Puberty rites in the more primitive tribal societies are almost invariably painful and traumatic experiences."
I half dozed in front of my TV set as the speaker droned on in his high nasal voice. One night a week, as a form of masochistic self discipline, I sentence my, self to a minimum of three hours viewing educational television. Like so many other things in life, educational TV is a great idea but a miserable reality: murky films of home life in Kurdistan, jowly English authors being interviewed by jowly English literary critics, pinched-faced ladies demonstrating Japanese brush techniques. But I watch all of it religiously - I suppose because it is there, like Mount Everest.
"A classic example is the Ugga Buggah tribe of lower Micronesia ," the speaker continued. tapping a pointer on the map behind him.
A shot of an Ugga Buggah teenager appeared on the screen, eyes rolling in misery, face bathed in sweat. leaned forward. His expression was strangely familiar.
'''When an Ugga Buggah reaches puberty, the rites are rigorous and unvarying for both sexes. Difficult dances are performed and the candidate for adulthood must eat a sickening ritual meal during the postdance banquet. You will also notice that his costume is as uncomfortable as it is decorative." Again the Ugga Buggah appeared, clothed in a garment that seemed to be made of feathers and chain mail, the top grasping his Adam's apple like an iron clamp, his tongue lolling out in pain.
"The adults attend these tribal rituals only as chaperones and observers, and look upon the ceremony with indulgence. Here we see the ritual dance in progress."
A heavy rumble of drums; then a moiling herd of sweating feather-clad dancers of both sexes appeared on screen amid a great cloud of dust.
"Of course, we in more sophisticated societies no longer observe these rites."
Somehow, the scene was too painful for me to continue watching. Something dark and lurking had been awakened in my breast.
"What the hell do you mean we don't observe puberty rites?" I mumbled rhetorically as I got up and switched off the set. Reaching up to the top bookshelf, I took down a leatherette-covered volume. It was my high school class yearbook. I leafed through the pages of photographs: beaming biology teachers, pimply-faced students, lantern-jawed football coaches. Suddenly, there it was-a sharply etched photographic record of a true puberty rite among the primitive tribes of northern Indiana.
The caption read: "The Junior Prom was heartily enjoyed by one and all. The annual event was held this year at the Cherrywood Country Club. Mickey Iseley and his Magic Music Makers provided the romantic rhythms. All agreed that it was an unforgettable evening, the memory of which we will all cherish in the years to come."
True enough. In the gathering gloom of my Manhattan apartment, it all came back.
* * *
"You going to the prom?" asked Schwartz, as we chewed on our salami sandwiches under the stands of the football field, where we preferred for some reason to take lunch at that period of our lives.
"Yep, I guess so," I answered as coolly as I could.
"Who ya takin'?" Flick joined the discussion, sucking at a bottle of Nehi orange.
"I don't know. I was thinking of Daphne Bigelow." I had dropped the name of the most spectacular girl in the entire high school, if not in the state of Indiana itself.
"No kiddingl" Schwartz reacted in a tone of proper awe and respect, tinged with disbelief.
"Yep. I figure I'd give her a break."
Flick snorted, the gassy orange pop going down the wrong pipe. He coughed and wheezed brokenly for several moments.
I had once dated Daphne Bigelow and, although the occasion, as faithful readers will recall, was not a riotous success, I felt that I was still in the running. Several occasions in the past month had led me to believe that I was making a comeback with Daphne. Twice she had distinctly acknowledged my presence in the halls between classes, once actually speaking to me.
"Oh, hi there, Fred," she had said in that musical voice.
"Uh . . . hi, Daph," I had replied wittily. The fact that my name is not Fred is neither here nor there; she had spoken to me. She had remembered my face from somewhere.
"Ya gotta go formal ," said Schwartz. "I read on the bulletin board where it said ya gotta wear a summer formal to the prom."
"No kiddin'?" Flick had finished off the orange and was now fully with us.
"What's a summer formal?"
