LUSTIKI! read the marquee in letters three feet high. Must be Lithuanian for lust, I mused, jogging from foot to foot to keep warm in the long line of Manhattan art film fanciers in front of the East Side's smart new Cinema 69, their ascetic faces flushed in anticipation of another evening of artful montages, elegant pans, gracefully executed dissolves. I glanced at the posters that rimmed the box office. One of them read:
LESBIA, AN IDEALISTIC YOUNG PEASANT GIRL, TRAVELS TO THE BIG CITY IN SEARCH OF TRUTH. STARRING LUDVICKA BELLICOSNICK AND DIRECTED BY MILOS PEDERASTNICKI, THE 13-YEAR-OLD SENSATION. "A SEARING EXPERIENCE"... N.Y. TIMES. ; "SMASHING" ... REX REED.
Lesbia herself, bosoms ripe as Indiana cantaloupes. her peasant eyes widely spaced in her magnificent Slavic face, appeared to be enjoying a transcendental sexual climax with a Viet Cong irregular.
The throng around me looked like a Fellini crowd scene: squat females in leather jackets carrying bullwhips, coveys of razor-thin, trilling creatures of indeterminate sex in velvet jerkins and elf shoes, a few scowling, bearded revolutionaries in full Zapata attire, their denim jackets abristle with OFF THE PIGS buttons. The light from the marquee glinted from the polished lenses of hundreds of pairs of rose and blue sunglasses, some as large as dinner plates. A sizable contingent of Shoshone Indians in beaded headbands and fringed deerskin jackets exchanged mystic signs, their voices oddly Bronx-tinged as only
CCNY braves' can be.
Others were clad in castoff costumes from Joan Crawford pictures: padded shoulders, frumpy skirts, sequined wedgies, ringlet curls and feather boas. Here and there a Grand Concourse version of Humphrey Bogart sneered condescendingly at the mob, cigarette drooping sardonically from a lower lip. A few Belmoudos and several Warhols added vivid accents to the mosaic. A Salvation Army Santa Claus at the curb, his Kriss Kringle costume hopelessly demode, rang his bell listlessly above the clamor. I tugged at the bill of my Jackie Coogan tweed cap, setting it more firmly on my head as I shivered slightly under my paisano serape, my Fred Astaire two-tone patent-leather pumps pitifully inadequate to the December slush.
After the show - which turned out to be a flawed but compelling black-comedic post-existential skin flick in the drolly amusing Sacher-Masoch genre - I eased into a booth at Le Bagel Verite, a favorite haunt of ciriemagoers in the neighborhood. Sipping a mug of mocha absinthe, described on the menu as the favorite potation of John Barrymore, I found myself studying a striking poster on the wall amid the likenesses of Paul Newman, Marlon Brando, Peter Fonda, Che Guevara and Charlie Brown. It was my oId friend Ludvicka. "Don't I know you from someplace?" I reflected, the absinthe flowing like tepid lava through my veins.
Of course! It hit me. Every male I ever knew believed that foreign girls, even if they're just from the next town, were infinitely sexier than the ordinary home-grown product. I laughed ironically in my Sydney Greenstreet manner, as I often do when my mind takes a philosophical turn. Then, painfully, it all began to come back-my own almost forgotten adventure in alien sensuality, foreign passion, forbidden fruit.
It began innocently enough a couple of weeks before Christmas in the northern-Indiana steel-mill town where I festered as a youth. It was just before Christmas vacation, already deep into a bitterly cold winter, and I was shuffling idly through clots of drifted, soot-covered snow, my mind drifting aimlessly like a semi-deflated blimp. I was between romances. A brief, disastrous fling with Elizabeth Mae Longnecker had petered out in late November, when I discovered she wore ear muffs and galoshes with snaps. Somehow she had seemed different on the tennis courts.
I was coming home late from band practice, my left shoulder still aching from the weight of my sousaphone, lips tingling from the last 24 bars of The 1812 Overture, when I sniffed a pungent 228 aroma that was to play a dramatic part in the erotic history of my kidhood. I sniffed again. It was vaguely familiar, yet strange-and mysteriously exciting. The elusive aroma mingled with the rotten-egg smell of the Grasselli Chemical Works, the swamp-gas exhalation of the Sinclair refining plant, the smoldering, metallic miasma of the blast-furnace dust that formed our daily breathing air.
Again I sniffed, my senses alert like some jungle cat detecting danger. As I got closer and closer to home, the aroma grew even lustier. It was then that I noticed lights coming from the Bumpus house next door. This infamous house had been empty since the moiling Bumpus clan, a mob that made Genghis Khan's
hordes look like a Cub -Scout Jamboree, had stealthily departed in the night with their blue-tick hounds and their gallon jugs of corn likker, leaving unpaid rent and a yard full of garbage behind. I looked curiously at the lighted windows. After the Bumpus family, there was no telling what might show up. I went up our back porch and into the kitchen, already feeling a vague, rising excitement.
"How many times do I have to tell you to .take off your overshoes out on the porch?"
"Yeah. Ma, who ... ?"
"I said take 'em off on the porch. Now! Look at my floor"
I went back out on the porch, kicked off my overshoes and darted back into the kitchen. My kid brother sat at the kitchen table, glaring sullenly at an arithmetic book.
"Hey, Ma, who moved in next door?"
She didn't answer, being busy at the moment sliding a meat loaf covered with tomato sauce into the oven. The radio on the refrigerator whined:
"When the deep purpulll fallz Over sleepy garden wallllzz..."
"Would you turn that radio down? I can't hear a word you're saying."
Flushed after her usual struggle with the oven door, which had a bad catch and hardly ever closed right unless it was slammed four times, my mother straightened up and wiped her hands on a kitchen towel. I reached up and turned the radio down just as the back door opened and in came myoid man, snow showering off him as he stamped and snorted.
"Holy Christ, it's cold enough to freeze off a brass monkey'S...."
"Please. The kids are listening." She caught him just in time.
"Hey, what the hell's that I smell? You cookin' somethin' new for supper?" he asked suspiciously, being strictly a meat-and-potatoes man who viewed all divergences from that basic menu as an effete affectation. He truly believed that the only food people really liked was meat and potatoes and that they just pretended to like other things in order to impress each other.
"It's coming from next door," my mother answered absently as she set the table.
"Next door? Y' mean they're actually cookin' supper over at the Kissels?" His voice rose in disbelief. Lud Kissel, our other next-door neighbor, had given up eating food years before, about the time he discovered bourbon, on which he subsisted entirely except for periods when he had to settle for gin. Since he had given up eating - and working - the rest of the family had lived on cornflakes.
"No, from the Bumpus house."
"THE BUMPUSES!" He blew up, rushing to the window. "Don't tell me them bastards are back! Goddamn it, if I have to kick another of them lousy hounds...."
One of his worst fears was that the Bumpuses would move back next door, just to drive him crazy. The memory of that shiftless swarm of tobacco-spitting, raw-boned, gimlet-eyed primitives was still an open wound in my father's psyche.
The heady aroma from next door filled our kitchen like a cloud of exotic gas. Sudden]y, without warning, as the old man peered into the darkness, a loud musical thumping, heavy and rhythmic, added to the clamor.
"What the hell is that?" The old man's voice was tinged with trepidation. We remembered all too well the sleepless nights we spent while the Bumpuses' ever-twanging Victrola filled the night air with the nasal sounds of Ernest Tubb, the Delmore Twins and Cowboy Copas. It was the first note of a barrage of thumpings that was to continue for some time.
"Well, here we go again." My father slumped into his chair at the kitchen table and opened a can of Atlas Praeger.
"I think I know what that smell is," said my mother with quiet authority.
"That smells to me like stuffed cabbage."
The old man looked up from his beer. "It does smell like stuffed cabbage. But there's somethin' else." He sniffed the air.
"I think they're cooking blood soup, too." My mother said it as if everybody cooked blood soup every night.
"Blood soup!" My father gagged briefly on his beer.
"AAAGGHH!" My kid brother had joined the discussion. He was a notoriously picky eater.
"Yes. Irma Kissel says they're Polish."
