Just Press Play was performed at The Princess Theater on Sunday, September 25, 2022

Tommy was the kind of vocalist that I just did not get. When he sang, he had perfect diction and annunciated each word as if were trying to reach the farthest audience member in the back row. This tactic worked in his favor considering he was my church’s new minister of music. Aside from popping each of his phonetic cues, he was also the doppelgänger of pro wrestler, Ric Flair, with his toothy grin and his flaxen hair. He knew this and would often imitate his signature “wooo” yell to the thrill of the youth group.

I was not “sold” on Tommy like the others. He was the most car salesman-like of all the church’s staff and as a rule I was always wary of the most popular kid in school. I’m sure that he would have been chosen Mr. Insert the Name of Your High School here when he was teenager. Being single, Tommy was not afraid to flirt with any of the small Baptist church’s female parishioners, not matter the age and no matter his or their relationship status. He quickly began dating the piano player, a single mother of two, much to the dismay of many a widowed or divorced attendee.

After evening church on Sundays, Tommy would often host the youth at his house to play cards, mostly teenage boys. Only at a Southern Baptist church would you hear about the sins of gambling and then hurry off to play poker at the minister’s home. And if not for my wanting to be with my friends, I would have never learned to play Spades or have met Lucy. Lucy was the youngest daughter of Tommy who was visiting for the summer, all the way from Dallas, TX.

For a seventeen-year-old, it was a perfect meet cute. I walked into the kitchen and saw her sitting with her older sister. Each of my friends scrambled to make good first impressions, but I hung back a moment gathering my composure. Admittedly, I was never this cool, but I walked over, held out my hand and said, “Hi Lucy, I’m Ricky”. That’s all it took. We were linked. Lucy was the answer to all my wants at the time. I was the odd ball surrounded by Alan Jackson fans when all that I wanted to do was listen to Bad Religion and They Might Be Giants and then there was Lucy, with her pink hair.

In 1995, her favorite movie was… Drew Barrymore. I mean Drew Barrymore was emblematic of the time, so any movie that had her in it was her favorite. She specifically loved the movie, Mad Love, which costarred Chris O’Donnell. The summary on the back of DVD box said something like “Matt wonders if his love can ‘cure’ Casey’s problems.” It could not. Lucy’s favorite book was Little Girl Lost by yes, Drew Barrymore. A more fitting title could not have been applied to Lucy, a person who was emotionally misshapen by her father’s leaving years earlier.

For three years, our summers were filled with each other’s company. At seventeen, Lucy was the most exciting person that I had ever met. She was nothing like the debutantes of “small town” Georgia and this difference clouded my clarity on our relationship for years. It was a bipolar roller coaster with highs and lows and highs and lows. There was never a real commitment between the two of us, but the potential always seemed magnificent based on our chemistry and our playlists.

Our quote/unquote romance went off and on between other relationships and between visits from Dallas. Summers always seemed to begin just as other relationships were in flux.

Between visits, I spent time at my neighbor’s house. My neighbor’s house wasn’t typical. It wasn’t a house with a pair of siblings across the street in suburban American. I was in rural farm country and the house across the pasture was a foster home with several sets of siblings. As the foster home was on the back lot of a cattle ranch, we all referred to it as The Ranch.

In those days, I was fascinated by this large, non-nuclear family when they moved in as I was an only child without real neighbors for much of my life. They were also my entree into the Southern Baptist church and lifestyle where Tommy, Lucy’s father, was the aforementioned minister of music.

So, for a spell, the social pattern in my life was summers with Lucy and time outside of summers with Lucy was spent with The Ranch. So much of my time was spent with them, I jokingly became an honorary foster child, the Billy Preston to their Beatles. Like Lucy, the foster parents, Mark and Sally were from Texas. Mark was a bowlegged, squat fellow with short gray hair and barrel chest. If you think he looked the part of a Texan, you should have heard him speak. If you could imagine a person with every southern phrase at the ready in their verbal holster, you’d have Mark.

His counterpart, companion, better half, also had short hair, a great smile and was every bit the Texan that Mark was, but she could see through his BS and give it back to him when needed.

They really were a team and from the vantage of inexperience, they were the model family, albeit one who decided to foster way too many children. They had “a calling” as they saw it, to be the bastion in the lives of several young people who did not have steady home lives, to teach them what people today would call “conservative values”, a term that would have been foreign to me at the time. There were kids ranging from ages 12 to 17 and I was friends with all of the ones who were close to my age. There were games, and fights, and movies, and camping, and Shepherd’s Pie (which I had never had before), potato cannons, and a giant gray van that transported everyone far away on crowded trips. It was a culture shock for me, but in the best possible way.

Mark and Sally’s 25th wedding anniversary was quickly approaching and their biological daughter, was planning a surprise party for them at the church. As with all major life events for these Baptists, everything happened with, through and at the church. All their friends, colleagues, children and the church staff would be there to yell surprise.

