The girl with the Jeep 

A first encounter, a summer dress, a lifetime.

Bach was rising from another room

like a secret code in a mathematician’s castle

when you came toward me in a summer dress

light slatted through the oaken banister

like a secret code in a mathematician’s castle …

We had hitchhiked in a light rain, but when we reached Syracuse University it began coming down hard. We were meeting two ‘blind dates’ and our clean long-sleeved shirts and khaki pants were getting soaked.

“Doomed,” I said.

“Never fear,” said my friend, his confirmed optimism reinforced by two bottles of Utica Club beer, which is what we drank in the spring of 1955 in upstate New York. “I know a soft touch with a Jeep.”

The “soft touch” was a young woman I had heard of already. My friend Oliver and I were undergraduates at Hamilton College, around 50 miles west of Syracuse, but we also came from the same small home town, Mountain Lakes, New Jersey. Hamilton boys often dated Syracuse girls, so my sister had suggested that I might want to meet a very nice new girl in town named Jeanne Clark — this being long before dating got speed-dialed into “hook-ups” and Facebook matches — but like any reasonable American boy I stayed away from girls my sister recommended. “Get serious,” I told her.

Jeanne had transferred to our high school after I left for college so, although she’d seen me playing basketball against her school, we’d never met. It seemed a bit weird to be asking one girl to loan us her car to take out two other girls, but Oliver, a year younger than I, had met Jeanne and thought he could talk her into it; so we trotted through the rain to the sorority house he heard she had joined (like me, he had a sister who provided him with inside information).

The house was a solid and harmless-looking brick building, with wide steps leading to a heavy door, and the Greek letters, πBΦ — Pi Beta Phi — bolted on the bricks, announcing its seriousness. As soon as we pushed our way in, my glasses fogged up and I began inefficiently cleaning them while Oliver asked for Jeanne Clark. I was uncomfortable, bedraggled, looking over my glasses as she came down the stairs.

She was slender. She was pretty. She had short brown hair and graceful hands. A soft voice. She smiled at us.

I have no idea what I said, but she laughed…

Do we have the slightest idea what fate awaits us, or where? They say that long ago, those rascally French invented Romantic Love, along with crème brûlée, both irresistible and dangerous. Music was coming from somewhere. I remember touching her hand when she gave me the keys. She had long slender fingers.

The truth is, I don’t really remember anything after that. I guess we went out with our dates; they must have thought I was drugged. How did we get back to Hamilton College? Lost in the mist of memory and Utica Club. The next thing I knew, I was hunched at my desk, writing a letter. “Dear Jeanne,” it began.

I graduated in June. By July I was at Fort Dix, in the Army, and the next year, 1956, I was in Germany. I got out in late summer, 1957, and we were married that December. Since then, the years have tumbled by, faster and faster. Each morning I watch her come down the stairs, still slim as a girl.

As for the Jeep, it was a convertible, and the second time I drove it — maybe in uniform, on leave from Fort Dix — heading with Jeanne toward the Old Mill to dance to Nat King Cole singing “Mona Lisa” on the jukebox, I drove so fast the top blew off.

Then all turned mysterious and blessed

and fused our lives together like a fugue

when you came toward me in a summer dress

turning all mysterious and blessed

while Bach was rising from another room

—Both quotes from “The Secret Code” by Peter Meinke (Scars, U. of Pittsburgh Press, 1996).


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