Chapter 18

Mountains of gold would not seduce some men,
yet flattery would break them down.

- Henry Ward Beecher, Proverbs from Plymouth Pulpit

The liquor store was open now so they stopped to pick up the remaining items for tomorrow night's wake. Bill searched the parking lot for Gary or other lizards but found nothing. Dan went inside the state store and began filling a shopping cart with alcohol. A woman shopping in the far aisle looked familiar but she ducked out of sight so he could no longer see her.

Dan checked out and put his purchases in the trunk of the Minotaur. He then returned to the store to see who or why somebody was avoiding him. Aside from Trixie, he couldn't think of anyone who might hide from him. He was puzzled and wanted to get to the bottom of it. Even though he wasn't sure he wanted to see Trixie, he sure as hell didn't want to come this far to miss her because she hid from him in a store. He pretended to be shopping for a specific bottle so he could search the entire store without looking like a stalker.

He found her easily, still crouched in the back. She was a short, thin woman with jet-black hair. She was pretty but her other features were hidden under a thick, winter coat. She could have been at home with the trio from the diner if not for appearing a little older and the air of class she exuded. She stood up straight when she saw Dan and realized she was caught. It took a little time before Dan finally recognized her and there was an awkward silence between them until that moment of realization. "Joanie?" Dan asked tentatively.

"Hi Dan." She replied much more surely. "Yep, it's me." And then she flipped her long hair back, revealing more of her delicate features. When she and Dan had known one another, she'd been a timid, shy girl who very unsure of herself. She wore unflattering glasses and plain clothes. She stooped and rarely asserted herself in any situation. People called her mousy. But she was a sensitive soul, a very good artist and a lot of fun to be around. Dan had spent many pleasant hours in her company and thought of her then as a good friend. Unfortunately, he was an idiot and missed signals as big as a sledgehammer that she had a crush on him. When Dan started dating Trixie, she had been devastated, or so he'd been told by a mutual friend he'd run into at a party. Their mutual friend, Robin, had asked him to leave the party before Joanie saw him there and became more upset. Because he did care for her, he reluctantly agreed. Dan had not seen her since, not until this very morning. "What are you doing here?" She asked. "I heard you were in California."

"Yeah, I do. My grandfather passed away. The one who lived around the corner from your place." Dan replied. Her family had lived on Broad Street, only a few blocks from Chulkie's house but they hadn't met until right before Dan had left Shillington the first time, when he went into the military. She played violin in the pit orchestra of the summer community theatre youth group Dan was active in at his church. They put on a Broadway-style musical play on the stage in the gymnasium attached to the church each summer and it was open only to kids under twenty-five.

"Oh, yeah. The stone house." She remembered. They talked for a few minutes and it was obvious she had grown out of her shyness. She displayed a self-confidence that would have been surprising twenty years before but which suited her now. Dan thought he sensed an underlying apprehension but put it down to the uncomfortableness of the situation. "I thought about calling you in California. I lived in L.A. for a few years and Robin, you remember Robin? She got your number from somebody and gave it to me but I never did. Things got very busy and I never seemed to find the time."

"That's too bad. I wish you had. The first few years sucked pretty bad. I didn't know a soul there. A friendly voice or face would have been very, very welcome." Dan said. "Listen, I know this is a little awkward, but I want to apologize for everything. I know it's been a long time, but I feel really bad about it and I never got a chance to tell you that I was sorry. I was such an idiot."

"Oh, that." Joanie said. "It was a long time ago, Dan. Don't worry about it. It's no big deal now. But thanks."

"No problem. I mean it." Dan said, and they talked warmly for a few more minutes.

"Well, I should really get going." Joanie said at last. She reached out to hug Dan and when she did, her coast fell open revealing a tight, sexy little black cocktail dress. It was a little rumpled in the morning, but Dan imagined it looked stunning the night before. She hugged him tightly and the warmth of her body felt good against his own.

"So what are you doing these days?" Dan asked instinctively, intrigued by the little black dress.

She hesitated before answering. "Well, I, uh, was a dancer for a lot of years. And now I, um, well, now I sort of supervise some younger dancers. In fact, I'm late in meeting them. They're waiting for me over at Dempsey's.

Dan's expression must have visibly changed because she asked what was the matter. "Nothing." He said quickly, apparently unable to conceal the realization he'd just had.

"No. What." Joanie insisted.

"Well." Now it was Dan's turn to hesitate. "Their names wouldn't happen to be Britney, Aurora and Georgia, by any chance. Would they?"