"That's where you wear one of those white coats," I explained. I was known as the resident expert in our group on all forms of high life. This was because my mother was a fanatical Fred Astaire fan.
"Ya gotta rent 'em," I said with the finality of an expert.
Two weeks later, each one of us received a prim white envelope containing an engraved invitation.
The Junior Class is proud to invite you to the Junior Prom, to be held at the Cherrywood Country Club beginning eight P.M. June fifth. Dance to the music of Mickey Iseley and his Magic Music Makers. Summer formal required.
It was the first engraved invitation I had ever received. The puberty rites had begun. That night around the supper table, the talk was of nothing else.
"Who ya gonna take?" my old man asked, getting right to the heart of the matter. Who you were taking to the prom was considered a highly significant decision, possibly affecting your whole life, which, in some tragic cases, it did.
"Oh, I don 't know. I was thinking of a couple of girls." I replied in an offhand manner, as though this slight detail didn't concern me at all. My kid brother, who was taking all this in with sardonic interest, sneered derisively and went back to shoveling in his red cabbage. He had not yet discovered girls. My mother paused while slicing the meat loaf.
"Why not take that nice Wanda Hickey?"
"Aw, come on, Ma. This is the prom. This is important. You don't take Wanda Hickey to the prom."
Wanda Hickey was the only girl who I knew for an absolute fact liked me. Ever since we had been in third grade, Wanda had been hanging around the outskirts of my social circle. She laughed at my jokes and once, when we were 12, actually sent me a valentine. She was always loitering around the tennis courts, the ball diamonds, the alleys where on long summer nights we played kick the can or siphoned gas to keep Flick's Chevy running. In fact, there were times when I couldn't shake her.
"Nah, I haven't decided who I'm gonna take. I was kind of thinking of Daphne Bigelow."
The old man set his bottle of Pabst Blue Ribbon down carefully on the table. Daphne Bigelow was the daughter of one of the larger men in town. There was, in truth, a street named after her family.
"You're a real glutton for punishment, ain't cha?" The old man flicked a spot of foam off the table. He was referring to that unforgettable evening I had once spent with Daphne in my callow youth. "Oh, well, you might as well learn your lesson once and for all."
He was in one of his philosophical moods. The White Sox had dropped nine straight, and a losing streak like that usually brought out his fatalistic side. He leaned back in his chair, blew some smoke toward the ceiling and went on: "Yep. Too many guys settle for the first skirt that shows up. And regret it the rest of their lives."
Ignoring the innuendo, my mother set the mashed potatoes down on the table and said, "Well, I think Wanda is a very nice girl. But then, what I think doesn't matter."
My mother had the practiced turn of phrase of the veteran martyr, whose role in life is to suffer as publicly as possible.
"I gotta rent a summer formal," I announced.
"Christ, you gonna wear one a' them monkey suits?" the old man chuckled. He had never, to my knowledge, worn anything more formal than a sports jacket in his entire life.
"I'm going down to that place on Hohman Avenue tomorrow with Schwartz and see about it."
"Oh, boy! La-di-da," said my kid brother with characteristically eloquent understatement. Like father, like son.
The next day, after school, Schwartz and I went downtown to a place we both had passed countless times in our daily meanderings. Hanging out over the street was the cutout of a tall, creamfaced man dressed to the nines in high silk hat, stiff starched shirt, swallow-tailed coat, striped morning trousers and an ivory-headed walking stick held with an easy grace by his dove-gray gloved hand. In red, sputtering neon underneath: AL'S SWANK FORMALWEAR. RENTED BY THE DAY OR HOUR. FREE FITTINGS.
We climbed the narrow, dark wooden steps to the second floor. Within a red arrow painted on the wall were the words SWANK FORMAL-TURN LEFT.
We went past a couple of dentists' offices and a door marked BAIL BONDSMAN - FREEDOM FOR YOU DAY OR NIGHT.
"I wonder if Fred Astaire ever comes here," Schwartz said.
"Oh, come on, Schwartz. This is serious!" I could feel excitement rising deep inside me. The prom, the engraved invitation, the summer formal; it was all starting to come together.
