Jennifer Turner would never fall in love with Keith Reitke. Keith Reitke only had one good eye.
The other (the right) had long ago in his childhood fallen prey to neurofibromatosis, a condition that caused pesky tumors to repeatedly reform behind Keith’s eye socket. It was a heck of a lot easier for the docs to just remove that eye altogether in order to get back in there to do their periodic shaving of the mass. Taking hunks out at a time was the best they could do, and Keith simply made light of the condition on every visit by asking them to “take a little off the top” before each procedure. He stopped telling the joke in his late twenties, figuring surgeons probably heard that one an awful lot.
But that was Keith: considerate, honorable, and just out to make sure everyone else around him was having a good day. Plus he was a lefty, so hey, that was something.
He’d spent his childhood and teenage years as a Boy Scout, and then adult years as a scout leader, trying to keep doing all those great Right Things. Boy Scouts gave him a place to be, a role to succeed in, and a feeling of purpose. He was made for the Scouts, caved-in, scar-zipped eye socket and all.
That also made him suitable as a mail carrier professionally. People depended on the mailman, looked forward to seeing him on most days, and that was something that appealed to him. Not only that, but he never had to leave his hometown of Clear Creek, Arkansas. His old scoutmaster had landed him a job locally.
Keith figured he was not made for love, though, because part of that entire process required some semblance of attraction. It had been Keith’s experience that disgusting body features, especially on one’s face, tended to play to the opposite of that criterion. No, Keith Reitke didn’t attract; rather, he repelled. He nauseated. He graced the opposite sex with his non-presence.
And thusly he’d made a decision at some point in his early adult life to set the notion aside, to abandon the idea that he needed love, and that a regular, normal human being was not regular and normal without it. All of it was so much bull. He had the Scouts. He had the mail. He even had a job working the polls over in Mulberry every two years.
No, he didn’t need Jennifer Turner. He wanted her. He wanted to be able to lock gazes with her deep brown eyes set in her soft face. He wanted to take her to a drive-in movie. He wanted to take her camping, to laugh and have deep, philosophical discussions based off the pretentious notions of the day with her beneath the stars. He wanted to run his fingers through her chocolate-hued hair while he bore down between her long, slender legs. He wanted all of it, and wanted it forever.
You could say he wanted it so bad, he needed it.
This wasn’t to say Jennifer Turner disliked Keith Reitke. In fact, the two got along famously whenever he would run into her outside of her small bungalow. She would be tending her flowers and shrubs when he came by with the mail. He’d smile, she’d smile, and they’d talk. This discourse did not evolve past the current weather or political situations revealed on the evening news, of course. It most certainly never centered on his missing eye—Jennifer was much too sweet for that. This series of casual encounters would continue from the time the girl was twenty in ‘67 until she was twenty-four—at which time, Keith learned with much anxious regret, Jennifer would be moving on to college.
Keith had never been a drinker (had actually never touched the stuff), but at that point, whiskey suddenly became his go-to for coping with everything. Where distraction in helping young men build values and morals through earnest lessons had given him a sense of fulfillment before, alcohol had washed that, too, away with the pain of knowing Jennifer would be gone soon. He missed meetings, events, activities. He even began to miss work. His old Scoutmaster was concerned. Keith wasn’t, because whiskey didn’t allow for concern. Whiskey allowed for pretending Jennifer would not only be in Clear Creek until the day she died, but that, hell, she might even be a little keen on him.
One drunken afternoon, Keith decided to put this theory to the test. He drove his old Chevy pick-up to Jennifer’s house (well, Jennifer’s parents’ house, technically). He went to the door in his inebriated state, enthusiastically rapped on the entrance, and then deftly hid his boner behind the flower bouquet he’d brought for the girl. This would be the day that began his life—his real life, the one with love not only acknowledged, but quite involved—and he felt the anticipation of the momentous occasion building in the pit of the his stomach.
Those butterflies translated into the pool of vomit Jennifer’s father stepped in when he answered the door. Mr. Turner was not particularly enthused by the occasion himself. At first he looked concerned about Keith, but then, when Keith asked to see his daughter, Dad got a little upset. Then Jennifer herself appeared past her father, peering on in the living room, no doubt trying to figure out what was going on.
Keith jumped at his chance. He yelled out to Jennifer that he loved her and that they were destined to be together. He explained loudly about how he’d never believed in love, about how he’d had to give up on it all the way around. But doggonit, he believed in it now because she, herself, was love incarnate, an angel whose gorgeous presence was bestowed upon the Earth in order to teach Keith this valuable lesson.
