“One Thing Leads to Another” originally appeared in the Summer 2003 edition of Wilmington Blues.
It’s Saturday morning in Wallburg, North Carolina, and Rocky Rigby is sitting in his house on Baptist Church Road listening to KC McKey on The X, 96.3 FM. At the moment, Rocky is drinking a cup of coffee and puzzling over what it means to tell the truth.
The whole mess got started Tuesday night. Lou Ann Clodfelter had come up to him after English class and said she wasn’t sure she understood everything the professor had said, and since Rocky always seemed to get good grades on tests, would he mind helping her study?
Dr. A. Thaddeus ver Bose’s Survey of English Literature class had been studying enlightenment, “especially as epitomized in the oeuvre of the Dean of St. Paul’s, Jonathan Swift,” who, according to the professor, didn’t always say just exactly what he meant. Dr. ver Bose (he liked for people to call him Tad) talked that way sometimes, so Rocky told Lou Ann he wasn’t altogether sure he understood, either. But Lou Ann, who had been real nice to him here lately, said that if he’d help her study, she’d cook him dinner.
Which was exactly the sort of thing Mary Beth used to do before she threw him over and took up with Dr. ver Bose – Tad. Looking back on it now, Rocky realizes that this should have been his first indication that Lou Ann was up to something. But he missed the clue completely, and it was agreed that he’d come over to her apartment the next night around 6:30 for homemade lasagna and they could study afterward.
It was inventory week at All Star Auto and Fishing Supply, where Rocky was a Senior Counter Sales Representative, and an unexpected accounting problem had him running late. To make matters worse, Lou Ann lived in Canterbury Forest, which was a huge condo development down towards High Point where all the buildings looked just alike, and even though Rocky followed her directions to the letter, they just wouldn’t lead to #2107-G, which was where she lived.
By the time he finally found the right building, it was ten ’til, and Rocky figured he was in trouble because his buddy Terry had dated Lou Ann last summer and said she was a pure-T hellcat when things didn’t go the way she planned.
But she wasn’t upset at all. She met him at the door in a blue wool sweater dress that answered pretty much every question a man might have about her figure. Rocky realized he was still in his All Star uniform, which was kind of dirty, but if Lou Ann noticed she didn’t say anything.
“Did you have any trouble finding the place?” she asked. “I’ve never been real good with directions.”
“Me, either,” he said. “I missed a turn somewhere, but I figured it out finally.”
He looked around the living room. It was done up in peach and earth tones, and she had little crystal kitty-cats all over the furniture. There was a print of some flowers hanging over the couch, and Rocky immediately recognized it from Art Appreciation class as being by one of those French painters.
Lou Ann poured him a glass of wine to drink before dinner. “It’s a North Coast Riesling,” she said, whatever that was, but the way she said it made it sound expensive. Between the clothes, the condo, and the wine, Rocky decided that legal receptionists must make pretty good money.
The lasagna was real good. Rocky had dined at Jackson’s Restaurant six out of the last seven nights, and it was nice to eat something that didn’t automatically come with two vegetables and a choice of biscuits or hush puppies.
After dinner they sat down on her couch to study. As it turned out, Lou Ann had told the truth about not understanding the assignment. She said she thought Jonathan Swift must have been an absolute barbarian to suggest that the English eat Irish babies, and she blushed red as a Harvard beet when Rocky explained that Swift didn’t mean it literally, that he was writing a satire, where you say one thing but mean something else entirely.
That was when Rocky noticed Lou Ann was almost sitting in his lap, and was looking at him a whole lot more than she was at the book. It occurred to him that maybe Lou Ann Clodfelter wasn’t as interested in studying Swift as she had originally let on.
So to test her, he excused himself to go to the bathroom, and when he came back he sat down at the other end of the couch, because in Introduction to the Principles of Communication, which he’d taken during his first semester at Davidson County Community College, he learned all about interpersonal distance theory and how you could tell a whole lot by how far apart people sat.
Sure enough, it wasn’t two minutes before Lou Ann closed the gap, and now she was talking about how she’d always had a weakness for real smart men, and how her last three boyfriends were all dumber than a sack of hammers, and why couldn’t more men go to school and improve their minds?
Rocky had once overheard that Tad fellow talking to Mary Beth about what he called a “moral conundrum,” and Rocky thought this must be what he meant.
