He came to us from Spain.
It could have been the New Hebrides, or even the Old Hebrides. It could have been Far Tortuga, or Near Tortuga. But it wasn’t. It was Spain. That was exotic enough.
We were unsophisticated suburban kids, middle to lower-middle class, and the school we attended, Nicholas Blackwell High School, had just gone through bussing. We were in flux. We were growing up in the early 1970s, a time between times. In Memphis we were just seeing our first hippies. We were learning about pot and sex and hygiene. The latter two were taught to us by one of the football coaches. God help us.
And we were enjoying our time, most of us, in the early 1970s. We were experimenting with new ways to dress, new music, new ways of being. Some of us were struggling with the race thing. We were only a few years removed from the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., in our own city. We heard adults say, “It’s good they got him.” And many of us were aware of how ugly that was, how backward. Some of us did not care.
It was high school. It was a skimble-skamble glomeration. It was a labyrinth with a centaur and no thread. The only thread we had, perhaps, was our shared mystification.
So, we drifted in and out of each other’s lives. Friendships formed during evenings at Trish’s house or Christy’s, over junk food and King Crimson, Fever Tree, The Doors, The Mothers of Invention, and The Beatles. Over hearts and dominoes. We didn’t know it was a liminal time for us. We didn’t know that this closeness would not last. We were young and free and horny and full of ourselves.
We didn’t know what we didn’t know.
Then it happened. Change, even if small. A throb of divergence.
Into our midst came the Bustard family, direct from Spain. There seemed to be a dozen kids, though there were only four. I think four. Suddenly they were among us and were the most popular topic of our confabs. Suddenly, Mrs. Bustard had organized a school tennis team, a rare enough thing at that time. Some of my friends joined the team, even if it meant picking up a racquet for the first time. Mrs. Bustard was an inspiring teacher, almost a mage of the game. Some lovely lasses began to play the game. They looked like burnished copper in their short white skirts. Even I began to play though I did not attempt to join the team. I was like an emu on skates. I was not fluid, or sporty, or strong. But I wanted to belong. You see that, right?
And the center of this stir was the oldest son, named Francis, called Bucky. He was tall and well-built and athletic and as handsome as a chevalier. He had shoulder length blond hair which he wore sometimes in a ponytail. He had cheekbones you could cut cheese on. And when he sat on the basketball team’s bench he crossed one leg over the other, like a girl. It was European. It was sexy. He was also the star of his mother’s tennis team. He was too much to take in all at once. We all loved him. We all wanted to befriend him.
So, of course, he got the princess. It’s that kind of story. And, though there were many, many fetching young women in our high school, there was only one princess. Her name was Lita. Her name still is Lita. And she was everything Bucky was: beautiful, smart, talented, kind, funny and athletic. It was as if she had spent her high school years waiting for him. In this fairy tale we shall say that she had.
Because Lita and I had known each other since fourth grade—I had seen her through many boyfriends, some my best friends, never to be considered a suitor myself—I was somewhat thrown into Bucky’s orbit. Plus, his family had moved onto Bluefield Street, just 3 blocks from my family’s house on Kenneth Street. I ended up playing driveway basketball at the Bustard’s. I ended up sharing Thai stick and fireworks with them, one memorably 4th of July. So, I knew Bucky and yet I didn’t. I didn’t have the sang-froid, or the confidence, to chat with him alone, or over extended periods of time. We were friendly, though not friends. That’s it.
So the prince and princess walked our halls, resplendent, shimmering, untouchable, yet somehow ours. It made us happy to see them together. It made us jealous. It turned us on, like small humming appliances, like alley cats.
Meanwhile, I had a girlfriend of my own, a buxom junior, who was as sexy as a flame and who took my virginity. Well, to say she took it implies, perhaps, that I was not willing to give it. I was. Eager, hungry, vertiginous with lust. She and I spent many nights wrestling on her father’s couch. It was the year of hotpants and that fashion fad was a spur, a green light if in name only. Needless to say it was a heady time for me. Sex was all I thought about. Somehow I passed my classes, smoked dope, won the vice-presidency of our senior class, hung out at Trish’s. But, all the time, I only wanted to have more sex.
My girlfriend and I had some rocky times. We broke up. We got back together for the physical pleasures. We broke up again. This went on for most of my senior year. Meanwhile, there were cracks in the glittering façade of the prince and princess. Things weren’t going well. I didn’t ever learn why. By the time we graduated, Lita had tied a can to Bucky and set him loose. Soon afterwards she announced she was attending college out of town. Our lives were splintering.
And, on the night of my high school graduation, my girlfriend was across town cuckolding me with my best friend. This best friend tried to score with all my girlfriends and with her he succeeded. C’est la guerre.
The summer between high school and college was a sinsemilla miasma for me. My friend Mike had a red convertible and we spent every single day riding around in it, playing tennis, looking for women, and smoking copious amounts of loco weed. I was tanned and at a level of fitness I would never again enjoy. And my blond curly hair fell to my shoulders a la Roger Daltry. It was a golden summer.
In the fall I started at Memphis State, a journalism major (this would very quickly morph into an English major, as I had only recently discovered Literature with a capital L), and a naïf about the world of academics and, indeed, about the entire adult world. Stepping over that threshold after high school can be invigorating or it can scare the cats out of you. I was closer to the latter. The confidence I had in high school was leaching away. I became again what I was in childhood: afraid of life.
