Tuesday, July 15, 2014
Love In A Million by BJ Neblett
Since the publication of my memoir Ice Cream Camelot, I am often asked what it feels like to revisit an imperfect past and lay the details bare for all to read. If there is one simple, all encompassing answer, it is that it’s tough, but cleansing. Facing our pain and fears; our mistakes and regrets, helps with the healing process. Some, however, never heal. August 21 and October 26 mark milestones for me; milestones and remembrances I sometimes wish I could forget; more of the inescapable irony that shadows my life. And yet, at other times, those same memories offer me comfort, solace; even strength.
Love In A Million is another chapter from my forthcoming follow up memoir A Change Is Gonna Come. It was arguably the toughest thing I have ever had to write. While I have changed some names and altered a few locations for obvious reasons, like Ice Cream Camelot this is my story. I used to believe in Soul Mates. Now, I’m not so sure; it seems there could be more than one perfect person for everyone. Or perhaps fate is just offering up a second chance? Those of you who know me will recognize the irony. And understand. Enjoy. And be sure to comment, like, link and share the love.
Love In A Million
© 2004, 2014
By 1982 I was riding high, maybe too high. The radio station had shifted its format slightly, now stressing more hits and less disco music. The change kept the ratings and my popularity elevated. Plus, with the Houston night club scene in full swing, I found myself doing club mixing two or three nights a week. Back in the ‘70’s in Philadelphia, at the old Magic Twanger Club and Dimples Disco, I had helped write the book on club beat mixing, what Time Magazine would later call Thumpus Uninteruptus. Houston in the ‘80’s was a party town and several top discos featured some of the country’s hottest spinners. The extra work cut into my partying, especially my fondness for strippers. I didn’t mind. I quickly discovered there was no shortage of alcohol or available women at the dance clubs I worked.
But Wonderland was different from the average disco; different in a way that made it popular and profitable. The owner, an older gentleman with a keen sense of the club business grew tired of dealing with changing fads and the trendy fickle crowds. His club catered to a more settled and affluent clientele. Wonderland was small and intimate; the dance floor adequate, the lighting simple and effective. The music was pop and disco centered with slow tunes and even some country played at modest levels, leaving conversation easy and encouraged. But what set Wonderland apart and ensured its success was that it catered to the thirty and over crowd; billing itself as a civilized dance club for couples. The twenty something’s of the 1970’s now married with careers and kids flocked to the unique adult atmosphere and business was booming. I enjoyed the slower and saner pace of the club. Amid the partying and drinking and womanizing, it helped me keep a proper perspective while maintaining a hold, albeit a loose one, on my life.
As the holidays approached, we hit upon a clever and novel promotion to boost the traditional Christmas slump in business. A fashion shop set up business in a corner of the club on Thursday and Friday nights. With the music paused, a company of lovely models took to the dance floor presenting a brief fashion show featuring lingerie, casual and evening wear. Throughout the night, the models circulated among the customers, giving them the opportunity to try on and purchase the outfits.
One evening the club rang with a merry and playful crowd fresh from shopping, office parties and other holiday activities. Finishing off a short dance set, I pulled down the music, brought up the spot lights, cued in some background music and relaxed with my gin and Seven Up. I didn’t see her at first. The six models assumed their positions on the dance floor.
Suddenly she was there, a daisy among sunflowers.
She was small, delicate and beautiful; incredibly beautiful.
Forsaking my drink I hopped off the stool for a closer look. I moved from the DJ booth to the bar. One by one each model circled the floor as Jen the show’s hostess described their outfits. “Next we have our newest model, please welcome Cindy.”
Cindy, her name was Cindy. Unconsciously I made my way through the crowd.
“Cindy is wearing a very pretty lacey power blue camisole with matching panties by Images,” Jen continued. “Her white net stockings can be worn with, or as seen here without the detachable garters. Cindy’s cover up is sheer nylon and available in assorted colors including this white with blue details. The white two inch sling back heels are also from Images.”
She gracefully glided across the floor, a silken skater on satin ice; each movement a whisper, each turn a dream. Pausing in front of me, she twirled like a music box dancer. If Monet created women Cindy would be the result.
My legs buckled.
My pulse raced.
My heart hammered in my chest.
I was instantly in love.
Cindy daintily turned and floated across the floor. Then, like a phantom in the night, she was gone. I stood there transfixed, oblivious to everything; unsure if I were dreaming, not wishing to waken.
Something was wrong.
The music had stopped; the dance floor was deserted. A hundred pairs of eyes found me. Slowly reality began to set in as laughter reached my ears. Shaking myself I looked around. I stood alone, one foot on the dance floor, an arm outstretched as if reaching.
The laughter grew.
My face pale white in the spotlight, I collected myself, retreating to the security of the DJ booth. I needed to get the music going. Grabbing the first record in sight I flung it on the turntable, dropped the tone arm and cranked the volume. The LP spun at 45 RPM and a chorus of chipmunks frantically extolled the fun of staying at the YMCA.
Regaining control of myself and the music, I settled back in my stool as the dance floor filled. Taking a long pull from my drink, I rolled the frosty tumbler across my forehead, cooling my sweaty brow. I tried to focus.
