Continued from: Earworm: Part 13 — Inside the Dollhouse
It was Friday night, and Joel’s dad said he could borrow the T-Bird. Joel replayed the conversation in his mind, trying to figure out how he got hold of the new car’s keys. Perhaps his father was in a particularly generous mood this evening, or maybe the apocalypse was at hand and his father’s parting with the keys was one of the signs. But Joel figured the real reason for possessing the keys was his father being on his third martini (straight-up with an alcohol-logged twist of lemon swimming from drink to drink to drink), and ole Pops had himself a nice glow starting. That, and Dr. Fitch’s sudden interest in his son’s life—football games, nights out with the guys—it was evident Dr. Fitch was vicariously living through his son. And now, just as Joel’s grandfather probably handed over the keys of an ancient T-Bird to Joel’s father, it was Joel’s turn to be the beneficiary of tradition. Which was lucky for him, because if he picked Hope up in his mother’s station wagon—even if it was an Audi—he may as well pick her up in a school bus. Luckily, Joel’s father insisted the “young lady” be picked up “in style.” After all, Dr. Fitch wouldn’t be using the car—seeing as the number of drinks the little lemon floated in was rapidly climbing.
Joel eased into the car’s seat and inserted the key, bringing the engine to life. He turned on the radio, and the serendipity was not lost on him when, on his father’s pre-set oldies station, the Beach Boys sang, “Fun-fun-fun, till Daddy takes the T-Bird away.”
Joel backed down the driveway and pulled onto the street. The ride to Hope’s house took ten minutes—five in Daddy’s new T-Bird. Fun-fun-fun.
After nestling the car to the side of the road and cutting the engine, Joel started up the walkway to Hope’s house. He’d met the whole family before. They were constant fixtures at the football games—mom, dad, little sister—they were nice, friendly, a typical, supportive clan. He could charm them, nothing to be afraid of, they couldn’t be too hard on him. Joel took a deep breath and looked at the autumn sky. The night was clear, the stars bright.He made note of that for later, figuring that girls like that type of thing: Wow, what a beautiful night. The stars are so… um, star-like. Well, maybe poetry wasn’t his bag. He took another deep breath, saying, “Star-light, star-bright, how about a little luck tonight.” He generally wasn’t this nervous when picking up a date, but this was Hope Ferretti—his ultimate crush since the first grade. And, despite his meteoric rise in popularity in recent years, he’s never quite developed the confidence to ask Hope out. Not to mention, she always had a suitor, and generally an upperclassman at that. But now, with the stars aligned in his favor—Hope’s last boyfriend leaving for college—Joel seized his opportunity.
He rang the doorbell, rehearsing in his mind what he’d say to her parents as they sized up his worth and intentions. But he paused his rehearsing to ask himself, What’re her parents’ names again? Mary and… You’re supposed to call them Mr. and Mrs. Ferretti, you idiot…
Joel froze. Hope’s father died, her mother remarried some other guy. That was her stepfather at those football games—a guy whose name Joel never bothered to learn. They’re now known as: Mr. and Mrs.… I don’t have a clue.
The door opened, and Joel jumped as if someone snuck up behind him.
A small, childish reflection of Hope—with scrawny arms and legs, messy hair, and faint freckles around her nose—stood in the doorway.
And that would be their daughter, Little-I-don’t-have-a-clue.
Joel almost asked the girl, Hey, kid, what’s your stepfather’s last name? But instead, he mustered his famous, charming smile. “Hi,” he said to the girl, “is…”
Before he could finish, the girl turned her head and trumpeted into the house, “Ho-ope, your boyfriend’s here.”
The prickly heat of a flush spilled across his cheeks and neck as Hope’s mother appeared in the doorway. “Hi Joel,” she greeted in her best, sitcom-mom voice.
“Hi…” Joel caught himself before saying: “Mrs.”—Mrs. I-haven’t-got-a-clue—but he realized, by Hope’s mother’s expectant look, that he cut the sentence too abruptly, so he added, “How are you?”
Hope’s sister twisted past her mother and disappeared into the house as Mrs. I-haven’t-a-clue opened the screen door, saying, “I’m fine thanks come on in and you?” She combined this all into one, quick sentence, almost catching Joel off guard with her camouflaged question.
“Oh, uh, I’m fine, thanks,” he said.
Hope’s mother led him into the den, stranding him with Hope’s stepfather, the stepfather sitting on the couch, watching baseball.
Hope’s stepfather sized up Joel with his protective, paternal glare: Where ya goin? When will you be back? No drugs. No alcohol. You lay a hand on her and you lose em, got it? all conveyed in a fraction of a second, just a brief glance from the television, but the implications were louder than if the guy had voiced them. He may not be Hope’s biological father, but he certainly had the instincts down. “How ya doin, Joel?” the stepfather said in a suspicious tone, as if Joel had called him off the street to sell him a watch.
“I’m fine… sir.” Joel said.
On the television, Jerry Remy and Don Orsillo announced the Red Sox game. A batter stood at the plate, a baseball dropping below his swing.