"Boy, that's a reliefl" The old man said it like he meant it. "For a second there, I thought we had the Bumpuses back. Sometimes I get nightmares dreamin' about all that guitar playin' and them dogs yappin', and that old bastard spittin' tobacco juice into our driveway."
POLISH! I thought, suddenly alert.
"Do they have any kids?" I asked.
''I'm not sure, but I think there's two or three boys. And...." She stirred the mashed potatoes expertly, salting them lightly with her left hand, "... I believe there's a girl."
My father had lost all interest in the subject and was deep in the sports page. As long as the Bumpuses weren't coming back, he didn't care who moved in.
A girl! A Polish girl! A wave of ecstasy shuddered through my frame. Our neighborhood was singularly lacking in girls of any kind. For some reason, practically every kid in the neighborhood was a male. The only place we ran into actual girls was at school, and they all lived in mysterious neighborhoods far from ours. Of course, there was Esther Jane Alberry, squat, truculent and morose; and there was Helen Weathers, who had hair like a football helmet and who weighed 200 pounds soaked in sweat, which she almost always was; and there was Eileen Akers, in her thick glasses, who spent all of her time at the library. But they didn't count. Though Schwartz, Junior Kissel and I talked a lot about girls, it was mostly
"Her name's Josephine," said my mother. "She's about your age. She goes to All Saints School."
I struggled to maintain my composure, but inwardly I reeled. My God, the jackpot! A Polish girl my age had moved next door to mel
A prime universal belief among my peers was that the girls of the next town, East Chicago, were fantastic, and that the most fantastic of all were Polish girls. There was never any scientific evidence. It wasn't necessary. It was just an established fact. Sometimes when Flick got his old man's car, we'd go to East Chicago to ride around with the windows open just looking at Polish girls walking around the streets. We'd holler out at them and ride around and around the block, jabbing each other in the ribs, swigging Nehi orange, gulping down White Castle hamburgers and blatting the horn. This sport was called "skragging" for some reason. We never actually talked to a girl, of course, or even really got near one; we just hollered, gunned the motor and stared.
"Josephine?" I tried to sound unconcerned, as though I hadn't caught the name.
My mother ladled out the gravy as she said, "They call her Josie. Their last name's Cosnowski. They come from East Chicago."
God Almighty! Wait'll Schwartz and Flick hear about this! Josie Cosnowski from East Chicago! A new era had begun.
At lunchtime the next day, the following dialog took place at a fashionable greasy spoon called John's Place, which catered to the high school crowd and featured the gristliest hamburgers in Christendom:
SCHWARTZ (mouth full of French fries): "I bet you couldn't guess what I'm gettin' for Christmas."
FLICK: "This ketchup is rotten. It's all clotted on the bottom." (Hollering loudly over general hullabaloo and 400 watts of jukebox.) "HEY JOHN, HOW ABOUT SOME FRESH KETCHUP HERE? THIS BOTTLE'S BEEN ON THE COUNTER FOR SIX YEARS!"
SCHWARTZ (persistently): "You wouldn't believe what I'm gettin' for Christmas."
FLICK (standing up at his stool and waving ketchup bottle): "HEY JOHN, KETCHUP OVER HERE FOR THE TROOPS!"
JOHN (a short, swarthy man of uncertain parentage and evil temper due to a life of continual harassment by acne-plagued adolescents and a succession of short-order cooks who quit every three days): "Who the hell's hollerin' fer ketchup?"
FLICK: "Me. Over here." (Ketchup in bottle, still being waved, suddenly unclots, spraying surrounding customers, including renowned defensive halfback, who rises menacingly from his stool and then settles back, figuring it isn't worth it.)
HALFBACK: "Watch it, punk."
JOHN: "I don't have ten arms, kid. Here's your damn mustard."
FLICK: "I wanted ketchup."
JOHN: "Oh, fer Crissake!" (Disappears into smoky blue kitchen) where loud crash has just occurred.)
SCHWARTZ: "Yep, this is gonna be some Christmas."
ME (hearing Schwartz for the first time through my daydream): "Hmm?"
SCHWARTZ: "What's the matter with you? You got the flu or something?"
FLICK (resigned to his fate, scooping mustard out of bottle with finger and smearing it on cheeseburger): "You got the crud? Stay away from me, man! I don't need no crud."
ME: "Crud? Who's got the crud?"
JOHN (reappearing from kitchen trailing sweat and lugging tray of hot roast-beef sandwiches): "Who wanted the ketchup here?"
FLICK: "I had an uncle once almost died of the crud."
JOHN: "WHO WANTED THE KETCHUP?"
HALFBACK (to Flick): "Hey, Shrimp, you wanted the ketchup, right?" (Grabs ketchup from John, pours
half a bottle on Flick's cheeseburger.) "That enough? Or wouldja like a little on top a yer head?"
ME: "Pass the ketchup, please."
HALFBACK: "You tryin' to get smart, kid?"
SCHWARTZ (oblivious): "I think my old man's gettin' me a power saw."
HALFBACK (shoving ketchup bottle toward me): "Just watch it, kid."
FLICK: "He caught it in Indianapolis, at the Y. M. C. A."
ME: "Caught what?"
SCHWARTZ: "Yessir, I'm gonna mount it on my workbench."
JOHN : "Which one a you gets the coffee malt?"
JOHN: "You two guys get the Cokes, right?"
ME and SCHWARTZ: "Yeah." (Brief period of gulping.)
ME: "You guys know the Bumpus house?"
SCHWARTZ (chewing on an ice cube): "Don't tell me."
ME: "Tell you what?"
SCHWARTZ: "That good old Delbert Bumpus has moved back. One a them stink in' Bumpus hounds bit
me so hard one day on my paper route, I thought I'd die. That mutt hung onto my leg for two blocks."
ME: "No. Somebody else moved in." (I paused dramatically, with impeccable timing.) "A girl."
FLICK: "A what?"
SCHWARTZ: "That crumby hound waited for me every day and . . . a girl?"
ME (nonchalantly sipping my Coke, milking the suspense): "Yep. A girl." (I bit off the end of a French fry.) "She's Polish."
(The effect was galvanic. Flick looked up from his malt, something he rarely did, face blank with wonder, Schwartz, his hand palsied, slopped Coke on the counter.)
ME: "From East Chicago."
SCHWARTZ: "A Polish girl? From East Chicago? Next door to you?"
FLICK: "What's her name?"
ME: "Josephine. Josephine Cosnowski."
(The three of us sat silently for a long moment, each lost in his private thoughts. Already, schemes and fantasies were rushing through our respective skulls.)
HALFBACK: "Did you say Cosnowski, kid?" (Obviously he had overheard our entire conversation.)
ME (warily): "Yeah."
HALFBACK: "That's what I thought you said." (Hr took a huge swig of root beer, burped menacingly, hitched up his pants and swaggered out.)
SCHWARTZ: "What was that all about?"
ME: "Search me."
FLICK: "You never can figure what them jocks are thinkin'. If anything."
That night after school, Flick, Schwartz, Kissel and I sauntered casually past the Bumpus house - as casually as we could with the temperature five below and the wind howling through the telephone wires like the sound effects on I Love a Mystery. We slogged along... pretending there was nothing at all unusual in the fact that we had paraded up and down in front of the Rumpus house 12 times in the past ten minutes.
''I'll bet she's fat," said Flick, his breath swirling in the arctic air.
"You sure are lucky, livin' right next door. You can probably look right in her bedroom," muttered Schwartz bitterly.
I peered up at the house, hoping for a glimpse. I could still see the scuff marks on the front door where Floyd Bumpus had kicked it in the night he and old Emil, his father, had the fistfight that Emil won by hitting him with a tire iron. The place looked the same, but it was different, somehow. Now it was a girl house. It kind of radiated femaleness. The steady thump of polka records shook the frozen pavement beneath our feet, and the seductive aroma of stuffed cabbage filled our nostrils. It was almost dark and the street lights were coming on up and down the block when Junior Kissel made the first score.
Flick had just picked up a chunk of rock-ice and was about to throw it at a shivering sparrow huddled on top of a garage. I was busily trying to scratch my left shoulder blade because my sheepskin coat always itched through my shirt. Schwartz was bent over hooking his galoshes.
"There she isl"
We stood poised in the icy air, like some diorama of Ancient Man at His Daily Tasks in the Museum of Natural History. The side door of the Bumpus house had opened and two figures emerged into the gloom: a short, lumpy lady with a shawl over her head, and behind her, barely visible in the darkness -a girl! She had on a parka with those rope hooks which were very big that year. The lady picked up something next
to the basement stairs, and the two of them disappeared back into the house.
For a half minute or so, nobody said a thing. Finally Flick tossed his ice chunk in the general direction of a street light and Schwartz whistled a low, quavering note.
"Well, I saw her first." said Kissel.
I didn't say anything. But I knew what I had to do. There was no turning back.
Every night before I did anything else, I had one chore to perform. I was supposed to go to Pulaski's store to buy whatever my mother put down on a list. It wasn't really every night; just whenever she didn't feel like doing the shopping herself in the afternoon: but it was often enough to be irritating. Tonight was a store night. On the way through the darkness, as I cut across a vacant lot, I imagined how I would meet Josie. She'd fall off a ladder and I'd catch her. I'd dribble a basketball in the gym and crash into the stands - right into her lap. Or a bus would run up on the sidewalk with a crazed driver at the wheel and I'd scoop her up just as the wheels were about to.... Men think these things.
I went into Pulaski's store, still in a misty daze. The usual mob of steelworkers crowded the joint. Pulaski sold a lot of chewing tobacco and work gloves. Pulaski himself toiled behind the glass meat counter, his apron stained with grease and blood. Howie, his current clerk, a guy who used to work at the Esso station, glared at me from behind the grocery counter. Grubby kids huddled around the penny-candy case, as I had done in my long-gone youth. I had played softball with Howie before he had become permanently angry working at the gas station and Pulaski's. He didn't go to school anymore, just worked
and drove around in Pulaski's panel truck. delivering potatoes and sacks of groceries.
"Whaddaya want? And be quick about it, fer Crissake."
He worked 18 hours a day, and everyone thought he was lucky because he didn't have to go to school anymore. He had a thin, pale, hawk-like face. His hair was a kind of mustard yellow, and it stuck up all over his head like worn-out paintbrushes. He was famous because he'd had to quit school over a girl. He
had just made the basketball team in the middle of his sophomore year and then suddenly he had dropped out and gotten married. After that, he was always mad.
"Gimme a loaf of Silvercup." Pulaski's was not a self-service store. He kept everything out of reach.
"Large or small?"
I read off the rest of the list and Howie packed everything in to a paper sack as the crowd eddied around me.
"Oh, yeah. And a Mr. Goodbar." At that stage of the game, I was completely hooked on Mr. Goodbars. There was something about the way the chocolate mixed with the peanuts when you crunched your teeth down on it that got me where I lived.
Howie shoved the candy bar toward me. He knew I usually ate it on the way home, and it didn't go into the sack... I handed him the money and he savagely hit the keys on Pulaski's cash register.
"Goin' to the game Thursday?" I asked, passing the time of day.
"Are you kiddin'?" That was his standard answer to almost everything. I guess he felt that the world kidded him a lot.
My frozen feet propelled me unsteadily back toward home. I had made this trip so many times that my body moved totally on its own. The street lamps were festooned with the plastic wreaths and electric candles that the town put up every year. Sometimes they didn't take them down until April. A giant semi boomed past, cascading gray slush up over the sidewalk.
I slogged across the street and began to cut through the vacant lot, thinking of the basketball game on Thursday, only four days away. Basketball is Indiana's true religion. Nobody thinks of anything else from the opening game of the season through the state finals, and then they argue about it all summer long. This was the big game with our hated rivals, the Whiting Oilers, a well-named team. They came from a school buried amid a jumble of refinery tanks and fumes. Understandably, they played a hard, vindictive game. I already had my ticket in my wallet. It was the big game of the year.
I was about halfway across the vacant lot, crunching contentedly on my Mr. Goodbar and clumping along the well-worn path, when I saw something ahead of me in the darkness. I hardly ever met anybody on the path, so I stopped for a second. It looked like some kind of bear, a low dark blob in the gloom. I'd always felt that one day I'd meet a bear someplace, but I never thought it would be here in this vacant lot. I couldn't make out what the hell it was. It seemed to be sort of lunging around, making sounds. I was about 20 or 30 yards away from it, maybe a little less. Deep in my sheepskin pocket, I felt for my scout knife and edged forward.
For a couple of seconds I had a powerful urge to turn and run like hell, and then I saw what it was. It was somebody picking things up off the ground. I walked forward warily, because Grover Dill used this path, too, and he was dangerous in the winter because the cold made his teeth hurt.
It was a girl. It was Josie! It had to be. No other girl in our neighborhood looked like that. She was bent over picking up cans and packages from the path and trying to stuff them into a torn paper bag. She looked up. The light from neon sign at the Blue Bird Tavern illuminated her face in a flickering radiance. I almost fainted. These moments are known to all men; the electric instant of manifest destiny: Ahab sighting Moby Dick, Tristan meeting Isolde, John meeting Yoko! She stuck a can into the tattered bag, and it rolled out into a snowdrift.
"Hi." It was all I could think of to say. She said nothing, just continued to scrabble among the weeds.
"I guess your bag broke," I said observantly.
Still nothing. She struggled on in the snow.
"Here, I'll help you." It was the first coherent thought I'd had.
And then she spoke, her rich, sensual, vibrant voice coming from deep within her well-filled corduroy coat, from amid the muffler and the red stocking cap; a voice which to this day I have never forgotten: "T'anks."
Together we packed the torn bag. Her groceries ran heavily to sausages and what smelled like sauerkraut. I could feel a surge of erotic tension warming my long johns. Together we marched on through the darkness, occasionally dropping a can or a bottle.
"Uh ... what's your name?" I didn't want to tip my hand and let her know I had been stalking her relentlessly for days.
"Josephine." She didn't ask mine - a bad sign.
"Where do you live?" She didn't answer, being busy at the moment retrieving a turnip that had rolled among a collection of beer cans.
"You want a piece of candy?" I asked, hoping to soften her up for the kill.
"Mr. Goodbar. It's got peanuts."
"They stick in my teeth," she said, her breath making a misty, fragrant cloud.
I kept looking at her sideways, and every time a street light hit her I couldn't believe that such a girl had moved into our neighborhood. Her high, chiseled cheekbones, the dark hair trickling from under the stocking cap, the rounded slopes and valleys of her corduroy coat, the faint scent of cabbage - all were beginning to tell on my addled senses. But my mind was alert and sharp, guarding against a false move. I could sense that this voluptuous creature must be carefully handled. She could fly into the wilderness forever if I so much as struck a wrong note. With Esther Jane Alberry, it was a hit here, a kick there, a hurled snowball and nothing more. But I sensed something in Josephine that opened up pores in my soul I never knew I had.
"Boy, it sure is cold," I said finally. I figured I was on safe ground. Somehow I knew I had to keep her talking.
"Yeah. I'm sure glad we don't have to go far," she answered, sniffing the cold air. I saw my opening.
"Where do you live?" I tried to sound totally uninterested.
"Right down the street. Third house from the corner."
"Oh...." I struck, hurling the harpoon with all my might. "Well, well. That sure is funny. I live in the second house from the corner. How come I never saw you before?" I lied adroitly.
"We just moved in from East Chicago."
"That's a nice town. "What School do you go to?"
"I go to Harding."
She didn't comment. We were nearing her house. I knew I had to make my move or all would be lost. I couldn't ask her to the basketball game, since I only had one ticket and they had been sold out for over 12 years for the Whiting game. How about the Orpheum? No, I was almost totally broke because of Christmas. I had bought a catcher's mitt for my kid brother.
"Would you like to go to a party?" she said suddenly.
Good God! No girl ever asked me to a party before, except Helen 'Weathers once, and that didn't count because she was fat.
"A party? A party? Why, why, yes, sure, uh ... Josie."
"I don't know anybody around here." she said. "I hope you don't get the wrong idea because I asked you."
"Heh-heh-heh. Why, of course not!"
I couldn't believe it. Polish girls really were everything I'd heard! Here I didn't even know her five minutes and she was asking me to a party. At last life had begun. This was it!
"We trudged up the front steps of the Bumpus house to the sagging porch where old Emil Bumpus had fallen through the railing one night when he had a snootful. But I wasn't thinking about that now. She opened the front door and a great wave of warm air redolent with strange aromas - along with the rumble of recorded polkas - came flooding out onto the wintry porch.
"Don't forget the party." she said, holding the door partly closed with her free hand.
"Oh, I won't! I go to a lot of parties. When is it?"
"Thursday. Pick me up about eight."
"Why, I just happen to have Thursday open. Yessir, and...."
She was gone. The door closed. I stood there with my mouth open.
"By the way," said a muffled voice through the door, "what's your name?"
I told her.
"What kind of a name is that?"
"What do you mean?" I asked defensively. It wasn't the first time someone had asked that question.
"Oh, nothing. See you Thursday."
It wasn't until I got back home with the groceries that I realized that she had said Thursday. THURSDAYI There were at least 12,000 people who would have given anything to have a ticket for the "Whiting game, but suddenly basketball and the Oilers didn't seem as important as they had before. Sex will do that to you.
The next day I told Schwartz what had happened.
"Y' mean she asked you to a party? You?" He practically reeled.
"Boy, them Polish parties are really wild. Casimir told me about one once that went on for four days."
All day in school I drifted on a plane of ecstasy, floating high above the humdrum dronings of history teachers. All through geometry I wrote Josie, Josie, Josie in parabolic curves on the back of my notebook.
That night I began to plan my wardrobe. I would wear my sharp new high-waisted slacks, charcoal gray with a thin blue stripe, my pale-pink shirt with the high-roll collar, my black knit tie and my prized tweed sports coat with the tartan-plaid lining. I laid the stuff out on my bed, checking it carefully. Let's see, I'll use the old man's Aqua Velva, and....
The next essential was getting my father to let me use the car. A car was absolutely necessary for the operation that was beginning to evolve in my mind. In Indiana, male kids usually start driving at about ten, so I was an accomplished gravel-thrower and was well known at all the local drive-ins from Big Blimpie to the Route 41 Diner.
"Uh ... Dad. Is there any chance of getting the Olds Thursday?" He was deep in the sports page, which I figured was as good a time as any to hit him for the car.
"Thursday?" He squinted at me, blowing smoke through his nose and letting it curl up in front of his eyes like a shifting curtain . If I hadn't known that he hated movies, I'd have sworn that he studied under Humphrey Bogart. For all I know, Humphrey Bogart studied under him. The old man got around.
"Thursday . . . let's see. Thursday. 'What am I doin' Thursday?" He talked aloud to himself, toying with me. I knew Wednesday was his league bowling night and on Fridays he went to the wrestling matches with Gertz and Zudock. Saturday was usually up for grabs, with my mother usually winning when they drove over to visit her friend Bernice and her dumb husband, Elmer, who worked for the phone company.
"What do you have in mind for Thursday?" he asked, folding the paper over so that he could read the scores of the various bowling leagues. His life revolved around three things - the Chicago White Sox, bowling and the Oldsmobile, the order depending on the season. He bowled in at least five leagues, and had a hook that was a pleasure to watch.
"Well? What d' ya want the car for?"
Naturally I couldn't tell him what I really wanted it for. "Me and Schwartz are going to the Whiting game at the Civic Center, and Schwartz's old man's Ford is up on blocks."
"Whiting'll kill ya. That Zodnycki's got a jump shot from the keyhole that you can't block, and he hits from the outside, too. They'll murder you guys."
"Yeah?" was all I could say, knowing that the old man was probably right and also that I wouldn't be anywhere near the game, if things went right.
"OK. But be sure to fill the tank. Not like the last time, so you run out of gas in Blue Island and me and Heinie hafta chase all over the place before we find ya. If that wasn't stupid, tryin' to make it to Chicago and back on a gallon of Shell regular. Leave it to you and Schwartz."
He had opened an old wound: the memory of that miserable night when Schwartz had supplied a gallon of gas and I had supplied the car on a disastrous double date that ended with the foul' of us sitting in the car on a railroad siding at 15 below zero for two and a half hours. The two girls hadn't spoken to us since, and I didn't blame them.
"Don't worry. I'll fill it up. I learned my lesson."
"Yeah, I'll bet," was all he said as he went back to the scores.
"Well, that took care of that. It was humiliating, but I had the car; that was the big thing. I went to my room and sat down at the desk that I used for my homework. My Aunt Glenn gave it to me for my eighth birthday. It was robin's-egg blue and had yellow bunnies painted on the side. I figured one day I'd paint it red or green, since the bunnies were beginning to be embarrassing. My aunt had a thing about bunnies. For every Christmas as long as I could remember, she'd given me bunny slippers, and no doubt I'd get another pair this year, even though my shoe was a half-size bigger than my old man's.
I made out a list of what I had to do:
1. Get haircut.
2. Polish car.
3. Buy gas.
5. Squeeze blackheads.
The next day, which was Wednesday, was dark and windy with a lot of snow drifting down all afternoon. We had an auditorium session in which Jack Morton and Glen Atkinson and some other guy dressed up like Wise Men while our crummy glee club sang We Three Kings of Orient Are.
"Boy, you sure are gonna miss one hell of a ball game," said Flick as we hitchhiked home from school that night. "That better be some babe."
I said nothing, since it was obvious that Flick was jealous that I had a date with the greatest-looking girl for miles around. For a couple of days now there had been churning inside of me a molten excitement that was getting so hot I could hardly stand it. Every time I thought of her, it started again. I can't explain why, since I hardly knew her, but maybe that's the reason. You never feel that way over somebody you really know.
"Didja hear Zodnycki said the Wildcats are a bunch of overrated punks, and that he and four girls could beat 'em goin' away? I read it in the Times," Schwartz chipped in, blowing his breath in a big cloud as the cars rumbled past us. We were part of a tiny contingent of diehards who always hitchhiked the three miles back and forth to school, not only to save our bus money but also out of principle.
"That bum'Il be lucky if he cans five points against Sobec," I answered, trying to sound like I cared about the game.
"Ah, I dunno. That bastard must be eight feet tall. And he looks like he's about 40 years old," Flick yelled over the roar of a passing diesel. He spoke the truth. Northern Indiana high school teams often resemble the best the Big Ten can field; 300-pound tackles, blue-jowled and squinty-eyed, are common. Their actual ages are as hard to tell as the sex of a clam. There are rumors that many promising players are not even enrolled in first grade till their 17th year, and by the time they're high school sophomores are grizzled veterans with families and pro contracts from four leagues.
"Watch this baby." Schwartz waggled his thumb seductively as a knock-kneed Buick rattled toward us. It slowed to a stop. "GOT 'IM!" Schwartz hollered.
We piled into the amiable wreck, which was driven by a mammoth steelworker who was fragrant with beer and chewing tobacco. He spit a long amber skein out the window into the frigid air. "If yer gonna get in, get in. I ain't got all day!"
The uproar inside the Buick was deafening. No muffler, bad shocks and a transmission that sounded as if it were made of a million cracked iron marbles. The floor of the car was ankle-deep in beer cans, cigar butts and rags - a real working car.
"Hey, Schwartz!" Flick yelled over the din.
"D'ya think Ace here is gonna score tonight? I hear them Polish girls invented sex!" shouted Flick.
"You guys are just jealous!" I yelled as I struggled to keep from falling off the seat.
At that moment, I became aware that the driver was peering intently into his cracked rearview mirror right at me. At the time, it had no meaning. Just as we climbed out at the end of the roaring ride, the steel puddler spit another stream of tobacco juice and hollered over the clatter of his valves: "You guys go to high school?"
"Yeah," Schwartz answered for all of us.
"You don't know when you're well off."
