Two Guys from Vernon Center

no cheap use of a metaphor from me...

The summer began oddly enough as Cletus and his best friend Val consumed an entire case of beer before it got warm. On the first day of vacation, well before any legitimate time to do anything worthwhile, the two now-drunk ex-classmates were looking forward to the end of their high school experience and upcoming summer of minimal responsibility and rural debauchery. Both of them had gotten off work simultaneously and decided to spend the rest of the day getting drunk and not to waste any of their discretionary money on ice. As that first goal was achieved, the duo took stock of their life together and their lives apart. Two young men lay horizontal on a porch in the middle of Vernon Center. The evening dusk was descending but their silhouettes and several empty beer bottles were easily seen from the street. In an ever-growing state of inebriation, the two classmates were discussing, with specific emphasis on the past tense, at the end of their high school days. In a few months, Val was going off the school while Cletus was staying at home, marrying his sweetheart Julie, and start raising an immediate family. Julie had allowed Cletus a few untethered hours and he took advantage by concentrating on the beer and not on the time when he would be alone.

Sitting on the front porch of Cletus’s house, the friends reminisced about their childhood.

“I remember that you never kidded me about my name,” said Val.

“I assume you mean your girlie first name?”


“Well, to tell you the truth,” said Cletus, “I didn’t know it was a girl’s name until several years after we met. I figured I had lost my chance to mock you since the window of opportunity long since closed.”

“Well, whatever your motivations or lack of context, I still appreciate it.”

The late afternoon had moved into evening as the two continued to drink on the porch. Their rate of consumption had slowed but was still impressive when the phone rang exactly at 7:35 pm . The exact time told them both that Cletus’s girlfriend, Julie, was off work and summoning Cletus.

“Well,” said Val as he stood up shakily, “That is Julie and it is time for me to scoot.”

“You can come with me,” said Cletus. “She really likes you and it will give her a chance to talk about something other than our future.”

“Well, that is something you need to talk to her about.”

Cletus and Julie were grade school sweethearts and their future was never in doubt. Val was going off the college at the end of the summer but Cletus and Julie’s future was planned out since the second day of seventh grade. They were going to be married, have four children (no gender requirements) and live in Vernon Center for the rest of their collective lives. Cletus loved Julie; he did not know life without her omnipresent suggestions and the idea of life without her was never a presented option.

On the other end of the spectrum, Val was off to the state university in the early fall and his life had not been planned out specifically. He dated several local girls, none too seriously, and had no life plans imposed on him by anyone. He knew he would be heading off to school so with an untested heart and a clean slate, he was comfortable with the fact that his best of options were likely in front of him. He didn’t kid Cletus about being locked down by a ball and chain, likely as consideration for Cletus not mocking him about his first name. They were generally even with issues and additional information from the other was not changing any situations; they approached their lives on parallel but soon to be diverging tracks.

Val went home and did some reading while he waited for his polite drunken state to subside. He was making a conscious effort to take any discretionary time to sharpen his mind; college was right around the corner and he wanted to read discretionally before real education became his full-time job. His future was unknown and that pleased Val, especially faced with the absolute certainty that Cletus was driving over to see Julie. He was also certain that Cletus was driving over to Julie’s house with the windows open and a mouthful of candy attempting to mask his symptoms so she would not correctly assess his inebriation. She wanted Cletus to not waste money on alcohol and was constantly shaking him down for any pocket change and loose bills to invest in their joint checking account created specifically for their future together.

The town bank still talks about the time that Julie and Cletus walked into its lobby, hand in hand, declaring the need for a mutual bank account. Julie looked the manager in the eye and stated clearly that they “were planning” and that the Vernon Center bank “had better get on the bandwagon” to capture this potentially lucrative account. The Bank Manager, with a straight face, assisted the young couple with the application and accepted their one hundred dollars as the account’s first deposit. Over the next five and a half years, deposits were being made regularly by Julie with no known withdrawals. This account was their future and the account was growing with significant contributions from both of their jobs: Cletus dutifully handed over his paycheck and Julie would provide him with his budget allowance for gas, insurance and necessities. Having a girlfriend for any young man had challenges but discussing bedroom furniture ideas as ninth graders put Julie and Cletus in a world of their own.

