt among the guys without girlfriends to torment the ones who did; but Eric was not ready for what was said next.
"You gonna stay here with scrambled eggs or come with us?"
Eric was looking at Linda when the question had been asked. It stung her. There was no doubt about it. He really had no way of knowing just how much. In a way, Linda imagined Eric's friends acceppted her during the year of their relationship. She had never felt that way before in her whole life. Like she fit in. Eric had given her the confidence to believe in herself. Being poor did not have to mean she had to be left out of life. Suddenly the facade of acceptance she felt began to crumble.
"Shut up, Terrance!" It was Vance speaking up. Linda wished those words had come from Eric.
"What's the deal here," Terrance quipped. "Are we gonna go or not? I'm not gonna stick around here all night waiting for loverboy to decide what he's gonna do."
Vance looked at him. "You coming or not, man?"
Eric knew in his heart that he should stay. But he felt challenged by Terrance. He looked at Linda's pleading eyes, but could not force himself to stay. He did not want the guys to think he was some sort of whipped puppy. He wanted to think that the fact she was a cafeteria worker, poor, and unpopular played no part in his decision. Linda was not like the girlfriends of most of the players. She was no cheerleader or socialite. He always wondered what the fellows thought of that. Not that it would ever have influenced him in any way.
"Eric, make up your mind," Linda said. "I've got work to do and these guys have fun to get to." That he just stood there looking so confused cut her to her core.
Looking at the guys, he blurted, "Don't worry bout it, baby. I can make up my own mind. I ain't on a chain here, you know?" A couple of the guys chuckled. Motivated by their laughter he continued, "You do your little work. Maybe I'll check back in with you later, doll."
Her heart collapsed. It was as though her anchor had been cut, and she was rolling with the seas. The entire year meant nothing. She was that poor little child again, crying in her pillow because the kids could not see the beauty she hoped was inside . If he could spend all this time with her, be so intimate with her, see the very soul of her and still not know her worth, perhaps she had none afterall. None of the things ever done to her before had hurt like this. She had never let any of those other people bother her. She had not opened up, given herself to them, embraced their thoughts as she had Eric's. The moment was death for her. Death of a joy she had never experienced before. Death of a world she had constructed where she was not the pitiful lowlife from the wrong side of the tracks. Death of hope. She took off the ring he had given her on her birthday. Until that day, it had been the most expensive thing she had ever owned. She tossed it at his feet as she stood up, leaving her books, and walked right out the library door and to her room where she called her mom and cried for her to come and take her back to Beaumont.
"Stop! Wait up!" He had finally managed to yell as she walked out the door, too late for her to hear him. He would never forgive himself for not following her and apologizing right then. For letting the errant words of a few jerks cost him the most precious treasure he had ever run across in his life. "Stop! Wait up!" He heard himself say again.
"Yo, Mac, You OK?" The bartender was looking at him with concern. "Maybe you should lower your voice a bit. You're attracting attention." Eric felt himself turning red as the realization hit him that he had shouted those words aloud. Many in the bar were gazing at him in confusion. He glanced at the woman's table. They had not seemed to notice.
"Gimme another shot and a beer," Eric waved the bartender off with a slight move of his hand. "Was just thinking of something, is all." The bell on the door broke the silence and the patrons slowly begin to drift back into their conversations. If that woman wasn't Linda, she was dang sure kin to her somehow. He considered just walking over there and asking. What did he have to lose? If it wasn't her he would simply make his excuses and go back to the apartment he had been living in since his divorce five years ago. Five years! Was it already that long? But if it was her. What then? Surely there was no expectation that she would drop everything and come running back into his life. What would he gain from meeting her again? He had nothing to offer her. He had been laid off from his job at the plant with the recent downsizing that was going on. It was a shame that stardom on a football field fades as fast as a paycheck these days. How many times he wished he would have continued to pursue his degree, but without Linda to prod him that was never a concern at the time. He desperately wanted to go to her and tell her he had been wrong. He had been an idiot to let those guys influence him to act the way he did. To steal from her the dignity she had struggled to gain. He wanted to make things right. At least he could apologize and perhaps get some closure in his own life. But looking at her now. How happy she seemed. How care-free and confident. It suddenly occurred to him that the tables had turned in their lives. Now she was the one attracting the spotlight. He was the one struggling in the darkness. It was not until that moment that the full impact of what he had done twenty years ago enveloped him, like a sheet covering a dead body. He felt very sick.
The evening thinned the crowd in the small lounge as Eric stared at the flashing budweiser sign behind the bar, his back to the woman who may or may not have been the one who may or may not have been his only shot at happiness. The voices around him faded into muffled waves that mixed with the soft music and washed over him like an ocean along a lonely beach. The drinks and the bitterness mingled inside him to drown his mind in despair. Perhaps he had just built up this relationship in his head over the years as a shelter from the failures and heartaches he experienced. Just the idea that a person like Linda could exist had gotten him through more than one crises. Someone so sweet, so lovely, so insightful, so moving, so...so...perfect! But maybe she didn't really exist. Not the way he thought he remembered her. Could anybody ever really be so perfect? And even if she did, it was so long ago. She would not even remember him as anything but a bad taste in her mouth anyway.
As these thoughts flooded his mind, the group at the table near the shadows to his left stood to make an exit. He turned to get a better view. Ties were straightened; hair was brushed; wallets were opening. This would be his last chance. He knew it. Last chance for what? He did not know the answer to that, but if he was ever to reconnect with her in any way, as a lover, friend, or human being righting a distant wrong, he was going to have to approach her now. Eric did not rise to stop her. He did not shout for her to wait as he had done twenty years ago. In fact, for a brief instant her eyes caught his, and in that instant, he knew that even if it was Linda - for certain - he would not have the heart to bring the tragedy that was his life to what was obviously a very fulfilled life for her. In that moment, it dawned on him that the path he had taken had brought him to the doorsteps of dejection, and if she had remained with him, it was entirely possible that she would be little more than company in his house of misery. That thought - that he could have ruined her life as well as his - froze him to his stool. Would the riches and notoriety he leaned on as a youth have made her as poor as he, or would the lack and struggle she experienced made him as rich as her? It was a question, like so many in his life, that he figured would just go unanswered. As the bartender saw to the bill at that table, Eric turned back to his flashing sign for solace. He listened to the bell on the door sound the ending of a hope that had sustained him all these years. As the happy group filed out into the blustery winter night, He closed his eyes and gave himself over to his gizzard.
"The name is Eric," he opened his eyes, a bit aggravated.
"Eric. Sorry bout that Ma..uh...Eric," the bartender paused. "That woman. You know, the one with the laugh sitting over near the exit?"
"Yes," he answered.
"She told me to give you a message."
Eric's ears stood straight up! The blood was already rushing to his face. "What was it," he managed.
"She said it would make sense to you. Hmmm, let me see...something like, 'ask him if he's made up his mind yet, scrambled or not?'" he shrugged.
In one motion Eric pulled his wallet and layed twenty dollars on the table. In two steps he was bursting through the door, the wind slapping him in the face as he scanned from left to right on the sidewalk. She was standing right next to him, at the door.
"Hey football," she smiled.
"Hey scrambled eggs," he heard himself say.