Just Say Maybe is a short novel by James Windale intended to be released in 2016. It is the story of Ashley Barnes, an ER nurse character from his EMS novel Twenty-Five at the Lip. The story takes place in the mid-1990s and highlights the events that draw Ashley toward a career in nursing. The cover images featured are not official and are considered placeholders from the April 2015 Camp NaNoWriMo event.
Just Say Maybe
In April of 1994 my sister Bonnie spent a week in her room sobbing into her flannel shirt and ripped jeans because her idol Kurt Cobain had stuffed enough heroin up his arm to put a rhino down and then blew his face off with a shotgun. She had been something of a prude about Nirvana, slamming her door in my face when I wanted to listen with her and her friends.
“Stay the fuck out of my room, Ashley!” she’d bark, her hair looking ridiculous, dyed red with kool-aid.
It didn’t matter that she didn’t want her “baby” sister tagging along with her friends. All I was interested in was the music and she played it loud enough so that I could hear it through her bedroom door. Mom had bought each of us a CD player for Christmas-1994, a Sony model with detachable speakers and a duel cassette player for transferring music from one tape to another or from CD to tape, for which I bought a stack of blank tapes from Strawberries at the Pheasant Lane Mall. Sneaking into Bonnie’s room I pilfered her Nirvana collection and put them on tape for myself. Meanwhile Bonnie began telling anyone who would listen that her Easter was now going to fall on April 8th, the day Kurt Cobain was found rather than the day he actually died. Like a lot of teenage girls, I suppose myself included, she could be a bit dramatic.
A stack of blank cassette tapes opened up the promise of making mix tapes, sitting with the radio on, the tape advanced to the right position waiting patiently for the DJ to play the song you wanted to record. This was my way of starting my own music collection, the CD player on top only for recording music, or as the later vernacular would call it “ripping”. The radio was an avenue to entertainment I had never been truly exposed to with the exception of my dad’s classic rock station and the vinyl LPs that still graced the turntable stereo in the living room. A year passed and Bonnie moved beyond Nirvana and adopted Phish, a sound that made me gag just slightly more than the smells that came from her room while she listened to it. As her musical taste declined I was forced to seek out other music on my own and it was while I was waiting for Carnival by Natalie Merchant that I heard the most amazing thing that any thirteen year old girl in the post-Nirvana world had ever heard. That was the day I fell in love with The Smashing Pumpkins.
I sat in my swivel chair knocking myself back and forth on the rolling wheels, my Airwalks dirty and loosely tied. Billy Corgan’s voice had a quality to it that I had never found in Kurt Cobain or any other musician. The instrumentals in the song spoke to me with a lyrical storytelling was too much for me to bare and I pushed PLAY/RECORD after the first chorus. The song ended and I rewound the tape, playing it back and getting the same chills and goosebumps on my arms and legs that had been there when I heard it. I sat fixated on the dual black speakers, watching as they vibrated with each beat of D’arcy’s bass. It was all so hypnotizing and I sat with my mouth hung open, the Red Hot Fireball I’d been working on dropping out and rolling across the floor.
The remainder of my birthday money in hand I pedaled myself furiously to the mall and bought Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness and Siamese Dream. They were the first CDs I had ever bought. I played them till the CD player scored their undersides, my parents concerned about the sounds coming from my closed bedroom door. They had seen a special report on 60 Minutes about the growing Goth culture, or whatever that was, and they sat me down to make sure that I hadn’t started wearing heavy makeup or thought about killing myself. My response to their concerns about my taste in music was rather cathartic, and I didn’t fully grasp my dad’s expression or sudden understanding until years later. All I had said was, “It’s only rock and roll, and I like it.” Dad just blinked and realized that he had become a hypocrite, betraying his own rebellious youth.
In so far as Bonnie’s new era-hippie tendencies were concerned, I could drown easily drown out Run Like and Antelope with a volume increase in Where Boys Fear to Tread or Bullet With Butterfly Wings. Apparently I was “Harshing her mellow,” but I didn’t care because there was a sort of liberation in having my own music. Bonnie and her friends regularly monopolized the TV in the living room and as I heard Tonight, Tonight come on MTV I rushed in and grabbed the remote as she was about to change the channel. I sat in awe watching the most incredible video I had ever seen playing my favorite song, my expression the same as when I would watch Mr. Rogers when I was little.
