There are better and worse ways to say goodbye and, given the circumstances, I guess Colleen did the best she could. Still, I do wonder how she tells the story.
I never should have asked her out, of course - I was punching way above my weight. I was the nerdy high school junior with a summer job mopping floors at McDonalds; she was the popular senior. Willowy, elegant and blonde, she managed to be cool, somehow without being mean. We had shared debate class together, 6th and 7th period, which was why I ever got to talk with her in the first place.
So somehow, that summer, I managed the courage to call and ask her out - the Kinks were playing Red Rocks this weekend, did she want to go? Sure, sounds great, did I have a ride?
Oh, did I have a ride. I had the Battlestar.
The Battlestar was not technically mine, but no one else in my family seemed to have any desire to drive it. It was a 1971 Oldsmobile Vista Cruiser, a tan and wood-grain trim, moonroof-adorned station wagon weighing in at over two tons. Even then, in 1979, it looked like a relic from another era.
The plan had been to trade it in when we bought a new car a couple of years earlier, but with five kids in the house close to driving age, my parents consented to let it sit at the front curb, keys available to anyone who would keep the tank filled.
For gas money, I worked at McDonalds. Wasn’t as demeaning as a summer job could be, but it did have some of the crucial elements - low pay, bad hours, and Gene, a manipulative manager who exploited the social pecking order to enforce discipline. The pretty girls worked the best positions: cash register, drink station. The older guys, like Kurt, were in back, running the grill. Me? I got to mop floors and clean the bathrooms.
I was promised that, after a few months on janitor duty I could “try out” for a counter job, so I paid my dues and slopped the mop as best I could, working a four hour evening shift three days a week and closing up shop on weekends. To be fair, Gene did give me my tryout - he threw me in behind the register at peak dinner rush one day. I thought I held up okay, considering, but he said my till came up short, and I was back between the tables slopping a mop and scraping dried gum, pickles and worse off the seats.
Anyhow, the job at McDonalds kept gas in the Battlestar, and the Battlestar was freedom. Freedom to ask girls like Colleen Liljegren out to the Kinks concert that Saturday.
It’s hard to capture the promise of a concert at Red Rocks if you’ve never been there. Set up in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, just west of town, it’s a natural amphitheater looking out over Denver, and the great plains, to the east. In the evening, when the stars come out, it’s magic, and the thought of sitting there with Colleen, snuggled on the stone benches against the night chill was almost more than I could bear.
I picked her up early - you had to get to Red Rocks early for a good seat - and she swayed out to the car, hiphugger jeans and a beat-up leather jacket, the epitome of cool. Smiled sweetly as I held the door - really, she carried no pretense or guile, if there were a Real Thing, Colleen was it.
“You brought anything for the show?” she asked as I drove the winding road up out of town.
I didn’t understand, so she produced a flask of something - I don’t remember what, from the pocket of the jacket. Probably Jack Daniels, that’s what the cool kids drank when they drank. I shook my head and apologized for my lack of preparation, but she waved it off.
“Don’t worry, I’ve got us covered.”
She laughed when I asked how she was going to get it in through security, as if to say “You poor, sweet, naive boy - you have so much to learn.” And in my mind’s eye, I can still see the well-practiced legerdemain as we went through the checkpoint. Holding her arms out, then sliding the jacket off with a clever twist - nothing in her pockets, nothing in her hands - she could have smuggled in a basket of chimpanzees and they would never have had a clue.
The show - the show was everything I’d hoped. We sang and danced on the seats as Ray Davies and Co. rocked the night under a star filled sky. She knew all the songs, knew all the words. I was in heaven, or as close to it as a boy can get.
On the drive home, I didn’t want the night to end. Of course I didn’t have the nerve to suggest that we go park up on the dam. I knew that’s what people did, but that was other people, people who knew what they were doing. Not nerdy boys out on a date with the most fabulous girl west of the Mississippi.
“Let’s get something to eat.”
“Sure - what do you have in mind?”
If you’ve been paying attention, you should be cringing here.
“How ‘bout we stop at McDonalds? I know the guys there.”
There are so many ways it could have been worse. I pulled the Battlestar up front and sauntered in, cool as I could be, Colleen at my side. I guess I wanted to show off. And you know, it sort of worked. Of course, Gene wasn’t there - he had better things to do than lean on the night shift. Linda was working up front, Kurt running the grill. It was late, and I guess they were just closing up.
Kurt and Linda were older than I was - probably a year or two out of high school, and I liked them. I got the idea that they’d been cool kids, and were now cool adults. They were the kind of people I wanted to see me, there, with Colleen.
We got our burgers and fries, talked about - oh, I don’t know what, and then, pushing midnight, it was time to go. I was tired, she was tired, and reason was whispering in my ear that we’d both had a lovely time, and I should not ruin things by trying to stretch it out any longer. Waved goodbye to Linda and Kurt and climbed back into the Battlestar. Turned the key and... nothing.
I turned the key back and re-engaged: nothing. Checked the lights; the battery was good, but when I turned the key to start, the car was as cold and silent as the suspicious stare Colleen was now aiming at me across the Battlestar’s wide bench seat.
She was polite as can be: “Is something wrong?”
“I... I can’t get it started.”
Her look was a million words at once. No, of course I wouldn’t be trying something smooth. I wouldn’t “strand” us somewhere on a Saturday night, least of all in the front parking lot of McDonalds, next door to Walgreens and the Discount Tire Warehouse. I think my look of abject horror assured her of that much. But it did little else to comfort her.
I scrambled out and lifted the hood, peering into the plumbing of the Oldsmobile’s voluminous engine compartment. I tried to conjure those manly gifts my gender is supposed to be born with, an intuitive understanding of how these things work, but nothing came. I knew that the car’s 425 V8 was a fine engine, one of the best and most powerful to come out of Detroit during its glory years. But now, at midnight in a McDonalds parking lot, with the most fabulous girl in the world waiting nervously inside, it was an abomination, a lump of cold steel designed from the very start to bring me to this point to the verge of true happiness - and humiliate me.
I returned to the driver’s seat, defeated.
“I don’t know what to do.”
“Well, we can’t stay here all night. At least I can’t.”
Calling my parents was not an option. I took another pass under the hood, then we retreated back to the warmth of McDonalds. Linda unlocked the doors to let us back in, and Kurt was just finishing cleaning up in back. They sympathized.
Kurt asked “Where do you live?”
My house was just a mile to the south, walking distance, but Colleen lived a good 15 minute drive west.
“I can give you a ride.” He lived out in the same direction as her.
Our faces brightened; gratitude welled up in my heart, but I saw a conflicted look in Kurt’s eyes: he was trying to be a gentleman, trying to figure out how to break the news.
“My motorcycle only holds two.”
There was a second of silence while I pondered the implications, but there was no other way.
So that’s my memory of Colleen: leather jacket and jeans. Looking over her shoulder and waving goodbye from the back of Kurt’s bike as they rolled out of the darkened McDonalds parking lot and away into the chill of a Denver midnight. I never did see her again.