“Hey man, you alright?”
My friend Ram stood in the entrance to the DJ booth. I smiled at the young handsome Hispanic. “Yeah, yeah, Ram, I think so.”
Just twenty-four, Ram was one of the hot shot new generation of club DJ’s who grew up on disco. In just four years he carved a name and a career for himself. Ram was the number one DJ at Numbers the number one gay disco in Houston, if not the country. Any given night upwards of two-thousand young people, straight and gay jammed the warehouse size club for a chance to catch Ram’s magical mixes of disco, punk, metal and pop. I wrote the book on club mixing. Ram turned it inside out.
His brown eyes glistened in the throbbing disco lights. “Man, what was that out there? I thought you’d lost it for sure.”
“Didn’t you see her?” I replied, my eyes searching the crowd.
“Her, the model, Cindy… that girl…” My voice trailed off as her image flashed through my mind. “… that beautiful, incredible girl.”
Ram grinned, flashing a gold, star shaped front filling. “Not my style, man, remember?”
Sharing the laugh, I pulled the single-cup headphones over my left ear. Deftly slipping the 12” record on the right turntable with my middle finger, I matched its beats with the record now booming over the speakers from the left turntable. As I slowly ran up the mixing board’s right fader, the opening beats and whistles of Donna Summer’s Bad Girls melded perfectly with Cerrone’s Super Nature. Unable to resist an opportunity to show off, I tweaked the left turntable’s pitch control ever so gently, sending the competing songs slightly out of phase. The music took on a life of its own, swirling and soaring around the club like a taxiing jet. For added effect, I flipped a couple of buttons. Red, green, yellow and blue lights chased around the dance floor in perfect time to the roaring music. Finally I faded the left turntable and Ms. Summer took up her chant: Toot, toot/beep, beep
Carefully studying my hands and fingers as I manipulated the controls, Ram’s grim broadened. “Nice mix, for an old guy.”
In the competitive, cutthroat world of club DJ’s, the simple two word phrase, nice mix, was the ultimate accolade. I ignored the rest of the comment. Returning the spent record to its jacket I raised an eyebrow. “Think you can do better?”
Just then Cindy appeared, working her way from table to table, chatting with customers. “Okay, here’s your chance to prove it hot shot.” Before he could respond, I flipped Ram the headphones and dashed out of the booth.
Slowly crossing the club, I stopped by the waitress station and watched. Cindy handed a customer a gaily wrapped box, returning his charge card and receipt. The willowy model moved to another table, pausing to talk with two couples. I estimated that barefooted her forehead, hidden behind wispy bangs of daffodil yellow hair, would just reach my lips. Closing my eyes, I could almost feel the silky strands brush my face as my lips pressed against her smooth skin.
“If you break her heart, I’ll break your neck!”
Shaken from my fantasy, I turned to find Jen standing behind me. “What did you say?”
She gave me the same look I had seen her use on overzealous customers pawing one of her girls. It was a look that declared I mean business.
Jen owned the boutique and mobile fashion show. She served as hostess, fashion coordinator and commentator, as well as brooding mother hen to her flock of models. A former model herself, Jen still carried a stunning beauty and grace. We developed a friendship based on our mutually crazy life styles. She repeated her threat then winked. “If you break her heart I’ll break your neck, or worse!”
“You know me better than that,” I said, not entirely sure she was joking.
Jen smiled and kissed my cheek in greeting. “That’s the problem, I know you. You’re the Porn-rock guy.”
Shaking my head, trying to shake out the memory, I closed my eyes. “Am I ever gonna live that down?”
“No,” she replied flatly. I was afraid she was probably right.
From the booth Ram worked his magic, keeping the dance floor packed. I watched Cindy continue to circulate among the customers as Jen watched me. Finally she took me by the hand and led me over to her corner kiosk. “I see the way you look at her,” she chided in a motherly tone. “I know that look. I didn’t say I don’t approve. I just said don’t hurt her.”
“You know I won’t,” I promised.
“I know you won’t. But Billy, she’s special. Take it easy. She’s worth it.”
My chance came at the end of the evening. By 1:45 the crowd at Wonderland had thinned to a few couples nursing their drinks. I flipped on the open reel tape deck and nervously walked to the vacant bar. Without a word, JJ poured me a Fleishman’s gin and Seven Up. Several models whispered and giggled as they strolled across the club to where Jen and Cindy were packing outfits into garment bags. They finished up as Jen and Cindy approached the bar.
It was incredible. Now simply dressed in tight jeans and a blue silk blouse, her sun blonde hair tied in a ponytail, Cindy was even more beautiful than before. I hopped off my bar stool, nearly falling flat on my face. Jen beamed like a proud mother but her eyes reflected her chiding: take it easy. “Cindy, I want you to meet my friend Billy. Billy, this is Cindy. Cindy just started working for me a couple of weeks ago.”
I held out my hand, praying it wasn’t damp. The harder I fought to keep it from shaking the more it trembled. This was crazy. I’d met beautiful women before, lots of them. Why did I feel like a school boy on my first date? Jen watched closely, taking sadistic pleasure in my condition, as my left leg began its predictive quiver.