About this time a young woman swam into my ken. Not just any young woman but the prettiest young woman I had ever seen (I still think that to this day). I saw her at McDonald’s when Mike and I were cruising. I saw her at sporting events (she went to Raleigh Egypt High School, which was our closest rival, our sibling school). Her name was Wendy. I believe her name still is Wendy.
I began to research her the way one did back then. I asked everyone about her. The news back was that she had a boyfriend but he was, perhaps, on the way out. I saw the boyfriend. He didn’t deserve her. She was Aphrodite and Venus and Laura Petrie. She was dark like dark wood, short but beautifully shaped, like a fine piece of pottery. She was the daystar. I wanted her so bad it consumed me.
So, I made bold. I don’t know how I made bold. Some of my high school tomcat ways were still with me. Some of my modest magic. I simply showed up on her doorstep one night. Her mother answered and I asked for Wendy and her mother, an older version of that sable beauty, showed me into the living room. A nice house, an economic step up from my family’s. Her mother said “Wendy is doing her homework upstairs. Who should I say is calling?” I told her but added, “the name will mean nothing to her.”
I don’t remember what we talked about that first night. I was nervous but I was driven on by her magnificence. If anything, close up, she was even prettier. I simply explained to her that I had been mooning over her and would like the opportunity of a date. There was a fluster, a flutter, a change in the room’s chemistry. Reader, she said yes.
I was gaga. I was a foolish swain. I was wearing my head as a seat cushion.
I knew little about Wendy. I thought someone had told me she played tennis. It was common ground. Tennis.
And, it so happened that my new school, Memphis State, had a tennis match upcoming with the University of Tennessee. I knew this because the tennis coach at Memphis State at that time was the esteemed Tommy Buford, and I was taking tennis for my athletic credit. He recommended the class go see the team play Tennessee.
And, maybe you’re ahead of me, but the star of the Tennessee team, I already knew, was our own Francis “Bucky” Bustard. He was returning to Memphis to play college tennis. It was perfect. It was an alignment of true things; it was kismet.
It was too good to be true. I now saw that our first date had to be the Memphis State-Tennessee tennis match. I thought this was a way to impress Wendy, to tell her about this god from Bartlett who was my friend, who was to tennis what Jim West was to government agents. I could build Bucky up, build up the match, make it all seem sparkly and unreal. It was gonna be the perfect first date.
I brought flowers. It was a nice touch. And it helped when I had to enter Wendy’s home and meet her father and explain, briefly, who I was and how I knew Wendy. I don’t remember what I said but he let me leave with his treasure. Wendy and I walked together out into the night.
She was so dishy. I was so smitten.
It was in October and the weather had turned windy and cold, colder than usual for this time of year in Memphis. I was nervous driving to Memphis State. I was nervous walking her to the tennis court. I kept looking at her, reminding myself that this was the woman I had been craving. She was made of chocolate and light.
We had to sit through a preliminary match before the main event, which would be the top-ranked players of each team playing each other. We couldn’t talk much because it was tennis. I was cold and worried. I didn’t think it was a good start. Wendy sat next to me with only a light sweater on. I wanted to take her back to my cave and build a fire and cover her with bison skins.
Then Bucky Bustard began to warm up. He was lithe and graceful and beautiful. He stroked the ball as if his movements were the exertion of immaculate gods. I brightened up. This was my friend, Bucky. Wendy must be impressed. Her face was inscrutable, like the face on an ancient coin.
The match began. The match was over before I could even register what happened. Bucky Bustard was beaten so cleanly, so easily, so quickly, that it was as if I were witnessing the assassination of JFK all over again. Our beautiful god! Our high school prince! Our perfect hero! He wasn’t that great a tennis player. He was ordinary. And I was sorry I was there to witness him having his wings clipped.
I don’t remember the rest of the date. It must have gone ok because Wendy and I saw each other for about three months. Three lovely months. I remember kissing her seemed like dreamland to me. I remember thinking I was in heaven. I was holding Wendy in my arms. My memories of those three months have been smudged on the blackboard inside my leaky bonce. I can only read a few phrases of pentimento: We went to a Steely Dan concert. We made plans to look into Transcendental Meditation, which was the rage at that time. We held hands. I remember so little else. I remember the night I cupped her teacup breast and she rebuffed me as quickly as Simon Peter cut the ear off the high priest’s servant. It was not on. I saw it all as clearly as Merlin saw each tomorrow. I was to be a brief blip on Wendy’s dating screen. She was not going to fall in love with me. Of course she wasn’t.
Wendy was gone gone. She stepped off the Streetcar Named Desire and caught the bus that read “Further.” I was dust. I was left tailed by a can. I was left holding the apple and I had only myself to blame for picking it.
There was a worm in the apple. I know that worm. I know that apple. I have lived outside the garden for years.
And what of Bucky Bustard? He disappeared. He left this earthly plane. I don’t mean he died. I mean that the Bucky we made of glitter and paste, the one who briefly captured the heart of our princess, is no more. He is gone the way of all earthy gods. I wish I could talk to him now though I probably would have little to say. I no longer believe.
Photo by Christian “VisualBeo” Horvat (Own work) [GFDL (www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons.