WHY DOES A MAN become a revolutionary? Just when is that precise instant of stark realization when he perceives with unmistakable clarity that he is but a humble tenpin in the cosmic bowling game of life? And that others are balls in that game? Look closely into the early private life of any great revolutionary and you will find a girl. Somewhere along the line, a pair of elfin eyes put Karl Marx down so decisively that he went home and wrote the first words of his Manifesto. I well remember my own turning point. Like most pivotal moments in our lives, it came unexpectedly and in the guise of rare good fortune. Her name was Daphne Bigelow. Even now, ten light-years removed from the event I cannot suppress a fugitive shiver of tremulous passion and dark yearning. Her skin was of the clearest, rarest form of pure, translucent alabaster. She had no "eyes" in the mundane sense, but rather, she saw the world, or the world saw her, through twin jade-green jungle pools, mirrors of a soul that was so mysterious, so enigmatic as to baffle ninth graders for yards around. I hesitate to use such a pitifully inadequate word as "hair" to describe that nimbus of magic, that shifting cloud of iridescence that framed a face of such surpassing beauty that even Buddha would have thought long and hard before staring straight into it. Why I go on with this self-flagellation I do not know. Nevertheless, I cannot but continue. There was something else about her, something I am not quite sure I can adequately convey through the sadly lacking means of imperfect human language. Daphne walked in a kind of soft haze of approaching dawn. A suggestion always lingered about her that she wasn't there at all. Rosy gold and blue tints flushed and were gone; soft winds blew. Somewhere exotic birds called out in their sleep as Daphne drifted into Biology I, trailing mimosa blossoms and offering ecstasies not yet plumbed by human experience.
Way clown deep among the lower one third of the class, amid that great rabble of faceless mankind who squat among the rancid lunch bags and musky galoshes of academe, who are forever condemned to view the great pageants of life from parked third-hand jalopies amid the apple cores and beer cans of drive-in movies. I sat hardly daring to hope-from over a gulf so vast as to make all earthly distances pale to triviality-and devoured her daily with my eyes from behind a Biology I workbook.
Heretofore, my relationship with girls had been simple in the extreme. My concept of them was based largely on Little Orphan Annie and Esther Jane Alberry. One was in the funnies; the other was short and squat, sang alto in the glee club and played third base. She looked like a fat Judy Garland. We had a certain relationship that had no sexual overtones whatsoever, being mainly involved in various athletic contests in which we competed. Until Daphne, it had not occurred to me that there was more to the game.
Throughout the entire first semester after she came to Hammond High, my wonder grew like some dank, unclassified toadstool in the coal bin of my subconscious. At first, dimly and with naive joy, I believed myself to be secretly blessed. I watched for her face everywhere; in the halls, on the stairways, in auditorium crowds, in the sullen herd who waited numbly outside the doors to be admitted in the early-morning hours, in the rumbling hordes who poured out of school after the last classes. Everywhere. From time to time, she would drift briefly into view and then disappear. Her name never appeared on those lists of kids involved in what are known as "activities." She was above that. As day after day faded forever into history, as my intricately contrived glandular system ripened and matured, so my carefully concealed passion for Daphne Bigelow burgeoned, until finally it engulfed me and I was swallowed up like Jonah into the inky blackness of the whale's belly.
The midsemester exams came and went. Over Christmas vacation I had been haunted by nameless fears, since Daphne was out of my sight. Now a new terror-would I be assigned to the same biology class with her next semester? Finally, the dread day arrived. I could scarce credit my senses. Not only had Daphne Bigelow condescended to remain among us; our new biology teacher - a dapper gentleman wearing rimless glasses, black shellacked hair and squeaky shoes, named Mr. Settlemeyer had, in an exquisite moment of insight and compassion, assigned Daphne Bigelow to me as my Biology II lab partner! Together we would investigate the mysteries of the great animal kingdom of which we were but a small part.
Well do I remember "that blissful afternoon when, together, Daphne and I pinned a limp, formaldehyde-dripping frog to a cork specimen board and I, being the man of the house, bravely took up scalpel and showed her the stuff of which I was made. At the head of the class, Mr. Settlemeyer, pointer in hand, described various portions of frog anatomy, while beside me Daphne smiled with the faintest suggestion of approval, of perhaps even admiration, as I rose to magnificent heights of skill and daring. She averted her eyes delicately as I performed the autopsy. Her tiny moues of girlish fright "and squeamishness drove me on to even greater pinnacles as I laid bare the vitals of the unfortunate amphibian. We both received an A+ for the afternoon's work.
From that deceptively unprepossessing yet starkly symbolic beginning, our love took root and grew. By the end of the third week we were on a first-name basis. This may seem a small achievement, but it is not every man who is privileged to call a genuine goddess by her first name, and to be answered in kind.
I learned more about her every day, but mostly from outside sources. She spoke little of her home life, her joys, her aspirations, her dreams. While I, being a male, babbled on endlessly, weaving about both of us a rich cocoon of myth and grandiose philosophical generalities.
As winter silently faded into the soft sensuality of early spring, my resolve strengthened and took specific form, though I never saw Daphne outside of biology class. Officially, that is. Unofficially, I shadowed her like a maniacally devoted dacoit, one of the sinister footpad tribe of early India. Watching her from afar, I cataloged her every movement. I covertly made a note of every article of clothing she wore; her wardrobe was immense and infinitely varied. My maroon corduroy slacks, meanwhile, a holdover from the Christmas before, grew increasingly repugnant to me. My purple pullover sweater, with its faded, block-lettered "H," somehow did not sing to me as it used to.
Daphne never rode the school bus or the streetcar, or hitchhiked home like me and Schwanz and Flick. She just magically disappeared. One day I thought I saw a fleeting form enter a long, black, waiting Cadillac down the block from the school, but I could not be sure it was she.
When we passed in the halls, I always wore my carefully rehearsed, debonair Fred Astaire smile, evincing private amusement at this unexpected coincidence. But she always smiled back even more enigmatically as she drifted past always alone and aloof from the grubby, normal kid hoopla of high school life.
The time for the spring dance was fast approaching. It was the custom for dates to exchange invitations well before the event. Posters appeared. Mickey lseley and his Paradise Honeymooners, a big-name local band, were engaged to officiate. I decided to lay the groundwork for a move so daring, so hazardous that if I had ever confided my scheme to Schwartz or Flick, they would have immediately wrestled me to the ground, hollering that I had finally completely gone off my nut. But I had not breathed to a soul, even to myself, that I had designs on the most magnificent woman in all of Hammond High, if not of the known universe. Few common gophers ever entertained designs on prize-winning, thoroughbred fillies. I did, and learned a lesson that I have never forgotten.
