David Salner: “What You Can’t Change, 1961”

He’d thought of asking Judith-Ann to this year’s Christmas dance and was about to when she’d asked him, which was better since it was a senior-class dance and Gerald was just a junior.

They hadn’t known each other long—a nodding acquaintance, then brief discussions leading to prolonged eye contact, flickers of vulnerability, longer discussions. They were the same height, which meant her face was closeup when they talked. Her black hair, cut in a pixie, set off the lively brown eyes. Who knows how these things happen or what kind of mystery and understanding reside in shared glances?

Judith-Ann stood straight. She didn’t round her shoulders like some of the other tall girls. She had a professional appearance and every movement was that of a girl who maintained control.

They were both in student government and yearbook and liked to read. Not always the same books, but the liking was enough, for it set them apart from other students and—it seemed to them, anyway—everyone else in Arcadia Township.

You don’t have to pick me up. My mom can give me a ride if you can give me a ride home. Is that okay?” She lived right in town, on the North Street hill overlooking the school. He lived ten miles away. But no, he’d gotten permission to take the family car and pick her up. It was a two-tone green Rambler station wagon. His mother had only just begun to let him drive it alone, never before at night.

On the day of the dance she’d started fretting. “It’s going to snow, and you’ve never driven in snow.”

I know to be careful, and I won’t take Lake Road.” It was a shortcut on a steep curvy hill, though not actually on a lake. “The Lincoln Highway should be fine no matter how much it snows.”

But what if you slide off the road or get stuck by the quarry?”

You have to let me go, Mom. I have a date!” At the word date his mother looked surprised, like he’d just struck her, although this was something she’d known about because he’d already told her and she’d seen the corsage. He’d been embarrassed when she’d pumped him for information about Judith-Ann.

I don’t know, Mom, she’s a girl in student government.” Boys don’t like to talk about some things, for reasons unknown, unknown even to themselves. It would never have occurred to him to find fault with his mother, but sometimes she just wouldn’t let a thing go.

Be home by ten, the roads will freeze up after that.” Then she stared through the window, eyes following the green car as it drove down the lane, turned on the blacktop road, and disappeared from view.

Judith-Ann’s directions had been good. He’d made the steady climb up the North Street hill without incident. The houses, all small, seemed carved into the side of the hill. Her address was on a small reflective sign pressed into the lawn right where it slanted up from the road. He gauged the turn into the grade of the driveway, stopped by the house and set the emergency brake. He didn’t know what had happened to Judith-Ann’s father, only that she and her mother lived alone in this modest house a few blocks from downtown, the river, and the papermill. All papermill towns and for miles around are enveloped in the same identical smell. Their modest home shared it with the sprawling split-levels across the river where the executives lived.

He’d brought Judith-Ann a mixed-flower corsage, pink carnations with a single rose. He’d gone to the flower shop the day before and kept it overnight in the refrigerator.

It’s absolutely lovely,” her mother proclaimed as he presented it to Judith-Ann. A nice-looking woman, she was not quite as tall and with a hint of gray but otherwise an older version of Judith-Ann. Her mother picked up the corsage and placed it on the well-polished dresser in the front hall where they could all admire it. The white and pink petals dazzled against the hardwood’s deep brown.

Sit for just a moment, I won’t keep you long,” her mother said, gesturing toward a small, formal sitting room. He sat on a plush sofa facing a coffee table with figurines of a nativity scene. Judith-Ann sat next to him and her mother faced them on a formal-looking chair that she didn’t seem to find uncomfortable. An artificial Christmas tree stood in a corner.

I bet your mother helped you pick it out,” she smiled. Gerald’s face turned red, and Judith-Ann caught his eye and winced to show that she also was embarrassed by this comment.

Despite this, Gerald decided that he liked her mother, because she didn’t probe into his family situation and was true to her word and didn’t keep them long. After a few minutes of small talk, they headed outside, where the cold hit them hard. Not snow or sleet yet but with the damp feel of a winter storm on the way. They ran the few steps from house to car. Judith-Ann wasn’t wearing high heels, at least not very high. She had on a winter coat but her long legs were exposed from just above the knee, and he—although he’d brought an overcoat with him, his mother had made sure of that—was in his sports jacket, a sharp blazer he wore over tab collar and very narrow tie. He’d left the overcoat and gloves on the back seat. She smiled when he opened the car door for her, then slid across the green vinyl. The whites of her eyes flashed up from the shadows of the interior as he walked around the car and got in and felt her hip and shoulder through the stiff fabric of her coat. He put the car in reverse and backed out of the driveway, only a dozen yards but down a steep grade and emptying right onto North Street.

He breathed a sigh of relief that no cars had been coming.

Well done,” she said.

Later he realized—and knew she had as well—that they’d left the corsage.

