Rikki Don’t Lose That Number
By David Daniel
We were a small, tight-knit crew of nine, linked by the dance that is youth. When high school graduation came, we didn’t want us to end. That autumn I went off to a small Christian college not far from home.
The one who kept in closest touch was Erika—Rikki, as we called her. Small, quick, with tortoise shell glasses that sat on her freckled nose, and high levels of energy and humor, we thought of her as “interesting” more than pretty. We agreed she might have been the most successful of us in college had she chosen to go. Instead, she continued to live at home and took a job in town as night clerk at the Cape-Way Motel, so named because it was on the old route to Cape Cod. The work suited her, she said; it was quiet and gave her time to read. What she didn’t say (but I suspected) was that the job kept her out of the house where warfare between her mom and stepdad was constant. “God, they give me headaches,” she confessed.
By simple proximity I was her link with our old crew, and she was mine. She worked nights, and some days would take a bus over to visit me. We’d sit in the campus snack bar and relive the adventures we’d all shared. One time we went over to Wonder Bowl on the Southern Artery and rolled a few strings. Neither of us broke 100.
Without the routines and the people that had knit high school days together, things weren’t the same. Phone calls and occasional letters among the rest of our group dwindled. When I’d complain to Rikki that life had grown too complicated since graduation, she pointed ahead to the holidays. “Everyone’ll be home, and things will be great again. You’ll see.” It was something to hold onto.
I was restless and growing bored with college. I sensed the war going on in Southeast Asia was contributing to my malaise, but my student deferment was keeping me out of the draft.
In mid-October, Rikki had an idea. We were in my dorm room, sitting on my bed (with the door open, as campus rules required) eating pizza. “After everyone finishes college, and that includes you, Dave”—I’d never been a scholar, and she was on my case about not studying enough—“depending on what money we can pull together, we should buy a small island and all go live there.”
“Maybe in Maine. All of us together, the whole crew. And if people have girlfriends or boyfriends, they’re welcome too.”
It was a nutty thought, of course, and yet I was comforted by it. I put my arm around Rikki and pulled her close and kissed her. It surprised us both. Nothing like that had ever happened before. It lasted only a moment, and then we retreated to who we’d always been. But her scheme, as improbable as it was, had provided the idea that we would all reunite sometime, somewhere, and it gave me hope. For a while I managed to refocus on school and tried to be a student.
Rikki began to change, too. She’d show up with a bottle of Mateus in her handbag (in high school she almost never drank), and we’d pass it back and forth. She was also concocting odd plans.
Like the Ax in Walden Pond idea.
With the slow nights at the Cape-Way Motel, she’d been reading a lot. One book was Thoreau’s Walden. She told me that Thoreau, ice fishing on Walden Pond, had accidentally dropped an ax into the water. She had this idea that it was still down there. As she described it, I could picture the ax there in the green depths, its steel head on the sandy bottom, the handle upright, wavering lightly in the currents of the pond. Wouldn’t the wood have rotted away by now? A lot of time had passed. But she insisted that the cold water would have preserved it. Her idea was that we should try to locate the ax. “Literary archeology,” she said.
I pretended the idea was plausible, though I knew it wasn’t. My doubt was confirmed when I mentioned it to a professor who taught a course on the New England Transcendentalists. He rubbed his chin reflectively. “The ax incident is where Thoreau returns it to his neighbor, sharper than when he borrowed it, which makes the point about being a good steward. I don’t recall anything about it falling into the pond.”
I didn’t have the heart to tell Rikki, and in time the idea seemed to fade on its own.
It was growing ever clearer that college wasn’t my thing. My parents were bugging me to take business courses, which would be practical, but I had no interest. Sometimes I cut classes to hang out with Rikki. She would lecture me on what an opportunity I had being in college and how I should grab it. My roommate, an amiable pre-med major from Hong Kong, who apparently spent all his time in the chem lab, told me to feel free to bring my friend to the room, even push the twin beds together if we wanted. But it wasn’t like that with Rikki and me. We would talk and drink Mateus and make out a little, but it was a way to alleviate our boredom. Our convenient little passion lacked the heat to drive it to the next level. Rikki had always been one of the crew, but no one’s girlfriend. After, both of us slightly tipsy, I’d walk her to the bus stop for her ride back to our town, and I always came away feeling a little sad for the gone past, and sad for Rikki who, like me, didn’t seem to be getting on with life.
With the changing of the season, traffic to the Cape had fallen off, and Rikki had even more time at the motel for reading and making mad plans. I suspected some of this was an escape from the turbulence at home. One evening in early November she came to my dorm clearly buzzed and excited. She’d been reading Plato’s Allegory of the Cave and she was eager to go to Greece. She wanted to find the cave and build a theater in it and project films on the wall. Movies that’d make people think about “the true nature of things,” she said.