“Hi,” I mouthed, not sure I had made a sound.
“Hi. It’s nice to meet you.” Her voice was cashmere in satin. Bright royal blue eyes met mine. They sparkled with silver flecks, alive, a sea of stars in a winter sky. Her tiny hand wore my palm like a warm familiar glove.
I slid back a bar stool but she just stood there. “Oh, sorry,” I said, reluctantly releasing her hand. She gave Jen an unsure glance but took a seat. “What would you like?” I asked, fighting the urge to down my drink for courage.
“Just a Seven Up, please, with a lime if it’s not too much trouble.” She turned in her chair, giving me an odd look. “You’re the DJ here, right?”
“Oh, my God,” Cindy yelped, sitting straight up in her stool, “you… you’re the…”
I closed my eyes in silent prayer. Please, God, please, not the Porn-rock guy.
A big grin formed on Cindy’s lovely heart shaped face. Her lips smiled. Her cheeks smiled. Her eyes smiled. Even her tiny button nose joined in the sweet facial symphony. Touching my arm gently, she let out a girlish squeal.
I held my breath.
“You… you’re the guy I listen to every day!”
The breath left me in a rush.
“You’re in my radio. You’re Billy James.”
Fame is an odd thing. It can be overpowering, intoxicating, all encompassing. Fame can build you up; send you on a high no drug can equal. At that moment the high I’d been riding plummeted like an out of control roller coaster. It was a weird sensation. For some strange, confusing reason I wished I wasn’t Billy James the DJ. I couldn’t explain the feelings any more than I could control them. But I wanted desperately for this incredibly lovely girl who affected me so strongly and strangely to like me for the person I was, not the persona others perceived. I realized in that same agonizing moment I had no clue as to the nature of that person. Beyond my radio persona there was… was…
“Yes, I guess I am,” I replied more seriously then I intended.
A refreshing dose of reality and humility arrived with Cindy’s next words. Running a slender finger around the rim of her glass, she settled back in her stool. “Actually, my mom has the station on all the time. I’m not much into that music. I mean, I love to dance, but I like different types of music.” She sipped at her drink, carefully choosing her words. The little girl excitement gave way to adult mannerisms and speech. I wondered which one was the real Cindy. I liked them both. “But I like you, a lot,” she encouraged. “At least you act grown up and don’t spend all your time trying to insult your listener’s intelligence like every other guy on the radio. I listen to the radio for the music; tune out the DJs.” She looked at me and held up her glass. “But you, you I like.”
“Well, we do our best to please,” I replied, grinning too much. Returning her salute, I finished off my drink. “I’m glad you like the show.”
I was starting to feel better about myself.
It didn’t last.
Cindy turned again in her stool, giving me her full attention. “So, what are you doing there anyway? You’re much better than that… that…” her eyes searched for the right words, “… that silly, superfluous station?”
“What?” I snapped back louder than I realized. “Superfluous, my station isn’t superfluous!” I’m not sure I even knew what the word meant. I was about to find out.
“You play inane, meaningless music tailored for mindless robot trend junkies who wouldn’t know good music if it fell on them!”
With that, Jen jumped out of her stool. “Well, I can see my work here is done.” Collecting her dink, she hurried off.
I noticed Cindy was grinning; she was enjoying this. “I don’t know how you can say that,” I countered, feeling hurt at her sudden attack. “I worked long and hard to build that station.”
Cindy leaned forward, placing a hand on my arm. “Hey, I’m not knocking you. I’m sure you work very hard and are very good at what you do. It’s just that I think you are wasted there.” Her eyes became dreamy as she spoke, her voice even softer; soothing. “On the air you have a… I don’t know… sensitivity about you. It comes through. It makes you human, not just a disembodied voice. It’s why people listen to you, not the music.” Her moist lips curled to one side in a kind of half smile, her hand still caressing my forearm. “It’s why I listen to you.”
Cindy sat there searching my face, the glow from the overhead light giving her skin a pink blush. Her little lecture had hit home. I recalled being in the studio with Hall of Fame DJ Joe Niagara back in Philly at WIBG. I was thirteen. “Be yourself, kid,” Joe had said, chomping on the ubiquitous cigar, a record spinning on the turntable. “Don’t ever talk down to your listeners. They can get this music anywhere, without commercials. But there is only one you. Speak as if you are talking to the most important person in your life; and as if that person is sitting right there, on the other side of the mike from you.” He pointed with the cigar, “Because they are.”
I had grown quite cocky the past few years; quite the pampered, at times obnoxious celebrity. After Misty left for Baltimore, I began to lose sight of the reasons I became a DJ. Being a celebrity had become more important to me than being on the air. In five minutes this beautiful slip of a girl brought me back down to earth.
“Would you like to have breakfast with me?” I asked.
“I came here with one of the other girls.”
“Oh,” I tried not to let my disappointment show.
Her eyes squinted and she smiled shyly, her warm hand tightening on my arm, “If you don’t mind giving me a ride home afterwards.”