One night, while safely huddled in the familiar lumpiness of the bed I had slept in ever since I had first crawled out of the playpen, staring up into the blackness - the faint sounds of distant, romantic whistles on trains bearing magic people off into the mysterious outside world drifting in through the cracked window shades and limp curtains of my bedroom-I decided to bestow my invitation to the big spring dance on Daphne Bigelow. My mind reeled with the mere thought of it! Craftily I began to piece my plan together. First I must have a date - a casual, everyday date - with her, and from there, inevitably, I would lead her to that dazzling ballroom where our love would finally be consummated in the throes of a dance I had zealously perfected in long hours of loose-limbed, sweaty practice, a dance that I knew neither Daphne nor any other woman alive could ever resist: the lindy. Among my peers, those who really appreciated subtle creativity, the beauty of the withheld statement, my lindy knew no rivals.
The next day my sardonic, martini-dry wit during Biology II flickered like a flame as Daphne hunched next to me over a huge night crawler that together we were dissecting, the heady aroma of her exotic French perfume blending provocatively with the rich fumes of preserving alcohol and dead worm. My courage grew as my bons mots became more and more epigrammatic. Oscar Wilde would have stood tongue-tied in my presence. And then, casually, amid a brilliant analysis of Mr. Settlemeyer's teaching deficiencies, I prepared to drop my bomb.
"Oh, say, Daphne - heh, heh - pass me another roundhead pin."
Snakily I watched her from the corner of my eye as she turned her gaze away from the benighted night crawler and reached her delicate hand, with infinite grace, over to the pin box. For a moment, panic almost stilled me. Her beauty was such that it took the breath away. Rallying quickly, however, I plunged
I took the pin from her hand, the light brush of her fingers over mine sending goose-pimples all the way down to my Argyle socks and out the ventilation ports of my Keds. Without thinking, I did it. It came out in a rush.
Instantly, I bent over my friend, the deceased denizen of the underground, a distinct ringing in my ears as the classroom faded from my consciousness and I stood alone, unafraid, in the bull ring. From somewhere off in the hazy distance I beard a flutelike voice say softly:
Did I detect a note of incredulity, or was it my imagination? I repeated my question, not daring to so much as glance at her. After a three-century pause came the answer.
From a distant auditorium, the school band struck up The 1812 Overture. Cannons roared; bugles blew. I had scored beyond my wildest dreams! The rest of the conversation went by and is now mercifully lost from memory. But I remember mumbling something about a John Wayne movie, and that I would pick her up. She told me where she lived. The next night, a blessed Friday, was going to be it!
Realizing that there was much to be done and no time to lose, like an arrow loosed from the bow, I shot homeward the instant the doors of our pen were grudgingly thrown open. Closeting myself immediately in the bedroom, the scene of so many sweaty erotic daydreams, I went over every item in my vast wardrobe, carefully calculating piece by piece how best to achieve the magnetic effect I knew was necessary. Overlooking nothing, including my American Legion Ball left fielder's uniform, I considered, weighed, rejected, wavered; selected each tiny link in my crucial costuming for what was to prove a fateful night. Individual socks were pored over with infinite care, held up to the light, smoothed and laid reverently aside for a final screening.
Through my locked door filtered the usual family sounds: pots banging, my kid brother's occasional whimper, and finally, the roar of the old man's Olds up the drive. The shadows darkened and lengthened. At last my ensemble was complete. If the outward man has any shield against the slings of outrageous fortune, I was more than ready.
Now I was at the supper table, ready to let the family in on what could very well be a turning point in all our lives. My old man, seated to my left in, as usual, his long underwear, dug lustily into his meat loaf - which, as usual, he chopped up into small pieces, the better to mix with his mashed potatoes and peas, over which he splashed a heavy puddle of lush, piquant Heinz tomato ketchup.
My kid brother, his snout buried deep in his plastic Mickey Mouse Drinkee Mug, slurped noisily at his Cocomalt, which he attacked with a venomous hatred, recognizing the stuff for what it was-a cheap trick to get him to drink milk. The nightly fight that preceded this ritual had come and gone before my arrival at the table. As he drank, he performed the daily rite that my mother referred to as -"playing with your food." For some obscure reason, he had found that mashed potatoes, meat loaf and red cabbage tasted better when molded into the shape of an inflated football. He occasionally varied this pattern by constructing other symbolic structures such as propellers, and once even a fairly good likeness of Tillie the Toiler. He then asked everybody:
"What does this look like?"
Nobody ever told him. Our family did not use that kind of language at the table.
My mother shuttled between the stove, the sink and her chair, wiping up debris from around my brother, refilling my old man's coffee cup and in general keeping the action going. In the midst of all this, I asked casually, of no one in particular:
"Do you remember one time I told you about Daphne Bigelow? In Biology II?"
My mother, not accustomed to actual conversation from anybody, at first did not grasp the meaning of what I had said, thinking that I had asked for more gravy. The old man, who rarely listened to anything said in the kitchen, banged his cup down with a clank on the white enamel table as a signal for more coffee, a beverage to which he was passionately dedicated. I began again:
"She sure is a great girl."
Behind me, the refrigerator chugged and squeaked to itself, a sound that provided night and day a musical obbligato to our lives. My kid brother had extended his tongue to its fullest length, at least a foot and a half. He was using it to make great sworls in his red cabbage.
"Stop playing with your food!"
My mother slapped him smartly on the arm with a wet dishcloth and shoved a fork into his greasy mitt. Silently he glowered straight down into his plate to announce that it was going to be another of those nights. There were times when he was fed through the use of a funnel and a ramrod, my father prying his teeth apart with a screwdriver while my mother poured the turnips into him. Absent-mindedly, my father, glancing up from the sports page, said:
My mother, now seated and trying to wrench the Mickey Mouse cup from my brother, who had placed it atop his head, asked:
"STOP FOOLING AROUND AND EAT!"
My father raised his head again and asked:
"What about her?"
Bracing myself for the big plunge, I looked meaningfully around the table at our tiny brood wallowing happily at the trough.
"Well, me and Daphne Bigelow are going on a date. I'm going to take her to the Orpheum to see John Wayne in Hearts Aflame at the Old Corral. She's really a great girl."
It was out! Irretrievablyl
''I'm going to take the bus and go over--"
The old man cut in:
"The bus? Where does she live?"
No kid in the neighborhood had ever dated anyone who lived more than 150 feet away from his own warren. The idea of taking a bus to a girl's house was a truly revolutionary concept, and I knew it. Picking my words carefully, I laid the javelin home.