The summer of 1996 I turned fourteen and I looked at the prospect of advancing to high school as a major milestone. There was a big writeup in my eight grade yearbook, something that the vice-principle always put in directed at those of us moving on. A bunch of crap about taking a huge stride in what was going to shape us into the great men and women of American society. It was the same bullshit they printed every year, and I had seen it in my sister’s junior high school year book when she had moved up to Nashua High School.
I came upon the art of riding my bike with my Sony Walkman playing my music recorded onto cassette. Like every summer I became board with the repetition of nothingness after the first week. We lived in the good part of Nashua and because our grandmother resided only a few blocks away I was allowed to ride my bike there. She was retired, and lived at home by herself as my grandfather had developed an early onset of dementia. She’d placed him in a nursing home where he became progressively worse and worse over time and at this point only occasionally recognized anyone.
That summer I became fixated on my grandmother’s photo albums. It was strange to see my mother in elephant ear pants and a white polyester shirt, her hair straight from ironing. My grandparents looked different as well, though all of them had a strange familiarity that only age could explain. Pop top beer cans and wood paneled station wagons with luggage loaded on the roof like something out of a National Lampoon movie.
What puzzled me most were the places where pictures had not been placed, or had been removed. At first it seemed as though she might have been trying to spread them out over the course of the entire album, but then I could see in the sticky plastic pages the outlines of pictures that had been obviously removed. I asked my grandmother about the missing photos.
“Well Ashley, some of them were taken out because they were put in frames. Some were duplicates,” she said. She seemed busy cleaning the plates in the sink from lunch and her back was to me but what I took away from that question was the pregnant paused that hung in the air as I asked it. I had my own photo albums, pictures taken from disposable cameras, but even when I got double prints I never put both pictures in the albums. That just didn’t seem right to me because it didn’t make sense to take up that much room in a photo album.
At that age I was still able to be swayed by the compelling argument, “Because I said so,” I put the question to bed. It wasn’t worth pushing and running the risk of angering my grandmother which would get back to Mom and Dad. Fortunately they were more worried about Bonnie testing for her driver’s permit, so that would allow me a little bit of leeway when it came to pushing the limits of their patience.
“What’s the deal with Gramma’s photo albums?” I asked Mom. I pulled a stool up opposite her at the center island in our kitchen. She looked at me from behind the potato she was peeling, that look on her face that hinted she’d earned enough gray hairs that day letting Bonnie drive her around.
“What about her photo albums?” she asked.
“There are a bunch of blank spots in them,” I said.
There was the typical pregnant pause that she had adapted from her mother and I could see the gears working between her ears. She was formatting an answer to a question that should have had a simple one.
“There was a flood,” she said. She shook her head and continued,”I mean a pipe broke in the house and there was water damage that ruined some of them…” she said.
My mother had a favorite expression. “Don’t bullshit a bullshitter,” she would say. I knew then that I was being bullshitted and I called her on it.
“Gramma said that it was because some of them went into frames. She also said that there were duplicates and that she took them out of the albums.”
Mom dropped the peeler and put her hands on the island glaring at me impatiently. It was not an expression I was used to. Granted I had tested my mother’s patience since the moment I came screaming from her womb, but this look of hers was one not of aggravation, it looked like fear.
“Leave it alone, Ashley,” she warned. I did.
Sundays were reserved for church services, which I became increasingly bored with as my friends starting dropping off from them. Straight from church we went to Grandpa’s nursing home where we would sit and dote over the old man who might recognize us one minute and then forget us another. His train of thought had become increasingly fragile and we had to work to keep his attention long enough so that he could follow conversations and be present with the rest of us.
Mom was appalled by my choice of my “Zero” Smashing Pumpkins tee shirt, but as Bonnie was being particularly teenageish that day and the topic of conversation had drifted from my grandfather to a rather heated exchange between her, our parents, and my grandmother. This left me awkwardly beside my grandfather who was smelling particularly pungent, with mashed potatoes on his scruffy chin and a diaper that smelled as if it might have expired. He looked at me and my apparent discomfort and smiled. Then he whispered a question to me.