“Looked like that pitch fell off a table,” Jerry Remy said on the television.
“Nice pitch,” Joel offered.
“Mmm,” Hope’s stepfather said.
Joel imagined Jerry Remy commenting: Fitch’s attempt at charming ole step-dad was definitely a strike. But Joel had faith in sports—the great male equalizer—this nameless guy would come around with the chance to discuss players and scores. Remy’s voice spoke up in Joel’s head again, saying, Let’s see if the young Fitch can get out of this hole.
“Maybe the Sox will do it again this year,” Joel said.
Strike two, announced Remy. Kid’s down 0-2, can he climb out of this hole?
Joel and Hope’s stepfather watched the game in silence, Joel standing with his hands in his letter-jacket pockets, Hope’s stepfather not offering him a seat. Joel glanced around the room, studying the different knick-knacks in the bookshelf and the pattern on the rug. Joel made a final bid, saying, “Patriots started out strong.”
“Yeah, they did,” the guy said, regarding Joel with new appreciation.
Line drive, up the right field line, Remy called.
“The Pats’ defense is killer,” Joel said, his gestures more animated.
“It’s incredible,” the man on the couch said with more animation on his own part.
See? Sports and fathers: a winning combination, said Jerry Remy.
This concept could come in handy during the all-important parental interrogation:
So, where are you two going tonight?
Patriots got a lot of offensive weapons, huh?
When will you be back?
Gee, Mrs. Used-to-be-Ferretti, what a great color scheme in this kitchen. This use of redirection could be implemented with mothers as well—in theory anyway.
Hope’s mother appeared in the den’s doorway. “So, Joel,” she said, “where are you two going tonight?”
Hope’s stepfather directed another suspicious stare at Joel.
Duh, think the Pats are goin to the Super Bowl this year? No, wait, what great wallpaper you have in this room.
You’re screwed, kid, announced Remy.
“Well, I don’t know exactly where we’re going,” Joel began in a voice as overwrought with charm as his smile. “I was thinking of maybe Put-n’-Fun. It’s such a nice night, and miniature golf could…” The overwrought charm slipped from his voice as he heard someone bounding down the stairs. “…Could be um…” Hope popped out of the hallway and into the kitchen. “…Could be, uh… fun…”
Fun-fun-fun, til step-daddy takes Hope away.
“Hi, Joel,” Hope said. She wore a short, colorful sundress, layered with a vintage denim jacket, her dark hair pulled back in a long ponytail.
“Hey, uh, hi,” Joel said. “Um, you look nice.”
“So, you want to go?” Joel blurted in a voice a little higher than his usual octave.
“Sure.” Hope grinned her wide, sensually-sweet smile, bringing a stirring from below Joel’s waist. Hope took his hand and led him toward the front door.
Hope’s mother stopped them. “You have your house key?” her mother said.
Joel edged toward the door as dating ground rules were shot at Hope as if she was before a firing squad: “Be back by midnight. Don’t be late.” Would you like a blindfold and cigarette? “If there is a problem, call us.”
Hope answered every shot with a, “Yes. I know. Okay. Fine.”
And for God’s sake, wear a condom, a sarcastic voice rose in Joel’s thoughts, causing him to chuckle to himself. At that exact moment, of that very thought, Hope’s mother gave Joel a stern, hard stare, as if she read his mind like a character in a horror novel. Joel jumped a little. “And you, Joel,” Hope’s mother said, “drive safely. And no drinking and driving.”
“Sure thing,” Joel reassured her with his wide, cool smile and a casual shake of his head. “No problem, Mi… ma’am.”
Hope grabbed Joel’s arm. “Okay, Mom, we get the picture. Bye, Ron,” she called.
Ron. We have a first name.
“Bye,” Ron called.
“C’mon.” Hope pulled Joel through the front door.
Outside, Joel looked up at the house. Hope’s little sister watched from an upstairs window. Joel waved, and the little girl disappeared giggling. As he and Hope walked down the walkway to the street, he felt the relief of a defendant leaving a courtroom after beating a rap. Maybe there should be reporters out front, flashing cameras and waving microphones: Mr. Fitch. Mr. Fitch. How do you feel you handled the parents’ examination?
Good, he’d smile, very good.
Do you think they believed your testimony?
Oh yes, he’d answer, Why wouldn’t they?
Are you going to try any funny business with Hope Ferretti tonight?
No more questions, Joel’s lawyer would say, breaking in and pushing aside reporters.
Hope and Joel reached the car. Joel rushed ahead, opening the T-Bird’s passenger door, gesturing for her to have a seat. He almost said something like: Me lady, or, Your carriage awaits, but that would have been lame. He did think the door-opening was a nice touch, however, and when he shut the door, walking around the car to his side, he grinned. He ducked into the car, turning to look at Hope. The streetlights reflected in her dark eyes like burning embers. “Ready?” he said, his voice a little higher than usual again.
“Yep,” she smiled.
He fumbled the key into the ignition and, when the engine sprang to life, they drove off into the night. Fun-fun-fun.
Continued in: Earworm: Part 15 — Awesome