AI's Swank Formalwear turned out to be a small room with a yellow light bulb hanging from the ceiling, a couple of tall glass cases containing suits on hangers, a counter and a couple of smudgy full-length mirrors. Schwartz opened negotiations with a swarthy, bald, hawk-eyed, shirt-sleeved man behind the counter. Around his neck hung a yellow measuring tape. He wore a worn vest with a half-dozen chalk pencils sticking out of the pocket.
"Uh ... we'd like to ... uh ..." Schwartz began confidently.
"OK, boys. Ya wanna make it big at the prom, am I right? Ya come to the right place. Ya goin' to that hop out at Cherrywood, right?"
"Uh. yeah," I replied.
"And ya wanna summah fawmal, right?"
"HEY, MORTYI" he shouted out. "HERE'S TWO MORE FOR THAT BASH AT CHERRYWOOD. I'D SAY
ONE THIRTY-SIX SHAWT, ONE FAWTY REGULAH." His practiced eye had immediately sized us correctly.
"COMIN' UP!" Morty's voice echoed from the bowels of the establishment. Humming to himself, Al began to pile and unpile boxes like we weren't even there. I looked around the room at the posters of various smartly turned out men of the world. One in particular, wearing a summer formal, had a striking resemblance to Cesar Romero, his distinguished gray sideburns and bronze face contrasting nicely with the snowy whiteness of his jacket.
There was another picture, of Tony Martin, who was at that time at the peak of his movie career, usually portraying Arab princes who disguised themselves as beggars in order to make the scene at the market place. He was always falling in love with a slave girl who turned out to be a princess in disguise, played by somebody like Paulette Goddard. Tony's roguish grin, somewhat flyspecked, showed that he was about to break into Desert Song.
Schwartz was busily inspecting a collection of bow ties displayed under glass in one of the showcases.
"OK ON THE THIRTY-SIX SHAWT, AL, BUT I'M OUTA FAWTIES. HOW 'BOUT THAT FAWTYTWO REGULAH THAT JUST CAME BACK FROM THAT DAGO WEDDING?" shouted Morty from the back room.
"CUT THE TALK AN' BRING THE GOODS!" Al shouted back, straightening up, his face flushed.
"THE FAWTY-TWO AIN'T BEEN CLEANED YET!" came from the back room.
"BRING IT OUT, AWREADY!" barked AI. He turned to me.
"This suit just come in from anothah job. Don't worry about how it looks. We'll clean it up an' take it in so's it'll fit good."
Morty emerged, a tall, thin, sad man in a gray smock, even balder than AI. He carried two suits on hangers, draped :hem over the counter, gave Al a dirty look and stalked back into the shadows.
"OK now, boys. First you." Al nodded to Schwartz. "Take this and try it on behind the curtain. It should fit good. It's maybe a little long at the cuffs, but we'll take 'em up."
Schwartz grabbed the hanger and scurried behind the green curtain. Al held up the other suit. In the middle of a dark reddish-brown stain that covered the entire breast pocket was a neat little hole right through the jacket. Al turned the hanger around and stuck his finger through the hole.
"HEY, MORTY!" he shouted.
"HOW 'BOUT THIS HOLE INNA FAWTY-TWO? CAN YA FIX IT?"
"WADDAYA WANT, MIRACLES?" Morty whined.
"Don't worry, kid. We can fix this up good as new. You'll never tell it ain't a new coat."
Schwartz emerged from the fitting room shrouded in what looked like a parachute with sleeves.
"Perfick! Couldn' be bettuh!" shouted Al exultantly, darting from behind the counter. He grabbed Schwartz by the shoulders, spun him around and, with a single movement, ran his hand up into Schwartz' crotch, measured the inseam, spun him around again, made two chalk marks on the sleeves - which came almost to his finger tips - yanked up the collar, punched him smartly in the kidney, all the while murmuring in a hoarse stage whisper:
" It's made for you. Just perfick. Couldn' be bettuh. Perfick. Like tailormade."