He spat again and drove off. It was a point we weren't prepared to accept. It was just before the dawn of the age of youth culture, and being a kid was just something you went through before joining the real world.
"Y' comin' over to the Red Rooster tomorrow night after your date?" Flick asked me. The Red Rooster was where everyone who was with it went after a big night.
"Are you kiddin', Flick?" said Schwartz, jabbing him in the ribs with an elbow. "He's gonna have a lot more to well do besides sit around and eat cheeseburgers, right?"
"Now look, you guys, I don' t know what you're thinkin' I'm gonna do, but..." I tried to inject a note of dignity into the discussion.
"Don't worry. We know what you're gonna try to do. Oh, boy! If I had a date with that doll, lemme tell you..." Flick winked a large, lascivious wink.
"Don' t worry. I can handle whatever comes up." More elbows in the ribs. I played the game.
I plodded the three remaining blocks to home. There was time before supper to back the car out of the garage into the frigid air and to give her a coat of DuPont No. 7 if I worked fast. I had polished that car so many times that I could do it in my sleep. I was already deep in the middle of a torrid embrace in my mind when I became aware, as my right arm buffed the hood that a hulking shadow had darkened the gloom around me. It blotted out the distant glow of the open-hearth furnaces against the lowering clouds. As I glanced up, a rasping voice set my teeth on edge.
A thrill of fear zipped through me. "Uh... yeah?" I managed to squeak, dropping my polishing rag into the
"You the kid takin' Josie t' tha pardy t'morra?"
"I t'ought so." He was wearing a checkered wool jacket about the size of a circus tent. He had on red ear muffs and no hat. He had a crewcut that looked like steel wool.
"Who're you?" I asked. It was a dangerous question, but I couldn't think of anything else to say.
"Whatsit to ya?" He leaned with one hand the size of a 12-pound ham on the fender of the Olds. I didn't like the way the conversation was going, and I wondered if I should make a break for the back door.
''I'm 'er brudder, Stosh. I jus' t'ought I oughta see who was goin' out wit' Josie."
"Oh. Yeah. I heard of you. She's a nice girl. She sure is a nice girl. Yeah."
Words kept squirting out of me. He reminded me of Alice the Goon from the Popeye comic strip. I could smell the faint aroma of a locker room.
"You play football," I said, trying to make contact.
"Dat's right, she's a nice girl." He ignored my latest remark as being too obvious to answer.
"Yep. She sure is. A real nice girl. Yep."
"You show her a nice time, y' hear? An' if anybuddy gives ya any trouble, tell 'em ya know Stosh." He made a sound that I guess was a laugh. It sounded like two angle irons clanking together.
"I sure will ... Stosh."
He clanked again and shambled off into the darkness. I noticed that he had left a dent the size of an elephant's footprint in the fender bf the Olds. I should have taken the hint.
Later that night at Pulaski's, I waited my turn amid a crowd of ladies who milled around the meat counter, watching Pulaski as he weighed pork chops. He was famous for his two-pound thumb.
"I said I didn't want 'em so fatty!" bellowed a hulking lady in a stocking cap.
"Whaddaya want from me, lady? I don't grow the pigs!"
An angry murmur arose among the throng as Pulaski held them at bay with his cleaver. Howie struggled past me with a sack of potatoes on his shoulder. "I hear you're goin' to the party," he said out of the side of his mouth as he hurried past.
"How'd you know?" I threw after him.
"I hear," he answered.
Finally, as I picked up my sack of groceries, Howie leaned over the counter and said: "You're takin' Josie, eh? "Veil, good luck." He said it in a kind of voice that could mean anything.
"Thanks," I answered in the same voice. He looked tired, as though he had worked 18 hours that day, which he had.
Sure enough, I met Josie on the way home again. This time she hung on my arm and brushed up against me as we struggled home with the grocery sacks.
"I hear you met Stosh." She spoke in a husky, throaty voice, not at all like her brother's.
"He came over when I was polishing the car."
"You'll like him."
"You'll like my uncles, too. They want to meet you." She snuggled closer as we sloshed through the slush. Somewhere a radio was playing White Christmas, with old Bing Crosby crooning away. We never really had a white Christmas in northern Indiana, since the snow came down already gray from the steel mills, but it was a nice thought. Once in a while we had a fall of rust-colored snow, and that could be kind of pretty once you got used to it.
"Especially you'll like my Uncle Stanley."
"Yeah, that'll be great." Inside my gut, those roaring waves of excitement crashed so loud that I didn't realize how sinister it was that all her uncles wanted to meet me. The street lights played over her magnificent cheekbones, her fantastic eyes, her coal-black hair. I felt hints of her body, round and soft, through her corduroy parka and my sheepskin coat. I clutched desperately to my bag of groceries.
The great Atlantic salmon struggling thousands of miles upstream, leaping waterfalls, battling bears to mate is nothing compared to your average high school sophomore. The salmon dies in the attempt, and so, often, does the sophomore, in more ways than one. As we ambled through the gloom, I didn't have the slightest hint of what was coming; neither, I suppose, does the salmon. He just does what he has to do. So did I.
"Hey," I said just before we got to her house. "Where is this party going to be?"
She looked into my eyes with that gland-tingling look that can drive a man out of his skull-if he's lucky.
"It's a surprise. You'll have fun."
Instantly I pictured a mysterious, blue-lit den somewhere with writhing bodies and the distant thudding of orgiastic drums. Her smoldering gaze promised everything. I felt deep, down stirrings, and I was glad it was dark.
A few snowflakes drifted down between us as we reached her doorstep. She closed her eyes in the dim light. I leaned forward. Our lips touched. My ears roared. Passion rushed in a mighty torrent through my veins.
RRRRRRRIIIIPPPP! I felt my bag of groceries give way. I grabbed frantically at a carton of eggs as it hurtled to the sidewalk, followed by a bottle of ketchup and a jar of strawberry jam.
Lightly she breathed, ''I'll see you tomorrow . . . darling." And was gone.
Blindly I struggled amid the gray heaps of snow. I salvaged only a half pound of sliced bacon, one number-two can of carrots and a loaf of rye bread. All the rest was ruined or lost. But it was only the beginning.
I was up at seven the next morning, nervous and excited. As I left for school after the usual oatmeal, I tried to catch a glimpse of Josie, but her house was dark and silent. All day at school the talk was about Zodnycki and what he had said about our ball club. Naturally, passions ran high. The Whiting Oilers had always been menacing, but with Zodnycki at the pivot and popping off like that, it was going to be a grudge match. I played it as cool as I could, pretending to be deeply involved in the game. It was a peculiar feeling, since I was normally a red-hot basketball nut and for the first time in my life something else was sneaking in by the side door.
"Hey, you want to sell your ticket?" Schwartz asked after school. "You got a date tonight, so what are you goin' to do with the ticket?"
"I may sell, if the price is right," I lied, since I knew that I never would sell a ticket to one of the big games of the year, even if I couldn't use it. Just having the ticket meant something.
"I know a guy who'll give you four bucks, in my biology class."
"Nah, I'll hang on." Tickets cost students a dollar and a half, so four dollars wasn't much of a deal, and I wasn't going to sell anyway.
"Well, you lucky fink, just don't catch anything I wouldn't catch, ha-ha!" Flick yelled out at me at the top of his lungs as I left the crowd on my way home.
"Where you takin' her?" asked Schwartz as the December wind sighed through the telephone lines and the branches of the trees creaked under the load of ice they carried. Just before Christmas, it gets dark early in the afternoon on the Indiana plains. School had just let out and already it was almost dark. Two kids snuggled by, pulling a Christmas tree on a sled.
"How 'bout the Dreamland Roller Rink?" Schwartz sarcastically suggested. "Girls love roller skating."
I said nothing, just chucked a piece of ice in his direction and headed home.
"How come you're not eating the creamed onions?" my mother asked at the supper table.
"Uh ... I'll have some later," I answered. I didn't want any onions lousing up the plans I had in mind. Besides, I wasn't hungry. I was out for big game tonight, and food meant nothing.