There were a handful of images that stained his mind so deeply and completely that Keith would never be able to drink them away. Jennifer Turner’s reaction in that moment was at the top of the list. Her beautiful, innocent face contorted into something like a mocking devil. She laughed. She guffawed. She not only rejected what Keith was feeling, she completely invalidated his existence. Her bemusement turned to what seemed like disgust, and she quickly skulked away into some other unseen part of the house.
Keith, not having any words for the moment, and only a whirlpool of pain and embarrassment to drown in, stood silently at the door, his mouth slack as if he’d been stabbed in the stomach. He never heard the several times Mr. Turner asked him to leave, only snapping to when the front door slammed in his one-eyed face.
His one-eyed, hilariously disgusting, unacceptable face.
The girl was gone a few weeks later, and Keith had nothing more to say or do about it. He stopped delivering mail to that general vicinity, which of course drew a number of complaints from the neighborhood. His old Scoutmaster was there for him, though, and elected to take over that portion of Keith’s route once his long-time employee had confided the entire shameful matter in him. But even when his boss strongly and repeatedly urged him to give up the sauce, Keith didn’t listen. It was a speeding train he had no interest in jumping from, and even if that were the case, he didn’t truly believe in his own ability to stop at all.
Even his cardiovascular system chipped in its two cents on the matter. A day before his 39th birthday, Keith was a bottle and a half deep into the fourth quarter of a college football game. He was so frustrated with the early season loss that coach Frank Broyles’ Razorbacks were dealt by Tulsa, that he flew into a fit. He didn’t remember what all he threw and in what manner he punched the several holes in his wood-paneled walls, just how very abruptly the rage ended. He fell to the floor of his kitchen. He couldn’t move his left side.
Between the point when his boss had broken down his door and found him lying in a pool of broken glass and puke, and being discharged from the general hospital in Little Rock, Keith learned several startling new facts. First, he’d had a major stroke. Second, he had to take blood pressure medication for the rest of his life. And, by the way, his left arm and leg might never work quite properly again.
What many people might consider to be the most jarring of these facts seemed to be lost in the frustration over the newfound lack of limb control that instantly gripped Keith. According to the kind fellows in the ER who had received him via ambulance, Keith was dead on arrival. They weren’t exactly sure how their attempted resuscitation of the patient had even come close to working. Yet, here he was, living, breathing, learning to walk again and mastering the art of holding his dick in his right hand to piss. This tidbit on mortality didn’t really sink in until Keith realized that much of his function on the left was never coming back. Then, he would contemplate the death factoid in the sense of wondering why the fuck he managed to live.
Not following through with his doctor’s recommendation, Keith kept hammering the bottle. At the end of the day, being drunk worked. He wasn’t about to take that away from himself, especially now that he’d already lost so much. He would wake many times in the following mornings and afternoons wondering if he would finally manage to drink himself to death that day. The area where he was pretty sure his liver sat was tender to the touch most of the time now, so surely, he’d figured, he was making progress towards this end. His end.
But the death-by-alcohol thing wasn’t working. What was more, he couldn’t work anymore because he wasn’t allowed to drive his route. There was no income, save for his all-too-quickly drying up severance pay. Things were going to get ugly. Keith wasn’t sure what form that would take; it was just an inner dread that told him that all of the past events he’d been running from were about to corner him and mentally bludgeon him into a state of perpetual emotional pain. There had to be an out.
On one desperate day in early fall of 1972, Keith packed his last two bottles of whiskey and some aspirin into an olive backpack, grabbed his cheap metal walking cane, and headed down the road. At the first curve of his home street, he went straight. On the other side of the woods he braved, he stood on the flat, muddy banks of Clear Creek. It was a slow-moving stream, hardly a rapid one in which he could readily be swept up and crushed against jagged rocks by. But it was certainly deep enough to walk into and maybe never walk out of. Sinking into the mud, Keith dropped his cane, and drew in what was to be his last deep breath.
Upon exhaling, a shocking sobriety gripped him. The moment was suddenly vividly real. Like a passing electric shock, the sensation fled, and was replaced by the deepest serenity he had ever known in his 39 years of physical existence. He gazed in wonder at the clear afternoon sky above him, which had suddenly been bathed in a deep crimson wash. Keith blinked. The red faded away, replaced again by cerulean. His mind began trying to make sense of what had just happened. Whatever it was, it was so immediately stirring that it felt almost like a religious experience.
Something was moving in the brush on the other side of Clear Creek. Keith swallowed. It was tall, impacting both the bushes below and the middle branches of the oaks as it pressed toward his location. He legitimately considered running, then decided that this would only get him face-down in the Arkansas mud. There was nothing to do but face it. ‘Running’ had just been shitcanned from the Comprehensivie List of Life Options.
When the imposing, unreal figure broke through the brush, Keith Reitke whispered a name to himself he had never heard, but in some inexplicable way, had always known.