“Are you one of Bobby’s friends?”
I looked at him and shook my head.
“No, Grandpa, I’m Ashley,” I said. “Don’t you know who I am?”
He blinked and screwed up his face. The name didn’t seem to ring a bell to him and he looked at me in that way that suggested he was struggling to remember who I was. He nodded regardless, not wanting to admit he didn’t recognize me.
“Who is Bobby?” I asked.
“Bobby is my son,” he replied quickly, as if we had been partaking in a good solid conversation. “Have you seen him? He’s about your age. His mother is going to have a fit if he isn’t home for dinner.”
The answer was as confusing as it was amusing. Grandpa had a way with storytelling but I happened to know already that my grandparents had been sweethearts who married straight out of high school. My mother had been born two years after that and neither of them had any other children before or after they were married. My mother had been it.
“You don’t have a son, Grandpa,” I said. At this point my mother cued in on the conversation, her eyes snapped up at me and her brow ruffled. She stood up and immediately her attention was back to Bonnie.
“Let’s go,” she said. “You’ve upset your grandfather.”
Bonnie fired back with, “Upset him? How? He’s just sitting there with poop in his diaper. If that doesn’t bother him what could possibly have upset him?”
“Out young lady,” my mother insisted with her angry shaking finger pointed to the door. Bonnie stood up and trounced out into the hall, her mellow once again thoroughly harshed. Mom looked at me with the same stern expression and I knew in that moment that she wasn’t really angry with Bonnie, she was angry with me.
“Both of you go to your rooms,” she said as we entered the house. “I don’t want to see either of you.” Shutting the door behind me I lay on my bed, The Authoritative Calvin and Hobbes book still open to where I had left it that morning. I pushed it aside and lay on my bed thinking about what Grandpa had said. There were things he said when he was confused, and you knew that he was confused by the way his expression was and how he said things, as if he wasn’t sure himself.
I pulled myself to the edge of my bed and hung over the side of it. Lifting the bed skirt I found what I was looking for, a previous years phone book sticky from the Jolt cola I had spilled on it and covered in dust and dog hair. I brushed it off and flipped it open to the S section and ran my finger down to my mother’s absurd Polish maiden name, Szczepanik, which as the story went she was all too glad to be rid of when Dad offered her his own name Barnes. The only listings there were for my grandparents and someone by the name of Spencer who lived in the next town, Hudson.
Not to be deterred I picked up the handset of my clear phone with all the wires and circuits inside visible and multicolored. I dialed 4-1-1 and was connected to,
“Information. City and state please.”
“I’m not sure,” I said. “I’m looking for an address or phone number for a Bobby Szczepanik. Is there such a person?”
“Is that Robert Szczepanik,” she asked.
“Probably,” I responded. “Can you look up birthdays in there? He would have been born after 1958, I think. In New Hampshire.”
“Hold on,” she said. I could hear her clicking on her keyboard and breathing heavily into the phone through her nose. I imagined her being a large woman, with curly hair and a padded shoulder pantsuit just like Hillary Clinton.
“I have a Robert Wilson Szczepanik, born in Nashua, New Hampshire in 1960. His current address is listed as Merrimack, New Hampshire. Would that be him?”
“Not sure,” I said. “Szczepanik is my mother’s maiden name and I’ve never met anyone else who has it, at least not in this area.”
“My guess is that this is him then,” she said. “Would you like the telephone number and address?”
It was a nine mile bike ride to Merrimack, but an easy feat once my parents left for work the next morning. Bonnie was standing in the living room in a brown army style tee shirt, ripped jeans, and Birkenstocks as I came down from my room. She asked where I was going with my backpack and I stuck my tongue out at her saying, “None of your business,” because any other answer would have been too simple and if it appeared that I was cooperative I might have looked suspicious. It was best to make myself hostile so that Bonnie would become disinterested in my activities.
I headed north on my bike, sticking to the wooded roads. The warm sun was cut by the shade of the overhanging trees and my bike clicked with each turn of the spokes. I wasn’t sure exactly what I was riding toward, but there was an overwhelming sense of purpose. I had caught onto something that I wasn’t supposed to know about.