Schwartz smiled weakly throughout the ordeal.
"OK, kid, take it off. I'll have it ready for you next week."
Obediently, Schwartz disappeared into the fitting room. Al turned to me. "Here, slip on this coat." He held it out invitingly. I plunged my arms into its voluminous folds. I felt his iron grip on my shoulder blades as he yanked me upward and spun me around, his appraising eye darting everywhere.
"Just perfick. Couldn' be bettuh. Fits like a glove. Take it in a little here; pull in the bias here ..."
He took out his chalk and made a few marks on my back.
"OK. Slip outa it."
Al again thrust his finger through the hole.
"Reweave it like new. An' doan worry 'bout the stain; we'll get it out. Musta been some party. Here, try on these pants."
He tossed a pair of midnight-blue trousers over the counter at me. Inside the hot little cubicle, as I changed into the pants, I stroked the broad black-velvet stripe that lined the outer seam. I was really in the big time now. They were rumpled, of course, and they smelled strongly of some spilled beverage, but they were truly magnificent. The waist came to just a shade below my armpits. Tossing the curtain aside, I
sashayed out like Cary Grant.
"Stand up straight, kid," Al breathed into my ear. An aromatic blast of pastrami and pickled herring made my head reel.
"Ah. Perfick. Just right. Put a little tuck in the waist, so." He grabbed several yards of the seat. "An' a little in here." A sudden thrill of pain as he violently measured the inseam. Then it was all over.
"Now," he said, back behind his counter once again, "how do ya see the shirts? Ya want 'em straight or ruffled? Or pleated, maybe? Very smart." He indicated several shirts on display' in his grimy glass case. "I would recommend our Monte Carlo model, a real spiffy numbah,"
We both peered down at the shirts. The Monte Carlo number was, indeed, spiffy, its high, stiff, V-cut collar arching over cascading ribbons of razor-sharp pleats.
"Boy, now that's a shirt!" Schwartz breathed excitedly.
"That's what I want," I said aloud. No other shirt would do.
"Me, too," Schwartz seconded.
"Fifteen neck, thirty-three sleeve for you, sonny?" he asked Schwartz.
"Uh, yeah," said Schwartz with knitted brow. "But how did you -"
"And fifteen and a half, thirty-four for you, right?"
I nodded, wondering why he bothered to wear a tape measure around his neck.
"OK now," Al continued briskly, "how 'bout studs? Ya got 'em?"
"Uh ... what?"
He had caught me off guard. I had heard the word "stud" before, but never in a tailor shop.
"OK, I guess not. I'll throw 'em in. Maybe even some matchin' cuff links, too, because you're such high-class customers, Now, I suppose ya wanna go first-class, right?"
Al directed this question at both of us, his face assuming a look of concerned forthrightness.
"Right?" he repeated.
"Yeah." Schwartz answered uncertainly for both of us.
"I knew that the minute you two walked in. Now, I'm gonna show you somepin that is exclusive with AI's
With an air of surreptitious mystery, he bent over, slid open a drawer and placed atop the counter an object that unfocused my eyes with its sheer kaleidoscopic brilliance.
"No place else in town can supply you with a genuwine Hollywood paisley cummabund. It's our trademark."
I stared at the magnificent band of glowing, scintillating fabric, already seeing myself a total smash on the dance floor.
"It's only a buck extra. And worth five times the price. Adolphe Menjou always wears this model. How 'bout it, men?"
We both agreed in unison. After all, you only live once.
"Of course, included for only half a dolla more is our fawmal bow tie and matchin' booteneer. I would suggest the maroon."
"Sounds great," I answered.
"Isn't that everything?" asked Schwartz with some concern.
"Is that all! You gotta be kiddin', sonny. How do you expect to trip the light fantastic widout a pair a black patent-leathah dancin' pumps?"
"Dancin' what?" I asked.
"Shoes, shoes," he explained irritably. "An' we throw in the socks for nuttin '. How 'bout it?"