"Oh, she lives over on Waverly Street. On the North Side." The North Side! In one breath I had evoked an image of a land, a world so remote from ours, so inaccessible as to be almost outside the realm of reality. I might as well have said the North Pole. The North Side was a legendary fairyland of vast lawns, great elm trees and sprawling fiefdoms reached only by winding private drives through landscaped wonderlands.
My father, recognizing instantly the emergence of a new and possibly dangerous generation being nurtured in the bosom of his own home, was now alert and intensely interested. My mother lay back, suspecting a trick.
"Did you say Daphne Bigelow?"
"On Waverly Street?"
I had struck pay dirt. I played him like a rainbow trout on opening day.
"Yeah. She's in my Biology II class."
My mother, not fully realizing the import of what she had heard, fuzzily threw in:
"What happened to Esther Jane?"
The faintest trace of an enigmatic smile curled the corners of my lips. My father carefully smoothed out his Chicago Herald-American. He folded and refolded it with exaggerated care, and then said:
"Daphne Bigelow, I wonder if she's the daughter of Mr. Bigelow over at the Second Calumet Region National Bank?"
"Isn't he that tall, thin man at the second cage?" asked my mother. My father, radiating disbelief from every pore and speaking with some wonder, said:
"No. He's the chairman of the board."
This was news to me! But at the time did not fully grasp what kind of news it was. I was to find out all too soon.
At the time, I thought a chairman was somebody who sat at a desk holding a gavel. I had no idea what a board was, other than the two-by-fours that Flick and I stole from time to time to use in various ways.
"Maxwell Bigelow is the guy who gave that ice-skating rink to the park," said my old man. He was looking at me now with a very funny expression on his face.
"Oh, it can't be the same one. Does anybody want any more mashed potatoes before I put them back on the stove?" When confronted with inexplicable developments, my mother often pretended that they didn't exist.
"You've got a date with his daughter?" My father slowly stirred his coffee, steaming and black.
"Yep, we're going to a show."
"How did you get a date with her?" my mother asked.
"She's in my biology class. I asked her."
With infinite care and deliberation, the old man placed his cup on the tabletop. He was not a veteran Edgar Kennedy fan for nothing.
"You mean to sit there and tell me" - he paused dramatically - "that you just asked her?"
"Maxwell Bigelow's daughter? Maxwell Bigelow from the Second Calumet Region National Bank's daughter? You just asked her for a date?"
"Well, I'll be damned!"
Upward mobility had at last hit Hammond. It was the first recorded instance in Indiana of its occurring at the grassroots level.
My mother, who had been gradually sucked into what she now saw was a situation that even more mashed potatoes would not change, decided to go along with it.
"Well, you be nice to her parents."
I never quite understood what she meant by this advice-which she always handed out over the years. On various occasions she had advised me to "be nice" to teachers, to people on my paper route, to steel-mill foremen, and later even to first sergeants; all people or institutions that she recognized to be in absolute authority.
She continued: "I don't want anyone to think you weren't well brought up."
"Well, I'll be goddamned!" The old man, who had played such a large role in Bringing Me Up Well, used this favorite expression to cover all occasions.
"Yep, I'm taking her to the Orpheum. And the Red Rooster afterward."
"Well, don't you keep her out too late so that her mother and father will worry." With that, my mother concluded her entire catalog of counsel about life and its problems. She took it as it came, and felt that as long as you were nice along the way, things would work out fairly well, provided you got home early enough.
AII through dessert - her famous rhubarb rice pudding-technical matters of transportation, dress and behavior were discussed. Obviously I had scored heavily, and the awe that they felt about this unparalleled achievement slowly gave way to righteous pride.
My old man unbuttoned the top of his long underwear and began to talk of great dates he had had in his feckless youth. In sullen silence, my mother cleared the dishes off the table and resumed her old station, hanging over the sink, Brillo pad in hand, amid the lingering aroma of red cabbage, meat loaf and coffee grounds. The squeaking of the refrigerator blended with the sound of Bing Crosby singing about some Hawaiian babe from the radio in the next room. I began to feel my new status.
By bedtime, as I checked over my outfit for the great adventure, I found myself - for the first time in my life - a full-fledged hero in my own home, not an experience one has often, I have later found. But being a kid, of course, I was under the impression that this was only the natural state of affairs.
Later, in the dark, incredibly witty things to say to Daphne tumbled end over end through my churning mind. I sifted through my assortment of jazzy stories, which I had picked up from the ballfield and the gym. In the dark I could see my lean-flanked figure escorting Daphne to a seat in the fabled lushness of the Orpheum. And then - whisked magically - we were in the number-one booth next to the jukebox at the
Red Rooster. Casually I drop a coin in the slot, and amid admiring bursts of applause, I demonstrate my matchless lindy, waving casually for Bucky the counterman to knock together another of my specials. Daphne, her eyes shining in unabashed adoration, poured out her heart to me. Squeezing her hand, looking deep into those jade-green jungle pools, I knew at last the meaning of true soul communication. The night was full of laughter, song, dance and awakening love, all against the backdrop of soft spring skies - and, of course, the clean thrust of my chiseled jaw.
"Waves of ecstasy coursed up and down my body as I tossed on my monastic pallet. Outside in the darkness, a few distant rumbles of early spring thunder mingled with the soughing of the eternal train whistles reaching into the dark, going away, coming closer, going away again. A few drops of rain pattered on the rusty screen outside my bedroom window. Gradually I fell asleep, but not without a struggle.
At first, as I awoke in the gray-green light that trickled in through the battered window shade and the roar of sparrows holding their morning orgy filled the room with whooping and hollering, I did not remember what day this was. Then I noticed my Number-One, Heavy-Artillery, Important-Occasion Sports Coat hanging on the back of my bedroom door, and I knew. This was D-day.
I dressed absent-mindedly in my school clothes, my mind deep in scheming. At the breakfast table the aura of wonder was still rich and ripe. As I spooned in the oatmeal, my kid brother abortively attempted to wrest from me the glory that was rightfully mine by relating some trivial cock-and-bull story about a silly pumpkin he had drawn at school and that was being hung on the bulletin board. I smiled tolerantly and headed off for school.
That morning, when I joined my hitchhiking companions, my fellow freeloaders who every day pocketed - and squandered - the dime that was given to them by their parents to ride the school bus, it was all I could do not to tell them that although I was briefly among them, I was no longer of them. Flick particularly, that morning, seemed to be not only disrespectful but somewhat insolent. He had gained some degree of fame on the hitchhiking corner by an alleged exploit which, at least according to his overblown account, he had shared with a certain Juanita Clobberman. I, naturally, did not pull him up short, knowing full well that when the word got out that I had had a date with Daphne Bigelow - in full public view - there would be no question as to who was who and what was what among the hitchhikers.