I stopped at a fire station and asked for better directions. They showed me on a large map what street I was looking for and I kicked off in the direction they told me I should travel in.
I pedaled into a neighborhood with rusty chain link fences and faded shutters on windows. The house number I was looking for looked as though it had once been a loved place but had fallen into a disheveled state of being. It was a two story with faded brown color and burgundy shutters. The entryway to the house was a screened porch that I would have to walk up to just to knock. The grass was tall and the bushes were overgrown. I would have considered the house abandoned if not for the car parked in the driveway.I dropped my bike, laying it down on the blacktop driveway and made my way to the porch. I stopped at the bottom of the stairs looking at the mailbox which read Szczepanik/Redding. The steps creaked under my feet as I climbed them The screen door stuck as I pulled against it, and I had to yank on it to open it. Stepping onto the porch I looked around finding a small bistro table and chairs and a door that lead to the kitchen. I couldn’t see much of the kitchen because of the curtain strung across it, and so I knocked hoping that someone was home. Nobody came at first and I wondered if I was being silly for even trying to locate this person as I had no business chasing phantom people. I knocked again and this time a figure came to the door.
He peered through the curtain and gave me a puzzled look and then unlocked the door and opened it. “Can I help you?” he asked.
He looked to be in his mid to late forties, with a slender frame and bright blonde hair that was parted to the side and back. He had a pastel colored polo shirt and tight blue jeans and Sperry’s on his feet.
“Hi,” I began trying to clear my throat. “I’m looking for someone and I know this might sound crazy but this person’s name is Bobby Szczepanik. Does he live here?”
The man sighed and straightened his hair. “Yes,” he said. “But he isn’t here right now, he’s sick in a nursing home.”
“Oh,” I said. “Is he OK?”
The man smiled and shook his head. “No, not really,” he said. “How do you know Bobby?”
That was the hard part. I scratched at a new bug bite on my knee and tried to figure the best way to explain my interest in Bobby Szczepanik.
“I know this sounds crazy,” I said. “But I think he and I might be related.”
The man looked at me, at first with a shot of contempt as if he was about to slam the door in my face. Then his expression changed and he seemed to relax. He coughed and covered his mouth with the crook of his elbow, and then excused himself for performing a perfectly natural act.
“I’m sorry,” he said as he turned back into the kitchen. He went to the sink and began to wash his hands, scrubbing furiously and creating a lather with the bar of soap there. “What did you say your name was?” he asked as he dried them with a dish rag.
“Ashley Barnes,” I said. He smiled and offered his hand to me.
“Daniel Redding,” he said introducing himself. “Where did you come from?”
“Nashua,” I said. “I rode my bike up here.”
“But why though?” he asked. “I’m sorry for all the questions but Bobby doesn’t have any sort of relationship with his family, so you understand it’s a little strange…” he trailed off going into a coughing fit, his face turning red. He reached into his pocket and pulled a kleenex from it and placed it against his mouth. When his fit ended he glanced at it. Seeing blood there muttered, “Damn.”
“I’m sorry,” I said. It felt as though I was bothering an ill man and that my curiosity had caused him some sort of distress.
“Not your fault,” he said finally clearing his throat. “It happens from time to time.”
“Are you sick too?” I asked and he nodded his head.
“I am,” he said nodding his head. “Don’t worry though, it’s hard to get. You don’t have anything to worry about.”
“What’s wrong with you?” I asked.
He looked at me comically and cocked his head at my apparent morbid curiosity. I had always been interested in sickness and my mother had this crazy idea I might want to be a doctor when I grew up. “Well Ashley, I have AIDS.”
I looked at him with my jaw wide open and immediately felt bad when I saw his eyebrow shoot up.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I’ve never met someone with AIDS before.” Daniel just chuckled to himself and said
“No, you probably have but you don’t know it.”
I stood there before him in my shorts and tank top. My backpack was still slung over my shoulders and the morning was growing warmer. He was already beginning to sweat in the heat and sighed and pulled out one of the bistro chairs and sat down in it.
