Summer 2015 — THE POTOMAC

The Sign on the Delta Sig House

  Clarinda Harriss

"Go on, go look at it," my husband said. "There's no traffic behind us. Now's your chance."

"No way."  I was barefoot so my freshly pedicured toenails could dry, and the sidewalks were February cold.

There's a huge sign on the front porch of the old Delta Sig house on the corner near the hospital, near the University, near where Ed and I live now. We pass it on our way home just about every day. It looks like one of those zoning notices, except that you can't read it; if the writing had ever appeared in that blocky black zoning-notice font, now it's just a yellowish blur barely visible at all. It didn't occur to me to just walk down there, feet properly clad, and read the sign.

But the other day the sun was out and the wind had died down and I had put my boots on to do a walk-around to assess the winter-damage to our yard, so I took a break and strolled a few blocks south to read the sign. It's not like I'm obsessed with the Delta Sig house. It does hold a lot memories for me, though — mostly 50s things like Milk Punch Parties and numerous flirtations-dead—end by mutual choice in most cases; the best memory was of Jill Levine and me taking turns holding each other's long hair out of the way while we puked into the upstairs john. That may not sound like a fond recollection, but it is: Jill and I had not known each other prior to the puke incident, but we became close friends as a result of it, and we still are. Jill was maid of honor at my first wedding, and she's going to stay at my house when she comes down from Boston for our 50th college reunion.

I hope the sign would still be up when she gets here. Maybe she'll be able to read it. I couldn't, but then I can't read squat with my new bifocals.

It must be a notice about some kind of forthcoming construction, I figured. This area insists on permits for everything imaginable and unimaginable. Permit to put up a back fence. Permit to build a shed. Permit to paint your shutters. Permit to put up a Handicapped ramp next to your door steps. Permit to remodel the interior if it involves tearing out any walls. My assumption was confirmed when I saw a dumpster on the Delta Sig lawn full of torn-out interior plumbing, including a toilet that might well have been the one Jill and I bonded over. I saw a stocky late–middle–aged construction worker standing nearby, giving directions to a couple of younger workers. I thought I was looking around idly, but my eyes met the eyes of the older guy and locked for an instant before both sets of eyes scurried away.

Our eyes crept back, met again, scurried away again. The guy looked like somebody I'd met. I must've looked that way to him too, because he sneaked as many surreptitious looks at me as I did at him. The last time our eyes met I smiled and he nodded.

Walking home I had a revelation that made me make a little noise, sort of an Agggh! Or Eeeek!. Not a LOL, not at all, more of an audible blush, a mortified blush. The hair visible beneath his Cat Diesel hat looked as if it might have once been sandy-red. Could he be—oh god, he's about the right age to be—could he be the guy in the truck on I-695 that time, the guy with the bright ponytail who started flirting with me soundlessly, all smiles and lip-readable things like "You're beautiful" and and "I'm in love!" as we drove side by side, his sassy new yellow long-bed Chevy truck and my old yellow Chevette hatchback, between Catonsville and Lutherville. The guy who gestured for me to lift my skirt higher, and god help me, I did. It was summer, and the Chevette's air-conditioning didn't work very well, so my skirt was hiked up to my knees anyway; I pushed it up to mid-thigh. Back then summer meant my legs were tan. Back then I liked my legs.

It appeared that he did too. He followed me onto the campus of the fancy prep school where I taught. He got out of the truck, opened the Chevette door in with a gallant sweeping gesture, and I followed him into his truck. And there—well, you know the song if you're anywhere close to my age: "We made love in my Chevy van/ and that's all right with me."

Afterward—it was a quickie, because I had to go teach my afternoon art class—he asked my name. I wouldn't tell him.

"How can I get in touch with you?" he asked.

"You can't."

"But. . . what about our relationship?"

Relationship? I didn't know him well enough to know whether he was being serious or satiric.

"We just had our relationship," I said, hoping for the latter.

His eyes, which I noticed were greenish blue, seemed to glaze with wetness.

"Do you know how cheap this makes me feel?"

I'd said that myself to a couple of guys. "I'm so sorry," I mumbled. "It never occurred to me."

"That I had feelings, right?" He was not yelling. His voice was soft, scratchy-soft, but soft. He was already starting to back his truck down the leafy campus road when he said it.

"I'm so sorry," I yelled out of my car window. Though he was out of earshot, I added, "I'll never be like that again."

I told myself I wanted to check on the progress of the construction. I walked down to the Delta Sig house again and hung around outside till the maybe-redhead came out on the porch, the porch with the sign.

"I'm trying to read that," I told him, pointing.

"Don't I know you from someplace?" he asked.

"Actually I kind of think you do, but I don't know where."

I prayed he didn't know where.

"Might be from right here," he chuckled. "You ever come to parties here when it was a fraternity house?"

"Yes, but—"

"That's got to be where. I was one of the few Delta Sigs who didn't grow up to be a lawyer or doctor or Captain of Industry. Me, I'm more like a Sergeant of Industry. I went into my father's construction business." His voice was a jovial growl.

I was scared to ask him if he ever drove a yellow Chevy long-bed truck.

"Did you ever drive a yellow Chevy long-bed truck?"

"Nope," he said. "My old man's whole fleet of trucks were just the same color as this one" (he patted a front fender) "royal blue."

He grinned. "You know what I bet? I bet you were one of the girls who used to drink my Milk Punch. When that didn't work, the bros would get me to shake up a batch of something really sure-fire. Grape juice with grain alcohol. Never failed."

"Never failed to what?" I knew the answer, but I had to ask.

"Make 'em crawl upstairs and pass out. And then, you know."

I stared at him a long moment. His brown eyes were still crinkled, smiling.

'I was one of the lucky ones," I told him. "I just went up there and puked."

I hope the red-pony-tailed boy is lovingly married to the mother of his beautiful blue-green eyed redheaded kids. I hope the sign on the Delta Sig porch said it's going to be torn down.

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