"Fine! So that's it, boys. I'll have everything all ready the day before the prom. You'll really knock 'em dead."
As we left, another loud argument broke out between Morty and AI. Their voices accompanied us down the long flight of narrow stairs and out into the street.
Step by step, in the ancient tradition, the tribal ritual was being acted out. The prom, which was now two weeks off, began to occupy our minds most of the waking day. The semester had just about played itself out; our junior year was almost over. The trees and flowers were in blossom, great white clouds drifted across deep-blue skies and baseball practice was in full swing-but somehow, this spring was different from the rest. The prom was something that we had heard about since our earliest days. A kind of golden aura hung over the word itself. Every couple of days, the bulletin board at school announced that the prom committee was meeting or requesting something.
There was only one thing wrong. As each day ticked inexorably by toward that magic night at the Cherrywood Country Club, I still could not steel myself to actually seek out Daphne Bigelow and ask her the fatal question. Time and again, I spotted her in the halls, drifting by on gossamer wings, her radiant complexion casting a glow on all those around her, her dazzling smile lighting up the corners of the world.
But each time, I broke into a fevered sweat and chickened out at the last instant.
The weekend before the prom was sheer torture. Schwartz, always efficient and methodical, had already made all his plans. We sat on the steps of my back porch late Sunday afternoon, watching Lud Kissel next door struggle vainly to adjust the idling speed on his timeravaged carburetor so that the family Nash didn't stall at 35 miles an hour. He had been drinking, of course, so it was quite a show.
"How ya doin' with Daphne Bigelow?" asked Schwartz sardonically, knowing full well the answer.
"Oh, that. I haven't had time to ask her," I lied.
"Ya better get on the stick. There's only a week left."
"Who you got lined up?" I asked, tossing a pebble at old Lud, who was now asleep under his running board.
"Clara Mae Mattingly," Schwartz replied in a steady, expressionless voice.
I was surprised. Clara Mae was one of those shadowy, quiet girls who rarely were mentioned outside of honor rolls and stuff like that. She wore gold-rimmed glasses and still had pigtails.
"Yep," Schwartz added smugly, gratified by my reaction.
"Boy, she sure can spell." It was all I could think of to say that was good about her, other than the fact that she was female.
"Sure can," Schwartz agreed. He, too, had been quite a speller in our grade school days; and on more than one occasion, Clara Mae had demolished him with a brilliant display of virtuosity in a school-wide spelldown, a form of verbal Indian wrestling now almost extinct but which at one time was a waterloo for many of us among the unlettered. Clara Mae had actually once gone to the state final and had lost out to a gangly farm girl from downstate who apparently had nothing else to do down there but read Webster's through the long winter nights.
"You gonna send her a corsage?" I asked.
"Already ordered it. At the Cupid Florist." Schwartz' self-satisfaction was overflowing.
"Yep. Cost eight bucks."
"Holy God! Eight bucks!" I was truly impressed.
"That includes a gold pin for it."
Our conversation trailed off as Lud Kissel rolled out from under the running board, rose heavily to his knees and crawled off down the driveway on all fours, heading for the Bluebird Tavern, which was closed on Sundays. Lud always got restless in the spring.
A few hours-later, after supper, I went out gloomily to water the lawn, a job that purportedly went toward earning my allowance, which had reached an all-time high that spring of three dollars a week. Fireflies played about the cottonwoods in the hazy twilight, but I was troubled. One week to go; less, now, because you couldn't count the day of the prom itself. In the drawer where I kept my socks and scout knife, buried deep in the back, were 24 one-dollar bills, which I had saved for the prom. Just as deep in my cowardly soul, I knew I could never ask Daphne Bigelow to be my date.