They had to run through the cold from their parking spot to the gym but he still didn’t wear his overcoat. Then the heavy door to the huge building blocked out the chill of the wind as it closed with a muffled sound. They caught their breath and tried to get oriented in the semi-darkness. The gym was unrecognizable, a huge room full of shadows and soft flickering light, nothing like the way it looked during basketball games, eye-popping brightness on twice-waxed floors. The cement block walls had been transformed under the soft pink and blue lighting. Paper cutouts of Santa and his sleigh were taped high on the walls along with lettering that read, “Welcome, Seniors and Guests.” Other couples were sitting closer to the dance floor, but they stayed near the back by the bleachers, which had been folded up and banked against the wall.

As he helped her off with her coat and placed it on a folding chair, a song came on as if timed for their arrival, Elvis singing Love Me Tender. “Let’s go,” she whispered, her lips brushing his ear, and they joined the sea of couples heading through semi-darkness to the dance floor.

He held her hand as they moved onto the floor he also played basketball on. He was one of the few juniors who’d made it on the varsity team, but he wasn’t a starter. He felt the warmth of her palm against his fingertips and the way the notch between thumb and forefinger, the warm fold of skin, fit his hand. This was the first time they’d touched except for the hallway at school when she’d tapped his arm to emphasize a point. He sensed a smile on her cheek when he pulled her close. His right hand explored her back, soft below the bra line.

As they moved tentatively together, Elvis intoned the words of the chorus in his rich baritone. It was the phrase “Never let me go” that stirred Gerald. Not just the strong voice, the clarity and passion echoing in the darkness of the huge room, but the way Elvis pleaded in a voice filled with devotion. He wasn’t proclaiming what he would never do but begging that she never, never let him go.

Elvis and the teenage boys in the audience—they knew the emotion, and it was strong, strong even after nearly five years on the charts. The response of teenage girls to this song, the squealing and swooning, was ridiculed by those who never stopped to think of the why behind teenage feelings. A sin of which adults were universally guilty. A case in point flashed through Gerald’s mind, his father insisting that the phrasing was trite, a result of the need to provide a shopworn rhyme for and I love you so. The Elvis craze was low-class, according to Dad, who was fond of repeating the story he’d read in Saturday Review that the famous voice was the result of echo chambers in a recording studio.

Gerald didn’t argue with his father, he never did, no matter how strongly he felt that Elvis had stood the test of time. Everyone stood in awe of his father, of his wide reading, of the authoritative way he delivered his opinions. Or had. Dad was now “recuperating.” The word recuperating was used by both his mother and a doctor friend of the family, who’d taken Gerald aside to explain that “right now, your father is depressed. Try to be a good friend to him.” Gerald wasn’t sure what this meant, not because he was stupid or didn’t want to try but because he didn’t know how to be his father’s friend. He was his son. For a long time, though, he’d review each passing day to grade himself on whether or not he’d been a “good friend” to his father.

Until his father went into an institution.

As Love Me Tender concluded, she squeezed his hand and led him toward the backrow chairs where she’d left her coat. He’d told John and Spike that he’d see them at the dance but decided not to go looking for them. They would have eyed Judith-Ann toe to head in her bright blue sheath. No doubt they’d have been impressed that he was dating such an attractive girl, and a senior. Or maybe they would have hidden a smirk because her mom was a secretary at the papermill where their fathers were in management. Plus, she was from a broken home. Star athletes like Spike and John were most often from the better, more stable homes. They had time to practice. They didn’t have to handle a paper route or a mop bucket after school—or worse yet, to clean up around a cowbarn like many of the boys in their school.

He wasn’t so close to Spike and John anymore. Maybe the fact that his family was going to move had put their friendship in the rearview. Boys never embraced or even touched except for horseplay or when they wrestled or pretended to fight. But on his last day at school they’d exchange an embrace. You needed to say goodbye to friends, to have friends to say goodbye to. But tonight he didn’t need to see them.

His status in school had eroded, eroding with his family’s. His father wasn’t just sick but had some kind of mental illness, and everyone knows that this runs in families. That’s what people were probably saying. So Gerald and Judith-Ann were both outsiders. Was that why their talk, even very ordinary gossip, felt deep and intimate?

Do you know that Miss Royer still lives with her brother,” she whispered. Miss Royer was the advisor to the yearbook staff. Judith-Ann was the editor and he was editor for both sports and junior-class. Student government wasn’t their only shared activity.

Maybe that’s why she’s mean.”

Does that excuse it?”

It doesn’t.”

I know something else about Miss Royer,” Judith-Ann added slyly. “She’s standing almost right next to us.” She dropped her voice to a whisper and pulled away from him. “She’s one of the chaperones.”