Joanie's face turned white then crimson.

"Sorry. I just came from there. We spoke briefly." Dan explained.

She began backing away. She looked embarrassed and like she wanted to be anywhere but here at this moment. Dan thought about trying to tell her it was no big deal but thought letting her leave with her dignity was probably the best course of action. So he called a final goodbye to her, saying, "it was nice to see you again." She waved back but hurriedly checked out and left the store. Dan stayed put until she was safely out of sight, not wanting to embarrass her further. Then he went to look for Bill in the parking lot.

Bill was right where Dan had left him. Searching the waterlogged ditch for more lizards. "Did you figure out who she was?" He asked.

"Yeah. Joanie Lawrence. She had a crush on me once upon a time and I screwed her over without even meaning to when I started dated Trixie." Dan explained.

"So that must have been a happy reunion." Bill said sarcastically. "She seemed like she practically ran out of there."

"Well, it started out fine. I was actually glad I ran into her." Dan began. "But then I accidently realized she was with those other three girls at Dempsey's"

"You mean the ho's?" Bill said incredulously?

"Dancers." Dan corrected.

"And porn stars are actresses." Bill chided.

"Okay. okay." Dan cautioned, throwing up his hands. "I really liked that girl at one time. I felt really bad when I found out I'd hurt her. I even thought of stopping seeing Trixie and dating her instead. But I couldn't do it. I wasn't attracted to her that way even whan I actively tried to be. I guess you can't force that kind of thing."

"Hey, I just figured it out!" Bill shouted, jumping out of the ditch. "You think you had something to do with her becoming a ... 'dancer'. That's it, isn't it?"

"Well, apparently she was crushed when it happened." Dan started.

"Dude." Bill interrupted. "Get over yourself. You had no more to do with her becoming a stripper than I did. You can't be responsible for the choices other people make; only the choices you make."

"But the choice I made was to dump her, in effect. That affected her. My choice caused her to make other choices, perhaps different ones than if I hadn't made that choice." Bill argued.

"Well, that's a good point, but only up to a point. I agree that everything is connected. But if everything is interconnected, then your choice was, in a sense, preordained. You said it yourself, you consciously tried to choose a different path, but you couldn't. You really had no choice."

"Are saying I have no free will?" Dan demanded.

"Well, that's a bigger argument." Bill replied. "I'm saying your personality which was made up of all your experiences including your past, everything you'd seen, read, done, felt, etc. made your choice somewhat predictable. You might have been able to choose her over Trixie under some pretty extraordinary circumstances but it would have been an almost unnatural choice. And you probably would have regretted that decision even more than you do this one now. I think people can and do occasionally choose against their nature but they have to force themselves to do it. It's not an easy decision. Look at all the bad marriages or even relationships in the world. Look at politics. A Bush has been elected three times now. Clearly people can make unnatural choices against their best interests. "

They both laughed, breaking the tension a bit.

"So are you saying no matter what I did, she would ended up where she is today?" Dan asked.

"Not exactly." Bill continued. "But there's no way you can ever predict what the effect a choice you make for yourself will have on a person that far down the line. All you can say for sure is what choices your decision might leave the other person next. Beyond that, it's more difficult. You know how hard it is to think of chess moves more than a few moves ahead because of how many permutations there are? Well imagine a near infinite number of choices for each possible decision. Very quickly it becomes impossible to predict anything. Even if you know a person well, which may give you a certain edge, the sheer number of possibilities will overwhelm that edge in no time. It could just as easily have been the next guy she met or the seventeenth. And the odds are equally good it could have been no guy at all; perhaps a domineering mother, an abusive father, poverty or even low self-esteem. Maybe she really liked taking off her clothes in front of other people. You know, an exhibitionist who really got off on it. Point is, the possibilities are literally endless."

"Well. I guess that's true, when you think about it." Dan conceded.

"It is. So you can stop beating yourself up over it." Bill scolded.

"She looked good, though. Don't you think?" Bill asked, changing the subject.

"Yes. She did." Bill agreed, smiling. "She looked good enough to eat."

They got back in the Minotaur and Dan turned on the ignition. The radio blared XTC's Jason and the Argonauts.
I've seen acts of every shade of terrible crime from man-like creatures,
and I've had the breath of liars blowing me off course in my sails.
Seems the more I travel, from the foam to gravel, as the nets unravel,
all exotic fish I find like Jason and the Argonauts there may
be no golden fleece but human riches I'll release.


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