Refusing to admit it to myself, I whistled moodily as I sprayed the irises and watched a couple of low- flying bats as they skimmed over the lawn and up into the poplars. Mrs. Kissel, next door, creaked back and forth on her porch swing, a copy of True Romance open in her lap, as she waited for Lud's return with his usual snootful. My kid brother came out onto the porch and, from sheer habit, I quickly shot a stream of water over him, catching him in mid-air as he leaped high to avoid the stream. It was a superbly executed shot. I had led him just right. He caught it full in the chest, his yellow polo shirt clinging to his ribs wetly, like a second skin . Bawling at the top of his lungs, he disappeared into tile house and slammed the screen door behind him. Ordinarily, this small triumph would have cheered me lip for hours; but tonight, I tasted nothing but ashes. Suddenly, his face reappeared in the doorway.
''I'M CONNA TELL MA!" he yelled.
Instantly, like a cobra, I struck. Sweeping the stream quickly over the screen door, I got him again. Another scream of rage and he was gone. Again, I sank into my moody sea of reflection. Was I going to boot the prom?
Flick had asked Janie Hutchinson, a tall, funny girl who had been in our class since kindergarten. And Schwartz was lined up with Clara Mae; all he had talked about had been that crummy orchid and how good a dancer he was. Flick had stopped asking me about Daphne ever since the past 'Wednesday, when I had gotten mad because he'd been needling me. All week, I had been cleaning up my Ford for the big night. If there was one thing in my life that went all the way, my only true and total love, it was my Ford V8, a convertible that I had personally rebuilt at least 35 times. I knew every valve spring personally, had honed each valve, burnished every nut and bolt she carried. Tuesday. I had simonized her completely; Wednesday, I had repeated the job; and Thursday, I had polished the chrome until my knuckles ached and my back was stiff. I had spent the past two days minutely cleaning the interior, using a full can of saddle soap on the worn leather. Eyerything was set to go, except for one thing no girl.
A feeling of helpless rage settled over me as I continued spraying the lawn. I flushed out a poor, hapless caterpillar from under a bush, squirting him mercilessly full blast until he washed down the sidewalk and disappeared into the weeds. I felt a twinge of evil satisfaction as he rolled over and over helplessly. It was getting dark. All that was left of the sun was it long purple-orange streak along the western horizon. The glow of the steel mills to the north and east began to light up the twilight sky. I had worked my way down to the edge of our weedy, pock-marked bed of sad when, out of the corner of my eye, I noticed something white approaching out of the gloom. I sprinkled on, not knowing that another piece was being fitted into the intricate mosaic of adolescence. I kicked absent-mindedly at a passing toad as I soaked down the dandelions.
"'What are you doing?"
So deeply was I involved in self-pity that at first my mind wouldn't focus. Startled, I swung my hose around, spraying tile white figure on the sidewalk ten feet away.
''I'm sorry!" I blurted out, seeing at once that I had washed down a girl dressed in white tennis clothes.
"Oh, hi, Wanda. I didn't see you there."
She dried herself with a Kleenex. "What are you doing?" she asked again.
''I'm sprinkling the lawn ." The toad hopped past, going the other way now. I squirted him briefly, out of general principles.
"You been playing tennis?" Since she was wearing tennis clothes and was carrying a racket, it seemed the right thing to say.
"Me and Eileen Akers were playing. Down at the park," she answered.
Eileen-Akers was a sharp-faced, bespectacled girl I had, inexplicably, been briefly in love with in the third grade_I had come to my senses by the time we got into 4-B. It was a narrow escape. By then, I had begun to dimly perceive that there was more to women than being able to play a good game of run sheep run.
"I'm sure glad school's almost over," she went on, when I couldn't think of anything to say. "I can hardly wait. I never thought I 'd be a senior."
"Yeah," I said.
''I'm going to camp this summer. Are you?"
"Yeah," I lied. I had a job already lined up for the summer, working for a surveyor. The next camp I would see would be in the Ozarks, and I'd be carrying an M-1.
Wanda swung her tennis racket at a June bug that flapped by barely above stall speed. She missed. The bug soared angrily up and whirred off into the darkness.
"Are you going to college when you graduate next year?" she asked. For some reason, I didn't like the drift of the conversation.
"Yeah, I guess so, if I don't get drafted."
"My brother's in the Army. He's in the artillery." Her brother, Bud Hickey, was a tall, laconic type four or five years older than both of us.