At 3:45 in the morning we had Denny’s to ourselves. Cindy and I sat sipping hot tea over the remains of scrambled eggs, hash browns, sausage and whole wheat toast. I realized the stories about models always being hungry were probably true.
She sat next to me in the semi-circular booth. Since leaving the club, Cindy stayed close, moving to the middle of the broad bench seat of my De Soto, and allowing me to take her hand as we crossed the parking lot.
Conversation flowed, pausing only long enough for bites of the filling breakfast. Cindy gave me her opinions on Houston’s lady Mayor, the economy, the Oiler’s pathetic season, and why I should be working at the new Lite Rock station in town. “Okay,” I said, pouring us both more tea, “you told me how you feel. Now tell me who you are.”
She became thoughtful, fiddling with the plastic honey bear dispenser, stirring a goodly amount into her cup. Finally she shrugged with a frown. “Not much to tell, really, kinda boring.”
I took her delicately pointed chin in my hand, turning her face to me. “Sweetheart, I find you anything but boring.”
Her eyes pleaded. “I’m afraid you’ll find me an honest person. Most people don’t like hearing the truth.”
I turned in my seat to face her. “Try me.”
Closing her eyes, Cindy rested back in the booth, her hair falling across my arm. “I live in Southwest Houston in a small apartment with my mom. I was born here, a native Houstonian.” A thin smile widened then faded. “Dad lives in D.C. I don’t get to see him much,” she said falling into silence. I didn’t press.
“What about modeling?”
“Mom pushed me into it when I was twelve. I was nervous, scared. But the instant I stepped out onto the runway everything changed. I suddenly felt at ease, comfortable.” Her eyes turned sad again. “On the runway, or in front of the camera, is the only place I have ever felt at home.”
Cindy sighed and sipped her tea, staring out the window into the silent night. I felt sad. What kind of person only feels at home when they are at work? I realized I needed only to look within for the answer. For the first time in my life I felt a connection to another person that went beyond physical attraction; transcended simple love and affection. We were two of a kind, Cindy and I. As she returned the cup to the table, I leaned over kissing her soft cheek. “Mmm, thank you,” she said, her sparkling eyes searching mine.
“Thank you. C’mon, it’s late.”
Recalling Jen’s advice, I dropped Cindy off at her apartment, kissed her goodnight and left. I knew I’d be seeing her at the club the following week.
By Sunday I was kicking myself for not getting Cindy’s phone number or asking her out again. Monday I was so distracted with thoughts of her I found it difficult to work. Tuesday the phone rang as I entered my office. “Hello…”
“I thought you liked me?” Cindy’s voice brought sunshine to my drizzly morning.
“I do, honest, I do,” I managed through a wide smile.
“Well you sure don’t act like it! I thought maybe you’d get my number from Jen, but you didn’t, you didn’t call! What’s the matter with you?”
“Easy, there, easy.”
“What do you mean? I am taking it easy!”
“No, wait.” I struggled between laughing at her words and my amazement and pleasure at hearing her voice. “You don’t understand. I wanted to call you, honest. Hell, I didn’t want to leave you the other night. But Jen, she said I should take it easy.”
Now Cindy laughed too. “Oh, well, okay. I was starting to think there was something wrong with me… or with you!”
“No, sweetheart, there’s nothing wrong at all. And I’ve been positively miserable away from you.”
“I’m glad we got that out of the way.” I could hear her blush. “I’ve missed you, too.”
“So, what are we gonna do about this?”
“Well, Jen is putting on a show tonight at Cooter’s Club. It seems your idea is catching on.”
“I make the best omelets in Houston.”
“That remains to be seen.”
“Mmm, you make the best omelets in Houston,” Cindy purred.
It was our third date. The clock on my VCR repeatedly flashed 12:00, filling the room with its eerie greenish glow, while Houston’s new Lite Rock station filled my apartment with Air Supply. We had gone to a movie. Driving the 610 Loop, Cindy told me of her alcoholic mom. They didn’t get along and Cindy hoped she would soon be able to move out on her own. Fetchingly dressed in jeans and a black cashmere sweater, Cindy now lay across my sofa and my lap, curled up in my arms. “Those omelets were heavenly.”
“I won’t say I told you so.”
“Oh, no, there was never any doubt in my mind to your ability. Just as I know you’d be perfect at this station.”
“You’re pretty cocky tonight. Are you always this sure of yourself?”
Cindy’s expression changed. “Only about certain things,” she whispered, pulling me to her. We fell comfortably into a long, passionate kiss, as if we’d been lovers for years.
“Is it too soon to speak of things?” I asked, stroking her soft ponytail.
“No, no not too soon. But…”
I pulled up my knees and Cindy rested back against my legs, lost in thought. She placed a hand to my chest. “I’m afraid.”
“You’re afraid of what, sweetheart?”
“I’m afraid of chasing you away.”
I couldn’t help but smile. “Why would you worry about that? Why would I want to stop seeing you?”
“I care about you, Billy. And I want to be with you. I want us to be together. But, I told you, I’m an honest person. I want you to know what you are getting yourself into.”
I kissed her forehead. “Try me.”
Cindy took a deep breath. “I’ve only been with one guy…”
“… just the one time,” she confessed.