I knew a little about the allegory because we’d studied it in Western Civ, which was one of the two classes I was still regularly attending. I pointed out that the cave was something Plato dreamed, not an actual place. After a silence, she said quietly, “That’s what they said about Troy. That it never really existed. Until someone discovered it.”
“I know, but—”
“It’s real, David!” She was getting agitated. “The fucking cave is real!”
I acknowledged that it could be, just to calm her down.
There were other ideas, too, that Rikki had, some of them pretty whacked out, and I’d listen without resistance to avoid argument, and then we’d fall to groping on my bed. We talked about our old crew of friends less and less.
As December came, I knew she wasn’t the Rikki of old. Feeling and humor had always been her number and we’d all loved her for it, but that was missing now. She rarely made eye contact when we spoke. Her chestnut hair, once always so vibrant, seemed dull, unbrushed, pushed under a winter cap, which she never took off, even indoors. She’d get argumentative for no reason. One time, she confronted a rep for a big chemical company who was on campus, recruiting. She asked a question and, not liking his answer, began shouting at him, telling him to shove his napalm up his ass. We laughed about it afterwards, but my laughter was nervous.
Our friends would be coming home for the winter holidays. Rikki and I decided we would plan a party for us all. But as break approached it was clear that Rikki was sinking. She would drift from frenzied energy into fogs where I couldn’t make her smile. I noticed scratches on her inside left wrist and let her convince me they were from a cat. I thought about reaching out to her mother, but the two were on openly hostile terms.
What I did finally was go to the campus health center which offered counseling services. I asked if someone could see my friend. Because Rikki was not enrolled as a student, they couldn’t. However, one of the therapists had a private practice and she offered to do a free session if Rikki would call and set it up. I got the woman’s contact info. When I called the Cape-Way I was told Rikki wasn’t there.
I was planning to study that evening (I had final exams next day in the only two classes I had any prayer of passing), but as I sat at my desk, my mind wouldn’t stay on the notes. My roommate had just flunked out. All that “lab time,”—“labial time” I secretly dubbed it when he told me—was apparently spent having sex with a forty-year-old cafeteria worker off campus. Increasingly restless, I borrowed a car from a classmate and drove to the motel.
The small lobby was hung with cheap Christmas decorations and seasonal music was playing softly. A man about fifty was at the registration desk. When I asked for Rikki, he grew uneasy. I explained that I was a friend, and he finally offered that she was no longer employed there. Something must have shown on my face. He cleared his throat. “She was missing shifts. We had to let her go.” As I started out, he said, “She left these.” He handed me a small stack of paperbacks.
I telephoned her house, and after many rings a woman answered. No, Rikki wasn’t there—“And she’s goddamn not welcome!” the woman snapped and hung up.
It was going on ten p.m. when I got back to campus. I returned the car and headed for the dorm. Rikki was sitting on floor in the hallway outside my door, her head tipped back against the wall. I felt both relieved and afraid. I’d never seen her looking so undone. Seeing me, she sat up and gave a faint, uncertain smile.
“Come on in,” I said.
With my roommate’s departure, I had the room to myself. I told her the story, not sure what else to do. “I’ve got your books,” I said.
“You know then.”
I took off my coat and threw it on my bed. “You want to talk?”
She sank onto the other bed. Slowly, as though her mind was far away, she started to speak again about the idea she had first laid out back in the fall, of an island where we all could go. Only now it wasn’t just one island. We were all scattered around, on our own little islands. And it was evident that she was letting go of the idea of our enduring connections, and so was I. Her eyes grew wet.
“I can borrow a car and take you somewhere,” I said, not sure where that would be. Not her home certainly. Was the ER a possibility? My parents’ house? She said nothing. “You can stay here tonight if you want.”
“Don’t you have tests to study for?”
“I already studied. I’m going to ace them.”
I hadn’t, of course; and wouldn’t. I would fail both classes, whereupon my GPA would have sunk so low the college would inform me that I was no longer in good standing. In February I would get my draft notice. But that was still in the future.
I told Rikki about the counselor who could meet with her. I gave her the woman’s card with the contact number. For a moment she seemed paralyzed, then she looked around for somewhere to put it and finally set in on the desk by the bed.
“Here, I’ll hold it.” I didn’t want her to lose it. “We’ll call in the morning. I’ll go with you.” I leaned over and kissed her forehead. “Get some rest now, okay?”
She gave a smile that was maybe only just a little less frightened than the one in the corridor. She lay back and shut her eyes. After a moment, she opened them. “David, maybe sometime . . . we can go bowling again?”