I approached biology class, however, with certain trepidations. Perhaps she would chicken out. But no, it was like any other day, a routine class. As I crouched over our pickled grasshopper, Daphne was as cool and detached, as chillingly beautiful as ever, but now, deep inside myself, there was a mounting conspiratorial excitement that could not be denied. Almost at the very end of that session, in my most urbanely offhand manner, I came straight to the point:
"Uh-heh, heh - what time shall I pick you up? Ah ..."
She smiled that faint extra-dry lemon twist of a smile, which to this day I remember above all smiles that have ever been aimed in my direction.
"Tonight?" she asked. An ice pick of fear jabbed up my spinal cord. She paused and went on:
"Oh, any time."
"Ah - how 'bout after supper?"
Without knowing why, I knew that already I had ticked off a foul ball.
"Oh!, you mean dinner," said Daphne.
Dinner? Dinner was something we had in the middle of the afternoon, on Sundays, Thanksgiving, New Year's Day and Christmas. It was always eaten with the sun high, around three P.M., after which, immediately, my old man, his belt opened, lurching across the living room, burping loudly and bellowing,
"Boy, am I stuffed!," would topple over on the sofa and instantly plunge into a snoring coma. I did not, therefore, see how I could pick Daphne up after dinner, and decided to play it safe.
"Well, uh-how about seven-thirty? We can catch the eight-twenty show."
"That'd be nice."
She smiled, and we returned to the world of the grasshopper, the cricket and the cockroach. The rest of the day passed in a kind of dreamy delirium. Bells rang, chalk scratched, basketballs swished through hoops, papers were passed from hand to hand, poems were read, questions asked. School droned on.
At last I was home. Into my bedroom I went. Every item of clothing I had selected the night before I carefully rechecked twice, going back over my entire wardrobe to be sure that in my enthusiasm I had not committed a sartorial faux pas. I hadn't.
"NOW DON'T ANYBODY TOUCH ANY OF THIS STUFF!" I shouted out into the hall.
My mother's pans rattled; my brother stolidly threw a ball against the side of the house out in the driveway as I went into the bathroom to begin the meticulous ritual of ablution that would result in a vision of masculine beauty so blinding that there could be no conceivable chance for anything but a spectacularly triumphant evening.
Carefully examining my face, the door locked tightly behind me, I worked with a surgeon's dispassionate skill over my usual blossoming array of bruises, blackheads and what my father called "old juicers." Applying steaming hot water between operations, I worked steadily, until finally there shone out of the bathroom mirror the fresh, pink, beaming image of dynamic handsomeness.
I leaped into the shower. This was an important enough occasion to warrant a second shower for the week. The water roared, and I spread a thick, vibrantly aromatic layer of pungent Lifebuoy lather over my Olympian torso. I had read enough ads to know what happened to those who Offend. I took no chances. The water ran alternately hot and cold, until finally I stood as pure and clean as the driven snow in the heady steaminess of the bathroom, buffing myself down briskly with a terrycloth towel. Reaching up to the top shelf of the medicine cabinet, I took down my father's can of Old Spice talcum powder, a gift that he had received many Christmases before and never, to the best of anyone's knowledge, used. I shook billowing clouds of its cloying sweetness down over me; dusting, brushing here and there, smoothing, anointing myself.
Stealthily using his heavily guarded razor, I then shaved myself to the veritable quick. All 17 of my downy golden fibers, undiscernible to the naked eye, washed down the drain with the shaving lather and warm water. My leonine mane of manly auburn hair, which had been thoroughly shampooed, I now massaged with a heavy elixir of what my father scornfully called "bear grease," a concoction put out by Vaseline to abet the ambitions of countless generations of Midwestern Lotharios. Its scent was more of a direct statement than a suggestion, being violent, highly volatile and - some said - inflammable when in close quarters.
Now came the most crucial task of all. I was known far and wide for my "cute wave," which did not come easily. Dragging a comb through my greasy locks, I began to mold my classic Grecian coiffure. Time and again I redid my masterpiece, only to be driven, as the true artist always is by the elusive dream of perfection, to start anew.
At long last, there I stood: the finished product, American manhood at its ultimate. Teeth agleam, seven pounds of carefully sculptured hair, exuding all the aromatic mystery of a thousand mingled scents enveloped in a palpable nimbus of pure Lifebuoy, the soap of those who care for others. As a final fillip, I gargled at great length, swirling it about my mouth voluptuously - a generous draught of Listerine. Well I knew of The Pitfalls of Halitosis, a dread disease that had struck down many a burgeoning romantic career at its very inception.
Springing light as a gazelle into the bedroom, I began to don my armor. Layer upon layer, I carefully girded my loins. Zero Hour was rapidly approaching. Tonight I would skip supper. First, a crisp new pair of Jockey shorts that I had kept concealed in my drawer for just such a state occasion. I debated briefly about whether or not to wear a T-shirt, finally deciding that I was sexier without. My white-on-white dress shirt, which I had received as a birthday present and worn only for genuinely high moments in life, was painstakingly unbuttoned. I admired its vast, razorsharp, seven-inch-long collar points, its Tony Martin high-rise, its crackling, crisp French cuffs. Pulling it on inch by inch so as not to create the slightest wrinkle, I buttoned it, using only the tips of my sanitary fingers. Then, reaching into my dresser drawer, I brought out the most effective weapon of my arsenal, a pair of magnificent bull's-eye cuff links, each link a great bull's eyeball outlined in dazzling gold. I loved to hold them in certain lights; they seemed to glow - a malevolent, baleful, virile shaft of masculine aggression. True, they made movement of the arm rather difficult, since their combined weight was several pounds, but it was worth it.
Now the tie. A thing of transcendent beauty. It had been given to me as a graduation present from eighth grade by my Aunt Clara. Tying my widest, fattest, sharpest windsor knot - about the size of a man's fist - I drew it up under my collar with geometric precision. A glittering opalescent silver-gray, 100-percent satin, five and a half inches wide at its fulcrum, it bore in its center the hand-painted image of a beautiful red snail, and hung tastefully well below my belt. It was the greatest tie I had ever seen.
My slacks were a rich chocolate brown, high and pinch-waisted, beginning just under my armpits. They cascaded down over my loins, my kneecaps, and finally clung tenaciously to my ankles. Billowing, pleated, alligator belted, they were the slacks of a man who worked in the lindy as other artists worked in marble. I thought briefly of wearing my golden key chain with the emerald initials, but decided tonight I would underplay. Voluptuously, I then drew on my gray-and-maroon Argyle socks, and then neatly tied a perfect bow on each lace of my perforated, Scotch-grained-leather, full -dress, blunt-toed, crepe-soled bluchers; burnished to a high gloss, the rich dark-red Thorn McAn cordovan leather glowed in the gloom of my bedroom.