I still didn’t understand. “Okay,” I repeated, “and?”
Cindy closed her eyes tightly, as if to force out the words. They came in a rush. “I graduated this year in an accelerated program. I’m only seventeen.”
I sat there. Surely there was something else that troubled her. Running her words over in my mind, I still didn’t see the problem. In a week I’d be thirty-two. Cindy was seventeen. “What’s the matter, sweetheart, am I too young for you?”
Despite herself Cindy laughed. Throwing her arms around me, she hugged me tightly. “No, silly, no, I think you are just perfect.” I felt a tear touch my neck. “Damn it, I love you! And I know we just met and I know it’s crazy, but I love you. And if you don’t say you love me I’ll… I’ll… I don’t know what I’ll do.” Cindy’s tears ran freely now as Larry Graham’s One In A Million drifted in the air. “Please, Billy, please don’t think I’m just a silly little girl, Billy, please.”
She clung to me, sobbing softly. In my arms Cindy felt like no one else I’d ever held. Small, fragile, needy, she felt like she belonged there. I kissed her cheek, tasting her tears. “I love you, sweetheart. I love you,” I whispered, the words coming straight from my heart.
From that moment we were inseparable, spending every available hour together. Cindy listened with interest and caring as for the first time I shared my life, my feelings and fears with another person. She went into detail of her mom’s battle with alcohol. It really was no battle at all as she stubbornly refused to quite or to get help, forcing Cindy’s dad to move out.
Being with her felt natural and I anxiously looked forward to our time together. Truly soul mates, we instinctively understood each other’s needs, weaknesses and desires. Without discussion, we slipped into a comfortable arrangement of no sex, each knowing it would happen when the time was right. Soon I had all but stopped drinking. The time I spent womanizing and indulging in strip clubs I now put to good use working out, working on my neglected old De Soto, and taking a serious look at my career.
Cindy, too, found a new zest for her work. She signed with two local fashion photographers, and the public’s growing interest in fashion shows spread to other clubs and shopping malls. We both stayed happily busy, drawing on each other’s affection and encouragement. We were good for each other; more than lovers, we were deeply in love.
Valentine’s Day we shared an appetite for Italian. We found a quaint and out of the way place in the city’s Montrose section. It was a double celebration as the day marked Cindy’s first time in front of a camera as a professional model. Two of her pictures from the shoot were slated to appear in Texas Style Magazine.
Still made up from the shoot with an expensive, stylish hairdo, Cindy was breathtaking in a sparkly red cocktail dress. Over champagne and cannoli, she proudly presented me with a gold money clip. Picking at her plate, she slumped back into her chair. “What’s the matter, sweetheart,” I asked, “didn’t save room for desert?”
“No, no, it’s not that, its mom.”
“Are you worried about her?”
“No!” Cindy downed her champagne and refilled the fluted crystal glass. “No, I’m pissed at her. I’ve really had it this time.”
I slipped an arm around her. “Tell me your troubles, sweetheart.”
“She’s decided, now that I’m making what she thinks is real money, I need to pay rent. Not just some or even half, but most of it. Billy, I’ve always helped out as much as I could, but if I have to pay that much each month I’ll never save enough to move out. And she knows it.” Cindy crossed her arms, the frustration showing on her lovely face.
“Hey, come on now,” I said, lifting her chin. “Frowning will just ruin all of that expensive makeup. Maybe I can help.” Reaching into the pocket of my jacket, I set a small, prettily wrapped box in front of her.
Cindy’s smile lit up the room. “What’s this?”
“Not much, just the key to all your problems.”
Hesitating only long enough to give me a questioning look, Cindy snatched up the package. Seconds later she held a gold key ring with a detailed Scorpio image fob. It was inscribed with her initials and Love, Billy 2-14-83. Curiously she eyed the freshly cut keys dangling from the ring. Finally her eyes grew wide. “Is this… are these…?”
“Yes, they are.”
“Oh, my God, Oh, Billy…!”
“I want you to know that this is entirely up to you. If you don’t feel comfortable, or you think it’s too soon or anything, just say so.”
She sat staring at me, one hand in mine, the other clutching the keys. “Too soon…? It’s only all I’ve been thinking about! I wasn’t sure you wanted to, I didn’t know if I should bring it up.”
“Not want you in my life twenty-four-seven? You are a silly girl, you know that?”
We kissed and Cindy relaxed back in the booth. I could read her thoughts as her eyes drifted and her expression changed. She opened her mouth but I placed a finger to her painted lips. “I already cleaned out the spare bedroom, the one with the big closet. The room is yours. Use it however you want for as long as you need. No pressure, no problems; we’re taking it easy, remember?”
By the end of the week Cindy’s few possessions, along with her many house plants complemented my decidedly male apartment. Her extensive wardrobe filled the large walk in closet. The room became Cindy’s dressing room and study. But its spare bed remained empty.
Living with Cindy agreed with me. I felt for the first time that my life was finally starting to make sense. I was enjoying life, not just living it. Cindy relished having someone to take care of and threw herself into her new role. Before long I found myself grocery shopping, eating regular healthy meals, getting to bed at decent hours and even saving money. I knew from my lifestyle I made good money. I never realize how good until I stopped spending it.