"Yeah, I heard . Does he like it?"
"Well, he doesn't write much," ,he said. "But he's gonna get a pass next September, before he goes overseas."
"How come he's in the artillery?" I asked.
"I don't know. They just put him there. I guess because he's tall."
"What's that gotta do with it? Do they have to throw the shells, or something?"
"I don't know. They just did it."
Then it happened. Without thinking, without even a shadow of a suspicion of planning, I heard myself asking: "You going to the prom?"
For a long instant she said nothing, just swung her tennis racket at the air.
"I guess so," she finally answered, weakly.
"It's gonna be great," I said, trying to change the subject.
"Uh... who are you going with?" She said it as if she really didn't care one way or the other.
"Well, I haven't exactly made up my mind yet." I bent down unconcernedly and pulled a giant milkweed out by the roots.
"Neither have I," she said.
It was then that I realized there was no sense fighting it. Some guys are born to dance forever with the Daphne Bigelows on shining ballroom floors under endless starry skies. Others - well, they do the best they can. I didn't know that yet, but I was beginning to suspect something.
"Wanda. Would you ... well ... I mean . . . would you, you see, I was thinking...."
Here I go, in over the horns: "Wanda, uh . . . how about . . . going to the prom with me?"
She stopped twitching her tennis racket. The crickets cheeped, the spring air was filled with the sound of singing froglets. A soft breeze carried with it the promise of a rich summer and the vibrant aromas of a nearby refinery.
She began softly, "Of course, I've had a lot of invitations, but I didn't say yes to any of them yet. I guess it would be fun to go with you," she ended lamely.
"Yeah, well, naturally, I've had four or five girls who wanted to go with me, but I figured that they were mostly jerks, anyway, and ... ah ... I meant to ask you all along."
The die was cast. There was no turning back. It was an ironclad rule. Once a girl was asked to the prom, only a total bounder would even consider ducking out of it. There had been one or two cases in the past, but the perpetrators had become social pariahs, driven from the tribe to fend for themselves in the unfriendly woods.
Later that night, hunched over the kitchen table, still somewhat numbed by the unexpected turn of events, I chewed thoughtfully on a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich while my mother, hanging over the sink in her rump-sprung Chinese-red chenille bathrobe, droned on monotonously: "You're just going to have to stop squirting Randy."
"Yeah," I answered, my mind three light-years away.
"You got his new Flash Gordon Tshirt all wet."
"Sorry," I said automatically. It was a phrase I used often in those days.
"It shrunk. And now he can't wear it."
"Why not?" I asked.
"It comes up around his chest now."
"Well, why can't he stretch it?"
"You just Stop squirting him, that 's all. You hear me?"
"It's a silly T-shirt, anyway," I said truculently.
"You heard what I said. No more squirting." That ended the conversation.
Later, in bed, I thought briefly of Daphne Bigelow, but was interrupted by a voice from the bed on the other side of the room.
"You rotten crumb. You squirted my T-shirt!"
"You wait. I'm gonna get you!"
I laughed raucously. My kid brother wailed in rage.
"SHUT UP, YOU TWO! CUT OUT THE FIGHTING OR I'LL COME IN THERE AND DO SOME HEAD KNOCKING!"
The old man meant what he said and we knew it. I promptly fell asleep. It had been a long and tumultuous day.
I broke the news to Schwartz the next morning, after biology. We were hurrying through the halls between classes on our way to our lockers, which were side by side on the second floor.
"Hey, Schwartz, how about double-dating for the prom?" I asked. I knew he had no car and I needed moral support, anyway.
"Great! I'll help you clean up the car."
"I've already Simonized her. She's all set."
"Are you gonna send .Daphne an orchid, or what?"
"Well, no ..." I said, hoping he'd forget what he asked.
"What do you mean? Ya gotta send a corsage."
"Well, I am going to send a corsage."
"I thought You said you weren't."
"I never said I wasn't gonna send a corsage."