There are moments of dramatic climax in the rite of dressing. Mine came when I donned my greatest pride - my sports coat. With infinite care, so as not to wrinkle my cuffs, I drew each waffle-weave woolen sleeve down clutched by the fingers, tugged at its low, sweeping hem, squared its massive, looming, horsehair-packed shoulders, straightened its fashionable six-inch delta-wing lapels, and finally fastened its tasteful mother-of-pearl button. It lit up the entire room, its unique electric-blue shade sending off a lambent radiance of such promise, such rare, delicate aesthetic excitement as to crown my entire ensemble.
Rummaging through my socks in the little drawer of my dresser where I kept my secret papers, I hauled out my invitation to the spring ball. Carefully I tucked it into the inner pocket of my coat. After all, this was the reason for it all. Tonight I would present Daphne with the ultimate gift!
Walking carefully, so as not to disturb a hair of my billowing pompadour, I ambled into the kitchen-not without some difficulty, since I had to inch sideways through my bedroom door to squeeze my enormous padded shoulders into the next room. The applause was deafening.
My kid brother, openly awed at my entrance, raised his head dripping from the mound of creamed chipped beef into which he had burrowed-chipped beef being the regular Friday-night chef d'oeuvre of our weekly menu. My familiarity with this epicurean dish was to prove invaluable basic training for my later years in the Army. As I walked in-a veritable human Christmas tree - the pulse of family life noticeably quickened.
"My, you certainly look nice." My mother approved.
"Do you think you'll see Mr. Bigelow tonight?" my father asked, always hoping for an opening, some slight crack in the wall between us and real life outside.
"I don't know," I answered, breathing Pepsodent, Listerine and Sen Sen into the already rich mixture left permanently in the air of the kitchen by millions of boiled cabbages, fried bacon, souring milk and moldering dishrags.
"See if he looks like he does in the pictures in the paper," the old man said.
"Well, I better get going."
I glanced up at the clock hanging over the stove, a clock of purest white plastic made in the form of a large chicken, with two red hands. It didn't have actual numbers to mark the hours; instead, golden plastic letters marched around the rim spelling out: "It hasn't scratched yet." My mother had gotten the clock by saving Bon Ami cleanser labels. It was considered the most beautiful thing in that part of the house.
"Well, I'll see you."
My father smiled proudly; my mother smiled proudly; my kid brother stared blankly, chewing slightly. With a casual flick of my left hand in farewell, I slipped out into the night. It was a cool evening, with just the slight edge of winter coldness to it, the kind of night made for warm bodies snuggling together, for dark exchanges of deep thoughts, out of the wind, away from the unfriendly night.
Under the streetlight two blocks away, I waited for the cross-town bus, little realizing that a man named Charon would beat the controls. As I waited, not daring to move lest I disturb a crease, a button, a single undulating wave, I watched the mundane neighborhood life go on around me. The Bluebird Tavern halfway up the block flung open its doors briefly. A flash of light and Mr. Kissel reeled out into the darkness, his unmistakable starboard list instantly recognizable even at 200 yards. And there was Pulaski's Bull Durham sign on the wall of the old candy store (where I had spent many an hour of my callow youth in mortal combat with Old Man Pulaski over the purchase of jawbreakers, JuJu Babies and root beer barrels), looming high against the glow of the steel mills on the horizon. I could barely make out the familiar slogan under the massive bulk of that subtly humorous old bull on the sign: HER HERO. I looked up at him; he looked down at me. We were both in the same business.
The bus slammed to a stop, breathing out hot air and carbon monoxide. In I went, dropping my fare into the box with the practiced nonchalance of the true sophisticate, a man of the world out on the big town. There were no other passengers in the bus that night; I had my choice of seats. I sat immobile, protecting
my razor crease, for the entire journey-through darkened streets, traffic, long stretches of used-car lots, junk yards, machine shops, car barns, gas stations, gray battered houses huddled in the shadow of monstrous gasworks. On and on.
Gradually the neighborhoods changed, until at last I was on the North Side. The bus rarely stopped now. Few got on or off except an occasional maid or elderly people carrying little bundles. Somehow the night was different over here: darker, and yet more exciting. I watched the trees grow thicker and higher outside the bus window-hedges and graveled walks, until finally we reached my stop. I got off, and the bus roared on. Again I was alone under a streetlight. There were no Bull Durham signs. Mr. Kissel was light-years away. Even the street sign was different from those on the other side of town; a kind of carved
Olde English sort of plaque swung in the breeze under the short, stubby little street lamp: WAVERLY STREET.
Daphne had told me that her house was the third one from the corner, on the right. . I followed the broad, grass-lined sidewalk into the night, the air fragrant with well-tended lawns, rare budding tulips, freshly graveled drives. Here the houses were not hard by the street but, rather, buried deep in the velvety blackness; a glowing yellow light through the trees, here a glint of silver, there a splash of blue. I drifted on, knowing that at last I had reached a safe harbor, the world I had always known was mine.
There is something about the smell of well-being that is a balm for the most savage of souls, and yet contains the vaguest whiff of nameless dread. Now I stood at the foot of a curving asphalt ribbon that wound through a grove of overhanging trees, weaving between sculptured beds of rich loam. A small white sign read simply, BIGELOW. No street number, no explanation; just BIGELOW. The lure of the unknown, Circe calling from the rock, enticing ancient sailors to their doom - it was all there, beckoning; but in the American night, what 15-year-old with seven dollars in his pocket knows of this? Or cares?
It was one of those porches modeled loosely after the Lincoln Memorial: Neo-Greek and noble. I felt the tiniest twinge of fear, like the faint beginnings of a toothache. Never, outside or a Vivien Leigh movie, had J seen anything like this. A bronze lantern hung amid the snowy vastness, casting a soft amber glow on the welcome mat before a stained-glass door-carved, sparkling, gleaming. The rest of the veranda trailed off into the blackness to the left and right.
I knocked. Nothing happened. I knocked again, peering through the colored panes into a hall; dimly lit, arched and vaulted, silent. I knocked again. It seemed as though I had been under that amber lantern for perhaps a month, maybe more, before I noticed a tiny carved-ivory button sunken into one of the fluted Doric columns that framed the vast doorway. A doorbell. I pressed. After a discreet interval, floating as if
from a vast distance away, came the sound of two chimes. Then silence. I waited. The sound of approaching footsteps. Finally the door swung open and an elderly man dressed in black stood in the gloom.
"Yeah ... I ..."
"Miss Daphne is expecting you."
I followed him down a short, wide flight of stairs to a vaulted hallway lit by a giant crystal chandelier and then through two sliding oak doors into an enormous, darkened chamber lit here and there by glowing bronze lamps.