In April I took a major step in my career. I had always just drifted, like the frequencies my voice rode upon. When one job ended there was always something else; something better. Now, however, I was drawing on my experience and what I hoped was good judgment. With Cindy’s support and encouragement I switched stations and listeners.
Six months earlier a new station signed on to Houston’s airwaves. Broadcasting what it called a Lite Rock format culled from soft rock and R&B, it targeted an older, more affluent demographic. I was leaving my young dance and party listeners behind. I prayed I wasn’t leaving my career with them.
The new station’s manager had actually contacted me a few weeks before they went on the air. I was flattered but graciously said thanks but no thanks. Now, six months later they had begun to make serious inroads into our market shares. I sat in the freshly decorated office, wearing my comfortable old gray sports coat and starched jeans, realizing I had already lost some of my bargaining power.
The receptionist led me to an inner office deep within the single story building. The walls were covered with gold records, touring posters, pictures of recording stars past and present, and other radio memorabilia. As I approached a large cluttered desk to greet my hostess, I froze in my tracks. There, hanging on the wall to the left, among numerous framed newspaper and magazine clippings, was a grainy, all too familiar black and white photo from the Houston City Paper. If my feet hadn’t decided to affix themselves to the floor, I probably would have turned and ran away.
“It’s nice to finally meet you.” The friendly business voice shook me from my trance. Pamela Dunlap stood to one side of her desk, her hand outstretched. I shook it fervently, trying to hide my nervousness.
“It’s nice to meet you, too,” I managed through a suddenly dry mouth, “Miss, err… Ms. Dunlap.”
She smiled warmly, “Please, call me Pam. And make yourself comfortable.”
I stole another quick glance at the ubiquitous photo of Julie and me on the floor of the air studio as Pam returned to her desk. Sitting in a comfortable chair across from her, I prepared for the worse.
“It really is a pleasure to meet you, Billy,” she began, her pale blue eyes not giving up any secrets. “Your reputation precedes you.”
Okay, here it comes. I braced myself.
“I was impressed by the way you took that station from nothing to the top. And I’ve heard good things about you when you were in Philly. I was the one who urged our people to try and lure you here when we took over.”
“Thank you, very much. I’ve been blessed. But you’ve done a heck of a job here. I don’t have to tell you we’ve already lost some market shares to your unique format.”
“And you’re going to lose a lot more if I have my way,” she said with a confident grin. “That’s why I think you should be on our side.”
Pamela Dunlap was older than me, attractive, with delicate crow’s feet and a slowly wrinkling brow. She obviously worked hard and long to achieve her position in a male dominated field. Her business cropped black hair and tailored suit made the point that she was indeed in charge. But a soft countenance and manner belied her no nonsense, get to the point attitude. I found myself liking her.
She considered me carefully as she spoke. “It’s funny, I can’t quite put a finger on it, but when I first heard you on the air I could picture you doing this format. Your voice, your warmth, I think it would be a good fit.”
I couldn’t help but smile. “You sound like my girlfriend. She’s been telling me the same thing for months.”
“You should listen to her,” Pam replied. “Never underestimate a woman’s intuition.”
“I’m learning that,” I agreed, thinking of Cindy.
“Take this job for instance. Last year my company promoted me to program director then moved me here from Denver. This place was a mess! I was given two orders: turn this station around and come up with something original.” She laughed, “Original! Most of the stuff on the walls was already here. This station’s been rock, oldies, R&B; album rock and even classical. And they wanted something original! You stole the only original thing to happen to music radio in years when you jumped on the disco-dance thing.”
I shrugged shyly. “Sometimes you get lucky.”
“Luck nothing, its recognizing a good thing when it comes up and smacks you in the face. You know that. Several nights I sat right here in this chair almost in tears, thinking I’d never come up with an idea. Then one night this picture caught my eye.” Pamela pointed straight to the Houston City Paper and the photo of the Porn-rock couple. “These two looked so… so… happy and into each other, like nothing else in the world mattered, just one another and the moment. I wondered, what could bring about such emotions, such pure joy and pleasure? The answer was right there: music, of course, the music! I thought what a perfect image for a station that plays civilized music for civilized people, people who are in love, just like this couple.”
I swallowed the urge to laugh, hopping no one ever burst her romantic bubble with the truth. Looking at the image on the wall I smiled politely and lied through my teeth. “I see what you mean.”
Pam shook her head. “It took work convincing my bosses, and some careful music programming, but that’s how I hit on this Lite Rock format. If I ever meet that couple I owe them a big thank you.”
All I could do was smile and nod.
“So,” she turned her attention fully to me, “that brings us to you. I won’t beat around the bush, Billy. I want you here. The Love Songs show at night needs a competent host who knows his music and how to relate to the listeners. I heard some of your Lover’s Portion segments from the Philly oldies stations. I think you are my man. And I need a good music director to stay on top of the format. I can’t quite match what you are making now, but in six months, well, who knows.”