I went into the bathroom and carefully shaved, and as usual the mysterious Nicked Chin Law went into operation - a peculiar phenomenon that I was not yet familiar with but which later became part of my life. All men know of this and have pondered it. On the evening of every important date, the razor invariably bites deep, leaving rich geysers of spurting blood in its wake. I stuck bits of toilet paper all over my face, attempting to stanch the flow. They didn't help, so I splashed Aqua Velva on my raw jaws. My face sizzled like a halibut on the broiler.
"Yer sure shavin' close for a basketball game," the old man tossed at me as he peered in the bathroom to see how much longer I'd be. He liked to finish the paper in there every night after supper.
"I'll be right out," I said non-committally.
"Well, just don't take all night," he said, rattling the editorial page.
After the shave I doused myself with Bloode Of The Sheik, a spectacular cologne that my father had won on a punchboard and that came in a bottle shaped like an Arab riding on a glass horse. The label, in jade and gold, read: LOVE ELIXIR OF THE EAST...47% ALCOHOL.
I sloshed it over my head and down my chest, and instantly an explosive aroma filled the bathroom and clouded the mirror. For a few seconds my head reeled out of control as the love elixir did its seductive work. I staggered out into the fresh air. The mixture of the cologne with Aqua Velva was irresistible.
Meticulously I got dressed, making sure that my T-shirt and Jockey shorts were snowy, my mauve-colored Tony Martin roll-collar sport shirt tucked carefully into my best slacks, my tweed sports coat devoid of telltale dandruff. Everything had to be absolutely right. This was a historic night. Never again would I suffer the guilt of knowing that I had never really done much with a girl except smooch with her in the balcony of the Orpheum.
I examined myself in the mirror in my room. A magnificent specimen of sophomoric manhood. Bits of toilet paper still clung to my chin. The rich exhalations of the mysterious East rose about me in a purple haze. I was loaded for bear.
Slipping into my mackinaw, I clamped my green ear muffs on my head, wound my precious eight-foot purple-and-white scarf around my neck 36 times-purple and white being our school colors, a combination so adroitly selected as to make all acne-ridden complexions look leprous by day and absolutely necrotic
in gymnasium lighting. Casually, yet with a touch of stealth, since the old man had been known to change his mind without warning, I picked up the car keys from the dining-room table.
"Don't forget to fill the tank," he bellowed from the next room. I went out into the icy darkness and over to the garage. Tonight I had a date with an actual girl from East Chicago. An East Chicago Polish girl. At last, after a measly lifetime of basketball games and double features and French fries at the Red Rooster and Monopoly games with Schwartz and Flick, I was in the big time! I put the key into the ignition and the Olds started instantly, as if it, too, sensed impending ecstasy.
Since Josie lived next door, it wasn't much of a drive over to her house, but I hummed happily all the way as waves of excitement coursed up and down to every nerve ending.
The Olds had a gasoline heater that, when it was in the mood, was hotter than the hinges of hell. I flipped it on. Immediately a great flood of scorching air engulfed my feet and steamed the windows. Hot dog! Everything is going great! I pounded my mittens on the steering wheel in a frenzy as I eased out of the driveway and up to the curb in front of Josie's house. Life stretched before me, a vast unexplored continent of voluptuous abandon. With throttle wide open and a full head of steam, I hurled myself full tilt toward the unknown, little suspecting what lay ahead.
For a full half minute I sat in the darkness, peering up at the porch through the frosted window of the Olds, composing my mind for the opening ploy. The heater roared. The car was richly warm and dark. Straightening my ear muffs, I swung out into the cold, leaving the engine running.
There had been plenty of changes since the Bumpuses' day, I thought as I reached the front porch. Somehow the unmistakable aura of the Kentucky clodhoppers and their brood of deformed animal life had given way to the alien mystique of Mittel-europa. I knocked on the front door and waited. Inside, all
was silence. I peered in through the heavy curtains that hung at the front windows. Pitch darkness in the parlor, where once the Bumpuses had spent their squalid hours amid pig and chicken, dog and mule. guitars twanging at all hours, hawking and snorting and squatting amid old Montgomery l,yard catalogs.
I knocked again, louder. Something seemed to be moving inside. The door opened a tiny crack.
"Who you vant?" A beady eye peered out at me.
"Uh ... I come for Josie."
Silence. The eyeball glinted piercingly in the street light.
"Yeah. Me and Josie are going to a party."
"You vait." The eye disappeared.
I stood alone on the wind-swept porch. For a brief moment, I bad the wild urge to flee into the night. In fact, I was just ;1 bout to turn and make a break for it when the door opened to a larger crack and the same voice, possibly female, said, "You come in. She not ready."
I found myself in the black parlor and was aware of dim, blocky shapes of furniture set with geometric precision about the room. A crucifix gleamed dully from atop an upright piano flanked by what looked like stone urns. I was led through the house and into the darkened kitchen. The overpowering aroma of Polish cooking engulfed me like an octopus. Coming from a family where Franco-American spaghetti was considered an exotic dish, this was enough to make me stagger slightly as I felt my way past the stove.
The figure ahead moved steadily to the cellar door and we descended the steps. Fear clutched at my vitals. At that time I was deep in the works of Sax Rohmer, the illustrious author of The Hand of Fu Manchu, The Insidious Doctor Fu Manchu, beside which Ian Fleming and his insipid Dr. No pale to the pasteboard figures that they are. Well I knew that Dr. Petrie had been many times lured into sinister traps down just such a passageway as I was traversing now. live reached the first landing. If I was going to escape at all, it was now or never. But like D. Nayland Smith himself, I allowed myself to be lured into the spider web of foreign in trigue. For a moment, I was blinded by the bright light of the cellar.
"You sit. You eat."
For the first time I saw that my guide was a short, stocky woman wearing a black shawl over her head, her cheeks bright red with peasant health, her eyes a brilliant china blue.
"Me josie's mother."
A heavy-set man sat at a table, huge shoulders bulging under his uncomfortable-looking shirt. He wore suspenders, something I thought only firemen did. He had a handle-bar mustache of such magnificence
and daring that he would have been an instant hit in any of today's hippie communes. His thin blond hair
was parted in the middle.
"You take Josie to party," he said, his voice heavy and blocklike, like chunks of iron ore clanking out on the table. I recognized instantly that I was in the presence of a first-class open-hearth worker. Polish steel men are legendary and, in fact , the Paul Bunyan of the Gary mills was a Pole. This could have been Joe
Magerac himself, a man capable of personally rolling out hot ingots between the palms of his hands.
I squatted at the table, surrounded by dishes loaded with boiled potatoes and slices of dark homemade Polish bread. Josie's mother, beaming, shoved a huge white plate of thick foreign china in front of me.
"You like cabbage, yes?"
Josie's father, as I suspected he was, dug into his own plate, a fine spray of juice rising about him as he tucked into his nightly meal. I looked down at my plate, and there before me was a mountainous, steaming portion of God knows what.
"But I already had supper," I protested weakly.
"You eat," she repeated, still beaming happily.
There was no way out. But if this was what I had to do for a night of passion, it was worth it. Taking a deep breath, I took a bite. For a moment, the heady mixture of cabbage, spices and meat was a great, wet wad in my mouth, and then its haunting, incandescent succulence, inevitability and Tightness hit me where I lived. My God, I had never eaten anything in my life that came anywhere near this; even the chili mac at the Red Rooster, which had seemed to me to be the ultimate in cuisine, wasn't in the same league with this incredible concoction. Across the table from me, Josie's father attacked his second platterful, washing it down with a stein of dark beer. As I wolfed the cabbage down, it was like some long-contained, dammed-up secret part of me had broken into the open and was on the hunt.
As I ate I glanced around, noticed chairs, tables, couches, chests-a whole house in the basement. It was the first time in my life that I had met anyone who lived in the basement and kept the upstairs of their house, I later learned, for state occasions such as weddings, funerals and visits from the taxman. They
had painted the furnace, which loomed at the far end of the basement like some multi-armed fairy-tale monster, a bright robin's-egg blue. All the furniture - the wooden tables and chairs and benches - was the same Easter-egg color.