" Won't you sit down? Miss Daphne will be down presently. I'll tell her you're here."
He disappeared. I sat on the edge of a high-backed leather chair that looked as though it had been hand-carved by a Spanish conquistador. I looked around. Boob with leather binding, thick and wide, ran from floor to ceiling, fading off into the distance. A mammoth carved desk of black wood lit by a small green lamp stretched along one wall. Above it, a tall man with white hair, wearing a black suit, holding a book ill one hand, his other resting on a dark-brown globe, looked down at me with a faint, familiar smile. from a gigantic painting. I looked again. It was Daphne's lemon-twist smile.
A distant voice filtered down the curved, arching staircase that disappeared upward in the hall. Somewhere a light went on. I caught a glimpse of a long table, sparkling crystal, snowy-white linen, the kind of table and glassware I had seen only in the movies.
Then, suddenly, through the door came a tall, gray, dignified man. For a minute I thought he was the one in the portrait, but no, not quite. I rose. For the first lime, I noticed that my shoes squeaked. His face was jovial, pink, a few white hairs over the ear, his suit brown, striped, elegant.
"Hi there. You're here for Daphne, aren't you?" he asked. sticking his hand out toward me, thumb skyward. It was the first time a grownup had ever offered to shake hands with me.
I yanked my mitt out of my right pocket, spraying change all over the Oriental rug. Nickels, dimes, streetcar tokens and a rare bottle cap I had been saving softly distributed themselves in artistic patterns among the furniture legs. He laughed as he shook my sweaty hand. 'We both bent simultaneously to pick up my dropped effluvia. My sports coat hunched up over my shoulders, burying my ears deep in horsehair. Together we scavenged about under rich cordovan leather, behind carved-ebony claws holding cut-crystal orbs.
"By George, this is interesting," he said as he scooped up my Magic Tom Mix Good-Luck Charm with the embossed secret Tom Mix TM Bar password.
"Heh, heh ... yeah ..." I replied.
I tried to hide the bottle cap, but it was no use. Three times I dropped my rare collector's item before I finally got it back into my pocket.
"You're Shepherd, aren't you, son?" His voice was yeasty, deep; it bounced off the oil portrait. .
"Yeah. Heh, heh .
"Sit down, my boy. Care for some sherry?"
"uh ... yeah. Heh, heh ..." I really liked cherry pop. How did he know? He pulled a cloth cord on the wall. A minute later, the old guy who had let me in appeared in the door.
"You rang, sir?"
"Yes, Drew. Bring us some of the sherry, will you? "Well, young man, it certainly is tiresome waiting for the womenfolk, isn't it?"
"Yeah. It sure is. Heh, heh. It sure is ..."
"Say! ..." He looked at me with great interest, his white brows arched, his magnificent teeth glowing healthily. "Aren't you one of the Pittsburgh Shepherds?"
He continued: "The Pittsburgh steel Shepherds?"
I could feel, actually hear my face getting beet red. The Pittsburgh STEEL Shepherds! All I knew about Pittsburgh was that the Pirates came from there, but I did have an uncle who worked in the 40-inch soaking pits at the steel mill. I couldn't see how Mr. Bigelow would know him.
""Well, yes ... I guess so. I do have some relatives in steel."
He slapped his knee and laughed. "By George, I thought you looked like old Googie! I haven 't seen the old rascal since our class reunion at New Haven! The next time you see him, tell him Max Bigelow said - now get this, he'll know what it means - Bango!" He roared.
"Heh, heh. I sure will."
"Don't forget, boy. Bango!"
Over his shoulder, off in the middle distance, I saw a maid moving back and forth along the immense table, touching a glass, arranging a napkin. A huge grandfather clock, seven feet tall, all brass and dark wood, ticked quietly in the rich air.
The old guy shoved a silver tray under my nose and smiled. Panicky, I reached for the thinnest, tiniest glass I had ever seen. It looked like my Uncle Carl's eyecup, only tinier. I had it for a brief instant between my thumb and forefinger, its stem barely discernible. And then, suddenly, it tipped over and the warm amber fluid soaked into my best slacks, dripping down inside over my kneecap and down my leg, to be absorbed by my Argyles.
"Oopsl" Mr. Bigelow bellowed. "Bad luck!" Immediately, the old guy was back with another glassful. I took it and held it tight.
"In your eyel"
It was then that I think he began to suspect. He sipped his drink and watched me narrowly as I raised my glass to my mouth and drained it in a single gollop. A raging bolt of fire streaked downward.
"What did you say, boy?"
"... Gork!" My eyes watered, my throat burned. Deep in my stomach a pot began to boil. Never in my life had I had anything stronger than a fleeting sip of my Uncle Tom's homemade root beer.
Mr. Bigelow settled back in his deep leather armchair and for the first time really looked at me. It was then, inexplicably, that my sports coat began to glow in the dark. His beautifully cut muted mocha creation looked like no suit I had ever seen before. It was not a Cleveland Street pick-'em off-the-pipe-rack special. Even I knew it. My father's only good suit was a. kind of yellowish color with a tasty kelly-green plaid. Its lapels, high and sweeping, jutted out like the mainsails on a Spanish galleon. He always wore his lodge button stuck in the left sail, a pin the size of a nickel made in the shape of a Sacred Beaver. He belonged to the Royal Order of the Beaver, Dam 28. Mr. Bigelow wore no pins.
Stealthily, I tried to hide my left cuff link, which had somehow begun to send a shaft of purple light to the ceiling. No sooner had I gotten it under my electric-blue sleeve than the other one switched on even brighter. I pulled it out of sight and sat with both arms clamped behind me, my French cuffs crinkling. Then I noticed that my beautiful shoes were getting wider; the soles of which I was so proud had grown thicker and squeakier. I tried to hide my Argyles by tucking my bowling balls under the chair. Mr. Bigelow watched, but said nothing. Finally he called out:
"Daphne, Your ... Date is here." His voice had changed. "Well, have fun," he said to me. "Don't stay out too late." He smiled, again that lemon twist that Daphne used, then rose and left the room.
Almost on cue, Daphne appeared atop the broad, sweeping balustrade and glided gracefully down the thick, carpeted stairs. I stood, my cuff links jangling, - my shoes squeaking, the bottle cap in my pocket clanking loudly against my Tom Mix lucky charm, my enormous padded shoulders swinging back and forth. But I was not at a loss for words.
"Heh, heh . . . Hi, Daphne."
"So glad to see you."
"Well, shall we go?"
"We moved from room to room, down the marble entrance hall and finally out onto the dark, amber-lit veranda. "Dad said we could use the car."