It sounded good. I was ready for a change. Perhaps a slower pace in my work as well as my life was in order. It would mean giving up a lot of my club work. Even with a pay cut I’d still be making a very comfortable living. I knew already Cindy would approve. If this station went down I’d go down too. But if it went in the direction it appeared to be heading I could be sitting pretty. “Okay,” I found myself saying. “I don’t have any contract conflicts so I’m yours when you want me.” I stood as Pam did and took her hand.
“Welcome aboard. I know you’ll like it here. How about you let me buy you and your girlfriend dinner tonight to celebrate?”
Eyeing the news photo on the wall, I accepted. The irony wasn’t lost on the circumstances.
1983 was turning out to be perhaps the best time of my life. I was deliriously in love with a bright, beautiful, exciting girl who in less than six months had changed my world completely. Despite my working the evening shift, we found ways to spend time together. And Pam turned out to be a terrific boss. Although her background was in management, she knew her music and radio. It wasn’t long before Lite Rock was the new industry catch word, and the station was knocking on the door of the market’s number two position. Plus I was discovering a new fan base with my Love Songs program.
Life was good and for once my future was clear and bright. I couldn’t imagine going back to my old ways or being without Cindy. In late October, I surprised her on her eighteenth birthday with a three carat marquis engagement ring. We agreed on a small wedding sometime in the summer. In April of ’84, we boarded a Continental Jet for D.C. Cindy and her dad had renewed their close relationship via the telephone. She was anxious to see him and it was time for me to meet my future father-in-law. It would be an extra exciting trip for Cindy. Her father had shown some of Cindy’s photos to a major modeling agency in Washington. They were impressed and interested. As the plane touched down we were both filled with nervous anticipation.
John Summers took my hand, shaking it warmly. I saw instantly where Cindy inherited her engaging smile and dark blue eyes. Cindy’s dad was six foot with an athletic build, wavy blonde hair and a friendly easy going manner. By the time we collected our luggage and piled into his Mercedes coupe he had laid to rest all of my fears about him approving of me as a son-in-law.
We spent the next few days getting acquainted, touring the nation’s capitol and talking over wedding plans. John suggested we hold the ceremony in Washington. Bubbling over with confidence and youthful vigor, Cindy wowed them at her interview with the modeling agency. Two days later she was invited back for a test photo shoot that went very well.
I rented a car and we drove to Baltimore. Cindy and I met my friend and former employee Misty at Phillips on Baltimore’s famous inner harbor. It was the first time I’d seen her since she left Houston. Misty and Cindy struck up an immediate and close friendship. Enjoying a sumptuous dinner, we talked over old times. I found myself quietly blushing as the young women bonded, amusing each other with embarrassing tales at my expense. At one point I thought I detected a slight note of healthy jealousy in Cindy’s conversation. Then again, I thought I noticed the same in Misty’s. By the end of the evening the pair eagerly made arrangements to keep in touch. Later, in the car Cindy tenderly rested her head on my shoulder. “I really like your friend Misty. If we get married in DC, do you think she’d be my maid of honor?”
“I don’t see why not, sweetheart. You two seemed to hit it off.”
“She is very sweet. Did you two ever date?”
Cindy’s question surprised me. It was the first time she ever inquired about past girlfriends. I patted her leg, “No, sweetheart, we never dated.”
She slipped her arm through mine, snuggling into me. “I wouldn’t mind if you had, I like her. She’d be good for you. Besides,” she added firmly, “you’re mine now.”
Just past Camden Yards I turned on to I-95 and headed north. A couple of miles down the freeway, Cindy raised her sleepy head and noticed our direction. “Aren’t we going in the wrong direction?”
“That depends on where you want to go.”
Cindy looked at me then glanced out the window as a sign reading Philadelphia 70 Miles flashed by us. She squealed in excitement in that little girl manner I had come to love. “Philly, we’re going to Philly?”
“It looks that way.”
“Oh!” She kissed my cheek. “Oh, gosh this is so exciting.”
After a couple of days playing tourist in Philadelphia we returned to D.C. To say my parents were enthusiastic about Cindy would be a lie. Mom was curt and polite and suspicious of Cindy’s motives. Visiting with my father and his girlfriend, it was obvious dad had concerns about Cindy’s youth, while his own new paramour was near half his age. It hurt, and I could tell their actions affected Cindy.
John Summers and I took a revealing insider’s tour of Washington thanks to a friend of his at the State Department. Cindy had a follow up interview with the modeling agency. When we returned, I found her curled up on a window seat, going over some papers. She looked upset.
“Hey, sweetheart,” I kissed her and she half heartedly smiled as I sat next to her. “Tell me your troubles.” A bright spring sun warmed the room as a pleasant breeze carried the scent of fresh cherry blossoms through the open window. A single tear ran down Cindy’s cheek. My heart went out to her. I could almost read her thoughts.
I was wrong.
“Oh, Billy,” she sighed, looking up from the papers in her hand, “they liked me. They really, really liked me.” She brushed back a happy tear. I felt myself swelling with pride. “They gave me this contract to look over. They want me to work for them.”
“That’s a good thing.”
