A Hard Place to Keep Dark Secrets

I pulled my ’67 Camaro into the parking spot closest to the street in front of the Dippy Whip.

“I got it,” she said.

“Are you sure?”

She shoots me back her don’t-be-an-idiot look and walks up to the window to order our milkshakes. She pays and tosses some change in the tip cup, unzips her leather jacket, turns her face toward the sun, and lies back against the white block building to soak in some rays. Her pale skin and pouty lips, sans makeup, glisten in the sunlight as her well-worn tank top struggles to cover her petite midsection. I lean my head out the car window.

“You’re killin me.”

She pretends not to hear me. When the order is up she turns toward the window with her back to me. She always told me she could care less that I love to watch her every move. She grabs the order and, somehow, manages to wiggle her butt a bit before she turns and walks back to the car.

Toni was, by far, the coolest girl I ever dated in high school. It was the summer of ’79 before I was to leave for college at the University of Kentucky. I was just some average guy but Toni had this way about her that just oozed confidence. We wore basically the same clothes: jeans, tank top, boots and black leather jackets. It would be easy to mistake her for one of the guys except for her long flowing dark hair, long legs and slender body. She could care less that everyone just gawked at her when she was out somewhere.

She came back and opened the passenger door holding two milkshakes in one hand and straws between her teeth. Normally, a guy on a date in the South would come around and open the door for such a lady but you didn’t dare do that for Toni. Chivalry was not part of her vocabulary. She handed me my milkshake and straw.

“I saw that.”

“Saw what?”

“Your little I-know-you’re-lookin-at-me dance.”

“Let’s hit the lake and listen to some music,” she said, “This place is boring.”

Toni was a loner. She was transferred to our high school her senior year from a school in Chicago. She hadn’t bothered with making any friends.

I never even asked her out on a date. I had seen her around but I guess I was too sacred. She didn’t have a car and I spotted her walking home the last day of our senior school year. I took a chance that day and stopped to ask her if she needed a ride somewhere. She just jumped in my passenger seat. We both just sort of listened to the radio as I drove her home, which turned out to be about six miles off the main county road out in the country. She didn’t say much during the short trip. As we rounded a curve in the road and she pointed to an old rundown farmhouse up ahead and said, “That’s me up there.” I pulled about halfway up her driveway and she opened the door before I came to a stop. A man appeared in the kitchen window of the farmhouse. She got out of the car, closed the door and leaned back inside.

“Wanna do somethin Friday?”

“Yea…sure…what time…should I call you?”

“We don’t have a phone.”

She turned and walked the rest of the way up the driveway. That was it. That’s how we started hanging out together—or dating—or whatever it was we were doing. We never talked about it.

Grayson Lake was her favorite place to go on the weekends. As a matter of fact, it was the only place we ever went on the weekends. We had a special spot picked out way up on top of a ridge that overlooked the main part of the lake. The view was stunning. We would sit in my car and listen to music for hours and watch the golden sun set over the dam. That was her favorite part. There was no holding hands or cuddling with Toni. I think she looked at that as a sign of weakness. Sometimes she would turn off the radio and just want to talk. Not the sort of light-hearted high school small-talk I was used to. She would ask big questions: “What do you think happens when you die? Do you love your parents? Why do you think we’re here on earth? Do think there is a God? Do you think about dying? Do you ever think about killing yourself?”

She never answered any of these questions herself. If I ever asked her what she thought she would just get quiet and turn her head and stare out the window. I didn’t have much in the way of answers either. I think she just enjoyed watching me try to bullshit my way through some high school philosophical thought process. She would stare intensely at me while I was talking like she was waiting for some big revelation—which never came. The only one I could squeeze out with any conviction was “Yes, I love you.” She would jokingly accuse me of lying while she fumbled with the radio dial for several minutes—dancing around in the seat until she found a song she liked. Once she had the perfect song she would sink down low into the cloth bucket seat and take it all in. I would watch all this unfold until she would say something like, “This is a cool song.” After a few minutes, Toni would say, “Shut-up and get in the back seat; let’s have some fun.” She would immediately whip off her jeans and tank top and toss them up on the front dash of the Camaro.

Toni never talked much during the rides back from the ridge. She would usually pull her knees up against her chest and stare down at her unpainted toenails or gaze out the window into the darkness. Sometimes I noticed a tear or two rolling down her cheek. I wouldn’t dare mention the tears but would always ask her if she was ok. She would sort of nod and turn to look back out the window.

When I dropped her off at her house for the evening she would grab her boots and socks out of the floorboard and walk up the driveway barefooted. Her stepfather was always staring out the kitchen window every time I brought her home. He never looked at her and she never looked at him as she walked past the kitchen window to the side door of the house. He would just stare at me until I drove off. I never meet her mother or her stepfather; she never mentioned them in conversation. The only reason I knew her relation to the man in the kitchen window is because I asked her one day after I picked her up. She just said “stepfather” and that was the end of it.