"Are you nuts? You just said you weren't gonna."
''I'm not gonna send a corsage to Daphne Bigelow. You asked me if I was gonna send a corsage to Daphne, and I'm not."
"She's gonna think you're a real cheapskate."
It was getting ridiculous. Schwartz was being even more of a numskull than usual.
"Schwartz, I have decided not to ask Daphne Bigelow to the prom."
He looked directly at me, which caused him to slam into two strolling freshman girls. Their books slid across the floor, where they were trampled underfoot by the thundering mob.
"Well, who are you taking?" he asked, oblivious to their shrieks of dismay.
Schwartz was completely thrown by this bit of news. Wanda Hickey had never been what you could call a major star in our Milky Way. We walked on, saying nothing, until finally, as we opened our lockers, Schwartz said: "Well, she sure is good at algebra."
It was true. Wanda was an algebra shark in the same way that Clara Mae was a spelling nut. Maybe we both got what we deserved.
Later that day, in the study hall, after I had polished off a history theme on some stupid thing like the Punic Wars, I got to thinking about Wanda. I could see her sitting way over on the other side of the room, a dusty sunbeam filtering through the window shades and lighting up her straw-colored hair. She was kind of cute. I'd never really noticed it before. Ever since second grade, Wanda had just been there, along with Eileen Akers, Helen Weathers and all the rest of that anonymous throng of girls who formed an erotic backdrop for the theater of my mind. And here I was, at long last, taking Wanda Hickey - Wanda Hickey - to the prom, the only junior prom I would ever attend in my life.
As I chewed on the end of my fake-marble Wearever pen, I watched Wanda through half-closed eyes in the dusty sunbeam as she read the Lady of the Lake. Ahead of me, Schwartz dozed fitfully, as he always did in study hall, his forehead occasionally thumping the desk. Flick, to my right, struggled sullenly over his chemistry workbook. We both knew it was hopeless. Flick was the only one in our crowd who consistently flunked everything. In the end, he never even graduated, but we didn't know that then.
The prom was just five days away. This was the last week of school. Ahead, our long summer in the sun stretched out like a lazy yellow road. For many of us, it was the last peaceful summer we were to know.
Mr. Wilson, the study-hall teacher, wandered aimlessly up and down the aisles, pretending he was interested in what we were pretending to be doing. From somewhere outside drifted the cries of a girls' volleyball game, while I drew pictures of my Ford on the inside cover of my three-ring notebook: front view, side view, rear view, outlining the drawings with ink.
That morning, on my way to school, I had gone down to the Cupid Florist Shop and ordered an orchid. My 24 dollars were shrinking fast. The eight-dollar bite for the orchid didn't help. Schwartz and I were going to split on the gas, which would come to maybe a buck apiece. After paying for the summer formal, I'd have a fast ten dollars left for the big night. As I sat in study hall, I calculated, writing the figures down, adding and subtracting. But it didn't come out to much, no matter how I figured it.
Schwartz passed a note back to me. I opened it: "How about the Red Rooster afterward?"
I wrote underneath, "Where else?" and passed it back. The Red Rooster was part of the tribal ritual. It was the place you went after a big date, if you could afford it.
I glanced over across the room at Wanda and caught her looking at me. She instantly buried her head in her book. Good old Wanda.
On the way home from school every day that week, of course, all we talked about was the prom. Flick was double-dating with Jossway and we were all going to meet afterward at the Rooster and roister until dawn, drinking deeply of the sweet elixir of the good life. The only thing that nagged me now was financial. Ten bucks didn't look as big as it usually did. Ordinarily, ten bucks could have gotten me through a month of just fooling around, but the prom was the big time. |
|This story was reprinted in the book "Wanda Hickey's Night of Golden Memories And Other Disasters", was used in the PBS movie "Phantom Of The Open Hearth" and was Slice 2 of his taped collection "Shepherd's Pie"
It was also re-printed in Plaboy Magazine in the January 1989 35th anniversary issue||
|Not Determined yet|
|Engineer and others in Booth