“That your bike, Ashley?” he asked. I nodded. “Nashua’s a bit of a ride from here on a bike.” I shrugged and he gestured to the other chair and asked
“Would you like to sit down?”
I nodded sensing that there might be some information coming, but that we were going to have to get to know each other first. I tried to remember from my health class how a person got AIDS or HIV and I knew that just sitting near him wasn’t going to hurt me any. So I sat down and he leaned on the table toward me and asked “I don’t have much to offer, but what I do have a lot of is Dr. Pepper, would you like one?”
“That’s my favorite,” I said smiling. Daniel chuckled, snorting as he did so, and nodded to himself as if he had some private joke.
“It’s Bobby’s favorite too,” he said. “It’s my curse because I can’t stand the stuff, but I have a house full of it.”
He stood up and wobbled to the kitchen and I immediately felt bad having a sick man waiting on me. He opened the fridge and in the light there I could see his facial expression. He was smiling broadly and examining row after of row of Dr. Pepper cans, looking for the best one to present me with. His hands were shaking as he closed the fridge and walked back out onto the porch.
“There you go,” he said sliding the can over to me. “So how is it that you’re related to him?”
“That’s just it, I’m not sure. There’s been a lot of weird coincidences lately and it’s had me thinking. My grandmother has these photo albums and lots of pictures seem to be missing from them. I’ve heard a lot of different reasons for why the albums are the way they are. I had brushed it off as plain old weird behavior until we went to see my grandfather in the nursing home.”
I could see Daniel wince when I mentioned my grandfather. He recovered and looked back up at me, stifling another cough. He managed to keep his mouth closed as he suppressed it, but brought his hand up to his mouth just to be sure.
“My sister Bonnie was the center of a heated discussion and then he, my grandfather, looked at me in this strange way and asked if I was one of Bobby’s friends. I told him who I was and then asked him who Bobby was, and he said that Bobby was his son. But I know my mom is an only child.”
I took a sip of my Dr. Pepper and I could see Daniel processing this information. He adjusted a loosely fitted watch on his skinny arm, a strange dark blistery looking mark beside it.
“Well, when I looked up I saw my mother glaring at me. Instead of yelling at me though she laid into Bonnie again and said that we were leaving. It was weird because I knew she was mad about me asking who this Bobby person was, but she was yelling at Bonnie instead. Szczepanik isn’t a common name around here so I looked it up in the phone book and then called information and that’s when they gave me this address.”
There was an awkward pause and Daniel seemed to be looking at me intently. I wasn’t sure if he was about to ask me to leave. Then he suddenly smiled and asked
“What’s your mother’s name?”
“Stephanie,” I said.
“Jesus Christ, you are his niece,” Daniel said putting his face into his hands. “How old are you?”
“Fourteen,” I answered.
“What grade are you in?”
“I’m about to start high school,” I said. “Ninth grade.”
“You said you have a sister?” he asked sitting up in his chair. He looked as though he was fighting back tears and his voice became weak in a way that it hadn’t when he was coughing.
“Yea, her name is Bonnie,” I said.
He regained his composure, wiping the corner of his eye on the collar of his polo shirt.
“Who knows you are here?” he asked. I shook my head.
“Nobody knows,” I said. “I kind of think that I’m not supposed to be. Everyone seemed really freaked out by the fact that I had been digging for answers. It was just too much to overlook.”
He stood up and went to the door with a new found energy. Stepping into the kitchen he turned back to me and said, “I’ll be right back,” and so I sat there holding the sides of the chair I was sitting in and looking down at my Airwalks until he came back hold a pair of picture frames.
“Here,” he said putting them in my hands. “Do they look familiar?” I looked into the first picture he handed me and was shocked to see a younger version of my mother looking back at me, her arm around a boy I had never lain eyes upon in my life. What shocked me was how much he resembled my grandfather in the pictures. The second picture he was older, with a mustache and a gorgeous golden tan. There was another man by his side and they had an arm around each other. They were holding cans of Budweiser and wore cut off jean shorts and tank tops in the fashion of the 1980s.
“That was out trip to Provincetown in 1987,” Daniel said. “He doesn’t look quite like that anymore.”