After the initial jolt of being surprised, the couple of the hour was seated like queen and king in metal folding chairs in fMarkt of a table with their gifts as Tommy pushed his way through the church crowd to sing acapella style to Mark and Sally. In its entirety, with all his forced fluency, Tommy belted Can’t Take My Eyes Off You as popularized to them by Andy Williams. It didn’t get any more “white bread” than this.

You're just too good to be true
Can't take my eyes off of you
You'd be like Heaven to touch
I wanna hold you so much
At long last, love has arrived
And I thank God I'm alive
You're just too good to be true
Can't take my eyes off of you

Holding Mark’s hand, Sally began to weep. Then she removed her hand from Mark’s to fully cover her face with both hands as she cried. All the while, Tommy smiled; eyes ablaze as he took a knee to serenade her alone. Tommy took her hand, the one Mark had just held, and sang the rest of the song.

My first question was, can Mark not sing? Even if he sang badly, these very personal lyrics wouldn’t be channeled through the voice of a single alpha male gazing into the eyes of his wife. Did Mark perhaps request that Tommy sing this to them/her as it was “their song”? Was it even their song? One thing that I could say that was refreshing about Mark was that he wore his emotions on the outside and by his reaction he looked unperturbed which led me to believe that things were on the up and up, and I was making something out of nothing as this was a very “huggy” church. But none of this really mattered. The next day Lucy arrived for the summer.

So, color me surprised when the first thing that Lucy wanted to do was visit The Ranch. I didn’t understand why this was the first thing item on her vacation itinerary, but it didn’t matter. I was excited to introduce Lucy to my dear friends from across the way and to have her experience a little of what I did day to day when it wasn’t Summer.

We arrived. She put on a less troubled face than she wore in the car and as soon as she walked in, she began searching for something or someone that wasn’t there. Specifically, she was on a mission to meet the matriarch, the foster mother, Sally, who happened to be the only person not there that afternoon.

Sally’s absence threw her, and she was ready to leave after only a few minutes. On the way back, she confided in me that she had a secret. She then instructed me to drive to her father’s house. It was Wednesday afternoon, which meant Tommy was already at the church getting ready for that evening’s service. Lucy walked me back to her father’s bedroom, over to his nightstand and pointed to his answering machine.

To say it was strange to be in his bedroom was and understatement. This was a home that I had been in many times in the evening to play games with my friends from church. And now here I was in his bedroom, in the daytime, a place that would have no doubt been off limits, and I was in this bedroom with his daughter.

“Push Play”, she said. I did as I was told. My curiosity could not be helped.

“Tommy, oh, Tommy. It’s me. I… I… I miss you. It’s so strange to see you every week and still miss you. I know what we’re doing is wMarkg, but I… I can’t help myself.”

“Who was that” I said in my most exasperated manner, not believing that someone would purposefully leave a message like that on a recording device to be found. For anyone this might be salacious, but to hear it on an answering machine belonging to a minister it sounded scandalous. Especially when there was so much preaching about premarital sex and sex outside of marriage and sex. At least they were wise enough not to leave their name.

“Seriously, Lucy. Who was that?”

“You know who it was, Sam. It was that mom at The Ranch.”

Immediately, I realized how I too had been naive about the anniversary charade the night before. Holy Shit! Sally was the caller. Another person who had fallen prey to Tommy’s charismatic persona.

I now knew that Lucy had gone to The Ranch to size Sally up. To glimpse the family that was broken due to her father’s selfishness. Lucy’s reaction to finding out that her dad was having an affair, was to find her out. It was apparent that Tommy had a pattern of behavior, and it was important for Lucy to see what Sally might have in common with the woman that Tommy had cheated on when married to her mom.

I never said a word. Lucy might have. The piano player might have. Slowly rumors began to trickle. Mark and Sally gave up their position at The Ranch and moved back to Texas. They separated for a time, but eventually reconciled. Tommy was eventually “prayed out” of the church, but quickly moved on, was forgiven and took up at another church. You can’t keep a good evangelical/car salesman/pro wrestler look-alike down, as they say.

By the end of that summer, I finally professed to Lucy that I loved her, but she did not love me or was not at a point in her life to receive that love. I’m not sure. I felt relieved for having said it and like Chris O’Donnell’s character, I knew my love couldn’t cure our problems. The next summer, I had moved on, but still sometimes wondered if we ever might get the timing right. When I saw her next, she confided to me that she had recently slept with one of my friends. She said she remembered him from when they were both five years old and that she did it because it made for a great story and how cool was that. It was enough to keep me from wondering any more.

Three years later in college, I received my own voicemail. I drudged my way to my bed, ready to collapse after my comparative lit exam, the last exam before Spring Break. My machine was blinking. I pressed play.

“Hi Sam, it’s me,” she said. “I miss you”

“I’m getting married tomorrow… and I just wanted you to know…

I just wanted you to know that even now I thought it was going to be you and me.”

She never said her name and I never called her back.