The Two Times I Saw Ava Francesca
By Wayne Allen Sallee
Everyone who reads my work knows that I rarely start a story until I know the title as well as the first line. In this case it’s the second line that is more important, because I am going to try and gain redemption for the night I was so drunk and talking trash, that Darcie later questioned Greg why he even considered me a friend.
Darcie had met me maybe twice prior to that July night in 2006, once when she was dating Greg and another time when she was pregnant with Ava Francesca. Greg has summer parties, barbeque, booze, and hours of volleyball. I can’t make it out there that often, as I have no real way to get home. It’s common knowledge that my cerebral palsy keeps me from driving.
But it sure as hell doesn’t stop me from drinking. Well, that should be past tense. I have stopped drinking, but that is a different story that has been told elsewhere. That second time, late into the evening, I had found myself in a truth or dare game and this blonde friend of Darcie’s dared me to strip naked, which I did inside the bathroom and then walked around back. Darcie was sore from the pregnancy thing and was sitting on the couch, on the phone. Who the hell knows what she thought. That had been, I dunno, 2005? Had to be.
I didn’t mind doing the dare, as I had been looking at the girl all day, because that’s why guys who are drunk by two p. m. do. Greg used to joke that I never took my socks off, truth was I forgot. Greg is my best friend, one of the most incredible artists you’d ever come across, and years back, he would do the covers for my story collections, Fiends by Torchlight and Running Inside My Skin, as well as my meta-memoir, Proactive Contrition.
I wish to hell I knew how to forgive myself before I started doing stupid shit back then.
The past in ellipses: I’d known Greg since we were barely out of our respective colleges, and ended up having mutual friends, the majority of them artists. Well, I seem to have omitted the dot dot dots, I’m not stopping now, though. We’re talking thirty years, more than half our lives.
Because of the distances between city and suburb, it would be a rare thing to meet at Baker’s Square or see a film and get hot dogs at Portillo’s afterwards. By the mid 1990s, he and several of my other artist friends were making loads of money from their commercial art. I was always living just above the poverty line, my one trick pony line being, I screwed myself to the bottom, and then crawled to the gutter.
That was somewhat a joke, as I had one novel and had stories in over seventy anthologies, though the pay was next to nothing in most cases. I worked at a job I hated in the Loop, because I needed health insurance because of by stupidly being crippled. I’d put crippled people in some of my stories, with others involving personal pain, and these were the ones Greg liked most.
He’d talk me up to everyone, like I meant something. The guy with no girl and maybe thirty bucks in his wallet. Come to think of it, since I mentioned never having a date, Greg’s wife and that truth or dare girl were two of the four women who have seen me naked in my entire life.
OK. July 2006. The night I ended up acting with all the social graces of a man throwing the contents of a junkyard down a wrought-iron spiral staircase. I was in a bad state of mind for a few months preceding, being a new employee at a printing plant and my supervisor rode my ass every day until, months after that party, he ended up imprisoned for vehicular homicide. I had to work a few hours that Saturday, he was hungover, so I had shit slung at me for six hours, starting at six a. m.
Afterwards, I walked a few blocks to 127th Street, waiting for the bus that would take me past the Cal Sag Channel and then northeast to the party. It was pouring out and there was no shelter; I was pretty much standing near an off-ramp for the Tri-State Tollway. The bus was late, and air-conditioned. So my muscles contracted as I sat, my elbows were shoved together and I held my hands in the air the way a surgeon who had just scrubbed down looked as he waited for the latex gloves to be snapped on.
I showed up at the party midway through the festivities, just a small group in the kitchen, no volleyball because of the rain. I was introduced to a very tiny Ava, this after I had already dry-swallowed three Vicodin just so I could at least think that my shoulders weren’t bent like a hunchback’s. She was beautiful, but was soon back in bed.
The hours passed. I drank, as did everyone else. Miller Lite. Tequila. Stuff I had never heard of because I could never afford it. And then one of Greg’s friends–I know this because she had been to parties before Greg had met Darcie–started in on this parody of a crippled person’s voice, all “aarrs” and “wrhoo,” which is how most people imitate someone without the ability to speak properly.
I hadn’t been part of the conversation, but it led to my belligerence within minutes. I do not recall this, but I was driven home by a couple who went twenty miles out of their way to get me home safe.
I skipped the next few parties, afraid to face Darcie. I knew she was upset because of emails Greg had sent me way back when. In the summer of 2009, I had been sober for two years, not out of discovering I was an alcoholic–I only drank when there was free booze–but because I was now taking a bipolar drug.
I had purchased a pop-up book about a frog for Ava, and Greg put it on a high shelf in her room, planning on showing her after guests stopped arriving and things had calmed down.
The train I planned to take home, something I couldn’t use when I was working off 127th Street, would arrive at 7:54 PM. Just about then, Ava was saying her goodbyes before bedtime. She walked up to me at the edge of the garage as I was grabbing a can of pop for the long ride home, and shyly thanked me for the book, leaning in so I could hug her.
I can still recall her eyes, the red sun dress and her brunette hair haloed by the setting summer sun, a moment that makes your heart stop beating for a split-second. An image you see in films, for pure exploitation, syrupy music playing in the background.
I hugged Darcie and Greg saw me to the front lawn and watched as I walked down the street, the train platform a few turns away. I had to pass through a block party and weaved around two black girls in white shorts who were laughing over cotton candy.
I’ve mentioned when that was, but it doesn’t matter how long ago it was as I write these words. It doesn’t matter where I am now, or where I went in-between.
All you really need to know how it was I felt that night, that second time I saw Ava, and the way my pulse thrummed in my eyes as I watched the approaching beam from the commuter train in an orange sky that smelled of confections and perfume.
Wayne Allen Sallee
27 Apr 11