Julie knew that Cletus was her future husband but she encouraged him to maintain his single friendships as a sign of a confident woman. Cletus’s life was prioritized for him and Val made sure to compliment the existing relationship by making himself available and worked around Julie’s schedule. Val never placed Cletus in a position to choose between him and Julie for two reasons: one, he was impressed with Julie’s long-range strategy and two; because he was afraid if  Cletus did choose him and he would have to spend the rest of his life on the run from the newly-spurned Julie.

Val knew that the circumstances around his life would be changing and he wasn’t in a position to judge other’s approaches to life. His friendship with Cletus was based on mutual respect and the ability to take whatever time he could get. Val had the ability to entertain himself so whenever Cletus called him (he rarely called Cletus), he would make himself available. Cletus’s life was already well-planned: work most of the day and then wait until Julie got off work at 7:30 pm and then he would go to her house until midnight . He would go home, sleep, go to work and wait until the phone rang again. And it always, always did.

Val wanted to improve himself on his own terms and college was the best, first step. The summer fell into nice, manageable portions: work, reading, drinking with Cletus, reading and readying himself for college. These two friends, bound primarily by routine and geography, were moving on to the next chapters of their lives: one known, one a mystery. Val always wanted to know why Cletus never applied to any college, especially since he got spectacularly high scores on the standardized test. Cletus took the test as a joke, since he wanted to accompany Val on the trip to the city. Cletus never studied, flew through the test, finished first and dismissed it as a lark. A few months later, Val was shocked to see his impressively high scores. Cletus didn’t think about it much because he was constantly picking up or dropping off Julie to put a series of independent thoughts into his head.

In the middle of the final conversation in the ever-darkening day, the phone rang and Val said, “You better get that, it’s Julie.”

Cletus smiled and said, “I know.” He got up and caught the phone before the second ring. His muffled conversation to Julie began with responding to a litany of questions she had no doubt thought up during her day’s shift. In an atmosphere of whispered “Yes, dear” and “No, dear,” Val walked home in the early moonlight. School and the big city beckoned and it time to jump in. Cletus and Julie were planning their wedding for the following summer, completing on schedule with Julie’s master plan so he had one obligation in Vernon Center remaining and the timing of next year fit perfectly in his own dynamic master plan.

As the summer drew to a close, the two men were sitting on the porch for the last night. They shook hands several times and promises of ongoing collaboration were repeated and assured. As the time to leave for school arriving quickly the following morning, Cletus was the only friend to see him off. Most of the graduating class did not go onto college or vocational school, so events such as Val’s departure never registered too high on the community social calendars. The truck was packed and Val’s father and mother were ready to go when Cletus stuck out his hand for the final time as peers.

“Good luck, Val.”

“Thanks, Cletus. I will see you at Christmas.”

“I might come up and visit you sometime.”

“That would be fine,” said Val with an odd expression. Cletus had not once asked about college or expressed an interest in ever leaving Vernon Center . He found it odd that Cletus would float such a trial balloon just as the truck was ready to pull away but his own adrenaline clouded the present circumstances. One more pump of the hand and Val climbed into the cab. A mutual wave and Val was on his way to college.

College was an exciting time; surrounded by crowds of other young adults, Val got into the swing of things immediately. He enjoyed his classes and fell in with a group of interesting guys in his dormitory. Whatever transition fears he had prior to coming here were long gone as he felt completely at ease with the events of being a small town freshman in the big city. He didn’t know anybody at the school and he was free to find his own path. Life was simple; go to school, study, and go to school and sleep.

Cletus’s letters and phone calls began immediately upon his arrival. The questions were seeking information: he wanted to know about class size, course loads, the expenses and the general culture. Val answered all his questions honestly, not sensing any ulterior motives, for a friend that he thought he had left behind.

Not long into his first year, a new chapter began to appear into Val’s simple lifestyle: a real girlfriend. For the first time, Cletus and Val both involved in relationships and it didn’t take long for Val to continually reference his new girlfriend, Sylvia. At first Cletus was happy that his friend found love but grew tired of hearing of her exploits in his friend’s life. As Val was conditioned to constantly hear about Julie, Cletus was not prepared to hear his friend talk with passion about someone he had not met. It was unsettling for him to be missing out of such a huge piece of his friend’s life and early in October, approximately one month after Val had left, he got a call on his answering machine that Cletus was on the way up to spend a few days.

