Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The Carolinian

The Carolinian was scheduled to depart New York's Penn Station at 7:05 AM. Neil had paid $151 plus $43 for a business seat upgrade. He was going to Charlotte to live and start a new job. Lanky at 6-5, he needs to extend himself. Having just graduated from Babson College in Wellesley, MA, a mortgage trainee position awaits him at Bank of America. The rail ride was scheduled for 13 hours and 9 minutes. Neil Penrod could have driven US 81 via Google maps in 10 hours and 39 minutes. If he had a car, he could have saved time, but he didn't even have a license to drive.

Leigh Warren and Neil hooked up two summers ago when they were kicking around Newburyport, Massachusetts. Leigh's Gramp, Henry Warren, was a New England blueblood. The Warren's drew roots from the Mayflower. They were direct descendants of passenger Richard Warren. When Richard died in 1628 in Plymouth, he left a widow, Elizabeth, and seven children. Elizabeth outlived Richard by 45 years, passing when she was 90. At the time of her death, Elizabeth had seventy-five grandchildren. Elizabeth's kids bred like rabbits. Indeed. There must be something in that name.

In the summer of '08, Leigh Carroway Warren had been sent up from North Carolina to spend the summer with Gramps Henry. He was getting on in years and granddaughter Leigh drew the short straw. The old ramshackle family house on Warren Street (coincidence) was going to be sold on September 1st. Henry Warren, who claimed he was being sent to die at the Veteran's Home down on Peabody Street, needed some help. The third of his three strokes left him too weak on the left side to drive or to cut the grass or to do much else. Despite the fact that Henry had a full time caretaker, Amos Wright, Paul Warren wanted his daughter to be in Newburyport. It was Paul, who arranged Leigh's tour of duty. Leigh was 19 on August 2nd, 2008. Hey 19, a sweet age.

Neil Penrod was not a blueblood, although if you heard his name you could be fooled. It would be as hard to pigeonhole Neil as it would be to label Barack Obama. Like the President's mother, Neil's mother, Molly Hister, was as white as a bleached sheet. And like Mr. Obama, Neil's dad was a black man from Africa. Jamaal Penrod, by the way, could make a saxaphone talk. So are Barack and Neil white or black or maroon or ochre or magenta? Can you really categorize people by colors? Whenever people asked Neil stupid questions he would say "male" or "American". Neil, in the summer of 2008, was waiting tables at David's Tavern on Brown Square in Newburyport, Massachusetts. His roommate, Jeff Stanley, at Babson College got him the summer job. On August 2nd, 2008 Neil was 20 years and 2 months old.

The Yankee Festival, the 51st celebrated in Newburyport, was held from July 27th through August 3rd. The fireworks display at Cashman Park was perhaps the cherry on the hot fudge sundae of a week. A good sized crowd of celebrants crammed the small Merrimac River park that night. Leigh Warren walked down to watch. Henry had had a bad day and Amos put him to bed before it was even dark enough to turn the bedroom lights on. Up to this point in the summer, Leigh had sold some furniture and other stuff in three yard sales and she filled out so many forms that her left hand hurt. Henry was dwindling and he took on the look of a man waiting for that one phone call which would put him on his knees.

In truth, fireworks are, well, overrated. Boom, boom followed red and yellow and blue and green and white flashes. Light travels faster than sound so that's why you see the explosion before you hear it. The festivities had begun with some preliminary blasts. Leigh was swigging a 12 ounce bottle of Piels beer, as she stood struggling to see the summer sky. She had copped four beers out of Gramp's basement fridge. Besides the one she was downing, she carried three more in her backpack. Henry had stowed a couple of cases in the old Frigidaire and since he was no longer drinking, well, why waste 'em. Some too big mountain yeti with boulder shoulders and a near shaved head obstructed her view. He had sweet buns and at 5-1, Leigh was more or less in line with them. The people around her gave her no room to move, so she had little choice but to barter. Tapping Neil in the small of his back, she said, "Hey Stretch, I'll trade you a Piels, if I can get in front of you." And so it started.