The Dippy Whip was where all the cool kids hung out. I could only drag Toni there by threatening her with buying her chocolate shake. Her condition was she had to place the order.  She never once asked me if I wanted one much less what flavor I liked. She always came back with two chocolate shakes and handed me one. I never asked any questions. That afternoon was no different except the leaves on the trees were beginning to turn because it was getting late in the summer; really close to the time I should be leaving for college.

“Are we going to the lake or what?”

“Yes—we’re going—hold your horses. I wanna finish my shake.”

Toni really hated sitting in my car at Dippy Whip. It was beneath her to want to “fit in” with the crowd or even give an appearance that could be misconstrued as trying.

“Hurry up—we’re gonna miss the sunset.”

I backed the Camaro out of the Dippy Whip parking spot and started driving on Route 60 East toward the lake. It was such a pat routine. I never even thought about the fact we had been doing this every weekend all summer long. Toni was sitting across from me with her back to the car door and her dirty boots sitting in my lap while she sipped on her chocolate milkshake. Toni’s long dark hair was getting blown around wildly from the open windows in the car as we drove up closer to the lake. I glanced at her again as she pulled her hair away from her face and, for the first time ever, saw her smile just a little bit. I turned off the main road and up the gravelled back road up to our parking spot. The sun was already heading over the dam as I pulled up to the edge of the ridge. I put on the emergency brake, leaned back and folded my hands behind my head.

“Do you love me?”

She never asked me this in a needy or mushy way. Just matter-of-factly—like she was a nurse writing it down on a medical chart at the doctor’s office.

“You know I don’t—I just put up with you so I can have someone to hang out with.”

She kicked me on the leg with the heel of her boot and tried not to smile again, but it crept through just a little bit as she pretended to fuss with the front zipper on her jacket. We sat there and quietly watched the sun go down. That evening we listened to the radio much longer than usual. After a long while she reach down and turned off the radio. She pulled off her boots and socks and pulled her knees up around her chest—the way she usually does when she rides home. Her arms were wrapped around her shins as she rested the side of her face on her knees—looking over at me with those big, beautiful, sad eyes.

“You’re leavin next week, aren’t you?”

I sat there frozen in time. It suddenly hit me that this summer was quickly coming to an end.

“I guess I am—I’ll be back in about…well… a month or so.”

We sat there for quite a while longer with the windows down just listening to the sounds of the wild out there in the darkness. When she finally broke the silence, the sadness had disappeared from her eyes. Her voice took on a much more serious tone.

“Can I tell you a secret?


“No, seriously—can I trust you?”

“Sure you can Toni. What is it?”

“You have to swear to God you’ll never tell nobody if I tell you.”

“I swear.”

“I’ll kill you.”

“No—I get it.”

She looked down at her unpainted toenails. After a few moments tears began to flow down her cheeks. It’s the first time I ever saw her cry. She looked back out her window into the night for several minutes. She slowly focused her stare back down towards her toes.

“My stepfather…”

That’s as far as she got. She just kept crying. I didn’t know what to say or do. I awkwardly pulled her in close to me and slid my arm around her shoulder. Her tough-girl persona disappeared for just a little while as I held her head against my chest and her trembling hands in mine. We sat like that for almost an hour. When she finally regained her composure she pulled away and put her arms back around her knees. We sat there for a while longer as the chill of an early fall breeze blew across quietly across the ridge.

Those were the last two words I ever heard her speak. We drove home that evening in silence. No more tears—no more smiles. I didn’t know what to say. I was too young. I didn’t understand. They were just two words to me, but to her—a dark secret. It was still her secret.  The words “my stepfather” don’t carry any weight when they’re said to an eighteen-year-old boy who has yet to experience the real world. When you’re young you always think there will be another tomorrow—another chance to say or do the right thing.

I drove by her house a couple of days later to check on her and say good-by. I wanted to tell her I’d be back to see her in a couple of weeks. As I pulled up in the driveway I noticed the place looked more abandoned than usual.

I got out of my car and walked up to the side door that was standing wide open. I tapped on the aluminum screen door that was only hanging by one hinge as my “hello” went unanswered. I stepped inside. The whole house was practically empty except for an old couch, some worn out furniture and several empty vodka bottles strewn around the bedroom floor. As I walked into the kitchen I noticed several holes punched in the walls—the kind of holes that are usually made with a large fist. There were chunks of blood-splattered sheet rock scattered everywhere.

I stood there for a while just looking out the kitchen window—the very place where her stepfather used to stand—where she used to walk barefoot up the drive to a place she once called home.