Then Miss Royer walked a few steps closer and leaned toward them. “How good to see my two favorite pupils—please be careful on the way home. I hear it might snow tonight.”

Then Miss Royer resumed walking down the aisle toward the dance floor, inspecting couples on her way. Gerald and Judith-Ann stopped laughing and he put his arm around her again. She had to slump down a little for this to happen and to burrow into his chest. He breathed the floral scent of her shampoo.

Then her head bobbed up. “I haven’t told you my news. I got into West Chester State. My mom is happy.” Gerald knew she’d get into West Chester and that it wasn’t exactly what she wanted but it was what her mother could afford. He congratulated her and made it the occasion for a kiss, brushing his lips over her cheek then finding her lips.

Everything about her suggested that she would take going away to college perfectly in stride. She seemed the kind of girl who could handle big changes. Was he that kind of boy? A lot had changed for him, and even bigger changes were on the way, like the move right after Christmas break.

When you move,” she asked—she was the only one in school who knew that his family was moving to Baltimore—“will your new school help you get into a better college?”

Things might be up in the air for a while.”

She seemed to know what he meant. At least as much as he did. Why worry about what you can’t change?

He couldn’t imagine not driving back to see her. During the summer, he hoped, when the roads were good, before she went off to West Chester. But would a college girl be interested in a boy who was still in high school? His world was entering a new orbit and everything was up in the air. A future drive from one unknown world to another.

They embraced under the rose and blue lights, his right arm across her shoulders and his left hand holding hers. Their hands, woven together, were sheltered in her lap. Maturity was just around the corner, especially for her, and maybe it would rescue them from being outsiders. Or maybe adulthood was just another stage along the same path which they’d been plying with such diligence. But for now, they had this intimacy, two young people, shaped by separateness from others, his hand sheltered in her lap.

The activities that had first brought them together, yearbook and student government, were for the earnest, hardworking students not the truly popular kids, the cutups, the daring and precocious individuals who disdained academics because they had more exciting alternatives. But exciting, for them, was anything the other raised for discussion—a discussion they might start in the student government room and prolong as they entered a crowded hallway.

Do you worry about the arms race, Gerald?”

I know. One man in Washington or in Russia has his finger on the button.”

One bad decision and the whole east coast gets blown up.”

The whole world, blown to smithereens. It’s like the Twilight Zone I just watched,” Gerald began. His family had a black and white TV, which was fine since Twilight Zone wasn’t in color. “You hear the voice of the man sending messages up from earth when he says, ‘the next message you hear will be filled with silence … or a scream.’”

If only nations would listen to Albert Schweitzer. I read in Newsweek that he told statesmen to stop using belligerent language and start to reason with each other.”

Yes, but will they?” Gerald asked, and both of them shook their heads and smiled sadly, knowingly. They worried about the end of the world, but it wasn’t so pressing as their worry that this discussion would lead soon, would have to lead, to their separation in a crowded hallway, a hurried walk to separate classes.

* * *

It was a driving sleet, freezing on impact, worse than the snow he’d feared, and the Rambler was no friend of winter driving. When he looked up, he saw—across the lot and the football field—jets of windblown ice shimmering in the darkness, almost obscuring the goal posts. They ran through the parking lot, sliding on patches, holding hands the whole way, squinting to keep icy flakes from their eyes. The green paint of the Rambler was shiny but the windshield was still clear so the sleet must have just started while they were enjoying a last dance inside.

He turned the key in the ignition. They sat there as the car began to warm, shivering and laughing, their lips finding each other. It was almost ten o’clock and the roads were already icing up. But they held each other tight, shivered into each other. He’d never felt a girl shaking in his arms like that. He marveled at it, that they were so close he could feel what she was feeling.

You’re so cold,” she said, which was the same thought he’d had of her. She blew on his hands and raised them to her lips.

I’m ok,” he laughed. Her eyes filled with concern but he held her gaze. Then their lips met again as she lowered his hand to her lap.

We have to go,” she said, as if suddenly waking up.

When they got to her house she held his face in her hands and kissed him again, for a long time. But when he tried to get up and walk around to open the door on her side, “No,” she said, “the roads are getting bad, you have to go.” Her hands pressed him down with surprising strength, pinning him to the icy vinyl. Then she slid away from him and opened the door into the sleet and wind. She paused for a moment as she walked around the car. She smiled at him through the windshield, her eyes flashing through the sleet and darkness.


David Salner‘s novel, A Place to Hide, won first place for historical fiction from Next Generation Indie Book Awards. His poetry appears in Threepenny Review, Iowa Review, and Ploughshares. Broadstone Books published his fourth poetry collection, The Stillness of Certain Valleys and his fifth, Summer Words: New and Selected Poems in 2023. The latter is reviewed by Brian Heston in this issue.