Val was pleased that Cletus was visiting and after he arrived, Val dutifully introduced him to all his new friends, showed him around campus and finally, brought him around to meet Sylvia.

She walked in and Cletus actually dropped the can of beer that he had in his hand. He had never before seen such a beautiful woman and he stood there, staring at her, with a look of wonderment. The sight of Sylvia completely knocked out all memory of his life-long and only girlfriend, Julie. Sylvia’s smile and confident style turned Cletus into a mute, grinning statue. It wasn’t until Val spoke that Cletus realized that he was transfixed with the beauty of Sylvia.

Val’s voice broke the spell momentarily. Cletus had no idea that a woman could be so beautiful. Julie was pretty and he had never even imagined seeing another woman but Sylvia stood in front of him like a vision; she was the living personification of beauty. Val made the introductions and they all sat down to talk. Her voice matched her looks and Cletus was transfixed on her persona and listened patiently to her stories. Eventually, it got late and Val walked Sylvia home and when he got back, he innocently asked Cletus what he thought about the day.

Cletus paused and said, “Your girlfriend is the most gorgeous woman that I have ever seen.”

Val laughed and said, “Better not let Julie hear that, you would be in big trouble.”

The multiple images of Julie violently flooded back into Cletus’s mind. For the last few hours, his mind was not grinding away thoughts about Julie, their upcoming wedding, potential house hunting and her litany of plans for the both of them and most of all, the fact that he had a girlfriend. There had not been a time since early in his seventh grade life that Julie was not first and foremost in his mind. The immediate and sudden obliteration of all thoughts Julie troubled him but the sheer velocity of their earlier departure made the phenomenon even more fascinating.

He laughed, “No kidding.”

The next morning, he got up early and walked onto campus. School was in session and Cletus made a call to his father and made an appointment to see a counselor. He arrived back at the dormitory when Val was waking up. He walked in and announced that his had ordered his transcripts from Vernon Center , he filled out an application and as soon as it could happen, he was going to go to college.

“I figure my test scores and my grades should get me in here.”

Val, still waking up, was still trying to digest the first announcement about college. He sat up in his bed with a look of confusion and actually said to himself, “Did Cletus just say he was enrolling in college?”

Cletus ignored the internal rhetoric and continued to talk and it was becoming apparent that Val was not daydreaming. In the period of about twelve hours, Cletus had made several monumental decisions and the word “Julie” had not come up once. Val decided not to evoke the name, as he was on a roll, but his facial expression gave him away.

“I suppose you are thinking ‘what about Julie?’”

“It crossed my mind but in the last five minutes, a few other thoughts crossed as well.”

Cletus smiled, “You know for the first time, I hope she likes the idea but I don’t really care.”

It was the first resistance by Cletus in almost six years and Val, now up and dressed, was wondering where this new-found moxie was originating. They walked out of the dorm room to get some breakfast and Val kept listening to Cletus’s rationalizations.

“I called my Dad and asked him if I could attend school.”

“And he said?

Cletus kept walking through the small forest separating the dormitory from the dining hall, said, “He told me that it was the best idea I have had in a long time.”

“When are you planning on coming?”

“As soon as I can,” said Cletus, “It looks like the start of the next semester.”

“You will need a place to stay.”

“I think there are a lot of things I will need.”

“Have you told Julie about the plans?”

“Not a word.”

The last time Cletus had not involved Julie in a decision was the morning before they first met in seventh grade. Since that day, Julie had been the single largest determinant of directions and overall opinion between the two of them. Cletus had not bought an article of clothing, pre-recorded music or a menu item that had not been approved prior by Julie. She always made the decisions and up until this moment, Cletus had acquiesced. During the streak of compliance, she had managed him with an iron fist wrapped up in a starched glove of sharp shards of broken glass and Kevlar.  He never groused about his lack of will as the lack of true choice liberated him from the outside pressures of life in general. Julie was the living embodiment of every idiom and catch phase; ranging from calling the shots to pulling the strings, she was in charge.