“It’s everything I’ve wanted, for so long now. They told me I have a real future as a model. They said my size would be a plus, make me unique; even more in demand. Everyone was so nice and encouraging.”
“You don’t look very happy about this, sweetheart.”
“Oh, I am, really.” Cindy looked up at me with searching, little girl eyes. “What am I going to do?”
There was no question in my mind but I knew she needed to work through this on her own. “What do you want to do? How do you feel about modeling?”
She didn’t have to think. Her answer came without hesitation and as natural as breathing. “I can’t explain it. I’m not sure if I understand. But it’s like… like… when I’m on the runway or in front of the camera the world just dissolves; disappears. It’s just me, the clothes, the stage and the lens. It’s a very comfortable place; warm, friendly and welcoming. I become a different person up there. It’s when I’m not modeling that I become introverted; inhibited. I just love doing it. I don’t know if you can understand.”
I understood perfectly. It was the same feeling I felt every time I stepped behind the microphone. I could no sooner ask her to stop modeling as I could quit radio. I also understood she had to accept. This opportunity was too good to miss. There were plenty of radio stations in the D.C. area. “So what’s the problem? Are you afraid of a little cold weather; snow? We’ll just have to keep each other warm.”
Cindy reached for me and I took her in my arms, the contract papers falling to the floor. “Thank you, Billy, thank you,” she whispered in my ear between tears of joy. “I love you.”
That evening after dinner, Cindy, John and I sat around the table sipping cappuccino and discussing the future. There was really nothing to discuss. Cindy would accept the generous offer and return to D.C. Her dad was thrilled at having her stay with him. I’d remain in Houston and contact some stations in the Washington market. If nothing came up by August I’d give my notice.
“October is a pretty time of the year in the nation’s capitol,” John announced, “perfect for a wedding.”
Back in Houston we began making plans for Cindy’s move to D.C. It was an exciting and bittersweet time for us. Everything was coming our way, though we didn’t look forward to the few short months we would be apart. We planned on having a small simple wedding in the fall on Cindy’s birthday. As a going away present I bought Cindy her dream car, a black 1984 Mustang GT. She was so touched she began to have second thoughts about leaving. I recalled what Pam had said about a woman’s intuition.
Sending several boxes ahead, we loaded the new sports car for the long trip east. Cindy’s dad arrived in Houston on a warm Friday afternoon. Sunday morning they set out on the cross country drive. As we kissed goodbye, Cindy clung to me, trembling; afraid. I found it nearly impossible to let her go. By month’s end she was settled into her dad’s house and well into the start of a professional modeling career.
August 20 dawned hot and hazy in Southeast Texas. By 8 A.M. the clock on the Northwest Bank building already flashed eighty-five humid degrees. I was late getting to the station because of a wreck on the 610 Loop.
Thirteen hundred miles away, a slow moving Canadian front brought with it a second day of intermittent rain to the nation’s capitol. Commuters on the beltway around D.C. cautiously crept along, feeling their way through the often heavy showers.
Arriving at my office, I found I’d just missed a call from Cindy. Her message said she was driving to a shoot in Annapolis and wouldn’t be back till late. She promised to call when she returned, regardless of the hour. I also learned Pam my boss would be gone for the entire day. I had planned to talk to her about my move to Washington. Scratching through the notation written in red in my day planner, I relaxed back in my chair. “Two for two so far,” I mumbled aloud, “and it’s only 9:30.” Scanning the latest Billboard charts, I sipped my morning coffee and mused that bad things always happened in threes.
I was awakened from a restless sleep around 3 A.M. by the incessant ringing of the phone. “Good morning, sweetheart, I miss you.”
John Summers’ voice was strained. I felt my heart come to a stop. “Billy, it’s me John.” The words caught in his throat. “There’s been an accident… Cindy… Billy, Cindy’s gone.”
I don’t know how much time passed. Something about the weather and another car played in my mind. The last thing I remembered was John saying he was on his way somewhere and he’d call me back. Late the next day my best friend Bill used his key to enter my apartment. He was listed as an emergency contact. The station had called him when I failed to show up at work.
By September I was still in pretty bad shape physically and emotionally. Bill and Shirley had taken me in, doing their best to care for me. Cindy was cremated in a simple service three days after the accident. Her ashes were sprinkled in the ocean.
Details of the accident finally came to light. The photo shoot in Annapolis had run late into the night. Cindy was on her way home. As she drove in a light rain, another car violently side swiped her Mustang at high speed. Cindy’s car ran off the road striking a tree killing her instantly. The other car never stopped.
When the driver was finally identified he turned out to be a high ranking congressional aide. The man had a long list of DWI charges and it was rumored he had been drinking that night at an official government function. John’s friend at the State Department confirmed the rumors to him in confidence. On September 30 it was announced the only charges he faced was leaving the scene of an accident. He didn’t even lose his license.
October 26, 1984 would have been Cindy’s nineteenth birthday. I left Bill and Shirley’s house and disappeared for over a week. Cindy’s murderer burned to death in a single car wreck near his home in the mid-west. State police listed the incident as alcohol related, suspicious in nature.
Returning to my apartment, I crawled into a bottle of gin. It would be a long time before I crawled out.