A long black Cadillac gleamed like an ebony crypt in the driveway, the one I had half seen near school. A man in black darted out of the bushes and opened the back door with a sweep. Daphne stepped in. In my panic, I cracked my shin such a thump against the doorsill that my teeth rattled for an instant.
"Heh, heh . . . By George!" I hadn't lost my presence of mind.
I hobbled into the car, stumbled across a deep wall-to-wall rug and groped my way to the back seat, my leg throbbing dully. A thin trickle of blood oozed down my shin.
"We waited in the drive. In the front seat, the man who had opened the door sat quietly. After what seemed like 20 minutes, Daphne finally came out with:
"Well, it sure is a nice night out." I was really sharp tonight.
The driver turned and said, "Where to?"
Daphne waited. The Cadillac waited.
The driver waited. Fuzzily suspecting they were waiting for me, I took the plunge :
"Uh . . . The Orpheum."
The driver said, "The Orpheum?" with a rising inflection that was familiar. Many teachers had used it on me before, an effective oleo of dignity and scorn. Daphne, her voice calm, said quietly:
"Yes, Raymond. The Orpheum." The note of stainless-steel authority was one she did not use in Biology II. I had not seen this side of Daphne. It interested me.
Silently, the car began to roll. We wound through the trees, past the flower beds and out into the great night through the tunnel of green, past looming hedges, wrought-iron gates, antique lanterns, and finally into the street.
I flayed my jellylike mind for something to say. Where was my agile whipcord brain? What had happened to my famed cool irony? Finally, I quipped:
"Boy, it sure is nice out."
"Yes, it is a lovely evening."
"It sure is. Boy."
A flash of inspiration percolated through the coffee grounds of my cranium:
"Old Settlemeyer's really a gasser, isn't he? Boy!"
"He is ... Amusing."
I did not know till that moment how wide, how vast, car seats could be. Daphne was at least 30 yards out of field-goal range, perched miles away from me on the billowing dove-gray cushion we shared. Raymond, two and a half miles ahead of us, was obviously clearly out of earshot.
Dauntless, I wondered how she would react to a quick clinch. I watched her out of the corner of my eye to see whether there were any outward signs of passion yet. It was hard to tell at that distance. Finally, I decided once again to play it safe, a tendency that has cursed me all of my life.
We were now in the streetcar-hot-dog, stand-neon-sign belt. As the terrain became more and more jazzy, more familiar, my courage rose. I was just on the point of making a quick grab for her delicately turned ankle and risking the whole caper on one shot in the dark when we drew up before the Orpheum. Such was my frenzy that I was caught off guard and didn't notice that the car had stopped and Raymond was holding the door open for our descent back into the real world.
"Well, here we are," said Daphne pointedly.
Coming to, I stepped out of the limousine, cracking my good ankle heavily against the curb. Where I came from, cars had running boards. Raymond, alert, shot a hand out as I pitched forward, grabbing my left shoulder pad in an iron grip, like a quarterback about to throw a 60-yard pass. Of course, all he got was a handful of the horsehair, excelsior and tiny bedsprings with which my coat was equipped to give me the stylish Chicago Bears lineman look that was so admired in the sophomore class. A few threads snapped and gave, but I stood upright.
"Are you all right, sir?"
"I was just kiddin' around."
I playfully belted him in the ribs. He coughed slightly and drew back, his eyes flat, opaque.
"Just havin' a little fun, Raymond."
He did not laugh.
Daphne joined me on the sidewalk under the brilliant glare of the white lights of the friendly old Orpheum marquee. The usual motIey rabble that hung around the Orpheum entranceway every night - to watch the girls go in or just to look at the red-and-yellow posters displaying sinister Japanese soldiers tying Merle Oberon to 500-pound bombs - openly gawked at the black land yacht. Daphne, and my electric-blue coat. Quickly I scanned the crowd, hoping for at least one envious face. There was none. I bought the tickets and we passed inside. Mr. Woscowski, who had replaced Mr. Doppler as manager after the infamous Orpheum gravy-boat riot of my youth, took the two tickets, ripped them across and dropped them in the slot with one motion. I tried to catch his eye in order to let Daphne know how widely known I was, but he ignored me.
Into the blackness we went. Some of the more meaningful moments of my life had been spent in this dark, warm cocoon. The Orpheum had always seemed to me one of the greatest places in the world. "With suave assurance I convoyed Daphne safely down the littered aisle, popcorn crunching underfoot, ankle-deep in candy wrappers, to my favorite row of seats in the left-hand section halfway down. We sat directly behind a couple who, if not engaged in actual copulation, were certainly doing a good impersonation of it. On the screen a 75-foot John Wayne glared stonily into the rolling hills.
Since I had seen the picture twice before, I hoarsely outlined the part we had missed into Daphne's fragrant, shell-like ear. But I got the distinct impression of a lack of concentration on her part. Ahead of us the two seats squeaked and groaned. The girl, if that's what she was, giggled briefly as they battled on. A masculine voice in the darkness ahead mingled with the sound track, overriding it sharply:
"Aw, for Crissake, Nan, come onl"
The slap of flesh sharply striking flesh , followed by a burst of raucous laughter. I became aware of a movement behind as a large knee crept up the back of my seat and rested on my right shoulder. It pushed forward, tilting my seat three or four inches nearer the combatants ahead. I turned and said politely into the darkness:
"Do you mind removing your knee?"
A blast of alcohol engulfed me.
"WHO'S CONNA MAKE ME, YOU SON OF A BITCH?"
Now, in the Orpheum under normal circumstances, this was a direct cue for action. For a moment I almost forgot myself. Fighting for control, however, I forced myself to ignore the outrage and said to Daphne through clenched teeth:
"John Wayne is sure good."
She said nothing. She was sitting bolt upright, a rare sight in the Orpheum, and seemed to be peering around in the darkness at the huddled figures that surrounded us.
"Who ya lookin' at, baby?" a merrymaking steelworker asked bluntly. Another challenge.
Daphne, tilting her head gracefully, whispered into my ear:
"This is a very interesting place."
It had never occurred to me that the Orpheum was a very interesting place, at least not the way she put it.
"Yeah. It's great. Really great."
Somewhere far off to our right, someone unleashed a gigantic, resonant burp, after a prolonged rasping gurgle, a guy really dredging it up from the bottom. Scattered applause and laughter followed. From the balcony a shower of Cracker Jack drifted down over the center section, accompanied by three folded airplanes that danced briefly in silhouette over the Western prairies.
"Wouldja like some popcorn?" I asked.
"No, thank you."
"How 'bout a Coke?"