On the one hand, Lou Ann was just about the prettiest, sexiest girl he knew, and God knows Rocky had been lonely since Mary Beth dumped him. No one could fault him if he succumbed to her feminine charms. He could almost imagine a miniature Terry in a red devil suit sitting on his shoulder whispering “What are you waiting on, you idiot? Do her, do her now!” That’s just how Terry was.
On the other hand, Rocky wanted to do the right thing.
“Lou Ann, I don’t know if you ever heard any of this or not, but I’m still trying to get over my ex-fiancée,” and he told her all about Mary Beth, who was in their class at DCCC – she was the one who sat down front and asked a lot of stupid questions – and how she recently ended their three-year relationship and took up with their English professor.
“Mary Beth dumped you for Dr. ver Bose?”
“Yeah. She said she’s outgrown me. She needs a man who can fulfill her intellectual needs and help her actualize her spiritual self,” he explained, trying to sound as matter-of-fact as possible.
“Is she the one that’s always carrying on about ‘enlightenment’?”
“Uh-huh, and best I can figure, she’s over to his house getting enlightened just about every night.”
“That’s just awful,” said Lou Ann, and she put her arm around his shoulder and leaned real close. “I can’t imagine any woman preferring him over you. How can you stand to be in the same class with them?”
“It’s a requirement for my major,” he answered.
Lou Ann said she absolutely despised women like Mary Beth, women who couldn’t appreciate a man for his quiet strength and sensitivity. “You know, sometimes we all need somebody to hold,” she said, stroking his shoulder with her fingertips, and it sounded to Rocky like maybe she was volunteering.
“Lou Ann, what are you trying to say?”
“Oh, I don’t know.” She looked down at the literature book, still opened to “A Modest Proposal,” and everything was quiet for a few seconds. “Why do you think I’m trying to say something?”
“Well…” And Rocky, who had never been very good with words, struggled for some way to say what he was pretty sure they were both talking about. But there just wasn’t any gentlemanly way to say it right out. “Look, this probably ain’t a very good idea. Maybe I better get on home.” But he didn’t move to get up, and she didn’t take her arm from around his shoulder.
“You don’t have to go. We can just stay here and…and be together. If you want to. I don’t have to be at work until ten tomorrow.”
Rocky picked up a crystal kitty-cat from the coffee table and started polishing it with his shirttail.
“Lou Ann, you ain’t got no idea what you’re asking. I mean, I’m on the rebound big time right now. If we were to…be together…well, it wouldn’t be fair to you. I’m afraid one of us might get hurt.” He meant her. “I just need some time to myself right now, and you ought to be with somebody that’s got more to offer.”
Which was the God’s-honest truth, as Rocky saw it. And in theory that little speech ought to have scared her off. But it didn’t. In fact, the harder he tried to talk her out of whatever it was she was trying to talk him into, the more she assured him that she wasn’t afraid, that she could take care of herself emotionally, etc. That she was a woman, not a silly little girl like this Mary Beth must be.
Finally Rocky gave up.
“So what do you want to do?” he asked.
“I don’t know. What do you want to do?”
When Rocky left her condo the next morning he felt just a little better about himself than he had at the same time the day before. But he knew the bill would fall due soon enough.
“Do you like veal parmesan?” she’d asked, as she kissed him good-bye.
So now he’s sitting in his kitchen on Saturday morning drinking coffee and trying to decide how to kill the day. KC McKey is playing a song by The Fixx, and Rocky wonders what he could have said to make Lou Ann understand. He knows from experience that people want what they can’t have, so he thinks maybe if he had come on real strong and told her he wanted her and had since the very first time he laid eyes on her….
That might have worked, he reasons, because then she wouldn’t have seen him as such a challenge. But his words wouldn’t have been true, and Rocky just couldn’t bring himself to tell a lie.
Like Swift, who’d said one thing but meant the exact opposite.
But, he thinks, if he had lied, then he wouldn’t have to do what he knew now had to be done, which was the whole point in telling her the truth in the first place.
Rocky is confused. He thinks about giving and following directions. The words on the paper don’t always take you where they’re supposed to.
He looks over the counter at the television in the den, which is tuned to MTV, but the sound is way down, and this hair and spandex band is lip-synching their big hit while some blonde wallows around on a Rolls-Royce. And everything seems disconnected for a moment – words from pictures, facts from truth, people from other people, and The Fixx is on The X, singing
Why don’t they do what they say?
Say what they mean?
One thing leads to another
Rocky sighs and reaches for the phone.