Lil and me were an item. That Friday night we were heading down to the pier to ride the tilt-a-whirl so’s she’d scream and hug up against me till I got all hot and hard. Then we’d get some of that saltwater taffy—the kind that comes wrapped in pastel papers and when a guy chews on it, it gets all in his teeth and keeps coming out a little bit of sweet at a time. I knew Lil loved that stuff, so maybe after…
We’re walking down to the pier and this guy hops up to us. He’s thin, tall, got one leg and he’s using those metal crutches that cuff around his arms. He says, “You seen my dog?”
It kind of creeps me out the way he’s asking, like one of those guys that mothers warn you about, except we’re not little kids and this guy ain’t got but one leg; so I say, “Nah, we ain’t seen no dogs.”
“What’s he look like?” Lil asks.
The guy gets all smiley and he describes his mutt, “Little, tan, pointed ears that stand up, smooth coat, always yappin’.”
“What’s his name?” I ask, “In case we find him.”
“Like the poet?” Lil puts in, which shows she’s been paying attention in World Lit. I like it that Lil’s smart; I wish I was, too.
“Yeah, like the I-talian poet,” he says.
“And what’s your name?” I ask, “In case we find him and want to find you.”
“Virgil,” he answers.
“You and your dog got the same name?”
“Yeah, anything wrong with that?” All of a sudden, the guy’s snarling like I hit him or something.
“Nah…just doesn’t the dog get confused when people talk to you?”
Now the one-legged guy is staring me down. “I don’t see why he should. I don’t get confused when people talk to him.”
“Yeah,” I say and take Lil’s hand to pull her away. “Hey, we’ll keep an eye out for your dog. If we find him…”
We’re moving down the pier again, and I’m thinking how cute Lil looked when Virgil was talking about his dog.
The tilt-a-whirl is maybe two hundred feet farther when this bag-lady staggers up to us smelling of cheap wine and rotting teeth and pushing a shopping cart filled with loose crap, a large black garbage bag, and a small paper bag with her bottle peeking out.
“You seen my husband?” she asks. “I’m looking for my husband.”
“Your husband isn’t Virgil?” Lil asks like talking to this human flotsam ain’t nothing we don’t do every Friday night.
“No, my husband’s name is Chuck.”
“Have you tried calling him?” I ask, suddenly wondering why Virgil hadn’t been calling his dog instead of bothering us. “It isn’t that crowded, he’d probably hear you.” I looked across the pier towards the low tide beach. “Even if he’s under the pier, if you stand on the edge and—”
He’s not down there,” she says; “he’s in Salinas.”
“If he’s in Salinas, why are you looking for him here?” Lil asks. Her light blue eyes twitch with puzzlement.
“’Cause I don’t want to find him. I just want to look.”
Now, that doesn’t make any sense to me, so I ask, “How come?”
“It’s like Virgil,” she says. “Year ago that dog of his took off. He comes down here every night since looking for that mutt. He hopes to find him, but he knows he won’t; still it gives him something to hope for. Me, I don’t want to find that no-good bastard. He ran off with that ho of a best friend of mine one Friday night and left me with…” She gestured towards the shopping cart.
“If I was to find him, I’d kill the son-of-a-bitch. Kill them both if I could. So I come here and look for him and hope I don’t find ‘em. Know what I mean?” She punctuated her words with a spray of spittle.
I’m not sure that I do, but Lil says, “Yeah”
I say “Yeah,” too. Like we’re having a normal conversation.
“Good luck,” Lil says.
And I say, “Good luck,” too.
The tilt-a-whirl’s a disappointment at first. Lil doesn’t scream or get scared, but then she nestles up against me and that makes it all right and I’m real happy when we go buy that taffy. I buy a small box and figure we’ll give a piece to the shopping cart lady and a piece to Virgil. It ain’t a strayed husband or a lost dog, but it’s sweet and it might take their minds off their problems for a minute.
On the way back to Lil’s house, we stop in the park and sit on a bench. We’re making out—my right hand down her blouse, her left on me. It’s real good when all of a sudden she pulls away and asks, “What do you hope for?”
“I stammer around a bit and say, “I don’t know. Nothing.” I don’t want to tell her what I’m really hoping because it has to do with her and I don’t know that she’ll like that. I figure she means like something big and forever. So, instead of answering, I ask her the same, “What are you hoping for?”
She doesn’t say anything but gets up, straightens her clothes, and starts walking. I catch up. We’re walking towards her house, and I’m holding her hand. I pull her around and kiss her big and hard right there on the sidewalk. I’m scared she’s going to slap my face or something, but Lil kisses me back. We’re like that for a while kissing and hugging, and then we head back to her place.
The porch light is on. I figure her dad is up and watching out the window. I give Lil a proper-manners peck of a goodnight kiss and say, “I’ll see you in school.”
“Yeah, Monday,” she says and goes inside.
I’m walking down the street when a piece of taffy comes loose from its hiding place between my molars. I savor the sweetness.
In a backyard, a dog sets to baying. I want to howl back. I want to call, “Hey, Virgil.” I want to see if he comes.