We sat numbly together in the rickety scats. Comparative calm reigned for half a reel or so, and then the final collapse of the evening began. During a tense moment on the screen-in dead silence as John Wayne waited for the attacking rustlers to come over the hill, the audience crouching forward in nervous anticipation, Daphne herself showing discernible signs of interest - a low rumbling began. At first I thought it was a DC-3 flying over on its way to Chicago. It got closer and closer, louder and louder. It seemed to come from all directions at once, a low bass thrumming. It grew in volume. In the dark, my palms turned to ice. Oh God no, not now!
My stomach was rumbling! It was a great joke in the family that when I missed supper, or a meal was late, the old gut would bang it out like an anvil. As the roaring gurgle sighed off into the distance like a freight train crossing a viaduct, the voice behind me, still on the muscle, barked out:
"Cut it out, ya slob!"
More cackles. Daphne cleared her throat.
"Excuse me," I said.
After all, I didn't want the Bigelows to think I wasn't well brought up. My gut settled down to its regular idle after the first clarion blast and continued muttering throughout the movie.
I had always taken the Orpheum for granted. All of it. But now I began to notice things that I had never been aware of. Somewhere off behind us there was a continual flushing of plumbing. I could hear the projector whirring, accompanied by the low-voiced, nonstop argument between the two operators. I hoped Daphne didn't notice. But she caught something else.
"Certainly smells funny here."
"What d'ya mean?"
"You don't notice?"
"Oh, yeah. Yeah. Sure."
After all these years coming to the Orpheum, how was it I had never before been aware of all those feet? I sat quietly, sorting out scent after scent, hoping desperately that Daphne didn't recognize most of them.
The picture neared the end. John Wayne told Charles Bickford, the cattle baron, how he'd have to move on 'cause he was the roamin' kind. I knew it was now or never. My fingers crept softly over my knee, over the armrest, poised in the dark for a moment and then dropped slowly over Daphne's exquisitely modeled
hand. For a few seconds we sat unmoving; her fingers, cool and smooth, nestled in my sweaty palm. I stared straight ahead, afraid to break the spell. Even my stomach stopped rumbling out of respect for this magic moment. Ahead of us, the tangled couple had fallen into a comatose state, lulled perhaps by satiation or maybe by the tender sentiments of Hearts Aflame at the Old Corral. Thus we sat to the final frame, the last slanting rays of the Western sun outlining a lone rider galloping into the distance.
The lights came up. Unfastening our hands, we moved together back up the aisle and out into the glare of the marquee. Welders, steam fitters, kids, old men wearing black hats pushed and shoved around us. The Cadillac waited. Raymond at the wheel. Daphne said the first thing either of us had uttered for hours, it seemed:
"That was certainly a very interesting place. I'm really glad you brought me to it. Do you come here often?"
"Nah, I just thought you might find it interesting."
"Well, it certainly was."
We were back inside the chariot. Already its rich dove-gray aroma seemed homey and familiar to me. I was about to instruct Raymond to wheel us down to the old Red Rooster when Daphne said in a small voice:
"It's certainly late, isn't it? I had no idea how late it was."
Raymond, without a word, turned his battleship against the traffic and we headed back toward the North Side. For a few moments nothing was said, as the limousine hummed silently along. The heady excitement of social triumph surged through me. Stealthily my hand crept like a predatory spider over the
soft mohair, closer and closer to Daphne, as I whistled a few snatches from the Hammond High Victory Song. Raymond tooled on, coolly, discreetly, as the trees grew higher, the privet hedges appeared
and the neon signs receded.
Closer and closer. We touched! For a single quivering instant, and then quietly she drew her hand away, laying it in her mysterious lap.
"Did you finish that caterpillar drawing?" she asked.
"Oh, yes. You can copy it Monday."
We rode on in silence. I groped frantically for some feeble straw, some last bit of flotsam to cling to, to keep the conversation going. I t was no use.
"I sort of like Mr. Settlemeyer," she said finally.
"He's all right, I guess."
We pulled in the drive, up to the veranda and stopped. Raymond whipped the door open. This time I knew how to get out. Daphne took my hand and shook it, the second time it had happened in the same night!
"I've had a very lovely time, and I want to thank you."
"I had a great time, too. It sure was great."
"Raymond would be glad to drive you home."
"Oh, no, I'll walk. I live just a few blocks over, on Harrison," I lied spectacularly.
"Well, see you in class. Good night."
She was gone.
"Sure you don't want a ride, Bud?"
Raymond had changed without a word, I turned and walked down the long curving asphalt drive between the flower beds, under the trees, past the stone sundial, the iron gates, the white sign that read BIGELOW, out into the night, walked in my electric-blue sports coat, my hated, rotten, crummy electric-blue sports coat, its padding squishing and banging against my shoulder blades, its hem flapping against
my knees, walked with my long, fluttering tin-foil noose with its monster snail crawling up and down-my despised, ridiculous tie - walked in my booby, pleated, sacky clown pants, walked in my Tony-Marrin-collared, French-cuffed, miserable, jazzy shirt. Walked and walked.
I had struck out. My old man had struck out. My mother had struck out. Even my kid brother had struck out. I sailed my Tom Mix lucky charm off across the street toward a delicate, lacy gazebo and walked on, mile after mile, through leafy streets, under catalpa trees, eventually past lurking pool halls, taverns, junk yards, used-car lots. I never knew it was so far to the North Side. Finally I walked under the Bull Durham sign, past the Bluebird, up the back steps, through the screen door and into the kitchen. It was then I remembered for the first time that the invitation to the spring ball was still in my pocket.
I breathed in the aroma of red cabbage, spilled ketchup, fermenting Brillo pads, my mother's Chinese-red chenille bathrobe. Opening the refrigerator, I peered into the yellow, fragrant interior. A dish of peas from last week, a meatball with a bite out of it, what was left of a baked ham, a plastic container with some pickled beets. Home, Smelly, Home.
Grabbing the meatball, I stuffed it in my mouth, washing it down with milk from the bottle, and was about to rip off a piece of ham when the kitchen light blasted on. Her hair in curlers, her bathrobe hanging limply, my mother beamed sleepily.
"Did you have a good time?"
"Were you nice to them?"
"Well, that's nice. I don 't want them to think you aren't well brought up. Well, hurry to bed."
I finished the food, snapped off the light, stumbled through the dark into my bedroom, removed my repulsive sports coat and my pleated slacks-smelling faintly of sherry-and threw them in the corner next to my baseball bats. I sat on the edge of my bed in the dark. A sparrow rustled under the eaves outside the window. In the next room my kid brother muttered in his sleep. The sink burped moodily. The refrigerator chugged and squeaked. I thought briefly of that long table, with all the crystal and the maid touching things here and there. I wondered idly if Esther Jane Alberry had gotten her invitation to the spring ball yet. Then I lay back on my lumpy mattress and finally fell asleep, but not without a struggle.