"Josie almost ready," her mother said, pressing a half-dozen Polish pickles on me. Gripped by an uncontrollable rapatcious hunger. I ate and ate, spurred on by the slurpings and fork scraping of Josie's father.
"You have good time. You good boy. You like cabbage?" she asked, forking a potato scented with bay leaves onto my ,plate.
"Cabbage good. I like." I was already talking like they did.
A huge belch welled its way up from the dark hidden caves of my body. I couldn't control it. It rumbled deep in my throat like a passing freight train laden with smoked hams and late-fall turnips. My fellow eater burped amiably through his handle-bar mustache and gulped down another two liters of beer.
"You good eater," he rumbled, and I hate to use that word because people are always "rumbling" things in bad books, but he Teally rumbled, the way only a Polish open-hearth worker can.
"Pickle, potato good, too," I mumbled between bites, elbow-deep in cabbage juice and beating down an insane desire to lick the plate.
The next moment, my eyeballs were straining at their moorings like two barrage balloons. Josie was with us. She had come down the stairs while I was in mid-burp and sucking a fugitive bit of cabbage from behind a back tooth. She wore a dirndl skirt, which at that time was a big deal among high school girls,
but she wore a dirndl the way a tiger wears its skin. Her narrow waist flared suddenly into broad, sculptured peasant hips. Above a wide dirndl belt, her embroidery-laced puffed-sleeved blouse - stuffed
fuller than the cabbage - billowed and rippled like the heavy white clouds that scud over Warsaw in the spring. It isn't often that a kid in the sophomore class has a date with an earth mother.
It's hard to explain the combination of the basement, the blouse, the stuffed cabbage, the handle-bar mustache and the mysterious shrouded parlor furniture, but all of it made me feel that I was in some kind of exotic delirium. Was the cabbage drugged? Were these actually highly trained dacoits in the pay of a power-mad Oriental? Their eyes did look strange, not like Esther Jane Alberry's wholesome Sunday-school orbs.
"Hi," was all she said, her voice rich and low like the waters of the Donau flowing beneath the ancient bridges of medieval Europe.
"Hi," I answered, my rapier wit honed to its finest cutting edge.
"I see my mother's been feeding you," she said, smiling in a way that made my socks itch deep inside my Thom McAn saddle shoes.
"Yeah. It sure was good. Boy. Yessir."
"Josie good cook," said her mother, clearing away the dishes and preparing to serve what appeared to be a plate of spectacular plum dumplings topped with sour cream. "She make cabbage."
"Josie cooked the cabbage?" I said stupidly, struggling to get to my feet and finding, unaccountably, that I seemed to be carrying several cast-iron bowling balls under my waistband.
"She make good wife one day." A claw gripped at my intestines. There was something in Mrs. Cosnowski's eye that I had never seen in tile eye of a mother before. I would learn to know that look well in later years. At the time, I thought it was just the cabbage clouding my eyesight.
"Well, what do you say? Shall we go?" Josie asked lightly, touching my arm suggestively with the tips of her fingers.
"You come next, we play pinochle." Her father stood up, towering above me like a stone god from Easter Island, his head bowed under the ceiling. Seated, he was a human being: standing, he became a monument of 6' 5" or 6' 6", wearing what must have been a size-75 shirt with probably a 22-inch neck.
"I play pinochle good," I answered, which was the truth. W'e shook hands, or rather I stuck my tiny fist into the vise for a moment or two. My knuckles clattered and snapped.
"Next time Josie fix whole meal. You like." Her mother seemed to think only of food. Josie put her coat on and we climbed the basement steps, groped our way through the darkened parlor and were out on the porch, Mrs. Cosnowski clucking behind us in her native tongue.
At last we were in the Olds, warm and redolent with muffler fumes. I felt Josie's hand resting on my arm as I shoved the car into first gear. I had no idea where we were going.
"They liked you," Josie said, her hand squeezing my arm affectionately as she snuggled closer.
"Yeah, they were sure great." I wanted to ask her about the basement scene, but I figured what the hell, live and let live.
"Did you really cook that cabbage?" I asked, struggling with the defroster. She said nothing, but her grip on my arm tightened perceptively. It's sad to relate that I was so ignorant in those days that I didn't even suspect a thing at that point. Of course, I suppose a mouse spotting a piece of cheese on the top of that funny little dingus with the springs figures that the cheese just happened to be there.
"Gee, I'm glad you got the car," she sighed. What was she trying to tell me? I detected a double meaning in every syllable, every intake of breath.
"Yeah, my old man lets me have it any time I want." This, of course, was a bald-faced lie. If I had gotten the car every time I wanted it, the old man would have had to walk to work, which was five miles away.
"Well, heh-heh-heh. Where to? Let's get over to that party."
"Turn right on California and I'll let you know when to turn next."
"Who's throwing this party?"
"Ooh, look at the Santa Claus." She ignored the question, peering through the clouded window at a hulking electrical Santa in a store window who seemed to be alternately hitting croquet balls and picking his nose, his white cotton beard bobbing obscenely. A covey of tiny biplanes hung from wires. Colored lights flashed off and on as he labored atop a plastic-foam snowbank, surrounded by frogs dressed as musicians, playing, for some reason known only to God, The Anvil Chorus, which boomed out of loud-speakers above the window.
We drove on. My anticipation over the approaching party was almost uncontainable. I'dĽ always heard about great parties that other guys went to. They always described them in the clinical detail of a sex manual. I had even pretended to have been to a few myself, which, of course, like most of my life, was a sham and a fraud. The parties I had been to consisted mostly of shoving, standing around and drinking Cokes, turning up or turning down the record player and constantly going out for more potato chips. This pulsating creature next to me, so full of life and stuffed cabbage, obviously offered far more than potato chips.
The Olds banged along as it always did, bottoming familiarly in and out of potholes.
"Turn right!" she said suddenly. Her hand clutched sensually at my arm as I wheeled the Olds in to a lumbering right turn, clunking over the rutted ice. I couldn't figure out where she was taking me. I didn't know anybody from school who lived in this neighborhood. We rolled past the Ever Rest Funeral Parlor And Furniture Store, its green-and-red neon sign glowing bleakly onto the snow:
WE CARE. CREDIT TERMS ARRANGED.
"Tell me when," I said, trying to sound like Robert Cummings.
"Turn left here." Like most girls, she gave directions in retrospect, invariably telling you to turn just after you've almost passed the street. I spun the wheel wildly. A scurrying panel truck bounced in and out of the ruts, trying to avoid me. I caught a brief glimpse of a swarthy face mouthing obscenities. We crawled up a darkened street.
"OK. You can park here."
Cars were parked on both sides of the street and in a parking lot on my left. I eased into a slot. For a brief moment, I squeezed her hand in the dark, and her lips brushed my ear. Then we were out in the cold and going up some kind of gravel walk between snow-covered shrubbery. I could see in the darkness a great
stone-turreted building. I thought, God Almighty, I've hit the jackpot! I could see the headline: "ORGY AT WEALTHY HOME. TEENAGERS ARRESTED." I saw other people going in a side entrance, and brief flashes of light from within. We stood now in the gloom cast by a vast stone facade. Gargoyles leered from black nooks wearing tiny caps of crusted ice. Josie's eyes gleamed with an exalted light. NO! I thought, it CAN'T be!
It was. The heavy wooden door swung open and we stepped into the vestibule of St. Ignatius R.C. Church. A throng of pious merrymakers eddied somberly around me. I had been euchred beyond human depravity. I had been tricked in to a church Christmas party, something I had avoided like the plague for all of my atheistic years.
"Ah, my son, we haven't met you, have we?" A bald priest wearing gold-rimmed glasses leaped forward, taking my hand and clinging to it for a long, agonizing moment.
"Ah, I see you're with our little Josephine. Ah, yes, I remember her baptism, and now she's a grown lady and bringing her young man here for us to meet. WeII, we'll grow to know each other well, my son, and ..."
Her young man! 'We'll grow to know each other well! What is this? Our little Josephine stood at my side, her arm linked in mine, eyes shining.
"Yes, Father, he could hardly wait to get here."