When eye lock happens, chemicals must go nuts in the brain. Not eye contact, eye lock. Two people get into eye lock by happenstance or luck or chance. You can't control it, buy it or sell it. Scientists have studied human attraction and it just can't be entirely defined. If ever you have been lucky enough to experience it, you never forget it. As Neil responded to the back tap, he turned and there he saw the most precious thing he had ever seen before. Toussled dirty blond hair with green brown eyes, a cute, upturned nose and full lips, Leigh could make a man squeeze. Neil, well, Neil had Leigh before he turned around. When he smiled all of heaven showered down on the North Carolinian. He was a hunk.

August of 2008 for Leigh and Neil was a whirlwind of sun, Plum Island, sweet smells and skin. When you are in the zone, the zone of infatuation and love, skin is like a solar panel. It takes in energy and makes energy, all the while feeling like the best thing you ever touched. Labor day weekend was the worst. Separation for the inseparable couple can only be explained by a person, who has had his appendix removed without anesthesia. He was headed back to Babson for junior year and she was going back to North Carolina to start her college career as a Tar Heel.

And so it went. Love overpowers all. You couldn't even begin to count the texts, emails, iChats and smoke signals they shared. They spent every break together, Neil in North Carolina or Leigh in Massachusetts or a meeting somewhere in between. It was as good as it gets, plain and simple.

Niel's mother, Molly, lives in Oklahoma. She followed a trucker out there after he brought her to the promised land three times in one night, eight years ago. She has never met Leigh. Jamaal Penrod, went back to Ghana, a month or two after Neil was born. He was illegal and Molly refused to marry him. Neil rarely saw Molly and he has never met his Dad. Sad, really.

The Warren's, Paul and Constance, like Neil as much as possible. He was a great fellow, but... They didn't outwardly object to Leigh's selection, but they hoped she would come to her senses. She was a Warren, after all. Considering how they really feel, they do indeed behave like gentle people. Leigh has just finished her sophomore year and she is planning to spend as much time with Neil as possible. With Neil's Bank of America position in Charlotte, things are looking better. Chapel Hill is about 2 hours away from Charlotte by car. And Leigh has a Miata.

"All Aboard". The Carolinian was departing on time. By the time the train was passing through Baltimore, the Warrens - Paul, Constance and Leigh - were brunching. It was a warm early June Sunday morning and it was going to be summer hot. Leigh, who would never overtly disagree with her parents, cried as she learned that she was going to spend her junior year abroad. Abroad meant Paris. Leigh understood the year outside the country would be great, but she would miss Neil. And she knew he had taken the job in Charlotte to be close to Chapel Hill. Although she didn't want to think it, some neuron, maybe in her temporal lobe, thought Paul and Constance had another motive.

His Apple iPhone4 sprang to life around DC. Neil thinks its odd for her to call, she usually texts. Through the clack, clack, clack of the steel wheels on steel rails, he said,


"Paris, umm."


"Uh, September. ohh."

"But, we can still spend the summer together, right?"

"It's Ok... Ok... good, good, no problem, I love you.

"Ok...OK, I'll meet you at the train station around 8:15."


Neil used the lower front end of his "Babson Athletics" tee shirt to dab the water from his eyes. He always had allergies and he deluded himself into thinking there must be a thick patch of pollen invading car 798. With his mind racing, with his gut aching, he becomes as resourceful as a caged cat. The iPhone is much more than a phone. With a few screen touches Neil comes up with an address:

51 Rue Francois 1er
750008 Paris, France

Yessiree, Bank of America has an office in Paris. And Paris is a city made for lovers. Rosetta Stone, French, Volumes 1,2 and 3 are EBay Buy It Now priced at $249. Touch, touch and touch. Done. And so it goes.

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