This realization hit them both as the walk continued. Cletus was worried about his girlfriend and Val, on the outer circle of the trouble planet of Cletus, was worried that life was going to deal his friend a very tough couple of days. He saw in his mind Cletus making the call to Julie, blurting out his decision and then enduring a long listening silence while Julie verbally castrated her charge with extreme prejudice only seen when general pity moves over for annoyed indignation. Cletus was pre-occupied but knew it would take a while to steel his fragile psyche from her onslaught.

“Don’t blame me,” was all Val said.

Over the years, Cletus had occasionally taken the path of least resistance and bent the truth to blame Val when interrogated by Julie. As a result, Julie would ban Cletus and Val from socializing while staring icily into the soul of Val. Eventually, Cletus would crack (he always did) and admit whatever the indiscretion blamed on Val was really his to own. Julie would shift gears from hating Val for enjoying some control over Cletus (that was her department) to hating Cletus for lying and Val for withholding the truth. Val soon tired of being in the line of fire when Cletus and Julie would have their challenges and deftly disappeared for much of the rural duo’s give and takes.

When they were back in the safety of Val’s room, Cletus felt he had to check himself before calling Julie. Seeing her face to face was out of the question; if she could see him, she could change his mind. Cletus aligned his reasons to calm himself because he knew running a list of good reasons why he was leaving Vernon Center to go to college was just a stalling tactic. Julie was going to pop a metaphysical bolt and talking was just delaying the inevitable wrath.

Val began to gather some books and wander off to the lounge. The call was likely to be long and intense and he didn’t need to be within the vaporization point of the issue. He much preferred to be on an outer ring, where only fire and cyclonic winds would be active. The somewhat cowardly act of a phone call was slightly troubling but Val knew a monumental decision to leave town to attend school was important enough to sacrifice some courage for timely notification. Val gave Cletus a look of quiet support as he opened the door and walked out.

As he sat, waiting for a red-eyed Cletus to wander out to the lounge, Val stopped and looked back at an impressive two hours. Every once in a great while, life converges into a great emotional whirlpool and all you can is lean back and enjoy the ride. You find yourself swimming amongst interesting circumstances, untapped opportunities and even more fascinating personalities. Days begin with no special plan or outcome but through a random series of events and timings, you find yourself into a pool of energy, type undetermined.

One minute he was thinking about his weekend, and the next, he saw one of the social fundamentals of his life change. It was too early to determine whether it changed for the good or for the bad but the magnitude of the change was fascinating. He knew Cletus had no real interest in Sylvia but it was likely that her beauty snapped him out of his social doldrums to show him that life was full of unknowns and that one can still find themselves at crossroads of circumstances drunk with random opportunities. If Cletus was guilty of anything, it was his comfort with accepting or seeking simple answers to complex and persistent questions that he rarely pondered and never externally acknowledged. The result of the love of a simple solution is that we are, at times, disappointed with the answer.

People have always pushed their own agendas and as a result, winners and losers are created for periods of time. If a winner, one wishes to solidify the role. If a loser, resentment and anguish bubbles up and over everyone else. Cletus wasn’t a loser as much as he was an agnostic in life around him and as a result of taking the path of least resistance; he was now suffering from the brutal truths that seemed to have appeared overnight. This perfect storm of submission, resentment and violent awakening were making for a fascinating morning.

Val studied for a long time, not daring to get up for a news update. Cletus was in there a long time and the duration caused Val to consider a fair amount of potential scenarios. Ideas ranged from Cletus’s complete and total breakdown and subsequent demand for forgiveness to Cletus’s emancipation from all things Julie. The spectrum of solutions were more a guideline because it was unlikely Julie would live with something in the middle; she was a zero-sum personality and the only thing she hated more than insubordination was a diluted compromise in which both parties remained standing. The epic battle was hopefully going on a few rooms away from Val’s ersatz study area. However, Cletus might have turned into a coward and postponed the phone call after a nap.

Val finally went to the door and listened; the conversation was occurring but he did not possess the ghoulish curiosity to remain and try to piece together the likely social apocalypse that had begun. He opened the door and saw Val on the phone, with his feet up on the desk. He looked in control and once he saw Val, he waved him into his own room and motioned him to take a seat.

A moment later, he hung up the phone and looked at Val.

“Now, for the hard part.”

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