Penny and I met in 1974 during our freshman year at college. We were both in the same program and our schedules were nearly identical. We met in August and by October it was a “ring thing.” This story starts well after the giddy stage of new love. In fact, it was the following summer because I remember laying in the warm tall uncut grass on the shoulder of River Road.
I was living in an apartment, going to college, and working three jobs to pay for it all. A free evening was a special event and they were far and few between. Most evenings I worked as an hourly employee at Krogers. It was a union job and I was the low man on the totem pole. Whenever the store slowed down, they were quick to release an employee early. Being the new guy, I was always released first.
This was one of those nights. I was released while it was still sunny out around eight o’clock. The sun doesn’t set in July in Michigan until ten o’clock. I drove to my apartment and called Penny. We decided to see whatever “B” movie was playing at the drive-in or at the Playhouse Theatre in Marysville. I was changing out of my uniform and into normal clothes when David, one of my best friends, stopped by because he saw my car in the driveway. Like I said, Penny and I were well past the giddy stage of our relationship, so I asked David to join us at the movies. I knew Penny wouldn’t mind. She invited her friend, Lela, along on our dates all the time. Anyway, David had just recently broke up with his girlfriend and he was feeling kind of down. A movie, some popcorn and a few laughs with good friends was just what he needed. He jumped in my big-honking four-door power-everything 1969 Chrysler 300 with bench seats as big as any sofa you’d find in a living room.
Penny lived seven miles away in Marine City. That gave David way too much time. He came up with a plan—a devious plan. David proposed that he hide on the floor of the back seat and cover himself with the blanket. I listened to the rest of his plan. It was brilliant.
When I pulled into Penny’s driveway, David was already hiding under the blanket. I ran up to her house and knocked. Penny came out and we both jumped in my door. My car had bench seats so Penny sat in the middle next to me. We drove through downtown Marine City and headed towards Marysville. Once we were out of town, I put my arm around Penny’s shoulder and she snuggled in to me. This was how we usually drove so it wasn’t out of the ordinary.
Except, this time I didn’t put my arm on Penny’s shoulder—I put my arm behind my seat and tapped David. This was his cue to put his right hand on Penny’s shoulder, which he did. Get it? My hand was dangling behind my seat and David’s hand was on Penny’s shoulder. After driving a few miles down River Road, I pulled my hand back and drove with two hands on the steering wheel. The tumblers didn’t immediately click into place for Penny. We drove another mile before she stared at my hands on the steering wheel. I saw it coming. She turned to look at the hand on her right shoulder, snapped her head to look at both of my hands on the steering wheel, did the math, and literally tried to jump out of my moving car—screaming at the top of her lungs.
Her scream wasn’t like the screams you hear on a roller coaster. This was an unmistakeable scream of sheer terror. I’m not kidding when I said she tried to jump out of my car. She launched herself straight into the dashboard and cut her forehead on my rearview mirror. She ended up on the floor of the front seat still screaming uncontrollably at the threshold of her vocal chords. I pulled the car over and stopped on the shoulder of River Road. Penny bolted out of the car before I had fully stopped. David fell out of the back door and rolled around in the tall grass laughing so hard he couldn’t stand up. I got out, laughing too. (Big mistake.) I doubled over on the hood of my car because I couldn’t stand up either. I tried to walk to Penny, to console her, but I doubled over and fell down in the warm tall uncut grass. Penny screamed and yelled at us, but that just made David and I laugh even harder. (Even bigger mistake.)
Penny was livid. Enraged. Infuriated. I expected her to continue to rant and rave, but she started walking—no, more like marching—back to Marine City in silence.
Regaining my composure, and my balance, I got back in my car and drove in reverse on the shoulder to catch up with her. I pleaded for her to get in the car. I begged for her forgiveness. Even David apologized. Nothing. No response. This woman was really ticked off. I made an offer.
“It’s over three miles back to your house and it’ll be dark soon. Just get in and I’ll take you home. You don’t even have to talk to me,” I said.
She got in—and, she didn’t talk to me either.
I pulled in her driveway and she got out and slammed my car door as hard as she could. I’m surprised the window didn’t break. She stormed into her parent’s house and slammed every door she came in contact with. Her father, Bruce, was in my face immediately—and he was mad. We had only been gone ten minutes and I had definitely done something to his daughter—that much was clear. Protective Papa Bear wanted answers. I held up my hands like I was surrendering or as a defensive position in case he decided to strike me—not sure which.
“I know it looks bad, but just listen to me. This is what really happened,”I said.
I explained that David—I pointed to David—and I had just pulled a very mean trick on Penny. He looked at David in the front seat of my car. David sheepishly waved at Penny’s dad. Bruce listened intently and processed the whole story. He grinned. He even chuckled; a little too hard it seems, because Penny heard him from her upstairs window.
“It’s NOT funny!” she yelled.
Her dad was pretty cool. He patted me on the back and walked me to my car with a smirk.
“You better go. I’ll make sure she’s alright,” he said.
Dave and I cruised back and forth through Port Huron that night and relived the moment several times—laughing just as hard each time we retold the story. I apologized countless times before Penny and I went on another date. Cards. Flowers. Chocolate. The works. She finally forgave me—or so she said.
We dated for three more years, but I’d be willing to bet “the hand” played a small part in our final break up. I’d also be willing to bet she still checks the back seat of every car she gets in to to this day.