I looked her full in the face, expecting to see a wink, some sign that she was kidding, but no! A look of benign piety glowed on her magnificent face. I began to feel like a worm in the apple, a butterfly on the pin. The crowd moved forward, the priest greeting newcomers and pointing me out. I heard snatches of
conversation: "Josie's young man," "My, one minute they're babies and the next you're marrying them..."
Heavy men with mustaches and ladies with shawls beamed at me. Hundreds of little kids bumped and milled at my knees. From somewhere in the bowels of the church, I heard a deep steady thumping. We moved on in the great throng, downstairs, through corridors, the thumping growing louder. Again I was seized by a paroxysm of fear, some instinct telling me to flee before it was too late. And then it was too late. We were in a huge room heavy with the scent of sweating bodies and Polish cooking. The heavy, rhythmic thumping made the floors jar, the walls shudder. Sweat coursed down my shoulder blades. Josie
grasped my hand.
"Darling, do you dance?"
I was known as a particularly tenacious dancer in my somewhat limited set, but I had never seen anything like this. On a stand on one side of the room, dressed in suspenders, funny pants, embroidered shirts and plumed derbies, were Frankie Yankovic and His Polka All-Stars, thumping out the Dawn Patrol Polka, a particularly insistent and violent example of the genre. I was yanked almost off my feet by a single powerful motion of Josie's left arm. Her beautiful feet thumped the floor maniacally. I bobbed up and down like a yo-yo on a tight string. Elbows jabbed me in the ribs, deep and hard. I caught brief images of sweating faces, clumping feet. Frankie Yankovic and His All-Stars-led by Frankie himself, playing a mother-of-pearl accordion-rose to thunderous heights that would have made cole slaw out of the most powerful electronic rock groups. Every third beat, feet rose and fell like great balls of concrete.
For some unaccountable reason, I discovered I was a consummate polka dancer. The polka is a true soul dance. You don't learn it; it engulfs you and sweeps you on in a flood of braying cornets and tootling clarinets and the thundering syncopation of bass drums and cymbals. The drummer, a heavy-set Pole, squatted like a toad amid his equipment, operating with the machinelike precision of a pile driver. I bounced and sweated, Josie clinging and hopping, ducking and bobbing as one born to the beat. As we
danced she seemed to grow progressively more alien and foreign. In the midst of the 23rd chorus of the Stars and Stripes Polka, as we swirled past a group of shawled ladies standing like vultures along the wall, I caught a glimpse of a pale, harassed, hawk-like face. We swirled around the floor again like a merry-go-round out of control. Deedle deedle BOOM Boom deedIe deed Ie BOOM Boom! The drummer's heavy foot rose and fell like an air hammer, booming out the bass notes.
Again I saw that white, pinched face staring directly at me like some despairing ghost. It was Howie. Howie! Our eyes met. He was trying to tell me something. I saw a round little fat girl clinging to his elbow and around them, like so many toadstools around a rock, three other short, squat children, noses running,
some crying, some yelling, all with the look of .Howie around the eyes. Old Howie, who could handle a basketball like Bob Cousy. Howie, who had worked 18 hours a day at Pulaski's, lugging potatoes and weighing salami, ever since he married his Polish girlfriend.
It was then that I knew I had to get out of there fast. Josie was wearing some kind of perfume that must have been brewed by the Devil himself. The more she danced, the headier it became; but I was impervious to its siren lure, for every time we spun around, I saw Howie standing there like a dead man among the shawled women with his round little wife and his brood.
Frankie Yankovic did a rippling riff on his squeeze-box to signal a brief break in the gymnastics. Even though I was in top shape and had been playing basketball, football and Indian wrestling for months on end, I was wheezing badly. The sweat had run down my armpits and soaked my new Jockey shorts.
''I'm so glad we came. You're going to like the Father. He's a wonderful man."
"Uh ... yeah." I saw large numbers of the celebrants pushing their way into the next room, where there seemed to be some sort of table set up. ''I'll get us a drink or something, OK?"
Josie was now in confidential conversation with a girlfriend. They appeared to be talking about me. Her girlfriend nodded in what looked suspiciously like approval.
"Uh ... I'll get a couple of Cokes. And one for your friend."
Josie smiled. Like a greased pig, I darted off through the doorway, threading my way through the crowd like a halfback on an off-tackle slant. I edged past a table where nuns were selling gingerbread men and cider. Again I caught a glimpse of Howie, who looked more harassed than ever as he handed doughnuts
around to his crowd of kids. It was a sight that chilled the marrow. I worked my way up a stairway against a stream of people who were working their way down. I was in the vestibule, moving like a shadow. And now I was at the door.
Suddenly, without warning, a heavy weight descended on my left shoulder from behind. For an instant, I thought I was having a paralytic stroke brought on by too much dancing. Some immense force spun me counterclockwise. A great hulking form blocked out the rest of the room from my vision.
"Uh ... hi, Stosh."
He looked at me with a kind of joyous hunger flickering in his beady eyes, the way a Kansas City lineman must look when he's closing in on Joe Namath.
"Yuh havin' a good time wit' Josie?" he asked rhetorically.
"Yeah! Sure! Great!"
It was then I became aware that he was not alone. He had a friend with him. He looked vaguely familiar.
"This is Josie's fella." He introduced me. "I want you to meet Uncle Stanley."
"Pleasta meetcha," the stranger muttered, sticking out a gigantic mitt. Something in that voice rang a bell. Good Lord, no! It was the steel puddler from the Buick! He looked at me with cool, malevolent eyes, and then I remembered that brilliant conversation in the back seat of that wreck he drove, about scoring and all that!
Uncle Stanley looked down at me and for a second or two I hoped he didn't recognize me. "Howya doin', kid?" The way he said it, I knew he knew, and it didn't sound good. "Hey, Stosh, where's Josie? I wanna talk to her." Uncle Stanley sounded like he meant it.
They both turned to look for Josephine. I saw my chance and took it. Like a flash, I was out the door. Behind me I could hear the Polka All-Stars going into high gear for the second set. I darted across the crusted ice, catching a fleeting impression of the door slamming open against the wall behind me as Stosh, all his magnificent killer instincts turned up to full, lumbered into the backfield. I knew I'd have to come back for the car later. Around a concrete wall I shot, Stosh huffing behind me, through a hedge, across a street, down an alley, through a used-car lot, past the Ever Rest Funeral Parlor And Furniture Store, down another alley and then a long, dark street. Stosh moved surprisingly well for a giant, but after what seemed hours, he finally gave up the chase. I continued to run, blindly, hysterically, sensing that I was running not from just Stosh or Stanley but from what happened to Howie, from the doughnuts, the toadstools, the ladies with the shawls - all of it!
I found myself in a familiar neighborhood. There was another huge building with thousands of cars and gleaming yellow lights. The Civic Center! The Whiting Oilers! The big game! I ran up the long concrete steps, gasping for breath, fumbled through my wallet at the turnstile and found my ticket.
"What quarter is it?" I asked the doorman.
"Just beginning the third."
"What's the score?"
From deep inside the arena I heard great roars. I was safe! Back home! I struggled to my reserved seat: Seat 6, Row G, Section 21. At last I found it. Empty. Inviting. Waiting for me. The great scoreboard with its flashing yellow and red lights loomed reassuringly overhead.
Next to me was Schwartz. We had bought our tickets together. And on the other side of him was Flick. My chest was heaving and sweat poured down my face. A five-mile run in the snow brings roses to the cheeks.
"Boy, that must have been some date!" Schwartz stared at me admiringly. A hooting roar came from the crowd. Flick hollered: "Zodnycki canned another one! Look at that bastard hit them hook shotsl"
Oblivious, Schwartz dug his elbow in my ribs. "How was she?"
"Fantastic! Unbelievable! There's no way I can tell you about it. Them Polish girls are somethin' else!"
That night a legend was born. I stood tall among my peers. Naturally, I've left many of the details hazy and embellished others, but that's the way you do in life. Suffice it to say that I never saw Josie much after that. It's not easy to see much of someone when you wear sunglasses to school and sneak home every night after dark through the cellar window.