“Why not?” I asked. Daniel sighed and looked at the picture. he touched the glass and pouted a little.
“We both got sick a number of years ago. It goes back and forth as to who is sicker, and it’s usually me who is in the hospital. He’s much stronger than I am. He has such a good perspective considering what he’s been through.”
I looked the the picture of my mother and Bobby. Something began to grow inside me and I started to sense an incredible betrayal from my family. There had never been so much as a mention of this uncle I apparently had and yet he had plainly been a firm member of the family.
“Why did he go away?” I asked. “Does he hate us?”
Daniel put the picture of Bobby securely on the table facing us both as if he were an active participant. Daniel crossed his legs the way my mother might have and held himself with as proper a demeanor as he could manage. He was clearly not feeling very well and I was feeling increasingly bad for keeping him from whatever he needed to be doing.
“It’s complicated, Ashley,” he said. “And it’s not really my place to explain that situation to you. There was a lot of factors involved and it was in a time when things weren’t so easy for people like Bobby and I.”
“You’re gay, right?” I asked.
“Yes, we are,” he said smiling with some satisfaction. “How do you feel about that?”
I shrugged my shoulders. Having never met a gay person I didn’t really know what I had thought of it. It was never something brought up in the classroom, with the exception of the flagrant name calling between the boys in gym class. There had been a rumor that one of my teachers was gay but it was always hushed up when any of the teachers were around. It was something that was never discussed inside any sort of real intelligent conversation. I supposed that it was reasonable to assume that if I had probably met a person with AIDS before that I had probably also met a gay person at one time and didn’t actually know it.
“I don’t think I have an opinion about it one way or another,” I said. He seemed to have a thought between his ears, as his face gave away an expression of mild surprise and just a tinge of repressed agitation. My mother made a similar look when she heard something that went against her own presumed understanding of something.
“Do you think I could meet him?” I asked. I could see the desire in Daniel’s eyes to protect Bobby but he hesitated in any knee-jerk response. He took a deep breath and stifled a cough, trying to clear his throat again in order to relieve the need to cough.
“Would you like to?” he asked.
“Yes,” I said without hesitation. Daniel looked tired suddenly but there was an expression of relief on his face.
“Suppose I gave you an address where you could go and visit him,” he said. “Would it just be you going, or would your family be involved?”
“It would just be me,” I said hoping that he wouldn’t change his mind.
“Well I can’t drive much these days, but you could ride your bike there because it isn’t far. It’s just up route 102 in Londonderry. It’s a place called Sunset Villa,” he said as he pushed himself up from the table. He returned to the kitchen and retrieved a pen and piece of scratch paper by the telephone. Then he opened the refrigerator and took another can of Dr. Pepper from it. He wrote down some directions on the paper and added. “Try to stay off Route 102. It can be a little busy and I don’t want you getting hit by a car.” He handed me the can of Dr. Pepper adding, “For the road.”
I smiled and took the paper form him and opened my bag. My Sony Walkman fell out and landed on my foot before rolling onto the ground, thankfully undamaged. I picked it up and he asked me
“What are you listening to?”
I smiled sheepishly and replied, “The Smashing Pumpkins. They’re my favorite.”
Daniel laughed and rolled his eyes. “My God,” he said. “Ask your Uncle Bobby about Billy Corgan,” he said. “He was in a band called The Marked back in the late eighties. We saw them a bunch of times when we were in Saint Petersburg.”
My obsession with all things Billy Corgan and The Smashing Pumpkins was only overshadowed by the two words I had never considered pertaining to myself, and those were “Uncle Bobby.” I had no uncles, just an aunt on my father’s side and she lived in Maryland so Bonnie and I only saw her once or twice a year.
I thanked him as I replaced my Walkman and put the Dr. Pepper in my bag. “Are you going there now?” he asked me and I thought it over, looking at my Casio watch and immediately decided that it was infinitely better than riding home to listen to my sister play our father’s vinyl copy of In the Dark by the Grateful Dead all afternoon. I nodded and Daniel returned to the kitchen and brought another can of Dr. Pepper out for my Uncle Bobby. “You can give him that from me,” he said.
Just Say Maybe Copyright © 2015 by James Windale